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The Vulgar Symphony -- fiction by Jiachen (Jayden) Cao

Nova Raven sits rather uncomfortably in a navy blue plastic chair. The gradual dampening of the cushion embarrassingly reminds Nova of her hyperhidrosis, yet she can’t complain about the fact that the unpleasant odor of her sweat has not permeated the room yet. She was given a cup of water when she walked in, but instead of holding a cozy porcelain cup embellished with animal decorations, she finds herself staring at a typical plastic cup lacking notable features. Surely a therapy office must be better than this, Nova silently murmurs to herself, at least I deserve a—

“Ms. Raven, are you listening? Ms. Raven?” the therapist asks while leaning slightly forward with a trace of impatience on his face. With his uneven collar unbuttoned and flared out, the therapist’s polished black leather shoes seem unfit. He has yet to cease spinning the cheap blue BIC pen in his left hand, which appears to be purposeless since his note page remains blank.

“Sorry. Just wondering about my plans for the afternoon,” Nova replies with a nervous titter.

“No worries,” continues the therapist halfheartedly as his weight sinks back into the chair. “So, tell me, Ms. Raven, do you have any disease or disorder that should be brought to my attention? You know, it’s a protocol for us therapists to begin with this question, though I’m a psychotherapist, not a physical therapist.”

“Just my amnesia,” Nova answers truthfully.

“Alright. I will take that into consideration,” the therapist comments while taking a quick peek at the clock on the chipped wall. “Let’s begin our session now, officially. So, when and how did you become famous, and what were your initial reactions?”

“Um, I guess a month ago? There was this monthly art competition at the museum, and I submitted one of my paintings as usual. Wait, maybe it was the fundraiser event to which I donated my painting. Anyways, it really isn’t that great of a painting,” Nova reminisces while wiping her clammy palms against her olive-colored dress. “I don’t know how but I won the contest.”

“And I suppose you became the ‘Mary Cassatt of the twenty-first century’ after that? That’s what they call you in the news right?” inquires the therapist.

“Yes, I suppose so,” responds Nova plainly.

“I must say, Ms. Raven, that your abrupt fame is quite strange. People seem to be madly obsessed with your work,” the therapist adjusts his odd glasses and picks up a piece of wrinkled newspaper on his desk. “Three weeks ago, there was quite an altercation between the two most prestigious families in the country, the Morales and the Baileys, at the museum auction. And, well, the two families tore each other apart like savages to contend to be the final buyer of your painting. What’s the name of your painting again? The Vulgar Symphony?”

“Yes.”

“So do you think the peculiarity of your fame is the cause of your current struggle?” Once again the therapist leans his body forward in a slightly interrogative manner.

“Um… Maybe. I’ve dreamed of being famous ever since my first art class in elementary school. Or perhaps since kindergarten? But now that I have basically achieved my dream, I don’t feel the excitement and passion. I mean that’s why I came here for your help,” Nova pauses for a moment as if desperately trying to find the pleasure her fame is supposed to bring. “Yeah, perhaps the strangeness of my fame is the cause of my struggle.”

“It sure is unusual how the Morales and the Baileys were willing to sacrifice their pronounced reputation for a mere piece of artwork. It’s like they suddenly became lunatics on drugs,” the therapist suggests.

Nova shivers. Lunatics? She doubts with angst. Did her painting actually make innocent people become lunatics?

“Excuse me for being blunt,” the therapist apologizes indifferently. “Let’s continue.”


 

“How’s the temperature? The lighting? Oh, I put a glass of lemon drop martini in the cupholder to your left. Freshly made and frozen with an ice ball. Your favorite.”

Ms. Morales looks up at the source of the voice coming from the front driver’s seat: a middle-aged man dressed in a formal black suit with a circular gold pin brooched to his left lapel that depicts an elegant flying horse. The extremity of his retro mustache makes it seem like the curly ends are touching his nose bridges. His eyes are of a luminous blue color, and his thick brows resemble sturdy mountain tops overlooking two tranquil springs.

