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.”
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?”
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.
With just two minutes to go, the auditorium was empty. A faint thrum of traffic and the pitter-patter of a rain-shower filtered into the silent room. I called up my slides, dimmed the lights for optimal viewing of fluorescent organisms, and made sure Tegrity was on. I checked my watch, and scanned the vacant rows of seats for signs of life. On the hour, my phone pinged as a text came in.
“ok your good to go dont forget to upload at the end mindy”
“But there’s no-one here, Mindy,” I replied.
“don’t worry their watching in the libray or at home go for it”
The course director had spoken. For a moment or two, I weighed the coercive logic of distance learning against a Socratic ideal of engagement. No contest. I gathered my notes, and glancing up one last time, about to leave, I saw a solitary figure, a redhead in shimmering blue tights, sliding into a back-row seat. She shook out her umbrella, smiled politely, and opened a laptop. I switched on the wireless mike clipped to my lapel.
“Good morning,” I said, and aimed the ruby laser at the screen, carefully underlining my lecture topic. “This has come up in every National Board for the last five years. You’ll ace that section with this lecture. I’ll begin with three essential concepts.” I slid my cursor to the Tegrity logo and killed it. I discussed the first concept, and was well into the second when my phone pinged again.
“tegrity down cant see anything”
“Sorry Mindy, I’m busy right now,” I replied.
Pointer in hand, I left the podium and sat down near the back. My student smiled quizzically, curious about what next. I cut off the mike, covered the third concept and went on with my lecture. Some minutes passed, the double doors behind us swung open, and a cold damp draft came in from the street. Mindy appeared in the aisle beside me, bristling.
She watched one or two slides go by, and said, “Let’s switch on Tegrity.”
“I prefer not to,“ I said. Mindy grappled silently with this notion, weighing the rights of one hundred and fifty paid-up students against my mandate as a professor. Before two seconds had passed, she strode down the aisle towards the podium and my laptop. My red-headed postulant took advantage of the interruption and leaned towards me.
“”What do you mean?” she whispered. “Helicobacter pylori shuts down acid secretion and causes ulcers? I thought dogma said “No acid, no ulcer!””
On the big screen, Mindy brought Tegrity to life, and one hundred and odd remote students saw pearls iridescing briefly on their obsidian displays.
“Good question,” I said, “let’s get some coffee and dig deeper.” I cast aside my wireless trappings, and we stepped out. The rain-shower had moved on, the sky was blue, and Socrates rested easy.
Reality is manifest in many ways, not least through dreams. Billie and I had danced a few times during the practica, but I’d been distracted. I had promised my editor a new story by midnight and nothing came to mind. When I gathered my things at the end and left, I saw Billie poised at the top of the stairs admiring the moon as it rose over the harbor into a warm night sky. She had thrown a faux fur stole across her bare shoulders and her satin dress shimmered in the moonlight. I imagined inviting her to walk with me to the waterfront. Once past the Tango Center, the sidewalk outside the Psychiatric Clinic tilted a little towards the street and we leaned into each other to steady ourselves, my hand at her elbow as now and again her thigh grazed mine. We took a shortcut through a parking-lot, deserted save for an idling police cruiser, a watchful figure at the wheel just visible in the glow of the instruments.
As we strolled along a boardwalk bordering the marsh, Billie described a tango pilgrimage she’d made recently. She said she had danced every night into the small hours, never overlooked in the discreet invitations that followed each set. We came to a ramp that led down to a floating dock. Our steps set in motion receding arcs of moonlit wavelets that lapped against cattails at the edge of the marsh.
“The men were predatory,“ she said, “Dancing, I could feel their lust down there.”
I was lost for words. I brought music to life on my cellphone and touched her waist, but she looked away towards the harbor and said, “Let’s walk.” I wanted to tell her that tango was just another way of walking, but she knew that better than I did.
We returned to the boardwalk, the sighs of a tango violin animating the sway of her hips. Side-by-side we strolled through a park that followed the contours of the marsh. My tentative hand found hers, and a moment later slipped around her waist. We paused in the moonlit shade of a water-oak and settled into a bench overlooking the silvered expanse of the harbor. Somehow in the course of our murmured conversation, a new intimacy arose between us. We adjusted easily enough, and I must have dozed off for a while in her lap, because I suddenly awoke, chilled in the cool night air. Sitting up, momentarily disoriented, I saw that clouds had obscured the moon, and I realized that Billie was no longer there. My first thought was that I’d imagined everything, but the faux fur stole draped over me testified to reality. I held the damp lining to my face, inhaled redolent wisps of Billie, and peered into the dark recesses of the park, expecting any minute to see her emerge. I called her name, softly, but heard only the faint moan of a ship far out to sea.
