One Saturday as I was walking down Corrientes looking for the woman of my dreams, or any woman at all, I turned on Pueyrredón to follow a cute brunette who was strutting down the street, shaking everything. I caught up to her at Plaza Once, but it turned out the brunette was a pro. When she quoted me her three prices, I mentally added up what I had in my pockets, even though I knew it was pointless. And what can I get for twenty-five? I asked. Buy yourself a candy bar, she suggested, and she crossed Rivadavia, wiggling her ass even more, like women do when they know they’re being watched.
I was about to turn back, but as I crossed the plaza I noticed some colored lights on top of an old two- or three-story building. A dance, I thought. A dance in Barrio Once: pickup time. And so I crossed the street. It took me a while to realize I was supposed to enter where it said Hotel Marcone; the ballroom was on the top floor of the hotel, and apparently you could only get there in a rickety elevator that creaked all the way down. The elevator operator held up four fingers to show me which floor it was on, and I got into the elevator with a group of three other guys around my age. One of them wore his hair parted in the middle; as we went up, he pulled out a comb and straightened his part, looking in the mirror.
“Hey, man,” he suddenly asked the elevator operator, “Y’know if this hotel rents by the hour?”
“Ask at the reception desk,” the elevator operator answered sourly.
“No, I mean . . .” the kid said, looking at all of us and half-smiling, “so we won’t have to walk too far to find a room.”
The others that were with him laughed: this was starting to look promising.
Admission was free for ladies and nine-fifty for gentlemen. I paid with the only ten-spot I had and walked in after the guys. As soon as I saw the little tables and the band, I thought about turning and leaving, telling the guy at the entrance—I don’t know—that I’d come to the wrong place or something. I had especially noticed the women at the tables. It’s not like they were foxy older chicks: they were just plain old, with dyed hair and faces like plaster, and wrinkly tits spilling out of their low necklines, and flabby skin under their arms. I got here just in time, I thought, ten minutes later and they’d all be dead. But the place seemed so weird, and nine-fifty wasn’t a lot, so I checked my jacket at the coatroom and made my way around the tables to the dance floor to get a closer look at the band, which was still setting up—and yeah, that’s what I’d been afraid of: there was a bandoneón on a bench. A tango orchestra.
The pianist was tuning the orchestra, and a feeble old man, who could hardly hold the double bass upright, responded with a slightly shaky movement of his bow. Then the violinist and the bandoneón player arrived, and a guy with dyed hair and a microphone also got up on stage, because this gig came with a singer.
He launched right into the tango that goes:
For God’s sake, tell me what you’ve done
to make me feel so strange,
I’ve forgotten who I am . . .
A couple appeared on the dance floor. The man had very long hair, a sort of mane that hung almost to his shoulders. He looked like a gray-haired, big-bellied Prince Valiant. And the woman—this was really strange—had the legs of a young girl. It’s not like she was wearing stockings or anything; that’s just how she was—practically bald, her face smeared with freaky makeup, and a little old lady’s body, but her legs had been miraculously spared, nice and firm, with shapely ankles, perfect.
I watched you dance across the floor,
proud and distant
to the rhythm of the tango,
so sensual and deep . . .
She danced, and you could tell that this was how to do the tango, no circus tricks, no fanfare, and all of us there watching them, but no other couple seemed to have the nerve to join them.
With the second tango, the dance floor started filling up, and I went over to the bar, where the guys I came in with were gathered.
“Che, do they just play tangos or what?” I asked the one with the center part.
“Thirty and thirty,” he explained. “Thirty minutes of tango and then they have ‘Los Internacionales’—cumbia and rock. And boleros.”
“Aren’t there any younger chicks around?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged and took a swig of his drink, “on the other side of the dance floor, or over there, against the window. There’s a little of everything. But the old ones are better,” he told me with a knowing smile. “With the old ones you can jump right into the sack.”
I crossed the room as best I could, skirting the tables and trying to avoid bumping into the couples on the floor. The guy with the center part was partly right—I saw two or three sort of normal people, especially a blonde, sitting alone at a table; she was a little past her prime, too, but with all her parts in the right place. She was smoking and gazing at the dance floor with a lost look in her eyes, and she sang the tangos very softly, like she knew all the words.
I stood back a little, but as soon as they finished with the tangos and announced “Los Internacionales,” I drew closer because I saw suspicious movements everywhere; even the three guys from the entrance had surrounded that table. And just like that, the kid with the center part beat me to it. I’ve got to take my hat off to him, because he didn’t even wait for the music to start. He got there one second ahead of me, asked her for a light, and left the rest of us hanging.
You know what it’s like to miss the first shot at a dance: I watched hopelessly as the floor started to fill up: now everyone was really dancing:
I’m lookin’ for a lady,
If she’s thinner, if she’s fatter,
If she’s cute or if she’s ugly,
It really doesn’t matter . . .
