The Rock That Can’t Be Reached

Drug addiction and recovery. friendship

The Rock That Can’t Be Reached

We were at the quarry again. The quarry is the closest thing to a beach for people like us, who didn’t live in fancy private lake communities and were not a near drive to any public beaches. The quarry didn’t seem like much to folks who hadn’t grown up near it and been forced to love it. It is tucked away behind a tall wall of weeds and brush that borders a dirt road outlet from a one-lane street that not many cars drive on. After pulling your car on the dirt, walking past the “NO TRESPASSING” signs, and around the weeds, you’d see it emerge, nestled between a hill of trees and a field of dirt. It was a deep body of water that was once a mine until they had mined all of the crap that they could. Then they collapsed the tunnels and filled it with fresh water and fish. You could still find tools and old pieces of metal sticking out of the sand underwater sometimes. This technically made it illegal to swim in, due to the dangerous nature of sharp objects in a body of water in the middle of nowhere, but Pete and I had just torn down all of the NJ State Park signs that read “SWIMMING PROHIBITED,” so we figured it was okay now.

Peter had just come back from a short stint in a rehabilitation center. He was different now. Quieter, calmer in a sense, but not all the way through. He hadn’t become a calm person, he had only learned how to hide behind a mask of tranquility that they give you. That’s all rehab did for most of us, anyway. They didn’t know how to solve problems like addiction—nobody does. They just taught you how to hide it better, or how to pretend you weren’t craving whatever your vice was. And they tried to teach you how to distract yourself from it. They always preach about how exercise is the best way to curb addiction, but they never have gyms or pools or activity centers at any of these rehab facilities. All they have is dormitory style bedrooms, big dudes in nursing gowns, a patio area where you talk about your feelings while chain-smoking cigarettes, and money. Lots of money.

So, Peter had just come home from one of those hell holes. He had started smoking while he was there because there wasn’t much to do except smoke cigarettes and walk around the property when you weren’t talking to a professional drug counselor. He was puffing fast on a Newport 100 as he told me a story about a recovering heroin addict in rehab who used to hide the methadone the clinic gave him under his tongue throughout the day. Then, at night, he would take all the pills he had hidden at once, and he would catch a nice enough high to get him to sleep.

“He got out the same day I did,” Peter finished, “I wonder how he’s doing.”

“Probably back in rehab by now.”

Peter laughed. “Yeah, probably.”

We were sitting on two big rocks on the top of a rut, which acted as a boat drop into the water. To my left was my guitar and the crumpled-up sheets of the official New Jersey State Regulations against swimming. The sun was at the beginning of its descent to the horizon, the heat was at its highest, and the bugs were busy buzzing around creating a chorus that mimicked the ringing in your ears after a concert. “You know, we had a pool at the rehab center?”

“No shit. That’s some high-end treatment,” I said.

“Yeah, except we were only allowed to use it when a lifeguard was on duty. And there were no lifeguards.”

“Well, at least you got to look at it.”

“Yeah that’s basically all it was good for. I’d look at it and wish I could just fill my pockets with rocks and jump in,” he laughed, and so did I. All of our friends got worried every time he made a dark joke, worried that it was a sign he would relapse or try to commit suicide. They had forgotten that Peter had always made dark jokes, even before he started using. Worse yet, they forgot that half of the jokes we made between ourselves were far darker than the things he’d say. They treated him like a fragile doll. I hated that because I hated when people treated me that way when I quit my vices. “Anyway, the whole time I was there, all I wanted to do was swim. More than I ever had in my life. You know how it is when something is available and you can’t do it, it becomes the only thing you care about.” We both looked at the crumpled signs. “Swimming prohibited my ass,” Peter said.

We took off our clothes except for our boxers and waded into the cool water where the bugs and the August heat couldn’t reach us. We stood at the edge, where we could still keep our toes in the sand and just our heads above water. Then, we swam in small circles, floated on our backs, and enjoyed the weightlessness of our bodies in the water. While I was lying on my back I saw that the clouds made a pattern in the sky: stripes, multi-colored in shades of cotton candy and orange fire thanks to the low sun. I pointed it out to Peter.

