Antipodes: Dark Places

Dissolute excursions inside the Shamrock or the Shannon did not fill my every waking evening hour in Argentina and Uruguay. The principal cities offered plenty of cosmopolitan attractions, particularly Buenos Aires.

Maybe having grown up in Metropolitan New York made it easy or easier. But setting out to investigate rumored addresses never unnerved me. Most of those places were merry and bright; a precious few turned out being among the darkest recesses imaginable.

Nighttime wanderings in unfamiliar urbanity invariably heighten the senses. Anyone whose eyes don’t sharpen and ears don’t prick up deserves whatever such carelessness rewards.

Otherwise those steps into the unknown can inform and expand.

Generally Americans develop into poor boulevardiers and flaneurs. Our society is young and immature, meaning we’re shallow. The cultural backgrounds stamping the above about-towners have yet to deeply impress us. And if some clever feuilletonist emerges from us and dares lunging from the pack of accepted observers and commenters, he or she is ridiculed for the sort of polish his or her detractors enviably wished he or she could’ve asserted.

Don’t dodgy streets people by sketchy persons sometimes enliven urban precincts? During my Buenos Aires visits I’ve made what the cautious might’ve termed imprudent left turns into areas whose residents stared daggers.

Yet past these visual gauntlets discoveries abounded.

One aimless 2004 amble brought me before a purple-clad church. Was it an Orthodox house of worship or a really Protestant “up yours” in an overwhelming Catholic country? Other times mundane commercial stretches revealed troves snuggled with objets.

Accidentally. That’s how I stumbled across the milonga of others’ dreams.

Inside one of just another neglected storefront somewhere in Boca, a neighborhood south my lodgings in Barrio Norte, an afterthought sign caught my eye. Impenetrably thick dark curtains swept behind recently cleaned glass panes and obscured the interior. A proprietor inspired by Poe (or likelier Borges) wedged a small faded placard listing the establishment’s operating days and hours in one of the shop’s lowest window corners. The awning above it was just as mum. None of the usual indictors revealed this address’ purpose.

However, diligent me had done more than skimmed the guide book. The hours labeled informed of the probability of this being a milonga, a dance hall for tango enthusiasts.

A neighborhood place, certainly. Looking around my stressed surroundings, it was tough envisioning busloads of tourists being disgorged here at night. Pure experiences as North American tour travelers sought, this would’ve been a bit too close to their bones. I could see some adventurous Europeans cautiously toe-dipping, but not any tour group from Des Moines.

Electric as the streetlamps were, they emitted the soft illumination of gaslights. This ought have made the late night scene some kind of romantic but the pavement lacked the reflective shimmer of having been hosed down. The buildings also formed bleak stunted canyons. For images Hollywood has ingrained in our collective movie-going consciousness Stanley Donnen would’ve been necessary.

Buenos Aires clamor, its bustle, noise, people, and finally neon, receded the farther into quiet darkness I walked. Only the destination remained and only a few passersby were encountered until I reached the portal.
A single light shone above the door. Conspicuously a doorman stood under the light. A red curtain now barred entry rather than a solid door.

As mother might’ve commented, I had dressed to look like something. Button-up shirt, slacks, leather-soled shoes. The doorman evaluated me and determined I’d mistaken the premises. He told me it was a milonga, not a whorehouse. The fellow must’ve mistaken me for a Brazilian. Oh, how it pleased me to assure him that I well knew one from the other.

I stepped past the curtain into gloom and mournful music.

Dim as the street had been, black as the interior was initially. A few spots of low light barely smudged the room. Gradually my eyes accustomed themselves. Details grudgingly pulled from the black.

From a corner a small combo inspired dancers. Haphazardly arranged tables had been ordered enough to create suitable room for passage and movement. A short bar, behind which a stood a lightly tasked barman, filled the minimal requirements for cocktail demands.

Neighborhood people sought and found their moments inside this milonga. Likely I’d seen a few going about their business during my earlier reconnoiter. Women wore skirts or dresses, men suits or sports coats and slacks. Sitting at the tables, conversation never rose above genial. On their feet, though, in another’s embrace, directed by the rhythm, it was all business.

I knew enough that milongueros here would not be flashing any fancy steps. These weren’t the entertainers, the professionals, they of the searing eyes whose rigid postures somehow flared into brilliant footwork that enthralled audiences in halls or on TV, whose severe countenances exchanged dominance and submission to the exclusion of all else. Instead, watching, these partners entered what this norteamericano estimated deeper states of melancholy. Willful melancholy.

Somber as the atmosphere was, through their dancing, they appeared to summon further depths of sullen acquiescence. Not so much forgetfulness or abandonment, but greater immersion in some kind of desired pensiveness.

They tangoed, not waltzed.

Thanks to the tango manual I knew an etiquette existed inside milongas. Forget the usual club assertiveness. More like the man offering himself then being sized up by the woman before her possible acceptance afterwards. If she refuses, gather dignity and turn on a heel. Never slink away. Should she accept escort her confidently onto the floor. There begin some measure of tense entanglement conveying a blue state of the human condition.

Prospective partners filled my then age range – mid-40s – and skewed older. Again these were locals, both women and men. I didn’t get the idea any were present to vent or socialize in the sense of claiming whatever reward for the week worked or the tasks accomplished. Couldn’t this have been a habitual obligation of their daily lives? After all, it wasn’t a teegee. The cocktails or cordials were nipped, not thrown back. What conversation bubbled up remained at low simmer, far below the music.

