The Drowning

an excerpt

Chapter One

Dennis Michael O'Shea could no longer walk by the sea. He used to put on a full body wet suit and chase the waves up and down the Jersey Shore from March through November. A year ago he was diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disease with lupus and a plethora of other medical issues that came along with it. Now, he couldn't make it past the boards without stopping to rest. Dennis Michael wasn't sixty-five or even a poorly preserved forty. Dennis had celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday the day before. The date always marked the official start of his personal surfing season. This year he intended it to mark the day of his death.

The walk to the water was difficult. He'd had to stop several times to catch his breath. The trip from his small apartment on Sunset had already consumed most of his limited store of energy, but just a few feet and Dennis Michael could relax and meet his maker. He sat in a small eddy, the sand already wet. The tide was on its way in to the shore. The mist hung heavy over the water like a gray blanket silencing the roar of the angry sea. March was the cruelest month. The ocean could be angry or placid, temperature cold or temperate. Tonight, March showed Jack Frost's face. The light cotton rugby shirt he wore did little to keep the chill from Dennis' fair skin. It was a favorite and kept only for special occasions. The red, yellow and navy interweaving striped pattern shirt came from Abercrombie and Fitch. It had been a Christmas gift from his former lover, lost, as everything else had been, in the riptide of the previous year.

Grandma O'Shea had always instructed Dennis to wear clean underwear just in case there was an accident and he went to the emergency room. He smiled as he thought about his Grams. It was in her honor that he wore his only good shirt and pants, beige Dockers, to his own death. There was no clean underwear, Dennis went commando so Grams would remain unashamed; all his remaining briefs were holey, like the socks he tossed, just stuffing his feet into a pair of Nikes.

The small number of personal items he wished to leave his sisters were secreted in the trunk of his Honda. He left his art and paper making frames, supplies, glues and dyes and the few canvases of his work completed before he was struck down sat in the back seat. His work sold well at his first show after college. These were to go in the second show that never came. He left two of his canvasses with a note to the management company that took care of the apartment complex. His former agent would be able to find a buyer and the two canvases would pay his debt. They were his last assets. It didn't matter, he no longer needed assets. Dennis had only two passions in life the first was his art, the second, Matt. The disease had cost him both.

His medium was paper. His agile fingers sculpted and shaped his hand-made papers into fantastical dimensions. He had his first showing just out of college at twenty-three. He used rags and linen and special fibers to create papers which he shaped with paste, dyes and glazes into visions of heroic fantasy. His art was very popular with the New Age crowd, but he had taken a new, more mature direction in preparation for his second show. His pieces had become more realistic, portraits of the mind. The gallery wanted at least forty pieces for a show, so he taught art at a local high school to cover his daily expenses and buy supplies. He worked feverishly at night putting his visions in three dimensions on canvas.

Matty had always been there. They'd grown up together in the Irish bastion of Belmar, just to the south. It was a working class life. Da owned a shot and beer joint on Main Street; Ma cooked in the kitchen and his older sisters had waited on tables. Matt and he knew pretty much from the age of ten that they were "different" from 

their schoolmates at the local Catholic elementary school. The sisters encouraged them more than the others to be priests. They had gone on to public high school at their own insistence. It was there they found out about labels, prejudice and what evil hate could produce. It solidified their relationship and moved it from friends to lovers. Dennis had never looked back. He and Matty attended the same college, roomed together, graduated and moved to the gay community in Asbury Park where they were just free to be. For three years, it was the stuff of Dennis' dreams.

By his twenty-third birthday, his parents had sold the bar and moved on to a senior living trailer park in Florida. His sisters, who always seemed to act as a pair, married the Polanski brothers, who he always believed were dumb as posts. They moved out of state. He missed his sisters, but the removal of the Polanski brothers from his intimate circle was the silver lining of that cloud. They were macho assholes whose supply of "faggot" jokes was minuscule, yet repeated in endless cycles at every family gathering. Dennis longed to whack them up the side of the head with a two by four. He and Matt laughed at their solution to the Polanski problem. Matt said, "Hell, Den, it could only raise their IQ, it couldn't get any lower." This would result in laughter, kisses and hard loving. He missed the loving.

The water was up to his ankles and he was numb from the cold. Once, the cold bothered him. He used a fully-lined wet suit to ride the sporadic East Atlantic waves. Dennis traveled to the West Coast but the beaches of Malibu and Carmel did not appeal to him in the same way as the greenish gray of the Atlantic. It was this water that called to him when he was lying in a ball on the floor of the apartment he once shared with Matt, screaming in pain. The cold was nothing in comparison. To Dennis, pain had color and texture. Moderate pain was a deep orange band pulling tight, taking the breath from his lungs and tightening his joints into a vise-like grip. Orange could be managed by medication. Severe was blood orange spikes hammered into flesh, unrelenting in their assault. Blood orange watched the second hand of the clock waiting for the next dose of painkillers. It could cause you to beg and scream, if you let it.

Unbearable was red, the red of fire, brimstone and hell. Red consumed you with thousands of needles each precisely tuned to a nerve ending. Red knew each ending with intimacy. Red took your mind and left you on the floor in a ball, screaming. Dennis had done a lot of the ball thing.

He wasn't a coward. The pain hadn't sent him to the beach. It was the dreams-dreams destroyed, ripped out of his heart and flung into oblivion. After he became sick, it only took two months for Matt to leave.

