Good Things I Wish You

I wish I could write you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments. . If things go on much longer as they are at present, I shall have some time to put you under glass or have you set in gold. . . Your letters are like kisses.

Johannes Brahms in a letter to Clara Schumann, 1856 [1]


I wish I could find longing as sweet as you do. It only gives me pain and fills my heart with unspeakable woe.

Clara Schumann, in a letter to Brahms, 1858 [2]

The Wine Cellar 2006


My first date in nineteen years was nearly an hour late. The hostess had brought me two messages, each one saying he was only minutes away, but he was coming from Lauderdale, and even without traffic, that’s a long haul to West Palm, where we were meeting in an open-air restaurant. Small tables. Wicker chairs. Below, in a courtyard planted with coconut palms, colorful jets of water rose and fell like expectations. I took another roll from the bread basket, ordered a glass of wine. The dating service, one which demanded lots of money to keep everything off the Internet, had assured me that Hart was “handsome, honest and caring.” Once a week, twice a week, a young woman named America called with yet another recommendation, and all of her recommendations were men who were “handsome, honest and caring.”

“He’s an entrepreneur,” America had added this time.

“That can mean anything.”

“He’s forty-seven years old. He has a ten year old daughter.”

I could tell she was reading from her screen. In the background, other girls just like her-fresh-voiced, eager-encouraged other clients.

“He lives too far away,” I’d said. “And what kind of name is Heart?”

“H-a-r-t. He enjoys classical music and good conversation. I’m looking at his picture, and he’s cute.”

“But we’d never see each other.”

“If you two kids hit it off,” America said, brightly, “you’ll figure something out.”

I was, at the time, forty-two years old; I’d signed up for this service several months earlier, but I’d yet to agree to a date. Too busy, I’d kept telling myself, and this wasn’t exactly a lie. There was my job at the university. There was the novel I was supposed to be writing about the nineteenth century German pianist and composer, Clara Schumann, and her 40-odd year relationship with Johannes Brahms. There was my four year old daughter, Heidi. There was also the fact that, since my divorce had been finalized, I’d been finding it difficult to make decisions of any kind. Should I put the house on the market? Should I buy green apples or red? Should I find an outside piano teacher for Heidi or keep teaching her myself? The previous week, with the help of my new friend Ellen, I’d finally boxed up the last of Cal’s things, odds and ends he’d been promising to collect for months: a framed map of Massachusetts, a shoebox full of pens, an assortment of holiday gifts-candles, boxed jellies, joking plaques-from various junior high students. A swan-necked lamp that had belonged to his mother. Period boots and belts and jackets. Faded T-shirts printed with the dates and locations of Revolutionary War re-enactments. Ellen pulled a tomahawk from a dark, leather pouch; she wore a man’s powered wig on her head.

“What do you miss about this guy?” she’d said.

“Everything,” I’d said. “And nothing.”

Now, as the waitress arrived with my wine, I considered what to do with the boxes. Should I mail them to Calvin? Leave them at the graffiti-spattered Goodwill trailer next to the 95 overpass? Wait until he picked up Heidi for the weekend, insist he take everything along? Each of these options seemed fraught with consequences, all of them unpleasant and inevitable. The box would be lost. I’d be car-jacked at gun point. Calvin would be angry. The rational part of my brain, the part I recognized, reminded me that I was being ridiculous. But the other part-its nervous, newborn twin-was persistent, hungry for disaster. One wrong step, one bad choice, and the worst would happen, the earth would swallow me whole, and if that happened, when that happened, what would become of Heidi? Each night, I got up to check windows and doors, making certain that everything was locked. I stayed off the phone during storms. I’d stopped taking vitamins, worried about choking, about Heidi finding me dead on the floor.

