Green Hills Literary Lantern

Follower’s Bliss



            Tango made me think of roses clenched between teeth, fishnet stockings, people with contorted faces and too much grease in their hair. But Sergio insisted all of that was “show tango.” The type of tango we’d be learning was Argentine tango, he said, as if that meant anything to me, an Irish woman who couldn’t string together two words of Spanish. In any case, I wasn’t about to refuse him.

            And so we went to a warehouse on Folsom Street to take a class from Claudia and Lars, the best tangueros in San Francisco, according to Sergio.

            Claudia, in jeans, a ratty T-shirt, and three-inch heels, had the sort of careless elegance that I envied. “You’ve probably heard it said that tango is the language of love,” she announced at the beginning of the first class. Then she slowly drew a curling, coral fingernail though her bobbed hair. “Those people lie. It’s really the language of sex.”

            Everyone laughed. Aside from me and Sergio, there were four other students: a middle-aged Asian couple and two gay men, both wearing colorful, geometric-patterned ties. Sergio and I, in our mid-twenties, were the youngest people there.

            Sergio didn’t hesitate for a moment. It was our third date, but Sergio hugged me like he’d known me my whole life. Coming from a family where hugging meant leaning in and tapping the backs of someone else’s shoulders, I loved Sergio’s hugs.

            “Now, I want you to embrace your partner,” Claudia instructed. Here she approached Lars, a sullen, unshaven man wearing a gray sweatsuit, and pressed her head into his chest. “Hold him like you looove him. Feel his body. Feel his movements. This is the essence of tango.”

            Standing this close to Sergio, our chests touching, our hips touching, my cheek against his collarbone, I didn’t see how I could concentrate on dancing. What I was thinking of then was how Sergio had kissed me at the end of our last date. It was a kiss that I must have replayed a hundred times in my head.

            “OK, leaders, it’s time to move,” said Claudia. “I want you to step forward, just one step forward, just like you are walking. Leaders step forward, followers step back. Ta-Yuan and Stephanie, why don’t you demonstrate?”

            The rest of us turned our heads to watch the Asian couple. His dainty black shoe moved forward; her gold-sandaled foot moved back.

            Sergio hugged me tighter and took a step forward. I stepped back.

            “Eso!” Claudia clapped her hands enthusiastically. “Now, keep walking. Remember, tango is just walking. Take one step after the other.”

            Sergio and I rounded the floor, step after step. In the cracked mirror I caught a glimpse of us. Wearing heels, as I was now, I was almost the same height as Sergio, but the resemblance ended there. His skin was swarthy, his coarse hair the color of very black coffee; while I had long, straight, dirty-blond hair and skin so pale you might think I’d been raised on a moor instead of having spent my entire life in California. Next to Sergio’s Latin good looks, I felt washed out.

            Dancing, we didn’t move as gracefully as Ta-Yuan and Stephanie, but we weren’t nearly as awkward as Sheldon and Steve, who looked as though they were dragging their feet through heavy sand. Steve, the one with the fiercely ruddy complexion, wore the expression of someone waiting to be stuck with a needle.

            At the end of the lesson, Steve asked Claudia if she and Lars would show us a dance. “We want to see what it looks like when people do it right,” he said.

            Claudia laughed. She wrapped her left arm around Lars’ neck, and he placed his hand on her slender waist. They began to dance.

            I had never seen anything like it, not in all the movies I’d watched. Bodies pressed together, they stalked around the floor with the arrogant grace of cats. Claudia’s hips wriggled; Lars’ sneakers squeaked on the concrete. Their feet moved as quickly as pistons. They pivoted, they paused, they seemed to just escape colliding, and then Claudia’s leg flew up behind her in a tremendous arc, the toe of her shoe brushing the back of her hair.

            “That was a boleo,” she explained without stopping the dance. “We’ll learn that next week!” She waggled her nails and smiled brightly at us over Lars’ shoulder.

*  *  *


            Sergio and I had met a few weeks before at a conference where a hundred high school teachers sat in an over-airconditioned room listening to a stern woman offer an analysis of the California educational budget, from time to time peering at us through glasses perched on the very tip of her nose. I must have doodled over two pages of margarita glasses and palm trees when I felt someone tap my back. Sergio—though I didn’t know his name at the time—passed me a slip of paper. Sneak out the side door and meet by the pool in five minutes, the note read in irregular, backwards-slanting handwriting.

