Outside the apartment door was a large box with the word RowClub in tall thin letters on the side.
“What is this?” said Ashley.
Dylan dragged the box down the hall and into the spare room. “It’s a surprise. A present!” he said before shutting the door.
The present was a rowing machine with a large monitor bolted to the front of it.
“Unlike cycling, rowing works the whole body,” explained Dylan. “So you’re not just burning calories, you’re also strengthening your core and toning your arms. Ta-da!”
Ashley couldn’t hold back, but she had a mouthful of cracker and camembert, so she started pointing at Dylan, angry air jabs with her free hand, until she could wash down the cheese with the merlot she held in the other hand.
“Just what are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything.” He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away. “I care about your health. And your fitness.”
“My fitness for what? What about yours? It’s a lockdown, not a chow-down. All you do is eat corn chips, drink beer and watch The Office. And you bought me a rower?”
As she said it the love goggles dropped away. Dylan had always been on the chunky side. She liked big guys. And when she met Dylan he had a kind of older, overweight Dicaprio thing going—the eyes, the little beard—but two years and a lockdown later he’d gone from chunky to pudgy and the little beard was an untamed hillbilly face mullet.
She pushed him away.
“It’s science,” he said. “Look.” He touched the monitor and it came to life. He tapped options onscreen and an idyllic river scene appeared, the towers of Oxford visible off to the side, the sounds of bells ringing faintly in the background. “See? It’s fun. And it’s one of the most effective ways to exercise.”
He kept reaching for her. She kept slapping his hands away.
“If it’s so fun you use it. Get rowing. Talk to me when you’ve dropped twenty pounds, big boy.”
“Twenty pounds?” he said, lifting up his arms and peering down at his abdomen like he might be trying to find his feet.
Ashley reached out and grabbed a handful of his stomach fat and shook it.
“Maybe thirty,” she said, then walked out, slamming the door behind her. See how he liked being called fat and ugly. Her friend Samantha was outraged when she messaged her what happened. They kept messaging while she sipped wine on the couch and scrolled through Netflix. Samantha had a four year old and was missing daycare. When Ashley got up to refill her wine glass Dylan still hadn’t left the room, but a rhythmic whirring and bumping had started.
She didn’t see much of him for a couple days. It turned out the rowing machine had a Netflix app for when you were tired of looking at rivers. So instead of sitting next to her on the couch watching something stupid with explosions and aliens on his iPad, Dylan was rowing while spaceships exploded.
“Are you getting a bit obsessed?” said Ashley. They were in the kitchen together, a rare event these days, and Dylan was stacking the giant cans of tuna that he had InstaCarted into the pantry. Underneath his beard she could see him pursing his lips, thinking.
“Nah,” he said with a shake of his head and moved on to transfer a dozen heads of broccoli from bags into the fridge.
Dylan called from the bathroom. “Hey, baby, where are the clippers?”
The beard was going! She looked up at the ceiling and mouthed the words “At last”.
“I looked there!”
She dragged herself out of the deep cushions of the couch because God knew Dylan couldn’t find anything if it wasn’t taped to her chest. Typical man. She walked in, pushed past him, pulled open the bottom drawer, stuck her hand in and brought out the clippers.
“Oh. They must have been hiding. Thanks, baby.”
All he had on was a towel around his waist. There were pink letters on his right shoulder. They looked like scars.
“What have you done to your arm, Dylan? G-A-L? Gal? Did you burn yourself?”
Dylan grinned into the mirror as he plugged in the clippers.
“It’s a brand. I did it with an old coat hanger last week.”
“You branded yourself? Are you mad?”
“Nah.” He started clipping off the end of his beard. “I joined a crew. We call ourselves The Galley Slaves. In the 1500s real galley slaves would get the same brand.”
He started working the clippers up his neck.
“If you collapsed while rowing, they’d slit your throat and throw you overboard.”
