Of Iron and Bronze – 47

47.

On the afternoon the competition ended I drove Ricky over to the airport for his flight back to the States. It was another day of brilliant sunshine and clear skies, and the highway and land seemed to stretch out endlessly all around us on the short drive.

“You’re really staying here?” he asked, incredulous at my decision to do so.

I nodded. “Yep.”

“What the hell are you gonna do? You get recruited by the Turkish team? Gonna go work in the Turkish baths as a soap boy?”

“I wish. I’m going to spend another couple days here in Antalya, then see a little more of Turkey, and then maybe do some traveling.”

“No shit?” He rubbed at his beard. “Man, that sounds like fun. Where you goin?”

“I don’t know exactly. I moved my flight back a couple weeks, so that gives me some time to go around a little. Find some trains or busses, or maybe even cheap flights, and just see what I can see.” I looked at him and then back at the road.

“Yeah?” He smiled at me and shook his head. “Gonna check out Italy, maybe Siena?”

I smiled back at him. “We’ll see. Eastern Europe’s looking a lot cheaper these days. I’m not sure my savings will get me as far as Italy. But maybe.”

He kept smiling and nodded. “Sounds pretty fucking great.”

“You could join, Ricky. Always got room for you, buddy.”

“I wish,” he said, laughing at the suggestion.

“C’mon! It’s never too late to change a ticket.”

I saw him consider it, if briefly, although I knew the answer before he spoke. Some part of me wanted desperately to prevent him from going home, back to New Jersey. As though in pulling him along with me I might save him from himself, or from whatever awaited him at his empty house. I knew what was there and saw it as clearly as though it were before my eyes: a few bills and catalogues in the mail that had piled up, dusty, quiet rooms, the ghosts of competitions of old in the basement, and the painful lure of the barbell, always asking for one more lift. Don’t go back, Puj! I wanted to shout. It’s not too late. There are secrets yet to discover in yourself. There are horizons yet to be seen. Remember poetry, remember those lines of verse, the feeling of wanting to write like those authors you admired…

But he just shook his head. “Ah, I gotta get back. I’m too old to be traveling around like that. Plus who’s gonna make the dough at the pizzeria? I’m lucky the place hasn’t burned down since I left.”

“They survived without you.”

“Nah, you have fun. I should get back. See somebody about my knees. See how long I gotta take off.”

“If you say so.”

“Yeah. But you’ll have fun.”

“I hope.”

“You got places to train while you’re traveling?”

I shrugged. “Nikos gave me names and contact info for a couple coaches and athletes,” I said. “We’ll see. I may need a little time off.”

He nodded slowly, looking at me and then off into the distance and then at his hands, huge and rough from years of training. “Who’s gonna push me in the gym now?” he said, smiling at me.

I grinned back. “I’m sure Pete will do.”

At the airport we stood and shook hands and patted each other goodbye in the customary way of men from our home state. I was reminded of how big he really was, as I struggled to reach his back and felt his giant hand slapping my shoulder. There was a very real danger of being knocked over by that embrace, and despite his injury he was still one extraordinarily powerful figure.

“Well, you take care of yourself, alright?” he said, squinting in the bright Turkish sun.

“I will. You too. Say hi to Jersey and everyone in the gym for me.”

“You got it. Say hi to Italy for me if you get there. And Siena! Tell me if you make it to the cathedral.”

“I will.”

“Okay,” he said, sighing. “Take care, buddy. Thanks for comin’ out and supportin’ me.”

“Anytime, Puj. Anytime.”

He waved once more and smiled the big, bearded grin. Then he grabbed his luggage—the same duffel bag he had carried into the gym for years—and was off. I watched him go, a beast among men, Ricky “Puj” Pugilio, a figure who looked more at home among the ruins of antiquity than anywhere in the modern world, save the gym. What a fantastic creature. A man made of a clay not often seen anymore. Perhaps of a clay all his own.

But even in weightlifting he was becoming more and more of an anachronism. I didn’t know it then—none of us did—but the sport was changing. In a few short years it would look very different from what it once was, and in its changing it lost as much as it gained. What had once been a small community was on the verge of becoming something much larger than any of us could have imagined. The days of knowing nearly everyone in the sport by name, or at least the national athletes, were coming to an end. In just a few short years we would be inundated with new practitioners, and with them new money and new audiences and people who smelled opportunities that had nothing to do with lifting weights. Looking back on that time I feel the irrevocable loss of what we had, even as I acknowledge that no era can last forever. Ricky was part of that era, part of an even earlier one, really, and to a certain extent, so was I.

Back in Antalya’s old city I stopped again at an internet cafe. When I opened my email I had a response from a lifter who trained at a club in Bucharest, whose information had been provided by Nikos. It read:

Yes! Come to train. You train here no problem. No pay. Say hi Nikos for me.

Bucharest, I thought. Perhaps I should make a quick visit to Romania…

Ah, this sport… I may have lost whatever spark made me chase after greatness, but I hadn’t lost my love for the barbell and the labor of it. It is always there, weightlifting, ready to take hold of another, and it will always be there—unflinching, unwavering, cold, and impersonal, seemingly indifferent in its meting out of rewards and punishments.

But every so often it will shine, on you or on others. It draws us in like moths to a flame, and we are unable to control ourselves even when we know that the vast majority of us risk being burned rather than illuminated.

I saw no way out of it. Indeed, all I saw, when I returned to my pension and ate lunch on the rooftop, was how fantastic and blue and inviting the Mediterranean looked.

“Aziz,” I said, when he came to take my plate away, “is there somewhere nearby where I can go swimming?”

“Yes, of course. With car or walking?”

“Walking.”

“Yes. Is a bar with a terrace over the rocks. Right down that street,” he pointed. “There you buy some drink or food, you get chair and you can go swim.”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

The place that Aziz had directed me to was located quite literally on the coastline’s rocky edge. Nestled partway down the cliff was a bar, at which you could order drinks and food, and then a big wooden terrace extended out over the rocks that dropped into the sea. The terrace was covered in what looked like Astroturf, and there were rows of plastic beach chairs and umbrellas. From the terrace you descended a stairway to a lower rock, and from there a metal ladder dipped into the water.

I ordered a Turkish coffee and an orange Fanta and sat under the umbrella of one of the chairs. It was still early afternoon, yet all around me Russian and German tourists were already enjoying beers and cocktails. To each his own.

