I was told:
in this dance hall you have to sit close to the bar, on the left near the cash register; order a glass of wine, nothing stronger because it's not becoming for women, don't drink beer because beer makes you want to piss and pissing isn't for ladies either. They talk about a kid from this neighborhood who ditched his girlfriend when he caught her leaving the ladies room: I thought she was pure spirit, a fairy, it seems the kid said. The girlfriend was left flat, which in this neighborhood still has connotations of loneliness and spinsterhood, something frowned upon. For women, that is. So I was told.
I'm alone and during the week I don't care, but Saturdays I like to be with someone and be held tight. That's why I dance the tango.
I learned with much dedication and effort, in high-heeled shoes and a tight skirt slit up the side. Now I go around with the classic elastic straps in my bag, equivalent to always having my racquet with me if I were a tennis player, but less bother. I carry the straps in my bag and sometimes, when waiting on line at the bank or in front of some window when they make me wait, I fondle them, carelessly, without thinking and maybe, I don't know, I console myself with the idea that at that very moment I could be dancing the tango instead of waiting for some inconsiderate flunky to attend to me.
I know that somewhere in the city, no matter what time it is, there will be a salon where they're dancing in the shadows. You can't know whether it's night or day there, nobody cares whether it's night or day, and the elastics straps can be wrapped around the instep of your street shoes, stretched as they are from so much tramping around looking for work.
Saturday nights you're looking for anything except work. So sitting at a table close to the bar, as recommended, I wait. The key spot in this salon is the bar, I was insistently told, that way the men can give you the once- over on their way to the men's room. They can allow themselves that luxury. They push open the swinging doors bloated ready to burst, we're blasted by a gust of ammonia, and they come out much relieved and ready to dance again.
I know now when I'm going to dance with one of them. And which one. I detect that very slight head movement which indicates that I am the chosen one, I recognize the invitation and if I want to accept I smile very slightly, meaning that I accept but I don't move; he will come to me, will offer his hand, we will stand facing each other on the edge of the dance floor waiting for the tension to build, for the sound of the bandoneon to swell until we're ready to explode and then, on some unforeseen chord, he'll put his arm around my waist and we'll cast off.
We navigate at full sail if it's a milonga, for the tango we list. And our feet don't get tangled because he's wise and signals the maneuvers by strumming on my back. If there's some new step or figure I don't know, I improvise and sometimes I come up smelling like roses. I let fly a foot, list to starboard, don't separate my legs more than necessary, he steps along with elegance and I follow. At times I stop when his middle finger lightly touches my spine. Put yourself in neutral, woman, the maestro had told me -- and you should stay frozen in mid-step so he can do his gyrations.
I really learned it, I was suckled on it, so to speak. All the posturing by the men that alludes to something else. That's the tango. And it's so beautiful that you end up accepting.
My name is Sandra but in these places I like to be called Sonia, so as to endure beyond waking. Here, however, very few ask or give names, few speak. Some do smile to themselves though, listening to that inner music they are dancing to and which isn't always a product of nostalgia. We, the women, also laugh and smile. I laugh when they ask me to dance an encore (and we stand silently, sometimes smiling, on the dance floor waiting for the next number), I laugh because this tango music oozes out of the floor and penetrates the soles of our feet and makes us vibrate and drags us with it.
I love it. The tango. And eventually the man who, transmitting the keys of the movements with his fingers, dances with me.
I don't mind walking the thirty-odd blocks to get back home. Some Saturdays I even spend my bus fare on the milonga and I don't care. Some Saturdays a sound of celestial trumpets runs through the bandoneons and I elevate. I fly. Some Saturdays I'm in my shoes without needing the elastic straps, they stay on by themselves. It's worth it. The week passes banally by and I hear the idiotic street flirtations, those direct phrases, so petty when compared to the obliquity of the tango.
Here and now, almost glued to the bar in order to master the view, I gaze somewhat fixedly at some handsome mature guys and smile. They're the best dancers. Let's see which one decides to move. The nod comes from the one on the left, half hidden behind the column. A tilting nod so delicate that he could be trying to listen to his own shoulder. I like it. I like the man. I smile openly and only then does he stand up and approach. You can't expect reckless haste. No one here would risk being rejected face to face, none is prepared to return fuming to his seat under the mocking gaze of the others. This one knows that he has me and he moves in striding quickly, and I don't like him as much close up with his years and his air of indifference.
The ruling ethics don't allow me to play innocent. I stand up, he leads me to a somewhat distant part of the dance floor and there -- he speaks to me! And not like that one a while back who only spoke to excuse himself for not answering me, because I come here to dance and not to chat, he told me, and that was the last time he opened his mouth. No. This one is conversing, and it's exciting. He says do you see, doña, what the crisis is like, and I say yes, I see, I damn well do see although I don't say it in those words, I become refined, I am Sonia: Sí, señor, how frightful, I say, but he doesn't let me elaborate the idea because he's already holding me tight, ready to cast off at the next beat. This one won't let me drown, I console myself, surrendering, silenced.
It turns out to be a tango of pure concentration, of cosmic comprehension. I can do the steps as I saw the one in the crochet dress do them, the plump lady who enjoys herself so much, who wields her shapely calves so well that one forgets the rest of her opulent anatomy. I dance thinking of the plump lady, in her green crochet dress -- the color of hope, they say--, in the pleasure she takes in dancing, replica or maybe a reflection of the pleasure she must feel while knitting; a vast dress for her vast body and the happiness to dream of the moment when she can show it off, dancing. I don't knit, nor do I dance as well as the plump lady, although at this moment I do, because the miracle has happened.
And when the number ends and my companion comments on the crisis again, I listen unctuously, I don't answer him, I give him time to add:
"And did you see the prices they're charging for hotel rooms? I'm a widower and live with my two sons. Before I could invite a lady to a restaurant and foot the bill and take her later to a hotel. Now I can only ask a lady if she has an apartment downtown. Because a chicken and a bottle of wine is about the limit for me."
I remember those flying feet --mine--, the filigreed steps. I think of the plump lady so happy with her happy man, I even sense a sincere vocation for knitting.
"I don't have an apartment," I explain, "but I do have a room in a well situated pensión, that's clean. And I have plates, knives and forks, and two green glasses, those tall thin ones."
"Green? They're for white wine."
"Sorry, but I never touch white wine."
And we separate without even one more dance.
© Luisa Valenzuela
Luisa Valenzuela is one of Argentina's foremost writers. She was born and resides now in Buenos Aires, after many years abroad. From 1979 to 1989 she lived in New York, where she was Writer in Residence at Columbia and New York Universities. She received a Guggenheim scholarship and was a Fullbright Fellow (International Writers Workshop), Iowa. She has published six novels and eight short story collections, which have been translated into various languages -- all into English. Her work is studied in universities in the United States, England and Australia. Her latest novel is "La Travesía".