What a Little Moonlight Can Do

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.

T As In Tango

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.

A Tall Hookah

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.

Liquid Notes

“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?”

Tabouli’s

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.”

Silk Dress Folds

Di Sarli’s “Comme Il Faut” snaked from the tall windows of a home on Cypress Street and permeated the glistening magnolias and overarching oaks. Max slowed down, U-turned, and parked in a space that infringed by a foot or two on a private driveway. The front door was ajar, but mindful of simple courtesy, he pressed the doorbell and paused for a moment before stepping into the black and white marble-tiled foyer. In a low-lit drawing room to his right, dancers in close embrace moved together as one, adorning the svelte orchestration that flowed from speakers by the window. Fairouz was back there, framed in a doorway that led to the garden. She was listening attentively to her phone and waving off mosquitoes with a Chinese sandalwood fan. A sober young man in a dark suit stood watchfully at her side. Max recognized Amancio, an occasional visitor to the Hotel Fakir before it burned down, a special friend, he recalled, of Dolores. He thought with a pang of Dolores, gone suddenly to Washington. Amancio had vanished too, a few days after the fire.

In an adjoining room, Ovidio grazed on the generous buffet, eyes roving restlessly. Max merged into the press of guests at the table and helped himself to shrimp and a glass of Carmenere. An arm fell across his shoulder and a thickly accented voice murmured in his ear.
“I worry about you, my friend,” Ovidio said. “You fantasize about Tango, you think it will revive you. You indulge delusions of vampirism, neglect your work, betray those you love, and at the end of the day, you’re lovelorn but always game for one more dance.”

Max shook off his presumptuous embrace, and stirred the spicy cocktail sauce with a plump shrimp.
“Delicious!” he said, taking a bite. “I don’t worry. The moment I heard Canaro’s “La Cumparsita” and found the Hotel Fakir, I was hooked. The music brought Dolores and me together. Maybe you should worry. What brought you to Charleston?” He touched the finely-detailed cobra tattoo on Ovidio’s wrist. “I hear you know my friend Jared Gregorio.”
Ovidio stepped back, startled, and glanced over his shoulder. He shrugged, and his loose linen suit suddenly seemed a size or two too large.
“Gregorio?” He stared as if seeing Max for the first time. “I don’t know a Jared Gregorio. Why do you ask?” He turned on his heel and said, “Let’s find Fairouz and dance a little Tango.”

A ruby laser spot blossomed on his shoulder and another one danced across his arm. The gathering at the buffet scattered as Amancio, flanked by black-clad men with pointed pistols, confronted Ovidio on his way into the drawing-room.
“Ovidio Banquet,” Amancio said. He splayed open a badge. “You’re under arrest in the case of Ignatio Quiroga. You have the right to remain…”
Ovidio interrupted him with a smile and gestured expansively at Fairouz as she joined them.
“Max, here’s Fairouz. Ask her to dance; I’ll be with you in a minute…”
So quickly that Max missed it, he pulled a shiny over-under derringer from his jacket, fired two deafening rounds, seized Fairouz and made for the garden. Lasers converged on his back, and a single gunshot threw Ovidio to his knees and pitched him face down in the doorway. Fairouz fell against the screen-door, gasping in shock. One hand covered her eyes, and the other shakily smoothed, over and over, folds in her pink silk dress. Di Sarli’s “Comme Il Faut” came to an end on an elided beat.

Transient Love

She took his hand and studied him carefully. Then she touched the soft skin under his right ear, and he leaned closer, eager to nuzzle the cinnamon valleys of her throat.
“Max,” said Fairouz, “You seem preoccupied. We should dance some more.”
She tapped twice on her phone, and showed him the Facebook page of a local Tango Society.
“Look. A house milonga tonight, down in the old part of town. What do you think?”
He glanced at the address. “Will Ovidio be there?”
“He didn’t say. Ovidio is here en route from Charleston to Miami. He was a federal contractor at the Navy Brig back there. Now he produces Argentine Tango shows for Caribbean cruise ships.”
“The Navy Brig? Was he a warden? Or a prisoner?”
“I’ve no idea. Why do you ask?”
“I’m working with a contractor to re-build a Charleston tango salon that was burned down some months ago. It was called the Hotel Fakir. This builder used to be a Navy Master Chief Petty Officer, and oversaw detention of terrorists in the Navy Brig.”

Fairouz considered these remarks quietly for a moment or two and Max wondered if he should be telling her this. Dots were connecting in his mind, but the lines to and from Fairouz were unclear.
“Ovidio told me about the Hotel Fakir,” she said. “He’s been there once or twice. He said it was a welcome refuge for those on the fringes of everyday life.”
Max thought of Jared Gregorio’s stories about detainees in the Charleston Navy Brig. Most of them came from destitute equatorial nations engulfed in Islamist chaos. But Gregorio had also mentioned an Argentine whose name had surfaced on a no-fly list as he checked-in at Charleston International for a flight to Mexico City. An FBI agent drilling into NSA records on her laptop discovered that his U.S. tourist visa had expired, and that he had connections to Septima Infanteria, a loose confederation of Peronista fanatics intent on destroying liberal democracy in Argentina. He was a close associate of Marcos Maldonado, recently deceased in Buenos Aires by his own hand. The cyber taps linked Maldonado to investigation of Ignatio Quiroga’s death in the Hotel Fakir.

