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La Milonguera

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In Buenos Aires, a tango dancer’s tragic accident ends her career—and unearths longstanding trauma.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Trisha_Brown_Compass_2006_Softground_etching_with_relief_roll_25_1-2_x_22_inches_600.jpg
Trisha Brown, Compass, 2006. Softground etching with relief roll, 25 x 22 in.
Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co

Every morning in Buenos Aires, I was woken by the music students of the military academy as they marched north along Avenida Luis María Campos. Sitting up in bed, I’d watch the sun ascend, dragged out of the Río de la Plata like a yellow puffer fish reeled up on a line that fell from the sky. With every inch that yellow orb climbed, it seemed to me, a dab of white was added to the clouds, little by little, until they were titanium white, the sky a brilliant blue. My cramped apartment was on the eighteenth floor of a tall tower built in the seventies. It once housed military officials and their families, but now stood sturdy and sterile in the midst of a bustling neighborhood called Las Cañitas. Everything inside was rundown and without charm. Paint peeled off the walls, dangled from our living room ceiling like bits of curled ribbon. The woman on the floor above us had broken the pipes while installing a new toilet, and cloudy drops of water from her baths zigzagged down our walls, dropping into buckets we placed on the floor. There were no doors to our two bedrooms, nor shutters to cover the windows, but there was an abundance of light and a view that made my breath catch: a white estate nestled into the hills, its entry flanked by fluted columns and a garden that extended the length of a block.

Most mornings, when I entered the kitchen to brew coffee and warm two medialunas, I found Romina*, my Argentine roommate, her legs curled under her as she sat beneath the potted grapefruit tree. She filled the room with the smell of gin. Mascara smudged under her hazel eyes as she smoked a cigarette and mouthed the words to Chavela Vargas, flicking away the ashes that settled onto her lap like dirty snow. I would ask about her evening and she would say that she had been out dancing in San Telmo. It had been a late night, she had lost track of the time. I never inquired further when she turned away from me, closing her eyes. Communication was an effort for me in those early days because she spoke in Lunfardo, the slang of the porteña, and I didn’t know then that re borracha meant “very drunk,” that minas referred to other women, or that firulete was a certain type of tango step she was obsessed with perfecting. I found Romina and her apartment through Craigslist, and the day I had come to see the place, she’d struck me as warm. My level of conversation and vocabulary were so basic, gleaned from men I had worked with in a hotel restaurant in upstate New York, I had only understood that she was from Rosario and that she liked to dance.

Several months after I moved in with Romina, I watched her perform tango for the first time. I sat silently at a table in the cavernous basement of an old movie theater with a woman named Nilda, who would later become my only friend at the bailongos. Heavier and older than the other women, with maroon-colored hair, Nilda rarely danced because she was seldom invited to. Instead, she steadily sipped her Fernet and spoke to me about tango, indicating with a pointed finger or nod of the head the women who performed their ochos with precision, the couples who moved passionately, still locked in their embrace when the ballad ended, and the unsatisfied pairs who acknowledged failure, parting ways with an informal bow and returning to the tables in search of other partners. Nilda didn’t dance now because she was no longer beautiful, and her talent wasn’t striking enough that men would overlook her plump legs and swollen ankles. In tango, I observed, the selection of a dance partner was most often a male right. Nilda explained with a certain longing in her voice that it was sometimes acceptable for an exceptionally talented milonguera to approach a man and invite him to join her for a dance. To my surprise, she was speaking specifically about Romina. According to Nilda, she was one of the most talented dancers around, admired for her mastery of different steps, from ganchos to contrapasos, which she performed with her preferred partner, Javier.

She had known other couples who pursued romance off the dance floor, and had watched as their paired perfection devolved over time, destroyed by their union.

When Romina stepped onto the floor in a crimson dress, her long black hair gathered in a loose braid, several couples stopped mid-twirl and retreated to the edges of the room. Neither Romina nor Javier had requested to be left alone. The evacuation of the space was a tacit understanding, a gesture of respect and admiration. Beneath the dim of the chandelier, Romina was silent and composed, but as she waited for the first note of the violin, I detected anguish in her concentration. Javier was slender with dark hair and light eyes, and he bowed to her, his movement measured, with his hand over his heart. I wondered aloud if Javier and Romina were or had been lovers, but Nilda whispered a denial. It was precisely this, she explained, this unfulfilled tension between the two, that gave their movements such urgency. She had known other couples who’d pursued romance off the dance floor, and had watched as their paired perfection devolved over time, destroyed by their union. Their forms dissolved into carelessness and their dynamic lost its tortured energy. Romance often became tragedy in the world of tango, and Romina must have been aware of this danger, Nilda thought. I immediately understood this to be the reason I had never seen Javier in our apartment or heard his name.

