Of Iron and Bronze – 18

pancakes-cropped copy

18.

I woke up the next morning with the strangely disjointed feeling that accompanies sudden gaps in time and memory. I was aware of little more than a headache and a profound thirst. Slowly the pillow, the bedding, and then the broader world beyond the bed—my room and the detritus scattered about it—came into focus, and with it came a fragment of memory sharper and more searing than the ray of sunlight threatening to blind me from across the room:

Libby.

I sat up so quickly I nearly lost consciousness from the sudden drop in blood to my head and had to lie back down slowly. Libby and I had come back together, I thought…

Except she wasn’t there. I searched the bed as though she were something that might’ve been misplaced under or between the sheets. As if she weren’t a 75-kilo person whose presence would have been felt immediately by me in that tiny twin bed. But my searches—ludicrously repeated—were fruitless.

Nor was there any trace of her: no clothes on the floor or sneakers or anything. Not so much as an errant sock or a forgotten hair tie signaled her presence—assuming she had, in fact, been in my room to leave such a trace.

She had been, right? I asked myself.

My recollections were so dim, so fragmented, and so surreal that they had the quality of dreams more than memories. As I played them back in my head it seemed I was watching the actions and events of my doppelgänger rather than my true self. Walking back from the party, making our way into the apartment, spending time in the living room… and then? More fragments, even more dreamlike: making our way to my room, flashes of her in various states of undress, before the all-encompassing blackness of sleep. A sleep that was—incidentally—devoid of all dreams. But what of the connecting threads in between? Though it seemed we’d been touching each other suggestively all during that walk home—rubbing shoulders and elbows and even putting our arms around each other—it still seemed a bit of a leap from that to whatever followed in the bedroom. Where was that crucial step? What had it been?

Just as important, what was that wonderful aroma coming from outside my room?

It was Pete, of course, standing in the kitchen clad only in a pair of tighty-whities and fixing what was—based on the sounds and smells—an extraordinary breakfast feast. When he heard me come from my room he turned and smiled, holding aloft a spatula and greeting me with it as though saluting a Roman emperor with his sword.

“I bet you’re hungry, eh stallion?” he said.

“Did you hear me last night?”

“I heard you talkin’ to somebody out in the livin’ room.”

“You didn’t hear who it was?”

He shook his head and returned to the pancakes to which he was tending. “Some lucky lady, I assume. Or dude.”

I paused, hoping for the right amount of gravitas. “Libby.”

Pete looked back at me, his eyes wide and his mouth spreading into an enormous grin. “Get the hell out! You devil! How was it?” He then quieted himself and looked over my shoulder. “Wait, she ain’t still in there, is she?”

“No, she’s gone.”

“Phew! That’d be awkward. Plus I don’t think I got enough pancakes for a third person… So, go on: how was it?”

I struggled to think of something to say but Pete was quicker than I.

“Not a clue, eh?” he said.

I shook my head. “It was a wild party…”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I’d say things got a little outta hand for everybody last night.”

“You too?”

“Me?” He laughed. “Man, I’m high on life! I don’t need drugs to enjoy myself. Whoops—that reminds me…” He grabbed a couple pink d-bol tabs from the kitchen table and tossed them back with some fresh squeezed orange juice. “That don’t count,” he said, looking at me.

I put my hands up in a show of innocence. “I’m not judging.”

“C’mon,” he said, stacking the pancakes from the griddle and then piling the bacon on a separate plate. It was a mountain of food. “Let’s eat.”

We feasted on the spread that Pete had prepared: pancakes and bacon and blueberries and freshly whipped cream, all unified with a river of real maple syrup and washed down with French-press coffee.

“So,” said Pete, midway through our breakfasting, “what now?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing exactly what he meant.

“Libby. That a one-time thing or…?”

He left the remainder of the question hanging. It occupied the space between us like another breakfast guest. I chewed thoughtfully on a piece of bacon, hoping to convey some semblance of nonchalance that I knew to be unconvincing. “I don’t know,” I said, sighing.

“That’s fair. We’re headin’ to the sauna today, right?”

I nodded.

“Why don’t you invite her?”

“You think I should?”

“Why not? Maybe see if there’s a little somethin’ there.”

