See What They Have Done to Us
A military hospital is a terrible place to die. Do you know that? The nurses did. I knew it because I’m a nurse myself, and yet it still felt so wrong to say. I kept asking for water. They brought it, even though it wouldn’t help. Funny, I kept thinking, coughing past a glass I was certain wouldn’t soothe my burning throat—this was the sort of thing I’d roll my eyes at patients for. Perhaps I’m too cynical. Of course I’m too cynical. When I finished the glass, I begged for another. The nurse on duty—one who, just a week or so ago, had been my friend, my equal—grimaced at the request but fulfilled it all the same.
What I learned of nursing in the two years I’ve done it was enough for me to recognize the day of my death. I shook awake in a start and gripped the top of my covers. Activity stopped for a moment; nurses and patients alike stared at me wide-eyed, animal-eyed, and I cried, “I’m only twenty-three.” That was all I could think to say. The open sores across my body festered and hissed.
There was nothing anyone could do. The nurses brought me cold compresses and an endless supply of glasses of water. Each time I blinked, I could feel the world trying to catapult me outward towards the Nothing. “I’m holding on,” I whispered to the nurse dabbing at my sweating forehead, and the nurse said, “I know that you are, Wally.” I whispered, “I’m only twenty-three,” and the nurse said, “I know you are, Wally.” They were playing me music through a scratchy radio. Brahms. I’ve always hated Brahms. I wanted to tell them to turn it off but couldn’t convince myself that it was worth it. The edges of my vision darkened into a color I’d never seen before: Eigengrau. One of the nurses was holding my hand. I thought, How lovely.
“I’m only twenty-three,” I said, and all the nurses nodded solemnly. But then a thought occurred to me. The Eigengrau deepened as I announced, “There are paintings of me.” Some soldiers had risen from their beds to see what was happening. I noted the bandages around their heads and their lack of limbs. My body will rot here with theirs—in Dalmatia, no less—but my soul will flicker on elsewhere. Knowing this, a warm wave of gratefulness spread down to my toes. If it hadn’t been for the paintings. If it hadn’t been for Egon. Hundreds, thousands of Wallys, I realized, are still out there in the world, going about their business, just as real as I’ve ever been.
I decided right then that I would write you, because there are things you must know and things you know already. Tell me, please, how the weather is, how the sun looks when you squint up at it. Things must be different on your side of time. Soon enough, you’ll reach me, and I can hear it all straight from your lips. But for now, I’ll take your words, at least until you can move as freely as I can. I’ll be moving back, now, seeing everything again. When you feel well enough, loose enough around your bones, we’ll meet.
As for the feeling of death, the twisting pain or lack thereof—fear not, my friend. I only closed my eyes and breathed out.
Thank you for your letter. I apologize if mine seems too terse. I am escaping in one day and have nowhere to put the painting. It is small enough to fit in a bag, but that would be murder. Just a few nights ago, I dreamt of opening my things after arriving in London, finding your portrait split right down the middle. A fresh scar between your lazy eyes. The pale blue in them pleading, weeping up at me—Lea, Lea, why did you, how could you.
I can’t just pack you away. But where else can I take you? The men wear brown and knock loudly on doors. People go away and never send any letters. Something is brewing, has been brewing, is long-since-started, roots dug deep into this filthy European soil. Land of Jesus Christ and blood. Most people agree that Jews are safe in London. But how can that be true? Is the hate simply washed away when one crosses over the English Channel? If that’s the case, I’d like to drop those brown-shirted Germans in it. Hold your breath, gentlemen: a new baptismal font to christen thee!
My year is 1939. Perhaps you already realize that. I am to take a train to take another train to take a boat to England. There is little one can bring along without being stopped for it. Thus I must take about as many things as I would for a week-long holiday to the French Riviera, for example, and smile all the while. It makes me sick just to think about. Surely, I’ll vomit the second anyone asks me what my business is. Then what? What can I say? I can fake pregnancy. But how often do pregnant women go on holiday? I can feign illness. Well, yes, but, at that point, wouldn’t I just go home? I can run. And, oh, how many times I’ve imagined that.
