We discover, Else and I, a market that reminds me of the markets up north. Of course I am grateful, because didn’t I miss them? This San Telmo market has piles and piles of produce at one end, and stray dogs milling around. Beggars cower in corners and ladies sell clothes and hot corn on the cob. We come in from the cold to smell the sweet oranges and prod at the avocados, which are the biggest I’ve seen since Xela. Palvas, I call them, and the man behind the scales corrects me, grinning. Paltas, he says, and slices one open for us to try. Palta is the Quechua name. The avocado is watery and bland; the bigger ones always are. We buy bananas instead.
We sit at the bar of a tiny market restaurant that serves plates of French fries and eggplant, bowls of steaming vegetable soup and small, hard rolls of white bread. Chunky lowballs filled to the brim with red wine. The waiter practices his English with us; Else is hard to understand, he admits, and she explains that she’s from Australia, where the words come out rounder, the consonants not so hard. For our food and wine, we are charged five dollars, and we slide off of our coveted stools as soon as we take our last sip. People are waiting for their own glasses of wine, their own plates of media-lunas and bowls of hot soup.
The front of the market is where the antiques are: here are boxes and boxes of faded postcards from the twenties and warped records to sort through. Brooches with fake diamonds and rubies; ribbon, once white, now faded to golden. Old shoes that cost more than a new pair in the city center, because of how carefully they were crafted years ago and how soft the leather has become. From old record players, music spins over us, and so inside here, it could be any year. No cell phones cry out, and everything’s covered in a thin layer of dust. The men who sell these old, worn things wear berets and smoke pipes. They glance over the edge of their newspapers at Else, who runs her fingers lightly over the beaten silver bracelets and pewter spoons.
Outside, because it is Sunday, this market runs on up and down the street, encompassing fifteen blocks, or maybe twenty. Here are the artisans I’ve met in every city I’ve visited; they have, as they always do, their bracelets with the unpolished stones laid out on plywood tables and blankets spread over the pavement. They drag on their cigarettes and look up at us with lazy eyes. Old women sell antique dishes: plates engraved with gold type, and cups and saucers painted with lilies. There are the ladies who have knit thick, luminous scarves, and Else buys one on impulse. She chooses a scarf with skeins of blue, of heather gray, and of sage green, and she pays the woman and then wraps it around her neck, smiling. Much better, she says, even though the wine from our late lunch still keeps us warm.
And then we turn the corner and here is a crowd packed in tight around music that is playing. This music sways, it lifts and bends around us, it is the even strum of a guitar and, beneath that, a fiddle’s high melody. We push through; it is street tango. The old man is smiling like he’s never been so happy as right now; he guides a woman around, a woman who wears too much makeup, and together they turn, she lifts her leg at the knee just a little and then sets it down, drags her toe along the ground just so, exactly in time with the catch of the song, and that movement, so perfect, suddenly chills me. I have never seen tango like this. What I know of the dance is what I learned as a skater, an ice dancer: the doubled-over beat, the way I pointed the toe and lifted the leg, moved it just a fraction higher with the next beat, always my partner Michael’s hand into pressing mine and his other arm tight around my lower back. No, that wasn’t like this street melody, because how, on ice, can you make your movements so slow? How can you shift only fractions, the way they do? How can you ever move like these two who spin on a small red carpet with their eyes closed. Maybe they’re strangers; maybe they do this every Sunday. In any case, the way they dance convinces me they’re in love.
Later, I will go to the center of town and see a floor filled with dancers. I will watch the women, their high heels clicking, their men guiding them rapturously across the floor. I will see the way they drag their toe along the ground, wrap their left leg around their partners’ right, move their hips just a little to make way for his step forward. God, the way they listen to the music, listen with their bodies and not their brains. It’s like they are breathing the sound of the violins, and the cello's deep chords. Each time I see tango again, I know, it will make me feel this same breathless way. I will feel the chills, I will close my eyes, every time for the rest of my life. I didn’t know it was possible to move like that, so free and careful both, and I never knew the body could merge so smooth into a palette of musical notes.