El Suavecito

E. Eastman

“But you could drive me,” I insisted to my mother when, citing the distance into town, the flamenco lessons had been cancelled.

“Your father needs the car on base,” she argued.

“But I can take the bus,” I persisted, when my father came home.

“No,” he said. “For crissakes, you’re eleven years old.”

It was as though a limb had been severed.

I threatened to run, assured of artistic asylum at the American Embassy, where, prostrating myself in the lobby, refusing to budge until I had the Ambassador’s ear, I could beg for employment—typing, translating, babysitting—and a sympathetic residence.

“Better write your dead grandfather and see if he left you in the will,” my father said when I shared the strategy with him.

I pleaded.

“It’s otiose,” my father said, “futile. I will not succumb to arrant cupidity this time, buddy boy. Flamenco dancer is not a career choice in this family.”

I turned twelve and lost myself in the business of seventh grade, bustling with books and notebooks tucked under one arm along an orderly route of halls, home rooms, lockers, the asphalt quad for recess, the cafeteria—if the teasing by letter-jacketed, hot-dog ingesting giants was not untenable and required that I flee to the relative safety of the library—and the dreaded, detested gymnasium where my ignominious physical ineptitude, in a variety of tasks involving ropes, nets and balls, had become acutely apparent.

While my peers avidly disclosed highlights of their lives—scout troup camping, capturing baseball trophies, or commanding a new badge at the pool—I could not recount the triumph of snagging dance lessons with the foremost teacher in Seville, a secret slid into the same sachet of confidences accommodating the fan collection, the desire to sit sidesaddle, and the urge to dress from both sides of the Gallerida Preciado’s noted flamenco aisles.

But, my closeted shoes begged for outings.

The plywood board, trucked out at my insistence with our belongings, stored upright behind the wall of the carport, behind lofty stacks of wooden cases of sodas and drink mixes, would be pulled out at night for a clandestine practice, wearing sneakers so as not to alert or alarm the neighbors. But occasionally, indiscretion prevailed and I practiced in the boots, inciting the racket that, if he were home, brought my father bounding out of the house calling for an immediate cessation to the goddamn pounding.

By October, I had befriended, because they worked for my father and came by the house after work for cocktails, the men who drove the buses to school and into the city and enlisted them in the debate over riding the bus to resume my lessons, promising tickets to my performances when I became famous.

It wore my father down.

“Take the damn bus,” he finally said. “But if you miss it back, don’t be calling here.”

Suavecito was back in business.

With the lessons resumed, I rose even earlier to perform the exacting toilette, rode my bicycle, trailing a cloud of cologne, to the bus stop, leaned it against the rack and boarded, showing my identification card at the checkpoint to the gunslinging guard who, nodding, verified the face against the photo, saluted and officiously wrote down my name, ID number, time of departure and expected time of arrival back on the base.

“Business?” he asked, tapping the pen with an impatient beat against the frayed edge of the metal clipboard.

“Business?” I repeated.

“What type of business will you be conducting in the downtown Seville area?”

“Pleasure.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“Lessons.”

“Type?”

“Is that necessary?” I said.

“Protocol,” he said.

“Dance,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “What kind?”

“Native,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, handing me back my card, which I slid back into the framed plastic window of my two-toned-green, hand-stitched, fake-alligator wallet holding the wad of pesetas for El Cojo, and, written in my father’s precise hand, a list of emergency numbers.

As the bus pulled away from the curb, I shed my military skin.

The studio smelled the same, a confusion of swelter and must. El Cojo welcomed me with mucho gusto, bussing my cheeks, bellowing about the increased height of my silhouette, and busying himself, as though there had been no lapse, with rekindling my choreography.

As the lessons resumed, I discerned a broader, more treacherous disparity between my persona on the dance floor and the one appropriated for military life, the latter rife with mannerisms masking the sensibilities I so liberally exposed and expressed in the former. In the locker room at school, as I changed into the required gym class uniform, names began to hover about me, derogatory, deprecating, disparaging names about boys who did not align with the strict compass of a martial masculinity, timid, cowardly, effeminate boys, never buttoned as captain of the compulsory teams, boys to be vilified and shunned, or battered behind closed doors.

