Of Iron and Bronze – 13

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13.

Just over two weeks later was the first real test of the new chemical aids and the first time I could pinpoint their effectiveness: The Metropolitan Weightlifting Championships. Though only a local meet, in Rickey’s eyes this was a competition on par with a major continental championship, even though the caliber of athletes varied—significantly—from weight class to weight class every year. There was always a fair chance that your class might only have one or two other lifters, in which case you were all but guaranteed to place so long as you didn’t bomb out.

“A medal is still a medal,” Ricky would occasionally say in response to this. Although he’d sometimes contradict himself moments later by saying that medals didn’t matter if you lifted like shit…

(The only area competition that outranked the Mets for Ricky were the Empire State Games. Back in the Bayonne days Al had once asked him—jokingly—whether he’d rather be Empire State Games champion or Olympic champion. Ricky, after a brief pause, had responded: “What year we talkin’?”)

The Metropolitan Championships were held at Lost Battalion Hall in Rego Park, Queens, which meant an early start to the day for those of us going. In the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had yet risen, Pete and I woke and groggily prepped our supplies for the day: shoes, singlets, tape, protein bars, Advil, creatine, Gatorade, a box of Oatmeal Squares for snacking. And, of course, we each tossed back a few little pink pentagons before heading out the door…

We picked up Libby and then left New Brunswick for the Turnpike up to Ricky’s house. When we arrived I was about to give the horn a light tap—to let him know we were waiting—when the front door flew open and Ricky came bounding down the steps, his old duffel bag thrown over his shoulder and swinging about wildly as he ran.

“Who’s ready for the Mets?!”

“Oh Jesus…” said Pete.

His voice was booming—terribly, offensively loud. Certainly far too loud for something shouted across the lawn at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. People in neighboring houses were no doubt wondering why some idiot was screaming questions like that at an hour when the sun was still below the horizon.

But Ricky was certainly up, and he cared little for what his neighbors thought of him and his antics. He cried this question to us from a good fifteen feet away, as he jogged from his house to my car.

“You think he slept at all?” asked Pete.

“I think he was up all night watching VHS tapes of every past Met Championship in history,” I said.

“He looks… excited,” said Libby.

Ricky threw his bag in my trunk and then came around to knock on Pete’s window. “Whaddaya doin’?” he asked. “I’m the coach, I get the front seat.”

Pete rolled the window down a crack. “Seat’s taken.”

“What! I can’t believe this! Kicked outta my rightful spot by my own athlete. How you gonna like counting for yourself at the meet?” He shook his head and walked to the rear of the car.

“You believe this?” he said to Libby in the back seat.

“Puj you been up all night gettin’ ready for the Met?” asked Pete.

“You nuts? I was in bed at 9:30. Left work to make sure I could get to bed early. You don’t mess around with a meet like this. Now let’s go! You guys gotta weigh in. You clowns gonna make weight or what?”

“I’ll make weight,” said Pete.

“Yeah? What about you Jonathan?”

“I’ll make the 85s,” I said.

“What? No way. You gotta be 77 here. Libby what about you?”

“Seventy-five on the dot last night. I’ll be fine.”

“Atta girl,” said Ricky. “You hear that? That’s somebody who knows how to make weight.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, pulling onto the highway toward the city. “I’ll have Pete help out at weigh ins.”

Making weight had been a challenge almost as formidable as lifting the barbell for almost as long as I’d been competing. Unable to endure a long cut or the rigors of clean eating, I instead opted for last minute efforts of incredible foolishness: fasting for 24-hours with only sips of water or ice cubes; sitting in cars wearing multiple winter jackets and the heater on full blast; the occasional laxative to get things moving… I’d arrive at weigh ins hungry and exhausted, feeling like something spectral and wasted, as though I were a shadow or a projection of my being rather than the real thing.

For my entire lifting career every time I’d starve or sweat myself to 64 or 70 or—ultimately—77 kilos I swore it was the last time, that I’d learned my lesson and would train lighter, that I’d do a long, easy cut. This was never the case. In retrospect I think some part of me needed to cut weight in this fashion, as though the fasting and sweating sharpened my responses and actions and gave the competition a gravitas that it might otherwise have lacked.

But ultimately I simply gave up cutting weight for most competitions, barring Nationals and the occasional local meet. For the Mets that year my cutting consisted of a somewhat lighter than normal dinner and skipping breakfast, which felt like a tremendous sacrifice in the moment. I was at least two or three kilos over and I knew this was unlikely to be sufficient but I was willing to risk it.

