Heart Lung and Blood

Max was far from home, comfortable in the Halcyion Suites just off the main drag about a mile north of the Convention Center. A picture window over a whispering AC unit offered excellent binocular views of sky-high rides and fairy-tale castles. The suite suited him well, but there were no plates or utensils, even though a small fridge invited self-sufficiency, if only in adult beverages. Cruising into a flamboyant sunset, Max drove to the nearest grocery in his rented Mazda, following the sketchy directions of the blonde at the desk, who, though harried by late-arriving East Asian pharma reps, smiled engagingly as she told him to go left, then straight, through two stop-lights, and left again. Sure enough, after seven or eight miles of perfectly-landscaped highway, bordered to the north by cookie-cutter condos and to the south by trackless unspoiled wetlands, he finally turned onto the black expanse of an almost empty Publix parking lot.

The sterile fluorescent aisles provided for all his immediate needs: scissors to trim his beard (a convenience denied by airline security), a corkscrew (also denied), a sourdough baguette, one or two cheeses, and a bottle of Malbec, the favorite tipple of would-be tangueros. For he had his eye on a certain milonga, posted on the Internet as happening that evening, a mere thirty miles to the east. Less than an hour later, Max had showered and shaved, checked the next day’s conference schedule, and sampled the Malbec. He got in the Mazda and, used to casual vast distance, keyed the iDanze Studio into his phone. A torrential thunderstorm hurled sheets of rain across highways teeming with hordes of cars bound on missions no less essential than his own. The phone announced his destination fifty feet ahead on the left, and Max turned into a tidy little strip mall. The storm was moving off to the north, the dying sun transfigured gray clouds on the horizon, and flecks of azure sky came to transient life.

The lights were off in the iDanze Studio, and the glass doors were locked. As he pondered what next, a car pulled in beside him. In the glow of her dash, he glimpsed the distinctive profile of an Ethiopian woman, or perhaps a Sudanese. She doused her lights, and stepped from her car as if invited to dance. Poised on stiletto heels, she peered into the studio, one hand raised to shade her eyes while the other smoothed a crease in her pink silk dress. Max considered, not for the first time, the perfection of the female form. He was reminded of Dolores, who was very desirable and who drove men who were not cold and boring to foolish extremes. Dolores and Max were made for each other, and the outcome was very much unknown. Just to be closer to her, Max had searched the Internet for gastroenterology conventions in Washington, or even better in Manhattan, where he knew there was Tango every Saturday night in Central Park next to the statue of William Shakespeare. Max had even taken note on Facebook of a forthcoming Tango cruise to the Bahamas, and had weighed in the balance reality and love-boat fantasy. Dolores clearly inspired foolish extremes.

Unlike Dolores, who was a thousand miles away, this African tanguera was front and center. Max left the car door open and came closer, shading his eyes just as she did.

“What do you think?” he said.

She cast an appraising glance over him. In his mind’s eye, Max was in his prime, a successful professional, a man who had endured many loves, and whose shoes were always highly polished. His fantasy life, fed by the daily ebb and flow of reality, was robust. But he couldn’t tell if she saw him or his alter ego.

“You’re like me,” she said, “we Googled Tango and here we are.”

He told her his name was Max and that he was in town for a gastroenterology conference. As they faced each other on the sidewalk, he felt the familiar shiver of excitement and potential that precedes a tango embrace.

“My name is Fairouz,” she said. “Is this normal?”

He wondered if she meant the shiver or the darkened locked studio. He gestured across the strip mall to the Bull and Eagle Grill.

“Let’s have a glass of wine and find out.”

Fairouz fetched a bright red pashmina stole from her car and draped it over her shoulders. They hurried across the parking lot as dense droplets of rain began dancing on the asphalt. Distant lightning strikes lit the sky amid renewed rumbles of thunder. In the grill, sitting by the window, Fairouz kept an eye on the iDanze studio while Max called a number on the web-site. He listened to a ringtone and marvelled at Fairouz’s composure in this unscripted encounter. A man with a complex Argentine accent, rich, marbled and barely understandable, told him there would be a class in an hour or so, with a milonga to follow.

“With a name like Ovidio,” Fairouz said, “he’s probably a fantastic dancer.”

She saw Max was puzzled, and added, “Ovidio Jose Banquet was the finest Buenos Aires tanguero of his time. He was nicknamed “El Cachafas” or “rascal” for his many casual affairs. Carmencita Calderon used to dance with El Cachafas; years later she said he was pocked-marked and ugly, and many women fell in love with him.”

The thunder shower moved on and the last colors drained from the sky. Max suggested a stroll to kill time. A lone wood stork flew low overhead, in profile no different from a Jurassic reptile in a child’s encyclopedia. Leisurely wing beats were followed by a long precise glide into marsh grass at the edge of an ebbing tidal creek.

“In Mogadishu, tango never crossed my mind,” Fairouz said. “I left Somalia to study in Amsterdam, and one night found myself at a dance class. Tango opened my eyes.”

Max raised a quizzical brow.

“Oh, I also work, of course,” she said, “I’m here for an Islamic women’s rights convention. But wherever I am, whenever I can, I search out Tango. Nietzsche said we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

They watched the wood stork foraging intently for fiddler crabs and marsh frogs. When they came back to the studio, raindrops had moistened Fairouz’s silk dress, and Max’s shoes were flecked with mud. The lights were on, and their steps quickened when they heard the first inviting bars of Di Sarli’s “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”.