“That’s pretty,” he said. “But weird. The sky always looks fake to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean sometimes it just looks too perfect, too beautiful even at times where it isn’t meant to be beautiful. It seems almost like its fabricated; like it’s just the dome of an incredible simulation.”

We floated in silence for a while, looking at the fake sky and wondering who created it. Peter stood in the water and looked at a huge rock of an island in the distance. “When I was in high school me, Joe, and Brian once had a competition to see who could swim closest to the island.”

“That’s ballsy. No chance I could even make it that far. I’m a terrible swimmer.”

“I’m gonna go for it.”

“You can make it there?”

“I don’t think so.” With that he took off and started swimming, big splashes coming from his wide body. I thought about telling him he shouldn’t try to do something so dangerous, especially with nobody around to help him, but then figured he could make his own decisions. So I stood there and watched him. His long arms and legs carried his slender body at a steady pace. After awhile he was about a quarter of the way there. A man in a kayak rowed up to me to get onto the boat drop. As he pulled his kayak up onto the beach he said, “Wow, that guy is really going for it huh?”

“Yeah, he is.”

“It’s pretty far, can he make it?”

I shrugged.

The man stood there with me and we both watched Peter slowly get closer to the island. Then the splashes stopped, and the ripples his body sent around the quarry steadied. Just his head was bobbing up and down in the water.

“Is he all right?” the man asked.

“I think he’s just taking a break.”

We stood for what felt like hours; but really couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes, watching his head bob up and down. A couple of times I lost sight of him; he was such a small speck from this distance. I called out, “Peter! Are you alright?” No answer. “Peter!”

His head bobbed silently in the water. He was too far away to hear me, and he was probably too tired to yell out to me even if we were closer. As the man began to pull his kayak back into the water, I said, “Don’t worry, I think he’s all right.”

“I just want to paddle over there to make sure.”

As the man got into his kayak, water splashed from Peter’s legs as he began swimming again, this time back to us. the splashes were smaller, with longer pauses between them. It took much longer on the return trip, and when he got back to shore he collapsed on the ground, lying on his back and gripping the sand and rocks with his fists;  the creases around his lips showed the slight smile from his relief and joy to be back on land. His chest rose and fell quickly as he took deep breaths and the water beaded from his body.

“We almost thought you wouldn’t make it,” the man with the kayak said.

Peter looked at him and took a few more breaths before saying, “me too.” Peter and I laughed, while the man looked concerned.

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t try to get all the way to the island,” I said.

“Me too. It just seemed further and further away the closer I got. Like running up an infinite down escalator. And even if I did make it there, there’s no chance I would have made it back. Drowning isn’t the way I want to go out.”

“Well, you’re back now.” He sat up and there was dirt all over his back. “Let’s get you clean.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll stay clean.”

I gave him an old T-shirt from my car to clean himself with. We took off our wet boxers and put on the rest of our clothes. I threw those nonsense “SWIMMING PROHIBITED” signs in the garbage except for two that we each would keep as a memento of the day we realized the sky was fake, that some things are farther than they appear, and that nothing is ever prohibited if you’re ballsy enough. We drove together down a long, straight, and narrow road that neither of us had been on before as we told jokes and laughed about silly things like rehab, drugs, death, and the rock that can’t be reached.

This story is dedicated to Peter James Iorlano, a beautiful and wild soul who touched the hearts of everyone he met. Peter is the subject of this story and many others that I have written. I hope that this can shine a light on the man that I knew, as I knew him, and as he lives in the countless memories and stories that he left with us. I am grateful to have known him.

No Swimming
Photo courtesy of D.C. Gonk

There are too many unanswered questions
In the wake of your untimely death
But one thing is for absolute certain
I love you, and I wish you well rest.

This story was originally published by Burnt Pine Magazine on March 12th, 2019

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