I was listening the other night to Francisco Canaro and his Tango orchestra when I noticed I was running on empty. I pulled into a gas station on Meeting Street, not far from the Charleston waterfront. The sun had set hours before, the sky was deep lavender, and bullfrogs were calling from the marsh. I leaned against the car, holding the gas nozzle, and closed my eyes. I moved imperceptibly in time with the music. And then I heard, faintly, a different tango song wafting softly on the humid evening air. I walked across the street, following the song, and turned into an alley just beyond Prioleau Street. I passed through a wrought-iron gate and a cobblestone patio, and came to a black lacquered door with polished brasses. An etched glass transom showed a poised cobra and the words “Hotel Fakir”. The music was louder now, and silhouetted shadows of dancers moved across the glass.
I knocked once, tentatively; the door was unlatched and swung silently open. I crossed the threshold into a candle-lit room. Foxed mirrors and century-old Cunard Line posters adorned the walls. A handful of men and women conversed quietly at bistro tables set to one side. The ladies’ heels and slit silk skirts accentuated their elegantly crossed legs. A lone couple was dancing to Pugliese’s seductively sublime vals “Desde el Alma”. At the back of the room, a Tiffany lampshade cast a soft glow over the bar. I eased onto a barstool. Beside me, a bouquet of gladioli, clematis and orchids breathed intoxicating scents into the air. The elderly bartender, grave and formal in starched shirt and tie, set aside a polished glass and inclined his head.
“Welcome to the Hotel Fakir,” he said, and raised an eyebrow. “Tiza Malbec, please. Nice place you have here. What is this?” “We’ve always been here. Those who love the tango, the true aficionados, they need to dance every day. We try to feed that need, from late afternoon until early morning. Now that you’ve found us, you’ll always be back.”
I turned to watch the dancing couple as they swept by. Their upper bodies moved as one, and their feet flew in a syncopated rhythm of fast intertwining steps. His hand on her back traced subtle patterns of touch and go. Her eyes were closed, and the expression on her face was dreamy and peaceful. A lady in gilded stilettos sitting nearby caught my eye. She held my gaze, smiled, and took my offered hand. We embraced and swayed hypnotically for a moment, seeking the next musical phrase. The tango poised within us came to life, and we moved fluently from a walk into an ocho cortado, a molinete, and a flamboyant sentada… Suddenly, from nowhere, cold gasoline splashed over my hands and feet as my car overflowed, and the Hotel Fakir, the hypnotized cobra and my ardent partner all evaporated into the night… On the radio, Canaro and his orchestra were signing off with “La Cumparsita”, singing the melancholy words: “Tell me, Senora, what have you done to my poor heart?”
One of the Cunard Line posters that used to adorn the Hotel Fakir tango salon showed the RMS Aquitania, a luxurious ocean liner launched on the eve of the First World War. Aquitania’s towering black hull and four red funnels loomed over gliding tango aficionados, evoking an age of civility and culture that has no place in today’s insular informality. The Aquitania was built by Scots in a Clydebank shipyard and was christened by Alice, Countess of Derby, who served at the time as Queen Alexandra’s Lady of the Bedchamber. Ignatio Quiroga, bartender at the Hotel Fakir, a highly-decorated but somehow disgraced Argentine general exiled in Charleston, and himself a skilled tanguero, once mentioned that both Alice and Alexandra had been avid tangueras. Max, a college professor whose bacterial physiology lectures were popular with the few medical students who still came to class, and a frequent visitor to the Hotel Fakir where he sipped Malbec next to tropical flowers that Ignatio refreshed every day, was intrigued but skeptical.
Months after the disastrous fire, by improbable chance, Max came across the framed Aquitania poster in a run-down rural thrift-store on Johns Island in South Carolina. The glass bore sooty mementos of the gas-fueled inferno that had consumed the Hotel Fakir. On the back was a pasted book-plate depicting a poised cobra and the words “Ex Libris Ferreyra, Buenos Aires.” More improbably, while buying the poster, Max noticed behind the counter a well-worn bandoneon in a faux-leather purple-felted case. Fingering the ivory buttons inexpertly, he coaxed out a few bars of an Astor Piazzolla song. The storeowner’s pubescent daughter, bored and eager for diversion, flipped switch after switch on an ancient electric piano keyboard, and finally elicited a synthesized tango rhythm. Max thought back to the days before DJs when a bandoneon, violin, and piano trio played the crowded Fakir. The air would be permeated with the heady fragrance of ladies’ perfumes, fine wines, cigarillos and tropical flowers. Added to this potent mix were emanations of intense personal dramas driven by desire, jealousy, unrequited love and Tango.
