That’s what we called him, this hot shot pianist from Argentina who played the piano like a freak of nature. I watched him conjure from memory all thirty-two sonatas of Beethoven, the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier, and every insect puzzle with which Webern had infected the repertoire. I witnessed his uncanny ability to improvise a melody in any musical style from organum to high counterpoint, as if Perotin, Bach, Debussy, or Jimi Hendrix were standing in front of him telling him what to play. He was scary, this black haired, handsome kid from Buenos Aires . And he was my friend.
His name was Osvaldo Gonzalez. He was a rich kid, or at least we thought so at the time. In the middle of the semester, he just showed up and knocked at my door. The conservatory had granted him admission long after classes started, and since I had a double room all to myself, he was put with me. Within a few days, I knew why they let him in. He was playing circles around everybody, even the Chinese and the Russian students and I knew that the prima donnas would resent him like hell. The competition was fierce that year and you either felt bullied by the prodigies who spent their waking hours at the keyboard, or resented by those who didn’t play as well as you did. I stayed clear of them all by specializing in composers like Satie and Alkan, considered lightweight, niche players in the musical lineup of history.
Osvaldo scared most of the teachers. Some of them kissed his ass, hoping to make him their protégée and thereby get the credit when (and I say when) he made it big. Others dreaded that he might depict them in future interviews or liner notes as the sidelined, academic squatters that they were. But there was one teacher, this “former virtuoso” from France named Costantin (with an “atrophied ring finger” which some students saw him move when he had to) who, through pure jealousy, tried to make Osvaldo’s assignments impossibly difficult. He was one of those failed performers who personified the condemnation, “Those who can play, play. Those who can’t, teach.” Poor bastards, having to face their mediocrity for the rest of their lives. It was obvious to everyone that this Costantin was trying to break him, piling on pieces so difficult and numerous that I thought Osvaldo would never leave the practice room. But Osvaldo always came out on top. He learned in two weeks pieces which would take the rest of us two months to learn.
We called him Squeezebox, because whenever he would get a chance, he would sit for hours playing this black accordion he brought from home. (“It is not an accordion,” he explained, “but a bandoneón!” demonstrating how this mechanism changed pitches when he opened or closed the bellows). Much later, I realized that we had to give him a some silly nickname to diminish the awe we had for him. Otherwise, he would have been too unapproachable.
So, Squeezebox it was.
I found him easy to get along with. As a roommate, he was considerate and kind, almost too helpful. His English was excellent and had a softness to the consonants when he spoke. He kept the room in order and was always cleaning. He embarrassed me by my sloppiness. He also was a great cook. Some of the dishes made on that electric burner (not allowed in the room, but tolerated) sent smells coming out of the room which lured even the most aloof students to our room, hopeful of a taste.
“At home,” he explained, “I do the cooking and cleaning.”
Every night, no matter how late he got home, he would take out his bandoneon. It was odd, seeing this piano prodigy with this black box splayed over his knee like a pumping lung with buttons, tickling it with his long fingers. He played tangos, one after another. Some were dark and insistent rhythms, like a locomotive. Some were simple and plaintive melodies, as if he were calling somebody, or speaking to them. I was under the impression that he was breathing his homesickness into sound. About tangos, I used to think, You hear one, you hear them all, but night after night, I became familiar with them, their language, their subtleties and melodic contours as one who listens to the songs of birds for long periods of time becomes able to distinguish the unique, signature motives of a particular genus rendering the very word “bird” a too general, useless currency for the multitude of differences in their songs. I began to like the tango. Even then, I could imagine dancing to it. Even before I ever set my eyes on the bodies dancing to its insistent pulse and rhythm. Osvaldo played those songs like one long sigh breathed into melodies, needle-like melismas, flurries of variations. He transmuted thought into feeling, invention into passion. You had to hear him play, this classical genius, who squeezed entire worlds out of this squeezebox, as if it were part of his body, a set of lungs balanced and bounced on his knee.
There was this one tune, melancholy and haunting. He would always play it last before he put the box back into its case.
“Are there words to this song?” I asked him.
“Oh, yes, of course. All these have words to them.”
“Sing them, then,” I asked.
“It is my mother’s favorite song,” he said. “That’s why I will sing it to you.”
He drew in a breath, a bit embarrassed. He recited the words as if he were singing them to someone, closing his eyes, remembering.
“Malena canta el tango como ninguna
y en cada verso pone su corazón.
A yuyo de suburbio su voz perfuma.
Malena tiene pena de bandoneón. ”
Pena de bandoneón...? I thought.
Those words bothered me.
“To have the pain of the bandoneon?” I asked.
Do you have this pain? I almost asked him.
But I didn’t.
I knew. Even then, I knew.
A letter came for him once a week. He read it, put it down and read it again. I could tell he missed being back home. When semester break came, any student who could take off, did. That left those who couldn’t afford a flight home, or the foreign students, who preferred to spend their time in the practice rooms anyway.
So I took him home to meet my family. He had no friends, other than me. I could tell that it meant a lot to him. “Can I take my bandoneon?” he asked. Sure, I told him, knowing that my mother loved the tango and the rhumba. My mother also loved Ricky Ricardo, Xavier Cugat, Charo and Carmen Miranda, but I didn’t dare tell him that.
It was my sixteen old sister, Emily, who really loved the tango. She had dozens of records of it and had the dance steps, those funny footprints, pasted on the floor of her bedroom.
She fell in love with Osvaldo immediately. She had practiced falling in love with a Latin Lover for about a year and he walked flesh and blood right into the role she had fitted for him in her imagination.
Of course, he played his bandoneon for us. He played the old favorites. La Cumparsita, El Choclo and that generation of old songs. He played the newer ones, the ones which made me uncomfortable, the melodies a bit misshapen, tormented in their own weightless, painful melismas. He summoned feelings and places which we didn’t even know existed with this strange accordion “which was not an accordion.”
“I used to take accordion lessons,” my mother broke in, resistant to floating away on his music. I laughed as he gently corrected her. “This is not an accordion,” he said again. “Look, I push on the same button. It’s like breathing, you see.... Say a word breathing in and the word becomes different when you breathe out. It is simple. See?” He told us stories of growing up. How his mother was a great tango dancer at one time until she became sick. How his grandfather had emigrated from Italy to Argentina and used to play the bandoneon in a small, village church, far away from the big city, in the middle of the pampas where they had no church organ.
From then on, he came home with me every opportunity I could get away from the conservatory. He loved the way my mother cooked and spent time in the kitchen with her. He showed her how to prepare a steak, Argentinian style.
“You are like my fairy godmothers,” he said suddenly. “Is that the right word?”
My sister was crazy about him by now. She wanted to drop French for Spanish, and even tried to dye her auburn hair black, to look more Latin. I laughed when one day she sent away through the mail for some mate to impress him.
One thing Osvaldo was crazy about was my mother’s pumpkin pie. He tasted it for the first time the one Thanksgiving he spent with us. “Calabaza?” he said, searching his tongue for a memory, “But this is not like the ones back home.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it came from a can. He went on and on to my mother about how much he liked it. So much so that whenever he came it was almost compulsory that she make it for him, whatever the season. My family looked forward to seeing my black haired, handsome roommate with fine features. Even my father, who in private, found any culture south of New York City unstable and threatening and a source for further study.
One day, I came back to the room. He was lying in bed, his hands draped over his head. It was near final exams and juries and I was bogged down in a piece by Ginestera (by coincidence, a composer Osvaldo had played for as a kid). He wasn’t playing his squeezebox, which was unusual.
I knew something was wrong.
“I got a letter today. From home,” he said. His voice was ghostly and hoarse, as if he had been crying.
“I have to go home. Immediately. She is sicker now, my mother.”
The following morning, he left. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared. He hugged me. He cried as he told me to give his regards to my mother and sister.
My sister was heartbroken. And I knew my mother would miss not having another son to fuss over.
We wrote many times, but he never answered. For months, I tried to call, but got fed up with the phone service telling me that I had the wrong number.
During the years, whenever I saw news about Argentina, I thought of him. I read about Juan Peron, the second Misses Peron, and then about the Desaparecidos, those students who had disappeared. Whenever we saw a picture in a magazine, or in the newspaper, of those desperate, poor mothers holding pictures of their missing children, we took out a magnifying glass to see if we could pick him out among those faces. And all during this time, I had the habit of writing to him, despite the fact that he never answered, at least twice a year. Perhaps because I sent those letters into a void, I could tell him things I could never tell anyone. Like a confession, or yelling into a well which had no echo.
