I’m sitting alone in a plaza in Dubrovnik. Tourists flock in opposite directions, narrowly missing one another as they chatter in unfamiliar tongues. The waiters flit by almost as quickly as the dozens of swifts throwing specks of shadow down from above. The falling sun glistens behind a church steeple.
The walled city has a dense, claustrophobic taste. Something formerly historic turned into a stone zoo. The din of conversation becomes louder in my head until I can hardly bear it. The waiter sets a check down by my empty stein and I pay as quickly as possible, surrounded and alone.
In the morning I march my bags through the city as the sun threatens to wake. And for a moment the streets are quiet. I emerge from a shadowed alleyway into the same plaza, this time empty. The sound of laughter echoes from the direction I’m meant to be going and a drunken woman with no shoes stumbles into view, accompanied by a friend at each shoulder. She stops me with a wave, giggling and pointing to a map as she sways, speaking broken English. I overhear her friend’s discussing something in Spanish. I reply to the woman in Spanish that I don’t live here and I’m sorry I can’t help. She smiles ecstatically before skipping away down a side street, her friends running after her.
Climbing through the great arched barrier separating Dubrovnik from its would-be aggressors, I turn. The first glints of proper sunlight greet the boughs of several ships and the timeworn fortifications shadowing those they promise to keep safe and sleeping.
My flight to Munich is peaceful. As we cross the border into Germany the fields become verdant and impeccably shaped, the delineations between fields as crisp as if some Bavarian deity constructed them with a T-square.
I surface from Munich HBF train station, wrestling to put my sweater on as I juggle my bags. The air is crisp and refreshing, the coolest I’ve felt in months. I pull the burgundy cashmere off of my eyes to look onto a familiar city. On the short walk to my hostel I pass several refugees bowing for money, their faces hugging the sidewalk. It’s an unusual sight, and quite different from my memory of this place only two years ago.
I spend my time in Munich dutifully working, my brown spectacles craned over the screen for hours on end. There’s something freeing about visiting a place you’ve been. I feel no urgency to sightsee, no compulsion to try a new dish.
On my first evening I share a meal with my young Australian roommate and watch as he sinks his teeth into a plate of savory Bavarian meats, his elbows laid on the long biergarten table. I consume marinated duck, tender chicken, crispy pork knuckles, and something reminiscent of a matzah ball, much to the disappointment of my digestive system on the following morning.
Gay Pride begins just as my Canadian friend, Nicole, arrives. The air becomes warm and the clouds part as if in celebration. The main square is crowded with makeshift tables and portable beer taps. We drink through the afternoon, watching the parade slither in and out. Men in shining patent leather suits with shut zippers over their mouths waddle past. And while this form of garment does nothing for me, I am strangely turned on by the lederhosen worn by others. The more masculine men seem to wear these sueded pants, often with an equally fuzzy Robin Hood hat. The trousers button on the front, leaving large slits on either side. In the current environment I would describe this as “easy access”. I wonder to myself if these smiling men include underwear beneath the classic attire, and try to remember if I’ve answered this question in the past.
Nicole and I enter a bar, conveniently missing the sign posted that says “Only for men!” with an unambiguous exclamation point. We do notice immediately that she is the only woman in the establishment, but we’re warm and fuzzy and full of pilsner so we don’t worry about it.
Twenty minutes later I’m balancing my second beer on a too-small sink with my hand buried in some lederhosen. The smiling gentleman to whom the pants belong says,
“See? No underwear,”
He slips his feathered hat atop my head. The door swings open.
“Your lady friend got kicked out,”
A patron alerts me. I nod at the man whose hat I’m wearing and slip out of the bathroom. I’m trying to pay the tab when I notice Nicole’s face appear smiling in the window. The DJ notices too and makes long, deliberate strides out the front door to shoo her away.
For the rest of the evening we drink in gender liberal bars.
I rent the bicycle at a makeshift podium run by a girl from California. I don’t ask her how she ended up in Split, Croatia, perched on a stool at the halfway point of a bridge leading to the harbor. I don’t wonder who own the dozens and dozens of sleek white yachts floating in stillness along the boardwalk, or the cultural significance of the many ancient towers creeping into the heavens at odd angles through this labyrinthine city. I’m too hungover to ponder any of this.
I clutch a handful of Croatian cash in my hand, reading the numbers like they’re hieroglyphics. It’s newly won money from a blackjack table at the Split casino. Twelve hours ago I’m gushing at the dealer conspiratorially with each successful hand,
“This is the gay-friendliest table.”
