On the afternoon the competition ended I drove Ricky over to the airport for his flight back to the States. It was another day of brilliant sunshine and clear skies, and the highway and land seemed to stretch out endlessly all around us on the short drive.
“You’re really staying here?” he asked, incredulous at my decision to do so.
I nodded. “Yep.”
“What the hell are you gonna do? You get recruited by the Turkish team? Gonna go work in the Turkish baths as a soap boy?”
“I wish. I’m going to spend another couple days here in Antalya, then see a little more of Turkey, and then maybe do some traveling.”
“No shit?” He rubbed at his beard. “Man, that sounds like fun. Where you goin?”
“I don’t know exactly. I moved my flight back a couple weeks, so that gives me some time to go around a little. Find some trains or busses, or maybe even cheap flights, and just see what I can see.” I looked at him and then back at the road.
“Yeah?” He smiled at me and shook his head. “Gonna check out Italy, maybe Siena?”
I smiled back at him. “We’ll see. Eastern Europe’s looking a lot cheaper these days. I’m not sure my savings will get me as far as Italy. But maybe.”
He kept smiling and nodded. “Sounds pretty fucking great.”
“You could join, Ricky. Always got room for you, buddy.”
“I wish,” he said, laughing at the suggestion.
“C’mon! It’s never too late to change a ticket.”
I saw him consider it, if briefly, although I knew the answer before he spoke. Some part of me wanted desperately to prevent him from going home, back to New Jersey. As though in pulling him along with me I might save him from himself, or from whatever awaited him at his empty house. I knew what was there and saw it as clearly as though it were before my eyes: a few bills and catalogues in the mail that had piled up, dusty, quiet rooms, the ghosts of competitions of old in the basement, and the painful lure of the barbell, always asking for one more lift. Don’t go back, Puj! I wanted to shout. It’s not too late. There are secrets yet to discover in yourself. There are horizons yet to be seen. Remember poetry, remember those lines of verse, the feeling of wanting to write like those authors you admired…
But he just shook his head. “Ah, I gotta get back. I’m too old to be traveling around like that. Plus who’s gonna make the dough at the pizzeria? I’m lucky the place hasn’t burned down since I left.”
“They survived without you.”
“Nah, you have fun. I should get back. See somebody about my knees. See how long I gotta take off.”
“If you say so.”
“Yeah. But you’ll have fun.”
“You got places to train while you’re traveling?”
I shrugged. “Nikos gave me names and contact info for a couple coaches and athletes,” I said. “We’ll see. I may need a little time off.”
He nodded slowly, looking at me and then off into the distance and then at his hands, huge and rough from years of training. “Who’s gonna push me in the gym now?” he said, smiling at me.
I grinned back. “I’m sure Pete will do.”
At the airport we stood and shook hands and patted each other goodbye in the customary way of men from our home state. I was reminded of how big he really was, as I struggled to reach his back and felt his giant hand slapping my shoulder. There was a very real danger of being knocked over by that embrace, and despite his injury he was still one extraordinarily powerful figure.
“Well, you take care of yourself, alright?” he said, squinting in the bright Turkish sun.
“I will. You too. Say hi to Jersey and everyone in the gym for me.”
“You got it. Say hi to Italy for me if you get there. And Siena! Tell me if you make it to the cathedral.”
“Okay,” he said, sighing. “Take care, buddy. Thanks for comin’ out and supportin’ me.”
“Anytime, Puj. Anytime.”
He waved once more and smiled the big, bearded grin. Then he grabbed his luggage—the same duffel bag he had carried into the gym for years—and was off. I watched him go, a beast among men, Ricky “Puj” Pugilio, a figure who looked more at home among the ruins of antiquity than anywhere in the modern world, save the gym. What a fantastic creature. A man made of a clay not often seen anymore. Perhaps of a clay all his own.
But even in weightlifting he was becoming more and more of an anachronism. I didn’t know it then—none of us did—but the sport was changing. In a few short years it would look very different from what it once was, and in its changing it lost as much as it gained. What had once been a small community was on the verge of becoming something much larger than any of us could have imagined. The days of knowing nearly everyone in the sport by name, or at least the national athletes, were coming to an end. In just a few short years we would be inundated with new practitioners, and with them new money and new audiences and people who smelled opportunities that had nothing to do with lifting weights. Looking back on that time I feel the irrevocable loss of what we had, even as I acknowledge that no era can last forever. Ricky was part of that era, part of an even earlier one, really, and to a certain extent, so was I.
Back in Antalya’s old city I stopped again at an internet cafe. When I opened my email I had a response from a lifter who trained at a club in Bucharest, whose information had been provided by Nikos. It read:
Yes! Come to train. You train here no problem. No pay. Say hi Nikos for me.
Bucharest, I thought. Perhaps I should make a quick visit to Romania…
Ah, this sport… I may have lost whatever spark made me chase after greatness, but I hadn’t lost my love for the barbell and the labor of it. It is always there, weightlifting, ready to take hold of another, and it will always be there—unflinching, unwavering, cold, and impersonal, seemingly indifferent in its meting out of rewards and punishments.
But every so often it will shine, on you or on others. It draws us in like moths to a flame, and we are unable to control ourselves even when we know that the vast majority of us risk being burned rather than illuminated.
I saw no way out of it. Indeed, all I saw, when I returned to my pension and ate lunch on the rooftop, was how fantastic and blue and inviting the Mediterranean looked.
