Of Iron and Bronze – 21

[for V]

21.

Back to training. After the buildup to the competition—even just a local one, for which I wasn’t peaking—the week after was a return to normalcy, to the daily grind in the wake of releasing the pent-up anticipation. Our training programs awaited us in our inboxes, and the days resumed their usual routine. Weeknights in the Rutgers Power Gym, where five or six or more of us might be sharing the two platforms and a couple of York barbells whose spin was so slow it felt like something planetary. A place where clueless outsiders casually strolled in front of you mid-lift, unaware of the knife-edge on which something as delicate as a snatch or jerk was balanced—and unaware of the dangers of a falling barbell, apparently. Yet a home where, for a couple hours, we might convene and ignore everything else—class, homework, the election, anything not weightlifting. On the walls a few printed photos of great lifters—Rezazadeh, Dimas, Mutlu, Sagir—looked down on us, serving as both inspiration and ego check. And then Saturday mornings at FDU, a gym that felt luxurious by comparison. Freely spinning Eleiko barbells and countless plates and what seemed like acres of platform space. All this, plus the careful and measured eyes of our coaches.

And still no sign of anything from Libby.

I vented my frustration over this one evening in mid-November, during a meal with Ricky. I’d spent the day up north, visiting my parents and picking up winter clothes, and before driving back to New Brunswick met up with him at the Golden Touch Diner. He came straight from work at the pizzeria, his white shirt and pants covered in a variety of stains whose differing colors could be read chronologically by how faded they were. Traces of flour dotted his mop of hair. Despite this appearance he comported himself in the diner’s booth as though he were an ancient sage, studying the menu—which he’d likely read hundreds, perhaps thousands of times—the way a monk might pour over the gospels. When he finally ordered—the waitress had been standing patiently for what felt like many, many minutes—he did so with an air of solemnity wholly at odds with the banality of the task or the desired items: pancakes, eggs, sausage, toast, and a milkshake to tide him over while the food was being cooked.

“Man, what an appetite when you’re on shit,” he said, sipping his milkshake and shaking his head. “I can’t keep up.”

I nodded in agreement. Though I wasn’t consuming Ricky-level quantities of food I was hungry nearly all the time. It wasn’t rare for Pete and me to leave Commons down at Rutgers and be hungry again before we’d even arrived back at the apartment.

The waitress brought our food and Ricky and I ate and talked. As was usual for us our conversation turned to training: who’d done what weights, who looked good, who looked like shit. Myron had stopped into the gym a couple times since the competition, much to everyone’s surprise, and Ricky couldn’t help but marvel at his talent—and lament his lack of commitment.

“I don’t get it,” he said, legitimately confused. “A kid like him, all that potential. How could he not want to train more? How could he not want it more badly?”

I shrugged. “He’s a strange guy.”

“You ever talk to him about it?”

“Not really.”

“You ever bring up getting more serious and, uh, you know…” He put his hands up in a gesture that could have meant anything but that I understood at once.

“I’ve never said anything. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would get on shit.”

He sat back and made another gesture with his hands. “You never know. Maybe yous oughta say something. I knew some guys never got serious until they started taking shit. Course I knew other guys who took shit and it made no difference. Lazy either way. But him… He could be a world champion if he just put a little effort in. And got on drugs. But…” He sighed and left the thought hanging.

“I remember talking to one of the Russian coaches back in the day,” he said, continuing his thoughts. “I asked him what he looked for in his athletes. This was right around the time I started coaching, and I wanted to know, you know, if I should look for jumping ability or pushups or some shit like that. Know what the coach said?”

I took a bite of my cheeseburger and waited for the answer.

“Work ethic,” he said. “And when I pressed him on it, thinking he had some other secret Soviet method, he wouldn’t budge. Said if a kid don’t wanna work, the rest don’t matter.” He paused before going on. “We spent a lotta time talking about drugs, too, but work ethic was the big one.”

I nodded and continued eating.

“Now his sister,” said Ricky, taking a big sip of milkshake and dripping some into his beard in the process, “she’s got work ethic. She’s a fighter.”

