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.
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.”
The sunset milonga on Maria’s rooftop overlooking the Stono River would begin about eight. I left home early and got some sushi at Publix to go with champagne I had grabbed from the fridge on my way out. While there, I stopped by their pharmacy for an overdue pneumonia shot. I waited by the pharmacy counter in a chair next to a small table. A smiling portly pharmacist, armed with alcohol swabs and a syringe, sat companionably on the table. As he asked me to bare my bicep, the table collapsed with complex splintering, spilling him and his accoutrements onto the floor. Somehow, amidst mutual embarrassment and abject apology, I got my shot, signed some paperwork, and was back on the road lickety-split.
Crossing the salt marshes to the mainland, time still on my hands and with queasy twinges needling my bicep, I paused at the trailhead of a nearby county park. The sun was still high but sinking fast. The intertidal landscape of shallow ponds bounded by expanses of shimmering sea-grass reflected a cloudless blue sky. Egrets, seagulls and a great blue heron foraged on crab-pocked mudflats exposed by the ebbing tide. I walked along a causeway, binoculars at the ready. A commotion in the distance caught my eye. A red-tailed hawk was dive-bombing a bald eagle perched on a tree stump, highlighted in constitutional splendor by the setting sun. The eagle repeatedly lifted off its perch, twisted in mid-air, and then settled back. The hawk’s last dive dislodged the eagle and forced its retreat into the sea-marsh, where I lost sight of it.
In Carl Jung’s synchronicity, concurrent unrelated events create meaning that enriches the unconscious. But I wasn’t thinking along these lines when I arrived at the milonga for my sunset tango with Maria. Champagne in hand and snacking on sushi and pizza, we toasted the transient magnificence of a sky criss-crossed with orange jet contrails, a sky transformed from uniform blue to a cloud-flecked palette of lavender and deep red. We took selfies against the backdrop of the setting sun, then waltzed across her rooftop to the ecstatic strains of Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma.”
I was unprepared for what happened next. A concussive crash, a shattering of wine glasses, and alarmed cries disrupted my seductive immersion in Tango. One of our number, portly and unsmiling, renowned for his commitment to milonga etiquette, was sprawled on the floor by the drinks table. He was gasping, like a fat spot-tail bass threshing helplessly in the scuppers of a jon boat trolling the salt marsh. We helped him up, of course, while he gesticulated at the splintered remnants of the chair that had let him down. His mortification was extreme, and I quietly overlooked his piqued Facebook comments next day about etiquette infractions he’d experienced at Maria’s rooftop milonga.
As a metaphor of things gone wrong, any kind of collapse fits the bill. I wondered why these particular metaphors had been visited upon me. After all, at each of them, I had simply been an unwitting witness of scripts I hadn’t written. I decided that Carl Jung merited further study. Meanwhile, I contemplated the rooftop milonga, which was illuminated by candles ranged along the parapet, and suffused with melodic invitations to closer connection. I refined my discreet nuanced cabeceos. My unconscious, by definition a closed book, forged ahead, reveling in the joyful buzz of Tango when invited eyes said yes, open to whatever came next.
The sun was sinking rapidly as I crossed the lawn, headed for the dock. Settled into the weathered bench at the pierhead, facing west, front row center at this daily celestial spectacle, I called up video on my phone. Holding it steady, I panned slowly clockwise, starting at the boardwalk, with Rushland in the background, and progressing through darkening woods towards complex many-colored clouds accumulating on the horizon where the sun had just set. I posted the video on Tango Folly.com, typed “Hi, Maria… just keeping in touch”, attached Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, and clicked Send. Tantalizing moments passed. A chirp alerted me to incoming text. “In tango class; wish you were here… Maria.”
I watched the tide infiltrating the mudflats before me. I figured within an hour I’d be able to navigate my kayak down Murray Creek to the Stono River, cross over with rapid determined strokes, and finally float into the little creek that petered out at the bottom of Maria’s garden. She’d be back from class by then, nursing chilled vinho verde on her rooftop and listening to Carlos di Sarli. However, by the time I translated thought into action, gliding towards the river as a blood red moon rose behind me, a light mist had settled over the sea marsh. Poor visibility and the rising tide conspired to mislead me. Somehow I missed the turn into Maria’s creek, and was back-paddling along a palisade of marsh grass when I felt a light bump near the stern and then a more solid impediment that stopped me dead in the water.