            By the time I reached the pool, Sergio had removed his tie and was stretched out on a chaise lounge. He had a margarita waiting for me.

            It turned out that Sergio and I worked at neighboring high schools in the East Bay; he taught Spanish, I taught English. When Sergio talked about teaching, his face became animated; his thick-lashed greenish-gold eyes stared intently at my pale blue ones.

    “I don’t believe in standards,” he said. “Who cares what the kids learn if you’re teaching them to hate learning?”

            I thought about this for a moment. “Maybe,” I replied. “But if you completely abandon standards, you’re telling them that none of it matters.”

            He didn’t seem to have heard me. I became conscious of those green-gold eyes on my face, my lips, my neck.

            “You’re beautiful,” he said, and I could tell he really thought so, and I felt myself begin to blush.


*  *  *

            Shortly after we’d started taking tango lessons, Sergio invited me to a “small” dinner with his Argentinian family. At my parents’ house, a family dinner meant tasteless food on good china. At Sergio’s, it meant hordes of people clustered around a smoking barbeque, everyone feeding each other forkfuls (and sometimes fingerfuls) of garlicky food and passing around the same cup of maté. The women gathered in the kitchen and drank vermouth while they cooked. After dinner, the old uncles played guitar and invented poems on the spot, half in Spanish, half in English. Sergio and I danced a few tangos and his family screamed and clapped as though we were professionals. Everything about the party fascinated me. I laughed and drank maté and talked with everyone I met.

            For some reason, Sergio was equally intrigued by my Irish Catholic background. The first time he came to my apartment, he stood for a half an hour looking through one of my kitchen drawers at the engraved silver spoons that had belonged to my great grandmother. As I opened some wine, Sergio wandered around my living room, picking up gold-rimmed teacups and lace doilies and Waterford candlesticks—things that my mother had wanted me to have, so that I would know what her house in Cork had been like—and then, as though remembering his manners, carefully putting them back where they’d been.

            “Make me something Irish,” he said one day as we were trying to decide what to cook for dinner.

            I laughed. “Which would you prefer, boiled potatoes or boiled meat?”

            “Didn’t your mother teach you how to cook?”

            “She taught me how to make a lovely eggplant parmesan.”

            After a moment I said, “OK, there’s something I can make you that’s Irish.” I had him sit in the living room and close his eyes. Then I poured out two frothy mugs of Guinness.

            He touched the glass all over then lifted it and took a drink. “You must’ve been in the kitchen for days,” he said, licking the foam from his lips.

            “It’s a very complex fermenting process.”

            Sergio stood up and reached for me. We held each other for a long time; I could feel both of our hearts beating. He took one step forward, then another, and we danced, our eyes closed, right there in my living room, with no music at all.

            That was the first night we made love. By the time we got dressed again, the candles on the table had become puddles of red wax; the beers had left wet rings on my maple dining room table. When I was with Sergio, my apartment could go up in flames and I’d hardly notice. I could ride in his car with one headlight and bad brakes and not care. I could stay up until dawn and still talk passionately about Hemingway in front of my class the next day.


*  *  *

            It was on our fifth tango lesson that we learned about follower’s bliss. “Listen up, ladies,” said Claudia. “It’s the man’s responsibility to take care of you on the floor. Remember that.” She looked severely at the men in the room.

            “What’s the woman’s job?” I asked.

            “Ah,” she said. “That’s the best part. With a good leader, the follower just closes her eyes and feels the bliss.” With this she took Lars in her arms. “Put on Di Sarli,” she instructed Steve.

            When the song began, Claudia nestled up against Lars and draped her left arm around him so that her nails rested like talons by his neck. She closed her eyes and they began to walk. “With Lars, it’s so easy,” she said. “I never do anything. Everything is done to me.”

            She opened her eyes and when she saw us staring at her, she smiled. We clapped for their dance, as we always did. It was inspiring and terrifying to watch them.


