4919 words (19 minute read)

Because It’s Beautiful


Her parents named her Vienna.

They honeymooned there twice and loved the city so much they named their first child after it. They were telling her the story at Red Lobster during a celebration of her first real job out of college at Dennell-Olexa-Ferrin Chemical, like they had for every birthday for the last 15 years. Her mother sighed when she described the boats gliding across the blue Danube, their speakers crackling out the waltz named for the waters massaging their hulls. Her father bellowed his hoary laugh, saying the boat captain was more in love with her mother than he was. Vienna just smiled and nodded over the flounder cooked in too much butter with parmesan crust and the cheesy biscuits that always made her feel greasy.

Over desserts that were too sweet for her tastes, Vienna’s parents told her she was their smart girl, and she believed them like she always did. Vienna had majored in chemical engineering at MIT and had spent every waking moment of her college years pouring over books and online tutorials. She walked out of her graduation ceremony into her first job with barely enough time to take off her cap and gown.

She made good money at the chemical plant. Even after just a week, she was already respected and barely supervised. Her desk job didn’t require her to do any of the scary stuff-- no standing on high catwalks above the gleaming chrome vats nor donning bright yellow equipment to test tiny amounts of spectacularly corrosive compounds. Just Powerpoints about math and charts about short-chain alcohols and meeting-induced narcolepsy battled by cups upon cups of coffee. It was the most bored she had ever been. Six years of all-night study sessions and endless scientific papers had forced her to grow accustomed to 13-hour days and working weekends. With master’s degree in hand, she was suddenly working a soft 40 hours with holidays and more comprehensive leave time than she would ever be able to handle.

“We’re proud of you, sweetie,” her mother said, beaming like a Norman Rockwell painting in the bright yellow light of the restaurant booth’s fake harbor lights. Vienna loved her parents.

Vienna walked into Brady McKane’s office a month later and sat down in the uncomfortable gray chair opposite his desk. She put her hands in her lap and smiled. Brady turned his pudgy face away from his computer screen, which almost certainly displayed a hand of Internet poker he could minimize at a moment’s notice. He raised his left eyebrow until it disappeared underneath his messy blonde bangs. Brady was a boss from a cartoon; his suspenders and silk tie were loosened from his unbuttoned collar and his demeanor, like always, was generally sweaty.

“Vee?” he said nonchalantly, his syllable sidling around the unlit cigar he was chomping in his teeth. He had smoked them for years before Vienna was hired. His inbox archives were filled with a thousand corporate memos passively-aggressively telling him that no office in America would let anyone smoke inside, much less a plant that handled flammable chemicals. He would scan each email to see if they were actually threatening to can him, then move on when he was satisfied that they would not. Any threat would probably be a bluff, anyway; despite his online poker habit, Brady was a good manager. He had a rapport with his staff that perfectly balanced a friendly approachability with an authoritative edge. But, corporate lawyers figured out a way to fine him instead of fire him, so he settled for chewing his cigars instead of lighting them, and everyone seemed satisfied with that.

Vienna smiled a little sunnier and said something incredibly technical that meant, in layman’s terms, that she wanted more work. Brady’s cigar nearly fell out of his mouth.

“You want more work!” he guffawed. Like a cartoon, Vienna thought. Like Perry White in the old Fleischer Superman cartoons. She wished he’d yell “Great Caesar’s ghost!” just once.

Brady got up and walked around his desk to slap her on the back a little too hard. “Now, that’s a new one! Keep that shit up and you’ll have my job!” Corporate had warned Brady many times to not use the word “shit” when speaking to his subordinates. The lawyers hadn’t figured out a way to fine him for that, yet.

Vienna frowned. “I’m just not sure I’m being used to my full potential.”

Brady, now leaning against his desk, coughed and laughed at the same time and nearly lost his cigar again. “You’re bored? You’re telling me you’re bored.”

Brady guffawed again, then told her to always take time to double-check her work. Vienna tried to protest again, but Brady was already back in his chair behind his desk and he dismissed her from there. It must have been his turn to bet.

Vienna rolled around in bed as much as she could stand and still found, with annoyance, that it wasn’t even mid-morning. I was Saturday, and she had been determined to sleep in for once, but she had failed. She succeeded at every quantifiable task she came across—school, work, nutrition—but every subjective, the spices of life, these were the things she failed at. She sat up, her covers still draped over her legs. Her head swung lazily over to her cat, who began purring with pleasure at the day’s first attention. Vienna watched the cat knead her paws in ecstasy at the mere thought of food and a good petting and realized, with the saddest sinking feeling she had ever felt, that she had no idea how to have fun. She was a work addict with no work to do, and it was making her miserable.

A shower would kill time at least. Were showers fun? No. They were comfortable and pleasant, but not fun. At least they weren’t the nuisance that sleep was. She tried to think of something fun while the hot water cascaded down her, but nothing came. She just stood in the tub until the water turned cold, then squeaked the apartment shower’s double faucets closed. Her cat was waiting for her on the bathroom rug, as cats do. Vienna thought about shooing him away so she wouldn’t have to risk slipping on the cold tiles or, even worse, dripping on him and watching him scamper away. Instead, she did the illogical thing all cat owners do: She let him have his way and gingerly stepped onto the floor.

Vienna looked apathetically at her own reflection as her electric toothbrush buzzed along her gums. Her olive skin was dotted with dark freckles and tiny water droplets. Her features were more angular than curvy. If it were a weekday she would spend an hour on her appearance because she knew there was profit in a pretty face in the modern world. She never used her sexuality—she had none and never felt she needed it. But, she knew how to look just right by curling her mouth into a gentle smile or brightening her eyes just enough to make someone feel comfortable and feel a little better about giving her what she wanted.

In truth, though, she didn’t see it. No, that wasn’t exactly correct, she had reasoned—she clearly had the shape and symmetry the western world loved to love. She knew she was attractive. It was just that, where everyone else seemed to see faces or calves or belly buttons as pictures in an exhibition, she saw them as parts to be maintained. She was satisfied with her appearance, but not impressed.

She spat into her sink. Fine, she thought. I’ll go out. I’ll have fun. I’ll do it in broad daylight in front of everyone.

Vienna was quiet for a moment. She became marginally aware of the faintest flicker of the lights over the bathroom mirror as she stared into her own eyes.

“How do I do that?” she said out loud.

Her cat didn’t say anything.

The appeal of the art museum was that it doubled as both a social activity and a public venue and–-the clincher—she wasn’t expected to converse. Indeed, talk was almost discouraged, she thought gleefully. Vienna’s pumps and sweater half-top and classy dress that hung to her knees (an ensemble that was specifically chosen for its polarizing combination of attraction and cold, professional standoffishness) walked through the front door. She was instantly bored. Six years of using her left brain to earn a master’s degree had left her right brain shriveled and useless.

She walked through each of the museum’s mid-sized galleries. Some were filled with preposterous pieces that meant nothing. Others were filled with the opposite—boring paintings of barns and sculptures of flaccid, nude men that only could be taken at face value. Why were women always depicted in the midst of ecstasy in sculptures, but not men? She stifled several yawns. Another patron’s light cough startled her. She imagined the glass installations shattering as the cough assaulted the silence.

The last room was filled with the most disgusting animals in creation sculpted from silver. Four different people came and stood next to Vienna while she pretended to ponder a chrome-colored family of crawfish. One of them, an Asian man wearing a tank top and the hat Bob Denver wore on Gilligan’s Island flagrantly broke the museum rules by taking photographs of the crawfish. She didn’t protest.

Vienna turned her head slightly to watch as the Asian man moved to an incredibly detailed metal ibex. Her eye was drawn to a set of double doors with glass centers framed by white-painted metal. She could see something lean and pale behind the doors and her feet floated toward it involuntarily. In the center of the small vestibule stood a slender, white sculpture. She could see another set of doors behind it that led outside. The sculpture was the only thing in the vestibule besides a single electric light in the ceiling. The rest of the museum was tasteful, soft lighting and beige walls and homogenous burgundy carpet, but the vestibule had bright sunlight, a rubber floor and ugly gray walls, as if that was the original color scheme of the building and it hadn’t been bothered with during the last renovation. The museum relied on countless “do not touch” signs and an army of volunteers that shushed and motioned unruly children away from the art so that it could display its pieces in the open air. But this sculpture was locked away from sneezes and dirty fingers, which had made their mark on the thick glass embedded in the vestibule doors.

The sculpture was made of white marble with swirls of sparkling slate gray running through it. It wasn’t tall, exactly—it only came up to Vienna’s waist—but it was slender and had the illusion of being tall due to the distance Vienna had to stand from it and the slight glare on the door’s glass. The whole sculpture had a curvy quality, but the bottom had a more definite, square shape with four graceful ridges that rose and melted into a wave that ended at the top in a football-shaped point with an ovular hole in it. It was missing the small plaque with the names of the piece and artist that accompanied all of the other works in the museum.

