Of Iron and Bronze – 34

34.

If there was a final peak to that era, a high point just before its calamitous end, it came on the day that Joe finally qualified for Nationals. It was a development none of us saw coming, least of all Joe.

“You wanna go to Nationals?” Ricky asked Joe one Saturday morning, early in the summer. “I mean, you really wanna go?”

“What sort of deal-with-the-devil bargain are you talking about, Puj?” asked Joe, with the air of one who’d been bamboozled by Ricky in the past.

“Ain’t no devil’s bargain!” But then he paused long enough—just a moment—to suggest some Faustian element yet. “It’s a meet out at Jimmy’s place next Saturday in Staten Island,” he added, dropping the information like a loose turd into Joe’s lap.

“Staten Island?” said Joe, recoiling as though a turd had, in fact, been dropped into his lap. “We gotta drive out to a garbage dump at some ungodly hour?”

“You wanna qualify or not?”

Joe weighed his options. He looked to me and then Pete.

“I got work,” said Pete, throwing his hands up in a gesture of innocence, shirking all responsibility or blame for this idea.

I looked at Ricky. “Little tune up before Nationals,” he said, nodding at me. “Be good for you.”

Which is how he, Joe, and I found ourselves in a seedy basement gym in Staten Island the following weekend. It was damp and dark and badly illuminated by only the occasional unshielded bulb that hung from the ceiling. These threw wildly uneven light at random intervals in the space, bringing ancient weight machines into existence out of the musty blackness. They looked more like the ghosts of workout equipment rather than anything remotely usable. On that Saturday morning the gym was empty, save for the dozen or so of us who were there to compete, and it was hard to imagine the space as anything other than abandoned.

In a back corner of the gym was a makeshift platform composed of hastily assembled plywood boards. A stainless steel bowl perched on a broken ladder propped against one wall held an assortment of chalk blocks and dust, and strewn about were metal and rubber plates of an astounding age and diversity: old Eleiko and York and some Uesaka as well as no-name plates that bore only numbers, and faintly at that.

“Should I have gotten a tetanus shot?” Joe asked, as we stood surveying the scene.

But before Ricky could answer a voice called to us from the darkness.

“Eh! Yous here to lift or dick around? Weigh ins startin’ now.”

Jimmy Margherita—the meet organizer, such that there was someone giving a modicum of order to the chaos in that space—emerged from the shadows and stepped into a pool of light, his form preceded by his thick Staten Island accent. Back in the eighties and nineties he had been a lifter of some repute. Mostly ill-repute. He was a huge superheavy whose movements were only vaguely anthropomorphic, an avalanche of a man whose primary mode of locomotion seemed to be collapsing and reforming and collapsing from place to place.

“Good to see you,” smiled Ricky, pulling his friend in for a hug. “You gonna lift today?”

“Me?” barked Jimmy. “I ain’t touched a bar in months. I don’t even know where my shoes are. Heard you been liftin’,” he added.

Ricky shrugged and waved a hand. “I been doin’ some training. Gettin’ ready for Nationals.”

“Fuckin’ nuts,” said Jimmy. “So what’s the deal here,” he continued. “Gotta get this guy qualified?” he said, indicating Joe.

Ricky nodded.

“Okay. Whassyaweight?”

“Huh?” said Joe.

“Ya weight? How much ya weigh?”

There was an ancient scale nearby, composed of various levers and balances and counterweights and esoteric markings. Joe looked at it with some skepticism and then kicked off his shoes to step on.

“Don’t even botha,” said Jimmy, putting out one huge hand. “You know how to use this? I sure as shit don’t. Whaddaya wanna be? Eighty-five?”

“If we’re just writing it down how about 77?” said Joe, smiling.

“Your fat ass ain’t even 85, so ya lucky I’m puttin’ that down.” He scribbled on Joe’s card. “Eighty-faw point seven. How’s that?”

For all its disordered chaos, when the competition was underway it ran smoothly. A pair of Eleiko barbells—one men’s, one women’s—gave the lifting a slight air of legitimacy. If there was a timekeeper they were nowhere to be seen, although in that dark and under-lit space it’s entirely possible someone was hiding in a corner with a stopwatch. The judges were a rotating cast of anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the platform for an appreciable length of time, including Jimmy’s five-year-old son for a major portion of the competition.

Ricky, in taking all this in, loved it. “Great setup, ain’t it?” he said, smiling without a trace of irony.

“It’s all you need,” I said, nodding. There was something comforting in its simplicity, as well as in the bending of certain rules. I knew that nothing down here would ever be settled by some bureaucratic technicality or a bad call, and the only claim that carried any currency was what you did or did not do with the weights.

Joe squeaked in the 260-kilo qualifying total on a fourth-attempt clean and jerk. He’d snatched 112.5 and then missed 147.5 three times, at which point Jimmy and Ricky conferred amongst themselves and determined the weight had been mis-loaded, and that a fourth attempt was only fair. It was never clear how exactly the bar had been mis-loaded but it was not the time for such trivialities. Joe certainly wasn’t about to argue it. So on his seventh attempt, with his thighs greased so liberally with oil that he would have been a danger to wildlife had he gone in the ocean, Joe finally made the 147.5 clean and jerk he needed. Despite the shenanigans it’d taken, he and Ricky and I still celebrated this moment all the same. There would be a proper time to drag the competition’s irregularities to light, and do so with great humor, but in that instant the feat alone mattered far more than the circumstances.

When it was time for me to compete I felt like I was taking part in some great tradition of old-time lifters. This was real lifting, I thought, as I set up over the bar for my first snatch. In the poorly lighted basement, with the plywood beneath my feet and the cinderblock walls all around and the cold steel of the barbell in my chalked hands, the world outside ceased to exist. There was only this: this moment, this weight, this lineage of those who came before me and those who were yet to come, whose power I felt moving through me as though it were a great river.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more strong or confident during lifting. I smoothly made my snatch opener at 125, missed 130 on my second attempt for no good reason, then jumped to 132.5 and made that easily. It felt effortless, and it was without question the best snatch I’d ever done. Even Ricky—whose faith in my abilities was unshakable—looked surprised. In the clean and jerk I opened with 155, went to 160 for my second, and then called for 162.5 on my third—more than I’d ever done. As the bar was being loaded Ricky squatted in front of where I was sitting, giving me a pep talk while rubbing cheap lotion onto my thighs.

“See the weight!” he screamed. “This is your weight!”

And for a moment, just before starting that lift, I could see it: I saw the entire completion of it, start to finish, and saw that it was a good lift and that it could be nothing other than a good lift. I saw that for whatever reason my view of this lift admitted no doubt, no hesitation, no element of Schrödingerian uncertainty. There was only the lift and its successful completion.

The clean went up easily on my greased thighs, and the jerk—though a press out—was more than good enough for those basement referees, one of whom was the five-year-old, absentmindedly chewing on his red judges flag.

“Two ninety-five total!” beamed Ricky afterward. “Three hundred and more at Nationals, here we come.”

*

After the competition I drove down to see Libby at her family’s place by the ocean. There was still plenty of day left when I arrived, so we drove to the beach at Sea Bright and spent an hour or more wading into the water and then drying off and then returning to the water. As the day grew late we sat and watched the ocean, feeling the sun against our backs and watching the waves roll in one after another after another. The steady rhythm of it, the swoosh and suck and crash, was intoxicating. We’d been in for our last swim of the day and were drying ourselves, sitting very close. I felt her smooth skin against mine, hers already slightly tanned and freckled in places from the sun, mine still pale, burnt at the shoulders but otherwise suggestive of more hours inside, in the gym, than outside in the sun.

“I wish I could’ve come up to watch and compete,” she said.

“It was fun,” I said. “A circus, but fun.”

“Do you feel ready for Nationals now?”

I nodded. “You?”

She smiled at me and looked back at the ocean. “I’ve been ready since last year.”

There was such determination in her voice, more even than in my own. I kissed her shoulder and tasted salt and it was a good thing.

“What do you want to do there?” I asked, thinking of numbers, weights, kilos.

She looked at me, slightly confused, as though I’d placed a riddle before her. “To win,” she said, at length.

I almost laughed—not because I doubted her words, but because I knew she meant them and knew they could be true—but I held it back.

“Turkey is across that ocean,” she said. “Antalya. The Worlds.”

I nodded. I saw visions of us, as I so often did in those days, driving across the coast of that foreign land, stopping when and where we wanted and then moving on. A constant horizon of the new and unknown, always together as we made our way.

“That’s what I want,” she added.

We sat until the sun was very low. We watched a man with a dog walk by, the man throwing a ball and the dog catching it and bringing it back, thrilled at the constant repetition of running and fetching. Such simplicity, I thought. And such happiness.

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 33

33.

A comfortable rhythm developed in the days and weeks that followed, as we left winter behind and crawled toward spring and ultimately summer. We trained, we hung out together, we shared embarrassing stories late into the night, we made plans for the months to come until the early hours of the morning.

A string of random recollections survive from those days and weeks, often with no clear chronology or context, as if that entire period were little more than vignettes and flashbulb memories—memories I can call to mind now with photographic clarity. Watching my blurry VHS copy of the legendary School of Champions documentary about the Bulgarian team in the 1980s, with Krastev’s then-unbroken 216-kilo World Record Snatch (“He looks like a giant Super Mario,” Libby’d said). Taking the train in to the city and then the A line all the way up to the 190 Street Station, where we walked through the gardens at the Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River. A late-night tryst in the library, trying to contain our giggles and our excitement amid the mostly empty stacks. A midweek drive to the beach, long before it was beach weather, just to feel the sand on our bare feet and see the ocean.