By the time Hart showed up, I’d finished my wine as well as the contents of the bread basket. My first impression was that he was utterly exhausted: ashen-faced, pale-lipped, a quietly aging man. I was looking tired myself these days, the bags beneath my eyes worse than usual. Already you have something in common, said the thin, ironic voice inside my head, and I wished I had left ten minutes earlier, the way I’d wanted to. I should have been at home, tucking Heidi into bed. I should have been reading student manuscripts. I should have been culling through the hundreds of pages I’d already written on Clara and Brahms, all of them perfectly fine pages of writing, and not a single one of them right. Not a single one offering fresh insight into the questions others had already asked. [3]

What was the true nature of their relationship?

Why did the two never marry, even after Robert Schumann’s death?

“This will never work,” Hart announced, voicing my own thoughts as he sank into a chair. “It is over an hour to get here.”

He spoke with a light German accent. Maybe Czech. Too bad I’d never know which. “I told them the distance was a problem,” I said, reaching for my purse.

He glanced at me without interest. “You are leaving?”

“My sitter goes home at eight.”

“It is seven.”

“The traffic.”


German, I decided. My parents spoke it as children. Of course, they stopped when they started school, and then there was the war. Growing up, I’d begged for German words as if they were pieces of hard candy, delicious but unwholesome somehow, certain to rot my teeth.

“I could eat something quick,” I said, wavering. At the back of my mind, I suppose, I was thinking he might be someone who could help with translations. “Maybe some soup.”

“You like soup?”

“Why not soup?”

He touched the empty bread basket. “You seem to like bread, too.”

The waiter nearly tripped in his eagerness to get to our table, and I took a second look at my date: expensive watch, tailored shirt, full head of curly dark hair. This was a man who would always be led to the table marked Reserved. I am a woman who will always be led to the odd little nook off the kitchen. I made up my mind to dislike him. The waiter stood ready with his pen.

“I must have more than just soup,” Hart said. “I am coming straight from work.”

“I also came from work.” It seemed important to establish that I, too, had been put out.

“From your university,” he said. “America is telling me this. But she wouldn’t tell me where. In case I am the axe-murderer, I suppose.”

I glanced at him sharply. The waiter bobbed and smiled.

“The se-ri-al kill-er.” Hart landed on all the syllables, striking each one like a clear, hard note.

“We have fresh calamari,” the waiter said.

“Of course you do,” Hart said.

He ordered soup for both of us, a plate of calamari for himself. Now we were committed. We sat for a moment in silence.

“I could be the serial killer,” he said, still musing.

I am the serial killer,” I said.

For the first time, he looked at me directly. His mouth was small, precise as a comma, even when he smiled.

“That’s right,” he said, happily. “You never can tell. This is such a fucked up country.”


This sudden rush of de ja vu: it had happened to me twice before. Isn’t it caused by some chemical glitch, a misfiring deep in the brain? It’s like becoming aware of gravity, just for a moment, and without warning. It’s the same inevitability one feels at the start of a steep, accidental fall.


The first time, I was still in high school. I’d been accepted into the studio of a well-known piano teacher who’d had some success as a concert pianist before rheumatoid arthritis ended his career. This teacher was in his early forties, a soft-spoken man whose handsome face had been damaged by illness and disappointment. Initially, our lessons had been held at his university, but one day he suggested that I come directly to his home. It was closer to where I lived, and besides, he’d have more time for me there.

And that was where it happened. When he opened the door to greet me, I recognized the antiseptic smell of the air, the tint of the linoleum covering the foyer, the blue chintz curtains in the living room windows, even though I’d never been there before. I knew exactly how he’d mispronounce my name (Jean-ette instead of Jean-ette, he’d say) and that when he did, he would continue to do so-on purpose-for the next four years, making it a little joke between us.

“Go ahead, Jeanie,” my mother said-I was fourteen at the time, so Mom still drove me to lessons-and with that, I stepped forward into his house, into his life. What else could I have done? Inside, we passed his very young wife, who nodded and smiled unhappily.

Perhaps she’d already recognized me, too.

Most days, she’d be cleaning when I arrived: mopping floors with Mop-N-Go, wiping countertops with Windex, dusting the furniture with lemon-scented Pledge. There was also a child, a boy with a temper.

He stared at me with shining eyes until I looked away.

