FICTION: “Figure Drawing"
A work of fiction and imagination. Neither characters or events based on real people. Copyright Paul E. Saevig, 2017. All rights reserved. About 4,000 words. Plan on an hour of uninterrupted reading.
Soon after VE Day in 1945, a Fullerton real estate broker received a call from a woman in South Pasadena. She identified herself and told him she’d like to buy a home on Valencia Mesa, a street with lots opened only five years earlier. The realtor’s neck flushed and he invited the woman to come down whenever she wanted so he could show her around.
“That won’t be necessary,” she told him. “We need a four bedroom house not far from either corner, set well back from the street, with rooms that admit plenty of sunlight. Northern exposure. Do you have one like that?”
“Well, sure, but usually our prospects want to come by and walk through first,” he told her, and with a feeling he’d begun to annoy her.
“No, no, as I said. If you have one like that, send my attorney the paperwork and we’d like to move in two weeks from now, on Saturday. Is that possible?”
He said he was sure it was, and after her papers came and the sale went through, he saw nothing of her until that date. He was afraid to mention the sale to anyone else, for fear of jinxing it, and he recognized her family name as having to do with oil wells. He made sure the new home was planted with a lawn and flowers, with exactly the fresh coat of periwinkle blue paint she specified.
On that morning when a couple in a Packard sedan drove up, they introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Lollard. They were courteous enough although the man was clearly reserved, and wanted to be left alone. His wife visited with the realtor for a while on the front yard and explained they were both artists and had lived in London before the war, and then the countryside for the duration. He husband was a noted Plein Air painter, a term the realtor had to look up in his dictionary later. He answered her husband’s quiet questions, walked her through the house, and recommended a company to build them a swimming pool. At last he was curious enough to ask who the caller from South Pasadena was, and Mrs. Lollard simply said, “Oh, that was one of my sisters.”
From the first afternoon, Mr. Lollard carried his easel, canvas stand and paints into the Bastanchury Ranch, where he was allowed to sit and paint the hillsides, the trees, and whatever else he liked. There were not many neighbors yet to see him walk back, and only Mrs. Hollard was gregarious about meeting them. Immediately it became known that her father was a heroic admiral in the Pacific Theater, resident now in Coronado, and that was her social entree in Sunny Hills.
Soon she took joined in the neighborhood dinners, barbecues, and the first swim party. From her own San Francisco woman’s college, she knew one of the local wives, and several of the husbands had served under her father. She cooked Mexican dinners that were popular, and introduced her neighbors to tequila. Always her husband came out to shake hands, chat a moment, and as he put it, “return to his work”. Without coming right out and saying it, she gave everyone the impression he’d worked in the OSS during the war, and for that the neighbors admired him.
Every month a new family moved into the street, and before long, Mrs. Lollard had organized an informal drawing class for the wives, held on her patio Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. She was the kind of jolly, patient teacher everyone liked, and she encouraged her new friends to call her Marguerite, or Marge, whichever they preferred. She found a way to praise something in everyone’s work, and they all progressed. By the next year, several wives and one husband had inquired about Plein Air lessons from Mr. Lollard, and assured Marguerite they’d be willing to pay. She talked him into it, but he’d only accept two students every six months at no charge but a donation to an art council in San Francisco.
She encouraged the women to bring their babies and children to their classes, too, and gave them to understand she was unable to bear children herself. She surprised them all one day by playing the flute, and one women ran home for her clarinet, another for her guitar. The classes grew longer and more riotous in a refined way, until they lasted there well into the afternoon. Marguerite taught her students to draw caricatures and before long their drawings of each other were recognizable and amusing.
Finally two neighbor ladies persuaded her to come with their families to the Colorado River for the weekend, and a month later, to cabins at Crystal Cove for a week. She surprised them by revealing herself as a longtime beachcomber and ocean swimmer, and narrated stories of when her parents lived in Oahu near Diamond Head, Vera Cruz and at a Laguna Beach charmer her sister still owned.
Her first Sunny Hills friend was an ebullient woman named Sheila, the most popular hostess and former president of her USC sorority. She was also Marguerite’s most avid art class student, and surprised her one day as they talked with the revelation that she and her husband were enthusiastic nudists, had been for ages. They went to a colony in the mountains, and she insisted Marguerite and her husband must join them soon.
