Tango: We Are Not Forever
From Robin's Notebooks:
He buys her dancing shoes. He likes to watch her dance in the kitchen or the living room. He admires her before she heads out the door in makeup and fluttery clothes. And that is as far as he will go in supporting her pleasure. After that it's do it yourself. It's do it by yourself.
I sit here with tears in my eyes writing words that go nowhere. Dancing gives me pleasure. Why ever can he not want to give me pleasure? He knows what it takes. Why must he withhold himself? Who teaches men to withhold themselves?
I am so tired. How difficult is it to dance? Not difficult at all for a beautiful, able-bodied man. How difficult is it to move men through the barrier of denying women? Almost impossible.
There are so many of us, women wanting to dance, men demurring. I am not alone. I don't know if that's good or bad.
He is healthy. He is beautiful. For years I have danced alone. Something in our world has taught him convincingly that it would be unmanly to join me. He really does want to give me everything I want. Perhaps if he could only do so privately, without the world finding out about it. I cannot understand. He, I am sure, cannot understand either.
There is no point in blaming him. It really does go against the grain. I have seen the terror in his eyes. It so astonishes me. He does not withhold pleasure from me because he is evil—he just does it because that's how it is. Natural? I don't think so. Indoctrinated? Yes, I think so. Where would the world be if we gave our women too much pleasure? And since it is not an exact science what would constitute giving too much pleasure, he prefers to err on the side of safety, of too little.
And so we all starve here on our slow wandering through this magnificent life we have.
On the staircase three people spluttered down the narrow steps. Two women. One man. Tara and Doreen squeezed against the wall single file to let the boisterous threesome pass.
"Tango was just my three minute affair with a stranger with raven hair," the man sang. Tara caught a glimpse of his light brown hair parted in the center, Oscar Wilde fashion, over a handsome young face. Of the two women she saw no more than the swish of dark cloth. A hiss of wind from down at the front door and the threesome was gone.
The two women remaining on the staircase burst into gulps of laughter.
"But they are leaving already? Why?" Tara asked when she finally managed to catch her breath.
"Oh, they'll be back," Doreen said. "They're probably going for a bite to eat. The night is still young."
In the ballroom, a man and a woman skimmed the floor, taking their moody dream from one languid line to the next. Magic shimmered around them. The music was like honey, sticky and sweet. From time to time a flash of quick motion. Gorgeous legs, especially hers, with silver stiletto heels, strong ankles, well-defined calves, and thighs that looked improbably long as they flicked through a slit in her skirt's black fabric. Her heels touched and turned in unison. Then she flexed her left knee and extended her right leg out behind in a graceful line. She looked up at the man with devotion in her eyes as he curved over her stretched out form. Pure magic, yes.
It stirred up something in Tara's chest, somewhere in the neighborhood of long-forgotten love, an immense yearning to belong. How she had missed dancing. Watching, she had for a moment forgotten to breathe. Now she inhaled the scent of fresh floor wax and roses.
The man looked down at the woman with the smile of a gentle god.
Then, abruptly, he broke off his smile. He reached for her elbow, not with the unobtrusive whisper of the dance, but in an obvious assist. A furrow between his brows signaled to anyone watching that he claimed disassociation from this partner's inadequacy. Ordinary mortal again, he started speaking. His high-cheeked tan face was stern.
Tara tried to shift her mind into freeze mode. The woman was lovely. Tara couldn't see anything she might have done wrong. She wanted to reach in and reject what she saw coming. The woman's lovely bare shoulders slumped, ivory against the black drape of her dress. Her ribcage deflated. Still she smiled at the man, but her eyes held discomfort now and a plea for mercy. Standing up, she was about a foot shorter than the man.
Unable to do a thing about it, Tara averted her eyes. She knew the rest without watching. He was now giving her the benefit of his expertise. In public. Tara's fingernails dug into her palms. From the corner of her eye she was aware of other couples flowing around the two standing dancers, softening the scene.
The ballroom felt like a jungle—you looked around, amazed at the orchids, enchanted with the foliage. And then came the jaguars, the monkeys stealing things from your pocket, the endless mosquitoes, snakes slithering on camouflage branches.
