Israel Segall Sánchez
is a Chilean writer, Master in Arts (Creative writing), journalist and teacher, based in Melbourne, Australia. His work has been published mainly in the press and he is starting a new career as a storyteller.
1,2,3, pause...1,2,3, pause.
I had been listening to salsa beats all day. I couldn't help but move my hips, my emotions. The vibrations coming from the headphones made everything musical. I was fifteen when I discovered it was more than just a happy rhythm that coursed through the body like electricity, with a relentless cadence. There was a hidden history of sorrow, of heartbreak, of immigrants looking for a small space in a society that did not belong to them.
It was a tradition to wake up listening to music, but not just any music: Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, the music of the greats. The music activated the spirit and made the day function better.
A couple of weeks after arriving in Melbourne, I was still struggling with the streets, the trams, the remoteness of the suburbs, but especially with the language. Traveling without knowing enough English kept me in a linguistic darkness that I couldn't break through. The world was my enemy, and I thanked the heavens that supermarkets had self-service counters. I was embarrassed to try to interact with a cashier even if it were just to buy a Tim Tam.
I felt like an alien on a shiny, tidy, clean planet.
After breakfast and a shower, I went out to hand in my CV, and another document I had never done before—a “cover letter”. It’s an Australian requirement for all jobs and a new obstacle in my way.
I was immersed in my thoughts when a WhatsApp message brought me out of my lethargy. One of my friends was asking me to fill in for her at her night job. She had a problem and couldn't go. If someone didn't show up, she could get fired. The tasks were simple. There were offices to clean, rubbish to collect, floors to vacuum and mop. Ideal duties for a newcomer like me with no English.
I accepted because I heard in her words a sense of desperation. She really needed me there. I looked at my mobile phone and there were a couple of hours left before I went to fill in for her.
I put on my oldest clothes to clean. My classic black undershirt, a T-shirt of the same shade over it, and a pair of jogging pants, my headphones, and my rucksack full of gadgets.
The key was in the place she had mentioned, well-hidden so that no one would find it and enter the place. I moved my headphones around a bit to listen to the surroundings, to get my bearings, and figure out where I was. I followed the instructions left in a message to the letter and went to the room where the cleaning materials were. I grabbed a trolley with a giant bag of rubbish, a bucket with a mop, and a vacuum cleaner. I made my way to the lift and pressed the button for the first floor, the mission of the day inside the 3-story building.
The lift doors let in a halo of light after the sound of the bell that announced that we had arrived at our destination. In front of me was an organised group of cubicles and passages, a sort of labyrinth full of nooks and crannies.
I stood at the beginning of the corridor, tiptoeing to make out all the desks. There were a lot of them, but apparently, they were all empty. After 6 pm the place was supposed to be totally deserted. I turned up the volume on my headphones and tapped my mobile phone to pull up a playlist specially created for the occasion. If I had to go through this experience, it should at least be with the music I enjoyed. An old song started to play, one of those salsa songs that brought me back to my roots, to my country, to my essence. I noticed that my headphones were failing; the battery was dying. As I was always prepared, I took out a small speaker of my backpack that I had charged in the afternoon, so that I could dance peacefully while I was cleaning.
I connected the speaker via Bluetooth, and the music came out uncontrolled, free. The acoustics of the place were amazing, and the chords echoed in every corner. The rubbish trolley became my dancing partner and every now and then I stopped to enjoy a couple of steps to the rhythm of the Caribbean sun.
The Hoover was on my shoulder, but that didn't stop my dance--a grotesque choreography in the corners of an abandoned office. I closed my eyes as I danced, to feel more passionate and connected to the music: 1,2,3, pause....
The world was my dance floor, salsa my reason for being alive.
When I opened my eyes I saw in front of me a female silhouette, brown straight hair and turquoise eyes, the color of the ocean, hidden behind large glasses. The frame of her glasses was dark, highlighting her Renaissance features, delicate, perfect. She wore a white blouse that emphasized the contours of her slender figure. A green, pleated skirt completed the outfit, something you’d see in a shop window. I jumped when I saw her there, leaning against one of the walls, watching my every move, as if every step had been a show designed for her.
She approached me fearfully. I noticed a teardrop sitting on one of her cheeks, so I assumed she was there to escape the world, to move through her sadness, and be alone. I imagined a thousand possible scenarios. Maybe it had been a lousy day at the office, the kind you want to forget all about. Maybe a relationship of years had ended, and she was feeling the hopelessness and pain. My mind was a whirlwind of conspiracy theories.
She uttered a few words at a speed I couldn't manage. I honestly didn't understand anything. I was watching the lips that framed her symmetrical teeth: the upper one was the thin path that could lead to the mysteries of the feminine, the lower one thick enough to harbour delusions of passion. I couldn't help but admire her static, feeling drawn by the force of nature she represented, by the tiny ring she wore in the side of her nose, by the eyelashes that protected the wild magnetism of her gaze.