The weather is cold. The sun looks like the sun. My gallery is gone, non-Aryan, and I recognize no one. That is how I feel, Wally. I do not want to die.
Lea Bondi Jaray
I just received your response and read it three times over. How quickly the rugs are torn out from under us. How ugly humans can be. I have been going through many moments and finding I can no longer stomach them. I tried, for instance, to walk back to the time when I first became a nurse, when war began to rise around me, but could not stand the waiting. Every morning was a question, Lea. What will happen today? Who will I see? I didn’t want to see anything. When my training had finished, they brought me a soldier who had no more skin on his face. Did you know that the human head looks like a ball of red yarn on the inside? He screamed and sputtered at me through clenched teeth, no lips to hold back the saliva. Yet I did not cry—not even when his blood was on my hands.
I decided, after that, that I had to go back further; there is naught for me in a war I have already seen laid bare. I took off my nurse’s uniform and was twenty-one again, sitting outside of a café at a wrought iron table. Amazing, the things they built out of iron in those days. I thought of that and then said to Egon, who sat with me, “You’re ashamed.”
He would not look at me. Eyes cast low to the moss growing between stones in the street, two fingers drumming anxiously at his right knee. There’d been a cigarette between those fingers just a moment ago. Now it was splayed, scraped across the pavement, little more than a trail of dust and thin tendrils of smoke. His knuckles were knobby. His hands long and bony like a witch’s. I’d always told him that, and he always pretended he didn’t find it funny. Hands were always so important to him. Do you know how long it took me to learn how to draw them? he’d whine.
“I’m ashamed of you,” I put in after a moment of waiting. “I thought you were different.”
And that, Lea, drove the silence out of his throat. He told me, “Don’t say platitudes.”
Platitudes! That awful man. “You’re made of platitudes,” I insisted. He’d tried so hard to be the opposite of what people expected that he’d leaned back over into the expected. He was plain, predictable, like everyone else in the city.
The statement confused him more than it offended him. He finally turned to face me, eyes narrowed and questioning, brows drawn low. It seemed he wished he hadn’t put out his cigarette; his fingers twitched for it.
I drew on my own and spoke in the wake of a smoky inhale. “I thought you were a bohemian, darling.”
“I am a bohemian,” he said to me.
So I told him, “Bohemians don’t marry Christian prudes for money.”
And he told me, “Bohemians who want to go on living do.”
“Live, then,” was all I said in reply. He could live his happy, married life with his happy, acceptable wife—but I would not be a part of it.
He sighed roughly, dropping his head down. In that moment, I thought he looked like one of his own sketches: so desolate, so contorted, more a bag of flesh and sinew than anything recognizably human. I fought the urge to tug on the hairs at the nape of his neck. That always made him laugh. But then he went on speaking, said it would be a different way of living, he and I, he and Edith, but that it was how we’d always tried to make our lives. We were different. We shocked the world. We kept on going. We were perfect, we were terrible, and if he married her, we wouldn’t have to worry about rent or the train fair to Krumau. And it was he who’d suffer for it, not I.
“That’s not what you want,” I told him plainly. “You want a wife with money and someone else to fuck on the side.”
His mouth clamped shut into a tight, thin line, and I ashed my cigarette in his direction. We both looked up for a moment to watch the waitress approach us with our teas—he chamomile, I English breakfast—and thank her when she put them down. There was a nice breeze in the air, ruffling both of our hair about us. Egon had chosen to move his chair as soon as we’d sat down so we were beside each other rather than across. Now I had a perfect view of his defeated slouch and considered my own posture. It was quite stately, I thought. Years of modeling for paintings had taught me how to carry a body well. I lifted the teacup to my lips and blew gently, still not putting out my cigarette. I’d need it. In the tea, red as it was, I could see my own face. The wide, hooded blue eyes. The heavy downward point of my nose. The auburn bob swirling from my forehead to my cheeks, hidden only partially by a wide-brim hat. Strange, to see it all again after having lost it.