A blonde woman whispers that I should be careful in Croatia, as it isn’t so open. She gestures discretely to a sullen looking man at the end of the table. But with every win, the man grows happier, eventually insisting I kiss his cheek for good luck. When I go to the bathroom he appears at the urinal beside mine.
“You know I’m only joking, right? I’m straight.”
He says, wagging his foreskin in my periphery. I nod. We head back to the table.
This memory flashes through my head as I unlock my newly rented bike. I bid the Californian goodbye and cruise away into the hills. After twenty minutes I begin to realize the dire mistake I’ve made. My lungs throb with pain. My face is clammy, but my body won’t sweat. I try desperately to arrange the gears in such a way that make the hills less like mountains. I have a one speed at home and I deduce it’s the reason my gear dabbling gets me nowhere. Google Maps leads me onto highways with no bike lane and into dead end neighborhoods. When I finally reach my beach destination, I lock the bike to a signpost and decide I’ll find another way home.
Online the beach is listed as a nudist spot that’s “very popular with gays”. When I arrive, I find a patch of stone beach with several dogs running in and out of the sea, their heterosexually coupled owners sunbathing in swimsuits nearby. I pace the shore in one direction finding hardly anyone before running into the adjacent town. In the other direction, the beach stretches further. No one is nude, and there are a surprisingly large number of women. I’m either missing something or this is the most low-key gay beach in the history of the world.
At the end of the path the stones stop abruptly at what appears to be a dead end into the water. From afar, I see a man trek there. He makes a slow turn, looking behind himself, then disappears off the edge. I look around to see if anyone has noticed. No one has. I follow, a hundred meters behind.
At the drop off point where the man disappeared I find shallows beneath an earthy ceiling of snarled roots. I look back to the beach for a moment, mimicking the man, then slip knee-high into the surf. I hold my bag against my chest and duck my head through the dark passage. When I finally find the other side, it’s another stretch of stones with no beach-goers whatsoever. I look into the distance to see a large felled tree blocking the way, its thick roots curling away into the sea. I see the man for a moment before he disappears into the roots. I follow.
On the other side of the structure I catch my first glimpse of life. Men are posted here and there, some standing in wait, some lounging on towels, all wearing no more than a hat and sunglasses. I make my way down the coast, balancing on the stones as best I can. It takes about four minutes before I meet the anesthesiologist. He’s the only one not looking on at me like I’m a fresh cheeseburger. He stands casually, smiling in my direction; his azure eyes apparent even from afar. I say hello.
We spend the remainder of the sunlight swimming and discussing our personal lives in a way that only seems natural when you’re already nude. As evening rolls around, he offers me a ride back to town and I gladly accept. We trek back through the obstacles to my bike and shove the half that fits into his little European car.
We eat dinner together and I order the black cuttlefish risotto. The thing they don’t tell you about this delicacy is that you shit black ink for two days afterward. When I find this out I’ve already forgotten my exotic meal and I’m inextricably sure I’m dying of a rare disease.
The anesthesiologist and I spend the next couple days together. I drop my bags at a tailor by his apartment to get them mended and he drives us to another beach on the other side of Split, situated on a precarious cliff side. Climbing toward the sea is like staring death in the face. My flip-flops slide with every step, large unforgiving boulders waiting to catch me below. We find a rock for our towels and strip off. In a shady clearing nearby we begin to kiss.
I hear a pop and my eyes jerk open.
I moan loudly, my tongue caught deep in his mouth. He doesn’t let it go. I slap at his chest and he reluctantly pulls away. I keep him at bay with one arm and place two fingers at the base of my tongue. When I pull them out they’re painted in bright red.
“You thuck too hard!” I shout incredulously.
The lisp is a shock.
“Thuck,” I repeat to myself, amazed I can no longer pronounce the word.
Imposing rocky formations block the view of would-be onlookers, though I’ve seen the bodies of peepers pass through the dense forest above, windbreakers and sunglasses through the leaves. I wonder if any of them is into this kind of thing. I know I’m not.
“Let me see it,” he offers.
I open my mouth and wince at the effort.
“It’s just a little tear,” he tells me.
“What the fuck is wong with you?” I ask him, dodging another kiss.
