That summer I had a job in a café in a sea town along the Mediterranean. It was mostly a resort town in the season, but also — out-of-season — a retirement favorite especially of older veterans who wanted to live quietly in a warm climate without anything interfering with their drinking. In addition, of course, it was a fishing town as it had been for centuries but now it was nothing like it was once. People said it probably wouldn’t last much longer, the way things were going. Fewer and fewer fish, more and more rules.
I was only there for the season while I waited for a scholarship to come through so I could return to art school. It was a great place to paint sailing ships both large and small. I was particularly fond of the ones with red sails. Not many yachts came along. Sometimes I bought a fish, just to paint, since I pretty much ate at the café, one of the advantages. Fish are pretty interesting to paint because they take reflections and then there’s the pattern of the scales. By the time I was through with a study, the fish was generally pretty smelly and rotten enough to glow in the dark, so I gave it to the cats always hanging around.
There was a ballet school not far from the café and the students often came in, though they didn’t eat much. They smoked a bit of kif and drank a lot of coffee. High-strung but funny, they were colorful, and the owner of the place didn’t mind them not buying much because he knew they didn’t have much money and anyway they gave the place a lot of life. They would demonstrate dance moves which was fine as long as it was port de bras, arm gestures, but they were forbidden to try leaps because if they were a bit drunk, they crashed into the tables and broke things. Sometimes they did little hustling, but the owner didn’t care. Who cares in summer in a resort town? No one will ever see each other again anyway, unless these dancers somehow managed to get into the same dance company.
There was one man — well, more of a boy — who stood out. His moves were so sinuous and languid that he seemed to be underwater or slo-mo. He was clearly Russian like Nureyev with that same sensual body, but not yet the muscular definition he would develop soon. He had the golden skin, the high cheekbones, the slightly almond eyes (with skillful near-theatrical makeup), and the full mouth. His long straight hair was bleached almost white. He usually wore a tuxedo jacket too big for him with the sleeves rolled up but no shirt under it. His low-slung pants were practically tights. Sometimes he added a bit of costume, maybe a hat or bright scarf, and always a gold crucifix. Those Russians must have their icons.
He was graceful, feline, alluring — anyone would want him, but he was also clearly only interested in men. Still, he was nice to me, an Irish girl with red curls and the usual freckles and extra bit of padding. Never on this earth could I be a ballet dancer! I didn’t feel superior since I sometimes went off for the night with one of the older men. I come from a family of Ulster men and know how to wake a man who fights in his dreams without getting clobbered myself. They didn’t want sex so much as holding and soothing, but they generally tucked a few bills in my pocket.
Two-thirds of the way through the summer I couldn’t help but notice that this boy was taking pills. I knew what it meant. It didn’t seem to discourage his clients. The pills must have worked because he was still going to classes. I would have loved to have seen him dance. Like Nijinski in Spectre de la Rose or maybe Afternoon of a Faun, slightly exotic but so tender, and yet somehow transgressive — a shape-shifter inhabiting two worlds at once.
But he didn’t die of a virus. Instead he was beaten to death. They simply found him sprawled on the shingle coast on beyond the boat docks. People said it was the sons of the fishermen, who had grown vicious and intolerant because their future was disappearing and so they hated and destroyed anyone they thought might have more advantages. Even if they were only different from a working class boy.
My scholarship did come through and it was a relief to leave that village. But until the next summer began I kept painting what I dreamt of: a merman, dead on the shingle. A selkie who didn’t make it back into the sea. I made his body pale and gleaming with long silvery hair trailing over the satin lapels of his too-large tuxedo jacket. His sex and legs merged into a phosphorescent glitter of scales and fins, but his arms were flung out as though in a grand jeté. Yet what selkie but this one that I painted so many times ever wore a gold crucifix?