Dennis spent four weeks in the hospital, and four in rehab. He was about to come home, and despite his weakened condition, he looked forward to being in Matt's arms. With Matty at his side, he could conquer anything. Then his cell rang. It was Mary Katherine. She was on her way in from Pennsylvania to bring him home. Matt had called her. "He got a promotion and packed up and moved to Cleveland, Ohio this morning. He said you knew, he thought he'd be able to pick you up but he caught an earlier plane."

Dennis sat at the edge of his bed, stunned. He'd spoken to Matty last evening, telling him what time to pick him up. Matt didn't even have the courage to tell him on the telephone, much less in person. He was in a semi-catatonic state. He didn't respond to the staff in the rehab center and they were ready to call the doctor and have him committed to a psych ward for what they thought was a catatonic state but Mary Katherine and Nora arrived in time. Both sisters gathered him in their arms, and got him into the car. They stopped off and picked up some of the things from his ravaged apartment. He couldn't even make the stairs. Nora stayed in the car while Mary Katherine, the elder by a year, went to pack.

They thought he was asleep on the trip back to Westchester. Nora drove while Mary Katherine described 

what she saw. According to his sister, Matt took most of everything they had. He didn't even leave the mattress; he took it and the frame plus both antique maple dressers. The little bistro table with its two chairs was gone from the kitchen as were all of the small appliances, dishes, pots, glasses and silverware. Mary Katherine knew who had paid for everything; she and Nora had shopped with Dennis because Matty had no interest in "domestic" issues. He took almost all the towels and the linens, leaving only one set of sheets and a few of the threadbare towels from college. The bastard left only one folding chair in the living room. Mary Katherine ended her recital with "The devil at least had the decency to leave the boy's art and his supplies. If he hadn't I'd have sent Stanley to get it all back."

"And," Nora joined in, "Chet would have been right beside him or not bother coming home."

Dennis was almost amused at the idea of his homophobic brothers-in-law riding to his defense like the white knights of old. He was a man; the sisters could coddle him a bit, but then he would go home and pick up the pieces.

As days passed there were fewer and fewer pieces to pick up. Nora and Mary Katherine were patient, taking turns driving him into Jersey to see his doctors. They would prescribe and test. With each new test and prescription Nora and Mary Katherine would hope, and hope would be dashed. It didn't look as if Dennis was regaining his strength. Living with the Polanski problem full time hadn't helped. He shuffled off between sisters, his brothers-in-law tormenting him with his helplessness as soon as his sisters weren't looking. Dennis realized staying with the girls wasn't a real option. He asked to go home.

All totaled up he spent six months with the girls, six wasted months. He arrived back home just after Christmas. He intended to begin teaching in January. Dennis was out of work but paid a good portion of his salary under the teacher's union disability insurance. But his sick leave was used up in March, he needed to get his life back. He missed Matty; his leaving had burned a hole in Dennis' soul. They talked, and Matt confessed he had found someone on an out of town trip just around the time of Dennis' first lupus flare. He had stayed as long as he was able. Dennis was bitter. He needed no pity from Matt. A clean break in the beginning would have been best for both of them. Matt never had the balls to meet anything head on; Dennis just let him skulk away, not even cashing the "guilt" check he sent in replacement for looting their apartment. At least he had left Dennis' checking account alone.

Dennis was numb enough to lie down on the sand. The water ran up the Dockers and splashed up over his arms and the sides of his shirt. The waves were higher and breaking closer to his feet. His emerald eyes were shut against the mist. He no longer shivered. The numbness of hypothermia had begun. Soon he would sleep. He took his last two Percocet as he struggled from the car to the sand. He'd parked on a little trafficked street in front of Asbury Towers, a senior residence about twenty plus stories high. Originally intended as luxury apartments, it fell to a charity. The small street at its rear faced the ocean at North Beach. The Towers sat next to the Sewage Plant which occasionally gave off sulfurous odors. But North Beach was home to those free spirits who didn't have the funds or the temperament for the "cabana" or "beach pass" crowd. The beach hosted lovers under blankets and surfers riding the waves without life guards or park rangers asking questions. After a pickup at one of the local gay clubs, a trip to the beach would ensue when the lovers didn't have the price of a motel. It was at North Beach that Matt first penetrated Dennis. Dennis thought it was the appropriate place to end his life.

He was angry. Although Matt didn't touch his checking, he'd wiped out their savings. He sold fifteen of the paintings Dennis prepared for his second art show and took the money. Dennis had no proof of Matt's larceny. Matty had all of his PIN numbers, access to all of his accounts. Matt was his accountant as well as his lover. 

Matt was the one who found him his agent. When he contacted her, she produced signed statements from Dennis giving Matty permission to sell his art for "medical expenses." Dennis denied giving Matt permission but the paintings were already sold and he would have to prosecute Matty to get the money.

Dennis tried to work. The school administration sent him to a physician. The school doctor said that Dennis was no longer physically able to continue working. He recommended Social Security Disability and Medicare. Dennis didn't have tenure, nor did he have the money or pull to fight. He applied. The amount he received was ridiculously small and Medicare took six months to kick in. His school insurance would pay for his prescriptions, but the co-pays for the drugs he took accounted for one-third of his check. His rent was high and he no longer had Matt to share the expense. His small car was paid in full, but gas was expensive and if he drove, he didn't eat. He only used it to get to the doctor and it was March. Medicare wouldn't begin until June.

It took a mere three months for Dennis to be down to his last few dollars. Pills or food? Neither. Instead he chose bliss, the water, his beach and silence. The next wave came up over his waist. The undertow was treacherous here. It began the slow pull into the sea. The salt water from Dennis' eyes met the salt water of the sea and became one. He floated a bit, mindless, numb-then sank.