Dark Tangos preview

The first time I saw her was in the chrome and cracked-plaster lobby of Universal's Buenos Aires office. From where I stood, on the other side of the glass wall that separated our servers from the noise and dirt of the city, I got an impression of power and grace from the way she held herself, saw long dark hair and a flash of gold at her ears and wrists.

She was one more beautiful woman in a city full of beautiful women, and young, not much past thirty. Yet something made me look again. Maybe her nose, which was long and slightly crooked, as if it had been broken in the distant past and never properly set.

She was deep in conversation with the receptionist, a young guy with a dark suit and a permanent five o'clock shadow. It seemed like he was not giving her what she wanted, though I couldn't hear their words through the glass.

She glanced up at me and I thought she would look away, bored or even annoyed by another wistful male gaze. Instead she let me see something else, a question, an urgency.

I found myself, to my surprise, mouthing words to her in Spanish: «Can I help?»

She gave me a rueful smile and a small, tilted shake of the head that said no, thanks. Then she turned back to the receptionist and I forced myself to walk away.

It was my first full day on the job. I'd been in the city for a week, moving into my tiny apartment, opening a bank account, putting a local chip in my cell phone, contacting old friends. I also called my favorite of the tango teachers I'd worked with on previous trips and scheduled some private classes. I drifted from one thing to the next as if in a dream, sometimes looking up to realize I didn't remember the last ten minutes.

In terms of time zones, Buenos Aires is only an hour ahead of North Carolina. What I was feeling was not jetlag but culture lag, life lag. I could focus my brain on no more than one thing at a time, and my feelings had shut down entirely. There had been too many shocks in a row, more than I could bounce back from.

The Buenos Aires office existed in another era from Universal's vast campus in Research Triangle Park. My cubicle had gray metal walls instead of taupe fabric. Bare fluorescent bulbs hummed from stained fixtures on tile ceilings instead of being tucked away in recesses. The background sounds came from cars and buses six floors below and not from piped-in white noise.

I'd lost most of the morning tracking down a laptop and a port replicator, a mouse and monitor and keyboard, and I spent the afternoon getting my email ID and installing software. By suppertime I had managed to connect to the repositories in our upstate New York headquarters, check out my programs, and write exactly three lines of new code. I felt as pleased with myself as if I'd won a marathon, and about as exhausted.

But that night, on the edge of sleep, I thought of her again.

My first trip to Buenos Aires had been in 2003, three years before. Universal had flown me down to meet the local programmers assigned to the governance software project. They would report to me in North Carolina, and I would get my choice of the most interesting parts to write myself.

I arrived at the end of September, as spring was lighting up the monochrome streets. In what spare time I had, I wandered the city and let the strangeness settle on my skin like the dust and grit in the air. It reminded me of Paris, but a younger Paris, sprawled across wide avenues dotted with plane trees and purple jacarandas and the swollen trunks of palos borrachos. Most of the grey stone buildings had gone up between 1875 and World War II, when Argentina was one of the ten richest nations on the planet. The architectural style was massive and European, with wrought-iron grilles and balconies full of flowering plants, arches and domes and the occasional red-tiled roof that gave everything a Spanish accent. And now primary-colored storefronts erupted from the ground floors, even as sprays of black graffiti on the endless corrugated metal security doors provided a reminder that the days of first-world status were long gone.

The sidewalks swarmed with pedestrians, men in dark suits and women in black dresses and heels. Despite the formality of the clothes, it was a city where both sexes greeted each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It was a city with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, where newspaper kiosks sold the novels of Borges and Cortázar, and bookstores lined Avenida Corrientes. It was also a city where the homeless slept in doorways and the weight of 13 million people stretched the city's resources to the breaking point. Cartoneros went through the trash on the streets for scrap cardboard and plastic to recycle, and crafters in the plazas made stunning art from cans and bottles and folded subway tickets. And it was a city of tango music, bandoneones and violins and pianos, the heart-wrenching melodies that evoked the giant, echoing ballrooms of the 1930s, and the insistent rhythms that whispered of seduction.

My first morning in the city, groggy and stale from ten hours on an airplane, I wandered into the flea market at Plaza Dorrego and saw an older man dancing tango, not in the clichéd fedora and ascot, but bareheaded in a loose white shirt, his long gray hair slicked back, a dark-skinned and eagle-beaked son of indigenous Americans named Luis Ortega, though everybody called him Don Güicho. I saw the joy in his dancing and the pleasure in the eyes of his partner and I was hooked.

Back in the States, I found out that there had been tango all around me without my knowing it. I convinced Lauren to take classes with me, and while the first months were frustrating, there were milongas once or twice a week where I could glimpse the grace and sensuality that had spoken to me in Buenos Aires. Like all principiantes, we started with open embrace, looking like teenagers at a junior high school prom. But it was close embrace that held the magic for me, where tango became a three-minute love affair, intense, passionate, hypnotic—if I could get past my self-consciousness enough to enjoy it.

I took Lauren with me to Buenos Aires the next September. We went directly to Plaza Dorrego, where we found Don Güicho and convinced him to give us private lessons.

Unfortunately, the second life it gave our marriage didn't last. Lauren dropped out of the classes, though she came to Buenos Aires again with me in 2005. After that she was through with dancing entirely and by the next summer she was through with me.

That had been in June, three months before I arrived in Buenos Aires to stay. She came home from work one day and informed me that she was putting our marriage "on hiatus." I was reasonably sure she was having an affair, though somehow that issue failed to come up in the polite negotiations that followed. Lauren was the director of Durham Regional Hospital, making twice what I did, so logic dictated that she keep the house and the mortgage payments while I found a place over a friend's garage. I took only a few favorite pieces of the furniture I had repaired and refinished over the years because that was all I had room for. I kept half the savings in case of emergencies and she agreed to pay for Sam's last year of college. The rest of what was mine, including my books and my woodworking tools, went into storage.

The dislocation had been profound. I'd been moving all my life, and when we'd bought that house I'd sworn that this was it, that the only way I would leave would be feet first. Some days I missed the house more than I missed the marriage.