All this was a far cry from the Gullah everyday on Johns Island. Max bought the bandoneon but passed on the synthesizer, earning a glance of reproach from the incipiently beautiful daughter. Installed in his study, visible through the open door from the hall, the Aquitania forever set out for the high seas, a tango orchestra in the great ballroom on the first-class deck faintly audible as he passed by. On a baby grand below the poster, the well-worn bandoneon languished next to a guitar and a clarinet. All four instruments once defined his musical ambitions, and now testified mutely to their abandonment. But all was not lost. Ignatio Quiroga, a man of unchallenged wisdom who was ever ready with Max’s favorite Malbec, had confided in him the key to Tango.
“Embrace your partner with care, confidence and love, and let the music pick the lock.”
Tango had barely crossed Max’s mind until he met Dolores, an Argentine post-doctoral scholar who had sent an email to graduate faculty looking for an instrument to transfect her cultured cells with foreign genes. Max had just the thing in his lab, and replied at once. Dolores was olive-skinned, with abundant black hair that framed a perfectly symmetrical face, and with a mature, lithe dancer’s body. Her eyes caught his in a hypnotic grip. After discussing some technicalities of transfection, they agreed to meet the next day for a drink. Somehow wires got crossed, and while Dolores sipped a lonely beer at the Absinthe Cafe, Max was still at the BioScience Center, tapping anxious queries into his phone. They got together at last, and sitting at a table below framed prints of Left Bank demi-monde, Dolores and Max regarded each other with interest.
Dolores mentioned that her father loved chess, and had taught her how to play. Years before, Max had experienced momentary triumph by gaining distinction as “Best Unrated Player” in a chess tournament in Phoenix, Arizona. His opponent in the finals sat in a wheelchair, usually a powerful strategy when the chips are down. Max’s trophy, a plastic simulacrum of victory gained in defiance of common wisdom, languished in a dusty attic. Well into his third or fourth beer and transfixed by her calm gaze, Max perceived an opening into deeper connection with Dolores. He said a University chess club would be marvelous, and as his mind darted over the logistics, Dolores said Tuesdays were out; Tuesday was Tango night.
The vision of Dolores dancing tango nudged Max into hectic overdrive. He had glancing experience with tango. Some years before, a Romanian student in his lab, tilted in a tight mini-skirt over a light-box, had thrilled him with glimpses of silk panty as she observed proteins migrating through agar gels. She too was enraptured by tango, and had urged him to come to tango class. Tantalizing prospects had nibbled provocatively but unproductively on the farther fringes of his mind. Now, fueled by Dolores’s earnest advocacy, the distant prospects came into sharper focus. “So tango offers euphoric fusion of body and soul that ends conclusively with each tanda?” Max said. “Surely that’s a betrayal of feelings that may go further.” “Feelings are dime-a-dozen,” she said, “love is elusive and redemptive. Tango guides calm reflection on the forces shaping our lives.” She drew Max to his feet, tapped her iPod once or twice, and offered him an earbud. As a Pugliese waltz swelled silently between them, she led Max into his first tango.
Max was smitten, got some tango CDs and joined the local Argentine Tango Society. He ventured online, and next thing he knew, he was surfing the digital weft and weave of Tango. Thoughts of tango infiltrated the everyday. He watched dozens of Osvaldo Zotto videos on YouTube, and waited impatiently for class. He encountered, sometimes head over heels, women and men with lives at intriguing and agreeable tangents to his own. More and more, tango was poised within him, awaiting awakening and thrilling release. He learned some simple steps that were responsive to the lilting rhythms of classical tango. Every now and again the steps fell into fortuitous synchrony with his partner’s, offering glimpses of physical and psychic harmonies that promised to be addictive. More often than not, the addictive steps emerged when he danced with Dolores.
Tango music, derived from innocuous Romany folk songs, revealed itself as charged and elemental. The repetitive interplay of violin, piano and bandoneon snaked effortlessly into neural circuits entrusted with oversight of human emotion. One night Dolores filled Max’s flash drive with her entire Tango collection. Transferred to an iPod and fed wirelessly to a compact JamBox, the melodious gigabytes became his constant companions. Late at night, strolling out to the creek at the far end of his garden, Max noticed that the music elicited intuitive steps and turns that gained in nuance as second-by-second the music dipped and swerved in time with the bats flitting over the marsh.
