Carl sat down to read the letter in the town square. Tears rolled down his eyes. He was surprised at how he felt the same inferiority and differentness as when he had been a student all those years ago. He fell into the past and relived the memories.
While the others prepared for Friday night dates or quarter break, Carl ironed their shirts and typed their term papers. At his one and only fraternity rush, he spent his time in the kitchen with the black female cook and learned how to do giant pots of rice. A stripper entertained the rest of the initiates in the main room. Carl was asked but he didn’t join the fraternity. Instead he teamed up with an unlikely classmate, Jerry Fleishman, a red-haired freckled Jew from New York whose family was insanely rich. Together they rented an apartment and lived off campus.
Carl had a love-hate relationship with money. He was susceptible to the sentiment that monetary success and artistic success were contradictory. An artist inhabited his heart but the need to make a living infected his brain. He didn’t have the luxury of his liberal-minded friends who disdained the conventional artistic tastes and social aspirations of the wealthy parents who sustained them. He had to sustain himself. This was a demon that would never let loose.
Jerry Fleishman introduced Carl to Monica. When Carl first met her he was astonished in the same way he had been when Jerry’s father gave them a limited edition Kandinsky for their apartment. “I advise you to start collecting early, young man,” advised the senior Fleishman. “The value of art grows like the value of education.” The old man’s advice didn’t stick. Monica did.
Monica was the kind of girl Carl dreamed of but knew he could never have, ever, no matter what he accomplished in his life. There are different worlds on this earth and we are each consigned to one world and only one. Monica was as much a gift from Jerry’s father as the Kandinsky. Monica and Jerry lived in one world and Carl lived in another. It was not just the Fleishman fortune, it was the life style, the family friends, the intricate connections and even the kinds of dreams that came naturally that brought Jerry and Monica together. They met at an art show in San Francisco. She was a student at Berkeley. Jerry and Carl were at Stanford, Carl on a scholarship and the beneficiary of the guilt embedded in all elite institutions that prompts them to admit a few from the other side.
Monica was happy at Berkeley but she was subject to recurring spells of despair, of feeling gloomy and haunted with guilty echoes of what she should be doing and wasn’t. Carl’s first impression was that she was a precious fake, even if unaware of it, that she put on her act because it got her the results she wanted with family and friends.
Monica met Carl silently with green eyes mute like a mime. Jet-black hair, white skin, red lips, she was slender with a distinctly devilish look. Carl figured she knew how she unsettled him and enjoyed it. She walked awkwardly around the apartment, picked up one thing, scrutinized it, put it down and picked up another.
For Jerry, Monica was an expensive toy. She didn’t know it yet and Carl had no incite into their relationship. He simply stood back amazed at this glimpse into another universe. He had been introduced as a matter of convenience. They had decided to tag on a couple of days to an upcoming holiday and fly to France. Carl was a facilitator.
“You’ll take notes for me and fill me in on what I miss, right?” asked Jerry.
“France, for five days? That’s a little pricy isn’t it?” Carl answered, astounded.
“Just say you’ll cover, okay?”
“Sure, of course.”
Carl saw women as almost continually in motion. We all perform, he thought, it’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. But Monica had perfected the dance. She knew the impression she made on him. So be it. He could care less. He was repelled but also pleased at the thought. Wherever it leads, perhaps it will be amusing.
In a few months they met again. Jerry left Monica off at the apartment to wait for him while he went to a class. It was the first time Carl had been alone with her and he was uncertain about how to proceed.
“So, how was your trip to France?” asked Carl for the lack of anything better to say.
“France was France, you know.” Monica responded mechanically.
“No, I don’t know. I’ve never been there. Tell me about it?” asked Carl.
“We were in Paris for a day,” said Monica. “On the smaller island in the Seine, L’Ile Saint Louis. I like it there. It’s like being in the countryside. You can hear roosters crowing, children playing, music, the boats in the river, the bells of Notre Dame. Across the Seine, the city can be oppressive. Lots of famous intellectuals lived on the island including the poet Baudelaire.”
“Baudelaire? I’ve read Fleurs de Mal,” said Carl. “Bleak as I remember.”
“I don’t remember it that way. Baudelaire did try to kill himself but he failed. He was too weak. His poems were a revelation, though, when I first read them.”
“You don’t enjoy city life?”
“What makes you think that?” asked Monica. “I love the city, the real city. It’s both disgusting and marvelous. The problem is that Jerry is very rich. He wants to go to all his favorite haunts, like Le Coupe-Chou, the famous restaurant where the Beatles once dined. I prefer the sights one sees by accident on the street.”