I brought the attendant bruises, indignities, and disgrace to the only outlet I had, my flamenco lessons. Knowing nothing of my misfortunes outside the studio, El Cojo thought my dancing cargado de emotividad, loaded with emotion.

¡Apasionante!

¡Excepcional!

¡Fabuloso!

After each lesson, before catching the last bus, I let city life once again engross me as I wandered the labyrinth of venerable streets tapering to narrow passages of balcony-flanked walls, iron-grilled windows and the waxy smell of pink geraniums. While I often returned to the old neighborhoods, occasionally, ignoring my father’s warnings—stabbed, robbed, and left for dead—I ventured across the river to Triana, the gypsy quarter, with its isolation from the city center, its mystique, its citizens famous in flamenco and the bullring, known for its miradores, those glass-fronted, wrought-iron balconies above the streets where women sat as sentinels of the local life, swathed in black lace veils draped from teetering tortoise-shell combs.

Headed for, at the end of Calle Rodrigo de Triana, the Iglesia de Santa Ana, where children of the faithful dipped fingers in the baptistery’s font—the Gypsy Font—believing it would impart the gift of flamenco song, where I lit a myriad of votive candles at the foot of the most revered Virgin, patron saint of bullfighters and flamenco, Nuestra Señora de La Esperanza, Our Lady of Hope, with her diamond tears, praying for—on my knees, hands clasped, eyes rolled back into the part of the brain I believed to be the source of all wishes—not only protection at school but that just like in the dream, I might be abducted by gypsies.

Talk at the dinner table turned to the escalating conflict in Vietnam, where the military had begun to muster men like my father who specialized in the mobilization of material goods to a war zone; his next assignment when he ended this tour of duty in the spring, would be there, obliging the rest of us to return to the states. My father, after much deliberation, put in his application to retire and when it was accepted, in December, citing the holidays and my increased responsibilities as an altar boy at Church and the impending move, he again cancelled the flamenco lessons.

“Start packing,” he suggested whenever I pined for them, “we’re out of here in three months.”

“But my career—”

“Sorry, little man, but your career is over.”

My shoes took yet another hiatus in the closet, while every act assumed an air of finality.

“Heading home,” my mother said, sighing, when queried about our next assignment.

But trading in a favor, my father arranged for one last trip to Granada, just after New Year’s, where we would be guests of the governor.

Granada, home of the Moors, of the Sultans who ruled the province of Andalusia for a thousand years, of the Alhambra, one of the world’s ten wonders, a fortified castle of sumptuous palaces at the foot of a fertile agricultural plain, nestled in the steep mountains of the Sierra Nevada whose melting snows replenish the lush, intricate maze of pools and fountains in the gardens designed to resemble those of the Koran, of heaven on earth.

Granada, home of the gypsies, of Lola Medina, el Pitlin, Manolo Amaya, la Golondrina, la Faraona, Maria la Canastera, artists whose dwellings in the cuevas del Sacromonte, the caves of the Holy Mountain, named for the Martyrs of the Inquisition, had become shrines of flamenco; the dwellings carved from the rock’s pebble mixture, claiming crude amenities, the walls adorned with copper plates and goblets, the floors covered in wood, the narrow rooms lined with caned, shawl-covered chairs for the tourists who flocked to the internationally-famed, late-night shows, and in the audience, famous politicians, Hollywood movie stars, Nobel prize winners, and royalty.

“Might I bring my shoes?” I had asked as we packed.

“Of course,” my father had said, “were you planning to go barefoot?”

“No, sir, the shoes.”

“No.”

“But the gypsies in the caves,” I said, recalling my father’s vivid description of his first time there.

“Look, gypsy boy, I can’t guarantee the governor will put it on the agenda.”

“Can’t you ask?” I said, thinking these favors amongst VIP’s as easily cashed as a check at the PX.

He lighted a cigarette. “It’s not the way it’s done,” he said, blowing a slew of faultless smoke rings. “In diplomacy, one does not demand; suggest, maybe, verbally strong-arm, or lightly threaten, perhaps, but not demand.”

“Might I call him?”