When I finished my coffee and half of the Fanta I walked down the rocky steps to the sea and jumped in. The blue-green Mediterranean surrounded me in a splash of cool water. As I paddled my way a little further out I noted that it was salty enough to allow me to float without effort. For a long time I lay on my back, enjoying the sensation of weightlessness, the quiet world of the water around my head, and the sun on my face and chest. Floating. Weightless. Like an extended version of that moment during a snatch or clean, when the barbell is passing you as you are pulling yourself under it and you and the barbell are in orbit of each other, ignoring the earth and its persistent gravitational pull. Just you and the bar. Everything else gone.

I thought of Libby, someone who seemed as at home in the water as Ricky was in the gym. There had been a day, or maybe several days, at the beach in New Jersey when she had tried to get me to float.

Everyone can float,” she insisted, splashing me.

“Not me,” I said. “I sink like a stone.”

“That’s impossible. Everybody floats. I was a lifeguard. They teach us these things.”

To prove my claim I tried to float, a task made all the more difficult by the slightly choppy waters of the Atlantic. As expected, I failed, although my torso and head bobbed ever so slightly above the water.

“See?” I said. “I told you. I have heavy bones.”

“Heavy bones? Don’t be ridiculous. You’re just doing it wrong. Watch me.”

And she floated on the water—beautifully, perfectly, full of grace and without any apparent effort. The little waves supported her and carried her along, caressing her sides and thighs and the curve of her shoulders. For a moment I was jealous of the ocean’s ability to touch every inch of her all at once.

She dipped her head and then emerged above the surface. “See? Just like that!”

“I can’t!”

“Just try,” she said. “I’ll help you. We’re going to get you to float.”

So I lay back, sinking immediately, and then felt her hands under me, lifting me through the water.

“Now arch your back,” she said. “Try to fill your chest with air. Just relax, like that.”

Her hands were still under me, holding me up, and I could just make out her face at the edge of my vision. Against my side I could feel the press of her body, thrilling as always. But before I could follow that train of thought too long she removed her hands and my legs sank like an anchor thrown overboard.

“What the hell!” she said, laughing.

And we tried again. And again. Over and over she would position me perfectly, and each time I would sink when she removed her hands.

Yet there I was, months later, floating in the Mediterranean as though it were my natural state of being.

Every so often, since I had made the decision to change my flight, I would be struck with panic. Staying in Turkey seemed reckless yet somehow necessary. I had never been so far from home and I’d never been so alone. Just as significantly, it was the first time in years I did not have set plans to train in the coming days and weeks. I had no competition on my horizon, and there was no dream of the platform pulling and pushing me onward. The world seemed to me like the Mediterranean itself: vast and unpredictable and filled with wonders and terrors known and unknown, knowable and unknowable. But the apprehension was exciting in a way I’d never experienced before, and I told myself to trust in the sea and the world and my movements through them. Those small mysteries were as invigorating as the sea air itself. More so even. In due time I would make my way across Turkey and parts of Europe, going through my savings and then going through money I would receive from selling my car, in a trip that would encompass far more than anything I’d planned, either in range or duration. In Siena I would stand before the empty arches and the wall whose only dome was the sky, and though it would not be as I’d imagined it—for when does our inner vision ever align with reality?—my memory of it is forever constructed as much from Ricky’s words as from my own experience.

I floated for a long, long time, enjoying the cool embrace of the Mediterranean on my body and the warmth of the sun on my face and chest. The waves gently pushed and prodded me along, bouncing me on little peaks that rose and fell in and out of existence. Overhead the sky was a living, breathing blue that filled my vision. I considered the enormity of the world below and around me and my own tiny place at its edge. There, suspended in the boundary of water and sky, with the teeming sea in my ears, I felt unmoored in the best sense possible: weightless, adrift, and free.

*

I walked back late in the afternoon. Near the door to my pension a dog was lazily sunning himself, and he raised his head briefly at my approach before resting it on the pavement again.

When I entered the pension a desk attendant—not Aziz—told me in broken English that someone was looking for me.

“What?”

He pointed up. “Roof. Terrace. Is wait for you.”

I nodded and then raced up the stairs, hoping against all odds that it’d be who I suspected…

When I cleared the last stair I saw Ricky sitting in a chair, scribbling in a little notepad. He looked up at me and grinned.

“You got ten days to get me to Istanbul. That’s the best I can do without gettin’ fired! Think you can manage that?”

I smiled back. It wasn’t who I’d hoped for, but perhaps it was as good. Perhaps better.

“I say okay.”

 

[the end]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 46

46.

Worlds came and went. Ricky and I attended some truly outstanding sessions, filled with the type of sporting drama you expect from the best of the best. There were upsets, like when an 85-kilo Armenian lifter—a favorite in the class—blew his elbow out on a 200-kilo clean and jerk. Or when a Russian superheavy, with a lead in the snatch, pulled a quad on his opening clean. But there were great triumphs as well: a series of World Records set and broken by Russian and Chinese women in the 75-kilo class; a monster 105 session that witnessed a three-way tie, with the victor determined by bodyweight; and a female superheavy snatching a weight that I could only dream of doing.

We watched the Americans, too, although most were in B or C sessions, far from the medal stage. Libby was among them, turning in a fine five for six performance and displaying the kind of platform confidence that she’d always shown, and that she’d show for years to come. And there was still great lifting to be seen by her and her teammates, even if it was a step away from the best in the world. Their struggle was still that of weightlifters everywhere, and it was always good to watch someone fight it out against the barbell and gravity and themselves.

I only spoke to Libby once more, and briefly. We encountered each other in passing at the Moscow Hotel, she with a group of teammates and I on my own, drifting among the crowds of lifters before the drive back to my pension. She stopped when she saw me, and for a few moments we chatted idly: about her lifting, about the other sessions, about Turkey. I told her about climbing to Termessos with Ricky.

“Remember when we planned to travel around here, after Worlds?” I said, out of either regret or a faint hope that she’d decide to do so all of a sudden.

But she only nodded. “I remember,” she said.

We spoke no more of those plans. When I asked what she would be doing on returning to the States, all she said was: “Training.”

