The men in my family were good providers or drifters to be pitied. They could be brave, like the uncle who was an Army paratrooper, or successful, like Uncle Pete, a businessman with a thriving tax business, a funeral parlor and a small convoy of hotdog carts. Some, like my father, were called decent and hard-working. The rare few who remained unmarried and childless and left the area of the three counties in which all my other relatives lived were rarely spoken of, but when they were, it was in that tone of anxious sympathy my aunts reserved for acquaintances who had gone bankrupt or lost a finger in an accident.
But no one ever called any of my uncles or cousins or any of the more numerous and distant relatives who appeared at weddings and funerals beautiful. With the phrase’s disturbing undercurrent of femininity, a beautiful man was someone to be feared instead of admired: a man with a trace of softness. Real men were supposed to be rough, scarred by the world and furrowed with responsibility. They could be handsome, in the way a well-crafted oak desk or leather-upholstered sofa might be, but not beautiful.
The men in my family did not ordinarily talk about the way other men looked. Even if they had, and even if they had been comfortable with the word, no one would have called any of the men in my family beautiful because, in fact, none really was. Except my Uncle Ricky.
He was the youngest of my uncles, only fifteen years my senior. I have a picture of him taken at the reception following his wedding to my aunt, retrieved from a box of photographs my mother had kept; my brother gave it to me because I’m standing in the background, a tiny figure half-hidden in the shadow of an elm tree.
It didn’t occur to me at first to wonder why I was standing under the tree a few yards from him. There are likely explanations. I was waiting for the barbecue or for my father to bring the car around. I was bored with the games of catch my cousins were playing. I had spotted and followed a box turtle waddling onto the lawn. But I know now. Before I dared to think of men as beautiful, I looked at him in a way I didn’t look at my cousins or other uncles.
In the picture Ricky is standing in contrapposto with his hands in the pockets of a size-too-small rented tuxedo, a cowboy lounging around in borrowed Sunday clothes. He looks like a dark-haired James Dean, with a broad forehead and a strong jaw still free of the sash of flesh that hung below my other uncles’ chins. I see his pale, unblemished skin taut against the relief of his high cheekbones and the shadow caught in the slight hollow in his cheek. The sharp angularity of his face is relieved only by his large brown eyes, each crowned by a thin perfect arc of brow, and his thick well-formed lips.
I could not have noticed these details at the time, but I see him now for the beautiful man he was. As I boy I only thought he looked like one of the superheroes in the comic books I read, or the figures in a book of paintings my Uncle Leonard had.
Many years later during a trip to Rome I would see the painting that made the greatest impression on me and in which I had recognized Ricky. He was the young Christ in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. This is a spare and swarthy Messiah, younger than the Jesus depicted in The Taking of Christ, less muscular than the one in the Entombment, but more darkly attractive than either.
Ricky hadn’t been born; he’d been drawn by an artist with a love of the male body, and given life.
I look at the photograph and wonder how the other women in my mothers’ family saw him as they sat at their tables for the reception later that evening, whether they envied my aunt for the seductive, beautiful man she had married or thanked God for the dependable, beer-bellied one who sat at their side, even when later in their lives they would chafe at this same dependability, as one does in a woolen shirt worn in warm weather. Did they imagine him making love to them, or did they think of her reckless, the sister with the most education who had married a man with the least promising prospects?
Ricky and I never talked very much. The longest conversation we had was when he drove me back home once after I had cycled down to see them in high school.
“Your father says you’re smart,” he asked in the car on the way back.
“I guess,” I said.
“What’s it like?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I never thought about it,” I said. “It just happens. I can see the way to the answer.”
I wanted to ask him what it was like being beautiful, but I knew this was a question I dare not pose. Why would I have noticed what a man looks like?
But I thought about it the rest of the trip back and for a long time afterwards.
I wonder now what it would be like to be as beautiful as Ricky was. Not just good-looking or attractive, but devastatingly beautiful, a black hole of desire that would make strangers turn on the street to look at you, mindless of the upcoming fissure in the sidewalk, entranced, incapacitated. What would it feel like to know that the sight of you alone would cause their pulse to quicken slightly and a sudden, almost imperceptible wave of warmth to flush their groin?
If Ricky was aware of his beauty, he gave no sign of it. It was as if he hand’t realized how much at variance he was with the physical ordinariness of the men and women around him. Perhaps he had always known he was different, but had grown impervious to the way that women (and a few men, too) looked at him, as burned-out teachers might to the look of boredom or inquisitiveness in their students’ faces. This is what I do. I turn heads.
If he had thrived on the attention, the way a performer is charged by the attention and applause of the audience, he dazzled without rehearsal. He had no lines to recite or song to sing. Nor did he have any of the qualities we ordinarily think of when we imagine an attractive man: charisma, wit, self-confidence, a way with telling stories, elegance, success. Ricky didn’t need to do anything, except be Ricky.
If beauty provokes awe in a way that intelligence or athletic prowess does, it enjoys a different, less overt kind of affirmation. In school, skill, strength and speed were judged and scored in each race or game. Intelligence was tested, graded and ranked. If beauty was praised, it was obliquely so.
Ricky had no record of achievements. His was a different kind of daily recognition, as I noticed when I got older. People smiled at him more readily than they would at others. Women perked up when they saw him, straightened their backs and fixed their hair, as if subconsciously preening themselves for his audience. They wanted to do things for him. I was no different.
He warmed to them, though it was only out of good manners. Down to earth and devoid of any note of pretension, Ricky made others feel welcome in his presence. There was no artifice to his affability, but no substance either, for at heart Ricky was detached from those around him.
He seemed genuinely pleased to see you, but in the way one is friendly to the barista or the passenger sitting next to you on a long train ride. He was comfortable in the others’ company because he had so few demands of it. He said little, but people seemed more than willing to fill in the gaps.
As I was to learn much later, his reticence was the mark of an overwhelming sadness. I was too young at the time, too peripheral and infrequent a visitor to be able to read his unhappiness, though an older, wiser eye, my aunt’s or mother’s perhaps, would have seen it, as a mason might notice the faint yellow stain that reveals the dampness seeping into the wall.
I cannot know what lay at the root of Ricky’s depression, not what would have rescued him from it. He had the makings of a happy, if modest and ordinary life: a loving wife, his own house, and a more or less regular, if poorly paying job. He had no calling, as far as I could tell, nor was he exceptionally good at anything, though he knew his way around car engines. But many have lived a contented life with less.
He was extraordinary in a way that his brothers-in-law could never be, despite their bravery and success, for these are virtues shared by many men. Ricky was an outlier because of his beauty. If it was a gift, it was one that did not come with the expectations that come with the bestowal of extraordinary talent, or so I imagine, since I have never been beautiful and have no idea what it was like for Ricky to be so desired.
In another world, one in which Ricky would have left the scrubland and small town of his birthplace and moved to the city, he might have been discovered. Had he hung out in certain bars and clubs, or drank his morning coffee in the cafés of the Village or uptown Manhattan, he might have been seen by those in search of beauty. He wasn’t tall enough to be a runway model, but his face could easily have graced advertisements for cologne or eyeglasses or a button-down shirt. He could have been a model, when not a muse, for a painter or photographer. He was not much different from the man who modeled for Caravaggio’s Christ figure whom he so resembled—a commoner, a swordsman, a drinking buddy. He could have been in pictures.
I don’t know if the knowledge that he gave pleasure to countless women and men who would have seen him in photographs and films would have relieved his innate sadness. I am just sad that he is remembered among us only for his tragedy.
Featured image: Caravaggio, “The Calling of St. Matthew”, 1599