A science-fiction fantasy.
The women were three uncomfortable, elbow-jogging rows deep that night. As I tried to tuck my shoe bag — bulging awkwardly with my bulky street shoes like a strange foot-eating python — under my seat I felt other shoes being slid away. I bent down to peer at the floor and tried to rearrange the mess of footwear and handbags (and a cardigan which had slithered to the floor like a discarded snakeskin) and still find a comfortable way to rearrange my legs in their habitual cross, right over left. My neighbour slipped an iPhone553 out of her bag, unrolled the tissue-paper thin screen, consulted it with a slight frown and then – poof — she was gone. Transmilonga teleporting is always a risky strategy, I reflected. Clearly, wherever she was going, there were plenty of leaders: but her iPhone display could only show crude statistics. Were they good dancers? And would she get to dance with them? Those were the big unknowns.
A gentle heat radiated out from my handbag and I felt my upper arm, resting on the tabletop grow slightly warmer: it was my phone’s discreet thermal ring. I glanced at the display and punched the receive button. An avatar message. Who did Maria think she was trying to kid? I thought, as her slender, bug-eyed mini avatar began to materialise. That avatar must have been created at least ten years ago — when she was 10kg lighter, too. The little translucent figure danced across the red tablecloth in a pattern of repeating forward ochos. A slim-hipped virtual mini-Maria sipped coquettishly from an acorn-sized virtual mate gourd and then her familiar voice sounded in my earpiece: “I’m going to Seoul tonight, for a special treat. To dance with a Javier”, she said, “see you tomorrow.”
I am as fond of dancing with Korean boys as anyone else. And I’d love to see one of their patented Javier Rodriguez®™ clones striding confidently heel-toe around the dance floor. But I’m not sure I would want to dance with one. Call me an old fashioned fuddy duddy, but tango was designed to be danced with real partners in my opinion. Those holographs may be feline of walk and twisty of enrosque, but surely they can’t feel the same as a real man? Tango is about more than steps, more than skill and proficiency. It’s about holding a warm human being in your arms: feeling the slight scratchiness of five o’clock shadow against the side of your face; smelling the mixture of washing powder and clean starchy cotton; the woodsy, herbal, smoky smells of male perfumes; the faintly orangey top notes and the deliciously subtle, unnameable musky base notes of the scent of their necks. It’s about not knowing what will happen: it’s about the human uncertainties, the mistakes, the spontaneous games, even the bumps and collisions. Besides, the only holograph I could afford a tanda with was my fuzzy old copy of Sebastian Achával®™ that had come with my second-hand iPhone547. And Sebas malfunctioned if I tried to slip in even the most unobtrusive adorno. It was way too frustrating to try to dance with it. Orchestra not recognised, it complained in an annoying ‘neutral Spanish’ (actually Columbian) accent if you played anything more daring than “Yuyo Brujo” or “Sinsabor”. I think if I had tried to stream a Gobbi or Firpo track it would have spontaneously combusted. The real Sebastian Achával with his slinky pointy-toe walk and his buttery-smooth moves, had long since been vapourised and shot out into space, of course. “Sebas”, my virtual zombie, was only good for the most basic and repetitive of solo practice.
While I was indulging those grumpy musings, black letters imitating a cutesy, curly olde worlde ink pen script began to flow across the tablecloth. The next tanda will be Troilo. My fingers slid underneath and I tapped the off button, provoking a rather filthy look from my neighbour. I shot her a challenging glance of self-conscious superiority, trusting that she wouldn’t dare to switch the display back on. That would be tantamount to admitting that she couldn’t recognise the orchestras without technological assistance. Besides, she could always crane her neck over to the next table if she really wanted to read them. But I personally don’t like to be told which orchestra is about to play. I really savour that moment of suspense as the opening bars of the tanda sound. I feel like a skilled and knowledgeable oenophile, swirling liquid rubies in a big-bellied glass, letting the first sip of grapey richness hit my palate. It would spoil the experience to be told in advance, by some over-eager waiter, “This, Madam, is a vintage Chateau Obama from 2098.”
