Prelude: As I rev down my engines and prepare to go on blogging hiatus for the next couple of weeks, I thought I should take this opportunity to skip ahead in the story a bit, to a chapterlet called “Tango.” The season is right, because the events occurred precisely this week five years ago, during the same summer vacation I took then as now, to a family dance and music camp in West Virginia. Then, as now, Blue and I flitted out of town at the same time and in different directions with the same, last conversation making different echos in our minds….
Dance camp is six days of fluttering REM sleep. We flee the city to exhale in the twenty degree temperature dip, to indoctrinate the children in folky ways, to let them see grownups having fun, to waft lazily uphill when the dining hall bell clangs and downhill when the trombone and ukuleles call. We pack the car with board games, books, contraband snacks, shoes and clogs and flip flops, at least two ideas for a skit, swim gear and secret dangles, crowns, and fancy things for the parade. Just beyond the edge of Washington’s megalopolis civilization, north of Winchester, West Virginia, we bend west and up into the Shenandoahs, the red dirt road winding through August storms and thirsty trees, past the fossil quarry nearly spent from three decades of invasion by summer children, to Timber Ridge Camp on the bank of the Cacapon River.
My first summer with Blue, I picked just tango class at camp, which did not require twirling or stamping. When class was over and the large hall was filling with people for family gathering, I hid away in a bunk in our cabin while my sweat evaporated, lying down with what had happened the day before in session. Blue believes that patients tend to keep conversations benign just before vacations, but rarely has this been borne out with me. I wanted to talk about Michael.
“What happened to Michael between when his parents died and when Rich found him?”
“He lived in his uncle’s house. It was a year before Rich rescued him.”
“What was his uncle’s house like?”
It was a predictable question. Yet his office felt cavernous, the corners becoming dark and hidden from me. Or I was getting smaller.
“What are you feeling?” Blue asked gently, seeing my forehead furrow.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s okay,” he leaned back in his chair, “Why don’t you just feel it for a while?”
The drowsiness was a long, silent suction. It wasn’t interrupted by narcoleptic jerks into consciousness; it wasn’t sleep. An anesthetic potion, a portal. Red, the color behind my eyelids except that my eyes were open, just barely.
“I’m backing away,” I struggled to slur out.
“To keep my peripheral vision as wide as possible,” I swung my eyes to the left then to the right and back again, “There’s a light.” Flicker.
“What happens with the light?” His voice was half a block away.
“It’s coming towards me.”
“Am I in the room with you, Mai? Or am I behind the light?”
Flicker. He couldn’t be behind the light; I wasn’t afraid of him. “You’re in the room with me. I’m backing up. They’re coming closer.” My tongue was too heavy to explain that the light was much wider than me, that there was the thinnest wind on the back of my neck, that They were all around me, circling. I already knew I would surrender in the end.
He raised his voice, “You don’t have to stay in that place, Mai.”
No, no. Please let me see what happens. Flicker. Hand. Flicker. Cool. Flick. Fingertips landing, tented on something smooth, shadows underneath. “My hand is on the wall.” It’s such a little hand.
“You don’t have to stay in that place, Mai,” his tone was sharper, loud, then stern, “Look at me a minute!” Fighting gravity, I obeyed. He sprang into action.
“It’s Friday morning in August 2008. It is a beautiful sunny day in Dupont Circle, and you are wearing a fabulous blue dress. Come back to this place.”
I tried to telegraph him as he talked but couldn’t fight his rhythm, “I can’t move,” I slurred out in desperation, lips disengaged from my jaw. Was I going to die, frozen like this? Where were my thighs?
He nodded in acknowledgement and softened his tone, “You have vacation coming up. Tomorrow you’re going to leave the city with David and the boys and you will have a lovely week in the mountains. Then we will both come back here and talk more about today, but not until then.”
In a leap, my right hand flashed up to grab the pendant at my neck and my legs gradually thawed. Palpitations made my head jerk slightly from each volley of blood.
“I don’t like surprises. I’ve never liked them. I don’t like Beethoven. I don’t like loud noises or people sneaking up on me. It took my husband years to learn that. It’s not funny!”
He pulled his chair forward, nodding, “In this room, you don’t have to say more than once that you don’t like surprises….What would help right now, Mai?”
“I don’t know…” I hesitated for just a moment, “…fried chicken.”
“…Really?” He sounded disbelieving, but pleased.
“My mother made a wicked Vietnamese interpretation of it. To this day, her children will get off the highway at ten in the morning for decent fried chicken, even for the non-decent stuff.”
