She pined for Felix when he was gone. The first night she sat at a secluded table in TuTu’s, her phone close at hand. Men mostly steered clear of her, somehow aware of the protective veils of surveillance enclosing her. Willis, a little coil of wire in his ear, sat at the bar, deeply bored with his assignment. Every few minutes, like a beach lifeguard, he scanned the room methodically and murmured a word or two into his cuff. The tiny orchestra played a set of rhythmic tangos by Enrique Rodrigues. Fabio, the bandoneonista, was nostalgically convincing as he channeled Roberto Flores and his fluid songs of heartbreak. Maurice, the violinist, was thoughtful, flying high on fine Sensimilla he’d smoked an hour before in the mens’ room. Dolores had turned him down politely when he’d offered to turn her on. She was thinking of Felix, or so she thought. But Mademoiselle Quiroga was the one who danced before her inner eye.
She reached for her glass of Malbec. On her phone she googled this re-incarnation of Eva Peron, whose beauty was the toast of Argentina, from balmy Buenos Aires and arid Patagonian deserts to frozen Andean heights. While she sat in TuTu’s listening to Fabio, Mademoiselle Quiroga was waltzing with her Felix, the President. She moved as one with him, her silken body taut but compliant. He leaned intently into her embrace, leading her like the free world that she was. All eyes were upon her, and her eyes were closed against his cheek. Dolores touched Felix’s emerald brooch on her breast, sipped her wine, and succumbed to the violin’s sinuous embrace. A calm familiar voice whispered in her ear.
“Dolores?” Amancio, his Blackberry gone, offered his hand. His eyes caught hers momentarily, then rested on the crimson arc of her lips.
He’d read her perfectly, of course, and led her into a finely calibrated circuit of the dance floor. Her phone uttered a presidential ping as they passed her little table. Willis by the bar stiffened and touched his ear, and she danced on, settling into Amancio’s careful comfortable embrace. A second authoritative ping sounded from her phone, and Fabio, no fool, nodded almost imperceptibly as she passed by. Willis, now on full alert, tried to catch her eye, but he was no tanguero, just Secret Service. Eyes closed, she danced on, attuned to Amancio’s take on the music as he led her body into pleasing rhythmic alignment with his own. The third ping was piqued and insistent.
Amancio led Dolores to her table, his hand on her back. Her phone awaited her on high alert. She picked up, and he retreated to the bar. Ignatio raised an eyebrow in male complicity and poured him a brandy. Dolores stood by her table, toying with the emerald at her breast, a latter-day Botticelli Venus lacking only a scallop shell. She glanced at Fabio and Willis, then glanced at Amancio and smiled. A small, huge consolation.
“Yes, Mr. President,” she said.
“Dolores,” he said, “What do you think? I know she looks good, but in the fourth bar of “Desde el Alma”, where we switch from parallel to cross steps, she lost me.” He fell silent.
“Dolores, ask Amancio to get you to Reagan National; a jet to BA is waiting for you.”
Dolores tucked away her phone, smoothed her serpentine silk dress, and leaned back in the banquette. She inclined her head slightly towards Amancio. The cock had crowed three times, and she had not folded. She twirled her glass, smiled at Willis and Fabio and Maurice, and considered her options.
Dolores thought of Felix’s predecessor whose intimate encounters had almost lost him the Presidency. Felix was a bachelor, of course, and so his secret was somewhat less alarming. Given the times, though, she was mindful and correct teaching Tango on the mirrored parquet of the Oval Office. Her ID badge said Dolores Ferreyra, Cultural Affairs Attaché, and she had 30 minute access every Tuesday at 7 pm. This was their last class before Felix’s visit to Buenos Aires, where he would waltz with Mademoiselle Quiroga, the President of Argentina, at her Inaugural State Ball.
The scarlet satin dress and gilded stilettos folded into Dolores’s purse tripped no alarms. She was shown into the Oval Office by Amancio, a fresh-faced presidential aide, whose discreet glances spoke of devoted puppy love. Felix was on the phone, tie askew, his feet propped on the desk. He stood and kissed her cheek.
“Good to see you, Dolores,” he said.
