Nola says nothing even though she dislikes the way the letters run over each other like a herd of sheep on the name tag they had given her the first day at the art museum. Eleanor (Yuxin) Xia. She dislikes the way the brackets confine her middle name, her Chinese name, creating an unnecessary pause. A crowd of tourists parts, revealing behind them a miniature sculpture of a contorted woman with little black holes for eyes. Nola overhears a middle-aged woman say to her friend about how the sculpture brings about the fragility of womanhood and a bored amusement fills her, the kind that tickles the back of her throat. She would’ve liked to stop the woman, to ask her politely to attend the presentation that’s about to start in ten minutes, but resists. It is not her job to pick and choose.
Ever since Nola graduated from college two months ago, she has been working as an intern at Alte Nationalgalerie, tucked away in a cubicle sorting through strange-looking porcelain pillows until a week ago when her manager arranged for her to guide tourist and, at the end of the week, to interpret a particular piece of art for an audience. Not feeling an immediate urge to tell her parents about this accomplishment, Nola stared at her phone for a few minutes, and then thinking her hesitation pointless had called home.
Nola leans against the white wall as tourists amble by, watching them with a mix of amusement and pity. Just an hour ago, she had spent more than twenty minutes explaining the cultural implications of The Abbey in the Oakwood to an elderly couple while watching their rippling foreheads smooth themselves and their heads bob up and down. Nola thought it rather comical that all the tourists, all of her fellow art history grads, and all the other interns, took themselves and their fine art so damn seriously. Fine art, Nola thought, fine art indeed. They sought meaning in their art and in others, believing paintings to be bigger than life. That is their motto. Bigger than life.
At the end of her sophomore year, when Nola called her father to tell him that she had chosen her major to be art history, the mathematician nearly cried with what Nola could only hope was pity. She didn’t tell him that she too hated art, but joyed in his dismay. It wasn’t what he had dreamed of when he held her in his arms for the first time, Nola was sure, but in her mind, the mathematician told himself that nothing ever turns out the way one expects.
A few minutes before her presentation Nola slips into the tiny white room. She doesn’t have the PowerPoint she had promised, doesn’t have a speech prepared, doesn’t want to give the audience the satisfaction of getting something they would’ve expected. Nola seats herself in the front row and waits for the room to fill up. Indistinguishable chatter surrounds her like a flock of migrating geese. The subject of her presentation, Monk by the Sea, feeds off the viewer’s desire to understand it, and Nola has been chosen to guide them. As the lights dim and the curator walks to the podium, Nola glances back at the woman behind her and sees it is the same one who earlier commented on the sculpture of the woman. They exchange smiles.
The curator gives a brief introduction to the painting (created in the early nineteenth century by Caspar David Friedrich) and to Nola (a brilliant intern and recent college grad) and the crowd applauds. Nola smiles at the curator as she walks behind the podium. The crowd watches her and breathes as one. As her eyes wander to the back of the crowd she sees a shadowy face ripple in the darkness, and then recognizes that it belongs to her father. She glimpses a small nod and a smile, perhaps out of pity, perhaps pride. When Nola starts she doesn’t talk about Theophile Gautier as she has planned. She doesn’t say that the idea that morals can be extracted from art is ridiculous, doesn’t talk about nothingness and how artists create meaning because of a deprecating sense of self-pity. Instead she gives them the classical interpretation of Monk by the Sea, one that art history professors would give in a normal college course. She explains how the vastness of the sky and the smallness of the monk encourage a sense of terrifying beauty. She talks about the historical background of the work and how it all ties together into one beautiful mess of meaning. Nola talks until her tongue twists into cursive letters and the crowd bends under her words. When she finishes, the lights turn back on and the crowd stands up and applauds, taking pride in their ability to understand what Nola has told them. Nola smiles. Looking over to where her father was mere minutes ago, she sees that he has gone, presumably to the bathroom.
Emma Wang is a seventeen-year-old writer born in Xi’an, China and currently attending Indian Springs School in Alabama. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Harpoon Review, The Mire, K’in Literary Journal, and more. She founded and co-runs the Goya Writer’s Workshop, an international online workshop for young writers. On days when she remembers it, she likes to blog at www.lifes-lemons.com. She is usually tired.