Monica Macansantos was born and raised in the Philippines, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Masters Review, Day One, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Aotearotica, among others. Her prose has received recognitions from The Best American Essays and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and she has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook and the KHN Center for the Arts. More about her at monicamacansantos.com.
THE GIFT OF CONNECTION
“Don’t look at your feet. Connect with me,” he said, as we paused from our dancing. He fixed his eyes on me through his thick-rimmed glasses, as though he believed I could become a part of this world where couples moved together like perfect extensions of each other’s separate selves. Having watched how these men and women made love to each other in this crowded bar in Kingsland, Auckland, I knew I had made a mistake in coming with him to this salsa party where everyone, except me, possessed the gift of effortless grace.
He was the son of my mother’s friend, who generously offered to take me under her roof during my first Christmas in New Zealand. I was fresh from my MFA in America and hadn’t yet shed my American accent, while he spoke with fondness about Argentina, where he had gone to study tango the year before. We shared a homeland, the Philippines, but he and his family had immigrated to New Zealand when he was nine, and on our first meeting he asked me about the old country like someone who was curious about an old, forgotten friend.
He exchanged sly smiles with the women he danced with as they grinded against each other and moved as though they knew each other all too well. He then spotted me standing at the fringes of the party, and he took my hand and led me to the dance floor. I’m going to look like an ass, I said to myself, as he began leading me into simple salsa steps. He led me back and forth, back and forth, while I stared at my feet, afraid of stepping on his.
“Don’t look at your feet,” he said, nudging me. He had a sweet, forgiving smile, which reassured me that I hadn’t frightened him away with my body’s gracelessness. He held my gaze as he led me into another set of salsa steps. “See how you’re following me without looking at your feet? That’s called connection. Feel the connection.” He led me into a pivot, and then back into his arms. He’s like this with other women, I repeated to myself, as he smiled into my eyes. The more we danced, the more I felt my body relaxing and reciprocating his gentle lead. I was letting myself loose with him, and he led me into steps that I executed, surprisingly, without much effort.
“You know how to follow,” he said, as we left the dance floor to catch our breaths. “Other women don’t know how to relax and let the man take the lead. But you’re a natural. In a year, you’ll be spinning on this floor.” I didn’t believe him when he said this—surely, he was just being nice to me. Or perhaps he was flirting with me—but why would he want me, when he could have his pick among these sultry, confident women?
Nonetheless, I was interested, and I kept answering his questions as we drove back to his parents’ home in West Auckland. He asked me about the Philippines, a country he knew mainly from the stories his parents had told him, and America, a country he had never visited. In his family’s kitchen, he brought out a bottle of wine and asked if I wanted a drink. When he kissed me two hours later, I felt like we were finally articulating what we wanted to say to each other throughout that night, a shared yearning that only a physical gesture could resolve.
I was taken aback by the intensity with which he wooed me during the next few days, and I wondered if the woman he fantasized about as we drove aimlessly through West Auckland, past run-down bungalows and dumpsters covered in graffiti, had any basis in truth. “No other woman makes me feel the way you do,” he’d say, and under normal circumstances I would have burst out laughing at this cliché.
But the circumstances weren’t normal at all: I was lonely, having spent my first year in the country without a partner, and was depending on the generosity of strangers to survive a holiday season that I would’ve otherwise spent alone. Although I was dazzled by New Zealand’s beauty and astonished by the generosity of its people, in many ways the country felt like a strange, unwelcoming place. I bristled when people asked me where I was from, why I had to come to New Zealand for my PhD (“Don’t they have universities where you’re from?”), and why I spoke such good English. This boy shared my sense of alienation too, even if he had lived here since the age of nine. I noticed that he didn’t speak with a Kiwi accent, and as we drove around his neighbourhood, he said, “I’ve never really felt like a Kiwi.”
He told me that he loved me three days after our first kiss, and though the speed with which he moved alarmed me, I also went along with it. Maybe it was because he was the first man who had told me this, and because of that, I was willing to take him at his word.
“She’s my former dance partner,” he told me on the phone, after I returned to Wellington and found his Facebook request. I had seen his profile a few days before and noticed that both his profile and cover photos were of him dancing with the same woman. He had spoken, quite often, of an ex from France, and I received confirmation from one of his childhood friends that the woman in the photos was, indeed, his ex.
“We were broken up by the time those photos were taken, but we were still dance partners. I just use those pictures to promote my classes,” he said, via text. “When you’re a dancer you give your partner your all, but once the dance is over, it’s over.” In his pictures with her, they held each other close, in a classic tango embrace as I was to learn later on, their eyes closed in a shared moment of bliss as they danced down the streets of Buenos Aires. I knew that the connection they had was real, since I too had felt it when I danced with him. And yet I had also seen him handing over his authentic self to the women he danced with before eventually walking over to me. Once the music was over, he had still chosen me.
Every few weeks he’d hop on a plane, or a bus, to spend a weekend with me in Wellington. His ex would show up in our conversations every now and then, like a ghost he couldn’t shake off. “You sound like my ex,” he said one morning, after I remarked that he used too much butter on his toast. I bore these hauntings in silence, thinking that the woman was no longer in the country, and that their relationship, as he admitted, had been toxic. She was just a ghost, I said to myself, while I was the real thing.
During one of his final visits, he gave me my first tango lesson in my tiny living room. In the simple act of pressing our palms together while facing each other, connecting as we walked back and forth across the floor, I felt a strange sense of peace. He loved tango and spoke about how it was more than just a dance. I was hoping for more lessons, and more dances with him, especially after he said that he’d move to Wellington for me. But after one more visit, where his waning affections were beginning to show, he called me, saying that he couldn’t do this anymore. After some thought, he realized that he couldn’t abandon his life in Auckland. He also began to realize that he no longer felt the same way that he did in the beginning, and that talking to me on Skype felt like a chore.
I hit the gym afterwards, thinking that if I inhabited my body, I’d eventually learn how to switch off the thoughts that placed me in a state of physical pain. I threw myself into my yoga and Zumba classes, my body becoming acutely aware of the companionship it craved as it bent, stretched, and danced alone. I thought that if I were a good dancer, as he himself said, I could probably hack a dance class or two without him. In a move that perhaps skirted too close to a past I was supposed to leave behind, I took a tango class, and then another. It was a dance that I came to love, in that it allowed me to cast aside my loneliness and find acceptance, though temporary, in the arms of the men with whom I danced.
It is said that these immigrant boys in 19th century Buenos Aires were looking for ways to ease their loneliness in an oftentimes hostile land as they first conceived of tango in working class dance halls. It was danced in a close embrace, scandalizing polite society, while perhaps articulating a deep yearning for connection that these young men felt. Tango has helped me relieve my own loneliness as an exile, for it can, at times, provide that sense of intimacy that I’ve still been unable to find, outside the dance.
A few months after we broke up, I checked his Facebook page, and saw that his picture with his ex was back up. He had probably convinced himself that this picture meant nothing, that they were dance partners back then and nothing more. And yet I can’t help thinking about the ecstasy of a tango embrace that feels permanent and fleeting at once. Tango is, after all, a dance originally meant to quell the pain of longing.
In a tango milonga, one dances in a counter clockwise path with other couples around the room, miming, perhaps, this yearning to wind back the clocks, or to make time stand still. This is what I think about as I look at their photograph, where their fleeting moment of bliss remains frozen in time.