I slip by the madman and clamber atop a sharp brown crag, clear water sloshing below, the metallic taste of blood in my mouth. I dive in between boulders, magnified beneath the waves. The Croatian has told me not to dive in like this. He’s seen too many paralyzed from such risky behavior. Only he is allowed to dive. I let the salt water enter my mouth, let it sting there, and I paddle toward the sun. The anesthesiologist tells me I’m no good at diving then gives a big smile before belly flopping in after me. He swims over and delivers the opposite of an apology, listing all the reasons I’m being sensitive about my newly severed frenulum.
“Thumb doctor you are,” I retort.
“Fine, I’m sorry,” he says treading water. He waits a moment before adding, “Sorry you won’t be sucking me now.”
It’s a callous thing to say but it’s also entirely true. Nothing will be coming near my mouth until I can pronounce an “S” properly.
At the Croatian border, our bus weaves into a silver compound. Uniformed Croats empty a hatchback of its luggage, its passengers vulnerably looking on. Our bus lets out a great huff of air and goes silent. The driver stands and sweeps his hands about his face, urging the passengers to exit. We enter a queue to have our passports checked. I watch as a stern-looking Croat glances over EU passports, handing each back without disruption.
I hand the man my passport as I approach the partition. He takes a hard look at the young, thin man with a thick head of hair in my passport photo. He squints up at my face like he’s trying to recall how he knows me. And before I can stop him, he pounds a stamp onto one of the last spaces in the visa section of my passport.
In this instant, my plans for the coming months abruptly rearrange themselves. Initially I had dreamed of roaming the Eastern European cities freely, trekking through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, and all the other unfamiliar places that time would allow. I did not, however, understand the complicated system for stamps in Europe. As an American I’m required to get an entrance and exit stamp for each of these countries. But the last two years of travel has left my passport with one page of visa space. And without getting into the boring details I’ve been hammering out as far as regulations, long story short I can’t continue through Eastern Europe. After Croatia I’ll need to get back to the Schengen zone and spend the rest of my time there until using my last remaining visa space to get home.
I shrug, not quite disappointed. There are things outside my control and there’s no use fretting over them. Also, there’s plenty I haven’t seen in the Schengen zone. A passport heavy with ink is a good problem, and one I wouldn’t have dreamed of facing three years back.
An hour later, our bus shudders to a halt in the Zagreb station. I shoulder my tattered bags and walk across town to my hostel. Blue trams whizz by in the middle of the road. The streets zigzag between ornate yellow buildings. Empty stages are constructed in each of the squares, adjacent to bronzed statues of horseman frozen in a charge. Red and white-checkered cloth hangs in every shop. Many men and women in the street wear this same pattern, supporting the national team for their game in the evening.
My time in Zagreb is fairly lonely. I eat in outdoor garden spaces without company, gruff Croatian language echoing around me. In the evening I meet locals in our hostel bar. The space is fun, and the people are friendly, but something nags me about the temporal nature of these encounters. It’s unlikely I’ll ever meet the Zagreb city-folk again, and the other travelers are on a path where I can no longer follow. My time in Croatia suddenly feels like an aberration, and this makes me homesick.
After two days of working and wandering the capital, I board a bus for Zadar. From the station I trek a long sunny road through a deep, lush park and through a city gate. Within the old town there are no cars. The walkways are slick with use, polished squares gleaming by the sea. I check into my hostel on a lazy corner, close enough to hear the Adriatic waves crashing along the boardwalk nearby.
My deadlines doesn’t allow for any exploration on my first day. I set up my laptop in a tiny fluorescent kitchen, put on my glasses, insert my earbuds, and get to work.
After a couple hours I overhear a conversation from the office around the corner. The owner, in loud bursting language, is bemoaning the fact that he’s received a very bad review from a guest. He’s asking some shy English girls to help him with his reply. As I listen, it becomes clear to me that the man is not adept with the language, and that the girls have no idea how to help him. I sigh. I know I can help, so I shut my laptop.
I’m in the office with the man for an hour, correcting his availability, answering his reviews with thoughtful comments, and explaining to him and his staff how to move forward doing this in the future. Hotels were my business for several years and the work still feels simple and logical to me. I even find myself enjoying the tasks, remembering how satisfying it was to make an unhappy customer into something closer to a friend.
The man thanks me profusely. He shakes my hands, clutching them in his large paws. As we speak he interrupts often and loudly, too excited to contain himself. He smiles broadly and offers to wash my laundry, free of charge. I accept the offer and get back to work.