“How far is the drive?” asked Libby.

“‘Bout an hour,” said Ricky. “Hour and a half maybe if there’s traffic. You never been to LBH before?”

She shook her head.

Really?

“Really.”

Ricky leaned forward and popped his head between the two front seats. “You guys tell her about LBH?”

“We didn’t wanna put her to sleep,” said Pete.

“You kiddin’?!” He leaned back and looked at Libby, his expression a mix of shock and excitement. This was his chance to do the one thing he liked almost as much as lifting, which was to talk about lifting…

In Ricky’s estimation Lost Battalion Hall was the sport’s Mecca—and he spent a good part of the drive that morning expounding upon this to Libby. He spoke like some deranged orator from Ancient Greece, enumerating points of history and famous personages in a manner connected by only the loosest of threads. His conversation ranged, without clear purpose, from LBH’s founding in the 1960s to the great American athletes who trained there to a discourse on how its location in New York City made it a natural destination for top foreign athletes newly arrived in the US. He did all this with little regard for her occasional dozing off or for the fact that we spent twenty minutes going the wrong way since he’d failed to attend to his duties as navigator.

“You know Krastev snatched 210 here?” he said, still talking when we arrived at the Lost Battalion Rec Center, a nondescript red brick building on Queens Boulevard.

“Bullshit!” said Pete.

“That’s what they say!”

“Did you start that rumor?” I asked.

“Mighta been. Anyways, some of the best athletes in the world trained here, is my point,” he said to Libby.

The competition was held in the basement, a slightly under-lit space with linoleum flooring and a yellowed cast of age to everything. A platform was set up in the main space, along with a few rows of folding chairs, and to the right—separated by a curtain partition—was the warmup area. The total absence of windows or natural light made it feel as though you were standing in a bunker, and it wasn’t long before you started to feel as though vitamin D supplementation might be a good idea…

Aside from us the only other people there were some of the organizers and a few scattered athletes: a tiny kid in a singlet that looked several sizes too big; an old man with a handlebar mustache and a singlet several sizes too small; a middle-aged lifter walking around in his underwear, which looked nearly as yellowed as the basement itself.

“Don’t get intimidated by all this greatness, Libby,” said Pete. “Remember they’re just normal people. They put their pants on one leg at a time.”

“Or not at all, apparently,” she said, referring to the pants-less guy, who was now spinning in a circle very slowly with his arms outstretched, in what looked like some strange and ungraceful mimicry of ballet.

“It’s still early,” said Ricky. He then turned to Libby. “This place got history,” he said. “You win the Mets today, you’re a part of a long history of great lifting here.”

“Are there any other girls in my class?”

“Ain’t the point,” he said. “But no, I don’t think so.”

An old referee who’d been sleeping in a chair by the platform and who looked like five miles of unmade bed roused himself awake. When he gazed about he seemed surprised to find himself in these surroundings but he ultimately stood up all the same, as though resigned to make do with whatever world in which he’d woken up.

“We’re going to start the weigh ins for the first men’s session,” he said in a thin voice, and began shuffling off to the room where the scale was located.

Pete and I dropped our bags and went to follow him.

“Wish me luck,” I said to Ricky. Then turning to Pete I whispered: “Stay close in there. I may need a little boost.”

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 12

ljubljana-gym

12.

Training, perhaps more than anything else, defined that era. The carefully written programs—emailed out by Ricky Sunday night or Monday morning and detailing exercises and reps and sets—gave my universe an order and shape that otherwise was not present, the way history fixes the chaos of the past into a semblance of coherence. In the course of the week the numbers written down became real, transformed into the sights and sounds and physicality of training: the steady rhythm of rubber plates dropping to the platforms, the sharp and high crack of shoes against wood, the metallic clanking of the smaller plates, the dust and chalk and menthol that filled the air, the varicolored bumpers that were loaded onto chromed barbells. And while the actual workout in the gym didn’t quite always match what was written—a skipped rep here, a little weight added there—what history has ever been entirely faithful to what it purports to record?

“Training,” Ricky said once, early in my time with him, “is the best. I mean, yeah, competitions are fun. Winning medals and that shit. But there ain’t nothing like training. No judges, no politics, none of the bullshit. You either put the bar overhead or you don’t.”

Pete seemed to have taken this in from the very start. He loved training almost as much as he loved food, and it made no difference to him whether he had a competition or not. There’d even been times when others had called him out for this. I remember a night in the Bayonne basement when he hit a PR clean and jerk of 125 kilos—two weeks after missing the weight in a competition. After the obligatory celebrations, Al couldn’t help but comment.