She changed in the little powder room off the Oval Office, and dabbed Provocatif on her earlobes. As she came out, Felix glanced at her golden heels.
“I love your…,” he said, and he paused, looking for the next best word.
“Mr. President, did you just say you love me?”
He smiled and reached into his briefcase propped against the leg of the Presidential desk. He drew out an iPhone and a JamBox.
“What do you think? Di Sarli or Pugliese?” he said.
Dolores loved this man who set aside affairs of state for her. But Felix was caught in the insidious grip of Tango. He changed his polished wing tips for soft felt-soled dance shoes. As a Pugliese waltz filled the Oval Office, Felix embraced her intently and led her, her eyes closed, attentive to the slightest move, into the gathering delirium of “Desde el Alma”. They came to a halt precisely on the final beat, and his hand on her back traced a wistful caress that spoke of lives they’d never live, whose expression was best and most safely left to Tango. His phone pinged. Felix pulled away and listened gravely.
“Brief me at 7:00 am,” he said.
He smiled, she re-cued the music, and they danced once again the set of steps that painted every nuance of Pugliese’s waltz. A tap on the door announced the next item on the agenda. Felix grazed his lips across hers.
“Later,” he said.
Amancio was waiting outside. He consulted his Blackberry, tapped the little screen twice, and strode off down the corridor. Dolores hurried after him.
“TuTu Tango, right?” he called over his shoulder.
A limousine took her to TuTu’s, where she nursed a Malbec and listened to the elderly bandoneonista and his meditative violinist. Around 10 a flurry of suits appeared at the bar, and Felix sat down beside her. He caught the bartender’s eye, indicated her glass, and took her hand.
“Dolores,” he said, “I love Tango. But tell me: how do I distill the message of Tango from the beautiful messenger?”
“You tell me, Mr. President.” She touched her glass to his. “You’re the leader of the free world. Lead me.”
They stepped onto the tiny dance floor, and the violinist smiled. As the music enveloped them, Felix and Dolores merged into the safe primal embrace of a man and a woman moving as one to Tango’s hypnotic invitation.
Max filed the fragment with care, and as the moon rose over the marsh, he slipped one or two accessories into his pockets and headed for the creek. First out was a tiny but powerful flashlight that showed him the way; he was mindful of the canebrake rattlesnake coiled incognito in the grass. He crossed the lawn, tensely navigated a short shadowed path through bog myrtles and pines, and settled into a weathered garden bench under an oak at the edge of the marsh. He turned off the light. Next out were an iPod and a JamBox. A few clicks later, D’Arienzo’s staccato bandoneon and wistful violin set the stage for a survey of the stars, the playful juxtaposition of Venus and Mars, trajectories of flashing five-mile-high jets, and moonlight animating the marsh. The music reclaimed his attention, and he turned onto the walkway that led to the dock.
The tide was in full flood as he strode across a vast lake that precisely reflected the distant forest and the skies above. D’Arienzo’s song prompted weightless steps first to the right and then to the left, interspersed with crisp cruzadas, all carefully aligned with the edge of the walkway. He came at last to the dock and practiced step sequences from class, assimilating them gradually as reflexes. The music alone elicited the steps, and for moments on end, his heart and mind were at ease. But he knew that tango is capricious when danced with another. Like him she is impelled by something more than a beautifully interpretive set of perfect steps.
That something remained elusive. After a while, watching Mars and Venus set in the northwest, and feeling the late-night chill creeping in, Max considered again tango’s insistent hold over him. He recalled Ignatio Quiroga’s remarks one evening on tango, while mixing yet another Manhattan for a lady whose capacity for cocktails was surpassed only by her elegance on the dance-floor.
“In Tango, as in chess, opposites with strictly-defined moves meet on a limited field. The encounter offers boundless possibilities. Strengths and weaknesses are carefully probed and acted upon. But in contrast to chess, in the end, for something like a second, Tango melds the opposites and sets them free.”
