An Absence of Snow
More often than not, the driver picked up the girls from their lesson. Once in a while Esteban, their father, came to get them, though he was both busy and careful. The girls’ mother, Belén de Hermosillo, almost never showed up. Now she stood at the front door of the St. Petersburg Studio on Calle Lobito with a mobile phone in one hand looking cross and sultry. She was beautiful in an unexceptional way: compact and well built, with long dark hair and expensive jewelry that seemed comfortable against her honey tan. She looked like what she was, a happily arrived member of Asunción’s new rich. Anyone would want to be Belén, or have her life.
Martina told her, “Your husband was just here. He took the girls with him.”
Belén looked as if she wanted to spit. “Damn the man. He never thinks to call me.”
“It’s not your fault.”
In a way it was, although Martina disliked the whole business of assigning blame in human relationships. To survive, to move forward, a person made decisions. What happened in consequence had to happen.
Belén punched the speed dial button to call Esteban and blast him but changed her mind and closed the phone. She asked Martina, “How did the lesson go?”
“It went well. Sara does not have the discipline that Luz Maria has, but she has more natural talent.”
“It’s that way with everything.”
When the Paraguayan woman hesitated, Martina asked her, “Would you like to come in?”
“No, thanks. I have to be at the hairdresser in half an hour.”
But as she spoke she was coming toward her, and Martina ushered her into the studio, which smelled of sweat and rubber mats and something else for which she did not have a name, so she called it Paraguay.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No. Yes, please.”
Martina employed no one, although labor was dirt cheap in Asunción. She disliked having people around. More importantly, every dollar she didn’t spend brought her closer to her next new life. She made the coffee herself in the cramped kitchen off the exercise room, Belén watching as though she had never seen such a fascinating domestic operation.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” she asked as she stirred sugar into her coffee.
Martina braced herself. “Go ahead.”
“Why did you come here? Of all the places in the world to teach dance, what made you choose Asunción?”
“There is no snow in Paraguay.”
“Meaning mind my own business. Sorry.”
“No, it’s just . . . Life in Russia is complicated.”
Martina watched her struggle to imagine a life not her own but could not see the result.
“My girls will never be real dancers, will they? I mean, they’re not gifted.”
“Very few of them are.”
Belén nodded. “Thank you for not lying to me.”
That night, in bed, Esteban wanted Martina to recreate the conversation word for word.
“She doesn’t know,” Martina reassured him.
“It’s significant, what she said about not lying to her. Don’t you think that means something?”
“I don’t want to stay in bed next to a man who can’t stop talking about his wife.”
She was proud of her Spanish sentence, which came out better than her Spanish usually did. Still, speaking a language you hadn’t mastered was a good thing. It forced you to be blunt, and honesty was a useful by-product.
Esteban was not a stupid man, or insensitive. It was just that success had spoiled him, ease made him expect things to be easy. By way of apology he reached to caress her, but she pulled away and sat up. She got out of bed, pulled on a cotton robe and walked to the window. In the light cast by her block’s only street lamp, she made out a cow munching weeds. Paraguay was that kind of country: a Russian dance instructor with phony credentials could rent an old house in the capital on a street called Little Wolf and call it a studio. She could charge rich people absurdly high fees to teach their heavy-footed children the trick of moving light. She could watch farm animals graze at night while putting some distance between herself and her banker lover who believed, against all odds, that she was the real thing.
From the bed, lying on his back with a hand around his erection, Esteban said, “Let’s talk about us.”
She said nothing.
She returned to the bed because she was fond of him, and because this was the arrangement they had come to. Not that either of them put it into words. She gave him sex and provided variety in his life. He loved her stories about Russian life, the bad translations of her mother’s proverbs. In exchange, he made contributions to what they had begun calling the new studio fund. She wanted to relocate to downtown, in an upscale building with better facilities. She calculated she had five years, if she was lucky, before the novelty of having a Russian dance instructor in Asunción faded, along with her looks. She needed money, real money, for whatever came next.
