he’s staring down from the rooftop of the vencione in the roughest area of the macarena. it’s not the trendy dance of a few years ago, “the macarena”, but the neighborhood where the name has come from. it’s charming but tough. home of the virgin de macarena, the maternal deity who the locals from this part of sevilla carry around once a year, parading her on their shoulders before the entire city, showing her off proudly, trying to outshine the other maternal deity of sevilla, the virgin de triana. it’s an annual competition, but he’s not interested in either of the religious icons, but in his own virgin, viridiana.
it’s two in the morning. he’s drunk and the sweat drips from his skin in imagined rivulets. the vencione is the antique style of housing project in andalucia, this passionate part of southern spain, former home of the moors, now home of flamenco, tapas, and gitanos (gypsies). it’s formed in a rectangle with a central courtyard. there are three stories of small rooms that the immigrants used to fill when they came to sevilla. the north africans, the northern and eastern europeans, the poor. just like the lower east side of new york, but of course, centuries earlier. the vencione was your neighborly pensione, where families gathered their kin together in the new land. where they worked hard, washed their laundry together in the courtyard, hung it to dry in the burning andalucian sun on the rooftops, and where they ate together, raised children, and became, after time, sevillans themselves.
he’s oskar’s guest. oskar, the bald and ribald owner of the vencione. oskar, who now rents mostly to flamenco students. to mostly beautiful, female flamenco dancers. oskar pictures himself a “medici” of sorts, patron of the arts. he’s in a constant battle with the city to keep the decrepit building which his mother bought a generation ago, but which the hungry real estate developers now want from the city to gentrify and exploit for the absolute maximum rent. but oskar’s willing to fight city hall. and the real estate moguls. so there are beautiful, narrow-waisted female flamenco dancers paying next to nothing, up and down the vencione, like in a spanish fellini movie. or a bunuel movie. like a bunuel movie called “that obscure object of desire” or…. “viridiana”.
he’s standing there, drunk on the rooftop, looking through the crack of light into viridiana’s little apartment. she doesn’t know he’s there. she’s lying on her bed, shrouded in a white mosquito net curtain. it’s so hot this time of july, maybe forty two degrees celsius (over 100 degrees fahrenheit), that with no air conditioner, no fan, you’d have to be crazy to keep your door shut. besides, all the neighbors know each other; there’s nothing to fear. it’s too goddam hot, and viridiana’s door is cracked open. if he positions himself just so on the rooftop, he can see she’s sitting on her bed, propped up against the wall on a pillow. she seems to be reading or studying something under the white mosquito netting. her olive skin emits a sensual, dancer’s sheen.
he’d met her the previous morning. it was by accident. he was following oskar around the vencione. oskar was fixing things up. oskar went into the corner apartment to speak to the tenant and one of the workers. he followed oskar inside, not knowing whose apartment it was. there were two women there, sitting at a tiny kitchen table. it was a one room apartment, what americans called “a studio”. both women were nice looking. they were sitting there talking and smiling, looking affectionate and intimate with each other. there was flamenco music playing on a boom box. “can i sit down?” he asked, thinking they were friends of oskar’s and he would wait for oskar until he, oskar, was done in the apartment. the dark haired woman, the beautiful one with olive skin and dark, intense eyes, looked at him, then to her friend, who seemed to translate. she paused, looking at him again, and then simply said, “no”. there was an awkward silence. “no”. he couldn’t sit. he wasn’t welcome. he’d have to leave. he laughed awkwardly, said something in english; the girl didn’t respond. he walked out, embarrassed, and sat in the courtyard waiting for oskar.