*  *  *

            After three months of lessons, Sergio and I could move around the floor without wobbling. We could pivot. We could do an ocho, a molineté, and something called a “sandwich.” It was in August that we began to sneak into one of the large lecture rooms at Cal to practice each night. We’d push the podium aside, set up the boombox, and dance in our jeans and tennis shoes.

            Once the lights were off and the sound of Pugliese filled the room, I had the sensation of an auditorium bustling with people.

            “Who do you imagine out there?” I asked Sergio once.

            “There’s a Chinese woman, right there”—here Sergio indicated a seat in the corner right—“and she’s always smiling. Do you see her?”

            “Uh, oh, what’s she saying?”

            “She’s saying she wishes she had legs like yours.”

            “You think women out there covet my legs?” I said it jokingly, but part of me was serious. I was self-conscious about how pale-skinned my legs were, especially in comparison to the tanned limbs of the Argentine women who danced tango.

            Sergio paused the dance to run a quick hand down my thigh. “It’s the men who covet them,” he said and grinned.

            “Who else is out there?”

            “Lars,” Sergio said. “He’s sitting in the back.”

            “I don’t want Lars to be here!”

            “Why not?”

            “He never says anything, but he criticizes us with his eyes.”

            “But you can feel follower’s bliss with him.”

            “And I can’t with you?” I ran a finger along the back of his neck.

            “Oh, no, you can,” he said. “But with me, it’s a different kind of bliss. Not the kind you get while dancing.”

            He kissed me and pulled me down to the chalkdusty floor. This was how most of our tango practices ended up. It was fine with me.


*  *  *

            Sergio and I never danced so well as we did in that auditorium. But one night after the summer was over, we went to the room to find the door locked. One of the classrooms was open, so we set up the music on a desk and tried to dance in the space next to the blackboard. That night we were practicing ganchos, a move that involved kicking between each other’s legs. Every time we did a backward gancho, Sergio’s shoe gouged my shin. My legs were aching and covered in red marks.

            “Why do you have to keep kicking me?”

            “Why can’t you stand on your axis, with your body positioned correctly, so that I won’t be required to kick you?”

            We separated from the embrace and glared at each other. When I’d told my mother that I was learning how to dance tango, she’d laughed and said, “A Murphy couldn’t shake her hips even if a shot of whiskey depended on it.” Now I wondered if she were right.

            “It’s too fucking hot in here to even think,” Sergio said finally, and we picked up our things and left.


*  *  *

            Eventually Sergio and I were dancing well enough to go to the better milongas held in San Francisco. Lars danced at these milongas, too. Whenever I ran into Steve or Sheldon, they were full of stories about Lars. Rumor was that a visiting instructor from Argentina, a sequin-bedecked woman named Nina, had once wrapped her twisted ankle in someone’s T-shirt just so that she could complete a tanda with Lars. Another time, a beautiful stranger was seen fleeing the milonga after a dance with Lars, lips trembling and inky tears running down her face. No one knew what he had said to her.

            For me, it wasn’t Lars who was impressive, but the women he danced with. They were goddesses: statuesque black-haired women with faces that looked sculpted from clay. Their pierced navels sparkled as though lit from within; their feet in strappy heels looked as though they’d never touched something so plain as a linoleum floor. I felt intimidated by them, but it didn’t matter. While they smiled false smiles, angling for the best partners, I had Sergio for every song. When we danced, I could smell Sergio’s cologne; I could rest my cheek against the shimmery reddish-purple shirt that he wore to the milongas and feel his warm collarbone underneath.

            But one night, Sergio asked me if I would mind if he tried a dance—just one dance—with Sandra, an Argentine woman who was friends with some of Sergio’s cousins. I thought I wouldn’t mind, but my insides squirmed as I saw Sergio place his hand on Sandra’s back, which was completely bare except for two crisscrossed straps tied in a provocatively loose knot at her waist. I saw Sandra toss her curly hair and laugh at something Sergio said. Then Sergio was leading the steps we had practiced, and Sandra, in a pair of high, high heels, executed every step perfectly, never faltering on the molinetés as I did.

            That night during the car ride home I was quiet. Sergio and I tried to dance on his patio, but everything felt different. My feet throbbed from the new shoes I’d bought, and I stumbled doing an easy turn.