When I returned I sat on the pension’s rooftop terrace, which I’d grown accustomed to doing every night. From there I could look out over the dark sea and the scattered lights of the city along the coast. I was often very tired but something about the time spent up there, alone with my thoughts and in silence, seemed necessary. That night, despite being half a world away, I was reminded of home. The play of the city’s lights across the water conjured up memories of summers spent down the shore with my family. Places like Point Pleasant and Wildwood and Cape May. I remembered rental houses outfitted with bamboo furniture and hotel rooms with marine-themed paintings on the walls. From some deep-seated region of my brain came memories almost powerful enough to be visions: the smell of the ocean, the fatigue of a day spent under the sun, the carnival-colored hodgepodge of the boardwalk, chipwiches at midday, the grease of cheap pizza at night, and the pleasure of washing it down with giant cups of soda and crushed ice. I remembered a summer crush, a girl I’d met at a snack stand, and for a moment I wondered where she was and what she was doing. These were times and places and people and things I hadn’t thought of in years, so buried had they become by other memories, other people, other things. Strange that I should find them rekindled in a place like this.

Before I returned to my room the thin blond woman who worked at the pension walked up from the stairwell and took a seat on one of the terrace’s couches. In the darkness, with only a little light coming up from the city and stairwell, she looked almost spectral. She held a pack of cigarettes in the hand that was covered in the wrist brace and from the pack she pulled a cigarette and lit it and blew out a thin stream of smoke. When she saw me watching her she held up the pack in a gesture of offering.

It was tempting but I shook my head. “No, but thank you.”

She set it down on the couch and then took another drag, releasing the smoke slowly into the night air. The orange cherry of the cigarette traced a steady arc up and down in the blue darkness as she smoked. In my reverie it brought to mind memories pleasant and unpleasant of other nights, long ago, watching friends or strangers smoke as I smoked with them.

I assumed, sitting there alone with her, that I’d learn some of her story. Or at least some sense of what she was doing so far from the country I knew we both called home. We were linked by at least that much, in addition to our common tongue. But ultimately she spoke very little of herself, telling me only that she was originally from Colorado, that she’d worked in politics for many years, and that she’d moved to Turkey not long ago. All this was relayed to me as though the transition from Colorado to Antalya were a thing of no great distinction.

In response to my questions she asked the requisite ones in return, although I had the impression that she did so more out of politeness than any great interest in my story. Despite the fact that she seemed ambivalent to my responses, I shared part of my reasons for coming to Turkey, along with my disappointment at not getting to travel around the country with Libby.

“Why not?”

I shrugged, although I’m not sure the gesture was visible in the darkness. “It didn’t end well,” I said at length.

The orange glow rose, then fell.

“Turkey’s still here,” she said, and then snubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray.

She stood, said goodnight, and disappeared back down the stairs. The entire encounter and conversation had been so surreal, so unlike any other I’d ever had, that I wondered—and indeed still do—whether I’d imagined the entire thing.

Was the world made of such people? Some part of me was curiously eager to find out; another part could not face the thought of it. How, I wondered, could I go home when I felt I was just scratching the surface of everywhere else?

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 45

45.

The next morning I had breakfast on the pension’s rooftop terrace. Aziz brought up a plate with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, olives, yogurt, and bread. I sat and ate, looking out at the sea and the curved arc of the rocky coast and the city atop it. With the sea air and the view and the strange sensation of being so far from home it all tasted extraordinary. Even the watery cup of Nescafe was good. The city and the country, so terrifying in the darkness the night before, while I was driving around trying to find my way back, was now charged with potential and mystery. I wanted to plunge back in and see it all from the ground up. I had madcap ideas of bailing on everything—the competition, work, New Jersey—and simply driving off into the landscape with the little Peugeot.

I was pulled from this fanciful daydreaming when a woman came to clear my plates away. She was the only person I’d so far seen working in the pension aside from Aziz. Curiously, she was not an olive-skinned, dark-haired Turk, but a rail thin blond woman, tanned and lightly freckled and wearing a wrist brace on her left arm. She looked perhaps middle aged, although it was hard to tell. When she spoke, asking simply if I was done eating, it was in clear, unaccented English.

But otherwise she said nothing, and gave no sign of being interested in me, despite the fact that we likely shared a home country. She stacked my plates and silverware, picked them up, and then walked back into the building, leaving in her wake nothing more than a profound sense of mystery.

Had she, too, been overcome with the desire to flee her home and see what Turkey could offer? Perhaps the country was filled with people who’d abandoned past lives. Maybe this sort of thing was far more common than I ever knew, in all parts of the world, and my inexperience as a traveler made me assume that everyone was as rooted to their origins as the people I’d grown up with.

Back into the Peugeot, out of the old city, and down the highway to the Expo Center. It was still morning and already the day was hot. I drove with the windows down and the AC on full blast, enjoying the twin breezes. I knew it was foolish yet I did it anyway.

At the training hall I spotted Ricky sitting at a platform by himself. His lifting shoes sat on the floor next to him, and both knees were covered in bags of ice. When he saw me approach he perked up, forcing a smile, and shook his head.

“Already icing the knees?” I said, taking a seat next to him.

He shook his head. “First set at 50 kilos. The moment I pulled it from the floor I felt like both knees were gonna explode.”

“Is that bad?”

He laughed, small and humorless. “Ain’t good,” he said. “Doc said I’m out.”

“Out?”

He nodded. “When I told him how long I been havin’ some pain he said I shoulda had them looked at months ago. Told me that’s it.” He sighed and adjusted the ice. “Good thing they don’t need me to step in. Otherwise they’d need an alternate for the alternate.”

For a few moments we sat quietly. It was clear we’d come to the end of the road for Ricky’s misguided comeback, at least for now and probably forever.

“You gonna train?” Ricky asked eventually.

As I considered my response I saw Libby walk in with a few of the other American athletes. I looked to her, smiled, waved… and watched as she smiled back, waved, and walked by.

“You guys talk at all?” Ricky asked, perhaps to cover the awkwardness of the interaction.

“A few minutes yesterday,” I said.

“She ready?”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

We fell silent again. I still hadn’t taken anything out of my training bag, and I wondered where the motivation to do so had gone. As I was considering this question Ricky turned to me.

“You wanna check some shit out? Head out for a few hours?”

“What, like, sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” he said, mustering some enthusiasm. “This area was the center of Greek civilization for years! Don’t tell the Greeks that, though. You got a car, right? We get a map, go check some shit out, be back in time to watch the lifting tonight. I hear there’s a place up a mountain, some ruins or something. Whaddaya say?”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

#

We drove back toward Antalya and then past the city heading northwest. It was late morning and the sun was high overhead and it felt good to be on the road.

“You know where we’re going?” I asked Ricky, who was staring at a map he’d pulled from the glovebox.

“I hope so,” he said, turning the map ninety degrees, then ninety degrees again.

