Ernesto danced tango occasionally with Julietta Medina, a woman who had had three husbands, two of whom she had left. The third was Benjamin Arden, a retired American investment banker, a tall and quiet New England Protestant who had attended Choate and Harvard. He was quite well spoken despite his shyness, gray-haired and usually clothed in New England tweed, a blue dress shirt and an old-school tie, and he treated Julietta with extraordinary kindliness. He was many years older than she. They lived on Sutton Place and were of such polished elegance that they seemed simply out of place dancing the Argentine tango, so beautiful a dance, so working class…
When he danced tango, Ernesto made a point of dressing more conservatively than he did when he was booking music acts. He shopped at Century 21 on Cortland Street, always buying from a cousin of his mother’s named Marco Olivera. Marco would call Ernesto when a special sale was going on, and would put things aside for him. So…when he danced tango, Ernesto wore black suits from Uomo, the closest things to Hermes ties and handkerchiefs that Marco could gather together, Cole-Haan Collections shoes (always black, and always resoled with suede), glasses with special Yves Saint Laurent black frames, and a Rolex watch that had been the only luxury item his father had ever owned…a gift from Polaco. With his tall, smoothly slim body and somewhat Iranian-style good looks, and especially because of his gentlemanly kindness on the dance floor, Ernesto never lacked for dance and conversation at the milongas.
Julietta was of Paraguayan extraction, very dark with extremely dark eyes, who was known among the tango people in Manhattan as a silent queen-like beauty who kept to herself. She dressed only in fashionable, museum-board designer luxury, noted by the other women dancers for her shoes, which she bought exclusively – and very often – from an Argentine company of considerable fame itself named Comme il faut. She spoke no Spanish, having been raised in East Side Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Julietta and Benjamin had a great deal of money, and had traveled the world, staying in the most remarkable hotels anyone could imagine. They had once described for Ernesto how they received an expensive gift every Christmas from the general manager of the Danieli in Venice, where they stayed for a month each year. A hand-written letter as well from that same general manager.
Julietta was so fine a tango dancer that she was complimented for the sensuous flow just of her walk. Her walk was itself a composed dance.
One evening, Ernesto and she were dancing at The Lafayette Grill, to the tango Tengo miedo, recorded by Ada Falcón with the orchestra of Francisco Canaro. This tango is no longer well known, but Falcón sings it in such a way that Ernesto felt it to be an undiscovered treasure. The lyrics tell of a woman afraid to love her lover. The irony of the performance is that, when Falcón declares her fear, she does so with a smile in her voice.
Ernesto asked Julietta if she knew the lyrics to this tango. When she replied that she did not, he translated them for her as they danced.
Tengo miedo… “I’m afraid…” A pause, in which he could feel Falcon’s search for the correct words, which she delivered with considerable enjoyment, as though she were looking up at her lover and saying, with a smile, “Yes. Yes, I will.” “Tengo miedo…de quererte.” “I’m afraid…to love you.”
Toward the end of the tango, Ernesto sensed that the emotional state in which he and Julietta had begun dancing had changed. For one thing, the front of his suit jacket was damp. The music came to an end, and as he released Julietta from the embrace he saw that she was in tears.
“It’s just that…your translation…it reminded me of my father,” she explained. “I…I loved him so.”
“What did he do?” Ernesto asked.
“Oh…” Julietta shrugged. “He was unusual for someone from Paraguay. He was in shipping. He owned ships.” She put the fingers of her right hand to her lips as she surveyed the dance floor. She wore a ring of black jade. “I stopped seeing him after I finished school. Sarah Lawrence. He wanted to see me. But I refused. I was very mean to him. And then…then he died.”
“What happened?” Ernesto asked.
“I think…I think he died of sadness.” She sighed, looking for a moment at the ring, caressing it with her fingers. “Sadness for me.”
The following day, Julietta and Benjamin took Ernesto to a cloth and button store on lower Broadway staffed by elderly orthodox Jews, men who knew the location of each remnant in the store – a store filled with thousands of such remnants – where each bolt of cloth was, each button, each sequin. The store was long, very narrow, and very dusty. The daylight coming in from outside the broad front window was for the most part cut off and sequestered by piled up bolts of cloth.