I walked back the way we’d come. The police car was still in the parking lot, but now it blocked the driveway leading back to the Tango Center. Its flashing blue lights stabbed at my eyes as I drew closer. I weighed in the balance whether to report Billie’s absence, or just keep going. Misguided caution overruled propriety, and I sloped off on a tangent, heading for where a wire fence ran into the marsh. I was negotiating the tricky transition from the parking lot to someone’s back yard when a spike of chain-link snagged me and my feet began to sink in pluff-mud. Shaking off my shoes, I may have cursed inadvertently and caused a general commotion because next thing I knew an officer stood there shining a steel flashlight in my face.
“Evening, sir,” she said, “May I see your ID?”
“Of course,” I said, adopting the demeanor of one engaged in perfectly normal activity. “Is there a problem?”
“There were cries down by the waterfront. I noticed you came through here earlier. Where’s your friend?”
“My friend? Billie? We walked down to the marsh a while ago. I woke up and she was gone.”
“Is that her jacket?”
“Yes it is. What kind of cries?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. Mostly we’re alerted by anything out of the ordinary.”
I pictured the dubious high relief image I presented, and wondered whether I qualified. Our conversation was interrupted by crackles emanating from bulky equipment fixed to her belt. She groped for a button and gazed at the moon while reciting a set of numbers that bore the stamp of conviction. She turned to me.
“Sir? I need you to come down to the station. You’ll have to make a statement.”
I was about to say that my statements were usually published in biomedical journals or less frequently as literary fiction, but I held my tongue. My shoes were lost in the marsh, God only knew what had happened to Billie, and I seemed to be under arrest. “Of course. Glad to help in any way.”
She opened the back door of her cruiser, and I slid inside, expecting to feel her hand on my head anointing me a common perp. The car smelled of cigarettes and old vomit, the cloth seat was sticky, and the Plexiglas partition in front of me was clouded with tiny scratches. She flipped some switches, and we sped out of the parking lot, lights flashing and siren wailing. Gazing out the window, stupefied by the turn events had taken, I caught sight of Billie walking briskly past the Psychiatric Clinic, leaning carefully away from the uneven slant towards the street, her arms crossed against the night chill.
“That’s her,” I cried, “that’s Billie! Drop me off right here, thanks.” I knocked insistently on the scarred partition, but the officer was fixated on a laptop that glowed and blinked beside her. She drove fast with only an occasional glance at the road, seemingly immune to the commotion behind her. I heard a loud pop and then a brief hiss.
“Sir? I need you to sit still and quit banging on the partition. We’ll be at the station in just a minute.”
“Ma’am, can’t you hear me? That’s Billie back there, we’re done here, let me out. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”
She caught my eye in her rear-view and blew through a red light.
“Sir? If you don’t stop banging, I’ll need to call in back-up.”
I twisted around and through the rear window I saw Billie, distant now, poised in front of the Tango Center where the lights were out and the doors were locked. She faced the waterfront, caught for a moment in a pool of moonlight. I lost her as we swerved through another intersection. I fell back in the seat and smoothed the sable folds of Billie’s stole in my lap. My watch ticked off the minutes to midnight. I marveled how insidiously tangos earlier that night had seguéd from metaphor into make-believe. We slowed and turned into the floodlit precinct. The siren died down and I steeled myself for the task ahead. A new story; a dream manifest as reality.
In “Light as the Breeze”, Leonard Cohen knelt before his lover, whose charms ran from Alpha to Omega. When I first listened to this song of obsessive desire, I thought “Bravo!” that a grizzled old man could summon such passion. That was before I encountered Tango. I remembered Charlie, who used to preside over graduate student pool-parties in his hillside apartment overlooking the University. He was in love with a sylph-like neuroscientist named Delta, to whom he sent beautifully scripted love-letters on hand-made paper sealed with scarlet wax embossed with an imprint of a coiled snake. We mocked this echo of past times.
“One day we’ll be old” he said, “the hey-dey in our blood stilled. But we’ll cherish symbolic memories of our passions, an unforgettable dawn or a certain foxtrot, as we amble through another round of golf.”