“I’d love to,” Marguerite laughed, “except I’m vulnerable to insect bites. I swell alarmingly and fear I’d perish. I don’t think Frank would enjoy it, anyway.”
Sheila coaxed her, of course, and told her about how she’d once been stung on the derriere by a wasp, an incident that filled her with hilarity.
“It’s marvelous to be naked, you know,” she continued. “To feel the sun on your skin, the breeze, and to dive into a chilly lake on a hot day. You can’t beat it!”
Marguerite could imagine it all, and her new friend was a winsome character.
The second morning at the cabins, Marguerite led her students out for a lesson. They found a small inlet where the tide was low in the rocks, and dry ocean boulders were there to sit on. She was about to begin when Sheila piped up with a request for a figure drawing lesson. The suggestion wasn’t completely unexpected, because Marguerite had taught them some elementary human anatomy, but she protested there was no time to invite models to come down to the beach.
That was when Sheila volunteered to pose, and no one seemed surprised, although they were visibly shocked.
The kids were off with another couple, and the rocky inlet gave the art class privacy. Marguerite didn’t know how to refuse, especially as they were serious students and friends.
Sheila was a tall women with strong features, not heavy but sturdy. She stepped out of her suit bottom and bandeau, and with a laugh presented herself au naturel. While the others sat intent with their sketchbooks, Marguerite explained how Sheila should stand.
Good figure models learn to concentrate and entered a state resembling a trance. They found a satisfaction, even a thrill, in standing or reclining for artists, and most of models Marguerite knew told her they enjoyed the work. Sheila soon followed, and when Marguerite told her to change a pose, the tall woman obeyed smoothly, there in the glow of the sun and the salt spray.
Marguerite sketched, too, quickly and in outline, and monitored what her students drew. After half an hour, she asked Mildred the packing house contractor’s wife if she’d like to be next. The request was not one Marguerite would have imagined making earlier that morning, but they were all in the mood now.
Mildred was a smaller woman with a frail bone structure and pale skin. Her hips were slim and her legs long, and her torso had delicacy. Marguerite showed her how she wanted her to pose, and immediately the woman’s nudity gave her the impression of maiden youth, even innocence while though she’d already borne three babies.
She leaned back to flatten her breasts and show off her long neck and auburn hair. She was one who liked to be talked to as she modeled, and Marguerite got her to talk about her childhood in Santa Barbara, and her horses. She posed in the shade, and Marguerite showed Sheila how to capture the thin film of perspiration on their friend’s stomach, thighs and shoulders. When Marguerite opened a bottle of chilled white wine from her hamper, all the women stood to sip it with a sense of sisterhood.
“All right. I’ll go next,” Leonore the lady’s apparel factory owner husband’s wife said, and removed the loose caftan she’d worn. She made no effort to conceal her appendectomy scar, or the way her left breast was larger and lower than her right. When she stepped into the sun, Marguerite asked her students to concentrate on Lenore’s complete body and frame it against the ocean horizon. By now all of them had ascended to a higher level of concentration, and in a moment, Leonore began executing ballet poses she’d learned forty years ago in San Francisco. The students were transfixed, and Marguerite moved to tears.
After Leonore, they were done, and clothed once more, they sat on warm rocks to discuss their sketches. Both Sheila and Mildred had specific strengths, and Mildred has the makings of a good artist. Sheila had more of a gift for boldness and color, and Marguerite planned to get her into her husband’s next class. Leonore alone lacked potential, but compensated with joy in being with them.
When they walked back to the cabins, Marguerite wondered if it were her imagination, her ego as a teacher, or whether the women had a secret now that bonded them. Probably they were excited, a little thrilled, with a dash of shame for seasoning. They pounded abalone meat the men brought and ate baked potato with local vegetables someone went and brought for dinner. Afterwards they sat in a circle around a fire and sang all the songs they could remember, facilitated by their beer, whiskey and wine.
