The unbearable thing about living is not so much being alive but being oneself. The universe never planned on you or me, just some specimens based on the original model. Like a car, we are all 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 at the tips. 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, transferring, with some slight aesthetic modifications, that very rodent face onto a canvas. Throughout my time as a professional artist I have painted about 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. On my return I lay the painting tools out on a clean piece of toilet paper — paint brushes, turpentine, linseed oil and the rest — and set about painting. I have been an artist-in-residence in my own home for the past five decades, and, at the age of eighty-eight, I can say it has done me some good. There's nothing like regularity to maintain one's sanity. Whenever I am forced to exclude or exchange something from 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 common starling. A week before she ruined our relationship with her self-obsessed character, and sent me rushed to the hospital, she was making soup. I watched her put the pot on my stove and stir 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 and desperate for human contact as me. And, had we met not four but twenty years earlier, 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.
“I have positioned myself on a deck chair,” I tell her, pointing at my canvas with the tip of my brush, “in front of a big, sloping hill adjacent to my house. My family home in Chianti I told you about, remember? The grass is freshly mown as you can see here, 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.
In reality, neither me, nor my family, ever 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 actual act of painting was never as pivotal to me as the fabrications my art had the power to create. If done correctly, one can mold and remold themselves however they please, invent their own immortality, and in the process give their life meaning beyond their life, and transcend any human limitations.
To be mortal is the most basic of human experiences, and yet, if one is 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 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 continuance 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 in isolation, 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.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“It’s very beautiful and 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. Unsent. I suspect people will wonder why he never mailed it. Did he have a sudden change of heart? A bout of foreboding? Was there a rumor floating around, was she getting married to someone else? Really, the options are endless.”
“It’s incredibly romantic.”
“It is, isn’t it? Tomorrow I, Basil, plan on taking several of my male friends to a party in Florence. Tonight I will return home entirely drunk, and create a very fun, quick little painting of my evening.”
In a small journal Caroline jotted everything I said 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 to share my stories with. She was just as lonely as me. Perhaps even more so. At least I had my dog.
Before she returned home after lunch we went through our usual ritual. We sang a poem I had drafted many years earlier as our way of saying goodbye:
“What’s the point of living, if not to leave something behind?” I belted out.
“Living is not living, if not through another’s mind!” She chanted.
“If I lived, but no one remembers, did I really live at all?”
“Who can account for the days no one recalls?”
“To live through your thoughts forever!”
“To live inside of you!”
“To live long after I’ve lived.” I whispered.
“To leech onto you through and through.”
“Ah, yes, just imagine! Me through you forever, as a stain...”
“Or eternal residue!” We cried out in harmony.
In the afternoon I painted, then around six I ate the left over soup. As I got ready for bed I was overcome by my usual thoughts. After fifty years I had become especially well-versed in the art of overthinking. I found that even the most innocent thoughts could become life threatening if adequately analyzed. What if, I thought with pounding heart, when my time comes, none of my paintings are found? What if my careful molding, my precise fabrications, weren’t careful and precise enough? What if I got punished in the afterlife, for playing god with the resources of an animal, thriving on my fantasies alone?
I toss and turn until I awake the following morning at precisely five-thirty. For six days straight I went about my days in the exact same manner. Then, on the seventh day, my birthday nonetheless, everything changed. For the worst.
Caroline was in an especially cheerful mood, she chirped on about this and that, and practically flew from one spot in the kitchen to the other. She had made my favorite dish: Käsespätzle, which both clogged my arteries and made my heart beat in excited jolts.
“I have a present,” she said as we sat down, “I can hardly wait to give it to you.”
The package was small and rectangular, wrapped in some newspaper.
“It’s not much,” she said modestly, “but it did take me an awfully long time to make.”
She refused to hand it to me until after lunch, which suited me just fine, as I did not expect much from her creativity.
Lunch was excellent. 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.
Caroline did not find it as exciting as I thought she would. 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 shouted suddenly, “I simply cannot wait any longer! Please, open the present.”
“Right now?” I asked, annoyed. What could possibly be more important than my 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 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 newspaper.
I had been right, 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, a 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 before the magnitude of the situation settled on me. A fabricated existence? That beaky, inhuman, fowl 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 through 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.”