Tara's friend Doreen was on the dance floor already, so Tara sat by herself at their small table, crossing her legs, then uncrossing them, conscious of pressing her knees together as though watching herself from a distance, her ankles parallel now. Then she crossed her legs again.
Was she dressed right? Her skirt was regulation black, but the material not particularly flowing. She would have been more comfortable in wide-legged pants. Next time. She liked the top she wore: a long sleeved tunic in slinky black with a wide boat neck collar that slipped off either shoulder from time to time. She was determined not to fidget with it. Her bra straps were black, too, so it was okay if they were exposed. She loved her gold ballroom dance sandals, survivors from former dancing days, though at the strap of the instep the leather had begun to crack. She wanted both camouflage and extravagance. Gold leather, even showing signs of age, was definitely not camouflage.
Doreen, who was undeniably dressed right, was, unlike Tara, vivacious, beautiful, gregarious, fire-spirited, aggressive, and homecoming queen popular. She wore black silky pants, gathered at the ankle, black stiletto heel sandals, and a fluttery burgundy top. Her black hair was cut in a chin length helmet. They had met at a salsa benefit dance two years earlier.
"Do I know you?" Doreen had asked, extending her beautifully manicured hand. Help me out here, her long-lashed eyes had sparked. I have to talk to someone and you look nice.
They had never met before. They had been friends ever since.
Doreen looked like a black fox. Tara wondered whether such an animal even existed. She admired Doreen's chutzpah. It inspired her. Tara touched the outer petals of the single rose in the glass on their table. Why ever had she come tonight?
If someone were to ask—nobody was likely to—Tara would say she came because for a moment today she hadn't been able to remember the color of her mother's eyes. She remembered well enough of course. A smoky hazel, much like her own. But it would be something cryptic to say. Or else she might say, with a meaningful lift of her eyebrows, it had simply been a tango sort of day.
The prosaic reason for her presence was Doreen asking her to come along for the umpteenth time. So here she was, crossing and uncrossing her legs, as a favor to Doreen. That and the fact that she had nothing better to do just now than to try to dramatize her own unattached status to herself by attending a milonga.
Would I were detached rather than unattached, Tara thought. Unfortunately there was a difference.
Tara did not lack a flair for drama, especially internal drama, but this was usually dampened by her strong fear of contempt, which she could only properly combat by building up a wall of indifference, brick by brick, so that nothing too dangerous or colorful could enter her safe world. Here she was thirty-eight years old and single. Of course these days thirty-eight was something like the new twenty-nine, and sometimes she felt no older than seventeen, so, nothing to fret about. Fretting was reserved for how to properly display one's legs when, due to lack of floor length table cloths, they couldn't be hidden. She had almost forgotten how complicated it was to conduct oneself becomingly in public. At home she would have one leg tucked under while reading or typing or watching a rare movie right on her computer screen. Her old-fashioned TV stood idly in a corner of her efficiency apartment, collecting dust while serving as a repository for neglected paperwork. In the past she'd had the occasional impulse to pick up Spanish vocabulary from watching telenovelas and commercials in case she ever went to a Spanish speaking place. Buenos Aires, for example. But she had given up on that.
Sitting like this, she found, with a short skirt and her legs required to be in some sort of seemly display was, though not unfamiliar, unpracticed as of late. It also felt nostalgically familiar to sit at a table for two, surrounded by canned music and the hum of activity. Out on the tan hardwood floor, Doreen smiled dreamily, leaning her cheek against the cheek of her partner. Even after Doreen returned to the table, fanning out her fingers to acknowledge acquaintances left and right, Tara continued more or less just sitting here, withdrawn. The air fizzed. She sipped apple juice, contemplating a glass of wine, but rejecting that idea. She wanted to dance first, unencumbered by unbalancing substances.
Suddenly reality snapped into focus. A slender silver-haired man, more salt than pepper in his hair, had reached the top of the stairs. She straightened her spine. Many of the men wore dress shirts and casual pants. Some even wore T-shirts or plaid shirts and jeans, cultivating an image of casual cool. He wore a dark suit and tie. Maybe in his fifties, possibly late forties. Tara's table was only one removed from the top of the stairs. As he came closer, Tara noticed his fragile lined skin. More likely in his sixties. Disappointment and relief touched her all at once. She wasn't looking for a man, not yet after the disaster with Bernard. A gentleman this old, no matter how attractive, posed no threat to her equilibrium. She could relax and do nothing.