I added milk and sugar. Egon watched my movements without saying a word. So much of his forehead was visible, wrinkled in either worry or disappointment, and I recalled how I’d once thought that he’d go bald by the time he was thirty-five. I tried to console myself with that image: bald Egon and his wife Edith, probably with a slew of big-headed children between them.
“If I go away,” I said, “where does that leave you?”
I didn’t know then that, in a year or so, they’d send him off to write records for the military, that I’d be sent to Dalmatia myself, that the flu would crawl down his throat and he would die beside his dead wife, two corpses in one bed, neither touching the other, everything green and yellow and black. Hindsight, fevers, faces—what are they all worth? I wonder if I should even bother wondering. I think I must go back even more to understand, Lea. There is something I am missing, even in death. The lines are drawn so lightly out here; the streets are so easy to walk. Can you feel that now, coming towards you? What is the color of the sky? Here, 1915, it is white. Milk-white, overcast. When I stood from my café chair to leave, I looked at the clouds and thought of you. We are both looking. For what, I have not yet decided. Please write me if you do.
I do not know what to say to your questions. The sky is blue. The sky is only ever blue, gray, or black. Is there any other way to describe it?
You sent me a dialogue, so I will send you one of my own. As soon as I finished penning my last letter to you, there was a knock at the door. I answered, having forgotten I’d been expecting anyone at all until I saw him. Him, light-haired and bespectacled. Peering at me like I was something he’d never seen before, or that he’d grown too tired of seeing.
He said: “Good evening, Frau Bondi.” Though the way he said it made it sound like my name was not a name at all.
I said: “Hello.” When everything came back to me, I added his name: “Herr Welz.”
He: “May I come in?” A question that was not a question.
I: “Yes.” Stepping awkwardly off to the side, nearly pressed to the wall, to let him through. “Yes.” Watching him walk by. He stopped in the living area, not sitting, and I did not want to ask him to sit. Instead, I followed and stood about two meters away. Wringing my hands. Blinking rapidly. Waiting to see what he might have to say. Both of us knew why he was there.
He: “As you are already aware, your Würthle Gallery has been designated ‘non-Aryan’ by the powers of the Third Reich.”
I: “Yes.” For a third time.
He, pulling out an unsealed envelope from his coat pocket, sliding a folded paper out of it, flattening the paper against the wall, holding a pen in his left hand: “I’ll need your signature for the deed, Frau Bondi.”
I: “Yes.” A fourth time.
I felt as though something was trying to crawl out of my throat. Maybe the flu that afflicted Egon. The words on the paper blurred and floated by me. I could not process what I was signing. You must understand. He pointed at the bottom of one page. Then the top of the next. Then the middle of the one after that. I put so much of my mind to signing the papers that I didn’t realize when Welz turned from me to the far wall, stiff and wanting. I finally caught his shadow in the corner of my eye and looked up at him, saw him point sharply at the painting hanging above the kitchen doorway. My heart sank the moment I saw. You must understand. You must. Normally, I’d keep my resolve, but these are not normal times. People go away and never send any letters, yes, all the physicians and bankers and writers, all the schoolchildren shrieking on the playgrounds, all the mothers and the fathers; all the world has bowed its head, casting a cloud across the country. He pointed at you and said he wanted you.
I am on the boat now. There is nothing more I can do—you are gone from me. I can no longer see the careful lines of your face. The sky is blue here but gray over London. The clouds are ahead of me. Welz watched me as I covered you in parchment. I want to vomit, not because of any stationmaster’s questioning, but because of this. Everything about this. The indignity of it. The un-Aryan-ness of all I have ever owned.
I still think of his eyes on me. Your eyes on me, or on Egon, gazing past the frame towards a lover that is no longer there. I wish eyes did not exist. I wish I could not see.