That night, Romina and Javier danced a form of tango characterized by long steps and a tight embrace. The music began, and for the first few notes they remained still, trembling in the center of the floor, their pose precarious like that of birds on a branch. Suddenly, Javier jerked Romina toward him, his legs kicking out, his upper body still as he led her on a diagonal across the floor. When the music decrescendoed, Romina gathered herself with one deep draw of breath, leaned her weight forward onto one bent leg, and pressed her chest against his. Sliding the other pointed foot out behind her, she arched her back ever so slowly until their bodies formed the letter A. They held each other desperately as their dance, responding to the rhythm of the music, and gained momentum once again. Her eyes closed, her breath in his ear, she followed his steps with small, playful kicks of defiance. His movements were slower, and he returned purposefully to her side time and time again to take her into his arms, anchoring her. Facing each other, their bodies heaving, Romina fixed him with her gaze, drew her fingers up to his face, but never touched him. She hovered there, slithering a leg out from between his, winding it ardently around his waist. There they remained in the thick silence. And then—just as the moment became too intimate, when their closeness was as loaded as a spring—Javier broke the spell and spun her across the room, stamping his heel triumphantly to signal the end of the performance. Romina stood tall on the other side of the floor, hands on her hips, smiling radiantly at the sound of our applause. As the claps subsided, she slipped off stage alone to the bar, where she stayed until four in the morning.

Never before had I seen Romina so happy and at ease. We sat at a small table drinking vodka with lime, and when she introduced me to her friends and fellow dancers, she held my hand in hers. From that night on, I returned to the dance hall twice a week to watch her. I came to recognize the characters of this mysterious world: it seemed to me that tango was a lifestyle of pattern and routine. After a few visits, I knew the women who were most often asked to dance, which of them seldom left their chairs, and the handful of sad cases for whom the pressure was always too much, who drank to excess, unable to perform when their knights finally came to call. I also learned to decipher Romina’s feelings about each night and never had to ask. On evenings when she was disappointed with her performance, she exited the floor with a certain darkness in her eyes. On these nights, I would return home hours earlier than on the nights she danced her best. I noticed that she and Javier rarely spoke and remained on opposite sides of the room when not together on the floor. When I asked Romina about their relationship, she explained that a true milonguera did nothing more than dance with her partner. I had never seen Romina with a man in our apartment, and though I believed Nilda that Romina sacrificed romance for the sake of her dancing, it struck me as strange that she did not speak of men at all. I had to imagine she was lonely.

When winter came, snow fell on the city for the first time in eighty-nine years. Romina was selected to dance in a show scheduled to open in the spring. Early one Sunday morning, she went to Chinatown to visit her friend Pablo, a cobbler, who had promised to design her a pair of purple dance shoes with gold trimming that would match her violet costume for the performance. The walk to his home from our apartment was one she and I took sometimes on sunny afternoons, following her favorite street, a quiet residential passage lined with grand houses, past the Vietnamese Embassy on Calle 11 de Septiembre, winding around the small park she sometimes visited alone. We would buy rice with pickled plums and eat the rolls as we walked home beneath the tall, black palo trees. On this particular day, a chilling gale blew from the river and Romina, who was not used to walking in the snow, decided to take the bus home instead. Not realizing our apartment was only a few stops away, she chose a seat by the window, unwrapped her presents, and thought deeply about a step she was struggling to perfect. When she spotted the military academy, she sprang to her feet and leapt through the doors as the bus lurched forward into traffic. As Romina stepped onto the street, her ankle gave way, and she fell violently against the ice, shattering the bones in her left foot—a fracture that not even four surgeries, eight screws, and three metal plates would ever fully mend. She would never dance again as a milonguera.

Eights days after Romina’s fall, a young doctor carried her home in his arms. Her pain was excruciating, and he worried she might tear at the stitches unconsciously in the night. She was prescribed high doses of Vicodin to abate the searing ache of the screws driven into her bones. He asked if I had spoken to her mother, but I explained that I knew nothing of her family. I would have to care for her because she seemed to have no one else, feed her, steady her over the toilet, wash her hair over the kitchen sink. In the first two weeks of Romina’s recovery we struggled to adjust to the changes. Most mornings, I woke to her whimpering discomfort, her trembling voice calling out, “I hurt, I hurt.” Then, I would give her two painkillers and sit with her, listening as her breath became heavy and slow, waiting for her sleep.

