What follows is another excerpt from Brian Winter’s Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina. (The first excerpt is here.) After weeks of training, he finally thinks that he’s good enough to ask a woman to tango, and discovers that the asking is the easiest part…
When I saw her a second time, I finally understood the significance of her tattoo.
She was leaning over the bar at the Niño Bien in that same blood-red strapless dress, laughing heartily at something the bartender had said. I realized that the tattoo itself was not particularly remarkable—it was the fact she had one at all. Most Argentine women obsessively avoided such displays; they danced the same way, talked the same way, wore their hair the same way; usually, it should be conceded, to great effect. Nose rings, pink hair, and tattoos were positively unthinkable. But then here was this woman at the bar, drinking without shame, brandishing a tattoo of a scorpion, of all the unapologetically unsubtle things in the world. Her deep laugh echoed off the walls of the grand salon. This, I now realized, was not your typical chica porteña.
God bless the tango, I remember thinking. I actually have a legitimate excuse to invite this woman to dance.
I resolved to do it the right way. I would try out my cabaceo. As casually as I could, I strolled over to the opposite end of the bar and slowly allowed my gaze to settle on her. She continued to flirt with the bartender, looking everywhere but at me. I didn’t stare at her, of course—I did as I had been told, holding my gaze for three seconds and then looking away, waiting a reasonable amount of time, and then starting the cycle over again.
She ordered a drink. She kissed someone hello on the cheek. Soon, I was just staring at her unabashedly. Then, just at the very moment I was starting to feel like a crazy sex offender, we made eye contact. A barely perceptible nod of my head and…
She smiled. Eureka. She set her drink on the bar, winked enigmatically at the bartender, and turned my way.
“¿Bailamos?” she asked good-naturedly.
I grinned so, pleased with myself, and the tango, that I might explode. “Bailamos.”
I took her hand and dragged her, practically sprinting, over to the dance floor. The music struck up, I pulled her as close to me as I possibly could, and off we went.
It was like taking the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz. I was stunned by the ease, the smoothness of dancing with her. She seemed to respond to my every move with perfect, effortless precision. At the slightest shift in my shoulders, she would turn. A bit of pressure on her back, and she’d answer with a giro. Indeed, a few times, she seemed to anticipate my lead before even I knew where I was going. Our bodies lined up with total symmetry; her waist at the same level as mine, her chest resting comfortably on my sternum. All my usual nervousness vanished. I started taking confident, sweeping steps, practically flying around the dance floor. Was I suddenly this good?
Well, no. In short order, I became so carried away that I started inventing steps. Through sheer skill, she managed to stick with me for a while, but soon, after a particularly ill-advised ocho, I found myself trapped. I froze, flat-footed, both feet together. She had her right leg crossed behind the other. I could see no other way to move without knocking her to the floor. We were all tangled up with no way out.
We stood there for a silly second. Sweat started to form on the back of my neck.
“Can I recommend something?”
Her breath was hot.
I sighed. “I think we’re stuck.”
“Yes,” she said calmly. “But, with the tango, there’s always a way out. You can dance your way out of any problem.”
“I think you’re accustomed to better dancers,” I replied with a nervous laugh.
“No, no, no,” she insisted, very serious. “This is easy. Just relax.”
“Okay. What do I do?”
“All you have to do is shift your balance.” She leaned in closer to me, her chest sinking further into mine, balancing herself on one foot while the other remained suspended in midair. “Just pass your weight to your left foot, and then you’ll be able to lead me forward.”
I played this out in my head. Could it really be that easy? Unlikely. But I had no other viable plan. Without changing my stance, I transferred my weight to my left foot. The shift was imperceptible; no one watching could have noticed. Then, I rotated the axis of my shoulders clockwise and eased my right foot out of the way. She was now able to step forward, and voila, the day was saved. A miracle. My heart was pounding.
“You know, a lot of dancers do that shift on purpose,” she whispered as we resumed our loop around the dance floor. “It’s a very nice move. Personally, I adore it. A little thing, perhaps. But sometimes greatness is just the sum of many little things.”
I smiled. “Should we try it again?”
“I think that’s your decision.”
Again: God bless the tango.
A few more steps, and I succeeded in getting us hopelessly stuck for round two. This time, I fanned out my right hand, like I had seen El Tigre do a million times, pulled her lower back closer to my torso, and shifted my weight. Again, she was able to walk right out of the trap.
“Ay,” she sighed. “Me parte la cabeza cuando hacen eso.”
It blows my mind when they do that, she said. I tried to peek at her face out of the corner of my eye, but I could only see her bare back, and the tattoo. From up close, to my surprise, the scorpion appeared faded, sloppily rendered, the edges bleeding out a bit.
Just then, with a crash from the piano, the song ended. We lingered in the embrace for a long moment; I sure as hell wasn’t going to end it. Finally, slowly, she pulled away.
“That was very nice,” she said. A tiny smile was frozen on her face. “You dance very well.”
“You’re too kind,” I said with a laugh, staring now at the floor, simultaneously embarrassed and pleased. “Really, I just started to learn tango recently.”
“Are you taking classes?”
“Yes. At La Estrella.”
“Ah. That’s a nice place to learn. Buena gente. Good people.”
“But if you ever decide you want private classes, I can give you my card.”
“You give private tango classes?”
“Yes. I have a studio in San Telmo.”
Rather coolly, I thought, I pretended to think about her offer for a moment. “That could be good,” I mused out loud, as if I needed convincing. “Well, maybe I can call you.”
With the grace of a pickpocket, she removed a business card from somewhere, God knows where, inside her strapless dress.
“I’m Mariela. Call me.”
And then, with a curtsy and a kiss on the cheek, she retreated to the bar.
An hour later, I found myself seated at a table toward the back of the dance hall by myself, despondently nursing a whisky. I had tried to follow up my tango with Mariela, eager to build on my unexpected success. But each of the other five or so women I’d dance with had proven a terrible disappointment. They were clumsy, they were overweight, they didn’t smell as good, they didn’t do what I told them to, and so son. These women were Yugos. Meanwhile, my Mercedes-Benz was still at the bar, laughing and drinking, and I stared without shame as man after man caught her eye and invited her to dance. She would smile, give the same curtsy, and then float around the dance floor with these other strangers, looking utterly poised and happy.
I ordered another whisky and stared at the floor, feeling completely lost and alone. I’ll call her, I decided. Until then, I’d just have to spend the rest of the night drinking away that sudden strange, hollow feeling in my stomach, wherever the hell that had come from.