She smiled ruefully and said to me, in labroid Spanish, only one word: “Bailar”.
I deduced that she was trying to understand what I was doing, what these uncontrolled pirouettes were, what this display of dexterity of my feet, my legs, and my spirit was. I stretched out my hand hesitantly and said, "salsa."
She stretched out her slender fingers towards my place in time and space, and she grabbed my hand, looked at me tenderly, and let herself go.
I tried to keep my composure and adopt the perfect position to begin. I placed my right palm on her back and with the other I held her porcelain arm. I guided her free fingers to my shoulder. I uttered only a couple of words, more to myself than to her. I guess there was no need to talk. She needed company and I needed someone to notice my existence. It was an interesting win-win situation.
In my rudimentary English, I pronounced "salsa face" and made weird facial expressions. She opened her eyes, tried to imitate me, and then let out a playful little laugh. I couldn't believe that a human being was capable of such beauty.
I waited patiently for the next song to begin. My troubled memory told me that a Hector Lavoe song was up next.
A thunderous sound of a trumpet filled the space; then another a few seconds later, then percussion, until a sea of voices exploded in unison: "Soon the day of my luck will come, I know that before I die, I swear my luck will change."
Each lyric was part of a prayer of my own life. I wanted to believe that from that moment on there would be an abrupt change and that everything would fall into place, that fortune really was my ally.
I marked my steps with my feet, slowly so that she could imitate me. "1, 2, 3, pause... 1, 2, 3, pause." I had danced a thousand times, yet this was the first time I had levitated. The music enveloped me, Hector's voice, her breath hitching and caressing my cheek. She was close to my height, perhaps because she was wearing elegant, white heels, so it was comfortable to hold her, to embrace, to shake.
I brushed her contours softly with my fingers as the timpani boomed in my ears. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her, followed her in the continuous movement of dance, of bodily expression. She was a little hummingbird flapping her wings in search of pollen. I could feel her concentration. For me, it was a feeling in the form of rhythm, for her, almost open-heart surgery, a ceremonious exercise to be treated with the utmost care.
Despite her obvious shyness, I felt her secure in my arms. She let me lead every sequence. I showed her how to sway her hips. How to release them on the third step to look sensual and graceful.
I brought her pelvis close to mine to coordinate our cadences, our heartbeats.
The verses escaped from the speaker "Don't cry, baby, your luck will change..."
With each melodic line it was more complex to identify which was her body and which was mine. "Soon my lucky day will come..."
I tried a turn, and she twisted her ankles with the feline agility of an uncontrollable spirit straight out of the sugar canes of Cuba. "Waiting for my fate I was left, but my life took another course..."
We were possessed by the inhabitants of black, slave America, the one who hid in the plantations to hit a trunk expressing their essence and pass their hardships with prayers transformed into music. "Surviving in a reality from which I couldn't even escape".
I held her subtly, and with a little tug, I got her to relax, to activate her primitive side. It was a magical combination of elements that worked because we brought them to life. The roar of the winds, the drums, and the voice took over the air, tireless. "Now I find myself here in my solitude".
Complicit meeting of hips, extension of arms, of souls, capers of happiness. We were a carousel of sweat, of palpitations in unison, the perfect example of what it really means to connect.
I assume she had never danced salsa before, because sometimes she did contortions that had nothing to do with what we were dancing, but it didn't matter. For five minutes and 24 seconds we belonged to each other. Not in a possessive way, but we were willing to share space, energy and passion together. Absolute symbiotic organisms.
For a few minutes, the luminous-eyed woman was the repository of the love of the universe, not only the romantic, but all kinds of existing loves. It was the exhalation of an angel, a pure state of dreams, poetry, and fantasies.
Hector Lavoe's voice faded, the brass, the percussions, the maracas, the suffering.
I took one of her hands and kissed it to seal the moment. She, the beautiful stranger, was stunned, smiled from her soul, and hugged me. Her lips touched my cheek and she only said, "Thank you".
We lost ourselves in a grateful instant and said goodbye.
As she walked away, she turned to flash me a sincere smile. I returned it with a bow and blew her a kiss, like a good Latin dancer. For a few seconds, the tears escaped, and I felt deeply happy, even though I knew I would most likely never see her again.
The bearer of the ocean's eyes, the mirage in the shape of a woman, gave me the opportunity to be myself, to feel that I had not abandoned my essence the day I took the plane to build new Australian fantasies. She made me think of the men and women who one day, by accident, brought together vocal cords, musical staves, orchestras, and the sorrows of migrants, who decided to dance so as not to cry. When they mixed New York night, Cuban Son, and Latin flavours, they became salsa.