Titan Swims Free

Photo: © Nadia Belalia. All Rights Reserved.

Instead of talking about Titan’s ashes, Maggie talks about the supplements: Energy! Confidence! And also strength, definition, optimism, focus, drive, grit, sticktoitiveness! Some of it’s true, right? She says we’re almost there, almost peaking. I take the onramp to the highway and watch the cardboard box that holds Titan’s remains shift in the rearview, and then I mostly agree: Maggie looks great.

Sharper jawline, thicker fingernails, tighter skin. Obvious benefits for her biceps, shoulders, abs, calves, and glutes. It’s a shame to talk about in the car, at night, everything dark except for the headlights of passing cars. No way to confirm. That’s the problem when our bodies finally change: it’s hard for our minds to keep up. Brains are cruel like that: a petty muscle stuck in a softer past. But you should see Maggie now, and to a lesser extent, you should also see me.

Here’s New Hampshire, and the upcoming exit for the tax-free liquor store makes Maggie joke about how—of all nights—tonight might be the night to break the streak. Eight months sans alcohol. We wanted to get our money’s worth out of the supplements, and so of course we followed Trainer Jake’s directions closely. He’s always available to answer questions by text, and so that’s why I tell Maggie that, Yes, we can break the streak, but first we must ask for permission. This is our little game with Jake, and it’s a joke we all enjoy.

Often, we’ll text him things like Jake, may we have some ice cream? We’ll laugh really hard when he responds: No. You’re still disgusting. Go for a run. Jake gets us, and we trust him, which is probably why I should be communicating more clearly about the side effects I’m experiencing. It’s not that the supplements do nothing for me—just that the pros come with definite cons, and they’re things that Maggie doesn’t mention. Like, for example, the constipation is unbelievable; I mean this literally, as in my body’s input/output cycle violates the rules of physics. Sometimes it feels fine, but other times I have this pressure deep down in my abdomen, and I imagine that many months of steaks and vegetables and protein shakes are forming an anvil in my gut. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, usually, because I have shed some weight (again: seems scientifically impossible with the constipation) and my muscles have hardened in ways that appear healthy. I just don’t feel great, which is something I find impossible to say in the face of Maggie’s hopefulness and muscle mass and total infatuation with Trainer Jake’s system.

And like I said, I do experience some of the pros. Like right now, maybe the supplements are increasing my capacity for rebellion, because I don’t wait for Maggie to ask Jake for permission. I just pull off the highway and we purchase a handle of vodka.

It’s nice to drink standing in the dark lot of the tax-free liquor store, because it’s lit up with sodium lights that give everything a yellowish tinge, and this tinge adds such nice definition to Maggie’s triceps. I tell her this and she flexes for me and she’s so clearly a totally new Maggie. Beautiful as ever, but now she’s got this added glow. I’m so happy for her, but at the same time, I’m also aware of how our dynamic as a couple has shifted. An emerging hotness disparity. Like, in public, I can tell that people see us and think, Hmm, they’re not a couple, right? Must be her brother or something. But I’m not: I’m her husband and I’m taking the same damn supplements.

Maggie takes another hit from the bottle of vodka and then howls up at the moon. We’re both joyful for a moment, but then I can tell that we’re both sad right after, because howling was Titan’s thing, and there he is, still in his little box in the backseat of the car.

I want to be clear: this isn’t us. We don’t drink in parking lots, and we don’t howl at the moon. We are both thirty-three years old. Maggie’s in human resources and gets positive reviews from her boss. I project manage for a healthcare software company and was recently promoted. People seem impressed by our capacity for hard work and level-headedness. We married sort of young. We purchased a small home in the nicer outskirts of the city where we are both employed. We owned a German shepherd mix named Titan.

Titan. This is clearly where Maggie’s head is at as well: things change. As we began hitting the gym hard and taking Jake’s supplements, Titan was headed in the opposite direction. Arthritis. A tendon tear when he tried to chase a rabbit like he used to. Rot in his teeth, decay in his gums. Just absolutely clobbered by the passing of time, our poor pup.

“They don’t even have pet stores in the mall anymore,” Maggie says. “We couldn’t get another Titan if we tried.” She’s spiraling while I drive, drinking more. Headlights of an oncoming car, and I can see the way her eyes are watering from the alcohol and the hurt.

