Manuel Puig's Heartbreak Tango is reissued in the US by Dalkey Archive Press, with a preface by Francisco Goldman.

Romance and a clean tablecloth

Her eyes of blue did open wide,
my timeless grief she understood,
and with a snarl of woman scorned
said life plays tricks and left for good.
Alfredo Le Pera, "She Returned One Night"

It happened on an autumn afternoon. The trees that grew along that street in Buenos Aires bowed low. Why? Tall apartment houses on either side of the street blocked off the sun's rays and the branches spread obliquely, as if pleading, toward the middle of the road... seeking light. Mabel was on her way to a friend's house for tea, and raising her eyes to the aged treetops, she noticed that the strong trunks bowed, humbly.

Perhaps a vague omen seized her throat with a silk glove, Mabel held a bouquet of roses in her arms and inhaled the sweet perfume: why did she suddenly think that autumn had come to the city never to leave it again? The front of the apartment building seemed luxurious, but the absence of a rug in the entrance reassured her, as the building where she was very soon to live counted on just that decisive element to define its rank. Then again the elevator had a mirror, and she checked her makeup through the fine veil of her black felt headpiece, adorned with bunches of cherries made from cellophane. Lastly she adjusted the fox tails wrapped around her neck.

Third floor, apartment B, in an upswept hairdo and with so much shadow around her eyes that her friend Nené seemed somewhat aged when she opened the door.

– Mabel, how good to see you! – and they kissed each other on either cheek.

– Nené! What an angel, why the little darling is already walking! – She kissed the child and caught sight of her friend's younger son in a playpen – And the baby, what a cute face!

– No... Mabel... they're not cute at all, don't your think they're a bit homely? – the mother spoke sincerely.

– No, they're adorable, so chubby, with their little turned-up noses, how old is the youngest?

– The baby is eight months old, and the big one over a year and a half... but fortunately they're boys, right? It doesn't matter much that they're not cute... – Nené felt poor, she had nothing to show but two ungraceful children.

– But one after the other... you didn't lose any time, did you?

– You know, I was afraid you wouldn't have a chance to see me, how are the preparations going?

– Well, it's a madhouse, and I'm not even getting married in a long gown or having a party!... Your apartment looks so nice. – Mabel's voice crackled with hypocrisy.

– You think so?

– Of course I do! As soon as I come back from the honeymoon you'll have to come see my little nest, and for sure, my apartment is little.

– I'm sure it's a dollhouse. – Nené answered while placing the fragrant roses in a flower vase and admiring them – I'll bet you forgot to bring me a picture of your fiancé.

Both thought of Juan Carlos's perfect face and for a few seconds avoided looking each other in the eyes.

– No, what for, he's just a runt...

– I'm dying to meet him, you're not marrying him for nothing, smarty. He must be a very interesting man. Show me the picture of the runt... – before finishing the last sentence Nené already regretted having said it.

– Such comfortable chairs! No! No, dear, don't touch my stockings!

– Luisito! You're going to get it if you don't stop... here, I'll get you a cupcake. – and Nené went into the kitchen to heat the water for tea.

– So you're Luisito, and what's your little brother's name? – Mabel smiled to the child searching his features for some decisive similarity to Nené's husband.

– Mabel, come. I'll show you the house.

Meeting in the kitchen the two couldn't escape the invasion of memories. All those afternoons spent in that other kitchen of Nené's, while outside the dusty wind of the pampas blew.

– You know something, Nené? I'd like a maté, like in the old days... how long has it been since we've had maté together?

– Ages, Mabel. Not since the time I was Miss Spring more or less... and here it is April of '41...

Both were silent.

– Nené, one always thinks the past was better. And wasn't it?

They were silent again. Both found an answer for that question. The same answer: yes, the past was better because then they both believed in love. Silence followed silence. The dying light of dusk entered the window and tinted the walls violet. Mabel wasn't the hostess, but she couldn't stand the melancholy any longer, and without asking permission she turned on the light that hung from the ceiling. And asked:

– Are you happy?

Nené felt that a shrewder opponent had attacked her by surprise. She didn't know what to answer, she was going to say "I can't complain," or "There's always a but," or "Yes, I have my two sons," but she preferred to shrug her shoulders and smile enigmatically.

– It's easy to see you're happy, you have a family that not everyone...

– Oh, yes, I can't complain. What I'd like is a bigger apartment with a full-time maid, but to have one sleeping in the living room is more trouble than it's worth. You should see the work these kids make me. And now that winter's coming and they start with the colds... Nené preferred not to mention her other complaints: that she had never set foot in a nightclub, that she had never travelled in an airplane, that her husband's caresses were not for her... caresses.

– Why they're healthy little things... Do you go out a lot?

– No, where am I to go with these two always crying or going peepee or doing duty? Have kids, you'll see what it's like.

– If you didn't have them you would want them, so don't complain. – Mabel, two-faced, figured that the routine life of mother and wife wasn't what she wanted either, but was it by chance better to remain single in a small town and continue being the target of gossip?

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine.



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