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Tango

One star-drenched August night the year we both turned twenty, Michael and I ran naked into the Atlantic Ocean. The water was cold for August—too cold to do anything but hug each other in a futile attempt to keep warm. I told him I had to get out and waded back toward the shore.

“Alicia.”

I turned.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, wrapping me in a blanket of love. “Marry me.”

His proposal was a confirmation of something we’d known since we were children, long before we’d discovered sex, or loneliness, or loss.

I was reminded of that night by the two beach photographs hanging on the therapist’s wall. In one, three little girls were holding hands and dancing in a circle on the beach. In the other, a couple twirled on a fishing pier jutting out into a moonlit sea. Even if I hadn’t known the therapist’s specialty, the pictures would have given it away: dance therapy.

I had come to interview Dr. Gordon for a feature article on unconventional therapies I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. Dr. Gordon was tall and angular with crystalline blue eyes, a generous smile, and a full head of white hair, though with his unlined skin he couldn’t have been older than forty.

“People come to me because they like the idea of dancing,” he explained as we sat in his office, “but they’re often uncomfortable the first time they’re actually in the studio. So we talk first.”

“I can understand that.”

“But since we don’t have the luxury of time, I’d like to start off in the studio so you can get a feel for the whole process. I find that my patients express their feelings better in my office after they’ve expressed them in the studio,”

He led me into the dance studio, an intimidating expanse of hardwood floor and mirrors.

“Why don’t we start with some stretches and then a little free movement?”

I turned my head to avoid looking directly into the floor-to-ceiling mirror. Maybe it was because the hairdresser had cut my red, curly hair too short like Little Orphan Annie’s. Or it could have been the discrepancy between the image of myself in my head and the one facing me in the mirror.

“That’s okay,” he said. “A lot of people are uncomfortable looking at themselves at first.”

I turned to face the side wall, and he led me through a series of head rolls, shoulder shrugs, and arm stretches. Then he put on some Middle Eastern music and told me to close my eyes and move with the music. I was there for the story, so I did what he asked, but I hoped he wasn’t looking.

“It’s all about the relationship between emotion and movement,” he said as I followed him into his office and sat down on the couch facing his chair.

He stretched his legs and crossed his feet at the ankles. His legs seemed to go on forever.

“How did you feel in there?”

“Awkward.”

He nodded. “I tell my patients that we hold the truth in our bodies.”

“Truth is, I’m a klutz. My husband and I took dance lessons before our wedding so we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves. He took to it, but I was pretty hopeless. Still am after ten years of marriage.”

He laughed, and I took out my notebook. During the interview, I found myself subconsciously imitating his movements—crossing my legs at the ankles, straightening my shoulders. Who was I kidding? Though blessed with the long, lean body of a dancer, I was anything but.
As he walked me out, he said, “With practice I could teach you to loosen up.”
I smiled. “That would make you a miracle worker.”

* * * * *

The sun had won its daily battle with the San Francisco fog, leaving blood red streaks in the sky as it descended. Outer Sunset was one of the foggiest districts in the city, so the glorious sunsets were all the more precious for their infrequency. Ours was a tract house with the merest slice of a beach view from the corner of our balcony. But the salt air and the sound of gulls made up for the obstructed view. And on clear days the light shimmered like a Monet painting.

“I’m loving this assignment,” I said to Michael’s back as he went through the mail.

“Mmm,” he said, half turning.

“Learning all the ways people can get shrunk. Yesterday I interviewed a sand tray therapist. Can you believe…”

He looked at his watch. “Sorry. Got a lot of work to do before dinner. Let’s talk after.”

The old Michael would have said something funny, maybe conjugated the verb “to shrink.” When had he stopped laughing?

We ate dinner with the TV on and took our dessert out to the balcony. All that remained of the day was a brush stroke of light tracing a line between sky and sea. I asked him if he thought the cake I’d baked was good (yes), if he’d had a bad day (no), if he thought the sunset was especially beautiful (yes). That’s how the dinner conversation went. Call and response. If I stopped calling, he stopped responding. His eyes were focused somewhere between the beach and infinity.

In the past, I would have told my astronomer husband he looked like he was lost in space. I would have asked about his research at the university or his visit to the local elementary school to talk about why Pluto was no longer a planet. What the hell, I thought. Let’s give it one more try.

“The sand in that tray yesterday reminded me of New Jersey sand.”

“Tray?”

“The one I mentioned before dinner. At the sand tray therapist’s office.”

He gave a distracted nod.

“Reminded me of all those summers we spent next door to each other down the shore. Know what my first memory was?” I was talking faster and louder, trying to hold his attention. Sometimes it was exhausting trying to keep him engaged. “I thought of the tin can and string telephones we used to stretch between our two houses. Remember how we’d send messages to each other at night? Made faces until our parents made us turn out the lights?”