Among Ignatio Quiroga’s meager effects were found disorganized reminiscences and fragments of letters from his wide circle of correspondents over the years. Max examined these feuilletons at the request of Quiroga’s executor, Tadeusz Poniatowski, his erstwhile comrade-in-arms and second son of the Ambassador’s amanuensis in the Austrian Embassy in London in the 1910s. This fragment, written by Count Albert Mensdorff-Pouilly, Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, offered insights into Quiroga’s life-long fascination with Tango.
The invitation, on heavily embossed vellum, resting on a small silver tray, was presented by my secretary Poniatowski. I had just signed my weekly dispatch to Vienna, and was discreetly rehearsing an ocho cortado while gazing out across Regent’s Park.
“Her Majesty Alexandra would be pleased if Your Excellency would honor her with your presence at an informal soirée at St. James’s Palace. Alexandra, R.”
I regained my ambassadorial poise and looked questioningly at Poniatowski.
“Sir, the Queen and her Lady of the Bedchamber Countess Alice are much taken with this insidious Tango. I understand they seek suitable partners to advance their studies.”
I pondered. “Why me?” I asked.
“Sir, we Poles have a reputation for gaiety and a love of dancing, and your recent dabbling with Tango, private classes and so on, has clearly piqued the Queen’s and Countess’s interest.” I pondered no more.
“Please see that my dancing shoes are well-polished.”
“My cultural attaché, Arsenio Quiroga, a talented tanguero who often offers advice on my tango and especially on my walk, which tends towards a slouch after a glass or two of Argentine Malbec, accompanied me to the Court of St. James. Our carriage turned into Marlborough Road, and drew into a covered portico. A uniformed retainer unlatched the door and Quiroga helped me down. “Sir, imagine yourself a young man in Buenos Aires,” he murmured, “stepping out on a summer evening with your sweetheart. Move with natural grace, intention and love…” I told him I’d never been to Buenos Aires, was certainly not young, and as for love… Before I could finish, deferential courtiers whisked me away and presently announced my arrival in a chandeliered drawing room with a mirror-like parquet floor. Servants bearing trays of champagne and canapés circulated among bejeweled ladies in daring tango cocktail dresses or harem trouser-skirts in the latest apricot shades. Raising an ivory baton, a pomaded maestro gestured towards an elevated dais where four bandoneonistas, three violinists, two flautists, and a pianist waited expectantly. He smiled genially at the glittering assembly. “Tonight we celebrate the birthdays of Her Majesty, Queen Alexandra, and Lady Alice. Comencemos por un tango de cumpleaños!”
“The orchestra led off with Angel Villoldo’s “El Choclo”. I downed in rapid succession two glasses of champagne from a passing tray and stepped onto the mirrored parquet. As the Queen waltzed by with the Uruguayan Chargé d’Affaires, I tapped his shoulder; he bowed and withdrew. I took Alexandra’s proffered hand. We embraced tentatively and then surrendered to the mesmeric allure of a tango grapevine. Her bosom was lightly sprinkled with freckles and talc, and I was enveloped in a perfumed tincture of roses as she pivoted before me in an ocho, preoccupied and smiling. Someone tapped my shoulder and took her away. The orchestra seguéd into the next tanda, and the Queen and Countess suddenly found themselves face-to-face. Impatiently, they shrugged off their partners and came together like magnets into each other’s arms. Alexandra and Alice danced with absorbed precision, capturing every nuance of the lilting tango vals, their limbs and bodies in fine and beautiful synchrony, an epitome of what men create in tango dreams.”
The fire that consumed the Hotel Fakir made the front page of the Charleston Evening Post. For those whose days are lived in fear, the blaze confirmed that citizen vigilantes, preferably armed in accordance with the Second Amendment, should defend the city against infiltration from all points north of Calhoun Street. Tango was of course the pre-eminent raison d’etre of the Hotel Fakir, and tango’s consensual intimate collaboration between men and women who would otherwise be strangers no doubt fueled, together with the gas, the enthusiasm with which the Post reported the spectacular demise of the Hotel Fakir.