Fairouz and Max passed into the lobby through silent automatic glass doors and were met by Ovidio. He stood before them, arms open in welcome.

“You must be Max. Ovidio. And your charming friend?”

Ovidio sported a Clark Gable mustache and pearly teeth. His shaved head and loose linen suit spoke eloquently of Tango authority. Fairouz regarded him thoughtfully.

“My name is Fairouz.”

He placed his hand on his heart. “Delighted. Now, please come in. Tonight we will tango!”

Ovidio took Fairouz lightly by the arm, and Max followed them into a spacious salon with a lustrous dance floor. A mirrored wall on one side reflected Art Deco posters and bistro tables on the other. At the far end was a bar with some stools and a sparkling backdrop of bottles, and further back was a shaded patio where Japanese koi swam in a shallow pool. Tango flowed abundantly from hidden speakers. Ovidio leaned closer and drew Fairouz into an embrace, murmuring in her ear. They swayed imperceptibly for a second or two, capturing Di Sarli’s phrasing, and then Ovidio moved into her, guiding her towards their reflection in the mirrored wall. Fairouz’s pink silk dress went well with Ovidio’s slack linen suit. Their foreheads touched lightly, and his lips briefly grazed her throat. Fairouz seemed to recoil momentarily, and then relaxed in his arms. Max sought refuge in thoughts of Dolores. The song came to an end, and Fairouz, flushed and languid, came back to him. Ovidio trailed behind, a hand on her back, the other smoothing his mustache. His restless eyes scoured the room for another partner. Fairouz, bewitching in silk and silver, held out her palm and drew Max to his feet. The pupils of her eyes were enormous, and a crimson droplet glistened on her café au lait throat.

Max thought nothing of this, because he’d slapped at mosquitoes on their stroll to the edge of the marsh. Embracing Fairouz, he was aware of a smear of blood on his arm that might blemish her dress. At the back of his mind, he recalled the famous shot of El Cachafas dancing with Carmencita Calderon, when she falls back in his embrace, baring her bosom to his teeth. Max recoiled at the image, inhaled deeply, and snapped back into the everyday. Di Sarli’s “El Amanecer” wove a rhythmic spell around them as they danced next to the mirrored wall, at one with their reflection. Her body melted into his, easily and confidently following the few simple leads he offered her. His lips brushed her pearl earring, and a moment later his tongue caressed the crimson droplet on her throat. He thrilled to her salty taste and his imminent corruption.

The song was ending. Fairouz laid her head on his shoulder and her lips nibbled the soft flesh under his ear. On the final note, they came to rest in the middle of the dance floor, closely embraced, caught in the evanescent web of Di Sarli’s tango, the last notes still vibrant between them. His hand on her back traced a caress that spoke of lives they’d never live, whose expression was best sought in Tango. She bit him gently. He was startled, and recoiled, then sagged in her arms as his knees weakened and her lips suckled at the tiny pulsing perforation in his throat. He tried to pull away, but an infinite lassitude overcame him. She slipped an arm around his waist and led him out to the shaded patio. He sank onto a couch at the edge of the pond where the lazy Technicolor koi drifted, and slipped into euphoric dreams of heart, lung and blood.

Hours must have passed because his dreams fragmented and became more vivid, and were finally hijacked and corralled by a symphonic chorus of crickets. He opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight flooding his room at the Halcyon 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 with minutes to spare.. Pharma reps and postdocs gazed and tapped at their phones as he mounted the podium. His ruby laser danced across the screen highlighting details of bacterial pathology. 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 free to be enfolded in love. He fielded a question or two, then headed out to the Islamic women’s rights convention.

Max sensed a tangent into novel experience as he queried his phone and saw that women’s rights were in East Hall B. He had long grown accustomed to inhabiting parallel lives that came and went as naturally as day follows night. His days began with imperfect 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 and think about scholarly tasks awaiting him in his office. The next day, he’d listen to Argentine Tango Radio Budapest. The music diverted his thoughts into a life with clear priorities: to listen more intently, to dance perfectly aligned with his partner’s close embrace and her flying high heels, and carnal daydreams.

For minutes on end he traversed glass-fronted concrete galleries and drifted down silent escalators, coming at last to East Hall B and a darkened packed auditorium. He made his way close to the stage, and found a seat between an overweight lady who appeared to be asleep and an earnest young woman with her hair in corn-rows. He listened intently for a minute or two before realizing that Fairouz was up there, 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 my people died when Ethiopia invaded my homeland. Hundreds of thousands fled Mogadishu. To defenseless Somalis, the marauding aliens were incarnations of the Ethiopian vampire regime that deflected criticism of horrific human rights violations by pursuing Al-Shabaab in South Somalia.”

Her laser pointer threw a fluorescent green stigma 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 Kalashnikovs 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. Such things were not uppermost in the educated placid minds of her audience.

When the lights came up, the moribund lady on Max’s right came to life and challenged Fairouz on US complicity in East African affairs. Fairouz cited her sources, thanked everyone for their attention, and turned towards the door. He followed her out to a terrace overlooking a distant marine theme park. Vivid blue waterslides 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 his involuntary recoil and easy surrender at her first tentative bite.

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

“I took you back to the Halcyon Suites last night,” she said. “Sorry if I overshot the parking lot a little. You were completely out of it; you seemed to think that Tango infiltrates neural circuits involved in human emotion. Tango is pretty elemental, I agree, but really…? The Ethiopian vampires? A useful metaphor for everything that ails us.”