Someone spoke suddenly from the area to her right and slightly behind her. It startled her and ruined her train of thought: “Do you like it?”

The words were coming from a scrawny boy who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s. He was wearing a museum volunteer’s jacket that was at least one size too large, more likely two. He had red hair that was parted too far to the left and kept in place with too much product. His giant ears stuck out from the side of his head, much different from the pinned-back ears Vienna saw in the mirror every day. Freckles populated the pale skin beneath his eyes and on the bridge of his nose. He was staring at her; it was unsettling, but not full-on creepy. He turned his head slightly to the side and raised his eyebrows, but kept his green eyes locked onto hers.

“Well?” he said with a hint of impatience.

Vienna realized that she had been staring at the volunteer, too. She quickly moved her eyes away from him and back to the sculpture.

“I don’t know if I like it. Is it expensive? Is that why it’s locked in here?”

There was no response from her right. She kept her eyes on the sculpture.

“If it’s so expensive, why isn’t it where everyone can see it better?” she said, trying to sound as if she barely cared.

When he was silent for too long again, she looked back at him. He had an unnerving grin spread from ear to ear. His teeth were a nightmare. They were clean, but gaps abounded and crooked incisors jutted in the wrong directions. It reminded Vienna of a mugshot of a Peeping Tom she had seen in the student newspaper in college. He had grinned for the jail’s camera, as if he was proud of what he’d been caught doing.

It was obvious he was waiting for her to turn back to him before he spoke. He lingered a moment more before answering.

“It’s cursed,” he said in a playfully matter-of-fact tone.

Her fragile condescension broke. She hated herself for thinking it was funny and managed a “what?” through a snorting laugh.

The volunteer’s grin faded to a thin-lipped smile and he turned his head to look at the sculpture before repeating himself. “It’s cursed.”

Vienna knew she was taking his bait, but she was genuinely curious about the sculpture and hoped the volunteer would tell her something real after he was done flirting with her.

“How is it ‘cursed?’” she said while cracking a smile on the side of her face that the volunteer couldn’t see. She had thickened the word “cursed” with heavy sarcasm.

He just shrugged, then fell into silence while they both stared at the sculpture. She meant to leave several times, but her feet never moved.

Vienna spoke first after a long time passed. “Then, why do you keep it here?”

The curly-headed boy smiled broadly again. This was the right question, and he gave its obvious, inarguable answer.

“Because it’s beautiful.”

Vienna’s work week was restless, distracted and, for once, unproductive. It was the best week of her life. There were days that she thought she’d forgotten how to be bored, which made her want to believe she’d forgotten how to be boring. Even Brady noticed on Wednesday as he lumbered by her office. He comically walked backwards again and backed through her door. She had never seen a man sweat so much.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you whistle.”

A flutish chuckle slipped out of Vienna. “I didn’t even know I was doing it.”

“You musta started double-checking and found something to work on.”

“Something like that.”

Despite her good mood, her patience was tested as Thursday and Friday crawled by. She strolled through the museum doors as soon as they opened on Saturday morning. Her steps quickened when she entered the galleries. Her heart pounded with fear. What if it wasn’t there anymore?

But, it was there in the vestibule, exactly where she left it. She pretended it missed her, too. Vienna didn’t know how long she stood staring at it. She didn’t care. The volunteer didn’t startle her this time, but he did still seem to materialize from thin air just outside of her peripheral vision. He didn’t say anything for a long time.

Finally, she playfully sighed and smiled without looking at him. Her knees dipped a little when she said, “yes, I’m back.” Now he would say something clever like yes you are or I see that to keep her at arm’s length like all awkward men do.

“I’m glad you are.”

It was an unremarkable sentence, but the boy’s tone made Vienna drop her act and turn towards him with cautious curiosity. His voice wasn’t flirtatious, exactly. It was a sincerity so pure that it made Vienna’s heart flutter. All she could muster in response was an “oh?”

“It means you have good taste.”

“Oh.” Vienna’s mood dipped.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said the volunteer, apparently not noticing her disappointment in his cold compliment.

“Yes, I think we decided that last week.”

“I think you’re beautiful, too.”

She realized he’d pulled this move before. She wasn’t the first person to be captivated by the sculpture and certainly not the first attractive woman. Under normal circumstances she would grimace and walk away, but he knew from experience that wouldn’t happen, thanks to his inanimate wingman standing stalwart in the vestibule. True to the formula, Vienna stood still in her spot until the museum closed. The volunteer never left his position, either. No one asked him any questions. No one told him to get back to work.

