Long after I heard Desnos’s heavy breathing in sleep I lay awake, listening to the rain turn the city into layers of chatter like so many synchronized timepieces: the blunt drumming of the houseboat, the slaps on stone, the hollow tinging of a metal roof somewhere. That odd sleepiness, when my heart beat hard and fast in my chest while my mind seemed to float above my left ear, pushed me downward into the dark, and at length I allowed myself to be lulled.
At some point I dreamed of Marianne, feeling her softness beside me with my blood pounding, as on that night we first shared a bed, a couch in the parlour to which we crept in the darkness after everyone was asleep. We had already been married that day although it was still a secret, but we weren’t to attempt lovemaking until days later. She was a virgin and knew I still was, too; she had mistaken that for love. So had I. I often thought back on that night, even now. It had been bliss, a lingering state of frustration when Marianne would moan and catch my exploring hands, allowing me to stroke her a little before pleading with me to let her sleep, our kisses interrupted by exhaustion and resumed by arching dreams. And it had given me the hope, this cleansing, naive bliss, of escaping my violent past and the memory of my distasteful conflicts.
When the blond Marianne in my arms changed into a darker woman I did what I occasionally could do when a dream disturbed me: I became aware of the dream. The effort of pushing away Genica’s double woke me, and I saw from the shadows in the room that it was late afternoon. Desnos was still asleep on the bench, his face untroubled, his dark hair still neat. He seemingly had not moved one muscle.
He opened his eyes when I leaned over the table to look out the window. The river sparkled in the wan sun, and the sky was beginning to clear up. “This isn’t a proper boat, is it?” I asked. “It’s not supposed to go anywhere?”
“No, it just floats in one place.” Desnos sat up and rubbed his eyes. “If it needs to be moved, it must be towed.”
“But what is the point of a boat that doesn’t sail?”
“The point,” he replied, “is to avoid hurricanes.”
That made me look at him. “There are hurricanes on the Seine?”
His eyes twinkled humorously at me as I went to the stove and opened its door. “A hurricane is chaos,” he said, “and yet it follows the same physical laws that a clear day follows, that a barometer follows, that a ship’s captain swears by. Think about it. Why should shipwreck come as more of a surprise to us than smooth sailing?” he asked. “Why should chaos inspire so much morbid hand-wringing about life? Didn’t any of your crops wilt?”
“Oh, they certainly did!” I declared as I threw more wood into the stove.
He nodded. “And crops wilt more often than they grow! But do people therefore plant silk flowers in their fields, just because they would never wilt? No—but they build houseboats. They invent religion. They study the stock exchange. They invent the job, as slavery is called today, and lash themselves to it. They write novels and poems that choke on their own eloquence. All to avoid chaos, when chaos is the rule, not the exception.”
I nodded sullenly, poking at the coals.
“Is your father pushing you to ‘settle’ yourself?”
“No, he’s perfectly content to let me romp around Paris as his prisoner,” I grumbled, jabbing randomly with my stick. “So, I can enjoy a bohemian life all right, underpinned by everything you and I oppose. Now do you get it?”
Desnos ran his fingers through his straight black hair again, and it fell right back into place as if it hadn’t been disturbed. “Why don’t you write? It’s simple. Go to the theatre or the cinema, or read something, or witness something, call up your paper and say something about it. They print it, and you get paid. You get paid, your landlord gets paid, you go out drinking, and the old man can’t find you.” He smiled to himself.
“You mean you just dictate all of your articles over the phone?” I looked back at him in admiration. “I couldn’t do that. I can’t think that fast. Besides—” I closed the stove door and stood up, “—I might not stay in Paris.”
His look of disappointment tugged at me and I lifted my hands. “What’s there for me to do here?” I said it almost to myself.
“What’s there for any of us to do anywhere?” Desnos asked in turn.
“There must be someplace… There’s got to be some way for a man to live.”
“Why not look for it here?”
“Here?” I glanced around contemptuously. “Isn’t this the civilized world? No offense, but being a man of letters sitting in some café with his blood as pale as his skin—”
“But I agree with you!” Desnos exclaimed, amused. “Believe me, I feel exactly as you do about academics in tweed, playing pimp with poems. What I’m trying to say is, you’ll meet the same problem no matter where you go. Boredom is the last frontier. The world, both civilized and not, has been explored. The whole goddamned world has been at war!”
I shrugged. He was right.
“Instead of walking where the footprints already are, and calling that an adventure—”
“Adventure,” I sneered without intending to, “is that what you call what we did this afternoon? A childish prank, that’s all it was.”
Desnos regarded me as I shoved at the pile of wood with my toe. “So what is your idea of adventure, Weidmann?” he demanded. “Enjoying beautiful women? Exploring Africa? Going to war?” I chafed at this. “Couldn’t war be someone else’s childish prank?”
Earnestly I asked, “What’s your idea of adventure?”
For some time I had been hearing a footfall without quite realizing it. Now, footsteps pounded down the plank and stopped at the door of our cabin. When the handle rattled, Desnos rose and opened the door for Artaud. “I’m sorry! I was on my way to you.” He held up the key, and the other man took it and nodded shyly to me.
“There isn’t room for three,” he said, low, to Desnos.
“Oh, we’re not staying.” Desnos held the door open as Artaud stood there, and he stepped inside.
“No, I thought he—” Artaud glanced at me. “Oh. Well, Thurmon was thrown out of his room today. He’s dragging his things here now.” Stiffly he walked over to the bench, set his small package on the table, and sat massaging his neck as if it hurt him. “I thought I would have this place to myself.”
“So why did Roger get kicked out? Too many mice?” I asked, and Artaud smiled at me.
More steps rattled the plank and Artaud sagged, putting his elbows on his knees and holding his head as Roger’s jabbering became clear: “The place looks better now than when I first rented it! I made most of the repairs. It’s not fair. And now, no electricity, no heat, no running water—” Roger came to a stop in the doorway and stared at us, his violin case resting on top of the huge stack of music he carried. He opened his mouth to speak, but out instead came a woman’s gravelly complaint: “Do you mind?”
Roger stepped aside and Justine collapsed forward under the weight of two suitcases. They hit the floor and she straightened up, kneading her back and looking around. “Just how many people are staying here tonight?” she panted.
I gawked at her. “Don’t tell me that you—”
“Certainly not! I’m only helping this oaf move,” Justine, insulted, snapped at me. “I’m soft-hearted, remember?”
“‘Just’ Justine,” Desnos teased her. He stood up again. “Let’s go seek some adventure, Weidmann. Artaud, since it doesn’t look like you’re going to get much writing done here, why not come with us?”
Roger eased his stack onto the table and turned to Justine. “There’s only one bench—and since Artaud wants privacy to write, do you think that tonight you could let me stay at your—”
“Forget it.” She sailed out the door. The three of us grinned at Roger.
“Unjust Justine!” he yelled at her back, and she responded with a shoulder shimmy.
All of us trooped after her up the steps to the street, where we gathered into a knot against the Friday-night crowds leaving work. “I’m sick of the Deux-Magots,” Roger said very casually. Artaud was walking with his head down, looking a little depressed, but when he heard this he glanced up with a glint.
“Louis is at the Dôme; we’ll go there,” Justine said.