I waited, considering this option as though weighing something of great consequence not just for myself but for the Universe entire. As though this option—choosing to explore a connection with another human being—were an entirely novel thing.

“You into her?” Pete asked when I hadn’t spoken.

And here was why I weighed these questions so deeply—because they pointed at something within me that was not strictly limited to lifting weights or partying on the weekend. Because I had no roadmap or training program or drug that could guide me along and give me at least the semblance of hope for success. I’d been willing to go to extremes in training, in partying, in restoratives, in so many things, but that had not translated into a willingness to try connecting with others in ways foreign to my familiar world. Though I knew the answer to Pete’s question—an unequivocal yes—I still hesitated. A holdout of grade school shaming, perhaps, when to reveal one’s crush was akin to exposing your weakest points to an enemy. Indeed, it had been hard enough to admit and reveal this to myself in a way that was honest and open, for reasons I could not properly explain…

“Yeah, I think I am,” I said at last, although as I did so I recognized that Pete had asked out of kindness more than anything—he knew just as well as I.

“So, invite her to the sauna. No big deal there—normal thing for lifters to do. Plus I’m goin’, so it ain’t like a date. Totally low pressure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You think I should maybe shoot her a message on AIM?”

“AIM?” cried Pete, who seemed to take great offense at this suggestion. “Get the hell outta here!”

“What’s wrong with AIM?”

“Man, you can’t be waitin’ around for her to check her computer while you pine over readin’ her away messages and whatnot. We gotta leave soon! Be a big boy and send a text!”

“Okay, okay.” I grabbed my phone from the room and flipped it open and searched through the list of texts for one from her, which was weeks old. In all our time training together our text conversations had thus far been limited to the occasional question about what time the other would be in the gym. I then sat and composed something I hoped was casual:

Hey Lib-

But then stopped and reconsidered. Did I want to use her name? Was that normal? When T9Word failed to recognize her name as I tried typing it I took this as a sign from the Universe and restarted:

Pete and I are going to the sauna today.

Good start, I thought. Open with Pete’s name—she can assume it might even be his idea to invite her, rather than mine. I then spent another minute trying to formulate what came next:

Let me know if you want to come

When the message was done I waited, evaluating it: did it sound odd? Too desperate? Too soon? Too random? I looked to Pete, hoping for some confirmation.

“Go on!” he screamed.

It was all the push I needed. I jammed the SEND button and launched the electronic missive into the ether. It was a thrill almost as exciting as the last Sustanon injection had been. When it was done Pete and I stared at each other across the wasteland of our repast, the empty plates stained with the traces of syrup and cream and blueberries and bacon grease like the stripped carcass of a kill in the wild. Neither of us spoke, and when—a moment later—my phone vibrated in my hand the sudden intrusion of sound and movement jolted us both.

I opened my phone.

As long as I can be back and in the library by 8 I can come.

I looked at Pete, who seemed as though he was as invested in this message as I was.

“She’s in,” I said.

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 17

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17.

“When the hell’d you get here?” asked Ricky, reeling from this sudden appearance. He threw out one of his huge mitts and began shaking Myron’s hand vigorously—clearly elated at having him around for a competitor.

“’Bout an hour ago,” said Myron. “Just barely made weigh ins.”

“Yeah? You a 105?”

Myron smiled his slow, casual smile. “Technically. Weighed in just over 94 kilos.”

Ricky roared with laughter and clapped him on the shoulder. “You skinny little bastard! But—still counts! I threw the ref a twenty and he snuck me into the 105s, so it’s you and me, head to head today.”

“Wait, did you really…”

“Nah, I’m just kiddin’. I made weight fair and square.” But as he turned to continue his warmups he winked at me, and to this day I’m not sure if he was serious or not. For all I know Ricky weighed close to 120 kilos at the competition—he certainly looked it, and his hair and beard alone could have filled out the 56-kilo class. Myron, by comparison, didn’t look to be a gram over 85; where he hid those extra ten kilos is more of a mystery than Ricky’s making weight. He was as lean and unassuming as ever, standing around like a marionette of bone and sinewy muscle.

“You didn’t say your brother was coming,” I said to Libby as I took a seat next to her and Pete in the crowd.

She made a face. “He barely said anything about it, and you never know if he’s actually going to come through.”

“Has he been training?”

“Who knows,” she said.

