After thinking it over for more than a decade, in the summer of 2014, I left the United States with my two teenagers and our dog Daisy in tow to spend a year in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The plan had always been to live in a Spanish-speaking country for a year or two so my kids could finally learn their father’s native tongue — and be able to converse with their relatives in Venezuela and Spain. I wanted to go before the eldest, my son, reached eighth grade, so as not to disrupt his high school career, but it never seemed like the right time. In truth, I was scared. It felt risky. It was risky.
As a single parent and freelance business writer, I wasn’t sure I could earn enough to support a family abroad, and I hadn’t succeeded in landing the corporate gig that would send me to some exotic locale, all expenses paid. Suddenly, my son was in tenth grade. I had missed the self-imposed deadline and reluctantly gave up the dream.
Then, the unexpected occurred. My son announced he was “done” with high school and wished to take the equivalency exam, thus upsetting his own trajectory. Shortly after that, he totaled my Prius in the middle of the night, and I received an insurance check in the mail for $10,000. Suddenly, a window of opportunity cracked open. We had no car and ten grand in the bank. My daughter was still in middle school. I figured her educational career could only be enhanced by an overseas adventure.
I bit the bullet and booked three one-way tickets to Buenos Aires and a PetSafe travel arrangement for Daisy. For the first 48 hours, I was breathlessly excited. Then, paralyzing anxiety took over. I was gripped by a belief — a certainty — that by walking away from our perfectly wonderful lives, I was telegraphing to the universe that I was dissatisfied with our abundance and that as a result, God would strike me — or far worse, my kids — down.
This bizarre and painful episode — most likely the product of a childhood colored by a bombastic Irish-Catholic mother besieged by guilt and shame — was crippling. After a week of anxiety so fierce it cut my breath and blurred my vision, the panic eased.
When we arrived in Buenos Aires, I realized there were reasons for leaving our home in California that went far beyond the kids’ erudition — reasons that had more to do with me and my need for escape and autonomy.
Suddenly, in Buenos Aires, I had an apartment of my own, after a decade of “nesting” with my children’s father in a challenging post-divorce arrangement whereby we rotated parenting duties in the family home so the kids weren’t forced to traipse from one place to another.
The problem with nesting was, my home was never really my own. When my children’s father appeared at the house for his turn to spend time with the kids, I left. When I had a boyfriend, this worked out fine. But, when I didn’t, being homeless got old fast. I’d wander miserably around Oakland trying to kill time without spending too much money. I had my favorite bars and cafes. Sometimes, I drank too much wine.
When I returned home, the transition was invariably jarring. Sometimes, my ex refused to leave the house upon my arrival. Others, it became apparent by the odd, sidelong questions he’d ask that he’d gone through my possessions. Or, he’d pretend to leave, and an hour later, I’d find him going through the trash in my driveway, setting up a sort of camp in the garage, or digging in the back yard.
In Buenos Aires, I was the only adult with a key to our apartment. For the first time in over a decade, I could come and go as I pleased, with no need to hide my personal effects. No one was watching me, asking awkward questions, or digging through my trash. My load was suddenly and immensely lighter. I felt free.
As soon as I’d found schools and activities for the kids, I leapt into the tango scene. Buenos Aires is the birthplace and heart of tango, where nightly milongas (tango social dances) are held in venerable and romantic institutions, and mournful bars of tango lilt from taxi radios and bandoneon players on the streets.
One night a couple of months into our adventure, I attended a traditional milonga in Montserrat, a romantic barrio with narrow, cobblestone streets and crumbling Belle Epoch buildings. I was trying to communicate in rocky Spanish with a couple of women seated near me when one of them gestured to look behind me.
I turned and found a dark-eyed milonguero in a grey suit hovering near my table with an appealing, modest demeanor. If he’d had a hat, it would have been in hand. I had missed his cabaceo — the traditional invitation to dance delivered across a room via the gaze — so he’d approached my table to request one. Which touched me.
As soon as I was in his arms, and we began moving, I slipped into a quiet, dreamy state. He led me expertly. I relaxed into his chest, tasting the glorious feeling of giving up the reins, knowing I would be cared for. We danced two tandas — a total of about eight songs — and then he kissed me on the cheek, said goodbye, and left for dinner with friends.
Three weeks later, I encountered him again at the same milonga. Once more, I didn’t see him until he had materialized before me. I accepted his invitation to dance. We talked a little more in between songs this time. He told me he’d danced with his grandmother as a child. He said tango is not about the steps, but about intuition, uniting with one’s partner, and really hearing and engaging with the music. Above all, he said, tango requires one to be totally present.
