Still Life with Fruit and a Lobster
BY LINDSAY LYNCH
When Allegra says she’s doing a series on lobsters, everyone likes to tell her that lobsters mate for life.
It’s not even true, she says to them. Very few animals are monogamous, and why would they be? It’s an evolutionary disadvantage. Look at lobsters— did you know that, in order to conceive, the lady lobster must remove her shell? She has to stay at her lover’s home for a week to grow one back or she’ll get killed in the wild. (Here, she might add, if she’s feeling malicious, that lobsters are known cannibals.)
You know who mates for life? Allegra says and narrows her eyes— Black vultures. That’s who.
When she has this discussion with the architect in Maine, he looks at her carefully and asks where her husband is today.
Her husband is a pediatric surgeon. He fixes the tiny hearts of tiny babies. Most of his time is selfishly spent doing that.
Allegra walks with the architect around the skeleton of a house, rectangles and squares that he tells her will become a kitchen, a living room, a studio. He wears a tailored suit, she a pair of work overalls under a pilled cardigan sweater.
Allegra’s hands are dyed with paint and when she tucks a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear and says, I’m sure he’ll come up next time, she reveals a crimson-stained earlobe.
She watches old improv shows when she can’t sleep. While her husband snores, Allegra giggles quietly at middle aged men making airplane noises. One night, she pulled her husband’s iPad from the side table so she could see a guy invent a hundred different scenarios in which to use a foam noodle. When she opened his iPad a little notification popped up: New Message from Lisa. Before she could close it, she was looking at a series of photos of a woman’s mouth lined with cherry red lipstick, sucking her thumb.
The next day, she told her husband she wanted to build a summer house in Maine, get away from the city for awhile. When he looked like he was going to protest, she stared at him without blinking and ran her thumb along her bottom lip, her mouth agape.
Allegra likes to start a painting and she likes to finish a painting. Everything in between is shit.
She had her first solo show when she was twenty-seven— a series of figures asleep underneath a white cloth. She worked from photographs of friends with their arms draped over one another, concealed so their limbs made foreign shapes. The only painting that didn’t sell was secretly of herself, asleep alone, fetal. She titled it Ouvo. Her dealer tells her it is now worth tens of thousands, but she keeps it hanging in her studio and loans it out sporadically.
Today, Allegra is being profiled for a magazine. She has been sent an interviewer and a photographer, two interchangeable young men in form-fitting black clothing and vintage sneakers. She forgets their names— some variations on Freddy or Johnny or Billy, who knows— but one has a camera and the other a notepad, so that makes things easier.
They would like to see her at work. She invites them to her studio— a converted warehouse just a short walk away from her apartment.
At the studio she asks, Really work, not pretend work? and they both nod. But when she picks up her brush, the photographer wonders if she could possibly angle her paint strokes lower so he can get a better shot of her face?
Allegra is always more honest when her hands are occupied. Her current therapist supplies her with a drawing pad and colored pencils each session— between parallel lines she articulates the worlds between could and should. She has been known to cry about her poor nonna while chopping peppers. Once, during a handjob, she confessed to an old boyfriend that she believed she was in love with a woman. When she turned out to be right, they broke up. After her last gallery opening, years ago, she received a series of handwritten letters from him, sent to the gallery. She opened one and saw lines and lines of what looked like a child’s handwriting, but the words were not a child’s words. She threw the rest in the trash.
The interviewer squats down on a stool by Allegra’s canvas and pulls his long hair into a knot at the top of his head.
Tell us about this new series.
Allegra runs a rag soaked in solvent over her brush and watches the blue seep out, turning from a deep turquoise to a light sky. Her husband always tells her: Really, you should be wearing gloves, this is poison for your skin.
But Allegra loves her stained fingertips.
I’m reinventing the still life. Again, she adds. I find the classic still life disgusting. That’s a compliment, by the way. You look at them closely, and the painters— the old masters I mean, not Cezanne and those guys— they’ve snuck all of these flies and snails in there and the fruit is really rotting and don’t even get me started on Frans Synders— corpses! Corpses everywhere! It’s repulsive. It’s beautiful!