Couples formed in a flash before my eyes, till there was no more room for anyone else. I looked around: nearly all the tables were empty; only the dregs remained. Then I started circling the whole room. “Los Internacionales” struck up a cumbia:
Move your hand, Antonio,
my mama’s out there cooking,
Just one kiss, Lupita,
your mama isn’t looking . . .
The floor trembled with the dancers’ footsteps, and the women’s makeup started to grow shiny. People formed conga lines, and some of them yelled out the chorus:
‘Cause if Mama nabs us in the act,
you’ll have to marry me . . .
Suddenly, I noticed a short girl, a tiny little thing, leaning against one of the windows and looking out. She had her back to me, so I couldn’t see her face. But hey, I thought, she couldn’t be any worse than the ones that were left at the tables. So I walked over, touched her shoulder, and with a solemn voice and a really exaggerated bow, I pronounced my magical phrase: Señorita, may I have the honor of this dance? When she glanced up, I thought: It’s a miracle, because even though that corner of the room was pretty dark, I could tell she was a little cutie, and besides, she was smiling.
“I don’t dance cumbias,” she said, looking serious again, as though she’d suddenly remembered she was angry.
And then “Los Internacionales” saved me because they started to play “Perfidia”:
my heart cries out “Perfidia,”
for I find you, the love of my life
in somebody else’s arms . . .
“What about boleros?” I asked her, almost like a joke, because since she hadn’t accepted before . . . But it’s true, you can never tell with women; she thought it over for a second and began walking toward the dance floor. I followed behind, amazed at my good fortune. We had to circle a million times until at last she stopped, practically in the middle of the floor. I want to be close to my friend, she told me, smiling a little apologetically. When I saw her like that, smiling under the lights, I thought, Damn! Is this possible? Because no matter how much makeup she had on, she was just a kid. I realized she couldn’t be more than fifteen, and when she held out her little arms and I caught her waist, I had a feeling that if I squeezed her any tighter she might break. The lights dimmed, and around us a few couples were starting to kiss. I felt pretty stupid dancing with that little chick, but hey, what was done was done, and it was either that or the dregs, so I started asking her the usual questions. Her name was Mariana, or Marina, I couldn’t exactly hear, and she lived in Caballito. I asked her if it was her first time there.
“First and last,” she said, and I figured she had come to the wrong place by mistake, like me, but that wasn’t it.
“I came to keep my friend company,” she said. “She’s the one over there, in red.” I turned around, but all I could see was a back, clutched by a pair of enormous hands. “She’s older than me, and, well, she wanted to come here . . . But never again,” she said, as if she was offended. “Look at that,” she added, eyeing a very fat old lady who was dancing with a guy my age. The kid was trying to kiss her, and the old broad, whose squinty little eyes were practically closed, was like yes and no; she dodged him by moving her head to the beat of the music, and she was smiling, but she kept her lips shut tight, until finally she gave in a little.
“I could’ve brought my grandma; she’s home knitting me a sweater,” I said, but the girl didn’t laugh, as if she wasn’t listening to me. But I was starting to like that little shorty anyway, and she had a way of nestling against my chest that was—well, when the lights came back on and the music stopped so that the tango orchestra could set up again, I offered to buy her a Coke. As we walked over to the bar, I took another look at her: she was really pretty, with her light-colored eyes and long hair, and she had all her equipment, too, everything in miniature but perfectly arranged.
“Here comes my friend,” she said as soon as we sat down. I turned to see her: thirty-five, I figured, but she was hot; in particular a pair of fantastic tits. I don’t have enough, I calculated, for three Cokes.
“You were dancing really close. Making out, huh?” Shorty said to her, and the other one gave me that slutty smile older chicks use when they’re trying to pass for teenagers. I took the opportunity to get a closer look at her tits.
“Oh, Honey, I don’t make out; it’s just that it’s so crowded here,” she said with a phony giggle. “Guess who I’m dancing with?” she said. “The Rock Champion. Remember I told you that on Sundays they have rock contests here? Well, he’s the champ. But he also does tango.”
The Rock Champion had the face of a trucker and tattoos on both arms. He beckoned to her from a distance and she smiled at us to excuse herself, and returned with him to the dance floor.
“Your friend’s nice,” I said. “She has pretty eyes.”
The girl didn’t say a word.
“You have beautiful eyes, too,” I said, moving in closer. “Are they green or blue?”
“They change with the light,” she said, looking out at the dance floor again.
We’ll never be apart,
You’re nailed into my heart,
Like a dagger under my skin . . .
The pianist got all fired up as he leaned over the keyboard, and it looked like the singer’s chest was about to explode. Prince Valiant and the woman with young legs were back on the dance floor again.
