GeminiMAGAZINE
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SLOW DANCE/HIGH STAKES
by Catherine Evleshin
It happened again.

But I am an empiricist. I believe nothing without
evidence.

My name is Yolanda Cabrera. I love to dance as much as
my Costa Rican cousins who did not immigrate to New
Jersey.

In the drudging years of graduate school, the Twin
Towers still dominated the skyline on the chic, New York
side of the Hudson River. On Saturday nights I would
break from my thesis and splurge for a cab to one of the
few clubs in my local district that still hired musicians.
Above the entrance, a marquee flashed "Tiempo Caribe"
—promising an evening of hot rhythms and eager men.

Inside, beyond the expanse of polished tiles, flameless
candles illuminated tables just large enough for two.
They cast a dim glow on the Caribbean travel posters
that covered century-old brick walls. Young and not-so-
young denizens searched for familiar faces and checked
out newcomers. By the first intermission, moisture
beaded up on faces and slid into dangerous cleavage.

I passed the hours in the arms of men who wore crosses
suspended from gold-plated chains visible through the
openings of half-buttoned shirts. Most of them toiled all
week for small reward, but on the dance floor they were
royalty, leading me through tangled turns in synchrony
with blaring horn riffs and cracking conga slaps. Toward
the end of the evening, faces moved closer, hips
grinding in unison.  

On occasion, I brought home my partner du jour. After a
brief affair that ended, with crushing predictability, upon
my discovery of another woman, I would curse in
Spanish and turn to the next man to ease my
loneliness.  

Then it started. When my latest lothario steered his
rented Chevy Malibu over the railing of the Henry
Hudson Bridge, I blamed the rum. Two months later,
after my shouting match with another cheater, I heard
from the gossiping women at the club that a husband
had caught him in flagrante, and he bled to death from
a knife wound.

I told myself, this has nothing to do with you, girl. You
are not Lilith of the Old Testament, cursing men to their
deaths, but a would-be archaeologist who makes bad
choices. Although, I must confess a fascination with
medieval woodcuts of hooded skeletons dancing mortal
humans into oblivion.

I stopped inviting men to my cluttered apartment.

One night I was dancing my second merengue with a
slick
dominicano, who often partnered me, when his
hand crawled to the base of my spine for a rude
squeeze—in front of the band, the stag line, and the
gossip girls. I shoved free of him and stomped off.

The next morning, the cleaning crew found him slumped
in the men's restroom with a syringe hanging from his
arm. Word got around and, the following Saturday, I
waited all evening for an invitation to dance. Club
regulars, who previously had planted damp greeting
kisses on my cheek and led me onto the floor, now
avoided my gaze and mumbled to their friends. By the
second week of humiliation, I considered abandoning
the club altogether.

But then, a young man with soft eyes and a serene face
strolled up to me and held out his hand. A loose-knit
sweater hung from his square shoulders, a whiff of Polo
(my favorite men’s fragrance), and no gold chains.
Across the floor behind him, the
guapos nudged each
other.

I soon discovered my new partner was an agile dancer
in the time-honored nuyorican style. When the music
ended I stood close to encourage a second offer. It
came—followed by an invitation for a drink in the quiet
alcove behind an artificial potted palm.

Nelo Pérez was a math instructor who spoke of his
troubled students. "So much talent, doing their
damnedest to live up to the image of fast-talking street
thugs." He ran his hand along my forearm. "And how did
you earn your reputation as the resident brainiac here at
the club?"  

"I'm finishing up a Ph.D. in archaeology. I teach
introductory classes to pay my tuition."  

"College students must be a walk in the park."

"Not exactly. They think they're going to be the next
Indiana Jones, even when I explain to them that
archaeology is tedious work to arrive at tentative
answers to questions few people care about."

"Some of us are interested." His wide-eyed gaze stayed
on my face. "What are you trying to unearth?"

I told him about my forthcoming trip to a dig site in the
Arenal region of Costa Rica. "Peaceful agrarians lived
there a millennium before the Mayan empire, in the
shadow of a volcano that erupts every few decades and
replenishes the soil."

