“Give me your hand.”
It was dark in the bar, the air thick with cigarette smoke and the salt stink of pisco and perspiration, but he could see that she was as lovely as she had seemed from across the room. She was standing with one hand outstretched. Her hair was long, black, heavy; her teeth white and straight behind the radiant smile.
“Come. You’ve been staring at me long enough. You want to dance?”
He felt the fever of the evening’s accumulated drink make a slow, pleasant course for his brain. His friends were laughing, slapping the hard oak with their hands. Someone shouted, “Bluhm! She wants to see you move! Go on! Give her something to look at!”
They had come from the Club Germania, the venerable establishment on the outskirts of the capital where they had spent a quiet evening with their wives, plying them with pork chops and applesauce, goulash and spaetzle. Escorting the four happy matrons to Oscar’s sleek black Mercedes, they had instructed his chauffeur to take them to a nearby parlor for ice cream. The men would go off to Las Americas for brandy and cigars.
But it wasn’t to Las Americas that they had gone. Willy, who had long been carrying on with a woman in San Borja, had a better idea. There was a place not far from Carmela’s apartment, he told them—Noches Lindas. Good bolero, fresh Havanas, pretty women.
Willy being Willy, his description was wrong on most counts: It was tango, not bolero. The cigars were stale. The sign over the door read Noches Limenas—Lima Nights. But the women were reasonably good looking, the only exception a toothy mestiza with orange hair.
They had taken a table a good distance from the dance floor so that they could survey the lot. Clearly, some of the women had come with men—or would be leaving with them. They were draped over the men’s shoulders, stroking their hair, nuzzling their necks. The ones with red collars were employees of the bar, the waiter explained, and available as dance partners. All you had to do was wiggle a finger.
Marco, a genial hotel manager and ever the catalyst where women were concerned, had been the first to call one over. She was delicate as a bird—tiny and freckled—pale for a Negro, hair bleached the color of wheat. “Why her?” Willy barked, as she made her way to their table.
“Why do you think?” Marco barked back over the loud music. “She looks German! A bit more nose, a bit less lip, and she could be my cousin Hilda.”
They laughed and watched him go off, the three of them content to sit and take in the liquor.
It was true Bluhm had been ogling the one with long dark hair. There was, after all, the matter of her dress—black, with red straps and a rippling red frill along the hem. Slit to one hip, it clung to her, so that there was no mystery about the curve of her breasts or the sweet little shape of her ass. It was the dress that got his attention. Then came the rest: The nut-brown skin, smooth, dusted here and there with gold glitter. The angel face, the scarlet pout of her lips. And, finally, the red velvet ribbon that circled her neck, signaling her status as an available partner.
The loud, fluttering wail of the bandoneon drowned out the men’s voices, but he no longer cared what they were saying. With an impish grin, Bluhm beckoned the woman closer. She leaned in. “I don’t do the tango,” he said.
“Sure you do,” she countered, her voice resolute and deep. “You just haven’t tried. And no one has taught you.”
He could smell her perfume at that distance: brisk, clean, tart as fruit. Was it apple? Quince? He couldn’t tell. But fruit it emphatically was, the kind of fragrance his wife had never favored, preferring as she did the subtle, warm scent of tuberoses. Earlier that evening, kissing their sons good night, Sophie had swept a silk scarf over her shoulders and filled the room with the redolence of those diminutive white flowers. Even out in the vestibule he’d noted it. It was an aptitude he’d always had—that strong, indisputable sense of smell. Totally useless for an importer of cameras.
“Go on, Carlos!” His friends were pounding the table with fists now. “Don’t disappoint the lady!” Lady. They knew all too well he had an appetite for cholas—the browner the better. But he wouldn’t have called any one of his conquests a lady.
Maybe it was the scent of their skin—the sharp bouquet of it, as natural and welcoming as loam. Or the small hands and feet. The perfect hairlessness of their bodies. The cunning tilt of their eyes. All of it so different from, so antithetical to Bluhm, whose hands were large, skin like milk, eyes blue. Or Bluhm’s wife, for that matter.
