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Milonga at Los Laureles, Buenos Aires, 2018

After the first tango ended, we made the small-talk that is the unguent that holds the milonga community together. “Do you come here often?” “How beautiful the orchestra is playing tonight.” “I love the way you dance.” My words would have sounded ridiculous to me had I heard them – but I did not: I had repeated them over and over at a thousand moments just like this one. Through repetition, one becomes shameless.

She seemed an unusual flower in that preening crowd where lace and gold lamé were applied in equally heavy doses; where eyes were rimmed in mascara which inevitably ended in ruin after a sweaty night of tango. She, on the other hand, seemed descended from a fairytale. When I commented on how pretty she looked, she said: “Not ‘pretty,’ ‘elegant.’”

I stood corrected.

While we had let down our embrace to talk and her breasts were no longer pressed against my chest and she was no longer nestled into my neck, we were still, by normal standards, quite close. When she exhaled, the perfume of her last cigarette enveloped me and with it the scent of dank tobacco fields in the Carolinas, drowned in sepia. Then I was yanked back to the memory of an old girlfriend, also a smoker, and our first humid kisses. It was a novelty that I did not dislike.

Now I remembered seeing the elegant woman standing alone outside the dancehall smoking when I stepped from my cab. Cigarettes make me feel lonely, so I supposed that she was as lonely as she was unreachable. Yet another refugee stranded in a place they didn’t belong, longing for something they’d never find.

Now and then I see her around at the milongas. I’d like to warn her away but I keep my mouth shut. Most of us are working out some great need in the embrace and we’ve made peace with the fissure inside us: the close embrace keeps the wound from opening wider. But there are others for whom every failed embrace only deepens the wound. Her need and her elegance seemed unsuited for this world.

Beneath our fancy footwork and the rituals we keep, we are just a bunch of hogs groveling in the mud. Princes and princesses may have a hard time getting out of here unsullied.

— Kevin Carrel Footer

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