Chapter 3: A Flawless Connection
Maricela's instruction, though unsettling, wasn't enough of a deterrent to keep me from the milongas. What interrupted them instead for a little while was Doreen's fresh pain at a new breakup. In solidarity, I stayed away from tango for a few weeks. But when Doreen, who worked as an assistant director of a women's self-empowerment center, went out of town for an extended training session at a university, I went back to the club by myself. I had meanwhile become a somewhat familiar face. Even my hair had grown again to almost back down to my shoulders.
Then one Friday night, just after dancing with Kevin, somebody ran around the room with the alarming news that a tango club in San Francisco had just been targeted by a shooter. Two women were in critical condition. A handful of others were in the hospital. The DJ in our club stopped the music and pulled up the latest news about the shooting on his sound system. We all huddled to stand in a large circle around the dance floor, holding hands in silent vigil. It tore at my chest like huge bird claws. Here I was, recently plastered against an attractive partner's chest, feeding the flames of sensuality, while others elsewhere were injured, possibly dying. And still I wanted to celebrate this fragile life with dance. The news of the shooting event, on the heels of so many others in so many unlikely other venues, came like a strange ice storm. I imagined it hit all of us that night in a similar way. Survivor's guilt. After a tearful vigil, there was no dancing spirit left in any of us. The milonga ended.
The stairway was crammed with people with tender-looking faces moving down into the night. I had to come to a sudden stop to avoid colliding with the woman in front of me who had bent down to pick up something. As a result, I ended up colliding with a body behind me.
"Sorry," I said, turning to make eye contact. It was Kevin. I saw he too had a sheen in his eyes.
"It's okay," he said. "No damage done."
We exited at the same time, walking in the same direction.
"Do you have anywhere you must be?" I asked, my chest filled with the pressure of unspilled tears. "I ask because I don't want to be alone right now. I mean, I'll be okay. But if . . . We could sit by the river. Maybe. Oh, I'm babbling. Never mind."
"I don't want to be alone either just now," he said. "Let's go. Sit by the river. It reminds me of something. The river is always a comfort."
"I don't know what we even want in this world," I blurted out non sequitur. "What people want, you know? And I am one of them, but I feel so alien. Why would anyone have so much rage as to go and shoot others out of sheer hatred, or frustration, or whatever it is? And then it spreads, like a cancer, making the rest of us feel guilty for dancing, for trying to eke out a tiny bit of joy and satisfaction from this strange universe. I feel as though I can't ever dance again."
"You probably will. We all will. If we don't, they win. They will a capital T."
"It feels so frivolous."
"And yet it isn't, is it? We put so much love and devotion into this frivolity, it becomes outright serious."
"I've heard someone say tango isn't a dance, it's a religion," I said.
Kevin stopped walking so abruptly that I got two steps ahead of him without trying. I looked back at him. His face had a strange tight grimace.
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing." He paused. "Well, it reminded me. What you just said. Someone else said that."
"I'm not surprised. I heard it from a particularly good dance teacher, not even a tango dancer. I guess that's what it was -- a more or less affectionate critique of the seriousness of tango. Some years ago. The trouble with religions is, they have priests and other experts."
It was clear he didn't want to talk about it, so we dropped the subject. We had arrived at the river park, not far from the club. Without consulting with each other, we headed to a bench by the water. A cool summery breeze swayed around us. The blossoms on the cherry trees were long spent. A few brown and withered blossom skeletons lay on the ground. But there was flower scent in the air. Linden trees? Russian elm?
"It feels so strange to be alive in these times," I said. "When people shoot and try to kill each other. It's not even war. Except that it ends up being all war all the time. And this world is so beautiful. Just look at all these grasses. Ducklings on the river. My heart is crying for beauty, wants to praise and sing and dance. But then all this violence breaks out. Political bigotry. Racisms. Misogyny. And all I want to do is praise and dance. It feels so forbidden when these things happen. Now. All the time. Here. There. Everywhere."
"It's still important to praise," Kevin said. "Especially the ducklings. And the owls. Did you hear that?"
I nodded, smiled. The hoot sounded close, high up to the left. There. Again.
"And to dance," I added. "Why do you dance?" I asked suddenly. "So many men don't."
"I know," he said, then sighed. "I was one of them."
"You? Wow. That must have been a long time ago. You dance so beautifully. Did you ever teach dance?"
"Teach? No. And it wasn't all that long ago."
"Well, one day I was flat out of things to do and thought I'd either learn the classical guitar or tango. Tango won."
This sounded glib and I felt too vulnerable for glib on this of all nights. I was still raw from the pain and insecurity of life all around us. Some other day I might have played along with him. Today I didn't feel like playing. I drew my wrap around me and looked off into the distance. Time to go home, I decided.
"I'm sorry," Kevin said, sensing my mood. "That's a silly phrase I've rehearsed for a very long time, in case someone should ever ask me why I danced tango and I could provide a clever response. You're the first one to ever ask. It's a long story anyway. Too long for a moment by the river."
"Then tell me a piece of it."
He rubbed his own arms, encased in coat sleeves, as though he were cold. I didn't even have sleeves and felt no chill.
"Okay, here goes. I had a beautiful wife. She was a gorgeous dancer. And I refused to dance with her."
"Oh?" I whispered.
"Yes." Kevin stopped speaking for a time. I almost didn't dare look at him. But I did. Once again I saw liquid shimmer in his eyes. I looked away quickly so as not to embarrass him.
"You sure you want to hear this?" he asked at last.
"She was a brand-new faculty member in the English Department. We had a meet and greet gathering for new faculty. This was way into the semester already, practically before the winter break. Because nobody ever has time for anything at the start of the semester, and then something has to be organized quickly so it can happen at all. We were at the Sheraton up the hill, in some sort of indoor palm garden club room. Budget didn't allow for renting a party room all to ourselves, and there were only a handful of us anyway, so we formally crashed their usual Friday night event. A tango trio played that night. We had a table for twelve. Suddenly this lovely young woman, dressed in red of course, stood up. She had been sitting right next to me. We hadn't even had any time for small talk yet. 'Does anybody here tango?' she asked. That was Robin. All of us nine male faculty members sheepishly demurred. Looked at each other or at our dinner plates. Took gulps of our drinks. Another new faculty member, Myra, said, she'd danced tango a little. 'Great, I can lead,' Robin said, and off they went onto the postcard size dance floor. They looked quite beautiful together. I for one breathed a breath of relief that I was off the hook. I would normally have talked about Milton or politics with my male colleague on my other side at the table. But Robin was so beautiful and assertive out there leading Myra on the dance floor that I was mesmerized. Great body. Robin, that is. Myra was a tad overweight. Anyway, they finished their dance. They came back to the table. I pulled out her chair for her -- not something I normally did in those days. But she barely had time to sit down when one member of the dance band stood up, put down his harmonica and came to the table to ask Robin to dance. She smiled from ear to ear and went to dance with him."
I watched Kevin's face go through a few thousand expressions one after the other. He didn't look at me.
"This must be boring you," he said, a self-conscious smile of memory still in his eyes.
"No, no. Come on." I gently punched his arm. "That is to say, go on."
"Well, the short version is, the two of them were fantastic. I think the floor boards were smoking. This time, when the musician brought her back to the table with an enthusiastic 'gracias,' she collapsed on the chair beside me. She was glowing with excitement. 'How long have you danced with this guy?' I asked her. She tried to catch her breath. 'What was it? Five minutes? Seven?' Well, you know how it goes. I knew less than nothing then, so I thought they were regular partners. She informed me that, no, they had never seen each other before, much less danced with each other. You know the story. I didn't believe her. She said that's what dance was all about, to connect with another, even a total stranger, and see what happened. She told me she could teach me. I of course I told her the standard cliché of having two left feet. She bent to look under the table and corrected me. I had the appropriate assortment of feet. And that's how it all started."
