Editor’s note: Ermie Mannix returns to the pages of Phantom Sway with another episode in the life of his troubled hero Truman Morrow. Get to know Truman better in in Ernie’s novel Six Devils in the San Fernando Valley.
by Ernie Mannix
There was a morning about six months ago, when I awoke and knew my soul would never be the same. It’s a horror that I can’t get out of my mind. What she had done was not supposed to happen, but it had happened and I’ve been left with the burden of never mentioning it again.
Therapists, friends, and experts all point to the future and the possibilities of renewal and recovery. All of this help is sincere and/or quite professional. However, just like the West Point graduate that has had no real experience in combat, many therapists and spiritual advisors have never laid awake at three in the morning doubting what they once were so very sure of. For the man needing sincere help, the advice of the inexperienced can wear thin with every annoying co-pay.
The voice on the answering machine sounds coarse, as does the music behind the announcement. The message is almost indistinguishable, recorded in what sounds like an ambient, empty-sounding room. I check the crumpled napkin and indeed it’s the correct number. Pablo—Dance Instructor. Pablo, is supposedly the best in the area, but I also hear that his services come at a dear price.
His machine sounds a very long warbling beep that seems to suggest it’s one of those old cassette-tape models. I speak softly.
“Yes, I’m interested in lessons. My name is Truman and I’d like to learn the tango.”
Okay, I put it out there. “Do something recreational”, is what the therapist suggested.
“Hola! Sorry, I was in the kitchen… you are calling for tango?”
“Yes, hi, I’m inquiring about some lessons.”
“Are you an advanced student?” the teacher asks, putting me off a bit.
“I’m a beginner, never done it before.”
“A beginner! Ha! Tango is not the lindy. Tango is not the twist.”
Hearing someone say “the twist” nowadays is quite refreshing and not at all unpleasant.
“Oh, okay, if you don’t take beginners…”
“Hold on, I did not say that. I take beginners, but first, I need to ask what interests you in the tango, Truman?”
I didn’t expect a quiz, and pause a second or two in order to give an honest answer.
“Well, I like the fact that it’s serious and mysterious, and… I like the fact that no one is smiling.”
Then, without even a chuckle at what I thought was a clever little quip, he replies,
“Saturday, ten in the morning” and abruptly hangs up the phone.
I press the cracked plastic button of the doorbell and hear nothing. I wait about ten seconds before pressing it again. The door opens slowly.
“Yes?” says the man that looks like a character from a 1956 movie about Cuba.
“Pablo? Hi, I’m Truman. I’m here for the ten o’clock session.”
Pablo is clean-shaven, with slicked-back black hair. He’s wearing an impeccably pressed flower-print, vintage-looking shirt. He kind of looks like a thinner, more serious, Ricky Ricardo.
“Come in Mr. Truman.”
Before I can even enter the doorway he spins deftly on the ball of his foot and retreats into the dark hallway. His manner is animated, and I feel a little unnerved by his serious aura. Following the soft music I make my way to a large room where the only furniture is an old rickety chair holding an even older record player. Nice touch, I think to myself. Pablo notices my gaze at the old technology.
“You like the records, eh Truman? Me? I hate the stupid CDs. Hate them!” His physical animation of his words is engaging. I resist letting him know that CDs are now also passé. He continues, passion pouring forth.
“Records have life in them down inside those little grooves. The sound is trapped in them, then comes out… it’s a beautiful thing, no?”
I nod politely. Then he continues.
“Now, tell me, where is she?”
His question stirs me.
“She? I’m sorry Pablo, was I supposed to bring a partner?”
“No, not necessarily, I just needed to know more about you—and now, I have my answer.”
“Answer?” I ask.
“I mean that you are here alone for tango. Truman, there is only one type of man that comes alone for tango lessons…a broken hearted one.”
Well, here I am trying to relieve myself of my horror and pain, and the first thing that happens is a sad reminder of my situation.
“Truman, your eyes tell me enough… they tell me you’re doing too much thinking of late, so I suggest you stop thinking and just watch. Yes, today’s lesson, is merely to watch.”