“Why the fuck you didn’t do that two weeks ago?” asked Al.

Pete shrugged. “Ain’t no rush. I did it now. That’s what matters. Now I can get ready to do more.”

“Man,” said Al, smiling, “you gotta do it on the platform for it to count.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bullshit?”

Pete nodded and smiled back. “Bull-shit.”

Al laughed and shook his head. With great flourish and theatricality he then began to enumerate his points on one hand. “You didn’t weigh in, you took the weight when you wanted, you ain’t got no clock runnin’ on you, there ain’t no judges watching, you probably got some grease on them thighs…”

“I ain’t got nothin’ on these thighs!”

“They look a little shiny to me, but okay. You gotta do it when it counts, son.”

“Same gravity, ain’t it?” Pete picked up a 1.25-kilo plate and let it fall to the platform. “Yep, same gravity.”

Al waved this aside. “Ain’t the same. Puj, am I right?”

Everyone in the gym looked to Ricky, our authority on these things in those days and for many days to come. He was rubbing his hands together over the chalk bin—little more than a steel bowl—and when he heard the question he stopped and pondered it, as though weighing some great question from the ancients.

“Yeah, it ain’t the same,” he said sagely, when he finally spoke. “But who cares? Still did the weight.”

“Who cares?” asked Al, incredulous.

Ricky shrugged and walked over to his own barbell. “One twenty five is still 125 kilos.”

“Y’all are crazy…”

But we could live with this apparent contradiction; indeed, we were willing to consider the possibility that training was somehow purer than competition. That it was the ultimate expression of athletic performance, stripped as it was of pretense and formality and politics. It took me a while to come around to this fully—I wanted medals and recognition in some official capacity—but now, looking back, I can appreciate that the life I built was crafted not so much in competitions but in the weeks and months and years I spent hammering away at a training program alongside like-minded lifters.

Training, when Pete and I were in school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, was generally divided between two places: the Rutgers Power Gym during the week and FDU on Saturday mornings. If we felt like splurging on gas and time we would head up to FDU another weekday, as well.

The gym at Rutgers had been a struggle just to bring into existence. When we first started college there was nowhere properly equipped for us to train. The training facilities for the school’s athletes had an extraordinary number of Eleiko barbells and platforms—something like sixteen total—yet all of them were off limits to us.

“What the hell you mean we can’t use them?” Pete had cried when informed of this. “I pay tuition! I’m a student here! I got a right to use that!”

“Those are for the school’s athletes,” a guy from the athletic department told us.

“I ain’t a athlete? I been to national competitions! Hell, weightliftin’s an Olympic sport! Is football in the Olympics?”

The man looked at us.

“Is it?” asked Pete again.

“That’s not the issue here,” said the man. “The issue…”

“The issue is it’s bullshit! I pay all this money and you got bars and platforms and ain’t nobody usin’ them and yer tellin’ me we can’t use them.”

“There is a student gym available for…”

“I know about the student gym. You think I wanna go do curls with those meatheads? You even know what Olympic lifting is?”

“I know…”

“We’ll be back,” said Pete, cutting him off.

Unfortunately the school didn’t quite see it Pete’s way. Moreover, the school felt that not only were we barred from using the athlete facilities, but Pete was barred from even asking about them or contacting anyone in the athletics department again.

Initially we struggled through workouts using junk bars and plates in the regular gym—and making as much of a scene as possible—until another lifter, a 69-kilo kid named Lou, forced the school to buy some Olympic lifting equipment through sheer stubbornness. Eventually we ended up with a couple of platforms and York bars and plates, tucked into a room off a hallway—away from the hoi polloi in the main gym on College Ave. There were still battles to be fought—like when they tried telling us we couldn’t use chalk because of “safety concerns”—but ultimately we prevailed on most fronts. Or we simply ignored whatever rules didn’t align with our own goals…

For all its shortcomings the Power Gym still managed to provide the best of what training has to offer. There was no real coach, the York barbells were a poor substitute for the Eleikos of FDU, the hours were limited, and the room in which the platforms were located was also host to any number of other activities with people who knew nothing of weightlifting gym etiquette. But it had a core group of six or seven or eight of us who showed up three or four evenings a week. We came from class or from dorms or apartments, from the Student Center and from far flung campuses and from student jobs. We walked down College Ave in the snow and rain and in the heat of late September summers. We trained two or three or four to a bar, going from 50 kilos to 110 or more from one person to the next, and we became experts in the strategic loading of a barbell to make the changing of weights easiest. We did what we could to provide the feedback we thought our coaches would have provided. In short, we made a little outpost of weightlifting—a home away from our regular home—where we could focus on training.

