Image: Tango in a Box, by Juarez Machado
Tango in a Box is a story about a college student whose life changes drastically as she reconnects with someone who was greatly important to her in her adolescence when he is suddenly imprisoned. The Machado painting is relevant in various ways, but mostly because of the size of the room the couple is dancing in. Picasso's Portrait of Dora Maar also plays a pretty big role, so I'll introduce her in this post as well.
Tango in a Box
In the one-room weekly where I live, the floor is lined with Portraits of Dora Maar, leaning up against the wall. I painted them. I have no other artistic ability, and I don’t mean other than painting. I mean other than painting Dora Maar. The room I live in, it’s on the seventh floor. It’s the seventh room on the seventh floor and there are seven Portraits of Dora Maar lined against the walls with a bed in the middle, so don’t plan on doing any effective pacing. There used to be a TV, but I made them take it out, so now there’s room for two whole folding chairs, one for me and one for my book bag.
Image: Dora Maar, by Pablo Picasso
Already I can’t breathe, and the weight of the door slamming behind me pushes the air further from my chest. As the next door opens and the bright glare of the room emerges, filled with faces and motion and a hum that grows ever-louder as my attention struggles to manage this second sense, hearing, I run my fingers behind my neck, underneath my hair and seize a chunk. I tug until the pain begins to wash out my other senses and I can walk towards the first set of empty plastic bucket chairs and ball myself up out of the way.
The wait is interminable, and I have to stay conscious for all of it, afraid he won’t recognize me, not expecting me. Right now, my eyes are almost tearing from staring so hard at the door on the far side of the room where I figure he should come out. Right now, I’m trying to ignore the man in the grouping of chairs next to me, in a seemingly stream-of- consciousness monologue berating a small child for showing disrespect towards her mother, who adds her tongue-clicks and loud sighs, repeating the lines she especially likes and interjecting shrill, drawling I means and can you even believes. The smell of perfume is overpowering, and my head is swimming, right now I’m chewing my lip and kicking my leg in unison with the berated child.
When I finally see him, my body flushes and swells with blood and I watch myself shoot to my feet and fling an arm in the air, waving him down.
Right now, he’s staring at me. He looks down and then to one side, and then everywhere but at me as he walks towards me. He sits in a slouch, his feet firmly planted a good distance from each other and his hands on his thighs. He looks at me again.
Right now, I’m stuttering. I’m seeing this isn’t where he planned on the grand reunion. I say, “I know this, I mean, this isn’t.”
Inside my head, we’ve had some great conversations today.
I say, “Look,” and then I take a deep breath and when I let go of it, “Look, you’re all over the TV, even without one, I couldn’t miss you.”
I’m making sense, now, right?
Johnny’s smoldering rage is starting to look like a sneer, but still, no expressions I recognize on him. I pinch the piece of skin between my thumb and forefinger, just to be sure. I say, “Well. I knew you couldn’t have... I came to tell you…”
Now I’m not sure what he’s doing, I can’t even look at him. I breathe. I rub my left thigh, smooth it down, push my right jean leg into my right thigh, breathe again. I look up. Johnny, he’s staring at me instead of talking and so I decide it’s my job to smooth over all the discomfort verbally. I talk about how none of this matters, about how I’m going to get him out of here. When I can’t think of what to say, or when I forget how to form syllables, I just stutter. I think, he’s really glad to see me, this is going well. I think, he’s just in shock. I apologize a few more times, just to be safe.
“No,” says Johnny, and when I look up his face is very still, like he’s listening, and my breathing starts to slow back into a normal rhythm, the colors in the room start to separate and deepen. “You’re fine,” he says. Then he’s silent again.
He leans forward a little, and he’s thinking about what he’s going say, I think it must be for the first time in his life. He says, “How did you get them to let you in?”
“It’s because I drove so far,” I say, my face is trying to smile and I start to hiccup. “I said I was your stepsister, I said we’ve always gotten on badly, but with God’s help we can change that now.”
