Carlitos was back and his friends were coming up to him to say hello. His guardian angel, the woman of the flowing silver mane, had brought him to the milonga at the Confiteria Ideal where he had been a regular until his illness. He had been hit hard. Only a year ago, the woman said, “we mopped the floor”; but now his steps were feeble and unsure. Whatever fancy footwork had been in them seemed to have withered away.
But even seated he had the lithe, weightless quality that dancers have. And now, in his 93rd year, he had added the self-contained quality of the very old. But above all, there was a gentleness that surrounded him, that came perhaps from eight decades of taking women in his embrace and leading them over the dance floor. Carlitos had been dancing since he was ten.
Everybody wanted a piece of that gentleness. Even the pugilistic and adrenaline-stoked doorman whom I had seen a few weeks before beat up a street kid for making an obscene gesture at him, took Carlitos’s arm and waited with him as if suddenly he’d rather be holding an old man’s arm than pummel an urchin.
Carlitos gulped water all afternoon and inevitably asked to go to the bathroom. Pausing at the bar to rest before going on, he took my hand to steady himself. He just held it while he greeted an old friend behind the counter and his hand was one of the softest things I have ever felt.
Back at the table, Carlitos watched the dancers go by. Many of them would reach out and take him by the chin or caress his cheek as they went by. And then Carlitos began his slow preparations to rise: taking a firm hold of the table edge, then hoisting himself up. His guardian angel said, “Is this the one? You want to dance this one Carlitos?” He didn’t answer: he was standing now and staring at the dance floor as if it were an old lover calling to him — lovingly but also mischievously.
And so in his winter parka and wool muffler, Carlitos took the floor and his guardian angel took firm hold of him so he wouldn’t fall. She moved around him while he shuffled tentatively one way and then the other. They weren’t moving fast: while other couples made a full circuit of the dance floor, they managed to move only about four tables down; shuffling back to his own table took every bit as long as it had taken to dance there. Carlitos was glad of his chair when he finally got back to it.
Ahh, he said. He made like he wanted to say something more, but the words did not come. He looked at me. His face was vivid and full of light for a moment and then, as quickly as a sigh, the light went out.