            “Claire, what’s the problem here?” Sergio said. “We’ve been practicing that over and over again. You’re not paying attention. You need to feel me, to listen to my movements. Sandra told me something interesting about this step. She said—”

            “I’m not one of your students,” I said. I tried to keep my voice level, but I felt like crying. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired,” I told him, smiling sadly as I collected my things to go home.


*  *  *

            After five months of tango lessons, Sergio and I were dancing well—at least Claudia said so—but when we tried to practice on our own, it usually turned into a fight. I knew he thought he was a better dancer than I was, and maybe he was. I certainly never felt graceful when we danced. Sergio put so much force into every step that I often lost my balance, and then he became exasperated with me. I tried desperately to improve—every night I did four sets of tedious balancing and stretching exercises that Claudia had assigned—but I couldn’t forget what my mother had said. I was a Murphy, a woman destined to sit in a pub or milk a cow, not slink across a dance floor.

            Every Wednesday and Saturday night we drove to the city to dance for three hours at the milongas. Now it was commonplace for Sergio to dance several songs a night with Sandra. I never complained. To show myself as jealous or spiteful seemed worse than watching him dance with her. Why did I think I had the right to tell him who he could dance with? Sergio sensed that I was upset and assured me that Sandra had a boyfriend and that her dancing wasn’t very good anyway. Anyone with eyes could see that both of these were lies.

            One night Sandra showed up at the milonga in a stretchy turquoise dress and earrings that dangled like miniature waterfalls. Before I could feel the humiliation of watching Sergio exchange private smiles with her, I excused myself and headed for the restroom. My shoes clacked on the marble floor and my eyes stung with tears that I was determined not to let fall. I flung open the restroom door and walked right into a man I’d never seen before.

            “Oh, is this the men’s room?” I blurted out. “I’m sorry, I—”

            “You’re crying,” the man said.

            I laughed. “It’s nothing. My boyfriend—well, you know.”

            He nodded. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but his eyes—deep brown with thick lashes and brows—had a gentle look to them.

            “Would you like to dance?” he asked. “If it’s not a good time, I understand …” His voice trailed off.

            I was about to say no thank you and head into the bathroom, but then I realized that I’d hardly ever danced with anyone aside from Sergio and the two gay men from class. I’d been asked, but I usually declined, saying that I was waiting for my boyfriend.

            He was named Albert. During the dance I learned that he worked as an investment banker and that he spent his holidays at his parents’ house in Turkey. He was shorter than Sergio and thicker around the waist, and he danced slower, with more care in each step.

            Later that night in the car, Sergio asked, “If you’re going to dance with someone, why pick a boludo like that?”

            I knew that whatever he was saying, it couldn’t be a compliment. “How could you call him that?” I said. “You’ve never met him.”

            “I can spot a boludo from ten miles,” Sergio said, jerking the gearshift into third.

            “He was nice! He rescued me when you were so busy with Sandra.”

            Tango music blared from the tape player in Sergio’s car. He gunned the engine, pulling the car roughly onto the Bay Bridge. The bridge’s steel frame loomed over us like a giant cage. I knew that whatever would come next out of his mouth would be horrible.

            “Do you think Sandra’s pretty?” he finally said.

            I was surprised. “Why are you asking me that? Why should it matter whether or not she’s pretty? Unless it matters to you.”

            “That’s the point, it doesn’t matter. I happen to think Sandra’s gorgeous. But so what? I’m with you.”

            We were back in the East Bay. The streets of Berkeley were empty. Everything was quiet and cold and still.

            “I just don’t think you should dance with him,” Sergio said.

            “Well, I don’t think you should dance with Sandra.” My voice was shaking.

            “You can forget about that.”

            We didn’t speak the rest of the way home. Sergio stopped the car in front of my apartment building and still we said nothing. Shaking with fear and anger, I climbed the steps to my front door. I imagined Sergio following me, hugging me in his enthusiastic way, and I imagined myself apologizing, both of us apologizing. But he didn’t follow me, and the next day a box of my stuff turned up on the front steps. Later, when I told my mother Sergio and I had broken up, she said that she didn’t see how a relationship could survive tango. She was probably right.

