TITLE: 26th on the 11th
DATE: 2/12/2005 02:04:00 PM
Michele, DJ, Paul and Beana are already laying in to the stuffed grape leaves and fried zucchini when, from the corner of the room, a rhythmic ringing sound completely takes over the spectrum of our hearing, pitched just so among the sounds in the room that it wipes out the lower tones of conversation and the high whine of clinking glasses and the deep, barely palpable buzz of the simple being in the room, and so because we are animals and though we sit upright and eat with forks we respond to bodily signals first, our alarm turns us to the corner where the ringing emanates.
And there's a woman in a flowing deep purple costume, and the ringing comes from the gold finger cymbals on her hands, and relieved, we laugh and clap for her as she glides toward the front of the room.
It's a routine that's been getting attention for centuries. We're no match for it.
The woman, white, with a faint she-mullet, begins to jiggle her hips. The dance, probably a rudimentary form of stripping, seems careful and quaint next to the pole-swinging antics elsewhere in town. Behind her, three men that comedically match their instruments--the oldest and thinnest on violin, the youngest and strongest on lute, the fattest playing a great deep-bellied drum with his hands--provide her rhythm.
This isn't a woman that would make it in most strip clubs or calendars or centerfolds. Her face is plain and as she strips off the gauzy purple scarf that had partially covered her from shoulder to waist a little pouch of belly fat is unmistakable above the waistband of her lower garment. Her arms are round and plump as she raises them above her head, turns her face in towards one elbow and jiggles her torso from side to side, bending her knees slightly. But on that plain face of hers, turned demurely, is a smile that puts Mona Lisa to shame.
When she turns, you can see tattoos on her shoulders and in the small of her back. In all, she looks as though she'd be more "in place" in a leather jacket and stonewashed jeans. But here she is, and her simple lack of apology for any of the flaws of her body--in fact her seeming joy in them as she twists and weaves her hands through the air and shakes her hips back and forth in the rhythm of this ancient dance that celebrates the fact that women have hips and bellies--is what makes her convincing.
After a while, to my open-mouthed surprise, three more women, this time diners from one of the tables in the restaurant--get up to join her, dressed more casually, of course, but the three of them begin that twisting, careful, erotic dance, and suddenly a concept of womanhood ancient and entirely separate from modern-day ideals of silicone-pumped, painted androgyny fills the room like a perfume. One of the women is old, with dyed hair and heavy makeup and skeletal hands, but she dances with a soft smirk on her face, a kind of knowing glance of wisdom toward her younger, beautiful counterpart with all the flowing black curled hair and the slim body that has never known children or hardship, and it makes her the most beautiful woman in the room.
Later the belly-dancer changes back into modern clothes and the old woman and the young, beautiful woman, and another blonde woman who clearly has no clue what she's doing dance in a circle, a simple shuffling step in one direction, then a hitching backstep in the other direction, then the circle seems to sigh back in the first direction, till finally it stops and repeats itself backwards, and repeats and repeats itself until the effect is of a mantra, of the same simple yet profound sentence heard again and again, while the waitress sets plates piled high with baked lamb and rice and lima beans in front of Michele and Beana.
I'm not eating--I'd eaten already and despite appearances, I have a very narrow palate--but it's enough for me to sit and sip Amaretto Sours and watch, as a waitress brings over a flat round platter of cheese, ringed with slices of sausage, topped with a sheet of blue and yellow flame that she puts out theatrically with juice from a lemon. The food and the dance and the music blend together into one experience, and I'm experiencing two out of three, at least, and it is beautiful and astonishing.
I've never been to a Greek restaurant before. We're here because of Michele's 26th birthday; Michele, who once worked at a Greek restaurant herself, has a taste for this food--and now, I see, for the warm, complete sensory experience of it. She makes me try as much as she can, letting me take a little bite of the lamb, letting me discover that I like the fried zucchini, letting me sip from the tiny cup of Greek coffee after the appetizer, soup, salad and main courses. I nibble, there's not much I like the taste of, and yet I can't help the feeling that this is real eating, this is how people have been eating for centuries and centuries until cars and computers and skyscrapers reduced us to eating as afterthought--suddenly, surrounded by this music and this atmosphere the idea of eating at a drive-through seems something sad enough to cry over. I suddenly feel cheated thinking of all the times I've settled for a soggy hamburger in the car as the women dance and the men laugh and cry "Hopa!" and the music continues, constant, flooding everything with a feeling of peace.
When Michele and I go upstairs to use the bathroom the young woman from the dance is there, and to my utter disbelief she is standing in front of the sink drying her hands in bare feet. Her naked feet are just sitting there, as unapologetic as the rest of her, their red-painted toenails gleaming in the ultraviolet lights, standing in the public bathroom barefoot. She is perfect and defiant and so gorgeous I avert my eyes and duck into a stall. Michele, more confident, chats with her a bit.
Later, Michele and I take our places in front of the sink and regard ourselves in the mirror for a while. I don't know how to feel, looking at my reflection. I don't know how I compare to those bold women downstairs, and suddenly I feel despair at having chastised myself for so long about the way I compare to such a wrong idea of beauty--when this is the one I should have been chasing, that perfect and ancient power of women that floods the room with the musky scent of lamb downstairs.
I turn away from the mirror. "Well." I say, striking my usual pose of false sarcastic bravery again. "That's enough of that for one day."
"Beth." Michele tells me, smiling, as we head back to the table. "When you're cynical...you're beautiful."