One night we went to Efe’s in downtown New Brunswick for some Mediterranean food after training. When we learned the owners and workers were from Turkey we engaged them in a long discussion of the country, which was where the Worlds were being held later that year. This was our common goal, and we’d already pledged to each other that we must make the team. In speaking such an oath we hoped to make it real, or at least more likely. In the gym this became our target, and when one or the other was struggling we’d offer a subtle reminder of this. The name alone of the competition city—Antalya—was sometimes enough to bring us back from a failed lift.

But on occasion it was more than just a competition goal.

“Let’s travel around Turkey,” she said one night in bed, long after we should have been sleeping.

We rarely spoke of future plans that didn’t directly involve lifting; indeed we’d never even given a name to whatever was between us. This utterance, said in the early hours of the morning after a Saturday of training and eating and hanging out, was the first time she’d hinted at our existence together at some future date.

“Where?” I asked, wanting details, clarification, anything on which to peg my hopes.

“Everywhere,” she said.

“Everywhere?”

“I don’t know,” she said, laughing and turning toward me. “Wherever. We’ll rent a car and just… drive. Drive up the coast, drive to the beaches, drive to Istanbul.”

“Okay,” I said, and meant it. Had she asked I would have handed over money, credit cards—anything, really. Anything to secure that vision of the future, she and I driving around a country we could only just find on the globe, experiencing the new and unknown together. In my mind’s eye I had visions of us amid ancient ruins and on vast beaches in the Mediterranean, eating kebabs and doing whatever else one did in Turkey.

“And from there we can go to Greece, and Italy,” she said, almost a whisper, perhaps more asleep than awake.

“Yeah?”

She nodded. “Just keep traveling.”

“Check out your sibyl on the ceiling,” I responded.

But she was already sleeping.

In mid-May, when the weather was already warm, Pete and Libby and I graduated—though for me this bore little significance, and it left no impression on my memory. Pete and I didn’t attended the ceremony. All I can recall are a few parties hosted by friends and the families of friends, and those but dimly. I’d spent longer in college than I’d anticipated and its completion seemed an insignificant thing; thousands of others graduated with me that year, as they did every year, and our degrees signified little more than a rudimentary amount of perseverance and the ability to write checks or take out loans. All the celebrating, all the congratulations, all the hoopla, as if we’d done something of real importance, all of this not only confused me but angered me, at moments. Who cared about making it through college, something millions of people did all the time? How many of them could snatch 130? How many had won a National medal, or made a World Team? Those were things to celebrate, things worth congratulating. The shenanigans around the spring rite of graduation felt like false rituals and false celebrations, so common were they.

Was this the test propionate talking? Was it simply my own frustration at having missed out, until then, at goals that mattered to me? Whatever its origin, I couldn’t properly celebrate this passage. Pete and I enjoyed the free food at the parties, and we bid farewell to class schedules, but otherwise things were much the same, only that we now had to travel to FDU nearly every day for training.

“Better that way!” Ricky had said in response to this. “Means I can keep an eye on yous.”

It’s hard to deny this. Training together, under the constant eyes of Ricky and Nikos and Russ and our fellow teammates, we entered into what felt like a Golden Age of weightlifting. Like the Americans in the 1950s or the Bulgarians of the 80s or the Greeks of the 90s. There was some primal energy that coursed through the gym, feeding a little more life into each of us as we prepared for Nationals (and beyond). How else to explain certain lifts that stand out in my memory? Lifts like Myron’s 150 snatch, done on little more than a dare by Ricky—who doubted he would make 145, let alone five kilos above that.

“He’s a mutant,” Joe had said in watching this lift.

Yet Myron, for all the awe in that room—this was the most we’d seen snatched in the gym in a long while, perhaps ever—looked no different. He set the bar down and regarded it as if it were something illusory or inconsequential, and he gave no indication that his attitude was different from the last attempt or indeed from an attempt with an unloaded barbell.

Impressed as he was, Ricky couldn’t let this stand. In response, he took an enormous 170 clean, to make up for the fact that Myron had out-snatched him by ten kilos.

“Clean and jerks win meets,” he’d said, while liberally greasing up his thighs with cheap lotion.

“You gonna do that in competition, Puj?” Pete had asked, nodding toward the lotion.

“Don’t worry about what I’m gonna do in competition. We ain’t in a competition now, are we? Ain’t no law against a little lotion on the thighs, is there?”

“No there ain’t.”

Although perhaps there should have been. The barbell positively shot off of Ricky’s glowing thighs, nearly catching him in the throat and knocking him off balance. The weight then crashed on him, almost knocking him into the platform. How he then managed to stand up with it seemed a miracle, as though some god of weightlifting—taking pity on this lifter from a different era—reached down and pulled him up like a puppeteer drawing up a shaggy marionette. We all stood in shock, waiting for the jerk, but Ricky, in a rare moment of clarity, simply dumped the barbell and extended his arms wide in a gesture strangely reminiscent of certain paintings of Christ. Like he was reaching out to hug the room entire. He looked around at us, smiling.