Before their next Tuesday meeting, Sheila asked Marguerite if her neighbor Hazel could join them, and Marguerite realized the others would now expect more figure modeling in their curriculum. She didn’t see how as a teacher she could refuse, and the challenge of teaching them pleased her. Already she knew the housewives along Valencia Mesa were not randy women, but they had a sensuality they could seldom exercise. She could also see what the final outcome of her lessons would be, but an art teacher must not let anything discourage her.
Betty the department store owner’s wife joined them the week after, and Marion the wife of the Venezuelan tin mine heir next. Marguerite devoted each lesson to sketching and once a month figure drawing, but this strategy only made the latter a special event, awaited with anticipation and keenly looked forward to. She added three hours every Wednesday morning for figure drawing, and more women forsake tennis to join them. There were nine in all, and while it would be incorrect to say the new genre had become a craze, certainly there was a mild passion for it. Frank Lollard said nothing about it to Marguerite, but only shook his head most slightly and grinned.
At each meeting, Marguerite prefaced the lesson and the disrobing with discussion of the principles of figure drawing. Samples from her art book collection appeared on patio tables, and with other replicas, she cited the masters and how they accomplished their art. When she showed the women the early sketches from Crystal Cove to demonstrate progress and how to learn, all the students pored over them in awed contemplation. Before long, Marguerite wondered what these studies and the posing meant to her friends, and she could not say.
Every Wednesday morning she called on Sheila or Mildred first, and allocated at least a while for each student. She chose those who seemed most modest and reluctant first, and saw how quickly they changed. They were all excited yet humbled, as if they’d been admitted into an exalted society. By the end of each posing session, every woman seemed calm and inspired.
No one had been sworn to secrecy, for that would have implied they’d done something wrong, and yet Marguerite wondered who else knew, and what the outsiders thought. Before long they planned a visit to the Huntington Gallery, and the Thursday before it, noticed two teenaged boys outlined against the other side of the neighbor’s roof behind her own yard, shiny black binoculars held to their eyes. The spies slid back, and the teacher made sure not to appear apologetic or ashamed. She knew they might have cameras, too, and it had been a subject all the women discussed. The other women saw the boys, too, but they said it wouldn't matter.
As it happened, nothing came of it, although over the next six months, several of the women said their husbands knew, and they took a vote about whether it would be fair to show anyone else all their drawings. The poll came to all but one against, one for, and Marguerite suspected sooner or later they’d all agree to it, by human nature. She also knew some of the wives would show their husbands anyway, and their sisters, maybe their girlfriends, and who knows who else. But she simply didn’t care. It’s not the way she’d been brought up.
Not long after, her husband’s Plein Air tutoring overtook her figure drawing class in neighborhood popularity, to her relief, and Marguerite taught some Plein Air herself. Mildred and one other woman continued with figure drawing and enrolled in art classes at Whittier College and USC, where Frank Lollard taught. The children of the street were older now and required more adult supervision and transportation, for dance lessons, baseball, doctor’s office visits and the rest. Marguerite settled into her own routine, taught only one lesson a week, and enjoyed life in Sunny Hills, but wished the drive to South Pasadena weren’t so long, when she wanted to see her sisters and mother.
Of course she’d noticed men staring at her in the new Model Market, and some of them mentioned they’d ”seen her” and proposed a drink or a swim alone, too. She was not a woman who flattered herself about her own looks, and their interest was nothing that bothered her: the clumsier of the men were funny.
Eventually the pastor of a local church phoned and asked her if she could talk. Marguerite served him coffee and pastries on her patio and when he hesitated to bring up the reason for his mission, she felt guilty because he obviously wanted to see all the drawings himself. It would be cruel to let the poor guy, though, because then he’d feel guilty and sinful, so instead she asked him:
“Have you come to talk about our figure drawings?”
“Well, yes, I have.”
“I take it you disapprove?” she asked him in a warm enough way that he’d know she wouldn’t mind if he did.
“Not particularly, Marguerite. I’ve only seen a couple of them, and I understand they’re artistic.”
Now he paused and she understood why.
“Maybe some others complained and asked you to talk to me?” she said quietly.
“Yeah, they did. They’re not used to things like that. I went to seminary in New York City and I understand myself, but they’re more .. “
“Offended? They disapprove, I imagine.”
“Well, yes,” the pastor said and released a deep breath he’d been holding.