The wind carried flower scent our way. The surrounding world came to the foreground again. My nostrils flared to take in the fragrance. Bells from two church towers rang, one to the right, one to the left. It had to be midnight. I didn't want to be rude and look at my watch and interrupt the flow of his story. I looked anyway. Yes, midnight. I should make motions to go home, I thought. I didn't want to. It was easier on my soul to listen to his story than to go home and digest the shooting at the club in San Francisco, my own survivor guilt, as well as my curiosity about this old man next to me, for whom I suddenly felt great affection. He had given me so many beautiful dances. At the same time he was far too old for me to fall in love with. So I was safe. My heart was safe. The affection felt enormous, though.
"So she taught you after all, left feet or no?"
"Unfortunately no," he said. "I refused. Nevertheless we eventually got married. And I kept refusing for a good fifteen years. It was agony for her. She went out dancing by herself. Once a week. Occasionally she would stop for a few months at a time, but then it always called to her again. For most of those years, I had no idea how brutal it was for her. Funny, that first night she came across as so assertive. In the end that was the last time I really experienced her as assertive. I was blown away by her dance and her bold spirit. I confess, I took her home with me that night. She was a bit tipsy. Later she would refer to that night as the only one night stand she ever had in her entire life. Only it turned out to not have been a one night stand after all. I shouldn't be telling you such things probably. I've never told anyone."
Something rustled on the water. I couldn't see what it was.
"It makes me sad," I said. "And I don't even understand yet. You dance like a dream. You say you didn't dance with her. What am I missing? Didn't she want you to in the end?"
"She wanted me to dance very much." His voice cracked.
"Some woman once told me tango hurts a lot of women." I said to bridge a long silence.
"It does," he said.
"So you're telling me you were one of the bad guys that sit on the edge of the dance floor withholding themselves, seeing how much women want to dance and then letting them suffer with their yearning?"
"Yes, I was one of the bastards. Robin, by the way, never did quite manage to explain to me why women want to dance so very much," Kevin said.
"It's so simple. We live in these bodies and we like to move them. We like to be around men. Most of the time anyway. But we don't always want to have sex. So we dance. We want to move our bodies. We want to be seen. If possible, we want to be admired. And desired."
"Yeah, that's more or less what Robin said. I still don't quite get it. But I'll take it on faith. So I learned to dance, basically to atone, and to keep her spirit with me, and because there wasn't much to do without her around. I miss her so." His voice cracked again.
"She left you?" I asked. Privately I felt a tiny morsel of triumph. Good for this Robin. Fifteen years of withholding pleasure from a woman was a very long time.
"It was one of those selfish days," Kevin continued. "She wanted to go dancing at a hotel café some Sunday afternoon. This was one of those times when she hadn't gone for a long time, so a Sunday afternoon outing seemed easiest. I wanted to go and have a massage. Turned out, I'd gotten my times mixed up. My masseuse wasn't available. So I walked around a bit. Then I got bored and decided to pick her up early. We had only the one car between us, trying to reduce our carbon footprint. When I got to the café, there were about ten couples on the floor, all dancing in close embrace. The music was lovely. Slow. She was sitting at a table by herself. She wasn't the only one not dancing. But of all the people not dancing, she was the one who looked the most forlorn. Actually, she looked just fine. But I knew her so well by then. I knew her brave look of desperation. It twisted my heart. This was my wife, sitting at the edge of the dance floor, wanting to dance, and not dancing. I decided then and there I would take dance lessons and, if not catch up with her, then at least give her a chance to do what she loved to do, instead of sitting out at the edge of the reality she wanted to belong to. I don't know how long I watched her like that. Not long. Maybe for a song. Maybe less. I felt such love for her suddenly. For myself too. Because I had just made this momentous decision to finally do something to please her. I finally got it, I thought. When I almost reached her table and she became aware of my presence, she looked around and saw me. Her whole face lit up. I offered to stay till the end of the milonga. But she said she was ready to go. Nobody was going to dance with her anyway. I asked her if she had danced at all. Twice, she told me. In about two hours. I was so in love with her and her yearning to belong. I also felt guilty in retrospect for having made her suffer for so long by denying her what she longed for. We went home. This was on a Sunday afternoon. We had a magical week together. She seemed so happy. I brought her roses. I kept my new resolution to learn to dance a secret from her. I wanted to surprise her once I had learned at least some rudiments. By Tuesday I had found an acceptable tango teacher, the real thing, a woman with a lovely voice who hailed from Argentina. Robin died on the following Monday. She'd been on her bicycle, no helmet. After all, she was just on campus. Our home was only three blocks off campus. A car was swerving to avoid a child. Robin was in the way. We're all so damn fragile."