“Thank you, Paulo. You don’t understand how much I need it right now,” Ms. Morales replies as she carefully picks up the cold glass.

“Did the therapy session not go well? Mr. Branson is the most respectable therapist in town. Nothing can go wrong with him, right?” Paulo inquires curiously. “At least he can’t be worse than Dr. Wyatt.”

A look of confusion emerges on Ms. Morales’ face at the mention of this name. “Who is Dr. Wyatt?”

“Dr. Wyatt? He is your personal doctor, Ms. Morales. Because, well, you have amnesia,” responds Paulo patiently. “Do you remember the last session? His disdainful demeanor and lack of knowledge regarding his field were appalling.”

Ms. Morales takes a sip of the cocktail and tries to remember while gazing at the cloudless sky. “Oh yeah. I remember now. I mean Mr. Branson is not as bad as Dr. Wyatt. Today he just asked me questions such as… Um…” Ms. Morales stammers while trying to recall her conversation with Mr. Branson. “Anyways, my conundrum remains unsolved.”

“With all due respect, I think your trouble can be resolved easily: just embrace your fame. Why doubt your fame? After all, you are the Mary Cassatt of the twenty-first century,” Paulo advises genuinely.

“Perhaps.”

“Don’t worry Ms. Morales. You will soon have everything figured out,” comments Paulo in a reassuring manner. “Oh, also, what name did you choose today? You chose Amelia Bexley when we visited Dr. Wyatt the other day, which suits you pretty well.”

“I thought about it for a while last night and came up with Nova Raven. I like it quite a lot.”

“Raven. Huh, how interesting. I love the bird reference, but I think we must pick a more noble bird next time,” Paulo critiques. “Anyways, allow me to drive you home now. I wouldn’t dare to have you late for afternoon tea again.”

Ms. Morales sinks her weight into the leather seat and inspects the outside world through the unblemished tinted window. A raven with a glossy coat of black feathers stands on the curb's edge and stares eagerly at two children holding scanty pieces of bread crumbs. One of them drops a piece onto the road, and the raven promptly dives for it, landing on the hard asphalt with an awkward twitch.



 

As the limo approaches the entrance, two servants dressed in identical navy blue uniforms hustle to open the gate. The polished black gate of the Cloverfield mansion shines so brightly under the afternoon sun that it deceives the eye into perceiving its color not as black but white. Fixed to the center of the gate is an enlarged copy of Paulo’s circular lapel pin: a graceful, white flying horse leaping into the sky surrounded by a riotous wreath.

The paved path leading up to the mansion is bordered by perfectly cut lush grass and animal statues that appear symmetrically at regular intervals. To the left is an exquisite rose garden accentuated by a towering statue of the flying horse. On the right, there sits a placid pond with swans idly drifting where the balmy wind takes them. Down along the path the Cloverfield Mansion stands in a dignified manner behind a majestic fountain.

A man dressed in a casual black and green flannel shirt begins to descend the elevated front porch as the limo pulls up. His hair pulled back and shaped by premium pomade shines just like the black paint of the front gate under the sun. Though his hair on the temples has begun to gray, his lively complexion and healthily tanned skin contradict his supposed age. However, although covered by the sleeve of his flannel shirt, the unnatural bending of his left arm suggests that it is fixed by an arm cast.

“There she is. The Mary Cassatt of the twenty-first century, also known as my daughter Lucia Morales,” the man grins as Ms. Morales is helped out of the car. He then shifts his eyesight toward Paulo, and the affable smile on his face is replaced by an indifferent frown. “Paulo, you did better than I thought. You are only four minutes late this time. ”

            “Last Saturday’s incident was wrong of me, Master Morales,” Paulo apologizes before disappearing around the corner.

