by Genevieve Valentine
That Thursday at the lesson Arciela came in, raised an eyebrow at the shoes.
"Well," she said. "Let’s see you stand."
I settled my shoulders (ankles together) and shifted my weight to the insteps of my feet. The glitter rasped as my heels came together. Amazing sound.
Arciela said after a moment, "You’ve been practicing?"
I hadn’t been; I’d just been walking the apartment in my shoes, smiling at my reflection in the mirror. "No."
For a moment she looked bereft, but then she seemed to shake it off. "We’ll work on ochos, then. Begin."
I pivoted on a suddenly–perfect axis and felt the shoes guiding me as I stepped back, collected my ankles, sent my big toe backwards so it stretched the top of my foot. Flawless. I bit back a smile of triumph.
Arciela walked around me, said nothing.
I smiled at the knot of her black hair in the mirror, and when she turned to me I smiled into her dark eyes.
"Let’s keep going, then," she said sadly, stepped into the embrace. Her left arm was as firm as a man’s, as natural as the Argentine’s embrace had been.
She’d put on gardenia perfume, and as I turned in a circle around her (side step, front step, back, side) I got dizzy with the smell of it, closed my eyes, and beneath my eyelids I could still see the glitter of the red shoes.
* * *
Usually Lawrence DJed the third Friday of the month, but when I came in the DJ with four earrings was slouched in the chair, sliding songs into place with her mouse. A tanda of valses was wrapping up; tango would be next.This DJ had a form that never wavered. She’d learned in Buenos Aires.
"Hi," I said.
She didn’t look up. "Nice shoes. Carol’s?"
I winced, but it was true. "She left them to me. How did you know?"
"Of course she would."
The tone was insulting, either to me or to Carol, and I said too sharply, "Did you want them?"
She barked a laugh, moved away from me in her chair. "You couldn’t pay me to wear those shoes."
"They’ve really helped me with Arciela," I said, wanting to sting her. "I’m really improving."
"You always do at first with those shoes," She turned her back to me. "Listen," she said, eyes on the computer, "you were trying before. You know how hard it is. Don’t take this dance for granted. Try some other shoes."
The next tanda was tango, and she began with "Tu, el Cielo y Tu," a thwarted man dying of love begging his lover never to let anyone but Heaven find out; hard to think about, but if you could ignore the lyrics the song was lovely.
This week’s Argentine was waiting for me. So much for what the DJ knew, I thought, and put it out of my mind. Let her sit and play all night. I had better things to do.
* * *
The last six lessons with Arciela flew; I mastered walking, turning, adornments that demanded speed and balance. She would step back and look at me, at the red shoes. "Bueno," she’d say quietly, as if it didn’t matter if I heard her.
After that she shied away from me. She got crow’s feet, and she didn’t laugh any more at milongas. (Maybe she laughed in classes, but I never went. Didn’t need to.) Her dancing after six months was less beautiful than when I had taken my first lesson with her;people said she was getting tired trying to outdance me.
Margaret asked me, "How many lessons did you have with her?"
"A few," I said, shrugged. I wished she’d leave me alone so the Argentine would come over.
Margaret smiled at my shoes. "I’m so jealous," she said, of me or the shoes, I couldn’t tell.
I had changed, risen above, and the men I used to dance with could see it. Now only the Argentines asked me to dance, and I was happy to wait for them — legs crossed, shoes sparkling.
I had an ache sometimes below my clavicle, like I had overstretched, but it disappeared when an Argentine embraced me; then I could feel the music through the floor, the memory of gardenia, the shine of the red shoes.
* * *
Tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires; the teacher I had when I began, before I found Arciela, had made jokes about it at every lesson.
"Men," he’d say smiling, "don’t get any ideas!"
Or he’d say, "Men, remember, you’re in charge — for the next ten minutes only, sorry!"
Everyone laughed at the jokes, which was worse than him telling them in the first place, because tango was not funny. Tango was beautiful and painful; tango was hardship.
I suffered through three weeks of classes with him before my first milonga; the studio encouraged us to go to take advantage of our two–dollar discount, whether or not we could dance.
That’s where I saw Arciela.
She was dancing with her partner (he disappeared later, like all her partners. They got tired of being eclipsed). Di Sarli was playing, though I wouldn’t be able to pick out his orchestra for anotheryear; all I knew then was a mournful note, the press of her feet into the floor, the curl of his arm along her back.
When they pulled apart at the end of the tanda she wiped her eyes, and they came back together in silence as the music began again.
The next morning I signed up at her studio.
Now I had achieved that same quality of movement that took men’s breath away, and at night I danced through her ghost.
* * *
The monthly Tango Buenos Aires ran until five in the morning, like milongas in Argentina, and I bought a dress to match my red shoes.
They had worn down at the insole, and my ankles brushing together had scraped the shine off the strap; but after wearing them in the apartment, to milongas, to the grocery store, I could hardly walk without them.
The milonga was packed. This week’s Argentine was on the dance floor with the DJ, and I took a seat where he would be sure to see me. When she ran to change the tanda I sat up a little straighter so the shoes caught the light.
He wrapped his arm around me, and I felt the music in my stomach; the floor seemed closer through the shoes today, and I shifted a little, adjusting. The song began, and he took a long side step.
