Love in the Time of Corona IV

The fire that consumed the Hotel Fakir made the front page of the Charleston Evening Post. For those whose days were lived in fear, the blaze confirmed that citizen vigilantes, preferably armed in accordance with the Second Amendment, should defend the city against infiltration from all points north of Calhoun Street. Tango was of course the pre-eminent raison d’etre of the Hotel Fakir, and Tango’s shameless connection between men and women who would otherwise be strangers no doubt fueled, together with the Molotov cocktail, the enthusiasm with which the Post reported the spectacular demise of the Hotel Fakir.

Die-hard Hotel Fakir regulars mourned above all the enigmatic Ignatio Quiroga, who could easily have escaped the catastrophe, but instead sought to save some prints, the Aquitania among them, and a handful of photographs of tango intimates, family, Hotel Fakir habitués, and written testimonials that adorned the bar next to his extravagant daily displays of tropical flowers. Ignatio Quiroga died aged 90, a soldier and tanguero whose checkered career included command of the 7th Infantry in the Falkland Islands campaign. As a boy in Buenos Aires, accompanying his mother to milongas where she worked as a dancer, he had learned the feminine role in Tango because young men needed compliant followers to hone their skills as tangueros. This knowledge animated the masterful tangos that he performed occasionally in the Hotel Fakir, but more often found expression in laconic and perceptive remarks as he concocted his heady drinks behind the bar.

The next morning, firemen probing the smouldering ruin of the Hotel Fakir found the remains of Ignatio Quiroga behind the blistered black-lacquered door, surrounded by fused globules of shattered etched glass from the transom. A right hand, which had somehow escaped incineration, grasped a framed sepia photograph of Graciela, her eyes closed, her hands cradling Ignatio in an intimate tango embrace. In the background, a blurred but recognizable Osvaldo Pugliese was leading his orchestra in a performance of what could only have been “Manos Adoradas”.

Love in the Time of Corona III

At that moment, while he was still contemplatively swirling his Sheldaig, the officer’s radio erupted in a series of unintelligible squawks that stiffened his spine and caused him to swallow his Sheldaig pronto. “Gotta go,” he said, hitching his belt, “Looks like we got us a riot on Meeting Street.” He hiccuped, belched once or twice, and paused momentarily as Max and Dolores swept unconcernedly past him, eyes closed, rapt in the Tango moment spun by Di Sarli’s violin and bandoneon. He swung open the black-laquered door of the Hotel Fakir and fumbled with his belt-full of riot-control gear as distant concussions and the percussive beats of a helicopter and its sweeping searchlight invaded the Hotel Fakir. Ignatio listened attentively to the growing ruckus beyond the cobbled alley, and then resumed his reflective polishing of wine glasses, pausing now and again to study the small collection of photographs next to his tropical flowers. 

Dolores walked over and caught the faraway look in his eye. “Tell me a story, Ignatio”, she said, “I’m not dancing.” He adjusted a sepia photograph showing a young man and a woman in a silk dress and high heels in a close tango embrace.

“Long ago I led a garrison defending a remote archipelago against foreign aggression,” he said, absent-mindedly touching the gold military pin on his lapel. “My adjutant was political, the bureaucracy’s eye on the battlefield.” He glanced at the photograph. “His wife Graciela and I were in love. I see her in you, Dolores.” Ignatio took her hand in his. She smiled, but his tired lined face was impassive. “Things didn’t end well. I escaped a firing squad with the help of a brother officer named Ferreyra, who was shot instead.” 

Dolores was used to Ignatio’s darker moods, and turned away to look for Max, unprepared for what came next. With an explosive crash the etched glass transom over the front door splintered into a thousand shards. Something smoking and ominous lay spinning out on the dance floor. She glimpsed a bottle, a rag, a tiny lick of flame. With an almighty silent detonation, the salon was suddenly an incandescent lake of fire, and for one suspended second, everything stopped. And then panic set in as she and Max fled out to the patio, slapping with bare hands at promiscuous claws of fire that raked them as they ran. They cowered by the wrought iron railings under the fig trees. The Hotel Fakir, triumphantly ablaze in its final moments, defiant in the delayed drenching of fire hoses, slowly collapsed in monumental showers of sparks. Just then, Dolores realized that Ignatio was no longer with them. A spectral figure was silhouetted against the fiery tableau, heading back into the flames.

