Dorothy decides to grow a beard. If she doesn’t do it now, she never will.
Not just a wispy mustache, or a goatee that traps sweater fuzz and cat hair. She goes for the full Bandholz, as depicted in the top right corner of the CDC beard and mask infographic.
It doesn’t take long to fully materialize. Dorothy drinks plenty of water, takes her vitamins, makes sure to get 10,000 steps in every day, activates the meditation app on her phone, cuts out alcohol and smoking, slips into bed at 10 PM sharp. She tracks the rate of hair growth closely, proud of the lush plumage her face is acquiring. Certainly makes putting on makeup a whole lot simpler – now she only needs to worry about the upper half.
As soon as she wakes up, she runs her fingers through it, amazed at how bristly it is, how rubbing against it produces friction, like she is touching someone else. She tends to it as if it were a finicky plant, snipping at the edges every two days. If left to its own devices, the beard could turn her into Gandalf.
Her colleagues don’t seem to discern what’s going on or, if they do, don’t care. Working remotely from home makes it so that a certain level of frivolity is tolerated and even appreciated. Like the green-screened backgrounds of various movie landscapes or the toddler that pops up randomly in the corner, her beard prompts a few chuckles, at most a joke that every day is Halloween for Dorothy, and then the focus of attention shifts to matters more important.
At the store, where shoppers scrounge for the last reserves of flour and toilet paper, Dorothy goes completely unnoticed.
“You have a CVS card? Cash or credit?” The cashier flicks his gaze up at her, sees nothing out of the ordinary compared to the maelstrom of bizarre things he sees on a daily basis, and hands the bag over.
On the weekends, Dorothy sinks into a lawn chair facing her mother’s living room window. Ellen prattles on and on about the extinction of cruise ships, how the local elementary school keeps opening and closing every two weeks like clockwork, the neighbor’s teenage son who wanders around with his nose and mouth fully exposed.
“Wait just a minute,” Ellen says, squinting through the screen.
Out of habit, Dorothy props her hand over her jaw. She used to do this all the time, in meetings, on dates, sitting alone on her couch, until the beard showed her a different way. She braces herself.
“Is that a new scarf you’re wearing? Where’d you get it?”
Her father, God rest his soul, would have noticed as soon as Dorothy got out of the car.
One morning, on a jog, Dorothy spots another woman with a beard. Dorothy flags her down. Standing a few feet apart, they take off their masks, revel in each other’s visage, and exchange tips on grooming and eating without looking like a total mess.
“I have to say,” the woman enthuses, “I’m so glad I took the plunge. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like.”
The beard lends a hand with various aspects of Dorothy’s life. She thinks, I can do this, so what else? She throws out clothes that are too big, too small, too otherwise different from how she is at that very moment. She reaches out to acquaintances to whom she has not spoken in years. She lets the scale under her bed grow furry with dust. She bakes loaves and loaves of banana and sourdough bread, eats them joyfully. She starts the first sentence of the novel she’s always wanted to write. She meets leering gazes head-on. She feels big and magnanimous, even towards the twenty-somethings huddled together at makeshift bars on sidewalks, their masks askew or tucked under their chins, poor imitations of her beard.
Her boss announces a tentative end to working from home for April 2021. “Folks, that date could certainly end up being pushed back. We’re not ruling that out. But we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so you can start making the appropriate plans.”
Dorothy shudders. She can picture it. That first day back in the office – stumbling through all the hugs and high-fives, throwing out all the dead plants on her ledge, strapping the headset back into place. She’ll be clean-shaven, of course.
By this point, Dorothy can’t remember what she looks like without a beard. She has nightmares where it crawls right off her face and scuttles away on tiny legs, never to be seen again. “Bye!” It screams over its shoulder. “It’s been nice and all, but I’ve really got to get going before you throw me away.”
I won’t, Dorothy mutters herself awake. I won’t.
She throws out the trimmers, clippers, scissors, even the comb, instead. She decides to let the beard unfold according to its own seasons. Will it eventually fall all the way to her knees? Will she have to tie it back? Will it turn grey? She pictures herself hunched over and grizzled. The image puddles like hot honey in her chest.
Dorothy closes her eyes and pets herself, lulled by the tactile feel. She leaves those questions for another day.
Joy Guo lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is forthcoming in Failbetter.