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.
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.