La Cumparsita

By Odette Allyn

She wished that he would stop trying to give her things. He was shuffling through his unpacked possessions, producing items as makeshift gifts. She assured him that she did not want his half-used bottle of deodorant, nor did she want his copy of “The Communist Manifesto”. Most of the items were presented as a joke, but others were objects she knew he held dear. He loved the scarf that he had just tossed over her neck. Swirls of silver and moonbeam blue. A pashmina that he wore only with the navy overcoat. The coat that would surely become the staple of his wardrobe up north.

She anchored her gaze onto the hardwood floors, focusing on the slants of light striking the hall flooding from his bedroom. It was an excellent way of dodging the tension she felt rise in her chest when she made eye contact with him. Pulling the fabric from her neck, she chucked it at him and the fine threads clung to his right shoulder blade with autumn static. She focused back on the shine of the hall landing. But the smooth grain of the floors brought up a spiral of new tension, up through the soles of her feet, through her spine, finally reaching its destination at her solar plexus. The main point of connection between two dancers. This posture caused an ache only associated with dancing tango[1]. She stayed rooted on the edge of the entry-way throw rug, forbidding herself to step further into the feeling. He continued to fuss about, presenting her with his treasures, trying to make her laugh. A coconut shell purse that had been sitting on his bookshelf for years, a bottle of shoe shine, and an orange spork, poorly washed. She laughed, but it left her lips as a breathy cough. He scuttled between his bedroom and the open suitcase in the hall, assuring her there was a method of organization to it all. The view of the ruddy wood panels became cluttered with his limbs, rearranging his belongings. She turned away, seeking sanctuary from the window. Soft street lights blurred with the rain streaked condensation. The static of falling rain filled the silences with far more grace than any of his quips.

“Cat got your tongue?”

He put his façade up. He wanted to engage her in a verbal joust.  Usually, she would eagerly meet his provocations with her own spite. Tonight, however, her spirits were out of sorts and no match for his condescension. She responded by taking up a fascination with the paint job on the wall nearest to her. As with her other tactics of diversion, this one failed also. The earthy red on the walls recalled to her layers of satin fabric, wrapped around her body, held in his arms. In the process of banishing the thoughts so quickly straying in a dangerous direction, she made the error of passing over his eyes. He impertinently tried to hold her gaze. In a bout of sudden desperation for some diversionary task, she involuntarily began to slide her stockings into her boots. Lacing the ties felt like an action she was attempting to do in reverse. She didn’t mean to be leaving so soon, but her body was carrying her away.

He sighed and retrieved a final object: “For you.”

He placed this gift firmly in her palm. Panels of thin wood suspended by viridian cloth. Dancing across the fan were filigrees laid in golden thread. Though he made no comment on it, she knew it was a gift from his time in Sri Lanka. Another time he had left. That time, however, he had intended to return. He did come home, along with a few extra pounds from eating rice, and a tan unbefitting of a pale Russian boy. She could see that he viewed her repeated refusals as a sin. He wanted to leave something behind, to prove his existence. She took it. And a fitting token it was, for the only suitable place for a fan such as this to travel would be the dance halls.

She had caused the dreaded parting to arrive sooner than was warranted. Flittering memories surfaced, elongating the remaining moments. The heels of her boots grew and the soles tightened to her arches, becoming black suede stilettos. Beneath those familiar soles was the ballroom floor of the Hilton in Portland.

A delicate chill grazes her exposed back, now framed by layers of dark red satin, sweeping down to her knees. Bandoneon[2], Violin, Piano, Double Bass, and a mournful singer blend through the air, while the dancers listen and interpret. A floor that had been filled to maximum occupancy in the early hours of the night has now sparsened in the wee hours of the morning. Only the elite dance at this sacred hour, dancing exclusively with the other elite. For hours she has passed from arm to arm, hunting the best out and winning their dance. Now the incandescence of the night is folding, and the final tanda[3] is announced. The orchestra hits the first bar of “La Cumparsita[4]” and she searches the crowds. Across the densely filled dance floor she catches a glimpse of a young man leaving his partner in the final song of their tanda.  He is breaking etiquette in doing so, and now disregarding more courtesy by striding her direction without inviting her to dance by way of cabeceo[5]. But he reaches her through the garden of movement and leads her to the floor wordlessly. Though they came to this gala together, the evening’s last dance shall be their only. Exhausted, they form their embrace without strength. Their first movement in tandem is a single breath. A sigh of homecoming, to the most familiar embrace among an evening filled with the bodies of coveted strangers. Usually, their dance is a display of skill and extravagant tricks. Tonight however, they find solace in walking. Simplicity to contrast the complex patterns and technical precision that they have strived to achieve preceding this moment.  Matching steps, feeling the glow of the heartbeats, and matching breaths. In this linear dance, she finds her comfort in his right shoulder. Their embrace matches up in such a way that the only part of him she can see clearly is the curve of his neck through to the cap of his shoulder. The subtle scent of aftershave mixes with human warmth, and a shirt familiar to her by texture.

