Chapter 13: Tara and Kevin
I arrived at his condo at 2:57 p.m. with a bunch of small purple asters and large yellow and white daisies. I rang his door bell. He opened. He looked thin, too thin. Too thin for what? And he looked haggard, too, but he was dressed in an immaculate white dress shirt and a silver tie. Not too tired for his customary elegance.
"Hello," I said finally.
"Oh. Come on in," he said. "It's good to see you."
Three steps into his condo, which opened through the tiniest hallway space straight into an airy light and spacious living room, I stopped again to stare at him. He stared back, pressed his lips together into a fine, amused line. I finally broke eye contact and looked down, only to notice that I was standing on light beige carpet, a hemlock needle sticking out from the side of my left shoe. The sidewalk had been wet. As usual.
"Here. I brought these to cheer you up. Or to cheer myself up. Whoever needs it most." I handed him the flowers so I could slip out of my shoes. "You must have some kind of vase." I looked around.
"Sure," he said. "In the kitchen. Here, let me take your coat. And you can leave your shoes on."
"No," I said. "Your carpet is practically white. Is it okay to stay for a while?"
"Yes. Come, sit in front of the fireplace. Let me get you some coffee. Milk, no sugar, right?"
"You remembered." I smiled. "That would be great."
He brought the coffee first, then tended to the flowers, which he ended up placing on the oval curved glass coffee table between us and the electric fireplace. Everything looked immaculate. The boisterous yellow of some of the daisies was the most unruly item in the room.
"You aren't getting better, are you?" I finally asked.
"Unfortunately no. I've made my peace with it. More or less."
"I haven't." I gulped for air. "I am devastated. Angry. And I don't know what to say." I felt my cheek twitch under my left eye. "Here I thought I had a reliable tango partner at long last, and now this." I tried to make light of things. It didn't work. He didn't even acknowledge my embarrassing attempt at levity. "Kevin, is there anything I can do for you?" I finally asked.
"You're doing it. Spend some time with me. While I am preparing."
"I am so sorry it took me so long to get it, to get the message, to figure out that something was so wrong. I should have been here weeks ago."
"I wasn't here weeks ago myself."
"You know what I mean."
"There is nothing they can do?"
"No. I mean, yes. But it would be an excruciating battle for not a whole lot of gain. And no guarantees of anything except discomfort. I gave it my best shot. I hate being institutionalized. I will just let things run their course."
How could he be so casual about it?
"There's nothing else I can do, after all," he said. "A best shot is just that. And it didn't hit the target. It hurts, physically, to give it your best shot for nothing. Mentally too. Emotionally. Everywhere."
"So you just sit here by yourself, waiting for . . . the end?"
"Who takes care of you? Your stuff?"
"I have somebody come every other day. She cleans, she makes meals. She freezes or refrigerates them. There's very little for me to do."
"Do you prefer to be alone?"
"Not really. But there is no one. No children. No grandkids."
"I wouldn't say that, but . . ."
"All those women you have danced with?"
"Well, you are here."
"Anyone else? Does anybody else at the club know how that you are sick?"
"I don't really want anyone to know. I didn't even want you to know, except I also didn't want to just disappear from the face of the earth, slink away unnoticed. I know you care. Too much perhaps. I mean, yes, in a way that's exactly what I would like, to just slink away. It would be easiest, but I think it would cause unnecessary pain."
"There will be pain no matter what, but I see what you mean. It's a lonely life isn't?"
"Afraid so. I've kept myself to myself pretty much since Robin died."
"Because I couldn't figure out any other way."
I will be here for you, I silently promised. Until you go.
"Okay," I said. "Time for some gossip at least, about all those women you made so happy by dancing."
"If I indeed made them happy . . ."
"You did. No question about that. Anyway. Doreen is getting married. You don't know him. His name is Jake Betterton. He's from Texas and he arrived on the scene after you left for your so-called retreat. He's doing something with electronics and can do it here as easily as he can do it in Texas, so he's moving here, and they are getting married in two weeks."
"That was fast," he said.
"Yes. They're very happy. We should go to the wedding together."
"I might not be welcome," he said.
"What do you mean? Oh, you think because . . . no, I know. Doreen told me she came on to you and you wouldn't have any of her. She's long forgiven you."
"Well, that's good. On account of hell hath no fury, etc."
"She's in heaven now. You have no idea how happy she is. You should definitely come and see for yourself."
"She even confided to me that one of her former male friends called her up as soon as he heard about the wedding plans to propose to her to marry him instead. Flattering for her, of course, but it made her uneasy, too. Mostly on his account. She won't tell me who it is to preserve his privacy in case he, too, shows up to the wedding, to which he probably will be invited."
"That sounds like Doreen," Kevin said.
"Anyway, that should tell you that you're in the clear."
"That's a relief," he said.
