“So how’s it going?” I said, doing my best to sound nonchalant. As though I’d been prepared for this encounter all along.
“Not bad,” she said. “You?”
So far so good, I thought, although she was looking at me expectantly. Did she want to hear more? Was this some subtle means of conveying interest? Did she feel the spark of excitement that I’d felt upon opening the door and seeing her here?
“Are you going to close the door or did you want to train in the cold?” she asked.
Right. I stepped inside and shut the garage door.
Libby tightened up the plates on her bar and readied herself for another lift. As I set my bag down and took a seat on one of the folding chairs I watched her take an easy snatch at 80 kilos. She was in extraordinary form. Even compared to as recent as October she looked better: more refined, more confident, more consistent from start to finish. At the advice of Nikos she’d begun approaching the bar and setting up over it exactly the same every single lift, whether it was 35 kilos or 85: a focused stare into the distance, a deep breath in which she stood tall and raised onto the balls of her feet just slightly, and then squatting down to grip the bar with her right hand and then her left, at which point she let her hips sink slowly into position. Once they reached the proper angle—just above the knees—she was off, driving against the world with her legs and bringing the barbell in and exploding up to finish the pull.
It had become astonishing in its effectiveness. Since bombing out at the Mets a couple months ago I could think of only a handful of times she’d missed a weight.
Not only did they look the same, her lifts all sounded the same. The aural rhythm of her lifting, which she’d had since Nikos first taught her how to snatch, was becoming still sharper and even more consistent. Pop, crack. Same tempo, every lift: the bar in her hips and then her Adidas-shod feet against the platform. It was mesmerizing.
“Looked good,” I said, enthralled as much by her—the slight sheen of sweat on her muscular arms, the errant strands of hair that clung to her face, the slightly labored breathing from the effort—as by her lifting.
“Thanks,” she said. “Nikos told me to go up today if it looked easy.” She looked from the barbell to me. “What do you think?”
I wondered for a moment if she was kidding; I’d seen other people take warmups that didn’t look as easy as the lift she’d just done. And then I remembered that she was, in weightlifting terms, still new. Preternaturally strong and lightning fast with huge wells of power—but a neophyte in the sport nonetheless.
“I’d say you could go up.”
She nodded and loaded a pair of change plates onto the bar.
“No Christmas Eve plans for you?” I asked, in an effort at conversation as I laced up my shoes.
She paused a moment, as if remembering that it was indeed Christmas Eve, and then responded. But her focus remained on the bar the whole time. “Later tonight,” she said. “Just a small dinner at my parents’ house. And then tomorrow we’ll go to my grandparents’.”
“Myron didn’t want to come train?”
She shook her head and made the usual face she reserved for her brother, which was something between impatience and annoyance. “Who knows what he’s doing.”
She chalked up and walked to the bar and went through her routine—standing tall, deep breath, setting up over the barbell and crouching down—and put the weight overhead with the precision and intensity of driving a nail home with a single blow. And this at 85 kilos, technically 100% for her.
As the bar fell back to the platform and she stepped away she looked at me once again.
“More,” I said, nodding.
“Ninety?” she asked, and I could sense great hope in her voice.
“What do you think Nikos would say?”
“He’d probably say 87 first,” she said, slightly deflated.
“Eighty-seven, then 90,” I agreed.
Only on the next lift—87.5 kilos—did the weight start to look like a near maximal attempt, although I suspected this was more mental than physical. She still had huge reserves of strength: the bar came off the floor with great ease and went overhead quickly, although it was slightly less crisp than her previous lifts. The impending 90-kilo snatch had been weighing on her for some time, and I sensed she was thinking of that lift even as she took the 87.5 attempt.
“Ninety?” she asked again, though with a shade less confidence than before.
She loaded the weight—an efficient blue and yellow plus collar per side—and sat down. As she waited to take the lift and I began warming up with the bar we made meaningless small talk. Doing anything over the break? Training. You? Same. And so on. I hoped to leave her some opening to address all that was unsaid between us, or at least give her the chance to suggest we hang out, but nothing came of it.
