Your girl doesn’t call. Why would she? You haven’t heard from her in five days. She isn’t your girl. She was never your girl. Yesenia made that strikingly clear the last time you did speak, outside Son Havana in Harlem, when she was drunk and said you were a pendejo and you told her you didn’t speak Spanish. She laughed at you then. It hit you low in the chest. Yesenia’s laugh, mocking, sweet, it tunneled into the hollow of your rib cage. Your fist shot out and slammed into the brick wall beside her. You weren’t aiming for her, but she ran anyway. So you shouldn’t be surprised, should you? Your girl’s not going to call.
You’ve been in NYC for almost a year, as much time as you’d need to get a good internship at a good law firm to get a good spot at a good law school. At least that’s what you told your Amma. Law school in NYC is a prestigious thing, you argued, and wasn’t that something she could report back to all the Aunties in India? You did land a job. A small firm in Chelsea used to pay you ten bucks an hour to organize data into neat little spreadsheets. That was before you found salsa. You told your boss it was your REASON FOR LIVING when he rode you about showing up late. Still, you didn’t get fired till you called him a racist. But it doesn’t matter, not as long as you’re in NYC, out of Maine and that house your Dad bought when he moved the family from Kerala. The house Amma keeps dark, with at least one window open all year round. She says the cold is good for you, conditions the blood, but she never used to do that when your Dad was alive.
The thing about living in NYC is you could be anybody. Every day people come up to you speaking Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, Urdu, fucking Ukrainian. Some languages you can’t even guess at. They all look at you with big eyes, impatient, and when you shake your head they turn away like you’ve insulted their mother. You know it’s not your fault. They shouldn’t assume, but you move through the rest of the day unable to shake off their disappointment.
Five days is way too soon to show your face at a salsa club after that drama with Yesenia, but you can’t wait anymore. Fuck her, you tell yourself. You’re on edge. There’s a buzz in your ears. You’re inching closer and closer to the knife rack. You don’t know what will happen if you can’t get what’s inside of you out. It’s only nine o’clock. Yesenia taught you never to get to the club before eleven, especially Son Havana. Come to the club early and people will think you’re amateur. “Beginners and pervs come early,” she’d say. But you know what, fuck that. So you’re beating the streets, your dance bag over your shoulder, inside is an extra T-shirt, a towel and a pair of suede-bottom shoes with the red stripes you painted on yourself.
Yesenia is the kind of girl you don’t have to try too hard with. Girl is prep-school skinny, flat chest and only a hint of ass. She’s beyond quiet, barely answers questions “yes” or “no,” and because of it guys treat her like some kind of wounded chickadee. But on the floor, she’s got style like nothing you’ve ever seen. A salsera supreme, she makes any old asshole look boss.
She’d been to your place once, after a long night of dancing. She’d pressed her chest against you, the place where breasts should have been, and called you Papi, and you laughed and told her to call you Raaj. She told you she was Cubana, but she was so skinny you had trouble believing a thing she said. That night on the 2, she wrapped your arms around her and huddled in close. Maybe for warmth, maybe so you didn’t seem like such outcasts, even though in Brooklyn being an outcast was the fashion. On the subway you both got caught up in sleepy, submissive hope, but when you got to your place you knew you’d made a mistake. You share a two-bedroom flat with three other mallus. The living room is divided by a sheet and some duct tape. Half yours and half some other desi’s who whacks off to twins dressed up like extraterrestrials on the internet. Most nights you fall asleep to the sound of mice running in the walls.
She took one step and let out a sigh like she’d been there before. You kicked the pizza boxes aside as you led her to your “bedroom.” As she sat down on your full-sized air mattress she bounced a little to make sure the thing wouldn’t blow. You offered her a glass of tequila as a consolation prize.
“You sure you don’t have roaches?” she asked and you handed her a drink, hoping she wouldn’t need to use the bathroom.
Girl was ready all the time. And she came easily, but when it was your turn she just lay there, eyes on the ceiling like she was imagining all the other places she wanted to be. She talked a lot about Castro and her grandmother who had dementia up in Queens. She’d tell you that when her granny thought she was in Cuba she was happier than Yesenia had ever seen her.
She’d been to Cuba once. At sixteen. She turned so you could see the small plateau of blotched skin above her ass. “That’s where I got this,” she said, but you couldn’t take your eyes off the chain of vertebrae, each bud looking like it was about to push through.
