There Had To Be a Rothko
Ruth sobbed the first time she stood in front of a Mark Rothko painting. In the middle of the art museum, in the center of the room, her head bowed to her chest, her hands covering her face. If the guards looked at her that quiet January afternoon as they strolled through the galleries, she wasn’t aware.
When her sobs had quieted to a few hiccups, she peered through her fingers to her shoes. Both navy blue, but not a pair. Her embarrassment at wearing unmatched shoes, although there was no one who would have noticed, prompted her to flee the museum. She found her car in the parking garage and hurried home.
For some weeks, Ruth avoided the museum. Retirement had left her with little money to spend. She had not accumulated family, friends, or interests in her working years. Even the detritus of her career, well-placed on the fireplace mantel and on tables next to the sofa, held no meaning for her.
The only thing left to her was her impeccable taste.
How she had acquired that taste from very average, working class parents she had never understood. She had traded on it in every job, beginning with her first as assistant buyer for designer fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue and ending as home furnishings buyer at Macy’s, forty-five years later.
Along the way had been Robinson’s and May Company in Southern California. Then two heady years at Bonwit Teller in New York, another at Bloomingdale’s and back to California. Macy’s was her last job. If the choice had been hers, she would have worked again in fashion at Bloomingdale’s or chosen shoes for Nieman Marcus. But it wasn’t.
On Ruth’s 65th birthday, the young human resources representative at Macy’s gave her three months’ severance, thanked her for her service and retained her practiced smile until Ruth left the office.
Ruth missed the feel of fabric under her fingertips. The peau de soie when she began her career, the Indian silk of later years, the Balenciaga sweep of skirt. Fabric was a sensual experience. She loved those brushes with elegance, temporary as they were.
* * *
A month passed until she approached the museum again. This time she wore black pumps with sensible heels and not-sensible, very pointed toes.
These were the memories she clutched to her as she stood in the museum’s room of Rothko canvases a second time: The lapis lazuli-colored ceramic bowl—a gift from her teacher on her eleventh birthday. Her father’s face, a pasty yellow, as he lay on the hospital gurney, the last time she saw him. The shocking pink sundress she wore, backless and braless, to meet her Italian lover at the Spanish Steps in Rome. The porcelain bowl, coral and cobalt, so small, so expensive, that she should have bought on her first trip to Japan but had never forgotten.
Ruth waited until a group of elementary school students left the gallery before she stood in front of the same Rothko canvas that had moved her to tears. A large black rectangle shaded into a blue that was nearly black. Above the black rectangle, another, lighter blue, narrower than the one beneath. Above the blue, a larger one again, a blue-veined rust. All colors melted into their inky surround.
Transfixed, she pondered questions she had never before considered. What did it mean to be alive? What was it all for? She had dedicated her life to making women beautiful, giving no thought to what would come after.
Ruth began to cry as she had the first time. Tears rolled down her cheeks. The tears became sobs, the sobs deepened. A thought interrupted her tears. She must spend a night in the midst of these paintings.
She dismissed the idea. Impossible. The museum was guarded by day and, certainly, by night. There were cameras everywhere. She could see one in the ceiling corner now. She wasn’t a thief who knew how to disable cameras or locks. She would be caught and taken to jail.
Ruth made her way slowly through the museum’s galleries, finding many canvases to admire. None moved her the way Rothko had. Finally, she left.
Weeks passed. She attended a book group at the local library and took long walks in her neighborhood. She shopped for groceries, careful to spend only the money she had allotted for food. She leafed through magazines collected when she was earning a salary.
Through every one of her days, and as she tossed and turned at night, ran a persistent thought, “I want to spend one night with the Rothkos,” accompanied by a frisson of excitement. She vacuumed, swept her small kitchen, dusted the tables she had owned for years until the refrain changed, “I will spend one night with the Rothkos.”
By the end of February Ruth had a plan. She began to ferret out certain clothes in thrift stores: plain colors, nondescript, hats with wide brims that concealed part of her face. She rescued old, worn shoes from her building storage. Nothing like the clothes she usually wore, nothing that had any style. Wearing this cast-off apparel, she visited the museum several times late in the day when the galleries were likely to have emptied out. A few guards patrolled the rooms; they ignored her.
Once, she remained in the women’s bathroom until nearly closing time. She hurried out of the building as the public address system intoned, “The museum is now closing.” She was pleased. No one had checked to see if anyone remained in the bathroom stalls.
Time passed more quickly during these winter days as she thought and re-thought her strategy, focusing on one piece after another. Sometimes, engrossed in a detail, she forgot to leave her apartment even to take a walk or shop for food.