Everything had been going exactly as she needed it to go, until the past two weeks. It was a logistical challenge for Esteban to work her in. He was president of his bank, and a member of the board at the private school his daughters attended. He spent serious time cultivating the politicians whose blessing made business as good as it seemed to be for him. Martina accommodated. She required little social life, although she did tire of her students’ company. They were like miniature Roman emperors, believing that what they did not own of the world was not worth possessing. But now when Esteban showed up—sometimes he called; more often he did not—he seemed to be after something she was incapable of giving.
Going back to the bed, she lay on her back and Esteban kissed her breasts until the nipples hardened. She did not try to hide the flush of pleasure that suffused her. What she felt, she gave back to him in affection. That ought to be enough. He whispered in her ear.
“We’re really going to let go this time, right? We’re going to the dark side of the moon.”
As he made sweet and diligent love to her, Martina surrendered the portion of herself she was able to let go of. Although she seldom reached climax, this time she felt a whoosh of body delight just before he did. Her mouth opened and strange notes came out in a startling arpeggio. It should have been enough.
But when he got his breath back he said, “You were faking at the end, weren’t you?”
At a certain point in the buildup she may have allowed her body to act a little, exaggerating what she felt. She had learned what pleased Esteban and saw no sin in rehearsing the movements. But the sounds that escaped her were the last thing from counterfeit.
“I was not faking.”
“Don’t make it worse by lying.”
He got out of bed abruptly, and she watched him dress in a funk of frustration. La manzana de la discordia. What the Paraguayans called the apple of discord was obvious now, lying on a table be-tween them: a small, bitter meal. Esteban wanted more than good sex, freely shared. He imagined a kind of reciprocal ecstasy. He had built up a fantasy in his mind where they came together in bliss and disintegrated. Melting into a puddle of mutual feeling, they would cease to be themselves. For a little while, they would become one new same thing.
Maybe she could fake it. She had thought about trying. But something always stopped her. It felt like a betrayal and had something to do with integrity.
“If you’re not happy with me, Esteban, we can stop seeing each other.”
Buckling his belt, he looked at her with a coolness she admired. “From here on out, no faking.”
She did not see him for three days then, their longest break since the day he had first dropped off his girls for their lesson. She did not mind. It gave her time to plan ahead without interruption. She went with a real estate agent to look at space in one of the upmarket buildings downtown. It was perfect—high ceilings, good acoustics, with huge windows overlooking the bay—or it would be if she had more money.
Back home, she sat with paper and pencil making projections until the phone rang. When she heard Varvara’s voice, she knew it had to be bad news.
“I won’t stay on the line,” her friend in St. Petersburg told her. “I can’t afford it. It’s your mother. She’s had a stroke. But she’s lucid, and she can speak.”
“Did she ask for me?”
“She said to tell you not to come home. She thinks you have the cultural elite of South America kissing your feet. That’s the story she’s told herself. ‘What will the poor girl do if she comes back to Saint Petersburg, scrub floors, wait on tables? Tell her to stay where she is.’”
Varvara was the only person who knew Martina’s story. She had been the one to find the forger and negotiate with him for the phony documents attesting to Martina’s prowess as a dancer, her credentials as an instructor. Lasparov, who had a ferret’s face and stuttered so badly it was hard to hold a conversation with him, had even faked newspaper reviews of performances that had never taken place, along with helpful Spanish translations. Martina’s Coppélia, he wrote, had to be seen to be believed.
“I’ll come,” said Martina.
It sounded like a lie. Her father, a low-level kgb officer who bungled his career after the Cold War, was dead. Except for Martina, her mother had no family. She closed her eyes and saw the view of the hospital heating plant her mother would see from her room. It was spring in Paraguay. That meant fall in Russia. It was in her mother’s nature to survive hard winters.
“You don’t have to decide right this moment,” Varvara told her. “I’ll keep you posted.”