The Argentine Tango Society met in a studio where hyperactive women had just concluded an aerobics session led by a barrel-chested trainer in black tights backed by a percussive sound-track. The tango dancers were sedate by comparison, fewer men than women, and all of a certain age. Tango merely whispers to the young, but speaks loud and clear to the worldly-wise. The typical class began with a warm-up. The pupils slipped on their dance-shoes and formed ranks behind the instructor. Like an orchestra conductor, she waved her remote decisively, drawing Tango from a docked and amplified iPod. Watchful and alert, the dancers advanced across the dance floor imitating her every move. The mirrored walls captured the effortless grace of her steps, and mercilessly reflected the relative imperfection of theirs, fraught with complexity and thought. After some minutes of demonstration and analysis, the dancers paired up to practice arcane details of merging music with movement. Their skills ranged from the fluidly intuitive to the strictly mechanical, and the transfer of knowledge from one to the other was slow. Their Tango lexicon grew as they listened and danced, rehearsing steps that unlock and shape interpretation of the music. But they had to tread carefully. The aftermath of a shared dance is unpredictable, for Tango shamelessly inflames the sparks that fly from spontaneous connection with another. As the class ended and the practica began, lights were turned down, bandoneons and violins came into their own, and everyone surrendered to the allure of those igneous connections.
Watching Dolores in class, in the low-lit practicas, and especially in the Hotel Fakir tango salon, as she waltzed spellbound across the mirrored parquet in the arms of one tanguero after another, Max sensed that deeper communion with Dolores would entail technical expertise and natural ease in fulfilling Tango’s imperative: to please Dolores. Narcissus was never a tanguero. Group classes were merely an introduction, a revealing glimpse of complexities that required focused study. Formal lessons were inevitable, and he would eventually need to find a committed partner, the dicey variable in the two-to-Tango equation. One evening, breathing the intoxicating scents of tropical flowers on the bar, Max reached for his glass with one hand and for his phone with the other, and called Florida Takashi to arrange a private lesson.
Florida’s thumbnail image was prominently posted on a local Tango Facebook page. She was businesslike on the phone, fielded Max’s questions fully, including a tactless query about her familiarity with the male lead, and fixed an appointment for three days later. Contrite, he bought on an impulse a basket of plump Florida strawberries as he navigated the richly-landscaped suburban maw north of the city. When he got to her second floor apartment, the door opened before he could knock. He stood aside deferentially as two little girls came out, serious in pink tutus. Florida greeted him politely, touching her auburn hair and smoothing an embroidered serpentine kimono. She was surprised when he brought out the strawberries. Prompted by the bold PADI logo on the otherwise effeminate bag that held his tango shoes, Florida asked about his scuba diving, then disappeared into the kitchen, saying the strawberries needed refrigeration, and asking Max to remind her afterwards.
Max slipped on his soft-soled dance shoes, and took in the polished hardwood floor flooded with light from a picture window overlooking a pond. A Muscovy duck, a pair of Canada geese, and three downy goslings waddled serenely by the water’s edge. The room was redolent with wisps of Satya Super Hit incense drifting from a stick balanced over a carved wooden tray by the window. Florida reappeared, a svelte hourglass in a black leotard, and waved her iPod towards a JamBox on the window ledge. A lilting Francisco Canaro milonga filled the room. Florida drew Max into an embrace, her eyes engaged, her arm draped lightly over his shoulder, her thigh grazing his, and asked how he’d like to start. The formal intimacy of her embrace took Max by surprise, accustomed as he was to lone viewing of tango videos. Osvaldo Zotto had taught him a simple eight-step sequence, and the rudiments of front and back ochos. Tentatively, Max led Florida through his budding repertoire. As Florida settled into connection with Max, and the arc of his arm lightly touched her breast, his first faltering steps gained energy and intent, and her murmured directions charged his movements with a transcendent thrill.
In no time at all, his time was up. Max retrieved from his little bag a plain white envelope addressed to Ms. Takashi, which he placed on the window ledge where Francisco Canaro was winding up with “El Portenito”. Florida smiled at this formality. “They say you’re ready for a milonga after a year of class,” she said, “but the best way to learn is to dive right in. Can you come Saturday night?” Max frowned, said he’d have to check, and gathered his things. The doorbell chimed as they shook hands. Max stepped aside to admit a man in loosely bunched dreadlocks, black jeans and a soft grey blouse, carrying an effeminate tote not unlike his own, and exuding a faint aroma of fine Sensimilla. Florida smiled gamely, but offered no introduction. Too late, not until Max had pulled out of the parking lot, braking momentarily to avoid the Muscovy duck, did he remember the strawberries.