A short while later signs directed us off the main road and we began an ascent into more mountainous territory. Eventually we were stopped by an attendant in a little wooden gate house who told us to park, so we ditched the car and continued on foot. It was terrifically green, with occasional bursts of grey stone poking through the growth. A dirt footpath marked by random signposts was our only indication that we were headed in the right direction.

As we crested one summit we saw signs of man’s presence: huge cut stones, lying in heaps, as though discarded by giants. Then another turn, and the ruins of Termessos opened out before us, with the mountains beyond and the vast sky above.

“Holy shit,” said Ricky. “This is unbelievable.”

And it was. An entire city, or its remains, atop this mountain. We walked through—the only living human figures in that landscape—amid the overgrown ruins. There were broken arches and fragments of walls and rows of ornately carved cornices and great columns sinking into the ground, as though the earth were taking them back into her fold. Scattered about were great piles of stones, square blocks and pieces of columns and other bits, all the same grey and many of them dotted with the brilliant fireworks of white and orange lichen.

We walked in near total silence, taking in the terrific scene. A large, semi-circular theater stood at one edge of the mountain, its ruined stage overlooking the panorama beyond and nestled in the semicircular stone seats.

“Here,” said Ricky, “we gotta try this thing I heard about. You go on that side, I’ll stay here.”

I went over to the seating directly across, at the far side of the stage, and looked back at Ricky.

“Can you hear me?” he said.

I laughed at the shock of it: he sounded as though he were right next to me, rather than across the entire span of the theater.

“Shit!” I said, louder than I needed to. Then, in normal volume: “How’s that work?”

“Acoustics,” said Ricky, as we carried on our strange conversation separated by the wide open space of the descending rows of seats down to the stage “These theaters were built for acoustics. Back then it was all your own voice; no mics or nothing. So you needed good acoustics. The Romans and Greeks knew how to do it. Pretty cool, right?” He smiled, the big Ricky grin I was so accustomed to. As audible as our voices had been, his smile was perhaps even stronger, more visible, across the distance.

#

After exploring for a while longer we sat in the theater and rested and enjoyed the slightly cooler air of the higher elevation. There was so much to take in that it was almost overwhelming: the abundance of green and the mountains and the ruins and the sky and clear day. The events of the competition seemed very far away, just then.

“Knees doing alright?”

“A little stiff,” said Ricky, “and sore, but not bad.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah. Plus this,” he said, indicating everything around us, “helps. Made me forget all about the pain. I mean, you ever see anything like this?”

“Not in New Jersey, no.”

“Yeah, not quite. You know, I been pretty lucky. Got a chance to see some pretty cool places for weightlifting. Little bit of Europe, the Americas. But this,” he said, once more indicating the landscape with a wave of his huge hand, “this, I gotta say, might take the cake. And we got the whole place to ourselves. Ain’t that great?”

I nodded. “It’s amazing, Puj.”

“No kidding.”

We both spent a few minutes looking in silence.

“You gonna train the next couple days?” he asked. It was familiar ground for us and an easy way to break the silence that had settled, though it seemed he’d wanted to say something else.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” A feeling of ambiguity crept in to an answer that used to be so assured. “I’ll at least go watch some training.”

He nodded but didn’t say anything, and we again fell into silence.

“What was your favorite place you traveled to?” I asked when I next spoke.

“My favorite?,” he said, looking up into the sky and squinting, either in thought or due to the brightness. “That’s tough. Lotta times we only saw the inside of a hotel or a competition hall, but sometimes I got lucky. Saw a lotta nice places… I guess I really liked Italy.”

“Italy?”

“Yeah. You ever been?”

“To Italy?”

“Yeah.”

“Puj, I’ve barely been out of the state, let alone out of the country.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re young. You got a lotta time. You oughta check out Italy sometime. It’s beautiful. And the food! My god. I never ate such good food in my life.”

“When were you there?”

“Back in the eighties. After I got married that’s where we took our honeymoon. Went to Florence, Rome, Venice. Saw the Colosseum. You ever seen—wait no, you just said you never been. You should check that out. To think they built that, all that stuff, all this here, without machines, hundreds of years ago. Or thousands of years ago. It’s just incredible.”

He rubbed at his beard with one hand and I could tell that he was seeing it again, or at least some version of it that he had stored up over the years, a memory palace built of words and snapshots and feelings. “We did a little day trip to Siena, one day, on a bus from Florence. Ever hear of Siena?”

“I think I’ve heard of it. I don’t know.”

“It’s beautiful. Place in Tuscany, up on a hill. The bus dropped us off right outside the city. Killed my knees heading up that hill. But it looks like somebody just froze this medieval city in time, in the middle of all this beautiful Tuscan countryside. I couldn’t believe it.”

“Better than this?”

He smiled and nodded from side to side. “I don’t know. Different. We had this guide with us, an Italian guy, who took us around and told us all about it. About the history and the art and stuff. How Siena used to be this big rival to Florence, way back when. And he takes us inside the cathedral, shows us around. And it’s beautiful. I mean, everything is covered, decorated. It’s got all this sculpture on the front of it, and then inside it’s all paintings and marble, and even the floor has these big designs and images in the ground, these, like, stone paintings on pavement. And it’s big, and we’re just blown away. To think it stood like that all those hundreds of years, all that space and all that work.

“But so after we check it out and he takes us around the cathedral we’re walking around outside to go over to the main square—which, by the way, you know they do horse races in the square?”

“In the middle of the city?”

“Right in the dead center! Every year. And they been doing it since like medieval times. Fucking nuts, right? Only in Italy.” He laughed and shook his head. “Anyway, so we were gonna head over to that square, and as we’re walking along the side of the cathedral the guide tells us how Siena had planned to make their cathedral even bigger. They wanted something to compete with Florence, since they were rivals and Florence was building its own huge cathedral. So Siena starts building to expand theirs, and it’s gonna be just massive. But all of a sudden: the fucking plague hits. The Black Death.”

“No shit.”

“Yeah. Talk about timing. And it just wipes out the city. I guess everywhere was hit, but for whatever reason—shitty luck or god or whatever—Siena gets hit real bad. And when it’s done, while all the other cities like Florence are recovering, Siena never quite bounces back. So the cathedral thing that they had started, and then stopped because of the plague, and everybody dying, never gets back off the ground. But then as he’s telling this story the guide points out a couple things and says, ‘That’s what’s left of it.’”

