Volume 17, Number 4
April 6, 2011
Evening at Café the Chinitas, Madrid
by Olga Berrocal Essex
After a restoring bath, I wrap myself in a towel and walk cross the tidy room at the Palace Hotel, so unlike my inner turmoil. When I turn on the television set, the announcer, superimposed over film of the awful accident on the road to Toledo, says that all four teenagers have been taken to a local hospital and are expected to recover from their injuries. I thank God.
Soon after, Steven is on the phone."Did you see the news?"
"Yes. I just turned the set on."
"Do you feel better now?" He means about the people in the accident.
"Yes," I want to add, 'but so much lonelier'."How did you know?"
"I'm in the bar. Seeing the accident shook me up a bit too. The bartender translated the news for me."
"I see." So he had put on a strong front for my benefit.
He says,"I made dinner reservations for ten. I didn't want to rush you. Besides, no one around here eats before then. Would you like me to order a snack for you from room service?"
"No, thanks. The longer I wait, the more I'll crave the paella. I'll meet you downstairs at nine thirty." I hang up after he does. I let the towel fall to the floor. My body is reflected in the dresser mirror: young and firm. Untouched. Hungry.
It's past midnight at Café de Chinitas, the basement restaurant in an ornate eighteenth century palace. I translate to English for Steven, and Bob and Camile, the American couple who shares our ringside table, painted forest green and pimento red like the chairs to match the colors on a small stage, the walls, and the portraits of bullfighters that hang on them.
It has been easier to converse earlier while meals were served in the intimacy of the restaurant. Our waiter says that tonight we will see true Andalucian flamenco. With every course of the meal that features Spanish gastronomy, and with my help, he delivers to the Americans at the table details of the entertainment to come. He singles out some of the singers and dancers that will be of interest to us.
Now a boisterous group of bailaoras files into the stage; the heels of their shoes echo on the boards of the tablao. They shout and clap their hands as they approach a row of red ladder-back chairs on one side of the stage, under a display of embroidered and generously fringed shawls. The women sit and the rainbow of ruffles that hem their dresses cascades to the floor like a garden in constant motion. Several men in fitted black suits and white shirts trail behind them. Some of them sit and begin to strum guitars. Others stand against the wall and join in the rhythmic palmas.
My anticipation heightens. For years I have wished to see flamenco in its habitat, pure and unaltered.
When the women come out, I overhear Bob tell Steven,"That's some collection. Well fed and stacked." Steven only nods. Bob has been drinking heavily during the meal and it has started to show. I sense that the couple's presence annoys Steven as much as it does me. If the restaurant weren't so crowded, we could have a table to ourselves.
Without introductions, the women take turns singing bulerías, seguiriyas, and alegrías dancing, sometimes alone, or with one of the men. Their voices fluctuate from provocative to querulous, to melancholic; they weave stories of tender love, jealousy, betrayal, and violent passions. In between stanzas, their feet tap feverish rhythms, in tune with the cantaores, the guitars, and the continuous clapping.
One of the women, dressed in a white Andalucian gown that clings to every hill and valley of her body, takes the center stage. She fixes her attention on Steven. She stands tall, her gypsy blood evident in the cinnamon shade of her skin. Her hair is black; it shines like a raven's feathers, and she has eyes to match. She sings and dances; her hands paint arabesques in the air high above her head, now in front of her breasts, along the sway of her hips. She beckons Steven with long fingers. I look at him. At her. The energy between them is inescapable. She sings a passionate plea as her agile hands continue to caress the curves of her breasts and hips. She snaps her fingers, raises her bare arms like wings and arches her back, displaying the sculpted lines of her figure. She stops singing, spins, flips her ruffled skirt, gathers it around her thighs and her feet tap a frantic message of seduction.
Steven's hazel eyes are riveted on the dancer. The slant of his smile, which I've thought amusing, has become enigmatic. He looks at the woman, sips wine and licks his lips slowly. There's energy flowing between them and I taste something bitter. We sit so close to the stage, the dancer's perfume --- a mixture of sandalwood and citrus --- imbues the draft with every movement of her ruffles.
The music ends and the dancer turns her back to the audience, but she tilts her head to the side and purses her lips in a silent kiss as she walks slowly to her chair, her bare back straight and lustrous under the lights. Her hips sway. The ruffled train of her dress sweeps the floor behind her like a lingering caress.
My mouth feels dry with a thirst that won't be satisfied with the wine left in my glass. The atmosphere in the room oppresses me and I stand, but Steven doesn't notice. His attention is on the stage. I excuse myself and walk toward the ladies room.
Soon Camile is beside me."Are you all right?" she says once we're alone."You look a bit pale."
"I'm fine, thank you." I dab my forehead with damp paper towels."It's too warm in there."
