Columba walked to the boom box sitting on the floor off to the side and pressed play. As they danced, Wendy was surprised how dexterous the mind can be: her overriding thought was concentrating on moving. But there was apparently plenty of brain power left over for her to hit herself with a barrage of thoughts and questions. Why am I so nervous? I’m supposed to be taking this class for fun. Is he as nervous as I am? This dress makes my ass look fat. He’s so cute. Shut up! He’s nineteen years old for God’s sake. What’s the matter with you?
When the song ended and the couple stopped, Columba clapped her hands as she walked all the way from the stereo to the center of the floor.
“Maravilloso! Bueno bueno! See? They do not look like two strangers dancing. They look like a couple! A couple who are doing more than dancing together. They are talking to each other. They are relating to each other. With their bodies. This is the secret of salsa. Your head should only be doing ten percent of the work. The rest is all the body. In fact, your body should be telling your head what’s going on. Not the other way around.”
Maybe it was because she was teacher’s pet, but the four-month course flew by. The last day of class, she was more than a little sad that it was now over. It wasn’t like any of them were going to maintain a friendship after this, but Wendy had really bonded with her classmates. Like they’d survived basic training together which, in many ways, it was just like. Of course, she was going to miss Sandoval more than most. He was a good kid and while at first it disturbed her that she thought of him in terms both maternal and lustful, she was more than content with the fact they were, as Sandoval put it, “salsa soul mates.” Even though he said that, up until the last class, Wendy thought Sandoval could take her or leave her, that she was just some old lady. But on their final day together, he showed up with a red rose, surrounded with baby’s breath, wrapped in green paper.
“Kaitlin is lucky to have you, Sandoval,” she told him. Wendy gave him her cell phone number and made him promise he’d send pictures of he and his girlfriend at the prom. She also pressed him to dance with his mother, so she could see up close just how good he’d become. Wendy wasted no time showing off her own skill level.
In a little over a month, Wendy had been to El Cristal eight times. Her girlfriends and co-workers turned out to not be as self-conscious as she and had no qualms about going to the club without a certificate from Salsa for Everyone!™ so she never had to go to the club alone. After just a few weeks, four of the girls signed up for lessons and two who said they couldn’t afford to, cancelled their gym memberships so they could. But soon Wendy had rotated through her circle of playmates and workmates and the novelty started to wear off for the others. Fortunately, that’s right about the time she met Alexa Winter.
Like Wendy, Alexa was a “hooch hustler.” They kept running into each other at the various restaurants, bars, and nightclubs they called upon. After the third such coincidence, Wendy introduced herself, thinking that just because they were competitors didn’t mean they couldn’t be friends. Alexa had one better:
“How about you and I go for a drink and see if we can’t come to an understanding so we’re not wasting time going after each other’s targets?” Alexa suggested, traces of the Bronx still very audible in her voice. It would be the first of many ways Alexa was like Rhoda to Wendy’s Mary Tyler Moore. Each of them had a binder map, so they whipped these out and divided up existing territories which would save them each time and legwork going after business the other already had. The rest of the city was wide open and, since they weren’t selling the exact same lines or products, they said they would call each other and give the other the 411 on a business that declined. That way, they didn’t waste time going after each other’s existing customers and discovered relevant information that would help the other adjust their pitch to maybe get the business the other failed to. It was smart, it was fair, and, more importantly, it worked.
After a couple of weeks and not seeing each other since their ingenious strategy was implemented, Alexa once again suggested they meet for a drink. And that’s where Wendy’s current salsa obsession met Alexa’s salsa history. Turned out Alexa had dated a sous chef at a high-end Mexican restaurant a few years back who loved to dance. Between their sheer frequency and his patience, Alexa became quite the little hoofer. She’d never heard of El Cristal, but as soon as she heard it described, Alexa was in—not only did she miss dancing, she had a serious jones for Latin men. And by the time Alexa signed on, Wendy had been to the club so many times, she’d already learned its routines and its rhythms.
About twenty percent of the crowd was older and came early, around six. About half of these people would leave after an hour or so. Thirty percent were lookie-loos or first-timers. The other thirty were the serious dancers, mostly couples in their twenties and thirties. Every night there were about a dozen older men, from their 50s all the way to their 70s who came in around 8:00. Far from dirty old men, these step kings were so polite, Wendy had a hard time believing they were from this century. They were also unfailingly democratic, asking any and every woman to dance with them, regardless of age, skill, or shape. Although Wendy found they had a predilection for younger women, no surprise there. She had already nicknamed the groups, so it was easier for and Alexa to talk about them. They were the Sixers, the Tourists, the Don Juans and, finally the last twenty percent, Los Lobos.