As I’m hammering away on my laptop, a young Canadian girl sits across from me at the table. She video chats with someone, the two pausing so long and so frequently that I often think she’s hung up. The girl relays a story of blacking out on a beach and waking in her hostel, someone thankfully having deposited her there. I want to say something paternal here, but decide against outing myself as an eavesdropper.
I work into the early morning hours, then pack up and head to my room. When I wake up, I realize the girl is sleeping in the bunk above my own. I meet her older cousin and we get along instantly. As I speak with her, I feel relieved that she’s travelling with her younger family member (a sentiment which I’m sure is echoed in the young girl’s parents). We spend the next few nights as an occasional trio, but for when I’m working in the mornings and when I take leave to explore the gay beach a short bus ride away. I use the words gay beach haphazardly, as Croatians are notoriously closeted. All of the men I meet in Zadar also sleep with women, and are sure to announce this to me before any physical relation ensues. It takes everything in me not to roll my eyes deep into my head when I hear this for the sixth time.
The girls, a Californian man, and I go dancing one night, in a completely empty club, our shoes kicked off, our feet polished black by the dark wooden floors. Afterward, we go to the sea organ, a collection of pipes carved into the boardwalk that play random symphonies with the tide. A large LED display, a blessing to the sun, beats in and out in fantastic color. We lie on our backs to look at the stars, then strip naked and leap into the inky waves.
Alpine water rushes by in glowing turquoise. Our carriage clatters through the mountains, sunlight intercepted frequently by long, dark tunnels. I’m sitting with a Sicilian man and his Chinese friend, discussing work and travel in concise repetitive responses I’ve been doling out for four months abroad. Two young Slovenian high school students make out in the seat across the aisle, the young man’s face pressed so hard into his female companion’s that I wonder if she’ll suffocate.
We click to a halt in a forest on the mountainside. A bright yellow station welcomes us to Bled, a picturesque mountain-town in the north of the country. As we exit the station, Lesce-Bled comes into view, a placid mirror reflecting the puffy sky.
We descend on a path around the lake toward the sleepy town. A chapel sprouts up on an island floating in the middle of the lake. A castle perches precariously on a thin ledge of cliff above, inspiring fairytales for the last thousand years. Long lines of buoys dot the lake, lanes for rowers. We wind up a path past a white spire bell tower into the quiet town.
I bid goodbye to my train companions and check into the hostel. A boisterous, smiling man greets me from behind a creaky wooden bar, his frame hardly fitting in the space. He makes jokes constantly, looking into my eyes to make sure his punch lines land. He slaps a map onto the counter and circles several places I’ll never go. I have three looming deadlines, so my recreational time will be brief.
As he scribbles, he mentions how many of his recommendations are a good place to take girls. On his second mention of this I tell him it doesn’t interest me as I’m gay.
“Why didn’t you tell me before!” he shouts, his large eyes rolling as hard as his R’s.
He snaps his fingers and points to a guest sitting at the bar.
“Is that gay guy still- no he checked out, right?”
The guest nods matter-of-factly.
“Sorry,” the man says, shaking his head.
“It’s fine,” I tell him.
I drop off my bags and attempt to work, the wifi dropping connection every four seconds. I give up and take a walk. It takes me five minutes to find the Bled casino. I hand my ID to a man in a tuxedo behind a glass desk. He types my info into a computer and I scale carpeted stairs into the basement gaming facility.
I step out of the building at four in the morning, my wallet stuffed with new Euros, my clothes stinking of beer and cigarettes. I ask a waiting taxi driver for a ride and he refuses because the fare is too short. He points up into the hills impatiently. I don’t want to amble home at this hour with so much money in my pocket, but it doesn’t seem I have a choice.
I walk along the lake, lamplight interrupting the slowly waking sky. I turn down a darkened staircase thinking how beautiful it is here, and begin to piss in a bush there. The sound of piss softly splattering leaves woos my eyes shut for a moment as I sway in place to imagined music.
The next day I hand a man Euros at the private lake club. He slides a ticket under his plastic partition and I scan it into a machine, a turnstile ticking open in front of me. I lock my bag in a long, empty room of lockers and stroll down the sun-drenched floating decks along the lake. I set down my towel and dive into the dark water, the crisp mountain lake drowning my hangover somewhere. As I climb back onto the deck to dry off, I peek back down over the edge. A fish the size of a small car glides by under my feet. It’s the kind of massive oddity that can only grow so large in a secluded lake with no predators. My eyes widen as it disappears into the depths.
