Monday, December 20, 2010

Tango Uniform (a Christmas Story)

Tango Uniform
Teresa and Uriel’s Christmas

The hardest thing for me to be deployed was not getting shot at. Having near-miss IED explosions that dazed me were horrifying too, but the hardest thing was to be away from my fiancé. I wanted to believe that she was being faithful, but there were so many stories of women cheating on their men. “Teresa was different,” I would tell myself. “She has true class and culture. She wouldn’t do that.” But over and over we would hear about affairs that were being firmly denied, and the facts came in that were undeniable. Although it was against regulations, we even had access at S-2 to use satellites to go look at our homes. We could see the pickup trucks parked out in front of our homes, and later the denials over the phone. Soldiers went home for two weeks of R&R leave, and they had their stories too. Infidelity was our obsession.

“Tango Uniform” (meaning simply in radio language “T.U.”) had a meaning in the military for something that was knocked down and not able to get back up. Over the radio, we would hear that a vehicle had broken down and was irreparable. “Call out the wrecker, it’s Tango Uniform.” In reality “Tango Uniform” meant in the rough rider language of the military “tits up” (that is, flat on your back). But we started talking about our relationships being irreparable too because of infidelity. The first sergeant even said at chow, “My marriage is Tango Uniform. The rear detachment commander checked it out for me. My kids even know the guy, and he’s sleeping in my bed.” He didn’t want to go back because he was afraid he’d kill them both, leaving his children without parents – one dead and one in prison.

Before I left for Iraq, Teresa and I had taken some dance classes and we loved it. First we loved salsa the most. But then we discovered Argentine tango. Teresa has been sending me videos of “tangueros” dancing, and I even practiced by myself whenever I had a moment by myself. I loved to watch, but again, the atmosphere of distrust made it very hard for me not to feel jealous and wonder if some sultry tanguero was slipping off with her after a dance. I wondered if she were “Tango Uniform” with him in bed and that our engagement also might be Tango Uniform. 

Next to my cot, I always had a stack of her letters that always started, “Dearest Uriel, mi tanguero…”  She often wrote about being true to me.  She affirmed her maturity, her own self-worth and of course, our love. I hated that I still had my doubts. But I did.  The negative thoughts would come, “A lot of women were saying this, and they were off doing the wild thing.”  But one thing she said really made me believe her. She told me over a crackling long distance conversation, “Uriel, you know, if a lot of these women had a way of getting their need for touch met, then they might find it easier to be faithful. Tango allows people to get an important need met—the need to be touched. And if they had any sense of culture and self-discipline they would feel no need to go beyond that.” That sounded genuine. I also was able to dance a few times and feel what Teresa was talking about. There was dancing at a large FOB not far from our sector in Bagdad, and they had salsa dancing there. I found myself feeling so much better after that dance, and even more committed to Teresa.

Late in our deployment after I came back from a mission with my platoon, the commander was standing there, and I thought there was bad news. We all fear last minute tragedies in theater or back at home at the last minute before returning. We were supposed to come home on the 10th of January, and we didn’t have much time left in country. But the commander had bad news/good news.  “The XO hit an IED, and he’s being MEDEVAC’d.  He’s okay, but that means that you’re going back early as the rear-D commander,” he told me. That means that I’d lead the forward party to help prepare for the return of soldiers. The XO would be okay, we learned, but his first stop would be Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

My emotions were properly dampened as the commander told me.  First the XO and I were in basic together; so this was terrible news, but at the same time I knew that I would be home for Christmas. I also felt like a traitor to my platoon, getting to go back early. I felt humiliated telling the soldiers under me, and all the while I was so happy to be leaving that hell hole. I was totally conflicted in my feelings, but like it, love it or hate it, I was going back in time for Christmas.  I decided I would keep it a secret that I was coming back.

I had paradoxical feelings especially about seeing Teresa. What would I find? Intellectually, I knew that everything would be okay, but I had these great fears in my gut too. When I arrived I had to go through lots of briefings and medical screens like everyone else. But on Christmas Eve, thank God, I would be free. I knew where Teresa would be from our conversations -- at a Christmas Eve tango party. So I put on my dress blue uniform – the only thing I had at my locker at work. I drove down to the UT, Austin’s ball room, 60 miles from Fort Hood, where it was being held. I put on a big overcoat so as not to cause a scene when people saw me in uniform at the dance. 

It took a while for me to spot Teresa. She was dancing with a handsome man, and I felt my face turning red. I stood in the back, and no one seemed to even notice me. I realized that I was spying. I felt so jealous because they were chest to chest, and he danced so well. She looked so satisfied in his arms. I had a feeling of great sadness at first: Like a little boy who was watching his best friend run off with someone else. Then I fought back the rage and jealousy. I tried to stay in the shadows of a far corner but I felt my red hot face would surely alert everyone that I was there.  The striped sides of my dress blue uniform pants surely must have given me away too.  When that song ended, people were leaving the dance floor and she was coming my way. My stomach twisted and my hands were sweaty. An older gentleman stopped her with a nod of his head. Another song started and they danced. She had not recognized me. The man was old enough to be her father. Wow, he was good. He made the younger man look like a klutz. Although they danced simply, people stopped to watch them.  Teresa and he looked as if the music controlled them, forcing them to dance so wonderfully. Teresa looked like she was in heaven, and I realized that it was the music, the touch, the moment that was filling her soul. I felt this … this … huge well-spring of emotion, of love, of trust. 

As if I did not even choose to, I felt my overcoat fall to the floor around my feet. People were leaving the dance floor, and someone said, “Teresa! My God, he’s back!” 

She was pointing with one hand and the other was over her mouth, realizing how loud she had said it. The room went dead silent. Everyone started clapping, and Teresa came running to me, with a crowd behind her. She melted into my arms. She was crying. Others stood by and gave me hugs like I was their long lost friend. “Thank God you’re back. Teresa has told us so much about you; it’s as if we have known you forever,” an older woman told me, holding onto my hand like my mother would.

This is the tango community: A bunch of people who touch each other as if this were what human beings do best. 

The music started again, and she led me out onto the floor.

 I felt so self-conscious at first. It was like a wedding dance and we were the only ones on the floor.

I just tried to do what I had seen the older man doing, listening to the music and letting the music move my feet. I danced simply, but it felt like I was on a level that I had never had experienced. It was the embrace, Teresa melting into my soul.

My engagement and my love for her were all saved from my worries of catastrophe and hurt at that moment. How funny that people call us T&U now!  Tango Uniform? That is now what Teresa still calls my dress blues.  I am reluctant to tell her what "Tango Uniform" really means.

Post Script:
This story is of course fiction, but so true about soldiers, love, trust and what tango has to offer the world.

Izabella Tabarovsky

Photo model:
Dina Dalipagic
Note: "Tango Therapist" besides writing this blog and doing other things in life, is a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserves, Medical Service Corps.


  1. "This is the tango community: A bunch of people who touch each other as if this were what human beings do best." So happy to read this again. Merry Christmas, Mark

  2. @Mari: All I want for Christmas is a tango hug. Can you put one in a box and send it to me? Dance into the new year and have a year fully of "prosperity" -- meaning, a year full of dances centered in the embrace and with the beauty of a wonderful connection with another soul!

  3. "This story is of course fiction ...." or is it compeletely? The best things in life blur the reality line

  4. @VZ: The best fiction has the highest attenuation of truth.

  5. Absolutely beautiful and true, despite being fiction. It brought tears to my eyes. Well done.


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