This mention of Libby—not much more than a passing remark, and one that Ricky no doubt intended to move on from—was all it took for me to pour forth all that I’d been thinking and hoping since she and I had spent that one night together. I told Ricky everything: the party, the drunken walk home, the barely-remembered tryst in my ridiculous twin bed, her disappearance by morning, our time at the sauna and after, and the total radio silence on the subject of our liaison since it’d happened. When I finished I felt spent, not dissimilar from how I might feel following a particularly arduous clean and jerk session. Although there was no sense of relief, or of having completed another day of the training program. There was just the confusion from before—and the hope that this man, who I knew to be a failure in relationship matters, might have something to offer.

He sat back for a moment, the empty plates of food before him, and considered my story.

“What’d she say about getting on shit?” he asked at length.

“What?”

“She give any sign she’s open to that?”

“No,” I said, somewhat disappointed that he’d chosen to focus on that aspect of the story. “If anything she’s flat out against that.”

He shook his head and leaned forward, looking at his plates like he hoped to find some morsel yet uneaten. “Maybe she’ll come around. In the meantime, you gotta focus on you.” He looked at me, perhaps sensing some desire of mine to hear more than just this, and then continued. “I ever tell you about training before the Nationals in ’78 and ’79, and then before the Olympics?”

He had. Dozens of times, easily. “You’ve mentioned it.”

“Yeah? I probably repeat myself. But I gotta. Otherwise you kids don’t listen. Those years…” He paused. I saw him looking beyond me, looking into the past itself and scanning it for the right moment or moments. “Those were easily the best years of training I ever had. Me, Dom, Lou, all the others. We all wanted to be the best. Wanted to be like Butch or Bob Giordano, or Alexiev or Rigert. A lot of us back then had girlfriends, some of us were married.” He paused again, either to search his memory or to give weight to his words. “Know what happened?”

“What?”

“Almost all of us got divorced. Or ended our relationships. And by that I mean our girlfriends left us.”

He put his hands on the table and folded them together, pulling his enormous frame together to lean forward. “This ain’t an easy sport. No sport is. If you wanna be at the top, some things get overlooked.”

“So I should drop the Libby thing?”

He put a hand up. A gesture of innocence. “I ain’t saying that, but it might be easier. For now. Or… maybe she’s thinking that way.”

I considered this. “Like, she’s focused on training and nothing else.”

“Maybe. She had a rough meet. Ain’t fun bombing out. God knows I got experience with that. Could be she just wants to think about training. She got as much drive as anyone.” He then added: “But hey, who knows. Maybe she’s just playing hard to get. At least this way you can focus on just training. Focus on that 300 total.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks, Puj.”

The waitress came by and topped off my cup of watery diner coffee. I emptied a packet of sugar into it and some cream and stirred. Ricky had turned his attention from his nearly empty milkshake glass to one of the TVs suspended behind the counter.

“Four more years of Bush,” he said, watching the news. “Maybe that’s what’s got Libby down.”

“She’s not happy about it,” I said.

“You vote?”

I shook my head. “I meant to but I got caught up in training. Don’t tell her though. I avoided the question when she asked and made it sound like I had, or was going to. You?”

He made a face and nodded. “Yeah. Nader. Though I don’t know why anybody would want to be president at this point. You’re stepping into a real pile of shit. Made ourselves a lotta enemies.”

“According to Libby, Bush made us a lot of enemies.”

He waved one hand. “If it wasn’t him it woulda been somebody else. They’re all crooks. Somebody else woulda gone to war and pissed off the rest of the world. We can’t even keep track of all our enemies now. When I was growing up it was simple. You always knew. The Russians were the bad guys and we were the good guys. Except in weightlifting. In weightlifting they were the good guys. But now…” He paused, still looking at the TV screen over my shoulder. “Now you have no idea.”

“You meet a lot of the Russians back then?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Lotta times we couldn’t interact, or we didn’t have the language. But we did. And you know what? They were just like us. Wanted the same shit we wanted. Only difference was they had different crooks in power.”

* * *

When we finished eating we paid and exited, Ricky holding the diner’s chromed door for me and clasping me amicably on the shoulder. We walked across the parking lot, talking idly and moving without any haste. Ricky waxed nostalgically about his era, the one he’d brought up over our meal. He laughed off his own failed relationship and instead talked of training partners, friends, memories. But before reaching our cars he stopped. He did this so suddenly I thought for a moment he’d forgotten his wallet inside, or decided he was hungry enough for a second meal.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing.