"Were you born in Costa Rica?"

"In the capital, but my family came to New Jersey when
I was two years old."

Nelo's cool fingers stroked my palm. "These are going to
get roughened up."

My hand tingled. "We use gloves to avoid DNA
contamination. And these days, archaeology doesn't
start with excavation. We use computer-generated
visualization to locate evidence before it gets
degraded.” Fearing I would bore him, I stopped, but he
urged me to continue. “In Costa Rica, they constructed
a dam before aerial LIDAR imagery showed us trails
connecting structures now buried under the new Lake
Arenal.” I grinned at him. “In fact, we employ lots of
math.”

"What else?" He was fishing.

"We dig only after we've spotted something through the
ground. Then we have to negotiate over sites that may
be considered sacred, and convince the locals that it
would be in their interest to search for it."  

An edge in his voice. "Tourist dollars." I felt trapped
until he gave my shoulder a gentle shake. "Sorry. I get
fired up sometimes." A faraway look. "Sounds like the
trip of a lifetime. I would love to stand in a place where
so much history has gone before . . . and listen to the
spirits."

I agreed, but so far I had only stood in New Jersey, and
heard no ghosts.

Nelo clutched a handful of his tight curls knotted into
dozens of finger-length braids. "I would give anything to
know my African ancestry. Puerto Rico plays down that
history, but I have wild dreams of finding a slave
registry in Mali, something that might offer even a hint."
He described centuries-old Arabic manuscripts stashed
in ancient libraries in the legendary city of Timbuktu,
fragile pages containing old records and algebraic
formulae still in use today.

We could have talked through the next set, but the
band struck the first chords of "La Loma del Tamarindo,"
El Gran Combo's soulful remembrance of pastoral family
life in Puerto Rico. Nelo pulled me to my feet. "Gotta
dance this one."  

He was an ideal partner for me—not too tall, with a
persuasive lead that made us both look good. Thus, I
spent the rest of the evening.

I had sworn not to endanger another man, so when the
last number ended in a close embrace, I clenched for
the usual proposition. But he gave me a quick kiss on
the cheek. "I hope to see you next weekend." Gay, I
told myself, relieved to find someone immune to my
jinx, but sad that our relationship would never evolve
beyond friendship.

True to his word, Nelo appeared the following Saturday.
We danced and smiled and hugged, and when the band
played romantic ballads for lovers and hopefuls, we
escaped to our table in the alcove.

We talked about our families. His eyebrows twisted
when I told him about my middle-class relatives who
had maintained ties with our stable Central American
homeland. Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. colony allowed
Nelo's working class family unlimited travel back and
forth, but brought its own challenges to family stability.

After his father abandoned them for a mistress back on
the island, his mother worked two jobs so she could fly
with her son once a year to visit her relatives. "My
cousins disagree on the right course for our future," he
said. "One year at a family get-together, they
squabbled over statehood versus independence, and
almost got physical. Meanwhile, multinationals continue
to exploit the people and pollute the environment."

I studied Nelo's face, animated by an appetite for life
and learning, passionate about his Afro-Caribbean roots,
a role model for his aimless students. With degrees in
math and computer science, he could have earned twice
as much in the private sector, but he shouldered the
challenge of a crumbling public school system.

We lived in the same neighborhood, and when the night
ended, we shared a cab for the ride home. In front of
my apartment building, another platonic kiss, and I
returned to my bed piled with thesis drafts. Empty
takeout containers were strewn about so I would not be
tempted to invite anyone up the stairs to witness the
disorder.

By the third weekend, I was losing sleep over Nelo. At
least I was dancing again. During hypnotic piano solos
when salseros drew their partners close, I savored the
feel of his wiry body against mine, cheeks conjoined,
slow breaths.  

It was only a tease. When the horn section raised
instruments to their lips, he released me from his arms
and guided me through knotty turns, his remote face
reminding me not to dream of what could never happen
between us. During slow songs, we resumed our alcove
conversations about the problems in archaeological
research.