He pointed, then, as though the ruins of which he spoke were actually in front of us. And in his own words and his own way he told me of the remnants of the great unbuilt cathedral. A row of huge round arches extending from the cathedral and resting on piers of white and green stone, the green so deep as to be almost black in color, and the arches terminating in a wall that supported and enclosed nothing. On the ground a few spots marked out where more piers would have been built, atop which more arches would have risen, until eventually the entire space—now little more than a parking lot and thruway—would have been covered with articulated stone vaulting. Had it been finished the cathedral would have dwarfed the current one, which would have formed one arm of the planned structure. But such things were not to be, and all that remains are the marble and brick fragments, standing like the dried bones of men whose reach far exceeded their grasp.

When he finished his story he paused for a moment, still seeing it and into the past and his memory of it. “It’s wild. Just these big structures, like huge stone ghosts, and if nobody pointed ’em out to you, you might not even notice them. You get just a sense of what mighta been, and you almost can’t even imagine it because the thing is already so impressive. But to think it mighta been even more. It’s just wild. All over Italy, everywhere, you see all these ruins. And you’re always thinking how impressive the places must’ve been, when they were still whole. And what great heights all these cities reached. But then you see this in Siena, and it’s a ruin of a greatness that never was. A greatness that never got off the ground. And it was even more beautiful than those other ruins, in some way.”

He shook his head and I saw the image dissolve before his eyes, like a sand castle washed away by waves. “All because of shitty luck. Because the plague hit one place harder than another. Is that nuts? Ha!” He laughed, not without some subtle note of bitterness, though with humor, too. “But man, what a thing that woulda been.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

Indeed, Ricky.

What a thing that would have been.

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 44

 

44.

Hotel Moscow was a slice of Soviet paradise and kitsch located about 35 minutes from my pension in the city center. It was one of several bloated hotels that squatted like beached cruise ships on a stretch of coastline that ran along Lara Beach. All of them were colossal monuments to the growing tourist trade (mostly Germans and Russians, from what I saw). In each of these temples to excess—many of them fashioned after real palaces, like Topkapi, the Doge’s palace in Venice, the Kremlin—you could enjoy the pleasures of the Mediterranean and the feel of an exotic locale without ever having to leave the hotel premises. All along the road leading up to the hotels were huge advertisements for pharmacies offering cheap prescription drugs: VIAGRA! CIALIS! The signs practically shout at you while you drive.

The Moscow—complete with onion-shaped Russian domes, a miniature Red Square, and a MiG-29 water fountain in the lobby—was teeming with activity. Most of it was of the weightlifting variety: coaches, athletes, trainers, and support staff, all strolling about, smoking, chatting. The few non-weightlifting tourists who were making their way through the hotel looked strangely out of place. No doubt they were wondering what all these sweaty, hairy, muscly men and women were doing in what should have been the spot for a calm, relaxing vacation away from the rigors of daily life as a millionaire. It must have been like arriving at a zoo and discovering you’re somehow on the wrong side of the bars, rubbing elbows with a bunch of animals in warmup suits.

But for those of us in the know, the lobby of a weightlifting hotel before an international meet can be a very, very fine thing indeed.

“Holy shit,” I said, quite literally in awe of the scene before me.

Even Ricky looked a bit starstruck, although I knew he’d been to this sort of thing before. “Pretty cool, no?”

I didn’t even bother to respond. How could I? There were simply too many luminaries, too many great lifters and coaches from all eras to take in and point to and simply gawk at than could be mentioned in a single breath. And they were all there, as though it were the most natural thing in the world—which, given the fact that the Worlds were happening in Antalya, it was.

“Perepechenov,” I said, a bit dazed. “Li Hongli. Rigert…”

Here were the legends I had watched and studied and admired for years. The Chinese team, all in identical red and yellow track suits, walked by in a line. The Russians were standing by the bar. A few Armenians were casually strolling around, admiring the MiG fountain. The Iranian Rezazedeh, the greatest super heavyweight of recent memory, made a revolution around the lobby as though locked into some Copernican system made of men and women in gym attire.

“This is fucking nuts,” I said, when the power of speech finally returned to me.

The registration area, in a room just off the main lobby, was yet more chaos. It was filled with all manner of staff from the International Weightlifting Federation as well as arriving delegations of various nationalities, making the place seem like a miniature UN. To my New Jersey ears it sounded as though every known language was being shouted in the room, like hearing a chorus of believers chanting in tongues all at once. Workers were busy at laptops and impromptu computer stations trying to get ID cards and registrations ready, while the various delegates handled large wads of cash and tried to shout their way through the bureaucracy.

If there was any order to this chaos it escaped me entirely. How can it be anything other than madness when scores of countries show up and attempt to do anything according to one set of rules and standards? And some of these places, to my ignorant American sense of the world, narrowed to a fine point centered on northern New Jersey, seemed more the stuff of history or legend than reality.

“Mongolia’s a country?” I asked, watching one of their representatives argue with an official working a laptop. The Mongolian was waving a handful of bills around and the computer worker was trying desperately to convey the information that was on her screen.

Ricky shrugged. “At the very least they’re a weightlifting team.”

Eventually, through much pushing and inching forward, we found our way to a receptive woman at a computer. She assured us she could get Ricky registered, and then spent a suspiciously long amount of time shuffling papers, looking at her screen, and talking to her colleagues in Turkish. After a long wait Ricky was given his credentials. When I tried my luck at getting a credential as Ricky’s coach I think she was so desperate to get us off her hands she gave me a pass—no questions asked—just to ensure we’d leave.

After lunch at the hotel’s buffet we drove over to the competition venue, located at the Antalya Expo Center. It was a huge, severe looking building, almost fascist in style and execution: all right angles and red paint and heavy pillars. An enormous poster with a portrait of Ataturk—the Father of Modern Turkey—hung between two huge metal columns before the entranceway, along with a poster for the World Weightlifting Championships. After a cursory wave of a metal detector at the doors, we were in…

The training area was an even greater shock than the lobby of the Hotel Moscow. Beyond its enormous size—a vast interior space that seemed to recede into nothing—were its contents: dozens and dozens of platforms, each with barbells and plates and squat racks, everything brand new. It was stunning. A true weightlifter’s paradise. There were brightly colored kilo plates stacked about like poker chips, dotting the room in such numbers as to appear like they were multiplying of their own accord.

And barbells. So many beautiful, precision machined barbells. I had only to look at them to envision their heft, their springiness, their gloriously smooth spin in my hands. And there were scores of them.

“Quick,” said Ricky, as we began walking to the platforms, “put a couple plates in your bag. We could use these back home.”