The session was a mixed bag of lifters across the 94s, 105s, and superheavies. There were newcomers struggling to put 60 kilos overhead alongside a couple world-class athletes who’d been in the sport a decade or more. Among this group the contest between Myron and Ricky was the clear highlight. Aside from a superheavy who was a top national lifter, the two of them were fighting for the heaviest lifts—and doing so via means that were almost diametrically opposed to each other.

Ricky came out to the platform overflowing with intensity and grit, as though each movement he made might rend apart the very fabric of the basement. He paced back and forth before the barbell, stared it down, took in huge breaths puffing himself up in size against an opponent. The crowd—even those who didn’t know his history—loved him, feeding off his energy like drawing warmth from a fire. In any other environment he would have been ludicrous—more carnival sideshow than finely tuned athlete—but in that moment, with that crowd, he was at home: a huge and hairy beast of a man shoehorned into a singlet from the 1980s and lifting more through sheer force of will than anything else.

“What a animal,” said Pete while Ricky walked out for his first snatch, and in his voice was both admiration and disbelief.

If only that was enough. He nearly bombed out in the snatch, thanks in part to his exuberance and over-confidence in his own abilities. He opened with 120 kilos—a recent PR. After his first two misses Pete leaned over to me and whispered: “Dollar bet: make or miss.”

“Make,” I said.

You fool!” he hissed. “Get yer wallet out…”

But Ricky won me that dollar, barely hanging on to his third crack at 120 and nearly bringing the fans—all two dozen or so of them—to their feet.

“Put it on my tab,” said Pete afterward. “We still got the clean and jerks.”

Myron, in comparison, was his usual self: slow and unassuming in everything except where it counted. When Ricky had been on the platform he appeared to dwarf the weights; with Myron it was the opposite, and the weights looked dangerously heavy compared to his lanky frame. Things weren’t helped by his terribly slow first pull: the weight—120 kilos—came off the floor with all the speed of continental erosion, and no doubt many in that crowd were stupefied by what looked like a failed deadlift attempt. But moments later—long moments, by the way they felt—there was the explosion of the second pull and Myron was under the barbell. A few people in the crowd gasped audibly. There were oohs and ahs even from some of the refs.

“God-damn!” said Pete.

Libby just rolled her eyes.

Yet it was hard to deny: he was that impressive.

At the end of the session Ricky and Myron finished with equal totals: 285 kilos. Ricky managed 120/165—the last clean and jerk a huge leap of faith, given that he hadn’t cleaned over 145 recently—and Myron did it via a more balanced 130/155.

“Not bad,” said Ricky afterwards, as each of them stood side by side bedecked with their medals: gold for Myron, silver for Ricky—out of three total competitors in their weight class (third was a new lifter who totaled 152.5 kilos and who wore his medal like it had been awarded for valor in combat).

Myron nodded. “That was fun.”

“You gotta come around more often,” said the older man. “Lifting like that without a coach and regular training, just think what you’d be doing with six months of good training!”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Myron. “We’ll see. See what kind of time I have.”

“You wanna come around, me and Nikos and Russ are happy to have you. Libby knows, right? She got Nationals in her sights. You could be there too.”

“After today I just want a total on my sights…” said Libby.

Ricky put a good-natured hand on her shoulder. “Today wasn’t anything. Forget about today. Think about the next training, the next meet. Stay hungry. We’ll get you ready.” And at this last point he looked at me and grinned—no doubt a not-so-subtle reminder of the conversation I was supposed to have with her at some point…

“Speakin’ of hungry…” said Pete.

“You don’t got some fancy gourmet shit you brought for dinner? Eh?” said Ricky.

“I ate it all! I didn’t think we’d be here till seven in the evenin’.”

“You been comin’ here for years. Ain’t never been a meet we got outta here on time.”

“Well c’mon! Let’s get to eatin’!”

“Myron, whaddaya say? You wanna come for some food?”

There was real hope in Ricky’s voice—as though in this opponent, his physical antithesis, a man twenty-five years his junior—he’d found someone to look up to.

But Myron just shook his head. “Nah, I gotta get going. Told some friends I’d meet up with them. Thanks though.”

“Okay, well. Good work! Take it easy.”

We parted thus—some of us off to eat, some to get an early start on partying down in New Brunswick, some to activities of other designs and other makings. Pete, Libby, and I joined Ricky, Russ, and Nikos for a small feast at a diner—just the right setting for a post-mortem of the day. We ate pastrami sandwiches and greasy cheeseburgers and platefuls of fries and finished it all off with a round of milkshakes. We shared our stories and lamented missed lifts and made plans for the days and weeks to come. When it grew late and we grew tired—and eager to join in the revelries of our peers down in New Brunswick—we parted reluctantly, wanting to draw out that day just a little longer. Competitions were a rare nexus of togetherness—a more focused and distilled time compared to the frenzied training days, when it was less certain everyone’s time in the gym would overlap—and we each knew it would be several months before another such opportunity presented itself.

“You did good today,” said Ricky, shaking each of our hands. “Made me proud. Made us all proud.”

Nikos nodded in agreement. We chatted by our cars idly for a few more moments—torn between this crew of the sports’ veterans and our peers—and then said goodbye.

* * *

Back in New Brunswick we joined our companions—most of whom were firmly established in partying. A few lifters lived in a house not far off College Ave, and there we toasted to the day and drank cheap beers while standing around a dimly lit living room and squalid kitchen. The night wore on and we became first rowdy, then thoughtful, and then alternated between the two. We played 80s songs through a cheap speaker set hooked up to someone’s laptop and sung out with great emotion to “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Here I Go Again,” as though our very souls depended on a sincere performance. In between songs we bonded with each other in the overly familiar way of the inebriated—friends, random acquaintances, anyone within earshot.

At one point Robbie—who’d had an amazing day on the platform, at least as far as his abilities were concerned—drunkenly professed to me his love for weightlifting and those he’d found in it.

“This is the best,” he said, slurring and looking slightly greener than usual. “I mean, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t find this sport. You guys. You know?”

“I know,” I said.

“It’s like, this changed me, man. I don’t know what I’d be doing. You know what I mean, Jonathan? Do you know what I mean?” He said this last with terrible urgency and sincerity in his voice, as though a failure to communicate would be too much for his drunken self to bear.

And I—deep into my own partying—nodded and agreed and knew it to be true.

Despite the best of intentions I was swept up in the celebrations, and much of that evening was lost to a fog of Keystone Light-induced amnesia—to my great regret. There are bits and pieces of what followed that conversation with Robbie: more toasts to the day with a handle of Captain Morgan’s rum being passed around the room; shouting at passersby from the porch; consoling Libby over her bomb out by relating my own failures in weightlifting (and trying to act sober in doing so); and then, at some point, she and I walking back to my apartment together, our shoulders touching with every step, as if we could not wait until we were inside to initiate a less random physical contact…

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 16

 

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16.

When Pete and I were done lifting there was a short break before the one and only women’s session, during which time Ricky and a few of us ran across the street for food. Only Pete had been smart enough to pack food, bringing out a set of tupperware containers filled with Spanish rice and blackened chicken, complete with individually foil-wrapped wedges of lime. He laid out this repast—which I was fortunate enough to partake in—with the same practiced ease he displayed in his lifting. All he lacked was a chef’s hat. Ricky looked at this assemblage as though he’d not seen such nourishment in years, and he prodded us to share.

“You shoulda brought yer own food,” said Pete, in between huge mouthfuls of rice and chicken. “Or you coulda asked me!”

“How come he gets food?” Ricky asked, pointing at me like a jealous sibling.

“He lives with me. That’s a perk of puttin’ up with me.”

“I’ll live with yous. You let me sleep on the couch I’ll move in with yous tonight.”

Pete waved him off. “You don’t hurry up you ain’t gonna have time to finish yer Whopper or whatever before Libby starts…”

There were something like five or six women in Libby’s session—a fair turnout in those days. At the start was a girl so small that she could nearly hide behind the plates when she set up for her snatch. Despite her diminutive size she pulled with a ferociousness and technical proficiency that belied her age—and that put most other competitors to shame. Then followed an older woman chasing National Masters Records and a couple girls in the great middle: 58 and 63 and 69 kilo lifters. Afterward was a 75+, and then at the end—despite how new she was to the sport—was Libby.