I was three weeks into the separation when my manager at Universal called me into her office to tell me that my job had "relocated" overseas. It was as if she'd come in that morning and been unable to find it, or discovered a farewell note next to the coffeemaker. I had the option of moving to Buenos Aires with it, or I could quit, which meant I couldn't even collect unemployment. If I chose Buenos Aires, I would be paid the same number of Argentine pesos that I was currently making in dollars, coming to somewhat less than a third of my US salary.

The timing was remarkable, in that way disasters have of finding each other. Even without my telling her about Lauren, she seemed to know how little I had left to lose. I said that I needed a couple of days to think about Argentina, but in truth I'd known all along that I would go.

My second day on the job, Bahadur Singh invited me to lunch. He was my immediate boss and the manager for all the sixth floor programmers. We were fellow outsiders to the easygoing Latin attitude toward time and deadlines, and over years of long distance phone calls we'd found enough other things in common to sustain a friendship.

Bahadur was from the Punjab via Bangalore, a Sikh with lineage going back to the eighteenth century. For him, the move to Buenos Aires had been a promotion too substantial to refuse, though now that he was here he regretted it. There were not many Indians in Buenos Aires and fewer Sikhs. The winters were far colder than he had anticipated and the meat-and-leather culture of Argentina took a constant toll on his sensibilities. He was still struggling with his Spanish and was relieved to be able to speak English with me.

I told him about the woman I'd seen in the lobby. "I don't know why she made such an impression on me."

"You had a darshan of her," Bahadur said. "That's when you don't just passively observe someone, you really see into them, yes?" He pointed his index and middle fingers at his eyes. "It's a gift from the Divine."

"It was just that there was some kind of mystery there."

"Yeah, right, Rob. That and the fact that she was a knockout." Bahadur loved US slang, which he picked up by watching too many DVDs alone in his apartment.

I shrugged and looked at my plate and he laughed.

We were sitting in a hole-in-the-wall café on the ground floor below the office, little more than an oven and a few tables on a linoleum floor. There was a glass case with cold cuts, bread, empanadas, and fresh fruit.

Through the windows I could see Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world. The cars, most of them taxis, ignored the painted lines and swarmed into any available space. A few blocks to the right was el Obelisco, the city's best known symbol, so blatantly phallic that the year before, the city government had covered it with a 200-foot pink condom for the duration of World AIDS Day.

El Obelisco sat on a concrete island in the intersection of 9 de Julio and Corrientes. Corrientes was the aorta of Buenos Aires, running from the heart of the microcentro, where I sat, past theaters and bookstores and nightclubs and restaurants, past the US-style Abasto shopping mall, dying out finally near the huge Chacarita cemetery. It was always red in my mind, red for the illuminated plastic signs for Linea B of the subway that runs beneath it, for the neon lighting up the gray buildings, for the taillights of the cars headed east «hacia el bajo,» toward the Rio de la Plata that forms the northeastern border of the city and the country.

Spring had come again, though the overdressed porteños that I could see on the sidewalks were slow to admit it. They'd insulated themselves with long scarves and high boots, sweaters and cashmere overcoats. I myself had compromised with the dressier Buenos Aires standards, wearing a long-sleeved soft cotton shirt, khakis, and a knit tie. Bahadur tended toward jeans and rugby shirts. He was tall and lean and fit, with a curly black beard and gentle eyes. He'd had on a different colored turban every time I'd seen him and that day he was in navy blue.

He was eating a slice of the tarta de verduras, a pie stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and acelga, the Swiss chard that Argentines used in place of spinach. I had gone for the empanadas de choclo, filled with a corn and cream sauce that had a famous tango named after it.

A woman's voice said, «Mind if I join you?»

I looked up and saw Isabel, the director of the Buenos Aires office. She was in her early fifties, a few years older than me, compact, olive-skinned, with a scattering of white in her short black hair. Her eyes sat close together and it gave her a certain intensity of expression. She had a generous mouth and an easy smile, and she made it clear that I didn't want to know what happened when the smile went away. Her nickname, which she encouraged, was La Reina, the Queen.

«¿Como no?» I said, and stood up so she could squeeze past me.

«You settling in okay?» she asked. «Bahadur isn't trying to talk you into any of his crazy chanting shit, is he?»

«It's not crazy, it's kirtan,» Bahadur said. «It's quite beautiful, some of it. If you have the patience for it.»

Isabel had a big laugh, not something you heard much from Universal's upper management in the US. We talked about the governance project, and then about my apartment in the old San Telmo district, which she considered a dangerous part of town. She brought up the Boca Juniors futbol team and I had to tell her that I was not a sports fan, my father having forced me to play games I had no aptitude for as a kid.

After a silence, she said, «Tell me, Beto, how bad is it in the US?»

I'd told everyone to call me Beto, short for Roberto, rather than my English name. It was one more way to put distance between me and my old life in the States.

«It's hard to know the truth,» I told her. «They don't keep statistics on everyone who's unemployed, only on the ones who are getting benefits, and those run out after six months.»

«It's the same here,» Bahadur said. «They had an official unemployment rate of twenty percent not that long ago and you know it was really twice that. Now they say it's gone down, but you still see the homeless everywhere.»

I said, «All I know is a lot of my friends are out of work and not finding anything. And Universal is laying people off, like everyone else.»

«Which is why you're here, no?» Isabel said.

I shrugged. «It was a good opportunity for me. I love Buenos Aires. I always wondered how it would be to live here.»

«I think maybe you're being diplomatic. That's not a bad thing. Still, you wonder where all this is going to end up. I know Jim would not be laying people off if there was any other way. You never met Jim, did you?»

I shook my head. She was talking about James W. Watkins, the Senior Vice President for Software Development at Universal, one of the most powerful men in the company. It was a little-known fact that Watkins' first assignment for the company was in Buenos Aires, back in 1975. He spent seven years as director, doubling the size of the staff as well as the revenue, before getting promoted to the Anaheim office. He was at the top of the chain of command that included the three of us, and he had a reputation for being a decent guy who kept his door open to his employees.

