As I was searching through our family's Samsonite suitcase full of photographs, I came across a small black and white print, no larger than a baseball card, with two lip prints smeared across the back in bright pink lipstick. Aside from this trace of a kiss, there were no other significant marks, no names, no dates nor messages inscribed. I flipped the picture over to find the soft, dark eyes of a sailor staring back at me. He reminded me of the Mona Lisa: his slight smile, the turn of his head, his Italianate features, a bit of dark chest hair showing above his neckerchief the way that a hint of Mona Lisa's cleavage rises above her bodice. His neck was as thick as a the trunk of a young, stout oak. His hair glistened with pomade, as black and shiny as a piano. His skin was smooth and unblemished. He looked no older than 19. The picture was battered, and the edges worn soft from handling. The photograph must have been taken in the 1940's or early 1950's. And like the woman in Leonardo's portrait, the identity of this beautiful young man was unknown.
I was entranced, caught in a stare across 50 years. Who was this handsome sailor? I asked everyone in the house if they recognized him. Could he be a relative? Could I have met him, old and stooped at some family reunion? It was unlikely that he was a close blood relative, given his dark features; perhaps he was some relative's husband? No one recognized him. There were no other pictures of him in our family's suitcase full of faces. Who was he? Someone's sweetheart, loved and lost or loved and forgotten? How had he ended up here?
Over the years, I have stared into his eyes, trying to get his mute, smiling mouth to reveal its secrets. I have fantasized about him, about moving my hands over his muscular neck and sliding my tongue across his soft lips. I have imagined telling him how beautiful he was and how much I wanted him. I have imagined my fingers tangled in the dark hair of his chest, untying his neckerchief. I have constructed mental images of what the rest of his body looked like, about his thick, hairy legs and tight waist, dreamt of a person beyond this maddening head and shoulders.
Where is he now? He must be at least 60 or 70 years old, if he is alive at all. What was the life that followed this moment in front of the camera? Did many years remain ahead of him, or was he to be swept away young? Was he killed in a battle? Did he die old and alone, or surrounded by a family? If he still lived, would his eyes still have their soft power, or would they have been struck blind by age or sickness?
Several months after I found this picture, I saw another picture of a sailor, this time at a flea market in a pile of old postcards. Again, there was no name recorded on the back, just the stalwart eyes of a sailor whose name was lost in an ocean of time. I bought it. Weeks later another sailor's picture from another sale joined them. Soon I had ten of these pictures, then twenty, then more. Some of them were inscribed with names (Our Lex, Maschke + Naby, Tom Barry SM 2/C), but most were not. Some were complete with dates (April 1943, Mar. '35), locations (Tallahassee, Green Island, Yokosuka), and brief commentary ("This was taken out in the wheel house. That's where the ship is steered from"). Some were candid snapshots, some formal studio portraits. They span the late 19th century to the 1950s, most of them American sailors. Most of these men are probably dead— the photographs I have may be the only surviving picture of them on Earth.
I wonder how these sailors were set adrift, how their families had dissipated and how their photographs, once precious, had been consigned to the postcard box at the flea market. Some of these young men may have only these prints to attest to their life, their service, their beauty. They are sailors once again, sailing nameless through sales and auctions, far from home, drifting the waters of the earth in vessels full of other forgotten comrades-in-arms. With me, they found a friendly port, temporary refuge from the water. When I am gone, they will set sail again, again nameless and navigating unfriendly waters, looking for another port to protect them; looking, perhaps in vain, for home.