Of Iron and Bronze – 40

40.

Competition day. I weighed in at 77 kilos on the dot—something I’d assumed didn’t really happen. Anytime I’d seen an athlete with a bodyweight exactly equal to the category limit I’d figured that, in truth, they’d been overweight and had simply slipped the ref a fiver to put them down at the limit. But on that morning, naked and desiccated and feeling closer to mummification than competing, the digital readout stopped exactly at 77.00 kilos.

Ricky smiled at me when he saw the numbers. “Didn’t lose a gram more than you needed.”

After weighing in we went to the warmup area, where I could relax and stretch and rehydrate and move around with the empty barbell. Pete was there, as were Russ and Nikos. The other athletes were going through similar routines, or else lying around listening to iPods and discmen or doing whatever pre-competition ritual they felt necessary to their performance, a mix of activities that ranged from the scientific to the superstitious. Pete talked to me, helping to keep me calm and distracted from the steadily building nerves. He knew what I was going through and knew, better than anyone, how to keep me out of my own head.

Ten minutes prior to the start of the competition the lifters were called out for introductions. We formed a line and then walked out to the platform and each of us stepped forward when his name was called and waved to the small audience. Perhaps two dozen people sat in that crowd—a great turnout, in those days. As I stood out there, waiting for my own name, I looked at them all, hoping for a face that I suspected wasn’t there.

When the session started I began taking 50 kilos. My mind was a steady hum of background concerns—did that feel right? am I on schedule? is my thumb tape sticking?—that I had to constantly suppress. Pete loaded my bar and kept talking, knowing I needed it, while Ricky kept yelling at him to save his energy.

“You gotta lift later!” he said, but Pete brushed this aside.

“I load bars every day in trainin’” he said. “Ain’t no different here.”

Ricky shook his head but let him stay. He looked at me. “How you feel?”

“Not bad,” I said. “We’ll see when it gets heavier.”

He waved a thick finger in front of my face. “Remember: don’t matter how you feel! You lift big weights either way.”

I smiled. A classic Ricky aphorism, one that he’d been peppering our training and meets with for years. “You got it.”

The competition rolled along, the weight on my bar and that of the platform steadily increasing. I went through 50, 70, 90, 100. Then 110. Things felt good. I was cautiously optimistic. Had I experienced some mystical recovery in the last few days? Had the baking somehow been good for my body? Whatever it was, even Nikos and Ricky and Russ looked impressed.

“Best I seen you move in weeks,” said Ricky, and for once I didn’t think he was lying to give me confidence on the platform. Maybe—maybe—a 300 total was still in the realm of the possible…

When the competition barbell was loaded with my opener Nikos called to me. “Is time,” he said, with the solemnity of a man headed to an execution. I nodded, and he and my little entourage followed me out that stairs that led to the platform.

“Just another day at the office,” said Ricky as I chalked up. “You done all the work.”

“Right.”

The bar was set to 125 kilos. Two big reds per side. A weight I’d spent years trying to overcome, and now I was opening with it. I pushed that thought aside—this is no weight, I thought instead.

Feet planted, shoulders over the bar, head up, finding a spot on which to focus. Feeling the barbell in the hands, checking the grip, then again. This is no weight… body set, then GO.

“That was cake!” said Ricky as I came off the platform, and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. It was the best snatch I’d done in weeks, and the next two—130, then 132.5—went up like clockwork, each identical to the last. Everything felt right: the bar, the platform, the way I was moving with the weight. Had I ever felt this?

When the snatches concluded I was in third place overall, and thus guaranteed at least one bronze medal. Nikos and Russ were keeping whatever excitement they felt under control, but Ricky was far less restrained, try as he might to stay level.

“Three good clean and jerks,” he said a few times, pacing my warmup platform as I sat and rested. “That’s all you need to do.”

Nothing was said of the 300 total, but I was sure he was thinking it. I knew I was…

Russ was handling attempts, and he had me open at 157.5 kilos. It seemed a long way from what I needed for a 300 total or a shot at an international team but I knew he was thinking long term. My warmups felt good, and I was confident walking out to the weight. On the platform, as I steadied myself before setting up over the bar, my gaze settled with terrible accuracy on a single, new face in the crowd: Libby, sitting on her own, looking at me without enthusiasm, but there all the same.