The die-hard or even episodic Hotel Fakir regulars mourned above all the enigmatic Ignatio Quiroga, who could easily have escaped the catastrophe, but instead sought to save some prints, the Aquitania among them, and a handful of photographs of tango intimates, family, Hotel Fakir habitués, and written testimonials that adorned the bar just behind his extravagant daily displays of tropical flowers. Ignatio Quiroga died aged 90, a soldier and tanguero whose checkered career included command of the 7th Infantry in the Falkland Islands campaign. As a boy in Buenos Aires, accompanying his mother to milongas where she worked as a dancer, he had learned the feminine role in Tango because older young men needed compliant partners to hone their skills as tangueros. This knowledge animated the masterful tangos that he performed occasionally in the Hotel Fakir, but more often found expression in laconic and perceptive remarks as he concocted his heady drinks behind the bar.
The next morning, firemen probing the smouldering ruin of the Hotel Fakir found Ignatio Quiroga’s remains behind the blistered black-lacquered door, with shattered fused globules of etched glass from the transom strewn all around. His right hand, which had somehow escaped incineration, grasped a framed sepia photograph of his mother, smiling, her hand raised in incipient embrace as she invited a long-departed partner to a tango. In the background, Osvaldo Pugliese was leading his orchestra in a performance of what could only have been “Manos Adoradas”.
Dolores was there the night the Hotel Fakir burned down. She was sitting with Roxanne by the Aquitania poster, toying with her glass and listening as the insistent rhythm of a D’Arienzo song made her want to dance. She touched the orchid in her hair; she knew she looked good in her satin chemise, slit skirt and scarlet Soy Porteno tango pumps. And there came Max, stepping a playful cruzada as he crossed the room. He caught Roxanne’s’s eye or perhaps she caught his, for he paused at their table, smiling and inclining his head toward the dance-floor. Roxanne stood and gave him her hand, and they stepped into the flow of dancers and were gone. Dolores sipped her Malbec and thought about Max’s exploration of Tango which had foundered on the twin shoals of writer’s block and a growing understanding that thought could no more capture the essence of Tango than spectral analysis of color would let you see scarlet. Tango is only discovered in the farther reaches of love.
Ignatio Quiroga was absently wiping the zinc surface of the bar. There was a faraway look in his eye, but he glanced now and again at the small collection of photographs next to his tropical flowers. Dolores walked over.
“Tell me a story, Ignatio”, she said, “I’m not dancing.”
Ignatio paused and adjusted a photo of a woman cradled in a tango embrace.
“A long time ago I commanded a garrison defending a remote archipelago against foreign aggression,” he said. “My adjutant was political, the bureaucracy’s eye on the battlefield. His wife Graciela was my mistress; we were madly in love. I see her in you, Dolores.” Ignatio took her hand in his. She smiled, but his tired lined face was impassive.
“Things didn’t end well. I escaped a firing squad with the help of a young officer named Ferreyra, who was shot in my place.” Tears welled in Dolores’s eyes.
“Graciela died in San Diego years ago,” Ignatio said, “a tanguera to the end. I have never forgotten. And nor have they.”
Dolores was used to Ignatio’s darker moods, and turned away to look for Max, unprepared for what came next. There was a loud crash and the etched glass transom over the front door splintered into a thousand shards. Something smoking and ominous lay spinning in the middle of the dance floor. Dolores glimpsed a bottle, a rag, a tiny lick of flame. With an almighty silent detonation, the floor was suddenly an incandescent lake of fire, and instantaneously, for one terrifying second, everything came to a standstill. And then panic set in as they all fled screaming out to the patio, slapping with bare hands the sheets of fire that engulfed them as they ran. Roxanne and Dolores huddled by the wrought iron railings under the fig trees and watched the Hotel Fakir, triumphantly ablaze in its final moments, defiant in the assault of drenching fire hoses, slowly collapse in monumental showers of sparks. Just then Dolores noticed that Ignatio was no longer there. A spectral figure was silhouetted against the fiery tableau, heading back into the flames.