I looked. It took me a moment to realize he was indicating nothing more than a line of trees across the back parking lot. The light was fading but you could still make out the branches scratched out against a deep blue sky. Branches that were nearly bare, highlighted in places by the orange glow of a lone sodium lamp. Only a few desperate leaves—long dead—still clung to their stems, stubborn and defiant in the face of impending winter.

“That’s somethin’, ain’t it?” said Ricky. “The light like that, with the trees.”

I nodded but didn’t speak.

“People always like fall,” he continued, “and the leaves and colors and stuff. But, I dunno. Something about after fall. Right before winter. Just look at that. It’s… It’s…”

He stopped. The landscape seemed to unsettle him in some way, or at least to unsettle him as much as was possible for a man of his character. In nearly a decade knowing him it was the first time I’d seen anything like it. For a moment I had a clear sense of his being unable to speak. He was normally so loud and declarative, delivering whatever was on his mind in short, direct sentences, like a cannon firing round after round into the world without due regard for what it was hitting. There was never hesitation in what he said, and more often than not it was said at full volume without any filter. Yet here he was, butting up against the limits of language, or against his own limits with it.

I felt a keen sense of absence, as though he wanted with terrible urgency to say something, to put what he was seeing into words, but had been rendered silent. It was hard to tell what had failed: whether the language or Ricky himself. Either way there was some crucial thing lacking, something in the space between us, standing there in the parking lot, that refused to be pinned down. He put a hand out slightly, as if words were things he might pluck out of the air before him with one of his huge mitts—not just any words, but the right words, the exact ones with which to share not just the vision before him but the vision as he saw it, the vision of his construction—a thing totally foreign to all but him.

“It’s…”

But that was all he managed. We just stood there, he and I, in the silence and the twilight looking at the carbon black lines of the branches and deepening blue light behind them, Ricky lost in thought and me not quite knowing what to do or say.

His mouth moved once more, still seeking words that wouldn’t come, and then he shook his head and smiled. The sense of absence vanished.

“Nice, eh?” he said, settling comfortably into the solidity of a half-shouted pronouncement. “Getting me all worked up thinking about those days.” And he patted me on the shoulder yet again, glad no doubt to be back on firmer footing.

“Well,” he said, taking my hand before getting into his Honda. “Take care. Thanks for calling me. Good to get out for a bit.”

“Anytime, Puj. Anytime.”

“I’ll see you in the gym next week. Let me know if you come up otherwise. And hey, don’t forget what I said. Forget about everyone else. Forget about Libby. Myron. Everyone. Just focus on yourself. I know you can do it. You gotta know you can do it. Focus.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “And enjoy it. Shit ends before you even know it.”

I looked at him. “Thanks, Puj. I’ll keep that in mind. See you.”

He turned the engine of his old Honda once and then again, easing it to a shaky and sputtering life. I waved and he waved back and then was gone.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 20

20.

 

from: ricky pugilio <rickyolympin@aol.com>
to: Jonathan Scarpa <scarpj77@eden.rutgers.edu>
date: Mon, Oct 25, 2004 at 5:12 AM
subject: Champion!

Jonathan,

Great job at the Mets this weekend!!!!! You did an easy 270 total without any special preparation and were close with your third attempts. The 125 & 155 will be easy soon enough! You looked very powerful out there & very strong on the platform. Most important you looked focused & professional & your technique is the best ever. I swear I thought you were going to do that 155 with how intense you looked! You were chasing the White Moment! Next time you will do that plus more. All the hard work is paying off. Just keep training hard & taking your vitamins & recovering & you will be doing a 300 total before you know it.

Here is your next training micro. Do every rep but don’t do any more than what’s written! If you can come up to fdu during the week let me know. I will probably be there every night. Or if you guys want to stop in for some pizza I’ll be working all week in the mornings and afternoons. Anyway you know I’m around so just give me a call whenever. Otherwise I will see you Saturday morning at the gym.

Great job again!! You made me very proud out there.

Train hard!

Ricky

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 19

19.

Just over an hour later the three of us—Pete, Libby, and me—were sitting in the warm, humid air of one of several sauna rooms at the CCCP Sauna & Spa. Each of us was sweating profusely: it ran down our faces and fell from the tips of our noses and rivers of it streamed down our arms and torsos. We sat hunched over, elbows on our knees, sitting up every so often to take it big lungfuls of hot air, as though hoping to cleanse out our insides through scorching them.