“Those two,” the girl said to me, “they’ve been coming here since they were high-school sweethearts. High-school sweethearts,” she repeated, as if she couldn’t believe it. “And my friend told me they don’t miss a single Saturday.”
“So your friend comes all the time, too?” I asked.
“No, not all the time,” she said, glancing around at the couples till she spotted her. The Champion of Rock was turning her slowly across his leg.
“Isn’t tango gross?” she asked suddenly.
“Gross? How so?”
“It’s . . . slippery,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t know; it’s just gross.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Me? Seventeen,” she said.
“Fourteen’s more like it.”
She blushed, laughed, and said yes. Fourteen, I thought, all is lost. I checked the time: it was nearly two AM. And I had no money, either: I had spent what was left of it on the Cokes.
“You’re quiet,” she said. “Quiet, but smart. I can tell: you have a smart face. I’m quiet too, but, well, someone’s gotta talk, right?”
I laughed because I was starting to like that little girl more and more, but I guess she thought I was making fun of her.
“Am I really stupid? Do you think I’m stupid?”
I said no and tucked her hair behind her ear. That never fails: it’s not quite a caress, but it’s more than just words. She took a little sip of her Coke and let me hold her hand. And that’s when I started talking about any old thing; I invented a really complicated theory about coincidence and destiny and chance meetings and meetings that never happen—the bullshit was gushing right out of me. Then, when I had gotten to the best part of my speech, I saw a woman who had just arrived; I saw her from behind, as she walked to the coatroom, and I thought I know that ass. Sure enough, it was the hooker, the brunette. She checked her jacket at the coatroom and went straight to the bar. I stared at her so hard that I lost the thread of what I was saying, but then I realized that Shorty wasn’t listening to me like before, either; it was like she was thinking about something else. As soon as she finished her Coke, she asked me to wait a minute, she had to tell her friend something, and she went over to the table where her friend was drinking beer with the Rock Champion. When I saw the two women heading for the bathroom, I moved to the end of the bar and sat down next to the brunette.
“Hey, long time no see,” I said.
“Darling, what a nice surprise,” she said with a wide smile. Hookers are amazing.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, trying to peek down her blouse between the buttons. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Curious, aren’t you?” she said, taking a sip of my Coke. “I start work at five, and since I was so tired, I didn’t feel like going back home. In case I fell asleep, y’know? So I came here to kill time.”
“And what do you do?” I asked her. I looked at my watch. It was two-thirty. Who knows, there might still be time, I thought.
“Oh, Baby, why do you have to ask so many questions?” she said, but she opened her purse and handed me a little card: RELAX & COMPANY, it said. LOW RATES, with a nearby address, in Pueyrredón. Suddenly I felt a hand on my leg.
“Aren’t you going to buy me a drink?” she said. “My mouth is really dry. I’m thirsty,” and she ran her tongue slowly across her lips.
“Later,” I said, because I remembered I had no more money. Besides, I saw the girl, who had just come out of the bathroom and was looking for me. I left my glass on the bar. I didn’t know exactly what to do. “Wait a sec,” I told her. “I’ll be right back.”
On stage “Los Internacionales” were tuning up again. They launched right into the boleros, and the lights started to dim until the dance floor was in total darkness. As I passed by, I noticed that Mr. Center Part was sticking his tongue into the blonde’s ear: by now, wherever you looked people were making out like crazy.
“Let’s dance,” I said to Shorty, and again she said sure, fine, but she wanted to be near her friend.
Her friend, her friend, I thought as we reached the dance floor, and when she looped her little arms around my neck, I thought that the hooker wouldn’t wait for me all night. I guided her slowly toward the middle of the floor, in between the embracing couples, who by now weren’t even dancing anymore. Then I see them: first I see the Rock Champion, his hand inching down her back.
“There’s your friend,” I say. The girl abruptly lets go of me and both of us stand there and watch that hand grabbing the woman’s ass, and the ass adjusting itself to its grasp.
The girl froze, as if she couldn’t stop staring.
“I’m not dancing anymore,” she blurted out and practically ran off the dance floor.
Of course, why didn’t I notice before? I thought. They have the same eyes, the same mouth; but, hey, maybe it turned out for the best, after all: the brunette was still at the bar. I hurried back to her.
“May I have the honor of this dance, Señorita?” I asked. She smiled at me, and when I bowed, she straightened her blouse and stood up. Not everyone can dance with a hooker, I thought, happy again.
As I followed her to the dance floor, I saw the girl for the last time, leaning against a window, looking out. She was in profile. When she grows up a little, I thought, she’ll have her mama’s tits.
Translation of “Baile en Marcone.” Copyright 1989 by Guillermo Martínez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Andrea G. Labinger. All rights reserved.