At first, the sculpture had seemed to be one cohesive piece, but as the hours climbed she began to see it as a collection of elements. She looked at the crests in the sturdy base. She saw the roots of a petrified tree curl downward through the earth, where only she could see them. Sometimes beautiful wings lay folded against its sides, fluttering as they heaved with each restful breath. She saw fire. It jetted through the oval, then calmed and licked the air. She could smell burning wood, burning sulfur—and what must be burning flesh, though she had never smelled a human’s before. She saw black streams trickle from the oval like tears.

The sun was low in the sky and cast a deep orange onto the sculpture. A hand attached to the jacket of a museum volunteer touched her shoulder. It was a woman with a nametag that said “Susan.” The boy was gone. Susan told Vienna the museum was closing and put a hand on Vienna’s shoulder to escort her away. Vienna’s feet wouldn’t move at first, as if they had grown roots. Susan’s surprising strength eventually managed to move Vienna out the front door.

Anxiety set in as Vienna walked to her Audi. She felt sadness and anger bubble in her chest like a poison.

“I wasn’t done!” she whispered harshly to herself. She shed angry tears.

Her palms began to hurt. She was clenching her fists and shaking them so hard that she had dug her nails into the soft, lotion-cured skin of her hands, causing red marks to appear. She flexed her hands open to make the pain go away, then reached up to wipe away her tears. She rubbed until her eyes were dry, then looked at her wet hands to see if the red marks had faded.

Her palms were stained black.

Vienna stared at herself naked in the bathroom mirror. Her brow was slightly furrowed, her nostrils flared and her lips were just a little tight. She looked at her olive skin. She looked at the dark brown freckles on her shoulders. Her features were more angular than many women her own age. She had no idea if anyone actually liked them, except for that boy.

The sadness had evaporated from her chest, leaving the anger to burn twice as hot. She felt confused and betrayed, but didn’t know why. The confusion increased her frustration. The volunteer’s compliment rang through her head over and over again.

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

Sometimes the word was deafening. Sometimes it was whispered rapidly in both of her ears. She had thought the same of the sculpture without hesitation. Why did it make her so mad to hear it said of herself?

Because nobody had ever called her that.

Her parents had used the word, of course, like any proud parents did. But, it somehow meant more coming from the curly-headed museum worker. It wasn’t a sexual thrill—she was still asexual and didn’t feel anything more for the man at the museum (who was barely more than a boy) than she had for the teenage boys in high school that offered her their attentions because of her figure and her features. All her life she’d heard "your hair looks so nice today!" and "what a pretty smile!" and "boy, Vienna, that jacket sure looks good on you!"

But, never "beautiful."

It made her furious for reasons she couldn’t place her finger on. She threw out guilt—she didn’t feel the compliment was undeserved. She also wasn’t angry at the compliment itself, or that it was unsolicited. She appreciated it, though the appreciation was buried deep under the anger. She tossed in her bed that night. She punched her pillow. She mashed the buttons on her remote control as she through her Netflix queue. She had pulled plenty of all-nighters in college, but this was her first involuntarily sleepless night since she was an infant. The next two nights went the same. At 4 a.m. on Monday she yanked her pillows from behind her head and tore them open, scattering the feathers through the dark air of her bedroom. They settled on her bed like ruined wings.

She wore sunglasses to work on Tuesday to hide her dark-ringed eyes from the rest of the office and stumbled as quietly as she could through the hallways to her office. Her stained sweatsuit meant she couldn’t use her looks to her advantage today. But, it didn’t matter; she was beautiful. She was art now, not just a tool.

She slipped into her office and closed her door. She had seen that Brady’s office door was shut when she crept by it on her way in, so she had a few minutes before he came wallowing by with a greasy trail behind him. She sat in her black faux leather chair and took off her sunglasses. The fluorescent light burned her eyes and she shut them. Flames sparkled in the darkness and licked the inside of her eyelids.

She punched the phone number of the museum into her phone. The voice that picked up after three rings was a woman who introduced herself as Beatrice.

“Hi,” Vienna said, her voice growling with tiny bubbles. She cleared her throat.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could get some information on a particular…”

She hedged. What word should she use? Sculpture? Piece? Installation?

“…art?”

“Of course, ma’am! What’s the piece’s name?”

“I don’t know. It’s a sculpture. I don’t know the artist’s name. I’m actually trying to find that out.”

“Could you tell me about the sculpture? I might be able to tell you more information that way.”