As his entanglement grew, Max began to experience nuances of life in the enticing shadows of Tango. At a loose end one evening, attending a microbiology conference in San Diego, Max found himself waiting for Haile, the Ethiopian cab driver who’d driven him to a milonga the night before. Behind him, across a mini-mall parking lot and next to the Bull and Eagle Pub and Grill, discreet landscape lights illuminated the TuTu Tango studio. Tango songs diffused agreeably into the sultry night air, and silhouetted couples traversed the lightly curtained plate-glass windows. A lone tanguero sat smoking by the front door, enveloped in the aromatic embrace of Gauloises and Sensimilla. Max paced back and forth, scanning the highway for his errant cab; there were few cars out this late, and certainly no cabs. To return to the milonga, so recently abandoned, was out of the question. His confidence had been sapped by one-too-many failed cabeceos, and the realization that couples were not switching partners after each tanda, but returning to their own little tables and glasses of wine. One or two women, who had previously flown across the dance floor with fine-tuned elegant abandon, underwent mysterious lead-footed transformations when dancing with Max. A crowning indignity was conferred by a kindly fellow who told Max his wife would dance with him, if he liked. Max fled.
A car pulled up beside him and the window slid down. The driver flashed a salesman’s grin and raised a hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Willy. Are you a dancer?” Max nodded tentatively, and thus emboldened, Willy rummaged around in the passenger seat and produced a flat faux-leather case the size of a large pizza delivery box. With a flourish, he snapped open the brass catches, revealing rows of variously-shaped little brushes with black-lacquered handles, each resting in its own purple felt niche. “These take care of your dancing shoes. I import them from Buenos Aires; they’re made of the finest sable, will last a lifetime, and cost $300 online. But for you, let’s just say $75”. He looked at Max hopefully. “Nice brushes,” said Max, looking around desperately for Haile, and adding unhelpfully, “I’m flying back to Charleston tomorrow. They wouldn’t fit in my carry-on.” Defeat clouded Willy’s face, and Max felt for him. He gestured towards TuTu Tango. “There are fifty people in there worrying about wear and tear on their dance shoes. Ask for Linda, and take it from there”. Willy confessed he wasn’t accustomed to selling. Max told him faint heart never won fair maiden, and off Willy went.
Time passed, the night grew cooler, some heart-wrenching tango songs drifted out to the highway along with the Sensimilla, and still no Haile. After a while, Willy pulled up next to Max. “Need a ride?” “Well,” Max said, “I’m waiting for a cab…” “Come on!” Willy said, “Pay me what you’d pay a cab. I have a wife and child and need the work.” Max settled in, fixed the seat belt, and asked, “How did the brushes work out?” “The lady told me to get lost,” Willy said. “An older guy, a kindly fellow you wouldn’t look at twice, asked was there a problem? Next thing I knew, I was out the door, my brushes scattered all around. Some stoner by the door helped pick them up and gave me $50 for the lot. Cost me ten bucks on eBay.”
Max gave Willy a high-five and was dropped off on 2nd Street by the Convention Center. Max headed for a nearby hole-in-the-wall where he nursed a beer, listened to a raunchy blues band, and thought about tango. He remembered Ignatio Quiroga once telling him: “Turn your head first, and then your chest; show her the way like the matador shows the bull, and she’ll soar like an eagle.”
“Try the other side,” said the beautiful doe-eyed attendant. Max was seated alone in business class, eagle-eyed at a starboard window, eager for a first glimpse of Beirut as the jet descended. He leapt out of his seat, slid over to a port window, and gazed transfixed at the ancient city, sprawled like a cat before a fire, unfolding below him, glowing gold in the setting sun. He lost valuable seconds snapping pictures on his phone. Moments later on final approach the jet passed over squalid shanties and piles of garbage, the stereotypical landmarks of Fodor’s “city of contrasts”, and pulled up at Gate 7. The flight attendant chided Max for unbuckling during descent, but smiled briefly when he said he was honored to visit her city for the International Tango Festival.
Emerging from passport control and baggage claim, Max ran a gauntlet of eager families and drivers waving hand-lettered signs that said “Dr. Zapalnik, Imagine International” or “Mr. Dickens, ShallWeDance.com”. After some hopeful but futile minutes scanning the reception line looking for his name, Max became aware of the cab hustlers moving in. A swarthy young man in greasy jeans and T-shirt approached him.