A quick shot of panic and elation tore through me and I did all I could to suppress it. There was still this bar to lift, after all…

I made my 157.5 opener without fanfare. It felt good, almost routine, as though I were still taking warmups. For my second attempt Russ and Nikos conferred amongst themselves and checked the placements and conferred some more, like a pair of strategists in a war room. They finally settled on 162.5 kilos, and this too I made with confidence.

“One more!” Ricky said, screaming despite clearly trying not to scream to contain his excitement.

I sat in the staging area through a series of other lifts: some makes, some misses by the other athletes. Nikos and Russ conferred. I knew I had my own goals but I trusted their decision. After some time had passed—I lost track of it, sitting trying to stay focused, listening to idle chatter from Pete—Ricky came up to me.

“Let’s go. You’re gonna do 167.5, and you’re gonna make it.”

“This what you came here to do, buddy,” said Pete. “Let’s see it!”

I nodded. Right.

Ricky slapped me on the shoulders; the force of his great paws coming down on me nearly knocked me over. I steadied myself, took in a huge lungful of air, and stepped forward. From the crowd I heard shouts and cries of encouragement, and as I ascended the three steps to the platform I felt certain that I was here for one purpose: to make this final clean and jerk.

There was something different, then, from what I had long grown accustomed to when competing. Different even from the days on drugs. It was as though I’d stepped into some great current of energy, and each step closer to the barbell brought me more in sync with it. For a brief second I remembered something Ricky had once told me, about the great Yuri Vlasov and his description of tremendous and victorious effort. Its particulars were lost to me but I swore that somehow my body was recalling the sensation that had been described, one in which the world becomes clearer and you feel to be in possession of extraordinary power and ability. Was this it? Was this what Ricky had told me about? He’d once mentioned that for him the real high was not winning medals; the real high was the feeling. I felt certain that this was it. This was what I’d been chasing after, all these years.

Whatever spark I thought was gone in the prior weeks of training had been rekindled twice over for this one attempt, an all out effort to make good on what I’d set out to do.

Everything extraneous faded from my vision as I walked to the middle of the platform—the crowd, the judges, the lights, the room, the world beyond the room, everything… All I saw was the barbell: the thin stretch of brilliant steel that stood between me and my goal. Gripping it, holding its rough, knurled surface, I swore it seemed somehow small in comparison to my hands. I sensed its own power, its own stored energy, and then I felt that I was taking that energy from it, growing stronger and stronger with each passing second, each tick of the clock. I had no doubt, then, that the barbell would yield. It would yield because I, like a small god, was a master over gravity, and in my hands the bar would bend to my will.

I recognized the silence before the lift. It was my silence! It was a silence the universe had crafted for me and me alone, in admiration of my work. I felt the power within me, and I knew then that it was all the power of the world, a power so great that I struggled to contain it. I wait a moment, just a moment, so that I might direct that power. Like a valve releasing pressure I allow a yell to come out—There! See my power!—and then I get set and GO.

The weight is heavy but I am stronger. The weight wants to pull me to the ground but I pull harder. The clean is finished without my thinking, and soon I am rising, rising with the weight across my shoulders. There is some perception of joy around me, of people screaming and cheering, but none of that matters. All that matters is the bar across my shoulders, which I must now throw overhead. My blood is pounding in my head but I see very clearly what I must do, and I know that I can do it, that I will do it. There is no doubt. There is only the will

I jerked the weight overhead and secured myself in the split. The tremendous sense of power was still there, even as the weight fought to come down. HOLD, I thought. HOLD. Just a moment longer. I steadied myself, conscious of the cries and shouts but focused entirely on holding that weight overhead, and when I finally brought my feet in line and received the down signal from the center referee I felt the closest thing to pure triumph that I’d ever experienced…

Which unfortunately lasted for only a fleeting moment, as the judges ruled against me two to one.

“Bullshit!” cried Ricky, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was so agitated I feared he might run out and attack someone. A few people in the crowd booed. Had it been a press out? True, my right elbow had felt a bit soft, but I thought I’d held it steady, at least…

I looked to the refs for some explanation but there was none. The jury? No movement. With no other options—short of screaming, which Ricky was still doing—I walked off the platform, my thoughts a heady mix of triumph and defeat.