My incomparable Lea,
I went back to my twentieth year, a day I spent in Egon’s Hietzing studio. Naked except for a yellow vest, he twisted himself in front of the mirror. I watched from the armchair in the corner. When he asked me which angle I thought would be the most dynamic, I told him whichever showed his ass most. Instead of laughing, like I did, he nodded thoughtfully and bared his backside to his reflection.
As he blocked the sketch out on his brown paper—Japanese paper, he always liked to add whenever I mentioned it, because it made him feel cultured—I turned my gaze to the tall picture windows. There, I had a view of the houses across and the sidewalks beneath, everything a mottled mix of gray and brown. A pair of women rounded the corner and passed by underneath, walking terribly slow. The Harms sisters. I knew of them, had never spoken of them, only listened to Egon as he rambled on about how rich their father was or how many times a week they went back and forth to the train station. We speculated that they had family or friends in the city. What a thought that was—having nothing to worry about besides family and friends. Edith, he told me, was the pretty one, and Adéle was the one with the bigger nose. They looked the same to me from where I sat.
I stood from my seat, walked over to Egon’s easel to see the half-done sketch, and asked him if he thought the Harms sisters had ever met an artist before. He answered, “Well, now they have. But they’ve certainly never been painted before.”
“They’re too dull to paint.” I reached forward to smudge the hand he’d just drawn, only because I knew it would annoy him, but he caught me by the fingers before I could. Ignoring the grip he had on me, I added, “Imagine an exhibition with paintings of the Harms sisters. It just wouldn’t be right. I doubt people like that would handle immortalization well; their souls have too many gaps.
An intrigued grin played at the edges of Egon’s lips when he faced me, and he inquired, eloquently, what the hell I was talking about.
“You know what I mean,” I insisted. “Once a person is painted, they become immortal. Even when the person themselves dies, they still exist in the world and can function as well as they ever could. Maybe even better. You have to love life enough for that to happen, of course, but people without conviction are rarely painted, anyway.”
We agreed, then, that time doesn’t apply to art; it moves fluidly for paintings, as they aren’t subject to the same constraints that humans are. Both past and future. Both an extension of us and someone else entirely. The tips of his ears tinged red, Egon let go of my hand to brush a lock of hair out of my eyes, saying, “I’ll have my painting-self buy your painting-self a coffee after I die.” What he didn’t know is that another version of me had bought him a coffee that day. And yet another version had bought him one the day before that.
We kissed before the mirror, both of us keeping our eyes open to watch it. It was an odd thing, to be aware in a moment of intimacy. The Harms sisters, by that time, had made it all the way home, and all that crossed under the windows was the low, whistling wind.
Why do I tell you this? What do I find here? I don’t know, Lea. I thought the world was lovely then. Or at least I thought it was tolerable. I had no money and my parents hated me, but I was happy. Bursts of joy are so strange. They leave everything else to the wayside, kick the entire world out the window. When I kissed him, there was no suffering. Perhaps it is for that reason that I had seen neither the war marching on the horizon, nor my own death. Scarlet fever—that was how I died. It’s a painful sickness; it burns the skin and the throat. One afflicted can find no peace, can scarcely remember a time where peace existed at all. I know you feel a fever, Lea, and I know not how to console you. I am gone from your hands, but I am here, in these words, flitting past your very eyes. Read them. Know I exist. That I existed. That we existed together, in the same place, at the same time, though I passed before you could ever see my face.
I will continue looking for something of worth in the past; please continue doing the same in your future. Your words, however you might diminish them, are beautiful, even in moments without light. Tell me how water looks to you. How it glistens.
Yours, peering out the window,
The water of the Thames is green. Gray on cloudy days, which far outnumber the clear ones. Much time has passed. My hair is silver. My hands shake. Vienna is still not a home I recognize, or a home that will accept me. I have waited many, many years. It is 1953. I am seventy-three years old.
