Tango is a passionate dance. A conversation between two people in which they can express every musical mood through steps and improvised movement. (Source Unknown)
Just before nine o’clock in the evening, Sofya gets out of her car and looks up at the sky. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another breath of wind, a whispering in the air, but the clouds are stagnant against the dark night. She turns and moves downhill towards the club, ejecting the chewing gum out of her mouth with a loud splat into the bushes, feels the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She passes the public phone box where frangipanis lie on the grass, picks one up, sniffs at it, throws it back, then quickly enters the club.
It is not one of her best days. She doesn’t know why. Her dress is not uncomfortable, her skirt just right around the waist, the outfit not faded or balled, her black strappy shoes high, not too high, wrapped around her feet following the shape of her instep, and the new shampoo and conditioner make her hair curl naturally around her face. For reassurance she strokes the pearl and bronze necklace nestled into the groove of her neck.
At reception she pauses to flash her card and takes the lift to the third floor and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is the thud and bounce of Latin American dance music.
She turns into the room, which is set up with tables and chairs in a horseshoe shape around the wooden dance floor, the dee jay on the stage above and a bar at the back of the room. She sees Nino down the front sitting with that older couple he usually sits with and wonders whether to join them or not. It is not easy coming to these places. It takes a whole day of psyching herself up.
‘Sofya, you’ll never find a rich husband if you’re fat,’ said Mother, raising her glass. It was Mother’s 53rd birthday. Her hair was silvery with flecks of white now that she’d let her own natural colour grow through.
‘How would you know?’ Sofya’s older brother said picking his nose and flicking the snot across the table at his mother. Everyone said he was a radical, that boy. He did things a certain way. But somehow they still thought the sun shone out of his arse. Everyone laughed. The entire family – even the aunt and uncle and the two boy cousins – drinking the kosher wine at the seder table. The moment passed.
Alone in her room, Sofya sang along with the radio station, turned way up. The Happy Wanderer. ‘I love to go a wandering along the mountain streams, and as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back.’
She would practice her leaps across the room in front of the mirror. See how far she could cross in one amazing jump, her back leg extended behind her as she leapt into the air from a running start.
She dances with Nino at the Randwick dance every Friday night. Now that Nino is semi-retired he dances four nights a week, plays tennis and works out at the gym when he’s not working part-time as an accountant. He has grey hair combed back from a high forehead and around his neck is a brown leather thong with a small silver medallion. The leather thong makes him look more attractive, more unusual, more interesting. He likes to show the younger women how to dance.
The tall Portuguese man with the dyed black hair (she assumes it’s dyed), described Nino as a vampire. But then he is probably jealous of the number of different women that Nino is able to get to join him at his table.
Jordan, the taxi driver, who dances to keep his weight down, said that Nino only likes to dance the tango so he can feel the women’s breasts pressed against him.
‘He didn’t say that,’ said Sofya in disbelief. ‘Nino is a gentleman, he wouldn’t say that.’
Jordan was ready to wave Nino over to confirm the story.
Sometimes Sofya sits by herself with her coat on the chair beside her, pretending she is here with a friend, and the friend is on the dance floor and that’s why she’s sitting there alone.
Sofya works freelance and is working on a book of family history that she has been commissioned to write. Things have changed very much, several times since she grew up, and like everyone in Sydney, she has led several lives and she still leads some of them. Since she started the book she has gone out with two South American tango dancers, one Irish dance teacher, and a revolutionary playwright who patted her thigh and said, ‘Where is this relationship going? I would like it to be more. My wife isn’t interested in sex any more.’
Her children are grown up and lead their own lives. Sometimes the sheer unpredictability, the randomness of the way she is living, what she is doing, fills her with exhilaration.
For the past six months she had been seeing a man from Leichhardt. As far as she can see, this is over. She calls him J, as if he were a character in a novel that pretends to be true.
J is the first letter of his name, but she chose it also because it seems to suit him. The letter J seems to give a promise of youth and vitality. It is upright and strong, with very straight vertebrae. And using just the letter, not needing a name, is in line with a system she often employs these days. She says to herself, France, 1993, and she sees a whole succession of scenes, the apricots and salmons of the buildings and the turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea.
Dressed for salsa? said the doctor with a grin as he closed the door behind her.
I don’t remember telling you that I danced salsa, she said as he extracted her file from the drawer of the metal filing cabinet. I think you’re getting me confused with someone else.
In O’Connell Street or Liverpool Street. I can picture it.