He smiled and I caught a glimpse of the boy who’d evolved from best friend, to lover, to life partner. But too soon, his mouth straightened to its default shape. I wanted to weep.
I’m a writer, I thought. I know words, know how to string them together to create stories that move people. Why can’t I come up with the right words to move him?

* * * * *

Driving home from work the next day, as the sun passed behind a cloud, I remembered when Michael had stopped laughing. It was after his father’s death a year earlier. He’d told me about his father’s passing casually, like he’d mention the death of a classmate he hadn’t thought about in years. Dr. Markowitz had been a presence in our summer lives—magnetic, dark, handsome. Women had certainly taken notice. Michael vaguely resembled his father—long legs, brown-black hair—but what Michael lacked in magnetism he more than made up for in warmth. Thinking back on all the summers we spent next door to them, I don’t think I ever saw Dr. Markowitz hug his son.

I tried to get him to talk about their relationship, believing children always mourn the loss of a parent regardless of the distance between them. But it was like flipping through pages of a photo album where someone had cut a father-shaped slice out of each picture.

“How did you feel, Michael?”

“Why are you asking me all this now?”

Why now, he asks? Like this isn’t the first time I’ve tried to get through? “Because it’s time for you to talk.”

“He’s not worth talking about. We weren’t close. I don’t miss him. Full stop.”

* * * * *

Michael sat at the breakfast room table, books and papers spread out before him, while I was sprawled on the floor, writing the final draft of my article.

“Michael, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Us.”

“What about us?”

Everything about us. “I don’t know.” I got up from the floor and sat down at the table across from him.

“Things have changed.”

“What things?”
“How you’re not interested in hearing about my work anymore.”

“Well you’re not interested in hearing about mine either.”

“That’s not true. I’m interested, but you’re not talking.”

I reached out and touched his upper arm. He brushed it off.

“Christ, Alicia. What do you want from me?”

“I want… I want…tango lessons.”

“Tango?” He looked as astonished as I felt by my answer.

“Yes, that’s all I want from you. I want you to dance with me.”

Señor Robles looked like a tango instructor. Licorice-slick hair, thin mustache, slim hips accentuated by tight pants. No surprise there. It was Michael who surprised me. He’d always been coordinated, but I couldn’t get over how quickly he took to the complicated tango rhythm. He instinctively knew how to hold his body, turn, lead me in the right direction. I don’t know why I chose tango. I’d have had an easier time with something like cha-cha or box step. When you have a lousy sense of direction, you should steer clear of dances where there are so many unexpected turns and direction changes that you never end up where you expected. Maybe it was the posters of the Tango Flame Dancers that captured me, their bodies pressed together as if glued.

“Keep your back straight, like Miguel,” Señor Robles would remind me. “Lean back, Alicia. Trust your partner. He won’t let you fall. Look into his eyes when he brings you close. In that moment there are no secrets between you.”

He spoke like a character in an old black-and-white movie from the thirties. Señor Robles told us to practice at home, and gave us records of the music he used during our lessons. I had to nag Michael to practice with me, but once we started dancing, he took charge. Once when we were practicing and everything was going right, I imagined someone looking in our window, jealous of the intimacy on display. But the truth was, even when we were pressed close as lovers, our talk was all business. “Turn, turn, lean.” “No, Alicia, go left.” It was no different than when we weren’t dancing.

Señor Robles was right when he said anyone could master basic tango with enough practice. Even me. As some of the steps became automatic, he had us concentrate on attitude. “You dance tango with the feet, yes, but also with the eyes.” He’d reach over to adjust the placement of a hand or tilt of the head.

“Passion, indifference, disdain, passion again—that is the face of seduction. Look deep into his eyes, Alicia, as he pulls you close. Now turn away.”

At times I was sorry I’d insisted on dance lessons instead of dance therapy with Michael. My patients express their feelings better in my office after they’ve expressed them in the studio, Dr. Gordon had said. That wasn’t happening here. We were becoming better dance partners, attuned to the subtlest gestures. A light touch on the shoulder was a signal for me to turn; his palm pressed against the small of my back meant he was about to bend me backward. But that did not make us better life partners.
Señor Robles gave us a DVD of Tango Flame to inspire us. “Watch,” he ordered. “Then practice. Repeat, repeat, again, again. The message of the dance is passion, but you can’t show passion until you’ve mastered technique.”

* * * * *
Nothing was going to change. We’d go on living our split lives, one where we danced and one where we did everything else. We even missed the Perseid meteor shower, something we’d watched together every August since we were kids. We’d stretch out on beach blankets and scan the skies. Did you see that one? Look over there above the pier. Oh, wow. We hadn’t missed a single year, not even when we went off to different colleges. Every year we’d reunite to watch those streaks of light shoot like flaming bullets from a celestial firing range. I suspected that my astronomer husband hadn’t forgotten the Perseids; he’d simply decided it wasn’t important for him to celebrate them with me anymore. When we weren’t working late, Michael and I watched television, God’s gift to dysfunctional couples. It didn’t much matter what we watched. We sat on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn or chips between us, touching only accidentally when we reached into the bowl at the same time. We went to bed at different times, so the touching there was accidental as well.