Saturday mornings were different. The training often revolved around that session, and many of us—Pete and myself included—looked forward to Saturday training as the highlight of the week. It involved its own set of very specific—and rarely varied—rituals. Like a Japanese tea ceremony these were particular actions that took place in a set order; to disturb them was to risk upsetting the balance of the whole morning, or even the entire day. Packing the gym bag, stopping at Easton Ave Bagels for food and coffee, taking little handfuls of ibuprofen, listening to particular CDs—all became part of what it meant for us to be a weightlifter.

But the real work began when we arrived at the gym, after we’d greeted everybody and set our bags down. We’d all take our sneakers or boots off and then put on our lifting shoes, and then we’d rush into hastily executed stretching and warmup routines.

“You ain’t gonna be able to do that forever!” Ricky had said once. “Once you get to my age you’ll be spending more time warming up than lifting.”

“By the time I get to your age I’ll have quit,” said Joe. “Taken up golf or something easy.”

Soon—always too soon—we took barbells to our respective platforms to start the day’s training. We felt the bar’s weight, the same as every day prior and all days to come—a fact that could be comforting and unsettling, for it can feel lighter and heavier.

Weight would go on the bar. Chalk would go on the hands. We’d take warmups, check programs, take more attempts, and generally go through the motions until things started to feel right, or at least less bad than the first reps. We’d do more reps, more checking of the program, more chalking of the hands. Snatches. Cleans. Jerks. Pulls. Squats. Variants of them all. Core work. Presses. More snatches, more clean and jerks, more squats and pulls. More chalk. More lifts. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. So many reps performed in the search of the right repetitions, which seemed to come more rarely than any of us would have liked.

Watching over all this were Ricky and Nikos and Russ, with Ricky doing double duty of training and coaching. With their feedback—which we’d lacked all week—we slowly became more refined versions of ourselves. A word or two—the right words—and suddenly the snatches or the cleans we missed on Monday or Wednesday or whenever were made with ease.

More weight. More reps. More sets. More chalk. Chalk in the air. Chalk on our shoes, our shirts, our singlets, our platforms, such that we often ended up looking like strange athletic bakers coated in sweat and flour.

Still more lifting. Watching others lift, responding to the feedback of coaches, responding to the way we felt or thought we should feel.

“Pull straight,” a common refrain on my own attempts. “Stay over the bar and pull straight.”

I know this, I would think, but how can I get my body to listen??

Days when every kilogram, every gram, was felt. Days when gravity was strong. Days when every lift felt different from the last and none of them felt right. Days when my body was unable or unwilling to do the things I knew it was capable of, things I might have done just a day previously. Days when the barbell won. And won. And won. Over and over, despite all my best efforts and all my work and all that I had given to it, days when still the barbell won, callously and cruelly in its impartiality. Days when the weights came crashing down and I would look to the heavens and shout Why?! Why?! Why in the name of the gods did I pick this awful sport and not choose something like golf or bowling or chess? Why is my body unwilling to do what I tell it to? Why do the weights hate me? Why am I here, still, day after day when it feels like this?

I had more bad workouts than I could count in those days. But always Ricky or Nikos or Russ would know—from their own experiences, no doubt—that such days were part of the natural order of things. Each knew how to respond to us when things went poorly.

Sometimes it was as simple as one cue on which to focus.

“Be patient. Don’t yank it from the floor.”

Sometimes it was a more involved request.

“Go back down. Take some weight off and then go back up.”

And sometimes it was the ability to see beyond that day’s training and appreciate the bigger picture.

“That’s it for today. Go on.”

But then there were days when the weights moved as if of their own volition. Days when my body was at harmony with the barbell. Days when the weights didn’t seem to exist, when the barbell moved through the air and overhead with an almost transcendental ease. Days when the completion of each lift provided a burst of euphoric biofeedback, like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine over and over again. Days when the pop-pop of the barbell and the soles of my shoes against the platform made a steady music in which I was at once artist and audience.