Scattered about all this beautiful equipment was a site even more alluring: lifters. Lifters of all different sizes and nationalities and superior abilities. The Chinese women were training as a group over in one corner; the Korean men and women in another corner; the French along one side of the room; a few Romanians on two platforms nearby; Egyptians; a pair of Armenians; and on, and on.

To my naive eyes these athletes redefined speed and precision and consistency and power and strength. Even the way they used the empty barbell was new to me. There was a symbiosis between athlete and object that allowed almost any action, however trivial, to transcend its banality and become a thing of beauty. All their movements, from warmup to stretching, had the practiced ease of a consummate professional.

And they were all so fast! I stopped and watched a few reps by an Albanian 77-kilo lifter. Every snatch was a quick burst of energy and the barbell was overhead.

“Jesus! You ever seen anyone so fast?” Ricky asked.

“No,” I said, and I knew it was the absolute truth. Even Myron, the fastest lifter I’d ever watched in person, couldn’t compare to this sort of speed. I was certain that, in comparison, I probably looked like I was lifting in syrup.

We set up camp by a platform being used by a couple of Armenians. I watched them arrive, warm up, and then go through a quick succession of snatches and clean and jerks and pulls. That was it. It took less than an hour, which is almost as long as it took Ricky to put his shoes on and warm up.

“They don’t mess around, do they?” he said, as we watched them get ready to leave following their workout.

“No,” I agreed. “They don’t.”

The flights had taken their tolls. Ricky made his way through a few lifts with the barbell and 50 kilos. Otherwise he just stretched and went through his usual calisthenics to loosen up joints that were stiff from so many hours spent sitting on the plane.

“That’s it for today. I’m too old for this,” he said. “I need my recovery. I’m gonna go see if I can find some ice.”

He hobbled off, shouting about ice to anyone who was dressed in vaguely medical-looking attire. I looked at Nikos, who only smiled and shook his head.

“You think he’s nuts, right?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s crazy. But,” he added, smiling and touching a finger to one temple, “everyone in this sport a little crazy.”

We agreed on this point, and then Nikos wandered off to say hi to a group of Romanians training a few platforms over.

I put my shoes on and began to warm up. I felt slightly ridiculous training in the midst of all those world class athletes. Yet there was an excitement about it, as well. However distant I may have been from the men and women on the international stage, breaking records and winning championships, we were still part of the same general family. I took the barbell, then 50 kilos, then seventy. I began to feel a little looser, a little better with each lift. The body was remembering the motions, warming up to the idea of snatching. How nice it must be, I thought, for these movements to be as natural and automatic as walking and breathing.

When I was ready for 90 I took off the greens and put a pair of beautiful, brand new blue plates on top of the yellows already on the bar. Across the training hall a 77-kilo Chinese lifter, an athlete who looked carved from granite, was about to take the same weight, loaded the same way on his bar. We are taking the same weight! I wanted to scream. You see? Perhaps we are not so different after all…

He then proceeded to muscle snatch it overhead with such fluidity that whatever link I had imagined between us was severed completely. There was a gulf between us that was defined by more than just weight. As much as I did not want to admit this—to myself, to anyone who believed in me—I was beginning to realize that I would never be counted among the ranks of great lifters. Not in my country, and certainly not internationally. Whether the door had shut in the years I’d wasted on partying and bad training or whether it had never been open at all made no difference then. The ultimate outcome was the same.

It’s a strange thing, to see a dream shrivel up like that. It’s strange to find yourself half a world away from home, abroad for the first time, without any mooring and without the goals that once defined you and gave your life shape and meaning. Who was I, if not a lifter aspiring to be a great athlete? And what exactly was I doing in this country? All at once I felt foreign in more ways than one. Perhaps the jetlag was getting to me, or the heat, but for a moment these thoughts and realizations seemed almost too much to bear. It’d been foolish to come to Turkey; it’d been foolish to ever think I might someday be welcomed into this crowd as one of them. The whole endeavor, everything from the moment I touched a barbell on, had been a mistake, and my disaster with Libby was only the most recent confirmation of that.

A voice pulled me back, out of my own head. It was familiar, a little slice of home, and was therefore unexpected.

“He’s not bad, eh?” said the voice, presumably referring to the Chinese 77.

I looked up. Libby stood in a Team USA warmup suit, her training bag slung over one shoulder, staring at the lifter.

Too surprised to speak, I simply gaped at her in silence. I’d crossed an ocean in part to see her and now that she was right in front of me, I felt I had nothing to say.

“Where’s Ricky?” she asked, looking back at me.

“He went to get some ice,” I said.

She nodded.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

“Good,” she said. “You?”

“Tired,” I said. “Not bad though.”

“That’s good.”

I scrambled for things to say that might keep her there a little longer. Maybe we’d even share a platform…

“You excited to compete?” I said.

Again she nodded, although she took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she did so. “Excited and nervous. This feels very different from anything else.”

I laughed. “This is Worlds. This is different from everything else.”

“Yeah, but…” She paused. “Not really, right? It’s still just six lifts. Still just me and the bar.”

I considered her response and the level-headedness of it. This, I thought, is why she will be great.

“I guess you’re right,” I said.

“Well, I need to go train. I told the coaches I was on my way now. Get some light work in.”

“Right,” I said. “You lift tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow night. You going to watch?”

“No, I figured I’d stay in. Hell yes! Of course I’m going to watch. I can’t wait.”

“Okay. Good,” she said, smiling.

“Maybe we can celebrate afterward. Grab food or something.”

She looked over at a group of platforms where some of the other Americans were arriving and warming up. “Maybe. Let’s get through the competition first.”

“Right,” I nodded.

“See you later.”

I waved and she was gone. After she’d left I looked at my barbell. It was still loaded with the 90 kilos, which I’d never taken. By then my joints felt cold and my will was gone. In the end I pulled off the plates and sat back down and began unlacing my shoes.

 

That night was the A session for the men’s 69-kilo class. Ricky and Nikos and I sat in the packed auditorium and watched the awesome spectacle on display. The competition area featured a massive raised stage and was festooned in posters, balloon rays, and lights. A giant camera rig swooped in and out to provide coverage for European TV networks. A Turk was lifting in the session, and every time he came to the platform the crowd erupted in cheers of support. The top three athletes at the end of the snatch portion—a Romanian, Chinese, and a Turkish lifter—had all done over 150 kilos. The Chinese lifter and the Turk each took a crack at the World Record, an astonishing 166 kilos. Each was unsuccessful, but not by much.