Che Guevara stared in aloof grey smudges, the cleaved flag of his beret barely perceptible. The whole tattoo looked more like a child’s attempt at a Rorschach test. She told you her father didn’t speak to her for about two months when she showed him. Shit was hard growing up in Astoria, she said. You tried not to laugh. A two-parent, mid-class, four-story, walk-up childhood. Really fucking tragic.
Before salsa you’d done some stupid shit. You still had the ridges on your shoulders, like jagged coke lines, from when you blacked out with a steak knife. A darkness takes over. You’re gone and then snap, there you are with blood on your hands and a headache full of questions. No doctor has told you why you’re like this. All you know is sometimes it’s like drowning in a fog as thick as tar and all you can do is punch against it. Only two things have stopped all that: salsa and Yesenia.
She isn’t the type of girl to bring home to your Amma, even a depressed one who doesn’t give a flying fuck about what you’re doing. To everyone else, she doesn’t seem like much. An upturned nose between cheeks like caved-in spider webs, playing up melancholia because it got her attention in high school. But there is a damage about her that is real, a sense that her plan has gone off the tracks. She hides her brown eyes beneath low lighting and conga drums, and since she’s been around you haven’t cut yourself, not once, and that has to be worth something.
You walk to Midtown from your place in Brooklyn. Head down you move fast, shifting through pedestrians like they were an offensive line. If there’s anything this city has taught you is that people don’t stop. You could cut your own throat in Times Square and they’ll be some douche-bag on an iPhone stepping over the blood.
Normally it takes you close to an hour to walk to Harlem from your place, but your feet are practically running. On Broadway tourists act like they belong. A woman in a blue dress points to something overhead and pins her purse close to her chest with her other arm. She’s with some skinny black guy and when you pass she takes his arm. It’s 9:15 and Son Havana is only another half hour away. “Slow down,” you say.
Two blocks later a bottle of Orange Crush explodes at your feet. A tinted sedan peels away and all you hear is laughing. Your biceps twitch. You wipe off your jeans, but it’s no use. The spray is up to your knees. Don’t take it personally, you tell yourself. If could have happened to anyone, really.
You arrive at Son Havana’s doorstep at 9:35. The club offers a free beginner lesson at nine, before the floor opens up, and you can hear Freddy, tonight’s instructor, calling out 1-2-3, 5-6-7 above the music. Andres, the doorman, studies you sideways as you walk up.
“Raajistan, ay por dios,” he says, hitting you hello. “Que te pasa socio?” He’s a fat asshole, short, mid-forties who tries to act young, quick to spread your news to anything with ears.
“Just in the neighborhood,” you say and smile. “Figured here is better than doing nothing at home, right?”
“Sure man, claro,” he says and waves you through without asking for cover. “Yesenia coming by later?” You don’t answer and he laughs as you pass, like the sight of you is the funniest thing he’s seen all day.
You take the stairs slowly. Each step brings a new wave of noise. At first the sound is muddled, disjointed, confused. Trumpets flare out of nowhere. The congas try to beat the song into submission. But when you reach the top step the clave hits and like a nun’s whistle at recess the beats line up. A solid stick hitting a hollow one, the clave’s sharp echo attacks through the twirling bodies, the steam, the mess of voices and drums and piano all blowing through like they got no place better to be. But you feel the clave the hardest—sure, exacting, like the heartbeat of a god.
Yesenia used to be your in, the one who took you from pathetic desi, stalking the perimeter of the floor, too shit-scared to dance, all the way to salsero. Now look at you. You’re on the list. People know your fucking name.
The booths on the far side of the floor are roped off for the Chicano suits and their Dominicana girlfriends. They never dance, but they run up a tab and after a few drinks they start throwing out rounds like candy at a parade. The floor itself is littered with beginners. The girls wear too-tight dresses. The men pick up their feet like they’re stepping on hot coals. They all stare at their hands. Freddy orbits the crowd with the smile of a circus ringmaster.
When he sees you he shouts something to the class and walks over. He’s walking fast, too fast, and you think this is it. What you’ve been waiting for. Your mistake with Yesenia is about to be corrected. What floods you is surprising—not fear, relief. Finally someone is making you pay for what you’ve done.
When Freddy’s punch doesn’t come you lower your hands. He studies you for a beat, noticing your wet jeans. “Hey man,” he says, “you all right?”
“Just in the neighborhood,” you offer as way of explanation. It tastes odd leaving your mouth, like something Mr. Rogers’ fucking Neighborhood could get away with.
