Chapter 2: Second Attempt
"Oh, will you just get over yourself?" Doreen sounded affectionately mocking over the telephone. I hated the telephone in the first place. So inconvenient, always ringing when any normal human being was doing something else of at least equal significance. Except of course in those notable cases when one wanted a possible new lover to call. Then it typically stayed silent. Or it rang with hope-dashing persistence with calls from everybody and their brother whom one didn't want to hear from and had now injudiciously answered the phone. I needed to figure out caller ID one of these days, but everything technology-related was always too complicated and took too long to learn for my taste.
"It's just not enough fun to sit there like a lump on a log and dance twice in as many hours," I told Doreen, wanting nothing more than to be talked out of my scruples. I wanted to dance. But I wanted to dance beautifully and often, not bitterly when the most desirable partners would look right over my head and I had to make do with the imperious Kwans of the world or the shy Jeremys and their ilk.
"You need to give it some time. Become a familiar face, and so on."
"Well, then I've just blown it," I said. "I've cut my hair.
"It'll grow back," Doreen said. "Pity, though. I liked it."
"Just come one more time." I could hear her additional thoughts: and then one more time after that and then yet one more time.
"Okay. But if nobody asks me to dance . . ."
"Then you just go home after a while."
On the way to the club, I nearly turned around and went home when traffic temptingly stopped at a railroad track crossing for a good ten minutes. A sign from the universe perhaps? I asked myself while I studied a billboard that advertised cool unisex undershirts, modeled by a man and a woman. The man looked confidently into the camera. The woman looked adoringly at the man. Could you even imagine it the other way around? Both of them happy, she looking out at the world, he looking adoringly at her? It would be rare, I thought, and would probably not sell as many undershirts.
I could have made a U-turn and proceeded straight home. I didn't.
"There are all these tables over there," I pointed out when I had paid my cover and Doreen steered me to the only remaining empty crowded table for two in front of the mirrored wall on the left side of the ballroom.
"It's better over here."
"Last time we sat over there," I said. I didn't understand.
"That was then. This is now."
"Can you please explain?"
"Okay. See that woman? Over there?"
"Yes." The only occupied table on the other side of the floor was occupied by last week's zebra woman.
"Well, she asks men to dance."
Wasn't that the truth? "So?"
"It isn't done."
"Do you ever ask men to dance?" "Guilty," Doreen said. "But when I do it it's different. I have discernment. I am attractively brash. She is just plain brash. Then men have to do the polite thing and dance with her when she asks. But on the whole they then try to avoid her general vicinity. And if we happen to sit near her, we miss out as well. I'm not willing to suffer for her sins. By the way, would you prefer to sit over there on one of those rows of chairs to avoid contamination?"
"And lose you as my mentor? I'll hang with you and take my chances, if you don't mind. But why does everything have to be so strict?"
"Good question. It's codiga. The rules."
"Wouldn't it be perfect, for example, if we didn't have to wear high heels?" I said.
"What's your problem with high heels? They're gorgeous," Doreen said, looking down and crossing her ankles to be able to inspect hers better.
"So many rules." I rolled my eyes.
"Oh, yeah, and I meant to ask you, do you know cabeceo?"
"No. Whatever it is."
"Where have you been, girl? Well, you're supposed to look full of energy, and interested, and animated, and all that. If possible, try to catch the eyes of a man of your choice. If he's interested in dancing with you, he'll make eye contact and maybe a small motion with his head, and you'll give a small nod, or blink your eyes affirmatively, and then he'll come your way and you get to dance together."
"Can't he just come over and ask me to dance?"
"Unfortunately no. I mean, yes, he could, and some of them will do it anyway. But what if you said no? Then he'd be publicly exposed as having been rejected. Everybody would be able to witness it. We can't have that in tango. We must protect the man's ego and self-confidence and whatever else there is that needs protecting."
"Sheesh. That is so blatantly unfair. While all the women who are not being invited to dance get to publicly sit at the edge of the dance floor looking unwanted?"
"You make it sound quite horrible."
"Well, I'm not in charge of reality here, darling. Speaking of: someone is looking at you."
I looked up. Kevin stood by our table, smiling at me. With a demure "who-me?" expression I smiled back and stood up. I wanted to apologize for not knowing the rules, for being new to the scene, at least after too long a time. I felt flustered, told myself to be cool. This wasn't a test, for crying out loud. I owed nobody any apologies, except possibly myself.
The music had started several beats back and couples were already moving. I slipped into his arms and we stood still to feel each other's presence. For a moment I closed my eyes. Since I had watched him, I already knew he was good. Was I going to be able to convince him that I, too, was good? At least good enough? And then that fell away. We danced. He even knew how to lead volcadas I could easily follow. He expertly took me off balance and then allowed me to gather back into crossing one foot in front of the other. It felt like heaven. Everything dissolved from consciousness, except tuning in to his leads and responding with my body.
"You're a lovely dancer," he told me in the brief break between one song and the next.
"Likewise," I said. "You just made my day." Then I folded back into the sweet music and his flawless leads.
The harmonica pulled at my heart strings. The piano gave a solid rhythm to rely on. The second song was even sweeter than the first. "Milonga Triste." I felt I couldn't stop smiling. Dreaming. Experiencing. A sudden desire to hold on to the moment forever. Trying to make it last. Trying to make it count. Trying to memorize the sensation.
The song came to an end with him drawing me into a quebrada, making a gracefully curved line of our bodies leaning to my right. And then the third song. It came. It went.
"Thank you." His blue eyes were warm as he accompanied me back to my table.
