The next morning I had breakfast on the pension’s rooftop terrace. Aziz brought up a plate with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, olives, yogurt, and bread. I sat and ate, looking out at the sea and the curved arc of the rocky coast and the city atop it. With the sea air and the view and the strange sensation of being so far from home it all tasted extraordinary. Even the watery cup of Nescafe was good. The city and the country, so terrifying in the darkness the night before, while I was driving around trying to find my way back, was now charged with potential and mystery. I wanted to plunge back in and see it all from the ground up. I had madcap ideas of bailing on everything—the competition, work, New Jersey—and simply driving off into the landscape with the little Peugeot.
I was pulled from this fanciful daydreaming when a woman came to clear my plates away. She was the only person I’d so far seen working in the pension aside from Aziz. Curiously, she was not an olive-skinned, dark-haired Turk, but a rail thin blond woman, tanned and lightly freckled and wearing a wrist brace on her left arm. She looked perhaps middle aged, although it was hard to tell. When she spoke, asking simply if I was done eating, it was in clear, unaccented English.
But otherwise she said nothing, and gave no sign of being interested in me, despite the fact that we likely shared a home country. She stacked my plates and silverware, picked them up, and then walked back into the building, leaving in her wake nothing more than a profound sense of mystery.
Had she, too, been overcome with the desire to flee her home and see what Turkey could offer? Perhaps the country was filled with people who’d abandoned past lives. Maybe this sort of thing was far more common than I ever knew, in all parts of the world, and my inexperience as a traveler made me assume that everyone was as rooted to their origins as the people I’d grown up with.
Back into the Peugeot, out of the old city, and down the highway to the Expo Center. It was still morning and already the day was hot. I drove with the windows down and the AC on full blast, enjoying the twin breezes. I knew it was foolish yet I did it anyway.
At the training hall I spotted Ricky sitting at a platform by himself. His lifting shoes sat on the floor next to him, and both knees were covered in bags of ice. When he saw me approach he perked up, forcing a smile, and shook his head.
“Already icing the knees?” I said, taking a seat next to him.
He shook his head. “First set at 50 kilos. The moment I pulled it from the floor I felt like both knees were gonna explode.”
“Is that bad?”
He laughed, small and humorless. “Ain’t good,” he said. “Doc said I’m out.”
He nodded. “When I told him how long I been havin’ some pain he said I shoulda had them looked at months ago. Told me that’s it.” He sighed and adjusted the ice. “Good thing they don’t need me to step in. Otherwise they’d need an alternate for the alternate.”
For a few moments we sat quietly. It was clear we’d come to the end of the road for Ricky’s misguided comeback, at least for now and probably forever.
“You gonna train?” Ricky asked eventually.
As I considered my response I saw Libby walk in with a few of the other American athletes. I looked to her, smiled, waved… and watched as she smiled back, waved, and walked by.
“You guys talk at all?” Ricky asked, perhaps to cover the awkwardness of the interaction.
“A few minutes yesterday,” I said.
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
We fell silent again. I still hadn’t taken anything out of my training bag, and I wondered where the motivation to do so had gone. As I was considering this question Ricky turned to me.
“You wanna check some shit out? Head out for a few hours?”
“What, like, sightseeing?”
“Yeah,” he said, mustering some enthusiasm. “This area was the center of Greek civilization for years! Don’t tell the Greeks that, though. You got a car, right? We get a map, go check some shit out, be back in time to watch the lifting tonight. I hear there’s a place up a mountain, some ruins or something. Whaddaya say?”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We drove back toward Antalya and then past the city heading northwest. It was late morning and the sun was high overhead and it felt good to be on the road.
“You know where we’re going?” I asked Ricky, who was staring at a map he’d pulled from the glovebox.
“I hope so,” he said, turning the map ninety degrees, then ninety degrees again.