“Of course I wasn’t quite the same after that. Nor was my car. A headlight was dislodged by the impact but still worked, dangling freely from a wire or two. Months later, as an orange-vested volunteer on a roadway clean-up crew, I found among discarded beer-cans and rotted fast-food trash a deer skull half-buried in the muddy ditch. I probed some more with my pick-up stick, and uncovered a shattered ribcage and two or three long bones. I paused and gazed into the sun-stippled woods. A red-tailed hawk cried out over the marsh. Occasional cars and trucks sped past. None of them was playing Piazzolla’s “Regreso Al Amor”, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Since that moonlit night, Tango had reasserted its grip on me. But now I was wary, having watched and listened to tangled tango tales that didn’t always end well. I was slowly learning to distill the message of Tango from its eager, enticing and indispensable messengers.”
“A line of helmeted ropey-calved thirty-somethings in skin-tight spandex zipped by on weightless bikes. “Good job, sir, thank you,” one of them called out in passing, and was gone. A little later, a skinny man wearing a doo-rag pedaled past slowly on a rickety bicycle. “Yo, boss, what you doin’ time for?” he asked. “Well, I bounced a check or two.” I mopped my brow. “The ol’ lady got a restraining order, I messed up probation, an’ here I am, know what I’m saying?” “I hear you, boss; take care now,” he chuckled and pedaled off, perhaps unsettled by the thought it could be him in the ditch and not me.”
“I fired up my iPod and listened to Di Sarli’s “El Pollito” as I tramped along the grassy verge. I mused over the delirious music, and the tantalizing promise of the eager messengers. Dolores, a forthright young woman who danced with intuitively calibrated abandon as if we’d been together for years. Julia, reserved and critical, whose momentary lapses of self-control revealed beautiful synchronies in our intertwined steps. And Lexi, acutely responsive to the least flamboyant lead, as long as it arose from an intentional and protective embrace. At best, transcendence of sorts; at worst, messy complications and an existential reboot with an unknowable future.”
“A metallic glint caught my eye. Here was a hefty Bowie knife, its seven-inch blade a little rusty but still sharp. And there, nearby, for balance, lay a mildewed leather wallet with a sodden Ruby Tuesday $10 off coupon, a Dollar Tree receipt for pork rinds and chewing tobacco, and a blurred Polaroid of a teenage girl. No driver’s license. I poked around for telltale signs of a rotted corpse, but of course there was none. The distant shriek of the red-tailed hawk signaled just another day on Johns Island.”
Max fell silent, and Troilo’s “Milonga Triste” drifted from the little Sony. In the background hiss, Ignatio heard Dolores whisper in Max’s ear.
“Why so sad, Max? Thinking only of yourself again? Come dance with me.”
Friday evenings, heading home from his lab, Max often turned into the shaded cul-de-sac off Meeting Street to shrug off his professional life for an hour or two at the Hotel Fakir. There he danced occasionally with beautiful women lost in Tango dreams and worried about putting words to paper. Like many academics, even those grappling with biological science, Max was an aspiring novelist immobilized by writer’s block. Like all scribblers, Max thought that a rich imagination leavened with real-life experience would attract legions of readers if only he could summon simple declarative sentences. Once, nursing a glass of Noemia Malbec, Max told Ignatio that Tango got in the way, muddling his thinking.
“If only I could touch-type”, he said, “or maybe just tape my thoughts…”
Ignatio remembered the tiny Sony recorder he’d used that day at a tedious budget meeting with his accountant. He placed the Sony on the zinc surface of the bar and pressed Record.
“What’s on your mind, Max?”
With Anibal Triolo’s orchestra playing in the background, the recorder captured Max’s words.
“The moon was huge and blood-red as I drove home from tango, doing about 60 on the long deserted down-slope of the Stono River bridge onto Johns Island. I was thinking about tango and its hypnotic allure when I noticed flashing blue lights far behind me. I touched the brakes, better to be safe than sorry; whoever was being pulled over was shocked right now, and there but for the grace of God went I. Astor Piazzolla’s rhythmic paean to lost love was on the radio, and I turned it up. Next thing I knew, a police car was on my tail, his lights in my face, his siren whooping urgently. I pulled over, shocked, trying not to swerve too zealously, recalling a glass of wine I’d had earlier. I rolled down the windows and breathed deeply to dissipate any lingering aromas. The engine ticked, mosquitoes buzzed, and a barred owl called from the woods.”