She works her brush into a dollop of cadmium red on her palette, making an infinity motion with her hand. She focuses now on a large lobster with pigment spilling out of its eyes.
It helps that they both keep irregular hours. Sometimes Allegra’s husband comes home at four in the morning and she’ll be up, ready to offer him a sip of her lukewarm coffee.
His ex-wife used to go for runs when the sun rose and she’d make the bed for him so it’d be tidy when he came home. A cold, intolerable, empty bed.
On the nights when Allegra works in the studio, she leaves him a messy bed, and she lets it reek of her— sweat, mineral spirits, cheap perfumed body lotion.
One day she notices a small pile of animal droppings in the unfinished foyer of the house in Maine. A construction worker sees her looking at it and tells her these things happen— they’ll get it cleaned up.
Three years ago, after an overnight in the studio, Allegra went to take a nap on the couch and found she couldn’t get up. Well, she could, but why? Why, she repeated over and over again, as her husband brought her tea, made her the only meal she could bear to eat— toast with apricot jam. He ran a warm towel over her forehead, held her feet, why?
She declined interviews, she turned down shows. She claimed the sight of a paintbrush nauseated her. She began writing poetry in her head about daytime soap operas: Stefano is alive // Stefano / is / a / live.
To her friends, she described the months that followed as losing the love of her life. To her husband, there was no need to explain. She handed him the key to her studio and asked that he throw out anything that looked like it could rot and lock it. And so he did.
She mostly stayed in the house, murmuring why, why, wearing her softest pants and cashmere sweaters for days at a time. Sometimes her husband went out on his own and she didn’t ask any questions at all.
Allegra makes no mention of Lisa to her husband. Instead, she goes on long drives, checks on the house in Maine. She invites the interviewer and the photographer to go with her and they, to her surprise, agree. She likes to stroll through the rooms half-finished while carpenters hammer and caulk and plaster.
She once had a lover who did installation art. He built frameworks for uninhabitable houses— stairways that led to nowhere, hallways that looped back in on themselves, unreachable rooms. Here, she thought, this is real art. Her canvases felt so pedestrian, she quickly became ashamed of them in his presence. Like a child with crayons.
No, no, he said, it’s charming.
So she picked up the crayons and mixed them with her oil paints and she got herself a show. He ended things with her the night before it opened.
She loves her husband because he makes no pretense of understanding her art. At this point, she would be disappointed if he did. Usually, he looks at her canvas and points to things. What’s that? A shell. What’s that? A mouth. What’s that? A crab. He draws his hands back in and smiles with a little nod. He dutifully goes to art openings with her. What’s that? Minimalism. What’s that? It’s just a chair. What’s that? I don’t know. He seems interested in the artists in the way an anthropologist might be interested in chimpanzees. This has worked just fine for the last ten years.
When the interviewer asks if her husband is supportive of her work, she leans against a steel beam and looks out into the woods through a hole in the wall. She does this for awhile before the interviewer loudly clears his throat, at which point, she nods emphatically, of course, always, always. The photographer snaps a photo of her.
Everyone wants a story of how Allegra began painting again, so she has made up a few.
One night, she had a vivid dream of lobsters, thousands of lobsters raining from the sky, crying out to her— Mamma! The next day, she knew she had to paint lobsters.
She was reading a book of poems by Gertrude Stein and began to weep, inconsolably.
Or maybe she says that she picked up a healthy diet and exercise regime and this has cured her ails, cleared her skin, improved her sex life, and inspired her work.
A long walk through the city, that’s what did the trick.
She found herself immobile in the frozen seafood section of her local grocery store.
No one likes the real story: she just woke up one morning and she painted.