Sometimes, during my lessons, which were held in a studio at the back of the house, this boy would start to scream. He could project into every room, even through the thick studio walls, cries that stained the air like smoke, pooled between the pianos’ dark legs. I played Chopin, Beethoven, Bartok, Prokofiev. I played Brahms and Scarlatti and Bach. Music was the only light by which I could imagine any future, and by the time I was sixteen, I was coming three times a week to sit at one of the two grand Steinways. Sometimes the piano teacher sat on the opposite bench. Sometimes he sat beside me. I never knew which it would be. He charged 90 dollars for a two hour lesson, but for me, the cost was 20 dollars a week, what my parents could afford. From time to time, he’d assure them he’d reduce his fees even more if necessary, that he’d always make room for talented young students, that he’d never be accused of turning away the next Clara Schumann because she couldn’t give him what he asked for.

It was this teacher who’d first told me Clara’s story. How Clara’s mother, Marianne, left Clara’s tyrannical father, Friedrick Wieck, after falling in love with another man, a choice which meant-according to German law-renouncing all legal rights to her children. How, from that moment on, Wieck claimed Clara as his own, determined to create a child protégé who would become not only a world-class performer (a so-called reproduction artist) but a world-class composer, the first woman to join the ranks of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. How Goethe immortalized her, at nine, by claiming, She plays with the strength of six boys. How she’d debuted at the Gewandhaus before she’d turned 10, soloed at the age of 11, been named Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa by the emperor of Austria at the age of 18. Poems were written in honor of her fingers. Cafes served torte a la Wieck [4], so named for its texture, which was said to be as airy, as light, as young Clara’s touch.

My Clara, Friedrich Wieck liked to say, wasn’t raised to waste her life on domestic bliss. [5]

There were times when the boy’s screams became apocalyptic. Eventually, the piano teacher would place a swollen hand on my shoulder, push himself to his feet. There was always a moment when I’d doubt I could bear, this time, the full weight of his rising, but then he’d be walking away from me, unlocking the studio door. This was my cue to stop playing-for all this time I’d be drilling a cadenza, re-working tricky fingerings-then release my own pent-up breath, rub my shoulders, roll my neck. Perhaps I’d stand, re-tuck my shirt into my jeans. Perhaps I’d examine the framed prints on the walls: Canaletto’s Dresden; the piano teacher, as a young man, competing at the Van Clybourne; portraits of Clara as a heart-faced pre-teen, as a twenty year old celebrity, at the piano with Robert Schumann, who she married, at last, over her father’s objections, warnings, outright threats. Longing for exactly what Friedrich scorned: domestic bliss. Longing to escape the same unhappiness her mother, Marianne, had left behind. I thought it was romantic, those years of separation in which she and Robert were forced to see each other only briefly and in secret, corresponding under false names through the help of sympathetic friends.

The screams increased and then, abruptly, ceased.

In the silence, I thought of my teacher’s hands, the fingers splayed, extended, as if he were trying to touch something just out of reach. He’d consulted with a number of surgeons, trying to find someone who’d agree to break his fingers, re-set them into the curve he cupped whenever he shaped my touch to the keys.

Protect your hands, he’d say. Your hands are everything.

He gave me his own compositions to play, lamenting his own inability to perform them. They were layered with long, lyrical passages gliding like oil over hard, dissonant beats. He liked to stand behind me as I played, resting his chin on the top of my head as the three Claras—


budding girl,      brilliant artist,       Schumann’s fiancé—

watched us, in triptych, from their frames.

I love you like a father, he’d say, but you won’t listen to me.