“How long do you guys usually stay in?” asked Libby.

“Long as we can stand it,” said Pete.

She nodded, sending a few drops of sweat flying in the process.

And in some ways this was the goal: to endure the heat as long as possible. Like training itself, there were elements of profound joy to be had in the sauna, as well as suffering—especially if you let yourself cook a little too long. Yet I loved those sauna visits—typically just Pete and me—even as I brought myself to what I felt were the limits of my abilities to withstand the trials of sitting in a room that felt like an oven.

The door to the wood-paneled sauna opened and a thickset man sporting an enormous gold chain and a pelt of dark hair on his shoulders walked in. He was carrying a group of birch branches that were wound together at the base and fanned out at their leafy ends. He sat down on one of the sauna’s tiered benches and after a moment or two—just long enough to work up a sweat—he began beating himself vigorously over the back and shoulders with the branches. A few leaves disengaged themselves during this flailing and floated around the room like small green snowflakes. When he was finished he stood, breathing heavily from the effort of his self-flagellation, and exited.

“Er… what…” began Libby, looking to me and Pete.

We both shrugged. It was a common enough occurrence, but not one whose purpose or reasons we’d managed to ascertain, as of yet.

“No idea!” said Pete. “But we gotta do it one of these days.”

The CCCP Sauna & Spa was a strange little haven of Slavic culture located in a northern Jersey suburb of New York City—and the suburb itself was home to a significant population of Slavic immigrants. The sauna was located, incongruously, in an otherwise nondescript medical office building that looked like it could have been designed by someone who learned architecture in Soviet-era Russia: grey, severe, with minimal ornamentation or frivolity. Even the windows—ordinary glass rectangles—looked excessively decorative compared to the rest of the structure. But inside this uninspired and uninspiring building, in a hallway lined with doors that were a slightly different shade of grey than the one used to paint the walls and the exterior, was an enormous—and ludicrous, given its setting—wooden door, richly lacquered and set with shiny brass fittings. A total anomaly, like finding Louis XIV in full regalia working as a toll attendant on the NJ Turnpike, and speaking French while doing so.

To go through that door, which required no small effort given its size and weight, was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia: aside from the door itself, nothing about the building or the sad-looking parking lot out back or the grey hallway hinted at the opulence behind it. There were marble stairways leading down and polished brash railings and faux classical statuary. In this subterranean palace, which made certain Vegas casinos look restrained by comparison, a thick-lidded Russian took your keys and wallet and let you loose. After donning a bathing suit in the locker rooms you had access to saunas and steam rooms of varying intensity, along with a range of masseuses offering different levels of torture, a restaurant with a bevy of food and drink options, and all the fresh towels you could ever want.

“How the hell did you guys find this place?” asked Libby.

“Nikos,” said Pete.

“Nikos?”

I nodded. Like nearly all Eastern Europeans Nikos consistently attested to the recuperative powers of sitting in a hot room with a bunch of other people and sweating profusely. No ailment, no matter how serious or obscure, was immune to the healing properties of the sauna. “Five years ago,” he once told us, “I have bad toothache. Terrible. Can’t sleep. Dentist say big operation is needed. I go and take sauna, steam, mineral water—next morning, pain is gone. Dentist say he never see anything like this.” And, as if to prove the validity of this story, he smiled broadly and indicated one of his teeth. Pete and Ricky and I had nodded, although no doubt our American sensibilities—which had no innate link to sauna culture—prevented us from truly accepting this account. Yet we went all the same…

“Nikos told us about this years ago,” I said to Libby. “Organism must recover,” I added, doing my best Russian-accented English.

“What?”

“Recovery. The organism. It’s how he talks about the body,” said Pete.

“Ah… right.”

“Sauna, sleep, food,” I said. “And… other things.”

Libby looked at me. Pete gave me a look, as well. I realized too late that perhaps this wasn’t the moment to bring up other things. Not that there ever seemed like the right moment, despite Ricky’s urgings to do so. But given that I was trying to figure out whatever had happened between us the previous night, this seemed like an especially inopportune time.

“Other things?” she asked.