I used to dance at Glebe Town Hall on Sunday nights, but that was ages ago.
Your salsa phase, he confirmed.
He moved from the filing cabinet to the large grey seat opposite her.
Any stallions beating at your door? he said with a note of expectancy in his voice.
They’re all pathetic. It’s hopeless.
He gasped in a pretending way.
Not all of them, she corrected herself. Just the ones I engage with.
He wrote that down.
It’s all over with the Fireman, she volunteered. He’s married anyway.
You can cross Fireman off the list now.
I’ve been through the list. It’s been so many years. I’ve met one of everything.
Z, he said with a smirk. Of course. Zookeeper.
She shrugged, remembering the organic gardener.
I’ve probably met one of those too.
The last time she saw J, or rather, what she thought would be the last time, she was standing at the turnstiles at Town Hall station and he came through the gate sweating, his face and body flushed, his hair damp.
It was a hot night in September. They’d had a meal together at a Spanish Restaurant in the city. She remembers how flushed his skin was, but has to imagine his boots, his broad white thighs as he crouched or sat, and the open friendly expression he must have worn on his face, talking to her, she, who wanted nothing from him anymore. She knows she was conscious of how she looked standing there under the neon light, and that in this glare she might seem even older to him than she was, and also that he might find her less attractive.
He went to get a cup of coffee, then came back out. He stood beside her and looked down with his arm almost around her. She sensed his hesitation to touch her. She kissed him on the cheek and he looked deep into her eyes and she knew what he wanted her to say. Saw the pleading expression he must have worn on his face.
Have you lost weight? she asks Dan, one of her regular dance partners as she flicks her foot back and behind his knee into a gancho. The movement is like a horse trying to shake its shoe from its hoof.
Make sure your heel is up when you do the gancho, Alfred had told her. Sweep your leg along the floor and out. Not up with the leg, but up with the heel.
She reminds herself to make sure her shoulders are down. Firm arms, shoulders down. She’s sure that’s why she gets so much neck pain.
Alfred, bald, shiny-headed Alfred, who Nino says looks like a gangster with his shaved head and black tee shirt, still thinks everyone on the dance floor sets out to block his movement around the room. There’s no doubt about him. At least he started out friendly enough.
Dan smells good for a change and he’s lost his big stomach that used to come between them. Sometimes she would gag with the smell of him.
Yes, he says as they bounce lightly to the beat of a milonga. I got sick with the flu for a couple of weeks last year and decided to keep the weight off.
During a break in the sets she sits down next to Alfred.
What do I look like? Alfred says inclining his head towards the dance floor. I wish I knew what I looked like.
I don’t know, she says. I wasn’t watching you.
He sighs with disappointment.
And he’s made up a step. She must tell him she doesn’t want to do his stupid made up step which is a cross with her left leg, but when she feels his opposite hip against hers she doesn’t know if it’s a gancho or not. But the main problem, which she must tell him, is that he pulls her off her axis, her centre.
Would you do it if it wasn’t made up? he says now they’re up and dancing a vals.
It’s not that I won’t do it, she says. I can’t do it. I’m not deliberately not doing it, she says unable to disguise her anger. Should she make a scene and leave the dance floor and leave him standing there because he’s being so rude and aggressive because she can’t do his stupid made up step?
Do you speak to the other women like you speak to me?’ She says not caring who can hear.
I can’t understand why you won’t do it.
I can’t do it.
I wish I knew what that little voice was saying in your head.
His hip pushes hard into her, very hard, so she is forced into the backward lock from the left leg.
Wheep wheep, wheep wheep, wheep wheep, went the big shiny knife against the hard grey stone. Father would carve the roast lamb each week for the Sunday lunch. After lunch they’d go to the hospital to visit Grandpa. Grandpa without his left leg, then without his right leg. Gangrene. He died piece by piece.
Left foot, left leg. Right foot, right leg.
The women at the dances look beautiful in a cruel way, with their blood-red lips and their nails long and sharp. They are not very friendly. Sofya is just a casual, after all. She hasn’t signed up for a ten week course and she doesn’t go to the beginners lesson at 7.30.
Things have not changed very much on the dance scene since she started there so many years ago. ‘Same old, same old,’ as she heard the Turkish woman describe the previous Saturday’s dance at Marrickville to the Egyptian woman with the red red lips.
What a beautiful smile you have, said the woman on the door who takes the money. Did anyone tell you that your whole face smiles when you smile?
She’s nice. She’s the partner of the man who runs the dance. She says she doesn’t mind that she doesn’t get to dance on the Friday nights because she dances nearly every other night of the week at the lessons. She’s very beautiful. Russian with long blonde hair against her tanned smooth olive skin, very long shiny legs and always one of her very short cut up the side skirts that she makes herself. She’s Sofya’s age.
When Father came back from the factory in the evenings, the children, pale and silent, joined him for his dinner. After dinner, Father listened to the radio in the lounge with his newspaper, and at seven Mother, having washed up, joined him. The family were together only at dinner, after which Mother and Father sat behind their newspapers and the children went upstairs to their rooms. Sometimes a stupid child would pull the wings off a fly or even a butterfly and watch it suffer.
A new man makes his way around the dance floor. Good posture. Straight back, strong arm position. Looks like he’d be a good strong lead.
The music stops and he comes over and sits on the spare seat beside Sofya.
‘It’s all too heat making for an old man like me,’ he jokes as he fans himself furiously with a Bingo brochure. ‘I’m a Postman from Perth on holiday in Sydney,’ he says by way of an introduction in a well-modulated English voice. ‘I could have had a two week holiday in Paris for the price of his three day trip to Sydney.’
She smiles. ‘Have you read The Post Office by Charles Bukowski?’
‘We’re not very cultural in Perth.’
‘You speak very well for a Postman.’
‘Well,’ he shrugs, as if that is a whole other story that he will not go into at this stage. ‘Dancing the tango allows me to meet famous people all over the world,’ he says. ‘In Paris, London, New York. My name is Fabian by the way.’
‘That’s a very romantic name. I grew up in the era of Fabian the pop star.’
‘In Perth we all live in one big Waiting Room,’ he adds. ‘We’re all waiting. Not much culture or adventure. There are many French and Italian speaking women who dress like the women you see in Paris. The tango community is very close. If one person learns a new step, then everyone learns it. Two weeks later, we’re all doing it.’
‘You’ve lost weight?’ the doctor said when she’d walked in.
She shrugged. ‘It’s wonderful what black does. Just one item of black.’
He looked down at his shoes with the regular pattern of holes punched towards the pointed toes. ‘What about black shoes?’ he asked.
‘Your feet look smaller,’ she reassured him.
‘You know what they say about small feet,’ he laughed.
She assumed he meant small feet, small penis. She sat down opposite him, a box of tissues between them on the small square table. ‘It’s hands,’ she says. ‘Not feet. Fingers.’
He uncapped his pen, looked down at his notes.
‘You’re not going to start on that track already are you?’ she said. ‘Not so early in the session.’
I grew up dancing the polka in Italy, says Nino as they turn into a Viennese walz.
How was your holiday? she says.
Didn’t you play tennis with your grandsons?
He pulls a face.
Did you meet any nice European men while you were away, he asks.
I was married to an Austrian. From Vienna.
Did you see him there?
He lives in Sydney.
She says this simply to establish that she had a husband once, that she had been married, and to a European man, an interesting man, a man of cultural heritage. She wants to assure Nino that she was not always alone, unattached.
Does Anthony ask you to dance? Nino asks.
No. He doesn’t.
There are no shoulds. I asked him once and he went off across the floor doing his own thing. It was very humiliating.
Nino nods and grins with no understanding in his demeanour.
Anthony has many choices, he says, as if that would explain it. He’s young and he’s a good dancer. A lot of the women are after him.
She remembers Mother saying to her when she was a teenager: ‘It’s a man’s world.’ But Mother had two children by the time she was 17.
Sofya’s daughter is an artist. Sometimes Sofya minds Kate’s two children while Kate goes out painting. This afternoon she was over at Kate’s house looking after the baby and the two year old.
‘I feel like Superman when I mind the kids and then go out tango dancing,’ Sofya likes to tell her friends. ‘At three o’clock I’m on the oval kicking a football around with my grandson and then at 7.30 I’m changing into my tight skirt with a split up the side and my red top and my strappy high heeled shoes and I’m out the door again. Like Clarke Kent changing into his Superman cape.’
Have you got a dance partner? her friends, or maybe her brother, might ask.
Various, she’ll say. I’ve got various. Several.
Today when Kate got back Sofya told her she’d brought the washing in because it had started to sprinkle with rain.
Was it dry?
I think so.
You think so?
Well I was rushing to bring it in before it poured with rain and I had two children to look after at the same time and the baby was awake and the noise of the builders next door and the electrician with his ladder and his cords everywhere and I couldn’t even get to the toilet.