Ricky was astonished. “You believe that? A 166 snatch attempt by a guy who weighs 152 pounds. That’s fucking incredible! Although I don’t know how I feel about this one kilo rule shit,” he said. “What was wrong with going up two and a half per attempt? I mean, what the hell is one kilo? I sneeze on the bar and it could be a kilo!”

In the clean and jerk portion there was no competition. The Chinese lifter waited for everyone else to finish, and then opened with an easy 183 kilos, securing the gold medal. With that out of the way, he then jumped to an extraordinary 198 kilos for a new world record.

“Dollar bet,” I whispered to Ricky. “Make or miss.”

“What?” he whispered back. “That’s fucked up,” he said, stifling a laugh. “I say make. The guy’s unstoppable.”

And he was right. The weight went up and overhead beautifully.

“That’s four hundred and thirty-five pounds,” said Ricky. “And he just did it like it was nothing.”

Nikos nodded. “Very strong.”

Very strong indeed. We all knew of these weights in some theoretical sense, as we watched them on borrowed VHS tapes and DVDs or the few clips people had uploaded to their personal websites. But it was a very different thing to see them in person, to feel the shock and shudder of the platform and stage as each fantastically heavy attempt was brought crashing down, whether in success or failure.

“C’mon,” Ricky said when it’d ended. “I’m beat. I gotta get some sleep. I feel like I been awake for days.”

I dropped him and Nikos off at the Moscow and then went back to my own hotel, the little pension overlooking the Mediterranean. At least, that’s what I had hoped to do. Instead I got terrifically lost, since the traffic flow into the city center wouldn’t permit me to return via the exact route I came from earlier in the day. The little square of paper with a few scribbles that had served as my map was no help at all, and when I showed it to a few nearby drivers in the hopes of recognition they only stared blankly. There were more than a few moments of real terror, driving as I was in a strange city in a foreign country where I knew nothing of the language. I had visions of being perpetually lost, just driving until the car ran out of gas and then disappearing into the surrounding country, or being swallowed up by the Antalya underworld. Was there an Antalya underworld? I didn’t know, and I was in no great hurry to find out. The darkness didn’t help, as every terror is magnified in the night. It’d been years since I’d been so lost, accustomed as I was to driving no further than a few exits down the parkway, and I’d nearly forgotten just how unsettling it could be. I drove hunched close to the steering wheel, rowing through the Peugeot’s gears, alternately going too fast or too slow, hoping at each intersection for some spark of recognition—a building or a street or a sign or anything that might signal I was nearing my destination.

Eventually, through some combination of dumb luck and repeated shouts of “Özmen Pension!” to anyone who would listen, I made it back. Aziz was lying on a couch in the lobby, watching the news. I waved goodnight to him and went up to my room, where I lay in bed, exhausted.

Perhaps the drive had inspired these thoughts, but the full reality of my situation was only just beginning to settle in. I had never been so far from home before; shit, I had barely left Jersey prior to those days. Lying there in bed, with the Mediterranean just beyond my room, it seemed surreal. The stress of my drive back was subsiding, as fatigue and wonder took its place.

But I was too tired for any reflection. I slept, deep and dreamlessly.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 43

43.

My first moments on foreign soil were a curious admixture of terror and fascination, as I viewed the strange new world that was speeding by the cab’s window and tried not to focus on the terrifying ordeal of the drive itself. Our driver was an amiable young Turk who, only moments into the ride from the airport to downtown Antalya, had told us his passion for weekend racing.

“No worry, my friends! I’m very good driver,” he screamed over the whine of the engine and the wind. “I do rally on weekends!”

And to emphasize his point he jerked the wheel around a bit and made a few manic lane changes, narrowly avoiding a variety of obstacles: other cars, mopeds, a tractor, certain death.

“Jesus!” said Ricky, seated next to me in the back. “We’re never gonna make it…” He was already sweating in the early morning Turkish heat, and I saw him shut his eyes, likely praying to whatever weightlifting gods he believed in: Dear Hercules, deliver us now from this cab ride, so that we may live to lift again…

“In Germany I drive on autobahn,” the cab driver continued, telling us about his upbringing in Berlin. He was grinning madly, staring at us in the back seat for far longer intervals than I was comfortable with. “I drive very fast. Cops point me: Stop! My taxi license was take away three months!” The grin continued and broadened into a laugh. “Very fun.”

Oh boy. Perhaps I ought to do my own praying. Again I looked out the window, trying hard to take in what I was seeing and impart some sense to it. Beyond the highway that was bringing us into the traffic of the downtown was an expanse of dry land and clear sky. The businesses and signs along the road were fascinating in their unfamiliar banality; until those moments I had assumed that a traffic sign or a gas station or even a delivery truck existed in only the formats I had grown accustomed to in America, as though such things were set in stone by natural laws. Yet here they were in new permutations: ordinary objects existing in ways that, to me, were extraordinary. So that’s what a Turkish semi truck looks like, I marveled. Who knew?

Even the journey had been surreal. I stepped into a big metal tube on one side of the Atlantic, in a place I’d called home for my entire life, and a little over a dozen hours later I stepped out of another metal tube and into an entirely different world. Perhaps our minds aren’t built for that kind of speed. In time it was something I’d grow accustomed to, but in that era switching whole cultures with such apparent ease was entirely novel.

Ricky, sensing my wonder, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out his own window. “Pretty cool, huh?” he said, smiling.

I nodded, dazed and jet-lagged and overwhelmed. “I still can’t believe I’m here.”

I’m not sure Ricky believed it either. Since the phone call telling him of his spot on the World Team he had jumped back into training, against all reason and against the protests of his own body and against the advice of several around him. All this despite his status as an alternate, and thus unlikely to lift, and despite having to pay most of his way.

“What the hell’s he going to prove?” Russ had asked when he and I were discussing the matter. “He won a medal at Nationals at a hundred years old. He should be happy with that. Now he’s going to spend all that money and beat himself up in case someone much younger gets hurt? In the off chance he gets on the platform?” he asked. “I just don’t see the logic.”

I’m not sure any of us saw it, and I wonder now if even Ricky discerned some logic or order to his actions. Sometimes we continue to do things not because they’re reasonable or right, but just because it’s what we’ve always done, and will continue to do. The force of habit is as strong as any other motivation, even if it’s a far less romantic one.

My own motivations for going were divided. In part I genuinely wanted to support Ricky and watch world-class weightlifting.

“Sure ya do,” Pete had said in response to this, when I told him I was thinking of going to Turkey for the competition. He smiled at me and winked.

“I’m serious!”

Pete’s gaze stayed with me.

