Dance of the Old Century

Dan Reiter

2016 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

He grew a beard some years into the new century, after beards came into fashion among young men but before they went out again. This was the winter of the Paris attacks, the warmest winter anyone could remember. Was he young? A bloom of white hairs—coarse, dime-sized—sprung from his chin in advance of the blacks, suggesting otherwise.

In the sixth arrondissement of Paris, in the old century, the best place to dance was l’Enfer, a lesbian boîte catacombed beneath the monolith of the rue du Départ. Inside, throbbing, blinded, you could carry through climax after climax, through extatique strobe-lit orgasm till Sunday morning, then diffuse, wan and dehydrated, like blue smoke over the muted streets, the spinning brushes of the street cleaners pumping juice into your still-churning legs.

He applied with dropper and balls of palms an Amish beard oil of sweet almond, moringa, and golden jojoba. It seemed to him old men averted their eyes from his face, or muttered cryptically beneath their breaths. Did the beard lend him an Arabic look? He was a Jew, after all. Not so far removed from the Sinai.

If you took the crushed-stone paths through the Luxembourg and climbed out the east gate, you could vanish respectfully, symmetrically, up the rue Soufflot, and patter through blond alleyways into the shadow of the Panthéon, and if you were lucky, you would chance upon the place de la Contrescarpe as if by accident.

He shaved down the high flares of the cheeks, neatened the neckline, trimmed the white hairs flush with scissors. His wife studied him in profile and approved him for their daughter’s Christmas show. It surprised him, even in the new century, how the other fathers had grown beards of their own.

In the old century, a pair of puffy-coated Arab boys passed a joint on the corner bench of the 13 train, and he said, “Où puis-je trouver ce truc là?” and followed them up through concrete echoes into the gray, iron-barred Vanves mist, where they took his money in an empty playground and left him on a bench, the plane trees hissing, the flat-faced apartments mocking him, fooling him into believing he was in a Montreal suburb, or the fringe of some northeastern American city. When they returned with their older brother, or uncle, they showed him how to fluff the rolling tobacco in the open hand, lay the little brown cube on top, and glaze it with the lighter for the mixing.

He thought if it would only cool down the beard might make more sense. He tried on different clothing and expressions. The Mississippi and Missouri overflooded their banks. Glaciers melted. Nothing matched.

On Wednesday nights, if you sprung wild-eyed from the Oberkampf station onto the Boulevard Voltaire, they would cheer for you at the doors of the Bataclan, a hundred muscled Roman soldiers, and you would join them in the dance. They were days when skyscrapers were assumed permanent installations, when beards went in and out of fashion every forty years. When you danced, it overtook you so that you had to close your eyes, and you danced as if to shed the misbelief or myth that your body belonged to yourself.

The French have fuller lips on account of certain labializations and pressurized sounds at the heart of the language. “Boulangerie” is an example of one such sound. Parisian baguettes are perfectly crisp on the outside yet warm and pliant on the inside. He wondered if this had as much to do with the city’s air as it did with the bakers. But the bread of a people did reveal certain cultural principles.

He wished for French lips and a fuller beard, and he wished for the air to cool, and that life should never become stale.

If, in the old century, you stood quietly on the Pont au Double and let your eyes blur the colors of the Seine, and tried to distinguish patterns or isolate brushstrokes, you would eventually come to wonder if Monet wasn’t moving toward enlightenment through his blindness.

Monet’s beard was already far-flung at the age of thirty-five. But the world was colder then.

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