By the time the waiter returned with more bread, calamari, two steaming bowls of soup, Hart was talking eagerly, bubbling like a pot. His company, it seemed, developed some kind of vision-enhancing technology, but he waved away my questions and told me, instead, about growing up in East Germany. About the years he’d spent in the military before finding himself, as an untrained nurse, in charge of a local ER. About medical school in East Berlin. About lying in bed in ’89, just after the Wall came down, thinking, I must pinch myself, this cannot possibly be true. About traveling to Stockholm, Osaka, Miami on a series of research grants. About experiments he’d conducted on Muller cells, a type of glial cell-had I heard of such a thing? Describing these cells, he spoke for ten minutes without apology or self-consciousness. It was not enough for me to say I understood. He batted at my arm: did I see? His face was alert now, lit with bright angles. All signs of exhaustion had vanished. America was wrong; he was anything but cute. He was a strikingly handsome man. At the university, I worked each day with writers, scholars, thinkers. But I couldn’t recall when I’d last spoken to anyone who had wanted, so deliberately, to teach me something new. Someone who chose his words with such precision, with such passion.

With the absolute attention of prayer.

And yet, as I blew on my steaming soup, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d met him before. Of course, it might have just been the accent. Like my parents, my father in particular, he spoke with the corner of each sentence turning down. Or perhaps we were related somehow. Things like this did happen.

“Where in East Germany did you grow up?” I asked, but even as I did, I suddenly knew the answer.

“In Leipzig. It’s-”

“I know Leipzig. It’s the birth place of Clara Schumann.”


“Clara Wieck,” I said, reverting to Clara’s unmarried name on the off-chance that he’d heard it. “She married the composer Robert Schumann in 1840. I am writing a book about her lifelong friendship with his young protégé, Johannes Brahms.”

“You have been to Leipzig, then? For research?”

“I’m going in July.”

Hart gave me an odd, quizzical look. “When in July?”

Below, in the courtyard, the water show started again. Red and green lights traveled up and down our water glasses, flashed inside the bellies of our spoons. Hart would be traveling to Leipzig, too, a few days earlier than I. Of course, our visits would overlap. Together, we examined our empty soup bowls.

“Funny coincidence,” I finally said.

“If you believe in such things. In their significance.”

“Actually, I don’t.”

Hart looked relieved. “I don’t believe in them either.”

“I wish I could believe.”

“But you can’t.” He speared the last calamari.

“Yes and no,” I said. “It’s hard to explain.”

But he’d been talking so sincerely, so intensely, that I felt obliged to try. “Mostly, I think it’s just a matter of paying attention. Everything is significant, but when you take note of something in a particular way, it winds up changing how you react to it, how you feel about the result. Maybe just a little, but there it is. Over time, it starts to make a difference.”

His expression was impossible to read.

“So if I decide to consider this significant, it could become significant. But I don’t believe there is any intrinsic-” I paused, feeling stupid now, “well, significance. Am I making sense?”

Apparently not.

Self Portrait by Gaela Erwin (to view more of Erwin’s portraits and other work, visit www.gaelaerwin.com)

Self Portrait by Gaela Erwin
(to view more of Erwin’s portraits and other work, visit www.gaelaerwin.com)

“I am a rational person,” he said. “I cannot believe in such things.”

I’d been looking into his face; now, I looked away. This was something Cal used to say. One cannot exchange ideas with a rational person any more than one can argue with a religious fanatic. The night before, after Heidi was in bed, I’d sat up re-reading the diary Robert began for himself and Clara on the first day of their marriage. The plan was that they’d alternate entries week by week, though in the end it was Clara who wound up keeping the diary in detail. Still, Robert’s scant observations present his own point of view as the reasonable one, the rational one, and Clara must have believed this was true, for she overwhelmingly supports his assertions, corrections, ideas. Robert was eleven years older, more educated, more entitled-one could argue-to opinions of his own. Yet, he could also be blindingly jealous. Childishly petulant. Possessive. He suffered chronic depression, bouts of paranoia and, eventually, auditory hallucinations. He raged and wept and retreated to his piano, where he composed in manic bursts. He recorded compulsively, in his personal diary, details that included how often he and his wife had sexual relations.

And what about those relations? What about that sad, sick man who came to her with reeking breath, unwashed and wild-eyed, muttering about angels? The last years of that marriage must have been simply unbearable. Still, she defended him, protected him. She tried to conceal what was happening, even from their closest friends. Even, at first, from Johannes Brahms, who arrived at their door in September, 1853, just a few months before Robert-plagued by the voices of spirits-attempted suicide by throwing first his wedding ring and then himself into the Rhine.