for the rest of the day, he couldn’t get her out of his mind. “no”, she said. meaning, “don’t sit down. you’re trespassing. you weren’t invited into my home. please leave.” he couldn’t get this dark-haired beauty out of his mind. he had always been drawn to dancers. after all, he had been one too. for seven years, on chicago’s near north side. a long time ago. over thirty years now. he was fifty seven. but he knew about the hard work, the daily classes, the sweat, the poverty, the pulled muscles, the discipline, the commitment it took. once a dancer, always a dancer. he had made love to dancers. lived with dancers. he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
but now he’d been married for almost three years. to a young asian girl, thirty years his junior. probably the same age as this flamenco dancer. he’d met his brown-skinned child-wife on the mythical island of bali, and in just a single night, he’d made an intimate connection with her that would, over time, develop into a marriage. he’d never once cheated on her. not a single time. he’d had fifty three years to experience sexual freedom, he wasn’t about that anymore. a child of the sixties and of the sexual revolution, he’d had too many partners already. he couldn’t remember them all, nor did he want to. most of them were “casual”. “hookups” are what his students called them these days. he’d had affairs while with long term girlfriends, affairs with married women, affairs after affairs; he wasn’t proud of having been a compulsive sexual predator. he’d even gotten women pregnant. many in fact, who, upon realizing he wasn’t “father material”, had had too many unwanted abortions. those he remembered. no, he wasn’t proud at all. now, twenty years later, he was sterile. a side effect of the chemo-therapy he’d had for lymphoma. he called it “karma”. payback for his cavalier attitude about sex and responsibility. worst of all, on an emotional level, as a consequence of this lifestyle, he had nobody to share his memories with. too many partners, not enough longevity or history.
and now he’d received a “get lost” from this flamenco girl. a “get out of my house”. he’d understood it. there he was, assuming he was welcome, following oskar. point blank, he wasn’t – welcome. and hell, come on, he was married. time to move on, continue his day. he wasn’t a sexual warrior anymore. he was pushing sixty. let her go. be a tourist in sevilla. see the don quixote art exhibition in the old convent near the macarena. images of the errant knight by durer, picasso… why did he always identify with the oddly-failed, but noble man from la mancha? the man of privilege, constantly trying to right the world’s wrongs, to win his unattainable dulcinea?
he spent the afternoon and early evening at the magnificent alcazar, with its moorish courtyards, its arabic tiles and swirling arabesques. yet after absorbing the quiet of its fountains, the silence and sunlight of its gardens, he was still anything but peaceful. he wandered agitatedly through the heart of the old arabic/jewish quarter of sevilla, santa cruz., still thinking of the flamenco girl, and… his wife. there was a tablao that evening, a professional flamenco show, at the immaculate casa de memoria al andaluz, the perfectly restored home of a jewish merchant from the 19th century. he’d decided to catch the second of two shows that evening at 10:30, but he was hopelessly lost in the ornate maze of narrow streets of the juderia. the arabs and jews were clever, the narrowness kept the sun’s direct blaze off the streets for as long as possible. finally, when he showed up at 8:30 to get a ticket, he discovered they’d cancelled the second show, so he was lucky to get the last ticket for the nine o’clock presentation.
it was a perfect show. the audience packed into the intimate courtyard, resplendent with greenery; ivy and bougainvillea climbing up the twenty foot walls. the heat was withering, each member of the audience got a paper fan to help combat the air. the dancers were fiery, the guitarist virtuosic, the cantar intense and passionate, the hand-clapping palmiero with flamenco attitude to spare. duende. the ephemeral magic and artistry of the bull ring, the brilliant improvisatory moment of flamenco… the “ole!” of the corrida , the “baile!” of the dance. he walked home, high on the magic of sevilla. the girl had looked right at him and said, “no.” forget her; you’re married, he told himself over and over again. the entire town spilled out onto the streets for a breath of the cool night air. he walked past the sweltering clubs west of the macarena into the old quarter of san luis, and had sweet red vermouth at every bar he stopped at. those intense, glowering eyes... an hour later, he was climbing the wooden steps of the old vencione to the one room at the top. he gave it the name, “the presidential suite”. it had only a mattress and a chest of drawers, but it was his for the night. he could climb to the rooftop and feel the refreshing night air, free from the confines of the building. he could look down and see……….
there she was again. the dark-haired flamenco girl. as if she were waiting for him. it was after two in the morning and her door was open. light on. she must be inside. sweating. naked? he could only imagine. her eyes… so serious… so contemptuous. of him? of the world? or was it only her commitment? to the duende? to her study? no time for men. no time for distraction. just the dance. just the music. those dark, fiery, contemptuous eyes. dare he go downstairs and knock? with the door already ajar. it would be hard to knock. what was her name? he didn’t know. should he go? what would he say? she had already dismissed him that very morning. he would be intruding again. she would be shocked. frightened? disgusted. someone coming into her home at two in the morning. uninvited.