I catch the bus for Ljubljana with one minute to spare.
“Is this the bus to the capital?” I ask the fanny-packed attendant, as I’m unable to pronounce Ljubljana.
She nods and hands me a ticket. After two days without functioning wifi I’ve decided to begrudgingly leave Bled. The bus ride is mercifully short, as are the walks from station to hostel on each end, my bags threatening to rip off my back as I walk.
After several hours working I walk through town to get a feel for the place. There’s a large park in the center, many cobbled streets, and squares with statues of important Slovene men I’ve never heard of. I don’t know it yet, but the city is an exact replica of many Central European towns. There’s pretty architecture interwoven with green sprouts of trees, and not much else.
In the morning I pick up afterbite at the pharmacy. My arms and legs are covered in bites that I assume are from gallivanting through Bled just before dawn. I’m wrong. I notice a bed bug crawl across the thigh of my jeans. I catch him with two fingers against the denim. He spurts my blood, bright red, onto my fingertips. I shake my head. Being a manager in a hotel for several years I’m well acquainted with the insect. I’m not panicked or angry, just slightly tired at the thought of the process I know I’ll have to endure.
I bring the news to the front desk intern, telling her I need to speak with her about my bike rental outside, to get her alone. She thanks me profusely for this touch, as I’ve not frightened my bunkmates. She calls the owner, who thankfully takes the situation seriously. He moves me to a private room where I strip out of my clothes and hand the clerk every piece of fabric I own. I inspect every inch of both my bags before showering and crawling into bed. The tv plays trashy reality television while I wait naked, trying not to scratch.
We’re catapulting through Tuscany on a bullet train, but our carriage is utterly still. My father occasionally motions for me to pull out my headphones so he can point to the digital indicator that’s clocking our speed. I grimace at the kilometer/hr reading, still unable to convert it.
“Unbelievable,” my father whispers in amazement.
Our train slows and clatters over a long bridge, water sloshing on either side, the sun reflecting shimmers off the dancing caps. We pull into Venice station. I pull out my GPS, answering one of every three questions my father peppers me about where we’re going. We exit the station and descend a wide staircase into the sunlight. Several ferries dock and depart from the river hub. Europeans swish by en route to hotels and cafés. We decide to haul our bags across town rather than take the ferry.
My father carries his identical gym bags at either side, his strides much smaller than my own, the bags looking large beside his short frame. I ask him why he brought two half empty bags rather than one full one.
“You told me bring two bags,” he says defiantly.
“I said a small bag for valuables and a large bag for clothing, not two of the same-” I catch myself, “It doesn’t matter,” I mutter, following the blue line on my map.
My own backpack is now fifteen years old, and the wear-and-tear is more than evident. The right strap, which I instinctively clutch first, has been reduced to a thin strip of cloth, the padding disintegrated. Where the strap connects to the body several bare threads threaten to separate, the adjustments already ripped and tied together from a previous, forgotten injury. If I pull out my clothes and look directly at the bottom of the largest compartment I can see the ground below perfectly, the material has been sanded by so much international pavement. Zipping the bag is an exercise in futility, as an enormous gash now resides exactly where the zipper once closed. I stuff my towel here in the hopes that thieves won’t covet the usually half-wet item. As we walk, my right strap burns into my shoulder. The pressure has already rendered my neck immovable without a sharp shooting sensation. I tell myself it’s a good pain, like exercise. It isn’t.
We cross several bridges and wind our way through thin walkways, able to touch buildings on both sides. Gondolas float passengerless with their strapping Italian captains texting in boredom at the bows. The gondoliers all wear horizontal black and white striped t-shirts, threatening to rip at their well-toned biceps. They’re waiting for romantic honeymoon fares, not giving me the courtesy of a single glance. It’s for the best. I’ve had enough sex for the moment.
We drop our bags on chairs in a square of pedestrians and order lunch. I’m still reeling from last night, my head swimming with a hangover. Pigeons beg at our feet. A musician plays a romantic tune on his accordion. There are couples everywhere. It occurs to me that Venice is not a place for fathers and sons.
We finish our pizza and hike the rest of the way to our hostel. This time we’re sharing a room with several other guests. It’ll be my father’s first time enduring such an experience and he questions me about the average age of hostel-goers. I tell him I’ve seen men in their sixties plenty. In truth I more often see guests much younger than myself, and when I have encountered older guests it’s always been a source of relief. One can only endure inane drinking games and teens with little social awareness for so long.