She could not help but scoff at the miniature Russian flag he slipped into the front pouch of his suitcase. His image of sophistication and lavish vintage outfits was rather undone by his tacky patriotism. He made a show of removing his house key from its key chain, one that could surely only belong to a self-proclaimed Czar. Bitterness flicked at her tongue as he carelessly tossed his dance shoes into his suitcase. The lack of care in his action grieved her. In Freeport[6] she would now only dance once a week, with only subpar partners. The tango-filled life she had known would be gone without a partner. She should be jealous of him, for in Saint Petersburg he will be able to dance tango any day, at any time. She was instead jealous of the city. A city which would take all his dances for itself. He disappeared through the black of the hall to fetch his coat. She had never removed hers at all, lacking ease in his house today. She closed the fan and tucked it into her shoe bag. He returned with the navy greatcoat. They moved from hall to porch once he had donned his coat. His socks didn’t seem to be the fitting footwear for the occasion. Nonetheless, he stubbornly passed by his boots, and stood on the damp porch in his thin dress socks. They fell silent and listened to the light rain. With little space, they now stood barely a dancer’s stance away from each other. If she planked forwards in the usual way, she would meet his chest. He spoke of his excitements for Russian pastries she had never heard of, outdoor skating rinks, and a city filled with new opportunity. She nodded along, but the words passed by her and dissolved in the October drizzle.

They stand on a school field, meditating beneath an open winter sky. The flecks of silver on the black velvet draping her body are hidden beneath a grey mohair coat. Her dress is a match to the silver pieces above, the adõrnos of the night. A twinge of annoyance strums her ribcage when she sees him glued the opposite direction of the awe above, audaciously browsing his phone without a sensitivity to the serenity of the moment. However, she is quick to leave behind her displeasure, for from his phone the quiet begins to fill with Astor Piazzolla’s[7] “Oblivion”. A grey mohair coat falls to the fresh snow, and a navy greatcoat follows. Phone tucked into his tux pocket, he offers her his dance. She accepts. Her dressed glimmers like stars as they carve steps into a snowy canvas. Sheets of fresh snow launch in a firework display started by her feet. The warmth of his chest radiates against the crisp January air, and the Bandoneon sings from his pocket.

This is the moment where she would step over the tracks. Crossing the mist, she raised her arms to embrace him. But he took control of the motion, and she found herself trapped on his unfamiliar left side. This halve was a stranger to her. A mutual discomfort caused them to re-adjust, to the side each is properly acquainted with. They inhaled. They exhaled.

“It’s yours”.

He doesn’t mean the fan. The curve of his neck to the cap of his shoulder. A gift he can take with him, yet leave behind with her.

She waits in the theatre ally, listening for his steps over the thunder of the rain. She has given up all attempts to wring out the velvet of her purple dress. Heels in hand, she hums Fresedo’s “Vida Mia[8]”. He finally strides up, starched collar shielded by an umbrella.

“Don’t tell me I have to dance with you all soaked like that”.

She laughs and tackles him in a hug that leaves a stamp of her body on his shirt. Backstage they dance between musty curtains, blocking out the punk band onstage with his earbuds. She regrets agreeing to this talent show performance, she doubts that the audience will understand the intensity of their craft. She knows that he suspects that himself, but is willing to take the risk. He hopes to inspire some young men to take up the dance, so that she will have someone to practice with. They dance Pugliese’s[9] “Remembranza”. Memories.  The rehearsal of a few steps evolves into a silent dance. The space they dance is the size of a coffee table. Her soaking curls sticking to his face, he occasionally makes a show of spitting pieces of hair out of his mouth. They keep each other’s nerves in check. In a tight embrace, a rising heartbeat has nowhere to hide. The white stage light from the previous act floods to a red. They are up. They take the stage for their final performance.

Her feet drifted down the porch steps, carrying her away from his arms. She felt the last graze of his fingers across her back, and looked up at him from the base of the steps. Once that action was complete, she was swept into the rain and night, putting distance between he and she as fast as she could.

Overnight the misty rain froze to a gentle snowfall. She took the first morning steps through the white. She listened to Astor Piazzolla’s “Invierno Porteno[10]” through her earbuds. She traced Hiros and Gyros[11] down the street on her way to Practica[12]. She imagined that when he got off the plane and stepped into his first Saint Petersburg snowfall he would do the same.

[1] An improvisational social dance that originated in Argentina different from the American “Ballroom tango”.
[2] A Concertina, similar to an Accordion
[3] Tango music is played in sets, usually 3-5 songs per set. Etiquette dictates that when accepting a dance, the partnership lasts for the rest of the tanda.
[4] La Cumparsita signifies the last tanda at a Milonga.
[5] Cabeceo is the traditional invitation to dance at a milonga. The leader invites the follower by catching their eye, and awaiting a subtle response. This non-verbal form of invitation allows for little embarrassment for leaders to be rejected by followers, because there will be no walk of shame if they are rejected. Likewise, followers do not need to invent excuses for not wanting to dance with a leader, because they can say “no” by simply looking away.
[6] Freeport: A town in Cumberland, Maine, USA.
[7] Astor Piazzolla’s music blends traditional Argentine Tango with Jazz. His music was the start of a “new age” for tango.
[8] “Vida Mia” is Spanish for “My life”
[9] The music of Osvaldo Pugliese is characterized by its dramatic and romantic qualities. Pugliese songs are often the “dance for that special someone” among tango dancers.
[10] “Invierno Porteno” means “Winter Season” in Spanish. Astor Piazzolla composed his own “Four Seasons” inspired by Vivaldi.
[11] Tango steps with a circular shape.
[12] A “Practica” is a practice session for tango dancers.

About the Author

Odette Allyn is a barista dabbling in writing from Vancouver B.C. When she isn’t making a latte, she likes to listen to the rain and admire unusual umbrellas.

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