“Well, did you know,” he leaned in conspiratorially, “that there is a Popeye’s at 14th Street?”
“No way. How do you know that?” What I wanted was for him to be quiet and let me think, but he kept pricking me with his prattle.
“I know things,” he crooned like a girlfriend, “I used to live around here. I’m constantly frustrated by how hard it is to find good soul food in this supposedly southern town. And the best thing is, Mai — it’s a drive-thru.”
“So I don’t have to park the car in the circle?”
“Nope. You just roll right in and out!” He smirked in satisfaction.
I fingered the pendant furiously, craving the drowsiness, searching for the wall. “This banter is good,” I told him, “but now I know this thing is out there.”
Only 3 minutes left. He scooted to the edge of his leather seat and got in my face, “Listen to me. As your shrink, I am telling you to not think about this for the next week. Stop thinking about it right now! You haven’t thought about it for many, many years; one more week is not going to make a difference.” He pointed a finger at me then at his own chest, “You’re going away, and I’m going away. This is a really bad time to start opening stuff up. Go dancing and be with your kids.”
In the first day of class, tall and debonair Matt Duveneck gave a tutorial about Argentine tango. His face pinched in bliss as he described his love affair with it, the high cheekbones tilted up and eyes softly closed as if to inhale the dance. Tango is an invitation. He asked us what we think are the most essential elements. Being connected to the floor. Being connected to your partner. Being connected to the music. Eye contact. He straightened at that last one.
“Is eye contact really important? Where are the answers in tango?” He asked rhetorically, looking at each of us in challenge. “The answer is not on the floor, so don’t bother looking there. It’s not where the musicians are. And the answer is not in your partner’s eyes. The answer…. is on your partner’s chest.” He placed his hand on his sternum for punctuation, and pulled a svelte teenager into place facing him. He demonstrated, pushing and pulling their weight forwards and backwards and to the left, turning slowly until her legs were scissored between his, and then reversing the rotation, “If my chest moves, your chest moves. If your chest moves, my chest moves….. If my chest moves and yours doesn’t, we will fall apart.”
He asked the men to stand in a circle, facing outwards, then the women in another circle around the men, facing inwards. Close your eyes! The music began and hands groped within each pair to find my waist, his shoulders. We swayed in place, motored by the piano baseline and something else. After a few minutes, he had the women rotate one man over. And in the darkness behind my eyes, every sweaty, tall, short, lean, fat, strong, wispy, shy, confident man had his own palpable scent and center of gravity. My chest blindly centered on his, and this centripetal force bound us to the circle and the dance.
After class on the second day, I snuck into the arts and crafts cabin and tore off a couple yards’ worth of 36-inch butcher paper, and then picked out markers in 3 colors – one for the streets in our old neighborhood, one for important buildings, and one for the places I couldn’t remember well. Back on our cabin floor, I began with Lincoln Drive, ending in a T-intersection at Mt. Pleasant Avenue on one end and splintering into side streets at the other. Next the squares for the Ross’ house, our house, the school, the library, the Lutheran church across the cobblestones on Germantown Avenue where I went for Girl Scout meetings. Then the alternate paths to school, one along the streets, the other along the railroad tracks and across the bridge. With the last marker color, I drew vague splotches where the entrance to Wissahickon Creek might have been, the Egans’ house, and the MacGregors’. Out of colors, I pulled a black pen from my purse and etched a broken line along all the paths I walked, over thirty years ago, until the sheet was covered in ant tracks. I carefully violated Blue’s instructions; so many of these places had walls.
When I returned, I showed the map to Blue, unfolding it on the floor between our feet. The silence on its streets was excruciating. It’s so barren, he said. Where were the trees and flowers? Where were the people? Did no one hear you walking all those places? No, they did not. I left enraged and told him I didn’t care what he did with the map. When I had gone, he carefully refolded it and put it in his closet, pulling it back out when I asked for it a couple weeks later.
Matt lived in Maine, where one tango friend taught at an osteopathic medical school. She liked to introduce him to her students at the end of their second year, before they donned short white coats and stethoscopes or learned the rudiments of taking histories and physicals, before they met their first patients. First, she had him teach them how to tango.
For months I could not forgive Blue for interrupting that trance, and I seethed at our failure to find our way back to that place, that room, where surely all the answers lay. He was indifferent to my anger. Eventually, we pivoted this way and that and found our way into other rooms, as he knew we would.