“You said all that, and in complete sentences,” Johnny says, like he’s reading a teleprompter, but I know him, I can hear him trying not to laugh. So I laugh.
“I practiced,” I say, pressing my jeans into my thighs again, left thigh, right thigh, quick breaths. I’m starting to worry they might kick me out of here, these hiccups are going to take down the walls.
He leans forward, looking around as he puts a hand, just for a second, over my hand, stopping everything, then returns to his slouch.
I flush and look at the floor. Another year goes by.
He goes back to the teleprompter: “So what have you been doing, all this time.”
I shrug, still looking down. Is it polite to talk about college courses, right now? I concentrate on not pressing my jeans down, and say, again, “I’m going to get you out of here.”
He nods. He’s looking around again, and he leans forward, and he says, like he’s spelling the words, “When are you coming again?”
Hiccuping, stuttering, I’m thinking why don’t I just not leave, but I say “How about next week, I mean, if that’s ok.”
Johnny says, “That’ll be great.” He’s still not looking at me. Finally he says, “What sort of sisterly name did you give them, and I’ll put it on my list.”
I hiccup again.
“I’m sorry, I just, I told them, I didn’t think, I just told them Bethany.”
But Johnny’s smiling, still looking at me, his eyes still on my face, smiling. He says, “No that’s great, Bethany, perfect. It’s better that way anyway.”
That night, I have shiny dreams. I am in a large hall. I can feel the ceiling, but it’s too far away to see and the marble of the floor glows white through the graying light. Before me, two stone, ridged pillars vanish towards the dark. A man sits on a raised platform, slightly behind them. His cheek bones and chin glint matted gold out of the shadows and a pale white hand reaches out and beckons me. The gold mask glints and my eyes burn then squeeze shut. I feel the airy, marble-cold-feeling slipping away. Now all I can feel is my eyes squeezed shut, and I’m awake. Of course he didn’t recognize me today. At first. Originally, I’m a redhead. A head full of the devil’s fire, my third foster mother would tell me, pulling through it with her perfectly groomed claws, tugging it all back into her fists. This is where I did most of my catching up in math. These sessions would go on and on, pulling encouraging her rage and her rage encouraging her pulling. It’s astonishing how focused you can become when something’s really important to you. When it’s life or death. Suddenly, I’d have a picture-perfect, zoom-in view of some heinous equation. The next day, when she’d have to call the manicurist to the house for an “emergency” fix, it wouldn’t be the missing clumps of hair or the scabs on my head that were the emergency. This was all because of Johnny’s letters in the mail. They must have been good, because she would never give them to me. To her, it didn’t matter that he went to college early. To her, that I was a little behind didn’t mean just in school. All she could see was, I didn’t have my license yet, and he was living on his own. Her pulling on my hair, well, it almost drowned out my panic that he thought I just wasn’t writing back. Back in my one room, I flip on the light, and Dora Maar is looking at me sideways and head on. Behind me, I can feel her staring at me. I walk over towards the window and reach out to touch my face in the pane. Now, I dye my hair, mousy brown, for no attention, not like wild, red, curly hair. Mousy brown, with the straightener you buy at the grocery store, the one with the black lady’s face on the cover, to help me pile it all into a bun that attracts zero attention. No one looks at you twice unless you say something special. Or have a huge chest. I smooth my hands over my double A cups.
The first time I met Johnny, I was buying a ring from one of the easiest places to steal from in the universe. A malachite ring, for warding off jealous dead spirits that might be fighting you for chances when you get halfway past a cemetery before you remember to hold your breath. It had a thick silver band, and I was trying to decide if it would fit better over my onyx, to keep me awake--shaped in a circle like the endless nights I was fighting-- or the moonstone, protecting me from the evil eye. Then I heard through the back of my head Could I sell you an extra finger?
You wouldn’t think, with a first line like that, that he’d become the most important person in my life. But you’d be wrong.
And then he said, right away, “You should hang it around your neck. It’s better to keep that kind of stone close to your heart, anyway. Don’t you know what it’s for?”