She explained how there was always a risk in that type of artistic expression, and how she’d been careful to be discreet about it. She described how much all the woman enjoyed the lessons, and how several of them continued now in their art. She watched as he turned anxious again, and concluded with:
“Reverend, what can I do to make this easier for all of us?”
“Some of the men don’t want you to live here any more,” he admitted. “They say you’ll be a bad influence on their children.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “in their way of understanding it all, they’re right. I don’t happen to agree, and you might not, and the women I teach with don’t — at least I think they don’t — but those who object may have a lot of influence around here. Am I warm?”
“Bullseye,” the man said miserably.
“There’s a solution at hand,” she announced. “You see, when my husband and I bought this house, it was mainly because we wanted to be in California. He’d heard about your hills and canyons. Sunny Hills is well known in Plein Air circles. Anyway, we didn’t know how long we’d be here. As it turns out, he’s accepted an offer to teach at Stanford University. We‘ll be leaving in a month or sooner.”
She sat back and smiled, and the pastor looked as if he might offer a prayer of thanks.
“Oh, I really am sorry I had to come over and talk to you about this,” he said. “You know how churches operate, though, and small neighborhoods like this one. I sure hope you didn’t think I was trying to intimidate you, or threatening you,” he said.
“Oh, not at all, I expected this to happen, sooner or later. You looked so sad!”
She couldn’t avoid feeling a little sad, and went through a brief crying jag after he left. She didn’t like anyone dictating what she could do. When her students threw a going away party, though, they drew poster-sized caricatures of all the people in Sunny Hills, including the blue noses and the stuffed shirts. They laughed until their sides hurt, and Marguerite knew she’d miss them all when she left.
She went ahead and found a pretty house with a sunny courtyard a few blocks from the campus. Two weeks later she and Frank left in the same Packard that brought them. They’d stayed in Palo Alto before and liked it, and by luck, Marguerite found a position teaching art in a girl’s school nearby. She forgot all about the Sunny Hills figure drawings except every spring when she cleaned house and saw the valise she kept them in. They were good, and she was glad she’d met the women and taught them.
Time passed, and after a few years, she accepted an appointment at Stanford herself. Frank’s arthritis worsened and he painted far less than before. His work sold, however, a little at first and more and more. There was no excuse not to spend some of his earnings on travel, which was possible now, years after the war. But Frank had turned into a homebody by now, and didn’t want to go, not even New Mexico or Colorado. Marguerite hardly felt she could go alone, and although she loved her only sister, the woman could be a pill. By then Marguerite showed her own work at a gallery in San Francisco, and found herself visiting more often. She was bored.
Soon she lost interest in her university appointment, plum that it was. When she could just barely pay attention to her students, and began to feel old herself, she hit on the idea of taking her gay friend Bill with her to Europe. He loved it there, spoke several languages, and he could apply the experience to his own gallery work and writing. When she told him about the idea, he was ecstatic, and Frank said to go. He and Marguerite hadn’t been intimate in years. In one month, she and Bill boarded a plane for Paris.
He was an amicable kid, as she thought of him, twenty years her junior, and a good pal who made no demands on her whatsoever. He was an Oxford man, Balliol College, and knew everything about everything about art and art history. In time they tired of Paris and found a little country house in Tuscany where they settled again. Bill devoted himself to his writing and soon published one novel, a second and a third, all moderately successful. Marguerite surprised herself by becoming engrossed in gardening, cooking and even riding her bicycle with Bill. She painted, too, and sold just enough work to be successful. Some day she’d return home to California, she knew, but not when. She missed Frank, not not urgently.
What changed her mind came suddenly. A marquesa up the hill in her villa had two infant grandchildren who visited her for one month every summer. One afternoon while the nanny occupied them and the marquesa entertained luncheon guests, three masked members of the Red Brigade broke in to steal the little ones, killed the nanny with their shotguns, and tied up the marquesa and her quests with baling wire. The murderers warned them to have two million dollars in twenty four hours if they wanted to see the kids alive again.
Marguerite heard their car wheels screech when they drove way — everyone in the village heard — and when the marquesa could not raise the money soon enough, the kidnappers murdered one of the children and doubled their ransom demand.