“Tell her . . . ” But anything she said would be trivial. Paying the price of Martina’s father’s incompetence through the years of her growing up, they had been close, comrades-in-arms as much as mother and daughter. Despite the distance, she believed they still were.
“Are you okay, Martina?”
“Call me if there is any change.”
They hung up together.
The news about her mother rattled Martina for the first time since she had left home. It ate away at her confidence. Chance comments by her students’ parents suddenly sounded like accusations. They knew. They had seen through her scam and were going to yank their kids from lessons. Word would get around, and pretty soon she would have no students at all, no income. Never mind that she was a better dancer than the professionals in St. Petersburg, superior in technique and spirit, stronger by any measure a critic could devise to judge an artist. And she was a good teacher, generous with the clumsiest of her students. Certain facts were like rocks: kick against them and all you got was a sore toe. There had been no money in the Jaburov household to allow her to develop the talent she was born with. She had done the next best thing, inventing the dancer she was born to be.
The evening when Esteban finally showed up in a halo of cologne, kissing her cheek and handing her a bouquet of yellow roses, he realized something was wrong. “What is it?”
“That’s what a wife says to her husband when she’s pissed off at him. I won’t play that game. Let’s go out.”
Let him go on thinking it had to do with him. “Out where?”
“Come on, get in the car.”
Humming the tune to songs Martina didn’t know, he drove to a restaurant with an outdoor patio near Itá Enramada, along the Paraguay River. The place was distant enough from the city center that they were unlikely to run into friends of Belén’s, or his. He ordered the mixed grill and double whiskeys for both of them, though Martina drowned hers in soda and drank little. The obsequious leader of a folklore band approached their table offering to play Guaraní love songs to entertain them. Esteban opened his wallet as if wondering what he might find there.
An ivory moon riding the river, expensive whiskey in thick glasses, steak smoke on the parrilla, the melancholy rhythms of the musicians: Esteban was courting her, as if this were their first time out and he wanted to increase the odds of a successful seduction.
Martina wondered where Belén was, but had made it a rule never to ask about his family. Instead she asked, “What’s the name of the song they just finished playing?”
“It’s beautiful. What does it mean?”
He had to think a moment, translate in his head. His Guaraní was weak, but few Asunceno men would admit their ignorance of the language of their forebears. “It means something like lovesick.”
Later, driving back to the studio, he told her, “That’s what I am, you know.”
She had no desire to come in contact with sickness of any kind, not even lovesickness. Maybe that was where the presentiment came from; she knew their lovemaking was going to be a disaster.
“No faking,” Esteban reminded her as he stripped off her dress, unfastened her bra, buried his face in the private space between her breasts.
As they made love, she tried but could not get past the sense that her body was made of wood. She was one of those jointed models artists painted from, a simulacrum that could imitate but not deliver the movements of a genuine woman. It was a cool feeling, and Esteban picked up on it. Before he climaxed, he withdrew from her in a pique and sat in a chair smoking a cigar that fouled the air of her bedroom.
“Is it somebody else?”
“There is no one else, Esteban.”
“I give what I can give.”
He shook his head angrily. “You don’t give me half of what you could, if you wanted to.”
I’m trying to protect my integrity, she wanted to say but didn’t. She didn’t know the word for integrity. Besides, if she told him, she would lose a little more of it.
When he was gone she called Varvara. “How is she?”
“What does she say about me?”
“She told me she just got a letter. Evidently you’ve been invited to go on tour with the Colón Dance Company.”
“I have no idea where she got that name.”
“It’s a huge tour: ten countries, fifteen cities. And you have the lead role.”
“That’s her way of saying don’t come back.”
“Are you dancing at all?”
“I’m teaching. I’m making good money. I’m saving.”
“That’s what Olya Andreyevna wants you to do.”
It was an unsatisfactory conversation. From here on out, that was the only kind they would have.
The next day during the siesta hour when the bell sounded she expected Esteban but found Belén at the door.