My mouth opened and closed, but I forgot to put my answer there, and then I turned my attention to some chains, concentrating on the cheap metal links as if it were a delicate choice.
When I turned around again, he hadn’t gone away, and he opened his fist to show me a perfect, cheap metal chain. It turns out he swiped it while he was talking to me, right in front of me, but by the time I knew that, I took it to be a holy act, because he did it, and I was ashamed of having paid for the ring. But that day we wandered around the mall and then walked halfway across town to get ice-cream at the same place that was there in the mall, and the whole time he didn’t say one word about the black and blue marks that had swollen my left eye shut. I was in love with all the fever of your favorite TV soap stars. It wasn’t until we got to the ice-cream counter that I realized what was going on, where I was. What I’d forgotten. That I’d walked all over town with the love of my life and never once sent even the smallest protective prayer his way. The blood rushed to my face. I was calculating at what point I had made the mistake, where I touched him wrong, where I touched something that he then touched, if he walked behind me at all. I was praying the prayers for all possible situations. He was staring at me. The goddamned ice-cream-scooper was staring at me. I fumbled an apology, something about memorizing for a class, something about forgetting. The ice-cream-scooper, he’d been there, too. He laughed. I took Johnny’s cone, passed it from my left hand to my right hand to his left hand, then I took my cone, passed it from my left hand to my right hand. I tried to exhale quietly. We were walking out, licking our cones, and I was thinking what an idiot I looked like when Johnny said,
“You know any Arabic?” And then he said, “The gypsies, they have this saying, they say In Shah Allah. They say it for everything--so the milk won’t spoil before it hits their throat, ‘I’m going to buy some donuts, In Shah Allah, My pants won’t fall down in public, In Shah Allah.’ In Arabic, it means something like God willing, but you say it so everyone knows if you say What a pretty girl you don’t really mean May the nose rot off her face. Or so you don’t piss off the fates with all your own plans.”
This was one of his less intrusive moments. This was light fare when compared to, say, the time we went all the way to the roof of the highest hotel in town and right before he grabbed my hand to pull me through the trap, he said “Say In Shah Allah.” And then he stuck a pacifier in my mouth so I couldn't repeat it seven times and pulled me up and he held my hands the whole time and we went all the way to the edge of the roof and looked down and walked the edge all the way around the building. But on that first day, I didn’t even know if I was going to see him again.
And when I really, really had to go back home, I figured he was going to ask me for my phone number but instead he just looked at me and said, “Well, I guess I know where to find you, then.” The second time I met Johnny, it was in the same place. Because every day after school I’d gone straight back to sit on the edge of the fountain next to the jewelry stand. When he finally walked up, he said, “How long have you been sitting there, beautiful?” And I said, “A week,” and he laughed. Suddenly, I wanted to go home. This was me and Johnny: when he wasn’t around, all I’d do is wait for him, and this got me through the rest of my life, because I wasn’t really paying attention to it any more. I don’t really even remember before there was Johnny. It’s just a haze, really, but I don’t think I liked it much. Instead of taking me home, my legs chose to stop functioning, and I was stuck, I mean, my ass to the fountain. Johnny always said something flip at a moment like this, and swung me up and around like a tango dancer, heading me in the direction we’d start walking. “Well, you must be hungry then,” he said, “and only ice-cream has enough vitamins to pull you out of this.” I emitted a sealish bark, which meant I could breathe right again. The left-right-left thing is cake, when you don’t have to think about breathing, too.
And I thought, either he’s got a head like a concrete block, or he just pretends not to notice how inept I am, and for half a second, I believed tango dancing must have been what I was born to do.