After she finished her description, Vienna couldn’t remember what she’d said or how long she had talked. The woman on the other end was silent for a moment, then cleared her throat.

“Well, it’s nice to hear someone so passionate” --the woman hung on the word “passionate” for a moment, as if it was a polite word for something else-- “about art. I know the piece you’re asking about. It’s behind the doors in the east gallery, right?”

Vienna yelped the word “yes” into the phone before Beatrice finished the word “gallery.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know much about that piece. I haven’t been at the museum long, so I’m not even sure how long it’s been here.”

“Do you know the artist?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

“Do you know where it’s from? Did it come from another museum?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

A pause. Then, “Can I buy it?”

The woman’s voice perked up, possibly to try to hide her annoyance. “Most of our pieces are on loan from artists or other museums. I don’t have the authority to sell the pieces and it is against museum policy to act as a broker.”

“Is there a volunteer there who’s a teenage boy? Bad teeth? Curly hair and his jacket is a little too big?”

The woman giggled. “The jacket thing could describe all of us. I swear they use gorilla sizes for those things.” The woman laughed far too loudly at her own joke. Vienna didn’t make a sound. “What is his name? I’ll see if he’s on the roster for today.”

Vienna made a short strained noise from her throat. “I don’t know his name. He was working Saturday.”

“Oh, then he’s not here. The list of weekend volunteers is different from the weekday volunteers.”

Vienna struggled for another question, but all that came was dry, wheezing noises from her throat. The phone hummed to fill the gap in the conversation. Finally, the volunteer awkwardly apologized and wished Vienna a good day. Vienna practically screamed at the woman to wait, but she had already hung up. She dialed the number six more times, each time pretending to be a different person and hoping to get someone new on the other end. A volunteer named Pradeep finally asked her not to call anymore.

Vienna put on every black thing she owned and piled her darkest makeup on her face. At 2 a.m., She made sure the crowbar was in the back seat of her car. Angry tears smeared her makeshift face camouflage, but she didn’t care. They were black, anyway.

She turned her headlights off a block before she reached the museum. She parked in an alley across the street and crept toward the side of the building attached to her sculpture’s vestibule. Vienna tried to figure how heavy the sculpture would be, but it was difficult through the glass. She would need to be able to carry it on her own, but she also wondered if she would be able to stand coming back with another plan. She needed to be with the sculpture now. Every cop and muscular Susan in the world could try to pry her from it, but she would never budge. She smashed the glass with a low swing and winced in anticipation of an alarm. The echo of the thick glass shattering rang through the empty galleries, then faded into silence. If there was no audible alarm to scare off thieves, then it was safe to assume there was no silent one, either. The interior door of the vestibule was likely the only one that was connected to an alarm, which was perfect for Vienna—this was as far as she needed to go.

She put her hands on the smooth stone for the first time. For the first time in her life, she thought joyfully as the anger left her chest. She caressed the sculpture. Embraced it. She expected it to be cool to the touch, but it was warm. She expected it to be hard like stone, but it gave under her touch. It was firm, certainly, but like strong muscle that she could feel pulse with a heartbeat. As she entwined her arms within it and around it, she saw its eye.

He had called this sculpture beautiful. He had called her beautiful. He meant it both times. One boy in a coat that was too big thought they were beautiful. That would warm them forever.

The tours at the museum had picked up since the winter months rolled in and outdoor activities dried up. A red-haired, pale-faced teenage volunteer ushered his group into the east gallery, where abstract glass pieces clung to the walls and thick movie theater ropes surrounded some of the more fragile floor installations. The young man swept through the room, telling an anecdote about each piece.

The tour stopped in front of a small vestibule. The doors leading outside had newer glass than the doors the patrons stood in front of.

“Sorry, folks, I don’t have a key to this door, so we’ll have to look at this piece from here,” the tour guide said in a voice honed to be able to project across a short distance. He had a slight lisp and a nasal accent.

A woman in her early 30s was in the back row. She had perfect charcoal skin and her voluminous, curly hair sprouted gracefully out of her head. She was wearing glasses over her dark brown eyes.

She raised her hand but didn’t ask to be called on. “Why do you keep it in this little room, away from everything else?”

The guide turned toward the sculpture in the vestibule without looking at the woman and was silent for a moment. He looked at the olive-colored wood with dark freckles speckled in it. Some might not find the sculpture’s angular features appealing, but he did.

He turned back to the woman and met her eye. He sensed her quiver slightly. He grinned his jagged grin.

“Because it’s beautiful.”

Next Chapter: This and Every Year