«I was just a secretary when I started here,» Isabel said. «Somehow Jim noticed me. He paid attention to everyone. He saw something in me, I don't know what. God knows I wasn't that cute, but he helped me get promoted. I still hear from him now and then. I think he would take an interest in everybody in the company if he could, but with half a million people, what can you do?»

I smiled and nodded. I suspected you couldn't be that selfless and still claw your way to the top of a global giant like Universal Systems, though I liked Isabel's loyalty.

Isabel had sat down with a large chunk of bread stuffed with ham and cheese, and she had worked at it with steady concentration while she listened to us, to the point that she was finished and drinking off the last of her Diet Coke while Bahadur and I were still eating.

«Hope you guys write code faster than you eat,» she said, standing up.

«No one can keep up with you, mi reina,» Bahadur said. «This is well known.»

She laughed again and put both hands on my shoulders as she squeezed past. «Believe everything everyone tells you, this has always been my philosophy. See you.»

When she was gone, Bahadur said, "She's a ball of fire, yes? Always has been."

"With Jim behind her, I would think she could transfer to the States and really move up."

"She doesn't seem to want it. She gets offers sometimes, but she doesn't want to leave Buenos Aires."

I looked outside again. The scruffy trees on the median showed new leaves, the hands of the people on the sidewalks danced as they talked, and the very air seemed to glow.

"I can understand that," I said.

Bahadur shook his head. "Then you are as crazy as she is. It's just a big, dirty city. Finish up and let's go back to work."

Office hours in the city run from nine in the morning until seven or eight at night. People take long lunches, sometimes go home for a nap and work into the evening. Dinner is anywhere from eight to eleven p.m., and then the fun starts.

I once asked Don Güicho when people were supposed to sleep. He smiled happily and said, «Nunca.» Never.

At 7:30 I locked my desk, slung my bright orange shoe bag over my shoulder, and left for my class.

Bahadur was right that Buenos Aires was dirty, but wrong about it not being special. The animated neon signs surrounding the Obelisk hung from old buildings by flimsy scaffolding, yet the effect at night reminded me of the energy and excitement of Times Square—except for the way the wide avenue made everything feel so open and spacious, and the warmth and sociability of the crowds that was the antithesis of New York.

I turned my back on el Obelisco and walked south through the cool evening. The air smelled of car exhaust and the spiced peanuts the vendors sold on the street, of perfume and grilling meat. I heard laughter and sales pitches and music pouring out of the brightly lit stores, tango and electronica, ballads and rap and the Rolling Stones.

I took the stairs down into the Subte and shoehorned myself into the crowd on a hundred-year-old car on the A line. I rode three stops to El Once, an older neighborhood west of the central business district, where Don Güicho taught classes in the Saverio Perre studio.

When I got back to street level it was fully dark. I walked south past a park full of barking dogs to Avenida Belgrano, turned right through a neighborhood of high-end furniture stores to a corroded metal door in the middle of the block, and rang the bell. A motorcycle roared past, trailing rapid-fire Spanish from its radio. After a second the buzzer sounded and I climbed a flight of steep, worn marble steps to the studio.

Saverio himself greeted me at the top, porteño style, with a hug and kiss on the cheek. I'd been a little nonplussed the first time it happened, despite warnings in the guidebooks, and then I'd quickly taken to it. There hadn't been a lot of physical affection in my family and a part of me hungered for it.

Saverio was small, aristocratic, with long white hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. He had a kind of radiance that made his age impossible to guess. He asked after my health in Italian, the second language of the city, a language I only wished I spoke, and offered me the same cup of coffee that I always refused. He had these sorts of running jokes with everybody. There had apparently been some back sacada that he'd tried to teach Don Güicho twenty years before and Saverio would ask him how it was coming along, or whether he planned to teach it to me that day.

In his long life, Saverio had been an actor, singer, and dancer, and taught all those things. The walls were covered with posters and photos of him and the celebrities he'd taught and the films and festivals and shows and awards they'd all been part of. Some of the biggest names in tango were on those walls and Don Güicho's was among them.

It was one more thing about Buenos Aires that moved me, the sense of history that the US so badly lacked. There were a few modern shopping centers in the city, including the massive Abasto mall that literally cast a shadow over the childhood home of Carlos Gardel, the world's most famous tango singer. But there was not much new development, and even renovations of existing buildings were likely to provoke storms of protest, especially in my San Telmo neighborhood.

As usual, Don Güicho was late and I was early. I changed my shoes and talked to Saverio, and at ten past eight Don Güicho came running lightly up the stairs, followed by Brisa, his latest in a long line of dance partners. Though Don Güicho himself must have been past 60, his energy seemed infinite. He was my height, six feet, thinner even than I was, with a wiry strength I'd never had. I felt it in his abrazo there at the top of the stairs.

«One of my students saw you at Salon Canning last night,» Saverio said to Don Güicho. «He very much admired your sacada por atrás.»

«You should teach it to him,» Don Güicho said.

Saverio shook his head sadly. «Apparently I lack the skill to teach that step.»

There was a sense of haste even in Don Güicho's small talk. Saverio pointed us to the nearest studio and Brisa led the way in. The floor was a worn, intricate parquet, a hundred years old. The high walls were powdery white stucco, covered with still more posters and photos. Two battered steel and black vinyl chairs were pushed against the wall, and a small triangular shelf in one corner held a vintage boom box. Brisa sat down to change into her four-inch heels.

She was a college student, smart and ambitious, with fair skin and dark brown hair, the sort of Northern Italian good looks that had prompted then-President Sarmiento to flood Argentina with Italian immigrants in the 1880s. It was part of a policy that included the elimination of virtually the entire black population. Blancificación, Don Güicho had called it when he explained it to me. The results were obvious walking down any street in Buenos Aires. Many blacks had been cannon fodder in a bloody war with Paraguay and there were rumors of concentration camps and forced marches across the Brazilian border. By the 1920s, the few remaining blacks in Argentina had simply stopped having children.