I peered over the side, and saw an ice-chest caught between the kayak and the sea grass. The lid was dangling from a single hinge. Reaching into the chest, I pulled out a black bottle of gold-labeled champagne. More bottles were in there, wedged in place by baggies swollen with white powder. Fighting down a shrill adrenaline scream, I scanned the river and marsh around me. The river mist had dissipated. I saw no sinister blacked-out motor-yacht, only a placid expanse of salt grass, the river’s shifting moonlit surface, and the regular red blinks of a distant microwave tower. I considered my options, which boiled down to salvaging the chest, or leaving it behind, bobbing in my wake. Opportunity overruled caution. I stashed the bottles and baggies in the kayak’s bow, found my way into Maria’s creek, and moored a few minutes later at her dock to the strains of Osvaldo Fresedo’s “El Once” drifting down from her rooftop.
“El Once” reminded me of the last, eleventh celebration of the annual Gran Baile del Internado in Buenos Aires in 1924, where an innocent prank had provoked the gunning down of a medical student named Ernesto O’Farrell. Civic outrage over the killing was fueled by its association with scandalous Tango. And here was I, seeking solace in Tango, in possession of apparent contraband, possibly risking death if tracked down by whoever was missing an ice-chest. More thoughtful now, safely ensconced in Maria’s hidden creek, my heartbeat back to normal, I reconsidered my options. Best was to report at once my discovery to 911, but I was wary of involving Maria. Not to mention explaining a questionable nocturnal kayak crossing of a river where just recently two men had drowned in a freak thunderstorm while fishing on an ebb-tide for spot-tail bass. Second-best was simply to return the champagne and baggies to the ice-chest, and to get on with my life, questionable though it might be.
As I loosened the kayak’s line and reached for the paddle, the final bars of “El Once” played out. The ensuing silence was broken by the low rumble of an outboard motor and I saw the red and green bow light of a small boat nosing its way up the creek. I muted my phone and held my breath. Maria had doused the candles ranged around her rooftop, and her silhouette leaning on the parapet was etched against racing clouds. And now came the first somber chords of “First Kill”, from the movie “Assassination Tango”. Instantly, the motor and the running light shut down. I crept incognito beneath the dock. I marveled at Maria’s sixth sense that had intuitively caught and sound-tracked the drama being enacted at the bottom of her garden. All I could see were dark shadows fringed in moonlight filtering down through the water oaks and conifers that lined the creek. An owl called from distant woods, bull-frogs croaked occasionally from the marsh, and fireflies flashed here and there.
The motor-boat bumped gently into my kayak, and a flash-light swept briefly over it and the deserted dock. Minutes ticked off as someone stepped silently ashore, paused, and then set off at a crouch towards the house. I messaged Maria, “Lock the doors, don’t open them to anyone…” Matters were quickly getting out of hand. I could return my stash to the ice-chest, if I could find it, but first I’d have to disable the motor-boat to avoid pursuit. That would mean leaving Maria to deal with whoever was prowling around her home. Going to her rescue, a white knight on a charger, was laudable but useless, given that I was unarmed and that my martial triumphs happened only on chess-boards, and then infrequently. More and more, a call to 911 was mandatory. While dialling, rehearsing my story, I heard a cacophony of dog barks, a stifled scream, and someone stumbling in a frenzy back to the dock. I ducked out of sight. The moon re-emerged from a bank of clouds. “First Kill” seguéd easily into “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”.
Curses and a snarling hound interrupted Roberto Rufino’s anguished cry that he was disoriented, that his faith was broken, and that he saw the sky in the eyes of his beloved. I lay low, even as a 911 dispatcher asked what service I required, and what was the address? I whispered, “Police,” blanked on Maria’s address, added “Never mind”, and switched off. Next thing I knew, the outboard fired up, and the motorboat backed off from my kayak with grinding concussions, wheeled around, and sped off towards the river. The hound paced the dock, snuffling in frustration. It paused to sniff at a seam in the boards just above my cowering head, poured forth a paroxysm of barks, and then slouched off towards the house. My phone buzzed. “Max? Is that you down there?” A flashlight danced along the path from Maria’s house. Di Sarli’s orchestration embroidered Rufino’s refrain, “The sky in your eyes gives me courage, and increases my crazy desire to live.”
