The Polish Tango
for Grzegorz, who taught me how
If you've ever found yourself singing some old song like "Stormy Weather" for no particular reason, as if its words urgently needed to be released from wherever they reposed in that Museum of Old Songs somewhere inside, you’ll understand how I felt when suddenly one morning while waiting for the M-3 Bus I caught myself speaking these words in the voice of a young woman I’d never met: "More than anything else in the world I want to dance the tango with Rudolph Valentino." Then after a brief pause, the word dziekuje, Polish for thank you.
One sentence, that was all. One line. Its tone plaintive yet compelling, so I kept repeating it the rest of the day instead of "Stormy Weather" or that Pepsi jingle from the 1940s, the one that ends with Twice as much for a nickel, too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you. Ta-ta-ta-duuum.
You had to live in the United States to know that one. The young woman who spoke what I came to call simply The Line could have been living anywhere. True, her use of a Polish word was suggestive, but it didn’t mean she lived in Warsaw or Lublin or anywhere in Poland for that matter. She might, like myself, have been a student of the world’s languages. She might have been an émigré living in Chicago or Buffalo or even Paris.
The time period was even harder to identify. To know about Valentino she had to have been alive after 1917, the year of his first film. So she couldn’t possibly have been a youthful version of my great-grandmother Lena, born around 1880 in a village then Polish but now Lithuanian.
I thought maybe I’d sleep the whole thing off, but the next day The Line was back
full force. First I caught myself saying it when walking up Broadway to pick up a New York Times and again when I returned to my apartment at Lincoln Towers. And again that afternoon and evening. Neither the speaker, whom I’d named Varya, nor I uttered the sentence in public. Indeed, to this day I never sing in public though sometimes I’ve been caught by surprise and hotly embarrassed. If you’ve ever been talking to yourself when someone suddenly comes round the bend, you know what I mean.
Why Varya? Like The Line itself, it came to me out of the blue. A Russian name, in fact the diminutive of my own name, Barbara, but I don’t think that’s significant. I’ve always hated my name. And the cloying nicknames, like Babs or Barb, people thought they had a perfect right to call me. Basha, the Polish version, wouldn’t have been so bad but it would have sounded strange in America.
Why had Varya decided to express her wish through me of all people: a terrible dancer, a middle-aged woman with a degree in Slavic Studies who’d never watched a single Valentino movie? If I could only pin down the time, I remember thinking, maybe I could help Varya in some way, though probably it was I who needed the help, if for no other reason than to expunge Varya’s wish from my mind and get back to "Stormy Weather."
But my friend D., the only person I dared tell about The Line, thought it was clearly a message, an SOS, and that Varya could only self-destruct --as she likely wanted to-- if I first helped her. Helped her do what? Dance with the dead Valentino?
It’s possible he was alive when she first uttered those words, D. thought; the Line had been implanted inside me for a long time. He thought it was a sentence, as in prison sentence. But if Valentino was still alive that meant Varya had to have implanted it by 1926 at the latest, many years before I was born. Ridiculous. I don’t believe in pre-existence, seances or other such entertainments. I’m just an ordinary woman trying to scratch out enough of a living as a teacher to afford my studio apartment at Lincoln Towers. Shy, private, the kind you’d never notice on the subway. My deeper enthusiasms I keep to myself. Only in my singing and my solitary dancing late at night do these feelings emerge.
The Line soon began to take over my life, interfering with my teaching of Russian and Polish Literature at the New School and the private lessons I gave in my apartment, as well with my efforts to translate from Polish and Yiddish some diaries that had been rescued from Treblinka. It even disrupted my eating and sleeping. So I decided to ask Varya some questions. At first I tried simple ones, like how old are you? What do you look like? But she refused to answer. Just for the hell of it I decided to give her some hair ( medium blonde), eyes (a dark blue like the willow trees on my Chinese plates), and dimensions: slightly overweight for her height, 5 foot 4, but with the oval face, long arms, and muscular legs that camouflage any hint of obesity. And I figured she must be at least 16, but more likely in her late 20’s. Unmarried. The muscular legs the result of years of classical ballet lessons which she thoroughly hated but endured for the sake of her mother. Yes, I gave her a mother, one Zara Danuta Szeczinsky, a half-Jew whose family came from that darkly tormented region, Mittel-Europa. Though she was too stuffy for my taste, I rewarded Zara Danuta by making her an art student in Paris back in the early 1920’s.
