“Jehan!” She teased the name out into as many syllables as it would stretch. He bowed deep. “Jean, Jehan, Jean Prouvaire, I haven’t seen you in forever-and-a-day. I thought ‘oh, he’s abandoned me, I shall have to find a new poet for my collection.’ And all I’ve seen instead was that horrible artist friend of yours. Is he even an artist? Floréal--Floréal! Is Grantaire even an artist? Oh, he sketches from time to time? Good for him. I still won’t go near him. But Floréal, this one’s the poet.”
They made it out of the café, finally, and their breath steamed up in puffs. Irma shrugged her shoulders under her shawl. “Take me to your place? --I know, I’m shameless. But I don’t have money for a fire today. Or the rest of the week.” She watched Prouvaire’s mouth twist from surprised amusement to a silent oh of concern. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything. But she liked his rooms. And she liked him. And she didn’t like the cold.
“Do you really collect poets?”
“Oh…I might like to.” She pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes; Prouvaire caught it between his fingertips and curled it in the red sunset light from the window. “When I’m an old lady, it might be nice to look back at my poetry books and tell myself a line here and there is about me. Have you written about me, Jehan?”
“I am in the process.”
“Is it any good?” They were fond enough friends that she could trust him to recognize teasing.
“Don’t worry, Irma, you sound very charming.”
“I asked if the poem was good.”
“Ah. That I don’t know. Maybe a bit. Here, this is about your room: Our garden was a pot of tulips, you hid the window with your slip. I took the rough clay bowl and gave you the china cup.”
She sat up. The sunset slid off her hair and down to her thighs, her knees, her ankles. “Mmm. You can certainly describe my room. But...but, Jehan, is any of it about me?”
“That’s much harder. Impossible, even.”
“Impossible?” She had a trick of imitating his voice, and now she mirrored his pose as well. It restored the joking air of a few moments before. She had very nearly lost that tone, for a moment there. Someone might have taken her seriously. “That sounds more like something I would say.”
“It is. Or so I hear. Grantaire--”
“Oh. Grantaire. Why do you see so much of him?”
“He’s an artist. He’s intelligent. He’s good-natured when he can be. He shares his opium. He has a tender soul that shows sometimes between jokes. Why do you see so much of him?”
“I don’t. I’m a girl and I drink in cafés. He sees me. --Let’s have something sweeter and prettier than your Grantaire. Tell me the rest of your poem? The one that’s not about me but about my room. Wait, though, there’s more wine.” She unfolded, straightened to her feet, and wandered to the cupboard, pulling out a bottle and the first two cups that came to hand. The bed creaked as she settled again. The sun had slid too far past the rooftops to share its color now, but there was enough light to show the wine red in the white china coffee-cups.
He was very quiet as she curled up against his side. Had she hurt him, talking that way about his friend? It was the last thing she meant to do. Irma held her breath until he spoke again.
“I was a beggar, and you charitable. I gave fleeting kisses to your cool round arms. Dante in-folio served as our table where we ate a hundred chestnuts.”
The next time daylight came through the window--rather a challenge, given the Persian carpet hung in place of a curtain--it found them cheerful again. Irma wandered the room, picking up books and putting them down again, studying a small charcoal sketch that appeared to be of Jehan without any clothes. She glanced over to the bed for comparison, and found him awake.
He came up behind her and lifted her hair from her shoulders, parting it into two handfuls and arranging it. She rather wondered what he was up to. “Irma, would you like to go to a party tonight?”
“Who will be there?”
“Everyone. Poets. For your collection, if you like.” Finally she gave in to curiosity and looked up at the mirror. Her hair was shaping into two heavy braids under Prouvaire’s hands; concentration made his face even younger while he worked. “It’s a fancy-dress party. Costumes.”
“Rue d’Enfer, actually. In the Quartier Latin.” He let the braids fall down to her breasts. She was wearing a loose robe of his that she had found lying on the floor; it slipped off her shoulders in a way she couldn’t help admiring. That was the thing with Jehan, his rooms were full of astonishing odds and ends and he had no notion of selfishness. Did you admire his hat? It was yours. Once she had left in an entire suit of his clothing. She wore it better than he. (She suspected this was charity on his part, that he gave so freely because he knew she had nothing but her looks and a tenuous income. But perhaps he was as generous with his other friends? At any rate, she only asked for the most absurd gifts. Once, a seal-skin. She had been telling him about selkies, or as much as she could remember from her Scottish grandmother, filled in with her own imagination. She had kept it. The suit of clothes she had brought back to him a week later, altered to fit him better.)
“The Rue d’Enfer, then. What will you go as?”
“I hadn’t thought. Heaven? A volcano? Stormclouds.”
Irma closed her eyes. “How about a volcano, Jehan. That’s easier than Heaven.” She couldn’t begin to picture Prouvaire dressed as Heaven. Not that a volcano was much easier, but they could wrap some sort of a red-orange turban around his head… “What about me? We could match costumes.”
“Hmm. Die Lorelei? I will be a hapless boatman. Or you might be a Maenad, and I Orpheus.”
“I could be Isabella and you could be a pot of basil. Keep naming dire females who destroy innocent young men, and I’ll insist on that.”
“...Can we, though?”
It turned out that Prouvaire made a reasonably effective pot of basil. They tore up a green coat of his--a wild waste that made Irma laugh--and tied the rags about his head and shoulders for leaves. The pot element was a challenge. Jehan began to speak of papier mâché, clearly with no understanding of its production. Irma pressed her fingers to her temples and thought.