"It must have been hard to be such a good dancer and have everybody put out lures to catch you as a partner, or lover, or any way at all."
He laughed. "No too much of a hardship, really."
"I suppose not. After all, you get to run around and feel wanted. We, on the other hand, have to sit still while casting our lines in the hope that someone will nibble."
"It really is brutal, isn't it?"
"Poor Robin," he said. "Poor Tara. Let me give you some advice."
I cringed. Not Kevin, too, now. "Oh, God, if only you knew how I hate advice."
Kevin lifted his eyebrows. "Here goes anyway: You go to these places and there we are, a bunch of guys, vying to be able to dance with beautiful women, the more beautiful and the younger, the better. We get to pick and choose. You at best get to say no. If I were you, I'd be furious. Then I would gradually learn to not give a damn. Just don't give a damn. We're all in this together after all. It's a game. The rules are crap, but they are still the rules. Sure, you can break them, but that usually gets you ostracized. I am sorry that we have to live this way. I wish I had studied this scene many years ago and then been able to tell Robin not to give a damn, or else made it so it would be pure pleasure for her. Maybe I can pass it on to you, though. Play by the rules or break them, but whatever you do, do what you want, Tara. The single most important rule is: 'don't give a damn'."
"But how can I not?" I asked.
"I don't know, Tara. I'll let you in on another secret. Maybe I already told you about the first few years of learning how to dance and how I didn't go out. I don't remember if I wrote that or simply meant to write it. Well, after a while I did go out, but I only went out to watch and see what I was getting myself into, not to dance. I did see women wanting to dance. I didn't ask them. Not because I was deliberately cruel and sure of having the upper hand, but because I didn't want to make an ass of myself. In fact, I went out of town the first few times I actually did dance tango in public, just so that in case I did make an ass of myself it would take place in unfamiliar territory where I'd never have to show my face again."
"Is that what it's all about?" I had never thought of it that way. "It's still cruel, though," I said. "To let us sit there full of hope, and then full of self-doubt, and often anger or despair, even as we are simpering and pretending otherwise."
"Fear leads to a lot of cruelty on the whole."
I wished I could believe in the wishful cliché that he would soon join his Robin in another sphere of existence. But I didn't believe that. I was pretty sure he didn't either.
In the course of the next few days, we continued to talk about nothing much for hours on end, delicately avoiding the words "death" and "dying." To be in each other's presence and to know was enough. I could afford to work part time in the mornings for a few weeks, so I did that. I went to visit him every day. I'd tell him amusing snippets from my dancing life.
"I went shoe shopping. You know, at the price of tango shoes, as an ordinary mortal you can only own two or three pairs in a lifetime. I wanted a new pair. There were some that were two-toned, blue and green, with four inch Lucite stiletto heels. They were lovely. They also cost four hundred dollars. Ridiculous. For me anyway. So I ended up getting flare heeled black ballroom shoes with three inch heels, not the customary stilettos, at a third of the price. I finally told myself it was okay. I'm not really a tango dancer anymore. I just dance tango. I'm more like a tango tourist. I finally admit that. I can still love it, the way I love Venice, or Rome. Paris. It's a love I will never take for granted, because I don't live there, I don't have roots there. Or maybe I'm a pilgrim. I visit other people's shrines and stand in awe."
"You said once that tango wasn't a dance, it was a religion. That spooked me, because Robin had said the same thing. I thought she had invented the idea. Guess not."
"She might have for all that. It's a concept that's been passed around."
One single time Kevin spoke of his fear and his pain.
"The physical situation, that's not so bad. Bad enough, of course. But knowing that I have a time limit. An estimated expiration date. I no longer have the freedom to pretend I might live forever and can just play in the moment and nothing will be lost. I don't know when, but it's definite, and it's soon. I just don't think we are equipped to deal with reality in this life. We try and try, but our deepest longing is for what's not there. It's hard to grasp that we are not forever. I guess I should speak for myself. I wanted to make Robin immortal by dancing with other women. I couldn't. I wasn't going to give up, though, until it gave me up first. And now it's happening."
I went to sit on the right arm of his chair while he was talking. My left arm had crept around his bony shoulders. I didn't speak. There was nothing to say. I heard tears in his throat. We were both looking at the lit fireplace and then I moved my cheek to touch his, as we had sometimes done while dancing.
"I should have stuck with salsa instead after all," Kevin said. "It would probably have been more fun. Tango suited me better, though. My slower, older muscles, my slower and also older sentiments. In tango I could still be a star. In salsa I couldn't even dream of competing with the fire-eyed and gym-muscled young men."
"You can still do it now," Tara said. "I'll review you on the basics."
Kevin grimaced. "That's all right," he said with a huge sigh that encompassed all the lack of energy in his frail body. "Thing is, all of a sudden it wouldn't be enough to dance salsa privately. Dance needs to be public. It needs an audience."