no. he went back to his tiny room and mattress. thinking of… his wife. of his marriage. of the complicated, demanding ordeal that is love and commitment. to his child bride, who every time he confronted her with one of her childish, irresponsible whims – like staying out all night without calling him – like saying she didn’t know what love really meant – would answer him with the searing, “think of what you were doing at my age.” how could he combat such a posture? yes, think of what he was doing at twenty seven. cheating. running around. compromising his integrity to sexual conquest. and after all, he trusted his wife. didn’t he? it was hard for him to say. to know for sure. she was driving him crazy with her threats of leaving. with her hunger for “independence”. for “experience”. for “freedom”. but how could he argue with her? karma again. he had lived a life sacrificed at the altar of all these things; now it was pay back time. he was suffering. loving his wife who couldn’t return his maturity and commitment. and still wanting to be loyal. he closed his eyes and… dreamt of the girl.
the next day he woke up to a commotion. he looked down into the courtyard and there were hordes of people milling about. cameras. thick black cable wire. people running back and forth, in and out of….. the girl’s room. what was going on? he walked down the three flights of steps cautiously. the girl was nowhere in sight. a young, straw-haired woman came up to him. “puedo ajudarte?” she asked efficiently. “hablo solo un poquito de espanol,” he struggled. “are you american?” the woman asked. “yeah, how did you know?” the woman laughed. “i’m from philadephia.” “i’m from new york, but i’ve lived in LA for over twenty years. i…” “sorry,” she interrupted, “but we have a lot to do this morning. can i help you with something?” he explained that he was a friend of the owner’s and was staying upstairs. “what’s going on here?” as if solving a problem, the woman quickly explained that they were doing a documentary on a dancer exchange program, between israel and spain. a young student dancer from israel had come to sevilla to study flamenco for two weeks, and now a young sevillan dance student would be going to israel to study traditional israeli folk dance. there had been an elaborate audition process, and the documentary team had chosen… the girl. “what’s her name?” he asked. “viridiana,” the straw-haired woman replied.
it fit her like a glove. sleek, austere… unattainable. that obscure object of desire… viridiana. he hung around all morning, trying to get a peak of the girl. find out more about her. he managed to meet the israeli director, a friendly but besieged young woman. she had only her israeli cinematographer with her, and was working with a spanish tv crew and with spanish sound and camera equipment. there was a lot to be learned very quickly and a lot of problems to solve. over the next hour or so, he found out that viridiana was actually from mexico. she had been studying flamenco in sevilla for only a short time. but she was good. obviously, serious about it, and committed. and she was clearly the best choice for the documentary. he also found out that the crew would be taping viridiana that night – at the casa de memoria. dancing. before the nine o’clock show. viridiana had arranged it herself. and yes, he was welcome to come, they needed an audience.
an hour or so later, his new sevillan friend and host, quino, came to pick him up at the oskar’s vencione. coincidentally, quino, a quiet, silver-haired man in the middle of a difficult separation, was a professional cameraman for spanish tv. and then, not so coincidentally, because it is a very a small world, it turned out that quino knew the documentary sound and camera crew. in fact, quino was able to help with several technical camera problems, thus making him, via his friend, quino, a welcome but peripheral addition to the crew. so it was confirmed with the israeli director that both quino and he would be there at six.
now he already had made plans to go on a guided tour of the juderia (the old jewish quarter), exactly at six. where was the tour leaving from? of course, because it was a very small world, it was leaving from la casa de memoria. what to do? tour or dance? history lesson or infatuated romance. the juderia… or viridiana. could there be any doubt in his mind? an image of his young, tempestuous wife flashed in and out of his mind. “if i ever catch you with another woman, i will cut your balls off!”. this, from a woman born into former cannibal tribe from the rain forrest. he gulped. he would be at casa de memoria at six. to see viridiana.
quino and he spent the afternoon together. because of the extreme summer heat, sevillans worked early in the morning from eight ‘til two, so they had the afternoon free for siesta. shops and restaurants reopened at five. so after quino got off from the tv station, they had a couple of beers at various tapas bars in santa cruz. it was a great distraction. the food in andalucia was as delicious as the flamenco and duende were stunning. it was always another glorious surprise when quino ordered from the bar. octopus, fish dumplings, braised pork chops, mussels, clams, potato tortillas, even things he was afraid of trying, sweet breads and bulls’ testicles! all fantastico. meanwhile, he able to tell quino about his dilemma. the wife business. the viridiana temptation. hoping that quino would settle him down, bring him back to reality, all he got was the ambiguous empathy in quino’s eyes, seeming to say simultaneously, “i know what you’re going through, my friend. ain’t love a bitch?” or however you say that en espanol.