That was all Marguerite needed to hear. The next moment, she implored Bill to drive her to the Milan airport that hour, panicky as she was or not, without even one bag, and she flew home to San Francisco, arriving the next morning. She was clinically depressed for six more months before she began to feel better.
When she finally felt herself again, her familiar sense of stepping onto thin air came back, the first time since she was a young girl. Her husband was dead now, her best friend was in Italy, she had no job, and no idea what to do. With her family money, she could return to South Pasadena, or buy a home in Corona Del Mar or Montecito or Carmel, take up tennis and golf, Junior League, a good club, and try to find herself in philanthropy. She’d be with dozens of school and college friends in that life, but the prospect filled her with a shivering cold dread. She’d never been that way.
She had some old school friends who lived in Venice Beach, and they knew about a volunteer job teaching kids from the South Central ghetto to draw and paint. That sounded like the right thing, and she took an apartment in Laguna and drove up three times a week to teach the kids. They were fresh and bursting with energy, and almost every one had raw talent. Marguerite took them to galleries, museums, showings, and to a dozen places between Santa Barbara and the border that she and her husband had enjoyed. None of these kids had ever been outside Los Angeles, and to see them react to Lake Arrowhead, Julian, Pismo Beach, Sierra Madre, camping at Joshua Tree, Palomar Mountain, hiking on Santa Catalina, Big Tujunga and Crystal Cove stirred her soul. She bought a small magazine to publish their work, and expanded it to South Central and other artists there. She allowed them to call her Mama if they chose to, met their families, and when they reached the age for college she made sure they could go.
Now Laguna Beach was far too distant for her new work, and she bought a 1920s Spanish house with a tile courtyard in Los Feliz, where the zoo animal sounds lulled her to sleep at night. So many of her students were in their late teenaged years now that when she heard about a part-time opening at USC in the art department, she applied and found one of her private school classmates was the interviewer. Could she start right away because the other teacher decided to move to Japan and sculpt? On one condition, Marguerite said, and they worked out an arrangement with the university administration to see ten of Marguerite’s students a year placed either there at USC, at Occidental, Scripps College, Loyola Marymount or Mt. St. Mary’s. Now she was cookin’.
She liked USC and she’d grown up with in the midst of big donors and philanthropists, She knew how to talk to them, how to reminisce about the Hunt Club, the old Huntington Hotel, formal balls at the Green Hotel, the Huntington Hartford, the Philharmonic, Las Madrinas, Carmel, La Jolla, polo, recall the bette families and their parties, and a hundred other subjects.
With her own art students in school there and within reach, she was happy. She taught the boys and girls to cook Tuscan style, and under her guidance, the girls managed not to get pregnant. They invited her to their family reunions at the South LA parks, or in the Arroyo Seco, where they’d all wear special CARRUTHERS or DUPREE or BANKS family T-shirts in bright orange or yellow or peach or lime, and she learned to like almost all soul food except chitterlings. When one of the girls was accepted at Harvard to study painting and also pre-med, Marguerite felt like Sandro Botticelli "Birth of Venus” (1484), Venus on the half shell, as she quipped.
By now she taught one freshman and one upper division section, one seminar, and advised four graduate students. One of the girls lived with her every year and helped with housework. Every once in a while Marguerite met a nice man to “hang with” for a while, as the kids said, but she wasn’t interested in getting married again, not yet and maybe never.
Every Fall she knocked herself out to greet her new students and help them feel comfortable at the big university, because she remembered how hard it had been for her. She studied the class computer printouts with the names of the students, their majors if they’d declared any, and the towns of cities where they were from. This year she was astonished to see seven from Sunny Hills High School. All girls, and all Caucasian girls, just like the old days.
Well! she thought. That gave her ideas.
In the fullness of her approaching dotage, Marguerite renewed her girlhood love of pranks that seemed to exact her own gentle revenge on a world often ridiculous, often cruel. Her family of ghetto students reveled in these gags and pushed her to new heights of ingenious tomfoolery. No setting was riper for the mischief than USC, sparkling spawning ground of doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and their wives.