"Who is that?" she asked Doreen.
"Oh, that's Kevin," Doreen said, giving her friend a probing side-long glance. Her tone of voice implied just Kevin.
What? Had she sounded as though it were a big deal? He stood by the card table now, opposite the tan wood staircase railing, waiting for a young woman currently on her cell phone to accept his eight dollar cover and stamp his hand. Meanwhile he gave her privacy for her phone conversation by surveying the dance floor.
He was about six feet tall, with a full head of neatly trimmed hair framing a fine-boned face. His prominent features were large blue eyes. There was an unruffled quality to his movements. The receptionist touched his arm and rolled her eyes apologetically in the direction of her phone, then up to the ceiling. He acknowledged her gesture with a smile and then let his eyes scan the dance floor again. He looked more formal than almost all of the other men in his suit and white shirt. A light gray scarf hung looped around his neck and matched his also light gray tie—silk probably. Tara was no expert at identifying fabrics.
The young woman at the card table, younger than Tara, maybe twenty-five, blurred into action after she concluded her call. She laughed, said something to which he responded with another smile and a shake of his head. She handed him change, stamped his hand with enthusiastic flair, and then stood up to hug him with playful tenderness.
The next woman he hugged had gotten up from her chair for the occasion all the way on the opposite side of the dance floor as he started walking in her direction. Elegantly dressed in a white bow-tie blouse and a dark pencil skirt that came to a few inches below her knees, she looked approximately Tara's age, maybe a bit older, and primly attractive with a close cropped head of blond hair.
Another woman at the next table over now also stood up. This one had to be in her fifties or sixties. From across the room, Tara couldn't hear what was said, but there was radiance in the older woman's face. He hugged her as well. They stood talking for a minute. He put his shoe bag on the floor at a vacant table and placed his scarf on the back of one of the chairs. Then he crossed the dance floor again, this time to the bar, just on the other side of the staircase, where yet another woman with a long blond ponytail down to her knees turned to him as he approached. Her small elfin face, upturned nose and all, lit up and her arms opened for a hug before he reached her.
"He's a regular," Doreen explained.
"Have I been staring?" Tara asked.
"No. But I'm your friend, remember? I can tell when you're fascinated. Consensus has it that he's a bit odd. Doesn't talk much. Doesn't come on to anybody. Never flirts except in the most polite way, holds doors open, offers his arm, that sort of thing. As you can see, he does give the obligatory hugs and kisses. As far as I know, he never talks about himself. He says hello and good night and gives lovely compliments. That's it."
Doreen made it sound as though that much reticence were a crime. Since she usually was a storehouse of gossip, in her book it probably was exactly that.
"Maybe you just haven't been curious enough," Tara said before she could stop herself.
"Me? Not curious?" Doreen laughed. "He won't talk about himself. Trust me."
Tara felt the pinch of challenge. Maybe she would be the exception. But for now it was time to change the subject. "I noticed you danced several times in a row with your last partner. Something up with the two of you?"
Doreen looked puzzled. "No. I only danced with him once. He is nice, though. Oh, I know what you mean. You dance a set of tangos with the same guy. Three or four. Depends. It's called a tanda. Whatever that means. Then a snippet of non-tango music comes on and that's the time to part ways with your current partner."
"Why?" Tara asked. When she had danced tango in the past, every dance was done song by song, like everywhere else in social dance.
"Don't ask. Just do." Doreen said. "It is what it is."
Doreen pulled out a lipstick and traced her full lips bright red. It suited her. Her hand mirror caught rays from strung up fairy lights.
"Anyway, back to Kevin," Doreen said. Tara exhaled with pleasure at not having to ask. "There are rumors of a woman somewhere. But of course that practically goes without saying, if you know what I mean. The important thing is he comes here and he dances. No, scratch that. He doesn't just dance. He dances like a dream."
Tara's feelings teetered between relief and disappointment. Safe and out of bounds. Still, she suspected she, too, might come here regularly for a while, despite having told Doreen on the way to the club that she would only come occasionally as part of her New Year's resolution to go out more and have more people contact.