Scene: Varya and her mother are drinking tea from steamy glasses in the brown-wallpapered living room of their flat in Warsaw or Poznan. The thin late afternoon winter sun only makes the room look more somber. Varya begins to read a magazine article about the tango, how it had reached the status of a mania in the Paris of the late teens and early 20’s.
"Did you ever dance the tango when you lived in Paris?" she asks. Zara frowns and says of course not, only bad girls danced the tango. They weren’t even French but had come to Paris to make money anyway they could. Most of them were from Africa and had very dark skin.
"Why does that make them bad, mamma?"
"I can’t tell you." Zara drinks the last of her tea and resumes crocheting a table scarf. She hasn’t painted in years, not since she gave birth to Varya’s older sister, an attractive young woman with theatrical ambitions that both Zara and the girls’ stepfather did their best to squelch. Their real father had been arrested by the Russian army and sent to a gulag where he died under circumstances nobody discussed.
"They were probably whores," Varya’s best friend Mirjam said when she told her what her mother said about the tango girls.
"How do you know?"
"Because my cousin told me all about whores. Sometimes they’ll have sex with five or six men a night. Just for the money."
"You mean they let just any man stick his thing in them?"
"Any man at all. Even if he’s a drunk, a dirty peasant."
"Are there any Jewish whores?"
Mirjam laughed. "Of course. What makes you think there wouldn’t be? Even in the Bible there were whores."
I was planning to fill in some details about Varya’s family, figuring the more I knew about her the more I could help her, but suddenly realized that I was doing all the giving. . She refused to tell me a thing, not the color of her sister’s eyes, not the name of her favorite book, nor whether she had any boyfriends. Niente. Nichts. Nista. Nada. Perhaps, D. said, if I waited long enough she would start giving a little. Like at least an approximate age, approximate time.. .
I began to do some research. Why Valentino? All I knew about him was that he was wickedly handsome and died young. And danced the tango in some forgettable movies from which he acquired the title Sheik. Ah, but I see that he married a Russian designer, one Natacha [sic] Rambova, a woman with large dark eyes and a formidable talent for managing his career.
A clue? But if Rambova, disguised as my Varya, was using me as a vessel for expressing her desires, she must have entered the wrong person, for I confess I’d never heard of her before. Not that I couldn’t sympathize: the woman dedicated her life to ensuring Rudy’s fame despite his lusty escapades with his leading ladies, among them the imperious Nita Naldi, the ethereal Wanda Hawley - in her sole available photograph, she’s aswoon over a single rose, its petals rising above the rim of a golden cup; Vilma Banky, a Samuel Goldwyn discovery who never took a stage name; feather-hatted Agnes Ayres, co-star of The Sheik. Gloria Swanson, of course. And Pola Negri, who grieved "with gusto" at his death, throwing her elegant body on his coffin despite the restraints of police and bodyguards. Such a theatrical gesture! I couldn’t imagine myself ever doing such a thing. But she was far from the only woman to engage in theatrics that tragic day in the late summer of 1926, the day of the Sheik's first funeral.
And what a funeral it was! Victim of a perforated ulcer, the dead Sheik caused riots in the streets of New York, swarms of people crushing one another in their efforts to view his bier at Campbell’s Funeral Parlor. Yet none the worse for having survived its New York mourners, the body was borne across the U.S. for entombment in Hollywood. Among the honorary pallbearers none less than Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Charlie Chaplin. Then the grand climax: a continuous shower of rose petals tossed from an airplane that flew above the cortege all the way to a borrowed crypt at Hollywood Memorial Park, the site of his second funeral.
Most historians of the tango demean the Sheik’s ability to perform that complicated dance, so Varya must not have known much about the tango. (Assuming Varya was expressing her own wish and not the suppressed wish of her mother or--even scarier--some totally different person). Probably in that sepia Mittel-European city where she lived Varya had never except in magazines seen a tango bar or one of those gleaming dance floors over which men and women could glide to the tango’s wanton rhythms, its "wails of destinies engulfed in pain," its uncontested claim as "the dance of sexual sorrow."