            As the Master’s vision falls again on his daughter, his signature cordial smile promptly returns to his face. “Anyways, let’s talk as we walk to the Left Wing for some afternoon tea.”

Master Morales and Lucia Morales—father and daughter—stroll shoulder to shoulder along the porcelain corridor leading to the Left Wing. In the center of the hallway wall, a golden picture frame with intricately embossed patterns encloses a canvas painting.

The painting is queer, to say the least. Its colors’ extremity and vibrancy dupe the mind into prioritizing them over the shapes they form in reality. It is as if there is no difference between staring at a dozen buckets of vivid paints and appreciating the actual painting. Some colors are arbitrarily painted using thick brush strokes while others appear as if they resulted from the artist accidentally toppling over containers of paint. Nevertheless, the rough contour of a violin that occupies virtually the entire canvas can be discerned. Oddly, no straight lines can be found, and even the borders of the canvas are uneven and poorly aligned. Four meandering lines run down the middle, resembling a modern city’s subway map more than the strings of a violin. The distortion of the instrument conveys a strange sense of enchantment through its curvy strokes.

The peculiarity of the painting doesn’t stop here, for the violin can be interpreted as two hideous, back-to-back side faces. The inward-curving center bouts of the violin resemble the shrieking mouths of the two profiles that are disgorging arrays of color. The poorly drawn F-Holes are far from symmetrical but can be vaguely made out to be the odd facial hair of the two faces. As opposed to the colorful chin of the right profile, the chin of the left profile is constituted by an area of black paint that resembles the chin rest of the violin, causing the illusion that the left side of the painting is heavier than the right.

“What a magnificent piece of art. What makes it better is the fact that the artist is my very daughter. And the title—The Vulgar Symphony—is breathtaking as well. Let me tell you what, the fight with the Baileys at the museum auction was totally worth it. A broken arm for a painting by the Mary Cassatt of the twenty-first century. Sweet trade,” laughs the Master as he looks down at his casted arm.

“Though I would have preferred if your means were a little more peaceful,” giggles Lucia. “Mary Cassatt of the twenty-first century. I’m still trying to get used to that name.”

“My dear Lucia, you deserve to be recognized and praised. Although I was at first hesitant about your decision of quitting biochemistry for art, I now see that you made a bold and correct decision,” compliments Master Morales while allowing pride to take over his face. “But don’t worry. With the help of Mr. Branson, you will soon embrace your success. Oh, by the way, we are getting rid of that horrific Dr. Wyatt. It’s nonsense that such a distasteful doctor should be allowed to be near my daughter, although your symptoms of amnesia have improved lately.”

            In Lucia’s mind, his father’s words have ceased at “you will soon embrace your success.” Will I? Everyone has been telling me that pleasure is a guaranteed reward for being successful, yet I have felt none since my “success” at the monthly art competition. What even is success? Is success when everyone admires you like a god? What then is the use of that? At this thought, Lucia forcefully gives a confident nod to her father, yet at once a peal of contemptuous laughter seems to be taunting her insecurity and vanity.



 

Lucia sits rather uncomfortably in a navy plastic chair, holding a cozy porcelain cup containing freshly brewed coffee brought in by Paulo half an hour ago. The room is filled with an aroma that seems to be concealing the unpleasant odor of her sweat. In front of her is a black lab table crammed with shabby textbooks, and a larger lab table with dusty but well-organized test tubes, pipettes, and beakers is located at the center of the lab. Taking a sip of her coffee, Lucia reminiscences when her dad built her this lab when she was in college. Was that three years ago? Or two years ago? Anyways, that was before I quit biochemistry to become a full-time artist. How did I —

            Her thought is interrupted by the sight of an odd object on the lab table. The yellow canister and the white mouthpiece suggest to Lucia that it is an inhaler. A miniature electronic screen is built into the front of the device, and the smudged screen displays a timer.

2:00, 1:59, 1:58…

What is this? Lucia muses in confusion.