We check in and I plop down on a couch to cut into a deadline for work. I’m writing for ten minutes when my father shouts for me from the kitchen. I set down my laptop and follow his voice. I find him with a middle-aged Argentinian woman who happens to be staying in the next room. He’s trying desperately to communicate with her, but she doesn’t speak English. I spend the next couple hours trying to work while translating between them. If I didn’t have a deadline this would be my idea of a good time.
The three of us go for dinner and I order a Campari spritz, because Venice is known for it. My father and the Argentinian woman have never had it, but are good sports and add two more to the order. We chat about life and I do my best not to leave either of them out of the conversation for too long, finding myself taking up 80% of the conversation explaining what one has just said to the other. At around ten-o-clock everyone is thankfully tired, and we retire to the hostel.
My father and I spend the next two days eating and drinking around the city. There’s nothing else to do in Venice except to get lost in a labyrinth of cobbled sidewalks and bridges full of tourists snapping photos. We find a casino and my father bankrolls me for some electronic roulette, which goes uncharacteristically well.
In the morning I take my father to the train station and point out his train on the electronic board overhead. We hug and I board my own train for Slovenia.
I take my seat and it’s eerily silent. When you spend a week talking to someone you’ve known your whole life, it’s a tough act to follow. I speak to no one for my ride to the Italian border.
I shout from a crowd of Italians in the Roman airport. My father continues to shuffle from the arrivals exit, two miniature black bags at his sides, his eyes scanning his surroundings rapidly.
He turns, the English grabbing his attention. We hug and I notice we’re wearing the exact same outfit, a ball cap, blue t-shirt, and khaki shorts. He tells me he has a story for me. He always has a story for me. I smile as we walk for the train, my father relaying his first international travel blunder. It involves him accidentally grabbing his seatmate’s foot instead of his bag. He spices up the action with imagined dialogue. I know he can’t remember what’s actually been said.
My father is 64. I’ve been trying to get him to join me abroad for the last two years and have been told continually,
“Next time. Next time.”
His appearance in Italy is a complete shock. I expected a call (he rarely texts) citing some flight trouble or forgotten prior commitment. But here he is, in the flesh. I take one of his bags to find it’s half empty. He’s the only person I know who travels lighter than I do. People take more to the dentist than he’s packed for a week in Europe.
We glide through Rome on an inter-city train discussing what we plan to do and see. My father, of course, tells me he’s ok with whatever I want to do. It’s a seemingly gracious offer that leaves me entirely responsible for conjuring our entertainment. And while I’ve been to Italy before, it’s my first time in Rome. It’s my father’s first time abroad in any sense. I watch him like he’s a newborn seeing the world for the first time.
We exit the train at a random station I’m hoping is in the city center. We’re in a square with no distinguishable features that set it apart from any other European square. This is not apparent to my father, who sees everything through freshly birthed eyes. The cars are so small! The buildings are so old! People are hanging clothing from windows! Everyone is skinny! Everyone is walking! As my father points out these oddities I’m beaming picturing his reaction when we see some real sights.
We sit for a drink in a café. My father does his best to order, and from what I can tell the barista understands him perfectly. As the barista turns, my father repeats himself for some reason. The barista pauses, a confused look on his face. My father begins to mime what he thinks will illustrate “rum”. This goes on for an amusing few minutes before I try Spanish. It works and we take our place at an outdoor table under the twilight.
In the morning we board a train for the Vatican. Great brick walls reach skyward, protecting the enclave from the outside world. We tread into St. Peter’s square and I watch my father’s jaw drop like a cartoon. It’s incredible. Hundreds of massive columns and ornate statues look down on the crowd with expressions of condemnation. Nuns float by in flocks. Bejeweled priests prance by in homogenous packs, their colorful ribbons and hats in stark contrast to their white collars. If Athens offered calm, ancient wisdom, Rome offers sheer breathtaking power.
We stand in line for the basilica, sweating amongst hundreds of people sporting fanny packs and shades. We’re scanned for bombs and then scale a polished staircase into the structure. It’s unfathomable. Dark, looming saints adorn the walls. My father takes large slow-motion steps, his face craned toward the heavenly ceiling. Our conversation pauses mid-sentence often, the magnitude of the church too much for words.