“The Hotel Gefinor Rotana? Fifty dollars, but for you, my friend, forty-five.” Another man, his cousin once-removed, pushed in and said, “Forty-five, but I’ll take forty.” A tall dignified fellow in a sharkskin suit intervened. He shot his cuffs, revealing a gold Rolex. “These men, my friend, are charlatans. I can get you to the Gefinor within half-an-hour for $30.” Max was tempted, but in an instant swarthy T-shirt and his cousin were loudly remonstrating in rapid angry Arabic, and next thing he knew some of their kin cruising the terminal had vociferously joined in. A cold-eyed policeman appeared, and then two camo-clad soldiers toting AK-47s. Max melted innocently into the background and found a peaceable driver waiting patiently in the simmering heat outside. As they drove past the tattered Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and crossed the old Green Line into West Beirut, the driver said, “Oh yes, Tango is very big in Beirut. We have always been the cross-roads of East and West, and Tango speaks naturally to this meeting of minds.” His radio was playing a wistful Arabic song, and Max asked him to turn it up. “This is Fairouz,” the driver said. “She sings like a nightingale. Back in the day, her Tangos were to die for…”
The Gefinor Rotana was distinguished by a rooftop swimming pool with an edge that vanished into the Mediterranean. Freighters floated serenely offshore, and off to the right, coastal ranges climbed into the sky. Max sipped a mimosa poolside and conversed with a U.N. cultural anthropologist attending her first global food security conference. The sun finally sank into the wine-dark sea and the crystalline stars of the Levant emerged. The spring equinox was upon them, Haft-Sin observances were underway, and Venus and Mars approached conjunction. As time passed, Roxanne’s enquiries about the International Tango Festival, informed by a modest black one-piece swimsuit, became more consequential. Miguel Calo’s “Al Compas del Corazon” drifted up from a milonga in the third floor ballroom. Max invited her to dance.
Next morning, his head still swimming in memories of the rooftop pool and milonga, Max medicated himself generously at the Gefinor breakfast buffet, and emerged into the bright buzz of Clemenceau Avenue. He decided to skip the Tango seminar on “Women’s Adornos & Flying Legs”, and set off for Zuqaq al-blat, the birthplace of Nouhad Haddad, also known as Fairouz, the nightingale of the Middle East. Following a crude city map in his guidebook, he strode past glass-clad office towers and concrete apartment blocks adjoining secret courtyards and gardens hidden behind high walls and hedges of myrtle. He breathed the city’s redolence of diesel and tobacco and the heady fragrance of roses, pomegranates, jasmine, and wisteria. At noon, he found himself in the shaded garden of the Blue Note Cafe. A bandoneon-player and a violinist accompanied a lone couple circling the tiny dance floor. He lunched on grilled fish and a glass of Pinot Grigio and then asked the waiter to bring him an egg.
After a few focused minutes, Max balanced the egg momentarily upright on the tabletop, took a picture on his phone, and sent it to Roxanne. Delusionally, he imagined her reflecting on the three-fold significance of the image: Perfect Balance, Improbability, and the Promise of Life. Ergo Tango. Only the music was missing. He resumed his quest and came at last to the cobblestone street called Zuqaq al-blat. Somehow he had expected tranquil rooms with brilliant tiles, Persian rugs, tapestries, and marble fountains. Instead, he found a nut-vendor’s stall, and a boutique selling crudely chiseled wooden chess sets. At the far end of the street, minarets rose above the city clutter, superimposed on distant foothills draped in pastures and olive orchards. In a grimy recessed corner, with synchronicity worthy of Carl Jung, an ancient transistor radio played Fairouz singing the tango “La Boheme”, accompanied by Eduardo Bianco’s band all the way from Argentina, recorded in Beirut in 1951. Max checked his phone; no messages.
Cultural anthropology in the black hourglass shape of Roxanne swam through his thoughts as he consulted again his map of Beirut. The mid-afternoon heat induced soporific quiet in the streets and alleyways around him. He set off for the Pigeon Rocks on the western edge of the city. The sun was riding high and cast few shadows. Squinting into the glare, he tugged down his cap visor and strode on. He was hot and weary when he reached the seafront and leaned into the temperate onshore breeze. At that moment, his phone, poised on high alert since morning but hitherto mute, pinged as a text came in: “Tabouli Café. Roxanne.” All was well with the world, after all. He looked around. A woman cloaked in an all-encompassing black burka, her gold ankle bracelets intermittently flashing as the breeze lifted her hem, gripped the cliff-top railings and gazed at white-spumed waves crashing and roiling explosively against the Pigeon Rocks.
