From Book 2: Youki

Huge snowflakes fell, crisp and glittering, etching the trees and the railings and the eaves in silver for a brief and fragile dusting. It was very cold, unusually so, and the slush on the sidewalks had turned to ice. “This is rare for Paris,” Louis remarked. “The first time I saw snow I was three years old. It was just a dusting on the ground, but I refused to go outside. I thought it was dangerous to step in.” He led the way up the treacherous sidewalk.

            “Landis Louis,” I suggested aloud, still thinking of backward names.
“Justine—? Eenit-soodge—”

            Louis laughed. “Weidmann Wilhelm Geoffrey. I’m sorry, but those three names just don’t seem to go together, even forwards! They sound like two different men, a German man, Wilhelm Weidmann, and a Geoffrey without a last name.” He ruffled his hair to release the snow, and it showered around his thin frame. “Thurmon Matthew Rog—why, Bernice.”

            “Hello, Geoff,” said Bernice, walking up to us in her white wool coat, ignoring Louis entirely. “I haven’t seen much of you. Not since summer.” She struck a pose, one toe pointed in front of the other in those ridiculous high-heeled shoes, and smiled at me from inside a hood lined in white fur. I nodded warily at her, conscious of my own scuffed shoes and worn coat. Louis stood by, eyeing her with distaste.

            An invisible hand suddenly shoved me in the middle of my back, propelling me almost on top of her, and as I fought for balance I was yanked into the street by my collar. Bernice’s startled expression sailed out of view. Bent over and stumbling on the uneven stones, I tried to close my hands on my attacker as he pushed at me. “Watch out—it’s Hug!” bellowed a man’s voice. “Run, Geoff, run!”

            Furious, I twisted and lunged at him, forcing him to backpedal. “Damn you, Desnos! I’ve had it with your childish antics.” I straightened up and started for him across the icy cobblestones. Desnos backed away, beaming that apish grin. “I’m serious,” I warned, trying to walk faster without sliding on the ice, and he quickened his steps, lolling before me with his lips hanging open. My threatening tone slipped into laughter. “I mean it. You owe me for a rack of keys. Come here. Come here!” I ran for him and he ran too, leading me up the dark street, but I caught up to him when he flailed wildly over a patch of ice. He tried to pry off my fingers as I grabbed his collar and dragged him to the curb.

            “He has his damned job, doesn’t he?” Desnos shrieked as he struggled. “‘I’m wasting my life!’ et cetera. And is he happy now? No, he’s drooping around with a sad face like some workhorse.” I slipped a finger into his back belt loop and threw him head-first into a snowdrift by the sidewalk.

            “He gets a job at which he can read poetry all day,” Louis teased from behind me. “A revolutionary approach to the work ethic.”

            Coughing and laughing, Desnos hauled himself out of the snow. “You had it coming,” I told him, grasping him by the elbow to help him up. He squinted as us beneath snowy eyebrows.

            “I came here to deliver a message, you bully,” he said. “Justine wants to meet you—urgently wants to meet you at the Café Prophete at eleven o’clock tonight. I went all the way to your house to tell you. And not only were you not home, you attacked the messenger even before you heard the message! Bully!” He dusted off his hat and put it back on, pouting in false outrage.

            We helped him shake out his coat. “Rob, is it true,” Louis teased, “that a female physical education instructor taught you how to fight? I notice you don’t sport as many black eyes as much as you used to. And you can throw a punch now without knocking yourself in the cheek.”

            Desnos wiped his face and replied cheerfully, “Yes, it’s true! She always got the best of me, so I guess that’s why we were better friends than lovers.”

            “Well! How suave, Moon Face. I can see what Yvonne George sees in you,” Bernice called from up the street in her brackish voice. “And I’ve heard that she threw two pranksters out of her dressing-room the other night. I’ll bet one of them was you!”

            Desnos reddened. “Shut up, you little bitch.”

            “Geoffrey Weidmann, if you want to talk to me,” Bernice went on, quite unaffected by the insult, “leave your little brothers at home.” Coyly she turned her back and traipsed up the sidewalk. I started after her.