In all his forty-four years, he had never known anyone who looked less Peruvian than Sophie. She, like Bluhm, had been raised entirely in Spanish, on Creole food, in the heart of the Inca continent. But, like him, she was fair and blond, a real Teuton. The years had been kind to Sophie—she still had her slender figure, hair the color of a German autumn—but time had sharpened her features, hardened her jaw. Since the birth of Rudy sixteen years ago, her lips, which always had been daintily bowed, had settled into a grim line. Eventually, a certain severity—a Berliner elegance, his mother called it—had taken command of her face.
He stood and let the woman lead him to the floor. She was smiling over one shoulder, tossing her black mane with all the vigor of an eager pony. There was something exhilarating about her. Wild. The bandoneon was at full throttle now, and the player was pumping his long arms, sending quick fingers across the buttons. A fat man in an ill-fitting suit crooned, “Te ha-a-a entrado muy adentro en el pobre cora-a-azon!”
The chola took his hands and began a simple two-step, as if she were teaching a slow child. It was easy to follow. In the distance, he could see Marco twirling the yellow-haired Negress under one arm. Bluhm couldn’t help but laugh, and his partner laughed with him. She placed Bluhm’s right hand firmly against the small of her back and held it there as she looked up triumphantly. “See?” she said. “This is the tango. You’ve mastered the first lesson.”
They finished the dance and he and his friends left shortly afterward. He thought little more of the woman in the tight black dress until he was taking off his clothes in the dark of his bedroom. Reaching into a pocket to fish out his keys, he felt an unfamiliar bit of paper, no larger than a business card. By the light of the bathroom, he read:
Juana Maria Fernandez
For Your Next Lesson, call: _466-_0777.
The next time he saw her was at Santa Isabel, the fancy new Chilean-owned supermarket on the Avenida Camino Real. He was with his son, wheeling along a cart filled with ingredients for pilsner, which he liked to make in the comfort of his own kitchen. He turned the corner and there she was, standing to one side of a cash register, moving someone’s groceries efficiently off the conveyor belt into bags.
He didn’t recognize her immediately, although he was drawn to the face. Her hair was pulled into a tidy knot at the nape of her neck and she wore no lipstick, but, as she chatted with the cashier animatedly, the unmistakable loveliness was there and, when he scoured his memory, he remembered the dress, the fruity perfume, and the drunken night—two weeks before—when a woman with the same face had led him to the dance floor.
“Here, Fritz,” he said to his son before he could think better of it, “let’s get in line over here.”
“Why?” the lanky nineteen-year-old protested. “That register there has fewer people!” Fritz was too tall for his trousers, disheveled, a halo of amber curls framing his face, and he spoke with a young person’s certitude that grown-ups were inferior creatures. Seeing his father move in the opposite direction, he sighed and slouched along like an obliging dog.
The woman computed the situation immediately. She had seen Bluhm standing in line, inching his way toward her. By the time the cashier was ready to check him through, she had calculated that the boy was his son, the groceries were for his wife, and, more than likely, the store they were standing in was in easy radius of his neighborhood.
“Good to see you, sir.”
The voice was strong and thrilling, full of welcome—hinting at all the ways a woman might please a man. He remembered hearing that voice in the din of the tango bar.
“You work here now?”
She looked up from under her thick eyelashes. “I work here too.”
Fritz straightened to his full height and looked from his father’s face to hers and back again with quick curiosity.
“In both places! Really? And when do you ever sleep?” Bluhm reached casually for his wallet, enjoying the secrets in that very public conversation.
She laughed and pulled the six gallons of distilled water, four packets of yeast, and jar of malt syrup from the aluminum table into plastic bags, working her small hands nimbly. The cashier, deprived now of her sunny attention, punched the register’s buttons glumly and kept to himself.
“So, this is your son, senor?”
“Yes. This is Fritz. Come on, Fritz, be polite, say hello to . . . Juana?”
“Maria. I go by my middle name.”
“Ah.” Then, turning to Fritz, “Maria also works in a restaurant in San Borja. She’s waited on me there. She’s a friend.”
