The unbearable thing about living is not so much being but being oneself. God put billions of us into the world and gave us all, as a joke, our own life and morals. The universe never planned on me, or you, only some specimens based on the original model. Like a car, each made of the same essential central engineering. The only difference being the license plate. For a human, the license plate is their face, the accidental and unrepeatable accumulation and assortment of features which reflects neither character nor soul.
My face is a particularly ratty one, with big yellowish teeth. My eyes are quick and clever, like a rat's, and my ears are slightly pointed at the top. The few hairs left on my scalp are grey, again, like that of a rat, and when I am not in costume, my clothes are usually of a similar color.
Everyday for the past fifty-something years I’ve analyzed my visage through my small tabletop mirror, referring, with some slight aesthetic modifications, that very rodent face back onto a canvas. Throughout my years as a professional artist I have painted some twelve-thousand works. Despite the monotony, I can’t say I love it any less than the first time I picked up a brush. There is a constancy to it that is extremely comforting to a person of routine and habit such as myself. I wake up early every morning, at precisely five-thirty, and make myself a strong cup of coffee. No sugar, no milk. As soon as the sun is up I go on my usual walk through the woods behind the house. I have done this for sixty years and at the age of eighty-eight, I can say it has done me some good. There's nothing like regularity for maintaining one's peace of mind. Whenever I am forced to exclude or exchange something out of my routine, such as with bad weather, it causes a certain upheaval within my body, like a new bird in a cage of canaries.
At eleven o’clock Caroline, my one and only friend — or better said, former friend — comes by to talk and make lunch. She is a very short woman, at least twenty years my junior, with an ashen face and a frosty, determined look which I used to appreciate. The lips are always pressed together and her large chest sticks out like a plump, ruffled bird. A week before she ruined our relationship with that self-obsessed character of hers, and sent me rushed to the hospital, she was making soup. I watched her put the pot on the stove and stir it with my long metal spoon until it came to the boil.
As it simmered on the fire we spoke, per usual, about my work. I confess, for however long it lasted, she was excellent company. The bird-like creature was just as lonely as me. Just as desperate for human contact. And, had we met not four but twenty years ago, perhaps we could have been more than simply friends. But I diverge. As I said, Caroline was my only friend, and for a man such as myself, brimming with bright ideas and equally interesting theories, I was quick to tell her everything, despite my otherwise secretive nature. Secrecy was, after all, pivotal to my line of work.
On that particular morning, a day before she handed me her so-called “present” and promptly destroyed our friendship, I was telling her about my most recent painting.
“I have positioned myself on a deck chair in front of a big, sloping hill in front of my house in Chianti. The grass is freshly mown, a nice parakeet green. On my right,” I say, closing my eyes, envisioning the piece, “on my right stand two rose bushes in full bloom. The scarlet begonias are out too, and so are the hybrid lupins and the irises. Somewhere off in the distance stands a mysterious figure. The gardener. Or, no, I think I’ll call him the Messenger of Death. An artist, Caroline, must always be contemplating their death.”
“Lovely,” Caroline said admiringly, her small bird like eyes opening and closing quickly, like wings in flight, “you’ve been very fond of your house in Chianti lately, haven’t you?”
As I said earlier, Caroline was excellent company. She instigated where I wanted to be questioned, expelled the things I did not want to address. And, most importantly, she was ready to believe anything.
Of course, I do not have a house in Chianti. My entire body of work is a fraud and a lie. To those who knew the truth anyway. Which was nobody. That is the small price to pay for a lonely existence. You can mold and remold yourself however you please, and create your own immortality accordingly. For the past fifty years a secret plan had been brewing in my mind. After all, I live in Austria, the country of Freud. Like him, I wanted to create my own, distinctive causa-sui project. A personal stepping-stone towards inevitable success after my death. Like Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean-Honore Fragonard. And in the process, give my life meaning beyond my life, and transcend my human limitations.
To be mortal is the most basic of human experiences, and yet, if one is really truthful to themselves, we cannot accept it, grapple with it, and behave accordingly. Man simply does not know how to be mortal. Can we be blamed? Every day our bodies show marks of our forthcoming demise. My obsession with immortality began when I was thirty, when I figured live wasn’t worth the living anymore. Instead of killing myself (despite everything my Wille zum Leben was incredibly strong), I decided to simply stop existing, and start preparing for my reputation when I was no longer around to defend it. Immortality, to me, meant being loved by strangers while I could not even love myself. It meant living in the admiration of women, children, men, yet to be born.
Since then I have lived an isolated existence, alone in my small house here, in the outskirts of Vienna, and changed my name to Günther Von Neumann. I sign all my paintings with the initials GVN, and the false letters I write to myself all start with that name also. Günther the bachelor, Günther the artist, Günther the generous socialite, Günther the flâneur, the philosopher, the Austrian Gatsby.
Caroline, the antisocial house cat, was the only person I shared my posthumous desires with. After all, we spoke everyday. As the broth sat on the stove, we made our way to the veranda, where I worked during the spring and summer months. The room was warm and clean, the curtain wide open, four easels each baring a canvas stood in every corner. Two were practically finished, two had strange red brush strokes painted on them, like Chinese characters. The art of painting is simply putting some strokes on a blank canvas. It’s like having a drink before a date. It breaks the ice.
Leaning up against the walls, some vertical, some horizontal, stacked on top of one another, were my canvases. At least three-hundred in that small room alone. Upstairs in the attic are another three-hundred, in my storage room, which is full to the brim, another four-hundred. Günther is as generous in daily life as he is with painting. Gestural, quick, unsparing, slobs of paint cover the otherwise flat surfaces, none of which take me longer than a day or two to make.
