by Jennifer Anthony
Dining alone is the true test of a traveling singleton’s confidence, especially in a country as passionate and romantic as Argentina. Yet solo dining is also a way to experience an event with eyes wide open.
It was 2004. I had two days left in Buenos Aires. I could not leave Argentina without going to see a tango show, and so it was that I signed up for a two-part solo evening—a three course dinner followed by a show at El Viejo Almacén, one of the oldest and best-known tango establishments in the city.
The bus picked up the attendees from our respective hotels, two by two and in groups—and me, alone. One couple made us wait for twenty or more minutes before finally skulking onto the bus, avoiding eye contact, the woman patting her shellacked hair for that last finishing touch. I couldn’t be mad; I was, after all, in the heart of Argentina, about to enjoy a night of dining and dance. Their tardiness was nothing but a slight blip in the plan, another excuse to gaze out at the stunningly beautiful, well-dressed porteños—the people of Buenos Aires—hustling through the city. The tango establishment was as touristy as our group, hailing from South and Central America, Asia, and Europe; I was the lone U.S. representative.
Each of the dinner tables was topped by a placard noting its future occupants. Mine read, simply, Señora Antony (I often become an Antony around Spanish speakers). I eased into the seat, eyed the cadre of male waiters lining the fringes of the room, waiting until we were seated before they began service. Some of the guests trickled in on their own, having made arrangements at the last minute. I felt quite conspicuous in a sea of couples and clusters of people. Were those pitying looks that the waiters were shooting me? Did they assume that I, ringless, was waiting for my no-account, tardy boyfriend?
At last the waiters broke free from the periphery of the room and came to greet us. As in Italy, my waiter was solemn and stern: it is a serious profession. ¿Blanco o rojo? he asked. Red or white? I realized the first perk of a single table: I was to have my own entire bottle of wine. Things were looking up! I asked the waiter to recommend his favorites from the menu and thought I detected him softening, just a little. I decided on Insalata Caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad) as an appetizer, followed by lomo and papas fritas (lean sirloin steak and french fries) for the main course, and a slice of the restaurant’s specialty cake for dessert.
The Caprese arrived just as a fellow singleton was sliding into the table beside me. Mid-fifties, heavily bearded, and eying the menu with as much solemnity as the waiters. Emboldened after a glass of wine, I struck up a conversation. He was a psychiatrist from Genoa who, like me, had always been intrigued by Argentina. Ever been to the States? I asked. Never even crossed my mind, he said, simply and honestly, without a hint of sarcasm. (Perhaps something every American should hear, at least once, to remind us that we aren’t the center of the universe.)
The lomo was exquisite, as is most beef in Argentina. The cake was heavenly. The wine flowed. I spotted an elderly woman peeking out from the hall. Who’s that? I asked my waiter. We were friends by now; he’d realized I wasn’t waiting for anyone and I was quite content. Oh, she’s the bathroom attendant, he explained. She’s worked here for decades. Later, in the baño, I befriended her, too. I couldn’t keep myself from smiling, couldn’t understand why my smile was bigger than at least two-thirds of the people there.
I had no idea the night would get even better.
As I scooped the last bit of cake from my plate, the waiter explained that they would be escorting all of us across the street to the tango room. I stiffened a little, thinking how I would again be seated at a table for one. Sure enough, there was my placard imprinted with Señora Antony. The Genovese was seated far away, on the balcony. My waiter slipped back into the night. I was alone again.
A new waiter—older, fatherly—arrived on the scene to offer me champagne. He, too, seemed quite serious at first, but soon melted. In a few short minutes, he would be telling me all about his family and wife of many years, giving me background information on the different performers, and making sure my glass was filled.
My first live introduction to tango had been a couple of months before, at a friend’s house in San Francisco. She and her boyfriend, both in their sixties, had turned on milonga music and performed for us, slow and slinky and sexy sexy sexy. I’d left in a cold sweat.
This tango performance was to be considerably more showy and flashy. Each of the dancers was in their early twenties. The males puffed up like roosters, their backs arched, butts lifted. The women in their sparkly outfits that fanned outward as they twirled around and spun and their partners tossed them into the air. Eyes widening, the audience gasped and clapped. Finally, the tango singer strode out onto the stage, full of bravado and drama, and belted out his songs. The audience swooned when he burst into his own rendition of Carlos Gardel’s famous El Día Que Me Quieres.
My eyes flickered back and forth across the stage, my foot tapped, my shoulders swayed. And then I froze. Behind the spinning performers were the musicians: a cellist, a bandoneonista, a pianist, and two violinists. The second violinist had chocolate eyes and gorgeous hair flowing down his back; he bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert De Niro in his younger years. My crush on Robert De Niro had been reignited by a trip to Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina the week before, where The Mission was filmed in the eighties.
The violinist and I locked eyes.
I cut my eyes away.
Looked back. He was still staring.
I gazed at the tables around me. Did no one else see him? And was that woman in the front row really dozing?
I took a sip of my champagne, glanced demurely over the rim of the flute. We locked eyes again.
I was having eye sex in a tango show in Buenos Aires.
And then a sudden evacuation of the stage so that an indigenous musical group could perform. I panicked. Would my violinista return?
The waiter bustled by, and I decided to inquire after the vanished violinist. I think he’s cute, I told the waiter (we were good friends by that point). Oh, Fernando! He is very nice, he said. I’ll introduce you after the show.
Ten minutes later, the orchestra was filing back onto the stage and I thought I was going to lift off the seat. The eye sex resumed where we’d left off. Any pretenses were lifted. We stared each other down as his bow slipped back and forth across the strings.
The show ended at midnight. The waiter darted over to my table. I’ll introduce you, he said, keeping his word. Taking me by the hand, he led me up the stairs to where the performers, including Fernando, had gathered.
We shook hands, smiled, suddenly shy. He didn’t speak a word of English. My Spanish was faltering, nervous. What I said, I don’t know for sure. He, like most Argentines, used the vos form in lieu of the tú that all my Spanish teachers had emphasized. We exchanged e-mails and a few more pleasantries. My heart thumped.
The waiter motioned for me to go; the bus was waiting. Had it turned into a pumpkin? I flew back down the stairs and was met with a carload of grumpy mugs. But when I slipped into the one remaining seat, which had been pushed forward so far that it allowed virtually no legroom, the man behind me smiled and fixed the seat for me. He was part of the couple that had made us wait on the ride over.
On the drive back to the hotel, I pressed my cheek to the glass, trying to contain the giggles.
Table for one, I thought, can be quite heavenly.
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El Viejo Almacén
Independencia Avenue and Balcarce
Buenos Aires, Argentina
t/f (54.11) 4307 6689 / 6919 / 7388
Carlos Pellegrini 1185
Buenos Aires, Argentina
t (0054.11) 525.HOTEL (46835)
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Jennifer Anthony lives and works in the Bay Area of California. She has a special tender spot in her heart for Latin American countries and the South, and her heart goes out to all those affected by Hurricane Katrina.