Marguerite had also nominally adopted many of these privileged youngsters when recognized as her own ancestral kin, and coached them to indulge in art and literature, dipping their toes ever so mildly as they hastened along their gem studded road to Newport Beach, La Canada and coastal compounds. For their part, so many of the women did their major study in Art History which their brothers and suitors knew as the enclave of their own mothers.
Short of outright student deception, Marguerite had regaled them with Humble Days where she encouraged her freshman students to come to class dressed like Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel) the Elder’s peasants, High Renaissance Theme Days where she played a mix tape of prominent gay singers as she lectured, and, for example, Rodin Week, where she led them in sketching studies of the most robust and enormous university football players, shown in glaring cardinal and gold videos on the classroom screen. Her own reputation for eccentricity placed her in good stead with her department, along with her generous yearly support of the university. On campus she was a noted personage, a small, plain woman in vivid Patagonian serapes, tailored culottes of umber and forest green, heirloom cloches her mother and aunts had worn, and always sensible Dr. Scholl shoes in immaculate white. She greeted one and all with a spirited “Hiya!” and left a trail of good cheer wherever she went. No one knew she’d appropriated the greeting from the immortal Babe Ruth, who appended “kid!”, as he’d been her earliest hero on barn-storming teams that toured Pasadena, Glendale and improbably, little El Monte.
On the last days before the fall quarter began and the garages of Fraternity Row filled with Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Volvos and the odd Bentley, Marguerite arranged the layout and printing of a special chapbook, ordered poster size enlargements, selected a favorite Welsh milkmaid’s shawl in chartreuse with a fin de siècle Egyptian scholar’s taupe cotton trousers, and a Greek fisherman’s woolen cap in cobalt. She’d memorized the names of the students in her freshman class, namely the Sunny Hills girls, a man and women from Hong Kong, Persian girls from Beverly Hills, a lone Ukrainian fellow with troubled blue eyes, a rather imperious young gentleman from Ghana, and a striking blonde girl with green eyes from Paraguay, Greta. She’d even acquired the so-called look-book circulated among all incoming freshmen, with its capsule biographies and photos of each one.
When the morning arrived, she had personable compliments and mild questions for each new child, as she couldn’t help thinking of them, protectively and with a splash of patronage for flavor.
She began with the students she intuited as the shyest and most tongue-tied, in this case the Chinese, who answered in laconic British-inflected statements and distant cordiality. The Ukrainian boy endeared himself to her with his rueful crooked grin, and his candid statement of how he “hoped to escape the suffering here at U.S.C.”. The princely youngster from Ghana most probably enrolled to meet girls, for he identified himself as an electronics engineering student. The enchantress from Paraguay, as Marguerite chided herself for thinking but could find no other way, spoke with convincing sincerity of her hope to learn to draw “successfully”. Already the chic Beverly Hills girls resented her, plainly to see, and Marguerite indulged them in their rambling travelogue of four continents they’d visited “so far”.
Now with her house audience warmed up, Marguerite greeted the Sunny Hills girls by name and asked them to introduce themselves, to which they obliged, skillful speech and debate team members every one. They were concise, they made good eye contact, they supported their statements with strong examples, they wore beautiful clothes, had excellent tans and becoming cosmetics well applied, and Marguerite found them uniquely likable, every one.
She began her lecture — for the class would last ninety minutes — with a preamble that argued the earliest art most probably depicted the human form, which she knew was questionable but found plausible enough. On the whiteboard she casually sketched expert likenesses of cave men and women, lions and elephants, warriors with clubs and the discovery of fire, all carried off so quickly she held her students in awe. One by one they smiled, even the grave Hong Kong kids, for they knew they were in for a quarter of high entertainment. She raced ahead through the ages, rehearsing recognizable period styles, until breathless and excited, she came to Picasso and executed a respectable woman, guitar player and an attentive bull sitting in a Paris outdoor cafe.
In each drawing, she’d pointed out a specific feature of human anatomy, both in terms of depiction, depth, shading, form and place in the scene. She asked her students to name artists they considered the finest at human figures.
Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Vermeer, even Titian, they said, and she nodded in assent. At the peak of their interest, she asked them to take out their drawing pads and draw a young mother with child, quickly, concentrating on the impression, and hurry, please.
