Tango in a Box is a story about a college student whose life changes drastically as she reconnects with someone who was greatly important to her in her adolescence when he is suddenly imprisoned. The Machado painting is relevant in various ways, but mostly because of the size of the room the couple is dancing in. Picasso's Portrait of Dora Maar also plays a pretty big role, so I'll introduce her in this post as well.
Now, for parts One and Two:
In the one-room weekly where I live, the floor is lined with Portraits of Dora Maar, leaning up against the wall. I painted them. I have no other artistic ability, and I don’t mean other than painting. I mean other than painting Dora Maar. The room I live in, it’s on the seventh floor. It’s the seventh room on the seventh floor and there are seven Portraits of Dora Maar lined against the walls with a bed in the middle, so don’t plan on doing any effective pacing. There used to be a TV, but I made them take it out, so now there’s room for two whole folding chairs, one for me and one for my book bag.
Already I can’t breathe, and the weight of the door slamming behind me pushes the air further from my chest. As the next door opens and the bright glare of the room emerges, filled with faces and motion and a hum that grows ever-louder as my attention struggles to manage this second sense, hearing, I run my fingers behind my neck, underneath my hair and seize a chunk. I tug until the pain begins to wash out my other senses and I can walk towards the first set of empty plastic bucket chairs and ball myself up out of the way.
The wait is interminable, and I have to stay conscious for all of it, afraid he won’t recognize me, not expecting me. Right now, my eyes are almost tearing from staring so hard at the door on the far side of the room where I figure he should come out. Right now, I’m trying to ignore the man in the grouping of chairs next to me, in a seemingly stream-of- consciousness monologue berating a small child for showing disrespect towards her mother, who adds her tongue-clicks and loud sighs, repeating the lines she especially likes and interjecting shrill, drawling I means and can you even believes. The smell of perfume is overpowering, and my head is swimming, right now I’m chewing my lip and kicking my leg in unison with the berated child.
When I finally see him, my body flushes and swells with blood and I watch myself shoot to my feet and fling an arm in the air, waving him down.
Right now, he’s staring at me. He looks down and then to one side, and then everywhere but at me as he walks towards me. He sits in a slouch, his feet firmly planted a good distance from each other and his hands on his thighs. He looks at me again.
Right now, I’m stuttering. I’m seeing this isn’t where he planned on the grand reunion. I say, “I know this, I mean, this isn’t.”
Inside my head, we’ve had some great conversations today.
I say, “Look,” and then I take a deep breath and when I let go of it, “Look, you’re all over the TV, even without one, I couldn’t miss you.”
I’m making sense, now, right?
Johnny’s smoldering rage is starting to look like a sneer, but still, no expressions I recognize on him. I pinch the piece of skin between my thumb and forefinger, just to be sure. I say, “Well. I knew you couldn’t have... I came to tell you…”
Now I’m not sure what he’s doing, I can’t even look at him. I breathe. I rub my left thigh, smooth it down, push my right jean leg into my right thigh, breathe again. I look up. Johnny, he’s staring at me instead of talking and so I decide it’s my job to smooth over all the discomfort verbally. I talk about how none of this matters, about how I’m going to get him out of here. When I can’t think of what to say, or when I forget how to form syllables, I just stutter. I think, he’s really glad to see me, this is going well. I think, he’s just in shock. I apologize a few more times, just to be safe.
“No,” says Johnny, and when I look up his face is very still, like he’s listening, and my breathing starts to slow back into a normal rhythm, the colors in the room start to separate and deepen. “You’re fine,” he says. Then he’s silent again.
He leans forward a little, and he’s thinking about what he’s going say, I think it must be for the first time in his life. He says, “How did you get them to let you in?”
“It’s because I drove so far,” I say, my face is trying to smile and I start to hiccup. “I said I was your stepsister, I said we’ve always gotten on badly, but with God’s help we can change that now.”
“You said all that, and in complete sentences,” Johnny says, like he’s reading a teleprompter, but I know him, I can hear him trying not to laugh. So I laugh.
“I practiced,” I say, pressing my jeans into my thighs again, left thigh, right thigh, quick breaths. I’m starting to worry they might kick me out of here, these hiccups are going to take down the walls.
He leans forward, looking around as he puts a hand, just for a second, over my hand, stopping everything, then returns to his slouch.
I flush and look at the floor. Another year goes by.
He goes back to the teleprompter: “So what have you been doing, all this time.”
I shrug, still looking down. Is it polite to talk about college courses, right now? I concentrate on not pressing my jeans down, and say, again, “I’m going to get you out of here.”
He nods. He’s looking around again, and he leans forward, and he says, like he’s spelling the words, “When are you coming again?”
Hiccuping, stuttering, I’m thinking why don’t I just not leave, but I say “How about next week, I mean, if that’s ok.”
Johnny says, “That’ll be great.” He’s still not looking at me. Finally he says, “What sort of sisterly name did you give them, and I’ll put it on my list.”
I hiccup again.
“I’m sorry, I just, I told them, I didn’t think, I just told them Bethany.”
But Johnny’s smiling, still looking at me, his eyes still on my face, smiling. He says, “No that’s great, Bethany, perfect. It’s better that way anyway.”