In the afternoon we pick a café near the Tiber and order prosciutto and mozzarella with a bottle of wine. I take a bite of the appetizer. It’s succulent, fresh, and savory to the point where I can’t help but moan as I chew. It’s some of the best I’ve ever had. I ask my father how he likes it and am met with his typical verbal response,
His eyebrows raise more than usual as he says it, and I take this as proof that it’s the best food he’s ever tasted.
We finish our wine and explore a castle across the river. My father is shocked by it. It’s ten times the size of the St. Augustine fort he’s accustomed to, and he repeats this observation frequently. He pats me on the back and tousles my hair many times as we wind over the moat and up the castle spires. From the top we find a 360-degree view of Roma. It’s stunning. My father grips the railing and stares.
“What do you think, pop?” I ask him.
He shakes his head slowly, his eyes wide with amazement. It’s everything I’d hoped for.
After two days exploring, we board a train for Florence. It’s my first overlap from a previous trip, and the only reason for it is that I want my father to see the Duomo. In all my travels it’s still tattooed in my mind as the most magnificent building I’ve ever seen.
We get off the train in the Firenze station and I breathe in deeply, remembering the man who stood in this spot two years ago, how much has changed, and how little. We drop our bags in the private room I’ve booked in a hostel. There’s two small twin beds draped in yellow, fuzzy blankets. A shower is squeezed into the corner. A fan drones by the open window.
We explore Florence and my father seems more at ease with this place. It’s less monolithic than Rome, more inviting. We round the corner toward the Duomo and I watch as his shock snags, his mouth opening again. From my memory, the beautiful basilica blocked out the sky, preferring to shine with its own ornate radiance. And while the building is still quite impressive, it doesn’t quite match the breadth I’d fabricated in my memory.
After a bit of exploration we find a bar with an electronic dartboard. I trounce my father in cricket, beating him until he insists we play more straightforward games like around the world and baseball. When he begins to lose, he starts grimacing and muttering under his breath,
He’s frustrated with the board and with his abilities. So frustrated that he tosses the plastic darts at my chest after a bad throw. I tell him to calm down and that it’s only a game. He tells me to shut up. What’s miraculous in this moment is that I can see myself reflected at every turn. I suddenly, embarrassingly, remember every time a friend told me to calm down during a game. There’s a point of no return, and I recognize it from my outside vantage point.
Luckily, the bartender asks to teach us a new game at this point. My father brightens, either because he can’t throw a tantrum with a stranger present, or because he’s genuinely forgotten he’s upset. I think it’s the latter.
A scruffy, handsome Italian man enters the bar and the bartender introduces us. He’s a local. I think nothing of it. Many Italians are handsome, and I’ve accepted the fact that most are also either straight or won’t admit they’re gay. It’s not on my mind.
I take a bathroom break from the dart game. As I’m exiting, the scruffy man enters, giving me a distinct cruising stare, what’s known as the gay gaze. I shrug and reenter the bathroom. We kiss enthusiastically, myself pressed against the wall. I’ve barely said ten words to this man.
“Wait. My dad.” I tell him.
We kiss some more. I finally pull away and arrange my excitement into my waistband. We leave the bathroom, and no one seems to have noticed besides the scruffy man’s friend, who I gather is also gay. They sit together at a table and I return to the dart game. My father has spilled my beer and orders another round.
The bar patrons mix and mingle. The scruffy man speaks with my father, who is now in his ‘happy drunk’ place, slapping Italians on the back and cracking jokes. Before long the three of us file into a cab, my father in the front. The scruffy man silently negotiates his hand into mine. I kiss him and he points to my father, who’s chatting with the driver, completely unaware.
“It’s fine,” I tell the man.
Back at the hostel we meet a group of backpackers in the lobby and sit for a drink with them. I deposit my father there, as it seems he’s enjoying himself immensely. I invite the Italian to see the room and he nods coolly.
Fifteen minutes later, the door to the room creaks open and I look, in abject horror, at my father’s face. The scruffy man’s mouth is currently square between my legs, my pants and underwear around my ankles. I immediately wrench my shirtfront down to cover my erection.
“Just came to get something,” my father says.
I can’t tell if he’s in shock or if he’s just too drunk to register what’s going on in the small twin bed. But, he continues to enter the room to retrieve whatever it is he came for. I flail my one free arm like a wounded bird shouting at the top of my lungs,
“GET THE FUCK OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!”
