I should have left when he hit me. Just packed up my piano music and my cat and left Buenos Aires behind me.
Who was I to think at middle age I could start a new life alone in a new country, a machista country, and to find love and happiness?
I first went to Buenos Aires on a tango tour in 1998, with no expectations, only that I would be learning from the masters, whomever they might be, and dancing the tango for ten days. I knew nothing about the codigós, or La Confitéria L’Idéal (not yet the Belle Époque setting of all the tango movies), or Comme Il Faut, the Manolo Blahnik’s of tango shoes (which didn’t yet exist), or even what or who was a milonguero. Or what being a woman in a macho culture would mean to me. I just hoped for a fun dance vacation in an exotic locale.
I didn’t know then that I would become addicted to the tango, that I would soon do anything for a fix. Nor could I have imagined how the machismo I found so beguiling at first would completely transform my life.
TEN YEARS EARLIER
To the TourisTango Woman: …they find the warm embrace, sweet promises of eternal love, an arm that surrounds their back and is laid at their waist, a warm hand that ‘talks’ to theirs, the invitation to have the usual coffee after the dance, at first they feel invaded, and I say at first, because after a while, that attitude becomes a need…the woman’s soul is universal and I do not know any who does not like being wanted.
—Victor Raik, milonguero
It was just before dawn, and our small group of Argentines and Americans were tired and filled with reverie after a night of Tango. We were drooped over cafés con leche on an old wooden table in a run-down nineteenth-century coffee shop. The large party over by the dark windows also looked like they had been up all night having a good time. The men were wearing jackets, the women their décolletage, all somewhat portly and of “a certain age.”
Suddenly one of the men stood up and began to sing, loudly, proudly, passionately. Heads nodded with approval. A woman in gold beads joined in. Several others, our table included, brightened with the music and began to clap along. I didn’t understand all of the words, but I knew it was the tango—love, life, disappointment, desire, joy and sadness.
Luis couldn’t resist the siren call of the emotional song, even after dancing all night. He was Argentine. He looked at me purposefully, and we danced a tango on the cracked black and white marble floor around the men having breakfast with their newspapers on their way to work.
It was a normal morning in Buenos Aires.
I am a tango addict, you might even say a “tango bum,” traveling wherever I must to get my tango fix. There are people all over the world who feel the same way—intoxicated by the tango. Maybe it’s the embrace, at least the special close embrace of the milongueros of Buenos Aires, that made us crave more, want more, need more. No matter how we felt when we arrived at the tango hall—sick or depressed or tired—we left renewed by hours of moving to haunting music while clasped tightly to the chest of another. And we knew we had to have it again, soon. Now. After a fix of a night of dancing, we were relaxed, sated. But within hours the need would build, and anxiety and hunger would drive us back to the milonga (tango dance hall) for more.
I had always danced, beginning with ballet at age three. I had majored in dance at UCLA, marrying before my delayed graduation, but children turned me toward something more practical—getting my master’s in information science. Still, I had danced while working my day job at the Los Angeles Public Library. Dancing had saved me after my beloved husband died too young. And then the tango found me.
I was alone and lonely after Jack died. So to be able to communicate in a spiritual, soulful way with another person with no other commitment besides mutual enjoyment for ten minutes was a blessing. I was a dancer, now at an age when a classical pas de deux was impossible, but a tanda of tango–a dance set of three or four songs–to music that echoed my feelings of loss and regret, helped me be at peace for the first time after relentless suffering. In the arms of strangers I was myself again.
We humans need connection, but relationships are among the most difficult of life’s challenges. We need touch, but in English-based cultures it can be difficult to fulfill that need unless we have equally affectionate people surrounding us. (Some people find it easier to have a pet.) Hugs can be healing, but often complicated. The tango embrace, however, is uncomplicated. When it’s right you feel connected, whole, a part of the perfect universe, complete in the yin/yang circle of life—the complementary, interconnected, interrelated dualism that exists in the natural world. And once you felt this, you have to have it again. You become addicted to the tango and the resulting endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin that give you a chemical high. If tango is a “feeling that is danced” as the milongueros, the men who grew up dancing tango in the milongas, say, you are driven to feel it again and again.
Now after moving from San Miguel de Allende where I had lived for almost three years, I had rearranged my life so every morning was a Buenos Aires morning! I arrived in Argentina with my cat, Phoebe, from Mexico City and went straight to my two-bedroom furnished apartment on Calle Mejico (Mexico Street—certainly a good omen) in Congreso, the heart of the capital city. My five suitcases had gone to Rio according to AeroMexico.
The loss of my bags was a repeat of my arrival in Mexico in 2001 when everything but Phoebe was left behind at the airport on Christmas Eve. Phoebe “the Expat Cat” was still most important to me, and she was ready to start her new life in Argentina along with me.
