Last Tango on a Wintry Day
by Carmen Ruggero
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
It was June of 1955. Two by two, bombs were dropped by our own naval planes. Perón was history and so was our city as we’d known it. Economic problems, corruption, and conflict with the powerful Roman Catholic Church contributed to the overthrow of Juan D. Perón. The revolution took place at the noon hour, leaving 350 dead, 2,000 wounded, and millions, like my own family and friends, in terror for their very lives.
The concept was beyond our reason. We kept wondering: How can this be happening to us? History had told us repeatedly that we, the people of Argentina, were born to freedom. That is how we had come to see ourselves. But we were also born to internal struggle which we didn’t think about too often during the years Perón was in power. We had settled into what was a passing comfort. A fool’s paradise.
I remember hearing big words like Democracy — government of the people, by the people, for the people. But who were we, the people of Argentina? We, who at the beginning of every school day stood in formation facing our flag to mouth the words of our National Anthem:
Oíd mortales el grito sagrado:
Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!
Listen ye mortals to this our sacred cry:|
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
FREEDOM! And our bombs blasted our land. Freedom! And our blood was splattered. Buenos Aires was in a state of ruin and the country was in the hands of a military junta. Our beloved city had crept into darkness and silence to die like a wounded deer and the scent of night-blooming jasmine had metamorphosed into the acrid stench of evil.
I was thirteen years old at the time of that revolution and, quickly exchanging innocence for a bitter maturity, began to understand. God, parents, and country had been our source of comfort and security. But the notion of country was sinking fast into oblivion, our parents were just as confused as we were and we had trusted everything to a God who now couldn’t be found.
TANGO! ¡Que me mordiste el alma! Yes, the tango had bitten into my heart and soul. Tango was to life what reality was to death. Sensual innuendo aside, to me, a lover was one who loved. As lonely as adolescence can be, I had found an imaginary someone in the sultry lyrics of the tango and, once again, fantasy gifted me with the wings of Pegasus.
The table candles reflected amber warmth on happy faces. The man stood and took his lady’s hand — my hand. We walked to the dance floor. I wore a black silk dress with tiny, random splashes of red — tight at the waist. He wound his strong arm snugly around me. I surrendered to his embrace. Our cheeks came together. We took a moment to catch the beat and then began to dance, our feet gliding gracefully across the dance floor. He slid an arm behind me. I dipped and arched my back until my hair almost touched the floor, trusting his arm would catch me. He lifted me and held me close to him. We stayed in that embrace for a few seconds. The music started again, and we — they — danced one more time with a passion that suggested their last tango.
I met my first love at a neighborhood dance, just before the revolution broke out. Our family and, sometimes, friends would go to the neighborhood milonga dance — kicking dust, as they say.
“Mom, may I wear lipstick, tonight?”
Oh well, it was worth the try. At thirteen, boys wore suits and nicely starched shirts. The scent of aftershave made them enticing (though I didn’t believe they really shaved). Girls of the same age were not supposed to notice. I did. So why was I wearing a childish dress and a plain face? I wasn’t allowed to entice.
But it was the last dance of the winter, and we were going to shake, rattle and roll. As usual, we traveled in packs; Fathers taking care of mothers and brothers taking care of sisters. We didn’t really need protection, though. We looked so darned plain; who would ever make a pass?
Our milonga took place at the family club, the Club Don Bosco, named after our town of St Juan Don Bosco. The dance floor was wall-to-wall red and white tile, surrounded by a six-foot wall. We had a starry sky for a ceiling and the night was scented by gardenias.
We settled together on our usual bench by the wall, where I sat and watched couples dance. I’d watch the curves, the slides, the strong arm around a slender waist, the bend, that sensual longing in the gaze, and lips that almost touched, but not quite — sometimes they did, I noticed.
I wasn’t allowed to dance the tango. It was considered inappropriate for a thirteen-year-old. I could waltz and sometimes fox-trot. And always with a relative or friend who would keep his arms straight and my absentee breasts at a safe distance.
So there I was, entertaining forbidden thoughts, when a boy my age approached me. His dark eyes were fixed on me as he walked across the dance floor. He smiled and asked me to dance. I shifted my gaze in my father’s direction. He nodded an approval. I stretched my lips and uttered a breathless yes.
We walked to the center of the dance floor where he turned to face me and stretched a very tense arm — only his fingertips touched my waist.
“I’ve seen you in school,” he said.
Oh my... oh... I had to remind myself to breathe. My heart pounded so hard, I was afraid he’d hear it. I wasn’t supposed to have noticed — how could I say I’ve seen you, too? I just couldn’t... I mean...
“I’ve seen you, too,” I said.
We moved around the dance floor, not saying a word and avoiding eye contact. I felt silly. Toward the end of the waltz, he spoke again.
“My name is Sergio. We attend the same school... ah...”
“Yes, you said... ah...”
“Ah... are you allowed to go out?”
“Oh, maybe a movie or a walk in the park...”
“I don’t know; maybe if my parents met you... maybe.”
“I’d like to meet your parents,” he said.
It is also said that the name tango had come from the Latin: Tangere, which means touch. I was once more left to visualize the forbidden, whatever that was... but his name was Sergio.
It happened a couple of weeks later, on an overcast afternoon in June of 1955. I was sitting on my front steps cuddling a book, when I lifted my gaze north to the Rio de la Plata, the Silver River. I followed its outline, as it traveled toward Buenos Aires, to see a column of smoke billowing on the horizon. Then another, and then another...
