The Dancer


The Dancer

By Alan Kaufman


First her neighbor Janey came stumbling through the lobby door and, as the dancer held the elevator for her, she noticed in Janey’s ”thank you” a certain flickering distaste. And as they rode up to their respective floors, Janey said: “I can’t even watch the news. What your people are doing to those poor folks in Gaza is just simply... how do you deal with it?”
“Deal?” asked the dancer with a confused smile.
“Don’t you want to call your relatives up over there in Israel and scream: “People! What are you doing??”
Astonished, the dancer peered at her, trying to grasp her meaning. “My people…?”
“Yes, over there. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but I have no relatives over there.”
“That you know of…” Janey said as the elevator arrived to her stop. Hoisting two grocery bags more firmly in her arms, like an indignant mother holding her two children, she elbowed open the gate  and, as she banged her way into the  fifth floor corridor, said: “Tell them over there that we’re not going to stand for it one day more.”
The dancer started to say “Stand for what?” but the gate slammed shut and she was now in a small moving chamber filled with poisonous fog and struggling desperately for breath. When the elevator arrived at her floor, the seventh, she felt on the verge of blacking out.
She entered her unit—a one bedroom with high, pale gray walls and black slate floors—a calm place furnished minimally but exquisitely by streamlined shapes of futuristic one-of-a-kind design all in white. Over these floors she had danced, sometimes from morning to night, practicing moves, exploring new possibilities. And it was not just her place of creative solitude, but also of love. Her boyfriend, Darren, a dancer too, lived with her. She hadn’t many friends, was finicky that way, but those she had she felt she knew better even than members of her own family, with whom she had, at best, struggling relations.
Darren was her soul mate. From their first encounter rehearsing for the performance of a new work scripted by a famous choreographer and held in a world-class professional venue, there had blossomed between them an instantaneous rapport of such loveliness and grace that from that day to this, when Darren climbed out of bed, quickly dressed, kissed her forehead and whispered to her half-sleeping consciousness: “I’ll be home at six,” she felt blessed with a firm sense of anchorage that nothing in the world could capsize—no sudden storm, no violent wave of circumstance. Love superseded all else. On occasion, he had tried to provoke him. Make him jealous. Hurt his feelings. Testing. He knew it. He’d looked at her as one would regard a kitten that had upended a milk saucer. Smiled affectionately with a mock stern look. Tsk’ed. Took her in his arms. Said her name. Stroked her head. Said: “Really?”
It never failed to make her laugh. Of course he knew how hopelessly in love with him she was. He had promised and delivered everything that she’d imagined a future could hold: a beautiful home and both of them on global performance tours. Finally, there was a dance company bearing his name for which she occasionally danced, and now a dance school bearing hers. She knew she would, in the end, make a  better teacher than dancer, though they were each top class. But Darren was a genius, not only in performance but in his choreography, creating dazzling works which the critics cheered. One of them—a duet performed by a couple slipping arms in and out of the coat sleeves of two tattered old hobo jackets suspended from wires, which made them seem to float dancing through the air—was, she knew, a love poem to her, and it was declared by Le Monde to be “a work of consummate genius.” After reading the review aloud to him, she touched his face. “It says that you're the next Balanchine.”
Thoughts of their future together now chased away the poison fog about which she had said nothing to Darren, not wanting him to think her morbid. How it snaked and filtered occasionally through the atmosphere of a room that she’d happened to enter, or street she walked down: a sense of being hated that she could not quite pinpoint by any locus or particular, but was rather an assemblage of accruing impressions received throughout her day from a variety of random sources, its total effect like a toxic mist over the entire city, country, world, in which she suffered a feeling of dislocation, alienation, impending doom. So she had not watched television, on principle, since the sense of threat had descended. Being young and with all of life before her, she was not about to expend her existence, like so many others her age entranced by screens of all kinds—TV, DVD, tablet, laptop, iPhone. Her work compelled her to live in her body more than most, to engage with modes of life other then the digital. The one tech indulgence she permitted herself was musical: her iTunes went with her everywhere. But even this was strictly dieted. To her, movement of any kind provided live feed into an esthetic mandala of creative potential latent in every instant—a perception, ongoing, of the choreographic qualities of the physical realm, even in the plainest, most humdrum of activities, like pushing a shopping cart, trying on clothes, or browsing in the aisles of a pharmacy. The noises or silences particular to each experience, her carriage and comportment as she went along, the attitudes struck by others who happened to be there—all these played into an ongoing registration of esthetic combinations that were to her essentially meaningful and beautiful. She asked herself: Were I to present this on a stage before an audience, how would I dance it?
Once on a crowded street, transfixed in a dream inspired by a particular song, she stood with a faraway look as pedestrians jostled past, and in her mind’s dark theater, color gel-tinted luminaires erupted, and from the left wing of an imagined stage appeared a single dancer in an arm-swinging skating sort of happy dance, and then from the right came another, and the two met center stage where they danced with each other. Then, from each side of the stage, there appeared paired performers, and then trios and quartets, until the stage was filled with dancers who moved skater-like with arms swinging from side to side, joyous, free. And then one by one the dancers melted away, to the right, to the left, until only one remained, herself, performing a slow spinning arm-swinging dizzy dance that drove her like a happy child into the darkness.
Returned again to the world among incurious rushed faces and cold annoyed glances, she stood blinking for an instant under a steel and glass cattle pen of sun-blocking skyscrapers, in a trapped sky of cold blustery wind and the honking, rattling, rankled nerves of traffic at mid-day. Then she launched herself into motion, borne along with the angry lava flow of oppressed and tired flesh that carried to her destination, as if she inhabited two worlds: one of dance, and a second over which she high-wire walked just ever so slightly above the crowded heads, her every movement daring, a sort of stunt, a gambling leap, and this had given her a very great sense of Life, of living to the fullest.
But now there was a third world of which she had not known or thought much about, or at all. Suddenly, one day, there it was, gigantic, scaly, well-concealed, a beast curled in the corners of reality, slithering beneath surfaces, recessed, disguised, often invisible. And it was not so much that she had quite suddenly noticed it, as that she felt that it had noticed her. That she lived, breathed, moved and danced ever in its sight, its watchful malevolent eyes penetrating each pore, every corner, waiting, planning.
The clear white lines of the furniture cut through the flat's spotless space with the surety of sculpture. They had decorated the apartment together. It was, in a sense, an extension of their shared values, an expression of their esthetic and their love. One might have thought the décor Zen-like but it was not. The spareness possessed all the intellectual rigor and content of a painting by Mondrian, with an implication of exactness not strictly enforced but spiritually longed for, rules of a purely theoretical notion of impossible beauty upheld, enforced, and affirmed, quietly, modestly, proudly. This was their life. It was her world. He was her world. She believed deeply, unspeakably, that he was her and she was him: that they were one, genderless even. A pas des deux of tender elements perfectly combined.
She settled into a sleepwalking routine of preparing dinner for them, setting the table, put on music, Gregory Porter, his favorite new American Jazz singer, and settled down with an issue of Paris Match. She thumbed through the pages sightlessly, her heart waiting. When, hours later, the tumblers spun the lock, her heart leaped almost painfully, but she forced herself to remain on the sofa, appearing relaxed, wine goblet in one hand, the fingers of the other turning the pages of the magazine. She looked up, smiled: “Look who’s home!”
Oddly, his face turned away, avoiding hers, his profile partially obscured by his lustrous, long, gold-brown hair. Unlike her, his skin was tawny, his build lean but rugged, his face square-jawed, with high cheekbones, clean white teeth and green-blue eyes.
She, by contrast, was pale, with jet black curly hair, big dark dusky eyes.
She sought his eyes. He hid them still.