“Not bad,” said Myron. “What about the jerk?”

“Savin’ that for when it counts,” he responded, still grinning.

Then there was my own 130 snatch, executed in a training session during which I felt to have been touched by preternatural lifting ability. I didn’t miss a single lift that day, and when the 130 went overhead it seemed as though the barbell was willingly returning to its right place in the universe, like it had wanted to be there all along and I’d simply guided it home.

“Finally!” I shouted, standing with the weight overhead and feeling not just strong but invincible, as though that triumph against gravity could inure me against whatever might come my way. I heard the cries of my fellow lifters and the shouts of my coaches and I thought that this is something worth celebrating. The high-fives and congrats and hugs that came afterward were worth a thousand college graduations, and that lift remains in my memory the way some people recall absent lovers.

“That was fuckin’ beautiful,” said Ricky afterward, beaming like a proud parent. “But don’t get too happy. You still got a lot more in you.”

“Nice work,” said Libby, giving me a quick hug. Was there jealousy? I wondered. She’d struggled that day, missing several attempts at 100 kilos in the snatch. It was a huge weight—“The weight that makes you a man,” Ricky’d said once—and though she looked strong enough she couldn’t secure it overhead. The first attempt had been out front.

“Pull,” said Nikos in response. “Don’t place barbell.”

The second was closer but still out front.

“More up!” said Nikos, imitating the full extension of the pull. “You are strong! Use muscles!”

She nodded, as did Ricky and Russ in agreement.

But the third and fourth attempts, done amidst the solemn silence of the gym watching one of our own do a world-class weight, were not there. Each one was close but lacked the final spark. She’d made 97.5 beautifully just before, but the extra 2.5 kilos, or perhaps the number 100 itself, had wormed its way into her mind.

“Enough,” said Nikos. “Another time.”

I saw her frustration and felt it with her. But a moment later she was back to her platform, focused on her own lifting and seemingly unaware of the world around her and already past the failures of the morning.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 32

32.

Back to training. Day in, day out: training. Whether we lifted well or poorly at the Arnold conferred no special privileges. Aside from general congrats and high fives there were no prizes for good performances nor punishments for bad ones. A new week of programming awaited us all on Monday morning, and that evening it was back to the gym, back to Rutgers or FDU or a garage, and back to work.

Just over sixteen weeks to Nationals, wrote Ricky in his email to me. Stay focused! I have full confidence you will be doing 300 OR MORE with the current competition preparation!!

I stared at a calendar on my computer as I read this, counting the weeks, counting days even. Thinking of what each day meant, strung together like a chain of training and recovery. To see the weeks counted down like that made them seem terribly finite. My 285 total at the Arnold was so close to the mythical 300 that the distance seemed like little more than a rounding error. Yet breaking it down into constituent parts, imagining the lifts I’d have to do, made each of the remaining 15 kilos a mountain unto itself. 135 and 165? 140 and 160? I’d done a snatch pull with 140 on a handful of occasions and was happy to have lifted the weight to my abdomen; what sort of magic was needed to put that much overhead?

But amidst these thoughts was Ricky, shouting like a voice in the wilderness of my own doubt: You gotta believe! So trite, and yet I knew that for him—he who’d been an elite athlete more through will and work than talent or ability—his belief in himself had moved weights beyond all expectations.

“Ain’t about talent!” he’d said to me early on in my time with him, when I was still a high schooler. “You believe it,” he continued, “you can do it.” He was already well past his prime at that point but he trained like someone whose greatest days were yet to come, a trait that I envied and struggled to understand.

And now I could not help but worry even more when, the week after the Arnold, I was lounging in the apartment with Pete staring at the last of the Sustanon vials—which were now empty. I held one to the light, rolled it between thumb and forefinger, propped it on my chest. A minuscule residue of oil still clung to the inside of the glass ampule but it was otherwise stripped of all its chemical power.

“I’m gonna miss them,” I said aloud, as Pete reclined on the couch across from me.

“You still got the prop,” he said, referring to the testosterone propionate that I was to start the following week.

“I know,” I said. “But these were magic.” I set the empty ampule down on the coffee table. “I’m going to save it. Nostalgia.”

“Nostalgia?” Pete said, lifting himself up slightly off the couch to look at me in disbelief.

“What’s wrong with that? Look at it,” I said, holding the ampule up. “It’s beautiful. How could I just throw this out?”

“You chucked all the others.”

“Yes but this is the last one.”

“Until you get back on it after Nationals.”

“Yeah, well…”

He shook his head and settled back into the couch. “I think all that test is makin’ you emotional.”

