Sunday, June 27, 2010

The dance that never was

Tonight I learned that my daughter is a lousy wingman.

Just as we were settling down into our nightly routine the unthinkable happened. The internet connection went dead. In a town where water and electricity service are a crap shoot, I should be prepared for the eventuality of not being able to access iTunes but it still stings. But, as the fates would have it, just as I began my rant of disappointment, the unmistakable um-pa-pa of a ranchero band came wafting over the neighborhood. It’s too-loud-music night in the town square!

This is one of my favorite aspects of Todos Santos summers. At dark, the locals set out plastic Tecate sponsored patio chairs all around El Centro plaza for several hours of rousing accordion-laden, trumpet punctuated ranchero music. For 15 pesos you can buy an ice cold can of Tecate beer and sit among the crowd for some prime, grade-A anthropological study.

Spurred by our evaporated web ethers and lacking the Hispanic DNA snip that governs tardiness, Celia and I were among the first to arrive at the party. The warm up band had only gathered a few dozen people when we arrived. I shelled out just over $1 for a beer and took a seat midway up the plaza – close enough to see the band but far enough to return home with fully functioning ear drums. The band was a ubiquitous collection of semi-western characters. It is hard to say exactly how many men were involved because throughout the concert, individual players would wander on and off the stage at random. In fact, at one point, I searched the stage at length trying to find the vocalist – whom I could hear singing but could not locate– among the two guitarist, one base player, drums, and two questionably employed back-up fellows. I found him standing to the far right of the stage singing with his back to the meager crowd. I got the feeling that the warm-up act is really more of a public practice session. But soon, a posse of blue-suited Mariachi players filed in along the side street in a clear indication that things were about to heat up.

Celia joined me on the bench and we engaged in exquisite people watching. Check out the girls in their best hoochie-mama garb! Do you think those are real snake skin boots? Watch the guy in red – he’s dying to dance with someone. Look mama, a midget! (Not kidding – I was quick to correct her with the proper term – enano– after all, this is Mexico.) We were having a great time sitting out in the warn night air surrounded by music, the full moon bathing the square in pale blue light amidst a swelling assembly of Todos Santos’ finest. The police came out in force – not to enforce anything but to mingle and the cowboys were arriving in their best pressed denim, Saturday night shirts and high-polished boots.

A man carrying two black plastic bags approached the bench to our left much to the glee of his compadres who eagerly snatched cold beers from the stash. The beer mule perched himself on the edge of the bench and proceeded to burn a stare across my profile from my left temple to my ankles. So subtle was this assessment that Celia tugged on my arm and whispered, “Why is that guy staring at us?”

“I think he’s drunk,” I said and she giggled but without taking her eyes off of him.

“Look Celia, someone is going to dance with the guy in red!” she said as the first couple of the night took to the dance floor. They twirled around in a countrified waltz mandated by the ¾ beat flowing from the grandstand.

I could feel the heat of El Burro’s gaze on me so I turned as casually as one can while being stared at and smiled. He reached in to the plastic beer trove and extended a can with a smooth-as-silk cinnamon-colored arm. Hmmm. El burro is actually quite handsome, I thought, and oh so young. I gave a quick glance toward Celia and then, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I stood up to accept the brew. I verified with a quick, “¿Verdad?” and then took the can with a “Gracias. Tu eres muy amable.”

As I turned and took the 4 steps back to my home bench, I was struck by Celia’s expression. It was a combination of shock and suspicion that can be perfectly summed up in the “What you talking about, Willis” tone of the now-late Gary Coleman.

“Did he give you that?!” she asked incredulous.

“Sure. Nice of him, don’t you think?” I said taking my seat and trying to enjoy a sip despite the strings attached which I could plainly feel tugging at the beverage. My curiosity was taking hold of me as I wondered how this might play out.