Maria emerged from the shadows. She paused at the step onto the dock, one pale hand at her breast, and the other fingering the hem of her tango skirt. Botticelli’s Venus flashed before my eyes. Under the passionate spell of her crystalline soul, my hell in Eden was transformed. But all that had to wait. I embraced her silently, and nuzzled the pearled precinct of her ear. “I’ll be back,” I murmured, “I’ll explain later.” I untied the kayak, settled in, and paddled swiftly towards the river and the lost ice-chest. I soon left the shadowy confines of the creek, and found myself in open water. The moon was higher now in a clear star-studded sky. The fireflies had disappeared, and the bullfrogs’ choruses had died down.
As I made for the protective cover of sea-grass, hoping to blend into invisibility, I felt water sloshing around my flip-flops, and loose bottles of champagne and fat baggies of white powder shifting around in the bow. And then I noticed that the kayak was lower in the water than usual, and that paddling was now more strenuous. No doubt about it: I was sinking. The churning propeller of the motorboat must have torn a hole in the kayak. Waves began to slop over the gunwhale when I was still a hundred yards from the palisade of rushes where I’d found the ice-chest. Within seconds I was chest-deep in cold water, and the kayak was slipping out from under me, headed for the bottom. My struggle to get free was greeted by the raucous scream of a night-hawk, swooping low over the moonlit river.
Dragged down, kicking frantically free of the kayak, I drowned a scream by gulping a mouthful of water and swam for the surface, my eyes reaching for the distant starry sky. I was disoriented, my faith broken. In the awful loneliness of my ordeal, Maria was like a sun illuminating my eternal darkness and I lived again, her crystal soul sweetening my bitter cup. I was channeling the lyrics of the tango “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”, of course, but that simple recitation brought me back up, spluttering, treading water, and moments later found me swimming for the shelter of the marsh, where I found soft purchase in pluff mud, lay down shivering and breathless swaddled in sea grass, and wondered what next.
My kayak and the incriminating salvaged contraband were gone. All I had to do was get home, reassure Maria, and forget the whole story. I must have dropped off for a while, my thoughts revolving inexorably, as dreams tend to do, around swimming four hundred yards in twelve minutes to qualify as a volunteer scuba diver in the South Carolina Aquarium. I woke, chilled, thinking that the Stono River was no wider, that the current was slack at high tide, and that twelve minutes hence I could be back home. By the time I translated thought into action, Roberto Rufino’s tango vals assertion that the sky in his lover’s eyes gave him courage and chased away his suffering was beginning to sound hollow. An eternity later, I dragged myself, arms aching, onto my dock.
As I crossed the lawn towards my house, I noted that Sootie, the black bronze nude of Catalonian provenance reclining by the marshfront water-oaks, was smiling as always, non-committally. My phone, marinated in the brackish reality of low country waterways, and normally a dependable connection to all things relevant or otherwise, was dead. Maria would have to wait. I poured myself a gin and tonic and tuned into Budapest Radio’s classical tango stream. With timeliness worthy of Carl Jung’s synchronicity, “El Cielo en Tus Ojos” soothed the scream still echoing in my ears. Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
She sits on a silk cushion, her head lying sideways on pulled-up knees, her arms thrown out in an open embrace. He catches sight of her as he parks outside the craft bakery where Berfu has saved him a baguette. The woman’s eyes are closed, and her lips frame an incipient smile. Her contracted body and the smooth curve of her spine stir distant memories. In a tall-windowed sunlit studio, he is once again an earnest student of modern dance, warming-up to Jarrett’s jazz piano. His teacher Sootie, a raven-haired free spirit and bygone love, casts him in her company’s first show. As they all bow in a shower of flowers, Sootie gives him a bouquet of red roses and Oriental lilies.
Berfu brings him back with dancing eyes, a smile and knowing Levantine small talk. He buys the last baguette and pauses at the door to study the mute black effigy seated on the sidewalk. An embossed gold-lettered card hanging from her ring finger says she’s a bronze Beaux Arts nude of Catalonian provenance. He squats before her, and strokes the warm silky patina of her forearm and the cleft where a thumb curls into her palm. At a nearby table a woman observes him from a corner of her eye, frowning as she sips coffee and taps on her cellphone. He writes a check and maneuvers the statue into his car, covering her for modesty’s sake with a light cotton throw. He drives home across sea-islands that guide broad rivers into the Atlantic.