“Hello,” she said, voice now a touch strained.
“Hi,” he said coldly.
She set down the wine glass. Sat straight up. Hands folded carefully in lap. Not daring to speak. As if a wolf had entered the room and was sniffing the air for her human scent.
He shrugged off his coat, unraveled his scarf, threw down his dancing gear bag. Going to the refrigerator, he opened it and leaned into the lit interior of food-lined shelves.
“There’s dinner on the table,” she said cautiously.
“I know, I saw. I’m looking for a beer. Is there a beer in this place?”
Mentally she took note: “This place.”
“I don’t see there’s any left,” he continued. He stood up to his full height, out of the light, staring for a moment at a mental picture of what he was about to say, of what would ensue as a result. He glanced sharply to the right, directly at her, yet his eyes seemed not to see, and were still calculating. He looked away.
Her heart pounded. Nothing like this had ever happened before. She was not sure what it was. She said: “Something is on your mind. Why don’t you sit here and tell me about it?” and patted the sofa cushion beside her, smiling. “Sit here. Next to me.”
The warm invitation came out all wrong. It looked tense, nervous, unappealingly desperate.
“Have you watched the reports?”
“What reports?”
“The news. Do you ever watch it?”
Taken aback, she said: “What’s happened?”
He stared at her. “Jacques and Cherise have invited me to a protest. I’m going.”
“A protest? For what? What will you be protesting?”
He hesitated. Then: “What you Jews are doing to the babies in Gaza.”
Inside, she began to shrink at the pace of a scream, for as long as a very long scream would take, and a long dwindling away into a place so recessed that even she had no idea where it was. But it felt strangely familiar, though she had no recollection of ever having gone there before, or of collapsing so rapidly and completely into a microscopic version of herself that could be crushed under ones thumb like a picnic ant.
Speechless, she wrapped an arm around her abdomen, put her hand there, then to her heart, then her throat, lightly, as a doctor might, to feel in those life-sensitive places if there still was a pulse. But she felt weightless, transformed, ghostly, and a lack of gravity threatening to lift her up, blow her away.
Darren was a bit taken aback by his own vehemence – he had never spoken this way to her or anyone before—yet he was also energized by it, encouraged by a tingling sense of exhilaration, of profound release. He pressed on: “Well, they are your people, aren’t they? Those Israelis? They’re Jews. And you’re a Jew.”
The way he said ”a Jew” possessed the cold disdain of the word inscribed on the yellow star that her grandparents had told her they had been forced to wear in the war.
“I know,” she said hesitantly, “that there’s some fighting going on there, but there’s always fighting. What has that got to do with us?”
He threw up his hands in exasperation. “Us! Us! Everything is always about us! This place. Our careers…” He paused, then said: “The children you expect us to have. For you it's not about them, is it? It's not even about us! It's about you! And if we have them, that makes them Jewish, no? I'm not sure after learning about Gaza that I want to bring more Jews into the world.”
She felt his words like a direct kick to her abdomen. As she fought for breath, he went on: “Not everything is us. Not everything is this place. Or even dance. There’s a big world out there. But you seem never to notice. You live in a bubble. We have no… no…” He struggled for the right words. “What are our politics? What are mine? What are yours? Everyone has to take a stand. But you have no stand about anything. You stand for nothing.”
In a voice barely a whisper, she said: “Us? I stand for us. For our lives together, our careers. Doesn’t that count?”
He shook his head, his handsome face flushed, angry, wrestling with unfamiliar feelings that clenched his features into a new kind of face masked by ugly uncontrollable ferocity, like someone in the grip of a fiercely addictive opiate whose effects have worn off.  
“No. No. No. No. No! There is more to things than that. Not when babies die.”
“Which babies, darling?”