Then they started to come in the mail, once, or twice a month. Postcards from Buenos Aires. With pictures of tango dancers on them. A couple in front of a café, locked together, the woman’s leg, sprawled unnaturally away from her. A couple on a sidewalk, embracing, her leg raised, her knee against his belt, in a position of offering. Of couples, obviously at the end of the dance, leaning against one another, their legs reaching as far out away from their bodies as possible, forming the shape of an impossible letter.
All had the inscription, “Thinking of all of you” and were signed by Osvaldo.
There was no return address.
Then, one day, out of the blue, this letter came from him. Luckily, he wrote to me at my mother’s address. I had long since moved from home. I had been married and divorced, as quickly as a rocket crashing right after lift-off. I had gone into a business which I hated and had sold it a month earlier making more money than I knew what to do with. And I rarely touched the piano, except to see how far out of tune it became during the changes of seasons and humidity.
He asked me to call him. He wanted me to visit and told me that he had to see me, that it was a matter of life and death, and that he would even pay my way if he had to. He wrote that he rarely got out anymore because his mother needed looking after and that since his father had died, he was the head of the family.
“Please come,” he wrote.
For my friend, I would do anything.
Six days later, I landed in Buenos Aires.
Osvaldo met me at the airport. He hugged me as if I had been the one lost at sea and was just found. A black Mercedes taxi took us to the hotel, this grand old building built in the 1870's in the middle of the city. Osvaldo seemed a bit embarrassed and said, “I would have taken you to stay with us, but my mother, she is not very well these days. Tonight, we will go out to a good restaurant and then we will go to the Viejo Almacén. I have to work there tonight.”
“Work?” I said. I thought that word sounded funny coming out of his mouth.
“Yes, I work there. I have to, now that things have changed. My sister works there, too.”
“I never knew you had a sister.”
“Yes. You will meet her.”
He told me to get some rest and he would come back around six to pick me up to take me to dinner.
I was alone in that hotel room. I hated to give in to the drowsy, surreal stupor I felt. I wanted to see the city. I had three hours to prove to myself that I actually was in a different country. I went downstairs and grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to take me for a tour of this city called Good Airs which had been to me just a shape on a map, an image of a gaucho, a military dictator and a tango dancer. I half expected (and hoped) to see an exotic, somewhat wild city, set among the pampas, but the wide avenues, the Second Empire buildings, the department stores and cars made me think that I was in Paris, with the signs and billboards changed to Spanish.
No, the country did not seem so strange. I felt an uneasy familiarity, to be honest. Buenos Aires was a well planned city with avenues and different neighborhoods which had not lost its charm or a sense of history. “La Recoleta,” my driver announced as we drove through neighborhoods, “San Telmo... and La Palermo....” I recited the address of my friend, Osvaldo. “Oh, that used to be a very wealthy neighborhood,” he said. We passed an obelisk, a strangely placed ancient insertion in the city. This place really wants to be Paris, I thought. The skyscrapers were modest and I noticed a pumped up grandiosity in some of the huge, sterile, edifices belonging to the military. A old jet fighter sat in front of the Air Force Ministry, a rusting, farcical monument to the oppressive, irrationality of the government I had read about.
My Spanish, to my surprise, was excellent. Years of vocal coaching in opera and the songs of the zarzuela had made me proficient. I loved the local accent, the softening of consonants thanks to the immigration of the Italians and I soon abandoned the feathered and breathy music of Castile for the chewy, full bodied local dialect.
“You speak like an Argentinian,” the driver said. “You should stay here.”
“You never know,” I said. “I like it here already.”
I fell asleep as soon as I opened the door to my hotel room.
I didn’t hear the knock on the door when Osvaldo came to pick me up.
He didn’t want to wake me. He left a note with the concierge saying that he would be playing at the Viejo Almacén and that the show began at ten o’clock and that it was easy to call a taxi. He left the number, the directions, and some local money, in case I got lost.
I didn’t realize that I was suffering from some type of jet lag. I wasn’t thrilled by the thought of my body’s being propelled in an aluminum, winged torpedo over hemispheres and the equator and had kept my eyes open during the entire flight. Now my nerves were shot. I slept badly. My dreams were unsettling. I was floating dizzily along a sidewalk which seemed never to end, unable to put my feet on the cement which kept drifting away.
The phone rang. A jangling of a bell, horrible and nerve-wracking, chasing away whatever dreams or rest had settled on me.
My wake up call.
The concierge apologized. “Your friend asked me to make sure that you were awake,” he said.
An hour later, I was downstairs. Dressed, but groggy. The taxi driver didn’t need the address to the club. “Of course I know it!” he said. “Everybody knows it.” I was starving. I asked the driver to recommend a restaurant and he suggested one for its typical Argentinian cuisine, the Asador Nazarenas, but he warned me that I shouldn’t miss the show. “You can always eat,” he said, “but you won’t see tango like this anywhere. And especially, you shouldn’t miss this dancer, the dark haired one, the one they call la Cenicienta. They say she is now the best tango dancer in Buenos Aires. She is like her mother, poor thing. Her mother was famous, you know. She....”
“La Cenicienta, I asked, the Cinderella? Why do they call her that?” I asked.
Before he could finish his sentence, we pulled up to the Viejo Almacén.
I apologized again for being hungry. I told the driver that I had to eat something, or I would faint. He explained that I had probably missed the dinner before the show, but maybe they would make something for me.
“They are known for their steak, like everywhere in this country,” he said.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a small crowd of well dressed people bunched up against the entrance in a mist of languages. Someone asked me in a Brooklyn whine, “Are you on the tour?” but I answered in Spanish and spared myself from being absorbed back into the familiar. Being out of place felt exhilarating. I took refuge among a squad of Japanese tourists, cameras at the ready, determined to enjoy a new experience.
A tall, black haired man stopped me at the door.
“Do you have a ticket?” he said.
I didn’t know what to say.
“There is no room, Se Z or,” he said.
“But,” I explained, “My friend, Osvaldo Gonzalez....”
His face became a long, oval question mark. His eyebrows stretched to his hairline.
“Well, we will find a space for you, Se Z or,” he said.
With his hand on my shoulder, he guided me into a small, intimate theater flooded in warm lights and colors with a second story balcony. Chairs and people were lined against the railing. Some sat at tables covered with the remains of a supper which, by the looks of it, I was glad to have missed.
“Would you like the balcony? It is better,” asked the man.
“Yes, of course.”
He seated me, right above the stage. To my left, a Japanese couple sat fixed against my elbow clutching a video camera and a glass of champagne. A waiter brought me my complimentary glass. The taste was cheap and bitter. “The worst!” my waiter proclaimed. “I will bring you whisky!”
The stage set was the facade of a café. White stucco and window. I recognized it as the facade of the club itself.
The house lights dimmed.
I love that feeling of anticipation, before a performance, of people shuffling in their seats, the drone and sibilance of voices becoming that heterophonic din you hear in any theater or concert hall anywhere around the world. A solo voice cried out.
“Viva el tango!”
Then, the sudden blackout. The lights grew in a slow illumination as a string of musicians filed on stage, one behind the other, all wearing black. They took their places. The two bandoneon players, the first, tall and thin, his black hair coiffed and stringy like an ancient Minoan, followed by my friend, Osvaldo, his black bandoneon resting on his lap. On stage, he still appeared handsome as I remembered him years ago. I could still see him taking his place in front of the piano facing as he would a black, Steinway bull.
The violinists. The pianist. The double bass. All took their places.
At once, I felt that drop of silence just before a performance punctured by coughs, quick and furtive. A last minute rustling and then the hush, as the orchestra, the audience, and I blended into one organism waiting and watching until the first, plucked thunderclap of piano, violins, bandoneons and double bass launched the unmistakable pattern of a tango.
One, two, three, four AND one....
The tango, you see....
I knew the song. I recognized the melody, tipsy and off- beat. I even remembered the title from years before, played on a solo bandoneon in my room at the conservatory.
“El Gallo Ciego,” I whispered to my neighbor at my elbow who nodded and smiled as if he understood me.
A quickening of tempo towards the final cadence and the final chord was punched and triumphant, the audience eager for more. Behind me, I heard a rustling of cloth and whispers. A young woman was adjusting her tight fitting crimson dress holding the arm of a young man wearing a 30's style outfit and a borsalino, obviously the dancers about to go on stage. They brushed against me as they rushed down the stairs.
By now, I could see that the maître d’ had given me the best seat in the house.
The lights dimmed and again, I felt that breathing in of darkness.
A nod by the pianist, the free fall of the anacrusis and then the crashing downbeat of strings, bows, bellows propelling bodies into motion.