But before I could answer Pete stood up. “I’m boilin’ in here! An’ this is the coolest one. I need some mineral water and a plate of pierogis to get my strength up before we hit the hotter rooms. You guys hungry?”

Saved.

We rinsed off under cold showers and then ordered bowls of borscht and solyanka and a plate of pelmeni. We ate and drank bottles of Belarussian mineral water and relaxed in terrycloth robes, watching the other patrons wander into the restaurant or go from sauna to sauna. Flatscreen TVs blared Russian news programs with footage of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan or sporting events. In this space moved a mix of Russians and Ukrainians of varying ages and sizes: old women in what looked to be knit wool one-piece suits from another era and young women in tiny bikinis; middle-aged men built like bears and lean young men with two or three cell phones a piece; and then us, a strange trio in a strange place, as conspicuous among that crowd as the wooden door was that led down there.

“I’m pretty sure we’re the only Americans in here,” said Libby, looking around. “We’re certainly the only people speaking English.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Pete with a mouthful of sour cream and dumpling.

“Nothing,” she said. “Not for me at least.” She looked around again. “I just wonder what they make of us.”

“The world loves us!” said Pete.

She looked at him, unsure of whether he was serious. Even I wasn’t certain.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the sauna, cycling through the various rooms—hot, hotter, nuclear—along with the occasional cold plunge and breaks for food and water. Whether or not it had any real physical benefits was beside the point, as far as I was concerned: the experience was was what mattered.

The only sign the entire afternoon of the previous night’s tryst with Libby came when we were walking into one of the steam rooms—and it was incidental, rather than any real sign from her. As I opened the door to let her enter I saw—while my eyes moved down curve of her shoulders and the expanse of her back, a back that was impressively broad and still bore the traces of summer color, despite the season—I saw the tattoo she had just above her hip: a dolphin or whale of some sort, with a long pointed tusk or horn. In seeing it I also remembered it from the night before. So much else was hazy and indistinct, but this stood out for no good reason other than that I’d never seen a similar animal tattooed on anyone else.

But otherwise in our time at the sauna there was no touch or look or word passed between us—for all that I hoped—to suggest our relationship was any different than it’d been previously.

Yet still I maintained some hope. On the drive home Pete asked to be dropped off at a Mexican grocery store on Easton Ave when we arrived back in New Brunswick—no doubt a ruse intended to give me time alone with Libby. He winked at me as inconspicuously as possible as he left the car.

“Library?” I said when he’d left, hoping perhaps she’d suggest something else: her place, my place, an empty parking lot, anything.

She nodded. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”

Damn!

“Not at all,” I said.

We drove and chatted idly—what she thought of the sauna, what work she was doing that evening—and then she asked something that had clearly been bugging her all day, though it was not what I’d hoped.

“Does Nikos really talk about… other things? Like, steroids for recovery?”

I hesitated: her tone didn’t suggest one way or the other whether she asked out of curiosity—as in, she was open to this and wanted to learn more—or shock—as in, she was horrified to discover this truth.

“He’s mentioned it,” I said, trying to take a neutral path.

“What does he say?”

“I mean… at the highest levels everyone is taking stuff,” I said, keeping things vague and unspecific.

“Everyone?”

“Absolutely.”

“Even the women?”

“Probably. I… haven’t heard as much about the women but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

For a few seconds she was quiet as we sat at a light at the College Ave intersection. “That’s terrible,” she said at last, which cleared up where she stood on that front.

“It’s… I mean, it’s normal in high-level athletics. That’s how it is in any sport if you want to train to be the best.”

“Would you ever want to do that?”

“Of course not,” I lied. “But I’m not trying to be a World Champion.”

“But if you were you would?”

“Uh, I mean, I don’t know…”

“It’s cheating!”

“But not if everybody is doing it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s a normal part of being in high level sports. For any sport.”

“How does that make it right?”

“I’m not saying…” Shit, I thought. This was not anywhere near where I was hoping this conversation or this car ride would end up. “It just seems like there’s a lot more at play than we’re aware of. Like, people make decisions about what they need to do based on their own circumstances. And other people make decisions about what is or isn’t right. I don’t know what it’s like to be an athlete in Bulgaria, or wherever. Or to train and compete for a living.”

“Jesus,” she said, half to herself. “I had no idea. So, what about Ricky? He was up at that level… so?”

