“I’m sorry,” the old man who picked me up at the airport in Split, Croatia scratched his head. “But I thought there were going to be two of you.”
I half-smiled and got into the front seat. “Me too.”
By the time we made it onto the highway, and the sky began to striate into layers of orange, purple and pink, a familiar melody replaced the late Yugoslav-era pop-rock that had been on the radio when we departed the airport. Busted flat in Baton Rouge, the voice sang, waitin’ for a train.
Holding it together when the first chorus started took everything I had, so you can imagine how close I was to a complete breakdown when “My Heart Will Go On” came on next. Had we been in the beautiful, historical city center, I would’ve cried, melted and evaporated into nothing right then and there.
Thankfully, we parked in a garage beneath a Soviet-looking apartment block, and the driver switched off the car right before Céline belted out the last verse.
That was traumatic, I sighed as we made our way up to the fifth floor.
“Welcome to your home in Croatia!” He opened the door to his rental property, which was much too big for one person. He cracked a smile as he walked me out onto the balcony, which featured sweeping, romantic views of the Adriatic.
“Panorama?” She clarified, which made me understand immediately that the word she had been saying in the first place—“Marjan,” the name of the viewpoint my poorly-scaled map had made it so impossible to find—was precisely the one I needed to hear.
Maybe that Dalmatian was a good omen, I laughed, and began making my way up the staircase. Or maybe not.
You see, while the directions I received did indeed lead me to where I wanted to go, my short walk up the hill had some unintended consequences. The day before, I’d begun feeling pain in my chest I assumed was heartburn, on account of all the alcohol and fried food I consumed during a celebratory long weekend in Switzerland.
But the continuation of this pain the next day in Split, and the fact that physical activity exacerbated it? Well, that was disconcerting.
This is not how I thought the theme from Titanic would make itself relevant in my life today, I leaned against the stone railing after having finally reached the top. I sure hope my heart goes on.
Now, I’m an extremely headstrong person, and the last way I wanted to spend my first full day in the Balkans was waiting to see a doctor in a public hospital. So I went about my plans as intended, heading down from Marjan and into the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, comforting myself with the fact that if I did kick the bucket, it would be as I wandered through Roman-era alleyways draped in bougainvillea, or as I took in a wide view of the city’s tiled roofs from the Bell Tower of St. Dominus.
“You will survive,” I reassured the terrified woman who, as I made my way down the stairway of the tower, had stopped me to make small talk about my lens in lieu of following her children up. “Go and be a cool Mom.”
Miraculously, I lived long enough to walk along the Riva waterfront at dusk, even to endure being told by some booze-smelling bros whose picture I politely refused to take that they hoped I fell into the water and drowned on my way to where I was going. My newfound health did motivate me to bring my departure to Bosnia forward a day, though. I wondered how my Bobby McGee would’ve felt about that.
I was so bombarded by tour hawkers upon arriving back in Croatia four days later that all I felt compelled to do once safely inside Dubrovnik’s old city walls was eat a pizza. And although the margherita the waiter brought to my table was more than massive enough to suffocate my anxiety, I still felt only partially present at the table.
“Polo bleu,” the charming Frenchman had said to me three years earlier in Nice, as we enjoyed a much more delicious—and Italian—pizza together. “I thought I wouldn’t see you again.”
I took a sip of wine. “Maybe you should’ve been on time tonight, then.”
“I have a feeling I can make it up to you,” Hugo took my hand, and didn’t let go of it until the sun had nearly come up the next morning.
Of course, I was far across the Mediterranean now, the sun setting instead of rising. And Dubrovnik, for all its hustlers and bros and Titanic-looking cruise ships, was more picturesque than any city in the south of France, even if some of that likely had to do with the fact that it was rebuilt after the Balkan War. Yet, even as the wisps of clouds above the city screamed the sort of fuchsia you only see in Photoshop, it’s like I wasn’t even there.
The week after Nice had been a dream, with Hugo having invited me to stay with him in Paris. Lunches in parks, twilight strolls along the Seine, real champagne sipped atop the Eiffel Tower—all the romance I thought I was never entitled to, certainly not when I’d been wearing the blue polo shirt that had caught Hugo’s eye at Le Six nightclub.
I’d so relished the way he adored me that I never stopped to question it, or whether I should do more to reciprocate it than simply being there.
The ironic thing, I reminded myself as I walked back down the hill to Duvrovnik, the sky now darkened a blue-black, was that you cancelled your first trip to the Balkans to spend that week in Paris with Hugo. Do you remember what happened next?
“Is this your subtle way of telling me you don’t want to be here?” I’d fumed, when Hugo came home from work on Thursday and told me he’d immediately be headed to Berlin after he finished at the office on Friday.
He grabbed my hands and pulled me toward his chest, reassuringly. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want this to end—but it has to. You are never going to feel enough at home here to be the person I need. The longer you stay and try, the more we’re both going to get hurt.”
I remember sitting under the darkening sky in a sort of haze, getting as drunk as I possibly could at a shitty bar across from Gare de L’Est station as I awaited my night train to Budapest, trying to drown not only my sorrows, but the adult impulse I had, which was to try and actually understand what Hugo had meant instead of taking it so personally.
Three years later and half a sea away, I marveled at the tiny sliver of moon above Dubrovnik and breathed in deeply, the chest pains I’d felt up the coast in Split now a distant memory, but my heart very much still broken, both in past and present.
I understand now, I said under my breath as if Hugo was sitting next to me, both of us reliving our experiences of having to tell men we loved that they needed to go. I completely understand.
I wonder if he knows I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, I chuckled. Or that I don’t want to sleep with him.
I wouldn’t have minded sleeping with him, actually. But truly, I wanted to be him. Here was an extremely good-looking older man, totally capable of living up to the romantic expectations society has set for him, choosing to make his home in the middle of a tourist trap, enjoying a coffee before the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning by his lonesome, looking amazing and, seemingly, as happy as clam. Freedom, for him, meant nothing left to gain.
You’re assuming a lot about him, I conceded, looking back at him as I exited the walls toward the old port. But you’re up to the task, I think.
There was something autumnal in the air as I made my way eastward and upward, heading back to the spot where I’d attempted to take in the previous night’s sunset. A freshness like you feel in Paris in the first week of September, or in the Japanese Alps in early November, when your long-dead dog appears in a dream, as if to warn you. Maybe he even has a Dalmatian at home, I looked down on Dubrovnik, wondering if the dapper 50-something had been anything more than a figment of my imagination, singing the second verse of “Me and Bobby McGee” to myself as the sun came up. And moving forward.
You know, I can’t honestly say I would trade even a single tomorrow for all my yesterdays, as fondly as I remember them.