“That was a good lift!” Ricky screamed in the warmup room, after he’d been more or less dragged away from yelling at the judges. “Russ? Nikos?”

They both shrugged.

“Hard to say,” said Russ. “Maybe a little soft in that jerk, but… I thought it was good. They’ve passed worse, certainly.”

“Is good lift for me,” said Nikos, smiling and putting a hand on my shoulder.

I pulled down my singlet and sat back.

“Three hundred total, buddy,” said Pete, giving me a fist pump. “Counts for me.”

***

At the end of my session I ended with bronze across the board. Despite missing an official 300 total, and despite the great unlikelihood of making an international team, I felt some satisfaction. I’d lifted as well as I could’ve hoped that day; better, even, given how my training had felt leading up to the competition. And if I’d come up short I told myself it was out of my hands: the judges had ruled one way, and there was nothing left to change it.

On the podium, when the medals had been given to us and we three were smiling for pictures and enjoying the few seconds of applause and appreciation, I scanned the crowd for the face that had been so unsettling—in ways good and bad—not long before. But either she was gone or I couldn’t find her. I contented myself with the medal, held it up for my friends and coaches, and then stepped down.

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 39

39.

I rolled into Nationals that year four kilos overweight, with something like 36 hours to lose it.

“The hell you been eatin’?” asked Pete, as he stared at the numbers on the check scale.

“What’ve I been eating?” I asked, incredulous. “Pancakes! With you motherfucker! This is your fault!”

He feigned innocence, raising his hands in a gesture that sought to absolve him of all blame. “I figured you were cuttin’ back elsewhere! You weren’t cuttin’ out breakfast or dinner or second dinner?”

“Were you?

“Heck yes! This ain’t my first rodeo, pal. Ain’t yours, either.”

Nikos and Ricky and Russ were similarly surprised. They were sitting with Joe and Libby waiting for us in the lobby of the meet hotel, which was a surprisingly chic place out in a nondescript suburb of Chicago. Far nicer than the usual fare, and several rungs above what most of us in that crowd were accustomed to. Or from another vantage point, we were several rungs below the hotel’s usual clientele, and the amount of spandex and track suits was likely beyond anything it’d ever seen before or would see again.

“Four kilos?” said Ricky.

“Yep.”

“Even Joe doesn’t have that much to lose,” he said, and Joe nodded in response.

Ricky turned to Nikos. “Whaddaya say? Four kilos by Saturday morning?”

The compact Eastern European nodded sagely. “No food. Maybe some beef broth. Small sips of water.”

“Not sure we’re gonna find beef broth out here…” said Russ.

“Tomorrow night, bake,” added Nikos.

Ricky smiled. He loved the suggestion, and the implied intensity of roasting myself with the aim of losing a few kilos. “Get ready to sweat!” he said, slapping me on the shoulders with a huge paw. “Libby, what about you? You gonna make weight?”

Libby looked over to him. She’d been staring out into the lobby, which was steadily filling with more and more athletes and coaches. It was her first national meet, and even she—as collected a person I’d ever seen—was looking a little starstruck.

“Seventy-five point four this afternoon,” she said. “I’ll make weight.” And she turned back to scanning the crowd. Those two sentences were among the most I’d heard her speak since the implosion of our relationship, and I had little reason to expect more.

Those of us who could eat had a late dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants; afterward we returned to the lobby and sprawled out on a couple of couches, all of us tired but not wanting to go to bed just yet. The lobby was a great place to see and run into and even talk with some of those luminaries in our sport, people who—like Ricky, once upon a time—were at the highest levels of American weightlifting. National champions, American record holders, international competitors, Olympians—they were all on display, all available, right around us. Prior to getting into weightlifting I had never imagined I might one day rub elbows with Olympic-caliber athletes; and yet at any moment I might see people like Tara Nott and Cheryl Haworth and Oscar Chaplin and Shane Hamman. Athletes whose careers I’d followed for years and who seemed like something otherworldly and yet who were here, just as we were, the way Greek gods of old would occasionally mill about with mortals.