As we moved together, he guided me to breathe, first by gently suggesting I do so, and then by taking deep, slow breaths that I could both hear and feel. I matched my breaths to his as best I could. Toward the end of our last song together, for a few captivating moments, I felt myself surrendering to the present moment, and it changed everything. I felt suspended in time — acutely aware and responsive, yet utterly relaxed. It was delicious, intoxicating.
A handyman by day, soon after our second meeting, the milonguero came to fix my oven and build a canopy for the passion vine I’d bought for our balcony. When I opened the door to admit him, I was shocked by how different he looked. He wore a faded, too-small suit of army green with a polka dot (of all things) cotton scarf slung around his neck. With his black eyes and hair, flak jacket and scarf, he looked like a true South American revolutionary a la Che Guevara. He seemed very working class and of the street. In the elevator, I noticed his teeth were none too good. I withdrew, suddenly cautious. He didn’t look like the elegant milonguero I remembered.
He seated himself on my kitchen floor and began tinkering with my oven. While he worked, he told me a little about his life. He’d grown up in a villa miseria — Argentine slum — and was half-indigenous. He knew how to fight. He was a foreman who employed former convicts on his building site. On the balcony, I watched as he installed eyehooks for the canopy with his drill. He worked calmly and methodically.
When he ran out of eyehooks, I accompanied him to the hardware store on the corner to buy more. I was in his thrall, traipsing behind him like a besotted puppy. As I watched him tie knots of fishing line to the opposite side of the balcony, I felt myself falling for him. He was like a spider, a master weaver, creating on the spot sweetly shimmering spans, each different from the last.
Soon after, he took me to the banks of the Rio Plata. We parked beside a choripan (chorizo and bread, a national Argentine street food) stand with a few tables and chairs in front. The sky was black. The river was broad and dark, with a bright, metallic aroma. A strong, warm breeze carved ripples into water that reflected the streetlights behind us and lapped rhythmically on the shore.
He began teaching me tango. One night, he arrived with a set of index cards and colored pens. He sketched some images, and showed me how many different places there are to respond to the music, how the beat in tango can be divided, or syncopated, how music is math, consisting of fractions cutting the beat into myriad possibilities.
He had me stand, close my eyes, and soften my knees. He tried to help me release tension. He said, “Imagine you just came home from a marathon, and you fall on the bed. I am that mattress.” Several times, he said, “You’re thinking. Stop thinking.” He surprised me with barridas, several in a row, where he literally caught my foot with his in mid-air. He said, “Follow my foot. I will put your foot where I want it. You have to trust me.”
I trusted him completely. After 90 minutes, he said, “The lesson is drawing to a close,” and kissed me. Then, he said, “You must take responsibility for what might happen if you truly commit to tango. It will change your life. You have to be ready for that.”
One night, he took me to a traditional milonga “to practice for an hour or two.” He ordered empanadas and munched them contentedly. He ordered a weak drink he called a martini that was far from it. I stole furtive glances at him, suddenly subdued. When I bent to tie on my new mint green and orange tango shoes, he exclaimed in appreciation, “Eso!”
When we danced, I focused as hard as I could on the signals he was sending, on his breathing, on moving with him. With spectators on four sides, I was terrified. The panic in my ears blotted out the music. But I also felt beautiful, honored, and protected. When he sensed tension and nervousness rising inside me, he whispered, “Shh…” gently in my ear. Sometimes, he sang quietly along with the music. He knew all the words. In fleeting moments, bliss coursed through me. When the music stopped, and he led me off the floor, I was disoriented.
He said he loved feeling my heart beat as we danced. He said, “If I had a one peso for every man that is looking at your legs, I would be a rich man,” and when we were sitting at the table, he jokingly threw his scarf over my legs.
Our affair was devoid of judgment. I asked nothing of him. I thought of him as a mystical, sublime creature on loan from the universe to me. He was not the kind of man you tie down, and I knew our time together would be finite. I would return to the US. A Porteño through and through (a native of Buenos Aires), he would be miserable in the US and said as much. This intoxicating fall into the beauty that is tango, that is Buenos Aires, that is Argentina, would end.
I chose to embrace its mystery, to hold on to its coattails as long as possible — to the milonguero, to tango, to Buenos Aires, and to the scintillating promise of completely changing one’s life at the age of 46.