One night he asked, "Since you are making guesses
based on evidence that dates back millennia, how can
you be sure of your hypotheses?"

"Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causality." I
fingered the plastic palm tree. "But to glimpse the
past . . . ."

He leaned back in his chair and watched me with eyes
hooded under opaque lashes. "So what are you
searching for, Yolanda?"  

It was a question heavy with possibilities, but I stuck to
archaeology. "Gender roles in societies that were
neither conquerors nor slaves. It's a long shot, in
villages that have been buried for centuries."

Nelo's hand swept toward the couples on the dance
floor. "I can't figure that one out, with a laboratory right
in front of us." Supple fingers reached for a strand of my
unrelenting, straight hair that had escaped its clip. "You
might find human remains and discover you are a
descendant of those prehistoric villagers."

My students had suggested the same thing,
entertaining fantasies about DNA testing, then in its
infancy. "Now that's
really a long shot," I told him.

"Why don't you consider a project in West Africa? It’s
easier when people have left a written record."

"Mali is no place for a woman to travel alone."

"I've been learning to read Arabic. My students pay
attention when I show them that sub-Saharan Africans
were writing long before the Europeans showed up."
Obsessing again over those hapless manuscripts in
Timbuktu, the place that had become synonymous with
nowhere, and now the target of an Islamic
fundamentalist war on enlightenment.

Or was Nelo inventing a story to impress me? I asked
him to say a few words in Arabic, and he responded with
a substantial sentence.

"Meaning what?" I asked.

"I'll tell you someday." Another torment.

I didn't mention that most Africans brought to Puerto
Rico came from equatorial Congo, far from arid
Timbuktu. Perhaps Nelo knew this, but clung to his
illusions.

Three weekends later, in the restroom where women
tattled in Spanish while blotting sweat and mascara
from their eyelids, I was occupied in a stall when the
door leading from the ballroom swung open and a voice
chirped over the music. "By now, Nelo gotta be doin'
more than just dancin' with Ms. Bookworm."

Another voice trailed in. "Rita had a fling with him back
when he used to hang out at Tiempo Caribe." This must
have occurred before I started coming out to the club. I
would have remembered his face, and his dancing.

The voice continued. "She says he knows his way around
the bedroom, but he bored her to death goin' on about
matemáticas and his criminal students." I held my
breath and lingered in the stall.

"Someone's gotta warn him what'll happen if he
disrespects Yolanda."

"He knows, but
esos hombres intrépidos always think
they can beat the odds."

So much for my hypothesis about Nelo. When I joined
him again on the dance floor, everything had changed. I
came up with another explanation for his reserve—
perhaps he desired me, but remained loyal to someone
at home. I envisioned a beautiful woman who had
suffered an accident and could no longer dance. In my
overheated imagination, Nelo rose to heroic stature.

At the end of the number, he took my chin in his hand.
"You look like you've hit upon a great truth." I nodded
and he went on. "Careful, Yolanda. Too much thinking
will get you into trouble." A warning not to ruin our
friendship.

The band began a slow ballad. I started for the alcove,
but he caught my shoulders and swept me into his
embrace. While the singer moaned his longing, Nelo and
I swayed together in what became the longest dance of
my life. Hands caressing the nape of his neck, thighs
locked in tandem, mind scrambling for a way to deny
without imperiling this man who held my dreams
hostage.

Sinking misery that there would be no entreaty, that I
was just a warm-up act for the injured beauty at home.
Over his shoulder, I saw Rita raise an eyebrow in my
direction. The band played the last chord, and Nelo's
lips brushed my cheek. "Your apartment or mine?"

"You know why . . . ." I dropped my arms to my sides. "I
can't."  

He released me. "Let's get out of here." We threw on
our coats and headed out to the curb to wait for a taxi.
The November wind blasted my sweat-covered chest. I
buttoned my coat and turned away from him. Long
seconds passed while I counted pale breaths shooting
from my nostrils. The band’s theme song signaled the
last dance of the evening, chords muffled until someone
opened the door to exit.