“Palestinian babies! Your people are bombing them. I saw pictures on the television at Jacques and Cherise’s.” His hands went to his face. “My God!” he gasped. His large, beautiful hands—hands she’d kissed, hands that knew her every part intimately, fingers that had felt every part of her, within and without, that she longed now to bring to her lips, kiss, kiss, kiss, and press to her cheek, and let enfold her small, delicate hand protectively, entwining. And lead them to bed to rest together lying with her back to his chest, under a warm cover and no wounding words, only a restoration of sanity. But now there were corpses in the room. Corpses of Palestinian babies.
“I'm sorry,” she said tiredly. “I don't know what you're talking about.” And just like that his anger vanished. Replaced by a visible weariness so deep she thought he might be ill. “You are not well, darling. You don’t look well.” She wished to approach him but didn’t feel safe to.
He sank into a chair, a tired man turning forty, dressed all in black, slumped into a white canvas chair.
“So what happened?” she asked. You mean Israel went over there with airplanes and bombed babies? Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Why? How would I know that? Only a Jew would know that. I’m not a Jew. You tell me why.”
“But I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about Israel. I’ve never been there. I’m a dancer. You’re a dancer. We are citizens of dance. That is our country. That, and love.”
“Yes. Yes. I’m sure. Nonetheless, I’m going to the demonstration. And I want you to come, too. Jacques and Cherise helped to organize it. Just because we are dancers does not mean that we must live with our heads in the sand.”
She offered a flicker of a smile. “Ostriches,” she said teasingly. “I think we’d make a cute pair. We could do our ostrich dance.”
“Laugh,” he said, unamused. “But you’re coming.”
“Big crowds frighten me.”
“You’re going. We have a responsibility as human beings to stand up and be heard. We will not allow this butchering of helpless babies by Jews in their military murder machines.”
“Darling, please. Your way of putting these things seems a little… You don’t sound like yourself.”
“I’m not myself. How can anyone be oneself when such things occur?”
She said firmly: “One must be oneself regardless of what occurs. One must be true to oneself.”
“Well, this is true to me.”
“Really?” she asked, a bit of irritation entering into her voice. “I’ve never once heard you express a political opinion. When we met, you told me that you hated politics. That you wanted nothing whatever to do with it. I loved you for that.”
“Maybe I was wrong. I have no reason to adopt such a position when the world is on fire.”
“You said that you were ashamed of politics. That your grandfather and uncle had been supporters of Laval during the German occupation. That they had something to do with Petain deporting Jews.”
“This has nothing to do with the German occupation. This is about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian's land. Jews, who should know better, have blood on their hands. They have become the worst butchers! Slaughtering the infants of Gaza. It’s a massacre.”
“How many have they killed?”
“1,400 so far.”
“1,400 babies?”
“No… I… I don’t know the exact figure. It might be less, or more.”
“And they just went in and killed them? They flew across the border in airplanes with a mission to bomb babies?”
His face hardened. “You are going to the demonstration tomorrow. You will not dance. You will not stay home and practice. You will not do anything but go with me. Do you understand what this means to me?”
She wanted to ask who he thought he was talking to. How dare he address her in this way? And why did he wish to render as ugly as possible something as flawlessly beautiful as their lives and love had been? But all right. Here was a side of him that she had not known about, and that she suspected neither had he. They were at some sort of crossroads. Clearly he was out of his mind, but maybe this would not go away. And if she did not attend the demonstration, possibly she might lose him. Or she might go, yet still lose him somehow. Her world, the life she had so carefully nurtured, felt abruptly done with, and she did not know what to make of what had come suddenly to replace it. She heard her voice say weakly, and as from a great remove: “All right then. I’ll go.”
The next day, the day of the demonstration, Darren ran out to purchase “something important.” An hour later he returned on his scooter with a small, pale green, knotted plastic bag from which he removed two red Arab kaffiyehs for  them to wear as scarves.
She stood, holding the long checked garment edged with frills tipped with little white pom poms, and looked up questioningly at Darren. “Where did you get these?”
“The Marais.”