Love in the Time of Corona II

About halfway through their first tanda, Dolores’s close embrace evoked Max’s first memory, of being swaddled in warm blankets in his pram, and gazing in rapt wonderment at apple blossoms and blue skies. Over by the bar, Ignatio had set a glass of Scotch before a new arrival, one of the city’s finest, who had carefully lowered his spacious backside onto a barstool and adjusted his belt-full of law enforcement paraphernalia that included a squawking walkie-talkie, a couple of ziplock cuffs, and a holstered black handgun. Ignatio was explaining, between coughs, that all relevant COVID-19 guidelines were in effect, and that he’d be happy to replenish the officer’s glass as needed.

“What about them?” the officer asked, gesturing at Dolores and Max as he swirled and downed his Scotch. His face was flushed, and he reached for a napkin decorated with the Hotel Fakir logo and wiped his brow. “I don’t see face-masks. I don’t see gloves. The caskets for these two are on their way.”

Ignatio was diplomatic, as always. “Officer, your concerns are well-founded. And I assure you, as we speak, that I’m fixing any and all irregularities going forward.” He paused as Max and Dolores passed by, animating the otherwise still mirrors of the tango salon. “They’re essential personnel, first responders at the Medical University. They have an hour or two off, then they’re back in the ER.” He set a bottle with a complex inviting label on the bar between them. “By the way, are you familiar with Sheildaig, an outstanding Finest Old single malt Scotch whisky from Islay?” The officer sighed, nodded, nudged his empty glass towards Ignatio, and said, “You read me like a book, Ignatio. I’ve always liked your tango salon. The way that everyone behaves. Not what you’d expect when people who’ve never met get close and intimate, know what I mean?”

Ignatio poured a measure of Sheldaig into the officer’s glass. “Shakespeare once said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’”. He passed his wipe across the zinc surface of the bar. “We deal here in dreams, Officer, dreams locked in our unconscious. Tango merely picks the lock.”

Love in the Time Of Corona

A viral pandemic is as good an excuse as any to explore the wild outdoors. Complying with federal guidelines, Max had spent weeks in lockdown, shunning all human contact, dutifully noting depletion of staples from his larder and fridge. His stash of disinfectant wipes, bleach and toilet paper was a mockery of its former self. He replenished essential supplies once a week, armed with silicone gloves and wipes, in carefully planned excursions to a nearby Food Lion in his failing SUV which had inconveniently developed transmission issues. When gun sales took off, he realized that human contact was more essential than toilet paper. At the time, he was winning against shut-ins like himself seeking refuge in online chess. But mental acuity in silico lacks the spontaneity of real life encounters. And so, one evening, having foiled another assault on his chess rating, he texted Dolores and ventured out to the Hotel Fakir, where as far as he knew the tango salon was still catering to those for whom the viral pandemic was an excuse to indulge in end-time excess.

No-one lingered in the cobbled alley leading to the black-laquered door of the Hotel Fakir and its transom etching of an admonitory cobra. Inside, Ignatio Quiroga presided over the salon, immaculate as always in a starched white shirt and black tie. He was wiping the bar’s zinc surface and polishing glasses. A discreet military decoration was  pinned to the lapel of his dinner jacket. His gladioli and clematis arrangement at the end of the bar was only a little wilted. A Di Sarli tango wafted aimlessly across the deserted parquet dance floor and the still reflections in the mirrored far wall of the salon. He looked up in surprise as Max settled onto a bar-stool. 

“Good to see you, Max,” he said, “Malbec?”  He coughed into his elbow and wiped beads of sweat from his brow. His face as he turned to Max was waxen and skeletal.

Stunned, Max thought about octogenarian susceptibility to viruses, and the probability that viral death trumped the existential respite afforded by Tango.

“A Corona, Ignatio, thank you,” he said. “By the way, have you thought about getting tested? I can get you tested. The Hotel Fakir needs you now more than ever.“

Ignatio fixed his rheumy eyes on Max. “A viral pandemic tests us, Max, not the other way around.” He suppressed a cough, and then another,  “Look around you. Where is everyone? Sheltering at home? Viruses don’t discriminate between those in love, those who aren’t, and those in the grip of Tango. We’ll all be infected eventually. We must enjoy life while we can.” 