Suddenly she longed to be part of this scene. Sultry music. Friendly smiles. Hugs. All of it tugged at her. Well, maybe not the hugs and kisses. Surely they weren't mandatory. She wasn't used to a culture of hugging and kissing. She'd grown up with handshakes at best, so the prospect was a bit unnerving.
It felt quaint and romantic to be here, though, and Tara was smitten and intrigued. Maybe it was the atmosphere of glamour and romance. She had to smile at herself about the smitten part. Sparks at first sight at her age? If she had to go that way, an elegant tango dancer with speckled hair wouldn't be entirely unwelcome. She noted with further amusement that his hair speckles were silver, not gray, in her mind.
As far as tango was concerned, it was early for a Friday night. She checked her watch. Just after 9:30 p.m. With the start of the current tanda, half a dozen couples had moved to the dance floor. A steady trickle of couples and singles, more women than men, came up the stairs, paid the cover, received hand stamps, and performed their routines of settling at tables or standing by the bar posturing enjoyment and excitement. Tara didn't trust the picture entirely. She had done plenty of cheerful posturing herself in the past.
Each of sixteen tables surrounding the dance floor had a white ceramic vase with a single red rose and a glass with a candle burning, the tall kind usually sold with religious motifs in the Mexican aisle in grocery stores. Here, though, the jar was plain glass, although a saint or two wouldn't have looked out of place in the club. It was an enchanting setting. The building with its large ballroom upstairs and a restaurant on the ground floor belonged to a woman who was rumored to be a white witch. There was no evidence of witchcraft anywhere, though there were paintings of women with long flowing hair, moons, serpents, and chubby-cheeked suns on the outside wall of the building where it wasn't overgrown with ivy. The restaurant downstairs advertised organic food. Then when you walked up the stairs on Fridays you seemed to land directly in Argentina. Doreen had told Tara that sometimes they had a live band, together with a higher cover charge, but this Friday it was simply canned music under white fairy lights strung up throughout the ballroom, reflecting a cozy atmosphere in floor to ceiling mirrors.
Before long all tables were taken and only the rows of chairs perpendicular to the bar were left for latecomers. When not dancing, Doreen smiled nonstop and waved at people, but she didn't engage in any of the hugging and kissing. Tara was glad. She wouldn't have to immediately imitate something she wasn't ready for.
For her part, Tara posed fascination with the steady swell and diminuendo of canned bandoneón, piano, and violin when Doreen was dancing, and animated engagement with Doreen when Doreen happened to sit down long enough to interact. When Doreen sat out again for a short while, Tara asked her for tidbits of gossip about people as they danced by to make it less obvious that all she really was interested in was this Kevin who was easily the best male dancer on the floor. He looked better than the two young male teachers Doreen had pointed out, and those two weren't shabby.
Doreen divulged that he came every week. He was some kind of teacher.
"How does one get to dance with him?" Tara asked.
"Oh, not to worry. He dances with everyone. All you have to do is wait."
Tara would have preferred Doreen saying, "Oh, I'll introduce you." Doreen didn't, and Tara was too proud to ask.
"Does he feel as good as he looks?" she asked instead.
"Well, yes and no. You'll have to wait and see."
"Does he have a regular partner?"
He did not have a regular partner, but Doreen repeated the rumor of a woman somewhere, though Doreen had never seen one.
"Maybe she's out of town," Tara speculated.
"Could be. Could be too that it's just a story. Makes him sound romantic, doesn't it? People keep trying to get him involved in festivals, showcases, competitions. He always declines. Appears he'd rather just come here once a week and dance."
"How come he is so good then?"
"I don't know. Nobody knows. The man doesn't even flirt and will not be flirted with. At least he doesn't initiate it. I mean, what can the poor man do when someone comes on to him?"
Tara never entirely lost sight of Kevin, but she started checking out some of the other dancers. The quality of dancing was extraordinary. Since she had learned and danced with Bernard some ten years ago, tango dancing appeared to have improved exponentially. She had always thought she and Bernard were pretty good, but some of these dancers blew her away. So much elegance everywhere. Maybe Bernard had been right all along. Her lack of early life ballet training really did put her at a disadvantage. The two of them had studied with some of the teachers of an early wave of the current tango craze. In the early days when Tara and Bernard showed up in a club and danced Argentine Tango, they had been a sensation for relatively little effort. Back then everybody else still danced either dance studio style American Tango or International Tango. Tango clubs outside of Buenos Aires had been a novelty and milongas or practicas had been scarce. The elegant and intricate footwork and the sultry connection of fairly immobile upper bodies of the Argentine Tango had still been the exception then.