“The girls are not here,” she told her lover’s wife. “This is not their lesson day.”
Belén was offended, or pretended to be. “Give me credit for knowing that much. Sara thinks she left her mobile here.”
“I haven’t seen a telephone.”
“Do you mind if I look?”
Did she expect to find her husband hiding under the bed? She wandered through the studio pretending to look for her daughter’s phone, stopping to wrap a hand around the double barre. Gripping it, she studied herself in a long mirror as if wondering what kind of dancer she would make.
“What was it like?” she said. “I mean growing up in Russia, learning to dance.”
Martina understood that it was a watershed question. It marked a change in the woman. If she chose to, Belén could coast through her life without bumping the bounds of her class and its obsessions: money, parties, big houses staffed by docile servants trained to pamper, getaway ranches in the interior, shopping trips to Buenos Aires and Miami. What was making her curious about a life so foreign from her own? In sympathy, as a way of taking her seriously, Martina was tempted to tell her the truth of her life: an incompetent sot of a father, a beleaguered mother who had to scheme to survive, too much not enough.
But confiding could be dangerous. Instead she told a story. “I was lucky. My first teacher recognized my talent, and my parents encouraged me from the beginning. It is a difficult life, not one most children would put up with. The hours of practice never stop, the discipline of . . . ” She wanted to say iron but did not know the word.
“I understand,” Belén told her. “You gave up a lot, especially a social life. And boyfriends, I suppose.”
“No one forced me to follow the path I took. I chose it myself, eyes open.”
“I admire you. In a way, I envy you. You have something the rest of us will never have.”
Martina still did not have the sense that she knew about her affair with Esteban, though she was puzzled by the last thing she said when she left, not bothering to mention the missing telephone that wasn’t.
That night, raucous sound filtered into her dream and she woke in terror. It took a few moments, lying there, to realize it was a serenade. She put on her robe, went to the window and lifted the sash. Below her she made out a guitarist, a fiddle player, and a man smaller than the stand-up bass he was playing. All three of them were singing. They had splendid voices that complemented one another, and a shiver of recognition ran through Martina: this was elsewhere, and she was there. There was no snow in Paraguay.
It was a disappointment to see Esteban standing in the shadows drunk and pleased with himself. “Una serenata,” he called to her as if she might not figure it out.
His voice was hoarse. He must have been drinking all night.
“Gracias, Esteban,” she said mildly, hoping not to rile him.
“You think I don’t know what love is.”
“Please, you’ll wake the neighbors.”
“Waking the neighbors in a serenade is a tradition in this country. They won’t mind. You think I know nothing about love, Martina. But you’re wrong. You’re the one who is ignorant. Love is the thing that tears your soul in two. It rips your heart out of your chest and stomps on it. It makes you so weak you can’t stand up. That’s what I know. I know all that and more. You’re the one who doesn’t know, because you’ve never loved anybody.”
It wasn’t his anger that frightened her, it was something in the undertow: a sullen resentment she had not seen in him before. She was amazed when he suddenly cut the musicians off and strode to his Range Rover. In the street lamp she saw him fumble for the key, and then fumble again fitting the key into the lock. Her relief when he drove away was overwhelming. Another woman, she realized, might have cried. She had no urge to. She went back to bed and lay on her side thinking about her mother. Good, Olya Andreyevna would tell her. You’ve gotten through another one with no major damage.
In the morning, before lunch, Esteban’s driver delivered a small package. When her eleven o’clock student left, she unwrapped it. It was a gold bracelet, set with emeralds. A piece of jewelry like that could pay his daughters’ tuition. Business must be better than good.
Martina’s first impulse was to sell it, convert her gift to dollars and deposit the money in her account, which she kept at Esteban’s bank because he gave her a ludicrously generous interest rate. It was also easy for him to make his contributions to the new studio fund that way. But she locked the bracelet in a metal box she kept in the dresser in her bedroom. Turning the key she felt a twinge of worry, for the first time, about keeping her money with Esteban. It had been such a reassuring thing, watching the balance steadily rise, month after month.