I sat down dizzy with pleasure. This was what to me dance was all about. The desire to move with another. The satisfaction of doing it well, without speaking, without feeling anything except the lead and the music and a connection. It was probably going to be too cold outside within seconds, but for the moment I wanted to go somewhere where I could be by myself, to savor, to keep the pleasure alive. I stood up again and went down the stairs. It was indeed cold outside, wind biting into my cheeks and neck, my breath instantly visible.
"Hot upstairs," one of the two Hispanic teachers I had watched last time stood by the door, smoking a cigarette.
"Plus, you get to smoke out here," I observed, mildly annoyed that I couldn't have my solo savoring moment after all, but also opportunistically hoping for an invitation to dance at some future time -- couldn't be too rude and stand-offish.
"Oh. Here." He offered his pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket.
"Thanks, no. I don't smoke." Should I leave now? I knew conversation would dilute my enchanted feeling, and yet it was of course the polite thing to do. Could I preserve at least a tiny piece of the magic?
"You look like fun to dance with," he said. "Shall we try the next set? After this?" He motioned with his cigarette.
"Sure," I said. I was flattered to have been noticed.
Upstairs again, we stood by the dance floor awaiting the end of the current tanda. My eyes went immediately to seek out Kevin who was dancing with a beautiful young Latina. They danced exquisitely.
"That's my wife, Maricela," the teacher commented, following my eyes. "Oh, and I am Lalo. Eduardo. Most call me Lalo. It's shorter."
"She's beautiful," I said.
"Wow, you were brilliant." Doreen's eyes shimmered with soft admiration when I returned to our table at long last. I wanted to ask -- the dancing with Kevin or the dancing with Lalo? -- but I didn't, not knowing how to ask.
"Your dance with Kevin, of course," Doreen volunteered in answer to the unasked question.
"You know a lot, don't you?" I said.
"I do, I do. Just promise me one thing. Don't fall in love with Kevin."
"Why?" came out of my mouth before I could keep it to myself. I had no intention of falling in love with Kevin who, with me skimming my fortieth birthday, had to be at least thirty years my senior.
"Because he's unavailable," Doreen said.
And you know this how? I wanted to ask. I knew that Doreen was passionately in and out love all the time. High drama reigned. Each new conquest, usually a tango dancer, of course, was the one. Then, when a relationship faltered, there came a phase of huge and heart-felt tragedy. Even before Doreen had reeled me in to accompany her to the Friday night tango gatherings, also known as milongas, I had spent several wine-fortified nights listening to her pain. Was Kevin one of her short-lived conquests? It didn't seem likely. While Doreen was a few years older than I, she wasn't that much older.
"It's not what you think," Doreen said, again seeming to read my mind. "Yes, I did want to nail him as a regular dance partner once. Thing is, he doesn't do that. He was reasonably gentle in pointing that out to me. Okay, so I confess, I did want even more than that. He's so handsome, you know, and so very elegant. But that's between you and me. Gentle and all, every rejection hurts. I mean, this is me. I'm supposed to be able to have anyone I set my heart on. At least for a little while." Doreen smirked self-deprecatingly.
"Maybe he already has a dance partner or even a life partner somewhere?"
"No. Trust me. I know. He just comes and dances. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him anywhere around town except at these Friday night milongas. He doesn't do conventions, he doesn't do classes, and he doesn't go to any of the other milongas or practicas. He just comes here and dances like a dream and makes each one of us happy sooner or later. You will have noticed, he dances with everyone. He's not picky. And he makes all of us happy because he dances so damn well. But then we start dreaming of a future. And then we end up stranded. Life partner? I doubt it. Wouldn't he bring her? Well, maybe he has someone sequestered somewhere. I wouldn't know. For sure, she, or he for that matter, doesn't dance."
This was all good to know, I thought. Yes, he did dance well. But otherwise he seemed so harmless, not really conducive to future dreaming. Or maybe I just hadn't been exposed enough.
"And here he is," Doreen said under her breath, as Kevin came to claim her for a tanda.
I was convinced I wouldn't get a better partner for the rest of the night than Kevin or Lalo, and I already understood from Doreen that generally you didn't dance with the same partner more than once or twice unless you were a couple, and even then, not really, not after the first blush of romance anyway. Codigo. I decided to stop in the restroom before going home. I found the lovely Maricela stand at one of the three sinks lined up in a row, powdering her face.
"You're beautiful," I said. "And your dancing is even more beautiful."
"Thank you," Maricela said in a husky voice. "You're a good dancer yourself. One little thing. It would be better if you didn't turn out your hip when you take a back step."
"Huh. I hope I'll remember that next time," I said. I felt slapped. My eyes met Maricela's in the mirror above the row of sinks. Did she know what she had just done? She probably did. Her dark lined eyes looked cold and indifferent. Was she not lovely enough all on her own without having to mar another's spirit by casting a smiling, biting spell of doubt?
"Good evening to you," I said, leaving the restroom. All the way on my drive home I couldn't shake her small rebuke. I was no threat to anyone. Why did I have to ingest this bitter morsel of doubt? What had I done to merit this? I had merely wanted to enjoy the splendor of my own beauty, my mild expertise, that magnificent dance with Kevin, followed by a quite remarkable dance with Lalo. Was that what the whole world suffered from? Rampant competitiveness? People putting each other down. One little thing at a time. One little wound at a time. At least she hadn't done it in front of an audience, though. I knew there were a thousand little things I could theoretically improve. I so wanted to be in charge of choosing my own time for perfecting my flawed being.