My father shakes his head as if waking from a nightmare and quickly scampers out the door. I look down to the Italian, who looks completely unfazed by the ordeal. I think to myself,
“When you wake up, please have forgotten this. Please, please, please.”
The sun rises in Mykonos, beating down on my small corner balcony. A donkey stands stock-still in a vacant pasture, his purpose vague. From this terrace I can look out on Mykonos Town, the lazy labyrinth of bleached stones only visible from above. My hotel is slightly outside of the town, on a breathlessly steep incline guided by mossy rocks, haphazardly stacked, crawling with vegetation.
I rent an ATV from a shop, certain I can wield it properly after my time on Santorini. I putter down the winding pass, through roundabouts, finding myself abruptly stopped at dead ends often, Google Maps whispering poison through my headphones. The closest and notoriously gayest beach is Super Paradise, said preferably with strong sibilant S’s. Following the signs for the getaway takes me down hills so sheer I can hardly trust my breaks to keep me from hurtling off the wild, scenic hills.
I park my quad in a lot and follow thumping music through a large arch with ‘Super Paradise’ emblazoned in sparkly letters above. The beach is small, containing a few sections of different colored sun beds belonging to different beach bars. The chairs range from 15 Euro upwards. I gulp thinking of what an expensive island destination I’ve chosen.
I walk the short beach amongst tanned, often naked men and women. It ends abruptly at a rocky cove, so I head back. In a white outdoor bar I order some breakfast and unceremoniously leave immediately afterwards.
I whip through the Mykonos hills, the winds lightly tugging at my backwards cap. Belle and Sebastian sings into my ears, interrupted frequently by directions, which I take with a grain of salt. I end up on an expansive beach, butted up against rocky ledges on all sides. I walk to the right (somehow all these beaches become nude, then gay as you walk right). Sure enough there’s an area of mostly nude men as the beach ends, all tanning on beds beside the clear water. The beds come in pairs, made especially for a romantic getaway. I rent a single.
The day goes by quietly. I find myself alone but for the wait staff. Yes, there are men in beds only meters away, but the sound of the sea is our only conversation. The vast majority of these men are coupled, occupying both recliners as god, and the designer of this bar, intended. I find myself once again in the wrong chapter of a book, somewhere after a budding romance, near happily-ever-after. I’m still in the early, existential despair chapter; the two conflicting stages on the same sunny beach make me stick out like a human head in a barrel of lemons. I plunge into the sea.
I’m swimming in the cool water for twenty minutes along the coast. Above, there are a few men freckled throughout the rocky landscape. Some are sunning, some cruising. One man is stroking himself slowly atop a rocky perch. I continue to paddle.
I reach a tiny hidden beach forked between graveled peaks. It’s covered almost exclusively in naked men. I swim ashore. I drop onto the sand to catch my breath. In an instant the man beside me turns over and smiles, his member pulsing animatedly. We chat for a short while before he says in a French growl,
“You are ok with couple?”
He points to somewhere in the distance, indicating the other half of his pair has gone for a walk. I’m the only single man on earth.
I spend my mornings working furiously on my laptop, the idea of the sea causing me to rush. During the afternoons I sunbathe with an older English couple beside the surf. I’m chatting up an Irishman on Grinder and he and his boyfriend (another couple!) come by to say hello. They have their trunks on and mine are stripped off, making for one of the most unusual first encounters I can remember.
At the end of the day The Irishman puts his boyfriend on the back of my ATV and we weave our way toward their apartment. I’ve always had a thing for Irishmen. My first crush was a bouncing, scruffy, well-read Mick who also happened to be my middle school English teacher. It was a romance not-to-be. If I could go back and tell my childhood self one thing, it would be this:
All of these unrequited crushes you have will be paid back ten-fold. You’ll have a version of all of these men, and sometimes it will be spectacular. Other times it’ll fail every imagined lust-fueled fantasy, and you’ll come away feeling empty. Most of the time it will be both.
I come out of the couple’s shower, toweling off. As I’m drying my dick, I notice a welt at the base.
“What’s that?” I ask the two. They shrug.
The next day at the beach, I point the welt out to the English couple. Some things you’d never do with your best friend are uncomplicated with new friends on a nude beach.
“Looks like a bite mark to me,” my new mate offers in his heavy Devon accent. I bring my face closer to my cock. Yes, a bite mark. Let’s hope for that.