“You want to jump in?” he asks. Behind him beginners struggle through a right turn. “We just started.”
You wish he had punched you instead. “No man. I’ll hit up the bar.”
“I got you,” he says, already turning away, the showman in him shining through.
You walk toward the bar, but you don’t need alcohol. You need some place dark and cool. The back of your neck feels like it’s a fire ant battleground. Your veins itch. Your pulse: deafening. You find the bathroom and lock the door. You know what’s coming as much as you don’t know. The heat starts with a shiver. You can’t quiet your blood. A shadow descends, pushes you against a wall. It burrows up, spreading, until there’s a shake in your ears that makes your whole being quiver. Another blackout is coming. It is only a matter of minutes before falling, falling, falling. The last things you see are Yesenia’s lips laughing, Freddy’s smile, a bottle of Orange Crush.
You don’t know when the blackouts started exactly. For sure after thirteen, after your Dad died, but how long after you don’t know. A week? A year? The first time when you came out of it Amma was sitting in the kitchen, head in hands, a quilt draped over her shoulders and snow dusting the linoleum. You felt angry at her for being so cold.
“Enthina?” she asked, and you said you didn’t know why. She explained you’d broken every window in the house. She showed you the scratches on her arm from when she tried to stop you. One month later you fed her biryani you made from a drowned raccoon. You have no memory of these events, no control. You are taken over by a force stronger than yourself. Sometimes you wake up with your arms slick with blood. You have gashes on your shoulders so thick and long you wonder what could be inside of you fighting so hard to get out.
Amma tried with you, but eight years after your Dad died her grief is still a fist around her throat. She’s become something other than the woman your Dad loved. That Amma was the chubby desi from the backwaters of Kerala, cheppati flour on her shirt, coconut oil in her hair, not a skinny, yoga obsessed, Anglo-wannabe sliding into downward-fucking-dog on her kitchen floor. She says funny how she didn’t accept the healing power of Ashtanga until we moved to Maine. All those years in India spent ignoring yogis touting the benefits of meditation and stretching. Isn’t it funny how fate works? Hum, you tell her, hilarious.
You used to pray for these episodes to stop. You leaned on your bed and spoke to God. You apologized for not taking better care of Amma, and for hating Mass the way you did. You promised to recite your Hail Marys and your Our Fathers the right way, not leaving out a word here and there on purpose. Maybe it was the way your Dad made you wait until after everyone else had left so he could speak to the Father. You remember the way he used two hands while your Dad used only one. There was no peace for you there. You told God that if the blackouts didn’t stop it meant He didn’t love you. You prayed for good to come. You cursed Him. You cried. You knew there was no way to hide what was inside of you. God was like magic. He knew better than anyone what was in your heart.
Salsa changed everything. That swamp in your head doesn’t come around that often. Dancing is better than any drug you’ve tried. When you’re dancing with a girl and the connection is there and the music is smooth and driving at the same time it’s like you’re not even there. You’re lost. It’s impossible to do anything else than move through one moment into the next, without thought, without worrying what’s going to happen next.
But when it’s bad, it’s realizing you’re in a dream. Sometimes the girl’s bored, or some beginner sends his partner crashing into you. And how are you supposed to forget again? How can you go on once you realize it’s just stepping and holding hands?
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. Not knocks, pounds. Beats the thing like he’s fucking Bruce Lee. He screams in Spanish, calls you a motherfucker. “Un momento,” you say. The first thing you notice are your feet. They’re wet. There’s water pouring out from the sink onto the floor. Your pants are off and the legs float on top of the water. You have no idea why you would do this. The puddle almost reaches to the door. You turn off the faucet, then inspect yourself for blood. The voice screams again.
“Occupado, asshole,” you yell back.
The blackouts, the cutting, Amma says it wasn’t your fault, wasn’t you. You believed her at first. But eventually you saw Amma for what she really was. A woman weaving promises out of desperation. Even at thirteen you saw you weren’t the type of boy whose prayers get answered.
You do your best with the pants. You put them on and roll them up to just below the knees. In the mirror you’re way short of passable, like some poverty stuck, yacht-club-imitation motherfucker. You should just throw your tail between your legs. Instead you tuck in your shirt, unbutton it, close it back up. You put your dance shoes on last. In the mirror you can’t bring yourself to look higher than your shoulders. They’ll laugh at you, not to your face, but still. Your getup’s ridiculous. But your need for the music is too great. Tonight, you can’t go home yourself.