“The cruiser’s door swung open, and an officer loomed in my rear-view, a foot-long flashlight in her hand. She glanced at me and swiveled her torch across the back seat. I thought of the lovely doe-eyed attendant on my flight into Beirut. “Good evening, Officer.” She returned my smile, briefly. “Do you know you were doing 60 in a 45?” “Surely not. I’m sorry. I wanted to get home before midnight.” “My name’s not Shirley.” She regarded me levelly. “May I see your license and registration?” I rummaged around the glove-box. “I’m coming home from an Argentine Tango class at the University, every Tuesday night, very beguiling. Have you ever thought about Tango, Ma’am?” She may have rolled her eyes, but the note of asperity in her voice was unmistakable. “Not that I remember. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I closed the windows and sat tight, listening to “Regreso al Amor” and reflecting on the injustice of a ticket for a little speed on an empty highway in the middle of nowhere. I must have dozed off momentarily, for her tap on the window startled me, pasting a guilty look onto my face. She gave me a pale blue warning slip, told me to slow down, and smiled, briefly. I thanked her and thought how a civil society is essentially just, and how as always luck was on my side.”
“On the last moonlit stretch of River Road, almost home, doing about 40, I suddenly registered a full-grown deer trotting across the road directly in front of me. I stood on the brakes. The impact was solid and irrevocable and hurled the animal into a ballistic trajectory that spanned the divide between life and death. I stopped. The blameless deer lay broken in the glare of the high beams, its head still reaching for the safety of the dark woods where the barred owl called. I flipped on the emergency lights, and as in a dream, I stepped out of the car and approached the vivid still-life splayed on the asphalt. Piazzolla’s insistent cello and double bass fugue became a dirge as I dragged the creature by its warm velvet feet onto the grass verge. The celebration of life evoked by Tango seemed impotent and irrelevant in the face of instant death. And yet the music’s tendrils weaved their way into my stunned heart, freighting the moment with gravity and remorse, but also kindling a redemptive spark of solace…”
Back in South Carolina, chatting with Ignatio at the Hotel Fakir, Max passed the time by dissecting the psychic and physical attributes of Tango. His sketchy qualifications for such analysis included his birth under the sign of Libra, training as a physiologist, and occasional classes at the local Tango Society. His fieldwork was limited to frequenting the bar at the Hotel Fakir, where he nursed a glass of Malbec and listened to classical tangos while musing on parallels between Rumi, chess, literary fletches and Tango. On one side, the bar faced a parqueted inner room with a mirrored wall on the left, and bistro tables and a gallery of framed prints, including a heroic image of the Cunard Liner Aquitania, on the right. On the other side, the bar opened onto an outdoor patio paved in black and white flagstones. Wicker garden seats surrounded a shallow ornamental pool with a monumental blue-glazed amphora. Further back was an inviting Tiki-shaded dining room with candlelit tables and linen-wrapped silverware. Tall wrought-iron railings draped in wisteria and bougainvillea and overhung by fig trees separated the Hotel Fakir from its immediate neighbor, an imposing single-porch mansion looking out over Charleston harbor.
When sitting at the bar, Max preferred to face the patio, so that his view of wisteria was enhanced by desirable women gazing reflectively past him into the tango salon. He was usually subdued when he arrived, but warmed quickly to debate as time went by. Max liked to argue that Tango stimulated a physiological response that found expression in physical attraction, languid contentment, and an urge to dance some more. In contrast, Ignatio contended that the music and movements of Tango encoded an existential message that transcended simple sentiment. A fine distinction, Max said, on a par with doctrinal separation of Catholics from Episcopelians. Their debates were interrupted whenever Max ventured onto the dance floor. Such excursions induced minute but significant re-calibration of his argument. Thus an hour or two would pass quite pleasantly.
One night, Max noticed a dancer of understated but obvious expertise whose shaven head, red shirt, black pants and bare feet spoke of Argentine Tango authority. At one point the man ordered a Manhattan at the bar, and Max asked him how long he had studied Tango.
“Would you like to dance?” the man replied, looking him in the eye.
Max thought for a moment.