by six, a little more relaxed, they were waiting outside the courtyard of the casa de memoria. there was no sign of a tv crew, no sign of viridiana. there were, however, three young boys with long hair sitting on a bench, apparently waiting. another pulled up on a motorbike with a guitar in tow. he walked over to them. “hables englis?” “no”, one said, as they all laughed conspiratorially. “esta amigos de viridiana?” he managed. “si”, the older, dark haired boy smiled back. “donde esta el tv crew?” “no se,” the boy replied. he was wearing tight black jeans, a striped black and white sport shirt, and his hair was pulled back tight on his young, balding head. he looked like a flamenco dancer. narrow hips, dark eyes, his skin the color of andalucia. just then, viridiana walked up. she was wearing casual blue jeans and a simple white peasant blouse. she greeted her friends and then looked at him. those same dark, contemptuous eyes. “thank you for coming,” she smiled tightly. “i… you… speak english,” he practically stammered. a fifty seven year old man, practically stammering to a young, twenty year old mexican girl. “yes, i do,” she smiled ironically.” “but i thought….”
quino came over to rescue him, introducing himself to viridiana in spanish, talking with her about the tv crew and their schedule. apparently the crew was late arriving and probably didn’t realize the time constraint of the professional show having to set up by eight. “excuse me,” she smiled a little more warmly at him, “i have to get prepared.” her musicians followed her inside. he and quino were invited to wait inside the courtyard. she’d smiled.
finally, about six thirty, the tv crew arrived and started pulling cables, setting up simple lights, and assembling the camera. the israeli cameraman was fastidious; by the time they were done, it was almost 7:30. they might not have known, but they had only a half hour to shoot and wrap. quino had casually walked over to the camera and occasionally would give some helpful advice. he was mild enough to be genuinely helpful, without seeming to be intrusive. by 7:30, the director was already frantic, being pressed by the house staff to start wrapping up. finally, the boys came out and sat at the rear of the stage. there was a guitarist, a cantar (singer), and two palmieros. the dark-haired gypsy boy who looked like the dancer would only be supporting his friend this evening. finally she appeared. viridiana. in a full-length black and white, polka dot traditional flamenco dress. it fit her tight all around the bust and waist, and had a full flounce at the bottom for movement. she wore a long red scarf around her neck. she had transformed. no longer a simple peasant girl, but a flamenco dancer – with attitude.
the guitarist began playing, the cantar singing, the palmieros clapping, the camera rolling. viridiana made her dramatic entrance, stage left. she moved to center. he had taken out his digital camera and was told he could shoot as long as there was no flash. she raised her slender arms above her head. he stood up and snapped his first shot . click. the flash went off. quino shot him a sharp look. he felt ridiculous. he was a filmmaker himself; he knew about lighting. he fiddled with his camera, made the necessary adjustments, and as viridiana began dancing, he began shooting. a duet for one. she was magnificent. arms overhead. click. feet stamping. click. fingers snapping like castanets. click. not that he knew much about the subtleties of flamenco dancing, but viridiana stunned him with her beauty. her movement. click. her passion, concentration, intensity. click. click. click. the stage was small, smaller than he expected. flamenco was an intense, consolidated dance form. it was practically done in place. all in the feet. click. in the swirl and positioning of the dress. click. the look in the eyes. click. the sudden turn of the head. the style and posturing of the arms. click. click. viridiana was dancing with control and abandon simultaneously. it was only she, the music, and the camera. she didn’t know he existed and that was fine. she was caught up in the music, click; in the support of her musicians, click; their clapping, their shouting, their “bailes!” click. click. click. then, just as suddenly, she was done. exit again, stage left. he put his camera down and applauded. his hands now making the only sound in the courtyard. viridiana looked at him. she nodded. others joined in. the crew. the staff. a few bystanders who had gathered. viridiana smiled, wiping herself off and breathing heavily. she left the stage. her musicians followed. the israeli director ran after her and asked for a little more. closeups. coverage. no. viridiana refused. she was done.
