Facing the Water

Written By: Matthew Romagnoli

  The pay stub was for 168.72 cents. It was lying near the futon he slept on, a good 15 feet away from the bathroom. My cousin’s basement bathroom where he was permanently bent over, stone imprinting his face, or maybe it was just hard plastic, hard enough that when he was laid out, facing the water, there was a line across his left cheek. Someone whispered, “That’s where his face was stuck.”


Like I couldn’t already tell it was from his time spent bent over, alone, dead, waiting for the ME’s van. I’d known him a good part of the last 10 years. Fished, drank, partied, laid out in the sun. Days in Montauk, nights in Hampton Bays. So many boats. Working trollers and family fishing boats. His nautical star tattoo was so fitting too. A guy who was making a living working on boats. The tattoo wasn’t a stretch. The fact it  was covering an abscessed arm was.

Half of the $160 was spent on heroin. Probably at $80 for the bundle. His last 10 bags. I remember him coming from Block Island on the ferry and asking the captain to fly through the inlet hoping a wave would splash us fishing on the jetty. After a brief hello the next sentence was branded into me, leaving thick, unsightly scar tissue.


“Drew, you never shot?” A near whisper so my cousin wouldn’t hear. Not that it mattered much if he did. I was moderately functioning at the time and, to most, looked clean.


“Nah man. Nope. Never will. It’s a hill you’ll never get back up again. It’s not a slippery slope, it’s a mudslide. A deluge.”


I had heard he wasn’t doing too good. The trips to Florida and Arizona were bright burning red flares for rehab trips. Him not spending time at his house was just him being Mark. He stayed out east or in the neighborhood more than he was ever home growing up. It never remotely crossed our minds he was just another junky kicked out by a family who had too many last straws.


But it should have. It’s the pretty standard oxycontin to heroin story. We did so much oxy. And coke. And booze. And pot, but I’m not sure that really counts in comparison. We were young and ambitious in the wrong ways. Free for the night with a couple hundred bucks not worrying about the morning or the next day. Walking out of the bar at sunrise taking the morning bus home with commuters.


Years before we had had another conversation. Handing him 5 tiny little blue pills and repeating the warning I’d given to so many other ghosts.


“You’re playing with fire man.” Not that I was exceptional. I was just better at it. I made a little bit more money. Prioritized work and school over play. Kept a semblance of having my shit together. And when I didn’t, when the girlfriend left me, cleaned up.


I know there’s not much I could have done without Narcan. The classic trope, heard all too often today, Oh but I thought he was doing alright? Alright enough till he relapses, does just a bit too much without a tolerance and, almost simply, doesn’t wake up.


A year before he died we were in Hither Hills for the fall striper run. He was off the boat for a few days and had just go paid. We were going to fish and hang out for a bit. I saw him for a brief few minutes before he hopped in a white pickup truck that gave me that shitty sense nothing good was coming from that car ride. Later that night we heard from a few other friends he had burnt some bridges out there, with some good people. Still, only a year before he died, we never bothered to look deeper than the surface to see his compass wasn’t just off but completely broken.


I definitely should have noticed when he couldn’t hold a job on the boat he was working out of in Hampton Bays. I never took his bare cabin to be all his possessions. That tiny, empty, messy bunk was everything. It struck me more as someone who stayed there for work and had a home elsewhere.


Mark found his home in friends and good times. Swallowed deep beneath the waves he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, notice he had lost most of them, that he needed help. That one more time isn’t okay. That maybe he would be one of those people who can never touch a drink again in their life.


But who am I to talk? I should have given up drinking that night, at his place in Montauk, when I woke up face covered in black eyeliner. And a black eye that I scrubbed for a bit too long thinking it was just another layer of make up. No one told me to stop. I wore my habits on my sleeve, unashamed of who I was or the life I lead. It’s just easier to assume for the best and hope to avoid the worst.


And that’s the hardest part. I get it. I get that there’s nothing I could have done until he was willing to do it himself. I get it and I don’t. Because if only I’d have done something maybe it’d be different. They call it fishing not catching, for a reason. There’s no guaranteed success. You can bait the hook, drop the line, and only hope for the best with a bit of knowledge and experience.


So, sure, there was no ‘fixing’ Mark. No sure fix the junkie band aid. I sure as hell could have tried. With a bit of knowledge and experience, could have baited a hook and dropped my line and hoped for the best. And I’m not sure I ever did.


I’m not sure about much really, looking back. Hindsight is supposed to be this clarity providing, no holds bar, crystal clear pang of insight. Reality is never crystal clear. I’d insert a cheap simile to the water I swim in but life isn’t ever that clear. Life happens in water we’d never swim in. Gray, murky, uneven and filled with predators. How much of the ocean actually appears, past the 10 feet of visible light you get.


When you’re younger, living the fast life has a romanticism to it. Before it actually takes a life. It’s so easy to see the approaching storm too. The swells get a bit more intense, you’re not as steady on your feet, feel cold and alone. And then they’re just gone. If you’ve ever been out on a boat or swimming at night, there’s this invisible inkinesss to the water that extends forever. Despite touching the bottom, in the still bay water, a pit of anxiety sits mildly between your stomach and throat. A kind of what-if to something going wrong right here, right now. Something told you not to push your luck. Not to wade too far out. To have gone in sooner.


At first, maybe, for a sense a freedom and later because they just can’t help it. Walking that edge is liberating and it does make you unique. Until it doesn’t. Until you’re another coroner’s report.


He knew better too. He knew he had crossed lines and dove in the deep end. Part of him embraced the recklessness. Part of me feels guilty he ended up there. Still, I’m not sure if I own any blame or all of it. We were just kids being kids when it started but friends burying a friend when it was over.


I can’t help but question it too. The $168 check should have been for almost a thousand. Mark, possibly, had run out of options and ports to sail from. He turned to what he knew when things got rough. Maybe he made that turn knowing it could calm the swells for good.


I wish I had gone on the first fishing trip in memory of Mark. I was working but not totally sure that’s the only reason I didn’t. The next two years were harder to plan and I missed those too. I can’t help but think it’s a fitting parallel of inaction. And guilt myself for it. Tear my heart open everytime I drop a line and think about all the time spent together. Good and bad. Always for                                                                                                                      better or worst. Always saying, ‘Well, it could be worst,’ with a wink and feet dug in the sand.


And when I still dig my feet into the sand, I can’t help but think sometimes, the warmth of the sand surrounding my feet is just like that warm blanket that drapes over you after sniffing a line. And that one more time, just one more, I wouldn’t have to think about it. And in the rocking of uncertainty, I know for sure, that I wouldn’t be feeling anything.