So it must be the rose petals that endeared her to the Sheik. The rose petals and the crush of people, the long, slow cross-country train ride. . .its mournful elegance contrasting with the Polish boxcars. . . Perhaps she’s my late Aunt Rosa, originally from Lvov?
Poor sweet Rosa, a closet flapper who played tango music on a gramophone in the Bronx apartment where she lived during the Great Depression with her five siblings and destitute parents, pining to go to one of those downtown tango bars and glide across a polished floor in the arms of that wickedly handsome Rudy who had died so young. Not that she literally wanted to dance with Valentino; despite her club foot and considerable girth, she was neither stupid nor naive. Valentino was just a symbol. The only problem is that Aunt Rosa never knew me, having died at 22 a full year before my birth. Riots, rose petals, a sleek train making its way slowly across the prairie to California? No way. No one in the family even remembered where she was buried--somewhere in Queens, or was it New Jersey?
So much for Valentino. I was convinced after several weeks that Varya’s line was some sort of code. Not simply a message, as D. had called it, but a coded message. Valentino, ah yes, the unfortunate Saint Valentine, beaten savagely and then beheaded by Emperor Claudius because he continued to perform marriage rites for young couples despite imperial orders. And how do we mark the anniversary of his martyrdom? With those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates tied with red ribbons and other such phony expressions of "love." I’ve always hated the holiday. Perhaps Varya did also, but found herself a victim of its sentimental demands. Perhaps the word tango was a cover for mango, that exotic fruit first cultivated in India. I look it up on Yahoo! and am greeted with a recipe for Pineapple with Mango Coulis, requiring dark rum and a teaspoon of something called "lime zest, " 61 calories per serving. Come to think of it, the word tango is the word for "word" in Japanese. . .And could the name Rudy refer to Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York when I was afflicted with all this Varya business? Yes, afflicted. More than once I caught myself saying The Line while riding the subway. The first time it happened this black man was playing a cool saxophone version of "Stormy Weather," but because of Varya I couldn’t accompany him even in my mind. Of course, there’s lots of people like me on the subway; probably it’s the safest place in the world, if only the downtown express didn’t lurch so much I had to hang onto a strap and couldn’t even record any new thoughts about Varya in my journal.
Oh, the sheer absurdity of imagining that Varya was expressing in code a desire for a heart-shaped mango, preferably from Japan! By the third month of my affliction I feared I was going mad. If only for one day she’d stop repeating the line, always adding that killer of a thank you-- in Polish. I’d reached the point where I no longer dared sing at all. And I feared I would slip and repeat Varya’s line when I was lecturing to my class about "The Cherry Orchard"--yes, there was a character in the play named Varya-- or ordering an espresso or even sympathizing with Mrs. Ilona Myszkowski-Lepentier, the lady who lived in the next apartment with a canary named Camille and a marble bird bath plus a couple of god -awful statues, and who was slowly dying from cirrhosis of the liver. For years there’d also been rumors she’d been a countess in pre-war Poland, who had fled to exile in France; no one dared address her by her first name. Because I knew French, I was one of the few neighbors she admitted to her apartment, even when her illness had forced her to take to her bed on whose tapestry headboard rococo ladies rocked in swings amidst a profusion of flowers.
It was during a brief visit with Mrs. M-L. that Varya decided to modify her message. Or I decided to modify Varya: the distinction by then irrelevant. I was filling the sick woman’s glass with Perrier and also filling her in on recent world events when suddenly I heard myself saying, "Well, that’s the problem with a global economy: I want more than anything else in the world to learn how to dance the tango." No Valentino this time, no Polish thank you. Mrs. M-L. just nodded, like she always did when I finished a sentence. Nodded and murmured something in French about the tango being an evil dance but how she herself had danced it in her youth at some of the finest salons in Paris. Of course the Parisian version was far more elegant than the original street versions from the barrios of Buenos Aires. The French Catholic church didn’t approve - which made it all the more enticing.
"Mais oui, Madame Barbara, tous les femmes devrait apprendre le tango," she said, after I helped to prop her on a throne of velvet pillows. A moment later, Varya said, so softly I had to strain to hear, "You must learn to dance it." More precisely, Varya and I said it together, but given the softness of our shared voice and Mrs. M-L’s compromised health, I assumed she hadn’t heard.