Within one month, her left leg had withered, and without its musculature, formless and soft, it reminded me of the limb of a child.

No one from the dance hall ever phoned. Javier never visited. In her solitude, the only regular visitor she received was Pablo the cobbler, who came faithfully every Sunday afternoon. He replaced his one-time gifts of dance shoes with less painful reminders of his devotion: warm pies and empanadas that filled the apartment with the scent of their spiced fillings. When she was well enough to stand, Pablo built crutches for her, taping a spliced tennis ball to the bottoms so she wouldn’t slip, and when she complained of the purple bruises dappling her underarms, he covered the tops with felt. He changed her bandages because I couldn’t face the blood and pus that dried black and yellow between her toes. From the kitchen, I would watch as Pablo applied hydrogen peroxide with a Q-tip to her wounds, drenching the inflamed edges of the oozing holes while she buried her face in a pillow. Within one month, her left leg had withered, and without its musculature, formless and soft, it reminded me of the limb of a child. She kept it covered during the day, propped up on a cushion as she gazed out at the sprawling city. One evening, her voice breaking, she asked Pablo to take her shoes away and store them in his house. She couldn’t bear to see them, or think of them sitting in her closet, gathering dust. She said no more, and Pablo dutifully complied, returning the next day with paper bags to cart away his creations.

One afternoon as she lay sleeping in the living room, I crept into her bedroom to steal a dab of perfume and discovered several photographs scattered carelessly across her dresser. I immediately recognized a younger Romina, her dark hair cropped, her tanned arm wrapped around a tall, fair-haired man as they sat by the sea. Quickly flipping through the photos, I saw an idealized romance: a couple embracing beneath an orange umbrella, his eyes fixed on her face as she smiled playfully for the camera; a morning kiss, sheets thrown around them in bed, eyes closed, his hand cupping the side of her face. The back of each photograph was labeled in loopy handwriting, scrawled in blue ink: “Our summer in France, 2001.” It occurred to me that six years had passed since the photos were taken, and the pictured Romina, stunningly fresh and unconflicted, was now thirty years old, and further aged by alcohol, sleepless nights, and cigarettes. The sorrow within her, that tugged on the edges of her ever-rarer smile, and lurked even in her laughter, appeared absent in these earlier moments. I searched for more relics of this time, looking through her drawers, through the boxes she stored beneath her bed, and in the manila folders stacked on her window ledge. But I found nothing but old receipts, yellowed to-do lists, and sketches of dresses she had designed with colored pencils.

Five months after the accident, Romina learned to walk with the support of a cane that Pablo had bought for her. She took a job as a secretary for a large Brazilian oil company located in the center of the city, just off the widest boulevard in the world, La Avenida 9 de Julio. She was to manage the front desk with three other women, answering telephones, swiping identification cards, and examining briefcases that passed through the X-ray security scanner. On the morning of her first day, she called me into the living room to ask my opinion of her new uniform. I studied her as she stood before me, blushing slightly in a drab navy-blue jacket, a shapeless knee-length skirt, and a pair of tinted stockings much too dark for her winter-pale legs. She felt self-conscious, having never worn a business suit before. Her wild hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, lending her appearance an unaccustomed severity. It saddened me to realize that this was the first time I had seen her look utterly ordinary.

Some mornings after she left our apartment, I would stand by the kitchen window with a cup of coffee and follow her as she limped toward the subway, stopping for a moment’s rest before the gas station, then again at the bridge where the road merged with the freeway. Her physical therapist feared that her return to work was premature and had cautioned her against pushing herself too hard too early, but Romina curtly assured everyone that she felt much stronger, that the eternal throbbing in her atrophied ankle was a tolerable discomfort. To me, she confessed that she wanted to be part of the world again, and hoped that dedication to a full-time job would force her to think of something other than dancing. Several weeks into her job, she appeared much happier. She befriended her coworkers and returned to her routine of drinking and staying out late. We no longer spent quiet evenings together eating ice cream in front of the television.

