The unlikely ones: Tango

The thing I remember the most about my grandfather was the day when he walked in on me masturbating. I used to stay at my grandparents almost every summer when I was a kid, although I stopped visiting when I reached puberty. I was seventeen at the time, and I had no idea how to deal with women or sex. At that period, most of my vacations were spent at the summer club, having fun at the pool with friends and falling platonically in love with girls, but that year my grandmother had died so I decided to pay a visit to my bereaved grandfather.

I had forgotten to lock the door and he’d probably intended to wake me up, because I systematically indulged in oversleeping. He always woke up before dawn, probably a habit from his childhood spent in his family’s field back in Paraguay, before the Colorados took their land and forced him to run for his life, swim across the Paraguay river and traverse half Argentina looking for a place to settle. Finally, he found a job in a sugar factory in the place I was born in: Chaco, a northern province 300 kilometers away from Caaguazú, where his mother had stayed together with his seven sisters and a couple of brothers. I had sewn this story patch by patch from every time he’d tell me something about his past. There were also small details, such as the kids he’d strewn all over his path towards my grandmother. He’d had one already in Paraguay, before leaving, then a couple more in Buenos Aires, where he worked for a while, till he finally met my grandmother and settled down. He was a ladies man, but who could’ve blamed him? His Italian features, his blond hair and grayish-blue eyes, made every woman want a dose of him in their gene pool. Inadvertently, he may have fathered even more kids, surmising from a phrase he once told me: “Women are exceptional liars. I’ve seen women lie impassively to their husbands´ faces while I was hiding inside their houses.” I guess my uncles blamed him for having kids with other women than their mother, but I understood him well. I didn’t have the means he had, but the same urge ran through my veins. It seemed to be an Italian primeval urge to discover and populate the world. The same as Columbus, I felt the need to embark in a journey to the end of the world, if necessary, so I could spread my seed all around. 

I was ashamed of being a wanker in my grandfather’s eyes. He only needed to get to the threshold and take a quick glance at me to take it all in. I know I could only have imagined it, because I avoided eye contact with him while I covered myself swiftly, but I saw tears of profound disappointment in his eyes. All the effort Columbus and my ancestors had made to discover and populate a new world, only so I could use my sperm as hand cream. He didn’t say a word about it during the whole day, but in the afternoon, he told me: A friend of mine is coming over, and she’s bringing a friend. I wasn’t shocked at all; I was rather excited. I’d seen her friend come to visit him a couple of times. She was a 23-year-old single mother who seemed to genuinely enjoy my grandfather’s company, because besides being easy on the eye, he was also amiable and fun, which made up for the 60-year age difference. Her friend was very sexy, but I was inexperienced in the art of courtship so nothing happened that evening. After we ate the cold pizza they´d brought, I attempted at courting her by inviting her to dance. We danced a couple of songs, but then we sat down again and I didn’t have any more instruments to create rapport between us, so she left that night probably thinking I wasn’t interested. My grandfather came to my room after they left and told me I was a useless wing-man and I had ruined his chance. He was expecting me to take care of the friend so he could have some alone time with his girlfriend. A complete bummer for both of us and probably the reason why he never double-dated with me again.

But when he saw the misery in my face, he understood that stallion adventures weren’t reserved for me: a rather shy, taciturn horse. He told me my uncle was just like me, always avoiding female contact till he finished his studies. He said it in a way that meant to praise the willpower of someone who deliberately withdraws from female society for a higher purpose, but I knew it wasn’t my case: I was simply hopeless around women. He saw this too, so he started another one of his stories, as if changing the subject. “You know?” He said, “my grandfather came from Italy.” The fact that he didn’t say: “your great-great-grandfather” didn’t offend me. After all, I was Argentinean, even though my grandfather was Paraguayan, and I didn’t feel linked to my ancestors. It was the first time I’d heard I was from Italian descent.

“He came from the Liguria, fleeing from political oppression and trying to earn some money from the family he’d left back. As many Italians, he wanted to earn a living and build a new home in the new world, so he could bring his wife and kids over. Unfortunately, his wife died a year after he arrived to Buenos Aires and the children went to live with the grandparents. He fell into depression and started paying constant visits to the brothels that blossomed near La Boca. In that port area a new style of music was being played, a mix of habanera, milonga, mazurka and polka. Tango was the name they used to give to a dance gathering of African slaves during the colonial era so they deemed it an appropriate name for such a low-life style of dance. Grandpa was a terrific dancer. The dance was being invented by then so everyone had their own style. It had caught on in France and it came back to Argentina refined, with a typical French glamour. He used to teach me how to dance and once told me: ´Those perfume-overusing bastards believe they reinvented the dance, so we have to show those frog-eating, armpit-stinking French faggots who invented tango.´

But the promise of free land attracted him to the north. He actually wanted to try his luck in this region but ended up going to Paraguay, where he got 11 hectares of land for free as well as free farming animals and tools and exemption from taxes for 10 years. The only problem was that none of his girlfriends wanted to follow him to Paraguay so he had to go alone. That place proved to be more desolate than he’d bargained for and for one year he met no single woman. Till my grandmother appeared. She was only fifteen when they met, and grandpa was well in his thirties. She came with a family which settled just a few fields away from grandpa´s. He’d gone to trade crops once and he saw her. The phrase that crossed his mind at that moment was “My dry spell is at last over.” She didn’t strike him as particularly beautiful but she was handsome and well fed. He courtshipped her carefully because in his adolescence he’d had an incident that had made him a little shy with women. He’d literally broken a girl’s heart back in Italy. He’d invited her to a dance and when he arrived at her house to take her to the event he learned that she’d had a heart attack in front of the window that opened to the patio. Apparently, she’d seen him open the gate gallantly dressed and her heart couldn’t handle the emotion. She died instantly. So, this time he took precautions. He appeared nonchalantly at the house and he found excuses to be near the girl and talk to her. Her parents grasped the situation at once, and they were happy to have a suitor for her daughter. Everything went smoothly and a few months later they were already married. Now, many would say this story is not romantic; they would think this was mere necessity: a passionless love. Back in Italy, in his hometown, he had attended to parties where he’d seen lots of pretty girls in fancy dresses, but now, in this desolate place, love was more fatidic. The only girl he saw was this plain looking girl, with southern Spanish features, dressed in farmer clothes; nothing special. But his lack of options, the fatality of his situation, hit his heart strongly. There was no other thing for him to do than to fall in love with her, to passionate seek her company, to love her as if she was the only woman in the world. And from then on, she was his only woman till he died. They had twelve kids, including my father, and more than sixty grandchildren. I felt the same about your grandmother when I met her and you’ll feel the same about a woman one day. Don’t worry about details: all those girls who escape you.  When you meet your girl, it’s you who won’t have any escape. You won’t have a choice but to love her; you won’t be able to do otherwise.”


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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