Perfect Partners

For her, the tango was more than just a dance, and Angelo more than just a partner.

Posted in , Jun 30, 2014

Antoinette embraces her husband, Angelo

“Nothing big for my birthday this year,” I warned my husband, Angelo. “No surprises, okay?”

“Don’t worry about it, Antoinette,” he said. I wasn’t sure if I trusted him, though. Angelo was such a sentimental guy. It was hard to imagine he wouldn’t want to celebrate this birthday “milestone.”

The last thing I wanted for my 50th was some over-the-top bash with tons of people. Angelo loved parties, especially surprise parties. Me? I hated surprises.

I guess you could say I’m a bit of a control freak. All right, more than a bit. I write lists for everything. I make lists of lists I need to make! Angelo? He’s the exact opposite. Happy-go-lucky. Laid-back. Impetuous. Romantic.

His calm attitude kept me grounded through the big stuff, like when my father was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and Angelo was my rock. When it came to the small stuff, that was a different story.

I worried Angelo would be late picking up our eight-year-old son, Joseph, from school. Or that he wouldn’t get dinner ready in time. I was constantly leaving him notes and reminders. My birthday was one more thing to worry about. And a surprise was the last thing I needed.

I hated feeling my life was out of control. I’d sworn that would never happen again. And I knew one thing: I would never allow a man to control my life again.

Before I met Angelo, I went through a difficult divorce. At 36, after 10 years of marriage, all my plans were in ruins. My life list was in tatters. I desperately wanted to put the past behind me and trust God with the future. But in the back of my mind, I had my doubts. Could I ever trust again?

Which was maybe why I became even more of a control freak. I spent weekends holed up at home. Going out and trying to meet another guy was asking for trouble, asking for my life to be turned upside down. Finally my mom suggested tango lessons. Seriously! She’d heard of a six-week course at a nearby high school. 

I’d taken tap lessons with Fred Kelly–younger brother of Gene–as a kid. I liked the structure of tap, even then–learning steps, nice and neat. I wanted to feel like that again. But I couldn’t find a dance partner. I’d asked some of the guys at work–they’d all gone pale at the word tango.

My sister, Joanne, had promised to join me in the lessons. The week before they were going to start, she dragged me to a fifties dance club to knock some rust off our dancing skills. All at once she was pointing to someone across the room and nudging me. I put on my glasses to take a look.

A tall guy with long, curly black hair. He was wearing a billowy white shirt. Very Pirates of Penzance. I needed a tango partner, right? This guy fit the bill perfectly, down to the outfit. Before I could talk myself out of it, I marched over to him and introduced myself.

“Sono Angelo,” he said after an awkward pause. “Io non parlo Inglese. Sono Italiano.” His friend Marcos translated. Angelo was from Italy, on a two-month- long vacation visiting family in New Jersey.

Even better, I thought. No chance this would turn into anything, and normally I’d run the other direction from a shirt like that.

“You guys want to tango with us next week?” I asked. I did a little dance to demonstrate, putting up my arms tango-style. “Tannnggo?”

Angelo’s face lit up. His eyes danced. “Si, tango! Mi piace il tango.”

Then he disappeared. Just ran off. He reappeared minutes later with a red rose. Guess that’s how Italians say yes!

The following week, when Joanne and I arrived at the high school gym, I found Angelo waiting inside, ready to tango. “Bellissima!” he cried when he spotted me, raising his hands and waving.

I smiled, cautious. This was just a way to get out of the house. No way was I going to get swept off my feet by some Casanova straight from Italy.

The instructor strode into the gym. He was wearing a silk shirt with wide, frilly sleeves. It made what Angelo had had on that first night seem like a button-down Oxford by comparison.

“The Argentine tango is poetry in motion,” the instructor proclaimed. “First, we will learn how to walk. Gentlemen–lean on your partner. Guide her in the right direction. And ladies–trust that he won’t lead you into a brick wall!”

Polite laughter broke out, but frankly, the idea of trusting a man made me queasy. Angelo touched my arm. It was so strange–his grip was both firm and gentle, commanding yet respectful.

He led me onto the dance floor. We rehearsed some steps. I felt myself relax for the first time in I don’t know how long. I didn’t even mind too much that the man takes control in the tango.

My high school Italian finally came in handy. I pieced together that Angelo was an artist who designed mosaics for buildings throughout Europe. He had just finished working on an intricate stone courtyard for a castle in Germany.

He talked to his mother regularly, hummed Italian folk songs and once nursed a wounded bird back to health. Too good to be true, this guy. We parted ways after class.

I figured I’d never see him again. Probably for the best. Already I was daydreaming about him–that was a bad sign. Surely God wasn’t leading me to this guy. We didn’t even live in the same country.

Angelo showed up the next week, though, ready to tango. After class he asked me out. I said yes. What was the harm? It was just dinner.

That one dinner turned into many. I tried to convince myself that our relationship was nothing serious. Angelo had to go back to Italy at some point. I knew that.

But by week three, he’d become a regular at my parents’ house. He was so kind, so attentive. He’d even been watching American movies on a loop to learn English–just for me.

The tango, though, was our favorite way of conversing. The Argentine tango was very different from tap. It was improvisational. Spontaneous. No two dances were the same.

I was in Angelo’s hands, relying on him to lead me left or right, wherever the music took him. Every time I got too caught up in the intricacy of the steps or stared down at my feet, I tripped us up.

“No, no,” Angelo said kindly, showing me how to turn. “Like this.” I had no choice. I could trust his lead or fall on my face. Even with all that had happened in my life I found myself trusting Angelo. Trusting him and more.

But what about our relationship? Angelo had already extended his vacation by two weeks. In truth, I wasn’t even sure how he felt about me. He was affectionate and demonstrative, but maybe that was just the way he was. Maybe it didn’t mean as much as I’d come to hope.

The week before our last class, we went out to dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant. I was fidgeting, tearing my napkin into little pieces. He reached across the table and took my hand, just as gently as he had in that first class.

That’s what I loved most about him. He knew me so well. He could calm my nerves with one gesture.

I took a deep breath. I’d take a chance. Improvise, like we’d done so many times with the tango. Trust my heart and trust what God had put into it.

“Angelo,” I said, “you are my life.” Those words, words I thought I’d never say again, felt so good to say, no matter how Angelo responded.

“Antoinetta,” he said, “you are my whole life.”

Angelo decided to stay in America. Even so, the what-ifs didn’t automatically disappear. There were still twists and turns, moments we never planned for. But I was learning you can’t always plan your life, and so often there is a better plan than you could ever dream.

I turned to Angelo now. We’d been married for eight years and his eyes still danced like they had when we first talked. I thought about the steps of the tango. The spontaneous beauty of it all. And how Angelo had won me over, easing my fears little by little.

God had used him to teach me to trust again. I’d always be a little uptight and my husband would always be a little laid-back. That’s what makes us perfect partners.

I took his hand. “I’ve changed my mind,” I said. “Plan whatever you like for my birthday.”

“What do you want, Antoinette? I’ll do anything for you!”

I gave him a smile and then a hug. “Surprise me,” I said.


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