But it was more than just stargazing. Most people in that lobby were not at the top of the sport, and most would never get there. But they were familiar, for the most part. And there was a certain pleasure in seeing all those familiar faces, year after year. It reminded you of the bigger weightlifting family to which you belonged—a family in which you knew almost everyone, and which included more than its share of crazy aunts and uncles but which you looked forward to all the same. It was sometimes easy, back then, to get wrapped up in your own small weightlifting corner of the world while you were training; you saw the same people every day, going through a routine that didn’t vary significantly. But you knew that once or twice a year you could catch up with the broader community and see friends whom you spoke with perhaps five or six times over the course of a four-year Olympic cycle. Yet there was a continuity to those relationships, irrespective of the distance and time that kept us all apart. There were often big changes from year to year: athletes grew up and improved or declined, coaches took on new lifters or lost old ones, people moved on or died and new athletes entered the sport. Only the lifting was constant, the way laws and myths exist independent of the people who make them. The lifting bound us, and you knew that the time and distance didn’t matter. When you got your yearly updates at the Nationals, or the American Open, it was as though the intervening months had been a brief, insignificant flash. Those national meets strung together our relationships and friendships, bridging distances (geographic, ideological, temporal) that might otherwise have been insuperable.

So we sat and talked, catching up with friends, leafing through fresh copies of Denis Reno’s Weightlifter’s Newsletter, and generally feeling, if only for that weekend, that we were with our people.

***

The next evening, after a low-key day of light training and watching some of the lighter competitors and not eating (and trying not to think about eating), I began the serious work of cutting weight. In the room I shared with Pete and Joe I ran a terrifically hot bath. “As hot as you can stand,” Nikos had always told me, when explaining the process. Within seconds of entering the tub I began to sweat profusely, and the steam wafting off the water made breathing difficult. The bathroom had a TV embedded in the mirror, and to my great fortune The Fifth Element was playing on it, so through the fog of steam I watched Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich run around with strange-looking aliens while I sat in what felt like boiling water for as long as I could endure.

After fifteen or twenty minutes in the tub I felt sufficiently cooked. Enough! Out of the tub for me. I emerged dripping and bright red, like a lobster crawling forth from its pot. If only that were the end of the ordeal; instead, I went straight from the tub to a heavy sweatshirt and sweatpants and then wrapped myself up under the covers, where the sweating continued. It was awful, terrible sweating, combined with a sense of doom, like my body was wondering what in the name of hell’s sake it had done to deserve this cruel punishment.

“Feel good, buddy?” Pete asked.

“Fantastic,” I said. “I should do this more often…”

I baked. Sweat streamed off of me in my body’s futile effort to keep cool. Eventually, I slept. At some point in the night I awoke and threw off the covers—it was too much. The TV was still on, casting its blue light across the room. Joe was snoring loudly, but next to me Pete was still up. He looked at me.

“You still alive?”

“Barely. Maybe you could just, push me into the pool…”

“Ha! No way. You’d sink like a stone.”

“Ugh.”

“And anyway, you look like you still got a kilo or so to go.”

“Christ. Why in god’s sake am I doing this.”

“For the glory.”

“Yes, exactly. The glory. All that glory. And the huge paycheck.”

Glory indeed. I turned over and saw my cellphone’s light blinking in the darkness, a little flashing green beacon of hope. A text message. Fumbling through my fatigue and dehydration I reached for it and flipped it open, afraid to hope and yet hoping all the same.

Good luck tomorrow.

From Libby. Almost the only thing that had passed between us in weeks. Just seeing her name on my screen brought back a rush of emotions that I was unprepared for. What had once been commonplace—texts and calls on a daily basis—was now reduced to this one brief message.

There was so much I wanted to express in response, beyond just gratitude. But I knew I couldn’t trust myself to form anything coherent in my current starved and overheated state; nor did I think it would truly matter. In the end I tapped out nothing more than a thank you and rolled back over, with visions of her—naked, clothed, lifting, on top of me—dancing before my eyes. As I drifted off to that non-space somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I half-dreamt and half-wished that I was already competing and that she was watching me from the crowd. In my dream I was strong and precise and I never missed, and I drew strength from her presence and from the knowledge that somehow things were right between us. But in my final lift I jerked awake and realized none of it was real, and that whatever happened the following morning, in the competition, it would not be as I’d dreamt it.

“You okay buddy?” Pete asked. “Almost punched me in the chest.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just hallucinating from the sweating. I’m sure it’s a good thing.”