The twin temptations of women and dance are reincarnated in the Hotel Fakir’s Indian hooded cobra swaying in hypnotic thrall to the music. Juliet embodied the hectic flush of first love, but our more mature infatuations are couched in billions of Kilo-bytes of Facebook ephemera. Fittingly, the ancient Romans enriched their passage through the portals of the psyche by praying to the female deity Lima, guardian of the threshold. In contrast, the doors of the British Museum were guarded for years by a misogynistic tomcat called Mike who died soon after the third Mickey Mouse cartoon opened in November 1928 (no Oscar). Speaking of temptations, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in the B-flat minor key of mournful Tango songs evokes illicit yearnings for the road less travelled. But I digress.
The theme of ambush by infatuation recalls General Wolfe’s triumphant seizure of Quebec seconds before three musket balls sent him to his Maker aged 32. Romeo was equally fervid in his pursuit of Juliet, as was Bogart in his iconic portrayal of greed in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. And so we come to T as in Tango, that improbable amalgam of schmaltzy Gypsy ditties, some steps and turns, and a man and a woman. Add the uniform attributes of tango, a proud masterful chest and stiletto heels, and the result is magical. Ignatio Quiroga likened Tango to a game of chess where the victor is subsumed in a heady coupling of opposites. Once, mixing a whiskey sour at the Fakir, Quiroga addressed with X-ray acuity the allure of Tango to Yankees a world away from Argentina.
“The Zulus defeated the British at Isandlwana in 1879, but were later enslaved in the gold-mines,” he said. “From those water-logged pits came the Gumboot dancers…”
Just then, a redhead in high heels marking time by the Aquitania poster caught my eye, and I missed the rest of the story.
An unmistakable blush gathered discreetly around Dolores’s pearl earrings and spread delightfully across her cheeks. She stood before him, one arm resting on his shoulder, her body still warm against his, and swayed gently to the rhythmic echo of the tango they had just danced.
“You’re a busy bee, Max,” she said, observing him through lowered eye-lashes. “Busy, busy, foraging for nectar, flitting here and there, bristles laden with pollen, proboscis probing promiscuously. And now, ever industrious, you’re building a new hive. Do you think a reincarnated Hotel Fakir will make those scented folds and recesses bloom and grow, like edelweiss baptized by the sound of music?”
His first instinct was to deny her accusation, much like Peter in the garden of Gethsemane. But the passage of two thousand years, his grasp of tactical maneuvres on the chessboard, and his fraught experience of female challenge, had taught him that the best defense is always offense.
“Tango unfolds the petals that protect the soul,” he said. “Do you doubt that? You said yourself: Look inside. The music guides you on that journey, and persuades you to bring another, for better or for worse, for ever, or just for now. The essence of tango is that a woman and a man experience, if only momentarily, a melding of body and mind that surpasses the everyday. But you asked about the Hotel Fakir. What more could you ask for?”
“I’d like to meet this Jared Gregorio,” Dolores said, “What does a jailer of terrorists know about transcendence? He enforces elaborate constraints on freedom. The Hotel Fakir was hidden behind magnolias, a secret cobbled forecourt, and an erect cobra over the door. Easily reproduced. But what about Ignatio? What about the sepia photographs at the end of the bar by the tropical flowers? What about the quiet, intense moments of reflection, equal parts desire and despair, that are inseparable from tango?”
Long moments passed as Dolores and Max gazed at each other across their table at Tabouli’s, down by the Charleston waterfront. A waiter placed before them a tall hookah and with a flourish sparked a wooden match that he held against the charcoal. Dolores’s hand rested next to Max’s on the starched linen tablecloth. Their fingers touched and caressed each other, intertwining like the placid curls of apple-scented smoke weaving and lifting from the hookah’s glowing crucible. A soft wind laden with complex moistures from the salt-marsh drifted through the wooden shutters that cast sunlit slats across the floor. The soundtrack came to life with Canaro’s “Milongo Criolla”. They drew closer, and awaited the next step, poised and alert.
“Listen,” Max said, holding Dolores’s eyes. “You told me once that passion in Tango stays within each dance. No overflow. I’m skeptical. My best dance recently was with a long limbed African beauty who smiled secretively as we held each other close, our bodies in sync with Di Sarli’s urges. But you know all about Fairouz. Did I mention her pink silk dress? She reminded me of the complex inner parts of a white orchid. I longed to forage in her scented folds and recesses. And this longing grew as one dance followed another. When the music stopped, the everyday took over, but Fairouz still roamed through my mind.”
