Erin knocks on John’s apartment door for the third time. Has he forgotten their four o’clock tango lesson already? She turns the knob, gives the door a few hard pushes, then a kick. The sound echoes down the dingy hallway. The corridor is lifeless as if the tenants have packed up and moved to a better building. Erin looks through the peephole in search of movement, but the view is distorted and blurry.
Figures. When could she depend on John for anything? It was one of the reasons she broke up with him three months ago. After two years together they agreed to stay friends. Alone at 34, Erin now sits by her bedroom window after work staring half focused into the backyard. Her solitary future is just as unclear.
She hears footsteps and in a minute John appears around the corner breathing hard from running up the stairs. His faded jeans hang loosely on his tall frame. He reaches into his pocket for the key.
John glances at her as he unlocks the door and pushes it open. “Hey, sorry I’m so late.”
“Geez, you know I’m short on time. You could have called.”
He closes the door behind them and throws his jacket on a chair. “Give me a break, will you? I said I was sorry. Besides, I’m not sure why you need a lesson.”
“I’m dancing again.”
“Yeah, and I’m pretty rusty,” she says. “I’ve only had one lesson. The instructor I found sucks.”
“Still struggling with turns?”
John raises an eyebrow. “And that’s all?” He looks her up and down.
Erin turns away to hide the pink rising in her cheeks and pushes a loose strand of blond hair behind her right ear. Her stomach lurches as if she has been caught writing a bad check.
“Yes,” she answers with a weak smile, even though part of her simply wants to see him again. She wonders if breaking up had been a mistake, although she’d rather cut off her hand than let him know.
“Fair enough.” He shrugs and begins to remove a pile of clothes from the sofa.
Erin winces at the smell of dirty socks. He never kept up with his laundry. Newspapers clutter the floor under the only window. Light filters in through the dusty blinds highlighting a layer of grime on the worn linoleum. Erin reaches out to straighten the slats.
“These have seen better days,” she says.
“I hadn’t noticed.”
Erin raises the blinds and the scant warmth of the January sun falls on her face. In the distance she sees the ribbon of gray river with its tiny fishing boats chugging through the icy water. The squawk of seagulls reminds her of summer walks on the stretch of beach near the cottage she and John had shared. He would reach for her hand as they wove around the piles of pebbles and seaweed brought in by the tide.
Sometimes she imagined children on the beach—the two she thought she’d have before she was 30. She watched them fill their pails with salt water and sand to decorate castle turrets and pillars: little sand people with sun-pink noses, protruding bellies, and Charlie Chaplin legs. They’d laughed with a flash of white teeth, and run away when the time came to rinse off and go home.
Sofa feet squeal as John slides furniture out of the way. He moves to the opposite side of the room and fills a glass of water from the spigot in the kitchenette. She watches the stubble on his throat pulsate as he downs the contents. He comes up for air with a gasp and looks at her. A wide grin lights up his eyes and transforms his face.
He had the same grin the evening they first met.
“I’ve been waiting for you all night,” he had said when he approached her at the tango festival. She had taken a step back, startled.
They had danced. He put his right hand on her back, the other he pressed against her palm. He skillfully maneuvered her over the hardwood. Without a word, she felt that he could read her and she him. Tiny invisible memory sticks embedded with information about him, his sense of humor, favorite foods, and dreams, all flooded her pores and flowed through her body until the information reached her brain. Then in a nanosecond fired the announcement to her psyche: this is right.
John’s voice pulls her back into the room. “Can I get you anything to drink before we start?”
“No. I don’t have time. I have papers to grade.”
“Oh, yeah. Papers.” He used to complain that she spent hours grading essays from her World Lit classes.
“Can we get started?”
“Erin. Would you relax? I’m getting to it.”
John hunches over the laptop as he pulls up one of his many tango programs. A hole in his sock peeks over the low edge of a wrinkled brown loafer. Flecks of gray dull the dark brown hair that grazes the back of his stained shirt collar. Sudden distaste surges through Erin at his slovenly appearance.
She remembers the single women, the divorcees who swarmed around him after lessons to ask for his hand in the free dance. Some flirted, but when weary of the effort required to excel, dropped his class and disappeared to other activities. His evenings and weekends were consumed by humoring old crows so they’d come back for more. She suspected he slept with some of them.
At milongas, Erin would watch John circulate to tango with women of significant skill. A sublime expression of contentment rested on his face as he instigated the turns that intimately intertwined him with long, lean bodies. They wove around the wooden floor in European and American style; in close embrace, chest-to-chest, hip-to-hip.
John was passionate for a tango life, the teaching and performance fueled him. But his late hours at the club had worn Erin down. She wanted a bungalow with a yard where their children could play. Each time she brought it up he said, “We’re doing great. Why mess it up by having kids and a mortgage?”
Suddenly, the sultry tempo of a tango orchestra fills the cold apartment. Erin looks up at John through the heavy brush of his dark eyelashes and joins him to create the embrace of the Argentine dance, the base from which all other tango steps originate. As he leads her around the dusky room, she mirrors his basic moves, agile in her ability. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow —simple, not flashy.
Erin holds the embrace. John’s moves become more complex. She stumbles and steps on his foot. While improvisational, there are specific roles for each partner and she is unsure if she should step forward, backward, or twist around him. John smiles and says, “It’s okay, Erin, it’s okay.” He pulls her closer and she goes soft in his arms.
She shivers, hyperaware of the places his body presses against hers. More than once on a Saturday morning she had watched his bare shoulders through the glass shower door as he lathered with soap. Her eyes had swept over his black chest hair and followed it down his toned middle to where it spread thick over his groin.
As if he senses her thoughts, John leans close to her ear, his breath warm on her cheek, and whispers, “I miss you, babe.”
Erin is silent.
Shadows creep into the room as the northern hemisphere spins toward night. A dog’s bark briefly breaks through the walls of the apartment and into the music. Outside, moonglow streaks the river while the high tide washes away the morning’s piles of beach debris.
Erin stiffens and closes her eyes briefly as they continue to dance. Part of her had hoped for this, but now she wants to push a button and eject herself from the apartment to a place where she can shake off the ache that starts to jab at her. She looks at John’s eyes, a hue she knows her children will never share. There will be children she’s sure of it.
As he leads her in a last turn, Erin says, “I think it’s too soon to be friends.” Her thoughts shift to the cottage. She will stay there, alone, for now. In the morning she will take a long walk on the beach, her chin tucked into the collar of her hooded down jacket to avert the wind’s chill. She will watch the gulls, with their wings stretched, riding air currents that sweep them in random patterns across the sky.
Sally Wagner is a writer, editor and teacher from Boulder, Colorado. She was born in England and grew up in Maryland. Her work has appeared in Per Contra and The Southeastern Gale. She is an active member of the Colorado Writing School and enjoys supporting other writers. When she’s not at her laptop you can find her in the garden or with her family. Tango Lesson is dedicated to her children, Jennifer, Kristin and Jeffrey.