I was amazed. In a flash of light and color, the two very much alive, young dancers faced one another. Eyes locked on each other, they began to dance, a conversation between a young man and woman and set into motion what I had seen as pictures on the postcards which were dropped through the mail slot of my family’s house, of the tango, those still poses now connected in sequence through time and space. The spotlight followed the dancers in a dance which seemed to me at first comical, a parody of a Valentino seduction taken very, very seriously. But as they danced, I sobered to the intensity and complexity of the steps, the energy of the moves in a pantomime of stalking and wooing, domination and submission, as man and woman slid and stepped, turned and brushed and embraced in a choreography unleashing a passion controlled through artifice.
The tango is, you see, a forward dance. It moves into the future.
Yes, I saw it. A rush into being. Into a driven sexuality with an occasionally feline sensuality in a brush of a leg against a leg, a verge of a kiss, or a slap. A grazing toe against a pant leg. I watched the race of shoes and feet and legs and calculated how many steps they made per minute. I followed these steps as I had never seen this dance and I thought of my little sister, Emily, heartbroken so many years ago by Osvaldo, whose bedroom floor could never have fit these thousands of cut-out dance steps on its surface. I thought of other dances, too, tribal ones which imitated birds, or animals. I thought the words, “Tango is like Flamenco given a suit and tie” and, “This is an urbane apache dance, a suave and sexual martial art.” I watched for repetitions, that swinging kick at the knee, or a leg between the legs of the partner, a sweep, a turn, a snapping back of the head, a holding in embrace.
Suave and strong. Stronger than everyday life, as they moved across the stage, sliding, stepping, she falling into his arms, repelled then reeled in to drink a breath from his lips, then cast away, to the end of an arm’s length, in orbits of Man and Woman, cat and large mouse, in variations of centrifugal force and momentum, odi et amo.
Ah, this is making love, I thought. There is nothing sweeter than making love after a knock down dragged-out fight.
Amazing, I thought, as the final cadence shot the upbeat into the air never to come down again as the couple held that pose I had seen on so many postcards and pictures, their legs outstretched behind them as far as they could reach. Flashbulbs were flashing, people yelling, clapping and shouting, “Viva el Tango!”
From behind me I heard rustling of cloth again, a sibilant whisper, a curse, then a haughty laugh.
I turned. I saw a woman with black hair and black eyes. She was so striking. I had to stare at her. There was the face of Osvaldo, but thinner, bonier. She was wearing the face of my friend, standing there with her dancing partner in a black shirt and sports jacket and white borsalino.
I remembered, this must be the sister he talked about.
She was staring at me. She was looking me straight in the eye. Right then and there, I felt it. I felt myself surrendering. My books were falling off the shelf. My map blew out of my hands. I couldn’t move.
A blinding, crackle and explosion of applause. She turned away and ran down the stairs to take her place on stage.
The lights went out, but just when the room took its breath, a lone voice shouted, “Vivala Cenicienta!” followed by a ragged, misfiring chorus of voices yelling, “Viva el Tango!”
The orchestra waited. They fattened the silence before the downbeat.
The couple held their pose. And then, a tossed anacrusis and the launched pulse of another tango.
Never had I seen a woman’s body so perfect. I can say it now, that if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this eye, my singular, unique eye, had found its unique object. I was under a spell. I imagined doing things with her, to her.
She wore a tight dress, showing her back and her arms. I watched the soft mechanism of bone and muscle working movements under her skin. Strength and grace of an animal, I felt, captured in a small woman’s body. I could see by the way they separated in their dance, thrown backwards from one other and reeled back together. I could sense the centrifugal force, the opposing force, more powerful than the other couple and I thought, laughing to myself, that this was no yawn of a ballet, this Tango. I could never fantasize this way about a ballerina, some wispy fluff ball on stage breathing in the ether, seeking the ideal, defying the mundane, not wanting to be part of this world and always on a diet. No, no, this was a tango dancer. I could see it. They are of this world, not defying gravity, but ineluctably a passionate slave to it, to sweat, spit and muscle. To crimes of passion. This Tango is a drug, I thought. I can feel it.
I noticed Osvaldo, the original Osvaldo. He was the heartbeat and lungs of this orchestra, pumping the squeezebox, like a caterpillar shaking on the knee, as he huffed the downbeat pushing the dancers and I saw it now, the lovemaking, the propelled collisions, graceful and forceful and how she, unlike the other dancer executed that silly flutter step kick from the knee more fluently than the other dancer and how she snapped her head back with a fierce panache without losing a step.
A crescendo of volume and energy and the dance ended, the dancers leaning towards one another, their legs outstretched behind them in that overdone signature pose of the tango, sent around the world on postcards by tourists falling under its spell, a pose held long enough for my Japanese neighbor to trap it with a snapshot and steal it away back to Japan.
Oh, yes. By now, the whisky, the tango, and the black haired Cinderella had its effect.
“This is original sin,” I yelled into the ear of the waiter. “All the rest are copies.”
“More champagne, Se Z or?”
“Yes! I don’t care if it’s bad!”
“No, Se Z or, I will give you more whisky. That is la Cenicienta.”
Through the sea of rainstorm applause, she and her partner ran up the stairs. I turned to face her and again, she looked at me. Panting, out of breath, her chest heaving, disturbing slightly the air of grace which she had. Clichés came to my head, every one of I had ever read or heard, from every sonnet, from every romance, psalm and speech or film. What I thought were clichés but now were accurate pictures of what I saw. Of her skin, of Moors, of milk and honey, of her face and hands, of roses, blood and juniper.
“Gracias,” I said to her as she rushed by me. That was all I could say. I would have run after her if she told me to. She stopped. She put her hand on my cheek and disappeared.
It wasn’t whisky, jet lag, or hunger. It was her.
From that moment, the rest of the evening was a sweet, prolonged denouement. The show went on, one couple followed by another, each bringing into motion different personalities and physical command expressed in movement. Then the dancing stopped. A stocky, short man with a shiny big face and dyed hair appeared on stage He began to sing. He interrupted the momentum of the dance and sang the old tango songs, the favorites, standing there sweating under the spotlights like a stationary king among these dancing pawns. He paid homage to Carlos Gardel, the Elvis and Jesus of this tango religion. He sang that forlorn song, Malena. He sang Volver and held the microphone to the audience as they all sang along as if it were an anthem. But I couldn’t wait to see her dance again. And every time I did, I felt the same quickening, as if I had finally found an answer to a question, as old as I was, that was already sewn into my blood network.
By the end of the evening, I had drunk four, maybe six whiskys. This, too, I knew was a cliché. I was becoming a cliché and I was proud of it. I slurred my words. My suavely sculpted Argentinian accent was now soggy as I questioned the waiter about this “Cinderella.”
I was already planning what to say to her as she walked by me as the show now ended with a grand finale. All the couples were dancing in one, energetic ensemble, the tango singer out in front singing a rousing reprise. I hate the end of performances. I hate bright lights switched on, washing away the magic and killing the imagination just so people can find the exit door and the cleaning crew can see what they’re sweeping. I hate the same old same same-old anything.
Most of the tourists left first, having to catch a bus, or a taxi and some lingered, waiting and waiting for their change in American dollars which the club photographer said he would eventually bring. A group of locals, indifferent to the nightly crop of newly enchanted visitors, sat close to the walls smoking and finishing their drinks.
I didn’t spot Osvaldo or his sister.
Perhaps, he thought I was still sleeping back at the hotel. I half expected him to find me, yet the theater emptied faster than I had thought. I walked onto the stage.
“Where is Osvaldo?” I asked the pianist.
“I think he went home,” said the violin player. “He usually leaves right away.”
“Was that his sister? La Cenicienta?” I asked.
“Yes, it was.”
“Is she still here?”
“Yes, she’s just changing. Should I tell her you’d like to speak with her?”
“Yes. Tell her I am a friend of her brother’s.”
He gave me that look, as if he had heard it all before from so many other guys and he looked disappointed that I couldn’t come up with a better story.
Just then, she came out. She was dressed still in black, but in a dress more suitable for off-stage, boring, everyday life.
She looked at me with those black eyes and I stood there waiting to be slaughtered.
“I am your brother’s friend,” I said. “From the conservatory. Years and years ago....”
She looked at me, almost smirking, but said nothing.
She lit up a cigarette.
“You’re too beautiful to smoke,” I said.
She answered me in one long sigh of cigarette smoke and stared at me.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
The pianist and violinist stopped what they were doing and looked at her.
She looked at me, smiling as if she didn’t understand what I was saying.
I had that feeling, as if I were wearing clown make-up and had forgotten to take it off.
Just then, Osvaldo showed up. I gave him a look like “Please rescue me!”
He was sweaty, as if he had been running. He was out of breath.