            Louis grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?”

            “Guess.” I pulled free of him, seeing Bernice round the corner beyond my hotel.

            “After her? That slithering female? And after the way she treated Justine?”

            “That’s precisely why.”

            “Go get her, Geoff!” Desnos crowed.

            I left them behind and ran to the corner, then slowed my pace so I didn’t look like I was too eager. I rounded the corner and stopped, because I saw Bernice talking to a man I recognized, the Japanese painter Foujita, who was without a coat despite this weather. They both burst into laughter at something Foujita said. His round glasses winked in the light and his moustache, shaved into a small M, bobbed as he talked. “Youki is beside herself with excitement about the snow,” he was saying to Bernice. “She wants me to paint a portrait of her as the city of Paris itself.”

            Bernice shook her head. “Don’t you ever paint other women?” she purred in that same phony voice, full of cheap provocation. Already she had forgotten about me. I stood by the corner and debated whether or not to walk up to her anyway.

            Everyone knew who Foujita was; cartoons of him appeared in the newspapers, and the gossip columns constantly detailed his exploits, sexual and otherwise. He and his wife Youki, a Frenchwoman of Russian descent whom he had renamed “Pink Snow” in Japanese, had what was called an open marriage, a concept completely new to me. Foujita was extremely popular with both men and women, and he made a lot of money. I knew that Roger was spending more of his time with this couple, while he rarely saw our group anymore. Youki herself was trailed everywhere by admirers because of Foujita’s many paintings of her naked.

            Sinking deeper into my coat, I turned around and started back the way I came. “Hello there!” I heard Foujita call out, and when I looked back I saw Bernice walking beside him as he plowed toward me through the slush. “Now, don’t be angry at me, Geoff,” Bernice chided as she approached. Foujita’s straight bangs were plastered against his forehead and his glasses were fogging up, forcing him to stop and wipe them. Around us the snow was already softening, puddling on the roofs and dripping onto the wrought-iron balconies, and turning into a finely beaded mist. Bernice slid awkwardly on the pavement and took my arm. “Don’t pout. We’re waiting here for Youki to pick us up; then we’ll visit the studio. You do know Foujita, don’t you?”

            A car’s horn honked behind us, and she turned to wave at the automobile that was grinding its way through the mush toward us. “I told you the snow wouldn’t last!” yelled a woman who was hanging precariously out of the open passenger door, standing up with her feet on the running board, with one gloved hand clutching the roof and the other gripping the door frame. Her hat and her sable stole bounced as the vehicle bounced, but they didn’t fall off, and neither did she. The car slowed. As the chauffeur pulled the car alongside us, the woman glanced impishly at me and without warning leaped from the vehicle with out-stretched arms, right for my head. After my initial surprise I managed to catch her, and as I shifted the weight of her legs on my arm she wrapped her arms around my neck, her nose almost touching mine. Her bracelets were cold against my neck, and her brown eyes laughed into mine. “Hello,” she husked. “Who are you?”

            “This one’s mine, Youki,” Bernice protested, and tried to climb into my arms as well. Youki playfully kicked her legs at Bernice while I struggled to keep my balance in the slush.

            “Says you!” yelled Foujita and jumped on me as well, trying to hook a leg over my back as I bent over under the weight of all three of them. The two women screamed with laughter, clinging tighter to me the more I stumbled. Foujita stood back and took Youki’s arm. “No, seriously, let’s not break his back.” Youki slid to the ground. I straightened up painfully, and the group of African men who were walking past us with wide-eyed expressions continued on down the street and toward the music of the Bal Negré at the bar. “You don’t want to look,” I heard one of the men joke to Desnos and Landis, who were watching us from the corner.

            Foujita remained beside me, a hand out to steady me should I need it, while I tried to work the kink out of my back. “I’m sorry. You’re not hurt?”

            “Oh, it’s something else—an old war wound,” I lied.