Max retrieved a disinfectant wipe from his pocket and discreetly wiped his beer glass. “You may be right, Ignatio. We can die now, or we can die later. I prefer later.” He looked around the empty tango salon and thought back to the days before DJs when a bandoneon, violin, and piano trio ruled the Hotel Fakir. The salon would be heady with ladies’ perfumes, tropical flowers, fine wine, and cigarillos. This potent mix would be fueled by dramas driven by desire, jealousy, unrequited love, and Tango.

For now, end-time excess was nowhere to be seen. Ignatio had withdrawn to the far end of the bar, tending his signature flowers. Max finished his Corona and was thinking about another when he felt cool fresh air wafting across the dance floor. He turned and saw Dolores pause at the door, smooth her silk satin dress and touch her hair. She came over to the bar, her heels tapping on the parquet, and signaled to Ignatio for her usual. The Di Sarli tango segued into Miguel Calo’s “El Vals Sonador”. Ignatio coughed again and again into his elbow. Max took her hand, virus be damned, and said, “Let’s dance.” Dolores set her purse on the bar next to her Manhattan, and stepped, together with Max, into the clear space that separates life from death.

Wordless

In response to his glancing eyes that pause here and there, then catch and hold hers and take in the dance floor, she nods her head, adjusts a strap on a gilded stiletto, sets aside her wine glass and iPhone, and rises from her table, smooths her dress, and awaits his imminent arrival. He smiles, and offers his hand. They embrace, motionless, alert for the next musical phrase, and then dip into a long salida. Their ensuing connection, perfectly synchronized with the mellifluous interplay of bandoneon, violin and piano, created with selfless panache by a tiny orchestra back in the corner, becomes a conversation that touches, within minutes, on their neglected needs, and points directly towards fulfillment, practical or otherwise. Now and again, leading her into ochos cortados, he looks into her eyes and sees there a reflection of his own acquiescence to paths less traveled. Their conversation, expressed as an intimate dance harnessed to a timeless melody, bypasses the trips and falls of mere words, and when the song ends, and they embrace for a long moment and then return to their little tables and wine glasses, they are enriched beyond measure. He is slow to resume his placid scan of eager eyes, while she twirls her wineglass and considers her options.

Two Talks

Hours must have passed because his dreams fragmented and became more vivid, and were finally corralled and hijacked by a symphonic chorus of crickets. He opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight flooding his room at the Halcyion Suites. He groped for his phone and killed the insistent chirps. He couldn’t remember exactly how he’d made it back. The bathroom mirror and tentative fingers on his throat revealed nothing unusual. Looking out the window he saw his car three stories below, parked askew. The driver’s door was open, and a front wheel had mounted the curb and wedged itself in the glossy vinca minor.

His lecture was in an hour. He reviewed his slides over hurried chunks of buttered baguette and black coffee, and made it to the meeting room in West Hall A in good time. Pharma reps and postdocs in jeans tapped their phones between talks. At the podium, he coaxed details of bacterial pathology from the projected data as his ruby laser danced across the screen. But his thoughts were overrun by images of Fairouz skipping with him through thunder showers, and their ardent nuzzling to Di Sarli tangos. Fairouz breathed intimately into his ear, her crisp boleos and sensual barridas flawlessly reflected as they swept by the mirrors. Her joy in Tango was the universal joy of women no longer deprived of their need to be enfolded in love. Max fielded a question or two, then headed out to the Islamic women’s rights convention.

He sensed a tangent into novel experience as he queried his phone and saw that women’s rights were in East Hall A. Max had long grown accustomed to inhabiting parallel lives that came and went as naturally as day follows night. His days began with recollection of evanescent dreams, followed by a drive across estuarine sea-marshes into the city. One day he would listen to a sober public news station, thinking about scholarly tasks awaiting him at work. The next day, he’d listen to Argentine tangos by Canaro, Di Sarli, Troilo, Pugliese, and D’Arienzo. The music diverted his thoughts into a life with clear priorities: listening more intently, dancing perfectly aligned with his partner’s close embrace and her flying high heels, and carnal daydreams.

For long minutes he traversed glass-fronted concrete galleries and drifted down silent escalators, coming at last to a darkened packed auditorium. He made his way closer to the stage, and found a seat between an overweight lady who appeared to be asleep and an earnest younger woman with her hair in corn-rows. He listened intently for a minute or two before realizing that Fairouz was speaking, poised and matter-of-fact behind the podium. She was crisp and business-like in an ash gray jacket and skirt, and a tiny microphone was clipped to the creamy open collar of her blouse.