“I thought you had left,” he said. “I looked all over.... Ah, I see you’ve met my sister.”
“My sister Gabriela,” he announced.
She laughed. She grabbed my hand and said suddenly, “Of course I know who you are! You looked just so, so...lost. I was having fun with you, that’s all.”
I said I was starving and a bit borachito and we ended up going to the Asador Nazarenas. I asked the waiter to bring me something, anything typical and lots of it. She ordered champagne, real champagne, and a plateful of beef and blood sausage.
“It’s past midnight,” Osvaldo said. “I have to go....”
“But,” I said.
“No, I have to go,” he said. “To look after our mother. She has certain...needs. I can never leave the house for more than a few hours and I have to get back to let the lady who lives down the hall go home. She watches mother for us.”
I got up to go.
But Gabriela, that was her name, held me by a finger.
“No, you can stay. He can go,” she said.
She pulled her chair closer to mine.
“Stay,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Osvaldo said. “Have a good sleep. I will be by tomorrow to see you around noon.”
He left. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do. This silent, passionate, black haired woman, next to me. A panther, out of its cage. I felt weird. But I felt as if I should be there. Right there. Right at that moment. Nothing in the world was out of place.
We talked, but it was more as if I asked questions and she answered them. Her sentences were as taut and muscular as she was. I felt myself skating to the margin, to the dull and vague. Monochromatic and dreary on my part. People kept stopping by the table to say hello to her or to congratulate her on her dancing. I was glad. I was running out of steam and metaphors.
“I should get back to the hotel,” I said.
Gabriela put her hand on my shoulder.
“No, you stay right here with me,” she ordered.
Within a few minutes, I found myself in the back seat of a taxi with her. In the hotel lobby, she insisted on seeing me to my room. The concierge gave me a look. He smiled. He winked at me when he handed me the key.
In my room, she looked around. “Beautiful!” she said. “And you,” she said, putting her arms around me, “you should not stay alone in a hotel.” I looked at her. I didn’t know if that was an invitation. I didn’t know what to say. This was the sister of my friend. Then suddenly, she kissed me on the cheek. “I have been waiting for you for a long, long time. Since my brother wrote me letters from America about you.”
She sat down on the bed.
“You hardly know me,” I said.
“I feel as if I have known you a long time. Believe me when I say this,” she said. She kissed me again, this time closer to my lips.
She stood up. “Sleep well. I will see you tomorrow.”
I tried to stand up, but before I could she had reached the door.
I slept. It wasn’t sleep. Rather a nocturnal nap. I couldn’t get that damn thrump thrumping beat out of my head. Those disjointed, hacked and unsettling harmonies and the reedy penetrating nasal whine of the bandoneon, drilling through me. And Gabriela. She replaced my thoughts. That was it. She replaced my thoughts. I had caught her like a flu and I lay there, just floating on the bed. She had pulled me from my mooring of who I thought I was and I was drifting away, only to grab onto her. I felt as I had felt when I had a “little” nervous breakdown the summer after graduation and right before my solo debut. I had been compulsively playing chess when I wasn’t practicing my program and I had found myself unable to sleep for nights on end. I had suffered from this white night insomnia. I remember having written ‘I have no enemybut you, o Serpent of Air and Nerves’ as I felt this electric dread numbing me. I remembered, that whenever I closed my eyes, day or night, I would see the backdrop of a black and white chessboard in front of me, the diagonal of the bishop slanted, impishly displaced off center. But now it was La Cumparsita thumping insistently through me, like another, invasive heartbeat and I felt my foot moving under the sheets, in time to it. I gave in to it, tapping to the tempo of my heartbeat which raced to expel the alcohol and exhaustion. Oh, no, it will never go away, this tango, I thought. And then mercifully, the tune changed, to another, the radioactive, mutant melody line of a Piazzola tango. It crawled through me. It was serpentine, like a nerve out of the body. It was neurosis and existential. Like radioactive insects crawling in the dark.
Goddamn Argentinians, I thought.
I just counted the beats and let the music play in my head.
I was too tired to move. I thought about Gabriela. Snarled in those melodies.
Then, I thought I heard a voice. It was Gabriela’s voice, I thought, asking me if I was sleeping.
“You should not be alone,” she said as she sat on the bed.
And in that hotel room, in the dark, I felt the primal force of the tango, of Gabriela dancing against the hard softness of a mattress, the power, anger and passion, feeling the tempo, the rhythm, the reeling nod of the unexpected upbeat on the four. And I thought, when I could think, that herein, under these sheets I was finding the missing dance steps that the men who watch her dance on stage, night after night, cameras in hand, wife, girlfriend, or old age at their elbow, dreaming about her as they watched my Gabriela dance the tango, can only imagine.
I had slept. I knew it when I woke up. I slept, I said to myself. It was still dark. I got up from the bed to find the bathroom. I couldn’t find the light. I felt something under my foot curling under it as I shifted my weight. A split second later, I found myself on the floor. The floors were marble and cold. I hit my head and arm against the cold surface. My ankle, fallen below the weight of my body screamed bloody murder. Something was lodged under my arm.
I dragged myself to the phone on the night table.
The concierge came immediately. He was a man about sixty named Oscar. He was very kind. He helped me get dressed, with just enough clothes to get to the hospital
“They take a long time, believe me,” he said apologetically. “It’s very late.”
I cursed in English. To keep the pain away.
Oscar bent down to pick something off the floor.
“Se Z or,” he said, holding up a red, high heel shoe. He held it in the air like a question mark.
He gave me a meek smile and contorted his face to show both the requisite congratulations to a man on his conquest of a woman and sympathy he must show for a man in pain.
Just then the ambulance attendants came into the room.
You do not want to experience a foreign country by its hospitals, I assure you.You do not want to be taken down marble stairs strapped to a board in the middle of the night by men who mumble curses under their breath smelling of smoke and wine (and talking about the girls they couldn’t wait to see as soon as they got rid of this last annoying load, which is you). You don’t want to wonder if they are going to let you slide off the stretcher and down into the marble abyss below. I had never been in an ambulance in my life and here I was, tossed and shaken, in a country halfway across the globe racing through the night, the siren howling through the darkness.
At the hospital, the doctor spoke quickly and matter-of-factly.
I didn’t need medical terms in Spanish, or in Latin to know what the hell was wrong. My ankle told me, without words, that it was broken.
I was given a pain killer and slept. I woke up occasionally, listening to the murmurs and sibilance of other patients talking to themselves, to the dead or the absent. “You need a cast,” said a nurse. I waited while my leg was hanging from a contraption. I asked for a private room but private rooms, the doctor explained, were not to be had at the moment.
The next day, around noon, Osvaldo came. He looked tired.
“I heard what happened. I am so sorry. For you to come all the way here....”
He asked me if I were comfortable. If I had a good night’s sleep.
I looked at him to see if there was sarcasm, or scouting, but there was none.
“Yes,” I said.
“The doctors say it will take a while for you to heal. That is a bad break. But you can stay with us. You can stay, of course, as long as you like. You can stay until...until you want to leave.”
“I can’t impose,” I said
“It is decided. I have already spoken to my mother.”
“And Gabriela?” I asked.
“I thought she was with you,” he said. I could see he was confused. “She is at a rehearsal,” he said. “She is going to be in a movie about the tango. She will be gone all day. I will come back this evening. They tell me you can go home tomorrow morning.”
He patted me on the shoulder and left.
Osvaldo turned. “I’m sorry if I can’t spend a lot of time with you. It’s difficult with my mother, you know. She has had this condition for a long time. And I must take care of her.”
Drowsy with pain killers, I fell asleep, into the most restful sleep since I had arrived and before sinking into myself, I saw, not a bishop sending out rays of its power on a chessboard diagonal, but a high heel.
A shiny, red, high heel.
As if it had been placed there, intentionally...
“Osvaldo!” I called.
But he was long gone.
I was released the next day.
Osvaldo came to help me as a hospital attendant wheeled me to a taxi. We drove to the Recoleta, that part of the city where he lived. Tranquil and elegant, old and forgotten. There were few people on the streets.
“Here we are,” said Osvaldo.
Before us, there was a building from the nineteenth century, ornate, stone, its facade of arched windows, keystones and mansard roof orchestrated together in a quiet, assured elegance. “This is my home,” said Osvaldo. The apartment building was old, gracious and lacking an elevator. It took me, my two crutches and Osvaldo twenty minutes to climb the three flights of marble stairs to my room.
He stood at the top of the wide staircase which divided two long corridors.