Though I was relieved to see Romina in higher spirits, I missed her. Despite my supposed command of the language and familiarity with my surroundings, I didn’t feel connected to the city or its people. I had grown tired of teaching English to businessmen. Romina was my one steady companion and I had come to rely on her more than I had realized. What I had once experienced as a desire to build a life in the city had transformed into a resigned sense of mounting isolation. I made up my mind to leave Buenos Aires. On a Sunday morning, as Romina sat in the living room sipping mate from a hallowed gourd, I told her of my plans to return home to San Francisco. We had lived together for close to a year and a half, and while I knew my departure would sadden her, I never expected her to excuse herself to her bedroom in tears. I followed her but she said she preferred to be alone.

In a rage, he left her crying on the floor and disappeared from her life.

My final evening with Romina, we strolled together in the descending dusk just as the day had begun to cool, following the trees that formed dense archways above our heads. On one street corner stood a small pink house from whose balcony jasmine tumbled in a white mass onto the road. Romina stopped in front of the fence to peer into the garden where an older couple quietly sat drinking mate and watching a young boy and a girl play bocce. Suddenly, she turned to me, her face pale, her expression hardened. She knew these people, she said quickly, because she had once lived in the house with a Frenchman, and had sold the property to this family shortly after he had left her. Before I had a chance to speak, she lead me by the hand and pointed to a plank of the wooden fence, brushing aside the ivy that had grown over it. Leaning forward, I read the carved words: “Our home, 2000.” Romina took my hand again and led me a little ways up the road to a small, dark bar. We took a seat by the window, and after several glasses of Chardonnay, she told me, for the first time, about her past.

She had been engaged to that Frenchman. He was a tango dancer from Lyon, and it was with him that she had shared her first home. They had spent three blissful years together in the pink house, until she found out she was pregnant. To her dismay, he panicked at the news and responded violently, refusing the idea of fatherhood and begging her to abort the fetus, even though she was a devout Catholic at the time. In a rage, he left her crying on the floor and disappeared from her life. She heard nothing from him for months, until one evening, several weeks before her due date, when he showed up at her door. He had been drinking, and they argued, standing together on the front steps in the twilight. When he pushed her, she fell, and after hitting her head against the stone, was knocked unconscious. She woke in the hospital the next morning to discover that her child had been removed from her womb. The doctors reported that the baby’s neck had broken when she fell, but that the death had been instant, painless. They told her that her child had been a boy.

We returned home in time to watch the sun rise over the white estate before collapsing into our beds. I lay awake thinking about all that she had confessed and the little I had managed to say in response. I worried she had interpreted my silence as a failure to empathize. When I emerged from my room in the afternoon, I found Romina’s bedroom empty, her clothes scattered on the bed, her sheets in a pile on the floor, as though she had woken late and hurried out the door. I gathered the few belongings I had, and waited in the living room beside my single suitcase for her to return, grasping for the words that never came to me the night before. On a piece of paper, I wrote several sentences and rehearsed them aloud. But Romina never did come back to the apartment. Her goodbye was enclosed in a letter she’d left on the table, beside a parcel on which she’d written, “To be opened tomorrow on your 24th birthday.” I would later discover that she had sewn a blouse for me in secret—a challenging task, she confessed in her card, because I was around so much of the time. She had chosen a pattern with tiny dolls bundled like babies in carrier baskets. I left her a green scarf that I knew she loved, one that she had often borrowed to tie in her hair. I hailed a cab to the Ezeiza International Airport. As we passed by the white estate, the driver touched his forehead and signed himself with a cross. I asked what had provoked this gesture and he explained that in that white palace the military had tortured thousands of women during the Dirty War. How disturbing it was, he said, to think that such atrocities had taken place in one of the neighborhood’s most magnificent buildings. I agreed that it was a tragedy, and watched as the tower receded into the distance until it disappeared altogether.

*Name has been changed.

G

Tamzin Baker is a journalist and training to become a psychotherapist. She lives in Brooklyn.

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3 comments for La Milonguera

  1. Comment by anna on December 4, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    this was so, so beautiful.

  2. Comment by L.J. on December 9, 2014 at 7:52 am

    This could have been put together better. Some of the information about the tango scene was interesting, but then it degenerates into a bunch of stuff that happened without any larger meaning or context.

    Also, what was the author doing searching through her roommate’s drawers and boxes? That came across as uncomfortably voyeuristic, not to mention unethical. I seriously hope she learned respect for personal boundaries, especially since she’s training to be a psychotherapist.

  3. Comment by Christopher on December 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I am in love with Romina. My heart breaks for her I just want to hold her and comfort her. Help her, be her lover, be her protector. I love this story. Thank you for writing it.

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