Fritz nodded, understanding the clear exaggeration of the word, the grace of it—men of his father’s class were not friends to waitresses. He said hello dutifully and, his curiosity satisfied, shuffled off to look at wristwatches on a faraway counter.
Bluhm studied the young woman more closely now, trying to square the demure vision before him with the voluptuous bargirl he had held briefly in his arms. She looked to be in her twenties—round face, a doll’s chin, small nose, more jungle than mountain Indian—and, in the full light of day, he could see that her complexion was smooth and perfect, as burnished as marble. But she was something of a paradox too: In the full light of day, she seemed straightforward, guileless—not at all the sort of woman who would slip her number into a stranger’s coat.
“You never came back for your second lesson,” she said, pushing the reloaded cart toward him.
“No,” he said, and winked at her openly. “But don’t give up on me yet, sweetheart. I’m not as slow-footed as I seem.”
Bluhm chatted idly with his son as he pulled the old black car past the open gate into the driveway of 300 Avenida Rivera. He didn’t have to step foot inside his house to know that Sophie was at the piano and Rudy in the straight-backed chair at her side. The boy was playing his cello—he was better than good at it—and the sad, plangent strains of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” rode out of the house’s elaborate windows into the bright November afternoon.
Bluhm motioned for Fritz to carry in the groceries while he sat in the car a few minutes longer, allowing the music to fill his senses. It was a piece his father had played on that same cello every Sunday, after the siesta—a poignant prayer set to music. Every weekend of Bluhm’s childhood, for as long as he could remember, he had wakened to that inexpressibly mournful melody, and now here was his younger son, rendering it beautifully, echoing a past he had never known.
Bluhm closed his eyes and breathed in the sweetness of his garden. He could smell the bougainvillea cascading down the wall, the peach trees thrusting their fleecy new progeny into spring, the hosta lilies, like so many soldiers, lining the walk in triumphant welcome. He caught the scent of his mother’s lilacs, arching over the double doors and tumbling down along the latticework. She had planted them herself, well before his father had died, well before Bluhm and Sophie had moved in—when 300 Avenida Rivera had hummed with servants and dinners were punctuated by the pop of champagne corks, when German bankers from Stuttgart stood out on the veranda, taking in the night’s fragrance and stars.
The house was still grand. No one could deny it. Nestled between the Golf Club and the ancient pyramids, it sat at the very heart of San Isidro—in a neighborhood whose shops sported French names and catered to women with haughty faces. The streets here were clean, hosed down by gardeners every morning; the walls freshly painted every spring. Standing guard in the magnificent doorways of the commercial establishments were armed sentries in handsome uniforms, whose only apparent charge was to shoo off the beggars who stumbled in now and then from the heartbreaking dunghills of Lima.
Bluhm’s house stood on as a tribute to the family affluence, even if that affluence was now largely gone. It had stood through the First World War, when Carlos’s grandfather Johann Bluhm had been drafted along with hundreds of other Latin Americans of German origin to serve in the kaiser’s army. It had stood through the Second, when two Nazi diplomats from the embassy had come around, sat under the house’s vaulted ceilings, drunk schnapps, and insisted, to no avail, that Johann’s son, Rodolfo, do the right thing and join the Wehrmacht. It had stood on through the boom days of the ’50s, when Rodolfo was made head representative of the Deutsche Bank in Lima; when he and his wife, Dorotea, left little Carlos to roam its vast halls with four nursemaids, a butler, and three cooks, while they toured the world on the Queen Elizabeth. It stood on in the early ’70s when the socialists parceled out the rural haciendas of the rich to the peons; when Dorotea, by then a widow, shuttered her windows against anyone with a possible eye for the family silver. And it was standing now, in this nervous decade of terrorism, in a country festooned with barbed wire and bedeviled by random violence. It was standing fast, even though Carlos Bluhm was no banker but an ordinary, run-of-the-mill camera salesman—even though the entire nation seemed trapped in a postlapsarian limbo and its unfinished buildings and bridges hung like mastodons in midair, half born, and waiting for issue.