That evening, a lurid sunset turns gray cirrus pink against the lavender sky. He settles into an armchair on the verandah overlooking the salt-marsh, dips warmed baguette into olive oil, and sips a heady Malbec. Sootie rests on a patch of lawn, arms outstretched, embraced in the shade of a water-oak and a palisade of rushes at the water’s edge. As the last light fades and a cold mist rolls in from the marsh, he wanders across the lawn and sits beside her. Her arms and back are mottled with watermarks that mar her ebony perfection. Lost in thought, he dampens a napkin with virgin olive oil and starts to massage her bronze contours. He is caressing an embodiment of desire, and senses that her smooth inanimate skin is becoming responsive under his shivering fingers. As he burnishes her breasts and the planes of her thighs, he’s startled to see that Sootie has raised her head from its sideways rest upon her knees and is looking him in the eye. He shudders, and she seems to catch a breath. The sudden cry of Canada geese flying overhead in perfect formation jolts him into the here and now. His trembling slowly gives way to torpor.
Disconcerted, he goes back to the verandah. His limbs are heavy, and his eyelids droop as he fends off drowsiness. Time passes. Bullfrog crescendos gradually die out, and now and again firefly flashes punctuate the darkness. He can’t quite see in the gloom, but Sootie seems to have moved. She’s no longer sitting on her silk cushion, her open arms inviting embrace. She’s risen onto one knee, and now splayed fingers bring her to her feet. She’s coming across the lawn, black as night, unbidden and inevitable, like a dream. She sits before him, and draws his knees up to his chin. He lays his face sideways, stretches out his arms, and succumbs to her caress. The scent of roses and Oriental lilies envelops him as he embraces her pulsing life and his own terminal stillness.
En route to my office in rush-hour traffic, I was caught in interminable gridlock behind the lowered red and white-striped barriers of a draw-bridge. The steel lattice of the bridge rose before me in slow motion, and a tall-masted schooner slid by, a snowbird departing, southward bound on the Intracoastal Waterway. Impatient and irritated, I calmed myself listening to classical tangos on Pandora, seeing myself and a svelte tanguera gliding in close embrace across polished parquet. I sighed, checked my phone, and saw a text from TerminalTango.
“Have Heels, Will Travel. My flight doesn’t leave until seven. Go Tigers at Gate A1”
Fantasy was about to be usurped by reality. A random brief encounter, all five senses on high alert, perfectly isolated from the everyday. I couldn’t conceive a more pristine metaphor of Tango’s allure. As if galvanized by the thought, the bridge began its descent to the roadway while bells rang and lights flashed. I stepped on the gas all the way to the airport, parked in a distant surface lot, and made a beeline for the terminal. Under the watchful eyes of security, I consigned my laptop and phone, jacket and shoes, and watch and wallet to a conveyer belt. I strolled through a full body scanner, pausing only to feign surrender, hands over my head. On a monitor I watched my things yield their colorful metallic secrets to the X-rays. Cleared at last for departure, I collected myself and marched at the double to Gate A1.
Sitting at a Starbucks across from the gate, I sipped a Peppermint Mocha and savored the caffeinated chocolate on my tongue. A Raul Beron song I recognized as “El Vals Soñador” flowed from a tiny Jambox propped against a pillar. A stylish couple danced in easy synchrony across the gleaming terracotta floor. She wore an apricot silk blouse and a cerulean pencil skirt and turquoise suede stiletto heels. She was in full flight, eyes closed, her body swaying with his,
and I caught the intimate fragrance of her perfume as they swept by. Her steps were economical and precise, and now and then, when her partner paused, her heels traced crisp radial arcs that closed in time for the next musical phrase. He waited patiently for those instants, poised and erect, his hand tracing delicate patterns of touch-and-go across her back, and then he would dip into a long step forward, moving into her space with intent. Tango!
The waltz ended. They chatted for a moment or two, he tapped something into his phone, and then he was gone. She settled into a chair, tucked an errant russet curl behind her ear, and looked around. I was uncertain about TerminalTango etiquette, this being my first time, but within seconds our eyes met and held, as if a milonga were calling. She smiled and nodded, and touched
the obsidian surface of her phone. Di Sarli’s graceful “El Amanecer” filled the concourse around Gate A1 and I rose to my feet. She awaited my imminent arrival and her next full flight.
Bells rang, lights flashed, and the irate, insistent blare of a car-horn startled me into the here-and-now. My svelte tanguera, even as she invited me into close embrace, evaporated into wisps that dissipated in an instant. Cars streamed past me, left and right, and a blue pennant atop the tall-masted schooner fluttered gaily before disappearing beyond a distant bend in the river. Clouds moved in from the west, and raindrops spotted my windshield. Static from flickers of lightning broke up my music feed, but as I accelerated back into traffic, I caught a snippet of song: “Give your soul to the rhythm of the tango.“
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 all of her tango. 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.