Wrong. Leaning towards me, Mrs. M-L said in delicately accented English, " Yes, yes, yes. All your life you’ve wanted to dance the tango. But you were afraid. Now that I’m an old dying woman, I can tell you there’s nothing to be afraid of except not doing what you wish. Ah, if I’d only run off with Marcel that summer. Or Jean-Pierre. Instead of marrying that boring Count. And he was Polish, not even French, despite his name."
So it was true, Mrs. M-L had been a countess. But I couldn’t ask her for details because the voice of Varya intruded. Not only intruded, but reverted to her original line. Complete with Valentino and dziekuje. Mrs. M-L heard. After sipping some Perrier she said I must learn more about Pola Negri, whom she herself had met on a trip to Hollywood. Did I know Pola was Rudy Valentino’s last lover? A fascinating but rude woman who had brought her Polish mother to Hollywood and demanded the old woman sit in a chair during an elegant party attended by Douglas Fairbanks and Chaplin and many other luminaries aside from herself and that tres, tres tedious Count. Ashamed of her Old World mother, Pola insisted the woman say absolutely nothing the whole time, explaining to the guests that her mother had suffered a stroke.
"But the mother tricked her and told everyone her daughter was a damn fake, a liar. 'Good for her', I said to the Count." But she said it in French so hardly anyone understood.
I nodded, anxious to escape so I could ponder in private the latest Varya twist. But Mrs. M-L sat up straight in her bed and said how Pola’s mother had done what she always wanted to do but until then feared.
"Yes. Back in Bydgoscz, Poland, the woman was afraid to say anything that might interfere with her daughter’s ambitions. But now that she was in America she felt free! Free to express her deepest wish! Ah, if only I myself had felt free enough to do such things maybe I wouldn’t be lying here watching Camille fly between her bath and cage."
"Please, you must not be harsh on yourself," I offered, pushing stupid Camille back into her cage with a hairbrush from Mrs. M-L’s night table, something which would ordinarily would have brought tears to the old woman’s eyes. But all she said was that I must excuse her because she was tres, tres, fatiguee.
I did the easier thing first: looked up Pola Negri on the Web for whatever clues she might offer, though I suspected I was only stalling. Not that Pola was dull. I especially wondered why she had chosen the stage name Negri. A black Polish woman? Impossible. But maybe she thought it would be impressive in Paris when she finally managed to escape from that stuffy old Pomeranian city of Bydgoscz; after all, hadn’t the French just loved Josephine Baker and other Negro entertainers who’d fled to Paris to escape the scorn and outright neglect of America? I admit I began to admire the woman’s courage, her determination to rise above her impoverished background, even her theatrics at Valentino’s funeral. I myself have never cried in public since I was a kid, not even at my parents’ funerals or when my long ago fiancé informed me shortly before our wedding date that he was madly in love with a 16 year old jazz singer in the East Village. Good-bye and good luck.
Probably I wouldn’t have taken the next step if Varya had only shut up, even for a few days. But on she and I went, sometimes without a pause between repetitions of The Line. After several phone calls, I found a dance studio in Queens that offered tango instruction for a relatively reasonable fee. More important, the lady who answered the phone said I could just take tango lessons if that’s what I wanted; there was no need to take a whole course in ballroom dancing though most people didn’t attempt the tango until they felt confident enough with the rumba and samba and most of all the waltz.
"That’s what I said, lady. The waltz is the tango’s great aunt. And the polka and mazurka its cousins. But the tango’s only sister is the milonga."
"The milonga, M like in Mary, I like in ice, L like in. . . An African dance adapted by the Creoles of Argentina. I guess you don’t know beans about African dances."
I admitted my ignorance, whereupon the lady said two things: 1. Milonga is an Afro-Brazilian word meaning "words" --which the Argentines expanded to mean a large unruly crowd and 2. Obviously I also didn’t know beans about dancing.