“I don’t think he was on stuff,” I lied again. There was no point in even letting a shade of truth slip in.

“Okay.”

I pulled up to the library. It was still relatively early evening—not quite 8 yet—and the street had a fair amount of foot and car traffic still, preventing any chance at a long, slow goodbye while I was parked illegally on the side of the road. Despite the early hour it was already dark, and felt later than it was.

“Thanks for inviting me today,” she said.

“Yeah, I’m glad you enjoyed it.” I looked at her, waiting—hoping—for some sign. For a moment I thought I caught one—a glance, or some hesitation in her movement—and I tried to goad myself into action. Move! I thought. Fortes fortuna iuvat! But any sign or signal she may have given was inscrutable to me, and I felt like a stranger in a foreign land, totally unable to understand the language and thus frozen into inaction.

She smiled—perhaps this was it?—and then quickly opened the door.

“I’ll see you in the gym tomorrow,” she said, stepping out. “Thanks again, and thanks for driving.”

And with that she shut the door.

* * *

Back at the apartment I relayed all this to Pete, who listened with an attentive and understanding ear. We were sitting in our underwear in the living room, watching Heat and taking turns rubbing each other’s shoulders and back down with astringent to keep our skins’ oil under control (critical, given our elevated hormonal levels). Ever since getting on test and d-bol this had become a thrice-weekly ritual—one more way in which to bond, like a pair of (relatively) hairless baboons grooming each other on the savanna.

“Well,” he said, “ain’t no need to give up hope just yet.”

“Nothing…” I said, shaking my head.

“Maybe she’s just shy! Needs a little time to adjust, you know. Needs to make some sense of it all.”

“Or maybe she regrets it.”

“Also possible. But, wait an’ see. Ain’t like you never gonna see her again.” He threw away the cotton balls and closed the bottle of astringent. “Anyway, cheer up. You still got me in the meantime!”

I sighed. “I’ll take that, especially since you’re cool with me taking shit.”

He smiled. “Not only am I cool with it, I endorse it! Here, have one of my d-bols,” and he actually handed me a pink pentagon from the two he’d planned on taking that evening.

I took it, so touched by the offer I feared I might tear up, and washed it down with a swallow of mineral water.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 18

pancakes-cropped copy

18.

I woke up the next morning with the strangely disjointed feeling that accompanies sudden gaps in time and memory. I was aware of little more than a headache and a profound thirst. Slowly the pillow, the bedding, and then the broader world beyond the bed—my room and the detritus scattered about it—came into focus, and with it came a fragment of memory sharper and more searing than the ray of sunlight threatening to blind me from across the room:

Libby.

I sat up so quickly I nearly lost consciousness from the sudden drop in blood to my head and had to lie back down slowly. Libby and I had come back together, I thought…

Except she wasn’t there. I searched the bed as though she were something that might’ve been misplaced under or between the sheets. As if she weren’t a 75-kilo person whose presence would have been felt immediately by me in that tiny twin bed. But my searches—ludicrously repeated—were fruitless.

Nor was there any trace of her: no clothes on the floor or sneakers or anything. Not so much as an errant sock or a forgotten hair tie signaled her presence—assuming she had, in fact, been in my room to leave such a trace.

She had been, right? I asked myself.

My recollections were so dim, so fragmented, and so surreal that they had the quality of dreams more than memories. As I played them back in my head it seemed I was watching the actions and events of my doppelgänger rather than my true self. Walking back from the party, making our way into the apartment, spending time in the living room… and then? More fragments, even more dreamlike: making our way to my room, flashes of her in various states of undress, before the all-encompassing blackness of sleep. A sleep that was—incidentally—devoid of all dreams. But what of the connecting threads in between? Though it seemed we’d been touching each other suggestively all during that walk home—rubbing shoulders and elbows and even putting our arms around each other—it still seemed a bit of a leap from that to whatever followed in the bedroom. Where was that crucial step? What had it been?

Just as important, what was that wonderful aroma coming from outside my room?

It was Pete, of course, standing in the kitchen clad only in a pair of tighty-whities and fixing what was—based on the sounds and smells—an extraordinary breakfast feast. When he heard me come from my room he turned and smiled, holding aloft a spatula and greeting me with it as though saluting a Roman emperor with his sword.