Lucky for us, Tara thought. Today what was considered sensational dancing then might be laudable at best, perhaps even laughable. What had once been her dance now seemed to be everybody else's dance, and most everybody else seemed to do it better than she had ever had the opportunity or the patience to do. Had she known just how exquisitely everybody else was dancing these days, she might have stayed at home. So, lucky on that point, too, that she hadn't know how outclassed she was going to be ahead of time. Lucky, finally, that Doreen had been relentless in persuading her to come along. Perhaps.
"Come on," Doreen had said. "You used to do this. It's like riding a bike. You don't forget."
Well, since she felt she needed the distraction from the rest of her life, here she was, not having danced much in several years, Bernard having abandoned tango and Tara for more pressing pursuits, including first law school and then a woman with longer legs and longer hair. Long blond hair, to be precise. In the aftermath Tara hadn't felt like being around any male, and even before the split, dancing had for a long while not been high on their list of shared priorities.
"It's more fun with you here," Doreen said. "Thanks for coming."
Tara sat out for another half hour before a gentleman from Colombia by the name of Alfonso asked her to dance. He smelled of cologne and led well and she quickly found her bearings. An Asian partner named Mike followed. He had good moves, but he was stiff and dogmatic, dismissing what few skills Tara had left with frequent recommendations of "this is what you need to do here." She felt like fighting, boiling inside. Instead she simpered and said nothing. He did not lead well and only gave endless verbal instructions, which was in her book morally indefensible in tango. But at least he danced with her. Listening to his expertise beat sitting at the table with her legs crossed and her eyes beginning to cross, too. Not much better, though.
Back at her table again, she promised herself to leave if nothing happened in her favor for the next two tandas. Doreen and Tara had deliberately come in separate cars, just in case Tara wanted to bail out earlier than her friend. Between tandas, Doreen, now glowing with excitement, joined her again and sipped from her water glass. Tara wondered why it didn't occur to Doreen to introduce her to any of her dance partners. Too busy with her own enthusiasm to think of it.
Occasionally Tara looked for the beautiful woman dancer she had seen early in the evening. Enough time had passed that she could go and give her a genuine compliment without linking it to the embarrassing scene with the arrogant partner she had watched. She wanted to do something for her, a consolation without being obvious about it, a token of solidarity among women. Now that she thought about it, Tara realized that she hadn't seen the woman since that broken dance, either on the dance floor or at any of the tables or chairs. She should have acted faster, but had she gone right over to the woman when the incident happened, it might have embarrassed everyone. Most of the time, though, Tara's eyes were drawn to one particular dancer.
"I see you're still watching Kevin," Doreen said, licking a drop of water from her lower lip.
For a moment Tara didn't like Doreen at all. What kind of a friend was that? Notice? By all means. But having the gall to mention it? Instead of grabbing Kevin and introducing him to Tara?
"I wish he'd dance with one of us," Tara said instead of voicing her indignation.
"I'm sure he will." Doreen dabbed a tissue to her forehead and swept her damp bangs off to one side.
Doreen was right. At the beginning of the next set, Kevin came to their table. He acknowledged Tara with a smile. His eyes were gorgeous. Naturally he would ask Doreen to dance first. She was, after all, the one he already knew. Still, Tara was crushed. Doreen's face lit up.
"I'd love to," she said in response to his invitation.
He extended his left hand to Doreen. She took it. Off they went to interlace their competent feet.
The set they danced was a milonga, which Tara didn't care for too much. It was too manic for her taste. It lent itself to being goofy. Like some religious groups recommended to avoid the appearance of evil, her personal motto was to avoid the appearance of goofy. Doreen and Kevin managed to make it look elegant, however.
Doreen was a fine dancer and he brought out the best in her. Tara had noticed this earlier, too, watching him. He made weak partners look good and he made good partners look fabulous. She wondered if his leads would be able to resurrect some of her former glory.