"One lesson learned."
From that day on, I sat often with my arm around him. We had moved to the sofa to allow it to happen when I visited. Sometimes each of us wordlessly drifted into our own worlds, content to just be together. We listened to tango music or classical music, and sometimes to nothing, just private memories blossoming. A few times Kevin nodded off. I remembered the many occasions I had witnessed him going up to a woman at the club with his invitation to dance, and the woman's radiant delight. A young woman's sparkling self-confidence. Okay, I guess I'll do you the honor of dancing with you. I so deserve this. Am I not beautiful? An older woman's breathless surprise. Me? Now? With you of all people? A gorgeous lonesome woman's pinched lips softening into a yes. The shadow of a woman's disappointment being pushed away by joy in the invitation to do what she had come to do.
Eventually Kevin asked: "So, what do you think of the bits of Robin's writing I shared with you?"
x"Most of all, she loved you very much." x"But?" Kevin asked.
"She loved me," Kevin said. "I know that. But . . ."
"You're better off without the 'but'," I said. "Love is pretty strong."
"It is that."
There were times I wanted to ask him questions, but then I didn't have quite the nerve to face the possible answers. Do men really think about sex all the time? And is it true that a man, every single man, including you, Kevin, only ever asks a woman to dance because he wants to have sex with her? Here was silver-haired Kevin, magnanimous champion of stars and wallflowers and every other woman in between who might show up in the dance club. If anyone were to give me an honest answer, he'd be the one. I didn't ask. I was afraid of potential deathbed truth not to my liking.
"Penny for your thoughts," Kevin said.
I shook my head. "Not even for a thousand dollars."
"I'll think about it," I said. "But the answer is probably still 'no.'"
"It's complicated being human," he said.
"Tell me about it. The timing is never quite right."
"Until just recently I might have agreed with that," he said. "Now I'm not so sure anymore. Reminds me of one of the little stories Robin wrote. A child and a woman stand by the river. The woman has dropped a leaf in the water and explains to the child, 'See, now I have changed the world. This leaf would not go downstream if I hadn't dropped it in.' But the child corrects the woman. 'You're part of the world too. You didn't change a thing. You were supposed to be here to drop this leaf into this river.'"
"Ah, yes, that's beautiful," I said. "Would you like some water or juice before I leave?"
"Water would be great. You're great company."
"You're pretty fantastic yourself," I said, escaping to the kitchen. Funny how easy it was to compliment one another on the dance floor. And then along came reality and so much stuttering silence and delicate speech.
We went to Doreen's wedding together.
"You look good," I told Kevin when I picked him up.
"Thanks," he said. "You do, too."
It was a tango wedding, of course. They had rented our Friday night venue for a Wednesday wedding. The official ceremony was performed right there as well. Doreen was a radiant bride, a shimmering mixture of saucy and demure and orange blossoms. She wore a white dress for the ceremony and for dinner, but then changed into an iridescent dark blue dress with a high side slit for dancing. Jake looked enthralled in his black suit and white shirt. He did not change between dinner and dancing.
The wedding buffet was sumptuous, though Kevin and I didn't do it much justice. I had a glass of champagne. Kevin toasted the bride and groom with mineral water.
"Did you tell them about me?" Kevin asked.
"No," I said.
Surely he had to know that they only had to look at him to know what was going on. But Jake had never known him as a dancer and Doreen was so busy being happy, she probably did not have much conscious thought left to notice anything else. Which was just as well.
I watched Doreen stop and fiddle with her ankle strap between dances. A glow of the familiar spread in my chest. How beautiful we were in this world.
Would you like to dance?" Kevin asked. The past flickered through his smiling eyes.
Are you sure? the caretaker in me wanted to say. "I'd love to," I said instead.
We danced sedately, cautiously, pretending whatever begged to be pretended.
"Lovely," he said when the song stopped and we went to sit down. One song was enough for the time being. "Life is treating me well," he said. "Maybe I should start using night cream."
I didn't get the reference to Robin's last notebook entry at first. When I finally did, I cringed. But outwardly I grinned and went to beg a rose from Doreen's opulent bridal table centerpiece. "A red one, please."
"For you," I said as I handed it to Kevin who threaded the stem into his jacket's top buttonhole.
A few dance friends came to talk to us briefly, mostly to Kevin. Nobody mentioned his fragile looks.
"I love to listen to people's laughter," he told me. "So much energy in laughter."
We didn't dance again. We didn't stay long.
Above all, Kevin didn't stay long afterwards. I wasn't with him when he died.