“Is this just a really dumb idea?” I ask. I consider turning the car around. I consider driving us home.

“It’s what Titan would have wanted,” says Maggie, which is a bit silly to say, but I must agree, given the direction in which I keep driving. Maggie’s got her phone out. Jake answers the video call, and I try to balance my attention to the road with a respectful amount of attention for him.

“You both should be hydrating and getting ready to hit the hay hard,” Jake says right away. I’m embarrassed to be driving at night, given that it’s a breach of protocol. I feel certain that Jake can sense we’re out-of-state; he must be sniffing out our dumb plan as we speak. I wonder how much we can really hide from him.

“It’s Titan,” Maggie says.

“Every excuse is a knife in the back of your future self,” Jake says. “You say Titan, but what I hear is nothing, because excuses aren’t a thing, they’re the opposite of a thing, right? An anti-thing. And we don’t play with antis because we’re pros.”

I want to snatch the phone from Maggie, though I don’t think I’d have the guts to hang up on Jake. It would be another breach, but it might be better than the violation I’m feeling with Jake’s face here in the car. I worry he’ll see the bottle of vodka that’s wedged between my wife’s thighs.

Maybe I don’t want to hang up on Jake. Maybe what I want is for Maggie not to be in the car, so that I could really open up to him about my issues with the supplements. Perhaps not the constipation, but I could mention the lack of sensation in my groin. I feel like that would be the way to say it without getting too specific—a numbness. But even without Maggie in the car, I don’t think I’d be able to say it. Too beta: erectile dysfunction in a thirty-three-year-old.

“I can tell you feel guilty, and don’t worry, I can help,” Jake says to Maggie. There’s frustration in his voice, and I really want to reach over for the vodka to dull the pain that’s swelling in my gut. It’s guilt and it’s also months of congealed food waste.

I don’t want to pull the car over, but I do, because Maggie sounds desperate. She’s already on edge because of Titan, and now she’s drunk and feeling bad about it, so there’s only one solution, and it involves our sedan in the breakdown lane, and Maggie doing crunches in the harsh white of our headlights while I hold Jake’s face in the phone in my hands. I’ve switched away from selfie cam at Jake’s request, because he wants to watch Maggie and cheer her on, which is only audible when cars are not whipping past us. I watch him watch her. I’m feeling nauseous and scared, but at least I can drink from the bottle in my other hand because Jake’s eyes are aimed elsewhere. I hope the vodka will break down the anvil in my gut; I pray there’s no sinister chemical reaction with all that food waste.

Now he wants to watch Maggie refuel, which is made possible by the fact that she did bring some supplements. Always a tub or two in the trunk. The problem is the lack of water, but how’s Jake to know that Maggie’s mixing with vodka? Looks about the same when she reveals the cup. I almost smile at her; I’m almost happy that we have a new secret to share.

“Down the hatch!”

“Right away.”

“Feel better?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I’ll be calling back in an hour, and I want to see you both in bed.”

“Of course.”

It’s funny, really, the seesawing of our goals. Maggie’s stronger now, but that strength doesn’t point us home toward the bed we could possibly reach in an hour with sufficient speeding. Instead, she’s telling me bombs away, full steam ahead, who cares, let’s go: Maine here we come.

Ten years ago, Titan was just a puppy in our backseat (new car, new dog, new life), and that silly little mongrel pooped himself in this very sedan while driving this very route. Maggie’s saying how she almost wishes there was a stain, and of course I agree. It might even change the calculus of our current situation, somehow. But instead, it’s just the box and the ashes and our shared sense that there’s been a total erasure, and so of course the only thing for us to do is keep driving and driving toward Maine and the house where Titan first swam.

You have to see him clearly, our sweet pup, ten years ago, splashing in the above-ground pool, wearing a doggy lifejacket. Unbelievably cute in a way that’s fucked, because it will stick in the wrinkles of your brain forever, the memory just biding its time, waiting to transform from a joy into a misery. Works that way with everything. Our past means one thing, and then it means another.

It should be obvious: I want to ask Maggie if she still loves me after everything that’s happened, after everything that’s changed. But it’s easier to start by talking about the tattoo, and even with the tattoo, it’s hard to be straightforward about my concerns. So I just ask Maggie if it’s healing okay, the ink on her shoulder blade.