I was so stunned, I couldn't move. For minutes it seemed. Then my arm went around his shoulders. He was shaking. "I am so sorry," I whispered.
"I've never cried in public before," he said. "Oh, I've cried. Believe you me, I've cried. But never in front of anyone. It isn't done. As you probably know." He pulled out a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his eyes. Our eyes met, his still shimmering with moisture lit up from the dim light of a nearby street lamp. It felt like looking into the eyes of an alien creature or an animal. I was amazed at the intimacy of such a simple connection. We held each other's gaze for a long time without speaking. At long last Kevin looked off to the side.
x"Now that I told you, made my confession if you will, maybe I don't have to dance at all anymore," he said.
"Don't joke about that," I said.
"Don't worry," he said quickly. "I will always dance. I've grown to love it. Not just for its connection to Robin, but for myself. I guess our bodies really are like that. They do want to move. Plus, when you've invested as much time as I have in learning something, usually you can't help but love it."
"There are so many things I want to ask you," I said.
"There are so many things I want to tell you."
"If we were teenagers, we'd likely sit here all night and talk. Provided we didn't have a curfew. It's tempting even at our age. Even at this hour."
"Perhaps some other time."
"Yes, let's do that."
We sat in silence a while longer. Then we went home into our separate worlds. I felt torn apart and comforted, both at the same time. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to fall asleep with all these things running through my mind. Not that it mattered. It was the early hours of Saturday and I had nowhere I needed to be at any particular time later on in the day. But as it turned out, I fell asleep quickly.
We made a date to meet for dinner in the downstairs restaurant before next Friday's milonga. I was so nervous that I misapplied my eyeliner with trembling hands and had to redo it twice before I got it right. Choosing what to wear for both dinner and a milonga was another quandary -- I finally settled on black chiffon pants and a red silk tunic, which would come in handy should I spill any tomato sauce. I nearly locked myself out of my apartment, too, in my rush to get out the door. At the last second I managed to catch the door before it closed on me. It was after office hours, too, which would have required a hefty fee to the apartment manager to be let back in. But I made it out the door, keys safely in hand and without penalty.
Over dinner, we were both reticent. It disappointed me. But it felt good to be with Kevin again in a more relaxed, less intense situation. Doreen was unexpectedly back in town, too. At least I hadn't known about it ahead of time. She was sitting at a nearby table with a man I hadn't seen before, so not a regular from the upstairs club. I was tempted to go over and say hello, but they looked extraordinarily fascinated with each other, so I simply waved and decided to catch up with Doreen upstairs later.
I filled some of the silences during dinner with telling Kevin a few basics about myself. Struggling writer, on occasion landing a job as a ghostwriter -- "You don't look like a ghost," Kevin commented kindly -- but mostly taking care of my bills by working as a part time on call secretary for a law firm specializing in corporate law. "Gives me some flexibility and it puts food on the table," I said. "And my soul commends me for at least not participating in criminal law or ambulance chasing."
I kept wishing I could recreate the closeness we, or I at any rate, had experienced the week before, but it wasn't in the stars. Still, we were comfortable together, even in some of the silences we didn't fill. At some point we fed each other pieces of starfruit and pineapple from our respective dishes. No tomato sauce was involved at all, but I got a compliment on my red silk tunic all the same, so everything worked out for the best.