Russ was handling counting duties and Nikos was keeping an eye on warmups. I was in the back helping to load the barbell and—I thought—keep her calm and ready for what was only her second or third competition. But after a few warmups, all done with a precision and crispness that suggested a far more experienced athlete, I began to think that she didn’t need me at all. She had a focus that was almost chilling, it was so finely honed, the way predatory animals look when stalking their prey. At times while idly chatting or loading the bar I felt like some clumsy interloper—a sensation that was confirmed in the moments before her opening attempt.

“Are you going to keep talking the whole time?” she asked.

“Uh…”

“Quiet,” she said, shushing me without even looking up. “I need to focus.”

I opened my mouth to indicate assent and then realized the inherent contradiction in this and so I simply stepped aside and waited.

Her snatches—all three of them successful—were wondrous to behold. Even the crowd, normally a bit tuned out for the women’s session, was drawn in by her attempts. Each one—80, 82.5, 85—was nearly identical to the one previous: controlled from the floor, aggressive through the second pull, and dynamic getting under the bar. Each had the beautiful auditory rhythm of a quick drumbeat of contact: first her body with the barbell and then her shoes with the platform. Pop pop and the bar was overhead. Perhaps most impressive was that there was room for improvement yet, and no doubt many of us in that room were calculating just how much more she could do with a slight tweak here, a minor adjustment there…

Even on her final lift she looked good for more, though she stepped off the platform grinning and happy with her performance.

“Sorry,” she said to me afterward, as I was stripping the barbell to get ready for her clean and jerk warmups. “I just needed to focus.”

I put a hand up. “No big deal. You do what you need to do.”

After that snatch performance there was every expectation of a similar show in the clean and jerk. And indeed her warmups looked much the same—efficient and strong and confident. But when her opener at 95 was turned down due to an elbow press out on the jerk I saw the first cracks in her demeanor. Unfortunately she was the only lifter at this weight, and there was nothing to do but try to recover during her two-minute clock as best as possible.

“Sit,” said Nikos. “Relax. Is light weight for you.”

She nodded and sat. I had a near irresistible urge to share some anecdote or bit of wisdom about pushing through this sort of thing—perhaps tell her about the white moment?—but I managed to refrain, remembering how she’d shut me down earlier.

When she missed her second attempt due to rushing the jerk she walked off the platform and seemed to scan the faces among us—me, Nikos, Russ, anyone—for some sign of help. Or mercy. I had the sense that by now, with the three good snatches nothing more than a memory—and a distant one at that—she was simply ready for this ordeal to be over. On her third attempt—despite the cheers and support of that small basement crowd—she approached the platform like a woman condemned, as though being led to her execution rather than to the barbell. I felt I knew her struggle—the desire to find the mental and physical strength to overcome the insidious doubts that threaten to rot you from the inside—and I tried to send whatever will I had across the room. But in the end it was not enough, and despite a heroic effort in the clean she did little more than throw the jerk forward.

“No lift,” was the announcer’s call, and he too sounded defeated—no doubt he was prepared to watch this new phenom revivify the old space, give it new life.

Libby walked off the platform, her face a mask of disappointment, and Nikos guided her to a seat with a gentle, almost fatherly hand.

“What happened?” asked Ricky when he strolled into the warmup area a short while later, in preparation for his own session.

I shrugged. “I think that first one threw her off.”

He shook his head. “That was a shit call.”

“Was it a press out? I couldn’t see from where I was standing.”

“Oh yeah, totally. But so what? She did the bow to the judges, they oughta appreciate that. Shoulda thrown her a favor in return.”

He stood and began going through his ludicrous and elaborate stretching routine, a vaudeville act of old-timey athletics. “Where’d she go?”

“Outside I think. She’ll be back to watch you.”

“Eh, she’ll get over it.” He then leaned in a bit and lowered his voice. “You know, now that she’s a little down, might not be a bad time to…”

I waited, not quite following.

“…talk to her about gettin’ on some shit.”

“Right now?”

“Maybe not right this second. But you know, soon. Soonish.”

The announcer mentioned the impending start of the session and Ricky put on his lifting shoes.

“Whaddaya think, Nikos?” he said, easing himself into a bottom and jumping up and down a bit to get the blood flowing. I could tell he was getting excited. “Go for some records today?”

Nikos raised an eyebrow. “Maybe just go for total first.”