“It’s not a tattoo,” Maggie mumbles. “It’s a monument to my future.” Language from Jake. Jake Jargon. Maggie’s drunk.

“I just feel like it must have really hurt,” I say. The tattoo: it’s the logo for the supplement company that Jake swears by and has some sort of financial arrangement with. Like, he’s a trainer at our gym but also a Lifestyle Advocate for the brand. Whatever that means. Their logo: leafy greens spiraling into a double helix. Jake has it inked on his forearm. Not the worst design, I guess, but disconcerting in its shroud of peeling skin on my wife’s shoulder blade.

“Why did we say we didn’t want kids?” Maggie asks, even though we didn’t. She laughs and then, “I’m glad Titan’s dead. It’s embarrassing. Being that couple in their thirties. Dog dads, dog moms, whatever.” She surely doesn’t mean it.

Out of New Hampshire, into Maine, and I stop at the rest stop to pee and also get away from Maggie for a bit. She’s passed out in the passenger seat and still looks gorgeous. I open and close the car door quietly, and she doesn’t stir. My reflection in the window is distorted, soft, ugly.

Inside: bright lights, strangers, pizza, burgers, coffee, massage chairs, a tank of lobsters. Only in Maine.

I stand in front of a urinal and nothing comes out. I try to listen to my body. I close my eyes and meditate on the feelings in my gut. I move to a stall and sit for a while and nothing. I think about how Maggie was not upset at all when her doctor said we’d have issues conceiving. She was glad. That’s what she said: nice to never worry about birth control again and then whatever happens, happens. And what happened was nothing, which was totally and completely fine.

I wander out and around the mostly empty tables and booths. I buy coffee and chug it down while staring at this huge potted plant. It might be real.

Back in the car and Maggie’s awake.

“GPS says it’s less than an hour,” she mumbles. “And I’m sorry.”

“We still could definitely adopt maybe,” I say. “A kid, I mean.”

“Let’s just steal one,” Maggie says. I can see the reflection of her smiling out the passenger side window. I speed up and out of the rest stop, back onto the highway. I have to pee now, and maybe it’s because of the coffee. I think I can make it an hour, all the way to the pool, but I could be wrong. “If we steal one it can be like a test run, and then if we return it, people will think we’re heroes who discovered a lost child.”

“But you look so healthy now,” I say. “The supplements, right? And the doctor said—”

“Let’s just get there,” Maggie says. “First the pool and Titan and then everything else. But first let’s get there.”

“I wish you hadn’t done crunches on the highway. That was dangerous, and Jake has no right,” I say. Look at me: standing up for myself. Must be the coffee.

Maggie sighs. I don’t think she’s sleeping with Jake or anything like that. She’s said before that his face is weird, non-symmetrical. I bet he’s got supersperm, though, the kind of swimmers that ensure conception, and so maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if something happened and we just pretended it didn’t and raised the baby and—my groin tingles. Good news, I guess. It’s probably pee, but it’s better than numbness. My intestines join the party: constricting, grumbling.

I listen to the radio, and the deejay talks about how this next song is for everyone who thinks summer will never end.

Off the highway things feel better. Maggie drifts off again, head against her own reflection in the window. Sleepy Maine. Shuttered food shacks with competitively priced lobster rolls. Town halls not built this century. Some streetlights, but not many, until you reach a bridge and then everything’s aglow and the water shines up with its wavy refractions. I really need to use a bathroom now. I clench and hold on, reminding myself that Jake says I’m sneaky strong. Nice words, I guess, but as I’m thinking about them now they sour. Backhanded, right? Nearly oxymoronic. I’m no Maggie; he just calls her a beast.

Even with my present colon and bladder strain, I’m almost wishing the drive was longer. I remember it taking forever in the past, ten years ago, but now I’m off the paved road and onto the gravel that leads down through the trees to the house where our college friend moved back with his family after graduation. The one we visited with little baby Titan. A weekend away. Maggie and me, twenty-somethings with our relationship status newly cemented by dog ownership. The property looks so different now, maybe because it’s dark, but also because the new owners put some time into the landscaping. I worry for a moment that they removed the above-ground pool. If they replaced it, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Thankfully it’s there. Maggie somehow intuits we’ve arrived and wakes, and my plan to quietly sneak off into the woods to relieve myself in secret is foiled. I’ll have to just tell her I need to go and then go. Or maybe we’ll dump the ashes quickly and then I can speed away to a rest stop or a restaurant that’s open late.