An old friend visited me in London today: Herr Dr. Rudolf Leopold. We’d known each other when we both had Viennese galleries, and though we were competing collectors, I’ve always trusted him. He neglected to bring an umbrella, so the rain soaked him through. I made him a cup of tea, and I sat across from him in my living room, and I begged.
I told him that Welz was a thief, that he hadn’t given me any choice. He had to understand: If I hadn’t given the painting over to him, I would’ve died. They would’ve taken me away to the camps like they did to Rieger and everyone else. But she—you—the painting—was everything to me. I said: “Please, when you go back to Vienna, find it. Send it to me. Please. I’ll pay you anything. I’ll help you get any other paintings you want. You know I will. I just need her back.”
He looked down into his tea, real English tea, and focused on the milk swirling around the surface. He asked me: “You’re older than he would have been, aren’t you?”
The he was Egon. I said: “Yes, by ten years.”
He, nodding: “I’ll find the painting for you. Which did you say it was? A portrait?”
I, sharply: “Of Wally. Wally Neuzil.”
I am older than you, too: fourteen years difference between us. But, of course, Leopold did not ask.
By now, the skin has loosened around my hands and neck. Some nights I think it should be you in my rocking chair instead of me, you with a husband to lie in bed beside you at night, you to lock the door to your flat and wipe your shoes on the rug. Here I am, safe. Where are you? You say you cannot console me, but I never wanted that from you. I want you back, that is all. I want to feel your parchment face. I want to pull you out of the paper and take your place, disappear into the Viennese night. I want to cry. There is so much I want and so little I can have. Life is cruel and long and rainy. I fear that is all you will find in your past.
Cruel and long and rainy—how right you are. Yet now I go back to the gorgeous, sunny day when they let Egon go. There was no way to return to Neulengbach. They already knew his charges there, didn’t want him anywhere near their children. So I met him at the prison gates and, together, they brought what little they had to the train station. Back to Vienna. Always back to Vienna. It seemed to me then that the world was a single, unforgiving spiral, bleeding us back to the capital city. We both hated it, in our own ways. For Egon, it was too tight and reeked of affectation. For me, it was too real. I wonder what you think, Lea, when you think of it. I think you may love it more than I do, and that makes me feel wrong.
The days that followed, as I’m sure you can understand, were strange. Inexplicable. Egon woke at odd hours of the night, proclaiming a need to create, leaping over the bed with his nude, wiry legs towards the easel. In the mornings, he could barely convince himself to stand, let alone finish whatever scribbled or splotches he’d begun hours before. “Why should I make anything for them?” he once muttered against his pillow, hidden from my view. “They don’t deserve it.” But then, of course, there were times where a deep sadness overwhelmed him, when he clutched the end of my dress and sobbed, pitying the poor souls of Austria who would never allow themselves to understand sex. “They’re killing themselves, and they have no idea,” he wailed. Killing the city, too, but what did he care for the city? I stayed still instead of wiping his tears, deciding in those tragic moments to be his better half—a marble statue that could neither cry nor paint.
When he was asleep, leaving me alone to deal with the repercussions, I’d go out to the balcony. Sometimes I smoked. Sometimes I didn’t. Even in the suburbs, Vienna glowed, pulsated. No one wants us, I thought to myself, and said it aloud to see how it felt. A city of two million people, and not a single one could hear me. So I shouted it, hoping that someone, anyone, would notice. “No one wants us!”—the lament of Wally and her painter boy cracking into the sky. But as soon as the statement’s echo ricocheted back to the balcony, I understood its falsehood. I went back inside.
I am feeling that my letters to you are another way for me to shout into the sky. I have not considered until now how it would feel for me to take this journey alone. I know you feel alone, and for that, I am sorry. I wish I was there, that I could hold you. Such dastardly waves crash upon the shores of our times. What is it about this city that keeps us locked in? Do you have any idea, Lea? Do you have any way to describe the sound of a boat?