There was some snickering from the Beverly Hills girls, grave obedience from the Asians, chagrined fumbling from the African, and the Ukrainian boy drew a startling sketch of a madonna nursing her newborn child in a battlefield foxhole. The Sunny Hills girls were undaunted, held they end up, and in well-tutored ways, sketched realistic studies as directed.
After five minutes, Marguerite clapped her hands softly and collected their sketches, which she handled as if they were a priceless new collection at the Louvre. She thanked everyone and paid them with a beaming smile.
“Before we look at everyone’s work and talk about it, I’d like to show you what I consider some remarkably well wrought sketches from beginning students of mine long ago,” she said with a hint of chicanery no one seemed to catch.
She dimmed the lights and one after another, displayed a series of sketches by the Sunny Hills women, twenty in all, dating from the first efforts at Crystal Cove. Each sketch was amateurish but effective and captured the mature female form truly. Marguerite lingered over the ones she considered most significant, with her running critique.
“Notice the power in this woman’s shoulders. The artist captured that well. She found the strength in her model’s thighs and arms, and the sturdiness of her neck. Yet in this pose, there is a delicacy in the strong woman’s face, and a vulnerability in the character of her eyes. The framing could be improved, and she later improved her perspective, too, but the most important thing is how she saw. She really saw, you understand?” Marguerite said.
By midway through the next sketch, which happened to be Mildred in a Sunny Hills gazebo, Marguerite discerned a low murmur that could only come from one or two of the Sunny Hills girls. Mildred had been one of her favorite models, and the artist’s pencil praised the contours and light but impact depiction of her form. As she started to comment on Mildred’s fair complexion, she heard an unmistakable yelp and the Sunny Hills girl named Cameron sank in her chair and covered her head with her hands.
Marguerite watched the girl in the dim room and as if by a force outside herself, strode across the room to turn on the lights. She stood still for a long moment and her face went slack. While the eyes of the students adjusted, they seemed to welcome a break. First one and then another Sunny Hills girl turned to their classmate whose shoulders now heaved in synchrony with her own falling tears. Marguerite walked to her at a tentative pace, and placed her own hands as softly as she could on the girl’s head. Then she bent to kiss her crown, and one of the Persian girls asked, “Is something wrong?”
Everyone looked at each other until Marguerite finally made it back to her podium. In a wavering voice, she asked them all to read the introduction and the first fifty the pages of their textbook for their next meeting, and the session was over. As one the students stood and walked out, leaving only the Sunny Hills girls to huddle around their classmate, all of them perplexed and afraid.
Pale now and shaky, Marguerite asked the girls to move their chairs into a circle because she had something she wanted to say. Childlike and confused, they did as she said, and even Cameron followed with her tear stained eyes. At the sight of them, so impossibly young and tender, Marguerite swallowed a sob in her throat and forced herself to explain, no before she imagined swallowing a bottle of her own estrogen tablets.
“First of all, I lived in Sunny Hills with my husband long ago — yes, on Valencia Mesa near Richman Knoll. That was before any of you were born, and your parents were young. I’m afraid I never fitted into Sunny Hills, even though I made many wonderful friends there and enjoyed myself the whole time. You see, I have a confession to make for all of you, and I ask you to judge me with mercy, please. In a little while I’m going to resign from the university, and you’ll all be much better off without me.”
She stopped to look at them all, and every pair of eyes was soft with empathy and forgiveness. They just didn’t know what she’d done, except for Cameron.
“You see,” Marguerite tried to begin, failed, and tried again. “You see, well, you understand ..”
She felt panic rise in her stomach and held onto the desk with her hands, white with strain. Her breath came in short gasps and she pressed her lips together as hard as she could.
“Oh, Mrs. Lollard, you don’t need to be upset,” one of the girls said. Marguerite opened her eyes to see Cameron reaching toward her.
“That’s my mom in that drawing,” the girl said.
“I thought so!” another declared.
“I kind of wondered!” a third added.
“Well, she was beautiful, and still is,” Cameron said. “How come you showed her to us, Mrs. Lollard? I mean, it’s OK, but I don’t understand. To honor us? That was very nice of you, then.”
Now the girl stroked the old woman’s hot cheek, where Marguerite shuddered in self-hatred.