There were also times when fear overpowered her. At those moments, Ruth lay on her couch covered by the worn comforter that had been hers as a child. She shook with terror at being discovered in the museum. Even more frightening was what awaited her if she succeeded, if she found herself in the Rothko room, alone, in the middle of the night.
The day of the spring equinox, Ruth entered the museum at four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. The museum would close at five, as usual. She would have until eight-thirty the next morning when the first administrative staff arrived. She had carefully confirmed all these details.
Only one guard would be on duty all night. She had seen the monitor where he watched the galleries’ cameras. They were located at the reception desk, nine monitors, one for each room and the parking garage. None in the bathrooms, none in the halls. The Rothko room’s camera surveyed the floor and ceiling. But she had noticed a far corner of the gallery where the camera’s eye did not reach.
Ruth brushed aside the wide brim of her hat to take in the Rothkos in the lighted gallery one last time. The canvases were all large, some measured ten feet high and six feet wide. To the left of the one that had been her first favorite was a canvas-sized red rectangle above a larger blue one, like her favorite, surrounded by a narrow black border. Another: Two black rectangles divided by a red line.
Although she no longer dissolved into tears as she had on her first visits, she felt the power of the canvases. She felt moved as she never had in a church, even in the most famous cathedrals in Europe. What she felt exactly, she couldn’t find the words to describe. She knew that, after this night with Rothko, she would.
At four-forty-five, when the public address system announced, “The museum will be closing in fifteen minutes,” Ruth walked leisurely to the first floor women’s bathroom. She pushed open the door and entered a stall. Instead of pulling down her slacks and sitting on the toilet seat, she stood waiting. As she expected, a guard knocked at the door. He pushed it open and called, “Anyone here? We’re closing in ten minutes.” Hearing no response, he left.
Ruth stood still. Her heart pounded in her chest. She had completed the first step. Now all she had to do was wait. She sat, fully clothed, on the toilet seat.
Time passed slowly. The lights went off. She was plunged into darkness. From her purse, she drew a small flashlight. She switched it on and waited.
Ruth had planned to emerge from the bathroom at nine o’clock, but time dragged too slowly. The anxiety she had carried through all her weeks of planning gave way to exhaustion. After barely two hours had passed, afraid that she would fall asleep and not wake until the morning, she gave in. Leaving the bathroom, she moved quickly down the hall and stopped. The next move would be the most difficult.
Certain that she was holding the flashlight securely, she took a deep breath and dropped to the floor without making a sound. She lay there until her breath resumed its normal pattern. When she knew she was ready, she got to her hands and knees and began to crawl slowly forward toward the Rothko gallery. Situated as it was in the first room next to the entrance foyer, she didn’t have far to go. She stayed close to the wall, hoping that the camera would not pick up her form or, worse, that the lone guard patrolling the museum would not choose this moment to appear out of the dark.
Slowly she crawled along the floor, placing one arm and one leg firmly, then shifting her weight to the other side. When she had made it across the foyer and into the Rothko room, she shrank back against the wall. She pressed her knees to her chest. She wanted to laugh out loud. If anyone had seen her, a 66-year old woman wearing baggy pants and a mustard colored jacket, they wouldn’t recognize her as the smartly dressed woman who had headed the fashion departments of major retail stores.
She heard footsteps. The guard passed within a foot of her; his flashlight beam moved from side to side but did not alight on her. She held her breath until she heard his steps in the next room.
Ruth sat against the wall until her eyes became accustomed to the dark. In spite of her plan to stay there all night, she stretched out her body on the floor and began to creep toward the center of the gallery. She moved by instinct, by desire. There was only one place for her in the world, and that was in the center of the room. Where she could feel the impact of all the Rothkos at once. Where she could feel.
She moved forward slowly until she reached the spot she judged to be the room’s center. Once there, she rolled over onto her back and let the canvasses enter her body. The red rectangle through her head, the blue through her feet, the pink, the green. Around her was black, not the black of not knowing, the black of not seeing. She lay still, content, unafraid. Minutes passed, or maybe hours. She did not turn on her flashlight or raise her arm to peer at the luminous hands of her watch.
She waited, filled with the Rothkos until they became her beating heart. Because that was what it was about, wasn’t it? You couldn’t see through to the other side. If there was life in the blackness, you had to trust it was there.
About the writer:
Barbara Crane is an award-winning novelist, a journalist and instructor. Her debut novel, The Oldest Things in the World, won the Silver Medal award from ForeWord magazine. Her current novel, When Water Was Everywhere, won the Beverly Hills Book Award in the Historical Fiction category and was awarded the Grand Prize in an Outrider Press Anthology. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sun magazine and numerous other publications. She is an avid hiker and booster of the Los Angeles River revitalization.
Image: “The Black Suprematic Square” by Kazimir Malevich. Oil on linen canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm. 1915. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public Domain.