Once we had gone upstairs, I also wished I could claim Kevin for more than our usual one or two tandas. Despite the tragedy of the week before, the milonga was as well attended as ever. While I couldn't dance with Kevin all night, I was content to watch him from time to time. Knowing what I knew about him now made me watch with different eyes. I saw the faces of women light up with pleasure when he asked them to dance. He didn't discriminate as so many of the men did when they felt they had egos and reputations to protect and therefore could only dance with the best and most compatible dancers, or at the very least the prettiest, lest they lose points in the eyes of their audience. I thought of the saying "dance like there's nobody watching." Good advice, but so unnecessary for the most part. As long as everybody was chiefly worried about their own performance and reputation, nobody, besides me at the moment, was watching anyone else in the first place. We were always all chiefly preoccupied with our own image.
Doreen swept in with the man from the restaurant and claimed the table adjacent to the Kevin's and mine. As usual Doreen looked delicious, like a dark fox, and brimming with spicy energy.
"Meet my . . . Meet Jake Betterton," she introduced her date. "My friend, Tara Seewald." Her suggestive pause in the introduction made it clear that Jake Betterton was more than a mere friend or colleague. He shook hands with me rather than exchanging air kisses. His large ears turned bright red. He had an oddly charming way of bobbing his head side to side, almost like wagging it.
Introductions made, Doreen gathered me into a hug. During which she whispered into my ears: "I'm jealous, you know. Or would be if it weren't for Jake here. How on earth did you score dinner with Kevin? He doesn't go out with mere mortals. Or so he made it clear to me."
Mere mortals. Did Doreen even know how à propos her words were? "Well, it's nothing, you know," I said. "We just happened to have dinner because we had some stuff to finish talking about."
"So all this has been going on while I was out of town? 'Finish talking.' Interesting."
"It's not like that," I said, wondering why I was feeling defensive. "We just talked last week, and . . ."
"Shhh, it's okay." Doreen laughed. "Besides, I'm too busy to be jealous. But you should know that I really did try . . . Well, never mind. I'm busy." She looked sideways at Jake who had been watching our more or less whispered exchange. "Time to dance," she said and reached out her hand to Jake, who stood up and led her the two steps onto the floor where he took her into his arms. He was good. Not spectacular. Doreen was the better dancer of the two but didn't seem to mind having to hold back.
Lalo came to claim me for a dance. It went splendidly. After Kevin, Lalo was now my favorite dance partner. He knew how to make me shine. He also made me nervous because I knew I was likely being watched like a hawk by Maricela who was not at the moment dancing and so had nothing to do except wield her critical eye. It was a delicate balance. I smiled whenever Lalo and I pulled off a particularly lovely move.
"You're fun to dance with," Lalo said.
"Thanks. You too!"
Meanwhile I looked across the floor from time to time. Kevin was dancing with a young woman with blond hair down to below her hips, dressed in a flapper type fringe dress, black fabric, red fringe. A lovely combination for her. Doreen was dancing with her new man Jake. They laughed a lot. Very un-tango. I would have to tease her about it later. It went so against the grain of the old tango adage "two sad faces, four happy feet." For now I was thrilled for Doreen who seemed to be in the smitten stage. Would it last this time? I did envy my friend's sunny spirit, her ability to seamlessly fall in love and give herself to whatever morsel of love was on offer. I longed for my own days of being in love, when everything was so important and exciting. I hadn't been in love like that for a long time. Well, maybe I was in love with Kevin. At least a little. And now even more so with knowing fragments of his story.
Maricela ambled toward my table. I tried to look intent on something else. Kevin was dancing, so the other chair was vacant. Here it comes, I thought with resignation when Maricela sat down before I had a chance to escape. She rearranged her gorgeous gold and black silky dress demurely over black fishnet stockings, with, I noted, old-fashioned seams in the back. "You look splendid, today," I said helplessly.