“I bet you’re hungry, eh stallion?” he said.

“Did you hear me last night?”

“I heard you talkin’ to somebody out in the livin’ room.”

“You didn’t hear who it was?”

He shook his head and returned to the pancakes to which he was tending. “Some lucky lady, I assume. Or dude.”

I paused, hoping for the right amount of gravitas. “Libby.”

Pete looked back at me, his eyes wide and his mouth spreading into an enormous grin. “Get the hell out! You devil! How was it?” He then quieted himself and looked over my shoulder. “Wait, she ain’t still in there, is she?”

“No, she’s gone.”

“Phew! That’d be awkward. Plus I don’t think I got enough pancakes for a third person… So, go on: how was it?”

I struggled to think of something to say but Pete was quicker than I.

“Not a clue, eh?” he said.

I shook my head. “It was a wild party…”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I’d say things got a little outta hand for everybody last night.”

“You too?”

“Me?” He laughed. “Man, I’m high on life! I don’t need drugs to enjoy myself. Whoops—that reminds me…” He grabbed a couple pink d-bol tabs from the kitchen table and tossed them back with some fresh squeezed orange juice. “That don’t count,” he said, looking at me.

I put my hands up in a show of innocence. “I’m not judging.”

“C’mon,” he said, stacking the pancakes from the griddle and then piling the bacon on a separate plate. It was a mountain of food. “Let’s eat.”

We feasted on the spread that Pete had prepared: pancakes and bacon and blueberries and freshly whipped cream, all unified with a river of real maple syrup and washed down with French-press coffee.

“So,” said Pete, midway through our breakfasting, “what now?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing exactly what he meant.

“Libby. That a one-time thing or…?”

He left the remainder of the question hanging. It occupied the space between us like another breakfast guest. I chewed thoughtfully on a piece of bacon, hoping to convey some semblance of nonchalance that I knew to be unconvincing. “I don’t know,” I said, sighing.

“That’s fair. We’re headin’ to the sauna today, right?”

I nodded.

“Why don’t you invite her?”

“You think I should?”

“Why not? Maybe see if there’s a little somethin’ there.”

I waited, considering this option as though weighing something of great consequence not just for myself but for the Universe entire. As though this option—choosing to explore a connection with another human being—were an entirely novel thing.

“You into her?” Pete asked when I hadn’t spoken.

And here was why I weighed these questions so deeply—because they pointed at something within me that was not strictly limited to lifting weights or partying on the weekend. Because I had no roadmap or training program or drug that could guide me along and give me at least the semblance of hope for success. I’d been willing to go to extremes in training, in partying, in restoratives, in so many things, but that had not translated into a willingness to try connecting with others in ways foreign to my familiar world. Though I knew the answer to Pete’s question—an unequivocal yes—I still hesitated. A holdout of grade school shaming, perhaps, when to reveal one’s crush was akin to exposing your weakest points to an enemy. Indeed, it had been hard enough to admit and reveal this to myself in a way that was honest and open, for reasons I could not properly explain…

“Yeah, I think I am,” I said at last, although as I did so I recognized that Pete had asked out of kindness more than anything—he knew just as well as I.

“So, invite her to the sauna. No big deal there—normal thing for lifters to do. Plus I’m goin’, so it ain’t like a date. Totally low pressure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You think I should maybe shoot her a message on AIM?”

“AIM?” cried Pete, who seemed to take great offense at this suggestion. “Get the hell outta here!”

“What’s wrong with AIM?”

“Man, you can’t be waitin’ around for her to check her computer while you pine over readin’ her away messages and whatnot. We gotta leave soon! Be a big boy and send a text!”

“Okay, okay.” I grabbed my phone from the room and flipped it open and searched through the list of texts for one from her, which was weeks old. In all our time training together our text conversations had thus far been limited to the occasional question about what time the other would be in the gym. I then sat and composed something I hoped was casual:

Hey Lib-

But then stopped and reconsidered. Did I want to use her name? Was that normal? When T9Word failed to recognize her name as I tried typing it I took this as a sign from the Universe and restarted:

Pete and I are going to the sauna today.

Good start, I thought. Open with Pete’s name—she can assume it might even be his idea to invite her, rather than mine. I then spent another minute trying to formulate what came next:

Let me know if you want to come

When the message was done I waited, evaluating it: did it sound odd? Too desperate? Too soon? Too random? I looked to Pete, hoping for some confirmation.