With that pronouncement, the doorbell rings. A woman walks into the room and smiles at me. She looks nice, she looks welcoming. She’s a redhead, with a softer, fuller-looking dancers body.
“Truman, this is Cynthia. Cynthia is a student of mine and she’s progressing along fairly nicely. Cynthia, this is Truman. He is just as inept as you were one month ago.”
Pablo soothes over his insult by shooting me a wink. He then quickly turns on the record player and claps his hands at Cynthia. She looks at me with what I perceive as a bit of embarrassment before moving away and placing her body in the middle of the room. I start to back away from the dance floor but feel Pablo’s firm hand stop my rear movement.
“I want you to see what she does up close. Watch her, Truman.”
The music begins and an embarrassed young woman transforms into a totally different person by the end of the first phrase. Her head is pitched at a slight angle and her body moves with a severe elegance. She exacts vicious turns, pivoting quickly on her foot, almost as if she’s stalking prey. Her lovely hips swivel hard with a sensual display of tantalizing physics. Her arms follow her hips around, adding an artistic flair to her raw, almost savage turns. This isn’t a pretty dance at all, it’s fearsome, bordering on anger. Pablo watches her intently and claps his hands at certain key points in the music, pushing her hard into to the hypnotic rhythm. His commanding claps get louder and louder, faster and faster, whipping her into a frenzy. She sighs almost sexually, throwing her head back as if she’s being released from some physical or mental burden. I’m beginning to like the tango.[quote float=”left”]I feel a surge of wild attraction for this woman, and watch her intently as she spins around with purpose, her engaged eyes looking off into the distance.[/quote] The music swells and she backtracks towards me with her hands held above her head. She moves right into my space, and though my initial instinct is to back up, once again I feel Pablo’s hand preventing my retreat. She moves in very close and arches her head backwards, her wonderful hair very nearly touching my face. Her hands come around and almost touch the back of my head, but then she briskly pulls away, falling back down deep into herself and the intensifying music. I feel a surge of wild attraction for this woman, and watch her intently as she spins around with purpose, her engaged eyes looking off into the distance. I find myself almost jealous of whatever has her attention, and hope she will look at me again and share her erupting passion. Then, abruptly, several staccato notes ignite her into a spin, flaring her arms high. She comes full circle and stops perfectly on the music’s final chord.
She holds her pose for several seconds transfixed on some imaginary point halfway towards the sun streaming in the window. Pablo says nothing. I say nothing. She says nothing. There is an intense energy in this silent waiting, a rejuvenating soundless break from conscious thought. It’s feels more powerful than meditation, more enlightening than deep thought.
Finally Pablo moves and with a swift turn of his shoe, breaks the silence. Cynthia relaxes her stance and looks right at him, and then to me.
“Wonderful, Cynthia” Pablo says. “Not perfect, but impassioned.”
Cynthia looks to him and smiles. It looks as though she’s just won the lottery.
“What did you think Truman?” Pablo questions.
“Well, I thought it was…”
“No!” he yells, then calms down. “What I meant to say was what did you feel?” He then turns and cups his ear toward me like a school teacher waiting for the correct answer that he knows I am capable of verbalizing.
“It was hot.” I say.
“Ha! You Americans have such silly way of economizing your verbal feelings. However you are correct… it was very hot indeed.”
Then Pablo returns to business.
“And now, you pay me and go. Be here next week, same time, both of you.”
As he speaks he points to the two of us as if to signify that Cynthia and I were now a dance couple. We both pay him and he motions us to the door where he unceremoniously ushers us out of his home. Outside, the bright San Fernando Valley sun is shining hard, forcing us to find shade at the curb under a magnolia tree.
“It was nice to meet you” Cynthia says.
In her case I hope her words aren’t just a formality.
“Yes, it was very nice indeed Cynthia, I’m looking forward to our next lesson. The only thing is, I really don’t know what I’m doing, he hasn’t shown me any steps yet.”
“He’s never shown me any either.”
I try to hide my surprise. She must be kidding, surely her elegance, moves and passion were taught to her. She must have done this before.
