In the spring of 1932, Breton was exerting more control over an ever-younger coterie, guiding the group’s activities and dominating the discussions. Yet, this did not appear to be entirely his choice. At the Prophete, Justine and I overheard him snarl in a corner to Tristan Tzara (“that Hungarian homunculus shaped like an anarchist’s bomb,” Justine called him), that he was growing tired of “having to correct the homework of these youngsters.” In keeping with their generation, Surrealism’s newest members were more interested in being artists than in being anarchists. Breton fought their passivity, their inclination toward “art” and in turn they listened to him but did their own thing.
Louis, sitting at our table in the Prophete, tried to make sense of it all. “Not-artist artists, trying not to be not-artist non-artists, yet not artists, and passively resisting Breton’s resistance to passivity…” His voice trailed away and he grinned at me.
“You’re making me dizzy,” I told him.
“Someday, death takes all doctors and fuddy-duddiness takes all dudes,” Justine summarized, smirking, and just loud enough for Breton and Tzara to hear at their table. They both turned to her in annoyance, and Justine lifted her glass to place her wax-paper straw between her lips and suckle it provocatively. I leaned back in my chair and smiled easily at the two men as Breton leered in outright pleasure at her coquetry. Louis leaned back too and grinned at Justine.
Tzara jabbed a stubby thumb at me and said to Breton, “I thought he was still sitting in that tree that Bernice chased him up, in the Champ de Mars.” Breton ignored him, assessing Justine boldly in front of me to make me jealous.
Justine took her lips off her straw and let the tip of her tongue lap against its shaft. Their eyes bulged. “At least I’m not treed in tweed,” I snickered, placing my hand over hers on the table. Both men flinched, unexpectedly; they were indeed aging, coming to resemble the middle-aged types they despised, whereas I managed to sport the current youth fashions.
“Oh my God, Justine, don’t stop!” Desnos appeared from nowhere to bang into our table and lean over us on his hands, leering at her. The liquid in our glasses sloshed violently. “You know how much that turns me on!”
“See here.” I grabbed a hold of Desnos’s tie and yanked his beaming face down to look directly into mine. “I won’t have you going after my girl. I thought I was the one who turned you on.”
“You fool! Is that what you thought? I was just using you to get to Justine,” blared Desnos so the whole place rang with his voice. He and I guffawed foolishly. I knew that the regulars at the Prophete were getting sick of listening to us, because this time they didn’t even turn around to glare. Due to its proximity to the Surrealists, ours was always the loudest and most obnoxious table in this café. Justine and Louis collapsed with helpless laughter as Desnos pulled up a chair, and nearby patrons gave us hostile glares over their menus and newspapers.
Under the watchful eyes of Breton and Tzara, Desnos defiantly yanked at his shirt buttons until they released their buttonholes, one by one, to reveal his soiled belly button behind the swirled scrub of his stomach-hair. “Allons-y!” he drawled as he grabbed a brandied cherry from the plate in front of Justine and placed it in his navel. He tried to launch it at Breton’s table by thrusting out his lazy gooseflesh. Though his stomach expanded impressively, the sugared missile fell far short of its mark and landed harmlessly on the floor with a moist splat only a half a meter away, where an oblivious waiter squashed it beneath his heel.
We burst into raucous laughter again. “Desnos, you hirsute beast,” Louis scolded around his guffaws, “button your shirt—it’s repulsive!” At a far table Youki, Foujita and their friends turned to smile at us. The painter and his wife were sitting with three other people, a small, dark, striking woman, a tall and thin man with prominent cheekbones and a long face, and a shorter, ruggedly good-looking man who sported round glasses and a Stetson like some bookish gangster. “That’s Anaïs Nin, with the diary,” Louis said to me, “and her husband, Hugh Guiler, and Henry Miller, who’s just come from America. He’s also a writer.”
“Oh, my brother knows Hugh,” I remembered.
Youki’s eyes locked with those of Desnos, and Louis nudged me as we watched those two share a private smile that made Youki’s cheeks grow pink. She ducked her head and, uncharacteristically nervous, sipped her coffee but she did not break that gaze. Ça va? Desnos mouthed at her, and Ça va, she mouthed back. Desnos winked. Youki pouted in turn and lapped her tongue on the edge of her cup exactly as Justine had done, then flounced her shoulders and turned away, but he continued to stare at her until she turned back again. Ce soir? he mouthed and raised his eyebrows. She pretended to be mulling it over without much interest, but when Desnos put his hands together pleadingly, she sniggered and nodded at him. Foujita was talking to the others and did not witness this exchange, and neither did their companions.
“Ugh, their interminable dalliance makes me sick,” Louis grumbled to me. “They should just get on with it. It’s not as if Foujita minds who sleeps with his wife. What’s he waiting for?”
“Dalliance, nothing. Are you blind, Landis? Desnos is boffing her—secretly,” I said into Louis’s ear, “without Foujita’s permission—and you’re just jealous, anyway!”
“How can you tell he’s boffing her?” he demanded.
I chuckled. “They got on with it a long time ago. I know Desnos. He doesn’t waste his time hanging around guys like you.”
Louis waved away my laughter. “But why secretly? What’s the point? No woman that Foujita snares is a secret from Youki, and everything she does is known to him.”
“But that is the point, man. Youki’s marriage has been open for so long that it’s become as stifling for her as any proper marriage. After all, how romantic can it be to get a husband’s stamp of approval on one’s lover? Besides, an open fling with a married woman with her husband observing every step doesn’t appeal to a dreamer like Desnos. Illicit sex is more fun—and more dangerous, because it at least offers the possibility of love.”
Louis just shook his head.
Justine had been waving her hand at Desnos to get his attention, and finally he focused on her with a wild look of happiness. “Here, Robert, you’re not doing it right,” Justine said as she also reached for a cherry. To our delight she yanked her sweater out of the grip of her waistband to expose her own small, neat, and fastidiously scrubbed orblet. We waited in suspense as she armed her perfect half-shell catapult with her sugary pearl, and the Surrealist duo likewise fell silent for the assault. Justine’s diaphragm sucked itself concave, briefly tightening her olive skin over the delicate architecture of her ribs. Then it expanded, rounding quickly like a blown-up balloon, and the cherry flew through the air and struck Breton squarely in the thigh. We fought to contain our laughter, for he was giving her a foolish smile as if she had just blown him a kiss. Justine turned her back on him. Foujita, Youki, Guiler, Miller and Nin leaned into laughter along with us.
We were all bored. We sat in the cafés and amused ourselves with these antics. If Breton were not so easily manipulated we would have had even less to do, and less to talk about. It was as if we were waiting for the decade to run its course; none of us liked the 1930s. Desnos was enthusiastic about the new music and Josephine Baker and the Marx Brothers, and this comedy trio also delighted Artaud to my surprise, and naturally we loved whatever Desnos and Artaud loved, but otherwise there was a lull in our lives that only served to remind us how things used to be, years ago on the rue Blomet, when life had seemed like a sustained delirium.
“It skips a decade. The good times will come back after everyone’s gotten this morality/family/nationhood bullshit of their system. The 1940s will be even better than the 1920s,” Desnos assured me. “More crazy, more inspired. Just wait and see.”