“Tell me more,” Dolores said. She sipped her vermouth, eyes half-smiling, her lips moist on the sharp curve of her glass.
“Last week I had a private lesson with Florida Takashi,” Max said, “this time at a rented beach-front condo. We danced in a small sitting room, all the furniture pushed back, with picture windows overlooking a porch and the surf beyond. Florida drilled me in nuances of tango balance, intention and passion. Afterwards, spent, changing back into my everyday shoes, I sat for a second on the edge of a glass-topped table. With a loud concussion the glass shattered into shards, sharp as scimitars. Florida’s languorous Tango ambiance vanished instantly, and embarrassment and confusion ensued.”
A warm breeze from the marsh stirred the ribbon in Dolores’s hair.
“I’m glad you had a class with Florida,” she said, “I can already feel the difference in your dance. But the smashed glass table has sapped your passion for tango, which alone would have healed you. When you break or drop anything, stop for a moment and look inside; something is not in harmony with your soul.”
She looked out towards the harbor, where an ocean liner edged into the dock, a tugboat at her bow and another at the stern. Max watched as bats flitted and dipped across the marsh, and thought of premonition and synchrony. The soundtrack in the background paused for a moment before resurfacing as a tango waltz. He took Dolores’s hand and she came into his arms. His fingers rested gently on the cool supple flow of her back, touching and letting go as the music drew them closer. She closed her eyes and let her body be guided by his, and by the liquid notes spinning their familiar weft and weave of tango.
“I’m wary of drops and breaks,” he said as the song ended. “The smashed glass table distanced me from Tango. But when the bandoneons and violins sounded in the humid aftermath of tropical thunderstorms, I thought of Charleston and the ruin of the Hotel Fakir. I wanted an end to intrigue, to vengeful overflow from Infanteria Septima, and to ignorant confusion of damaged ego with Tango. I thought of you, Dolores. You came here for Ignatio’s sake. Now that we’re rebuilding the Hotel Fakir, won’t you stay a little longer?”
Max and Dolores sat on the porch at Tabouli’s, down by the Charleston waterfront. Dolores was wearing a sleeveless cerulean linen dress, her hair gathered and tied with a silk ribbon. He was mesmerised by her dark eyes and the half-smile playing around her lips.
“Amancio told me Tango is big in Beirut,” said Dolores. “It seems they have milongas after all; I thought you just imagined Roxanne in her black tankini, lounging next to the infinite edge pool at the Gefinor Rotana!” Dolores leaned in and sipped her Pimm’s. “What did you imagine in Florida?”
Max saw reality refracted through the prism of imagination. “Ovidio must have realized the FBI was closing in when Fairouz appeared at the iDanze Studio in the wake of terrible thunderstorms. He sensed, dancing with her, an unexpected detachment, an immunity to his well-honed advances. Her serious demeanor spoke of a life beyond tango. The next evening, at the house milonga, he must have noticed her whispering into her phone, and the impassive faces of Amancio and his men. My unwitting mention of Gregorio triggered fight or flight. Not one for half-measures, he did both.”
“Ovidio pursued the refuge offered by tango,” Dolores said, “we do too, for other reasons. Fairouz was helping us, of course, just as we helped her with humanitarian aid in East Africa. I remember Ovidio back in the Hotel Fakir, in his red shirt, black pants and bare feet, the epitome of Tango authority. I noticed a cobra tatoo on his wrist when he came to the bar. I texted Amancio, and his men flew into Charleston the next day. But it was too late.”
“Ovidio threw the Molotov cocktail into the Hotel Fakir, to kill Ignatio?”
“An assassin, yes.” Dolores said. “But it’s finished now.” She paused and fingered her glass tentatively. “You should know, Max; I’ve been disappointed with Tango lately. Too many leaders are boring, cold, and clueless, machine-like in their embrace! Tango without passion is like guzzling warm champagne: no taste and no fun, a mere pretense of elegance. I was almost in tears listening to your Florida story! I felt the humid warmth of the wetlands and shuddered at the sudden thunderstorms. Too bad I wasn’t there.”
She sat back in her chair and smiled.
“Tell me about your last best dance.”