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.