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Last Tango on a Wintry Day

by Carmen Ruggero

part 1 of 2

Nací como nace el peje
En el fondo de la mar;
Naides me puede quitar
Aquello que Dios me dio
Lo que al mundo truje yo
Del mundo lo he de llevar.
I was born as fish are
In the depths of the ocean;
No one can take from me
What was given to me by God
All I brought into the world
From the world I will take back.
— from “Martin Fierro” by José Hernández

It’s hard to tell how long I stood at that window, thinking and then not; fighting ambivalence — feelings I couldn’t let go. All I could do was gaze into the wintry downpour.

Four years had passed since the revolution ended Juan Perón’s regime. Times were sinister. Fear of dire consequences brought with it silence. Friends, lifelong neighbors; we all became invisible to one another.

My parents had made the decision to leave Argentina for North America — so far away and so different from everything I knew, I couldn’t even begin to grasp the concept. The reason for leaving was clear enough to me; I just couldn’t accept the finality of it. I would never see my family, again — Grandparents, cousins. I would never feel the warmth of their embrace or see them smiling at me. Never is a long time.

Our departure day was approaching. I rushed out of Grandmother’s house, where we were waiting out our final days, trying to beat the rain. I tied my scarf snugly around my neck as I ran, pulled my coat collar over my ears, and headed for the family home we were leaving behind still hoping — praying for a sign that this was all a nightmare from which I’d wake.

As I ran under the rain, I heard a voice call my name. It came from behind me and I turned.

Don’t be naïve, it murmured through the wind.

It was my old friend Hector, standing across the street. I could see him through the rain; standing, hands tucked inside his pockets as always. But it couldn’t be... he was gone.

“Hector!” I screamed.

Don’t be naïve, the voice repeated in a rasping whisper as his phantom image faded. They’re all dead by now.

“Stop it!”

Run, little girl... the breath of sound swept the back of my neck. Run, innocent one.

And I ran. I ran non-stop until I got to my old house. I jumped over flooded rain-gutters and mud puddles — often missing and splashing right into them, but I finally got there; out of breath, wet, muddy and cold. When I reached the front steps, I started to cry. I didn’t want to do that. No! I had promised myself not to do that.

I took a moment to catch my breath and wipe my eyes before reaching for the door knob then slowly pushed the door open and as I set foot inside, an eerie chill ran up my spine. I felt our family presence as if our very essence clung to the empty rooms like ghosts. I could almost hear our voices echoing, the baby crying. There! There was my bed. Over in that corner — Mom’s sewing machine and over there... oh please! There was nothing left in the house.

I suddenly didn’t want to think any more; I was tired of thinking. All I wanted to do was say goodbye to the first sixteen years of my life. So I turned my back on the empty house and looked out the window to say just that.

Little yellow leaves dangled from gray, brittle branches and fluttered to the wind. They looked so frail — just hanging on, trying to avoid the inevitable. I watched them and felt my tenuous hold on my own brittle branch weaken and I let myself cry aloud as I watched the falling rain, wishing to meld into its pelting fury and to be washed away by it. My forehead was pressed to the glass and its coolness felt good. I was scared and I didn’t want to think again about the past... or ever about the future.

It’s hard to tell how long I stood at that window, thinking and then not; fighting ambivalence — feelings I couldn’t let go. All I could do was gaze into the wintry downpour.

The revolution that ended Juan Perón’s regime in September 1955 had wreaked havoc in the country and the sunlight of our lives seemed eclipsed by a black moon. I was afraid to go to sleep at night. To describe my state as one of fear would be an understatement. Fear was what I felt watching Pinocchio being swallowed by the whale. But we were not fictional characters and this was no fairy tale. Real life meant being swallowed by terror.

For a while, we had considered ourselves lucky; my father lost only his job, while so many others lost their lives. But eventually, we learned luck had little to do with what happened. Someone, maybe needing to save his own skin, denounced my father as one of Eva Perón’s descamisados — a shirtless worker. My father was blacklisted and he would never work again; not in Argentina. And soon we found ourselves facing the beast of many terrible names: Secrecy, Seclusion, Shock, Starvation, and Death.

By 1956, my father had been out of work for a year. We often went to bed hungry.

Mere survival became a game of callous indifference to others. Who else might have gone hungry that day, was not important — I was famished enough to hunt down pieces of dry bread left from breakfast, hide them, and wait until everyone had gone to sleep to sneak into the kitchen and eat them.