“Ha! Ain’t no fun in that. Think anyone here wants to go head to head, make a real competition of it?”

Nikos just smiled, but from behind us someone spoke.

“I’m your huckleberry.”

Ricky and I turned, wondering who could be so bold as to accept this challenge. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Ricky—one of shock and genuine excitement.

“Myron!”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 15

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15.

There’s a heady mix of adrenaline and panic when all the waiting is over and your name is finally called to the competition platform. I heard mine and then listened to a few words of support from Nikos and Russ, and then Ricky placed his huge hands on my traps and shoulders to slap and coax them into full potency.

“You know what to do, Jonathan,” he said. “You already done all the work. Just another day at the office here.”

I nodded and waited for one final slap to the shoulders, hard enough that it nearly sent me hurtling toward the platform. Before stepping to the bar I bowed to the center ref as reverentially as is possible when one is wearing little more than a spandex jumper. He nodded very slightly back to me, and I had the sensation—which I felt almost any time I encountered those old refs—of being just one tiny part of some larger thing, a history of physical culture and strength that perhaps stretched back to clusters of ancestral hominids hoisting stones or branches or primitive versions of Eleiko barbells.

Despite my nerves I loved stepping onto the platform: the smoothness of the plywood, the utter clarity and focus that came while I set up over the barbell, the feeling that the whole room, even the whole world, was directing all its attention to that singular spot occupied by me and the weights. For those few seconds this was the most important spot in the universe, and it didn’t matter that the crowd could have comfortably fit in a couple telephone booths or that my weight class had only three people or that the side ref appeared to be dozing off. The beautiful chromed bar and its plates—a big red and blue per side, signaling real weight to me—had the power to give any environment a certain gravitas. Everything became a little sharper around the edges, and my senses were lightly tinted with the coursing of blood—and chemicals, no doubt—through my head.

I knelt and gripped the bar and stared at a point a couple feet in front of me, trying to simultaneously relax and prepare myself for all-out physical and mental effort. The clock’s 30-second buzzer chirped loudly. I had a tendency to run the clock down that drove my coaches to near madness. Just one more second, I thought, crouched down like this, feeling the barbell, testing the grip, going through a quick mental checklist, then trying to clear my head of that checklist, enjoying the silence, the stillness, the sensation of imminent energy, imminent change, imminent controlled explosion… I looked at the clock again—17 seconds—and looked away. Whenever possible I liked that last glance at the countdown to fall on a prime number; there was no logic to it and it was as foolish as having lucky socks or magic crystals but I did it all the same, as though the power of numbers might shine favorably upon my efforts…

Feet flat, back tight, chest up, eyes focused, seeing through and beyond all those heads in the crowd, and then PUSH, pushing with everything against the floor, pushing as though trying to push the world itself away from me through my feet. Pushing and then pulling, pulling the bar up and in doing so pulling myself under it, feeling the speed of descent, racing gravity, and then turning my wrists and making contact with the platform and locking my arms and securing the barbell overhead. I stood, received the down signal from the center ref, and let the barbell fall, following it down to the level of my waist.

“Jonathan Scarpa… good lift!” said the announcer.

“That was almost a power snatch!” cried Ricky as I walked off the platform and back to the warmup area. “I shoulda had you open 125!”

Nikos too nodded and smiled and stroked his mustache in appreciation and thought.

“Go sit,” said Ricky. “It’s just you and Pete for a couple attempts so be ready.”

Much as I should have focused on myself while waiting for my next attempt I couldn’t help but watch Pete. When his name was called for his opener he strode out to the platform with a swagger that suggested someone possessed of an otherworldly confidence. I once watched him go zero for six in a meet and not break that stride even for a moment, such that you would have thought he’d just set six World Records rather than ended with nothing. Indeed here, at the Mets, he missed his opener at 120 with such good cheer that one ref gave him an accidental white light. On his second attempt he made the weight easily, but it almost didn’t seem to matter: his enjoyment on the platform was tangible, and few people—Ricky being one of them—could sell a performance quite like he could.

“Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut,” said Pete in his best Ronnie Coleman voice as he strolled off the platform.

By the end of the snatch session I’d managed to go two for three, with a successful 120 on my second attempt and then an almost comical miss at 125. Ricky had sold me on the dream of snatching two big red plates per side when he saw how easy my opener was, but ultimately it was just that: a dream. And not a very convincing one, either.