“The Jewish Quarter?”
He shrugged. “I knew they sold them there.”
Sarcastically she said: “You bought this in the Jewish Quarter to wear at your demonstration against Jews? Very nice.”
“It’s not a demonstration against Jews. It’s against Israel.”
“Last I heard,” she said, stuffing the kaffiyeh into her shoulder bag, “Israel is the Jewish State.”
“Israelis, Jews,” he said. “What’s the difference? They’re Jews. I'm asking you to wear it,” he said with a sharp tone that, if she didn’t know better, she would have felt sure contained real hatred.
She walked to the coffee table and picked up a newspaper. “Have you looked in here? Have you seen what it says?”
“About what?”
“There’s a front page story that Jews are afraid to wear their skullcaps because if they do Arab gangs will beat them up.” She shook the paper at him. “That’s disgusting!”
He turned up his nose in disdain and waved the paper away. “Gangs! Gangs! Groups of poor illiterate Arab kids from the projects with no hope and too much time on their hands.” He looked at her. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know what’s happening to us. To you. You’re not yourself. Last night we slept at opposite ends of the bed. I couldn’t sleep. It was a nightmare. I don’t want to go to this demonstration. I don’t want anything to do with Jews or Arabs or Israelis or whatever you want to call it. I’m a dancer. We are dancers. Let the others tear themselves to pieces. We live lives of beauty. Of serenity. Of accomplishment. We have everything we need. Our talents have been good to us. Our talents are gifts. We mustn’t betray our gifts because the world is going mad or else this will happen.”
She pointed a single extended finger at the space separating them, as though it were an object visible to them both: something armor-plated, hideous, breathing heavily between them. “This separation. This apartness. This senseless, needless anger that you have brought into our home since you returned from visiting Jacques and Cherise last week. I thought I knew them well. I was wrong. Look how they have poisoned you. And are poisoning us.”
But the expression in his face told her that he had no interest in looking, or seeing, and that he was offended by her take on his new best friends. All he said was: “I’m going now. Are you coming with me, or not?”
She closed her eyes and opened them. She removed the kaffiyeh from the bag and tied it around her neck. He turned and opened the door. Wordlessly she followed him out.
They rode there on his scooter, her hands clapped about his waist, her head resting with eyes closed against the leather jacketing his broad, beautiful back. As they wove through traffic, she let the scooter’s motions cradle her, and for a moment, briefly, some of the old peace returned. The old faith, the belief in who he was, and once again they were what their life together stood for, and meant. Growing up in Paris, training for dance rigorously since the age of seven, this is what she had prayed for, wept for, waited for, wanted. This was the reward for the endless grueling hours, the blisters, the self-deprivation, the bouts of sometimes near-starvation, the aches and injuries, and the absence of any real personal development, which she recognized when comparing herself to others who were not professional dancers, and she saw the maturity and wisdom of life in their eyes. Whereas, she knew inside she was still that child, the very same, who sat alone rubbing her sore feet at Madame Trentain’s, for years her dancing master, silently weeping because she’d been forbidden to attend some party or after-school activity if it interfered with her afternoon lessons, and mostly they did. Later, when older, but still only a teen she had dreamed of a man like Darren—one man to fill all her needs. She knew she would never enjoy a large circle of friends. She was too inward, shy, inhibited. It would take only a single man to right the imbalance, fill her world, and when Darren appeared she knew instantly that he was the one whom she had longed and waited for, and nothing he had done until now had betrayed that understanding. Loyal to a fault, social, but not overly, deeply disciplined, he was her bridge to the world. She had met others halfway on that bridge but had not allowed anyone to cross over to her side. That was for her and Darren only.
No, this rupture was an aberration. She gripped him tighter. At a stoplight he placed his gloved hand on hers, reassuringly, affectionately. She pressed her helmet to his back, squeezed his waist. He revved, then sped off.