Allegra runs to the store for more paper towels and stops herself in the cosmetics aisle. She looks at her own face in the little mirror stationed between concealers and mascaras— dark skin, a few lines about her eyes, no makeup. Never makeup. She used to have exactly one grey hair, just above her left eye. She never pulled it, watched it grow with a kind of fondness. Now she has many grey hairs. She can no longer count them, but adores each one.
Then in the corner of her eye, she sees it: cherry red lipstick.
In the car, she rubs it across her lips and intones, Lee-sah, Lee-sah.
One time she visits the house and sees that the carpenters have added a roof. This breaks her heart for reasons she can’t explain.
There is talk of expenses. While her husband breaks down their annual income, Allegra watches a spider crawl up the sheer white curtains by their kitchen table.
Look, this is getting out of hand. You’re sinking our retirement into a greenhouse. We won’t even be there in the winter!
Allegra watches the spider move up the curtain. She steps on the end of the curtain and gives it a little shake, the shadows cast from trees outside moving along with it. The spider remains resolute.
Are you listening to me? You can finish the house as is— but no more greenhouses, no garden patios, no, he stammers looking at a sheet of expenses, no pergolas!
She pulls out her phone and dials her dealer’s number. Without looking at her husband she snaps into the phone, Yes, Ouvo— sell it.
And then she tears off her slipper and slaps it against the curtain, leaving both a brown smudge from the spider and an imprint of the bottom of her slipper.
Are you happy now?
When she confers with him about putting in skylights, the architect pulls at Allegra’s sleeve. He has long beautiful fingers and kind grey eyes.
That’s not what I meant, she says when he kisses the red on her ears. That’s not what I meant at all.
IT’S REPULSIVE! IT’S BEAUTIFUL! frames Allegra’s glossy face on page sixty-three. A celebration of Allegra Bartolomeo’s return to the art world. Here she is wandering the half-built house in Maine. Here she is painting her lobsters. She imagines what she must look like to the people who admire her (carefree, eccentric), and to the people who hate her (careless, eccentric).
Alone in her studio, Allegra reads every word, but when people ask her about it she’ll say, Ah yes, that— I glanced over it.
Allegra is confused when the local police department in Maine calls her. They have found traces of a possible squatter in the house. Someone has been breaking in at night, leaving notes scribbled on lined paper. These things happen in the off-season, they say.
Has anyone been arrested?
They tell her they’re keeping an eye on it. Then they recommend a security system for her to install.
A team of three men in coveralls arrive at Allegra’s studio to pack Ouvo.
She offers no help as they maneuver the large painting around the studio and refuses to clear a space for them to wrap it in glassine. She crosses her arms and makes the occasional loud sigh while they begin padding the corners. As they load it onto a dolly, she gives the concrete studio floor a loud tap, tap, tap with her boot.
Ouvo now belongs to the Manhattan Goldman Sachs HQ, where it will be neighbors with a Rothko print, an Olafur Eliasson watercolor, and hundreds of well-suited bankers who don’t care.
Allegra grasps her husband’s hand and shows him each room in the house over the sound of sanders and nail guns. She has lined all of the walls with windows and when they look out, there is no one there except their dim reflections and the forest.
Dipping under a sheet of tarp, they walk outside. There’s a makeshift path into the woods, leading to a small pond.
Allegra asks: Do you hear that?
He shakes his head.
On the night of her opening, Allegra puts on a dress she received as a gift from a designer. She does not know how much it’s worth, but she presumes quite a lot. The dress is made from rich blue silk and billows out behind her when she walks. Before she leaves the house, she glances at herself in the mirror and pulls the cherry red lipstick from her purse. There, she’s complete now, she thinks as she runs it over her lips.
Allegra stands by her lobsters and drinks tiny sips from the same glass of champagne. She has a routine when she gets exhausted with whoever she’s talking to wherein she summons her husband over and asks them, Have you met my husband? Before they can answer, she begins a different conversation. So many people meet her husband.
When she talks to potential buyers, she throws her head back and laughs. Black vultures, she says throughout the night, black vultures, black vultures.