There were voices outside and someone pounded on the door. Desnos answered it and let in a group of five or so. Before any introductions could begin more people walked up, so he left the door open to the warm night air. Some of the people I recognized from earlier this evening, but most were complete strangers. There was one smoking lamp on the table and some weak electric lights, so people began lighting the candles that were sitting on a nearby shelf, walking with them and dripping their wax onto the floor to stick them in. More shadows were flung across the walls, covering our elongated motionless ghosts with grey animated ones.
I watched in alarm as thin skirts swirled near the flames, but no one else seemed to care. In the flickering light the heavily painted faces of the women, and of some of the men, loomed exaggerated and pale, their eyes sunken, their expressions bored. Among them Robert Desnos walked with his casual humor, drawing them out, making them laugh and encouraging them to talk to each other. He had a self-depreciating manner that set one immediately at ease and it won out over their superior airs. He was naturally friendly and obviously everyone liked him, and I liked him, too.
I saw again that bat-man who stole poems and chairs. In an imitation of Artaud the man was now stomping toward our table. Roger stood up and waved Desnos over, then glanced at Artaud and put his arms down. “Keep them apart,” he warned the poet.
“Hell, yes!” Desnos slipped in front of Artaud’s tormentor and stomped him backward toward a sagging divan. Artaud merely sneered back at that sneering round face.
“He ate your words earlier,” I told Artaud.
Artaud nodded, but he never broke their stare-down. “Yes, but he didn’t swallow.” Roger and Louis laughed again and applauded. Justine covered her mouth and I knew I blushed. “Let us Péret,” mocked Artaud then as he made the sign of the cross and then put his hands together. Bat-Ears on the divan had not taken his vengeful eyes from Artaud’s.
“If you please!” Desnos turned around from where he tried to block the man’s view of Artaud. “Pretty please with sugar on my bottom, no murder in my place unless you passionately love each other. And have sex first. Preferably when Man Ray shows up.”
“Beginning to get the picture?” muttered Roger to me.
“Picture! Very good,” chortled Louis as he mimed holding a camera.
Soon the place was packed with young people talking and laughing, standing around, sitting on the floor, and stepping out of the windows in the loft to dangle their legs from the roof. One group of men sat on the floor apart from the others and nearly shouted each other down. “More Surrealists—of the peasant stock,” Louis muttered as he jerked his chin toward them, and Artaud nodded again.
“Now, now,” Desnos admonished Louis sweetly. “Let’s all get along.”
“Who are they?” I asked again, forcefully so that I would get an answer this time. Desnos would tell me, surely. “Who exactly are these Surrealists? A political party?”
“Sh! Keep your voice down!” Roger waved my words off and glanced over at that group, but he sounded amused, not alarmed. “You’re too tanked to protect yourself if you start a brawl here.”
“I am not tanked!” I returned indignantly, and Justine smiled down at my empty glass. With a flourish, Roger filled it again for me. “Why don’t you just answer me? Are they some kind of religious sect?”
At this Justine, Roger, and Louis all burst out laughing. Artaud flicked his cigarette ash into a saucer and contemplated me with a look of sidelong contempt. I was suddenly seized by an urge to reach out and give his collar a yank. “Well, we practically are!” Desnos said as he laid a calming hand on my shoulder. I caught the slight shake of Desnos’s head at Artaud as if to say, Not this one. “We may as well declare ourselves a religion and start naming martyrs and writing down doctrine for all the fun we’ve been lately, waging holy war. Fuck!”
“Unholy war,” Louis quipped, glancing between Artaud and that leering Péret on the sofa.
Roger wiped his face and smiled apologetically at me. “Look, we’re not laughing at you, Geoff—we’re laughing at them. The Surrealists are not an easy group to label. They’re poets but they’re engaged in a revolt against literature—and against intellectualism in general. As it happens, they are pretty confused about who and what they are right now, and—”
“I am not confused,” Artaud contradicted him.
“—If you ask twenty Surrealists, you will get forty answers.”
“You would get one answer,” Artaud told Roger, “and thirty-nine lashes with a whip, should you ever care to ask me.” The slight lines around his mouth and eyes suggested the ghost of a laugh. In reply, Roger put down his glass and flapped his arms mockingly.
Someone wound an old Victrola and put on a record, and the melody wavered beneath the buzz of so many voices. Waves of smoke caught the candlelight and stretched it across the ceiling in delicate of cobwebs. Winking and sliding, the smoke-light reflected back onto faces and arms and enveloped bodies in a weird gauze. Some people were trying to dance in this crowded place and the Surrealists were getting stepped on. They yelled at the dancers yet refused to move from their spot. They in turn were mocked by Desnos, who shouted that anyone who wanted to dance should go ahead and do so and anyone who objected could sit on the ceiling.
A flared skirt somewhere in the crowd suddenly whirled into flames around the girl who had danced too close to a candle on the floor, and I gasped. But she merely unfastened the flimsy cloth, dropped it and stepped away, a shaky hand to her mouth as she stood giggling in her slip and hose. “It’s all right, Geoff,” Justine reassured me. I had half-risen from my chair. “They’re putting it out. It’s all right.” Desnos was heroically jumping on the smoldering dress to thunderous applause. His grin never faltered and the dancing never stopped. Feet stomped on other feet; elbows knocked ribs; heels caught shins, and soon the tinny phonograph made an agonized screech and was quiet again.
The four of us remained at the table. Roger lit Justine’s cigarette with an expensive-looking silver lighter and smoke curled from her tiny nostrils as she laughed at what he said into her ear. Louis was leaning halfway out of his chair, straining to see the woman who was lying on her chest on the floor in front of me, and bending her legs over her head so that her toes touched her hair. Her short skirt drifted down to her waist and casually exposed her garter-belt and skimpy underpants. In utter humiliation I tried to hide that I was aroused. I just wasn’t used to seeing women flounce around in those half-smocks people called dresses these days, with no sleeves at all and the skirts riding up their thighs, and as a matter of fact I wasn’t used to the company of women, period. And I wasn’t used to groups—certainly not a crowd of bohemians like this. I wasn’t sociable; I was a loner and had been one all my life, although I had to admit that a year of almost complete isolation hadn’t taught me to love solitude, either. I wasn’t happy being a loner. It was not something I’d chosen.
When I turned my flaming cheeks away from the acrobat I found myself looking right into the eyes of Antonin Artaud, who was staring back at me without any emotion. He did not avert his eyes out of politeness while we looked at each other, so I automatically did. A low chuckle from him made me look up again. He was still openly gawking at me, this time with a thin-lipped smile as if he enjoyed my discomfort. I leaned my elbow on the table and downed the wine in my glass, fiercely wanting to get the hell out of here.