Don Güicho shrugged out of the backpack that he carried everywhere, opened a set of French doors that let onto a tiny balcony, and folded back the ubiquitous steel shutters to let in the night air and the sounds of traffic. He put on a CD of D'Arienzo tangos, spare and staccato, and as soon as Brisa got to her feet, he wiggled his fingers at us and said «dale,» the all-purpose Argentine equivalent of "let's go."

Brisa smiled. I reached behind her with my right arm, gripping her lightly outside her right shoulder blade and drawing her gently into me. Her left arm went around my neck and she sighed—anticipation, pleasure, acceptance—a thrilling sound. We breathed together for a moment and I felt the warmth of her body against me. Then I reached for her right hand with my left and pointed our forearms upward. I found my place in the music, shifted her onto her left foot, and led a slow step to my left.

I had been rehearsing in my mind the move he'd shown me in our last class and as I thought about it, I felt my shoulders start to creep up around my neck. I forced them down, breathed again, focused on the beautiful woman in my arms and tried to think about the steps I wanted her to take and not my own.

Tango, at some level, is simple. There are only three steps: forward, backward, and the so-called open step to the side. The lead comes from the torso. The arms, relaxed, merely extend the torso and add clarity. The hands are still.

The steps come only at specific intervals in relation to the music. On the beat, or tiempo. Double time, or doble tiempo, and half time, or medio tiempo. Then there is contratiempo, the skipping heartbeat of the habanera rhythm, the African ancestor who will not be denied, da-DUM dum dum.

Yet for every rule, tango finds a loophole. The leader can pivot the follower, or himself, before taking any of those three steps. Leader and follower do not have to step at the same time, or in the same direction, or take the same number of steps. The complexities multiply exponentially until hope of mastering even the bare essentials of the dance recedes into an improbable future.

«Don't think so much,» Don Güicho said. «Just dance.»

I gave up on replaying the move I had not quite learned and tried instead to dance the music. Brisa was a marvelous partner, needing only the smallest cues to execute anything I asked for, but my brain was floodlit with self-consciousness, straining for something appropriate to lead for each new phrase of the music, to keep the leads subtle and clean, to keep my feet close to the floor without dragging, to keep my posture straight yet relaxed, to make my arms and shoulders a perfect circle from my eje, my axis, my center.

After less than a minute, Don Güicho said «bueno,» not as praise but as a signal to stop.

I stepped away from Brisa and said «Gracias,» and Don Güicho stepped in. He took her through a sequence of moves that involved two changes of direction, blocking her right foot in a parada, and swinging her left leg around the back of his right in a gancho, and we were off.

For the next hour I struggled to keep up, to stay focused, to take the same steps he took without losing the fundamentals of the dance. Brisa gave me a gentle correction or a nod of encouragement here and there, while Don Güicho stayed impassive and intent, with an occasional «ahí va» or «eso» when I got something right, and more often a «¡no!» with a wagging finger, followed by a demonstration—sometimes he would take me by the arm and walk me through it side by side with him, sometimes he would take me by the elbows or into close embrace and lead me through the follower's part. Only at the very end did I get a «Muy bien, Beto, bien hecho.»

I used my cell phone to film Don Güicho going through everything we'd done, then Brisa had to rush off for a dinner date. I paid Don Güicho for the class and Saverio for the room and changed my shoes, feeling deeply tired.

Don Güicho walked me down to the street and said, «Can we change your lesson to Thursdays? My class at the Sexto Kultural starts up again next Wednesday.» It was a public cultural center in a run-down building across from the Federico Lacroze railway station. I'd been to a few of his classes there on previous trips.

«Sure, no problem.»

«Bueno,» he said, about to take his leave, and then he said, «Where are you going now?»

«Back to my apartment, I guess.»

«A friend of mine is opening his new café tonight. I'm going over there now if you're interested. Good food, tango music, there's a little dance floor. I'm teaching a beginner's class there later.»

«Sure.» I hadn't spent a lot of time with him outside of class, so I was flattered by the invitation.

He took off at a fast pace and I had to hurry to keep up. After a block or so he said, «Do you know this neighborhood? El Once?» I shook my head. «It used to have a big Jewish population, lots of stores, synagogues, textiles. During the Crisis there was a lot of emigration to Israel, so it's different now.»

The Crisis started in the late 1980s with hyperinflation and ended in 2002 with a staggering devaluation that wiped out most people's savings. Though the peso had been stable since 2003, the resentment and protests continued.

Carlos Menem had been President for most of the Crisis years. Menem had pushed the so-called "neoliberal" program of privatization, cutting social programs and letting the IMF and World Bank set the agenda for foreign investment.

«Everything changing,» Don Güicho said, «so much of it not for the better.» He stopped to look in the window of a stationery store. Though it was closed and dark, we could see wooden cabinets and floors and wainscoting through the iron bars. «There are still a few old stores like this one. We lose more of them every year.»

«It's beautiful,» I said. «You don't see anything like this in the US anymore.»

We were walking a zigzag course, north then east then north again. As we turned right onto the avenue that would eventually take us past El Congreso, the National Congress building, I heard the noise of a crowd. The closer we got to El Congreso, the louder and angrier the voices got.

I looked at Don Güicho. «What's going on?»

«Una manifestación,» he said. A demonstration. «Over Jorge Julio López.»

I shook my head. «I think I heard the name somewhere. Did I miss something?»

I had.

I of course knew about the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Their euphemistic "National Reorganization Process," el Proceso, included the kidnapping, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of civilians. The victims were accused of having liberal sympathies, or being related to someone who did, of being a teacher or a student or a writer, or being pro-union. The usual estimate was 30,000 dead. It was hard to be sure because so few of the bodies were ever recovered. This was the regime that gave us the word "disappeared" as a noun.

Tens of thousands were also tortured and set free as a warning. One of them was Jorge Julio López, who spent close to three years in various detention centers.