Let’s face it: why would I dance tango if I weren’t like this? Self-indulgently sentimental and nostalgic for a past that is not my own. I wish I had been alive in El Beso’s heyday, when intrepid tourists spent many hours cooped up in airborne metal boxes to come here When the world was a big place and travel was still a physical thrill. When Buenos Aires still felt like a place of pilgrimage, a tango Canterbury. And now look at us, I thought. iPhones, I knew, were gently warming breast pockets all over the planet, alerting their owners to the message: “Special discounts for El Beso tonight! Entry fees to Argentina half price!” But, even so, half the seats reserved for male teleportees were empty that night – which was not so surprising. Even at cut price, it wasn’t cheap to come to Buenos Aires, with our galloping hyperinflation and the Kirchner so overvalued against most other currencies.
But, even as I was thinking that, as the last notes of the cortina were sounding, a form was materialising onto one of the seats. And, although I was not conscious of feeling any emotion, I noted with surprise that my heart was thumping rapidly and palpably and a sudden jolt of adrenalin left me feeling queasy. It was him. He was here. Or, at least, he was here in a manner of speaking. Of course he couldn’t afford the hefty teleportation duties — this was just an avatar, a live letter as Tango Telecom so quaintly call it. That phrase always conjures up images of ancient heroines running breathlessly to mailboxes, slicing open thick, snowy envelopes with bone-handled letter knives, or women in old-fashioned blue jeans made of real, stiff denim, hunching over heavy, solid monitors, clicking eagerly on emails and instant message icons.
The Troilo began to sound and, as I looked over with shiny, eager eyes, his avatar nodded and winked at me. My sweetheart, you have come back to me. I knew this wasn’t real and I was even faintly aware that I must look a little naff, a little desperate and over eager, dancing with a shadowy construction made purely of photons, insubstantial as the wind. But it felt so much like him. He folded back a pair of imaginary spectacles and flashed me his habitual, timid half smile. His back felt lighter, thinner and colder than usual, but I rested my hand against it with all the tenderness I could infuse into my fleshly fingers. Could he feel it through his virtual reality suit? I felt the slight crackle of a light electric shock as my right hand curled its fingers around his photon hand. And the smell of his neck and face was metallic and pungent. He couldn’t afford the upgraded avatar, I felt, with a sudden rush of tenderness, and had to send me this approximation, with cheaper, artificially-simulated smells. But he sent it.
And now we were dancing together again at last, there at the still point of the turning world, at the tango Delphi. I tried to infuse my dance with an extra dose of vitality. I felt very real and alive, after all: my pulse was beating in my throat; the sueded soles of my tango heels were sliding along the smooth wooden floor; my armpits were slightly damp with sweat; a single hair stuck to my forehead, scratchy and ticklish; my back twisted towards him as I began an ocho; my free leg traced a loopy snail-shell pattern on the floor and now, as I prepared to step over in a parada, I caressed his trouser leg with as delicate a pressure as if there were a real leg within it.
I knew he wasn’t really there. He was thousands of kilometres away: dancing awkwardly and heavily on his own in a claustrophobic thick black virtual reality suit, blocking out his surroundings with headphones and goggles: looking like a deep-sea swimmer, a tango scuba diver. But, as a blast of cold from the air conditioning hit me, I imagined that this light and air had somehow carried his essence to me. In the wind, I hear his voice, Fiorentino sang. In the murmur of the leaves. And the air caresses me like a kiss. I felt a sudden wobbliness in my stomach and a tell-tale hot prickly sensation behind my eyeballs. The singer had been dead for centuries and he lived in a time before they had avatars or teleportation, but, nevertheless, he seemed to voice my thoughts that night. He hasn’t come back. He won’t return. It’s just the moaning of the wind I hear. And it only makes me suffer all the more.