In the clean and jerk I fared similarly: two for three, with 150 on my second attempt—thanks to the dozing ref tossing me a generous white light despite some soft elbows. For my third attempt Ricky was convinced—with the fervor of a man possessed—of my ability to do 155. “The way you pulled that 150,” he said, “you could do 160 today!” Before I went out for that final attempt he took my head in his huge hands and looked at me as though he might tear it off.

“Jonathan, you got this! Remember Yuri Vlasov? The white moment?

I tried to nod but only managed a slight twitching of my head between his giant mitts. Indeed, Ricky’d spent a fair amount of time talking about the mythical “white moment” that the great Russian lifter Vlasov had written about—a burst of utter clarity and strength and confidence that comes in the midst of great and victorious effort.

“That’s it!” said Ricky, who looked so excited I thought perhaps he planned on running out and taking the weight. “Visualize this weight. Take in all the power of the world and do this!”

He let me go like some wild faith healer, raising his hands as though he’d just exorcised an evil spirit from my body. When I heard my name called for my final attempt a second later I felt invigorated, as if maybe he had imbued me with some new power, and I set up over the barbell in search of Vlasov’s mythical white moment. For an instant—just before I pulled the barbell from the floor—I thought I had it. The world around me—the crowd and the dingy basement and the shouts of my teammates—all faded away, and everything became very clear and bright. This was it, I thought, feeling powerful and strong and ready to take whatever energy was in the room and use it for my own purposes. This was the white moment! Feel the power!

But in the first inch of getting that weight—155 kilos—off the platform my body cried out in primordial horror What have you asked of me! and the white moment faded and muddied to a light tan at best and was soon a blur of static and chaos. In desperation I tried sticking with the weight but it was hopeless. The moment was lost, and in the end I barely did more than pull the bar and half-heartedly attempt to get under it.

Yet still Ricky looked at me when I walked off the platform as though the weight had just been a hair out of place.

“You almost had that!” he cried. “Just a little faster with the elbows. Did you go for the white moment?!”

“I almost had a brown moment when I pulled that weight from the floor, Puj.”

He laughed and slapped me on the back. “It was close,” he said. But Russ and Nikos were far more honest: the former just put his hands up and walked away smiling to himself. The latter looked at me, stroked his Soviet-era mustache, and said, “It was nice high pull.”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 14

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14.

I weighed in at 77 on the dot—thanks to some careful assistance from Pete. After he weighed in comfortably below 85 I stepped on the scale. For a brief moment we watched as the digital readout shot through the 70s and well past 77; the likelihood of my making weight was somewhere south of zero. But at the moment when all hope seemed lost the numbers miraculously began descending, as though I’d stepped into some sort of anti-gravity well. We—Pete and me and the ref—watched this strange phenomenon until the readout settled exactly on 77.00—with Pete and I clandestinely holding hands like a pair of illicit lovers the entire time. His gentle shrug upward was just the boost I needed…

The basement slowly filled with more people as Pete and I sat with Libby and sipped coffees and waited for our session to start. Nikos and Russ showed up. A few of our teammates from Rutgers and FDU arrived, as did other lifters we knew from competitions past. Nearly every face among those competing was familiar, so small was our little corner of the sporting world: a promising Schoolage lifter in the 62s, a 77 who’d medaled at Junior Nationals, a 94-kilo guy who’d made a Junior World team a year or two back. These and other faces drifted through the basement, and each in turn was sought out by others: various coaches and old timers who were drawn to younger athletes, as though seeking some past version of themselves.

“I saw you at the Mintz last year,” I heard one old guy saying to the 77-kilo kid. “Four for six there… I remember you had a real nice crack at that 120. Looked like maybe just a little bit forward…”

And on and on. It was a degree of attention and memory that would be disconcerting were it not so sincere.

Ricky—in the midst of all of this—moved about the space like a shaggy and crude version of Blaine gilding among the tables in a ruined parody of Rick’s Cafe, as if they’d cast a wild boar for the role instead of Bogart. He was huge and loud and ludicrous and loved all the same—everyone past a certain age knew him and was happy to talk with him, and he in turn was happy to talk to them.

“Dude’s in his element,” said Pete, giving voice to my thoughts.