Days when Ricky or Nikos or Russ smiled at me after every lift, more often than not staying silent but speaking volumes with that silence. Days when the rhythm of the barbell felt especially tuned to the movements of my body and my muscles. Days when the bar and I and the platform resonated at some higher frequency, some chord that I swore approached divine perfection, and I would think My god this is what it must feel like to be one of the greats!

“Nice work today.”

“Thanks.”

That was the best of training, which I came to appreciate only through knowing the worst of it. But those days were what I lived for and remembered and sought out, trying—and sometimes, succeeding—to find the right, seemingly mystical combination of factors that would make them more likely than the others.

 

On the day Pete and I took our new restoratives—with my right thigh just beginning to develop a little soreness at the injection site—we were convinced we’d found what we were looking for.

“I know it’s too soon for the d-bol to be workin’ but damn if I don’t feel good,” said Pete, grinning, as we walked down College Ave to the gym.

I nodded in agreement, feeling much the same.

 

[next chapter]

 

[NB: keen-eyed readers may recognize some of this (in modified form) from an OLift article I wrote a while back. This is the original chapter from which that article was developed.]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 11

shoes

11.

cms meso 1, micro 1

1.1

power snatch & snatch & ohs     60/1+1+2 (2)    70/1+1+2 (2)    80/1+1+2 (2)

power clean    70/2    80/2    90/2    100/2     90/3

jerk from shoulders    60/2    70/2    80/2    90/2    100/2     110/1 (3)

good mornings    70/5 (3)

 

1.2

power snatch & ohs    50/2+1 (2)    60/2+1 (2)    70/2+1 (2)    80/2    90/2 (3)

clean and jerk    70/2+3    80/2+3    90/2+2    100/2+2    110/1+1 (4)    120/1+1    125/1+1    130/1+1 (2)

clean pulls    110/2    125/2    140/3    145/2 (2)    150/2 (2)

back squat    110/3    140/5 (2)    165/2 (3)    165/3

 

1.3

press    50/2    60/2    70/3

push press    80/2    90/2 (2)    100/2 (2)

front squat    60/2    80/2    100/3

hypers    bw/8 (3)

 

1.4

snatch    50/2    60/2    70/2    80/2    90/1 (5)    100/1 (3)    105/1 (3)

snatch lift offs    110/2 (2)    120/1 (5)

power clean    60/2    80/2    90/2    100/2    110/1 (4)

back squat    90/4    110/4 (3)    130/3 (3)    145/5

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 10

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10.

Back at the apartment, I recall sitting at our kitchen table in my boxer shorts and laying out the necessary tools like a field surgeon. We had stopped at a CVS on the way home for supplies—cotton balls, alcohol, alcohol swabs, band-aids, and a nail file. On returning I set to work immediately trying to open the little containers—and was just as quickly stopped by the stubborn little ampule. It stood on the table like a solitary chemical treasure chest whose contents were just beyond my reach…

“Maybe you need, like, a rasp or somethin’…” said Pete.

“A rasp? What is this, wood shop?”

“Man, I don’ know. I’m just thinkin’ out loud. Wanna see me take my shit?” He smiled and plucked a couple of tablets of Dianabol from his plastic baggie and tossed them back with a glass of water. “Ah! That was easy. Jealous?”

“I’ll figure this out. I’m gonna check the internet…”

An hour later, after poring over whatever I could find on questionable online forums, I was back with the ampule.

“They say it just pops off,” I said. “I don’t get it…”

“So pop it off!” Pete called from the living room. “Here I am with these drugs workin’ on me and yer still wastin’ time!”

“Christ…” I grabbed a paper towel and carefully wrapped the little vial. Through this swaddling I could still make out the form of it: base, neck, top half.

“I’m going for it!” I yelled to Pete, in an effort to secure my conviction by giving voice to the planned action. “I’m just gonna try snapping it!”

“Waitin’ on you!”

I pressed against the ampule’s top half, gently at first—far too gently—then with greater pressure, fearing that at any moment the precious cargo would shatter and explode into the paper towel, letting all its chemical magic go to waste. A little more pressure… a little more…

POP.

The entire top half gave way in one quick instant, and through the paper towel I could feel—with near certainty—that the ampule was now in two pieces—and only two pieces. On unwrapping it I found this to be the case: around the narrow part of the neck was a clean break, and in the vial’s bottom half the oil was now exposed, waiting only to be drawn out and injected.

“I did it!” I cried. “It’s open!”

“Attaboy!”