When the regime finally fell, only nine men were tried. They were found guilty of human rights violations and sentenced to life in prison, then pardoned a few years later by Carlos Menem. The rest of the architects and henchmen of el Proceso were pardoned under what became known as La Ley de Punto Final, named for the period at the end of a sentence.

It wasn't until June of 2005 that the Argentine Supreme Court finally declared the law unconstitutional. A year later, the first defendant, Miguel Etchecolatz, was brought to trial. Etchecolatz was 77, sick and feeble. During his year and a half as Director of Investigations for Buenos Aires Province at the start of el Proceso, he had been responsible for a record number of kidnappings and detentions. The main witness for the prosecution was Jorge Julio López.

López was ill with Parkinson's and the experience of reliving his torture on the stand had been traumatic for him. He was to make his final court appearance on Monday, September 18, 10 days ago. On the night of the 17th, the day I'd arrived again in Buenos Aires, he had been at home in La Plata, south of the city, and that was the last anyone had seen of him.

Etchecolatz's supporters suggested that López had gone into hiding, or that the stress of the trial had left him befuddled and that he'd wandered off into the countryside. The suggestions were demolished as fast as they were made and none of them explained the recordings of torture sessions that had supposedly been left on his answering machine before he vanished.

Etchecolatz himself denied any involvement and claimed that the trial was nothing but a political exercise, that he was being punished for doing only what was necessary to protect his country from Communism. The judges sentenced him to life imprisonment, though the verdict was strictly pro forma. Under Argentine law, convicts over 70 years old can't be sent to prison, so he got off with house arrest.

During el Proceso, the repression had been so fierce, so absolute, so widespread, that there had been no organized attempt to fight back. The montoneros, the guerillas whose assassinations had provided the junta's excuse for their reign of terror, had been all but wiped out before the coup and no one emerged to take their place.

The only substantial protest had been by Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the women who marched in front of the Presidential Palace, demanding the return of their children with the refrain, «Aparición con vida,» let them appear alive, and even Las Madres had been subjected to beatings and murder attempts.

Those years had cost the people of Argentina their tolerance for silence. During the Crisis they invented the cacerolazo, a protest march to the banging of pots and pans, pieces of metal pipe, anything that would make noise, and they attacked the bank buildings with hammers, paint, urine, and bonfires. Buildings were covered with political graffiti, from scrawled slogans to elaborate murals to something I'd never seen before: small, detailed paintings done with stencils and multiple layers of spray paint, showing a woman's face with her mouth taped shut and her eyes bulging in fear, or an anarchist about to hurl a bouquet of flowers, or a portrait of Mexico's Subcomandante Marcos. And when something particularly outrageous happened, they took to the streets by the hundreds—men, women, children, and grandparents.

That was what had happened in front of El Congreso.

The mob of protesters had massed across the street from the Palacio. They carried a twenty-foot banner that read APARICIÓN CON VIDA: JORGE JULIO LÓPEZ and individuals in the crowd held signs that showed his face and a question mark. They chanted «¡Dijimos nunca más!» again and again, and the sheer quantity of anger in those voices was both thrilling and frightening. I couldn't imagine being on the other end of that much collective rage, or what kind of repercussions they might bring down on themselves.

Literally translated, the chant meant, «We told you never again,» but the «nunca más» was a loaded reference, deliberately evoking the title of the 1984 report published by the national commission that had investigated the abuses of el Proceso. It was nearly 500 pages of fine print that included account after firsthand account of kidnap and torture, photos of the detention centers, lists of the missing.

Dozens of police encircled the demonstrators. The cops were in black uniforms, black billed caps, and orange bulletproof vests. Parked conspicuously nearby were black vans, police cruisers, and a flimsy-looking tank with a pair of machine guns mounted on the roof. The threat of violence was palpable and everything about the scene screamed that I was not in the US anymore. It had all the makings of one of those overseas bloodbath photos that would be everywhere for a couple of days and leave privileged white middle class US citizens like me feeling sickened and at the same time grateful to be a continent away from it.

Don Güicho might have been watching a slow, elegantly played futbol match. He stood with his hands in the straps of his backpack and smiled and nodded and said, «Bien, bien.»

As I had learned to do in the last few weeks, I made a quick estimate of my anxiety level. I surreptitiously found the pulse below my left thumb and counted the beats, a cognitive therapy trick I'd picked up on the Internet. I tried to sound casual as I said, «How dangerous is this?»

«Not so much, I think. The government is on their side in this. They would like nothing better than for Lopez to suddenly show up, alive and well. This makes everybody look bad. The cops will let them work off their anger and keep anybody from getting hurt.»

«You think López is dead?»

«Of course he is. The junior officers from Etchecolatz's day are the ones in charge now. I'm sure he's got connections still. Maybe they even found a green Falcon to pick him up with.»

Green Falcons—supplied to the government by the Ford Motor Company—were the vehicles of choice for the euphemistically named grupos de tarea, the "task groups" who did the actual kidnapping back in the seventies. It was part of the branding. Just the sight of a green Falcon in those days would clear the streets. The task group, usually in plain clothes, always heavily armed, would approach its victims in the street, in their apartments, at their jobs. The kidnappings took place in broad daylight, at suppertime, in the dead of night. The victims were immediately tied up or handcuffed, hooded, and dragged to the car. They were thrown on the floorboards and the car would scream away from the scene, a calculated process of disorientation that would culminate in the sadistic application of electric shock at the detention centers.

«It's hard to believe,» I said. «That it could happen again, after all these years.»

«That's what they're saying.» Don Güicho pointed to the protesters. «For those of us who lived through it, this is our worst nightmare, that it could all start again. Because it never really ended for us. There was no justice, the guilty were left to walk the streets, you could look over some night and see the man who tortured you sitting at the next table at the café. There are all those tens of thousands of people who disappeared and we'll never know what really happened to them. So the ones left behind can't even mourn properly, can't ever get past it.»