He spoke, as if he were talking to a tour group. “This part of the house is yours to come and go as you please,” he said. When you can walk of course!” He laughed. He opened a door and nodded for me to go in. I swung myself on my crutches into rooms with high ceilings and very little furniture. Our voices echoed over marble and plaster. The rooms were enormous and I could see where this had once been an integral part of the house and now had a configuration which I found confusing. Walls had been added to make smaller apartments which could have been servants’ quarters. I knew by the musty smell that no one lived on this side of the building. “Our rooms are downstairs, across the hall,” he said. A chandelier, crystal and ornate hung over the landing.
“I know you are tired,” he said, “but I must show you something.” He led me to a room where a Steinway upright hugged the wall. He smiled and said, “I thought you would like that.”
From the apartment across the corridor, I heard the resonant echo of a door opening and the sound of heels against the floor. Gabriela walked through the door. She threw her arms around me. She looked ravishing in her version of make-up and tight fitting clothes. She whispered to me, “I’m so glad you are here with us! Finally!”
She gave Osvaldo a look.
She said, “Can’t you see that he’s not supposed to be standing? Do you think he can hang all day on those crutches? Get him to his room!”
Osvaldo looked at me. I felt embarrassed. He turned to me and took my bag.
He (and I can’t find another word for what he did), he obeyed.
My room had no windows. A big bed sat in the middle of it with a small night table, a rug and a radio. The mattress was damp and lumpy and had seen better days.
I realized that I was a prisoner in that part of the apartment with high ceilings, on the third floor of this old apartment building. I judged the size of the house by the shape and resonance of its echos. Of doors slamming or of sharp knocks of her heels as she went through the halls. I realized that I was in another part of the house well segregated from where they lived. I lay there for hours. I smelled a faint aroma of coffee. I heard a door open, more footsteps and Osvaldo appeared.
“I’m sorry, my friend. You are my only friend, do you know that?”
“I can’t believe that,” I said.
“Well, believe it.”
He pulled up a chair. “I wanted to see you. I had to see you to be frank, otherwise I thought I would go crazy. I am in a situation....” He stopped. “I don’t know if I should be telling you this now. I....”
I heard the door outside the corridor. The faint punctuation of heels growing louder.
“Your mother?” I asked.
He gave me a funny look. “Oh, no, that would not be my mother. It must be Gabriela.”
He stood up. “We will talk later.”
There was a little knock at the door and Gabriela came in. She looked ready for the stage and carried a large gym bag. “I have to go now. I just wanted to say goodbye,” she said.
She turned to her brother. “He’s probably hungry,” she said.
He left and came back with a tray which he put on my lap.
“The wine?” Gabriela said.
Osvaldo came back carrying a bottle of Malbec and three glasses.
“Aren’t you eating?” I asked.
“Just a glass of wine. We have to eat with mama,” he said. “It’s our custom. When you’re better, you can join us.”
They watched me eat. They said very little. I had to do all the talking.
With that, her brother stood up and allowed her to lean over and kiss me on the forehead.
“I will see you later, after the show,” he said.
“Break a leg!” I said.
Both looked at me.
Neither one of them laughed.
My room, which was more like a cell, was sparse and colorless. There was no television, no books, not even a picture on the wall. An old radio on the night stand was tuned only to AM and offered me my only distraction.
I turned the dial like a safecracker, isolating stations in the vast static, pinpointing, then fine-tuning distant voices and music into clarity. The reception was poor. After almost an hour, I found just three stations which came in louder and clearer than all the others. One was devoted entirely to (and not to my surprise) the tango. Twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Another was a sports station with endless soccer coverage. The last, a twenty-four hour recitation of the rosary.
It didn’t take me long to determine my station of choice.
Around midnight, I heard it, trailing through the halls and corridors towards my room
The sound of the bandoneon.
The next day....
No, there was no next day. In a windowless room, confined to a bed, time for me was suspended, marked and delineated not by the change of light, but by smells and sounds, of coffee in the morning and in the afternoon, by visits or meals delivered by Osvaldo, or by my need to go to the bathroom. Gabriela was “very, very busy rehearsing by day and dancing by night.” I heard the bandoneon announcing the end of their mother’s dinner. I listened day and night, to the radio, which played songs of the old tango.
The History of the Tango. Interviews on the Tango. The Great Singers. The Great Dancers. The Changing Tango. The Great Bandoneon Players. Where is the Dance Going? These were the topics and programs offered by fast talking announcers, or talk hosts with old, crumbly voices deeper than a mine. Turning that dial, I remembered a house my family used to rent during the summer, on a lake in New Hampshire where there was this old radio. It got just one station which played oldies from the 1950's unless you moved it against a wall hunting for a pipe behind the plaster which acted like an antenna and improved the reception. A calendar hung in the kitchen which told us every year we visited that it was 1961 and that there we were isolated, caught on a branch in the stream of time.
Tango, then, it was. Of programs about Tango, the old songs. The old composers, the poets, the singers singing songs so sentimental and passionate, and according to one poet, carrying “the scent of a bordello.” Names like Vicente Greco, Celedonio Flores, Juan D’Arienzo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Anibal Troilo. There were interviews, dialogues, debates about what this Tango was and what it wasn’t and what is was becoming as it evolved. I lay there and made my own opinions. Alone, in that apartment which had its own memories, the voices of the dead came back to sing to me. Of Carlos Gardel, greater to me every time I listened to his voice. I listened to the saga of La Cumparsita, the career of Piazzola, the enfant terrible of the tango, and I began to chart the form of the song itself and heard in it the subtleties the culture and full lives contained within it. I heard Piazzola breaking the mirror. His inviting the patients of old Vienna, Freud’s Vienna, to abandon their waltz to do the tango. His songs were infected with transalpine angst and the radioactive insects of Schoenberg, the shattered psyche of post-war expressionism.
Every morning, Osvaldo brought me coffee. Every afternoon, lunch, and every night, according to my preference, he brought me supper after the show.
“What a hell of a way to spend your time here!” he said.
And each night I tried to resume that talk with Osvaldo. But he never brought it up. He seemed just happy to see me and to wait on me. He talked about my mother, my sister. He joked about Calabaza pie. “I should have married your sister,” he said.
Alone in that room, I felt that my being there was an interim, a pause, a germination which allowed me to grow, and heal, and learn.
Until I had a short, electrifying visit by Gabriela late one night. She appeared to me like a solid ghost just as the song, La Ultima Cuerda, was coming out of that tiny radio speaker played on a scratchy record. She sat on the bed next to me. I felt the weight of her body against my cast, her imprint on the bed, her leg crossed.
“I know what my brother must have told you. I know what he must have said about me.”
“Nothing. We were talking. But never about you,” I said.
She looked at me.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
She talked about her dreams. About the men and women young and old who came to her, obsessed, how they become obsessed with her, these “silly foreigners growing dizzy about tango.”
“Let them have their fat-assed fantasy!” she said. She sounded cruel.
“And what am I?” I asked.
“You are no foreigner,” she said.
I watched how she moved. I saw behind her eyes an intelligence like that of her brother which could sharpen knives. I wanted to lean forward, to express myself, in ways other than the moat of words around me.
“I want to get to know you better,” I said.
“Then stay,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. Do you have anything, anybody waiting for you? Stay!”
One night, I asked Osvaldo if he had any books on the subject of tango and he said that he would bring me some of his mother’s collection, old copies from the 30's and 40's. On the title pages, in a flourish of thick, blue ink, was a signature all but pressed into the page. The signature of his mother.
And then others, with dedications.
To Angeles, Anibal Troilo....
To Querida Angelita, DeRienzo....
To my dear little Flower, the Cinderella....
I read through these old books. I felt as if I were eavesdropping as I turned the pages of the old dancers and singers. These books had belonged to her. They smelled of something old and antiseptic. I closed my eyes to a music which was once strange and new but now strange and dangerously addicting.
Who was this ghost in the next room? I thought. This hive, this queen bee, to which those handsome children flew? Who was she?
“My mother is feeling better,” Osvaldo said one afternoon. “Finally, we may have dinner together. Maybe tomorrow night. But....”
He sat down. He closed the door behind him.
“I want to tell you why I have asked you to come. It is very difficult...those months I spent in America, those were the best years of my life...so much has changed. I had to come home. But now....”
He found it difficult to finish his words.
“But now, I can’t stand it. Years like this. Years, in this sad, sad, denouement. Don’t you understand, a denouement that is too long, sick but never dying.”
He took a bottle off the tray.
“She was not to live this long. That’s what they said. The doctors said she was not to live a long time. And she has been this way for many years, even before I came to the United States. And they say, it’s a miracle. I know I should be happy....