From then on the entire ordeal seemed so clinical, so precise. As I went through the steps of prepping the tools and then the victim the process took on the aspect of a ritual—although in this rite I was both priest and sacrifice. In retrospect I see links to so many other daily rituals, however scandalous or mundane: the grinding of coffee beans, the precise measuring of supplements, the elaborate preparation of a line of cocaine with credit card and dollar, the rolling of a joint. These small tasks, done over and over, seem to give us a little space in our days, a little time outside the normal run of events. In becoming automatic—which, eventually, that prepping of the syringe would become—they give us time to think and reflect, or at least to lose ourselves to dreaming during otherwise busy days.

I was reminded of how much I’d once enjoyed drug rituals of another type, from what seemed another lifetime entire. For in those lost years I’d grown to love the cutting of lines of coke almost as much as I’d loved the drug itself. There, in the arranging and dividing and lining up of little piles of white powder, I felt I had a clear purpose, as though the ordering of the drug might order the very fabric of my universe. I had goals that were within my reach and easily attainable: split this gram into five lines, divide this eight ball into three baggies, cut a bump that would pick me up but not turn me into a chattering idiot. With these small tasks to occupy myself I could ignore whatever bigger dreams I was letting slip away. So long as these lines are straight and even, I thought, everything will be okay…

But those were thoughts from another time, one that I wasn’t keen to revisit…

I carefully set the ampule back down on the kitchen table and lay its top next to it. I opened the plastic package of the syringe, tightened the needle, and then pulled off the plastic cap. With the ampule in my left hand and the syringe in my right I slowly dipped the point of the needle into the precious oil and drew back on the plunger with thumb and forefinger. There was a slight resistance from the viscous fluid as it traveled up the needle and then began to fill the plastic barrel. Slowly, slowly, more and more of the yellowish liquid—lovely in color, in its subtle thickness, its extraordinary chemical potential—disappeared from the ampule and filled the syringe. It looked almost magical, the way it seemed to defy gravity and transfer from one container to another. I drew the last of it in, set the ampule back down, and then inverted the syringe. With flicks of my forefinger against the plastic barrel I knocked loose potential air bubbles and then pushed up on the plunger to expel the air. As the last of the air was pushed out I eased up on the pressure, until a single, small, nearly perfect sphere of oil appeared at the tip of the needle. I let it sit there, a little ball of glass balanced on a razor’s edge, and then—with only the slightest push on the syringe—watched as the tiny drop succumbed to its own weight and slid down the steel needle. It was beautiful, all that precision and preparation.

I tore open an alcohol swab. The aroma of cleanliness—the sacrificial washing—filled my nose with that slight antiseptic sting. I rubbed down the side of my upper thigh, then tore open another swab and rubbed the area again for good measure. With the syringe prepped I took a moment and steadied my hand, looking for the right spot. I’d thought there might be some moral hesitation but there was none; all that gave me pause were concerns over where to insert the needle and how much force was needed. I had never injected myself with anything so it was going to be a bit of a trial by fire…

But at a certain point my hand stopped. There was a moment’s fear—What is this? How do I know it’s real? What if I get an infection? Are my balls going to disappear?!—but it was swept aside by action: I jabbed the needle down and it pierced through the epidermis easily, almost too easily. I felt the prick of entry and then the minute sliding of steel past the skin and into muscle. When about one inch of the needle was inserted, I stopped. It was strange, seeing it there, the needle poking out of the skin and the plastic syringe attached. There was a momentary thrill of expectation, like the split second before kissing someone for the first time, when you stand on the precipice of before and after. I drew back on the plunger, saw a couple bubbles form at the base of the syringe indicating I wasn’t accidentally in a vein, and then pressed firmly but slowly to inject myself for the first of many times.

Aside from a slight sense of pressure, I felt nothing. When the syringe was emptied I drew the needle out. A tiny dot of red blood appeared, and I looked at it for a brief moment. Like any true ritual, this too involved the letting of blood, however little.

I applied pressure to the injection site with a cotton ball. A thrill surged through me and I thought, ridiculously, Ah, I can feel it working already! I felt, in some way, redeemed, even before I’d touched a barbell.

The whole experience—from the prep to the ablutions to the injection—had been thrilling. My only regret was that I would have to wait another week before I could administer another shot.

When I walked into the living room Pete looked up from the couch.

“You finally done playin’ doctor?” he asked.

I nodded. “Do I look bigger?”

“’Bout time! You look like a girl who might grow a penis any day now.”

“Good enough. C’mon, let’s head to the gym.”

“Now hold up a minute—food first, then gym.”

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 9

vespa

9.