The guy in red found another dance victim and I began to worry that I might also be a target. As the sole Gringa over the legal age present, I was highly conspicuous. I’d nodded do many silent greetings since arriving at the plaza that my neck was getting stiff. I was banking on the fact that the locals, though exceedingly gracious and kind, tend to avoid us outside of vendor/buyer relations. But, just in case I turned to Celia and said, “If I get asked to dance, you need to stay here with my purse, okay?”

The look on her face was priceless! I couldn’t tell if she found the thought of someone asking me to dance impossible or if she was merely mortified that her mother might attempt to dance like the gente in front of the actual gente. I guess she assumed that it was in fact impossible because she decided to shrug off the demand with a chuckle and a roll of her eyes that clearly said, “Whatever, mama.”

Just then a waft of cigarette smoke reached us and Celia made a face that only a sub-20-year-old Californian who has never seen a “smoking section” would dare to make in the presence a largely nicotine-dependent population. I registered my shared distaste for the smoke but I told her to drop the face.

“But he’s smoking!” she said as if he’d just defecated on the neighboring bench.

“We’ll then I guess he can’t be my new boyfriend,” I said winking at her.

“Uhhhh, Mama,….” She said eyes growing wide and jabbing her pointer finger into my ribs.
I turned my head to find the man hovering above me. He leaned in and it was readily evident that these were not the first bags of beer tonight. He offered me a cigarette and I told him I don’t smoke. He launched into rapid fire sequence of indiscernible syllables. I would like to blame the loud music but I doubt I would have understood him if he were sober and we were in perfect silence. Once again, I had managed to give someone the impression that I actually speak Spanish. I tried twice to decipher his line but I had to fall back on “I’m sorry, I don’t understand but, hi, my name is Jamie.” I’m afraid to say this is a phrase in my repertoire that never gathers dust. I think he also had a name but I didn’t catch it. I tossed out another “No entiendo” when I gave up trying to figure out his thickly slurred Spanish come-on.

Mercifully, he broke it down for me into one word, “Bailar?”

I have to say that I was feeling unusually in the mood for a random adventure exactly like this one tonight and I figured, what the hell! When is the next time I will get to dance to a Mexican band with a 25-year-old drunken ranch hand? My only real concern was that he’d be too drunk to dance. I took a second to mull it over debating the likelihood that he might drop me prone on the bricks of the zocolo – and not in a good way. His face was so close to mine – I assume because he was listening for an answer – that I felt compelled to answer quickly. Feeling brazen I smiled and accepted a date for the next song. Smiling and walking a nearly straight line, he retreated to his bench.

Before I could even begin to regret my impulsiveness, Celia dug her nails into my arm and let out a terse “I want to go home. Now. I want to go home and read my book.” She was on her feet and five paces away before I absorbed her earnestness. I stood up, shouted a “Lo siento” to my jilted admirer and chased after my daughter who was now at the far end of the square.

“What is up with you?” I asked as we rounded the corner of the church headed toward home.

“He was drunk and smoking!” she said, as if that explained everything.

“Yah – they were all drunk and smoking,” I said. “Now you won’t get to see me dance in front of all those people. Don’t you see the comedic value in that?”

Checking over her shoulder to make sure that the drunken, smoking letch was not fast on our heels, she pondered my question, “It would have been a good story for my friends.” But then reconsidering, she said, “But, no, he was drunk and he smokes – I would never dance with someone who is drunk and smokes.”

Laughing at the self-imposed criteria that would greatly diminish Celia’s dating pool, I wondered if I could get that in writing.

“You are no fun!” I said as we stepped inside the gates of Casa Bentley. Celia let out a sigh of relief when I threw the deadbolt into its metal sleeve.

“And you are crazy,” she retorted wagging an accusatory index finger at me.

Maybe I am crazy, I think, listening to the pulsing music bounce off the walls around the square such that it seemed to come from all directions at once. I'll chalk it up to the full moon. No doubt, I will have to thank Celia tomorrow for pulling the rip cord on my insane leap into thin air. But tonight, I will lie here in bed listening to the throbbing tuba up the hill and lament the dance that never was.

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