“Sure. Will you lead or shall I?” he said, knowledgeable in the ways of Tango.
They progressed around the dance floor, not in an everyday tango embrace, but simply facing one another, resting their hands on each others’ arms, or walking side-by-side with intermittent quick-step syncopations in time with the music. Max told Ignatio that in those few moments he learned essentials of Tango that had eluded him for months. The insight nibbled steadily into his confidence as he realized that so far he’d only scratched the surface. As Max reached meditatively for his glass, Dolores appeared from nowhere, an orchid in her hair, and the fulcrum of their little world shifted toward perfect balance.
“Try the other side,” said the beautiful doe-eyed attendant. Max was seated alone in business class, eagle-eyed at a starboard window, eager for a first glimpse of Beirut as the jet descended. He leapt out of his seat, slid over to a port window, and gazed transfixed at the ancient city, sprawled like a cat before a fire, unfolding below him, glowing gold in the setting sun. He lost valuable seconds snapping pictures on his phone. Moments later on final approach the jet passed over squalid shanties and piles of garbage, the stereotypical landmarks of Fodor’s “city of contrasts”, and pulled up at Gate 7. The flight attendant chided Max for unbuckling during descent, but smiled briefly when he said he was honored to visit her city for the International Tango Festival.
Emerging from passport control and baggage claim, Max ran a gauntlet of eager families and drivers waving hand-lettered signs that said “Dr. Zapalnik, Imagine International” or “Mr. Dickens, ShallWeDance.com”. After some hopeful but futile minutes scanning the reception line looking for his name, Max became aware of the cab hustlers moving in. A swarthy young man in greasy jeans and T-shirt approached him.
“The Hotel Gefinor Rotana? Fifty dollars, but for you, my friend, forty-five.” Another man, his cousin once-removed, pushed in and said, “Forty-five, but I’ll take forty.”
A tall dignified fellow in a sharkskin suit intervened. He shot his cuffs, revealing a gold Rolex.
“These men, my friend, are charlatans. I can get you to the Gefinor within half-an-hour for $30.”
Max was tempted, but in an instant swarthy T-shirt and his cousin were loudly remonstrating in rapid angry Arabic, and next thing he knew some of their kin cruising the terminal had vociferously joined in. A cold-eyed policeman appeared, and then two camo-clad soldiers toting AK-47s. Max melted innocently into the background and found a peaceable driver waiting patiently in the simmering heat outside. As they drove past the tattered Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and crossed the old Green Line into West Beirut, the driver said, “Oh yes, Tango is very big in Beirut. We have always been the cross-roads of East and West, and Tango speaks naturally to this meeting of minds.” His radio was playing a wistful Arabic song, and Max asked him to turn it up.
“This is Fairouz,” the driver said. “She sings like a nightingale. Back in the day, her Tangos were to die for…”
The Gefinor Rotana was distinguished by a rooftop swimming pool with an edge that vanished into the Mediterranean. Freighters floated serenely offshore, and off to the right, coastal ranges climbed into the sky. Max sipped a mimosa poolside and conversed with a U.N. cultural anthropologist attending her first global food security conference. The sun finally sank into the wine-dark sea and the crystalline stars of the Levant emerged. The spring equinox was upon them, Haft-Sin observances were underway, and Venus and Mars approached conjunction. As time passed, Roxanne’s enquiries about the International Tango Festival, informed by a modest black one-piece swimsuit, became more consequential. Miguel Calo’s “Al Compas del Corazon” drifted up from a milonga in the third floor ballroom. Max invited her to dance.
Next morning, his head still swimming in memories of the rooftop pool and milonga, Max medicated himself generously at the Gefinor breakfast buffet, and emerged into the bright buzz of Clemenceau Avenue. He decided to skip the Tango seminar on “Women’s Adornos & Flying Legs”, and set off for Zuqaq al-blat, the birthplace of Nouhad Haddad, also known as Fairouz, the nightingale of the Middle East. Following a crude city map in his guidebook, he strode past glass-clad office towers and concrete apartment blocks adjoining secret courtyards and gardens hidden behind high walls and hedges of myrtle. He breathed the city’s redolence of diesel and tobacco and the heady fragrance of roses, pomegranates, jasmine, and wisteria. At noon, he found himself in the shaded garden of the Blue Note Cafe. A bandoneon-player and a violinist accompanied a lone couple circling the tiny dance floor. He lunched on grilled fish and a glass of Pinot Grigio and then asked the waiter to bring him an egg.