“Tens of thousands of Somalis died when Ethiopia invaded my homeland. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee Mogadishu. To defenseless Somalis, the marauding aliens were incarnations of the Woyanne, the US-backed Ethiopian vampire regime that deflected criticism of horrific human rights abuse by going after Al-Shabaab jihadists in South Somalia.”

Her laser pointer cast a fluorescent green spot onto a grainy image of a desert landscape. Skeletal women and children huddled in the sparse shade of thorn trees. In the next slide a column of light tanks and SUVs bristling with machine guns and AK47s hurtled through an abandoned village of thatched huts. And then her laser picked out a young girl struggling in her mother’s arms as a turbanned elder probed between the child’s splayed legs with a curved and bloodied knife. Max felt an uncomfortable stir in the darkened auditorium, and marveled at Fairouz’s composure as she recited statistics of genital cutting in Somalia. Such things were not uppermost in the educated placid minds of her audience.

When the lights came up, the moribund lady on his right came to life and challenged Fairouz on US complicity in East African affairs. Fairouz methodically cited her sources, thanked everyone for their attention, and turned towards the door. Max followed her out to a terrace overlooking a distant marine theme park. Vivid blue water slides towered over diminutive tiki bars and sun umbrellas lining the scalloped edges of a mega-pool. Shading her eyes, Fairouz leaned against the parapet and smiled. Max remembered their involuntary recoil and easy surrender at the first tentative bite.

“Fairouz,” he said, “What did you mean, the Ethiopian vampire regime?”

“Ovidio and I took you home last night,” she said. “You were a little out of it; you seemed to think that we preyed on others. Tango is pretty elemental, I agree, but really…? The Ethiopian vampires? A useful metaphor for those who oppose genocide.”

Dimly-Lit Tango

In the bright antiseptic lobby of the Amorous Dance Pole Studio, Max changed into his felt-soled dance shoes, stuffed his wallet, cell phone and keys into his backpack, and pushed it under a chair. A cat lay back there, a coal black tom, curled up, regarding him sleepily. Pugliese’s intoxicating waltz Desde el Alma greeted Max as he entered the dimly-lit studio. Couples embraced in varying degrees of intimacy passed before him, some barely moving, swaying slowly in time with the music. Others, more balletic, executed ochos and paradas. Everyone navigated the crepuscular dance floor with eyes closed, guided by a sixth sense that integrated the mandates of the song into their connection.

Max ventured further into the studio and paused in a corner to study a woman sitting alone at a bistro table graced with a softly flickering electric candle and a half-empty wine-glass. She, unlike the cat, sat upright, and gazed intently at the flow of dancers. She toyed idly with an emerald pendant at her throat. Once or twice, in the half-gloom, he thought that her glance caught his and then seemed to dart off, like a songbird startled by a prowling tom. In this dimly-lit milonga, which muddled the clarity of traditional cabeceos, Max found himself at  her table, tongue-tied at the conventional “Would you like to dance?” Instead, he made a courtly half-bow, held out his hand, and gestured towards the dance floor. She regarded him levelly, tucked the glowing pendant into her blouse, and took his hand.

Max marveled, not for the first time, at Tango’s defiance of societal norms that allowed him to gather into his arms, with her consent, in a dimly-lit room, a strange beautiful woman, and then to establish with her, abetted by music expressly composed to this end, a connection that was just a beat or two short of the emotional and physical entanglement that heralds the consummation of marital, or merely infatuated, love.

Too soon, La Cumparsita signaled the last song. Their reverie slowly surfaced into everyday reality, the lights came up, blindingly, and his compliant consort, no longer a stranger, smiled as she adjusted the emerald at her throat, and returned to her table, guided lightly by his fingertips on the cool of her back. The tango salon, no longer dimly-lit, as antiseptic as the bright lobby where people now fumbled for their odds and ends, revealed itself as a bit-player in a fundamentally ersatz but compelling drama of human connection. Max knew that this was where he wanted to be. The coal black tom emerged from his comfortable nook. He prowled among the departing dancers, shrugging off perfunctory pats, seeking a dimly-lit cranny, far removed from heartfelt farewells and charged invitations.