"Thanks," Maricela said. "One little thing. When you dance, you shouldn't look around so much. It detracts from your overall look. You should focus on the man and the music."
Guilty, I thought. "I'll keep that in mind," I said, hoping my face didn't look as red as it felt. Though one could perhaps always blame the glow of my bright red tunic. I wanted to hurt Maricela, or at least slap her, knowing I wouldn't. Last time I had slapped another human being was a mean girl when we were in second grade. I still felt guilty some thirty years later. Meanwhile, in present day dilemma, I didn't know what else to say to Maricela.
Doreen came to the rescue, pulling up another chair, greeting Maricela with a nod, then addressing me, "So what I meant to tell you earlier, I'm now back in town for keeps. Jake is willing to relocate here, so that makes everything doable. His company is offering several new positions and one is luckily right here in town. Otherwise he might have to go out of the country, Japan, or London. Even Sydney was a possibility."
Doreen kept talking nonstop, hardly taking a breath, until Maricela lost interest in us and stood up to find more rewarding companionship. Doreen and I followed her with our eyes until she treated a lovely young Latina to air-kisses.
"Did she critique you?" Doreen said, finally changing the subject away from babbling about Jake.
This time I knew I was turning bright red again. I nodded.
"She does it to everybody," Doreen said. "As I am sure you have noticed."
I hadn't. "She's so beautiful," I said. "Isn't that enough? Does she have to inflict self-doubt on the rest of us?"
"Apparently she does. Do note that she only critiques the best of us."
"Meanwhile, on the subject of Jake before he gets back here: He really is going to relocate here. So, I am in love. I met him on the project in Texas. We fell in love at first sight. No, really. It's love this time. He is divorced. No children. Flexible. Here he comes. I'll tell you more later."
I felt sunny for several songs after Doreen departed for the dance floor with Jake once again. They didn't have to change partners. Being freshly in love held the privilege of dancing together all night long. The milonga was winding down. The DJ announced the last tanda. I took off my right shoe and was reaching for the left shoe when Kevin appeared beside me.
"May I have this last dance?"
"Sure. Of course. Let me just put my shoe on again."
"This is our last dance for a while," he said when we were on the floor together. "I'll be gone for a little while."
"Oh? You didn't tell me earlier."
We babbled politely for a time, while still dancing. I was trying to hide some of my uneasy feeling of betrayal. He was trying to reassure me. We agreed to exchange email addresses.
"I want to tell you more of my story," he said. "I'd like to know a bit about yours too."
"So long as you don't expect me to make a novel out of your story. I have enough on my plate with trying to spin my own straw into gold." I was still irritated at the sudden change in my dancing future.
"No expectation. I promise," he said.
"Gosh, I'll miss you. I wish I'd have known. This is weird. I really will miss you. This place. Do you have any idea how empty this place will feel without you?" I looked around the room. "Oops," I said, "a critic just informed me I look around too much while dancing."
He chuckled. "I think I know who your critic is. I'll be back. In no time."
Kevin walked me to my car. We traded email addresses. I wanted to suggest going to sit by the river again as we had the week before, but then suddenly it didn't feel right. Last week I had been devastated, seeking companionship. This week I would have my mood dampened by disappointment and an irrational feeling of abandonment. Weird indeed.
I opened my car door with my remote. On the sidewalk we exchanged a final hug. With all the air kissing we did in the club, a kiss would not have been out of order. I looked at his lips, his lined face. I opened my own lips, but in the end it was merely to say, "Well, then, goodbye, until we meet again."
Once we disengaged from our embrace, he stroked my hair. The gesture filled my chest with a strange heaviness.
I watched him in my rearview mirror as I pulled out of my parking spot. A tall man in a dark suit. At first his arms hung by his side. Then he lifted his left hand in a wave. I rolled down my window and waved also. Then I came to the stop sign at the end of the block. Then I turned the corner and lost him from sight.