The Red Shoes

by Genevieve Valentine

Carol shot herself because of her back ochos.

"Arciela said Carol was never going to get them sharp enough," said Margaret at the wake, scooping macaroni onto a plate and handing it to one of the beginners.God knew who invited beginners. "She said Carol’s pivot was too shallow. No shoes in the world can fix a pivot like that," she said.

It was a terrible thing that happened with Carol, but her ochos really weren’t going to get any better; that much we all knew.

* * *

Arciela talked about it at the next class.

"I was so sorry to hear about Carol," she said, tucking her dark hair into the bun at her neck. "It’s terrible. Please feel free to speak with me privately."

She waited a moment like someone was going to burst into tears, and when no one did she took her position at the front of the class.

"We’ll start without music," she said, turned to us. "Balance, and send the leg backwards; we skate, not walk."

* * *

"This weekend I need to give you something," Margaret said to me after class. "Carol marked out some things — before." She sighed. "She really was very nice. It’s so sad what happened."

In the glass–door salon Arciela was giving Roger a private lesson. His face was screwed up with concentration; when he passed the window Arciela came into view over his shoulder, eyes open, mouth grim, hardly able to bear it.

"Very sad," I said.

* * *

The studio called; Arciela’s schedule had opened up, and I was at the top of the waiting list. Thursdays at 7pm, they said. Every Thursday for the next eight weeks.

In some way I realized it must have been Carol taking the private lessons before me, and of course I was upset when they told me about the vacancy, but I had been waiting so long, and I could hardly cancel now.

* * *

I wore my black Flabellas for the lesson; too expensive for practice, but everyone was wearing them that year except Arciela, who wore only Comme il Fauts. She was unforgiving.

She came four minutes late, made a face as she looked at me.

"Who taught you to stand like that?"

I wasn’t sure what she meant. "You did."

She laughed and dropped her handbag.

"Darling, standing like this is not something I taught you." She pulled one foot up to her opposite hip, stretching. "We’ll work on posture and walking. From there we’ll see, yes, Marjorie?"

"Miriam."

"Of course."

She watched me stand for an hour. "You must carry the dance on these shoulders," she said. "Don’t stand like a bear."

Last week she’d said the same thing to a beginner.

"Better," she said, and I smiled into the mirror at her black braid.

* * *

In my second year of tango I needed space more than I needed conversation, and sold all my living room furniture except the stereo.

I checked my posture in the window before I made my first ocho, just to make sure I could carry the dance on my shoulders. Then I pivoted on my right foot, heels together, and stepped back to the left, a little sideways — an ocho travels. Pivot on the left foot, heels together. I wobbled but tried not to get frustrated.I worked to find the rhythm of the music. It’s crucial to give movements real feeling, and it takes years, because these things are difficult and essential; the only thing one can do is master them.

When I stopped I realized it was midnight, that I hadn’t turned on my stereo, that I had been turning for hours to music only I could hear.

* * *

At the milonga on Friday I watched Arciela talking to the DJ, a woman with a buzz cut and four earrings in her left ear. They bent over the computer discussing the next tanda; Arciela grinned at the music, kissed the DJ, and ran for her shoes.

The DJ rested her fingers on her cheek where Arciela had kissed her.

The tanda started just as Arciela finished fastening her shoes, and she settled into the arms of the Argentine. There was always some Argentine who had come for the week to give workshops, a string of thin tall men sliding in and out, marking time like an abacus.

She kept two fingers on his collar, just resting, and when they passed me I saw his eyes were closed as if he was following her and not the other way around.

The orchestra was D’Arienzo, and between each step she flicked her feet, embellishing the staccato beats. The Argentine forgot to do any embellishments; he just walked her in the cradle of his arm and worshipped her.

I burned. I wanted to be her, or him. I needed to feel the music in my feet.

The DJ was watching them, too. I wanted to say something to her — I didn’t know what, I had never spoken a word to her before — but just then Roger asked me to dance. He was awful, but he had asked me a lot when I was a beginner, and sometimes one is obliged.

* * *

I was at the Saturday practica for half an hour before Margaret thanked her partner and came back to her seat. We exchanged kisses, and she pulled the signature pink and black Comme il Faut bag out of her tote. "These are for you."

I hesitated, fingered the drawstring. Carol and I had never been close, and I didn’t understand the gift. I didn’t know if I wanted it.

"You have to see," Margaret said, "you won’t believe them. I’m so jealous."

That did it. I slid open the string and pulled out the shoes.

They were hardly there; a band of red sequined fabric over the toes, a tiny cap of red sequins covering the heel; the slender ankle strap was gleaming red patent, and the heels were red metal stilettos four inches high.

What Carol had ever wanted with these shoes, I couldn’t understand. They’d never been worn. Maybe she’d bought them and changed her mind, thought better of it. Had Carol even liked red? Could she have even stood up in these?

I closed my hand around the open instep, afraid they would slip out of my hand.

"Don’t you like them?"

"Oh yes," I murmured, "just thinking where to wear them."

"Great," Margaret said, standing up to accept an invitation. "Can’t wait to see you in them."

Neither could I.

I went home, strapped them on, and stared at my reflection. In these shoes I looked impossibly light and quick, like my feet were moving even when I wasn’t.

I tried an ocho.

My heels were glued together (like Arciela), and the sun glinted off the heel, made the simple motion look like an embellishment.

Carol should have worn these shoes herself, I thought. It might have saved her a lot of trouble.

* * *

At the milonga Margaret fussed over the Comme il Fauts and started to point them out to people before I stopped her. I didn’t want people thinking I was wearing a dead woman’s shoes.

She frowned. "Then why did you wear them?"

I hadn’t thought of wearing anything else, I realized; I hadn’t taken them off since the afternoon. I told myself it was so I could get used to the heel.

I sat down for my usual wait, but this week’s Argentine was in my line of sight, smiling at my shoes, and I nodded my acceptance before he was even out of his chair. At the beginning of the song I took a breath (you must carry the dance on these shoulders), leaned into the embrace.

When we danced past the DJ she was watching me, and I thought it was odd that she looked at me like I was a stranger, like she had never seen me before.