All the Beautiful Young Men

Rachel Cann

June 2, 2022


Some people handle divorce with amazing composure. I wasn’t one of them. Even back then I knew that somehow I was unlovable, that I was different, that no one would ever love me for more than a one-night stand. Taxi drivers made rude comments. Construction workers whistled. The occasional repairman coming to the house, the doctor, the dentist, the lawyer for my divorce — they all tried to test my availability, made me feel cheap, as if there were a sign on my forehead: EASY. I seldom left the house unless I had to, and otherwise visited often with my mother who had moved to Florida some years before.

My mother got sick of my moping and practically forced me to go to a downtown bar where it was rumored lawyers went on Friday afternoons because it was near the courthouse. I found the lounge easily enough but getting a drink meant weaving through broad backs four deep at the bar. I circled on watery knees, raising my hand a couple of times like a grade school kid asking permission to use the lavatory, trying to get the bartender’s attention. Every seat was filled. Everyone talking to everyone else, all attractive, well-heeled professionals. I passed among them without making eye contact, without my shoulders even brushing their fine clothes, like a skier vedeling down an obstacle course, my brave smiles, when dared, unreturned. It was as if I were invisible!

“Ma!” I wailed into the mouthpiece of the payphone outside. “I can’t do this.” I could feel the edges of my Peter Pan collar losing its starch in the humidity and the deluge of tears dripping down my cheeks. I was not a woman who cried easily. To look at me, you would never know how frail my self-esteem was, nor would you think I’d never had a New Year’s date, never been fixed up on a blind date by a friend or relative, and through four years of college in what was reputed to be a big party school, never been invited to a party! I married the first boy I ever kissed, ruining, for all intents and purposes, both our lives, as well as the life of a child who deserved better. Thirty-four years old and crammed into the back bedroom of my mother’s house without a single idea of how to get on with my life.

When I met Carlos at the Pasadena Marina, I was checking out a houseboat I’d seen advertised in the Boat Trader. What a great thing if you didn’t get along with your neighbors: just pull up anchor and head for another marina, hook up to the electric and water, fire up the barbecue, and shake up a few margaritas in the never-used crystal and silver shaker left over from wedding gifts. The top of the houseboat was flat, and I could just imagine a tricycle up there, a play area, with maybe a little awning stretched from side to side to protect the little one’s head from the mean summer sun. The owner turned out to be an Italian man in Bermuda shorts, a week’s salt and pepper stubble on his cheeks. Arrested for stashing a handgun in his luggage on a shark-fishing trip to the Keys, he needed to sell in a hurry to cover his legal fees. The way he was looking me up and down, I could tell he found me attractive. I’d grown up around Italian men who had a way of undressing you with their eyes without making you feel uncomfortable — a dance of the pheromones sensible only to those willing to accept it for what it was: harmless flirting. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Twenty-six thousand,” he said, brown eyes sparkling, his eyebrows rising potent with meaning, an invitation tossed like dice in a crapshoot. “I’ll even throw in my waterbed.”

All I was interested in was finding a place to live. Once I was settled, I could concentrate on finding a father for my little boy. I gave the place a quick looksee. It seemed perfect. Everything is compact in a houseboat. The bedroom was about nine by ten. Built-in wooden drawers on one wall instead of a dresser. A galley kitchen, just big enough to whip up some gourmet: shiny wine glasses hanging upside down in a row over the counter, stereo sweet and soft, air conditioning on goose bump high. I could just see my little blue houseboat docked in Miami, right near those million-dollar floating palaces... The parties I would have, the movie stars I would meet. Who wanted to be married, anyway?

Through the sliding glass doors facing the dock I could see the brown, sturdy legs of the quintessential beach boy. His thick black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his eyes were hidden behind Ray-Bans. He wore a pair of denim cut-offs and nothing else. His skin had the sheen of satin. The most beautiful man I had ever seen: proportionate, healthy-looking, and dark. His face was reminiscent of a Gauguin, or the exotic broad-featured Polynesian women I’d seen in an old Marlon Brando movie, a flower tucked behind one ear as they swam towards the Bounty. “Who,” I asked, “is that?”

“That’s our trust fund baby,” said my host. “Carlos. Five thousand a month without lifting a finger. A really nice guy. And I guess I won’t be seeing you again.”

“Don’t be so sure. I’m hot for buying your boat,” I answered, over my shoulder. “Let me just think about it a bit.” The outside air hit me like a furnace blast. I nearly fell into Carlos’s arms. “What’dya think?” I asked. “Should I buy it?”

“Have you got a captain’s license? Because if you don’t, you’ll need to hire someone every time you want to go anywhere. This baby doesn’t come with a motor. You’ll have to get a tow and they don’t come cheap.”