Where my new lease on life really started was before they even caught Johnny, with me in this shit-hole bar in the middle of the city that for right now is my college town, because, contrary to what you might think, my utter terror of human contact does not make me want to be alone, and so that is where I take my books to study. I once read that Glenn Gould, in a fit of panic when his photographic memory wasn’t kicking in in time for a last-minute cram session the day before a concert, turned on every noisemaking machine in the vicinity so as to interrupt the death-grip his conscious was exercising over the lens. Moments later, he’d polished off one of Beethoven’s masterpieces. That’s like the bar: every noisemaking machine in the vicinity, all drowning out the death-grip my conscious has on my lens. Not that I’ve got photographic memory. It’s just that, given enough time and peace and quiet to think about something, I can’t. So, I take my physics textbook to the bar. The most cramped one, with the worst music and foulest air, so that, given the options, my brain is desperate to wrap itself around this impossible shit and disappear into it.
So that’s where I found out about reality streams, parallel universes, and Steven Hawking’s worm holes. That’s where I read about Shrodinger’s cat, forever trapped in a cardboard box, waiting for you to decide if he’s been poisoned or not by opening the door. Because until you open the door, he’s both alive and dead. When you open the door, you’re choosing a reality stream, the course of the next second in history, you control the life or death of another creature. At least the creature this you is watching. As soon as it’s open, you’ve picked your stream, and the live cat is licking some other you’s hand.
So, if you’re still with me here, you’re thinking, I was right, I really am God. Then the next thing you’re thinking is, give me a break.
Some might say that scientists are just the priests of this century, that this is then fantasy, or, from the other direction, heresy, but these are the declarations of some bright and beautiful men, and, I think it’s necessary to add here, they did some experiments. The last experiment you did where you called on God to make your kitty unflatten and peel itself off the street in front of your home, well, how’d it turn out? What I’m saying is, maybe there’s some God in all of us.
What I’m saying is, what if learning from our mistakes means we switch up the cardboard flap we opened and give the cat some tuna for being so agreeable?
I know what you’re thinking. At the time, me too, I was thinking, this is a textbook?
I turned to focus on the television set, a good digestive aid for all kinds of discomforts, and soon I was thinking of Johnny, of where he might be, where he wasn’t. I was thinking, this life isn’t a tango. Then I discovered I’d been ignoring a young man’s attentions and I turned just in time for my expression to match the vomit leaving his mouth for my pants.
I hadn’t even taken the exam on this stuff when all of a sudden the TV turned into a joyous parade of Johnny’s mug and profile behind a string of numbers. And that’s when I started taking physics seriously.
The theory is, everything is happening at once. In order to sort things out for comprehension, the brain has to bracket certain areas, much as you would a long math equation in order to complete parts leading up to the whole. Look again at the math equation: all points are existing already. You bracket the section of the equation that spells line, and you see a line. You shift your brackets slightly and now you see a plane. Or a point. Are they already in the equation? Yes. Existing all at once? Yes. The brackets are your paradigm. What you see is what you’re prepared to see. Our brain does this, puts everything into a linear time scale, each point is a place, an occurrence in its surrounding environment. Space and time brackets.
Everything is happening right now, at once. Your mother is not dead, she is focused on another point right now, where you are not looking.
Time travel is not leaping backwards and forwards in time, it is merely bracketing elsewhere. Somewhere, all your possible futures are played out, and all the choices you didn’t make, you made. Don’t like this one? Switch reality streams. Find the other.
Your life becomes like channel-surfing.
Remorse is ridiculous, but not for the reasons you’ve been told. It’s ridiculous to ignore it, because remorse is the pull of your body towards the choice it would have preferred. It’s ridiculous like watching a stupid show is ridiculous when the remote control is in your hands.
The problem I’m having is, school isn’t the kind of place where you get to explore your options the way I’m needing to explore them. The problem is, physics professors are all going to make you go back and study the basics of physics before you get to this, to the really useful information. The problem is, I’d have to spend semesters on Newtonian physics before I’d ever even get to the real discussions about this chapter, the one that’s going to change everything.
Left to my own devices, where I go is to Madame Belaire’s home. It’s right on the bus line, and she’ll read your palm for a nominal fee.
Don’t get me wrong. This is completely academic.
(End of Excerpt)