“How were you able to dance like that?”
She pauses for a moment, but my question goes unanswered as she smiles and turns, walking towards the corner. I watch for a few seconds but look away in case she turns around. I don’t want to seem too eager. I walk in the opposite direction towards my car and when I get there, turn around and look again. To my surprise, she’s walking backwards and looking at me with a lovely smile. My heart leaps.
The following days rolled quickly. I decided to go to the beach twice during the week, which is certainly odd for me. I normally don’t like the sand, sun and heat mixed all into one for I feel it an uncomfortable messy cocktail. However, there was a wonderful peace there by the shore for me this week. My thoughts turned to Cynthia and with each crashing wave, I recalled her sensual moves on Pablo’s dance floor. I replayed them over and over in my mind like a visual mantra, until most of the beachgoers had left, and the last rays of the sun went down.
Saturday comes and I keep the breakfast light, knowing I will be dancing in an hour. I make myself some scrambled eggs, rye toast and some wonderfully hot, strong coffee. My shower is brief, and I dress with that little bit of extra care you take when thoughts are ones of interest in another.
Arriving at Pablo’s, I make my way into the dance studio and find him occupied with some paperwork. He lifts his head acknowledging my presence.
“Truman, this is Hilda… Hilda, Truman.” He waves his hand back and forth, as if he was musically conducting the introduction to this woman who is standing at the edge of the room.
Disappointment at my age can take on physical ramifications, for my desire to dance just walked flat-footed out into the street.
How dare he pair me up with someone else? He must have noticed that Cynthia and I hit it off… he knew I liked her.
“Hello, Hilda”. I bravely say.
“Hola.” she says as she pulls a rag from her pocket and tip-toes up to the dusty blinds.
Pablo addresses Hilda entirely in Spanish, but all that my eighth-grade-language-class ears retain is, “The windows weren’t cleaned for springtime.” No matter, my shoddy translation still is accurate enough to provide some returned feelings of hope.
“Sorry I’m late,” says a soothing voice from behind me.
I turn around and there she is looking brighter and lighter than the week before. Cynthia’s eyes have an even deeper clarity to them. A purpose holds them up, and as they train on me, she smiles.
“Hello, Truman. Glad you’re here.”
“Hello Cynthia, very glad you’re here too.“
Tossing his papers aside and getting with down to business, Pablo claps his hands in a stern manner, and without words, commands us to the center of the dance floor. With desire anticipating necessity, we embrace into the position of the dance.
“Very good!” Pablo announces. We both know it must be so, because it appears that his words of praise are rare indeed.
The music begins and we move around the floor. There’s a magic to our movements as we both anticipate the other and glide without effort into the deeply emotional moves of the tango. I’ll admit I looked into online videos of the tango, and moved around my living room doing a few steps, but that isn’t what propels me into this dance. Something magical is pulling me, one part art, one part passion, and just like a baby colt jumping up and running within minutes of birth, I am dancing.[quote float=”right”]We press together harder and deeper, falling down into each other, each of us following the burning cadence of the music.[/quote] We reverse direction and momentarily defy the rhythm, suspending and ignoring beats as we stretch and arch as one. We make musical amends with our feet and hands, buttoning-up and re-syncing the phrases with authoritative motion. Cynthia’s eyes lock with mine and I hold her lovely waist with my right hand and her soft hand with my left. We push into the dance floor and make it ours. I am moving purely with instinct and feeding off a building passion between us. Sharp, cutting turns propel us into long sweeping steps, backward and forward. Our heads pivot away like dolls in time with the music, but return over and over to our deep sensual gaze. We press together harder and deeper, falling down into each other, each of us following the burning cadence of the music. I dip her briskly and realize in that moment that I am in her power, or under Pablo’s spell, and I can’t tell which or care why. The music swells with accented piano figures as we spin out to the edge of the floor. I pull her body back very hard, slamming it up against mine. She moans slightly and her eyes roll back making me grip her harder, as if saving her from a fall. The straining progression in the music signals that the dance is about to end. Our bodies obey the command and with the final chord freeze in the crescendo of a passionate embrace. The music reverberates around the room, out into the street… and around the world. Here we are, chests heaving… breath mingling. I see perspiration on her cheeks and drink in in her sweet perfume. Our master is silent, but his silence and the reverence for it speaks volumes. Our bodies are still locked together and my heart falls into her gaze.