I had a lot to learn, that was for sure. Carlos became my tutor, leading me into his territory, showing me its richness, its backwards swimming shrimp sparkling like diamonds by night, snorkeling for stone crabs by the Skyway Bridge by day. Cigarette racing boats and Thai sticks. Born and bred a city girl, I felt so out of place, I think he felt sorry for me. Whenever we went to island beach parties, called “kegs,” other tanned young men welcomed him, slapped him on the back, had brief exchanges beyond earshot. At first, I thought everyone in Florida kept marijuana in aluminum trash cans, that he was popular and knew everyone because he’d grown up there.

Abandoned as a baby by his Indian mother, he’d been adopted by a wealthy banker in South America. “Colooombia,” he would say, mouth rounded mantra-like, until I got it right. His adoptive parents had been killed in a car accident, and he’d been sent to military school, raised among the rich and privileged children whose parents, according to Carlos, were just too busy making money to give their children a proper upbringing.

Once, he took me to visit his married and quite bearded friend, Hebe. Hebe and his wife made pottery in South Carolina during the summer months, wintering in Florida every year. They lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment, furnished with that was then called “tacky chic,” odds and ends picked up at flea markets and garage sales. When I asked how much they were paying for rent, Carlos’s face froze, his voice twanging with a nasal superiority, embarrassing me in front of his friends. “Don’t you know enough not to discuss money?”

I felt myself shrink and said nothing. He’d been so kind up until then, it seemed a small thing to forgive. It was enough that he liked me, considering what a basket case I was, considering he was my only friend in what was a strange new environment. He said he liked me because I had an appreciation for fine dining and because I didn’t wear a lot of make-up and jewelry, wasn’t silly like most women he’d dated. And probably what he liked about me most was the way I worshipped him! From the first moment we met, everything felt right.

We were almost mirror images from slim hips to woeful-looking eyes to a practiced air of diffidence and contemptuous glances. I wasn’t intimidated at all by his wealth. To me, he would always be the poor abandoned little Indian baby, raised by starched-shirted military men. I guessed what Carlos, who wasn’t a big talker, wanted more than anything was a family.

But the first time he came to pick me up at my mother’s house in his Jeep, barefoot and carrying a bottle of Bud, my mother took an instant dislike. My brother and I were in the bedroom with Carlos, watching a black and white television when she called me aside to give me one of those “when you live under my roof” speeches. And the night he kept me out late to check the rising floods and dock damages from a tornado, I could hardly believe it when she made me stand in a corner until dawn. How could I tell her that the relationship was beyond lust for of course that had to be what she was protecting me from. Isn’t that always the way with mothers? Between his do-me attitude, my shyness, and his history with cocaine, she needn’t have worried. The relationship had to run its own course.

The day we were down the Keys he gave me a five-minute lesson on how to clear my dive mask with spit and how to breathe with the regulator, instructing me to hold my breath between the inhale and exhale to make the air in the tank last longer. I’m not a strong swimmer and when he pushed me into fifteen feet of water, flippers and all, I was unprepared and terrified. The waters of the Keys are crystal clear and the beauty of the reefs soon revealed its wonders. It was a peak experience for which I will always be grateful. Somehow, conquering my fear and becoming one with nature was life-changing.

“That was awesome,” I said later, clambering aboard his little dinghy, all arms and legs and heavy equipment on my back. Most people take weeks of lessons before they’re ready for a dive. I was so proud of myself for not drowning. “But what were those little fish following me?”

“Barracuda,” he said, laughing. It was probably the only time I saw a light in his eyes.

Then there was the party in Miami he said I wouldn’t want to miss. I still remember the host’s expression of shock, quickly veiled, when I arrived with a babe in arms at the front door. It was a Spanish-style mansion, with a red Mansard roof, hidden deep in four acres of jungle on the edge of a golf course. The estate had several guesthouses on its periphery, each with a different international motif. The wine cellar resembled a small Swiss chalet and was, no doubt, at one time or another, featured in Architectural Digest.

“Any friend of Carlos is a friend of mine,” said the host, a National Geographic photographer, bowing a little pretentiously as I passed the threshold into a cavernous living room where the other guests were assembled. He was a white-haired man with grace enough to show me into his bedroom where I placed the sleeping baby into a bed built like a Viking ship in full sail, twenty-foot masts reaching up to the ceiling! Carlos had been right. Seeing this bed was worth the price of a plane ticket.

Bwana Bwana, the Mighty Hunter, dressed in safari khaki and a pith helmet, had plenty of pictures of himself on the living room walls. In the middle of the room was the biggest fireplace I had ever seen. A white bearskin, complete with head and open mouth with huge teeth, lay in front of it. African spears and drums collected in one corner. Skins of tigers and zebras decorated one wall. A taxidermied lion’s head in mid-roar looked over the virtual graveyard. But it was the elephants that spooked me the most: a huge chair built from an elephant’s foot, elephant footstools, even elephant foot ashtrays. The real McCoy. If man cannot save the elephant, how can he save himself? It was all I could do not to throw up. It didn’t matter that no one spoke to me or asked for my opinion, which I, shrinking violet or not, would most certainly have given if it were not for the fact that it was a rainy night and there were no planes leaving for home until morning.

