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.
“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.