She decided to conduct an experiment. That same afternoon, after the siesta, she withdrew a thousand dollars. He was at her door before eight in the evening.
“You took out money,” he said.
“It’s my money.”
“Of course. I just wondered why. You need something, you let me know. I hate to see you get into your savings.”
“Thank you. And thank you for the bracelet. It’s lovely.”
He caressed her cheek. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Don’t know what?”
“How much I love you.”
He waited for her to say that she loved him, too. But she couldn’t. Instead she made a conscious decision to fake the ecstasy he craved from her. She could manage it, even if the cost was more of the integrity she had been saving. In the morning she would cancel her class and get to the bank early. She would take out the rest of her money. Explanations would come later. Esteban would accept the inevitable as long as she gave him the kind of love he thought he deserved.
One thing made it easy. She still cared for the man, still liked sleeping with him. Wound through his petulance, his spoiled-boy behavior, was a thread of intelligence that had to do with sensitivity. Even if he did not control his emotions he understood them, and his fractured self-knowledge made him appealing.
She kissed his lips, and he accepted it for the present it was meant to be. She let herself be encircled and then led, not upstairs to her room but to the big mat on the floor of the exercise room. They undressed each other with stately patience, and Martina wondered if maybe this time she wasn’t going to have to fake it. In fact she gave herself away on the rubber mat piece by valuable piece: a limb, a memory, a secret desire. They all went up in the smoke of a mutual passion, and she reached a climax so close to bliss the difference was not worth worrying about.
Esteban worried anyway.
“You were faking,” he accused her, sitting up on the mat with his back turned.
“No, I wasn’t.” She should have said more, should have put into her most careful Spanish just how good their love had felt, how unusual her surrender. But she couldn’t do it.
“You don’t love me. You know what that makes you?”
“I love you the way I can, Esteban.”
She did not expect him to hit her so did not guard her face when he suddenly turned and swung. In an instant his fist landed above her right eye, drawing blood. In another instant it was over, and he was horrified.
“Christ, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. It just happened.”
She got up, uncomfortably naked, and ran to the mirror. The eye was already beginning to swell. It made her ugly. Esteban brought wet cloths and washed her face gently, making bird-like noises of contrition as he cleaned.
“It’s nasty,” he admitted, “but it won’t last. It won’t happen again, Martina.”
“You’re damn right it won’t.”
“You have every right to be pissed off. But I give you my word: I won’t lose my temper again. And I’ll be patient. We’ll go as slowly as you want, making love. We’ll get there together, no matter how long it takes. Do you forgive me?”
“I forgive you.”
It was a small concession, and she needed time. The main thing was to get him out of the house, and she did that by assuring him she wasn’t going to hold his one bad moment against him. But before she was able to think anything through, Varvara called.
“Olya Andreyevna has had another stroke.”
“Can she talk?”
“No. I don’t think she will last long, Martina.”
“I’m coming home.”
“No. She can’t speak, and she can’t move, but her mind is still perfect. I can see it in her eyes. I just came from the hospital. The way her eyes locked onto me I knew she was telling me to let you know she does not want you to come back. Not even for her funeral. Especially not for that. You can’t disappoint your fans by canceling the tour.”
“I need to think.”
“I’ll call you if anything changes.”
But thinking was impossible. Instead she showered and dressed in a leotard. And she danced. It was dark outside. She left one light on in the kitchen and danced in the dark, empty, high-ceilinged studio. Coppélia. It was the ballet she had seen the one time she went to Moscow. She danced Swanilda, became the doll. She stayed with it until she realized the marvelous contraption would not come to life. Nothing she did could change the story line. When she stopped, her mind was made up. In the mirror, her black eye belonged to somebody else.
Next morning, she was at the bank when they opened the doors. The teller, a pleasant-faced man who said something sympathetic about her bad eye, shook his head. “Sorry.”