But how I missed my sons. I was now so very far away. My two adult boys, Adam and Jason, were my only family for I had no siblings, aunts, or cousins. I seldom got to see Adam or my grandson, Dominic, because they lived in the mountains outside Sacramento in a “Fellowship,” and travelled down to L.A. only occasionally. Jason lived in Hollywood but he was a busy young man trying to reconstruct his life, after giving up his successful classical ballet career at the time of Jack’s death. (He had toured for six weeks throughout Central and, ironically, South America where he had danced lead roles in the famous Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires.) Because I rarely saw my sons—and had no other family—I had been more motivated to leave L.A. If it were impossible geographically to get together with my boys, maybe I wouldn’t feel so redundant. And the abundant tango hugs and little-kiss greetings of daily life would soothe my feelings of disconnection as I got my fix of tango.
After five days my luggage arrived and I spread my Mexican rugs on the floor, hung my “shoes in a suitcase” painting, filled the little closet with my clothes. I had already checked out the kitchen equipment—the toaster was one of those old fashioned things with clamps you hold over the fire—bought some cat food and cat litter, and so I was settled, more or less.
The every-two-weeks maid, Fernanda, came with the apartment. Her function was more that of spying for the landlord than cleaning. She checked out everything I owned and paid too much attention to what I was doing. Stringy and small, toasty brown in color, she always brought with her the smell of cigarettes, which lingered long after she left.
As soon as I could, I anxiously got ready to go dancing as Fernanda was finishing up. She called out, “Hasta luego, Señora” and slammed the front door while I was in the bathroom scrunching my short red hair and putting on mascara. I usually didn’t wear much makeup, but now that I was middle-aged, I needed to compete for the best tango partners with the local women who spared no effort in looking good in the milongas. Plus I was tall, which often worked against me, as the milongueros who were the best dancers, were old and usually short. Some didn’t mind dancing with a woman who was taller—in fact they often enjoyed being at her chest level, especially if she were wearing décolleté. But others didn’t. And my four-inch tango heels didn’t help.
Sporting sneakers, I grabbed my tango shoe bag and a sweater as I was going on foot to the matinee at Lo de Celia. I liked that I could dance early and come home early, although sometimes I might then go to another milonga if I met up with a new friend. There were milongas from three in the afternoon to six in the morning every night. It was a feast of riches for the vacationers in this mecca of tango who were accustomed to only one or two milongas a week in their home towns, and now a nightly dream come true for me.
I’d been a tango tourist in Buenos Aires many times since my first visit six years ago. Finally I had made the big leap of moving to the tango capital, and now I guessed I could be called a porteña, a resident of Buenos Aires. After a decade of trying to find a permanent home in France and Mexico, at last I felt I had found it on a new continent, in a different hemisphere, where I hoped I could live out my life on the limited means I had, but rich with lots of wonderful tango.
I had taken an early retirement from the Los Angeles Public Library due to the heavy breast cancer treatment I’d received back in 1994 and then again in 2002. But my pension simply didn’t provide enough to live on in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., Los Angeles. I felt then that this was my chance, my reason and excuse, to live in an entirely different culture, to learn a new language, to enjoy and experience as much as I could, and so I had moved to Mexico. Trying my best to survive had brought me now at last to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the tango, where I could dance whenever I wanted.
After checking my lipstick in the entryway mirror, I grabbed the door handle to leave the apartment. It didn’t budge. There were three locks on the door plus a chain and I only had two keys, which I tried over and over in all the locks. Evidently Fernanda had a third key that I didn’t have and she had locked all three when she left. In Buenos Aires locks had to be locked and unlocked on both sides with keys. I was trapped.
I banged on the door just in case someone would hear me at the end of the long hall. Perhaps the porter would be around. I stood at the window looking down three stories, concentrating on the proprietor of the hardware store directly across the street. When I had gone there the day before to buy a voltage regulator, he had been so nice, finishing the sale with the cualquier cosa that I hadn’t yet learned was ubiquitous in BA (Buenos Aires), not meaning really that he’d help with anything I needed, only a polite way to end a transaction. This moment of panic was quite a “cosa” or thing I needed help with.
He was standing directly below me, in front of my building, leaning against the bright red wall of his shop, smoking a cigarette. I willed him to look up, to see me in panic three floors up, and rescue me like Rapunzel in the fairy tale. But soon a customer arrived, and they both vanished inside. There were pedestrians below and finally I yelled to them. “Help me, Ayudame!” I felt like an idiot. But it didn’t matter as no one heard me or paid any attention anyway. First my lost luggage, then this.
I started to go a little crazy with being locked in, a prisoner. I opened the window completely—“Help! Ayudame! Mira arriba! Look up!” Frantically I yelled out in alarm to no one and everyone.
I had no cell phone but the apartment came with a landline. I didn’t have the portero’s contact information yet, or any other number besides that of Cristina, the tango house maven I had stayed with many times during my vacation visits. After several calls to her, thank goodness she answered at last. She sent her ex-husband over to ring the portero’s bell and both men came upstairs to release me from being imprisoned in my own apartment. Evidently the maid had locked the dead bolt when she left that afternoon, and it needed to be unlocked with a key even from the inside. Like the main door to the building, key in, key out was the BA security system. If a crook got in he couldn’t get out with all your valuables in hand without a key. Hugo, the portero gave me a copy of the deadbolt key and I now had four keys on my new key ring.
At last I could go to the milonga. I had been a captive for almost three hours and I was ready to dance!