A few yards away, two soldiers in battle fatigues, rifles slung casually over their shoulders, killed time under a palm tree. One, a little younger, smiled shyly at a passing girl; the other, more menacing, watched the street through mirrored sunglasses. Max set the camera zoom and shot them both, silhouetted against the Rocks, the forested coastal ranges and the distant horizon. The older one stiffened, turned, and pointed directly at him. He walked over. The young soldier gestured at the camera and touched his chest, smiling. “Facebook?”
His superior took the camera from Max, fixed his mirror shades on him, and demanded his papers and passport. He scrutinized Max’s South Carolina driver’s license and shook his head. Max explained in broken French that his passport was back at the Gefinor Rotana. The officer deftly erased the last image in the camera and then glanced in surprise at Roxanne spinning in a molinete. Taking off his glasses, he studied Max’s shots of the previous night’s milonga. At last he grinned, returned the camera and waved his hand dismissively. “Tango!” he said. “Enjoy Beirut.”
At the intersection of Rue Iskander and Paris Avenues, Max found the Tabouli Café, a stylish chrome-and-glass patisserie with sidewalk tables well shaded under a cypress green awning. Roxanne, whose beauty and reserve reminded Max of Thutmose’s limestone bust of Nefertiti, greeted him politely. They ordered iced water and coffee, and asked to see the selection of pastries on a filigreed silver tray by the door. Roxanne pointed to a glistening wedge of Persian baklava. They conversed inconsequentially while Max considered the perfect symmetry of her eyes and repressed an urge to caress her face. The baklava, chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and rose water-scented syrup, went well with black Lebanese coffee. Roxanne raised an eyebrow, took Max’s hand and stood. She slipped an iPod into his pocket, and gave him one of her ear-buds. Carlos di Sarli’s “Ojoz Negros” enveloped them as they danced among the tables in apparent silence, their minds and their physical immediacy obedient to every musical nuance. Max remembered Ignatio Quiroga once saying: “Slow down; listen carefully; let the Tango tell your story.”
Back in South Carolina, chatting with Ignatio at the Hotel Fakir, Max passed the time by dissecting the psychic and physical attributes of Tango. His sketchy qualifications for such analysis included his birth under the sign of Libra, training as a physiologist, and occasional classes at the local Tango Society. His fieldwork was limited to frequenting the bar at the Hotel Fakir, where he nursed a glass of Malbec and listened to classical tangos while musing on parallels between Rumi, chess, literary fletches and Tango. On one side, the bar faced a parqueted inner room with a mirrored wall on the left, and bistro tables and a gallery of framed prints, including a heroic image of the Cunard Liner Aquitania, on the right. On the other side, the bar opened onto an outdoor patio paved in black and white flagstones. Wicker garden seats surrounded a shallow ornamental pool with a monumental blue-glazed amphora. Further back was an inviting Tiki-shaded dining room with candlelit tables and linen-wrapped silverware. Tall wrought-iron railings draped in wisteria and bougainvillea and overhung by fig trees separated the Hotel Fakir from its immediate neighbor, an imposing single-porch mansion looking out over Charleston harbor.
When sitting at the bar, Max preferred to face the patio, so that his view of wisteria was enhanced by desirable women gazing reflectively past him into the tango salon. He was usually subdued when he arrived, but warmed quickly to debate as time went by. Max liked to argue that Tango stimulated a physiological response that found expression in physical attraction, languid contentment, and an urge to dance some more. In contrast, Ignatio contended that the music and movements of Tango encoded an existential message that transcended simple sentiment. A fine distinction, Max said, on a par with doctrinal separation of Catholics from Episcopelians. Their debates were interrupted whenever Max ventured onto the dance floor. Such excursions induced minute but significant re-calibration of his argument. Thus an hour or two would pass quite pleasantly.
One night, Max noticed a dancer of understated but obvious expertise whose shaven head, red shirt, black pants and bare feet spoke of Argentine Tango authority. At one point the man ordered a Manhattan at the bar, and Max asked him how long he had studied Tango. “Would you like to dance?” the man replied, looking him in the eye. Max thought for a moment. “Sure. Will you lead or shall I?” he said, knowledgeable in the ways of Tango. They progressed around the dance floor, not in an everyday tango embrace, but simply facing one another, resting their hands on each others’ arms, or walking side-by-side with intermittent quick-step syncopations in time with the music. Max told Ignatio that in those few moments he learned essentials of Tango that had eluded him for months. The insight nibbled steadily into his confidence as he realized that so far he’d only scratched the surface. As Max reached meditatively for his glass, Dolores appeared from nowhere, an orchid in her hair, and the fulcrum of their little world shifted toward perfect balance.