Julietta shopped there for embroidery and brocade, cloth that reminded her, she said, of her mother, who had died long ago in Paraguay, when Julietta had been twelve. She and Benjamin invited Ernesto to coffee afterwards in their apartment, and Julietta told him about the messages she had received from her mother, when she had been a little girl.
Her mother and father had been divorced, and her father had basically stolen the two year-old and brought her to New York. He had forbidden his former wife to visit them or to talk to Julietta on the phone. So the mother had sent letters to Julietta that she had sewed into remnants of embroidered lace and brocaded silk. The letters were secret. All her father knew was that his ex-wife was sending Julietta the sewn gifts, and he allowed the girl to receive them. Julietta suspected that his doing so absolved him of the guilt he must have felt being so cruel to his daughter and his wife. Each letter was a soulfully made present to a little girl far away, and each one of them had made her suffer terribly.
She showed Ernesto several of them that day. She had catalogued them by date and had stored them singly in protective manila envelopes. The letters themselves contained bits of family news and were written in very simple Spanish. Each was framed in cloth, pink, green, light blue, made playful by the lace that her mother had sewn to the cloth, by the colored thread that held the lace to the paper, by little tassels, cloth buttons, quilted little squares of velvet, gold brocade, bright cotton and silk, silver and white.
“The maid had to read them to me,” Julietta told Ernesto. “In secret, of course. I couldn’t understand the Spanish.”
“Why haven’t you ever learned Spanish?”
“I couldn’t stand it! Spanish was my father’s language, even though he spoke English to me. He spoke Spanish on the phone every day, doing business. It was like a gun or something. He was always so formally dressed, shirt and tie. Perfect. His black hair combed, so handsome. And everything he said on the phone sounded so disapproving.” Julietta’s lips pursed, turned down. “Condemning.” She let out a breath. “I refuse to speak…the Spanish.” She smiled, her lips quivering with grief. “That’s what he called it. ‘The Spanish’”.
Ernesto read a few of the letters, translating out loud into English the forty-year-old news about the new bishop at the cathedral, about her mother’s servant Locala, a Guaraní Indian woman who made such wonderful coffee, and Locala’s sister Marisol who had six little children, all of whom prayed every Sunday for Julietta’s soul.
Julietta nodded, joyful in her memories. When Ernesto looked up at her, she was seated in the sunlight coming in the window, in a chair for which she had done the needlepoint work on the chair back herself, a pair of dark red roses on an ebony background. Benjamin sat across from her, a saucer and cup of tea in his hands. He had heard this story many times before, it was obvious. But he listened in silence nonetheless, allowing Julietta her sorrow.
She had handed the man at the Jewish sundries shop a fifty dollar bill, to pay for a selection of colorful remnants, a few pearlescent buttons, some red velvet tassels and a quite frayed but nonetheless somberly beautiful piece of blue Chinese silk. The man, in his seventies, wore a wrinkled white shirt and black pants. His white beard was stained below his mouth with yellow. He also wore a black yarmulke, and he counted out the change from a drawer in the counter in a hurried manner. He had had to interrupt his cutting of a large piece of cloth with a pair of heavy scissors, and he appeared to resent the distraction. He put the items that Julietta had bought into a white plastic sack and handed it to her with the change, thanking her without looking at her.
The three shoppers passed back into the flow of Broadway.
“What do you do with the remnants?” Ernesto asked as they stood before the shop awaiting Benjamin’s driver. The folded cloth showed through the plastic, as though shrouded by a cold fog.
For a moment, Julietta remained silent. “I donate them to the Catholic girls’ school in my neighborhood.” She put on her sunglasses, and looked back over her shoulder at the shop window. “For the girls’ art classes.” The view through the window was almost fully blocked by the ends of the bolts of cloth. “I like their selection here. Their prices. They’ve got everything.” The glasses hid her eyes. “But mostly, Ernesto,” she murmured, “I come here to weep.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published on April 15, 2020.