After a few focused minutes, Max balanced the egg momentarily upright on the tabletop, took a picture on his phone, and sent it to Roxanne. Delusionally, he imagined her reflecting on the three-fold significance of the image: Perfect Balance, Improbability, and the Promise of Life. Ergo Tango. Only the music was missing. He resumed his quest and came at last to the cobblestone street called Zuqaq al-blat. Somehow he had expected tranquil rooms with brilliant tiles, Persian rugs, tapestries, and marble fountains. Instead, he found a nut-vendor’s stall, and a boutique selling crudely chiseled wooden chess sets. At the far end of the street, minarets rose above the city clutter, superimposed on distant foothills draped in pastures and olive orchards. In a grimy recessed corner, with synchronicity worthy of Carl Jung, an ancient transistor radio played Fairouz singing the tango “La Boheme”, accompanied by Eduardo Bianco’s band all the way from Argentina, recorded in Beirut in 1951. Max checked his phone; no messages.
Cultural anthropology in the black hourglass shape of Roxanne swam through his thoughts as he consulted again his map of Beirut. The mid-afternoon heat induced soporific quiet in the streets and alleyways around him. He set off for the Pigeon Rocks on the western edge of the city. The sun was riding high and cast few shadows. Squinting into the glare, he tugged down his cap visor and strode on. He was hot and weary when he reached the seafront and leaned into the temperate onshore breeze. At that moment, his phone, poised on high alert since morning but hitherto mute, pinged as a text came in: “Tabouli Café. Roxanne.” All was well with the world, after all. He looked around. A woman cloaked in a burka, attentive within her somber letter-box, her gold ankle bracelets intermittently flashing as the breeze lifted her hem, gripped the cliff-top railings and gazed at white-spumed waves crashing and roiling explosively against the Pigeon Rocks.
A few yards away, two soldiers in battle fatigues, rifles slung casually over their shoulders, killed time under a palm tree. One, a little younger, smiled shyly at a passing girl; the other, more menacing, watched the street through mirrored sunglasses. Max set the camera zoom and shot them both, silhouetted against the Rocks, the forested coastal ranges and the distant horizon. The older one stiffened, turned, and pointed directly at him. He walked over. The young soldier gestured at the camera and touched his chest, smiling.
His superior took the camera from Max, fixed his mirror shades on him, and demanded his papers and passport. He scrutinized Max’s South Carolina driver’s license and shook his head. Max explained in broken French that his passport was back at the Gefinor Rotana. The officer deftly erased the last image in the camera and then glanced in surprise at Roxanne spinning in a molinete. Taking off his glasses, he studied Max’s shots of the previous night’s milonga. At last he grinned, returned the camera and waved his hand dismissively.
“Tango!” he said. “Enjoy Beirut.”
At the intersection of Rue Iskander and Paris Avenues, Max found the Tabouli Café, a stylish chrome-and-glass patisserie with sidewalk tables well shaded under a cypress green awning. Roxanne, whose beauty and reserve reminded Max of Thutmose’s limestone bust of Nefertiti, greeted him politely. They ordered iced water and coffee, and asked to see the selection of pastries on a filigreed silver tray by the door. Roxanne pointed to a glistening wedge of Persian baklava. They conversed inconsequentially while Max considered the perfect symmetry of her eyes and repressed an urge to caress her face. The baklava, chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and rose water-scented syrup, went well with black Lebanese coffee. Roxanne raised an eyebrow, took Max’s hand and stood. She slipped an iPod into his pocket, and gave him one of her ear-buds. Carlos di Sarli’s “Ojoz Negros” enveloped them as they danced among the tables in apparent silence, their minds and their physical immediacy obedient to every musical nuance. Max remembered Ignatio Quiroga once saying: “Slow down; listen carefully; let the Tango tell your story.”