Friday evenings, heading home from his lab, Max often turned into the shaded cul-de-sac off Meeting Street to shrug off his professional life for an hour or two at the Hotel Fakir. There he danced occasionally with beautiful women lost in Tango dreams and worried about putting words to paper. Like many academics, even those grappling with biological science, Max was an aspiring novelist immobilized by writer’s block. Like all scribblers, Max thought that a rich imagination leavened with real-life experience would attract legions of readers if only he could summon simple declarative sentences. Once, nursing a glass of Noemia Malbec, Max told Ignatio that Tango got in the way, muddling his thinking. “If only I could touch-type”, he said, “or maybe just tape my thoughts…” Ignatio remembered the tiny Sony recorder he’d used that day at a tedious budget meeting with his accountant. He placed the Sony on the zinc surface of the bar and pressed Record. “What’s on your mind, Max?” With Anibal Triolo’s orchestra playing in the background, the recorder captured Max’s words.
“The moon was huge and blood-red as I drove home from tango, doing about 60 on the long deserted down-slope of the Stono River bridge onto Johns Island. I was thinking about tango and its hypnotic allure when I noticed flashing blue lights far behind me. I touched the brakes, better to be safe than sorry; whoever was being pulled over was shocked right now, and there but for the grace of God went I. Astor Piazzolla’s rhythmic paean to lost love was on the radio, and I turned it up. Next thing I knew, a police car was on my tail, his lights in my face, his siren whooping urgently. I pulled over, shocked, trying not to swerve too zealously, recalling a glass of wine I’d had earlier. I rolled down the windows and breathed deeply to dissipate any lingering aromas. The engine ticked, mosquitoes buzzed, and a barred owl called from the woods.”
“The cruiser’s door swung open, and an officer loomed in my rear-view, a foot-long flashlight in her hand. She glanced at me and swiveled her torch across the back seat. I thought of the lovely doe-eyed attendant on my flight into Beirut. “Good evening, Officer.” She returned my smile, briefly. “Do you know you were doing 60 in a 45?” “Surely not. I’m sorry. I wanted to get home before midnight.” “My name’s not Shirley.” She regarded me levelly. “May I see your license and registration?” I rummaged around the glove-box. “I’m coming home from an Argentine Tango class at the University, every Tuesday night, very beguiling. Have you ever thought about Tango, Ma’am?” She may have rolled her eyes, but the note of asperity in her voice was unmistakable. “Not that I remember. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I closed the windows and sat tight, listening to “Regreso al Amor” and reflecting on the injustice of a ticket for a little speed on an empty highway in the middle of nowhere. I must have dozed off momentarily, for her tap on the window startled me, pasting a guilty look onto my face. She gave me a pale blue warning slip, told me to slow down, and smiled, briefly. I thanked her and thought how a civil society is essentially just, and how as always luck was on my side.”
“On the last moonlit stretch of River Road, almost home, doing about 40, I suddenly registered a full-grown deer trotting across the road directly in front of me. I stood on the brakes. The impact was solid and irrevocable and hurled the animal into a ballistic trajectory that spanned the divide between life and death. I stopped. The blameless deer lay broken in the glare of the high beams, its head still reaching for the safety of the dark woods where the barred owl called. I flipped on the emergency lights, and as in a dream, I stepped out of the car and approached the vivid still-life splayed on the asphalt. Piazzolla’s insistent cello and double bass fugue became a dirge as I dragged the creature by its warm velvet feet onto the grass verge. The celebration of life evoked by Tango seemed impotent and irrelevant in the face of instant death. And yet the music’s tendrils weaved their way into my stunned heart, freighting the moment with gravity and remorse, but also kindling a redemptive spark of solace…”
“Of course I wasn’t quite the same after that. Nor was my car. A headlight was dislodged by the impact but still worked, dangling freely from a wire or two. Months later, as an orange-vested volunteer on a roadway clean-up crew, I found among discarded beer-cans and rotted fast-food trash a deer skull half-buried in the muddy ditch. I probed some more with my pick-up stick, and uncovered a shattered ribcage and two or three long bones. I paused and gazed into the sun-stippled woods. A red-tailed hawk cried out over the marsh. Occasional cars and trucks sped past. None of them was playing Piazzolla’s “Regreso Al Amor”, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Since that moonlit night, Tango had reasserted its grip on me. But now I was wary, having watched and listened to tangled tango tales that didn’t always end well. I was slowly learning to distill the message of Tango from its eager, enticing and indispensable messengers.”