now it was hours later. he was back up on the rooftop. drunk again. sweating. looking down through the same crack of light in her door. he had gone to her dressing room after the show and told her how much he enjoyed her dancing. he had given her his card to contact him about the photos. “thank you for coming,” she said again, still in full flush of the dance. “my pleasure,” he managed, as he made a cordial exit, knowing full well she would probably never contact him. quino had left him in santa cruz, driving himself home to espartinas, to his quiet home in the suburbs west of sevilla, to his sad maze of a marriage. he had spent the rest of night walking the streets of sevilla, recreating in his mind the passion of viridiana’s dancing. soaking up sweet vermouths. now he was with her again. in the vencione. the air was languid and heavy with desire. he was looking down through the crack of light in her doorway…
she inquired tentatively.
he stood there, still, not saying a word.
viridiana. coming to the door.
he stamped his black boot - for a second time - into the hard concrete courtyard just beyond the open doorway.
she opened the door. slowly. her eyes widened. “senor….”
he glowered at her through the mask covering his eyes. baile!
“que?” she stammered slightly.
he slowly brought his index finger to his lips. “shhh”, the finger said to her, without making a sound.
“quien es?” she uttered. “who is it?” the air being sucked from her chest.
he shook his head once violently, side to side, indicating, “do not ask..”
she stood there in a white halter top, black flowing pants kissing the floor.
brushing his cape back with well-practiced flair, he reached for her hand. she did not hesitate and gave it to him.
he brought it slowly to his mouth, kissed her elegant fingers and bowed. she quivered briefly and then withdrew, assuming the posture of … the dance. she glowered back at him. ready for battle.
grabbing her hand this time, he pulled her towards him and buried his mouth into hers. she gave in for a moment, devouring his kisses hungrily, and then pushed him back.. her eyes spit at him again.
he pulled her close around the waist, burying his lips into her neck.
she sighed. and again pulled back. this time the look in her eyes was defiant, but frightened at the same time. the first crack of vulnerability.
she tried to speak. again, the finger to his mouth.
he lowered his black gaucho hat behind him, where it hung on his back in well-rehearsed anticipation.
he stepped forward aggressively.
she backed into her little room.
there was the bed and table. he turned his head toward the bed.
she followed his glance, her head retreating on its neck like a small animal before a bird of prey. then her eyes flared, challenging him.
he reached for her arm again. again, she extended it.
he walked her three or four steps to the bed. he drew her close to him. their eyes locked.
one more moment of hesitation. would she accept this invitation to the dance?
their mouths devoured one another.
in a moment, his body was pressed into hers, their every move rehearsed. on his part, the formal dance of seduction,. on hers, surrender.
it was as if they knew each other completely. and not. as if they had already rehearsed this language of love. and not. soon their clothes fell to the floor. languidly. soon their mouths were buried in each others’ bodies. hungrily. soon he was making love to her. passionately.
her cries were like those of a wild animal. enraged. engorged. overpowered.
he pulled her on top of him. was this her first time? she climbed on top of him and seemed to lead. he let himself be led. her arms. her mouth. her perfect breasts. muscular thighs.
she cried out.
the night fell over them like a hush.
and then it was morning.
they lay entwined together in the tangled, still wet sheets.
in his mind. morning.
but there he was, still on the roof. looking down into the crack of light into viridiana’s little room. there she lay in the thick, humid air of the night.
she would be leaving the next morning for tel aviv, he the next day for granada. he knew in all likelihood, he would never see her again. she would never call, never e-mail, never contact him. she would continue to study. continue to dance. he would return from andalucia in a week or two - to his wife, to his commitment. and maybe things would be different. maybe his decision to not compromise himself would be reflected in his wife’s new behavior. after she came back from a six week trip to visit her family six thousand miles from los angeles. maybe she would see more clearly, with this perspective of time and distance. maybe she would appreciate who he was, how much he loved her, what he was doing for her. day in. day out. what love and commitment demanded. maybe there was such a thing as karma. maybe things would be different. maybe things would endure.
he walked down two flights of steps to where a deep purple bougainvillea had overgrown into the vencione. he broke off a long stem of purple, drawing blood as the stem’s thorn stabbed his clumsy fingers.
quietly, ever so cautiously, so not to disturb his still contemptuous and unattainable dulcinea, he left the stem of purple at the foot of viridiana’s no longer beckoning doorway.