Genie Tango

Given the dearth of social contact in this pandemic, I find myself at a loss when it comes to posting stories that capture the essence of Argentine Tango. After all, it’s been months since I cradled a like-minded woman in my arms and experienced the communion that swells as note after note brings us closer together. And so, I was surprised, if not delighted, when I encountered, in a Zoom meeting of all places, a kindred spirit who seemed to remember me from a milonga way back when, and said, by way of the private chat room, “Are you still dancing?”

“Have you been living under a rock?,” I replied, “Milongas are all gone, the only Tango around is on YouTube.  “Really?” she said, “When’s the last time you checked out the Hotel Fakir?” I was immediately alert, the Hotel being my first and best connection to real-time Tango. “I go there now and again”, I said noncommittally, curious to see what came next. Minutes passed, the chat room shut down, and I was about to do likewise when a melodious ping announced the arrival of a text. “They’re playing “Desde el Alma” right now,” she said, “Isn’t that your favorite?”

A summons from a woman enraptured by Tango cannot be ignored, and so in short order I found myself, yet once more, in the deserted cobbled courtyard of the Hotel Fakir.  All seemed copacetic;  “Desde el Alma” had given way to “El Amanecer”, and the usual shadowed silhouettes of dancers drifted across the transom. I approached the black-laquered door and tried the polished brass door-knob. Locked solid. I pressed the bell-push, listening for a welcoming two-tone chime, but heard only the faint syncopated clucking of “El Amanecer”. A battery of insistent raps on the door went unanswered. I texted my apparent kindred spirit and followed up with a couple of annoyed question marks. No reply. 

I wondered, gullible dupe that I am, if I was a victim of some kind of scam. Undecided, ready to flee at a moment’s notice, I noticed that my phone was warm, in fact, positively hot; perhaps an incipient battery failure requiring expensive replacement. And then I saw, in the dim half-light of the patio, wisps of smoke drifting from my phone, much like the contemplative and preoccupied dancers inside the Hotel Fakir, but unlike them, ominous. I stepped back from the door, and the wisps of smoke became more dense and in an instant coalesced into a voluptuous siren. Her knowing glance, clinging silk dress and stiletto heels made me catch my breath. “Your wish is my command; to hear is to obey,” she said. I wanted to laugh, of course, thinking how cheesy this sounded, but at the same time, I was intrigued by the sleight of hand that had brought her before me.

“So how many wishes do I get?,” I asked, milking the occasion. She smiled, I think, but it was hard to tell, given the drifting tendrils of smoke that still enveloped her and my skepticism that any of this was real. “You’re a greedy little fellow, aren’t you,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “I said, ‘Your wish’, didn’t I?” She pouted, and executed a solo back ocho with a hip swivel that invited me to move intently, on the beat, into her space. “Forgive me,” I said, glancing around the cobbled patio and seeing no-one, “I wish for a dance that fuses the music, our steps, our embrace, our closeness, into an ecstatic union.” I knew that sounded a little fatuous, but how often do you have a wish come true?

My siren frowned, looked at me quizzically, and said, “That’s a tall order. I’m not sure I can deliver. Better try inside.” She dissolved into a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, and when I tried the polished brass door-knob again, it yielded at once. Accompanied by a two-tone chime, I stepped onto the familiar parquet dance floor and headed for the bar. Ignatio Quiroga, immaculate in starched white shirt, his military medal gleaming on the lapel of his tuxedo, adjusted two or three stems in his vase of tropical flowers, gave the zinc surface of the bar one more polish, and said, “Quiet tonight, Max. What’ll it be?”

Guilty Tango

Guilt was never far from Max’s mind as his hand alighted on her cool naked skin, his fingers settling into the subtle notches of her backbone. He held her lightly, keenly aware of her close embrace and the easy play of her body against his, both deftly aligned with the musical lilt of “Desde el Alma” flowing from a bandoneon, violin and piano trio by the bar. She, like Max, was in the grip of ideal Tango. Thoughts of the everyday, of the life they lived before and after Tango, remained unthought. And then the tanda ended, and he brought her back to her little table with its scented candle and moist black bottle of Prosecco. He returned to the bar and asked Ignatio for a glass of his finest Malbec.