“Probably,” I said. Indeed the night before I’d been brought to tears watching the final scene of Terminator 2 with Pete. As had he. Arnold’s thumbs up to John Connor, set against Brad Fiedel’s synth-heavy soundtrack, was simply too much for our wildly out of tune endocrinal systems…

Unfortunately, the emotional swings that accompanied the restoratives did little to ease my mind with what had happened with Libby at the Arnold. In the first few training sessions after the meet she gave no indication that things would be any different between us. It felt much the same as the previous time, except now I remembered the night in full, which only made things worse.

By Thursday of that week I was once again convinced it was hopeless. We’d trained at the Power Gym—Pete and me and Libby and a few others—and afterward we all parted ways in our usual fashion. Not so much as a goodbye wave from her.

“She played you like a damn fiddle!” said Pete, laughing as we walked back to our apartment.

“I appreciate the sympathy.”

“C’mon,” he said, “ain’t so bad. We get back to the apartment and I’ll make us some food. We can eat and curl up on the couch together. No homo unless you want to.”

And so it was—Pete made an enormous bowl of pasta with sausage. A near industrial-size portion of food. We settled in to the couch and he popped in his Rushmore DVD, despite my warnings that we probably lacked the emotional fortitude to make it through without another great deluge of tears.

“That’s the point,” he said, working his way through the bowl of pasta. “You need to feel shit, man. Don’t bury the pain.”

I nodded, enjoying my own bowl of pasta. “This is damn good,” I said.

He nodded with pride. “I know.”

Much as I was content to sit there and spend an evening with Pete I could not help but lunge forward at the sound of my phone getting a text, little more than ten minutes into the movie. The vibration across our coffee table was the sound of hope itself, and the flashing screen “1 New Message: Libby” was its visual harbinger.

“Well?” said Pete, who no doubt was aware of the sender based on my reaction.

“It’s Libby,” I said. “Says she’s at the library if I want to come hang and do work.”

“Tell her you’re busy.”

But it was too late. I was already off the couch, shoveling down the remainder of the pasta and sausage.

“What about Wes Anderson?” cried Pete as I ran out the door.

“Pause it! I’ll just be a minute…”

I found Libby at her usual table overlooking George Street and the river beyond, her books piled before her. The library felt preternaturally quiet, as would be expected on a Thursday night that wasn’t during finals.

“Hey,” she said, smiling as she looked up at me.

“Hey,” I said, sitting down across from her.

She was deep in work, and I did my best to play it cool and pretend to start my own. Which is to say that she returned to her books and notes while I spent ten or fifteen minutes watching weightlifting videos and looking at my training program.

“You busy?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“Just wrapping up an email,” I said, closing a video of Taner Sagir.

“Want to do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

She wrote down several lines on a scrap of paper and then handed it to me. “Can you grab these quickly?”

I started to laugh. “Am I your research assistant now?”

“You might as well do some real work if you’re here,” she said, smiling.

I pointed to my computer, as if to say that how could anything but work be taking place with a laptop before oneself.

“I know you’re watching lifting videos.”

I feigned shock.

“Do you know how to use the library stacks?” she asked, and the question was somewhere between serious and joking.

“Very funny,” I said, standing. “I know how to use the library. I’ll be back with your books in a minute.”

Ten minutes later I returned empty-handed.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Apparently I don’t know how to use the library. These weren’t on the shelf.”

“Those are folios,” she said. “They’re in a different location.”

“What does that even mean?”

She stood up. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

We went back through the stacks, then climbed the stairs to one of the library’s upper half floors. I followed as she went down a row of stacks, checking the numbers against those on the paper. She turned down one and then stopped in front of a shelf at the midway point.

“Here,” she said, indicating the books before her.

I stood next to her and took the piece of paper back and looked at the call numbers she had written and at those on the books. All my efforts at reading and concentration were being thwarted by the simple fact of her body next to me, and the occasional bumping of her shoulder against mine.

“Got it,” I said, wanting to look at her and at the same time strangely nervous to look at her. The smell of old paper and leather and cardboard, mixed with traces of her soap or shampoo, made me very slightly dizzy. A library fantasy flashed through my mind but I quickly pushed it away.

She pulled a book from the shelf and opened it and began to flip through as I watched. The pages were a mix of texts and brightly colored paintings of men and women, nude and clothed, alone and in pairs and groups. I’d had little experience with art beyond a childhood fascination with Bob Ross, but thanks to my intro art history class I recognized several of the images as those on the Sistine Ceiling.

“Wanna see something cool?” she asked without looking up.

“Sure.”

“Here,” she said, stopping at one of the pages. She nudged my arm to ensure my attention and I felt the electric charge of her touch and struggled to concentrate for a second. On the page was a figure with its back to us, bare shouldered, stepping down from a stone seat and closing an enormous book. Were it not for the braids in her hair and the gold and lilac and pink drapery I might have taken her for a man. She had powerful shoulders and arms, their musculature softened only slightly through the subtleties of color and shadow.

“When I was a kid,” said Libby, almost to herself, “this is what I wanted to look like.”

“You wanted braids?”