By now, I knew that Carlos and I were not meant to be. I was with child, a child he could not find it in his heart to love. That was always the way with the single men I met. Not an easy thing to admit so they always found excuses. So far, I had heard it was because I didn’t wear blue jeans, couldn’t play tennis or ski. “You’re six months older than I am,” Carlos reasoned. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but maybe he was. It was hard to tell if he was kidding since his expression never changed. “And I get the feeling you’re going to run to pot.” He was referring to those little love handles that come along when the metabolism slows. Depression will add an extra ten pounds.

“And you,” I retorted. “I can just see you carrying a briefcase when you’re forty with a thick waist and a butt as big as all outdoors.” I didn’t know what he would be carrying in his briefcase, but I was thinking he couldn’t just do nothing for the rest of his life, that some kind of legitimate business would come into his head. One can only sand and plane boat projects for so long. The fiberglass gets into one’s pores and is apt to wear out even the staunchest of seamen.

If nobody wanted us by the time each of us was forty, we would get married. This was my half-baked idea. I never really thought he would have any trouble finding someone to love him. He was not without charm and elan. But then there was the night he invited me out to dinner with a few friends. I learned that no matter how well you think you know someone, you don’t, for seated next to him across the dinner table was the most painted-up vixen I had ever acquainted: tons of mascara, jangly bracelets up and down both arms, fire-engine-red talons raking through his jet-black hair, marking her territory like a pissing cat. I could hardly wait to get her in the powder room to tell her what was what. “How long have you known Carlos?” I asked. She was putting on another coat of lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror.

“We’ve been dating for a couple of months,” she answered. “And you?”

“A couple of years.” She did not need to know that I was just visiting again, that he’d even come to my hometown to visit, that love could have blossomed had we both been able to reveal our passions and needs instead of whatever it was that kept us from doing so. Making love to Carlos, the way he was then, would have been close to necrophilia. Carlos was cool. Always cool, as if nothing could pierce his reserve. When I returned to the table alone, he never asked after her whereabouts, just continued chatting in Spanish to his visiting cousins, picked up the check, and dropped me off at my mother’s without apologizing for the "double date."

The years went by quickly enough and I became forty. I was a native by then, comfortable with my middle-aged spread and myself in general. I still hadn’t found a father for my son, but I was reasonably happy or something close to it. I asked around and got Carlos’s address. He’d been married and had a son of his own, and unfortunately had become an almost permanent resident at the Tallahassee Correctional Institute, doing a hard twenty for drug dealing. I flew to visit him in a six-passenger plane. The visiting room at the prison was well-lit, revealing all the beautiful young men dressed in identical denim uniforms, sitting with worried faces at tables across from their lawyers. Yellow legal pads, open briefcases stuffed with papers. That day, at least, I was the only woman. Carlos seemed glad to see me, all limitations gone. He wasn’t all clammed up the way he used to be. What point was there in berating him? We all make mistakes. I was filled with sadness remembering the carefree boys I’d seen at those kegs, throwing frisbees for their dogs; the shining chrome of their boats; the freedom we all took for granted.

“Now you know what it means to have a child,” I said, after he filled me in on the sad details of his marriage. It had been two years since she’d paid him a visit.

“Yes,” he said. “There’s nothing more important to me.”

“But why did they give you such a long sentence?”

A touch of sarcasm crept into his voice. “They called me The Colombian Connection,” he said. “Just because of where I’m from. I wasn’t even involved with any of the big guys. Just pot and small-time stuff. The big guys are dropping it by the ton onto Governor Connelly’s ranch in Texas.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I can’t follow all that CIA and Noriega stuff in the newspapers. It’s too mind-boggling.”

“It’s all about money.” He waved his hand around the room indicating everyone else. Not a white hair in the crowd. “For fifty thousand they’ll let me out, according to my lawyer. But I wanted them to put it in writing and they won’t. Maybe I would give them ten for every year they knock off.”

“Do you trust him?”

“He’s the family lawyer. Used to work for my father.”

I asked him where the money goes.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re a smart girl.”

“The judge?”

“And the prosecuting attorney.”

Rachel has published fifty-one stories throughout the independent literary community, the first of which appeared in Spare Change, Boston's homeless newspaper. She hopes to soon publish per memoir, Connection (Love in the Time of the Mafia). In her spare time, she volunteers for a local charity delivering food to the needy. Rachel's grandmother was a gypsy princess who escaped from a concentration camp. She once lived in her Cadillac with three Dalmatians, and won a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center.