A short while later signs directed us off the main road and we began an ascent into more mountainous territory. Eventually we were stopped by an attendant in a little wooden gate house who told us to park, so we ditched the car and continued on foot. It was terrifically green, with occasional bursts of grey stone poking through the growth. A dirt footpath marked by random signposts was our only indication that we were headed in the right direction.
As we crested one summit we saw signs of man’s presence: huge cut stones, lying in heaps, as though discarded by giants. Then another turn, and the ruins of Termessos opened out before us, with the mountains beyond and the vast sky above.
“Holy shit,” said Ricky. “This is unbelievable.”
And it was. An entire city, or its remains, atop this mountain. We walked through—the only living human figures in that landscape—amid the overgrown ruins. There were broken arches and fragments of walls and rows of ornately carved cornices and great columns sinking into the ground, as though the earth were taking them back into her fold. Scattered about were great piles of stones, square blocks and pieces of columns and other bits, all the same grey and many of them dotted with the brilliant fireworks of white and orange lichen.
We walked in near total silence, taking in the terrific scene. A large, semi-circular theater stood at one edge of the mountain, its ruined stage overlooking the panorama beyond and nestled in the semicircular stone seats.
“Here,” said Ricky, “we gotta try this thing I heard about. You go on that side, I’ll stay here.”
I went over to the seating directly across, at the far side of the stage, and looked back at Ricky.
“Can you hear me?” he said.
I laughed at the shock of it: he sounded as though he were right next to me, rather than across the entire span of the theater.
“Shit!” I said, louder than I needed to. Then, in normal volume: “How’s that work?”
“Acoustics,” said Ricky, as we carried on our strange conversation separated by the wide open space of the descending rows of seats down to the stage “These theaters were built for acoustics. Back then it was all your own voice; no mics or nothing. So you needed good acoustics. The Romans and Greeks knew how to do it. Pretty cool, right?” He smiled, the big Ricky grin I was so accustomed to. As audible as our voices had been, his smile was perhaps even stronger, more visible, across the distance.
After exploring for a while longer we sat in the theater and rested and enjoyed the slightly cooler air of the higher elevation. There was so much to take in that it was almost overwhelming: the abundance of green and the mountains and the ruins and the sky and clear day. The events of the competition seemed very far away, just then.
“Knees doing alright?”
“A little stiff,” said Ricky, “and sore, but not bad.”
“Yeah. Plus this,” he said, indicating everything around us, “helps. Made me forget all about the pain. I mean, you ever see anything like this?”
“Not in New Jersey, no.”
“Yeah, not quite. You know, I been pretty lucky. Got a chance to see some pretty cool places for weightlifting. Little bit of Europe, the Americas. But this,” he said, once more indicating the landscape with a wave of his huge hand, “this, I gotta say, might take the cake. And we got the whole place to ourselves. Ain’t that great?”
I nodded. “It’s amazing, Puj.”
We both spent a few minutes looking in silence.
“You gonna train the next couple days?” he asked. It was familiar ground for us and an easy way to break the silence that had settled, though it seemed he’d wanted to say something else.
I shrugged. “Maybe.” A feeling of ambiguity crept in to an answer that used to be so assured. “I’ll at least go watch some training.”
He nodded but didn’t say anything, and we again fell into silence.
“What was your favorite place you traveled to?” I asked when I next spoke.
“My favorite?,” he said, looking up into the sky and squinting, either in thought or due to the brightness. “That’s tough. Lotta times we only saw the inside of a hotel or a competition hall, but sometimes I got lucky. Saw a lotta nice places… I guess I really liked Italy.”
“Yeah. You ever been?”
“Puj, I’ve barely been out of the state, let alone out of the country.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re young. You got a lotta time. You oughta check out Italy sometime. It’s beautiful. And the food! My god. I never ate such good food in my life.”
“When were you there?”
“Back in the eighties. After I got married that’s where we took our honeymoon. Went to Florence, Rome, Venice. Saw the Colosseum. You ever seen—wait no, you just said you never been. You should check that out. To think they built that, all that stuff, all this here, without machines, hundreds of years ago. Or thousands of years ago. It’s just incredible.”