I nodded, not wanting to say anything that might distract him. In all the time I'd spent in Buenos Aires, no one had ever volunteered anything about those days, and anyone I asked about it would quickly change the subject. It was Argentina's Holocaust, literally unspeakable.

«But the world is catching up to us, no?» he said. «They openly steal elections even in the United States now, and torture and terrorize civilians in Iraq. Where are the human rights in Russia and China? After Videla and the rest, we had Menem, who was even worse in some ways. So why not more kidnappings? López and now maybe this guy Suarez, too.»


Don Güicho shrugged. «There's a guy named Marco Suarez that disappeared last week. He's not like López, he wasn't kidnapped and tortured during el Proceso. There's nothing obvious to connect him to the dictatorship, so he didn't make the news. The thing is, I heard from one of my contacts that he was on a list of witnesses for another trial, the trial of Emiliano Cesarino. Cesarino was an officer under Videla and he was the one in charge of coordinating the detention centers. So one night last week Suarez told his wife he was going out to get some oranges. Apparently he loved oranges, they made him think of the tropics. He never came home.»

There was another roar from the crowd and I felt the sweat break on my forehead. «We should go,» I said. «We don't want you to be late.»

Don Güicho gave me a curious look and then nodded. We started walking again and I tried not to hurry. A line of cops stood at the edge of the sidewalk to keep people from blocking the street and we had to pass within a few feet of them. I felt their eyes on me, profiling me as foreign, possibly trouble.

«You seem different from last year,» Don Güicho said. «More nervous or something.»

There were a lot of things I hadn't told Don Güicho. This was not the time to start. «Things are different now,» I said. «I'm separated, I'm not on vacation anymore.»

«You shouldn't think of it that way. Now you're on vacation all the time.»

«Tell that to my boss,» I said. The police were behind us, the crowd noises fading. The moment had passed and I felt the coolness of the sweat drying on my forehead.

«Speaking of your job,» Don Güicho said, «did you know that Suarez worked for your company?»

«For Universal? You're kidding me.»

«No, he was there most of his life. He used to be a handyman, you know, change the light bulbs, fix a broken chair. He was smart, taught himself how to work on computers. He was supposed to retire, but he liked the work and he was still there until he...disappeared.»

It made me feel strangely vulnerable that Isabel and Bahadur and the developers under me had been touched so directly by the cold, dead hand of the dictatorship. As sad and obvious as the sentiment was, the personal connection made his disappearance more real and more disturbing.

«They really think Suarez was kidnapped? And murdered?»

«The police say no. But my friends? My friends think yes.»

Don Güicho had never been specific about who his friends were. I knew he leaned toward the left and that in Latin America the left was far more radical than what I was used to, generally meaning strong anti-US sentiment and socialist ideology.

Don Güicho stopped in front of a shop window with the words «El Caburé» painted in the gaudy style of the souvenir plaques that were for sale on every street corner. It was both a transliteration of "cabaret" and the name of a famous tango. «Here we are,» he said.

Inside, the place was not much larger than the shop where I'd had lunch. A tiny hardwood dance floor filled the back, leaving room for a few tables in the front and a bar down the left side. There was a man on the dance floor, dark and handsome, late thirties, wearing a charcoal pin-stripe suit over an open white shirt. He broke off the introductory tango lesson he'd been giving to an older woman with unrealistically yellow hair to greet Don Güicho. She seemed irked as the two men ignored her.

«Beto, this is Miguel Autrillo,» Don Güicho said. «He was a student of mine a long time ago, but now I should be studying with him.»

«Never,» Autrillo said. «You're the maestro.» He recognized me as a foreigner and so shook my hand rather than embracing me. «A pleasure. Where are you from?»

«Igualmente. I'm from the US.»

He switched to English. "Really? I thought maybe Paris or Rio."

I acknowledged the compliment with a tilt of the head and a smile. He was impossibly charming.

"I'm practicing my English because I want to tour the US next year. I have an agent setting up some dates now. I've tried for years to get Don Güicho to go, but he won't learn English."

«Eeenglish,» Don Güicho smiled. «You can't teach tango in Eeenglish.»

«You can if you want to make money at it,» Autrillo said.

I got out one of my business cards and on the back I wrote the email address of a tango instructor in Durham who put on a lot of workshops. «Tell him I recommended you.»

Autrillo was effusively grateful and gave me his own card and finally begged off to return to his lesson.

«Are you hungry?» Don Güicho asked me.

I nodded. «My treat. Since you are doomed to poverty for your lack of Eeenglish.»

Don Güicho ordered a hamburger and I got a plate of gnocchi. One of the consequences of the blancificación was the abundance of superb Italian food at most of the restaurants in the city, making it easy for me to be a vegetarian in a nation of beef eaters.

When the food came, Don Güicho said, «Argentina has the best beef in the world. You're crazy not to at least try it. How did you come by this eating disorder of yours?»

«I quit eating meat when I was a kid.»

«But why?» He was smiling, to excuse the rudeness. There was a side of Don Güicho that liked to tease, and it could be ruthless, like when he imitated me with my shoulders hunched and stiff.

«I was eight and my dog got hit by a car. It was bad, a lot of blood, and I saw the whole thing. That night my mother was cooking and I connected the meat in the kitchen with my dog and I told my mother I wasn't going to eat it anymore. She thought it would just be for a day or two, but I never backed down. For a while I went on eating chicken and fish, but really, it was the same thing for me and I didn't want to eat animals anymore.»

«You were a sensitive kid.»

«Yeah,» I said. «Sensitive.» His willingness to press opened the door for me to do the same. «So tell me. What was it like for you during el Proceso? You were never arrested, were you?»

Don Güicho shook his head. «For most people, things were not that different. It was a very quiet, very serious time. Especially during the Videla years. He was a very strict Catholic, very religious, so there was this enforced morality. They banned Carnival, they banned dancing, including tango. People mostly stayed home.