Well, when you brought the washing in did you do all the ironing? Did you iron all the clothes when you brought them in?
They both laughed. It was a joke.
Sofya doesn’t really own a tight skirt with a split up the side, but she wishes she did have one. And nice long legs to show off. Instead she usually wears the same pair of black trousers that she hopes will slim her down, and one of her many pretty tops. Well, actually, that’s not true either. She wears the same black camisole top, or one of the two similar black camisole tops, and a sheer cardigan on the top to disguise, to cover, to conceal, to pretend, that her arms aren’t so fat, that her freckled skin doesn’t look so blotchy in the light. But usually it gets so hot she has to strip down to the black pants and the black camisole top with her hair pulled high on top of her head so it doesn’t hang in wet cats tails around her face.
‘I think the baby looks like me,’ Sofya said to Kate as she reached for the old brown photo album.
‘Have a look,’ she said pointing to a photograph of herself in Class 8. ‘Here I am. Can you see me?’
‘I’m the one on the end. The little Miss Perfect sitting up so straight.’
‘You do look different to the others.’
‘I’m the one trying too hard.’
‘You’re the only one wearing a tie.’
‘Can we get a photocopy of her,’ Alfred says as Jordan comes over and leads her towards the dance floor.
Jordan’s style is firm and masculine. She likes the smell of the mint that he always sucks or chews. After a good half hour of dancing in the hot auditorium, he speaks, ‘If they have a Latin bracket,’ he says. ‘Will you dance it with me?’
Afterwards they sit back at Nino’s table with the much older couple.
‘You and Jordan dance well together,’ says the man so stiff with arthritis it takes him a long time to stand up, to unwrap his legs and put his whole weight on his feet. But he does. He gets up each week to dance with his lady friend and they shuffle around over in a dark corner after a couple of glasses of white wine and they are into their second packet of potato chips.
‘You look like you should be married,’ the older man continues. ‘Like you should have babies together.’
‘Who? Me and Jordan?’ Sofya says, trying to sound casual about the possibility of her and Jordan. She quite likes Jordan. But only because he dances salsa and rhumba and rock and roll so well. He smells nice, he dances well, what more could she want? But of course Jordan has a regular girlfriend, but the girlfriend doesn’t come to the Friday night dances.
Jordan laughs. ‘She’s a grandmother already,’ he says with a dismissive flick of his hand towards Sofya. ‘We couldn’t have children together.’
‘Here is a photo of Grandpa and me. I’m standing beside his wheelchair. It’s a black and white photo that shows him only from just above the knees, which is where the rug would have ended that covers his lap. I look about 13 in this picture. My tall gawky stage. Long hair pulled back severely, a cardigan to hide my developing breasts. Mother hated my hair. I think she must have spent her whole life telling me how dreadful my hair looked. I’m smiling in the photo and leaning down to put my face a little bit closer to Grandpa.’
Outside a bird chimed in a cheerful tone and the leaves of the jacaranda tree whispered in the wind. The beautiful jacaranda tree. They had one like that once. She thought she’d miss that tree and that house but although she did at first, after a while she came to love the different place where she moved to. And then this place where she lives now, by the sea, the place where J came to live with her. The place where they pretended they could live together. Where he went off to work every day and she kissed him goodbye at the front door. The place where he’d come home to her at night.
‘I’ll fill in a form for you to have a blood test whenever you want. You won’t have to come and see me first. You can go straight there.’
He walks over to his desk. ‘Anything else you want tested?’
‘You’d better add iron. And the test for blood sugar. A family history of diabetes.’
‘Those arms look like they’ve done a lot of work,’ said the nurse as she tightened the strap around Sofya’s arm.
‘What do you mean? How can you tell?’
‘The veins. You’ve got good veins. The veins are connected to the muscles.’
When she was a teenager she’d wanted to have dance lessons. ‘I learnt to dance without lessons,’ Mother had said. ‘So you can too.’
There were huge waves out to sea after the winds of the night. The biggest she’d ever seen in fact. They really were magnificent. She’d listened to the winds as they’d thrashed the ocean waves through the branches of the trees.
Step further across for the forwards ochos, said the visiting Argentinian dance teacher. Step further back behind me for the turn and swivel. Keep your left hip down when doing a forwards ocho. Caress the floor with your feet. No feet in the air. Relax your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders down. Do the cross whether the man leads you into it or not (she thinks that’s what he said). Be heavy on the front foot in the cross. Weight forwards.