“Yes!” The dance master shouts. The jaded man almost seems thrilled.
“I’m going now to the store,” he says, “I can tell you nothing more other than congratulations—you just danced the tango. I suggest you turn your records over my dears… and follow your hearts.”
Without moving we continue to look into each others eyes as Pablo leaves the room—no wavering, no blinking, no embarrassment. It seems to be taking forever for Pablo’s footsteps to finally diminish. Then, like a fuse hitting the powder, our explosion of passion releases in the most wonderful kiss that seems to last a lifetime.
I hold the door for her exiting Pablo’s, I have to pick up the pace to catch up to her as she begins swiftly walking to her car. Immediately I have guilt that I may have pushed it too far. I thought it was the right moment, but now her haste seems to imply that she has fear, or even worse, regrets. There’s nothing worse then the scales of budding relationship tilting to one side or the other. You just can’t take those split seconds back.
A few paces away from me, she stops dead in her tracks. She turns suddenly and walks towards me, wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me gently. This is less of a kiss than I gave her, but I chalk it up to her respecting proper public reserve. In any case, all of my fears vanish as the scales teeter back to the center.
“Think of me this week, Truman. I’m frightfully busy, but think of me, okay?”
“Well, how about tonight? I’d love to buy you a wonderful dinner. Maybe we can go over to Santa Monica…”
“I can’t. Frightfully busy.”
There’s a difference between playing hard to get and “no” and I am smart enough to know that this was a hard stop.
“Okay, Cynthia. I surely will think of you, and look very forward to next week.”
She smiled a smile that lets me know that all is safe, that the seed planted hadn’t been over watered, that the ground was good.
This time I play it cool and walk to my car without turning around. I am sure that her car disappeared as most things do in Southern California— fading away into the setting Valley sun.
The following Saturday brings me back to the tango. Pablo’s door is open and I walk into the dance room. Pablo’s not there but his maid Hilda is standing beside the dance floor. She’s looking tired and somewhat careworn.
“Where’s Pablo, Hilda?”
“Pablo will back in a few minutes, he had to go out.” She continues on with her cleaning.
“Oh, I see…well, since Cynthia’s not here yet either, I’ll just step outside and wait for them. It’s a lovely day.”
I take several steps toward the door, as Hilda raises her voice and speaks clearly and quite firmly.
“Cynthia’s not coming Señor. She’s not coming again.”
Her voice sounds full and authoritative, almost as if the meek maid was a role. Then, she relaxes her tone and assumes her old persona.
“Pablo says she go away… to Europe. She getting married, Señor. ”
Then as if she knows more than she seemed to at first, adds, “I’m very sorry, Mr. Truman.”
Fourteen tons of emotion try to get past my ears and into my brain, but I prevent them from doing so. I turn away from Hilda and grab my right hand clenching it tightly in my left. It’s the only outward sign of sadness that I choose to betray in this moment.
Pablo returns, pauses briefly at the doorway and walks past me without engaging in any exchange. He quickly goes to the record player and puts on what sounds like a sad but commanding piece of Tango music. I listen for a moment.
The music is somewhat wild… a call to the soldier in me, the emotional warrior who has seen much and lived through more. The drums beat out a cadence of defiance, they’re angry, sad and the hopeful all in one. Like a magician motioning to a wonderful illusion, Pablo holds out this hand and motions me to the dance floor, then he smiles and deftly takes his seat. I slowly release my tense grip on my own hand and take several steps toward the edge of the floor. As if on cue, Hilda gently walks over and dims the lights, then quietly leaves the room.
With a startling loud chord from the music, I spin around and stomp my feet down onto the well-worn wooden floor, then sweep out into its center… all alone, in the darkened room.