She made a face at me. “I’m being serious. Everybody said she looked like a man—and the model used was a man, but whatever—I didn’t care. I thought she was beautiful.”

I looked again at the image and saw something there that perhaps I’d seen in Libby before. Something physical, certainly, but something more, as well. A surety of movement. An easy grace underpinned with terrific power and strength. Like the figure in that image, Libby could make closing a book look athletic.

“I’d say you’re pretty close,” I said, looking at the page and then back at her.

She smiled at me and I was struck by that smile. She put a hand on my shoulder, moved it along my back, and leaned her head against me as I put my own arm around her. For a moment neither of us moved, both of us just enjoying the embrace, the feel of our bodies and all their corporeality against each other and the comfort of knowing the other was receptive to that touch. What more was needed? Then whatever passion we had stored up in the days since our last encounter was released in a great torrent, and we started making out with the intensity of two people who feared they might never see the other again.

That evening I stayed at her apartment. In the middle of the night I woke to go to the bathroom, and when I returned to her room I stopped to look at her as she lay in bed. She was lying on her stomach with both arms up on either side of her pillow, as though dreaming she were the figure from the book. The light that came through the window threw shadows across the bare expanse of her muscled back and shoulders, a landscape of the figure as befitting of the Sistine Ceiling as any I’d seen.

Not far at all from what you’d wanted to become, I thought, as I lay down next to her.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 31

31.

She shut the door behind her, cutting off the light from the hallway.

I settled back in. “That’s okay. I wasn’t quite asleep yet. Had enough fun?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t take the crowd at the bar anymore. Especially after today.”

I heard her getting ready, heard the toilet flushing and the running of water and then her changing into shorts and a t-shirt. Then I heard and faintly saw her walking towards the beds. The room was dimly highlighted by whatever illumination was coming in from the window—nighttime lights of the city, the silvery edge of the moon, the sodium-orange glow of the parking lot lights—and it was just enough by which to see her. It seemed ludicrous to hope for anything more than such glances and still I hoped.

“Shit,” she said, laughing and sighing out of what sounded like fatigue and frustration. “The bed is still soaked.”

She walked over to my bed. I felt the sheets being lifted and saw her form sliding under the covers. “I’m taking Pete’s spot,” she said. “He can sleep in Joe’s spilled beer or figure something else out.”

Thank you, Joe, I thought.

For what felt like many long moments neither of us said anything. We each were lying on our backs, and though I can’t say for certain what she was doing I could tell that neither of us had our eyes shut. Rather, we stared at the faintly textured ceiling, a moonscape of tiny shadows cast by the window’s light.

“I know we never really talked about what happened,” she said at length, and her voice was so startling in the silence that I wondered if I’d been sleeping and hadn’t known it.

“That’s fine,” I said.

“I just…” She hesitated. Somehow, through the sheets or the mattress or the air itself, I felt the tension in her body—the same sort of set determination I’d witnessed countless times in the gym before a lift. “I just want to focus on being ready for Nationals. I want to do everything I can.”

I nodded very slightly in the dark, happy just to be this close even if what I was hearing wasn’t exactly what I would’ve wanted. “I get that.”

“Okay,” she said, and I felt the tension release from across the bed. “Okay. I just don’t want to mess anything up in the gym.”

We both fell silent again. This time I did close my eyes. I was just on the edge of drifting off to sleep when I felt her put a hand out and take my own, and without thinking I wove my fingers between hers. It happened so naturally that I was less surprised than I should’ve been at this sudden contact—the first outside of a gym high-five since that night all those months ago. For a time we lay there, motionless except for her thumb stroking my hand. She was breathing so softly, so quietly, that I wondered if perhaps she wasn’t sleeping already. But then her grip tightened around my fingers and she turned to look at me, bringing her face so close to my own that I could feel each little exhalation of her breath.

I knew then that we lay at that moment that separates two eras, the before and after, even if this was territory we’d covered before. That last encounter had left no trace for me, least of all in my memory. And where do such encounters exist if not in our memories? Thus in that Columbus hotel room I enjoyed that period of expectation and I sensed she enjoyed it, too. There was something terribly rich and satisfying in the anticipation, in knowing with near certainty that you are both committed to action—just not quite yet. Just a second longer, another beat, another interstitial moment in which a tiny whisper of doubt still makes things sharp and exciting in the way that only the unknowable is. Sometimes I wished I could hold that moment longer, forever perhaps, to always maintain that sense of mystery and expectation. I waited with a patience I never knew I had—if only I had that patience staying over the barbell—and wondered how this stasis would ultimately be broken, if indeed it ever would be…

“We can do this, right?” she said, and with it came all the unspoken concerns: we can still train, we can still be normal in the gym, we can still be our best at Nationals, we can shoot for world teams and maybe more and we can still focus on the thing that binds us and that is most important to us. These were unanswerable questions yet I think just knowing we were walking the same line eased both our minds.

