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.

Chess Tanguera

You know me. I’m the guy haunting the chess table in the Library. Lunch-time, I munch egg rolls from the Filipino food truck at Sabin and Ashley. Later, waiting for a game, I’m often deeply immersed in the latest New York Review of Books. Not so deeply, however, that I’m oblivious to the glances of comely but indifferent women flitting from class to class. One day, no-one has turned up to play, and by two I’m ready to leave when I’m surprised by a clicking of high heels and a shadow that falls across my board. I look round.

“Is this a chess club? I haven’t played in years. Would you like a game?”

Her face, framed by a blue silk scarf, straight out of Vermeer, reminds me of a Renaissance Madonna. Tiny silver-mounted pearls highlight the whorled secret precincts of her ears. An emerald pendant on a fine gold chain adorns her throat. She regards me intently, a cabeceo in all but name.

“They all say that,” I reply, “and then they rip me apart.” Metaphorically, of course. But the truth is, Chess, the fabled meeting of minds, is a brazen affirmation of the killer instinct, a cat’s pitiless pursuit of a mouse, culminating in bloody dismemberment. There are few concessions or draws in this drama, only relentless search and destroy.

I offer her the choice of pawns hidden in outstretched hands. Without hesitation, she snags White, sits down, and opens with a classical Spanish. I’m familiar with the major lines, and so between moves I contemplate her elegant thoughtful poise, her eyes darting to and fro across the board, and her fingers confidently moving men into unassailable position. Now and again as I make my routine moves, her searching eyes catch mine, and I’m held momentarily hostage on the brink of deep reflecting pools.

I’m roused from my reverie by her murmured “Check”. I see at a glance that my position, while not dire, calls for serious thought, not for meandering fantasies of connection with this beautiful apparition, who leans back in her chair, a modest smile gracing her lips. Long moments pass while I fashion a defense that masks a lethal attack. Abruptly, with a resounding thwack, designed to startle and intimidate, I block her check with a sacrificial Knight, at the same time threatening mate in three on her back rank. Her smile, like the Cheshire cat’s, is unwavering, even as cold analytical eyes rove over her men, and her fingers drum a muffled requiem on the edge of the board. Finally she looks up, a ghost of a frown hovering between her eyebrows. No longer smiling, she says, “Draw?”

I don’t utter a word. She’s seen my threat, and I exult. But she’s also caught the disdainful look that crosses my face, for she resumes her study of the board, absently fingering her emerald pendant, and then stroking my captured Black Bishop. Again, long moments pass. Suddenly, reviewing yet again my deployment of forces on the board, rehearsing my imminent onslaught, I realize with a shock that I’ve overlooked a deadly White Pawn advancing on my left flank. I have allowed body to muddle my mind, a terminal blunder in chess.

And so, body takes over, and iron jaws seize my neck. I’m wrenched out of my chair, violently shaken, and razor-like claws rake the skin of my arms and legs. Blood spurts from a torn artery in my throat. The jaws release their grip on my neck, and clamp down on my temples, mindlessly ripping my head from my body. Madonna’s narrowed eyes bore into mine, implacable and fierce. Numbly, I focus through dimming eyes on her tiny pearl earring, even as my limbs convulse in terminal agony, and my heels drum against the floor. My King falls prostrate before her Queen.

She smiles perfunctorily, comments briefly on my robust but useless defence, and is gone, heels clicking in her wake. Cowed and trembling but still intoxicated by the thrill of the chase, I return day after day to haunt my outpost of mental combat, my field of blood, sweat and tears. Occasionally I dispatch in short order impertinent lesser challengers, tolerantly waving away embarrassed explanations of failure. And always, poised to pounce, I lie in wait for my next encounter with my Machiavellian tanguera.

 

Tattoo Tango

Eyes closed, I lay back on the couch and inhaled the aroma of a Nag Champa incense stick balanced on a carved Maori tray with red ochre highlights over by the window. I held in my mind an image of Queequeg, South Seas cannibal and harpoonist, Ishmaels’s alter ego on the Pequod, in search of the great white whale. Queequeg’s tattooed whorls had inspired my visit to the King Crimson Tattoo Parlor. I wasn’t thinking of anything extravagant, just one or two navy blue spirals on the anterior aspect of my left forearm, where my tangueras’ gazes would focus as I led them into perfect molinetes. I did not exclude a more secretive titbit that might occasionally peek from my collarbone, inciting more fevered interest.

The sound system was playing mood electronica, and so I fired up my iPhone. I was lost in Miguel Calo’s  “El Vals Sonador” when I felt a soft touch, almost a caress, on my arm. A quiet voice insinuated itself into the mesmeric flow of the waltz. “Hi, my name is Esmerelda. What can I do for you?” Eyes open, adjusting to the glare of overhead fluorescents, like a hostage in a dentist’s chair, I beheld the perfect face of my guide to body ink, framed in a halo of blonde curls.  “A bald eagle, perhaps, or Botticelli’s Venus on a half-shell, or just Semper Fi?” My lips must have curled, because she frowned, and she leaned towards me and said, “Anything you like.”

“Queequeg”, I said. “Maori tattoo. One or two, here and there,” and I gestured towards my left forearm and chest. “Certainly,” she replied, with a knowing look that spoke of familiarity not necessarily with Melville, but with the imaginings of those seeking order in chaos. “The swirls of Maori tattoos reflect the dance of life and love. Are you Queequeg, or just a friend?” I smiled, and she smiled back, a radiant smile that encompassed us both, and then she busied herself with a design portfolio, vials of colored inks, cotton swabs and a buzzing electric needle. I drifted off to Calo’s “Al Compas del Corazon”. After a while, I emerged a new man, adorned with nuanced tattoos, eager to engage on the competitive piste of Tango milongas, always alert for the elusive perfect quarry. I thanked Esmerelda, and mentioned my Tuesday night Tango class and practica. “Queequeg,” she murmured, “You may call me when your tattoo fades.”