The Marriage Artist

A Novel

Andrew Winer


The Marriage Artist
We Lose Our Love to History, Part One
Falling, in her final moments, Daniel's wife carries in her chest a heart burdened by the weight of her love for another man. She feels something, everything--gravity? God?--gripping her heart, pulling the earth upward to meet it. The sidewalk is still far below her, discolored with patches of brown and black, but it is expanding quickly, rising as if to absorb her. She has little sensation of descent. This is what falling feels like. Around her the air, life-giving and loyal all these years, yields easily despite its wet summer night thickness. It is making way for her. It is assenting to her death.
Is she aware of her lover's figure, also falling, not quite beside her, some few feet away?
No, her mind is not on the man at all. In the greatest matters--love and death, sex too--our minds are rarely in concert with our hearts.
Of Daniel she is not thinking either. Not anymore. She has no more time. She is already a part of history. And history is the time of the dead.
Finally, she is left only with vision. There is the sidewalk. There is a discarded yogurt cup. There, a cigarette butt. Images of eternity.
Then it is finished.
OR THAT IS how Daniel would imagine it, long after Aleksandra's body was found, near that of the artist Benjamin Wind, by a group of college students walking to a party. It had been an airless July night during which the heat bore down relentlessly on the city, pressing its inhabitants toward its sticky pavements. And there they were, two dark figures on the sidewalk, at angles too odd for sleep.
Because Benjamin Wind was something of a personage in New York, because--well, because he was in many people's opinion the best artist, in any country, of the last decade and probably the first great artist of the twenty-first century, and because Daniel had in no small way helped shape that opinion by championing Wind's work in a series of essays and reviews, because Daniel had called Wind's solo exhibition that spring "possibly the best showing of art by a living artist this reviewer has ever seen," and, finally, because the woman who lay dead next to Wind on the sidewalk outside his Bowery studio was Daniel's wife, the entire art world was lousy with gossip about the deaths. Certainly Wind and Aleksandra must have been lovers, it was suggested. Perhaps thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Lichtmann, the very art critic who had made Wind's career, discovered the pair in the middle of a clandestine liaison, forced his way into the artist's studio to find them beneath its outsize window, and precipitately tossed them out of it (precisely how Daniel had done so was detailed in numerous accounts, as various and tantalizing as they were apocryphal). Or had Wind, in the throes of some impassioned dispute, pushed Aleksandra from the roof of his building and then in despair followed her down? Or a question moreinteresting by half, even for Daniel: Had it been a suicide pact? Had the two, under the influence of a mutual death drive, sought a permanent embrace, an irrevocable consummation of their love?
Each of these speculations reached Daniel, despite his self-imposed isolation after That Day--that unnameable day in his life--but he quickly forgave his art world friends. In truth, he was as in the dark as they were about the deaths (as were the investigators who, after plying him with questions and poking about in Wind's loft and a few other corners of the art world, came up with nothing), and it was all he could do to keep his own mind from fabricating the wildest ideas. He tried, typically, to retreat from reddened mental flashes of flesh and fucking and blood to the black-and-white world of words, with pitiable results. Late one night he found himself madly searching his shelves for a volume containing the last letter of the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who had famously committed double suicide with Henriette Vogel in 1811. When he located the entry, he rejoined the heap of trash and uneaten frozen dinners on his bed and copied down the following line, in a spiral around an empty toilet paper roll, as an imaginary reel of Aleksandra and Wind's "flight" to their death played in his mind: "What strange feelings, half sad, half joyful, move us in this hour, as our souls rise above the world like two joyous balloonists."
If the two of them had been preparing in unison for death, there were no clues to be found in their obituaries--which were decidedly free of scandalous references. Wind's ran a half page in the New York Times. That it drew generously from Daniel's published work on the artist's life and career, that it identified Daniel as the one who had coronated Wind "The Art World's New King," that it heavily quoted Daniel's own praise of a man who had probably taken his wife from him, made reading the obituary a cruel experiencefor Daniel--an experience he nevertheless drew out, in a spectacular all-night exercise in self-flagellation. Over and over again he read through the obit, fixating on the words he had once written and skipping familiar biographical details, two of which would become significant to his quest to find out what had happened to his wife:
Benjamin Wind, the first Native American ever to rise to the top of the contemporary visual arts, is dead at 37.
Mr. Wind is survived by his father, Herman, a full-blooded Blackfoot, who lives in Newport Coast, Calif., and his mother, Francine, of Bend, Ore.
In contrast to Wind, Aleksandra was relegated to the "Deaths" section at the bottom of the following day's New York Times Obituaries page. Her brief death announcement had been provided by her family:
LICHTMANN--Aleksandra V. Beloved wife of Daniel. Beloved daughter of Salomon and Yulia Volkov. Photographer. Funeral services July 16, 10am, Weinberg-Lowensohn Memorial Temple, Queens, N.Y.
When Daniel read this, he was seated at the breakfast table that he and Aleksandra had purchased together at the Chelsea flea market. It was still early, he had been up most of the night, and his initial reaction to seeing her written about in this manner was rage--not at the "news" of her death, the cold reportage of it in ink on newsprint, but at the single-word description of her career: "Photographer."Photographer. How could this not be an insult to Aleksandra as an artist? Where was the mention of how valued she had been by the New York Times itself? He stared blinkingly at the obituary for several minutes before swiping the whole newspaper off the table.
Later that day, he was aimlessly making his way against the crush of Canal Street humanity when he realized that no amount of praise for her work would have captured what was truly great about Aleksandra. If he had ever been looked upon by a higher sympathy, it was surely through her eyes. Yet now that she was dead the world would never know that capacity of hers. Because history records what we do, not how we love. No, the latter is one of marriage's immeasurable burdens: to register--to somehow record--the other's care.
This, Daniel came to believe, was what Aleksandra had tried to tell him one morning, only days before That Day, when he had turned from their living room window to find her silently staring at him. He was frightened by the depth of sadness in her eyes and did not immediately go to her. Nor did she answer right away when he asked her what was wrong. She regarded him with a veiled look, as if guarding a mystery. Did she know that she would soon be dead? Abruptly her expression shifted, and he began to be filled with true fear, fear that she was about to tell him the saddest news in the world. When she finally spoke it did seem like the saddest news. "I'm the only one who really sees your life," she said. He mumbled some inarticulate response, but she went on as if she had not heard him: "I don't know how to love you more, Daniel."
When she was dead not a week later, when Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us, this moment came rushing back to him. He would never forget how she had steeled herself then, after he toldher he loved her. "You love me in a disinterested way," she said, her voice hardening. "That makes you my father. Not my lover."
But it was not true. He loved her painfully.
He had loved her painfully from the beginning.
Was there any other way for two people to love each other, in the beginning, when they were each married to someone else?
THE MARRIAGE ARTIST. Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Winer. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.