“Yeah,” I said, trying to sound as convincing as possible but not certain of anything beyond that instant.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She kissed me with an intensity that belied her calm rationality of just a few moments ago. As if she too had been holding back all these weeks and months. We found a comfortable rhythm and soon we were a tangle of bodies, releasing the pent up attraction that until then we hadn’t dared admit to each other. I moved my hands along the softness of her skin and took hold of her curving flesh and felt my arousal grow with each embrace. In the semidarkness of the room I saw her as I had never seen her before, as much with my own body as with my eyes, and finally, finally, fully present and keenly remembering and making note of everything as best I could. Every point of contact between our bodies—the spread of her chest against my own; the smooth stretch of muscled thighs wrapped around mine; her arms around my shoulders; the mass of dark hair that hung, tunnel-like, on either side of my face—felt charged, almost burned by that touch, so overwhelming was it.

We went at each other, feeling in some sense like animals, for a long time. At one point the door opened a crack, I heard a pair of faint giggles, and then it shut again. But all that seemed very far away. Eventually our coupling would end, and the others would return, and we would all sleep. And in the morning we would wake, some of us more bleary-eyed than others, and we would eat and get back on the road and drive for hours, out of Ohio and through the endlessness that is Pennsylvania, before New Jersey and home. We would tell stories—including, probably, this one—and we would make plans for the coming days and weeks and months. And Monday would be another day in the gym, another step toward Nationals or whatever else lay beyond, and the Arnold would be one more memory.

But all that could wait. Now all that mattered was the two of us, as close as possible, doing everything we could to elide the unbridgeable.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 30

30.

The fabled showdown between Ricky and Myron, in which the latter was heavily favored for victory even if his training had been varied and inconsistent at best, was not to be. There had been no sign of Myron since we’d arrived at the Arnold, and when he finally responded to the texts Libby’d been sending all day his response was as simple as it was cryptic:

Shit sorry got stuck somewhere

“What does that even mean?” cried Joe, who was alternately staring at this message and around the room, as though the answer to the riddle were to be found somewhere among the lifting crowd.

“It probably means he was out with his deadbeat friends and totally forgot,” said Libby.

Ricky was disappointed, but Myron was just one player in the session’s highly anticipated festivities. The venue was filled to capacity with all manner of spectators: die-hard weightlifting fans, current athletes, ex-athletes, old coaches, strangers unsure of what they were waiting for, bodybuilders and powerlifters wanting to see a little action from a sister sport. Adding to the excitement was the knowledge that a handful of foreign athletes—a few Russians, possibly an Eastern European—would be lifting in this session, which featured the heaviest weights to be lifted during the whole competition, regardless of weight class. There were nine competitors total, ranging from a 77 up to a couple of superheavies, all doing relatively big weights. Declared openers in the snatch ranged from 135 for Ricky up to a huge 170 kilos for a Russian ringer, a young 94 competing slightly heavy as a 105, by the name of Dmitry Klokov.

“Didn’t he miss this weight three times in training last week?” I asked, as Ricky’s name was announced for his first attempt.

“Yeah but he just shook Arnold’s hand,” Pete reminded him.

Joe nodded. “Dollar bet you guys: make or miss?”

“Miss.”

“Miss.”

“Miss.”

Joe won three dollars on that bet but lost more on subsequent lifts. In the midst of the outrageous final session, with the motley crowd going wild for every incremental increase of the barbell’s weight, Ricky managed two lifts: 135 and 165. But none of that seemed to matter: with the music playing before each attempt and the cheers of fans and newcomers and the carnival-type atmosphere Ricky thrived. He knew what the crowd wanted. Yes, they came to see big lifts, and in that they were not disappointed; 180 and 220 by Klokov, to name just two. But what they really wanted was a performance, and in that respect Ricky was Hamlet and this the Globe Theatre. Just the look of him—beastly, hairy, something you weren’t sure you wanted to invite into the house—was almost spectacle enough. Within that hyper-tanned and carefully curated fitness world he was something rare and unfamiliar, which made him that much more captivating. And though he missed four of his six lifts he fought for each one like a man in mortal combat against an opponent. Nobody in that room could say he’d given up early. On the contrary, some likely felt that giving up was probably a better option…

“Never,” said Ricky afterwards, when another coach passed by and told him to take it easy for a couple days. No doubt he believed that and had no plans on stopping. Ever.

*

We returned to the hotel after eating and recounting the day’s events, all of which were already being modified and exaggerated and spun into our own histories. Those of us ready for round two of the Arnold, all the post-competition celebrating and carousing, headed down to the hotel bar after some brief pre-gaming in mine and Pete and Libby’s room, during which time Joe managed to spill an entire can of Steel Reserve on one of our beds.

“My beer!” he cried, nearly in tears.

“Fuck your beer,” said Libby. “That was my bed!”

