On a Monday morning in early February I ran into Libby on College Ave on my way back from class. I’d just dozed through the better part of a lecture for my Intro to Art History course, which I was taking to cover some last-minute graduation requirements. I was looking forward to getting back to the apartment for a second breakfast and then a solid hour or two of getting some true horizontal rest when Libby—coming from one of her own classes—came across my path.
“Hey,” she said, falling in step next to me on the slushy sidewalk. A steady stream of students moved around us amid the changing of classes.
I felt the usual heart flutter that I’d grown accustomed to on seeing her outside the gym, and her sudden appearance caught me off guard. My brain, still stuck in the fog of sitting in a darkened lecture hall, was moving far too slowly to respond appropriately to her greeting, and in trying to decide between “Hey” and “Hi” the sound that ultimately came out was more akin to the cry of a small wounded animal than anything human, and I instantly regretted even trying to speak.
Luckily she seemed unfazed by this, or perhaps it was lost in the sound of a passing bus.
For a block or so we chatted idly about lifting. We’d just competed in the FDU Open a week prior, although the competition had been much reduced in attendance and scale due to a winter storm. The meet ended up taking place on a training platform rather than a true competition platform. Judging was done via thumbs up or down like some ancient gladiatorial spectacle—although with the judges’ seats stacked with members of our own gym there were considerably more thumbs up than down. At the competition Libby’d managed to redeem herself since bombing out at the Mets, thanks to conservative weights and jumps at the advice of Nikos.
“Is important to have good day,” Nikos had said. “Arnold is real competition. Today is training day. Make all lifts.”
And she, ever the good student, listened and went six-for-six, ending with 87.5 and 100. But as we walked she seemed unhappy with this, or at least unsatisfied with it.
“I should’ve done more,” she said.
“You went six-for-six,” I said. “What more could you want?”
“What more do I want?” She looked at me with a sidelong glance, as though I’d asked something beyond ridiculous. “I should be doing more by now,” was all she added.
Many of the rest of us, following the “pull hard and pray” philosophy often advocated by Ricky, or simply overconfident in our abilities, didn’t fare nearly so well. There were a lot of two- or one-for-six performances, along with a few zeros. Pete and I went big, aiming for competition PRs on our second attempts, and our final results—two for six for him, three for six for me—suggested a more conservative strategy was in order for the next meet.
But the real showstopper was Myron. A week before the competition he reemerged at FDU from whatever den he’d been hiding in claiming that he’d been training on his own. Few of us believed this story—including his own sister—but when he managed an easy 135 and 160 the claim seemed more credible.
“God I hate him,” Joe had said while watching him, a sentiment likely influenced in part by his own zero-for-six day.
When Libby and I had relived the competition and briefly touched on some plans for the next meet—The Arnold was only a month away—we turned to our more immediate surroundings.
“You have another class now?” she asked.
“No. I’m done for a few hours. You?”
She shook her head. “I’m heading to the library. You?”
“Same here,” I said, almost without realizing it.
I hadn’t been to the library—outside of finals week—in ages. In my defense, the one closest to my apartment, Alexander Library, was never the most inviting of places. Its midcentury brick and glass exterior, whose most prominent section is little more than a large cube, did almost nothing to inspire my curiosity or enthusiasm. The interior wasn’t much better, with institutional carpeting and linoleum flooring in the stacks and a confusing system of floors and half floors whose labyrinthine complexity seemed a material representation of the university’s own convoluted bureaucracy. I’d wasted hours trying to navigate that bureaucracy, and the library, over the years. How many times at Rutgers had I heard that I was in the wrong line, the wrong building, the wrong campus, or that I was holding the wrong documents, or that I’d received bad information and that, actually, the first building had been the right one? Trying to find a book in Alex felt much the same as that experience. A physical embodiment of being trapped in a system far beyond your reckoning or comprehension.
On this particular morning, as Libby and I arrived at the library, it seemed someone else had also found themselves out of place in the building. One of the windows was broken and covered in plastic. After Libby and I had settled into a second floor table in the back, overlooking George Street, she went to pick up an interlibrary loan book and returned with the details of what had happened.
“It was a deer,” she said, leaning across the table slightly and whispering.
“A deer,” she repeated. “This morning.”
“A deer?” I said, not quite believing this. “Is it still here?” I asked, looking around as though it might appear from behind a shelf somewhere.
She looked at me. “Do you think they’d let us in with an animal running around?”
“I guess not…”
She told me the story she’d heard from the desk attendant. That morning a library worker had arrived to find one of the ground floor windows broken. A deer had leapt through it at some point, either out of fear or confusion or both. The doe ran through the rooms and among some of the stacks on the first floor. Her tracks could be seen among rows of reference books and dictionaries, tracks in which one hoof print was slightly bloodied and less distinct from the others. She’d injured her hind leg coming through the window. By the time the county’s animal control arrived she was cowering behind a plant, as though that one piece of the natural world—the world she knew—might offer her some respite or protection.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“They tranquilized it and took it away.”
I waited for a second, thinking she might continue. “And?”
She looked out the window, at George Street and the highway beyond and the rows of bare trees on either side of the Raritan River. “I don’t know,” she said. “That’s all I heard. I guess now they either see if they can release it back to the wild, or…”
She stopped and left the statement hanging. “Anyway. Time to work.”
We worked. More accurately, she worked and I did a mix of work and studying that week’s training program and watching lifting videos. I went across the street at one point to bring back a tuna wrap from Au Bon Pain, tried and failed to eat it silently given my quiet surroundings, and then watched more lifting videos. At a certain point Libby called my bluff, perhaps since I hadn’t hit a single key on my laptop in several minutes.
“How’s your work?” she asked, still focused on her own.
“Good,” I lied, touching my trackpad in an effort to look busy.
“You’re watching lifting videos, aren’t you?”
I looked at my screen, on which a highly compressed MPEG of the men’s 85 session from Athens was currently playing. “No.”
She looked at me for an instant and then stood to come around to my side of the table.
“No no no!” I said. “I’m doing sensitive work. You don’t want to see this.”
“Yeah? What is it, porn?”
“I love porn. Let’s see.”
She stood behind me—close enough to make me slightly dizzy for a moment—and then leaned even closer to look at my screen.
“Dimas,” was all she said.
She sat next to me and we watched the session play out. It was NBC’s terrible TV coverage, which meant bad cuts and overzealous editing. The final competition of one of the greatest weightlifters of the sport’s history was reduced to little more than a few highlights. On his last lift the great Pyrros Dimas, following his failure to clean and jerk 207.5 kilos for the gold medal, removed his shoes and left them on the platform. It was the end of an era, and Georgia’s Giorgi Asanidze was instead crowned champion.
When it was finished she stared at the screen for a moment longer. I still had part of the tuna wrap in my hands, and I was suddenly very conscious of its presence and the fact that I desperately wanted to eat it but didn’t want to break the silence with all the tearing of paper and whatnot that was required.
At length she stood, but before walking back to her side of the table she reached across me—her arm inches from my face—and pointed at the medal ceremony frozen on my laptop screen.
“That’s what I want,” she said, and returned to her work.
[more to come]