I pulled the sheets up as much as I could stand, and went back to sleep. In the morning I would compete, and then I’d watch Joe and Pete in the afternoon, and then on Sunday Ricky and Myron (if he showed) and Libby. But for now all I had to do was sleep, and sweat, and hope my body knew how to keep itself alive through the awful baking…

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 38

38.

I’d assumed—foolishly, it turned out—that with only myself to focus on I would feel better in the days and weeks before Nationals. But in my last heavy workouts before the competition I was barely able to make 130 and 160. Ten days out I had a heavy clean and jerk session, with the goal of at least 165. Following my 162.5 lift at the Staten Island meet just a few weeks prior this seemed a natural, conservative even, progression. Secretly I hoped that 165 would be so easy that I would do 167.5, or perhaps 170… Taner Sagir had snatched that weight and more; surely I could clean and jerk it…

Gravity, however, had other plans.

“The weight feels like it’s glued to the floor,” I said, gasping for air after struggling through an ugly 160 in that last heavy clean and jerk day.

“Don’t matter how it feels,” said Ricky. “Put sixty-five on the bar and come back like you want it.”

“Okay,” I nodded, full of hope and optimism.

Every so often, adding more weight to the barbell is all that’s needed to shock an athlete back to life. Perhaps the body and mind are put into some hyper-vigilant, fight-or-flight state that activates all the muscle fibers and all their neural connections. This was not the case that day. At the moment of separating the weight from the platform I felt as though I was fighting the entire will of the cosmos, as if my lifting of the barbell were an affront to the Universe itself and it was subsequently putting all its effort into stopping me from doing so. Despite this calamitous start I stuck with the lift, pulling with an effort that belied my waning faith in my abilities and then diving under the weight. Through some miraculous turn of events I made it under the bar—beating its descent by what felt like atomic-level closeness—and then stood up with the weight.

But there was no hope of my putting it overhead. I fizzled out in the dip for the jerk and did little more than throw the barbell forward on the platform.

Ricky, reading the struggle on my face, nodded. “Go on. PR clean, right?”

I nodded.

“Okay. The jerk’ll be there when it counts…”

A couple days later my last heavy snatch session was similarly uninspiring. I made 130, though more out of frustration than anything else. I took three attempts at that weight before I finally put it overhead, and even then it was an ugly lift. I jumped to 135, hoping—praying—that I might set a new PR with a weight that would put me in a good position to really reach for a medal, but it was beyond my abilities. I took two attempts, neither convincing, and then moved on.

“Today is not competition,” said Nikos after my second attempt at 135. “Competition is next week.”

Libby, as if in defiance of me, looked phenomenal by comparison. If our ruinous ending affected her in any way she was not exhibiting it in the gym. We exchanged almost no words during those last sessions, giving each other wide berths as we moved around the gym to grab plates, chalk up, stretch, etc. I felt like I’d returned to junior high, so intent was I on maintaining an appearance of normalcy in the midst of what was, in reality, extreme awkwardness. At each of her lifts I questioned my actions: Did I encourage her enough? Did I shout too loudly in encouragement? What would I normally say after a good lift? How would I stand? What do I do with my hands?

“It’s like an eighth-grade dance,” whispered Pete, smiling at me and my apparent discomfort.

At least for me it was. For Libby, nothing looked out of place. In her last heavy training session she moved with mechanical precision through her lifts. Every snatch was the same: smooth pull from the floor, a quick explosion and whip of ponytail, and a solid punch overhead. The progression was as steady and interminable as the passage of time itself: 35, 45, 55, 60, 65, 70, 80, 85, 90, 95…

And then 100.

I expected some fanfare. A change in aspect. A different setup. Something to mark the momentousness of the weight. But if there was anything I didn’t notice it. A beat longer may have passed before she took hold of the barbell but even that is uncertain. Before anyone could even appreciate the milestone about to occur she had secured the weight overhead and was standing up with it.

Even Ricky, who’d seen more than his share of amazing lifting, was stunned. So much so that he forget to joke about how that was the weight that made you a man (something he remembered much later, and regretted missing the opportunity).

So too was it with her clean and jerks: fast elbows around the bar and straight dips and the weight locked overhead as though it were the barbell’s natural habitat. From the empty bar to her last lift at 120 kilos—another PR—everything was sharp.

Ricky, who’d just missed a clean and jerk at 185 five times, shook his head in exhaustion and astonishment.