But Joe seemed unconcerned with this, and soon we were all down at the hotel bar, along with a few other lifters from our area who’d also made the trip to the Arnold. Pete and I grabbed a couple gin and tonics and found a nice low wall to lean against, from which we could survey the crowd and its attendant madness. The hour was late—midnight, perhaps later—but the bar was still filled and the crowds showed no signs of letting up. By sheer coincidence (or was it?) there was a Big Beautiful Woman event going on at the bar, so the patrons were a curious mix of the fit and the Rubenesque. Yet everyone mingled well within the context of the Arnold’s celebration of all things body-related, and thanks to the drinks and the music it was not long before a cheerful chaos was general.

“This is great!” said Joe, who’d been drinking steadily since the spilled Steel Reserve. “Libby, Pete, Jon—shots!”

“I think I’m good…” Libby started to say, but Joe wasn’t hearing this. He turned to the bar and slapped down a twenty, unsettling his current drink in the process. “Barkeep! Four Jagers!”

I handed my shot to a passing teammate and then watched as Libby pretended to throw back hers, instead placing it directly in front of Joe while he was drinking his own.

“What’s this?” he said, trying to focus on the full glass before him.

“Another shot,” said Libby. “I just got it for you.”

He looked at her as though she’d just deposited a small puppy in his lap. Tears of unfettered joy threatened to flood the bar. But he composed himself, tossed back the drink, and headed for the dance floor, pulling her and anyone else within reach along with him.

That bastard, I thought, with something that felt less like jealousy and more like regret. He’d probably planned the spilled Steel Reserve on her bed the whole time. Come stay in my room, he’d offer later, if he was sober enough, your bed’s all wet

“’Nother g’n’t?” Pete asked, rattling the ice in his empty glass.

“I’m good,” I said. The first drink had just taken the edge off of things, giving the world that slightly fuzzy pleasantness that makes you think another drink, and then another, is a great idea. And it was tempting to take that path; just get totally wrecked, giving myself over to the night and its whims. It’d worked in the past, in a fashion, so why not? But some nagging bit inside me, in the voice of Ricky or Nikos, reminded me of training on Monday, and Nationals in just a few months. My liver probably had a say, as well, given the work it was already doing handling the restoratives…

“I’m gonna head in,” I said, when Pete returned with a fresh gin and tonic.

“Not me,” he said, eyeing the crowd. “Some of these women may just be interested in knowing I’m a chef…”

“If you need the bed just kick me out. Shoot me a warning text and I’ll be gone.”

“I may need both beds if I get lucky.”

I wandered back to the room, thinking of how even just that one drink—perhaps mixed with the fading Modafinil and the bass of the dance music—was enough to rekindle old memories of going out and partying in years past. It seemed a strange era to me, and I struggled to find continuity between that earlier one and the one I was then living. As though someone else had occupied my person for those days and months and years, breaking the continuity of selfhood we normally take for granted.

Drugs are perhaps a common thread. There was always a love of ritual, and the current ampules and syringes and injections certainly satisfied that. But the drugs of old were a means of escaping the present moment, or at least of rendering it bearable or transitory. In some ways I could see the critical link—pouring out a little pile of white powder, cutting and recutting and dividing the lines of powder up, tightly rolling a twenty-dollar bill, or a five or ten or single, if the twenties had all gone to the drug’s purchase—but reconciling the two seemed futile. To me there was a rather firm line between PEDs and recreational drugs. I was certain I was not the same person I had been all those years ago…

Such terrible memories. Then as now I could still feel the metallic drip of coke at the back of my throat, the numbness in the gums; or else the electric surge that came when good ecstasy hit, a moment that seems to send a current throughout the entire body. Sometimes all it takes is a driving club beat for the sensation to return, and I’ll wonder if there isn’t some trace of the drug still coursing through my veins. Other times I’ll be at a urinal and I’ll think back to the hours spent in bar and club bathrooms, doing lines in stalls, talking to anyone foolish enough to come within earshot, sometimes sharing my drugs and then later cursing myself for doing so when they eventually ran out.

Awful. I was glad to be past those days, even if they were closer behind me than I wanted to admit. Glad, even if I could still feel a slight pull from those drugs, like an insistent tugging at one leg, telling me Just another taste; a tiny taste

I returned to the room. The odor of Joe’s spilt beer was still strong, and I sighed a mix of regret and jealousy and resignation. Better this way, I thought. Leave the partying and late night trysts to the others. I was an athlete. For me, a little sleep was all I wanted. The competition had gone well, but Monday it was back to work. And there was still a long, long drive home in the morning.

I undressed, performed the usual pre-bed ablutions, and slipped under the covers. We had set the thermostat low and the room was nicely chilled, perfect for sleeping. I enjoyed the moments of wakeful repose, looking forward to the sleep that was soon to come. Just as I was nodding off the door opened, cutting the room in half with a beam of light from the hallway, and I worried that maybe Pete was with someone. I rolled over slightly for a better look.

“Hey,” I said.

“Sorry,” said Libby, almost a whisper. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

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