“Tango,” by Vicki Derderian – Michigan Quarterly Review
last tango in paris by blek de rat painting with a b&W man and woman slow dancing

“Tango,” by Vicki Derderian

“Tango,” by Vicki Derderian, appeared in the Fall 2018 – Caregiving Issue of MQR.

Sometimes a story evokes emotions so familiar we return to it again and again, as in a mirror through which we glimpse our own forgotten faces. When told by a skilled hand, the story need not resemble our own for us to seek recognition through it. In Vicki Derderian’s “Tango,” a neglectful mother seeks affirmation from her caretaker, while the daughter prays for a display of affection that will never come. Not even the proximity of death can overcome the walls between them, walls formed by years of neglect and bitter laughter.

Still, “Tango” is a love letter, addressed to a mother who, in life and in death, will never hear her daughter’s wish to be held. I chose Derderian’s story for its clarity and lyricism, and for the unflinching way it navigates the narrator’s complex desire for reconciliation.

Why are the absent sometimes the most present people in our lives? Why do they haunt us? “You are not the most important character in my story,” the daughter writes, in denial, as she distances herself physically from her mother and her home, the way she cannot do emotionally. In the grip of memory, Derderian’s narrator reminds us that new beginnings are elusive, and the present is just a dance between the past and the future.

–Elinam Agbo, MQR Staff

When you froze like a statue. When you stared at a rack of birthday cards for two hours and then forgot to mail one to me. When you got lost in Walgreens and had to be rescued by my grade school bully. When you thought a camera was hidden in the Nguyens’ planter to spy on you. When you shattered the planter. When you hid twenties between the pages of Smithsonian. When you raked leaves in the rain for four hours straight. When you screeched and Mrs. Nguyen thought it was a cat or a hawk, until she found you sprawled out in the grass, your brittle arm a broken twig. When you stopped cooking. When you stopped eating. When you called the Nguyens Vietnamese gangbangers. When you called the police on them. When you accused me of stealing from you. When you said my name in a flat way like a stranger. When you said I betrayed you. When you hung up on me. When you said your life was shit.

You couldn’t live alone anymore, so I found a place that would take you. It had no “smell,” which meant it was a good place.

You move into a room with a stranger. Your clothes don’t fit anymore. You need smaller pants and washable sweaters and warm gloves. You need your name written on all the tags. You need a cd player and soothing music and a pink Himalayan salt lamp that emits healing ions. You need snacks — eight-ounce cokes and mini yogurts and oatmeal cookies and Pringles potato chips. You need family photos that won’t upset you. You need a calendar with inoffensive subject matter. You complain that sun-drenched islands and Irish castles are a tease of all the places you can no longer go. You frown at the joke-of-the-month and call me a smart aleck. You tear up backyard birds because the comic sans font vexes you.

“My birds are italic! You’re so selfish!”

You trash your room. You twist the arms of your roommate’s glasses and shred her grandchildren’s drawings. You refuse to be medicated, screaming that you are being poisoned. Security is called, and you are restrained in a special chair next to the nurses’ station like a naughty student who must sit next to the teacher. Afterward you are assigned a single and a one-on-one named April.

She is young and pretty with a blonde ponytail that wags when you shower her with “abrazos!” There was a time when you would have disdainfully called her “farm girl,” but now you confide in her about your tragic childhood, your endless victimhood. She rests her milky cheek against your floury one to hear your secrets. She is your protector. Politely, April inquires about friends and family. You tell her how when the Nguyens moved in, they invited everyone to an open house, but you were the only one to show up. How you welcomed them with a jade plant, a symbol of luck and long life. You describe how Mrs. Nguyen cupped her hands around it and said that it must go in a place of honor. How she bowed in front of a porcelain vessel decorated with blue dragons, their one surviving possession salvaged after the fall of Saigon. How she scratched a little hole in the dirt with her hands right then and there.

You falter and catch April’s arm. “Doll, you are special. A darling. What would I do without you? You are my lifeline!”

You cry out that she is your family, that you have no one else.

To continue reading, purchase MQR 57:4 or consider a one-year subscription. This story appeared in the Fall 2018 – Caregiving Issue of MQR.

Image: le Rat, Blek. “Last Tango in Paris.” Graffiti street art. 

Vicki Derderian is a writer living in North Carolina. She is working on a collection of short stories.

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