I have no answer for your question about the city. I can only tell you that, until today, I had not heard from Leopold in over a year. I fretted over it more than I would like to admit. But he never contacted me, and the painting never arrived. I bided my time between London and Vienna, finally touching my homeland’s soil again. At this point, I feel—sickly, horrifically—that I almost prefer England; I’m still suspicious of Vienna and can never help but wonder if it’s watching me. It’s dead there. No life but the flies buzzing under its skin. The fall of Rome. The end of the world. You know it, too, Wally—the war that came before your fever. When you look back from your place up above, can you see the buildings crumble? Can you see the people run? Can you see what they have done to us?
I think often of my people. Or what it means to be a people. A person. To continue on seems a test of futility. The stone I roll up the mountain is a memory of your face, and every evening, Vienna reaches down its great marble arm to flick me backwards.
But today I found him again, in London. I’d just purchased an Austrian newspaper from the only local shop that carries them and skimmed over to the arts and culture section. And there you were. Looking up at me with those wide crystal eyes. The world ceased to exist. I was shaking so much I could barely read the article, but I made out the following: Wien. Herr Doktor Rudolf Leopold. Eigentümer. Wally.
He said: “I am so glad to have rescued the painting from the Nazis who seized it.”
He said: “It’s a great tragedy that art as magnificent as this would ever be stolen.”
He said: “Wally will be safe in my personal collection; no more harm shall come to her.”
There are no boats. There are no sounds. It is December; the river has frozen over.
I can feel Leopold’s hands around my neck, it’s true. I can feel the way he looks at me thinking there is something he knows and I do not. As if he could ever know more than I. He has never been painted; he has never seen a world beyond this one made of flesh. I pity him for that. But I do not feel sorry for him in what he has done to you, Lea. I don’t worry for myself. It’s your pain that hurts me. I wish I could wrap my arm around your shoulders.
You say there are no boats, but there are always boats. I’d go walking by the Danube to watch them. A funny thing, to walk by yourself as a woman. Everyone stares at you as though you should be doing anything else. But isn’t it so human to walk without direction? To look at things and try to understand them? Egon was like you in that he didn’t care for boats. He liked trains because of how long and deformed they were, worms marching aboveground, so I suppose boats were always too smooth. Too lovely. He was a lover of the ugly, Egon. At first, that delighted me, but as time went on, I felt sick of it. Sick of him and his gray-brown world.
I have gone back to the day I met him. I am seventeen years old, two months away from eighteen. I am a model for Gustav Klimt, and he is always slow to pay me. Early this afternoon, I came to the conclusion that I’d finally had enough of him. What are his intentions, anyway—such an old man casting such a heated gaze over my teenage body? I tracked him down, sitting in a corner in Café Museum, nursing a half-finished cup of tea. “Klimt, sir!” I called out in a sing-song voice, intent on embarrassing him. He did indeed react, meeting my gaze with an exasperated scowl, but he quickly lost my interest. Across from him sat a boy, tall and thin and in a suit too big for him, like he was a grasshopper trying on human clothing. I waltzed over to their table without preamble and held a hand out. “Some change for a poor, lowly model, sir?”
“I told you I would get it to you,” Gustav mumbled, too aware of others’ eyes to tell me to leave. He fished through his pockets—I hadn’t even realized the long tunic he was wearing had pockets, but I suppose every man has belongings to carry—and pulled out a coin purse. Meanwhile, the grasshopper boy stared pointedly at his own tea, occasionally glancing up at me just to look away and bite his nails.
I introduced myself to him, changing my cupped palm into a hand to shake. He shook it delicately with gnarled fingers. Gustav told me, as he produced what I was due, that the boy’s name was Egon Schiele, and he was a student at the Kunstgewerbeschule.
“Former,” the boy cut in quickly. “I’ve just left.”
I pocketed the money and asked him what for.
“I didn’t agree with their definition of ‘art,’” said Egon. “They didn’t agree with mine.”