Brahms, fifteen years Clara’s junior, who would eventually become privy to every family secret.

Brahms, who-according to rumor, then and now-would eventually become Clara’s lover.

“No one can be rational about everything,” I said to Hart, becoming aware of the silence between us. “Especially when it comes to relationships.”

To my surprise, he nodded. “You are meaning love at first sight, I suppose.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never felt anything like that.”

“That’s because you, too, are a rational person.”

I thought of the new, fearful voice in my head. “Oh, is that what I am?”

Again, that sudden smile. “More rational than I. The first time I married, it was love at first sight. At least, I thought it was love.”

What I thought: “The first time?”

What I said: “So was it? Love, I mean?”

“Sure, sure. It could have been love. Why not?”

“Could have been,” I repeated.

I felt as if I were on the edge of learning something significant: about life, about love, about my own future. In the courtyard, a band was setting up beside the fountains. In the sky: a hard slice of moon.

Hart took a handkerchief from his pocket, blew his nose.

“Or maybe it was just the hormones,” he said. “Who can really say?”

Nothing is Real

I have such an urgent desire to see you, to press you to my heart, that I am sad—and sick as well. I don’t know what is absent in my life, and yet I do know: you are absent. I see you everywhere, you walk up and down with me in my room, you live in my arms and nothing, nothing is real.

Robert, in a letter to Clara, 1838 [6]


Robert Schumann had his first nervous breakdown at fifteen. He recovered and went on to law school-fulfilling his mother’s wishes-but he dreamed of a career as a concert pianist. At twenty-one, with her reluctant permission, he became a boarder and pupil at the home of the famed piano instructor, Friedrich Wieck. There he encountered eleven year old Clara, who’d already mastered techniques which he could only approximate. His own progress, by comparison, at Wieck’s Pianofabrik[7] was slow. He was older than many of the other pupils, eager to compensate for the years he’d lost while studying law. When Wieck left with Clara for an eight month Parisian tour, Robert-in a vain attempt to strengthen his fingers-permanently damaged the nerves in his right hand, most likely with a device of his own invention. To no avail, he tried the remedies of the day: poultices, rest, and tier baden, the latter of which involved inserting his injured hand into the fresh-slaughtered body of an animal.

It was 1832. It was Leipzig, Germany. The city boasted 150 bookstores, 50 print shops and 30 newspapers, in addition to the dazzling young Fraulein Wieck, who returned, triumphant, from Paris [8]. By then, Robert had realized that, for him, a concert career was not possible. He turned to composition instead, and soon he was relying on Clara to interpret and perform what he’d written. How hard she worked, at the age of thirteen, to master Papillons [9], Robert’s second published work! At first, Friedrich looked on with approval. It would be good for the girl to associate herself with this gifted, if controversial, composer. It would inspire her own compositions, already underway.

Indeed, her Romantic Variations, Opus 3, would be dedicated to Robert Schumann.

But by 1835, Friedrich couldn’t help but notice the way Clara grieved over Robert’s engagement to Ernestine Von Fricken, another young piano student living in one of the boarder’s rooms above the Pianofabrik. A hastily-scheduled five month concert tour did nothing to lift his daughter’s mood, though she brightened considerably upon her return, at which point in time, we now know from letters, she and Robert became increasingly attached, increasingly committed to each other.