“What do you mean?”
He stared at his computer screen. “There’s a hold on this account.”
“I can let you have up to a thousand dollars, or the equivalent in Guaraníes.”
She had thirty-four thousand American dollars in the account, and she wanted it. As a tactic, the idea of making a scene only came to her after she had already made one. She was loud. Her Spanish got worse with every sentence she shouted. She cursed the teller in Russian and stamped her foot. Everyone in the bank stopped to watch. The customer in line behind her stepped back.
Eventually a door opened and Esteban came out. In an instant he was there next to her asking with a great show of courtesy, “May I help you, señorita?”
“I want my money.”
“Why don’t you step into my office and we can talk this over in comfort?”
Her tantrum was finished. She swallowed hard and allowed herself to be led by the arm into his office. He closed the door and gave her a chair, then called for coffee.
“Would you like a pastry?”
“I don’t want a pastry, I want my money.”
When the coffee was delivered he took a chair across from hers and served her a cup.
“Your eye looks terrible, but not as terrible as I feel. I couldn’t sleep last night, Martina. I wanted to get up and come over to apologize again.”
Montevideo. It came to her as she sat there drinking his coffee. The city had a reputation for being something of a cultural capital, and it was close to Buenos Aires. That was where she ought to live, ultimately, but Montevideo was a sensible stepping stone. With the money she had, she could set up a new studio. St. Petersburg Two.
“You have to give me my money.”
“You’re upset. You’re overreacting. And you have the right. But nobody is going to give you half the interest I’m giving you.”
“It’s not up to you where I put my money.”
As he talked at her, trying to gentle her the way people gentled a spooked horse, a memory came to Martina: her father on his back in deep snow in a St. Petersburg park. Something had happened at work. He was gone for days. When she and her mother found him he was unconscious, and the beatific smile on his drunken face made an impression on a twelve-year-old girl that never went away.
Why she remembered it now she couldn’t say, but it led to the decision to tell Esteban, “I’m leaving Paraguay. I’m moving to Montevideo.”
“That’s absurd. What you want to do is take a few days off. Go up to Iguazú. You haven’t seen the falls, have you? There’s a nice hotel on the Argentine side. I’ll rent you a room. And don’t worry, I’ll keep my distance. When you’re ready, come back and let me make it up to you.”
She shook her head. “You don’t get it.”
“What’s to get? You can’t leave. Not without money. Besides, there are certain things Paraguay has in common with Russia. I pick up the phone, make one call, and they stop you at the airport.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t think I’ll have to, not after you calm down. You’ll love the falls. Everybody says they’re better than Niagara.”
He had her. When it registered on Martina, he tried to soften the reality’s hard edge, but she stood and left his office without saying a word. That afternoon, when his driver showed up with a note giving her the confirmation number of her reservation at the Argentine hotel, she closed the door in his face. Twenty minutes later, when the phone rang, she knew it was Esteban and didn’t pick up.
The smart thing to do was appease him, lull him into complacency and then demand her money. That was clear. What was not clear was why she did the opposite. That night she went to dinner with a Brazilian cotton buyer whose daughter was in one of her group classes. It was pathetically easy to wangle the invitation. It was just as easy the following night to go out with an American from the embassy, the father of another student. The third night she danced at a club with a Spaniard who ran a development program. His name was Julio César. He smoked beadies and told her the history of the tango, and dancing with him she changed her mind. Forget Montevideo. She would go to Buenos Aires. She was at her peak, as a dancer and a woman. Now was the time to make it in the big city. Sooner or later, every gambler doubled down.
All three men she went out with were attentive and hopeful. They were solicitous about her ugly black eye. She didn’t care enough about these men to despise any of them.
She called Varvara, Varvara called her. Her mother’s condition had not changed.
After her evening with the Spaniard, Esteban came by to thank her. “You saved me the cost of a hotel.”