He rubbed at his beard with one hand and I could tell that he was seeing it again, or at least some version of it that he had stored up over the years, a memory palace built of words and snapshots and feelings. “We did a little day trip to Siena, one day, on a bus from Florence. Ever hear of Siena?”
“I think I’ve heard of it. I don’t know.”
“It’s beautiful. Place in Tuscany, up on a hill. The bus dropped us off right outside the city. Killed my knees heading up that hill. But it looks like somebody just froze this medieval city in time, in the middle of all this beautiful Tuscan countryside. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Better than this?”
He smiled and nodded from side to side. “I don’t know. Different. We had this guide with us, an Italian guy, who took us around and told us all about it. About the history and the art and stuff. How Siena used to be this big rival to Florence, way back when. And he takes us inside the cathedral, shows us around. And it’s beautiful. I mean, everything is covered, decorated. It’s got all this sculpture on the front of it, and then inside it’s all paintings and marble, and even the floor has these big designs and images in the ground, these, like, stone paintings on pavement. And it’s big, and we’re just blown away. To think it stood like that all those hundreds of years, all that space and all that work.
“But so after we check it out and he takes us around the cathedral we’re walking around outside to go over to the main square—which, by the way, you know they do horse races in the square?”
“In the middle of the city?”
“Right in the dead center! Every year. And they been doing it since like medieval times. Fucking nuts, right? Only in Italy.” He laughed and shook his head. “Anyway, so we were gonna head over to that square, and as we’re walking along the side of the cathedral the guide tells us how Siena had planned to make their cathedral even bigger. They wanted something to compete with Florence, since they were rivals and Florence was building its own huge cathedral. So Siena starts building to expand theirs, and it’s gonna be just massive. But all of a sudden: the fucking plague hits. The Black Death.”
“Yeah. Talk about timing. And it just wipes out the city. I guess everywhere was hit, but for whatever reason—shitty luck or god or whatever—Siena gets hit real bad. And when it’s done, while all the other cities like Florence are recovering, Siena never quite bounces back. So the cathedral thing that they had started, and then stopped because of the plague, and everybody dying, never gets back off the ground. But then as he’s telling this story the guide points out a couple things and says, ‘That’s what’s left of it.’”
He pointed, then, as though the ruins of which he spoke were actually in front of us. And in his own words and his own way he told me of the remnants of the great unbuilt cathedral. A row of huge round arches extending from the cathedral and resting on piers of white and green stone, the green so deep as to be almost black in color, and the arches terminating in a wall that supported and enclosed nothing. On the ground a few spots marked out where more piers would have been built, atop which more arches would have risen, until eventually the entire space—now little more than a parking lot and thruway—would have been covered with articulated stone vaulting. Had it been finished the cathedral would have dwarfed the current one, which would have formed one arm of the planned structure. But such things were not to be, and all that remains are the marble and brick fragments, standing like the dried bones of men whose reach far exceeded their grasp.
When he finished his story he paused for a moment, still seeing it and into the past and his memory of it. “It’s wild. Just these big structures, like huge stone ghosts, and if nobody pointed ’em out to you, you might not even notice them. You get just a sense of what mighta been, and you almost can’t even imagine it because the thing is already so impressive. But to think it mighta been even more. It’s just wild. All over Italy, everywhere, you see all these ruins. And you’re always thinking how impressive the places must’ve been, when they were still whole. And what great heights all these cities reached. But then you see this in Siena, and it’s a ruin of a greatness that never was. A greatness that never got off the ground. And it was even more beautiful than those other ruins, in some way.”
He shook his head and I saw the image dissolve before his eyes, like a sand castle washed away by waves. “All because of shitty luck. Because the plague hit one place harder than another. Is that nuts? Ha!” He laughed, not without some subtle note of bitterness, though with humor, too. “But man, what a thing that woulda been.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
What a thing that would have been.
[more to come]