As he contemplated the women casually deployed along one side of the parquet dance floor, their reflections animating the mirrored wall opposite, he sensed the shadow of guilt flitting across his mind. He always told his wife about the occasional Tango classes on Tuesday nights, and about workshops or even weekend milongas that came up every now and again, when he would inevitably come home late and silently switch off the murmuring radio at her bedside. Once, years ago, off to a Saturday afternoon class, clutching his effete black baggie with its felt-soled dance shoes, she’d hurled a glass of red wine over him and the white-upholstered sofa next to the fireplace. Nowadays, the sofa stains, never banished, veiled beneath an inoffensive macassar, bore witness to her mercurial antipathy towards his strange Tango obsession.

She, unlike Max, was not entranced by Tango, neither by the music nor by the dance. She said he was completely bereft of musical or rhythmic sensibility, a truth confirmed every time he lost his lead and muddled his steps and smiled apologetically at the angelic, forgiving, closed eyes of the woman cradled in his arms, his ticket to ideal Tango. And so, caught in the grip of music that melds bodies and souls, Max forever sought to square the circle of marriage with the inexorable call of the wild side. Meanwhile, the DJ sent out rhythmic D’Arienzo songs, inflaming probing cabeceos and graceful consents over by the little candlelit tables. Max drained his Malbec, shrugged off for now the flitting shadow, and gave in once again to Tango’s seductive allure.

Statistical Tango

Reassured by statistics indicating that the odds of contracting Covid-19 were about the same as winning $100 in the South Carolina PowerBall lottery, which despite many tries over the years, at not inconsiderable expense, I’d never won, I decided to check out a new milonga, the first to be resurrected after many months in my city. The website emphasized that extreme hygiene would be observed, with all surfaces thoroughly spritzed every 30 minutes. Needless to say, the usual Covid-19 constraints, such as masks, social distancing, and so on, would be relaxed, given that Argentine Tango is impossible without close, intimate connection. I showered carefully, anointed myself with a bacteriocidal deodorant, donned freshly-laundered duds, and presented myself at the appointed time at the Amorous Pole Dance Studio, a bottle of Freixenet Cava in hand.

Di Sarli’s “El Amanecer” was playing to a dimly-lit and apparently empty studio, defined on one side by a mirrored wall lined with bistro-type tables, and on the other by a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window overlooking an ornamental pond illuminated by discreet landscape lights. I settled into one of the tables, put on my dance shoes, poured some Cava into my wine-glass, and looked around. In the far corner of the room, eclipsed by a shadow cast from the DJ’s laptop, a woman in a black cocktail dress, in coral earrings and matching pumps, studied the slick obsidian surface of her phone. No stranger to existential memes and noting that the cortina now playing was “Stairway to Heaven”, I weighed in the balance, Libran that I am, the probability that she was a covert emissary of Death, intent on gaining viral lebensraum in the current standoff between man and life as we know it, or that she had come merely to dance.

As the cortina segued into a new tanda, desire overcame caution. I deployed my well-practiced cabeceo, leaning slightly forward with intent, back straight, ready to rise to the occasion. The woman, sensing my presence, cast a casual glance across the dance floor, caught my eye momentarily and almost imperceptibly inclined her head before settling her gaze on the tiny electric candle that decorated her table. Thus empowered, I drained my glass and shot my cuffs. I walked the length of the dance floor to Miguel Calo’s “El Vals Sonador”, my hand held out. She was adjusting a strap on her coral pumps, and looking up, she affected surprise to see me, collected herself, and offered me a pair of translucent tissue-like plastic gloves, the kind you buy at Dollar Tree for $1 a hundred. She was wearing some herself. And now she draped a coral silk scarf over her face, leaving her eyes, narrowed and smiling, gazing into mine.

I slipped on the gloves, and thinking statistically, I wondered if I should don the triple-layer surgical-grade mask folded into my breast pocket. But before I could, she folded herself, much like my mask, into my embrace, and we waltzed an entire circuit of the empty dance floor before she said, lowering her coral scarf just enough to whisper in my ear, “What are the odds?” I thought about the $100 I’d never won and never would, and I said, “Don’t buy a Lottery ticket. Just dance with me.”

