To my dearest -----,
In answer to your questions about the artist whose work and photo adorn my wall I write you this letter, for I know it was rude of me to dismiss your questions so bluntly yesterday, and because it is, perhaps, time for this story to be told, as hard as I am finding it to begin.
It was a brief affair. (Such a start to a letter. My apologies for my melodrama.)
But truly, to me, it was a brief affair.
Brief by the standards of time spent in each others arms at least. But not truly brief, I suppose, as it has never truly ended. He has been in my thoughts and haunting my dreams every moment and breath since the day we parted.
Even in death our affair is not over, for he is with me still in so many ways. And, yes, I know he is dead. He would not have ceased his correspondence with me for anything less than death, I think, and his last letter was full of the sentimentality and nostalgia that is typical of the dying. It was not an easy letter to read, most of his essence and life had already left him. And now it is just me alone, carrying on a secret love affair with no one left to reciprocate the pain.
I have never spoken of it. I am not so good at talking aloud, not like him. He could talk for hours of nonsense and truth until one finally saw how thin the veil between the two really was. But I am a man of letters, it is my trade. So I shall write it to you, sweet child of mine, so that you will understand that I know something of the pain you are in, that you are not alone in this, that you are not an abomination, and that love such as yours has always existed, even if we left little trace of it.
And perhaps I do this for myself as well. I have never put down on paper what passed between he and I but I think it needs to be done, for me to find the peace my soul is craving. I shall try not to be too extreme in the relating of our more intimate times together but, then again, I make no promises, for the truth, once begun, is often like a burst blister - it must all come out, and come out quickly, if the wound is to heal.
So now, without further waffling and old man’s procrastination, let me write for you the tale of Victor Bauer, the Surrealists, the war, and the moment I discovered that, for all my biting repartee against the romantics and those who lived in denial of the brutal truth of our godless world, I had a soul mate, and he was a man of ridiculous ambiguity and strangeness to rival even Dali, but whose name has been forgotten. A fact that I think, in the end, was just what he wanted.
Victor Bauer, I was told before I met him, was an insufferable man and a compulsive liar, but with good connections and a sharp eye for art in any form that transcended the mediocre. I had seen a few of his works in a back street Salon, rather too full of whimsy perhaps for some tastes, but something about them drew me, called to me, as if the emotions and desires I had no words for had been pulled from my heart and put down on canvas - an incomprehensible mess of colour and shapes to anyone else, but desperate truth to me. When offered the chance to make his acquaintance at a party I could not refuse. He had power over me, it seems, before we had ever met.
It was nineteen-thirty-one and I was a floundering poet approaching the age of forty with frightening speed, searching desperately for a direction in life and doing rather unsavory things for money. I had offered my services to several women of wealth, and had my offer accepted more often than I thought my body merited, because women of a certain social class liked to be romanced by a poet, even if he was poverty stricken and un-groomed, or perhaps because of that, I do not know. I had also posed for artists looking for male model and a week ago I had written pamphlets for a local politician, under a pseudonym of course, simply to get money for cigarettes and rum.
What poetry I was able to write at that time was full of anger and vitriol but lacking in any deeper substance. It was empty words with no heart, no deeper meaning. I was lost. My life was a grey pattern of orgasms, booze, and blinding self-hatred and I was desperate to experience something, anything, that would allow me to feel again.
I knew of the Surrealists, had read their Second Manifesto of 1929, and wished somehow to weasel my way into their ranks, but did not know how. All of that changed rather quickly however when, one Saturday morning, a man I knew, a man I had modeled for, by the name of Max Ernst, ran into me in the street. He quite ran into me, spilling the contents of his grocery bag over me and the cobbles upon which I fell and, when I had helped him to repack it, minus the bottle of olive oil, which I was now, sadly, wearing, and he had apologised profusely, he invited me to the party he was hosting with a friend of his that very evening.
He pulled a stick of graphite from the pocket of his waistcoat with a flourish that I admit, impressed me, and wrote the address of the party onto the white cuff of my shirt sleeve before rushing off, apologising again for drenching me and suggesting that I turn up late and bring the poems I had shown him the previous Spring.
I did not know what to think of such an odd encounter. I had never received such a strange invitation to a party before and a large part of my brain was determined that I should not go for surely it would end in disaster and humiliation. My heart, however, seemed more inclined to see the chance encounter with Ernst as an act of fate that needed to be acted upon, and I spent several hours pacing about my cramped room, trying to weigh the pros and cons of attending the party and what I could possibly wear if I did indeed cave to my heart. It was an afternoon of great (if needless) stress but eventually, with the help of the last of my alcohol and too many badly rolled cigarettes, I resolved to go along for a short while, even if it was just to catch a glimpse of the Surrealists who I so admired.
I tried to clean myself thoroughly of the olive oil that had been spilled on my face and hands but my soap ran out before I had made much headway and so I was forced go to the party with the scent and shine of it still visible on my skin. I like to imagine that the oil, and the youthful glow it gave to my skin that evening, played a part in Victor’s attraction to me. It could not have been any beauty of my own possession for as you can see, I far from an adonis, what ever he chose to call me when he was feeling complimentary.
