My first terrifying sight of the ocean, midnight Daytona Beach. Boiling tar stretched to the horizon seamlessly forming a towering dark tsunami. Extending fifty yards into inky endless a wooden fishing pier; under guttering lights hung a plastic shark upside-down from a post. Set my teeth clacking, though panic arose not from Jaws but from indescribable deep-seated angst of dark water.
You, my True, proved correct my worst fears.
Thoughts only of you for these last twenty years. I cannot manage other relationships when you remain forever the love of my life. So long ago… Beginning of the season before the drunken crush of spring breakers. I drove down weeks before the earliest arrivals to confront open water. After a first glimpse at that indomitable leviathan, I intended an immediate drive back to ASU, but a nagging voice demanded a daylight viewing.
In the morning, the vastness remained hideous.
“Hey.” A call from Heaven. I turned; bright sun spotlit you, an Abercrombie model perched on your high tower lifeguarding the lack of swimmers. “My first customer of the year.”
I flip through old pictures of myself now and see a fairly handsome young man, but at the time doubt and self-hatred riddled me. Wondering why you deigned speak with a guy so repulsive, I choked out a scintillating, “Hi.”
Your golden skin, spiked blond hair, and lapis lazuli blue eyes rocketed my anxiety, but your welcoming aura propelled me to your feet.
Wherever you are, do you remember our spark igniting? Me not just a vapid, horny twenty-three-year-old frat guy. You wittier, cleverer than a young Adonis. Stars aligned, assigned soulmates.
“I’m not going in.” I squinted sun from my periphery.
Your wide-lipped smile. “Strange place for a non-swimmer.” But not ridiculing.
I admitted, “I’m terrified of open water.”
Your beatific expression never judged. You nodded and watched the gentle chop, mesmerized. “You could get lost in there forever.”
You already had it planned, didn’t you?
Your focus back to me, you blinked long lashes. “I’m Tyler.”
“Mitchell.” I tip-toed to shake.
You leaned over the sentry chair and your long, soft hand enveloped mine. The flicker in your eyes reflected the electric jolt between us. “I’m off at five.”
In the gloaming, we drank Rolling Rocks in the near-empty bars. A spattering of guys hit on you, but your attention never strayed. Your arm around me labeled me yours and you mine. We clinked green glass bottles and sipped, eyes locked. Gazing into your face got me instantly hard.
“Why are you afraid of the ocean, Mitchell? Many people are, but I want to know your story.”
How you put me at ease! Me, the odd-ball loner despite my Phi Sig brothers and the misconception of Greek life being all self-assurance and popularity.
I chewed my lower lip. “I had mono in high school. I guess strange phobias kick in for lots of people after recovering…” I upended my beer and slurped the dregs.
You nodded up your chin at the bartender, and the Rasta-looking guy brought two more bottles.
A gulp to help me divulge the lame story. “As a kid I loved the beach. Begged Mom and Dad for afternoons at Silver Lake every day, every summer since I’d worn floaties over my arms. Months after mono, I swam out to the high-dive platform some fifty yards out, as I had hundreds of times. Six already that day. On the seventh, fear gripped my guts. I tore through the water to grab hold of the raft-thing. Heaved my dripping seventeen-year-old body from the greenish murk. My heart pounded in my throat until my toes made it safely up and out. Blind from dizziness. Whole body shaking with a panic attack. Took five minutes convincing myself to jump in and beat it to shore. Never went back. Never swam again. Total aquaphobia. Hand tremors when driving over bridges above rivers. Palpitations with a glimpse of a lake. I shudder at pools! Worst of all? Dark water. The thought freezes me. Can’t swallow. Can’t move. The ocean is my boogeyman.”
You hugged me. Petted my hair.
Later, laughing, we stumbled to your rented, white-washed summer cabin, rubble and cinderblocks hidden in the choking weeds. We fell into the most comfortable bed I still have ever known.
“I adore you.”
“I adore you, too.”
Over hard definition, your skin intoxicatingly mushy as if the slightest layer of baby fat remained in your flesh.