“Ordinary people, you know, going about their ordinary lives. The oddities. The freaks. The danger. I like danger.” She laughed but insincerely thought Carl. “When you face something that makes you uncomfortable and conquer it, then you’ve won in the game of life.” Carl wondered what she was getting at.
“I don’t think of life as a game,” said Carl.
“Oh, it is a game,” said Monica, “a game that involves all the emotions on a grand scale.” She smiled. This time Carl felt a tingle in his bones. “I need to return to France again soon. My brother is there, in the Alsace region. He desperately wants me to come. I want you come with me.”
It was the last thing Carl expected her to say. It caught him off guard.
“What? I’m sure Jerry will take you.”
“No, he can’t,” said Monica. “He has obligations with his family in New York.”
“Well, I can’t afford it,” protested Carl who was now uncomfortable.
“Jerry will pay. I won’t go without a companion. He knows that and he wants me to go. I’m afraid to travel alone. It would be a great favor for me and for Jerry.” Monica’s long eyebrows blinked as she spoke. She seemed to be searching for the right words like an actor who couldn’t remember her lines.
“It’s too awkward. I can’t do it.”
“Awkward how?” asked Monica.
“I … well, Jerry. I couldn’t do that to him.”
“We’re not exactly a couple, don’t worry. Do you speak French?”
“I took one year as a freshman. The French teachers were prettier than the Germans,” answered Carl. “I read Camus in French for the class but I’m far from fluent.”
Monica became animated. “The Myth of Sisyphus?”
“No, The Stranger.”
“Ah, Okay. Between the two of us I’m sure we’ll manage,” Monica said with confidence.
Carl could see the enthusiasm in her eyes at this point in the conversation but he had a strong feeling that it wasn’t healthy or comfortable for him to start any kind of relationship with her.
“Look, I’m not going. Jerry’s my roommate and my friend. I’m not taking you on a European tryst. Furthermore, it would be demeaning to have him pay for it.”
“It wouldn’t be a tryst. You will be my bodyguard.” She giggled when she said this which surprised him. “He trusts you to look out for me. He’s told me so. As for the money, it’s nothing to him. His parents are filthy rich. Please, it would mean a lot to me. I’m asking him as soon as he returns from class.”
And, she did.
As he took in the sights from his bench in the square, Carl saw how much Ribeauville had changed. The town had become a tourist destination. He’d read somewhere that Ribeauville was the inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a fairy tale designed oddly to make young girls comfortable with arranged marriages. He returned to his reminiscences of his trip there with Monica.
Europe, France–these were a dream come true for Carl. He knew this might be his only chance to see Europe so he prepared diligently. He read Fernand Braudel and Henri Pirenne, two eminent historians but they informed him only slightly about the areas where he would travel. He revisited Baudelaire and Camus thinking Monica might bring them up but they too were useless on Alsace. Poking around in the library Carl discovered that Goethe had earned his law degree in Strasbourg. This was impressive. It was in Strasbourg that Goethe wrote his famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Digging deeper, Carl discovered an even more interesting fact: Goethe fell in love in the small Alsatian village of Sessenheim and he wrote about it.
Once they arrived Alsace, Monica spent most of her time with her brother, Max, in Colmar. Carl roamed about in the little fairy tale towns like the besotted tourist he was. Money was short but he found ways to hang out, sometimes even in fine restaurants like one he found in the tiny walled village of Eguisheim. He’d sit and watch and listen to stories that later he could relate to Monica. She was fascinated.
One day when Max was busy, Monica asked Carl to walk with her around town. After the walk they sat in the town square and watched the beautiful white storks that nested there.
“The storks used to arrive in Ribeauville from Africa in the spring,” Carl told her. “They lost their migratory instincts and now live here year round.”
“The black tips of their wings are odd, don’t you think?” said Monica.
She confided in Carl that she had rarely felt anything intensely in her entire life. She was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive. “This,” she said, “is my prison.” But here, she did feel. It was something Carl hoped to build on.
“The story of those black tips goes all the way back to Charlemagne,” said Carl who thought he could break through Monica’s shell. “The locals here say there was an argument over how Charlemagne’s properties were to be distributed. War and bloodshed resulted. This made the hearts of the storks sorrowful. They flew up to God and asked him to intervene but he refused in order to preserve man’s free will. However, he allowed the storks to dip their wings in black to alleviate their mourning.”
Monica loved the story although she told him she didn’t believe in God. “Tell me another,” she begged.
Carl didn’t remember the exact moment he realized he had fallen under Monica’s spell but he did remember how he felt. He felt hot rocks roll around in his stomach. He had assumed she was unattainable or best left alone like forbidden fruit but as he spoke to her about things he heard or saw or read he started to think otherwise.
