Of Iron and Bronze – 36

36.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see your point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 35

35.

In my memories—the ones I want to hold on to and revisit—that era was one of perpetual good times, a series of flashbulb images set against an early-2000s soundtrack: driving to the shore, spending time on the beach, making late-night runs for Maruca’s Pizza, watching movies until the early morning hours. But as the summer wore on and Nationals loomed those outings became more dream than reality, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times such events took place in our last weeks together. Much more frequent were the times I texted Libby saying I couldn’t make it, or that I’d be an hour late, or that I’d be two hours late, and actually could we reschedule for tomorrow, or another time. At the root of this was my steadily increasing obsession with training. Libby, no stranger to dedication to the sport, seemed unfazed at first. But ultimately her responses indicated either frustration or that she simply didn’t care anymore.

Stuck in the gym. I can’t make it 2nite, one text from me read, a little over a month out from Nationals.

Fine, was the response. I wrote something back, in some weak effort at reconciliation, but there was no response until the following day, and a brief one at that.

In such incidents I was torn between wanting to keep Libby within my orbit but not wanting to do much of anything aside from spend time in the gym. That meant I was fine with training together as often as possible, but the moment plans for something else came up—like actual quality time together, doing normal people things—I hesitated. As I neared the end of my drug cycle I was convinced that I needed to train as often as possible, and as heavy as possible, to the detriment of everything else. I was terrifically paranoid about how much I might lose when I had to stop taking the test propionate, and my countdown of workouts wasn’t so much in anticipation of Nationals as it was in anticipation of coming off drugs. As such I trained with the fervor of someone possessed by unholy impulses, sneaking in extra sessions and extra sets and adding kilos where I had no business adding them. Even Ricky, a man who’d been chronically overtraining since the Reagan era, occasionally told me to ease up.

“Why you wanna snatch thirty today?” he asked one evening in the gym, after I’d gone off program and added first five, then ten, then fifteen kilos to what had been written.

“I feel good,” I said, and wondered with some annoyance: Since when did lifting heavy need justification?

“What’s the program say?”

“The 115 was easy…”

“No shit. It’s supposed to be easy. You snatch fifteen today so you can snatch thirty-five come Nationals. Ain’t no point in doing thirty today. You done the weight before. Trust the programming.”

I looked around the gym for some figure of support. Nobody took the bait. Only Nikos responded.

“You cannot push organism all the time,” he said, holding his hands out in front of him palms down, in a gesture strangely reminiscent of the laying of hands over a body. “One fifteen today, 80 kilos another day, 140 another day. Organism must recover.” As if to confirm his point he motioned with one hand toward Libby, who was working on crisp and seemingly effortless snatches at 78 kilos.

I mumbled something about being a teacher’s pet and moved on…

Such a monomaniacal focus on the gym also meant that any change in routine seemed a threat to my very existence. I took every incident that deviated from the norm as an affront to all that I was working toward. It was a worldview that I carried to ludicrous conclusions, as when Libby’s grandfather passed away.

“He had to die weeks before Nationals?!” I moaned to Pete on the afternoon I found out.

“Pretty sure he didn’t think about Nationals before he died,” Pete responded with skepticism.

“He should have. The guy looked great the one time I saw him.”

Which was true. I met him briefly one weekend down the shore, just before he died. Despite being nearly 80 years old he seemed full of vitality, with the deep, leathery tan of a mariner. He looked ready to hop on the next whaling ship for a multi-year sea voyage.

“Can you believe you’re turning 80 next month?” Libby’d asked him.

“I don’t feel it!” he cried, flexing the ropy muscles in his arms slightly as if in demonstration of this fact. “I’m as fresh as a daisy.”

A week later he was dead of a heart attack, catching everyone by surprise. There would be no whaling ships for him. Yet in the face of this unfortunate event I saw not the ending of someone’s life but a potential interruption in my training. I’d never lost anyone close to me, so the funeral—a Saturday morning—seemed like little more than a frivolous and unnecessary formality.

As usual I decided it was critical for me to train the day of the funeral, and not just to train but to go well over what was written. I’d brought clothes with me to the gym, in anticipation of leaving from FDU with plenty of time to arrive at the cemetery at an appropriate hour. But snatching that morning felt good—it was one of my last sessions on chemical restoratives—and I ended up training well past the time when I should have left. When I was finally on my way to the cemetery there was no time to shower or even properly change, and so I threw on my khakis and a wrinkly button down shirt over my singlet. I arrived embarrassingly late, barely in time for the end of the service, and tried to slide in next to Ricky inconspicuously. He looked down at me, his great shaggy head emerging from the top of his old and too-small suit like an overgrowth of moss and weeds across ancient ruins, and raised an inquisitorial eyebrow.