*  *  *


Once a year tangueros could put on their best dance clothes and spend the evening in a ballroom that overlooked the bay. For $28 you could eat shrimp with cocktail sauce, sip champagne, and dance tango to a live orchestra while gazing out at sailboats strung with white lights. At least this was what the flyer promised.

            Sergio had bought me a ticket a month ago, just before our fight, and since then it had sat in my dresser drawer, concealed by lacy underwear that I no longer wore. I knew that the other, matching ticket resided in the brown suede wallet that I’d bought for Sergio’s birthday.

            I thought about selling my ticket, giving it away, or maybe just leaving it on the table at one of the milongas. But the truth was, I wanted to go. To dance, to eat, to dress up in the black satin dress that I’d been waiting to wear—for all of these reasons, but mostly, I wanted to see Sergio. I wanted to know if he’d come to the dance alone or with Sandra.

            The milonga was a spectacle of chandeliers, wine goblets as big as fishbowls, tables hung with stiff white tablecloths, and a gorgeous wood floor that shone like caramel. My heart thumped as I scanned the well-dressed crowd for Sergio. I was half-relieved and half-disappointed not to see him. Then someone waved to me and I heard my name being called. It wasn’t Sergio’s voice.

            “You look like a princess!” Sheldon cooed, giving me a kiss on the cheek. He and Steve were wearing tuxedos and sitting at a large table. “Come and eat with us.”

            Everyone at the table commented on my dress, which had a ruffle around the low neckline and a long slit up one side. Throughout dinner, Sheldon kept up a running stream of invented gossip about the dancers who walked past, and had the rest of us nearly crying with laughter. We ate little bits of seared tuna in a sweet soy sauce and salads made of delicate greens and tiny purple and yellow flowers. We licked chocolate mousse from the tips of silver spoons. I sipped red wine from an enormous goblet. The orchestra members, if that was what you could call the five elderly men who sat wearing suits and bowlers’ hats, tuned their instruments while we ate.

            For more than an hour, I felt happy, and I didn’t think of Sergio at all. But then I heard the violins wailing in a slow, sad tango waltz. Di Sarli always made me think of the smell of chalk in the Berkeley lecture room; and during the day, the smell of the blackboards in my classroom made me think of Di Sarli. It was a cycle that offered no escape.

*  *  *

            Steve and Sheldon left me at the table and went to dance. The floor was nearly empty, and I heard a woman at the next table complain that it was too slippery.

            “Does anyone have some baby powder?” she called out. The baby powder appeared—who had thought to bring baby powder to a milonga? I wondered—and was shaken all over the floor, and now as people danced, little white clouds puffed up around their feet. The legs of Sheldon’s tuxedo pants were gray.

            I tried to act as though I were enjoying myself, but I was acutely aware that I was sitting alone. I felt bland in a crowd of animated, exotic-looking people. Everyone seemed to be talking and laughing; couples held hands and sneaked kisses when they thought no one was looking.

            I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around, expecting to see Sergio. But it was a man I didn’t recognize.

            “Claire,” the man said. “It’s Albert,” he said. “We danced together once. But that was a while ago, maybe you don’t—”

            “Albert! You’re from Turkey.”

            He seemed happy that I remembered. “Claire, you look so pretty tonight.”

            For some reason the compliment made my face flush in what I knew was a very vivid shade of pink. My students teased me about my blushing. Sergio had thought it was charming. He never blushed himself.

            “Can you spare a dance?” Albert asked. “Or are you waiting for someone?” His thick black eyebrows furrowed.

            I held my hand out to him.

            The floor was slippery. Albert and I slid all over the place, bumping into each other, giggling. Dancing on that floor was like dancing on an ice rink wearing slippers. At one point, we stopped in the middle of the floor and grabbed each other, collapsing in laughter. A few people frowned at us as they glided by, all elegance and pinched faces.

            “Tango is such a serious dance,” Albert whispered in my ear.

            “Look at the man wearing the ascot,” I whispered back, and another contagious surge of giggles overtook us.

            Then my eyes lit upon something familiar: a reddish-purplish shimmery shirt. Sergio’s shirt. It’s amazing how I could feel that shirt everywhere in my body: in my face, my chest, and most of all, in my ankles, which barely seemed able to hold me up. And then I saw something else. Sergio was dancing with Sandra, and he held her in a way that implied more than just a dance.