«There would be secret milongas, the information passed by word of mouth, and we would gather in a deserted building, in an inside room with no windows, late at night. For light we would only have flashlights and candles. Someone would bring a record player that worked on batteries, people would bring records, and we would dance. We would take turns keeping watch. Once the police came and I had to run down an alley carrying a phonograph. Somebody else had the speakers and somebody else had the records, all of us running in different directions.

«We were all angry about it, and scared, but in a way it made the tango more...intense. Because it was at risk. That was when I really came to understand tango for the first time. The music is full of despair and yet you dance to it. To me that says everything.»

I was tired and left after we finished eating. On my way back to the apartment, I stopped at the locutorio down the street to call Sam. I had never seen Skype before this trip, though everyone in Buenos Aires seemed to know about it and all the computers had headsets. Sam had scoffed at my ignorance when I first brought it up, and now it was our standard mode of communication.

"D!" he said when he made the connection. He claimed "D" was short for Dad, though I suspected it was "Dawg" in his head. He kept his dorm room dark and I could barely make him out in the square of video on the screen.

"Studying hard, are we?"

"D, if I'm not on the Internet, where am I going to find stuff to plagiarize for my papers?" He had been a beautiful child, getting Lauren's looks with a masculine edge, and girls followed him around long before he was interested. He hadn't lost the looks or the female interest now that he was nearly grown. He was the consolation for all the bad luck in my life. He'd never seemed unhappy for long stretches, had never gotten into serious trouble, had tried pot and ecstasy and not cared for them and told me so, had always hated cigarettes and never developed much of a taste for alcohol. It had always been music for him, piano early on and then guitar ­starting in high school. Now he was on his way to a music degree at Berklee in Boston.

We talked for a while about his band and my job and then he said, "So, are you and Mom talking?" He'd been as hurt by our separation as I'd ever seen him and he refused to believe it was permanent.

"In theory," I said.

"Which means you're not, but if you had to, you could probably be civil?"

"We haven't been less than civil in any of this. We just don't have a lot to say to each other at the moment."

"You could talk about how wonderful I am."

"Preaching to the converted."

"Call me this weekend?"

"If I can track you down. I love you, Sam."

"You too, D. See ya."

I got in at 11:30 and took a shower. The way I felt, there was no point in trying to sleep. I was able to put up a good front for Isabel and Don Güicho and the others, and most of the time I bought into it myself. Only sometimes, after a long day, did I sink into thoughts about the way I'd let everyone do what they wanted with me, let myself get hounded out of my marriage and my house and my stateside job and backed into this tiny apartment in a foreign city, left to fester, forgotten and alone in the middle of the night.

By objective standards, maybe my marriage had not been ideal, but I'd been happy enough. I'd always been drawn to smart, powerful women, and if Lauren was a little cold, a little distracted, I accepted it as part of the package. We both had demanding jobs and we'd both been good about making time for Sam, if not for each other. As Sam needed less of us, I'd spent more time in the workshop and Lauren's job had expanded to fill all the gaps.

Sex had been an infrequent occurrence for many years, but when Lauren did put it on her schedule, it was worth the wait. Her anatomical knowledge matched her complete lack of inhibitions, and on top of that she had a beautiful body that she maintained, like the expensive machine it was, in the hospital gym. As I stood there in my darkened kitchen, leaning out over the airshaft, I could picture that body, every square inch of it.

I thought of the demonstration for Jorge Julio López and my political perspective was swamped in a tidal wave of pettiness and self-pity. Where was my justice? What exactly had I done to wind up here?

I reached my hand up to my brow line, to push back my hair and ease the burning in my scalp that was one of my headache symptoms. I was careless, and a potted cactus that my landlady had left behind put a long scratch in my forearm.

I lashed out at the pot and watched it sail off into the darkness of the airshaft, then make a satisfying crash on the cement floor 20 feet below. Immediately my downstairs neighbor's dog began to bark furiously and lights came on and the patio door flew open.

«Lo siento,» I called down to her. «I'm sorry. An accident.»

She was in her sixties and lived with her daughter and three noisy grandchildren. She knelt by the mess I'd made. «The pot is broken,» she said, «but the plant is okay, I think. I will put it in a new pot for you tomorrow.»

I wanted to tell her to throw the damned thing away, then I felt ashamed. «Thank you,» I said.

«No, no, ¿por qué?»

I retreated to the kitchen. Her kindness should have helped my mood. Instead I felt smothered, ineffective, and sour.

The next day at work I asked Bahadur about Marco Suarez.

"Sure I know him," Bahadur said. "He does most of our IT. He's kind of a tough guy, you know, lower class upbringing and all that. He didn't go to college, he learned about computers on the job. He's nice enough, if you play it straight with him. He's got a desk in the corner of the hardware lab and he's there pretty much every day, though he's supposed to be retired. I haven't seen him in a few days, I hope he's okay..."

"He was kidnapped," I said.

"What? Kidnapped?"

"I heard he was on a witness list for the Emiliano Cesarino trial."

"No," Bahadur said, "nobody told me. Where did you hear that?"

"From somebody I trust."

I watched the anger come over him. It started in his eyes and ended up in his clenched hands. He looked away until he had himself under control. "Bastards," he said. "That's the thing that makes you crazy. That there is no punishment. No justice. Human evil, it's always been around. Only here it's never punished."

I had been waiting to go out dancing, mostly because of nerves. Without Lauren there, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to find anyone to dance with. The time had come to try.

Thursday was the early milonga at El Beso, "the kiss," a very traditional venue near El Congreso. It was on the second floor of a beautiful old building on Riobamba, a decent-sized dance space by local standards, with tiny, tightly packed tables on three sides. Single women sat on the side nearest the door, single men at right angles to them, couples on the far side of the dance floor. Invitations to dance were strictly by cabeceo, the tango tradition of eye contact followed by an inquiring tilt of the head from the leader. The follower then accepted with a nod or quickly looked away.

On my first two tango expeditions to Buenos Aires, between the less than stellar technique I was able to show on the dance floor and my having Lauren with me, I never once met a stranger's eyes at a milonga. Somehow every woman I looked at was looking somewhere else.