Since my father died, there was a problem with the family’s money. He died. His pension, because he was not so discreet with the government at the time, was taken away. And this building, which is really ours...It used to be ours,” he said. “The whole building used to be ours...but...things have changed. Now it belongs to my uncle, my father’s brother. There were legal problems with him. You can say that he is not one of my favorite people.”
He looked at me. His eyes were tearing. He whispered, in English.
“I asked you to come because I needed to see you. I needed proof that I had another life, that I did get away, that I exist out of this house, this country.
“Please, I ask you. Please. I want to go back. I want to go back, in time, but I know I can’t. I would like to see your family. Just for a visit. At least a visit. You seem to like it here. Just a month. Please. You can stay here.”
“Who will take care of your mother?” I asked. I was afraid to hear his answer.
He looked down. His fingers tapping. Nerve endings and memory. What was it? Liszt? Bach? Or, tango?
“You know, I don’t ever play the piano anymore,” he said.
“My sister, you can tell. She is a wonderful dancer. My mother was a wonderful dancer and now, she...Gabriela, it is not her fault the way that she is. She was taught to be that way. My mother, the disease, it was worse for her, not to die....”
“What does Gabriela do besides dance?” I asked finally, having seen him running around as the caretaker of the house.
“My sister? My sister is....”
He looked for the right words.
“My sister, you see...She must...She is special, you see.”
“No, I don’t see,” I said.
“She is a great dancer. You can see that. She is one of the most celebrated dancers in Buenos Aires. You saw her.”
“Yes, the one night I was out this damn month and whatever,” I said.
“Our mother. She insists that she follow her career. That she dance.”
Suddenly, he looked at me. Like a man to another man who has no pretense.
He leaned towards me and grabbed my arm.
“She’s a real...bitch,” he said. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Leave here while you still have your balls and your dignity,” he said. “I’m sorry I asked you to come. Leave. Leave when you are able. You should,” he said, “before you get too attached.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Please. I know that you want her. And I know she wants you.”
I told him that sure, I found her attractive. But I wasn’t going to volunteer more. I changed the subject fast. I asked him to buy me more books, more recent ones on the tango. And some sheet music.
He looked pained.
“I would love to,” he said.
I saw a look on his face.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“Books and music. They are very expensive,” he said.
“Please,” I said giving him the money, more money that he needed. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I knew about the inflation, the problems in the country. For me, money was the least of my problems.
I could see that he was embarrassed.
He put his hand firmly on my shoulder and said, “But you, this home is yours, as long as you want to stay.”
The rest of the evening, we said little. We talked, about everything, ignoring the obvious, like two soldiers in a trench, ignoring the dead body beside us of a comrade shot hours before.
“He has offered us our section of this building,” he said finally.
“Who has?” I asked.
“My uncle,” he said. “My father’s brother. But we have no money to pay for it.”
Again, there was that silence. But in that silence, I heard voices, as faraway and tiny as those on that radio. They were voices which were always there, but had been drowned out by the choruses of my daily life, of what I was supposed to do. Getting up and going to school, or to work. The voices of Should, and Got To, and Why Don’t You and You’d Better. Ads to go to college. To get an education. To buy a house, to have a kid, to save for retirement. They said that I could do whatever I wanted to do, but somewhere in those voices I pinpointed and brought into crystal clarity another voice which was fainter than all the others in that galaxy and chorus of static. It said, “This is where you belong.”
“Let me know tomorrow how much it costs,” I said.
“How much what costs?”
“This house,” I said.
“This building!” I said almost shouting.
The following day, I felt much better.
I found that I got around pretty well on those crutches. I roamed up and down the corridors, past the piano, like a child exploring an empty house. I leaned against the windows where I watched the street below. I walked through the large apartment, the long halls, downstairs to the empty, lonely, hall where I knew their mother was. On my way back to my room, I noticed the old Steinway upright against the wall.
I hadn’t played in years. I sat down on the piano bench. I ran my fingers over one scale and I could hear that the bottom palette of notes had dropped and succumbed to gravity and dampness. But it held its tune. By habit, I stood up and opened the piano bench. Yes, just as I expected, I found old songbooks and music. And a book of simple tango favorites. I took it out and began to play one after the other. These were the old songs I listened to on the radio in my room. The Milongas. The sentimental ones. When I finished playing through the book, sight reading whatever I could, I took a running start and crashed through a prelude of a Bach partita which I still remembered. I left out a slew of notes like casualties. But then, something got into me. I played like somebody who had just crossed a desert and had found a trough full of spring water. I played like crazy. I played everything I could remember, bad notes, missing notes and all. Bach, Beethoven, Satie’s Le Filsdes Etoiles which I loved, parts and pieces of the Barber Sonata.
I sensed someone in the room. I turned.
An old woman was standing with a broom in the middle of the hall.
“She wants to know who is playing,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“The Se Z ora. She wants to know who is playing.”
“Are you Se Z ora Gonzalez?” I asked.
“No, no. She wouldn’t be standing here like this,” she said. “You haven’t seen her, have you?”
She lisped. She had ancient blue eyes embedded in her wrinkled, beautifully clear skin.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am a friend of Osvaldo,” I said.
“What?” she said.
She gave me a look as if I were a dustball she wanted to sweep away.
“She loves your music, the Se Z ora,” she yelled. “She says you know the old songs and you play them like well. You have the feeling, she says.”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I had a good teacher.”
She couldn’t hear me very well. She yelled in my ear.
“She loves the old songs,” she said.
“Yes. Me, too,” I said. “I love the tango.”
She shook her head.
“No, no. Not the tangos. The old songs. The ones Osvaldo used to play,” she says.
When Osvaldo came home, I asked him to call the piano tuner.
“Why, I don’t touch it anymore,” he said.
“Not for you,” I said. “For me.”
“And bring me music,” I said.
He gave me a strange look. But I was all business.
“Bring me all the music you have,” I said.
And I meant it.
That night, the door to my room opened slowly. I could see by my clock it was past three.
It was Gabriela.
“Can I lie next to you?” she said.
She stayed with me. She just held me in the dark. I held her. I could feel myself, my body, charged, torn out of what was around me, my nerve endings buzzing. This fits, I said. This puzzle. It fits. You know when you know, when your body sinks into an affirmation which needs no words, no more questions. The weight of her head, the sound of her breathing. It fit. It was right. There wasn’t a question. After that first night, the night in the hotel, I had felt it. This pain. I didn’t know it then, but as the pain in my ankle subsided, I could feel it, the other, antiphonal pain, of something or someone who was missing. But now I felt the antidote to that pain. I had found Gabriela. I had found my old friend. I liked that apartment. It was large and comfortable. I had the feeling of wanting to buy paintings and books, to fill it with things I liked, new things, my things. I didn’t know why, at that time, why I let my return ticket lapse. I asked Osvaldo to call home for me, to give my regards to my family and to remind them to water the plants. That was the only thing I had waiting for me. Plants and a bank account full of my money waiting to be spent, to be transformed into something I could see and touch.
Against the backdrop of what was not familiar, I felt more alive, by not being absorbed in the backdrop fabric of the everyday. What habit and conditioning made invisible. A new language surrounded me. It made me separate and apart and conscious. I was a new fish in that tank, breathing in new words, breathing out strange ones.
Gabriela stood in front of me. She was all smiles.
“My brother told me,” she said. “My brother told my mother. That you’re buying our house.”
I had a phone installed in my room. I wanted to call the radio station.
I had been listening for weeks. Now it was my turn to talk. I wanted to talk about what I thought about the tango. To tell someone that the tango is an errant shard of expressionism, a roomful of bent objects, spoons, cufflinks, knives and forks and picture frames, warped and twisted. Just listen to the works of Piazzola, I said, where a phrase is bent, contorted into almost caricatures of dread and passion, mutant and nightmarish. Or Pugliese, with his muscular, rhythmic beat, bullying the melody. Maybe it was the war that did it. The scars of the World Wars, and of revolution and uneasiness that made the tango become unleashed into action and movement and gave life to the dreams of the sick. “Dancing one’s anxiety” as it was said, becoming more the dance of a patient who got off a turn-of-the-century Viennese psychiatrist’s couch. It certainly is, I said, to the receiver, one intricate system of steps meant to express and sublimate the urge to screw and to kill, to cry and to dominate. Oh yes, I said. This was more of a dance from the couch of Freud, having crossed the ocean, to dance without the restriction of societal boundaries. And here is your new generation of dancers, I said. Every nightmare. Every stick of butter. You have made a omelette of your psyche with tango. You throw in everything, including the kitchen sink. Everything could be tango. I bet you that psychoanalysts could have a field day with tango, I said. Shattered confidence in life and a desperate embracing of it.