            I stopped dancing.

            “Claire, is something wrong?” Albert asked.

            “It’s just—” I sighed and left the sentence unfinished.

            “The boyfriend again?”

            I nodded.

            “Let’s finish the song,” he said. “He’ll know he got to you if you don’t finish the song.”

            Tango songs can be long—some of them over five minutes—but nothing was longer than dancing this song, trying to keep my eyes off Sergio and the eye-catching red of Sandra’s dress. As we danced, Albert held me tighter, as though he were trying to breathe strength into me. Finally, the song ended. I headed directly for my glass of half-drunk wine that sat on a stained tablecloth.

            “Do you want to go outside?” Albert asked. “We could go for a walk on the pier.”

            “I’m fine,” I said, trying a smile. “I just think I need to go home.”

            Albert handed me a business card. “Call me if you need anything, OK?”

            While I was waiting in line at the coatroom, Sandra came sailing through the hall. I glimpsed her red fingernails, her slender wrist with its delicate gold bracelet. Suddenly, the air felt stifling; I was sweating beneath my dress. There were three women ahead of me in line, but I couldn’t wait any longer, I just walked out the door without my coat. As I pushed past people on my way to the exit, I thought I heard Sandra and another woman laughing. I turned back and through a window I saw Albert sitting at the vacated white table, finishing the rest of his wine.


*  *  *

            Without my coat, the air outside was icy. I tried to warm my arms with my hands as I made my way awkwardly across the gravel parking lot.

            A man was coming toward me, and I looked away so he wouldn’t see the tears that were leaving cold trails down my cheeks.

            “I bet I missed the dinner, didn’t I?” the man said.

            It was Lars. He wasn’t wearing a tuxedo or a suit, but a misshapen sweater, a pair of khaki pants, and clunky-looking white sneakers. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved in weeks, though the result wasn’t what anyone would’ve called a beard.

            “You did,” I said. “It was good.”

            “So you just eat and run, is that what you do?”

            “I guess so.” I passed him, heading towards my car.

            “Are the leaders inside that terrible?” he called out to me.

            “They are,” I said and laughed.

            “Well, then. Come back and we’ll have a dance.”

            I stopped walking and looked at him in surprise. Lars was asking me to dance? In the months that he’d been my teacher, he’d rarely graced me with a smile.

            “Come on,” he said, and I went.

            When Lars and I walked into the room, people turned to look at us. Some couples stopped talking, stopped dancing. The music actually seemed to grow more resonant as we made our way toward the floor.

            The first song of a tanda is usually like the feeling of wearing a pair of new shoes. They rub against your heels and feel too tight around the toes. It wasn’t like that with Lars. Dancing with him was effortless, like being carried in water. He began the dance slowly, and then as the bandonians ascended, he moved faster, turning, never once hesitating, and I followed. Without thinking, without even knowing what I was doing, I stepped, I lunged, I kicked, I turned with incredible speed, and then my leg flew backwards in what I knew was my first real boleo.

            I heard some of the Argentines yelling, “Eso!” as they did when they were excited by a dance. I was moving too quickly to see much of anything, but I knew Sergio was watching me. Sandra was, too. At that moment, though, I didn’t care about anything except the music and the floor and my legs moving confidently in unison with Lars’. His hand was on the small of my back, guiding me. I felt perfectly balanced, absolutely trusting. I had never experienced anything like it.

            We danced for four songs, and then it was over. Lars took my arm and led me to a table. I could see he was already scanning the crowd for another partner, but it didn’t matter to me. I took off my shoes, leaned back in my chair, and listened, as if for the first time, to the violins. With my bare feet resting on the dance floor, I could feel the music humming through my legs, all the way up to my chest. Across the room, I saw Sergio standing with a group of people. When our eyes met, I smiled and held my fingers up in a wave. Then I picked up my shoes and got ready to go home.

Jennifer Hurley is a fiction writer and an assistant professor of English at Ohlone College, where she teaches creative writing online. Her short fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Peeks & Valleys, and Writer Advice. She holds a B.A. in Literature/Writing from UC San Diego and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University.