“That would be another absolutely not,” he said, the sentence punctuated in a scud of cigarette clouds.

When we arrived at the hotel, white-gloved staff settled us into a suite with balconies overlooking the Alhambra and the Albaicin—the old Arabic quarter of whitewashed houses and cobble-stoned streets—and beyond, like a mirage, the Sacromonte. The governor’s aides had seen to a bouquet of white roses for my mother, whiskey for my father and a food basket for the children. In a thick cream envelope, a handwritten note of welcome and the typewritten list of the intended itinerary for the four-day stay but glaringly absent from the activities, the caves.

With each of the aides chaperoning us to architectural marvels, I surreptitiously broached the subject of the gypsies, some of whom, I said, I had met in the studio of my instructor, El Cojo.

¡El Cojo! The best. But you must go to the gypsies, and yes, of course, I will make the plan with the governor,” each said but at night, the car headed not up the Camino del Sacromonte, but to the hotel and the balcony, where in the cold, I could see, like beckoning beacons, the glowing caves.

At dinner on the last night, the governor arrived in a flurry of livery and had been seated, inconveniently, between my parents so I was impotent in diverting his attention until just after dessert when he excused himself from the table and headed for the restroom.

So did I.

“Do not,” my father had warned back at the hotel, “speak to him unless he speaks to you, and you,” he said, poking a lone, leaden finger into my sternum, “are not to beg him about those frigging gypsies.”

When the governor exited the stall, I followed him to the sink, stood mutely at his side while he washed his hands, dried them, combed his hair, straightened his tie, and splashed cologne on his cheeks. Then, pressing my right hand into his still damp one—sin vergüenza, without shame, as my father would later say—I pumped it, thanking him, muchisimamente, profusamente, telling him how much I had enjoyed—inmensamente, enormemente—the festivades, but wondered if anyone on his staff had mentioned my work in Sevilla.

¿Tu, hijo?” You, he asked.

Si,” I said and it must have been the plaintive look on my face because he winked, snapped his fingers, called for the cars, whispering Sacromonte to the driver, but with a stop at the hotel for the bundle the footman would hand me through the open window of the limousine: the shoes, spirited amongst schoolbooks in the Lufthansa bag, and disclosed only to my new benefactor, the governor.

“What the hell—” my father said, turning to me, glaring.

In the pocket of my sport coat, I fingered the fringe of my red silk sash.

We arrived in the fanfare generated by the governor and his police escort—snapping flags and barked commands—shortly after midnight, taking our table, already brimming with bottles, the cave buzzing with anticipation, my sleepy siblings collapsing on a line of chairs set up with folded suit coats as pillows.

The flamenco troop assembled itself on the small stage of wooden planks.

By one, the crowd was on its feet, cheering.

“Go, already,” my father said.

“No,” I said, “not yet,” unable to adequately explain the hierarchical performance protocol, how one must wait for the proper invitation.

“Better make it soon, buster, the rest of us have a date with the Sandman.”

At two, the walls perspiring, the candles flickering, the castanets quavering, a nod from the guitar player and I pressed into the welter of wet fabric, my heels pelting the floor, the accolade of the crowd a noisy tide as I dislodged the alchemy, the crux of chromosomes and physiology impelling me to flamenco; my braceo—my arm work—banishing the anguish of my unnamed inclinations, the unpardonable slights, the vicious insults, the unbearable loneliness of who I had become, stabbing the collective heart of the room.

“A little swishy,” my father said when I arrived back at the table. “But the governor’s wife went wild.”


*     *     *

Recently, I came across a framed collage of photos my sister had compiled, childhood images cleaved and pasted higgledy-piggledy one on top of the other, and between one where we children frolic in an inflatable pool in the courtyard of a villa, and another where we make snowmen in a suburban American backyard, there is one—a rarity—of my father and me, fifty years ago, standing, in our broad-brimmed native Cordoban hats, in front of a row of casetas.

He holds my hand.

As beautiful as a diamond, I think of that little gypsy boy, fresh from the frantic floorshow inside, about to be whisked to his next appearance, his father not yet aware of the differences that will engulf them in an agonizing abyss.


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