The tanda ended with two minutes of lively swing marking the interval for changing partners, wiping one's brow, or eating a mint. Kevin escorted Doreen back to their table. Here was Tara's chance.
A gangly, handsome man, probably ten years Tara's junior, stepped in front of her.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked.
All things being equal, Tara wouldn't. But the young man's eyes were beseechingly timid and polite, and there was no guarantee that Kevin would ask her anyway. Besides, she might flop and not impress Kevin at all with her rusty and outdated dancing skills if he did ask.
She smiled to mask her sentiments, stood up, and said, "Yes, thank you," and danced off with the reasonably skillful young man. She admonished herself to use the opportunity to practice, bolster her confidence, and process her mixed feelings of anger, disappointment, irritation, mean-spiritedness, and an assortment of other anxious sentiments.
"You dance well," her young partner said at the end of their first dance.
"Thank you." She looked straight into his dark eyes. He blushed. Their second tango felt even better than the first.
When the tanda was over, she went to the bar to order another apple juice and waited for it perched on a bar stool, when Kevin approached the bar, took the stool beside her, and ordered a club soda. Another serious dancer, she thought. Excellent. Alcohol and dancing didn't mix well, at least not for her, as she had found out in the past.
"I haven't seen you here before," Kevin said. Tara looked into his blue eyes, lines like sunbeams at the corners. Handsome despite the lined skin. And he was about to ask her to dance. She could feel it.
"It's my first time here," she said. "My friend Doreen thought I'd like it."
"It's a great club," he said.
A billowy lady in fluttering gauzy zebra-patterned apparel and with a head full of frizzy shoulder length platinum hair sailed toward them. Trailing zebra chiffon behind her, she touched Kevin's arm, exuded a strong scent of roses, and asked in a strident voice, "Kevin, shall we dance?"
"Sure," Kevin said, nodded to Tara apologetically, and departed for the dance floor.
Tara's energy deflated. She currently earned her living as a ghostwriter and writing commercial blogs. The ghostwriting was fun and hush-hush intriguing and paid the bills on top of paying for her cell phone expenses and even an occasional trip. Most nights, when she wasn't teaching a writing class at the community college (not creative writing, alas, but grammar and self-editing), she tinkered with a novel of her own. About the labyrinth of a relationship between a man and a woman, the kind of thing she could confidently call fiction, as she had not the slightest successful personal experience of it.
And now this emotional roller coaster on her one self-indulgent night off. For this she had spent at least twenty minutes in front of her closet earlier that evening, deciding between a bright red blouse and the camouflage of the black tunic she had ended up wearing. She was glad of the camouflage now. The thought of not dancing in bright red made her shudder. She unbuckled her dancing shoes, changed back into her street shoes—this allowed her to hang her head without anybody being the wiser as to her emotional state—and regretfully stuffed her golden high-heeled strap sandals into her maroon dance bag that also contained a few dollars, a rarely used pale lipstick, a few tissues, and a ponytail holder. The latter in case she were to dance so much that her shoulder-length hair should get sweaty. As if. Before leaving, Tara looked around once more for the extraordinary woman she had watched earlier in the evening before her gorgeous dance had disintegrated into the man's ego strut, but she couldn't see her anywhere. Perhaps she, too, had departed in resignation.
Tara waved when she managed to catch Doreen's eyes. Doreen and her current partner danced to where Tara stood.
"Leaving already?" Doreen asked.
"Yes. I'm tired. Thanks for inviting me. Have a great evening, what's left of it."
"I will." Doreen eyes sparkled. "It's fun with you here. I'll call you."
"Okay," Tara said.
On the way down the stairs she noticed some photo posters hung between candelabras with real but unlit white wax candles along the wall. Had they been lit, she would have expected them to reach out to her, like the candelabras in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. On her way up she had noticed neither the candelabras nor the posters, her senses overwhelmed with the bouncing molecules of anticipation and the effervescent energy of the three people blustering down the stairs. One of the posters was the black and white photo of a woman's light hair fanning out against the backdrop of a wheat field. Tara was tempted to stop and study it, but there were people coming up the stairs now and she didn't want to be conspicuous in the shameful process of leaving early. Next time, she promised herself. If there was a next time. A gust of wind teased her as another late-comer couple opened the door at the bottom of the stairs.