“Max,” said Fairouz, “You’re still preoccupied. Will I see you tonight?” She stood and shaded her eyes as she gazed out over the marine park. A jet contrail bisected the sky behind her. “I like Ovidio’s take on Tango,” she said. “The walking wounded of love are brought together in metaphors of perfect union. Tango liberates and exalts the woman. I dance for all the women who cannot.”
Max wondered at the precision of her thought, and the ease with which it flowed from her lips.
“I’ll be there,” he said.

Late that afternoon, back at the Halcion Suites, snacking on crumbly Gorgonzola and the rest of his baguette, Max stood transfixed at the window while another tropical downpour swept past and godlike thunderbolts struck repeatedly in the near distance. As the skies cleared, he turned his binoculars on the comings and goings at the TuTu café parking lot a block or two away. Judging from arriving clientele, he suspected Tango was not on the menu, but thought that the cafe would adequately fortify him for the evening ahead. And so, a little after eight, having found a bottle of Carmenere in the all-night grocery next door, he strolled over to the TuTu outdoor patio with the “Chronicle of Higher Education” tucked under his arm and asked a waitress to wipe down one or two stools and the bar-top and bring him an IPA and a slice of pizza.

A young danceuse, scantily-clad in an azure tulle dress, and her partner, quiet and fit, having wrapped up a showy tango set on a tiny stage inside the restaurant, sat next to him at the bar and sipped lemonades while studying what looked like Economics 101 on their laptops. Max finished reading the CHE editorial, and laid the paper aside.
“Great show,” he said, “I didn’t think I’d see tango at TuTu’s.”
“Thank you,” she said, “tango’s pretty much a niche thing around here, but what we earn helps with school. Do you like to dance?”
He explained he was obsessed with Tango, and in fact was on his way to a milonga downtown. She pressed a button on her phone, called up a Canaro waltz, and stepped onto the rain-slicked flagstones of the patio. They danced a few wordless measures, their steps seeking congruence and discreet invasion as her brow grazed his cheek. He fell as always into transient love, and they parted with silent smiles. Moments later in his Mazda, buoyant and alert, Max tapped the milonga into his GPS, turned up the staccato rhythms of D’Arienzo’s orchestra on his iPod, and sped downtown on I-4.

Two Talks

Hours must have passed because his dreams fragmented and became more vivid, and were finally corralled and hijacked by a symphonic chorus of crickets. He opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight flooding his room at the Halcion Suites. He groped for his phone and killed the insistent chirps. He couldn’t remember exactly how he’d made it back. The bathroom mirror and tentative fingers on his throat revealed nothing unusual. Looking out the window he saw his car three stories below, parked askew. The driver’s door was open, and a front wheel had mounted the curb and wedged itself in the glossy vinca minor.

His lecture was in an hour. He reviewed his slides over hurried chunks of buttered baguette and black coffee, and made it to the meeting room in West Hall A in good time. Pharma reps and postdocs in jeans tapped their phones between talks. At the podium, he coaxed details of bacterial pathology from the projected data as his ruby laser danced across the screen. But his thoughts were overrun by images of Fairouz skipping with him through thunder showers, and their ardent nuzzling to Di Sarli tangos. Fairouz breathed intimately into his ear, her crisp boleos and sensual barridas flawlessly reflected as they swept by the mirrors. Her joy in Tango was the universal joy of women no longer deprived of their need to be enfolded in love. Max fielded a question or two, then headed out to the Islamic women’s rights convention.

He sensed a tangent into novel experience as he queried his phone and saw that women’s rights were in East Hall A. Max had long grown accustomed to inhabiting parallel lives that came and went as naturally as day follows night. His days began with recollection of evanescent dreams, followed by a drive across estuarine sea-marshes into the city. One day he would listen to a sober public news station, thinking about scholarly tasks awaiting him at work. The next day, he’d listen to Argentine tangos by Canaro, Di Sarli, Troilo, Pugliese, and D’Arienzo. The music diverted his thoughts into a life with clear priorities: listening more intently, dancing perfectly aligned with his partner’s close embrace and her flying high heels, and carnal daydreams.

For long minutes he traversed glass-fronted concrete galleries and drifted down silent escalators, coming at last to a darkened packed auditorium. He made his way closer to the stage, and found a seat between an overweight lady who appeared to be asleep and an earnest younger woman with her hair in corn-rows. He listened intently for a minute or two before realizing that Fairouz was speaking, poised and matter-of-fact behind the podium. She was crisp and business-like in an ash gray jacket and skirt, and a tiny microphone was clipped to the creamy open collar of her blouse.