Two days later Pete and I were sitting in Ricky’s kitchen with him and Frankie. The two older men were wedged into the little breakfast nook where the table was located, both of them far too large for the space. They looked like modern-day Samsons who might tear down the nook’s framework at any moment. Pete and I were across from them, and all of our collective attention was focused on a large brown paper bag set on the table, which was otherwise empty. The table even looked to have been recently cleaned, and it gave off a faint whiff of ammonia and lemon. I imagined Ricky must have treated the arrival of these goods the way one prepares for a special guest from out of town.

“You wanna do this with the blinds open, Puj?” asked Pete, looking around.

“Huh?” said Ricky. “Who’s gonna look? We’re just sittin’ here hangin’ out. Nobody gives a shit.”

Frankie laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said, winking at Pete. “If anybody comes in we’ll let you take the fall.” He smiled and then began to empty the bag of its contents with a delicacy that belied his enormous hands. Out came a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals: ziplock bags of pills and a variety of small boxes and blister packs of pills and rows of ampules and a little mountain of syringes.

“Jesus,” said Ricky. “It’s like Christmas.”

Frankie shook his head. “This is nothing.” He took up a couple of the plastic baggies and tossed one each to me and Pete across the table. They were filled with a few hundred small pink pentagon-shaped tablets.

“There’s the Dianabol,” he said. “You know what to do with that.”

“And remember the mineral water,” Ricky added, nodding sagely at us.

Frankie then lined up the small glass ampules, his giant hands moving with almost catlike dexterity. Each vial was little over an inch high, with a white label around the lower half. I picked one up and looked at it; in the kitchen’s light the oil-filled glass seemed to glow with some faint inner fire. On the top of the label there was a blue band with “CYCTAHOH 250” printed in white Cyrillic letters; below was more writing in tiny blue type.

“Beautiful, no?” Frankie said.

I nodded, too enthralled by this object to trust myself to speak. The perfect, efficient simplicity of the little container was fascinating. I rolled the ampule between my thumb and forefinger as if I might read the foreign writing. Next to me, Pete picked one up and did likewise, examining it as though it were a slide or a rare gemstone.

“Sure you don’t want any?” Frankie asked Pete.

“I’m good,” he said. “Just curious…”

“That’s the Sustanon,” said Frankie. “Four different types of test, supposed to keep your levels consistent. You got twenty ampules.”

“One a week?” I asked.

He made a rough circular gesture with one hand and looked toward the ceiling, as though calculating a figure. “You could do one a week. One every five days. Two a week… Depends how long you want it to last. Just make sure you stop by March or so at the latest. You want to make sure this is out of your system before Nationals.”

As I was taking in this information and regarding the little vial I noted that its ability to hold the oil seemed almost too perfect. “How do you open it?” I asked.

“Open it?”

“Yeah. How do you open the ampules? To get it out?”

“You just crack it open,” Frankie said, as though it were the most natural and obvious thing in the world.

“What?”

“The top,” he said, indicating the top half of the ampule. “Just crack it off. Some people use a file to score the base of the top a little, to make it pop off easier, but it should just crack open no problem. Just try not to get any glass in it.”

“And if I do get glass in it?”

“I don’t know. Don’t!”

I set the ampule down with its siblings and considered the incredible chemical potential in the glittering rows before me. “Is one ampule every week or so a lot?”

Frankie shrugged. His shoulders and neck were so thick that the action called to mind the shifting of tectonic plates rather than something strictly biological. “Depends,” he said. “For a bodybuilder or a serious powerlifter, that’s nothing. If you were a woman, yeah, that’d be a lot. You’d probably start growing a small penis and a mustache with that. But for you, it’s good. Especially with the d-bol.”

“Hear that?” said Pete. “You might start growin’ a small penis!”

“Hope springs eternal… What about for you?” I asked.

Frankie grinned hugely and put up one hand in a gesture of dismissal. “For me, this is what I put on my oatmeal.”

Ricky roared with laughter. “Guy’s nuts. I love it.” He paused for a moment and looked around the table. “Speakin’ of girls on shit… Libby…”

Is she dirty?” said Pete, leaning forward in excitement.

“No! But she should be. You see that eighty five the other day? Girl could be snatchin’ a hundred. You ever mention any of this to her? Frankie’s got shit that’s easier on girls.”

Pete shook his head. “Man, she ain’t the type.” He then looked at me. “You?”

I also denied having done so.