When she glared, he grinned. “What? Did you expect me to react like some sort of hot-blooded Latin lover? I think it’s great you went out. You needed a vacation from me, and you took one. I know you, Martina. No way were you going to sleep with a stranger to spite me.”
“Get out of my house.”
“I love you. I hope in all the confusion you don’t forget that.”
The next day was the Hermosillo girls’ lesson, but only Sara showed up.
“My sister has a headache,” she told Martina.
That was fine. Sara was the more interesting of the two. At fourteen she had talent, intelligence, and something that might in time be channeled into drive. After the lesson, Martina impulsively invited her to have a banana shake at the Lido, a bustling snack bar open to the street that attracted everyone: students, shop workers, businessmen in loafers on cell phones, small-time money changers. Just as impulsively, Sara accepted the invitation.
“Gumercindo can drive us.”
The chauffeur, an impassive man with a farmer’s hard hands, was used to taking orders from a fourteen-year-old. He dropped them without question on Calle Palma. They sat at the bar drinking their licuados, and Martina felt an odd sense of contentment in the company of the self-possessed girl with blonde streaks in her dark hair and an outfit that cost what Martina’s father used to make in a week.
“I’ll never be a dancer,” Sara said.
“Do you want to be?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Something big. Something that matters. Does that make sense?”
It made perfect sense to Martina. She told the girl about her plan to go to Buenos Aires. Then Sara’s phone rang. She answered the questions she was asked reluctantly. When she hung up she made a face and told Martina, “That was my father. He’s in one of his moods.”
Because her intention in inviting the girl out was innocent, Martina was blindsided by Esteban’s wrath when he showed up ten minutes later.
“Where’s Gumercindo?” he asked his daughter.
“He’s waiting up the block for me.”
“Get out of here. Go home.”
“Please, Papito. We’re having fun.”
She went because she saw there was no alternative. Esteban took her seat in a quiet fury.
“You crossed the line, Martina.”
“You had no business bringing my daughter into this.”
“I didn’t bring her into anything. We talked about dancing, about her dreams. Girl talk. I don’t see what you’re upset about.”
For the first time since she had met Esteban she was afraid of him. He was capable, at that moment, of striking her. Being in a public place might not stop him. There was no point in talking. She picked up her purse, walked out to Palma and flagged a taxi. She wanted to be home and told the taxi driver to go fast, but there was no way she could outrun Esteban’s chauffeur in the Range Rover. When he pulled up in front of the studio, she threw money at her taxista and ran through the gate to her door, but Esteban was there before she could get the key in the lock. He pushed the door open with his shoulder and shoved her inside.
He was breathing hard, not from exertion but from anger. “Who in the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m going to Buenos Aires. I’m opening up a studio there.”
“You’re not good enough to make it in Buenos Aires.”
But he was wrong about that. “You’re the one who couldn’t make it in the big city.”
She said it reflexively, but it turned out to be the perfect comeback. The tension snapped. He laughed, and she watched the anger drain away.
“You’re something, Martina. You’re really something.”
“It’s over between us. It was sweet while it lasted, but now it’s over.”
He realized she was serious, and the certainty of losing her made him act out of character. “Please don’t say that, Martina. If I have to, I’ll beg.”
“Let’s make love. Then we’ll both feel better.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Sure you do,” he said, but he could see she had no intention of giving in. Sweating hard, he sucked in his breath. In his distress he was newly attractive, as though she were seeing him for the first time. “Okay,” he told her, “let’s make a deal.”
“What kind of deal?”
“We make love. I go away. Tomorrow, if you still want to leave, you come to the bank and I give you your money. Or I can wire it to a bank in Buenos Aires so you don’t have to carry cash.”
Relief brought on vertigo. She slumped. If he gave his word, he would keep it. Then she heard herself tell him no.
He was as surprised as she was. He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead, her ears, her chin. She pulled away. He hauled her back into the orbit of his arms and held her fast.
“Are you going to rape me?”
