“Lomuto with Omar”, I ordered. “Orchestra Francisco Lomuto; singer Jorge Omar”, the silky voice parroted. “Lossy, as usual?” “Oh yes — what the hell, give me lots of crackle.” “Year/s?” “You choose”, I told it and the words floated in front of me on the air like a hallucination. Selecting a tanda. I wondered what it must have been like in the old days, when a pot-bellied, shiny-pated man sat in a dimly-lit eyrie in front of a nippled console, the light from an ancient computer screen illuminating his serious face, reflecting off twin earpieces round and shiny as the eyes of a fruit fly. When, instead of letting Malena™ analyse bpm, tonal colour, use of orchestration, mood and lyrics and select the ideal combination of tracks, some semi-drunk downed their fourth beer and put tracks together at random. When, instead of taking readings of the dancers’ pulse rates, hormonal levels and neural activity, some skinny, geek boy surveyed the floor and tried to guess that the “energy levels” were low and that people “needed” a D’Arienzo tanda to get them up and moving.
I bent down and retied a shoelace which was already perfectly adjusted. After all these years, this still made me feel a little self-conscious. But now the opening bars were sounding and I heard the familiar insistent stompiness of the introduction, the buzzy accompaniment like a sceptical humming, a murmur of disagreement, the sweetness of the violins, punctuated by the lightest ripples on the piano, the bubbliness of bandoneons. And there, sitting across the room, I spotted her, the companion of my own nightly nostalgias, my fellow time traveller. I feel just as I did at primary school, when we bounced and rolled around on the giant grid-marked trampoline while a hologram of a man in a strange metal chair, squashed ugly face held upright by two padded black headrests, grey-blue eyes wide and playful behind round glasses, talked of black holes in a slurred voice. I have forgotten all the physics I learned at school, but I remember this: the joy of grabbing handfuls of the shiny stuff, of that hammock of space-time, and twisting and folding and rolling it into tubes. And I wanted to do that now, to burrow through like a hamster, to wriggle out into another era, when a G-type star was still burning hydrogen in a nearby galaxy, when men with otter-sleek hair and pencil moustaches danced with women in silky skirts and strappy heels, when I still lived on The Orbital, when it hadn’t yet happened. Before everything changed for me.
She felt so alive in my embrace: the smoothness of her cheek against mine, the ticklishness of fine hair against my skin, the face snuggled against mine, the skin of her back damp beneath my fingers. I paused, waiting to begin the dance and I felt her free foot sliding playfully up her standing leg just as a violinist’s invisible bow traversed a string — as if it were the friction of her suede sandal strap against her skin that was producing the sound. And then I pushed the floor away from my standing foot, like a diver bouncing off the high board, and took that first side step of the dance, plunging in.
She was encircling me, letting her hand reach deep over my shoulder and her body press firmly against mine, arousing a hundred memories of friends hugging me warmly, of letting me feel, through muscle and fat and matter, their affection, their regret, their sorrow, their commiseration. Her right hand curled around mine like a lover’s, like a mother guiding a child. But I knew that the intention was different. This was the ravenous but unselfconscious physicality of a child on a climbing frame, of a dog snuffling up the scents of a stranger. It was an eager desire to listen, to trace the raised dots of the body’s Braille. It was not cuddles but communication. It was a game of let’s pretend, the two of us life-sized dolls, Ken & Barbie for the quantum tunnelling age, a game played with the fierce-eyed earnestness of children.
We were like twin scholars in an ancient archive, in some primitive civilisation in which verbal expression still took a physical form, in which thoughts were embodied and recorded by fingers dancing over soft black keys like the hands of a silent pianist. When the letters appeared one after another like notes, ‘d’s like minims, ‘o’s like semibreves, full stops like the dots of jaunty syncopations, unheard melodies of thought. The music unfolded, tightly structured like a poem. Its repetitions were like rhymes, its harmonies like layers of double meaning, its counterpoints like contradictory readings. And, as we read, we commented, we criticised. Listen, she seemed to tell me, that word there, it reminds me of these synonyms, it’s rich with those associations, it’s reminiscent of these contexts, it ties in with this earlier line, it contrasts with that meaning. It was a somatic practical criticism, a close reading in close embrace. We interjected, we pointed out, we demonstrated, we annotated, we scribbled in the margins of that library book, we circled, we underlined, we highlighted, we vandalised, we dogeared. And I loved our reading more than the original poem. The author was dead and we were dancing around his grave, picking up the dead roses of youth to make a potpourri.
But now, all too soon, the cortina was sounding. It wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me, the singer crooned. “Haha. Very funny”, I told Malena™. “You have 10 seconds”, it told me and I shut my eyes. I didn’t want to see everything fading, growing two dimensional, turning black and white. I dislike the shadows, the afterglow, the halo effects like the early symptoms of a migraine, symptoms of this continued sickly migraine which we call neural reality. The music faded out and fell silent. “You have used up your supply of IV Ensueños™ for this rotation”, Malena™ informed me. I wriggled a little against the slippery buttock hollows of the armchair and glanced around the rec room at the others, waking groggily with disappointed frowns or lingering smiles from their respective solitary dreams. “I’m sorry”, it said. “I can give you audio only.” I got up heavily and then sat down again — the soft black suede shoes were still on my feet. With a tug, I untangled the bunny ears of a lace. Prisoners must now return to their duties the words flashed on the ground in front of me. “OK”, I said, “go ahead.” Play.