I flew into Reagan National about four on a Friday afternoon, zipping over the Key Bridge at tree height, seemingly just yards from hotel balconies on the Alexandria side of the Potomac. Freed at last from buttery aromas wafting from my morbidly obese neighbor in the aisle seat, I got a SuperShuttle heading for the DoubleTree. I threw my bag in the back and sat up front. The radio was tuned to local FM and alternated promises of light traffic and fair weather with breaking news of death for the Marathon Bomber. Stalled in airport traffic, the driver fixated on his GPS and my fellow travelers gazed at their phones and absorbed music channeled through pearled earbuds. No-one spoke. We finally emerged from the concrete tunnel of Arrivals and drove through busy neighborhoods of leafy affluence one moment and urban poverty the next, pausing only for drop-offs. I was last, close to Thomas Circle, across from the Coatings Institute of America. The desk clerk was African and wore black-framed glasses. While admiring a gold chain that adorned the parting of her cream silk blouse, I missed her confirmation of a five-night stay and unwittingly earned a huge early departure penalty four days later. But on this, my first night in town, my focus was elsewhere; a penthouse suite with a view, location of the nearest market and Metro station, and opportunity for Tango Argentino.
I sorted my stuff onto hangers, stocked up on baguette, brie, cherries and Cote du Rhone at WholeFoods, and guided by Google I set off for a Freedom Milonga on Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the White House. I strolled unobtrusively around the Plaza and observed the arrival of women in loose dresses and high heels. As the sun sank behind federal Washington and skateboarders zipped in louche challenge among the dancers, I was enveloped and tantalized by an insidious flow of classic tango from the totemic PA system. I decided on my first partner, who’d been kissed on arrival on both cheeks by men with evident tango credentials. She was as finely sculpted and expressive as an Assyrian princess. She followed me onto the reflective stone surface of the Plaza. We danced to Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma“. In the interval between one song and the next, in the low-slung light of sunset, we faced each other. Her eyes were more Persian than Levantine. I said, “My name is Maximilian, but call me Max. Do you come from Iran?” She took my hand in hers and said, “I’m Fairouz. Don’t you love this music?”
We were interrupted by a bedraggled old man sitting on the stone plinth that surrounded the plaza. He called out loudly to passing women, “Won’t you dance with me, please?” His slept-in mud-colored jacket and trousers proclaimed addiction and homelessness, a more desperate variant of attributes shared with the tango dancers who swept and turned before him. “Ma’am? Why won’t you dance with me? Hey, Miss, I’m talking to you,” he pleaded, an exasperated angry note edging into his voice. A crouched skateboarder, followed closely by another wielding a camera phone, flashed in silent sequence between us and the agitated old man. The first bars of a new tango sounded and Fairouz and I moved away as the music switched our gears from awkward confrontation to free flight. I danced only once or twice with Fairouz that evening, sidelined by skilled tangueros competing for her embrace. At some point, however, Fairouz and I were captured pivoting against the glowing golden façade of the federal Treasury by the long distance lens of someone who posted the image next day on the Capital Tangueros Facebook page. There she was, tall, elegant and intent, poised in incipient ocho. I left soon after, and sought solace in the nearly deserted DoubleTree cocktail lounge, where over a glass of beer I fell into conversation with a lone beautiful Korean gastroenterologist fine-tuning her next day’s symposium address on a laptop. As we exchanged cards over a second round, I was tempted to scribble my room number on mine, but propriety trumped opportunity, and I fell asleep alone, ensnared in colorful dreams of tango and limber East Asian rapture.
The next morning, sluggish after a breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, OJ and black coffee, I missed an early shuttle to the convention center, and slipped late into my first session. I got to the mike with a last challenging question just ahead of the journal editor handling my latest submission, a slight I considered outweighed by the presence in the audience of two reviewers of my recent federal grant application. Hours later, having sat through sessions devoted to gastrointestinal microbes and fecal transplantation, I wandered into the vast acreage of deep-carpeted pharma exhibits in search of a cappuccino and biscotti. Slim pickings were the order of the day. Inscribed thumb drives and stylish pens were the only vestiges of the extravagant corporate blow-outs of years past. Back in the day, Bacchanalian evenings in civic art museums, appropriated exclusively for meeting attendees, were the norm. Every salon boasted live jazz, classical music, or rock and roll at one end, while white linen-clad tables groaned under cornucopias of fine dining at the other. This time around, navigating the corporate booths, I was seated within minutes, complete with cappuccino, while a persuasive salesman in a shiny black suit and a ponytail applied electrodes to my neck and instructed me to push buttons on a remote I found in my hand. Powerful rhythmical jolts of muscle contraction mimicked a massage but somehow failed to induce relaxation as advertised. I told ponytail I was impressed but disinclined to blow $400, and I held firm even as he said, “But for you, my friend, we can do $250.”
