Sultry and emblematic of Argentina, the tango is a presence everywhere in Buenos Aires. On street corners in San Telmo, the tango quarter of the city, you will find tanguistas playing lush tunes on the guitar and bandoneon (an instrument similar to the accordion). Pictures of Carlos Gardel, beloved early 20th century superstar of the form, are on walls, postcards and windows. We watched spectacular renditions of the dance in Michelangelo, an elegant bar.
Step up: A spirited tango transcends dance to weave narratives about love, lust and passion. AFP
But nothing prepared us for the young couple in a sunlit plaza, whirling through dance after graceful dance. Each time they started one, they would hold up a tiny sign with its name (milonga, foxtrot, tango) and strip off another layer of clothing. So we always knew what the dance was, but more interesting to me, they were always appropriately undressed each time. By the time they tango-ed, she was down to a barely-there skirt, tight top and elbow-length black gloves, long nylon-clad leg wrapped gracefully around his hip as they twirled past.
The chemistry they shared was obvious, tangible. As she feathered her fingers across his cheek and looked languidly into his eyes, as he nuzzled her neck and drew her closer, as their sensuous movements played out emotions and longings like a violin, the questions came to me. They haunt me still. Are they dancing? Or is this a scene from their lives? Is this the tango? Or is their passion the real thing? And my god, are they playing my song? My story?
The tango, it’s like that. Somehow, its sensual essence, its capacity to set pulses aflutter, turns Buenos Aires into one vast mellifluous hymn to passion and lustful memories.
Geneva, no offence meant, is the antipode of that. Pleasant city, even a massive jet in the lake, but sort of placid and staid, you know? So when a Bollywood director and I were there together for a week, and we grew swiftly tired of sitting around downing tasteless beer through the evenings, we decided to hunt out the topless district. I mean, even a staid city must have one, right? Sure enough, we found it, tucked away only blocks from Cornavin station.
Now we sat around downing tasteless beer in a plush bar, in the elegant company of several constantly pirouetting and sashaying women wearing nothing much and removing even that, full speed. It was fun, if a little dizzying. At some point, I tore my eyes off the bare nubile flesh to look at buddy director. The man was snoring gently.
The owner came over and in a curious pastiche of French, German and English, suggested a “private show”. Pick any young lady, she dances only for you in a separate room, then you pay her fee. I checked my wallet, agonized for all of 5 seconds, and asked for the freshest face on the floor.
On some signal I didn’t catch, she melted off the floor and the man ushered me into a small room with a nearly ceiling-height glass partition. Fresh Face was already there, already fully clothed, on the other side of the partition. How she managed it so fast remains a mystery, but my beer-addled brain actually posed the silent question: You mean, I’m getting a dance without skin?
But behind that sheet of glass, she smiled shyly and switched on, of all things, a tango. Then she began dancing, though not the tango, and clothes began dropping off her swaying body as if by magic. I swear I didn’t see her unbutton or unhook anything.
The figure-eights that assorted body parts traced in the air were mesmerizing, hypnotic. The beer, if still tasteless, now packed a punch. She was gorgeous, but I found myself shaking my head, acutely aware of reaching some kind of sensory overload. Stop, I said suddenly, hardly able to believe my own words, just stop and sit down and talk to me.
Bewildered, and now down to only the briefest of thongs, she did just that. She, cross-legged and almost nude on the raised floor on that side of thick glass, and me, enveloped in a deep red armchair on this side. We must have been a sight to behold. Luckily nobody beheld, and though she spoke minimal English and I spoke less French, we had a very nice little chat. I remember none of it today. The beer, you see. Probably the body parts too.
I reached high to give her two notes over the partition; she reached high too, shaking her head and making more but inadvertent and smaller figure-eights, to return one of them. She smiled again, then I left. Bollywood man outside? Still snoring.
A few years earlier I had been reaching high too, in New Orleans. But lacking beer that time, the ogling got the better of me.
Here’s the situation, blow by blow. A pretty girl and I have just leapt to grab plastic beads flung by a man in a float, high above. We both close our fists on them. With an enraged look at me and snarling “Oh no, you don’t!”, she pulls them from my hand, almost tearing off my thumb.
Fearing for my life, I scuttle to safety under a nearby tree. They have their advantages, trees.
Question: Why has this girl behaved this way for mere plastic beads?
Ah, but you might, too, had you done what she did for them. It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you see. Parade time, beads time. And, for females of the species, lift-your-T-shirt time. I mean, all around us T-shirts on feminine torsos are going up and down like yo-yos. Two women near me owe their enormous collection of beads to the salivating hordes on the balconies. Every time one pulls down the other’s neckline for them to slaver at, beads shower down. Cleavage and more cleavage, in exchange for useless plastic baubles. Sounds fair to me.
Anyway, here where I stood next to this particular fetching girl and then ran for the tree...the man up in the float had dangled extra pretty—but still cheap—beads and motioned to her. They were hers, he shouted, if she would only raise her T-shirt. “Show ’em to me!” he urged, beads in one hand, camera in the other. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you I didn’t know what he wanted to see, so I won’t tell you. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you I was looking at him and not at her, so I won’t tell you that either.
But she, she finally plucked up courage. Shirt rose, camera flashed, I got a much better view than him, beads were thrown. And I had my near-death experience.
My story in the tango, yes, and maybe it features bewitching figure-eights and an angry Mardi Gras flasher-by-demand. Then I remember a smile.
At the start of a three-day ride in a rattling bus, bumpy and hot in eastern Madagascar, a sturdy young woman sat herself primly beside me. Day and night and day and night and most of the next day we sat there, lacking a language to say anything to each other. But some things don’t need saying, don’t need language, know what I mean? In the daytime, she looked resolutely in the other direction. But through those long night hours, both of us still sitting in our seats but not sleeping like the rest of the bus was sleeping, some little electricity crackled. Enough said.
In truth, my affections were already spoken for. But don’t ask, because I don’t know and it troubles me still.
Home for her was a town about an hour short of Tamatave, my destination. When we stopped there, I said a formal “Au revoir” as she got up and walked out. She only nodded gravely. But when she stepped off the bus, she walked around to my window, looked up at me and flashed a smile that totally, magically, transformed her face. Nobody else saw it, for somehow she made sure it was only for me. All these years later, it remains imprinted on my mind, that smile, that sole acknowledgement of something precious and fleeting, shared and locked away.
I don’t know her name, she doesn’t know mine. But once in a while, especially on dark nights when the stars gleam knowingly above, I find myself wondering. Somewhere in a beautiful country is a woman who once got off a bus short of Tamatave, a woman with a smile that once weakened my knees.
Does she sometimes remember too?
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