Nelo and I might have enjoyed every Saturday night
until I left for Costa Rica. Now we would end what had
never begun. The theme song reached its crescendo
while couples trickled out to grab available cabs. A
woman emerged from the club on the arm of her
partner. Silhouetted against the marquee lights, her
face remained obscured under the hood of a coat, but I
recognized Rita's gold stiletto pumps.  

Nelo's arms encircled me from behind. "
Querida, do you
believe you are infected with some sort of magical
power?" Another desperate silence, then his voice in my
ear. "You said yourself, co-occurrence is not causality. A
tossed coin can come up three or even six heads in a
sequence, no voodoo involved."

He turned me to face him, away from Rita's shadowed
gaze. "Trust me, Yolanda." The lights from the marquee
pulsed in his eyes. "We want the same thing."

I barked, "How do you—"

The man at Rita's side pulled her under the arched
entrance, and I lowered my voice. "How do you know
what I want?"

Nelo's hands disappeared into his coat pockets. "If you
want to spare me, you could promise not to flare up like
that."

I backed away. "A gag order so you could do as you
please?"

He reached me before I collided with Rita. "
Cálmate,
mujer.
I'm a mathematician, not a gambler tempting
fate." He took my elbow and led me back to the curb.
Behind us, where Rita and her partner had retreated,
coat fabrics rustled in ardent embraces.

I could no longer resist asking Nelo, “What made you
stop coming to Tiempo Caribe, was it . . . two years
ago?"

Nelo sighed, and I knew I should have let it alone. “I
took up with a woman who didn’t dance or speak
Spanish.”

I'd almost got it right. “The love of your life, I suppose.”

A longer pause. “This past September she collapsed in
front of her students, right down the hall from my class.
It was an aneurysm, probably growing in her brain for
years. She remained comatose until her family told the
doctors to withdraw life support.”

I began to shiver from the cold. “Why didn’t you say
something before I made a fool of myself?”

"We were never right for each other, and I was about to
call it quits." Arms resting on my shoulders, he gazed
past me into the darkness. “You're not the first person
in history to let passion prevail over reason." His temple
touched mine, as if to meld our thoughts. "I keep
reminding myself . . . .”

We spoke in unison. “Correlation does not prove
causality.” At the sound of our litany, Rita and her
partner ceased their groping.

Nelo opened his coat so that I could absorb his warmth.
Once again, I pressed for answers. “What did you say in
Arabic that night?”

He smoothed stray hairs that had blown across my
forehead. "That you are a world of potentialities and I
want to explore them all.” A not-so-platonic kiss, and
my body stopped trembling.

When a car roared up, I attempted to move us away
from the curb, but Nelo held me. "Relax, sweetheart,
we'll be fine." He offered the cab to Rita.

Her razor voice from under the black hood. "Go ahead,
Nelito."

As Nelo and I climbed into the back seat, he said,
"Someday you have to accompany me to Timbuktu to
look for that manuscript about my ancestors."

The I.D. badge on the dashboard read Marufu Fagbemi,
and the driver shot him a wary look. Nelo added, "Yeah,
man, we really are going to Timbuktu."

"That's a long way, my friend."

Nelo draped his arm around my shoulder. "I know."

A golden light bathed the interior of the battered cab. I
would give thought to inviting him to Costa Rica, where
he could work on data fed to my laptop while my
colleagues and I sifted through layers of volcanic ash.
When evening approached and the tropical heat
subsided, we would stand amidst a sea of beyond-pink
bromeliad flowers and watch the sun slide behind
graceful palms.

The cabbie started the meter. "So where am I driving
you tonight?"

I nestled against Nelo's chest and whispered, "How
about your place?"



Caribbean/Latino dance ethnographer Catherine Evleshin’s story “Slow
Dance/High Stakes” won second place in the contest entitled “Una Mujer”
in Spark: A Creative Anthology. Her fiction appears in Agave Magazine,
Fiction Vortex, Words Apart Magazine, Animal Magazine, Mused –
BellaOnline Literary Review, Canary Journal of Environmental Crisis, and
is  forthcoming in Middle Gray Magazine and Riding Light Review.