On the outside of the bathroom door someone’s hung a sign—“out of order.” You’ve been gone for an hour, maybe more. The night in Son Havana has officially turned. The lights are lower, the music’s faster. Most of the beginners are gone. The Suits have claimed the booths and their girlfriends sway in the aisles, their bodies wrapped in dresses like giant rubber bands. “Tumbao!” they yell. The salseros are changing into their suede-bottomed shoes, saying hello, marking out space on the floor.
You waste no time. The girl closest to you is wearing a dress with roses all over it and heels like weapons. You hold out your hand and she takes it. You spin her onto the floor. She stumbles. When she steps her feet lift out of her pumps. You flash a polite smile. A fucking beginner.
Rose-Dress stares at her feet, her mouth open, her tongue tapping out the beat. You turn her here and there, careful to keep her hands through your own spins and tosses, your complicated, badass drapes. Her eyes are still on her feet. Her forehead’s tied up in a worried little bow. Tequila’s coming off her breath in tidal waves. You put one hand to her chin and she raises her eyes like a girl released from prayer. “I got you,” you say.
It works. She smiles.
Her body loosens and you work hard on making her look good, a turn here, a barrel roll there. She’s putty, this girl who you know has never set foot in a salsa club before. She has pink hair extensions and eyes punched with glitter. Maybe an upstate Daddy’s girl, studying English at NYU on her parents’ dime. She’s got diamonds in her ears in the shape of hearts. When you push in close she exhales, slow, like the first sip of something cold on a hot day.
“You’re really good,” she says.
“I know,” you say.
The song begins to fade and you dip her on the last beat. You thank her and she nods her head. That itch inside you still burns but this is a start. You scan the crowd for the telltale signs of a salsera—strappy heels, tight skirt, hair gel, bare wrists. Someone taps you on the shoulder and you turn, expectant, but it’s just Rose-Dress smiling, her hands clasped at her navel.
“Thank you so much for the dance,” she says. “That was totally awesome. What’s your name?” You tell her and she repeats it to herself a few times before running off to the bar. There’s a trio of girls you didn’t notice before and soon Rose-Dress is absorbed into a tight, giggly huddle.
You feel her before you see her, a cold slap. Yesenia’s in the corner, glaring like she’s trying to give you pneumonia. It is impossible, but she looks skinnier than you remember. Her arms and shoulders all bone and skin, biceps like bee stings. She’s sitting on the edge of a chair, surrounded by three guys also shooting you daggers. It’s been five days since you’ve seen her, and now, staring at her from across the room, you realize how much you miss her and that you never want to see her again.
You walk the unavoidable walk, filling your head with high moral shit, like you’re the bigger person, ready to put this all behind you, if it will make her soften an ounce. You can practically taste the cliché lines you’re about to throw, “Baby, don’t be like this.”
Her eyes widen as you approach. Her three stooges toss around their own concerned glance.
“Hey,” you say, a brilliant opening line.
“What do you want?” she asks with more venom than you thought she was capable of.
“Can we just talk for like a minute?” You’re angrier than you want to be. Seeing her is doing something to your head. You shuffle your feet.
“Raaj, please.” Even you know that means no. She turns her head and that’s when you see it. Beneath the make-up, the white replaced cherry red, a black boomerang smearing her face. It’s the worst black eye you’ve ever seen.
You swallow hard. “What happened?” you ask and her good eye shoots you a slow, disgusted look.
“Raaj, why the fuck are you here?”
You flex your fist, then release it. You try to remain cool. I’d never hit a woman, you try to say. Not you, baby. Never you.
This is a bad misunderstanding. A coincidence. She’s trying to put this on you. A sick move in your little game. You think back to that night, the two of you hazy with booze, outside of Son Havana, Andres inside sweeping the floor. You remember her breath smelled more like sour mix than anything else and without the music you talked and talked to get away from the quiet. You remember her lips and how you told yourself they were beautiful because they were. Yesenia’s body pressed into you, your arms wrapped around her because she was so cold.
You lowered yourself to kiss her, but instead you told her about Maine, and your Dad, and all the reasons you’d come to NYC, because you just knew it was all behind you. “Haven’t cut myself since us,” you can still feel those words. “You’re magic,” you said and you told yourself this could be as close to love as you’d ever get. It all rushed out of you so fast you closed your eyes to focus on each word. And when you opened them her mouth was closed. She put her palm into your chest and pressed. Your arms broke around her. “Shit, Raaj,” she said, stepping back. “What the fuck.”