“Aw, c’mon,” Cameron said, and sat down next to her to hold her in her own arms.
“She is beautiful,” one girl after another echoed.
“Please don’t resign, Mrs. Lollard. Our teacher at Sunny Hills told us all about Mr. Lollard and we saw all his sketches and paintings. When we saw your name in the class catalog, we all signed up for your class. We need you, Mrs. Lollard! We’re green behind the ears, or whatever it is! This can be a tough place. Some of the girls are so snobby, the Marlborough girls and the Sacred Heart girls, and the girls from Pasadena!”
“Like me! I’m from Pasadena, or at least South Pasadena,” Marguerite croaked and for the first time in a while, bellowed with laughter. The response emptied her completely, bared her to the girls, and they might never had seen anyone open herself that way before. One by one they all laughed till they cried, hugged each other, and Marguerite apologized to each one individually, one after another and in a second cycle.
“Oh, come on!” a girl named Lauren said. “Be serious, Mrs. Lollard! It’s not bad at all! You don’t know the mean pranks we pull on each other at Sunny Hills, and the boys are so mean! We’e not mad!”
Marguerite’s color returned and she laughed with the girls and held their hands.
“Yeah,” a girl named Faye moaned. “I just came from my calculus class and I’m just not going to make it!”
“Oh, come on,” a girl named Judith consoled her. “You’re lucky you don’t have to take molecular biology and organic chemistry! My dad actually thinks I’ll go to medical school and join his practice when I finish my residence. What a joke! Even my mom said so, but he’s determined,” she finished with a quavering moan.
Marguerite sat up straight now and composed herself as best she could. She held her palm up to stop the girls and told them, “Now I’ll make you a deal. I’ll stay if you promise to come see me any time you have a problem, all right? Academic problem or whatever it is.”
“Of course!” they promised.
“You’re all worried about what every freshman always worries about. So many of the other freshmen here seem so smart, so poised and confident, so sure of themselves and friends with everybody. But you know what? It’s all a facade. They act that way, but that’s not how they feel inside. Everyone’s as anxious and worried as you are, and unsure of themselves. They just have different ways of posing. It doesn’t matter where they come from and went to school, how beautiful or pretty or nice they are, how rich or affluent their parents are, how brave and athletic they are, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
That was something each girl would need to digest and think about, and Marguerite knew she’d given them a good start. She still felt mean about what she started to do, but on the other hand it was stupid enough for a good laugh.
Quite a while had passed since class was interrupted, and someone knocked hard on the door, once hard, two soft, and one hammering fourth.
Marguerite recognized the visitors as Michael Edward Kincaid of West 86th Street, proud and gay, and his best friend, his cousin Dolores Reynaud, six feet two inches tall, the spitting image of actress Cicely Tyson, a promising young singer and paper mache artist from East 62nd Street.
The two stuck their heads in the door and Michael Edwards offered a comical apology of “Beg your pardon, white people!”
“You look like Denzel Washington,” a girl named Marla told him with calculated gaucherie, and he laughed so hard he fell forward into the room.
Marguerite got up to embrace the two, Dolores picked her up like a favorite doll, and Marguerite introduced everybody.
“How unlikely!” Dolores mock-snarled in her smokiest voice, and a cluster of new friendships were born on the spot.
Dolores complimented the girls on the clothes they wore and asked to feel the textures. When Judith confessed her terror of Inorganic Chemistry, Michael Edward swept his dreadlocks to one side, drew himself up to his full height, and declared in basso profundo, “Sugar, I myself have tutored that professor’s daughter in classical cello for two years now! If he doesn’t make it easy on you and get you good tutors, I’ll kick his ass back to Cambridge, Massachusetts! Your daddy is gonna know! You ain’t cut out for that stuff, honey! We’ll see! We’ll see! Don’t worry ‘bout nuthin’! Michael Edward in th’ house! Mrs. Lollard’s Set, Rainbow Posse! We can’t lose with the stuff we use!”
“HELL yeah!” Dolores told her new girlfriends.
“A’ight!” Margeurite rejoined, as she’d been taught, and felt her faith in serendipity renewed. She had personal work to do, but she felt good. Good for sure.