A nephew, Dave Swenson, Kevin's half-sister's son, took care of funeral arrangements and the legal disbursements of Kevin's modest estate. Kevin left me all of his and Robin's writing. He also left me Robin's golden sleeveless dress she had never worn. Beautiful, but too conspicuous. "I think I simply wanted to hold on to something of hers," he had told me in the end. "Maybe you can use it now. She would have liked that." He also left me two thousand dollars. Pennies for those two hundred thousand thoughts and questions that I had neither shared nor asked.
I went to the memorial service by myself, in an inconspicuous dark gray dress. There were a few other people, not many. Nobody I knew. The only people I recognized were Kevin's caregiver whom I had met twice, and Dave, the nephew. Nobody from the tango club. Doreen and Jake were still on their honeymoon. I didn't know anybody else well enough to spread the word. Like Kevin, I typically kept myself to myself. There had been an obituary in the newspaper, but it seemed that it had gone largely unnoticed. I didn't have it in me to just go to the club and tell the person collecting that night's cover charge: you know, the man who routinely made all these women happy? Well, he died, and there is a memorial service next Monday. Three o'clock. And the person, probably a youngster who made five bucks an hour or got free lessons in exchange for collecting the cover charge, was potentially someone who didn't know Kevin and wouldn't recognize him if I described him. Or worse, I could have made an announcement in mid-milonga, while upcoming workshops or shoes sales were announced. It would have been excruciating for me. Though not for Kevin. He was definitely beyond caring.
All these women, though. All this joy, all this happiness and dance floor romance he had generated. I kissed the red rose I had brought and tucked it under one of two wreaths in front of Kevin's memorial shelf. There was a framed picture of Kevin and Robin, both smiling radiantly. The same photo was reproduced on the printed memorial sheet. Headshot only, heads side by side. Posed. Cheerful. Robin's crooked tooth looked cute in her wide-mouth smile.
It was a meditation ceremony, no speech, no sermon, people just privately paying their respects. No viewing either. No coffin or urn. I sat in my chair barely aware of my surroundings. A softness filled me. The people in attendance might not be fellow dancers, but all were fellow dreamers in their unobtrusive containers of skin and bone. Gentle music played in the background. I recognized Pachelbel's Canon. Sweet. And then there was a set of mellow tango music. I had told nephew Dave about the tango. When the music turned to Kevin's favorite, "A Media Luz," played very softly, I started crying. Bye, Kevin. I wished there were more I could do, feel, say. At least he wasn't showing up wherever he was going without having at long last learned how to dance.
I stood up and went back to the framed photograph on the shelf. One more time I touched the rose I had tucked under the wreaths earlier and whispered, "Okay, I promise I'll try very hard to not give a damn, Kevin. Thank you." Then I turned away and left. There was nothing else to do. I had a feeling I would not be very good at not giving a damn.
The attendant at the door in his dark suit nodded at me.
I went to the seawall looking out to sea, standing still, sometimes closing my eyes to take in the roll and roar of the water, the pebbles clicking their fine percussion under a receding wave. I felt rich. I felt devastated. I felt love. Roaring in. Receding. Rolling in again. In the distance a fog horn. Close behind me a bird's single faint call.
I took off my shoes and moved my toes in the sand. The water was cold, but not icy. I stretched my arms toward the sun, approximately ten minutes above setting. I tightened my core. I moved. My core, my ribcage, my shoulders. I tossed my hair into the future with a flick of my head.
I thought I heard my name. I turned around. No one was there. Just another bird call probably.
It took a few weeks for me to get it together to go out dancing again. Doreen and Jake were back from their honeymoon, both still radiant with new love. I danced with every man in the club on my first night back, which I found amazing. I wasn't typically that popular, so I enjoyed it enormously. To a point. I missed Kevin fiercely. Lalo complimented me after I danced my heart out with him to a particularly sweet rendition of "A Media Luz." This went a long way in soothing my vulnerable spirits.
I was fanning myself with a piece of paper when Doreen swept by and sat down, but just for her usual breezy moment.
"Did you know that Maricela left Lalo to follow some tango dancer to Argentina?" she asked. No, I hadn't known. Good, I would be spared mention of many future little things I could improve. Lalo didn't seem to be suffering badly. He was dancing with a lovely young woman, probably half his age, long blond hair, long beautiful legs, and definitely infatuation, if not outright adoration, in her gaze at him. For a moment I caught his eyes. He winked. Hadn't he learned from Maricela that you focus on your partner and don't look around and wink at others? Though maybe the rules were different for a man. What would I know? In any case, it flattered me. I smiled.
When I got home, very late because of all that dancing, I curled up in my favorite chair with Robin's thirteen notebooks. I folded my left leg under and pulled a soft handknit blanket over my legs. This was another recent gift from Kevin. He hadn't specified whether Robin had by chance knit it herself. No matter, for my own purposes I imagined she had. I closed my eyes and picked up one of the notebooks at random and then began reading.
"Dear Kevin," she wrote.