That’s when she hit you with that laugh, a light mocking trill of her voice, a battering ram to your core. That laugh told you, with certainty, how totally screwed you were, that you were travelling alone on a shaky path toward ruin. And then the wet snap of your fist finding something soft. Her head forced sideways. She ran but all you can remember was how satisfying it felt to fucking hit something. And you walked home to Brooklyn beneath flittering streetlights, completely untouchable.
Yesenia, now sitting directly before you as her three stooges hover, doesn’t say anything, not one word. She crosses her arms and stares at the ground. The men all take one step forward. Seeing her there, so skinny, make-up barely hiding that damage, you wish you could rip yourself apart. Truths fly at you. Son Havana is dead. You can never come back here. This city is dead. You can already feel the bus ride back to Maine, where concrete and tourists revert back to bigtooth poplars and nannyberry, and the untouched ruin of volcanic rock, the remnants of your life haphazardly abandoned, preserved by sullen motherly love and a creator with a hostile sense of humor. Amma waiting, her arms thin, rocky banks of muscle, her face molded patient and that quiet—quiet everywhere. You step forward. Your fingers wrap around Yesenia’s wrist and hold on like it’s for your life.
“Dance with me,” you say. You want Yesenia to feel the music, for the two of you to be washed clean in it together.
She rises, her body obeying something you can see in her eyes she wishes it wasn’t. They settle into a fear you’ve seen before, on Amma sitting in your kitchen beneath the afghan, snow drifting next to the refrigerator when she finally looked at you after not looking at you for a long, long time.
Before you get her close there’s a hand on your shoulder.
One of Yesenia’s stooges pulls you back, muttering in Spanish. He’s a good four inches shorter than you and about a foot wider. A miniature bodyguard in suede shoes. You turn toward him. There’s a crowd of eyes on you. Even couples on the floor lazily turn around each other while they watch the scene. There’s a buzz in your ears. It creeps into your veins like a chill in summer. You flex your fingers. For the first time you summon the fight.
But as soon as his fingers fold into fists Freddy runs up spouting take it easy’s in a couple different languages. He laughs to lighten the mood, throws his arm around the other guy and hands him a half-empty beer.
“We having fun here, right?” he says. Yesenia moves to his back, careful to keep him between her and you. She holds her wrist like a wilted stem. You want to tell her she’s right. It would only be a matter of time before whatever is in you ruins whatever is in her.
But you don’t say a thing. You throw your hands up and move to the door. The dancers return to the music. You are a detail they’ll share with friends as an afterthought. “Oh, and there was almost a fight at Son Havana!” You wonder how they’ll describe you—this Indian fucker, Persian, Latino, Mid-East, or if they’ll skip all that and just say dark, this dark guy.
You’ve built a lot here, you realize. Even your shitty ten-dollar-an-hour internship is more than you ever made up north. Maybe it’s stupid, but if nothing else here you could say you were a dancer. You were part of something that meant something. Fuck this town, you whisper. But as you approach the exit you’re absorbed by the fleeting, hope-filled calm of a new beginning. You tell yourself there is time to force things right, to follow the path your father set out for you. “Valio La Pena” plays, your favorite. You hold your breath, waiting for that clave to attack you from behind. It says change is still in the realm of possibility.
You scan the club’s walls for her. Rose-Dress’s back is to you and her friends are nowhere to be found. She shifts from one foot to the other, her hands behind her, like a shy toddler at her first day of school. You sneak up and whisper, “Dance with me.”
Rose-Dress turns with a start. Red rushes her cheeks. “You scared me,” she says and playfully hits your shoulder. You tell her this is your last dance, but she doesn’t quite get what you mean.
She takes your hand. Marc Anthony swells above. Your edge of the floor sits in darkness. Your moves are fierce, exacting. You have to remind yourself to pause for air. Rose-Dress laughs and for once you know it comes from her own inferiority and not yours.
You spin and Son Havana disintegrates into streams of neon across a black canvas. Blurs of dancers equalize into a single flash. Yesenia in a corner, shoulders cowered, flaunting El Che. Amma waiting for you with her silly string legs. Heat rises up and joins the current of steam already there. If you continue spinning, chasing time, this dance will never end—the clave the only reason for your heart to keep beating.