Later, snacking on brie, cherries and Cotes du Rhone, I watched the sun set over the Coatings Institute of America and surfed the Tango offerings that night in Washington DC. Parda Practica announced its presence from eight until whenever at Ozio’s, which Google identified as a bar and grill ten minutes stroll from the DoubleTree. Approaching Ozio’s an hour later, recapitulating my circumspect review of Freedom Plaza the night before, I saw across the street a deserted sidewalk patio and behind glass windows a low-lit restaurant and a lone bartender studying his phone. Tango music flowed from an upper floor, and I could see shadows of dancers on the curtained windows.
I recalled my first vertiginous contact with Tango, back when I pushed open the black-lacquered door of the Hotel Fakir and stepped into a parallel world with only tenuous connection to the one I knew. Then, the music and a red-head in silver stilettos had turned my head; now, crossing over to Ozio’s, I felt the same adrenaline-fueled anticipation. I knew from numerous encounters since then, in cities from Orlando to Lvov to San Diego, that the women I’d meet that night, and the music I’d hear, would reset me into default mode; at home in my brain stem, open to input and responsive to simple impulse.
Engrossed in some digital encounter, the bartender barely nodded as I made for the stairs at the back of the bar. At the top, I stepped into a facsimile of the Hotel Fakir. Before me stretched a polished floor flanked on one side with mirrors and discreet tables, and on the other with a long zinc bar. Women, their legs crossed and long, sat there sipping crimson cocktails, tended by one or two men. Couples waltzed the length of the polished floor, in perfect synchrony with Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma”. And there, suddenly in front of me, before I could properly orient myself, was Fairouz. She wore a simple yellow dress and silver stilettos, and her hennaed curls and rosewater scent engulfed me as she kissed me on both cheeks. “Welcome to Ozio’s, Max,” she said, “We’d be on the rooftop, but the builders haven’t finished there yet!”
Morty’s Gold Mart was on the far side of the harbor, in the forlorn industrial corridor that led to the shipyards. Running on empty, I pulled into a pot-holed strip mall and, nervous about the gold coins in my coat, parked in front of a payday loan office next to Sharon’s Salon, as far from Morty’s as possible. Nobody was around as I walked over to the Gold Mart. I glanced into the salon in passing, and was startled to see a dignified black lady swiveling in a high chair and wagging her finger at me, but she was just discussing coiffure with Sharon.
A sign in the Gold Mart window promised electronic surveillance and armed response if needed. The door was locked, and a tarnished push-button dangling from a wire elicited only silence. I knocked twice; sunlit cars sped by, and no one accosted me at gunpoint. Across the street, a cinder-block auto shop and a bail-bond office framed a view of the harbor, where a distant sailboat tacked against an onshore breeze. The door opened, and Morty showed me in, double-locked the door, and slid a motel-style chain into its slot. He had an unkempt comb-over, hair sprouting from his ears, and a three-day stubble. Smiling, he splayed his hands on a scratched glass counter-top.
“We have to be careful,” he said, “I shot someone once, right here.” He pointed a forefinger at me, his thumb cocked, as if to establish his credentials in the sketchy business of gold exchange. His shop was in disarray, much like himself. Dusty catalogs were piled on shelves among jumbled bric-a-brac. Cracked whitewash peeled from the walls, and rust crept up the side of a cast-iron safe. He booted up an ancient laptop while I opened my zip-lock bag and arranged the coins by denomination.
“Ah, Franz-Joseph, 1915, very nice,” said Morty, “I don’t see these too often. Takes me back, oh yes…” He studied a 100-corona piece through a jeweler’s loupe. “Popular in East Europe before the war, say Austria, Hungary, Poland…” He looked up, and his sharp blue eye focused first on the laptop’s scrolling gold valuations, and then on me. “Insurance,” he said, “Everyone felt safer with a few coronas hidden away.”
“Did you kill him?” I asked.