In fact, Robert was still engaged to Ernestine, but Wieck’s suspicion on that front was only one of his objections to the match. Schumann, he said, was a drunkard in addition to a womanizer. He was mentally unstable, physically unwell. He’d be unable to provide Clara with the financial and emotional support she needed-and, indeed, such needs would go unheard beneath the clamor of all the attention such a husband would require. She’d stop composing. She’d limit performances, lose engagements which earned more money in a month than Robert was paid in a year. She’d sacrifice her artistic gifts to a life spent bearing children, managing a household, buoying up another’s talents-


Wieck forbade the couple to see each other. He forbade any correspondence between them. When, in 1837, after eighteen months of separation, Robert formally asked Wieck’s permission to marry Clara, Wieck’s response was to set out with his daughter on a grueling Viennese tour that would last for the next seven months. He continued to pocket the proceeds of these and other concerts, as he’d always done, only this time he left Clara without money for necessities. Still, upon their return, she would not renounce Schumann. In response, Wieck barred her from his house. He held her piano hostage, along with everything else she owned. In the end, she and Robert were forced to take Wieck to court, where at last, they were granted permission to marry. This they did on September 12, 1840, the day before Clara’s twenty-first birthday.

Clara’s mother, Marianne-to whom Clara had turned for refuge-signed the wedding license.

One can’t help but imagine that she did so with a vengeance.

And yet, both parents must have grieved to see Wieck’s worst predictions come to pass. Clara’s first child, Marie, was born after less than a year. Seven more children would follow, including one who did not survive. Whenever Robert composed on his piano, Clara couldn’t play her own-he found the noise too distracting-which meant that her practice time was confined to the hour or two, at the end of each day, when he strolled to his pub for a beer.

“My piano playing again falls completely by the wayside,” she wrote in the marriage diary, “as is always the case when Robert composes. Not a single little hour can be found for me the entire day! If only I don’t regress too much!” [10] For awhile, she continued to book concert tours, but Robert’s growing litany of symptoms-exhaustion, difficulty speaking, even temporary blindness-prevented him from traveling with her. Left alone, he grew wretched, dangerously depressed.

“This desolation in the house, this emptiness in me!” he wrote in a letter that reached her in Copenhagen. “Letting you go was one of the most foolish things I ever did in my life and it certainly won’t happen again. Nothing tastes good or right. On top of that, I really am not well at all-” [11]

Wieck had been right on that count, too. Robert’s mental and physical health continued to deteriorate. The couple moved first to Dresden and then to Dusseldorf, searching for better air, different doctors, any promise of relief.

It was in Dusseldorf, fourteen years after their wedding, that Robert would tell Clara over the breakfast table, I am not worthy of your love, before slipping out of the house in his dressing gown and slippers, hurrying toward the Rhine.

The cold February air like a good taste in his throat. Symphonies of angels singing from the rooftops.

Already he was twisting his wedding ring from its tight embrace of his finger.


You can’t belong to him and to me at the same time. You will have to leave one, him or me.

Robert, in a letter to Clara (1838) [12]

Beloved Wife

You are too dear, too lofty for the kind of life your father holds up as a worthy goal; he thinks it will bring true happiness. . . No, my Clara will be a happy wife, a contented, beloved wife. I consider your art great and holy. I hardly dare think of the happiness you will give me with it; but if we don’t consider it necessary, you won’t lift a finger. . .

Robert, in a letter to Clara (1838) [13]


Now I was the one who was bubbling away, but Hart didn’t seem to mind. The lines between his eyes deepened as he stirred his espresso with a small, bright spoon. I told him about the fishermen who pulled Robert from the river, the medal of valor they received, on display now at the Schumann house in Zwickau [14]. I told him how, before Robert was brought home, Clara had been taken to the house of a neighbor, where she remained for the next five days, leaving her children in the care of servants, until Robert could be transported, by anonymous carriage, to an asylum outside Bonn. I told him how-ostensibly on the advice of Robert’s doctors-Clara would not see her husband again, not even once, until three days before his death. By then, it was July, 1856. She’d hurried home from a concert tour in England after receiving a telegraph from Endenich, but instead of heading to Robert’s bedside-or to see her children in Dusseldorf-she detoured from Antworp to Ostend, where Brahms was waiting for her. Together, they visited the Black Sea before traveling on to Bonn, where Robert, emaciated, recognized Clara and tried to embrace her.


  1. I await more chapters, eagerly. So good to see you in Appleton. To mothering and to writing. That’s all there is.

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