“You’re a machine!” he said.

Libby responded with little more than a trace of a smile, a thank you, and then a continuation of her training.

Only Myron, who’d been training with us semi-regularly in those weeks, looked similarly impressive. On the Saturday before Nationals, with as little fanfare as his sister had had, he did an easy 155 and 185.

“Jesus,” Ricky said. “How does he do it?”

“Maybe we oughta try trainin’ once a week,” said Pete.

When he did the 185 clean and jerk Myron looked good for more, so the bar was loaded to 190 kilos. But after pulling it just a few inches off the floor he let it drop and shook his head, smiling.

“Not today,” he said.

“What?!” Ricky shouted. I thought he was going to rush across the gym and explode in a ball of hair and muscles. “It was flying off the floor! The 185 looked like a toy!

But Myron shrugged. “Just don’t have it. I don’t know.”

And Ricky stood, mouth open, unbelieving or else refusing to believe. He would have given a great many things to make a 190 clean and jerk, and here it was for Myron’s taking and he didn’t want it. At least not that day.

Ricky laughed and shook his head. He turned to Nikos, searching for an explanation, but the older man just put up his hands and ambled away. How could a person not want that lift? I saw Ricky wondering. He laughed again and sat down on a chair by his platform, pondering things he would never, ever understand.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 37

« Les sucres » by Edmond-Joseph Massicotte (1875-1929), engraving from L’album universel,

37.

When Ricky heard the news about Libby he was primarily concerned about how this would play out with Nationals.

“You gotta stay focused on what’s important,” he said. “Work through this later. For now, focus on Nationals. We’re less than a month away.”

“I know.”

He was about to take a lift—he’d decided to join me for a little training himself after I’d arrived at his garage—when he stopped and looked at me. “You don’t think she’ll say nothing, do you?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, although in truth I had no idea. For all I knew she was dialing USADA, USAW, and the local police department at that very moment.

“Okay,” he said, sounding not entirely convinced. “Well, just piss clean and it don’t matter, right?”

We trained without regard to program or logic, cobbling together a workout like rootless wanderers building temporary shelter from whatever materials were at hand. A few snatches here, some cleans there, jerks when we felt like it. All held together by the strands of conversation woven throughout these lifts, words drifting around us like tangible things in the warm summer air.

“Ain’t no way to train serious with a girlfriend, or a wife,” he said at one point. “Best training years I ever had was after my girlfriend dumped me leading up to the 80 Games.”

“Why’d she dump you?”

“Said I was training too much,” he said, laughing. On reflection he added: “Which was true, of course. No way around that. But we all trained too much. Pretty much everybody on that team was divorced or single by the time the Games rolled around, even though we didn’t end up competing. Takes a lotta your time. Anything does, if you wanna do it at that level.”

I nodded, did a quick power clean and jerk with 130, and then sat down. The lifting felt good, even if my emotional state was dangerously fragile. I had no clear sense of what my hormonal profile looked like but I imagined it wasn’t ideal.

Ricky stood and added a few metal change plates to the barbell, bringing the weight to 145. He power cleaned it in his fashion—brutally strong, hideously inefficient, a lift that perfectly captured the man himself, in all his faded sweatsuit glory. He jerked the weight to a bent-arm pressout and then brought it down to his chest, at which point he jerked it again in an effort to do it right. The second jerk was better, if only marginally so. He released the barbell, letting it crash on the wooden platform in a calamity of sound and dust and chalk.

“White lights on that second one?” he asked.

“Two out of three,” I said.

“That’s all you need.”

My emotional stability held until later that evening, when I told Pete about the developments after he returned from work.

“Why didn’t you blame me?” he asked, almost angry at my having not done so.

“I thought about it,” I said. “But it seemed shitty. Plus it was all in my room.”

He shrugged and put his hands up. “Same apartment. Maybe you give me shots. Maybe we share a bed. Could be any number reasons! You fool!”

“No,” I said, “she knew. It was a disaster. Fuck.”

And with that I broke down, letting out a cry that sounded like some dying animal and pushing back tears. “Fuck,” I said. “I don’t know if this is from Libby or my goddamn estrogen levels.”

“Prob’ly both,” said Pete. And I was quite sure he was right.