Keep your knees together when you do an adornment. Keep the adornments simple. Just do one or two. Polish the leg and then down again; then step over. Slow down on the turns. Don’t run. Keep your right wrist firm. In the open embrace let your arms go up and down the man’s arm. Up to behind his neck and then down to his forearm.’
‘You’ve had a lesson with the best,’ said Pedro.
‘I’ve been saving myself,’ she’d said proudly.
It was about 6.30 on a Friday. Early summer. The bougainvilleas and the jacarandas were already in bloom but no frangipanis yet. She’d been waiting for J to come home, looking forward to his return from the city, hoping they’d sit together with a drink outside on the balcony. He’d have a shower and get changed and then they’d go out for the meal that he’d promised her.
Instead he was on the phone, his face slightly in shadow but well lit enough for her to see the ever present cigarette. Half inside, half outside so he could exhale out the door. His voice droned on and on. The wind increased in force. A strong wind, blowing against her head, her hair, her hands. Her furious heart beat hard against the walls of her ribs. Then the wind died down again and she could only hear his voice ; not the sound of the birds anymore or the movement of the leaves on the trees.
It rained a lot that night. The sound of the waterfall below. The sound of water after rain.
It’s all your fault anyway, she said to the doctor.
He looked puzzled.
You said to me, ‘It’s your body. You can do what you like with it,’ in that moralising tone of yours.
I would have only said that, he said gently, if I thought you were being too generous with your body.
After that bit of moralising I’ve turned that whole side of myself off. Anyway, I have no libido. So it’s not such an issue anymore.
Well, that’s good.
He took a sip of his coffee that surely must be cold already.
There’s more to me than you think, he said.
You’re very blinkered, she said. She held up her hands beside her face to imitate a horse with covers at the side of his eyes. Straight. You haven’t got an open mind, in some areas, she clarified.
He pulled a face.
I bet your daughter, or daughters, tell you that.
They’re too polite.
Your daughter looked lovely by the way. The one I saw last time.
Yes. I thought you had a son and a daughter.
No. I’ve got three daughters.
Three daughters? And a son?
Yes. So you think I need to open my chakras? he joked.
She shrugged. Chakras spin, they don’t open.
You might be surprised. I could be a Buddhist.
Is my time up? She said with an anxious glance at the clock.
It’s okay, he reassured her. I hadn’t noticed.
At dusk the last of the brightness of the pink sighed above the horizon. The sea a woolly blanket of blue and white. The same four palm trees all in a row between the road and the beach. The pale face of the moon two thirds of the way to the sky. One eighth of the side of its face missing but still the moon looked down, almost expressionless. A woman flashed the blue of her helmet as she cycled with strong thighs up Bronte Road, head bent in concentration on the road ahead as a bus bellowed black dust. The pink of the sky turned into mauve mixed with blue as the French cook arrived with his pale blue scarve knotted like a boy scout tight around his neck. With his right hand he checked his balls for reassurance as he mounted the step into the café.
It is unusual for Sofya to be outside these days, but no more odd than spending hours inside at the Mitchell Library looking at microfilm or walking through Waverley Cemetry looking for graves, no more odd than her work, or the people stuck on hot trains and buses trying to get home from work, or other places where people find themselves as they struggle to get through their days.
Times change, your life changes and you need to shift.
At our age we’re not going to improve our game of tennis, said the man on Bare Island.
Speak for yourself, she’d said.
The brown bird with a black triangle on his head jumped on the green see saw of a branch. Up and down he went, up and down, until he flew off again in a southerly direction.
‘The bastards,’ the doctor said as a joke, with a tilt of his head and a puffing out his cheeks as if he was about to spit on the ground in disgust.
‘I love it when you do that,’ she laughed. ‘That’s the way it is exactly.’
Back home after the dance, she’d gone straight to her room. She’d turned on the lamp and knelt on the bed to pile the cushions up. Tears came almost to her eyes, her stomach empty with sadness. It was all such a bloody fantasy. She stared around at the night silence, then huddled in her bed.
She had a box of 100 Dilmah tea bags that she’d bought especially for J. When the box is empty, she told herself, the pain will have eased.
Six months later, she walked outside to the balcony, sat on the chaisse lounge that they’d chosen together and looked down the gully at the grey sea. She drank the last tea bag from the box.
The tea was strong and hot, and so bitter it parched her tongue.
First published in Quadrant
Copyright © 2016 Libby Sommer