“Aziz,” I said, when he came to take my plate away, “is there somewhere nearby where I can go swimming?”
“Yes, of course. With car or walking?”
“Yes. Is a bar with a terrace over the rocks. Right down that street,” he pointed. “There you buy some drink or food, you get chair and you can go swim.”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
The place that Aziz had directed me to was located quite literally on the coastline’s rocky edge. Nestled partway down the cliff was a bar, at which you could order drinks and food, and then a big wooden terrace extended out over the rocks that dropped into the sea. The terrace was covered in what looked like Astroturf, and there were rows of plastic beach chairs and umbrellas. From the terrace you descended a stairway to a lower rock, and from there a metal ladder dipped into the water.
I ordered a Turkish coffee and an orange Fanta and sat under the umbrella of one of the chairs. It was still early afternoon, yet all around me Russian and German tourists were already enjoying beers and cocktails. To each his own.
When I finished my coffee and half of the Fanta I walked down the rocky steps to the sea and jumped in. The blue-green Mediterranean surrounded me in a splash of cool water. As I paddled my way a little further out I noted that it was salty enough to allow me to float without effort. For a long time I lay on my back, enjoying the sensation of weightlessness, the quiet world of the water around my head, and the sun on my face and chest. Floating. Weightless. Like an extended version of that moment during a snatch or clean, when the barbell is passing you as you are pulling yourself under it and you and the barbell are in orbit of each other, ignoring the earth and its persistent gravitational pull. Just you and the bar. Everything else gone.
I thought of Libby, someone who seemed as at home in the water as Ricky was in the gym. There had been a day, or maybe several days, at the beach in New Jersey when she had tried to get me to float.
“Everyone can float,” she insisted, splashing me.
“Not me,” I said. “I sink like a stone.”
“That’s impossible. Everybody floats. I was a lifeguard. They teach us these things.”
To prove my claim I tried to float, a task made all the more difficult by the slightly choppy waters of the Atlantic. As expected, I failed, although my torso and head bobbed ever so slightly above the water.
“See?” I said. “I told you. I have heavy bones.”
“Heavy bones? Don’t be ridiculous. You’re just doing it wrong. Watch me.”
And she floated on the water—beautifully, perfectly, full of grace and without any apparent effort. The little waves supported her and carried her along, caressing her sides and thighs and the curve of her shoulders. For a moment I was jealous of the ocean’s ability to touch every inch of her all at once.
She dipped her head and then emerged above the surface. “See? Just like that!”
“Just try,” she said. “I’ll help you. We’re going to get you to float.”
So I lay back, sinking immediately, and then felt her hands under me, lifting me through the water.
“Now arch your back,” she said. “Try to fill your chest with air. Just relax, like that.”
Her hands were still under me, holding me up, and I could just make out her face at the edge of my vision. Against my side I could feel the press of her body, thrilling as always. But before I could follow that train of thought too long she removed her hands and my legs sank like an anchor thrown overboard.
“What the hell!” she said, laughing.
And we tried again. And again. Over and over she would position me perfectly, and each time I would sink when she removed her hands.
Yet there I was, months later, floating in the Mediterranean as though it were my natural state of being.
Every so often, since I had made the decision to change my flight, I would be struck with panic. Staying in Turkey seemed reckless yet somehow necessary. I had never been so far from home and I’d never been so alone. Just as significantly, it was the first time in years I did not have set plans to train in the coming days and weeks. I had no competition on my horizon, and there was no dream of the platform pulling and pushing me onward. The world seemed to me like the Mediterranean itself: vast and unpredictable and filled with wonders and terrors known and unknown, knowable and unknowable. But the apprehension was exciting in a way I’d never experienced before, and I told myself to trust in the sea and the world and my movements through them. Those small mysteries were as invigorating as the sea air itself. More so even. In due time I would make my way across Turkey and parts of Europe, going through my savings and then going through money I would receive from selling my car, in a trip that would encompass far more than anything I’d planned, either in range or duration. In Siena I would stand before the empty arches and the wall whose only dome was the sky, and though it would not be as I’d imagined it—for when does our inner vision ever align with reality?—my memory of it is forever constructed as much from Ricky’s words as from my own experience.
I floated for a long, long time, enjoying the cool embrace of the Mediterranean on my body and the warmth of the sun on my face and chest. The waves gently pushed and prodded me along, bouncing me on little peaks that rose and fell in and out of existence. Overhead the sky was a living, breathing blue that filled my vision. I considered the enormity of the world below and around me and my own tiny place at its edge. There, suspended in the boundary of water and sky, with the teeming sea in my ears, I felt unmoored in the best sense possible: weightless, adrift, and free.
I walked back late in the afternoon. Near the door to my pension a dog was lazily sunning himself, and he raised his head briefly at my approach before resting it on the pavement again.
When I entered the pension a desk attendant—not Aziz—told me in broken English that someone was looking for me.
He pointed up. “Roof. Terrace. Is wait for you.”
I nodded and then raced up the stairs, hoping against all odds that it’d be who I suspected…
When I cleared the last stair I saw Ricky sitting in a chair, scribbling in a little notepad. He looked up at me and grinned.
“You got ten days to get me to Istanbul. That’s the best I can do without gettin’ fired! Think you can manage that?”
I smiled back. It wasn’t who I’d hoped for, but perhaps it was as good. Perhaps better.
“I say okay.”