Hasta La Vista Tango

How cruel is this pandemic? My Tango go-to is now argentinetangoradio.com on my iPhone. Good, but a poor substitute for an easy salida across polished parquet, embraced by a kindred spirit whose intuition reflects my own, all to the sultry insinuation of Di Sarli’s “El Pollito”. The Coronavirus has put paid to such delights. A creeping dopamine deficit confers varying degrees of tedium on everyday life. I energize my grey cells with online chess, peer-review of manuscripts for medical journals, voracious consumption of New York and London book reviews (all libraries are shuttered), cautious sallies to the grocers, and humdrum household chores.

Friday evenings as the sun sets over the Ashley River I can be found at the yacht club, IPA in hand. Chris, my confederate in this enterprise and partial to IPAs and clever banter, is neither a chess-player nor a Tango aficionado. But Coronavirus accommodates all-comers. Two meters apart, masks at the ready, and upwind of everyone else, we bask in rocking chairs on the club patio and sip ice-cold Sculpin. We are diverted now and again by bikini-clad women minding their kids in the shallows by the boat-ramp, while their mask-free husbands josh and glad-hand at the bar service window.

Rocking gently, shaded from late-afternoon sun by water-oaks, Chris and I reflect on trials suffered by the less fortunate, air scabrous details of office intrigue, and speculate about the upcoming presidential election. Inevitably, fascism makes an appearance. We decide that Germany, having largely missed out on lucrative 19th century colony acquisition, and mesmerized by Hitler, was just playing catch-up by launching an insanely violent takeover of Europe. We pause for Sculpin refills as the metaphorical parallel with the present takes hold.

By-and-by our mood lightens. We observe through binoculars a Maersk freighter passing under the Ravenel Bridge, threading the channel buoys past Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter, heading for the North Atlantic. Its Plimsoll line is high and dry, so the towering multi-colored containers visible above deck are probably empty. Having delivered their cornucopia of consumer dreck to America, they now return to China for more.

As dusk advances, a flock of purple martins intent on their southerly migration fly in from Charleston Harbor over the club jetties and are gone. At least their American sojourn, immune to Coronavirus, has neither sullied the landscape nor infantilized us. Perhaps there’s a measure of justice in a pandemic that targets us, tolling the bell we’d rather not hear. And yes, I miss you, Tango; farewell for now.

Swirling Skirt Tango

I had resigned myself to abstinence from Tango for the duration of the pandemic when, sifting late one night through online Tango, I came across a YouTube video of Charlotte Baines and Laurent Trincal dancing to Osvaldo Pugliese’s ‘La Yumba’. What caught my eye was not the regal setting, nor the elegant couple, nor the precisely choreographed ascent of the marble staircase, nor even the sublime Pugliese song. What flipped my switch was Charlotte’s skirt, which swirled in apparent abandon but in perfect time with the music. White flowers on a black background flowed musically back and forth, mostly shrouding but every now and again offering momentary glimpses of Charlotte’s well-turned flying calves.

Not as a rule impervious to Tango’s erotic charms, and eager to share and assuage the demands of my flipped switch, I sent the video to my friend Amira, whose fabled candlelit rooftop milongas bask in long views over Low Country sea-marsh sunsets. I mentioned that we may have forgotten Tango in our Covid abstinence, but here was a reminder, and I added that I particularly admired Charlotte’s swirling skirt. By return email, Amira said she’d be sure to wear a swirling skirt next time we danced, and recommended that I take zinc to ward off Corona’s evil eye, zinc having been shown to do just that in recent peer-reviewed studies.

She also attached a video of herself dancing on her rooftop with a guy in black she said was the Ukrainian National Salsa Champion. Quite apart from reflexive stabs of jealousy, I couldn’t help noticing that Amira’s pirouettes were accentuated with spectacular swirls of her dress, which just happened to be adorned with black flowers on a white background. Whatever yearnings for connection had been aroused by the ‘La Yumba‘ video were only augmented by the sight of Amira dancing with abandon. At the same time, I viewed with skepticism the dueling messages of white and black, the prophylactic properties of zinc, and digital Tango as a palliative in lock-down. One day,  not too long from now, hard to imagine I know, I’ll stroll again into a milonga, seek out accepting eyes, and set those skirts a-swirl.

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.