Rachel Howard: Lorraine Standing
(from Issue Eight)
This is an excerpt from Rachel’s essay, available in full in our latest issue.
I SUPPOSE MY serious fascination with Lorraine began a year and a half ago, during Frank St. Vincent’s drawing group in his Oakland studio. Sometimes she models for the group; mostly she draws there. On this particular night, they were all drawing a thirtysomething woman—me—and I had draped my pale body belly-down in an odd pose, one leg bent and one straight behind. My head lay at the front of the moldy divan, cheek resting against hand, other arm trailing to touch the floor. The intention was to look pensive.
“So Gus and I went and saw that new movie Burlesque,” Lorraine said in her flat Midwestern accent. I watched her draw a line for the leg (a very long leg—she likes to exaggerate good features), up the derrière and along the back. “You know, the one with Cher? Still looking good these days. And the costumes were so fun. Cute movie. Really cute.”
The men murmured approval. Clyde and Gordon said maybe they should go see it, though neither would. Lorraine’s parents had recently died—one slowly of cancer, the other of a sudden stroke. She’d been uncharacteristically quiet since, so it was good to see her chattering.
“Oh, and speaking of costumes,” Lorraine held the tip of her pencil to her cheek and gave one of her droll squints. “I found the cutest consignment shop last week in Berkeley. You know, Rachel”—she pointed her pencil at me—“we should go there together next Saturday. I saw some dresses and corsets that would be adorable on your figure.”
The other woman artist present, Mel, lifted her paintbrush like a dart she might throw at her canvas. She gave a horsey laugh. “Dear God, you couldn’t pay me to strangle myself inside a corset.”
“Hear hear,” I said, mumbling a bit because my mouth was smashed against my hand. “But a negligee on a third or fourth date, that’s another matter.”
“Speaking of dates,” Lorraine said, making her droll face again for my benefit. “How’s it going with you-know-who?”
The men’s lips tightened, because any talk about the model’s love life holds voyeuristic appeal, and they know they shouldn’t appear interested.
“I don’t know if that’s going to work out,”I mumbled. “I like him a lot, but—OK, here’s the thing. He definitely doesn’t want to have children.”
A trumpet on the jazz radio hit a squeal. Maybe I imagined this, but I could swear Lorraine’s pencil abruptly stopped.
“We-ell,” she finally said, extending the word into two mothering syllables as a saxophone took over. “Don’t you think you have to keep getting to know each other for a while? That’s how it works. You let the relationship come first, and think about children later.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Because he’s certain. And I want to raise a child somehow, even if that means adopt. Maybe even especially if I adopt. I mean, it just seems like an experience I’d like to have, that kind of love, to give selflessly to another person more important than yourself…”
“If you adopt, the kid could become a drug addict,” Lorraine said with a cluck.
“If you have your own child, that kid could become a drug addict,” I said.
On the other side of the studio, Mel jabbed a decisive final mark and tossed her mane of salt-and-pepper curls. A show of Mel’s paintings was opening soon at a local small college. She directed the artist’s talks at the Berkeley Art Center and was well respected by the men in the room, though Lorraine had once told me she couldn’t see what anyone liked about Mel’s weird subject matter: a glamorous woman with a dwarf; old couples rubbing sunscreen on each other’s backs at the beach. Sociological commentary, she shrugged.
“Well, I’ve got to say that my two boys have been the best, most meaningful thing in my life,” Mel said with an authoritative smirk. “Wouldn’t trade any of it. The. Best. Thing.”
The timer beeped. I sat up from the weird pose and slipped on my kimono. Lorraine said she was tired from cleaning out her parents’ house, and left early.
LORRAINE LOVED RENOIR. And she loved sharing Renoir’s paintings with the second-graders, more than Van Gogh’s, or Picasso’s, or Matisse’s.
She was showing the kids the famous painting of the man dancing with the woman, the woman’s face flushed like a ripe peach. That pretty fan in her hand. The man whispering seductively in her ear. The model was Renoir’s mistress and future wife. The whole painting filled Lorraine with an emotion she could not have identified as vicarious sensuality, and so she spoke with energy as she asked the second-graders about the colors they saw. They shot up their hands and shouted, “Green! Blue! Yellow!”
Lorraine looked out at the kids, eight and nine years old, as pink-cheeked and doll-faced as a kid in a Renoir.
I am 51 years old and I will never have a kid.
She’d had plenty of conversations with Gus about children over their 30 years together; conversations during which she’d felt repulsed imagining her fallopian tubes and ovaries, others during which she ached for a mouth on her nipple.
That night after dinner, Gus watched Lorraine undress and felt a wave of gratitude at the sight of her black ruffled panties.
Lorraine, in turn, was grateful for his erection. She could not imagine a worse feeling than being undesired. Her father was right: Like her mother, she had always been pretty. And now her parents were gone.
As Gus pressed inside her, Lorraine was aware: She had not had her period in two years, maybe more. No chance of pregnancy. She used to think that with Gus, as a trick to make herself come: “What if I got pregnant?” Even though she didn’t want it—did she?—the danger excited her.
In the past, to get off, she might also have imagined posing for a group of artists, all of them secretly wanting to fuck her. Sometimes Lorraine imagined scenarios where an artist accidentally touched her and—well, the chain of events was complicated, but an orgy ensued.
None of the artists fantasized about her now. They didn’t even hire her.
“Honey?” Gus said, and paused to rummage in the bedside cabinet for lube.
I IMAGINED LORRAINE’S conversations with Gus about children because I began to have conversations about children.
As a teenager, I thought I would never want to have a baby. All through my 20s, I did not want to. But when I hit 35, I couldn’t tell if I wanted a baby or if I just didn’t want to not be able to have a baby. I’m hardly alone in being struck by that confusion at that age. For me, as for many women, the real question was: Who would I have a baby with, anyway? Unlike some of my friends, I was not attracted to in vitro. But who knew? Maybe I’d meet someone over the next couple years. Maybe I’d still be fertile, we’d still have time.
I had other conversations where I said I’d always thought I’d adopt, and why should I suddenly want to get pregnant just because I wouldn’t have the chance much longer? After both kinds of conversation, I was furious and didn’t understand why.
Sometimes during sex (only occasionally, if I was distracted), I imagined that I was modeling and that every artist in the room wanted to fuck me.
My mother is still alive, my father is dead.
I would like to be a good writer—that is, a writer on the level of an artist—but I doubt that I am.
I suspect that Lorraine is a far wiser person than I am. Most likely, all the insecurities I imagine her to have are just that—imagined—as is my idea of her being unfulfilled.
Rachel Howard is the author of The Lost Night, a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder. She received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College in 2009, returned to Warren Wilson as the Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow in 2011, and will serve as the interim director of undergraduate creative writing for 2012–2013. She is currently finishing a novel.