The urgency of my tone brought my mother out of the house. “Inside! Now! Quick!” My mother didn’t wait for me to get up from the steps. She grabbed me by an arm and dragged me inside where we huddled and watched the horror unfold from the kitchen window.
“What’s happening?” I whispered
“I don’t know.” Her voice quivered.
We gathered the other children and stayed together for what seemed like an eternity until we heard the bombing stop. Then we stepped outside. Our neighbor, Franco, was rushing home from the railroad station. His clothes were blood spattered; his shoes covered with gore.
“What’s happening?” Mom asked him.
“They’re dropping bombs... in the city... they’re bombarding us!”
“Who? Who’s dropping bombs?” I asked.
“Let him talk,” Mom snapped.
“Our own planes... they’re killing us... we are killing us!”
It had happened at noon and there were people out walking, shopping and, some, just getting back to work from their lunch hour. All of them were caught by surprise.
“It’s a bloodbath.” Franco’s voice shook.
I ran into the house and hid behind the wall next to my bed, bracing my head against my knees, rocking back and forth, back and forth, struggling not to scream and trying to stop the terror taking hold. I wanted to erase that afternoon — set back the clock to another time — a happy time. This was a mistake; life had made a mistake and this wasn’t happening. Maybe I’d think about that day when I danced with Sergio or maybe before that; and I thought about my Tango image but somehow couldn’t hold on to it. The pinstripes in my mind cascaded in gray serpentine waves until they finally collapsed and bled.
And they were dancing to the discordant sound of an old concertina under the cloudy sky, beneath the sycamores, on the old cobblestone road. He said he loved her — he loved me... Boom! And his words became distorted and the firm arm around my waist was severed. Blast! Everything around me seemed to come to a slow spin and growling like Satan’s carousel. Crash! And his dismembered body was scattered on the ground. I stretched my arms toward him and called for him and then another bomb dropped and I saw red! Red! Random red speckles on my black silk dress as I, too, fell to the ground.
“No, please! No!” I stood and looked through my bedroom window to the north. Bombs blasted at the distance. The silvery overcast sky got darker and darker until it became the color of hell.
Sangre corre por las calles de Buenos Aires — Blood runs through the streets of Buenos Aires, screamed the early news headlines. But soon there were no more headlines. The radio news broadcasts were censored. Newspapers stopped circulating. At times, the airwaves would go silent.
We were being cut off — left to wonder and speculate. Little by little, we were secluded in silence to hear only the voices of horror reverberating within the confines of our minds. We had to be careful what we said and to whom we said it, though it could have been a neighbor we had known and trusted for years, it was hard to know. What was acceptable yesterday could be subversive today.
“No!” My parents agreed. “We don’t even know who he is.”
“He wants to meet you.”
“No, I don’t want strangers in the house,” my father insisted.
“His name is Sergio.”
“I don’t care what he calls himself; I don’t want strangers in the house.”
And so I was not to have that trip to the movies or that walk in the park.
“My father said no,” I said to Sergio, apologetically.
“Maybe some other time,” he said, though we both knew there wouldn’t be another time.
It was all too much for a young one to fathom. Unable to change the course of events, I let my heart bleed into whimsical rhymes exchanging anger, fear and confusion for wild and hopeless dreams — I escaped into a reality of my own.
Observing the sun as it filtered through the oak leaves, I discovered the leaves turned yellow and so I wrote about how light changed the look of things — such a simple thought. But I also saw how darkness obliterated the leaf.
One evening, the following spring, my friend Rosa and I sat on my front steps talking when we noticed our friend Hector’s tall, slender figure turn quickly around the corner. His eyes darted nervously from Rosa’s face to mine and his lips were pale and stiff as he tried to smile.
He buckled his long legs, sat next to us and whispered: “They came into our classroom — the soldiers came. They had weapons — took two of our classmates.”
Hector ran his fingers through his yellow hair and let his head hang low. “They told us not to move while they tore through everyone’s books and notes — quickly, as if they didn’t know what they were looking for. They finally found something... inside this guy’s satchel... a book... Martin Fierro by José Hernandez. They took him... asked him who was his closest friend... the poor guy was panicked... he pointed at someone and they took him, too.”
When he finished his account, Hector got up quickly and started to walk away from us. He seemed lost.
“Will the students be let go?” I asked.
I can still see him standing there. He had tucked his hands inside his trouser pockets and his shirt bubbled behind him as it flapped to the breeze. He turned his head slowly toward me.
“Don’t be naïve, they’re dead by now.”
And I recalled the poem:
Naides me puede quitar
Aquello que Dios me dio
Lo que al mundo truje yo
Del mundo lo he de llevar.
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.
That was the last time I saw Hector. No one knew where he’d gone; or if they knew, they weren’t saying. But his voice followed me that morning in June of 1955 as I ran through the pounding rain to my old empty house and I couldn’t make it go away. It spoke to me of a reality I didn’t want to hear.
Don’t be naïve... they’re dead... dead...
“Stop!” I yelled.
Go away, little girl... they’re all gone... dead... run... little girl, run...
And I ran until I got to my old house for that one final goodbye. Don’t be naïve... the voice spoke to me, again. I was barely sixteen — going on thirty-five — still considered too young to understand human passion, yet fully versed in death, fear and destruction. I pressed my hands to the glass and closed my eyes to block the rain and see the sun shine through the oak leaf in my fantasy in one last attempt to hold on; thinking, wishing... if I just didn’t turn around to face the empty house life could still go on as I had known it to be.
Don’t be naïve, little girl, the voice whispered again.
And 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.
Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero
Ed. note: Pictures accompanying this story: