“Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky

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Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna.
(…) Placer de dioses, baile perverso
El tango es rito y es religión.

Frollo & Randle, “Danza Maligna”

I had been observing her for some time. Openly at first, not hiding my fascination with her face, which appeared to be designed by scalpel. Later, my glances were furtive; I was afraid that my staring would make her uncomfortable, although she seemed not to notice.

When she was invited out on the dance floor, however, I felt free to unabashedly admire her tall, slender figure, the elegant casualness of her movements, the grace with which she held her head high on a delicate neck that was revealed and then concealed by her ash-blond hair as it bobbed to the rhythm of the music. But it was her face, barely corrected with makeup, that caught my eye; there were traces of where the artificial merged with the monstrous, resulting unexpectedly in a sort of Medusa-like beauty (as Praz would put it): sunken eyes that seemed to have awakened in skin other than the one they were born in; cheekbones and arches over the eyebrows that were overly pronounced, as if sculpted from non-malleable material; full but swollen-looking lips that lacked the sensuality that plastic surgery promises.

flor-de-milonga

          Photo courtesy of Flor de Milonga.

I watched her slowly sip her champagne. She didn’t pay much attention to those around her and was always accompanied by a young girl with plain looks and a timid smile, irreparably devoid of any charm, of that glimmer of mystery that makes many non-pretty women attractive. I was reminded—an old reader of James never sleeps—of “The Beldonald Holbein,” that story wherein Lady Beldonald, a mature beauty who thinks herself clever, seeks to enliven her waning looks by having a wrinkled old lady, marked by misfortune, accompany her at social events. Her artist friends, fascinated by a face that looks as if it came straight out of a Holbein, only have eyes for her companion and soon recruit her as a model. Lady Beldonald learns her lesson: the following season, she appears in London accompanied by a young, not particularly ugly, but dreadfully dull girl.

Had the object of my curiosity perhaps arrived at a similar conclusion?

One night we were seated at neighboring tables. I thought I knew how to mask my curiosity, but eventually she caught me with my eyes fixated on that surgical achievement framed by her straight, loose hair. She didn’t seem annoyed; on the contrary, she gave a hint of a smile.

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

Confused, and surprised by my own indiscretion, I heard a timely response come out of my mouth almost immediately that I did not believe myself capable of.

“Yes, but I didn’t dare think it was really you.”

Her smile became evident and I felt I ought to invite her to dance. I believe the DJ played Fresedo’s “Vida Mía.” She was exceedingly light in my arms and effortlessly resolved, without reproach, the indecisive steps that, in my awkwardness, I could not avoid. It was the last tango in a set, and when it was over, we returned to our tables. At that moment, a man approached to greet her. That intrusion allowed me to slip away.

At the door, I ran into the Turk, his jaw made restless by a toothless mouth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his thinning gray hair tied with a rubber band at the nape. I asked him if he knew the woman I had danced with.

“How’s that? Don’t you remember her?”

He summed up the brief but (un)spectacular career of Natalia Franz, the sex kitten who, over the course of various burlesque theater seasons and supposedly humorous television programs, was undressed and lustily pursued by aging and obese comedians. She did not seem destined for bigger and better things when a motorcycle accident left her disfigured. Eight surgeries in two years produced the miracle that had captivated my eyes: a face that was designed, lifeless, where only the splendor of sunken but aware eyes revealed the existence of a living being behind the frozen, donned mask.

To show the Turk my appreciation for this information, I felt obliged to buy a gram off him. I followed him into the Men’s room to occult a transaction that everyone knew was the only reason for the Turk’s presence at the milonga. Offered the regular stuff and what he called his Gold stash, I opted for the former, at half the price of the latter; the poor quality of the product the Turk distributed did not justify extravagance. And besides, it had been two years since I last had any. Out on the sidewalk, I gave the baggie to the parking lot attendant, an unlikely consumer, but a possible reseller.

*  * *

A few days later, I related the episode to Flavia Costa.

“It must have been someone else. I remember Franz. She died on the operating table years ago. The anesthesia was too much for her.”

The next time I saw her, she was dancing with a man of indeterminate age, a toupee propped on the remains of his own hair, which was dyed that shade of black that, by contrast, highlighted his dry, furrowed skin, from which hair so shiny, so well irrigated, could not possibly grow. The vanity that I find acceptable in women always seems pathetic to me when it is practiced by men: no doubt a sign of archaic sexism. I should clarify: pathetic in men of a certain age, who out of vanity attempt to shave off years; in young men, I find the uneven locks of hair dyed in synthetic colors and the metallic objects incrusted in ears and cheeks to be amusing.

It was my observations of that old man’s disguise that made me notice an aspect of the public that had escaped my attention until then. Most of the women were heavily made-up, their faces covered by colorful crusts, their hair immobilized in highly stylized constructions or burnt in a confusion of miniature curls. The excessive exterior traits of femininity made them look like transvestites and did not endow them, by any means, with any semblance of youth. Many of the men had extended the use of hair dye to their eyebrows and mustaches, abandoning their skin to an almost mortuary-like paleness. I thought of the treatment given to cadavers in U.S. funeral services: a varnish that, far from simulating a blissful sleep, suggests the emotionless expressiveness of a wax museum dummy. Compared to these masks, Natalia Franz’s plastic surgery, I told myself, belonged in a class entirely its own: an artificiality that was brutal, but also almost ascetic. It grabbed my attention, in a most morbid way, no doubt, whereas the faces of the others made me turn away sharply, in whatever direction, as if out of fear of contagion.

Funeral services … I believe it was when those words popped into my mind that I was overcome with indescribable queasiness, an object-less fear. I went out into the street, where some venerable couples were smoking cigarettes, which were banned inside. Out from under the milonga’s complicit lighting, the crudeness of those laborious masks was underscored by streetlamps. One of the women smiled at me without parting her lips, as if she didn’t wish to reveal some dental disaster; perhaps, like the Turk, she didn’t believe in the benefits of false teeth. I walked away without looking back, turned on Acevedo and walked down to Córdoba.

At the time, I was working on an idea suggested to me by a friend who was also a filmmaker; the goal was to write a script. The Chinese, he told me, don’t wish to die abroad; they fear that if they do, there will be no rest for their souls. A group of elderly Chinese, sensing the end is near, pool together their modest savings to hire a boat to take them from San Francisco to Canton or Taipei. (A boat … a romantic but anachronistic idea. Wouldn’t it be easier to charter a plane in this day and age? I also had my doubts about San Francisco, with its very famous Chinatown. Why not, say, Lima?) The group is tricked by the captain and his crew, who abandon them in a port, any will do, maybe in Hawaii. When they discover they’ve been duped, some die of distress. A young sailor, who played no part in the deceit perpetrated by his superiors, rises up to the occasion and redeems the situation, acquiring a fistful of symbolic Chinese soil, dug up from the gardens of the Chinese consulate, so that each member of the group can lay his head on a mound of native soil when he feels the end is upon him.

The idea appealed to me, just as all irrational things that guide human behavior appeal to me, but I didn’t see how that ending could be adapted to film. It worked well in a story, but it would be difficult to give the scene impact on the big screen. And so it occurred to me to suggest to my friend a story that had nothing to do with China: the story of two elderly milongueros, who are blessed upon their deaths with a milonga in the afterlife, where they spend all eternity, happily consecrated to the ritual they dedicated themselves to in life. Later I understood that this idea, if not born out of my experiences in Villa Crespo, was at least nourished by them. The final scene would be the sudden realization on the part of an observer, who believed he had discovered the milonga by chance, that he, too, was dead. My friend was unconvinced:

“Could you possibly think of anything more morbid?”

In any case, Natalia Franz was alive. The day after I danced with her, the scent of her subtle, floral perfume remained on my right cheek. I wondered what she looked like during the day, beyond the filtered, honey-colored light of that small milonga. Perhaps she didn’t expose herself to sunlight … although for a week the sun had been hidden by more or less continuous cloud cover. Where did she live? Her name, probably a pseudonym, did not appear in the phone book. I distracted myself, entertained myself with these idle questions while I postponed my search for a novel, visually powerful finale for my friend’s film idea.

One night I returned to the milonga in Villa Crespo without much enthusiasm, without much faith in the possibility of seeing that manufactured face. I thought I recognized the same old cast, or another undistinguishable from it. Standing by the bar, I watched the dancers for a while. Next to me, the DJ scorned the use of a laptop like the one I saw Boggio use in Canning; he hadn’t even progressed to magnetic tape, instead handling with surprising skill a collection of LPs that he spun on two turntables.

I searched vainly for Natalia Franz in the crowd. I was about to give up and leave when I recognized her in a corner under the half-light with her usual, almost invisible companion. I hadn’t seen her come in and I could have sworn that when I glanced at that table just a few moments earlier, there was no one there. I decided on a direct approach.

“When we danced last week, your perfume stayed with me for several days. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the scent of a flower … what is it?”

She laughed gently.

“Because of that perfume, my friends call me Narda.”

We danced to Troilo’s “La Bordona.” At some point, my eyes, alertly avoiding collisions with the other couples on the small dance floor, collided instead with our reflection in the mirror. I recognized Natalia Franz, or the woman I believed to be her, but the man dancing with her looked like a caricature of what I believed myself to be. Was it possible that I had aged so, that my figure (not very elegant, I knew) was actually so unappealing? I turned away, like I had the night before when a smile was directed at me on the sidewalk. At the corner table under the half-light, I thought I saw another smile, conspiratorial, with a hint of mockery, on the face of Natalia’s young companion, as if she had guessed what I was then feeling.

I don’t remember under what pretense I left the milonga and quickly distanced myself from Villa Crespo. I called Flavia on my cellphone and again told her what had happened to me.

“Be careful. You might end up trapped in your own fiction. Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you. Today is Thursday. Let’s go to Niño Bien.”

I waited for her at the door of Club Leonés on Humberto Primo, where the second floor comes alive every Thursday with one of my favorite milongas. Before Flavia arrived to rescue me from what she had called my own fiction, I told myself that it was best to put my adventurous days behind me. I was no longer so young as to allow myself to become fascinated with phantoms and the arcane. From then on, I would limit myself to my favorite milongas, to dancing with friends, to forgetting about the dangerous mysteries and bad literature that lie in wait along poorly lit streets and tiny dance floors. If they were trying to tell me something, I prefer to ignore them until the day comes when I no longer can.

That night, Flavia and I stayed till the last dance.

milongas-edgardo-cozarinsky_MLA-F-138879266_87

Translated by Dario Bard from “Milonga sin nombre: la resurrección” as printed in Milongas, published by Edhasa, 2007, available from Amazon. The story was later reprinted in Pagina 12 with the title “Natalia Franz,” used here at the author’s request.

Edgardo Cozarinsky is a writer, filmmaker and playwright from the City of Buenos Aires. He began his career as an essayist and filmmaker. In 1974, with the country showing early signs of the political repression that was to worsen soon thereafter, he relocated to Paris where he published Urban Voodoo in 1985, a short story collection recounting his experiences as a self-exile. Other published works available in English include Borges in/and/on Film, The Bride from Odessa and The Moldavian Pimp, all of which are available from Amazon

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construcción, Edgardo Cozarinsky discussed his life and his work (in Spanish):
Part 1

Part 2

One thought on ““Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky

  1. Pingback: Short Story “Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky at Contemporary Argentine Writers | By The Firelight

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