Her first attempt at ninety was an uncharacteristic mess: the approach and setup was the same, but she rushed it off the floor and left it way out front. She looked at me afterwards, waiting for some direction. I felt a great urgency to give her some cue or feedback that would correct all that had gone wrong: ripping it from the platform, cutting the pull, trying to dive under the weight. Probably a few other things, as well. It needed fixing from start to finish, but the best I could muster were the trite aphorisms of the sport.
“The weight’s in your head,” I offered, pointing to my own head. “Don’t think about the weight. Do it like you did the 85 and the 87 before.”
What a waste, I thought. I needed something original! Something that would make her see that she was truly strong enough for this, that not only could she do 90 easily but that 95—nay, one hundred kilos—was within her reach. But as she set up over the bar for another attempt after taking a minute to recover I still had nothing to offer beyond tired clichés:
“Easy weight!” I said. “Take it strong!”
I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in this attempt given how poorly the previous one had gone, so much so that part of me was tempted not to watch. But then she put the barbell overhead with an ease and grace that was almost as surprising as seeing her here in the first place. It was perfect: the sort of lift that an athlete remembers for their entire life, and as she stood and put the barbell down I could see in her face that she knew this, as well.
She pumped her fists in a small celebration that was pure, unadulterated joy even for being so restrained. Had she been elsewhere she might have jumped up and down or screamed but in the small garage, with only me as audience, she contented herself with this.
I, too, wanted to jump for joy, and embrace her in the process. But I settled for a quick applause and then a high-five. For a moment this brought us close together—closer than we’d ever been since our encounter that one night—and I could feel the heat from her body and the excitement in her breathing. I caught a whiff of some pleasantly mundane smell—her soap or lotion—and for a second it pulled not so much concrete memories as the mere sensations of memories to the surface of my consciousness. At which point, in this heady mix of exhilaration and physical effort and swirling chalk and smells, the door to the garage flew open and the doorframe was filled with the jubilant figure of Ricky.
“Ho ho ho!” he said, looking like some strange, hairy monster from the North Pole as he stood against the backdrop of the snow outside wearing a t-shirt promoting an event from Christmas 1986. “You guys start without me?”
* * *
At hearing of Libby’s 90-kilo snatch Ricky was elated.
“Ninety?” he cried, almost in disbelief. “You gotta be kidding me! You’re unstoppable!” And he shook one huge finger at her. “Just stay focused,” he said.
We trained. Or at least, Libby and I trained while Ricky watched and talked. He listened to the story of Libby’s snatch twice—once from her, then confirmed and embellished by me—and he seemed to watch it in his mind’s eye. He then spoke of similar stories from his past and the pasts of others, stories of athletes making huge PRs and coming back from terrible misses and breaking through mental barriers at certain weights.
“Took Jonathan like a year to finally get past 110,” he said at one point, winking at me. “He could do 107.5 all day and then he shit the bed the minute we put another two kilos on. Then one day, he just nailed it.”
“Yeah?” said Libby, looking to me for verification. It wasn’t entirely true—it’d been more like a few months, rather than a year—but what was a lifting story without some hyperbole? No true story is without its baroque adornments.
“I still remember that lift,” I said, thinking back on it.
Ricky smiled, and I knew that he, too, recalled it. A near-perfect snatch, done some five or six years prior (or more?) at FDU.
When Libby and I were nearly finished with our training Ricky finally realized how late it’d become, and he’d done nothing more than put his shoes on and do a few half-hearted stretches.
“Shit!” he said, suddenly rushing to action. “What am I doing? I gotta get a move on! Supposed to be at my sister’s place for dinner in a coupla hours. Jonathan, you mind if I take this 70 kilos right now?”
“Fine by me, Puj. I’m done with it. We can strip it down to the bar if you want. Or 50 kilos. Whatever you want.”
He waved this aside with the confidence of a man accustomed to taking big weights (and benefiting from supra-physiological hormonal levels). “Ain’t got time! Gotta hurry up here.” He looked at us and smiled his big, ludicrous grin. “Gotta get in shape if I want any hope of competing at Nationals with you guys, right?”
“Yeah” said Libby, smiling back—and more than a little skeptical, from the sound of it. “Are you going to compete?”
“Why not, right? I feel great! Nationals, here we come!”
He laughed hugely, bent down to the barbell, and threw his back out by lifting the weight an inch off the platform.