Ricky sat back as best he could in the tight space of the breakfast nook. He awkwardly tried to arrange himself in a more comfortable position and gave up when he realized neither Frankie nor the nook’s architecture would be moving. “Never know,” he said. “Just… you know. Feel it out. She says she wants to go to Worlds next year. If she’s serious she might be down.”

“We can get to Libby later,” said Frankie, bringing us back to the bag and its contents. He took up one of the little boxes and handed it to me. “Test propionate. When you finish the Sust you switch over to this.”

I took the box and opened it. Inside was a little glass bottle with a metal top and a plastic cap.

“You need an instruction manual for that, too?”

By my silence he assumed this to be a “yes.”

“Just pop the plastic tab off,” said Frankie. “There’s a rubber stopper underneath. Insert the needle there, turn the bottle upside down to draw from it, and that’s it. Some guys like to change the needle after drawing. Put a fresh one on the syringe for the injection. Your call.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Pushing through the rubber dulls the needle a little.” He raised both hands. “Not a big deal. Depends on how many pins you got and whether you mind the needle a little dull.”

“What about you?”

“I’ve used needles so dull I’ve had to screw them into my thigh. But don’t follow my example.”

“Wait,” I said, returning to the Sustanon vials. “How do I draw the oil out of the ampules if the top is cracked off? I can’t invert them like the bottle, can I?”

“You just…” he started, then stopped. Clearly this was something he’d been doing so long that he’d forgotten he’d ever learned it in the first place. “You just draw it out. I don’t know. So many questions! Don’t you kids use the internet? There should be pictures or something somewhere.”

“The internet. Fantastic…”

He waved this aside. “You’ll figure it out. Use the Google.”

“Is that how you learned?”

He raised one eyebrow and laughed. “I learned in the Stone Age, buddy.”

I picked up another of the boxes on the table. It featured a picture of a horse on it, and on one side was printed the phrase “Uso Veterinario.” I turned it over in my hands and then looked at Frankie. “Who’s this for?”

Frankie smiled in response and I noticed that Ricky was smiling as well.

“Horseface over here,” said Frankie.

“Gettin’ back on, Puj?” Pete asked.

Ricky laughed and looked at each of us. “Eh, who said I ever got off? Ha!”

“You ol’ dog!”

“I figure a little Winstrol for a few weeks. Or months. Whatever. Get a little stronger without gaining too much weight. Maybe… maybe, you know, take a crack at some Masters records or Masters Nationals. Or maybe Senior Nationals,” he said, grinning and winking.

Frankie laughed and began extricating his massive bulk from the breakfast nook. “You’ll be a senior, alright,” he said. We all stood with him to give his form ample berth. “Okay kids, I gotta run.” He gathered up his things and shook all our hands. “You need anything else you let me know. We’ll talk about Clomid or Nolvadex and some HCG in a few weeks. Have fun in the meantime!”

He zipped up his brightly colored motorcycle jacket and walked out. We took the items he’d left in his wake and shoved them into our gym bags.

“Ain’t he something?” Ricky asked as we walked to the front door and watched him go. Frankie rode, of all things, a Vespa. It groaned under his weight when he sat on it. I think deep down we all felt sorry for that little motor scooter, such that we could empathize with a piece of machinery.

“He’s somethin’,” said Pete.

“You know he used to work in a nuclear power plant? Has a degree in it and everything.”

“You shittin’ me, Puj?”

Ricky shook his head. “Swear to god. Got fired after he got caught doing pushups on the job or somethin’. Said he was glad to go, since it got in the way of training. So now he’s a security guard part time somewhere and just trains. Does math problems by hand in his spare time when he’s not in the gym.”

I tried to envision this: Frankie hunched over his kitchen table licking a pencil in an effort to figure out Fermat’s Last Theorem or something. All this while hundreds or thousands of dollars of chemicals coursed through his muscles and a degree in nuclear engineering gathered dust somewhere. What a strange beast…

“You kids wanna come in, watch some lifting tapes?” asked Ricky when Frankie had pulled away. “Got a bootleg of the ’92 Games I been dyin’ to watch again. Whaddaya say?”

And yet here was one just as strange, if not stranger. And weren’t all of us a little off? No way to avoid it… We thanked him for the offer but said we had to go, and I think he understood our eagerness to get home…

“Okay,” he said, waving to us before stepping back in his house. “See yous in the gym.”

We nodded and waved and walked down his driveway. As we got in my car Pete buckled his seatbelt and looked at me. “How’s about we do the speed limit on the way back?”

 

[next chapter]

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