In August 2004, my friend Joseph and I organized a trip to Dubrovnik before chartering a boat on the Adriatic Sea. A Croatian friend advised me of a tiny nearby island called Lokrum. It was popular with nudists, he said, and had perfect swimming coves.
I told Joseph about the island when we met up in the Dubrovnik airport, and the next morning, anxious for the sea and sun, our skin the color of too much office work, we rode the ferry toward Lokrum. Only then did I mention that it was a nudist beach. “I don’t mind,” Joseph assured me. “Me neither,” I replied. “I just hope some of them are attractive.” Joseph turned to me with a smirk. “No,” he said. “I mean, I don’t mind being naked.” I hadn’t seen much of Joseph in the past year. Now I was going to see too much of him—every inner-thigh freckle, scrotal wrinkle, and circumcision mark.
I’d met Joseph in my early twenties in New York, and he quickly became like a brother to me. In fact, we were part of a small, tightly knit group of mostly young, mostly gay men who formed something of a surrogate brotherhood. We were each other’s keepers in a city that was careless about its young inhabitants’ lives. In 2003, Joseph moved to Paris for a job designing a magazine. I was proud and encouraging, despite the irrational twinge of abandonment that occurs when a friend skips town for a better opportunity. We hadn’t talked much that year, so our Croatian vacation was something of a reunion for us, and, as we exited the ferry, we were still trying to get a read on each other. We were either the same bumbling fools who cracked each other up or two strangers who happened to know each other’s middle name.
Lokrum was my first time on a nude beach, unless you count the occasional waterside vacation stroll that inadvertently lead you into some unmarked but highly enforced clothes-free zone, with all of the delights and horrors of frank, lightly sun-damaged human anatomy. In the dock’s vicinity, tourists congregated in modest swimwear. But as we hiked across the island, clothing became less the norm. At a midway point, unisex toplessness reigned. We continued along the zigzagging bluffs until we hit perpetual pockets of nakedness—pruned-purple grandparents smoking without wearing so much as a sock; beleaguered nude mothers corralling their scampering nude children; a preponderance of solitary Croatian men and women reclining blissfully with a puddle of clothing at their feet. There was no shock to it. Nudity hardly scandalized me at that point, and if anything I found the scene body-positive and progressive. Nevertheless, after we chose a crevice in the rocks, I made the conscious decision that I wouldn’t be joining Lokrum’s naturalists. I said so to Joseph as I stripped down to my trunks.
“Why?” Joseph asked, sounding perplexed. And, in hindsight, it’s a great question. If I could send a message today to my twenty-eight-year-old self, I would tell him, You are in your physical prime! This is the last time you should walk around nude in public! Unfortunately, my twenty-eight-year-old self didn’t see the matter in this light. And that was likely because the decision didn’t turn on my level of physical fitness.
“None of these people care what you look like naked,” Joseph said.
“I know that,” I snapped. But it wasn’t the regulars of Lokrum that concerned me. I didn’t mind nudity in front of strangers. No, for some reason in that moment, it felt too vulnerable to be nude in front of my friend. It might have been because we hadn’t seen each other in a year or because we already knew each other too well to introduce a new kind of intimacy into the equation. Hell, it could have been some moral-eyed ghost from my Midwestern upbringing that opposed R-rated exposure under direct sunlight in unknown foreign countries. The more I wavered, though, the more bullheaded I became about sticking to my decision for fear of showing self-doubt.
“Suit yourself,” Joseph said as he proceeded to unsuit himself. He let the sun strike his slender, star-white frame. I stretched out on my towel, pretending to look comfortable in my swimsuit. But I experienced a sting of envy in Joseph’s boldness. Nudity is, of course, a confidence game—it’s largely your own ease in the situation that determines the responses. And that might explain why I felt I had just failed a test of my own character. Where was the wild, free-spirited New Yorker I had long claimed to be? Perhaps one of us had changed in the past year—ossified, really—and it wasn’t the one who jumped headfirst into a new life in Paris.
Still, I was resigned to my decision and reminded Joseph of what a photographer friend always said—that a bit of clothing kept some mystery alive, that nothing was less sexy than total nudity. Joseph did a set of jumping jacks to destroy any shred of mystery he might have been holding onto. “Besides,” I said. “I thought I’d try not to get a sunburn on my penis on the first day.”
The most surprising part of Joseph’s nudity was how quickly I grew accustomed to it. Soon, he was just normal Joseph. And really, the clothing-optional factor was an ideal manifestation of our opposing personalities. My slow-moving moodiness countered Joseph’s flares of boyish hyperactivity. When I went to swim, I climbed down the iron ladder screwed into the rockside. Joseph jumped over a cliff’s edge and cannonballed into the sea. That first day Joseph performed so many cannonballs his backside was covered in red welts that matched the Adriatic sunset. I had a front-row view of both.
We spotted the stranger on the second morning on Lokrum. Once again, I wore trunks and Joseph wore nothing at all. As we played cards, we both noticed a young man on a lower rock spreading a towel. He was handsome, with a hooked nose, a strong jawline darkened by a day without shaving, and slicked brown hair. His nude body refuted my photographer friend’s credo about sexiness being a condition of clothing; he was the first naked person on the island who stirred any desire in me. Joseph was similarly intrigued. We continued watching for several minutes before the stranger glanced up at us. I am horrified by what he must have seen: Joseph and I side by side, me with an angry squint that I mistakenly believed throughout my twenties to be a look of invitation; Joseph with his toothpaste grin on full blast, a smile’s version of a frantic wave. I tried too hard to play it cool, and Joseph didn’t try hard enough. The stranger’s eyes swept over us and kept going. He then dove into the sea.