The party was rather more raucous than I had been expecting. Wine flowed and smoke and laughter hung heavy in the air and I ached to be able to throw myself into the whirl of conversation and debate, but could not. Several of the ladies I knew well, they too were models (and other things), and I made my greetings to them and accepted a drink I was kindly offered but was not sure what else to do. Most of the men were a mystery to me and so I stood, in a corner by the patio doors where the light was dim and I might go unnoticed, with my poems folded under my arm and my drink in my hand, wishing I knew how to talk to others.
Ernst approached me eventually, hardly remembering who I was, but the woman with him, Violette, was a model and dancer who had known me some years, and when Ernst excused himself in order to speak with the great Andre Breton himself - which he announced with such pomposity I thought his chest would rise him right off the floor, as full of hot air as it was - Violette stayed and watched the room with me for some time, pointing out people she thought I might like to know, and others who she knew for a fact (so she said) that I would loathe. She was a tiny woman, was Violette, with large eyes and plump lips that drew attention away from the firm line of her jaw, all of which combined to form a creature who often seemed rather andric and fey and not quite human. She was the sort of person whose face always seems far too young for the knowledge in their head but who, like so many, had been trying to grow during the Great War, when food was scarce, and scarcer still for a young girl on her own. She had a slow way of moving her head when looking over a room and when I was a younger man I had imagined her as a queen rather than woman of many, less than proper, pursuits - surveying her subjects rather than her potential prey.
Her eyes were fixed on a thin, young man at the opposite end of the room and when I noticed this my eyes too were drawn in that direction, and I found I could not look away. His face was striking, not quite a man’s face, not quite a woman’s (though there was definitely something feminine about it). It was something other, the conclusion of the strangeness one sensed in Violette, a fey androgyny, and the fact that I found it so beautiful shocked me. He was talking with two other men, one of whom was looking at him skeptically while the other seemed simply bored, though I could not see how that could be possible based on the way the young man was gesticulating as he spoke.
His eyes were large and sparkling from wine above cheekbones so sharp they could have been sheered from a glacier. His hair, slicked back from his face in an oiled tail, was unfashionably long, and his nose stuck out like an abstract sculpture on his face, and yet I thought he was the most glorious creature I had ever seen.
“Who is he?” I mumbled to Violette and she looked away from him long enough to register the desire on my face before returning her gaze to the man in the corner.
“Victor Bauer,” she told me, rolling the name across her tongue like it was a fine wine to be savoured. “He’s Austrian. A madman. He will paint and talk and argue with his models but never tries to take them to his bed. He will say he has a wife waiting for him back in Vienna one day, and that he is sworn to a life of celibacy on another. We all adore him, but none of us believe him,” she finished with a smile that was almost a smirk.
“And why is that?” I asked, my eyes still fixed upon the man’s animated face.
“Because,” she told me, with some amusement. “He is a liar. He lies for fun, to confuse others, because he forgets the truth. He infuriates most men because he will tell them twenty facts that all sound like truth when in reality on half can be believed. But only Bauer knows which half.” She paused for a moment, her smile growing as she recalled some other memory of the man’s strangeness that had delighted her. “Would you like to meet him?”
“Yes,” I said too quickly, and Violette was gone before I could alter my reply in order to seem less desperate. Instead I kept my eyes on Monsieur Victor Bauer.
I watched as Violette strode over to him, ignoring the other men who tried to get her attention, and draped herself over Bauer to whisper, apparently seductively, in his ear. He grinned, wide and devilish, before excusing himself and following her away from the men he had been so recently in conversation with. Their eyes followed Violette, lustful and jealous in equal measures, but my eyes, still, could only see him.
And then, all too quickly, he stood before me, and my eyes could not take him in enough - roving over his slim frame, hidden though it was in the ill-fitting suit - and my mind could not think of a single word to send to my mouth by way of greeting.
“Victor,” Violette said warmly, “this is Monsieur Rosey. Gui, this is Monsieur, Bauer.”
“Thank you, my Viol,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to her cheek in a way that made my blood begin to boil, and I barely noticed her disappear into the crowd, so focused was I on those lips.
He smiled at me, tilting his head to better look at me from below, as if it were the more interesting angle, and my mouth opened, dry and empty, as a blush began to creep up my neck to paint my jaw and cheeks a burning, mottled pink.
“Hello, Monsieur,” he said, his accent apparent but not thick or jarring, and I blinked as I looked into his eyes.
And those eyes. They were blue. I hadn’t been able to tell before, when he was across the room, but now I could see that they were a pale blue, almost green, like a shallow sand pool at the beach of Porto Pollo. I tried to reply to him in kind but still could not speak, and felt my embarrassment increase as I gaped at him like a simpleton, waiting for the moment when he would surely laugh and turn away from me. But he did not. He did laugh, but it was light and good natured and he took my arm, steering me out through the patio doors and into the cool, dark garden, expressing his need for some air.