A rustling sound awoke me one night. It was a little sound like a mouse, midnight scurrying. I crept out of my room in the dark and barefooted so as not to be seen or heard. Slowly, I tiptoed through the house to the source of the sound in the kitchen.

My younger sister had discovered my hiding place and was eating my bread. I stood in a dark corner watching her shove it into her mouth and actually fought an urge to snatch the bread crusts from her little fingers. My face quivered as anger burned in inside me — and for one insane moment, I wished her dead.

She was just a little girl.

It seemed the beast had taken us all and turned us into beasts of its own conception. I crept back to my bed.

Three filthy and hungry years went by until, in 1958, my father received an offer of work from a friend in North America. I knew little about America except that it wasn’t home. But a decision had to be made if we were to survive.

It was common for our winter rain to come to a sudden halt, as if some unseen power had turned off a tap. But that wasn’t the case on that day in June of 1959 when I stood facing the window, feeling the chilly fingers of loneliness and anger grasp my heart. No, that storm seemed predestined by The Fates, to haunt my memory for a lifetime.

Back in 1953, before any of us ever dreamed of a revolution and our world in turmoil, I began to keep a diary — whimsical musings about people, faces; simple observations. I wrote about the wind, oak leaves and flowers and the colors of summer. But that wasn’t my first writing attempt. Not at all. I had started writing when I could barely even read. A sense of sheer freedom followed my discovery of syllables and vowels and consonants that came together to form words that could express my concepts and childish feelings.

The adventures of Susana and the Seahorse were my first attempts at fantasy. I had never seen a seahorse but Susana, my imaginary friend had, so I let her tell me about it, and from her came wonderful adventures; words and doodles combined.

Soon, those jotted, fractured thoughts assumed a pattern — one I eventually called “poetry.” By the age of eleven, Susana was all but forgotten, oak leaves and summer days were nothing but childish notions as I discovered the sounds and lyrics of the Arrabal slum quarter. Its Tango had triggered my muse.

Tango was the voice of Buenos Aires. And, though the question was not clearly formulated in my mind at the time, I began to search for that voice. Who were we, the Porteños? Where did we come from?

I learned that Tango was originated in the 1880’s by European immigrants. They settled in the city of Buenos Aires and its outskirts, and they were called Porteños because they lived in the port city. That was interesting, I thought; those who gave us the Tango were lonely strangers far away from their homes in Europe.

There were many accounts of how and where the Tango originated. One of them indicated that these strangers had found solace in drink and music and companionship in the city brothels. With guitars and accordions, they created the unique sound and rhythm of what later took the name Tango.

To me, Tango symbolized romance. I understood the meaning of pinstriped double-breasted suits, black stockings and red lipstick quicker than lightning, though it would be a while before the rest of its meaning dawned on me. And so I began writing love poems to the most beautiful city in the world. Poems lost through time, too many moves, given little value by those who deemed them a girlish whim, and tossed aside. I wrote about the barrios and the giant sycamore branches that reached across and met above the cobblestone road, and couples kissing under a moonbeam to the sound of distant concertinas.

Mi Buenos Aires querido — “My beloved Buenos Aires,” sang the old Tango maestro, Carlos Gardel. “On the day I should see you again, I’ll suffer no pain, nor will I forget...” But on that day in June of 1959 when I stood watching the rainfall, to forget was what I most desired.

I pounded on the window, angry beyond belief to feel myself helpless in a web which, little by little, entangled me more tightly. I’d been stripped of my youth, my home, my security, and I could feel myself die as I watched the rain wash away my past. I wouldn’t be allowed to take with me to America anything but essentials. No souvenirs, no mementos — nothing to remind me of where or who I had been.

“It’s just paper,” my mother explained. “We don’t have room for everything.”

“They’re mine!”

“You’ll write others.”

They weren’t just papers. No! That was me inside those words, now being cast aside as trash. I stood in our empty house and mourned the self I would never be again.

But maybe there was a hidden gift amidst the pain, something I hadn’t seen back then.

“You’re lucky to leave...” I had heard it said repeatedly. To have been offered the chance of a fresh start when so many were quietly disappearing was, indeed, good. At that time, though, I questioned how lucky we really were. I saw us as closing the circle on our heritage by becoming the estranged ones ourselves. And what songs would come from us then? What rhymes would parallel the refugee rhythm of our heartbeat? What Tango would we dance?

The hidden gift, I eventually realized, was in not being able to stop thinking as I so much wanted to do that day or every day since, because those words I had to leave behind on crumpled, discarded paper and any future words lived inside my mind and no country, no revolution, no political system, not even death itself will destroy them.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero

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