“Tens of thousands of Somalis died when Ethiopia invaded my homeland. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee Mogadishu. To defenseless Somalis, the marauding aliens were incarnations of the Woyanne, the US-backed Ethiopian vampire regime that deflected criticism of horrific human rights abuse by going after Al-Shabaab jihadists in South Somalia.”

Her laser pointer cast a fluorescent green spot onto a grainy image of a desert landscape. Skeletal women and children huddled in the sparse shade of thorn trees. In the next slide a column of light tanks and SUVs bristling with machine guns and AK47s hurtled through an abandoned village of thatched huts. And then her laser picked out a young girl struggling in her mother’s arms as a turbanned elder probed between the child’s splayed legs with a curved and bloodied knife. Max felt an uncomfortable stir in the darkened auditorium, and marveled at Fairouz’s composure as she recited statistics of genital cutting in Somalia. Such things were not uppermost in the educated placid minds of her audience.

When the lights came up, the moribund lady on his right came to life and challenged Fairouz on US complicity in East African affairs. Fairouz methodically cited her sources, thanked everyone for their attention, and turned towards the door. Max followed her out to a terrace overlooking a distant marine theme park. Vivid blue water slides towered over diminutive tiki bars and sun umbrellas lining the scalloped edges of a mega-pool. Shading her eyes, Fairouz leaned against the parapet and smiled. Max remembered their involuntary recoil and easy surrender at the first tentative bite.
“Fairouz,” he said, “What did you mean, the Ethiopian vampire regime?”
“Ovidio and I took you home last night,” she said. “You were a little out of it; you seemed to think that we preyed on others. Tango is pretty elemental, I agree, but really…? The Ethiopian vampires? A useful metaphor for those who oppose genocide.”

Heart, Lung and Blood

Fairouz and Max passed into the lobby through silent automatic glass doors and were met by Ovidio. He stood before them, arms open in welcome.
“You must be Max. Ovidio. And your charming friend?”
Ovidio sported a Clark Gable mustache and pearly teeth. His shaved head and loose linen suit spoke eloquently of Tango authority. Fairouz regarded him thoughtfully.
“My name is Fairouz.”
He placed his hand on his heart. “Delighted. Now, please come in. Tonight we will tango!”

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

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

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

In Mogadishu

Unlike Dolores, who was a thousand miles away, this African tanguera was front and center. Max left the car door open and came closer, shading his eyes just as she did.
“What do you think?” he said.
She cast an appraising glance over him. In his mind’s eye, Max was in his prime, a successful professional, a man who had endured many loves, and whose shoes were always highly polished. His fantasy life, fed by the daily ebb and flow of reality, was robust. But he couldn’t tell if she saw him or his alter ego.
“You’re like me,” she said, “we Googled Tango and here we are.”
He told her his name was Max and that he was in town for a gastroenterology conference. As they faced each other on the sidewalk, he felt the familiar shiver of excitement and potential that precedes a tango embrace.
“My name is Fairouz,” she said. “Is this normal?”
He wondered if she meant the shiver or the darkened locked studio. He gestured across the strip mall to the Bull and Eagle Grill.
“Let’s have a glass of wine and find out.”

Fairouz fetched a bright red pashmina stole from her car and draped it over her shoulders. They hurried across the parking lot as dense droplets of rain began dancing on the asphalt. Distant lightning strikes lit the sky amid renewed rumbles of thunder. In the grill, sitting by the window, Fairouz kept an eye on the iDanze studio while Max called a number on the web-site. He listened to a ringtone and marvelled at Fairouz’s composure in this unscripted encounter. A man with a complex Argentine accent, rich, marbled and barely understandable, told him there would be a class in an hour or so, with a milonga to follow.
“With a name like Ovidio,” Fairouz said, “he’s probably a fantastic dancer.”
She saw Max was puzzled, and added, “Ovidio Jose Banquet was the finest Buenos Aires tanguero of his time. He was nicknamed “El Cachafas” or “rascal” for his many casual affairs. Carmencita Calderon used to dance with El Cachafas; years later she said he was pocked-marked and ugly, and many women fell in love with him.”

The thunder shower moved on and the last colors drained from the sky. Max suggested a stroll to kill time. A lone wood stork flew low overhead, in profile no different from a Jurassic reptile in a child’s encyclopedia. Leisurely wing beats were followed by a long precise glide into marsh grass at the edge of an ebbing tidal creek.
“In Mogadishu, tango never crossed my mind,” Fairouz said. “I left Somalia to study in Amsterdam, and one night found myself at a dance class. Tango opened my eyes.”
Max raised a quizzical brow.
“Oh, I also work, of course,” she said, “I’m here for an Islamic women’s rights convention. But wherever I am, whenever I can, I search out Tango. Nietzsche said we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”
They watched the wood stork foraging intently for fiddler crabs and marsh frogs. When they came back to the studio, raindrops had moistened Fairouz’s silk dress, and Max’s shoes were flecked with mud. The lights were on, and their steps quickened when they heard the first inviting bars of Di Sarli’s “El Cielo en Tus Ojos”.