“Who? Oh no, I only maimed her. The bullet tore through her ear, ricocheted off the safe and got me in the eye.” I looked once more and realized that Morty’s right eye was a glass marble, alert but ersatz. “I must have passed out,” Morty said, “because next thing I knew I was blinded by OR floods and someone was saying count back from 100. In threes, please.” His fingers slid up and down the stacked coins, while his good eye assessed their worth and the other one sized me up. I wondered whether to discuss the attempted robbery or the price of gold on the Chicago exchange. Morty’s probing glass eye nudged me onto a tangent.
“You’re right about the coins,” I said. “Years ago, hitch-hiking in Europe as a student, I stopped at my Aunt Theresa’s in Vienna. She lived in the suburbs with her husband Walter, once a Wehrmacht captain, and my grandmother, who sat in a wheelchair and drifted in and out of dementia. We toured her well-tended garden, I plucked ripe plums from the trees, and I heard the story of these coins.” Morty’s exploring fingers paused, and he inclined his head, attention caught.
“After the war,“ I went on, “Theresa and Walter had moved into an abandoned apartment in central Vienna. One day, while assembling a mahogany dining table they had lugged down from the attics, Walter removed a canvas pouch stuffed into one of the legs. He untied the ribbon and these gold coins spilled out. Years later, long after my grandmother was dead and Walter had suffered a fatal heart attack, I visited Theresa in her dotage. She said the coins would come to me when she died, in remembrance of our family’s ancestral heritage in Lvóv, Poland.”
“Lvóv!” Morty cried out, “I was born in Lvóv! Not many of us left now. We were herded into boxcars and we never returned. And now, coins that were the last hope of survival surface in my shop.” A tear glistened in his eye as he peered over my shoulder and scrutinized the incomprehensible past. The moment passed, the everyday re-asserted itself, and Morty keyed numbers into his laptop. “For these, I can meet today’s London rate,” he said, “minus 10% commission.”
I nodded. Morty spun the dial on the safe and the door swung open. He placed packets of bank notes on the counter and slit their paper bands with an ivory letter opener carved into the likeness of an alligator. His lips shaped a silent count while his fingers snapped bill after bill, teller-style. I recalled the cortège of unknown mourners that followed Aunt Theresa’s hearse to a wooded cemetery overlooking the Danube. Afterwards, I’d wandered through her run-down garden where the plum trees were heavy with fruit, and grass grew unfettered over graveled paths. Walter’s dress dagger, complete with engraved swastika and tasseled hangings, and a Luger wrapped in oilcloth, a bullet still in the breech, were momentary diversions, and I sent them on as registered freight. Later, US Customs queried the more substantive diversion of a Persian rug from Theresa’s dining room, and overlooked the gold hidden in my laundry
“Me, I’m happy here,” said Morty when he was done. He gathered in the towers of coronal glitter, and slid a pile of bills across the counter. “Nobody bothers me, and if they do, I got my Glock. Tell me, have you been to Lvóv? To the killing fields of East Europe?” If he was mocking me, he did so with a complicit smile, sliding the coins into translucent sleeves and shrink-wrapping them with a heat-gun for shipment to Chicago. Morty’s question was straightforward, but his mention of killing fields made me cautious. My answer was impartial and strictly historical.
“Yes, I was there not too long ago,” I said, “My parents had studied in Lvóv, but they’d grown up in the countryside around Domazyr. On the way there, I drove past working-class suburbs with shabby tenements and rail-yards full of empty wagons. Off the main highway, the road to Domazyr was rutted and muddy, winding through a misted landscape of birches and bare fields with sagging barns. Rounding a corner, I came upon a shrine overlooking a pasture. A rickety fence enclosed a black wooden cross with an impaled Christ, some stained glass cups with puddled candles, and a wreath of plastic flowers. The mist lifted, and beyond the pasture I saw a sunlit hill with cottages nestled in the tree line. Strips of furrowed land reached downhill from the village. Black and white cattle nosed at leisure through the rough grass. Domazyr lay peaceful under the warm afternoon sun. I parked next to a chapel with yellow-stuccoed walls and a golden dome. High in the crown of a nearby water-oak was a huge storks’ nest.”
Morty looked up from his deft packaging of coins. “Storks were everywhere back then,” he said. “They were thought to have an enchanted stone in their skull, an antidote to all poisons.” Morty laughed, but a hacking cough intervened. He braced himself against the counter and grimaced. “When I was a child, my best friend was a fair-haired boy called Mirus who lived next door. One day we climbed onto his roof to steal magic crystals from storks nesting on the chimneys. He lost his footing and fell, his fingers scratching over the slates for grip . A long instant later, I heard the terrible impact on the flagstones below.”