For a moment we said nothing, and I sat and breathed deeply in an effort to restore my emotional footing.

“Listen, if you just wanna be alone, sit in your room, listen to Dashboard Confessional and do your own thing that’s cool,” he said. “But if you wanna eat somethin’, take your mind off this, I got just the thing.”

“I could eat,” I said.

He smiled and went into his room. When he returned he was carrying a little metal safe he owned, in which I’d seen him store documents, our lease, cash, etc. Anything of value. He set the safe on our coffee table and turned the key in it with great care and not a little ceremony. Upon opening the lid he reached in and pulled out a small bottle of maple syrup whose seal was yet unbroken. This he displayed for me the way a curator might show off a rare icon. The liquid inside was a deep amber color and seemed to illuminate his hands.

“I been savin’ this for almost a decade buddy,” he said, passing me the bottle.

“You had a thing for maple syrup when you were, what, twelve? Thirteen?”

“Let’s just say I was ahead of my class when it came to breakfast food, okay? Anyways, I been holdin’ on to this for a special occasion or somethin’. Like if we ever made it to Worlds or the Olympics.”

I took the bottle in both hands as though he were passing me an infant. Despite the bottle’s size it seemed inordinately heavy, as though the weight of years had accumulated within the glass itself. The bottle’s writing was entirely in French, taking it far beyond my own limited experiences with breakfast food toppings and into the rarefied realm of haute cuisine.

“Seriously?”

He nodded with great solemnity. “Don’t even ask the price or how I got it,” he said. “I knew a guy. Seems like tonight’s a good time to try it out. You down for some pancakes?”

We took the Turnpike up to Andros Diner in Newark, passing factories and refineries and smokestacks along the way. The general industrial landscape of New Jersey, all of it glowing orange in the light of sodium vapor lamps that dotted the great structures, was more than a little comforting—beautiful, even—in its familiarity. At the diner, which was filled with an assortment of locals and regulars and on-duty cops, we feasted on pancakes and bacon and eggs. The syrup was exquisite, although so was all maple syrup, and to my unrefined palette I could hardly tell it from something that’d came from the grocery store down the block. But Pete, in an effort to distract me from my misery, swore to its superiority, and regaled me with tales of its origin and manufacture.

“Small batches!” he kept saying, evoking images of some grizzled old French Canadian distilling the stuff one ounce of liquid gold at a time. “Can you imagine the dedication to that?”

“No,” I said, quite honestly. I had no idea what it meant to be devoted to anything outside the gym.

“Years!” he kept exclaiming. “Years to collect enough syrup to make just a few bottles!”

A few other patrons in the diner, all of whom were content to debase their pancakes with corn syrup chicanery, stared at us from time to time. But Pete was unconcerned.

I considered what he’d said and the bottle’s age. “For all we know the guy who made this isn’t even around anymore, if it’s that old.”

Pete thought for a minute and then nodded. “Man, we could be eatin’ this guy’s final work. His end of life masterpiece. Ain’t that somethin’?”

I let the gravity of this sink in. My own problems seemed that much smaller in the face of the lifetime this imagined character had given for a few ounces of maple syrup.

We sat and talked in the diner for so long that when we were ready to pay we realized we’d grown hungry again, and—to the surprise of our waitress—we ordered another stack of pancakes to tide us over for the drive home. When we finally did leave it was very late, and we arrived back at our apartment well after midnight. I knew Pete had to work again early in the morning but he brushed aside my concerns.

“I could work anytime,” he said. “Ain’t every day I get to share a bottle of overpriced syrup.”

*

Several years later, when Pete and I were training in the gym alone one afternoon, I brought up that syrup. He recalled it and the late night drive for pancakes.

“You’d had that bottle ten years?” I asked, still incredulous that any weightlifter could save food for that long.

He looked at me from his platform, pausing before taking a lift. “That what I said?”

“Yeah.”

He smiled and bent down to grab the barbell. “I mighta exaggerated a little. A lot.”

“What? When was it from?”

He did a quick snatch and then considered the question. “April, prob’ly. Mighta been March. Late March. It was a gift for Easters.” Seeing the disbelief on my face, he added: “You needed it, buddy.”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 36

36.