“Good job,” I groused. “Your crazy smile scared him off.”
“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t your expression.” Joseph twisted his face into a gargoyle grimace. We laughed and went back to cards. But over the course of the morning, as the young man returned and lay baking alone on his towel, the air of competition began to infect our card games and our increasingly pointed jokes. When one of us stared down at the stranger, the other’s eyes instantly followed.
“Maybe I’ll introduce myself,” Joseph muttered.
“He’s really more my type,” I replied.
All close friendships are marked with competition. Our earliest tests are against our siblings and playmates, and some of that rivalry endures amongst friends into adulthood. Like dogs play fighting, you learn not to bite hard. But I knew that sexual conquests tended to muddy those rules of play. As we sat there, I worried this contest was more a threat to our friendship than a testament to it. Throughout the day, the young man became our focus, although we discovered little about him. The problem with a nude beach is that, absent of clothes, there are very few clues about a person’s identity on offer. The stranger reads. The stranger eats a sandwich. The stranger picks at his toenails. The lack of tells, though, only enhanced our romantic fictions. Free of any baggage, the stranger could be effortlessly dreamed into our separate lives, hearts, and beds.
Our third day on Lokrum was our last. The sailboat would take us out to sea the next morning. We took our spot in our now familiar crevice, and to our disappointment, the stranger was nowhere in sight. At last he turned up in the late afternoon, removing his clothes and spreading out his towel.
“I’m going to talk to him,” Joseph vowed.
“Right,” I retorted. But Joseph had a strategy. When the stranger went for a swim, Joseph leapt to his feet and performed his most elegant nude cannonball yet. I gave him credit: he acted while I waited for opportunities to come to me.
An hour went by. Neither Joseph nor the stranger returned. Unwilling to investigate—unwilling, even, to remove my trunks—I tried to read a novel, my brain swimming in trivial jealousies. Finally, Joseph appeared. To my amazement, the stranger was right behind him.
“This is Dejan,” Joseph exclaimed. He was as handsome at two feet away as he was at fifty.
“Where were you guys?” I asked.
“We swam to a cove,” Joseph answered. We made eye contact, and I could tell that nothing had happened between them. I hadn’t lost the competition yet. I uncorked a bottle of wine. With that, the afternoon transformed into a bizarre two-on-one date, with two of the participants completely naked and the third attempting to make up for his modesty by downing cups of sun-hot alcohol.
Dejan, it turned out, was half Croatian. He lived in Munich and was in Dubrovnik visiting his mother. When he mentioned that he had an on-and-off boyfriend back home, Joseph and I again made eye contact. After sunset, the three of us went for more drinks in town. By nightfall, Joseph and I were deep in high-stakes competition. Like two sailors on shore leave, we were spending our last night on dry land flinging ourselves at Dejan. Would he fall for the hyperactive extrovert or the melancholic prude, the Parisian or the New Yorker? Joseph and I sabotaged each other with jokes. We tried to monopolize Dejan’s attention. We bought him drinks.
The problem was, Dejan remained either uninterested or spectacularly oblivious to his part as the rope in our tug of war. At midnight, when Dejan said he had to get home to his mother, it was clear there would be no passionate fling for either of us. Instead, we exchanged emails. “If you ever come to Paris … ” Joseph began. “ … Or New York,” I amended. We had both lost, and, thankfully, it was with little resentment that two losers caught the boat the next morning as friends.
I didn’t think much about Dejan after the vacation. But one day in late autumn he sent me an email saying that he was in New York and wanted to have dinner. I wrote back cautiously, “Have you seen Joseph in Paris?” “No,” he responded, “I’d like to see you.”
So I was the winner after all. I felt a rush of victory on my way to the restaurant. Poor Joseph and his cannonballs. Of course Dejan chose me, and this romantic dinner was my reward. Except, the Dejan I found at the restaurant was not the same one who’d posed eternally on the rocks of Lokrum. His skin was pale from an early Munich winter. He talked incessantly about his dull corporate job and his dull on-and-off boyfriend. His wore shiny metallic clothes that suggested he bought them based on their fashionable brand names rather than how they actually looked. I knew I was being superficial—but what, besides the superficial, had attracted me to Dejan in the first place? Like a shell you take home from the beach only to discover that it has lost its luster without the saltwater running over it, Dejan had not converted seamlessly from the Croatian seaside to the streets of Manhattan. I began to suspect during our dinner that the competition hadn’t been about Dejan, but about Joseph and I trying to outshine each other, proving which one was the worldly Lothario capable of swooping in and amassing love affairs like trophies while the other sat enviously on his towel. I knew, too, that we were both young and greedy about experiences. Those were pardonable sins, because we must have realized that in a few summers, as age did its work, such victories would be harder to come by. Youth isn’t entirely dumb to its fleeting advantages. As true friends, Joseph and I would have future vacations to be each other’s champions as well as rivals.
As for Dejan, his only crime was that he turned out to be normal. Fearing I had led him on, I invited him back to my apartment. We sat on the sofa and kissed, although it lacked much spark. I reached to unbutton his pants, still naively at the age where the idea of what I should do so often trumped what I sincerely wanted. I think we were both relieved when Dejan said it didn’t feel right to take our clothes off.
Christopher Bollen is the author of the novel The Destroyers, out this month.