            I climbed into the back seat of the yellow Ballot with Youki and Foujita and Bernice, and the chauffeur nodded to Youki while she sat in the front passenger seat arranging her hair. “Home, José, please,” she told him. Gears ground themselves into life and caught, and made the wheels turn. This was a very nice car with a metal roof, an expensive auto that didn’t cough as much as Catherine’s, and quite like the one Desnos had retained for our trip to the Loire. I noticed the hood ornament: a tiny reproduction of a bust by Rodin.

            The two men at the corner shouted, and jumped up and down, and waved at us as we approached. “The Prophete—you dope!” Desnos yelled. “We’re not good enough for you now, eh? Mr. High Society! Hey, you’re not even dressed appropriately, and I’m wearing a tuxedo—” and like a flasher he whipped open his coat to reveal that he was indeed, inexplicably, wearing a tuxedo, though dripping wet because I had rubbed him with snow. The Ballot passed him and his shouts faded.

            “Who the hell was that?” Youki gasped.

            Foujita smiled at her. “That, my love, was the so-called ‘Prophet of Surrealism.’ At least, I think he has not been thrown out yet.”

            “Oh, one of them, I should have known. What a bunch of punks. I went to one of their meetings at Breton’s studio—have you been?” she asked Bernice, who shook her head. “Some of it was terrific; they whipped me up into such a frenzy I was ready to go out and vandalize storefronts, break windows, shoot the prime minister, everything. But then they started in on this discussion of sex. Talk, talk, talk. Dull, dull, dull. Finally, I stood up and said, ‘Stop talking about it and do it! You boys need to learn a few things about women.’”

            Bernice laughed. “Did you really? Good for you, Youki!”

            The snow was melting, making the silvered doorways slump and slide toward each other in the street. Our wheels made water fly up against the windows of the car. “I insulted one of them once—what’s his name—that severe little slip of a man—I’m sure you know who I’m talking about,” Foujita put in, “—when I made fun of Van Gogh’s paintings. You know who I’m talking about, that one who isn’t their president anymore, the strange one who never cracks a smile—”

            “We know,” Bernice replied with a smirk.

            Foujita put his hands together and bowed at the waist, smiling. “He got pissed off at me, so I bowed like this and I said to him, ‘Ah-so, Ahsshole, and fuck you!’ and he looked ready to strangle me!”

            Those three burst into derisive laughter while I sat in awkward silence. “Oh, my,” Youki groaned, rolling her eyes. “Some people should lighten up!”

            I cringed at their mockery of Artaud.

            On the square Montsouris near a very beautiful park lined with large, old trees, we pulled up at a strange house, very square, completely white as if made out of marble but severe and smooth, with no details for the eye to lose itself in. The naked facade brutally confronted the viewer and remained obscene; the effect did not soften. One’s eye could not adjust to it—at least, my eyes didn’t. It was hard, austere, ultramodern. I thought it ugly. The blank walls of today’s architecture, blank and straight streets, blank white electric lights washing out blank and coolly disinterested faces in the cafés and nightclubs—I did not like my own generation’s tastes.

            José opened the car doors for us. I saw that there was a man waiting beside the door of this structure, and as we approached he straightened to cast a menacing eye on me. “Who are you?” He stepped between Youki and me but Bernice laughed and caught my elbow, urging me onward. Youki took the strange man’s arm and hung back with him. Foujita smiled in derision as he unlocked the front door for us. On the threshold I lingered long enough to hear the stranger whisper to Youki, “But I’m facing bankruptcy! All right, I know it’s my own fault, but would you have even noticed me if I hadn’t found some way to afford the things you like? I did it for you!”

            “You’re so quiet, Geoff,” Bernice remarked as she and I followed Foujita inside, leaving Youki to walk down the sidewalk with that angry young man. Foujita led us up to his studio on the fourth floor. In contrast to the building’s exterior this room was almost cozy. On the walls hung paper puppets of various sizes, all the exact likeness of Foujita, and there was an easel, a low one, so that he could paint while sitting on the polished wood floor, and there were paintings on the walls, and a bed sat near the door. “Youki saw Foujita for the first time in a café, but she was too timid to approach him, if you can believe that,” Bernice told me.