“Have you read Goethe?” he asked.
Goethe lived for a time in Strausbourg.” said Carl. “He fell in love with a girl named Friederike in the village of Sessenheim nearby. The love didn’t last but the girl stayed unmarried till the end of her life. During his time in Strausbourg Goethe visited Friederike often and wrote her many poems and letters but they’ve mostly been destroyed. There is one poem I found called Heidenröslein or Wild Rose. I like this poem so much, I memorized it,” said Carl.
Monica fell into his arms. He was startled. She didn’t move away. He wasn’t sure how to react.
“Recite it for me,” she said.
A boy saw a wild rose
growing in the heather;
it was so young, and as lovely as the morning.
He ran swiftly to look more closely,
looked on it with great joy.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
Said the boy: I shall pluck you,
wild rose in the heather!
Said the rose: I shall prick you
so that you will always remember me.
And I will not suffer it.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
And the impetuous boy plucked
the wild rose from the heather;
the rose defended herself and pricked him,
but her cries of pain were to no avail;
she simply had to suffer.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
Carl finished. He saw that Monica was crying. He held her tightly until a quiet calm came over her.
There was no way for Carl to trick himself into thinking he could fit into Jerry and Monica’s world. He was never comfortable around the rich. He had this fear of making embarrassing mistakes. He couldn’t deny what he felt for Monica yet it frightened him. She had ensnared him in her web. They didn’t speak as they walked back to their lodgings.
That night Monica came to his room. They made love and spent the night together. Just one night, that was it, and then it was over.
It was Max who called Carl to tell him of Monica’s suicide. “She always considered you her best friend,” he said. Jerry wasn’t at the funeral. He had long ago terminated his relationship with Monica and moved on.
After the funeral, Carl took time off from work. He went back to Ribeauville to think things through. He had booked a room in the same place where he’d stayed with Max and Monica on his first trip. It was not a surprise to him that Monica had anticipated he would do this. There was a letter waiting for him when he arrived.
“Your friend sent this to us a few weeks ago and asked that we give it to you if you returned.”
Monica had lived her life as a comedy. Human foibles, pretensions and misunderstandings tickled her, and when she pointed out these laughable discrepancies, she could entertain for hours. But under the facade her reality was quite different. She pursued her interests in art but she was too dependent on the opinions of others to find out who she really was.
Carl had not married or had a family. He maintained his relationship with Monica but it was entirely at a distance usually on the phone at night. She spoke in slow motion as if she was off somewhere. She would speak of her life as if it were a secret only he could know. There were long pauses when Carl was at a loss for what to say next.
She trusted Carl for his honesty but he saw now sadly that even he could not convince her that life was worth living. In the last few years Monica had been fluctuating between manic euphoria and debilitating despair. He should have seen it coming.
Her attitude toward sex was a signal but he ignored it. She told Carl that she had slept with practically everyone she knew. “If you do anything enough, you want to do it more,” she said. In her odd world she valued sex mainly as the prelude to the conversation that followed. She had a way of listening or being that was so vulnerable that people wanted to tell her things, things they told no one else. She was a good listener but it proved impossible for her to unburden her own heart even to Carl. Somehow she always seemed strong and in control. What Carl missed was that he didn’t know that people commit suicide when they are strong, not when they are weak. He thought back to her comment on Baudelaire.
Now it was too late to say anything. Or was it? He held the letter in his hand and read it. She was speaking to him again if only on paper.
I knew you would return to the scene of our romance, my only romance. You are my one true love, I think you must know that. If only I had had the courage to tell you face to face but I had not. Love blends understanding and misunderstanding in a peculiar, unfathomable combination. Once I asked you to be my bodyguard. You took it up in a way that made it impossible for us to be lovers. Or, at least that’s what I thought. Was I wrong?
I know you have read Camus. In The Myth of Sisyphus he tells us that life sucks but if you can just hold on an unexpected happiness can come. I tried but it didn’t come for me. You have no responsibility in this, Carl. Please know that you don’t.
Horror is the relationship between sex and death. I must confess now to what I could not confess before the grave. That night, that only night we spent together, we conceived a child my love, a child I hid from you, of whom you were unaware until now, a child I aborted. The shame, the doubt, the constant self-questioning; I could not take them to the grave without this one last chance of redemption.
Forgive me, Carl, my love, my sweet love,
Your wild rose, Monica
NOTE: Wild Rose (Heidenröslein)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translation © Richard Wigmore, author of Schubert: The Complete Song Texts, published by Schirmer Books,
provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)