“A line of helmeted ropey-calved thirty-somethings in skin-tight spandex zipped by on weightless bikes. “Good job, sir, thank you,” one of them called out in passing, and was gone. A little later, a skinny man wearing a doo-rag pedaled past slowly on a rickety bicycle. “Yo, boss, what you doin’ time for?” he asked. “Well, I bounced a check or two.” I mopped my brow. “The ol’ lady got a restraining order, I messed up probation, an’ here I am, know what I’m saying?” “I hear you, boss; take care now,” he chuckled and pedaled off, perhaps unsettled by the thought it could be him in the ditch and not me.”
“I fired up my iPod and listened to Di Sarli’s “El Pollito” as I tramped along the grassy verge. I mused over the delirious music, and the tantalizing promise of the eager messengers. Dolores, a forthright young woman who danced with intuitively calibrated abandon as if we’d been together for years. Julia, reserved and critical, whose momentary lapses of self-control revealed beautiful synchronies in our intertwined steps. And Lexi, acutely responsive to the least flamboyant lead, as long as it arose from an intentional and protective embrace. At best, transcendence of sorts; at worst, messy complications and an existential reboot with an unknowable future.”
“A metallic glint caught my eye. Here was a hefty Bowie knife, its seven-inch blade a little rusty but still sharp. And there, nearby, for balance, lay a mildewed leather wallet with a sodden Ruby Tuesday $10 off coupon, a Dollar Tree receipt for pork rinds and chewing tobacco, and a blurred Polaroid of a teenage girl. No driver’s license. I poked around for telltale signs of a rotted corpse, but of course there was none. The distant shriek of the red-tailed hawk signaled just another day on Johns Island.”
Max fell silent, and Troilo’s “Milonga Triste” drifted from the little Sony. In the background hiss, Ignatio heard Dolores whisper in Max’s ear. “Why so sad, Max? Thinking only of yourself again? Come dance with me.”
Dolores was there the night the Hotel Fakir burned down. She was sitting with Roxanne by the Aquitania poster, toying with her glass and listening as the insistent rhythm of a D’Arienzo song made her want to dance. She touched the orchid in her hair; she knew she looked good in her satin chemise, slit skirt and scarlet Soy Porteno tango pumps. And there came Max, stepping a playful cruzada as he crossed the room. He caught Roxanne’s’s eye or perhaps she caught his, for he paused at their table, smiling and inclining his head toward the dance-floor. Roxanne stood and gave him her hand, and they stepped into the flow of dancers and were gone. Dolores sipped her Malbec and thought about Max’s exploration of Tango which had foundered on the twin shoals of writer’s block and a growing understanding that thought could no more capture the essence of Tango than spectral analysis of color would let you see scarlet. Tango is only discovered in the farther reaches of love.
Ignatio Quiroga was absently wiping the zinc surface of the bar. There was a faraway look in his eye, but he glanced now and again at the small collection of photographs next to his tropical flowers. Dolores walked over. “Tell me a story, Ignatio”, she said, “I’m not dancing.” Ignatio paused and adjusted a photo of a woman cradled in a tango embrace. “A long time ago I commanded a garrison defending a remote archipelago against foreign aggression,” he said. “My adjutant was political, the bureaucracy’s eye on the battlefield. His wife Graciela was my mistress; we were madly 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 young officer named Ferreyra, who was shot in my place.” Tears welled in Dolores’s eyes. “Graciela died in San Diego years ago,” Ignatio said, “a tanguera to the end. I have never forgotten. And nor have they.”
Dolores was used to Ignatio’s darker moods, and turned away to look for Max, unprepared for what came next. There was a loud crash and the etched glass transom over the front door splintered into a thousand shards. Something smoking and ominous lay spinning in the middle of the dance floor. Dolores glimpsed a bottle, a rag, a tiny lick of flame. With an almighty silent detonation, the floor was suddenly an incandescent lake of fire, and instantaneously, for one terrifying second, everything came to a standstill. And then panic set in as they all fled screaming out to the patio, slapping with bare hands the sheets of fire that engulfed them as they ran. Roxanne and Dolores huddled by the wrought iron railings under the fig trees and watched the Hotel Fakir, triumphantly ablaze in its final moments, defiant in the assault of drenching fire hoses, slowly collapse in monumental showers of sparks. Just then Dolores noticed that Ignatio was no longer there. A spectral figure was silhouetted against the fiery tableau, heading back into the flames.