A week after my article was published, we were watching something on TV with a twisty plot. Unable to follow it, I gave up and thought about my upcoming lunch meeting with Dr. Gordon. He’d called me earlier that day to tell me how much he loved the article, and invited me out to lunch to thank me in person for all the new client calls. I imagined how our lunch would go. He’d ask me to call him Robert, and after lunch he’d give me a dance lesson at his studio. You’re good, Alicia, he’d say. Let me show you how to relax. And I’d tell him how my life was not as I had expected. He’d tell me of his own lost dreams. Equally unburdened, our feet would barely skim the hardwood floor.

I didn’t notice Michael get up from the sofa, so when I heard the intro to El Dia Que Me Quieras I thought it was TV background music. But then I felt his hand under my arm, pulling me up roughly. When he fitted my body to his, I could feel his tension. We got to the part of the dance where he was supposed to push me away, but instead he gripped my arm and locked me to him.

“There was this kid came up to me after I gave my astronomy talk to his class,” he whispered in my ear. He had to bend awkwardly to reach my ear but we kept dancing. “A second grader with a bowl haircut. Latched onto me, arms around my waist, and said he wanted to be an astronomer just like me. Then he said something else. I couldn’t make it all out, but I think he said he wished I was his father.”

The music ended. “I know that little boy, Alicia. I know him.”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” I lied soothingly, waiting for him to go on. But he had nothing more to say.

* * * * *

I arrived early at the little restaurant in the Haight. Dr. Gordon was already there. During lunch he told me how he’d studied ballet and then switched to modern. He’d broken his ankle when he was thirty, so he’d gone back to school and gotten a PhD in psychology. I told him about my family on the East Coast, our summers at the shore, and the excitement of working for big city newspapers. I didn’t talk about my relationship with Michael or about tango, but he was a psychologist, so he may have intuited all that. I told him I might want to schedule an appointment with him to discuss some of my “issues.” He said he’d be happy to listen.

As we finished our coffee, his leg brushed mine. It may have only been accidental—him arranging his dancer’s legs—but maybe not. I hadn’t thought about another man that way since before I got married. I was sure Michael was all I needed. At some level I was still sure, but there I was, sitting across from a man with a sympathetic voice and eyes the color of the afternoon sky. He was wearing a wedding ring. So was I. Maybe his partner’s a guy, I thought, and this is all perfectly safe. I told him I’d call to set up an appointment.

That night, I caught Michael looking at me as I reached for the popcorn. “What?” I said, but he shook his head and turned back to the screen. I considered slipping a note under his dinner plate. Dear Michael. How are you? I miss you.

When an old friend from back East called, I knew it would be a long conversation. We hadn’t talked in a while. I picked up the landline extension in the bedroom, stretching out across the bed and hanging my feet over the edge like I did when I was a kid. We reminisced about old friends at the shore, and when she asked about Michael’s parents, I told her both of them had died.

“It’s funny, Shelly. He talks about his mother all the time, but never about his father. It’s as if he never had one.”

Latin music played softly in the background, and I thought maybe Shelly had taken up tango, too. But when the music got louder, I realized it was coming from the next room, through the phone I’d forgotten to hang up when I took the call. Como rie la vida si tus ojos negros me quieren mirar. I hung up and walked into the living room. Michael was standing by the table, his hand on the phone, which was now resting in its charger. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t anything. Then he said, “Dance with me.” He held me and we swayed.

“Sometimes my father came to my room late at night. I never told my mother. It would have killed her.” His words were barely audible. “I’d wake up and there he was next to me. I didn’t cry. I just went somewhere else until he left. I don’t remember much. Just touching, I think. But I went so far away I’m not sure.”

The music pulsed, but we moved to our own rhythm, rocking from side to side. The beat was relentless, the same music from the Tango Flame dance where the man grabs the woman and pulls her close, and she tries to pull away, but he twists his leg around hers and traps her.
The music stopped, but we swayed in silence.

“That night when we dove into those waves and it was so cold and we came up and the stars were so close, I felt… I guess it’s how those Jesus people feel when they’ve been born again. I’d been born again—without a father.”

I shivered, as if plunged once again into those cold waters. We stood motionless in the silent room, his arms wrapped tightly round me as if I was a life preserver. I wanted to soothe him with words, but I let my body comfort him instead.

-Natalie Zellat Dyen’s fiction and poetry have been published in Philadelphia Stories, Willow Review, Every Day Fiction, the Schuylkill Valley Journal, Wordhaus, and the Jewish Writing Project. Her humor and non-fiction essays have appeared in Global Woman Magazine, Intercom Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Montgomery County Times Chronicle, and other publications.

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