“The room was too hot for you also,” he told me matter-of-factly once we were in the relative privacy of the garden, hidden from the party by a wall overgrown with what smelt like bougainvillea.
“Yes,” I panted, trying to breathe as I regained the power of speech. “Yes, and... hello.”
He smiled at me again at that, and a strange sensation filled my stomach. It was like sitting in the bathtub as the water is let out and feeling it swirl around you as it is sucked down into the pipes. It was unsettling, yet I wanted the feeling to continue.
“So, Gui Rosey,” Victor purred, speaking my name in a way it had never been said before, slow, almost obscene. “What are you?”
“Sorry?” I stuttered, looking at him in confusion as he leaned gracefully against the wall, almost disappearing into the tendrils and leaves of the hanging plants.
“Everyone in there is something. They are artists, writers, poets, philosophers, politicians, or some combination of the above. They aren’t really friends, only not-quite enemies, staying close to one another like a herd of zebra.”
“Indeed,” he nodded at me. “They are fascinating creatures, zebras. Stupid but fascinating. There are a few at the menagerie here but they are poor specimens, I feel certain of it. I have read of them. I would like to see them in their proper habitat. Zebra look so very flashy on their own you see, my dear Rosey. But in reality their stripes are all so similar to one another’s that they can stand or run together and the lions cannot tell one from another, and so they are safe. The men in there are zebras.”
“I see,” I said quietly, and the more I thought about his words the more I did understand what he meant. “And what are you?”
“A horse,” he told me with a laugh, throwing his head back to cackle at the moon like it was the wittiest joke in creation. “A black and white horse that might pass for a zebra from a distance, when surrounded by other zebras, but which, when seen at arms length, is nothing but an ordinary, lacking in pedigree, rather small, horse.”
“Surely not,” I argued, for surely he was far more exotic than any of the posturing intellectuals in that room. Except that perhaps a horse was an exotic creature when surrounded by zebra.
He grinned at me, his face in the dim light even more strange than before, and more enticing.
“I am a horse,” he assured me. “But barely one. I am not a stallion, I might pass as a mare. Perhaps I am a mule. Some of the fools in there call me so,” he said with a sudden, hard edge to his voice. “But what are you?”
“A poet, but not a very good one,” I said, looking out into the dark, enclosed garden, wondering if that made me as pointless and self-indulgent as the men Bauer had so recently been ridiculing.
“A poet, but not a very good one,” he repeated and I felt my cheeks begin to burn with shame again until he pressed his hand to my arm, just above my wrist. “Then you are worth more than all of those men who have left behind their self doubt in pursuit of intellectual purity. Better to be starving and striving than toasted by idiots.”
I turned back to him, searching his face for a sign of malice or deceit, for some indication of the liar I had been warned he was, but his face was open and smooth and there was something in his eye that made me want to be closer to him, so I took a step forward until our bodies were no more than a centimeter apart, and felt his hand close more tightly around my wrist. He tilted his chin, this time upward, until his lips were so close to mine that the thought of kissing him filled my mind. I had never wanted to kiss another man, had always believed - even though my faith in God had been destroyed by the war and by the books that preached reason over religion - that attraction between two men, homosexuality, was an illness of the mind, or a weakness of character. And yet here I was, standing in a darkened garden, our only light the gibbous moon and the glow of the party through the patio doors, pressing my body against that of another man whilst my brain bubbled with thoughts of kissing him, holding him, feeling his body and letting him feel mine.
I did not dare move, but in the end I did not need to. He leaned ever closer, raising on to his toes so that he could run his long, impossible nose against my jaw as he whispered reassurances to me, an act which seemed more intimate in its way than a simply kiss could have been at that moment.
“I saw you watching me,” he murmured. “And I saw the look in your eye. But you do not need to be afraid, Rosey, there’s nothing to fear. I can feel it too, the pull between you and I. It is not common, but it is important. I think it is fate.”
His lips grazed against the stubble of my cheek as he leaned higher, his hands clamped onto my arms tightly as pressed his mouth to my ear.
“Come home with me, Gui Rosey.”
It was a command, not a question, and he said my name, again, like it was something delicious and obscene and I had no choice but to nod and turn my head in search of those lips which, when they met mine, I could not bare to part with.
The kisses, which I thought would be furious or aggressive, being between two men, were in reality feather light and I was shocked by the tenderness and the reverence of Victor’s lips. He kissed like a person in love, like one baring their soul, and I received them with as much returning reverence as I could summon, stroking his cheek once he had freed my arm from his grasp, instead choosing to press his palm to my chest, like a seal upon my heart.
When I felt the shudder run through his slight frame and heard and felt the sob leave his mouth and enter mine I thought for a moment that I had hurt him, even though our kisses were soft and careful, but when he pulled back from my lips I could see that there was something making him shake that was not pain, at least not of the physical sort, for there was a yearning pouring forth from him and a desire in his eyes that I knew I would have to surrender to.
“Come home with me, Gui Rosey,” he said again, his voice deeper and roughened from our passions.
And I did.