As I followed, my ankle rolled out.
It was worrying, but I chalked it up to a fluke. Those things happened even to the professionals, and the Argentine hadn’t noticed.
He led a turn, and as I moved around him (front, side, back, side), I sliced the top of my foot with my heel.
Panic rose in my throat. I had been perfect for six months; what was going on? I stiffened, though I knew I shouldn’t, and when he led ochos I couldn’t feel my ankles brushing.
At the end of one song, he walked me back to my seat.
I ran for the dressing room. Just nerves, I told myself, cheeks burning. A few ochos in the mirror to remind myself how far I’d come, and I would be ready to dance.
My feet looked perfect in the mirror, pointed and exact, but I could feel that my ankles were wobbling, and when I looked down I saw my feet three inches apart. My reflection rested on one foot, ankles neatly together, the shoes shining, a sudden and beautiful lie.
Shaking, I leaned against the wall and pulled off the shoes. I’d have them re–soled. I’d tip the heel. There had to be something I could do.
Margaret opened the door, grinning shyly. "Miriam, I’m sorry to bother you. Do you — I mean, would you mind showing me how you make that little circle with your foot as you pivot?"
I thought about telling her I would, but only if she promised to keep her eyes on the mirror. "Actually," I said, moving for the door, "I’m on my way home, I — twisted my ankle."
"It’s fine," I said, "it happens," let the dressing room door close behind me. My chest was aching. I couldn’t breathe.
On the floor, the Argentine was dancing with Arciela; those two fingers on his collar, her feet scraping the floor, her heels shining. As they passed me (his eyes were closed, too) the air filled with gardenia perfume.
I stumbled out of the studio barefoot, clutching the shoes — I had no others — and crossed the filthy sidewalk to flag down a cab.
* * *
At home my reflection was perfect, but my technique was what it had been before, when I was as awful as everyone else. I teetered; I made short back steps with my ankles passing three inches apart.
I stared at my faulty reflection, the beautiful feet that now only I could see. I thought about two more years of lessons, or three, to look even close to that again. If I could ever look like that again; now, who knew? Now I looked like Carol.
Carol had worn these shoes before — I remembered now, looking down at my wobbling ankles. She’d been so excited about them, so proud. She’d probably danced with that week’s Argentine; I didn’t remember who it was, but I remembered now the little red flash of her feet.
Margaret didn’t know, that was obvious, and no one else had said a word all this time; but I thought about Arciela’s drawn face and the DJ who wouldn’t look at me. "Try some other shoes," she’d said, but I had worn these into the ground. And now, for me, their magic was gone.
I was as far from really dancing as ever. Further now, because it was too painful to look in the mirror and remember.
I slid the shoes off and tied them in the bag. The next time someone else pulled them out they would be pristine, and everyone would be jealous of the lucky woman who had been left such beautiful shoes by a woman who was never going to get any better.
Maybe Arciela would remember me. Maybe the DJ would see the new woman in the red shoes and warn her like she’d warned me. Maybe that new woman would listen.
Carol must have listened. Carol had seen what these shoes did; she’d given them up sooner. She had been smarter than I had been.
* * *
At the studio I waited for Margaret, the shoe bag clutched in my hands.
Margaret ran up and kissed my cheeks. "Miriam! Hi! Oooh, are those Comme il Fauts? I hear they really feel great — something about the balance? Do you think so? Can I see?" She grinned, eyes shining, eager for anything that could improve her.
I’d meant to hand them over, I started to, but I couldn’t. How could I punish her for my false reflection in the mirror? Why should Margaret suffer because I had been foolish enough to suffer?
I pulled the bag against me. "Actually, I’m just waiting for Arciela."
Margaret raised her eyebrows as if I was suddenly speaking another language. "Well, I’ll see you, maybe," she said as she closed the classroom door.
I nodded, tried to breathe.
In the glass–door salon the DJ was leading, and a woman’s hand was on her shorn hair, fingers brushing the four earrings. When the song ended the DJ and Arciela came out together.
" — take a long time," Arciela said. "When leading, you must dance for two people. It’s difficult. Four years, maybe, until you’re good."
"Of course," said the DJ, saw me.
I nodded recognition.
"Thanks," the DJ said to Arciela, and left without another word.
"Miriam," Arciela said after a pause, "you’re joining us in the class?"
"No," I whispered through a dry throat, "I’m just getting some water. Please go ahead."
She looked at me like she knew what had happened, like she had wanted to tell me, like she was going to tell me not to do what Carol had done, but I didn’t meet her eyes and after a moment the door closed behind her.
"All right," she said, and Di Sarli started. It was his most plaintive song, about a man who comes back from a journey to find that his lover has gone and that vines have grown over her door; usually the DJ played it at the end of the night, the last few couples hanging on.Trust Arciela to play it in front of twenty women shuffling around without understanding how this song should be danced, how it should feel under your feet.
"Remember balance," said Arciela, "remember to be strong and flexible in the embrace. We begin with walking."
Beneath her words, the singer howled at his lover’s door.
My feet were made of lead. I couldn’t even run from the sound so it would pierce me less. The satin bag slid through my fingers to the ground; through the wall I could feel the vibrations of the violin, and in my blood swam the glitter of the red shoes.