Camile touches up her lipstick. "I know what you mean. Bob's excited, too, and none of the women has singled him out. God, she is sexy! Hey, look at it this way, honey, you're the one going back to the hotel with him. This may be a night you won't forget."
I turn off the faucet and stare at Camile in the mirror."I think you're mistaken. Steven and I only met yesterday. I barely know him."
Camile touches my arm and says, "Oh, I'm sorry, honey. I thought… Oh, I guess I put my foot in my mouth. Please forget what I said."
I shrug. I'm vexed because Steven has yet to look at me the way he looked at the dancer. But then, I haven't flirted with him like she did. I don't think I'd know how.
One of the men on the stage announces in his melodic Andalucian accent,"Señora y señore, La Chunga!"
A barefoot woman, who looks to be in her forties, steps out on the stage. Strong and lean, she stands defiant, feet wide apart, hands on her hips. She looks at the audience. The room is heavy with a silence not even broken by the clink of wine glasses. Unlike the others, she looks unadorned in a sleeveless, short, yellow dress, a light blue scarf knotted around her waist.
The singers begin to yell loud "olés" and clap a slow beat. La Chunga's feet match it, thunder on the floorboards with as much force as if she were wearing shoes. She looks at me and I see a promise in her eyes:"I dance for you," they say,"The music and my passion are yours." We're connected and every step of those strong, brown feet resonates in my chest.
The guitarists join in and speed the tempo. Inflamed by cheers from the audience, La Chunga dances as if sucking energy from deep beneath the earth through the soles of her feet to drive her frenzy. She shakes her head and smiles at me. Then she unties the scarf and leaves her midriff bare to below the navel.
La Chunga throws the scarf over her neck and tugs at the ends, now right, now left. Her feet pound the floor harder and faster. Her face is tense, her mouth open; such is the depth of her emotion. With quick movements of her head, La Chunga's hair becomes a wild tangle of black waves. She surrenders to the relentless pulse of the dance that possesses her. I can't take my eyes off her. I'm drawn into her spell.
At last, La Chunga and the music stop. Panting and lathered, she lets her head fall back; her arms relax along her body as she acknowledges a standing ovation.
The room is a blur around me. My breath comes in gasps and I have the urgent need to be in La Chunga's skin.
The bells of a nearby church toll at four in the morning, when Steven and I leave Café de Chinitas. We bid a quick good bye to Bob and Camile. Steven discourages further meetings.
"I'll never think of flamenco the same way," he says, as we walk to the car.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, before, I saw it as a performance dance. Tonight I saw those people on that stage living it. As authentic as it can get without being in a gypsy camp, sitting around a campfire. It ended all too soon for me."
"I'm sure." Did he detect my disdain?
"They didn't have those things clacking in their hands," he says.
He wouldn't have noticed if they had."Castanets."
"Those clacking things are called castanets."
"Oh… castanets," he repeats softly and opens the car door for me.
There is tension between us, held up by silence we only dare to break with superfluous talk. He, "That was a long show.""Yes," I say. He,"I hope we don't see that couple again." I agree.
Traffic is light, but the city is far from still. The last hours before dawn find small groups standing around in conversation, their hands telling most of their stories. Others sit outside at cafes, where they sip drinks. I point them out to Steven."The tertulias. The famous gatherings of Madrileños."
"Yes. And the lovers," he says. He tilts his head toward a couple embracing under a streetlight as if the world ended and they're the only two left.
I don't comment. I recall his connection with the singer and my reaction to La Chunga's ardent dance. I look away to keep emotions at bay.
A waiter carries champagne for two on a tray and enters the elevator with us. Steven raises his eyebrows and smiles at me.
I look up at the floor indicator. The flamenco evening has unsettled me. The last two days seem unreal. Here I am, out at this hour of the morning with a man I met only yesterday. Back at home this could strike the match of scandal among those who know me well.
The elevator stops at my floor and Steven steps out with me. He asks if he can walk me to my room.
"It's only a few doors down the hall…"
"I want to make sure you get there safely," he teases and takes my hand.
We walk hand-in-hand, like lovers. Is he thinking that, too?
He unlocks the door and pushes it open.
He gives me the key. I look up at him."Thank you. Good night,"
"I'd like to kiss you, Margarita…"
He holds my arms gently and I turn my cheek for his kiss.
"No," Steven whispers. His tremulous fingers move my head. His lips are soft, warm. He pulls me closer to him, kisses me again. This time his greed sends a lightning bolt on free fall deep inside my body. I pull back. It is too soon.
Steven releases me, but his face remains close to mine. He looks at my mouth. Looks into my eyes. At my mouth again. I place a hand on his chest, feel it rise with each breath.
"All right, Margarita," he whispers,"I want you very much, but I won't press you. When you change your mind, I'll be waiting."
I step inside my room.
"Room four seventy," he calls to me from the door.
I turn back. The door is closed. Steven isn't there.
2011 by Eric Jackson
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