So he was like the rest. “You think you’re better than the experts, do you?” I said.
The jab appeared to catch him off-guard. Regaining himself, he protested, “Who is it who decides who the experts are?”
“Not me,” I said. “Certainly not you.”
He glowered at me, then returned his glare to his drink. Gustav sighed and looked away. They’d likely been discussing something they considered important, revolutionary. I told Egon, then, that I didn’t think there were any experts at all. “I think art’s all a bit pointless,” was what I said. And then, “What do you paint, Egon?”
He told me, in Secessionist fashion, “Sex and death.”
“Awfully dark, you. Would you ever paint me?”
A request like that, as I’m sure you’re aware, is laden with others. Egon looked briefly at Gustav and then back at me, knowing the implication. I was Gustav’s model, but Egon was young. He was both uncertain and in love with himself, in the way that only artists can be. I liked his knobby knuckles, wondered if he ever painted himself, wanted to see it.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I’d love to.”
“Let’s make an appointment,” I suggested. “You can paint me dead, having sex.”
Egon laughed loudly, surprised, and I grinned at him. Embarrassed, Gustav rubbed his temples. The café was crowded that day. The sun was high in the sky. After leaving, I went home and took a nap. I thought of you, Lea, just before I slipped into sleep. I wondered if I’m doing anything to help you at all, sending these letters, or if it’s all selfish. Just my own needing to be heard and remembered. I’m still shouting out into the city, hoping someone will find me. You have no time for this, I’m sure.
In two days, Egon will paint me for the first time. The result will be tamer than I expect it to be; he will be unexpectedly chaste, maybe intimidated by me. When he shows me the finished product, I will relish in the feeling of having my own eyes stare back at me. That night, I will lie awake in bed, not even trying to sleep, just reconciling with the fact that Egon pluralized me in a way Gustav had never fully done. The version of myself on Egon’s canvas will not be a motif or a character; it will be me, Wally, nothing more, nothing less. Goosebumps will prick at my skin. As I stay there, unmoving, another part of myself will be staring at Egon. Another will be standing on the balcony. Another will be wandering the streets alone. Still another will be writing you a letter.
I suppose all I’ve ever wanted is to be seen, and you’ve already seen me. That should be enough. Perhaps I should stop with the letters. I feel close to finding what I seek, and I know your own worries outweigh my own. I do care for you, Lea. I do. I hope you have not troubled yourself too much with my petty thoughts.
This may be my last letter, then. Before I leave you be, it would be the greatest pleasure if you could indulge me with two more questions: How does summer feel? And why does it matter?
Yours, soon to be painted,
A London hospital is a fine place to die. I lie here in 1969, thinking only of you. I am swatting away nurses and doctors to continue writing this letter. They keep cooing in their creamy English: “It’s all right now, Lea. Just breathe.” Breathe? What does breathing do? What must one breathe in? I gasp and shake my head. I want to say that I can’t, but cannot force words out of my mouth. I mean to say that I can’t die without you. You, still in the collection of one Herr Dr. Leopold. I am so very tired. The overhead lights are spinning.
I am no longer writing. Not physically. A male doctor has lain a gloved hand across my forehead. He asks: “Lea, can you hear me?”
I want to tell him yes. Cannot. A low, hollow groan escapes me. If I had a voice, I might say that the world has all gone wrong. That I have no people anymore. Or maybe I would say that there is a painting out there of me that will survive past any of the photographs. Blocks of color and shadow forming my face. The most abstract of the human and the most human of the abstract, frowning down at someone unseen. Whoever is on the other end of that gaze is inconsequential; what matters is that I am looking at them, seeing them, that I have full capacity to comprehend them and, ergo, am alive. But I cannot say this. The doctor murmurs: “Easy, Lea.” Things are losing shape, collecting in their hues. I am no longer writing. I am no longer writing, Wally, yet my hands still move, jot down words. Please do not leave me. Not now. I held every message you sent me close to my face and breathed in your scent. I reminded myself that, though the world was broken, you were still intact. I can see colors, Wally. Oil paints. I feel like I’m being squeezed out of a tube and spread across a canvas. The texture of fabric. The scratch of a brush. I can feel all your letters plastered to my skin. We all want to be seen, remembered. Are we not just bodies dreaming of being paintings? Why else would I write you? I hope you know that I love you in the way that I love my husband. In the way that I love myself.