In the face of Libby’s potentially earth-shattering discovery I did the only thing that came naturally: I lied. I fabricated an origin story for the little glass ampule that was Wagnerian in its scope and drama, and in which I was but an unwitting and wholly innocent participant. My account traced the drug’s manufacture somewhere in Russia through its appearance in a variety of seedy New Jersey gyms until it finally, through no fault or effort of my own, found its way into my bedroom. Clearly, I was powerless in this story.

In response to Libby’s shouts and accusations I made modifications and emendations to my tale on the fly, hoping that somehow the entire web would hold together. But when she pulled from my garbage can a discarded syringe wrapper—I’d grown obscenely careless in those last few weeks—I knew the game was up. Briefly, I considered blaming the entire thing on Pete: it was his Sustanon, his syringe, his drug regimen… But either guilt or fatigue prevented me from doing so, and I ultimately conceded that yes, the ampule was mine. Though I swore that I’d stopped months ago. (Technically true. At least for the Sustanon.)

As could be expected, Libby was furious. In part because of what this represented to her.

“You’re a cheater?!” she asked, in genuine disbelief.

To which I wanted to respond, Of course I am! How could you not be, if you wanted to be the best you could be?

But I didn’t say that. I don’t even fully recall what I said, only that it was something that sounded far better in my head than what actually came out. I tried a variety of explanations and philosophical arguments on the nature of sports and competitiveness. I veered off into a discourse that attempted to define a level playing field, along with a discussion of bioethics and the current state of medical technology, hoping to appeal to the scientist in her. In my defensive strategy I tried conjuring up something of an ancient rhetorician, combined rather haphazardly with how I imagined attorneys presented their cases based mostly on movies and TV.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she asked when I’d finished my closing arguments.

In a panic I considered other options. I remember this very clearly: her face, worked up into something between anger and disbelief; the apartment, which felt preternaturally sharp and in focus; the world outside, which seemed dim and indistinct by comparison. I knew it was raining, and I could very faintly hear the pattering of the summer storm against the windows and the pavement and the cars parked outside. And cutting through all of this was the growing tightness around my heart and lungs as I struggled for something to say.

Fortunately she stopped me before I had the nerve to continue.

“Put aside the fact that you’re cheating,” she said, still livid but calmer than before.

That seemed a rather big thing to put aside, given her views, but in my foolishness I thought I saw a ray of hope.

“You lied to me,” she went on. “You lied to me for months. And not about something tiny. About something huge, something we’d talked about. Something you knew bothered me. What am I supposed to do with that?”

The tightness in my chest eased slightly, only to be replaced by a knot around my abdomen. What indeed? Clearly my hope was unfounded, as I wasn’t even aware of the scope of the offense, let alone its repercussions. Thank the gods I couldn’t see whatever dumbstruck expression my face had contorted itself into. When I recovered I tried, again, to salvage something from this wreckage by appealing to her ego.

“You’re a natural at this sport,” I said. “You and your brother aren’t like most of us. For me, watching you improve and turn into a fucking superstar… that’s what I want. But I’m not you, or your brother.”

“You think I don’t work hard for what I do?” she asked.

“No, I know you work hard. But your hard work gets different results. In your first three months you snatched more than Joe snatched in his first two years.”

“I don’t see your point.”

“I want that,” I said, suddenly annoyed and defensive. Who was she to question my motives? To go in my room? To look through my shit? “I don’t have your talent, but I can work. I work just as hard as you do. This is just to make my work matter more.”

She looked at me, eyes impossibly narrowed. “That’s bullshit,” she said at length. “And it’s still no excuse for lying to me.”

In a single, athletic movement she grabbed her things and stepped toward the door. Even in her anger she moved beautifully and gracefully and powerfully.

“Libby,” I called out, in a pathetic last attempt to save whatever remained between us.

But she ignored me. If she paused in her departure from the apartment it was so brief and inconsequential that it was undetectable. With the same decisiveness and single-mindedness of purpose that she showed in her lifts she was gone.

Very far away, as if in a dream, I heard the outer door of the apartment building slam shut, heard her car door open, then close, heard the engine start and then grow fainter and fainter. When the sound of her was gone I sat on the couch—alone now with the ampule, which was no doubt unaware of the fantastical life story I’d just crafted for it—and was swallowed by doubt and grief.

A few moments later I responded to all that had happened the only way I knew how.

Can I come by and get another training in? I texted to Ricky.

 

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