Right. The bitch was absolutely right. Since birth I’ve had not two left feet but five or six. Which didn’t stop my mother from insisting I take ballet lessons at the 92nd Street Y. I think I hated those lessons even more than my Varya did. And very likely she was forced to study pure classical ballet while at least I got away with the American version. To this day I can’t believe any young girl truly yearns to be a ballerina though I’d learned Pola Negri was devastated when a bout of tuberculosis put an end to her study at Warsaw’s Academy of Imperial Ballet where she had been a ballerina of great promise. Poor Pola. She had to shift to acting in plays like Sumurun, about a mulatto dancer bought in the slave market as a gift to the Sheik. A real Sheik, not Rudy. . .
But even poorer me when I arrived at the Le Premier Institute of Ballroom Dancing in Astoria for my first tango lesson. My interest was strictly academic; I wanted to learn just enough to get rid of the Varya disease and had no desire to attend the tango teas and tango balls that were at the time a rage in New York, part of the fin de siecle retro craze. A little hands-on experience, so to speak. And that’s precisely what my instructor did the moment he greeted me, his thick fingers gripping me around the waist and on back of my right shoulder.
"Wayne’s the name. Wayne Dexter the Third. But you can call me Buddy if you want. Apolonia can’t be here today so I’ll be your teacher. "
Apolonia Klinkowiecz was the artistic director. She had answered the phone when I called for subway directions; she told me her stage name was--yes--Pola Negri and how it fit her "just perfect" because not only was she Polish but also black. Like in negro. If only because of that strange manipulation of words, I regretted her absence, but forced myself to go along with Wayne. He was a great tub of a man; I wear a Petite 4. And something about his yellowish white hair and eyes gave me the creeps--as if the whole prospect of taking tango lessons wasn’t terrifying enough in the first place.
"Now I want you to relax, hon, " Wayne said, his accent betraying his Baltimore origins. Shit, not another demand to relax, one of the mantras of the day. As if everyone were a tautly wired sculpture, one of those David Smith skeletons.
"Relax and let me hold you so close there’s no daylight between us, OK?" Wayne’s breath smelled from peppermint Binaca. He explained that "no daylight" was a dance term for close contact, as if I couldn’t have figured that out.
"And make sure to flex those sweet little knees of yours with none of that rise-and-fall, OK baby? When the music starts, you turn your hip and shoulder in the direction of your moving leg so you’re in Contrary Body Movement, OK? Like it says in the pamphlet."
I’d never received the pamphlet so I was ignorant not only of such "essential tango terminology" as "draw" and "corte" and "fan," but of the distinction between CBM, Contrary Body Movement, and CBMP, the more complicated Contrary Body Movement Position. All of which I learned after Wayne loosened his grip on me and retrieved a crumpled pamphlet from the front office.
"Now let’s get our sweet little asses movin’."
A cassette of "La Cumparsita" began to play. Already I felt dizzy and I hadn’t so much as moved one stockinged foot from the taped-off square where Wayne had reached down and placed it, as if my foot were a jar to be set down on the floor. Make that a jug, a big clunky jug.
"Step back on your right foot while I step forward. Remember, no daylight between us. Slow at first, real slow. Then slow-slow-quick-quick-slow. Make sure to keep yourself in CBM, opposite hip and shoulder toward moving leg. Ba-RUMP-ba-Pa-ba. Ba-RUMP. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. No daylight between us. Now unlock your sweet thighs and step back left while I step forward--I said left--now real quick step to your side and draw the ball of your right foot across. . ."
I was used to New York style fast talk but not its redneck version. So I kept asking him to slow down.
"I said unlock those gorgeous thighs, baby. Atta girl." When he reached down to unlock them with his fingers, my thighs quivered. I managed to move his fingers away, which made him laugh. "Chill out, baby. Old Buddy here just wants to teach the tango. Nothin’ else. That’s a promise."
A song I hadn’t heard in decades emerged from my Museum of Old Songs. The lyrics went something like "Takes two to tango, four to square dance. . .six to nine to get the feeling of romance." I managed to keep it inside me, took a deep breath, and let Wayne hold me again. "La Cumparsita" began to play itself again. I took a couple of deep breaths. "Now step back on your right foot . . . Atta girl. Hey, sweetie pie, you sure as hell got some talent."
I’m anything but a sweetie pie. More a loaf of bread going stale at the edges.
"Diagonally on the right foot, cross left in back , thighs locked in CPMP. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Rock forward. I said forward. Come on, now, Babsie. Don’t be afraid, my sweet little Barbikins, sweet little Barb. All your life you’ve wanted to do this, right?"