The ceiling, Wally! The ceiling is gone! The sky is above me, and the sun is high! I can feel warmth again; I can feel my old joints creaking back into youth. There are tens of me, thousands of me, all marching in tandem down Friedrichstraße. I am rocketing towards Vienna. Don’t you dare leave now—I’m on my way. Leopold can have you, in your frame; I will climb inside with you. I can see the water, gleaming as it did before the war. So blue and glimmering, like a sea of aquamarine clinking past the city. I feel present. I feel past. I feel forever.
Oh, Wally, it’s summer, and it feels like God! And it matters because I am running, sprinting towards the riverside, my breath heaving out in great gusts, my hands clenching the air, waiting to hold you! It matters because we can never die! It matters because you will write me and I will write you until the end of time, all because art has carried us home!
Wait for me! I’m almost there!
My spectacular Lea,
You tell me to write you, so I will write you, prattling on as I always do. Vienna is more awake than ever. She greets me every morning with orange slices of light across my bedsheets, and, oh, how I would love to kiss her face. I walk all the way to the Danube and see the boats puffing along. They look so small in the face of all that blue. I wonder if the sailors can feel it. It needn’t be a feeling of insignificance, no. More of comfort. A knowledge that one is a tiny, individual seed in a forest that feeds many—and where would a forest be without its seeds? Wouldn’t it just be a desert? There is no love in the desert. No art, either. I’m inclined to insist that the two must exist in tandem.
My father was a schoolteacher. He always wanted me to be a schoolteacher as well. It’s a good, honest profession, he said, even though it doesn’t pay well. As if it was the money I was after. When I left home, he couldn’t understand. He asked me what I would find “out there”—with the models and the prostitutes, he meant. I had no answer for him. I didn’t want to find something tangible so much as I wanted to do something, to make my life an endless sequence of doing, never stopping, tearing my clothes off of my body and reacquainting myself with the corporeal. Men like Gustav and Egon think they know what “corporeal” means. Really, they’re just desperate to understand. By drawing it, they think they can make it theirs. But the art never belongs to the artist. Once it’s finished, it belongs to the world, to all the seeds in the forest. Just once, I’d like to stumble into a gallery with no idea at all of whose work is hung on the walls; the art could speak to me, and I could answer back without another human being intercepting our communication. Am I making sense? I’m sure the Secessionists would say I don’t understand the artist’s point of view. They’d be absolutely right: I have the point of view of the art itself. It’s as you said—no matter whose eyes are cast upon the piece, interpreting it and dissecting it and transferring it to whatever truth is available at the time, it will always be me staring back at them.
Now I stand by the Danube. It is June of 1911, and it will be forevermore. All day today, I have been thinking about how Vienna’s cement is loose, not-yet-dried, so I can press my face into the ground and have an imprint of me there. You must have walked across my likeness thousands of times without recognizing it. That is, I think, what I have been looking for all along. I can’t help but laugh. This city, this moment, this self I am right here, right now, overlooking the water and the long ships dragging aristocrats off to their castles in the clouds—these things will never die.
I see you now, your arms raised. I can cast my gaze across your heavy brows, your proud nose, the dark hair in curls about your earnest face. Oh, my dear Lea, how bright the world is when we finally face each other. Come closer, touch me—hold my oil-paint hands in yours and remember what it was in my portrait that called to you. Vienna, 1911, the whole world in excess. On every street, a streetlight. No one can hurt us here; the world is too good a place for evil.
How lucky we both are to be alive.