From my long veranda windows, one can see the garden. It is a fine garden, with a small pond and two rose bushes. The wind is strong during the spring, making the leaves hiss and crackle as if on fire. Though I rarely sit outside, I have two deck chairs, and a small white table for reading.
“This is the Chianti piece I was telling you about,” I told her, pointing at one of the four easels.
“It’s very beautiful. It fits perfectly with yesterday’s pool scene.”
“That’s what I thought as well. I wrote this postcard to go with it,” I told her, handing her an envelope, with a stamp and everything, “from Günther to Rosalia. Never sent. I suspect people will wonder why he never did. Could it be a change of heart? A sudden bout of uncharacteristic anxiety? Did he hear a rumor? Was she getting married to someone else? Is there a new person in his life? Really, the options are endless.”
“It’s incredibly romantic.”
“It is, isn’t it? Tomorrow I plan on taking Günther and several of his male friends to a party in Florence. That night he will return home entirely drunk, and create a very fun, quick little canvas of his evening.”
In a small journal Caroline jotted down everything I said. Her thin fingers darting from one side of the page to the other, like a mouse trapped in a small room. Though at first I had been hesitant, the written word was a dangerous thing if used against you, I also knew she was just as lonely as me, even more so. At least I had my cat.
After speaking for some twenty, thirty minutes, she got up and went to the kitchen while I put the finishing touches on the Chianti scene. I could hear her cutting the vegetables and putting them into the broth. Some onions, a few potatoes, a handful of carrots. I was incredibly grateful for her presence, and found myself missing her dearly whenever she left.
After lunch we said our goodbyes. I slept for some two, three hours, legs neatly placed on my ottoman, both arms crossed on my chest, snoring. Then at four I made myself a strong cup of whisky to get myself ready for Günther’s party scene. After three hours of concentrated work, I signed the piece, ate the leftover soup, and went to bed, satisfied. The next morning I awoke at exactly five-thirty, made myself a strong cup of coffee, no sugar, no milk, as always. As soon as the sun came up I went on my usual walk through the woods behind the house, and waited for Caroline to arrive with her groceries.
She was in an especially chipper mood, she chirped about this and that, and practically flew from one spot in the kitchen to the other. For the first time in four years she hardly let me speak. I admit, it was she who had, again, reminded me of my birthday. I liked Günther’s birthdate more, which was in the colder, more romantic autumn months. Far better than June. But Caroline preferred keeping to my own, and throughout our friendship she always came with a cake and made my favorite dish: Käsespätzle, which was simultaneously the clogger of my arteries and the reason my heart beat. The strong odor of cheese and onions hung in the air and made me salivate.
“I have a present here with me. I can hardly wait to give it to you,” she said.
“What is it? A canvas?”
The package was small and rectangular, wrapped in some newspaper, and had Caroline not given it such importance I would have overlooked it entirely.
“Of course not, you have enough of those. No, this is something I created for you.”
From then onwards I forgot about the small box completely. For one, I had the Käsespätzle on my mind, and two, she simply wasn’t the creative type. That was me. In my mind, anything she made had the same appeal as a cat with a dead bird in its mouth.
Lunch was excellent. For a short moment. She had mellowed down, how I liked her, and I was pleased to finally get some stage time to talk. I told her a long, and if I dare say, riveting story about Günther’s evening, and subsequent morning, which I read to her from his diary, like a snooping wife. The night before he had met a woman with a round, tanned face, tight and glimmering with subtle inward strength that was beautiful beyond words, and at which he stared all evening.
I spoke for a long time. All the while Caroline seemed to coil into herself, as if jealously safeguarding a secret. In hindsight, I should have known her light grey eyes moved too quickly about the room, without her usual diligence and attendance, never settling on one thing for more than a moment. If I had been more observant, I would have noticed those small, faint upturned lines of anticipation placed neatly on both sides of her mouth.
“Oh, I simply cannot wait any longer,” she said, as soon as I was done reading, “please open the present.”
“Right now?” I said, annoyed. What could possibly be more important than Günther’s love life?
“Well, alright then.”
I weighed the gift in my hands, then shook it. It was light, but not too light, flexible, but not too flexible. It was almost definitely a book. Perhaps she thought I could find some inspiration in it for my next work. I opened it slowly, trying not to break the wrapper, though it was only newspaper.
The cover bore one of my own paintings. A long dining table, laid out for a feast. Tall candles stood at equidistance from one another, becoming periodically smaller and less detailed as they disappeared into the distance. A great magnitude of shining silverware, three wine glasses per person, white table clothe and silk serviettes.
The title of the book was Günther Von Neumann: The Story of a Fabricated Existence. Under stood her name in shining white letters: Caroline Bauer. I reread the title several times over before the magnitude of the situation settled on me. A fabricated existence? Now everyone would know. That weasely, inhuman, rat of a woman. She had stolen my immortality from me. She had taken it with both hand, threaded it, then day by day unraveled it, and spun it into a web of her own. There I stood, at the age of eighty-nine, my death bed calling my name, stripped from the very thing keeping me alive for all those years. I was incredibly upset, I felt my breathe escape my nostrils in angry whiffs of air. At the same time, I couldn’t help but laugh. A strange cackling noise which scared even me. For as long as I could remember, I had tried to outrun my existential fears by painting a life which was not my own. In reality, all my work would have meant nothing more than a dinosaur’s distant cry anyway. Tears no one would remember. Perhaps I should have focused on living instead of dying while I was still alive.
“I wanted to wait until your birthday to give it to you. It’s been in circulation for the past five months. It’s a best-seller! You’ll never have to worry about being forgotten again! I am writing the sequel as we speak.”