“Also, you know, Libby’s on the team,” I admitted to him.

“That’s the spirit!”

Was I following her to Worlds hoping to rekindle something dead and buried? Quite possibly, yes. I knew it was foolish but I did it anyway, with the insane reasoning of someone who thinks the remedy for a bad decision is another bad decision.

The only issue was getting to Turkey. I had already dipped into my meagre savings to cover rent and living expenses in the final months leading up to Nationals, when I’d cut back on working. A trip across the Atlantic would require nearly all the money I had left. Yet I was committed to going without considering any of these logistical concerns; making some sort of sacrifice seemed ordained, in a way. Without thinking, I went to the bank not long after Ricky and Libby learned of their spots on the team and transferred most of my remaining savings into my checking account, leaving just enough to prevent the former from being closed. I felt I’d already given almost everything to the sport, and there seemed so little of value outside it that I was only too happy to give the rest.

Unaccustomed as I was to international travel, I also waited until the last minute to get my passport—thus spending even more money to expedite the document. With that in hand, and my flight purchased, I felt as though I was taking on a task whose enormity I but dimly comprehended. As the trip neared I began to appreciate what I’d agreed to.

Naturally, I was terrified. I tried convincing others from the gym to come, but my efforts in this were unsuccessful. Only Nikos was going, both in his capacity as a personal coach and as a jumping off point to visit family in Eastern Europe.

“Good luck, buddy,” had been Pete’s sendoff when he drove me to the airport. “Keep an eye on Puj and tell me all about it.”

A day later and I was in Turkey.

Ricky nearly leapt from the taxi when we pulled up to my little hotel, which was located down a series of narrow stone roads built for foot or animal traffic but certainly not automobiles. I was booked at Özmen Pension, a place right in the heart of Antalya’s old city, itself nestled within the much larger modern city. I planned to check in, get a rental car, and then drive over to the competition hotel, where the athletes, coaches, and organizers were staying.

Just beyond the pension, a quick walk, was the Mediterranean, vast and ethereally blue, cradled by the rocky coastline of Antalya. Even Ricky couldn’t help but be impressed, as he stumbled out of the cab and into the warm September sun.

“Christ,” he said. “Lookit that.” He laughed, apparently already forgetting the near-death ride. “Ain’t exactly the Jersey Shore, is it?”

I paid the driver and looked. No, not quite the Jersey Shore. Far too clear, that water, for one thing. And those colors. I’d never seen blues like that before, neither of the sky nor the water. I’d never known such colors to exist in the real world. Was this what the sky looked like without an ever-present haze of pollution?

The manager of the pension, a friendly young guy named Aziz, was able to book the car rental right from his office. “Is no problem,” he said. “I get you very good car. American car?”

“American?” I said. “Aren’t there any Turkish cars? Something a little more local?”

He hesitated. “You no want Turkish car.”

“Okay. Whatever you can get. Thank you.”

While we waited for the car we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and Aziz chatted with us to pass the time.

“You are American? Where you are from?”

“New Jersey,” beamed Ricky, as though the name carried a weight equal to that of a major city.

Aziz looked as us, a little confused.

“It’s by New York,” I said.

“Ah, okay! New York, yes. Very nice.”

“You been to New York?” Ricky asked.

“No, never. I like to go.”

“Ever been to America?”

Aziz shook his head. “No. Maybe someday. Maybe California. See Arnold Schwarzenegger!” He thought for a moment, then said, “Governor, no?”

Ricky laughed. “That’s right! He’s the governator.”

“You like him?”

“Of course. He’s the best. Who don’t like Arnold?”

“And Bush? George Bush?” asked Aziz, slightly hesitant.

Ricky waved a dismissive hand. “He stinks. I didn’t vote for him.”

This seemed to please Aziz, for he smiled at us. “Yes. He’s maybe not so good. What you are here for? Holiday?”

“Weightlifting,” said Ricky. “The World Championships.”

“Weightlifting?”

Ricky set the small glass tea cup and saucer on his knees and mimed the actions of a snatch and clean and jerk as best he could. “You know, like Naim Suleymanoglu? You know him? Halil Mutlu?”

“Yes, of course. Everybody know them. You are here for weightlifting?”

“That’s right.”

“Very good,” said Aziz. He turned to me: “You are sportsman? He is coach?” And he motioned to Ricky.

I laughed, even as I felt the sting of wishing it were me lifting at the Worlds, rather than Ricky. “No, I’m not competing. I’m just here to watch. He’s competing.”

“Him?” Aziz said. “Wow. He is old man, still compete…”

“Hey!” said Ricky. “What’s the supposed to mean? Too old?”

“No, no,” said Aziz, waving his hands and trying to avoid offense. He thought for a moment. “Maybe little old. But very big. Very much muscle. Good luck!”

Ricky grinned and gave a thumbs up in thanks and took a sip of tea.

When the car arrived I wondered if a vehicle of Turkish provenance would have been preferable. It was a tiny Peugeot, the size and engine of which made me question whether it could handle someone built to Ricky’s scale.

“What the hell is this?” he asked. “It’s tiny.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “It’ll get us where we need to go. That’s all that matters. Very good. Thank you, Aziz!”

“Yes, you are very welcome!”

“Now, can you tell us how to get to the Hotel Moscow? Outside the old city?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He thought for a moment. “I draw a map. Here, I show you.”

He drew a map on a small square of white paper. When he finished it looked to us like nothing more than a few squiggles, seemingly set down at random. Ricky and I studied it in the car as though trying to decipher some ancient script.

“Did you understand any of that?” Ricky asked, turning the little square of paper in case some other viewing angle would reveal the map’s secrets. All I recognized for certain were arrows, indicating points where—in Aziz’s own words—“always you are going straight.”

I waved at Aziz from the car and smiled and gave him a thumbs up. He was so friendly, so willing to help, that I couldn’t dare to convey anything other than pure gratitude. “We’ll figure it out,” I said, putting the car into gear and easing off the clutch and praying that the engine wouldn’t stall out under Ricky’s weight.

But to my amazement the directions worked. It was a little confusing, and at one point we asked the driver of a nearby car if we were going the right way, but it all turned out to be more or less exactly as Aziz had said. And afterward, in looking at the map with its unknowable scribbles, I swore I saw the pattern, and that it was, in fact, the route we had taken. Somehow.

“I never woulda believed it,” said Ricky, as we pulled up to Hotel Moscow, one of the competition’s official hotels. “That Aziz guy’s okay, even if he did say I was old.”

 

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