I nodded. Indeed, he was so in his element in a place like this it was hard to imagine him anywhere else. In normal society he always seemed a bit incongruous, as though the veneer of his civility were paper thin and might rupture at any moment. But down here—among the plates and the bars and the decaying memories of a thousand great lifts—Ricky just fit.

“What the hell are yous doin’?”

I snapped out of my reveries. It was Ricky himself, shouting at me and Pete.

“Get your singlets on!” he cried. “Session starts in ten minutes. How yous feel?”

“Uh…” I stammered.

“Don’t matter how you feel! Get ready…”

Despite Ricky’s agitation there was no real need for haste, as there were enough athletes at the beginning of the session to allow us time to ease into our warmups. We watched as the lifters began, Pete and I idly stretching and moving around with the barbell. In a twist of irony the first lifters here—and at most meets—were almost always those at opposing ends of the chronological spectrum: the youngest and oldest competitors, those just starting in the sport and those nearing the end of their time in it and in this life altogether. We watched kids who looked like little more than toddlers in baggy singlets throw 20 and 30 kilos overhead, kids who were barely taller than the weights and whose limbs were no thicker than the bar. Interspersed with them were creaky old Masters athletes with technique from another era, doing split snatches and holding the barbell with arms bent stiff from arthritis, but men still pounding away at the weights—at sixty, seventy, eighty and beyond—for the love of it, for the sheer reason that it is what they do, is what they’ve always done, and here they are, happy not just to be alive but to be well enough to put the bar overhead, if only for a little longer…

We watched as one of our own—a fellow Rutgers student named Robbie—struggled with a ferocity usually reserved for gladiatorial combat for a 65-kilo snatch. Robbie’d come to us over a year ago, a shadow of a human being, frail and sick and with a decidedly greenish cast. It was hard to imagine another sport—save perhaps shuffleboard—taking him in. But Ricky welcomed him as though he were the next great hope, as though he saw the second coming of Naim Suleymanoglu in him. He waxed poetic about how Tommy Kono had started out weak and sickly and had gone on to become one of the greatest lifters of all time. “Could be you,” Ricky’d said, and in Robbie’s jaundiced eyes there was what looked like real hope.

He was now slightly less greenish and was closing in on a bodyweight lift. His fight for the 65-kilo snatch felt interminable, as the bar overhead threatened to come crashing down—forward, then backward, then forward again… But Robbie hung on to the weight as though the fate of a small planet hung in the balance, and when he stood with it the crowd cheered as though the planet he’d just saved was their own.

“Helluva fight,” said Pete, throwing Robbie a high five so strong and excited that it nearly knocked him over.

And it was.

“What you are doing?” shouted Nikos. “Is time to warm up! Robbie, go sit. Celebrate later. You: Pete, Jonathan, take 50 kilos.”

“Hold yer horses!” said Pete, loading 50 kilos. “We’re gettin’ there…”

The warmups proceeded as usual, with Nikos watching for technique and Russ on counting duty and Ricky helping with loading and acting as general cheerleader and motivator, as he’d done for every single competition I’d ever lifted in. Fifty for a few sets, then 60, then a quick succession up through the weights: singles at 70, 80, 90, 100… As the weight on the bar increased I felt my focus narrow to the space just in front of me: this attempt, this rest, this next attempt. It was all part of an effort to keep the background hum of my nerves in the distance, and to prevent my overstimulated brain from thinking too much about all the nagging doubts that might plague me: Did my singlet feel too tight? Were my shoes laced okay? Was my thumb tape slipping? Did that snatch feel right?

But just below the adrenaline-fueled nerves—to which I’d long grown accustomed—was something else: the warm glow of confidence. The sensation that even then I was recovering, synthesizing proteins and muscle, thanks to the chemical restoratives. It was a subtle boost but a boost nonetheless, and as the weight on the competition platform neared my opening attempt I felt an anxiousness to get out there and show the crowd what I could do.

“You’re at 115,” said Ricky, after I finished a 110 snatch. “Stay there?”

He was used to me retreating: on my opening snatch I was always a coward, and I’d usually take it down 2.5 or 5 kilos to take pressure off myself. But this time I felt different.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Fifteen.”

He smiled and nodded back. “Okay. You’re in the hole. Let’s go sit.”

 

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