The year before—at El Beso, in fact—my luck had finally changed. It was our last night out before coming back to the States. Lauren had complained that her feet hurt and we'd hardly danced. The crowd had thinned after 11:00 and suddenly I was looking into the eyes of a woman all the way across the floor. I inclined my head, she nodded, and I felt like I'd hit my number at roulette.

The next challenge was passing muster. Tangos are played in sets of three or four and you are expected to dance the entire tanda with the same partner. If you don't live up to the follower's expectations and she doesn't care about hurting your feelings, she will murmur a quiet «gracias» after the first tango and there is nothing to be done but nod graciously, escort her back to her table, and walk away. After that you might as well go home, as the chances of getting another cabeceo are virtually nonexistent.

Fortunately it had gone well for me. I'd gotten compliments on both my Spanish and my dancing, we'd made the expected small talk between one dance and the next, and when I got back to Lauren she'd said, "Well, it looks like you don't need me anymore." At the time I'd thought she was kidding.

A tanda ended as I settled in at my table, and as soon as the next one started, I saw the woman I'd danced with the year before. I nodded toward the dance floor, she smiled, and I was off. She remembered me and I remembered her name and she told me I was dancing even better than the year before. Argentina is a very polite country.

After that, it was like those years of failure had happened to someone else. I didn't dance every tanda, but when I was ready, or the DJ played an orchestra I liked, I was able to find a partner. And the partners were amazing. One woman must have been 70, in great shape and showing it off with a low cut bustier, slit skirt over fishnet stockings, and luminous yellow hair, as light on her feet as a shadow. Another was heavyset and short, with perfect control of her body and the apparent ability to predict what I was about to lead, and another, with severe gelled hair and a gray business suit that smelled of cigarettes, flirtatiously caressed my leg with one foot.

It was easy enough to confuse the sensuality of tango with more primal feelings. "The vertical expression of a horizontal desire," was one of the clichés. And while none of the serious dancers I knew mistook tango for sex, I had come to realize that the dance satisfied many of the same desires that sex did—the need for physical closeness, the joy of moving together in rhythm, the ebb and flow of command and surrender. A night of dancing well could quiet my demons, and it was looking to be one of those nights.

Then, suddenly, in the middle of a dance, she was there.

I didn't see her come in. She showed up in my peripheral vision, seated near the back of the women's section, and at first I couldn't be sure it was her. There were twenty or thirty other couples on the floor, with only a few centimeters at best separating us, and we moved with painful slowness counterclockwise around the room. As we finally came around again I saw that it was her—there was no mistaking the slightly crooked nose and the intensity of the eyes. As I watched, she saw me and recognition lit her face.

I forced myself to look away and concentrate on the partner in my arms. When the song ended, we were on the far side of the room from her with at least one more tango to go. I had no idea what I said to my partner, except that I must have seemed rude and distracted. Another song started and everyone ignored it for the customary thirty seconds or so, then, slowly, the couples reconnected and began to move. As we came around, I saw that her chair was empty and I had a moment of alarm before I realized that she must be dancing now too.

I was on the outer edge of the floor, as I'd been taught, with the slower and more experienced dancers. Never hurry, Don Güicho told me, leave the big, showy moves for those too young to know better. At that moment I wanted little more than to cruise into the fast lane and look for her. I was paying more attention to the couples around me than I was to my own dancing.

It occurred to me that she could be watching me, that I needed to focus on dancing my best. The orchestra, unfortunately, was Biagi, with stuttering, staccato arrangements that I had never been able to anticipate. I tuned out everything but the music and my partner and did what I could.

After that was still another tango. As the music crashed around us and I discussed the weather with my partner, whose name I no longer remembered, I saw a woman facing away from me, ten feet away, who might have been her. I told myself not to look and I looked anyway.

Then it was time to dance again.

There are people who believe that there is a reason for everything, that things happen because they're meant to. Not me. I believe in eternal vigilance, in doing everything I can to boost my odds, in answering the phone every time it rings. As I waited for the endless dance to finish, I began to sweat.

Finally it was over. I thanked my partner, apologized, and told her I wasn't feeling quite right. She nodded and smiled, already thinking about the next dance. I walked her to her table and tried not to hurry back to mine.

Between the tandas there's a short piece of music they call la cortina, the curtain—usually instrumental, anything from jazz to rock to flamenco, as long as it's clearly not another tango—a signal that the tanda is over and it's time to clear the floor. This time it was the opening riff from the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and it seemed to go on forever. It's bad form to look for a partner before the next tanda starts and you know what the orchestra and the style are going to be. I stared at the red linen tablecloth in front of me and waited.

The music faded. The sound system crackled and then the rather martial violins and piano of "Pavadita" by Alfredo De ángelis echoed across the club. It was one of my favorite tangos, with swirling melodies and sudden pauses and dramatic tempo shifts.

I looked up. She was already watching me. I gave her the cabeceo and we both headed for the floor.

«I'm Beto,» I said as I took her hand. «I saw you at Universal on Monday.»

«Yes, yes, I remember you.» She was laughing and it made her even more beautiful. «What a crazy coincidence. My name is Elena. I love this tango. Can we dance?»

Part of what drew me to tango was the formality, the elaborate codes and traditions. There were even tango colors, which I had honored in my black shirt and red tie. Elena wore black knit trousers, tight around the curvature of her hips, wide and loose where her long legs met her four-inch heels. She had a matching black bolero jacket with 3/4 sleeves and long, crocheted fingerless gloves, and under the jacket was a red silk blouse cut hypnotically low.

Elena, I thought. Elena, Elena.

«Dale,» I said.

I reached for her and she simply melted into me. The connection was perfect, electric. She had some kind of perfume or essential oil in her hair with a sweet citrus smell that I instantly loved. I took a deep breath of her into my lungs and she settled her right cheek against mine and the fingers of her right hand against the back of my neck. We breathed out together and in together and I settled her weight on her left leg. There was a moment of weightless anticipation and then we stepped forward into the music.


Order the novel from Subterranean.


Top | Home