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The Good Girl

As I’m sure you are, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about – well, everything.

My life, decisions I made, mostly the bad ones.

Wine, the difference between Barbera and Ruché.

Tango: was it all a dream?

As I’m sending off the manuscript of Until Forever to book agents, I’m asking myself if I’ve evoked it accurately. What have I missed?

One of my favorite sociologists, Avery Gordon, developed a method of research based on haunting.

You may be surprised to know this, but one of the tango moments that haunts me is Mr. J’s change of foot.

Now indeed many men do many things very nicely and I have been graced to experience many perfect embraces, many delightful improvisations, many charming moments. But 12 years later, Mr. J’s change of foot is one of the experiences that lingers most fully. I don’t really remember much about the rest of him or his dance, only that he was quiet and respectful.

{For Element geeks I am pretty sure that it was a mutual pace system change of foot to the Mark’s right.}

It’s 01:00. I can’t sleep. I’ve made cookies and I’m standing in the kitchen munching on them and drinking rosé. And thinking –of all the things to think about– what was so magical about that move?

Another question I’ve been asking for several weeks is why I torpedoed my career as a professor. The simple story is that I ran off to join the circus, by which I mean tango. That it was a prompt, consuming addiction. But the fact of the matter is that I was torpedoing my career from the moment I moved into my swanky office, and that was a good 8 years before I started dancing tango. Grandma would have said I was “full of piss and vinegar” (a phrase she apparently lifted from John Steinbeck), but I describe it as shaking down the world for the payment I expected for finishing that goddamn dissertation and snaring a coveted R1 tenure-track job. The money was useful, but … That was all they gave me! No mentorship, no challenges. Once again, I was tossed to a strange part of the country where I was both beloved and terrifyingly alone – a situation I have finally become accustomed to, but at the time experienced as a bewildering betrayal.

I did my job in the way I thought I was supposed to, and got in trouble for a good half of it. By now I know that is what it means to be me. Doing the absolutely obvious and sane thing results in my being rejected as an extremist.

That is not something I cooked up as part of my tango brand. That is something I cannot escape.

By the time I got to Los Angeles and tango and collapsed into the arms of retired airline pilots, US Marines, and aerospace engineers I had figured out it was better not to talk with people about intellectual or political matters. Like many of them, I used a sobrenombre, so we couldn’t be found in the daytime. In the daytime I tried not to think about tango. The retro gender cult was impossible to parse.

In year 2 or 3 Mr. J was part of the scene and we danced not regularly, but repeatedly. A wordless encounter resistant to understanding, in most ways like many others in those years of general ecstasy.

So why is he still with me? There was something so soft and heavy about his foot, or I suppose that must be about how he used his foot. I have waited for many buses and many trains all over the world, moving from my left to my right, trying to figure out what could have made it so soft. Heel first? Toe first? The flat foot? Did he shift the foot a bit back? Is the sensation created by what he’s doing with his left knee and ankle? Did he loosen the embrace so I would feel gravity more? I would truly love to be able to give my Revel partners that experience, but I have absolutely no idea what it is.

The magic within this common motion is what I need to convey in Until Forever. That in some ways tango takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, locks a meaningless moment into a place in your psyche that most of the kisses and sex never enter.

But that’s an intellectualization. That doesn’t explain why it’s me, Rosato, lemon cookies, and Mr. J’s right foot here tonight at my kitchen island.

And then, lemon peel like the Buddhists’ bells, I got it.

There I was. The young professor.  Accomplished … unrewarded … misunderstood … striving … proving myself in what was still pretty much a man’s game … punished anyway … wearing Vintage clothes that nobody understood … overwhelmed by insurance and my pension plan … bewildered and betrayed by it all, most of all what to do with my success. And Mr J created a situation in which I could feel his gentle intention toward a very specific point on the ground, where I would put my toes and then my weight and then be gently, warmly, appreciatively received there.

• • •

Many years later, I joined the organizers of a fabulous tango festival at an intimate after-party with mixed dancing. A very handsome guy asked the tango diva to try blues dancing with him. After about 90 seconds he flung me aside, proclaiming me “too boring”. The others, in fairness, asked me what I thought about the dance. “Well I didn’t like it either. There wasn’t enough obedience.”

That does make it seem that I fell down the retro gender cult rabbit hole after all. But I don’t think that’s it, or not the most interesting part.

Mr. J’s sublime foot change crystallized what tango gave to me that the rest of my dramatically accomplished life withheld:  The knowledge of everything we mean by ‘home’, and the utter, unassailable, unquestionable confidence that I was doing it right.

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