The question disgusted him, and he let her go. His arms hung slack at his sides, and one corner of his mouth turned down. She knew what that meant. Now he would never give her the money.
But he said nothing as he turned around and left.
She beat herself up when he was gone. She was a fool. For a moment, the money had been hers to take. All she had to do was fake it one more time, go through certain familiar motions. There would be no second chance.
In a frenzy she walked through the house room to room, floor to floor, as though looking for something. She thought about calling Varvara but lacked the composure to speak with her friend. In her mind she saw Buenos Aires: elegant wide boulevards, art galleries, crowds of shoppers carrying expensive packages, dancers in urban black smoking cigarettes in night cafés. It was where she belonged. If the world were better organized, she would have been born there.
She was tempted to take out her frustration on Belén when the Paraguayan woman showed up at the door looking perky in a short dress, a ropy gold necklace flat against her chest, lipsticked cigarette in one hand.
“What do you want?”
“You really got to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He gave you that black eye, didn’t he? I’ve never seen him go this far around the bend. You should take it as a tribute. But now you need to leave. I know the man. Trust me, he will make your life miserable. Whatever you did to him, he won’t forget it.”
“He has my money. It’s in his bank.”
“I know all about the money. I have friends who work for him.”
“I want to go to Buenos Aires. But I can’t leave without my money.”
“Invite me in.”
In the foyer, Belén looked her up and down trying to identify the power that had driven Esteban crazy. “How much money of yours does he have?”
“Thirty-four thousand dollars.”
From her purse, Belén took out a small package held together with rubber bands. “Here is twenty-five thousand. It’s all the cash I could get my hands on. Pack a bag. I’ll drive you to the airport.”
In a daze, Martina packed a suitcase. At the last moment she remembered her lockbox. She took out and packed the emerald bracelet and the thousand dollars. It rankled to lose any of the money she had worked so hard for, but Belén was right. If she stayed, Esteban would make her life miserable.
Belén was driving her own car, a bottle-green Mercedes coupe. Sitting next to her, Martina wondered why she was not more hostile but knew she would never tell her. As they threaded through the congestion of the city toward the airport road, she asked Belén, “How long have you known?”
“From the beginning. Esteban is transparent, like a boy, really. Hard as he tried, he never perfected the art of infidelity. I don’t know if there is a flight going to Buenos Aires this afternoon. If not, you can fly to another city in Argentina and transfer.”
“This works out nicely, doesn’t it? You drive your problem to the airport and it goes away.”
Belén looked at her for the first time with visible hatred. “If you think that’s why I’m doing this . . . ”
Martina felt exhausted, a runner at the end of a race she had lost. “I guess I don’t know what I think.”
In the parking lot at the airport, Belén unclasped the gold necklace she was wearing and handed it to her. “This will make up the difference. When you go to the Paraguayan Airlines counter, ask for Daisy. She’s a friend. She’s expecting you. She’ll make sure no one inspects your luggage, with all that cash. Good luck in Buenos Aires.”
In the hubbub of the terminal, Martina forgot the name of Belén’s friend, but remembered it as she approached the counter.
Daisy was an exceptionally tall brunette with grandiose lips and a disheveled air at odds with the uniform she wore.
“Belén told me to take good care of you, señorita Jaburov. How may I help you?”
Fatigue was exaggerating everything. Nails painted, Daisy’s fingers hovered over the keyboard of her computer like poised dancers. Martina saw her destination clearly: a Buenos Aires café, a tango snaking in the background. An ashtray heaped with butts. Smoky conversation as long as the night. A woman with a tight ponytail. A man with a hawk’s face, an Indian’s face, skilled at sleight of hand.
“I want to go to Saint Petersburg,” Martina told her.
“Do you mean the American city, the one in Florida?”
“No, the one in Russia.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
As Daisy squinted at the screen, something familiar moved in her fingers. Martina struggled for a moment to make the connection. It was Coppélia, she was alive, and Martina felt a rush of emotion that mingled gratitude with relief. The dancers danced.