She felt secure until the moment that she heard the sound of thousands of voices melded into a single unreal chanting hive of cataclysmic fury.     
Darren pulled into a narrow side street, locked their helmets into the luggage rack in back and they walked out into the thick of the demonstration. There were Palestinian flags, protest signs, and the protestors chanting in unison, with faces contorted by rage, veins bulging from necks, fists punching the air, some people in black face masks marching under ominous piratical black flags inscribed with Arabic. She did not know what these flags meant but they frightened her, representing something inimically opposed, not only to her, but to the very streets they walked upon, and even to those who marched under sympathetic banners in French, and even to those who naively marched beside them with well-meaning faces. Some of the masked ones carried mock shoulder-held rockets and other kinds of dummy weapons. There were signs that showed horrifying photos of mutilated children, but she had no idea where the pictures had come from and some even seemed to be from previous decades. Some of the protestors ran through the crowd streaming a Palestinian flag behind them, like in a soccer match, and with hysterical looks of ecstatic triumph that seemed to be drug-induced. There were signs that bore a Jewish star and a swastika, united by the mathematical symbol for equal quantities. She could not bear even the brief glimpse at this obscene equation, but these signs were everywhere, there was no escaping them, and they made her feel physically sick.
“We have to get close to the front,” Darren shouted at her, ignoring her visibly shaken face. “Jacques and Cherise are marching there with the other organizers.”
He began to jog eagerly forward, indifferent to her, never once looking back to see if she’d kept up, and she followed in a kind of hapless trance, powerless not to. Only now did she notice the large number of police in riot gear. She heard the chants “Kill the Jews!” and “Death to the Jews!” being screamed by the demonstrators, and looked at the police for their response. There was none. They lounged along the barricades with their helmets casually tilted back on their heads.
The closer they came to the head of the march, the fiercer the tone and tempo of the chants: “Kill the Jews! Death to the Jews! We are all Hezbollah! We are Hamas!” 


They found Jacques and Cherise in the front rank, holding up their piece of a long banner painted with Arabic words she could not read. Darren slipped in beside Cherise and she stepped beside Darren. Jacques and Cherise both looked at her and nodded grimly. Cherise made a small effort to smile but only looked shattered. Up ahead a smattering of men and teens with kerchiefs tied around their faces ran with bricks, bottles, cans, sticks, and clubs. Up ahead a mass of police were now assembling, behind them a half-track with water cannon. A petrol bomb exploded in the road between the demonstrators and the police, spilling fire. Rocks were thrown. The police raised shields. Icy fear gripped her. She did not belong here. She felt trapped. But there was no way back, only forward. Up ahead the unruly cadre of masked and armed men began to skip forward, hurl things, retreat. A tear gas canister skipped along the cobblestones, bounced and exploded in white smoke. Then Cherise shrieked, “The Jews are murderers! Israeli Jews kill Arab babies!” and a few nearby, including Darren and Jacques, took up her chant. Then the whole crowd joined in. And as they did so, with swelling necks and tensed facial muscles, and with eyes rapturous with daring, they glanced at each other affirmatively, as if they were committing some adventurous moral deed in uttering such obscenities. And the dancer now felt utterly sick, deeply ashamed, and completely alone, and she wondered, What am I doing here? I am a dancer. But deeper within, a small voice whispered: And I am a Jew.


Copyright © Alan Kaufman 2016

Alan Kaufman, an American-Israeli and member of PEN American, is author of the novel Matches (Little, Brown) and the memoirs Jew Boy (FSG Fromm) and Drunken Angel (Viva Editions). He is the editor of four anthologies: The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The Outlaw Bible of American Literature (co-edited with Barney Rosset), The Outlaw Bible of American Essays (all from Basic Books/ Perseus) and The New Generation: Fiction for Our Time From America's Writing Programs (Doubleday). A 2015-16 New York Public Library Affiliated Scholar of the 42nd Street main branch, he is working on his next book.

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