As she reaches to pick up the inhaler, she notices that a long post-it note is positioned above it. Two red arrows are drawn on the note: one pointing at the inhaler, and the other directed toward a yellow paint container to the right. She grabs the paper and reads:

            READ ON IF YOU ARE CONFUSED (You have amnesia)

  1. Look to your right. There is a yellow paint can with a hazard sticker attached to its side. It contains the Substance.

  2. It took you two years to develop the Substance. It causes addiction through its aromatic odor (the same pleasant smell in your lab). People under its influence experience extreme obsession with vibrant colors.

  3. You developed the Substance to become the most famous artist in the world. You have probably already achieved this as you are reading.

  4. How to create a successful painting (in case you forgot): mix the Substance with all of your paints and make your painting as striking as possible.

  5. To protect your conscience and rationality, you developed a gaseous vaccine against the Substance. It is contained in the inhaler. You MUST use it every twelve hours to maintain your immunity. The timer on the inhaler tells you how much time you have left before a twelve-hour cycle ends. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTe TO USE IT. Once you are exposed to the Substance there is no coming back.

  6. ENJOY YOUR SUCCESS AND FAME!

1:00, 0:59, 0:58…

As memories surge back into Lucia’s mind, her body urges her to use the inhaler. However, her consciousness refuses. A distant yet lucid voice is reverberating repeatedly in her mind: embrace the Substance, embrace your success, embrace your pleasure… Curiously, the tone of the voice reminds Lucia of the contemptuous, illusory laughter she experienced earlier in the corridor next to The Vulgar Symphony. She proceeds to sink into deep thought. Why not? I have tried absolutely everything—except one—to get the happiness I deserve. Perhaps just like Paulo said, my struggle can be easily solved if I just embrace my fame. Nothing other than myself is preventing me from rejoicing over my reputation and prominence. It is time that I do exactly as Paulo said. In fact, it is past due that I do this.

0:01, 0:00, 0:01…

As the timer reaches zero and begins to climb, the color of the numbers abruptly changes to red. The window to Lucia’s left is also painted red by the reflection of the timer against the backdrop of the pitch-black night sky. The gleaming scarlet window offers a direct view of the flying horse statue in the rose garden, and the body of the creature still shines brightly in the dark, except its glaring whiteness during the day has turned into a dazzling redness.

Narrowing her eyes against the red glare, Lucia once again looks at the timer screen.

0:30, 0:31, 0:32…

Following a soft and subtle inhale through her nose, Lucia realizes that the aroma has ceased to be distinguishable. She feels it in her throat, lung, and the rest of her body. It is no longer a separate entity from her. At this, pleasure begins to overwhelm Lucia. Her struggle is vanishing. Her pain is receding. Her mystery is resolving. Her hyperhidrosis is no more. Her amnesia is no more. Her stupid conundrum and Mr. Branson are no more. Tomorrow will be flooded with happiness. And the day after. And the day after that.

            Outside, the scarlet flying horse sublimely hovers midair, orchestrating the vulgar symphony while wielding its glaring redness to illuminate the stage. The violin section is located in the far left corner, and while all other musicians are dressed in black suits and dresses, three violinists—Amelia Bexley, Nova Raven, and Lucia Morales—are wearing white tuxedos. The flying horse winces at the three outcasts, for it they are clearly responsible for the inharmonious melodies. It is apparent to the flying horse why they are out of tune: their hearts are hollow and meaningless. However, out of all three violinists, only Lucia Morales has succeeded in wrapping her heart so tightly that it no longer feels empty, allowing for a vacuous smile to take over her countenance.



 

Jiachen (Jayden) Cao is a high school student from Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. His work has previously been recognized by the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, the New York Times, and the John Locke Institute. Jayden is also the author of the literary and educational blog Reading Over Reality. Outside of writing, Jayden is passionate about Chinese rock music, Britpop, and golf.

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