Beer-chilly mouth slid over my erection. Glorious foreplay until craving overwhelmed. Our bodies fit like puzzle pieces, transforming disparate two into a satiated one. At orgasm, bleak ocean waters poured into me.
Tangled in sheets and limbs, you raked fingers through my hair. I shivered in boundless gratification. Gasped between sea-salt kisses. Bliss immense as all seven seas.
Yet nightlong dreams of the carnivorous ocean tearing through skin, limbs, organs.
My soul yet to be devoured.
Next day both of us at the terrible beach.
“You came all this way, and you’re not going to swim a little?”
Into the horror underneath the rolling waves? Lurking creatures unseen. Undertow. Riptides. Drowning, water gushing into stomach, lungs, dragged down.
You studied me, solemn. “At least wade in. I’ll protect you.”
You watched over me. Sand burned my soles along the way toward the horrifying tide. Water licked my feet, but I walked in. A gigantic pulse chilled my calves. I trembled. Another step; darker water soaked my board shorts. Tears welled. One more; titanic current beat against my midriff. Nope. Too deep too fast. My brain threatened shorting out. I high-stepped outta there. Clueless how that ocean would soon gut me.
You clapped your hands, proud, though I had fled the water, scared, nauseated, vowing never to return.
Second night, five-star dinner—lobster, scallops, foie gras. We held hands along the boardwalk. Fed each other cotton candy. At the arcade I whacked moles; you mastered Skee-Ball, winning long ropes of tickets. Traded them in for a plush lion gift—fur golden as your skin.
Your moonlight smile and firm nod. “More appropriate first date.”
Meaning more to come.
Back home, we made out in your downy bed. Legs entangled. Arms entwined. Heavy, yearning breath.
Your lips spilled honey-words. “You’re incredible.”
“Facing your fear.”
Me, too complimented to confess how terror swamped me. How I forced that petrifying wade into the ocean only to impress you. Now I know that your thought of me as brave created in you false weakness for not winning your battle.
Please forgive me.
I should have recognized the dead spots in your eyes as those that haunted my own in every mirror. Ghosts of chemical imbalances. Our minds the same, our hearts would have further synced if we had dared share more than passion and joy.
You rolled me on top. “I need you inside me.”
After, in the wet and squishy, what I interpreted as a hopeful discussion of long-distance relationships. Sweat pasted our bodies together. Your fingertips lightly scratched my back. “We’ll figure it out.”
With your last words you lied to me.
Twenty years until I understood enough to blame me and not you.
Waking, you weren’t wrapped around my body. No sizzling bacon or eggs frying… I dressed, waited; you’d bring to-go coffees, right? I perused your books and CDs. Peered out the windows for you.
Hopeful, I slept another night. Curled on your warm spot, smelled your secret scents on satin sheets, clutched your pillow.
Police knocked next morning. Without witnesses’ reports I’d have waited days, days, days before returning to college believing you’d ghosted me, leaving your own home.
Shock. Betrayal. The gut-wrenching insanity of sorrow.
We’d moved fast, but hadn’t we connected true? We both knew that I adore you meant I love you.
So many years later, I understand.
My therapist suggested this letter. Exorcise guilt, anger, loneliness, despair. But I hold those in my heart; they are what I have instead of you. So, I write only to speak with you one last time.
Any second thoughts while lugging it down that pier?
Were you scared, looping the rope, tying it to your ankle?
Fear, relief, regret as you pushed the block into ebony water?
Rope tightening, digging in an ankle ligature, pulling you off the edge.
Weight plunging you relentlessly down stygian waters. Down. Deep. Deep. Did your fingers frantically attempt unknotting? Were you as horrified as you are eternally in my own clawing dreams? Did you think of me as you swallowed black wet death?
Did you kiss me before you left home?
Your last freezing convulsion, did you wish for my warmth holding you?
In my nightmares you do.
But you did warn me: You could get lost in the ocean forever.
And so you are, lost.
And so am I.