The Salina Free Library in Mattydale, New York, offers “Toddlers Tango” for children aged 18 to 35 months.
If I seem world-weary and jaded beyond my years, it is because at age two years, ten months and three weeks, I have haunted the halls of the Salina Free Library for half of my life, and I have seen it all.
The boys–they come and go. One day they are cock of the walk, leaning against the walls of the basement Story Room, drawing on their candy cigarettes, eyeing the girls as if they are the cocktail wieners that we live on as habitués of the dank and dark underworld of Toddler Tango. The girls, they give us looks of longing over their shoulders as they pass by; their eyes say “come hither,” but when we approach they play the coquette, flutter their fans, and act surprised at our advances and entreaties. This is the stylized mating dance, which–once Madame Quintoya, our Toddler Tango instructor, gives the word–we do literally, not figuratively.
It is too much to bear, this sense of time running out, like the grains of sand in an egg-timer. I have but one lesson left in which to convey–by a well-placed press of my hand in the small of her back–my passion for Trudy Espinoza, the sloe-eyed daughter of a life insurance salesman whose agency contributes favors to the neighborhood Halloween party each October. The pencils, the rain hats, the pads of paper with “Insurance doesn’t cost–it pays!” emblazoned across the top, and “Espinoza Property & Casualty” at the bottom–yes, this munificent, magnanimous largesse means that Senor Espinoza is a wealthy man, but my love for his daughter is pure, fueled not by love of money but by the maple-hard lump in my corduroy trousers whenever she passes by me on the way to the chalkboard.
But I chafe against the hidebound rules of Todders Tango, which force us to change partners every dance! Is that all we are to the library staff? Little roulette balls to be whirled around by the wheel of chance? I certainly hope not! I am the King of Toddlers Tango, I must fulfill my manifest destiny, which is to marry Trudy and make many many babies with her, beautiful girls like her, dashing boys like me.
Ah, but first I must play the hand that Toddler Tango has deal me–Claudia Crnik, the sweaty-palmed offspring of the proprietor of Crnik’s Quik-Lube on South 75 highway! Her dresses are starched and ironed to a razor-like sharpness by a fanatical mother, desperate to rise above the greasy service bays of her husband’s garage. I was dragooned into helping Claudia separate the sheep from the shepherds on the first day of Sunday school; I did my duty, but she skittered off to the girls’ room like a water bug after she wet her pants. Ever since, she has been trying to erase the embarrassing memory of that day by the most importunate flirtations.
“Buenos dias, Senor,” she says as she bats her eyelashes at me like a team of third graders at their first Little League game. She arranges herself like a multi-level coatrack for me to take in my arms. “I am yours,” she breathes huskily, and not without reason, since her mother must shop for her in the Portly Girls section of our little town’s only department store. You might as well get this out of the way, I tell myself.
I give her a simpering smile that I hope sends the message that I am un cavalier di Spagna, doing my dancerly duty in adherence to the Code of Chivalry, like an unwilling Don Quixote.
“You move quite gracefully,” she says, reversing the role that she should play–that of the object of desire–to turn the tables on me in a manner that causes my gorge to rise. Or maybe it’s the extra carton of chocolate milk I had a snack time, it’s hard to tell.
“Gracias,” I say. I look up at the clock on the wall and dream of the day when I will be able to tell time–how much longer will this torture last?
Finally, the music stops. I cast Claudia off with contempt, for this is the proper attitude of the tango master, as first and most succinctly expressed by Ricardo Güiraldes, in his famous poem titled–oddly enough–“Tango.” A tango master, he said, is “a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts.” I’ve got to get rid of this Claudia beast, and move on to Trudy the Beauty!
“You know,” Claudia begins as she steps on my foot to stop my departure, “I’m having a tea party at my house this afternoon. If you’re not doing anything . . .”
I scan the back alleys and passages of my mind, trying to think of something–anything–that will excuse me from further exposure to the cooties that she most surely bears, despite the best efforts of our pre-school Room Tick Mother.
“I . . . uh . . . have KinderKick. Also water skiing lessons. And piano. Plus Junior Bowling . . .”
“There will be Hostess Snowball Cupcakes,” she says temptingly. “Devil’s food cake, strawberry coconut frosting–a crème-filled center . . .”
“Conchita–I am yours!”