None of them looked anxious or relaxed. Their eyes absorbed everything, while their faces revealed next to nothing.
They hadn’t dressed in finery, hadn’t dressed to impress, but wore neat casual fashion. Subdued hues ruled the night. Women’s jewelry was sparse.

If anyone thought this stranger out of place or his for the longest reluctance to enter the mannered swirl odd, the room’s darkness and the participants’ countenance concealed it. I must’ve sat rooted at my table for three sets. By observation I’d hoped to acquire some feel for room. But through long association this assemblage had developed states of familiarity, no, a sort of intimacy, which absolutely excluded the likes of me.

Not purposely. I knew what it was to be among people with whom I shared almost organic understanding. Wouldn’t it have been easy for outsiders to have mistaken us for telepaths? Identical circumstance here.

I decided I’d observed enough. Rising deliberately off my seat, I stepped carefully to the nearest idling senora. From appearances she hadn’t been expectant or anxious. Merely biding her time coolly. Per the manual I knew a whole lot of icebreaking chitchat unnecessary. Just the basics, an extended hand that she’d either accept or dismiss through shake of her head, smile optional.

Her fingers were dry.

Several steps and thoughtless maneuvering later, we stood together on a clear patch of floor. Sitting, the bandoneon, piano and fiddle made sense. Engaged with a partner held in an easy yet strategic embrace the music almost veered into discordance. Naturally I hewed to the simplest pattern possible, the figure eight.

Except my eight steps seemed non-sequential. Or maybe I was thinking too much.

Ah, per Yogi one can’t think and hit.

Easy as it was not mashing her feet, easy as it became not bumping others, it remained a chore convincing myself I led properly. Booklearning aside, our syncopation felt off. Or between us she had all the rhythm while I contained all jitters.

Our accompaniment ended too soon. I’d been too busy thinking to have enjoyed our moment. I looked down at my partner glad hers wasn’t ns expression of merciful relief bordering on impending escape. Fraught as it had become for me, for her it’d simply been a few minutes of perhaps at best negligible activity. No “dear diary” entry our interlude.

My thanks, her response were dutiful. I sat back down and reviewed. It hadn’t been a disaster, just uncomfortable. For me. Wouldn’t she have sensed my discomfort and wouldn’t that have made her half of the experience unpleasant? I hoped this sensation wouldn’t carry over into Round Two, whenever that bell rang.

Instead of letting hesitation build, I stepped back into the fray fairly quickly. Say this for all the women in that milonga, not only were they diminutive but retained shape which enhanced their appeal. Whether through diet, exercise, or will, none of them had yet succumbed to any appearances of being “off the market” or having reached her “sell-by date.” Unlike a whole lot of norteamericanas, these Argentine women exhibited the conviction of minor intrigue. They hadn’t settled for the desperately low bar of hoping to having retained vestiges of attractiveness.

Important as the male gaze was, more vital became satisfaction derived from the projection generated. The sort smart men noticed and still might appreciate.

Much like the first, my second partner displayed the slightest response while accepting my offer. Must one have contact with another’s body to be attuned to it? Not necessarily. Again, in this milonga with these partners I maintained either light pressure or space between us. Since I was the stranger no way I wanted to foment any unintentional misunderstandings.

I observed a lot of apparent long-timers, partners of long-time familiarity, milongueros, had zero qualms or compunction regarding proximity. Of course not. Why should they? They’d probably performed the same steps over countless occasions with one another. They had achieved levels of comfort between themselves that a newcomer couldn’t fathom.

Tango Zen.

Again, the dance ended with no crushed toes or insteps, or missteps. But it was perfunctory – barely – not enjoyable. My trepidation was the persistent yet invisible third pair of feet. My first two partners had been either indulgent or kind, which said plenty about their generosity. Or possessive of the utmost awareness of how fragile the male ego can be.

Fortunately I’ve never considered myself that weak.

A third instance would require what some might’ve regarded as a radical reorganization and recognition of roles. If that didn’t solve my discomfort, resolving what transpired on the floor between this man and some woman, then the moment to leave, return to Barrio Norte and re-immerse the self in the Shamrock’s easy ex-pat/foreign visitor pleasures was fated.

What I decided after the band’s set break would’ve failed any ¿a quien es el mas macho? tests. For the third and subsequent tangos I simply requested my partner lead.

That got a raise every time I said it. The appreciable kind where eyes flash and lips curl into grins. Not only were the women’s steps – as well as mine – smoother, which was expected, but distance between our moving parts firmed into … pressure.

Recalling the tango manual, specifically the dance’s background, stigmas didn’t attach themselves to same-sex dancing. Sometimes there existed paucities of one gender or the other. So while men could dance with men, women frequently danced with women. In the case of the former, though, who decided who led?

And no, there’s nothing sexual about it.

Strange. Don’t we North Americans have notions about Latin American manliness? Manliness not hypermasculinity. Are our perceptions exaggerated or outright wrong?

Women, often far more practical than men, used their man droughts to practice putting the unfamiliar first foot forward first. Um, what woman wouldn’t have found any reversal with men pleasing?

Our clothes tell certain stories. That is obvious. Hidden beneath them are deeper meanings best deduced through tactile means. Some of these exposures revealed themselves during several tangos. That meant … touch.

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