Dejected and seeking relief, I slipped some accessories into my pocket and headed for the creek. A compact flashlight lit my way through bog myrtles and pines, for I was mindful of a rattlesnake coiled incognito in the shadows. I settled into a weathered seat at the edge of the marsh, inhaled the wafted fragrance of cattails, and watched a full moon rise. Coltrane was playing on my cellphone and his fluid tenor sax set the stage for a rare conjunction of Venus and Mars. The tide was up and faithfully reflected the starlit trajectories of flashing jets, five-miles high. Bats dipped and swerved over the marsh. A chirping text interrupted my reverie: a post-doc was looking for an instrument to transfect her cultured cells with foreign genes. I had just the thing in my lab, packed in its original box and rarely used. I replied at once.
The next day, Julieta knocked on my door. She was olive-complexioned, with refined features and a lithe dancer’s body. Her eyes caught mine in a hypnotic grip. After discussing some technicalities of transfection, we agreed to meet later for a drink in the Cafe Fuel. Below prints of Left Bank demi-monde, we regarded each other with interest across a table inlaid with an elegant maple and ebony chessboard. Julieta said that her father had taught her how to play, and that she’d once placed first in a chess tournament in Phoenix. In the final round, her opponent had sat in a wheelchair, a powerful strategy when the chips are down. Her trophy, a kitschy simulacrum of victory gained in defiance of common wisdom, had languished for years in a closet.
Well into my third glass of beer and transfixed by her calm gaze, I glimpsed an opportunity for closer connection. I said wouldn’t a chess club be great, and as my mind darted over the logistics, Julieta said Tuesdays were out; Tuesday was Tango night. She explained that she was obsessed with Argentine tango, which spun physical and psychic tendrils that entangled the unwary. She told me about a painting she’d seen in a gallery opening that showed a defiant vulture perched over a blood-spattered banner advertising a masked ball held by medical interns in 1920s Buenos Aires. Back then, she said, Tango was the lingua franca of the dance halls, and the music, the dance, and cheap Malbec all conspired to fuel indiscretion, and worse. I was skeptical, but listened attentively.
Julieta said that the interns used to terrify the ladies with body parts spirited from the anatomy labs. No excess was considered excessive. The tender embrace of a lady’s waist by a dessicated skeletal arm was fair game, as were more intimate caresses by a rigid leathery hand. Things came to a head when a guileless intern sought to trump all previous excess while dancing with the dazzling wife of the Orquestra’s manager. Consumed with passion and bravado, the intern swept off his cape and revealed the severed, formalin-stretched head of a cadaver. The grimacing skull nuzzled her silken throat to the strains of “La Cumparsita”. She was flamboyantly indignant, enjoying the attention accrued by such an outrageous stunt. Her husband, portly and enraged, confronted the couple out on the dance floor. The intern was amused but solicitous, waving a bamboo fan over the wife’s beautiful brow. He turned in surprise when challenged by the husband, who had drawn a pearl-handled Derringer from his waistcoat.
The interval between one bar of “La Cumparsita” and the next was marked by a single sharp crack and a second of shocked silence. The intern collapsed without a sound, a pool of blood over his heart, a smile still engraved on his face and his eyes just beginning to startle. The macabre head followed him to the floor and seemed to kiss his cheek as his colleagues rushed to administer fruitless first aid. The poor intern, his bravado, and his passionate love bled out in a matter of moments, and he and the masked ball were never revived.
For a moment, Julieta was silent, and I wondered if the prospect of love trumped the certainty of death. Then she laughed, drew me to my feet, tapped her cellphone once or twice, and gave me an earbud. As a Di Sarli waltz swelled silently between us, she tucked an errant curl behind her ear and led me into my first tango. Later that night, she filled my flash drive with her entire tango collection. The foreign melodies snaked effortlessly into the unfathomed cells of my soul, navigating ubiquitous shoals of death or redemption in the relentless pursuit of love.