Training, I mouthed silently, and showed him a sliver of singlet between my pants and shirt.

He shook his head but couldn’t help smiling. “That’s my boy,” he whispered, a bit too loudly as was his custom.

After the service Libby came up to me, her eyes tired and red. For the first time in a long while I felt an awful wave of regret. And still I was certain I’d made the right decision, and that if there was any error on my part it was perhaps leaving the workout at all…

“Where were you?” she asked. I’d expected anger but she was very calm, so much so that it unnerved my sense of certainty.

A panicked variety of options—all lies—ran through my mind the moment before I responded. Traffic! That was always legitimate in New Jersey. Or a delay on the Parkway. Car trouble. Car trouble plus traffic plus… something. Something for which I was not only blameless, but indeed deserving of pity rather than admonishment. There was still hope to emerge from this unscathed. I imagined myself spinning a web of lies whose beauty and intricacy was matched only by its total and utter independence from the truth.

But she, perhaps sensing my impending dishonesty, spoke before I had the chance. “I can see your singlet,” she said, again with an almost preternatural calm.

Shit. Foiled by a rogue strip of spandex.

“Libby,” I started, unsure of what to say. If only I could explain, I thought. Yes, I was training. But it wasn’t any ordinary training. I was having an extraordinary day of snatching at the gym and I simply could not leave that sort of workout behind, not with Nationals so close and this sport such a huge part of my life. You understand, don’t you? And I did cut my workout short. That must count for something, right? Didn’t Arnold miss his own father’s funeral when he was preparing for a competition? Did you know that in China some lifters barely even see their families when they’re in training? Maybe a handful of times every four years. I’m not saying that’s right, but just by way of comparison, just for a little perspective… I didn’t even get through my squats. Just a little snatching, very nearly a PR today, probably could have PR’d if only I’d stayed a little longer, but I didn’t. I chose to stop, so I could come here and make it to the last few moments of your grandfather’s funeral, and here I am, dressed—admittedly, with a singlet under this attire—really very sorry, but I came, which must count for something, especially with training, and so close to Nationals…

Clearly that wasn’t an option. “I’m sorry,” was all I said, rather pathetically.

“No,” she said coolly. “You’re not.”

And she walked off. I thought of following her but despite my reckless obliviousness I knew it would be unwelcome and inappropriate.

“Went well?” asked Ricky when I walked back to where he and Nikos were standing.

“About as well as expected.”

He slapped me on the shoulder. “Give it time. She’ll get over it. She understands. She’s just as nuts about this sport as you are.”

Ironically, it was her vision of the sport—or her idealized vision of it, in my view—which is what ultimately ended things.

About a week after her grandfather’s funeral, during which time we’d spoken very little and had only seen each other once in the gym, she came over to my apartment after training. We ate and sat on the couch and for a time things seemed normal. She opened up about her grandfather, let herself have a good cry, and then seemed reinvigorated by this release. She’d hardly ever talked about him before his death and I’d only just met him the one time, which was part of why I’d been so flippant about his funeral. But I listened to her and aimed to convey a sense of great care and attention, trying to make steps in the right direction for us.

“Let’s watch TV or something,” she said at length. “Do you have any tissues?” she asked, rubbing at her eyes.

“Somewhere in my room or on my desk,” I said, turning on the TV.

“Okay.”

She stood to look and I settled into the couch a bit deeper as I flipped through the channels. Things felt right again. Nationals were just under a month away, our training was going strong, and we still had Turkey to look forward to. Whatever happened at Nationals we’d agreed to that adventure—ideally, competing at Worlds and then traveling, but if just the latter then so be it. As I did often in those days I envisioned the two of us in some Turkish rental car, motoring about the Mediterranean coast under clear blue skies and past endless seaside vistas. They were beautiful memories of some hazy future, all taking place in a Turkey wholly of my own construction but real in my mind.

A moment later Libby walked out of my room, bent over by the coffee table in front of the couch, and—with almost reverential solemnity—placed an empty vial of Sustanon down before me, instantly pulling me out of my reveries and back to the present.

 

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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.

 

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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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