She sat down in front of me, in one of the hundred or so metal chairs that the municipality had put out in the Veracuz’s Zócalo, facing the Porfirio band stand and, behind that, invisible because of night and the curve of the earth, one of the highest volcanoes in Central Mexico. I did not notice her particularly until she leaned forward and began putting on a pair of strapped dancing shoes. The heels were high but also broad enough to provide stable contact with the black and white tiles of the plaza. I suppose it’s the kind of thing I notice, a woman crossing one bare leg over the other, slipping on one shoe, then the other, in public, for dancing. For that was what the crowd had gathered for – for danzón – but mostly just to watch.
I realized I had seen her before, in fact on that very morning, in an old established restaurant, with high ceilings, slowly turning fans. She had been dressed in waitress black, with a lacy white apron in front, her urraca-black hair pulled back in a bun, low shoes, un-shined, a woman of forty, maybe a little bit more, with white teeth, dark eyebrows, full lips, and a chin that fell away toward her long neck – a beauty who was a mixture of an ancient New World people, and Spanish or Portuguese blood, at least in my imagination. She reminded me also of a friend, who is Otomi from the State of Veracruz – which would very likely make her the recent descendent of a people who had been resisting the genocidal policies of government for the last four or five hundred years.
I had ordered tea, “con la bolsa al lado,” the bag to one side. I intended to use my own bag of green tea instead. She also brought me muffins, cupcakes really, sweet yellow things – which I had not ordered. I assumed it was an establishment obligation. That one couldn’t just order tea without having something else.
I had watched her clear tables, then serve a table of important businessmen next to me, who had skin much lighter than hers. I watched for signs of condescension. I did not see any. I watched for interest they might have in her pleasing figure, her striking face, and darker skin. The only person who showed any real interest was myself. I do not know why particularly. But in retrospect, I suspect it was because of her dignity, also because of my ignorance about her city, her culture, the complexities of her life.
Because she had brought them to me, and because I break my rules at the slightest provocation, I ate all three cupcakes. I read my La Jornada, Mexico’s national opposition newspaper. I watched her when she passed by.
When I had to go, I asked for the bill. She brought it in a little basket. I pointed to the three empty crumb-covered red cupcake papers. “Qué mala tentación fue eso!” I said, in my Spanish. “What an wicked temptation that was!” For a moment, I wasn’t sure she had understood either my Spanish or my way of conversing with people in general, or both.
Then her faced changed and she said, in good humor, “Ah, but now they’re gone, and it’s all over.”
I’m not even sure she met my eyes as she said this, gathering up my dishes – and not the moment later, when she took my fifty-peso note, nor the moment after that, when she returned my change.
Now, in the Zócalo, she was wearing a below-the-knee black dress with small red flowers, perhaps hibiscus. Her urraca-black hair fell shoulder length. I watched the dancers, then her, while she sat in her metal folding chair, in front of me. It seemed evident she had come to dance danzón, but she was not dancing. She watched dancers. I watched, too, trying to understand their steps, the way couples seemed to know to pause, now and then, for a whole beat. At times, I suppose signaled by the music, the dancers concluded a series of steps, then separated, still holding hands, and faced the band stand.
A man had approached. His skin was lighter than hers. She stood up to greet him. He had not dressed up to quite the same extent. In fact, he had not changed from his work clothes, which were lightly covered with stone dust. He had passed something over his black work shoes, but that was all.
I tried to measure his relationship with her. There was something reserved about it. But that is also the nature of danzón. Formal movements from French contra dance, later passing through Haiti, then Cuba, arriving at this port city of fine coffee, high ceiling fans, coral walls, grand buildings in black and white stone, and handsome women.
They danced, formally, but with no more than two hand widths between them. They looked each other in the eye. They floated through a variety of steps, sliding rather than stepping into the next position. One, one-two. One, one-two. That is, one long step, followed by two quick steps – here and there, the infinitesimal hesitations.
I could not tell how well they knew each other. That was, I decided, the key to danzón. Public, formal, the hint of sensuality, understated, completely proper. He seemed handsome, not because he was, but because of how he held himself, and what he knew. He directed her firmly. She followed. He looked into her eyes, she into his, both with a respect and appreciation, and both smiling. Not broadly, rather from muted pleasure. She was elegant in her high heels and her hibiscus dress. Of those who danced or watched, they were not from the highest social class. But, of the fifteen or so couples that danced, it was clear the audience found them the most striking.
At the end of a song – how many had they danced? Two, three? He escorted her back to her metal chair. She did not sit. She watched him pick up his dusty backpack and put it on. He put on his baseball cap, faded olive, with a frayed visor. He held out his hand. She held out hers. He leaned forward, slowly, and kissed her on the cheek. She held his elbow. There was a moment, when she seemed to resist his leaning away again. He said something, without smiling, and she said something back, still holding his hand. And then their hands drew apart, and he turned away. I saw him retrieve an old black bicycle from one of the great palm trees at the south edge of the Zócalo and, pushing it, move out of sight behind the wall of onlookers.
She had sat down again. I watched her. I watched the dancers. The band, up in the bandstand, played more Cuban-Mexican tunes. I stood no more than ten feet from her. At one point, I glanced over and saw her looking at me. I held her gaze longer than I usually do with a woman I don’t know. Perhaps because I felt I knew her, even though I didn’t know her. I looked back at the dancers. She got up. I saw her moving, in the corner of my eye. She was going to pass close by. She stopped in front of me. She pointed at a spot on my chest, then toward the other dancers.
“No puedo,” I said. “I don’t know how.”
She reached out for my hand. She led me out away from the spectators. She showed me the simple box step, and eventually, when she said “Pausa!” – with the accent on the last syllable – I learned to pause at the end of the series of one, one-two’s.
We danced two dances. She looked in my eyes. I looked into hers. I saw friendliness, generosity, pleasure, and a suggestion of intimacy that was not intimacy at all. Something I did not understand. When the music stopped, she walked us back to her chair. I stood along side, awkwardly, as she changed her shoes, crossing first one leg, then the other. She carefully put the shoes in a cheap plastic bag with handles. She put on her scuffed black low heel shoes. She stood up, a little shorter now, and held out her hand. Several older women, on both sides of us, were taking it in – watching, but not intrusively. She said, “Gracias!” I said “Gracias!” and bowed slightly at the waste, the way my mother taught me. She held my hand an instant longer. “Qué mala tentación fue, pero ya se terminó,” she said. A strong temptation, but now it’s over – with a look in her eye, a little bit of mischief, a trace of sadness.
“Not the muffins,” I said.
“No,” she said, and gave my hand a little squeeze.
“And not me,” I grinned.
“No, not you, either.” That made her smile. She dropped my hand, but leaned forward, and kissed me on the cheek. Then she picked up the thin plastic sack with her dancing shoes, and walked in the opposite direction to the one her dance partner had taken, with his old black bicycle.