The unbearable thing about living is not so much being alive but being oneself. God put billions of us on earth and gave us all, as a joke, our own life and morals. The universe never planned on you or me, just some specimens based on the original model. Like a car, each human being is 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 reflect 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 on 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 have analyzed my visage through my small tabletop mirror, referring, with some slight aesthetic modifications, that very rodent face onto a canvas. Throughout my years as a professional artist I have painted some twelve-thousand works. And 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 fifty years and now, 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 I should say former friend) comes by to 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 her’s, and sent me rushed to the hospital, she was making soup. I watched her put the pot on my stove and stir it with a long metal spoon until it came to the boil.
As it simmered on the fire we spoke, per usual, about my work. I confess, 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 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, several days before she handed me her so-called “present” and promptly destroyed our friendship, we spoke 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 are 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.
In reality, I never owned a house in Chianti. My entire body of work is a fraud and a lie, there is no point in denying that now, after what Caroline did to me. The act of painting was never as pivotal to my work as the fabrications my art had the power to create. One can mold and remold themselves however they please, and invent their own immortality accordingly.
For fifty years a secret plan had been brewing in my mind. After all, I live in Austria, Freud’s. Like him, I wanted to create my own, distinctive causa-sui project. A personal stepping-stone towards inevitable success after my death. Think Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, and 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 truly honest with 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 personal obsession with immortality began when I was thirty, when I figured life 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 existence after death. Immortality, to me, meant being loved by strangers while I could not 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 promptly changed my name to Basil Von Neumann. I sign all my paintings with the initials BVN, and the false letters I write to myself all start with that name also. Basil the bachelor, Basil the artist, Basil the generous socialite, Basil the flâneur, the philosopher, the Austrian Gatsby.
“This is the Chianti piece I was telling you about,” I told her, as we waited for the soup to boil.
“It’s very beautiful. It just fits perfectly with yesterday’s pool scene.”
“That’s what I thought as well. I wrote this postcard to go with it,” I said as I handing her an envelope, stamped and all, “from Basil to Rosalia. Never mailed. I suspect people will wonder why he never sent it. Did he have a change of heart? A sudden bout of foreboding? Had he heard a rumor, was she getting married to someone else? Really, the options are endless.”
“It’s incredibly romantic.”
“It is, isn’t it? Tomorrow I plan on taking Basil 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 everything down. Her thin fingers darting from one side of the page to the other, like a mouse trapped in a small room. Though I knew the written word was an incredibly dangerous weapon, I also knew she had no one with whom she could share my stories. She was just as lonely as me. Perhaps even more so. At least I had my dog.
After lunch Caroline, as always, left. In the afternoon I painted, then ate the left over soup for dinner. At nine o’clock I went to bed, and woke up the following morning at precisely five-thirty. For five days straight I went about my days in the exact same manner. Then, on the sixth day, my birthday nonetheless, everything changed. For the worst.
Caroline was in an especially cheerful mood that day. She chirped about this and that, and practically flew from one spot in the kitchen to the other. She had made my favorite dish: Käsespätzle, which was simultaneously the clogger of my arteries and the reason my heart beat.
“I have a present for you. I can hardly wait to give it,” she said.
The package was small and rectangular, wrapped in some newspaper.
“This is something I created for you.”
She refused to give it to me until after lunch, which suited me just fine, as I wasn’t expecting much. she wasn’t the creative type. In my mind, anything she created had the same appeal as a dead bird in a cat’s mouth.
Lunch was excellent. What more, she seemed to have mellowed down which meant I finally had some much needed time to talk. I told her a long, and if I dare say, riveting story about Basil’s evening, and subsequent morning, which I read to her from his diary, like a snooping wife.
Though I hardly noticed Caroline (I was too concentrated on my reading), 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!” she suddenly shouted, “I simply cannot wait any longer! Please, open the present.”
“Right now?” I said, annoyed. What could possibly be more important than Basil’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.
Indeed, it was a book, the cover of which 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 sat on its table, three wine glasses per person, white table clothe and silk serviettes.
The title of the small volume was Basil Von Neumann: The Story of a Fabricated Existence. Underneath shone Caroline’s name in white letters. I reread the title several times over before the magnitude of the situation settled on me. A fabricated existence? 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-eight, my death bed calling my name, stripped from the very thing keeping me alive for all those years. I felt my breath escape my nostrils in angry whiffs of air. At the same time, I could not 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 never my own. Now my work would mean nothing more than a dinosaur’s distant cry. 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 bestseller! You’ll never have to worry about being forgotten again! I am writing the sequel as we speak.”