The brand looked pretty gross. The arm itself was looking pretty good—big, well defined. She stepped behind him. His back was the same. She watched the muscles move as he shook hair off the clippers into the sink, then reached out and ran her hand down his back. He jumped.
“Hey. You’re going to make me cut my own throat,” he said and gently pushed her out of the bathroom and shut the door.
When he walked out of the bathroom in a t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts she was simultaneously stunned and intensely conscious that she had been wearing the same sweatpants for four days and she had a hot pocket in each hand.
Dicaprio was Dicrapio compared to rowing Dylan. He had cut his hair short as well, and that just emphasised the squareness of his jaw.
“Wow,” said Ashley. Who knew that had been hiding under there all these years?
“Wow,” he echoed, muscles shifting as he stroked his bare jaw. “I feel like I have the chin of a small child.”
“Come and sit down,” said Ashley, patting the couch.
“Can’t, baby. The crew’s got a race in five and we’re live-streaming,” he said and walked into the spare room.
Showered, fully depilated, moisturised, perfumed, maybe a little foundation and a touch of eyeliner, and wearing only a towel, Ashley peeked into the spare room. She could hear the rowing, but she couldn’t wait any longer.
Dylan, wearing a headset with microphone, shot her a grin and kept moving.
“That’s the two hour mark, slaves,” he said. “We’re halfway there.”
He shot her another grin. She gave a disappointed wave and shut the door.
“What are you doing, babe?”
She had to wake up super early, but she had made it to the rower before him.
“I’m going to row. It is my present isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Cool. Fine. Let me set you up a profile. I’ve got everything cranked pretty high.”
Three minutes on the easiest setting and she was ready to puke. The view of Oxford had barely shifted.
“Hey! It’s a start,” said Dylan. It was also an end.
“Who is that at the door?” said Ashley.
“Photographer,” said Dylan. “The Times is a doing a story on RowClub. Galley Slaves are going to represent.”
“I’m not even dressed. Or showered.”
“Don’t worry, babe. They’re not photographing you.”
Sponsorship followed. They had protein bars and rowing gloves everywhere. But that didn’t compare to the money he started pulling in off YouTube and Instagram. The rowing room was full of lights and a 4k camera. He was a lockdown model, shooting himself in clothes delivered by couriers and abandoned in a pile in the laundry room. He was appearing on every site and stream that Ashley opened. There was talk of naming him the most beautiful man of the lockdown. Of the century.
It was time for the talk.
“Dylan, honey. This rowing and stuff. It’s becoming too much. I know I said twenty pounds, maybe thirty, but look. You lost it.”
“I’m only down 18. But I’ve put on a lot of muscle.”
“A lot of muscle. You look amazing.”
“I know, baby. And thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
She took his hands. There were callouses on the palms, just under the fingers.
“But you’re doing it without me.”
“I’m doing it for you, baby. I’m living my best life. I’m becoming the best version of myself. Look at me. I’m pure muscle. My own jawline blows my mind.”
“I hear you. I’ll take a break. Focus on us. But first, there’s this little twenty four hour fundraiser for ICU nurses. Starting in, like, two hours. Twenty four hours then I’m all yours.”
She wasn’t sure what the “all yours” would actually entail, but she could hold out twenty four hours. Technically twenty six hours. Math wasn’t his strong point, but he did love the rowing. It was impossible to ignore the envy at how energised he was when rowing. He literally glowed.
And, she noticed, about sixteen hours in, before the viewers of the livestream realised it was not just a lighting effect, he actually was glowing. Light was radiating from his skin.
“Psst, honey,” she hissed from the side where the camera couldn’t see her. “You seem to be glowing.”
“It’s the burn, baby! It’s the burn! Woo! Sixteen hours! Bring on seventeen!”
In front of a live audience that was in the high six figures, and later in front of billions who watched the numerous recordings and screen caps, Dylan, already the best version of himself, attained a level of personal purity that matter could not support, and he evaporated into the perfect brilliance of light.
Saint Dylan of the Oar — 1992-2020 Requiescat In Pace