Los Lobos (Wendy thought it meant “the wolves” but she wasn’t sure and she never checked) were the players. Los Lobos were young, 20s to early 30s, extremely muscled or at least astonishingly toned, and incredibly lithe. They were Hispanic, Mexican, and Latin Lotharios and they all looked like they’d stopped by on their way to an audition for a telenovela. While not necessarily proud of herself, Wendy quickly categorized these men as heartless studs, semi-smarmy flirts, or dim himbos. Several of them travelled in packs, but most flew solo. Although after weeks of surveillance, it became obvious to Wendy all Los Lobos knew each other to varying degrees. She figured they had a romantic version of the work strategy she and Alexa came up with. She also noticed they pretty much used the same playbook.
Casual look came first. If you passed this, closer scrutiny. This involved some kind of greeting that, depending on whatever criteria each of them was ruled by, would result in either a “Nice to meet you” no or a “What can I get you?” thumbs up. Then there was the dance floor analysis and the Ultimate Decision was made. If positive, the result meant moving on to one of two options: you were either whisked off the dance floor and taken home immediately, or you would become their tango twin for the rest of the night. Late in the evening, the pair would both leave the club at the same time but because Wendy never followed them outside, she never knew how many of these duos ended up dancing horizontally, or did they ultimately just kiss each other goodnight under the unflattering light of the parking lot.
They also had a uniform—buttoned-up long sleeve shirts, two or three top buttons open to reveal both a gold chain around their neck and the hard curves of their pecs, skin-tight pants that showed serious squats were a part of all of their workout routines, and good cologne applied sparingly, but just enough the fragrance hit you sixty seconds into the first dance. They would ask you if you wanted a drink, but never what kind. More than happy to buy you a second (or a third), they appeared to nurse the same cocktail the whole evening. If they were studs, they were sober studs. No booze-soaked sex for these boys.
At first, she received a great deal of attention from Los Lobos. But after a couple of weeks, they either noticed she never went home with any of them or they compared notes because the invitations dried up for a time, which didn’t matter to her. Because there was a group that never stopped asking. And that was the Don Juans. Unless they wore too much cologne, she said yes to all of them, no matter if they were 50 or past 70. She didn’t care what they looked like or what shape they were in. They were all totally enjoyable. They danced so stately, their posture stonily erect, their bodies moving with almost military precision. They led with a grace the younger men didn’t and most every one of them seemed thrilled Wendy chose them over the younger bucks. Wendy wasn’t there to find a husband. She was there—and she would have admitted this if you would have asked her—to show off her newfound skills. To be a little less down-home newcomer and more downtown denizen. It was about this time that Los Lobos came back around.
Wendy always had good judgment, and that included scrutiny of herself. She quickly determined she was as good, if not far better, than the other women at El Cristal. And not “good for a white girl” good. Better. If the wolves were disappointed she didn’t go home with them, they got over that fact, taking solace that she was a dancer who could keep up with them or, to those who liked to push it, liked to show off as well, a dancer who would try her damndest to be their equal. The benefits were plentiful. She got some serious exercise, dropped five pounds and kept them off, and picked up a lotta Spanish.
“How do you say, ‘I love how you move!’ in Spanish?” she’d ask when the song ended.
“How do you say, ‘I’d love to dance with you again. Ask me anytime!’ in Spanish?”
“How do you say, ‘Pardon me for saying this, but you’ve got a cute butt!’ in Spanish? And how do you say, “Just because I asked that, don’t get any ideas?”
Wendy wasn’t a tease, but she didn’t hide her sensuality either. She made certain she was bright and polite off the dance floor, treating the men more like brothers than potential lovers. Did she look a little carnivorous when she locked eyes with them as they smashed into each other? Sure. But that was what made it fun. It was salsa, it wasn’t a waltz. It was sex without sex, so there was rarely any of the typical, sometime uncomfortable tension, just a lightly frisky, flirty charge. Salsa gave her a physical—and, okay, sexual—confidence she never really had before, not to this extent. Wendy liked it that she was as good as almost all these men were. She made them keep their game sharp and stepped up hers. She did leave open the possibility that one of these young men could turn into something more, but she doubted it and that was fine. It was a huge ego boost that an endless parade of men wanted her to be their partner. She had caught several women’s slightly envious faces. And Wendy wasn’t afraid to admit it, it was fun the other women were jealous. Usually she was the green one. Hell, the peacocks could have been just using her to show off in front of both the competition and the potential conquests. But she never minded when Los Lobos would move on to more viable targets. That was fine. They were playing. But with her, they weren’t playing games.
Then along came someone that threw her off hers.