Before I could stop myself, it happened. The Line, all of it, including Rudolph Valentino, plus thank you in Polish. At which point Wayne stopped dead in the middle of a right promenade and said thank you in English, telling me that was the first time anyone had ever addressed him as Rudolph Valentino.
A bell rang, time’s up. He said he’d see me next week unless Apolonia was back. Meanwhile, I should practice at home. "If you got no partner, use a broom. But remember, no daylight between you."
I removed his hand from my breast and gave him a sharp slap on the mouth.
"Sorry," he said, wiping a thin stream of blood with his wrist. "I’ll never do that again, I promise. Forgive me?"
Like hell I would. And decided that if Apolonia wasn’t there for me the next week I’d drag my ass somewhere else, even if it meant paying three times as much at some Upper East Side dance salon.
The next week she was there all right, a slim black woman with terrific buns and a jivey way of moving that made even me want to get out on the dance floor so I could move along with her. No doubt about it. If not for Apolonia, the Pola Negri of Astoria, I’d never made it to my first tea dance, let alone the competitions. I did feel foolish calling her by her stage name but she didn’t insist; if I wanted to, I could just call her Appy. Her mother, a Polish refugee, had told her about Pola. The woman once had dance ambitions but ended up scrubbing hospital floors after marrying a black man who gave her five children in five years before splitting. Having named her daughter Apolonia after her heroine, the mother was surprised so few Americans recognized the name. But very early they recognized Apolonia’s talents; unfortunately, her teachers steered her toward the sort of dancing "appropriate" for blacks, mostly street dances from the West Indies. Still, Apolonia was confident she’d someday become a great star, a Twyla Tharp at the very least; meanwhile she’d help support herself and her two little babies by giving lessons.
And she taught with such tact that soon I could manage not only the Contrary Body Movement Position but the Fan, the Corte, even the Tango Promenade. I took on extra language students just so I could afford extra tango lessons. My translations I placed in a file cabinet, with an apology and a promise I’d get back to them someday. I streamlined my work at the New School, rushing through my old lectures and leaving right after class so I could practice the tango at home. Yes, sometimes I used a broom as partner, so Wayne’s advice had not been a complete waste. But after a few days, Mrs. Myszkowski-Lepantier knocked on my door, wearing a long sequined dress and looking more robust than I’d ever seen her. She told me she’d be delighted to be my partner; the Count had been a lousy dancer so she had to learn the male parts. And there was no need to worry, her doctor had already given his approval. So everyday after work Mrs. M-L and I practiced the tango to some CD’s I’d bought at Tower Records. She didn’t approve of the music, insisted that only Parisian music was correct, but we managed well enough.
Best of all, Varya quieted down. Disappeared, no. But I only had to utter The Line a couple of times a day and sometimes two or three days went by with no Varya at all. She sometimes accompanied me to my tango lessons, but Apolonia said a quick "Okay, baby " to acknowledge her and went right on with the lesson. I’m glad she acknowledged her, otherwise Varya would have been hurt and probably would have intensified her demand instead of slowly relenting. Like smoking when you try to quit.
We did so well that Apolonia not only taught me the American version of the tango, but the Argentinean , much more boisterous, with lots of kicks, but also more elegant. She even insisted on teaching me the Polish Tango, whose choreography she herself had created with the help of her mother. Yes, there was a Polish Tango, and some fine dancers; it had been particularly popular among Warsaw’s Jews after they were forced into the Ghetto and a few even danced it in the camps to the delight of the SS. For some reason Hitler thought tango music was OK, at least more permissible than that filthy jazz. But mainly we concentrated on the Latino version because that’s what people knew in New York.
My first tea dance was at a converted saloon near Times Square. Apolonia thought I deserved a male partner; so she lent me her boyfriend Carlos. "Just think of him as a tennis partner," she reassured me.