            “Ah, there are no shy people,” Foujita stated confidently as he opened a bottle of wine. “It’s all pretense.”

            “So after he left, she stood up in the middle of the café and called out—”

            “Timidly, of course!” Foujita added. I couldn’t decipher the look he was giving me.

            “‘Does anyone here know the Oriental man with the moustache and the glasses?’ When someone told her where to find him, Youki sought him out. When she and Foujita finally met, they ended up in bed for three days, while Foujita’s lover at the time—what’s her name—” She glanced at Foujita.

            “What’s-Her-Name,” Foujita answered with a smirk.

            Bernice giggled and finished, “While What’s-Her-Name searched the morgues, thinking that Foujita had killed himself over her. As if anyone dies for love outside of books!” The two of them laughed over this, but I yanked Bernice aside.

            “Let’s get out of here. I want to be alone with you,” I murmured into her ear.

            She gave me that tawdry smile. “Later.”

            “No. Now.”

            “Later!”

            She took the glass of wine that Foujita offered her and walked away from me to examine one of the paintings. Since I didn’t know what else to do I followed her and as we circuited the room she allowed me to lay my hand on the nape of her neck and idly caress the skin beneath her blond, wavy bob. I didn’t care for Foujita’s work—I found it too heavily outlined, not unlike the illustrations of William Blake. Too specific, too clear about what it was supposed to be—I didn’t know how else to put it: “Too much of a picture-of-something,” I whispered to Bernice. “It starts out as a specific idea, and it illustrates that idea—no surprises, no discoveries.”

            “Foujita is perhaps the most popular artist in Paris,” she hissed back at me, suddenly hostile. Abruptly I dropped my hand and stepped back, aware that she was goading me. My face felt hot. To hell with her. What was I doing here? “I suppose you prefer those childish scrawls Breton and his comedy troupe come up with,” Bernice went on, swirling the golden liquid in her glass, “by tapping their unconscious—feet protruding from eyeballs and such.” From somewhere downstairs, Youki’s laughter answered the laughter of that young admirer of hers. Well, he obviously was a fool but I was not. I turned away from Bernice, I opened my mouth to tell Foujita that I was leaving and that Bernice was all his, but only the open bottle of wine stood now where he had been standing a moment ago. It sat on the threshold like a little headless sentinel, like a lone bowling pin. So it was Youki’s husband who was giggling now with Youki at the expense of, and not with, that young man—or perhaps those two were laughing at me.

“Oh, he’s angry again!” Bernice teased me as she bent to pick up the bottle. She shut the door and turned around, bottle in hand. “You get angry so easily, but then you swallow it down and become nice. You shouldn’t.” She filled a glass for me and pressed it into my hand, then refreshed her own and sat down on the bed. As I stood looking at her, she crossed her legs and patted the bedspread beside her.

            “You like games, don’t you,” I muttered, holding my glass away from me as if it were filled with hemlock.

            She smiled sweetly—finally a real smile from her, warm and feminine, one that didn’t call to arms a thousand men from my soul to shout strategies into my ear, so that I wouldn’t end up doing an oafish thing, or saying something ignorant. I had a sudden revelation: it hadn’t been the dream of Helen’s loveliness that caused Menelaus to launch a battle against Troy, but rather the vision of her taunting specter, arm-in-arm with her lover Paris, that had driven him mad. Paris. The odd coincidence of that name startled me. “Is there something wrong with games?” Bernice asked, and reached out to take my hand to encourage me when I walked up to her. I sat down on the bed and ran my thumb along her cheekbone. “Those Surrealist pals of yours play games, and not just on paper, either. Their personal lives are a mess.”

            “They’re not my pals.” I leaned close to her and we kissed. Her lips were painted and I wasn’t used to that, and she was wearing a floral perfume, but that wasn’t so unpleasant. It was very pleasant. I think I surprised her when I pushed my tongue between her lips, and I enjoyed that, too.

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