El Suavecito

E. Eastman

I am certain of nothing but
the holiness of the Heart’s affections
And the truth of the Imagination.

    —John Keats

In seventh grade, galvanized sweat glands christened me with a peculiarly musty smell, my voice dropped the predicted octave, hair sprouted in unexpected places, and pains of unknown origin assaulted me.

“Does it hurt when you touch it?” asked my father, Strategic Air Command Officer and adept diagnostician who, triaging our ailments out of a book of common health problems, prevented, if he could, an unnecessary trip to the infirmary.

“No,” I said.

“You’ll live,” he said. “By the way, are you touching it?”

“It?” I queried.

“Mister Tally Wacker.”

“No,” I said, but the truth was, hormones sluicing through my pelvis had set off spontaneous erections I had futilely, but soothingly, learned to control with the glove of self-satisfaction. In addition, the hormonal advance had slimmed my hips and triggered muscles that while dormant in gym class, ached, in that volcanically adolescent world of neuro-synaptic desire, unlike any of the other seventh graders, for Saturday morning to come, when I could pluck from a rack in my closet a pair of hand-made, black, above-the-ankle, soft-as-skin-and-just-as-resilient, half boots that, packed in a powder blue, over-the-shoulder, Lufthansa flight bag, a confiscated cast-off of the parents’ odyssey to the Holy Land, I unpacked and donned in the studio of Enrique El Cojo, or Crippled Henry as my father called him, to pound a rhythmically intoxicating zapateado.

*     *     *

“Hell no, Celia,” my father had said to my mother, when in sixth grade I began to moon for the shoes.

“But how can he dance without them?” she asked.

“He’s a kid,” he cried. “For crisssakes, he can dance without them. Put some wooden heels on his shoes. That’ll make a lot of noise.”

“But they’re brown,” I moaned.

“And what’s your point?” he said.

“Flamenco shoes are not brown.”

“Who’s going to be looking at your feet?”

“I will.”

“Don’t look.”

“Oh Ellery,” my mother, ambassador of lost causes, sighed.

“Don’t start,” he cautioned. “In six months he will have outgrown both the shoes and the reason for them. What about those art lessons I paid for. Where did that get Mr. Picasso?”

In my defense, I said I still drew.

“But he thought your talent minor,” he countered. “He told us not to waste the money.”

“Why handmade shoes?” he asked, eventually.

“I don’t want to look like a hick.”

“Well said, son.”

“If I’m going to take lessons—”

“Whoa, Mister Flamenco Boy, who said anything about lessons?”

But the flamenco bug had bit.

At the age of five, when gypsies materialized at parties in the living rooms of our Spanish hosts, I took to tying the tails of my white shirt above my waist, flinging my arms heavenward, and vanishing into the pulsing cloud of drumming heels, cadenced clapping and ardent singing, seized with what can only now be described as sex, standing up. Mimicking the dancers’ expectant torsos, their thrusts and turns, I hammered in my two-tone Buster Brown shoes a make-believe but equally passionate rendition of the footwork.

Each time, the crowd roared, “Ole!

In a black-and-white photograph taken at the Fería that year, I am that eager-eyed boy slouched against a rope slung across the entrance of the Caseta Americana, in a suit, ruffled shirt, fringed sash, and broad-brimmed native hat. Gypsy women from the floor show poised around me, a clutch of aromatic bodies wrapped in wet shawls pressing into me, arms reaching, in a rustle of ruffled sleeves, clicking bracelets and clucking un-clasped castanets, to fasten fallen flowers to hair combs, hips curved to the camera, hems hissing in the dirt then, still.

Inside, my father socialized, surrounded by other officers and merchants doing business with the United States Government and a passel of wives, the sparkling zest of this party; later, in a boozy pantomime, he brokers an invitation to a more lavish caseta with more smartly-dressed patrons where, under a bobbing sky of strung paper lanterns, the dance floor trembling with the weight of a hundred synchronized dancers, a puissantly profundo frisson—as my father, having exhausted English alternatives would have said—registered in the seat of my spine.

He, mad for flamenco, for its nomadic and sensual lifestyle that, save his familial responsibilities, mirrored his own, slaked his thirst for it in nightclubs and late-night parties, juergas, on the back patios of roadside restaurants on the dusty road to Jerez, where overcome by the dancing, the last stinging sip of whiskey on his tongue, he would foot the bar bill with a wad of prodigious bills that tutored me in the mathematics of a gracious tip; then, hoisting my drowsy form over his shoulder, the fabric of his jacket saturated with the aroma of pleasure, he carried me to the car, laid me down on the cool leather of the backseat where, chassis thrumming, glittering stars seeping through the lace of window frost, I surrendered to sleep.

But, the end of first grade brought the curtain down on our Spanish occupation; unfortunate, because I had just convinced my father that the maid, on her afternoon off, could accompany me to the flamenco shows downtown.

“Stateside,” my father called it when we boarded the flight.

“Do they dance in their living rooms?” I asked of the new natives.

The answer—that residents of the western Massachusetts’ suburban town of Chicopee, at least in 1959, did not dance flamenco in their living rooms—did not, however, extinguish hope. In the basement, using pillars as partners, I executed my Sevillanas or, in a muy magnífico, pint-sized, matadorial outfit, fought a festively decorated faux bull-on-wheels.

Three years later destiny reassigned us to the Iberian Peninsula.

Sailing from New York, we disembarked seven days later in the land of Roman amphitheaters, Moorish palaces, conquistadores, and a cultural geography my heart knew, instinctively, to navigate.

My father now commanded squads of vehicles assigned to three motor pools at three bases and we took an apartment with maids’ quarters in Seville, in the Prado de San Sebastian, a complex of brick buildings and tree-lined streets abutting the vacant lots of my beloved Fería, that two-week flamenco party where the morning streets surged with a parade of flower-decked, horse-drawn carriages driven by whip-snapping, liveried drivers, the equine confluence led by men on Arabian steeds in trajero—short-waisted jackets, ruffled shirts, riding pants, Cordoban hats—with women in bold-colored, tight-bodiced dresses positioned sideways on the pillion, an arm about the man’s waist, the scalloped skirt draped across the animal’s flanks like oversized hothouse blooms.

I was home again.

*     *     *

“Mr. Eastman,” said my seventh-grade music teacher, Mr. Graves who, for the better part of an hour—in a classroom on the second floor of the two-story stucco San Pablo High School, a twenty-minute ride on one of the buses in my father’s motor pool—had been instructing, with snapping fingers, the divination of the “underlining” beat of the 1964 recording of “This Diamond Ring,” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, bruited, he said, to be popular on the American continent.

“Yes, Mr. Graves,” I answered.

“You’re not snapping.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“You do realize that American taxpayers have no responsibility to foot the bill for a student who daydreams at eleven forty-five on a Tuesday morning,” he said. “Are we boring his highness?”

“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. Again, sir, I’m sorry, sir.”

“Apology accepted,” he said, pointing at me, then lifted the phonograph needle to the record’s burnished spinning lip. “From the top, please.”

Sporting, in a rotation of five colors, Dickies—those sleeveless, torso-less simulated turtlenecks worn under shirts and sweaters, purchased by overseas boat mail from the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue—I impersonated in clothing, hairstyle and slang, the masculine version of a military brat, feigning interest in the incipient and imported American teen life, but fantasizing myself Martino, whose father breeds bulls on their finca, whose mother’s bloodlines descend from kings. Not Martin, the middle name they call me at school, or worse, Marty, who cannot recite the rules of games played with balls but who would have gladly been, if it had been a choice for boys in 1964, a cheerleader.

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