I went on, surprising even myself with what I was saying
“You have the tango,” I went on, “like we have our Disneyland. You’ve put this soul of yours and made it a tourist attraction. It’s so absurd, why do we have to do that? Making souvenir stands and postcards out of one’s history, or psyche? Like the French do with the Cathars in southern France, or the Spanish with their countless Don Quixotes in Spain, or the Italians with their Padre Pios in Italy. Here, it’s the tango. And for some, Evita. And somehow the two become one and the same. Beautiful, cancerous, ephemeral.”
All the time I was talking I heard nothing from the other end of the line. No breathing. Not an interjection. Nothing.
Finally a voice tickled my ear.
“Yes Se Z or. You are on the air.”
I had been on hold the entire time.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have the wrong number.”
I hung up and laughed out loud.
“Yes, you are funny,” Gabriela said.
She had been listening to me the whole time.
“You are definitely funny,” she said. “You have no idea of what you are saying!”
“Dance with me,” she said suddenly.
“I can’t even walk,” I said.
“Dance with me. You talk too much. You think too much. You have been cooped up too long. You know nothing about tango. You are a swimmer who has never been in water. You must move with me. I will show you what you know: Nothing. I will let you feel the words that you use. I will let you feel them as you move.”
“Dance with me! Get up!” she said. I stood up, stiffly, pulling my cast and letting it dangle like the pointer of a pendulum. I was tracing words across the floor. I could see words as I made each step, carefully, using every bit of my attention to make the steps with her, and learned their name, me, a Caliban learning the language of the lunfardo, the language of tango.
“First, you walk...caminar,” she said.
“This is funny, to teach a cripple to dance,” I said.
She stood before me, in her black leotards and heels. She recited, as she walked around me, stalking me, in a moving glossary of words.
“It is like walking....Watch...el Paseo...la Cruzada...Una Caricia...
A caress, rubbing her leg on me.
“Lustrada!” s he said rubbing her shoe inside my pant leg.
“Engache,” she said, embracing me.
I walked around with her in this dance. Tracing words onto the floor to be seen from a rescue plane high above the building, in code. I wrote them as an illiterate peasant, with a calloused hand, stiff from work in the fields, would by candlelight learn to write....
She put her leg between my legs and said softly
“Una cunita...un golpe, un golpecito....” She tapped her shoe on the floor.
“I will show you,” she said.
“Another intrusión. Body language.”
“I’m tired,” I said. “I can’t stand any longer.”
“And the resolución,” she said laughing.
“I’m tired, please,” I said.
Another delicious enganche, where I held her, just the two of us, in that big, empty room,
I thought of those dances in the friezes of those ancient temples in India I had seen, taking my eyes off the poses of lovemaking to watch the eyes of the old women tourists as they followed pose after pose, deciphering, their faces changing as their eyes traced each frame of the delicious choreography.
She broke away from me, and sidling towards me, made a molinete. An ocho.
Just the two of us.
“I’m not dancing. Believe me,” I said. “I refuse!”
But she held me, letting my anxiety, my pride, my separateness, sink and melt into her.
And I felt now, as I danced with Gabriela in that empty apartment, how it would be if Narcissus danced with Narcissus, in a quiet, glorious autism.
Three weeks later, I was like a fixture in that house. A dormouse which came alive, or Senora Mancini’s broomstick come to life. I was a part of the household, accepted there as no one special. I could almost walk without a cane. I asked Senora Mancini to recommend a housekeeper who could come and to clean the part of the house which I now considered to be my own. I found myself playing the piano. For hours. For as much as I used to. And I didn’t care that Osvaldo could hear me. He was the light to my shadow. The sun to the moon of my playing.
“You are getting quite good,” Osvaldo said.
It was strange playing for him. I was the one who was playing now, not him. He would pass me as he did his chores, whatever they were and look at me as if I were a household fixture, a plant or a piece of furniture. Sometimes I would play a piece which I hoped would pique him. To wake him from his dream of being a servant. I spoke to him, not in words, but in notes hoping to bring back this amnesia victim.
But he was not interested.
Not even when I had a new piano, a Steinway baby grand, moved into the corridor in front of the door to the apartment where he and his sister and mother lived and where I had never been.
“I don’t play anymore,” he said sharply.
He seemed to be in his own world, taking care of the house, and of his mother, who never allowed me to see her.
I spoke about him to Gabriela.
“He is very, very proud,” she explained. “Let him take care of her, that is his choice.”
I thought that she sounded cruel, almost callous, but I was afraid to say anything. I knew by that one criticism I could turn our fiery tango in bed into that of an eight grader’s tentative box-step, followed by her turning her face away from me and breathing angrily through the night. No, I would not risk that.
One day, in a one of those countless book stores playing tango recordings in the street near la Boca, I picked up a book from the 50's, a Who’s Who of Tango, an old program from a club in San Telmo.
In my hands, the yellowed pages, a photo of the real Cinderella. It was unmistakably the mother of Oswald and Gabriela
“What happened to her?” I asked the old man at behind the counter.
“Ah, her!” he said. “Tragic. Tragic. She became sick. After the birth of one of her children. I can’t remember which one. I remember seeing her dance. The daughter dances, too. The son, he plays the bandoneon. You can see them play at the Almacén. When you see those two up there, brother and sister, you see what she was. And the son, poor son. He is a genius, you know.”
“I know, of all people, I know,” I said.
“But I hear she treats him like...like she should treat no one, not even a maid. He feels responsible. That daughter. Beautiful and graceful.”
“You like tango, I see,” he said. I had my arms full of books and postcards. Books full of lyrics. Full of history.
“Tango is my drug, I said. “I live with tango. I sleep with tango. I sleep with a living incarnation of it!” I said.
I repeated what I felt was my song: “Tango is a dance choreographed from the couch of a psychiatrist!”
“Yes, Se Z or,” he said, taking the books and postcards I had piled and making as if he were about to put them back on the shelf.
“No, I’m taking the lot,” I said.
“Yes, Se Z or.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have been cooped up in bed for weeks. I haven’t been out in a while.”
He wrapped the books for me, slowly, individually. I saw that his eyes had that cloudy look, that luster of the old. Or one who is ill.
“You know,” he said. “If I can say something. Please permit me to say this. You know, it sounds to me as if you are sick with tango.”
I smiled at him. “No,” I said. “I think it is the other way around. I think tango has cured me.”
“Have a good day, Se Z or,” he said, handing me my packages.
“Tonight,” said Osvaldo, “you will dine with us in our home. Excuse me. It’s your apartment, now.”
That night, the table was set. But only for three. The table was huge. The tablecloth was fine and embroidered. Large silver chargers with the “G” monogrammed at each place setting. Osvaldo was dressed in a suit and wearing an apron.
“Where is your mother?” I asked.
“Sleeping. She is not feeling that well. I will bring her food to her later.”
He ran into the kitchen. And Gabriela, sat there, at the table, reading a fashion magazine, a cheap, version of an Argentinian Hollywood.
Osvaldo came out, bearing a soup tureen. He looked sweaty, as if the work was too much for him.
“Can I help you?” I asked. I looked at Gabriela who now lit up a cigarette.
“Please!” he said to his sister, as she exhaled a ghost of a word.
She looked annoyed, and put the cigarette out on the silver charger. I was embarrassed for him.
We ate in silence. Thank God, no tango. No music. I felt as if my soul needed just something easy. A small sonic sorbet. A song. A boogie woogie, maybe, a cradle song, or a ditty.
“Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat Huggin’ and a Kissin’ with Fred” went through my mind.
At the end of dinner, Osvaldo declared, “Tomorrow night. You will meet my mother. We will have supper. After the show.”
“But what can I bring her?” I asked.
“I’ll think about it. She can’t.... Well, it’s difficult to explain,” he said.
“How about you bring her some shoes,” Gabriela said.
“Shoes?” I said.
“Yes. She had a passion for shoes, high heels. Red ones. It’s been a long time since she’s had a pair! She was the best dancer in Buenos Aires. But you know that!”
When we finished, Osvaldo shot up, as I finished my last spoonful.
He cleared the dishes.
“You are my fairy godfather,” he said.
That night, I heard him playing the bandoneon. That timbre, like an oboe, thin and shrill like lies, teeny lies, drilling into your head.
As an orchestral effect in the tango orchestration, there is a practice that the violin does, scratching the bow against the dead part of the string, a dry, skeletal ghastly creak. Like the fingernail of the dead, having grown too long in the grave, against a blackboard. It is a sound that makes you uneasy. It is inserted there, a color, an effect, but unpleasant.
I don’t know why they put that in their orchestrations, I thought, as I fell asleep, alone in my bed.