I was nervous as hell, but Carlos was both skilled and patient. Sexy, too--if you like that Latino look. And Apolonia coached me from the sidelines the whole time. When Carlos shifted me briefly to another partner just for the practice, I scarcely noticed, being so caught up in the music, especially an Argentinean number, El día que me quieras and the haunting Uno, words accompanied by viola and bandoneon, a kind of accordion. Soon Apolonia convinced me I was good enough for a tango salon, where many more people danced. The competitions followed quickly: first just a few local contests, finally the Greater New York Tango Ball, for which I not only had to audition but compete with some of the best dancers in America. Always Carlos agreed to be my partner though I know he could have danced with more skilled and beautiful women. Every time we danced we won something, certificates at first, then one trophy after another, all of them ugly, but still I was proud enough to display them on my mantel piece. By the end of my fifth year I was ready for the International Competition.
In the weeks before, I practiced night and day, with Carlos when he could spare the time from his job as a porter at the Pierre, sometimes with Mrs. M-L, sometimes with Apolonia, at other times with anyone willing to be a partner. When I couldn’t find anyone, I took up again with my broom. I even danced the tango in my dreams. And Varya had almost completely disappeared: only once at that time did she insist on expressing her wish, and her voice was soft, almost inaudible--a good sign, my friend D. thought.
Naturally I enjoyed the cheers and applause. But I knew most of the credit belonged to Rudolph Valentino. Had he never existed, I would never have won first place in the Greater New York International Tango Competition. And I would not have learned the tango at all if not for my Polish-African-American dance instructor from Astoria, my partner Carlos, and, of course, Varya. Perhaps that’s why I scarcely looked at the trophy, a statuette of a man with vaguely Argentinean features doing the Tango Promenade with a woman whose legs were shaped like baseball bats. The man who handed it to Carlos, who promptly handed it to me, looked more than vaguely Argentinean: dark hair, dark glasses that hid what I imagined to be dark eyes. Somewhat older than the rest of the crowd and trim of build, he reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges. Which is not as crazy as it sounds since Borges once wrote an essay about tango lyrics.
After handing out the other awards "Borges" came up to me. "I thought you’d never come," he said, with a slight Argentinean accent. "All my life I’ve been waiting for you."
Sure, sure. I had gotten to know these Latino men during my tango career, charming but with the possible exception of Carlos, who was thoroughly committed to Apolonia, downright unreliable. Would I dance the last dance with him, a special dance for the lady winner? Of course. If that’s all he wanted, no problem. Borges was not the best partner but I managed to turn him in the right direction and keep time by tapping his shoulder. When the dance ended he said he’d like to treat me to a drink at the World Trade Towers, adding that he wanted to tell me something very important. Oh? A wish he’d had for many years, something he never expressed to anybody before but he had a feeling he could trust me.
My heart began falling so fast I thought it would drop from under my black and gold tango skirt. But before he could tell me more, someone from the office said he had a phone call. Be right back, disculpe, don’t go away. I assured him I wouldn’t though I sure was tempted. Now that I had reached the top, I wanted nothing more than to return to my former life and sing "Stormy Weather" whenever I felt the urge.
While Borges took his call I tried to anticipate his wish. Surely it would not be the same as Varya’s? At least not in content. But perhaps in form? Possibilities: More than anything else in the world I want to be with Babe Ruth when he hits his 60th home run. Nah, that was ancient history. I want to see Maradona score his inimitable goal against England helped by "the hand of God". I want to be with Marco Polo when he first sets foot in China. I want to be with Copernicus when he discovers the heliocentric theory; with Einstein when he first realizes that E=MC square. Any one of those I could handle. . .laugh it away before he could implant it inside me. . .
Looking straight at me, what he finally said was "More than anything else in the world I want to dance the mazurka with Varya." Damn that Apolonia. Only she could have betrayed me.
"But Varya’s dead," I answered. I hadn’t heard her voice in months.
"So is Rudolph Valentino. Does that make any difference?"
I asked him if the Polish Tango would do; I certainly didn’t want to start taking mazurka lessons. And already Apolonia had taught me enough Polish tangos to satisfy his wish in no time.
"No. Only the mazurka. "
"But I don’t know a damn thing about the mazurka."
"Then you’ll have to learn."
It looks like Stormy Weather will have to wait a while.
© 2000 Barbara Lefcowitz
Barbara Lefcowitz lives in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.A. She has published six books of poetry and a novel; individual poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over 350 journals and she has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. She is also a visual artist and English professor and travels widely. This is her second story for The SouthernCross Review.
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