“You shall carry a pot. You shall carry a pot--unless you want to wear those odd pinkish trousers of yours. They’re almost a terra-cotta color. --No, no, don’t look so enthusiastic, I didn’t mean it. I hate those trousers. You shall carry a pot.”
“I have an ancient urn.”
“Fine, an ancient urn.”
“I shall place a skull inside it.”
“Do you have one?”
“It was my father’s.”
“Your father wrote you a letter just last week.”
“...My father gave it to me for Christmas. He found it in an English curiosity shop when I was a small boy and I always admired it.”
“Jean Prouvaire, I might be in love with you. Just a little bit. --So. What does Isabella wear? Something medieval?”
“I should think so.”
Something medieval was also something warm, for which Irma was grateful. Getting into the party meant more standing around outside than she had expected. This was evidently the one place to be in Paris that night. Isabella pulled her long velvet sleeves down over her hands and clung to her pot of basil with more than a lover’s usual tenderness; the situation didn’t improve until someone recognized Jehan and pulled him bodily indoors, talking about plays. Irma hustled along with him. It was absolutely mad inside, a crush of people that turned her gratitude for her warm costume into regret. Everyone was shouting into everyone else’s face and now and then someone would scream.
“There are lemon ices over that way,” a young woman breathed into her ear. “You look ready to faint. Come on with me.” It occurred to Irma to protest that her partner’s costume made no sense without her nearby, but her partner had already been drawn in among a group of young men in bearskins.
It turned out that the ices and custards were served in skulls. It also turned out that the young woman who had brought her over had mistaken her for someone else, a friend who was in attendance as Ivanhoe’s Lady Rowena. “And I’m Rebecca, of course,” she said plaintively. “We came with Robin Hood but God knows where he’s gotten to. Listen, will you help me find her? The punch here is deadly, I already had two cups. I don’t want her to end up in the morgue downstairs. --No, no, it’s not real. They set up some couches for people who might faint.”
Irma nodded. It seemed a reasonable request. “Let me finish this custard first? Or I’ll be fainting myself. --I’m here with a pot of basil, so I think you’ve done better than me. Who are you really? I’m Irma.”
“Manon. Do you know Floréal? I think she’s mentioned an Irma with red hair, it must be you. She’s here too.”
“Everyone is.” Floréal hadn’t told her about this party. Irma wondered who she was with. Grantaire? Suddenly Irma wondered who Jehan was with now as well. It was easy enough to say one collected poets, but how did you keep them once you’d found them, if you even wanted to? She tapped her new friend Rebecca-Manon on the elbow and confessed to thinking practical thoughts. “Let’s find your Rowena and make ourselves a little space somewhere.” They linked arms and set out.
Rowena turned out to be a cheerful girl whose sleeves were exactly the same color as Irma’s. It lent some credibility to Manon’s confusion. It was she who caught sight of Floréal, not that they’d been trying to, and suggested that they find a window. “We’ll take turns sticking our heads out to breathe.”
“We’ll catch consumption,” ventured Manon, which provoked laughter from her Rowena.
“Oh, I’m sure I already have. Better than dying of heatstroke on the floor here. You had the right idea, Floréal, you’re barely wearing anything. Are you a nymph?”
She was. She was a nymph and she had come with a satyr. “Except it’s just Grantaire in cowskin trousers. He’s barely even trying. --He found your poet, Irma. Last I saw he was plucking off his leaves. If basil had flowers it would be defloration. So I de-Floréaled them and went to see what I could see.” By this point the women were at a window, and Irma decided to take her turn of breathing in some fresh air. When she resurfaced--Manon said she was about to be sick--someone pushed a fragrant glass of punch into her hands. Irma drank it off and went exploring.
Dawn found her with a poet’s head in her lap. It was still attached to the poet. He was telling her about his medieval bed. He refused to sleep in it, revering it too greatly; it was several hundred years old. People had died in it. People had been conceived in it. Irma did not seem to be expected to do anything in or about this bed, so she stroked his hair absently while he talked, and wondered about Jehan.
When the poet fell asleep she untangled herself from him and set off to find the cellar with the fainting couches. It took her several embarrassing tries before she got the right door and it turned out there were no fainting couches, only a few rugs and pillows and huddled indistinct unconscious forms. But a familiar basil-green rag on the steps suggested that the room was worth a search.
She found Prouvaire’s urn first. She was relieved to find the skull still in it, and more relieved to realize that the person curled around it protectively was in fact Prouvaire. He had lost his shirt and acquired a bearskin since she last saw him. It covered his head. After a brief check that he was still breathing, Irma crawled under the bearskin herself. She really did need a bit of sleep.
Irma woke with her head on someone’s chest. It was a nice chest. It moved slowly up and down. She dozed off again.
She woke again when someone tugged a heavy hairy blanket over her shoulders. Disorientation: and oh, yes, Jehan and the party and the bearskin. Her feet were freezing. Her head hurt. Jehan kissed her hair when he saw that she was no longer asleep, and murmured into her ear: “The Sorbonne was the spot where I worshipped you from dusk to dawn. Thus a loving soul applies the map of tenderness to the Quartier Latin.” Irma yawned and nestled close while he continued to speak. “...The first time that, in my joyful hovel, I took a kiss from your burning lip, when you went out pink and disheveled, I lay there pale and believed in God. Was it a good party?”
It was the best.