The next morning, my phone rang. I was surprised to hear my sister’s voice. She was so excited, to have gotten through! To know that I would be meeting Osvaldo’s mother!
“It must be serious between you and Gabriela!” she said.
“But how did you know?” I asked.
“A little bird told me....”
I calculated. Yes, I had asked Osvaldo to call home once, but he never told me that he was in contact with my family.
Emily still had a crush on him. Two kids later, a husband, a few more pounds, but you don’t forget those first crushes. I still remember mine, Melorice, the lifeguard at day camp. Whenever I smell a freshwater lake, I think of Melorice. That first love. No, you never forget.
Emily was excited. “I’m sending something to you,” she said. “My friend, Barbara, is a flight attendant and she’s got the South American route this month. I’m sending a surprise to Osvaldo, and to you, too. A little taste of back home. I hear that you might be staying there for a while.... I saw the picture of Gabriela. She’s beautiful.”
It was snowing back home, but it was hot as hell in Buenos Aires.
“Don’t open it unless Osvaldo is there!” she said.
The next evening, it was raining. We agreed to have supper after the show. Around midnight.
The show that night was not sold out. The rain kept people away.
Osvaldo played savagely. I could tell. Pushing and pulling that squeezebox, as if he were sending a message. He played just ahead of the beat, I could tell, as if he were in a hurry. He pushed the dancers and the double bass. I noticed the other bandoneon player, giving him a look.
Gabriela danced effortlessly. I could see in, sometimes in a lax ocho, or a distracted head snap. As usual, her male partner dominated, conforming to the convention. But as always, he suffered a pyrrhic victory dancing with her. You could see it on his face.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Osvaldo asked me after the show.
“Of course I do,” I said, looking him straight in the eye.
I showed Gabriela the shoes, the shiny, high heels. I had picked them out myself. She wore the same size as her mother.
“She’s going to love these!” she said, holding them.
Her eyes, her black eyes. She looked at me in a way that made me think: I don’t know a wordfor what I am feeling.
We climbed the marble stairs. That scuff of soles on the marble resonating through the empty hall. Traces of sand beneath our feet.
Osvaldo had gotten home first.
The place was dark.
The supper table was set. With silverware. Napkins in their rings. The monogram, “G” on them.
“Mother can’t wait to meet you,” he said.
The black box of the bandoneon was lying on the floor. Another one, an older one, was sitting on the couch.
“Come this way.”
He led me through another room which looked like a sitting room. And I could hear the deep, booming voice of a television, resonating, a voice made bell-like, like a diving bell...and the sound of the tango.
The ubiquitous, the ever present tango, which once had once thrilled me, now made me sick. I couldn’t hear it, as one who lives near a highway, no longer hears the traffic, the current of whooshing....
“Come this way,” he said, leading into a room where candles were burning. The room was smothered in curtains and heavy, maroon drapes. Pictures, of grandfathers, a man in a uniform, a bearded man. And one face, whiter than white, floating in the room, the eyes, glistening, a face that looked distant, almost luminous there in the semi-darkness, floating as in a seance.
The face came alive as we came closer. The eyes found me immediately. The face was like Osvaldo’s and Gabriela’s, but pale, ghostly.
It had no body.
From the center of the room in front of a giant machine, the face of their mother, kept in a mirror, looked at me, a reflection of the head which faced the ceiling. Their mother, the dancer, the woman who kept her son at home, who danced through her daughter, lay on her back, her body encased in a metal cylinder.
“Come closer,” the face in the mirror said. “I want to see how handsome you are.”
From a corner, I thought I heard that sound, that disembodied scratching of the bow on the dead part of a violin string.
Iron lungs had been an image from my childhood. I had never seen an iron lung before. I now felt its presence, its weight, and heard it making the mechanical sounds of a machine keeping her alive.
The face spoke to me.
“I’m glad you could join us for supper. It is very rare that I can have anyone join us. And Osvaldo is so happy. My Gabriela is so happy.”
Gabriela left the room.
“Come here,” the mother said.
I could hear it distinctly, that sound, which I will always remember, of that machine breathing on its own, allowing the organism within it, the soft, clam of a human being, encased in this metal shell, to live. I laughed. It came out of me, like a cough, something which had to leave my body.
I thought, the Squeezebox. It suddenly came to me. I could see him, Osvaldo, stretching and condensing that thing on stage, his feet tapping.
Gabriela came back into the room.
“Mamma, Vicente has a present for you.”
Gabriela, her eyes almost laughing, took the box from me and started to open it. She tore open the cover, and I saw not the two shoes which I had picked out, but just one. A lustrous, red high heel, placed over a bed of crimson paper.
“Voil B !” said Gabriela.
The face in the mirror grew wider. The eyes started to tear. “Oh, my shoe! Please put it on me. Put it on me!”
Gabriela went to the back of the machine to put it on her. I waited. But there were no feet protruding from the metal casing. There was no opening in this cylinder except for the head.
Gabriela, sounding like a little girl, said
“They fit, mamma. A perfect fit!”
“Come here, I want to kiss you! Dear, dear Angelita!” the mother said. She made a smacking motion with her lips.
“You are my...angel!” she whispered.
And to Osvaldo, she said nothing. As if he were an ordinary part of the day, a ghost who made forks and food appear, who cleaned the house, watered the plants, and wheeled her machine through the large, empty house filling it with the sad sounds of the bandoneon. Osvaldo, my friend, not the superhuman genius, the marvel of Ginestera and Webern, the meteoric scourge of prodigies everywhere, but a butler, silent, respectful and obedient.
I felt sick.
The meal, what I could eat of it, tasted delicious. But I kept my thoughts far away in the distance. I did all I could do to keep myself from watching the head with a body of metal, pushed to the edge of the table, eat in little gobbles what her son, the one who would eat last, fed her.
We ate in silence. As Oswald fed his mother, I looked at Gabriela. She seemed not able to control her animal energy, almost bursting to her feet. She declared a truce, I saw, with her body, even more sensual in its shape and form and muscularity.
There was no conversation. Just the sound of metal against porcelain, the crash of a fork, dropped on a plate. And the sound of that machine.
“Mama,” said Osvaldo. “I have something to tell you...I am going back to America. Vicente has agreed to....”
Gabriela suddenly stood up.
“Oh, wait!” she said, looking at the box. “Vicente has brought us something also. Did you forget, dear?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please open it. Osvaldo, my sister sent it for you.”
“For you,” I emphasized.
He placed the box on the table. The candles, their flames agitated, sent shadows shaking and trembling on the walls, on the ceiling, making the room feel as if it were passing away. Osvaldo opened the box. His eyes lit up, as he removed the pie, the pumpkin pie, made from good old American pumpkins, the canned variety, from my home, flown in from another country, another season, beyond the equator, for him, for my friend.
“Oh!” he said. “I can’t believe it. After all these years, she remembered!”
I heard the mother sigh. I could not look at her face.
Gabriela took my hand.
“What is wrong, my darling? You look sad.”
It was the wine, I told myself, or the exhaustion, or the love I felt for my friend, or the new world I was embracing, that made the tears come to my eyes.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I’m so happy. Happy to meet your mother,” I said.
“And she is so grateful that you’re staying here when Osvaldo goes away.”
I started to sing, in that stupid, croaking voice of an instrumentalist, a snippet of song for my friend Osvaldo, poor, poor Osvaldo, who had just cleared the table, and now had placed the monogrammed plates of the once formidable family Gonzales under my nose for our dessert.
I sang, “Pena de bandoneón.”
Osvaldo stopped and looked at me. He knew. The face, too, floating there, in the mirror, knew, too. Her eyes found me, like a world in tears, and her voice, soft but strong, sickly but proud, began to sing.
“Malena canta el tango como ninguna
y en cada verso pone su corazón.
A yuyo de suburbio su voz perfuma.
Malena tiene pena de bandoneón. ”
I watched Osvaldo as he took a bite of that pie, the pumpkin pie made from canned pumpkins back home. He closed his eyes and remembered. He looked younger, his brow relaxed. Gabriela grabbed my knee. I watched him as I ate it, too, forkful after forkful, the pie, the pumpkin pie which had never tasted so good to me, trapped there, in that room with the high ceilings, like that body in that breathing cannister, and, in my thoughts, as I played that sad song, about a woman who suffered, I heard the ghostly voice coming from beneath the mirror, singing in unison with the melody inside of me, and I could see Osvaldo, the young Osvaldo who was my friend, the genius, the pianist, dashing through the Praeludium to the Fuga, a fast and triumphant fugue, dropping the black squeezebox in the dusty street, his two strong legs, bolting as fast and as far away from that place as fast as he could.