I flew into Reagan National about four on a Friday afternoon, zipping over the Key Bridge at tree height, seemingly just yards from hotel balconies on the Alexandria side of the Potomac. Freed at last from buttery aromas wafting from my morbidly obese neighbor in the aisle seat, I got a SuperShuttle heading for the DoubleTree. I threw my bag in the back and sat up front. The radio was tuned to local FM and alternated promises of light traffic and fair weather with breaking news of death for the Marathon Bomber. Stalled in airport traffic, the driver fixated on his GPS and my fellow travelers gazed at their phones and absorbed music channeled through pearled earbuds. No-one spoke. We finally emerged from the concrete tunnel of Arrivals and drove through busy neighborhoods of leafy affluence one moment and urban poverty the next, pausing only for drop-offs. I was last, close to Thomas Circle, across from the Coatings Institute of America. The desk clerk was African and wore black-framed glasses. While admiring a gold chain that adorned the parting of her cream silk blouse, I missed her confirmation of a five-night stay and unwittingly earned a huge early departure penalty four days later. But on this, my first night in town, my focus was elsewhere; a penthouse suite with a view, location of the nearest market and Metro station, and opportunity for Tango Argentino.
I sorted my stuff onto hangers, stocked up on baguette, brie, cherries and Cote du Rhone at WholeFoods, and guided by Google I set off for a Freedom Milonga on Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the White House. I strolled unobtrusively around the Plaza and observed the arrival of women in loose dresses and high heels. As the sun sank behind federal Washington and skateboarders zipped in louche challenge among the dancers, I was enveloped and tantalized by an insidious flow of classic tango from the totemic PA system. I decided on my first partner, who’d been kissed on arrival on both cheeks by men with evident tango credentials. She was as finely sculpted and expressive as an Assyrian princess. She followed me onto the reflective stone surface of the Plaza. We danced to Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma“. In the interval between one song and the next, in the low-slung light of sunset, we faced each other. Her eyes were more Persian than Levantine. I said, “My name is Maximilian, but call me Max. Do you come from Iran?” She took my hand in hers and said, “I’m Fairouz. Don’t you love this music?”
We were interrupted by a bedraggled old man sitting on the stone plinth that surrounded the plaza. He called out loudly to passing women, “Won’t you dance with me, please?” His slept-in mud-colored jacket and trousers proclaimed addiction and homelessness, a more desperate variant of attributes shared with the tango dancers who swept and turned before him. “Ma’am? Why won’t you dance with me? Hey, Miss, I’m talking to you,” he pleaded, an exasperated angry note edging into his voice. A crouched skateboarder, followed closely by another wielding a camera phone, flashed in silent sequence between us and the agitated old man. The first bars of a new tango sounded and Fairouz and I moved away as the music switched our gears from awkward confrontation to free flight. I danced only once or twice with Fairouz that evening, sidelined by skilled tangueros competing for her embrace. At some point, however, Fairouz and I were captured pivoting against the glowing golden façade of the federal Treasury by the long distance lens of someone who posted the image next day on the Capital Tangueros Facebook page. There she was, tall, elegant and intent, poised in incipient ocho. I left soon after, and sought solace in the nearly deserted DoubleTree cocktail lounge, where over a glass of beer I fell into conversation with a lone beautiful Korean gastroenterologist fine-tuning her next day’s symposium address on a laptop. As we exchanged cards over a second round, I was tempted to scribble my room number on mine, but propriety trumped opportunity, and I fell asleep alone, ensnared in colorful dreams of tango and limber East Asian rapture.
The next morning, sluggish after a breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, OJ and black coffee, I missed an early shuttle to the convention center, and slipped late into my first session. I got to the mike with a last challenging question just ahead of the journal editor handling my latest submission, a slight I considered outweighed by the presence in the audience of two reviewers of my recent federal grant application. Hours later, having sat through sessions devoted to gastrointestinal microbes and fecal transplantation, I wandered into the vast acreage of deep-carpeted pharma exhibits in search of a cappuccino and biscotti. Slim pickings were the order of the day. Inscribed thumb drives and stylish pens were the only vestiges of the extravagant corporate blow-outs of years past. Back in the day, Bacchanalian evenings in civic art museums, appropriated exclusively for meeting attendees, were the norm. Every salon boasted live jazz, classical music, or rock and roll at one end, while white linen-clad tables groaned under cornucopias of fine dining at the other. This time around, navigating the corporate booths, I was seated within minutes, complete with cappuccino, while a persuasive salesman in a shiny black suit and a ponytail applied electrodes to my neck and instructed me to push buttons on a remote I found in my hand. Powerful rhythmical jolts of muscle contraction mimicked a massage but somehow failed to induce relaxation as advertised. I told ponytail I was impressed but disinclined to blow $400, and I held firm even as he said, “But for you, my friend, we can do $250.”
Later, snacking on brie, cherries and Cotes du Rhone, I watched the sun set over the Coatings Institute of America and surfed the Tango offerings that night in Washington DC. Parda Practica announced its presence from eight until whenever at Ozio’s, which Google identified as a bar and grill ten minutes stroll from the DoubleTree. Approaching Ozio’s an hour later, recapitulating my circumspect review of Freedom Plaza the night before, I saw across the street a deserted sidewalk patio and behind glass windows a low-lit restaurant and a lone bartender studying his phone. Tango music flowed from an upper floor, and I could see shadows of dancers on the curtained windows.
I recalled my first vertiginous contact with Tango, back when I pushed open the black-lacquered door of the Hotel Fakir and stepped into a parallel world with only tenuous connection to the one I knew. Then, the music and a red-head in silver stilettos had turned my head; now, crossing over to Ozio’s, I felt the same adrenaline-fueled anticipation. I knew from numerous encounters since then, in cities from Orlando to Lvov to San Diego, that the women I’d meet that night, and the music I’d hear, would reset me into default mode; at home in my brain stem, open to input and responsive to simple impulse.
Engrossed in some digital encounter, the bartender barely nodded as I made for the stairs at the back of the bar. At the top, I stepped into a facsimile of the Hotel Fakir. Before me stretched a polished floor flanked on one side with mirrors and discreet tables, and on the other with a long zinc bar. Women, their legs crossed and long, sat there sipping crimson cocktails, tended by one or two men. Couples waltzed the length of the polished floor, in perfect synchrony with Pugliese’s “Desde el Alma”. And there, suddenly in front of me, before I could properly orient myself, was Fairouz. She wore a simple yellow dress and silver stilettos, and her hennaed curls and rosewater scent engulfed me as she kissed me on both cheeks. “Welcome to Ozio’s, Max,” she said, “We’d be on the rooftop, but the builders haven’t finished there yet!”