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.”
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?”
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.
“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.