“Mirus was buried the day the Wehrmacht arrived,” he went on. “Selections and deportations began at once. Professors at Lvóv University were assembled in their quadrangles, formed into lines, and shot. Old people and women and children were sent to Belzec and gassed. The countryside became littered with the mass graves of their sons and husbands. In frantic discussions with Mirus’s parents at our kitchen table, some papers were burned and others were falsified. My father told me I was now Mirus, and that I would live next door with his parents. Three days later, I watched my mother and father join a grim procession heading for the Kleparóv railway station.” Morty slid the last cylinder of glitter into a padded envelope. “I never saw them again.”
To all intents, my business with Morty was over, and I regretted that I’d rambled on about Domazyr. I gazed in silence at the money arrayed before me and contemplated the unspeakable convergence in our stories. Much too late, a doomed family’s last hope was being traded, not for life, but for equity in irrelevant marsh-front property. Morty spread his hands in a gesture of acquiescence and acknowledgement of survival against all odds. His glass eye held me fast, and the other one swept the sidelines, alert for danger. A shadow darkened the Gold Mart window, but it was only the lady with her near-perfect Sharon coiffure.
Striding down the long corridors of the hospital to meet the Chair of Alternative Medicine, Max encountered Clara coming the other way, and remarked on the polystyrene coldbox cradled in her arms. “Is that a human head in there?” he quipped. The box was just the right size, and conformed to best practice for transport of clinical tissue between labs. Max had in mind an image of Judith and Holofernes, sanitized for contemporary times. Clara, in a white T-shirt and jeans, her hair gathered in a pony-tail, glanced at the box and said with a smile, “No head, Max, just an orchidectomy specimen for pathology.” No doubt she recalled their conversation a few days before at Diesel, a one-time gas station that was now a lively bar and grill. She had been offended by comments of fellow-students and faculty when defending her doctoral dissertation wearing high heels, a tight skirt and a soft silk blouse. “Killer,” they’d said, and “You rock, girl.” Over a beer, Clara had told Max of her dinner encounter a year or two before with a visiting professor, who had leered and played footsie while debating fine points of cell signaling over she-crab soup. Max had mentioned “Lean In”, a manifesto of female empowerment by a Facebook executive, while gazing dispassionately at her smooth crossed legs, the gentle undulation of her breasts, and the vexed look in her eyes.
Max’s vision of a disembodied head arose from a painting he had noticed in a gallery wine-and-cheese a few days before. The artist explained that his blood-spattered canvas depicting a vulture perched on the bannered proclamation “Gran Baile del Internado”, was inspired by masked balls celebrated by Buenos Aires medical graduates in the 1910s and 20s. Back then, Tango was the lingua franca of the dance halls, and the best composers vied for prominence through violin and bandoneon ensembles like Orquestra Pirincho. The music, the dance, and fine Malbec all conspired to fuel indiscretion. The interns scandalized and terrified 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 certain intern, innocent and full of bravado, dancing with the beautiful wife of the Orquestra’s manager, and seeking to trump all previous excess, swept off his mask and revealed the severed, formalin-stretched head of a cadaver. The grimacing skull leaned in to nuzzle her cheek to the strains of Francisco Canaro’s “La Cumparsita”. The lady’s husband, portly and enraged, confronted the couple in the center of the dance floor. She was flamboyantly indignant, enjoying the attention accrued by such an outrageous Gran Baile stunt. The intern was amused but solicitous, cooling her brow with a bamboo fan. He turned in surprise when challenged by the husband, who had now drawn a pearl-handled Derringer from his waistcoat pocket. 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 spreading puddle 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 momentarily as his colleagues rushed to administer fruitless first aid. The poor intern and his youthful bravado bled out on the dance floor, and he and the Gran Baile were never revived.
The Chair of Alternative Medicine was out to lunch, and as Max retraced his steps he once again encountered Clara, just across from the hospital morgue, where a polished brass plaque on the door proclaimed “Hic Locus Est Ubi Mors Gaudet Succerere Vitae”. She was conversing quietly with our hospital safety officer, who had placed the polystyrene box on sterile drapes on her stainless steel cart. Max nodded politely and went on his way, elaborating fantasies of Judith and Holofernes, the Gran Baile del Internado, and the inevitability of death or redemption in the pursuit of love.