Maggie’s phone in the cupholder vibrates and glows. Jake calling. Missed call. Then the phone vibrates and glows again.

Maggie says nothing and exits the car with Titan’s remains in one hand and the vodka in the other. I watch, hoping she’ll just do the deed and run. We’re probably in no real danger, because the lights of the house are out. Maybe it’s just a vacation home for some city couple now. Or the new owners are retirees, snoozing early. Or maybe a young family, with a baby who has finally dropped off to sleep, clueless about the dog-ash intruders in their yard.

I’m letting myself get trapped in my mind, even as I’m stuck in the car, partly from fear that if I stand my bowels might tremble and release, partly thinking about how my bladder is also unfit to withstand even the slightest jostle of a stroll. Vodka and coffee and supplements and fatigue. So I just sit. Sit and watch. And Maggie’s removing all of her clothes.

Okay: so. She does look amazing. There’s moonlight, right? And then there’s Maggie’s skin which is so taut now. Shoulder blades chiseled and working as she drops her jeans. Glutes glowing, round. She climbs the ladder, tosses the bottle of vodka in ahead of her. It bobs. A message in a bottle, moving away from her. She slips in and tracks it down. Predatory. Titan’s still sitting there, boxed, in the grass, and so what can I possibly do? I’m not a man at this point, I’m a trembling container of solids, liquids, and gas, but I want to look fit and beautiful, too. She holds the lip of the pool, and she squints across the yard toward me in the car, smiles and beckons. She drinks vodka. She shoots it straight up so it splashes around her in the pool. My wife, the fountain.

The first step from the car, and I feel okay. Not strong and striking like Maggie, but fine. Here’s a thing: Maggie probably can get pregnant. My doctor had a separate diagnosis for me. But we don’t talk about that because it’s weakness, and we don’t do that anymore. We promised ourselves we’d head in the right direction. Up and out. Fitness, triumph, glory, might!

Five more steps, and I can hear some noises in my gut. They’re made worse when I bend to tug and remove my jeans and underwear. There’s additional strain when I lift my arms to remove my shirt. The ladder’s even worse, especially because I’m trying to hold Titan’s box and climbing with just one hand to grip the rungs. But I make it.

I stand atop the ladder, fully exposed to Maggie over the lip of the pool. My abdomen, sculpted somewhat from the supplements and exercise, looks pretty good in the moonlight, but everything else feels small and shriveled.

“You can do it!” Maggie says. Lovely Maggie. She thinks I’m nervous about the water. She has no idea what I’m like inside. I open the box that holds our dog’s remains.

“I think you should get out for this,” I say.

“Never,” she says.

I tip it up and over, and there goes Titan, ashy and white, spreading across the surface of the pool. Maggie smiles and swims smoothly away from it. She giggles. Oh Titan she coos, moving along the perimeter of the ashy mass.

I slide into the water, which is so warm, sinking until it laps at my chin. There’s moonlight and water and Maggie separated from me by a floating continent of dog.

“You’re so handsome,” Maggie says. The moonlight cuts through the water. I can see her nakedness go wavy in the wet waves. She wants me, but I’m weaker than I’ve ever been before. I’m nothing but a contraction, one endless tightening of sphincter and bladder, my final energies pushing back against so much throbbing waste.

But remember: every potion starts as powder, every cure starts as paste. Mix with water, mix with water. I’m delirious and only now recognizing the pain. What else could possibly shore me up, weld me shut, give me some strength to dedicate to Maggie? The supplements are forever far away, stashed in the trunk. But what’s the difference, really? Ashes and ashes, dust and dust. I just need something to glue me shut, so of course I yawn wide, moving forward, tasting liquid and chlorine at first, but then also tasting my poor, sick dog, mixed with moonshine and water, the finest blend. Me, a trawler, a skimmer, a feasting man.

Sure, Maggie’s disgusted, but that’s the best palate cleanser for love. We’ll hold each other and then we’ll struggle and strain. I could clench forever: I don’t even have to go.

Ben Powell lives and teaches in Worcester, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in The Nashville Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Hypertext Magazine, and others.

Appears In

Issue 13

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