“Go on!” he screamed.

It was all the push I needed. I jammed the SEND button and launched the electronic missive into the ether. It was a thrill almost as exciting as the last Sustanon injection had been. When it was done Pete and I stared at each other across the wasteland of our repast, the empty plates stained with the traces of syrup and cream and blueberries and bacon grease like the stripped carcass of a kill in the wild. Neither of us spoke, and when—a moment later—my phone vibrated in my hand the sudden intrusion of sound and movement jolted us both.

I opened my phone.

As long as I can be back and in the library by 8 I can come.

I looked at Pete, who seemed as though he was as invested in this message as I was.

“She’s in,” I said.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 17

trophies-crop

17.

“When the hell’d you get here?” asked Ricky, reeling from this sudden appearance. He threw out one of his huge mitts and began shaking Myron’s hand vigorously—clearly elated at having him around for a competitor.

“’Bout an hour ago,” said Myron. “Just barely made weigh ins.”

“Yeah? You a 105?”

Myron smiled his slow, casual smile. “Technically. Weighed in just over 94 kilos.”

Ricky roared with laughter and clapped him on the shoulder. “You skinny little bastard! But—still counts! I threw the ref a twenty and he snuck me into the 105s, so it’s you and me, head to head today.”

“Wait, did you really…”

“Nah, I’m just kiddin’. I made weight fair and square.” But as he turned to continue his warmups he winked at me, and to this day I’m not sure if he was serious or not. For all I know Ricky weighed close to 120 kilos at the competition—he certainly looked it, and his hair and beard alone could have filled out the 56-kilo class. Myron, by comparison, didn’t look to be a gram over 85; where he hid those extra ten kilos is more of a mystery than Ricky’s making weight. He was as lean and unassuming as ever, standing around like a marionette of bone and sinewy muscle.

“You didn’t say your brother was coming,” I said to Libby as I took a seat next to her and Pete in the crowd.

She made a face. “He barely said anything about it, and you never know if he’s actually going to come through.”

“Has he been training?”

“Who knows,” she said.

The session was a mixed bag of lifters across the 94s, 105s, and superheavies. There were newcomers struggling to put 60 kilos overhead alongside a couple world-class athletes who’d been in the sport a decade or more. Among this group the contest between Myron and Ricky was the clear highlight. Aside from a superheavy who was a top national lifter, the two of them were fighting for the heaviest lifts—and doing so via means that were almost diametrically opposed to each other.

Ricky came out to the platform overflowing with intensity and grit, as though each movement he made might rend apart the very fabric of the basement. He paced back and forth before the barbell, stared it down, took in huge breaths puffing himself up in size against an opponent. The crowd—even those who didn’t know his history—loved him, feeding off his energy like drawing warmth from a fire. In any other environment he would have been ludicrous—more carnival sideshow than finely tuned athlete—but in that moment, with that crowd, he was at home: a huge and hairy beast of a man shoehorned into a singlet from the 1980s and lifting more through sheer force of will than anything else.

“What a animal,” said Pete while Ricky walked out for his first snatch, and in his voice was both admiration and disbelief.

If only that was enough. He nearly bombed out in the snatch, thanks in part to his exuberance and over-confidence in his own abilities. He opened with 120 kilos—a recent PR. After his first two misses Pete leaned over to me and whispered: “Dollar bet: make or miss.”

“Make,” I said.

You fool!” he hissed. “Get yer wallet out…”

But Ricky won me that dollar, barely hanging on to his third crack at 120 and nearly bringing the fans—all two dozen or so of them—to their feet.

“Put it on my tab,” said Pete afterward. “We still got the clean and jerks.”

Myron, in comparison, was his usual self: slow and unassuming in everything except where it counted. When Ricky had been on the platform he appeared to dwarf the weights; with Myron it was the opposite, and the weights looked dangerously heavy compared to his lanky frame. Things weren’t helped by his terribly slow first pull: the weight—120 kilos—came off the floor with all the speed of continental erosion, and no doubt many in that crowd were stupefied by what looked like a failed deadlift attempt. But moments later—long moments, by the way they felt—there was the explosion of the second pull and Myron was under the barbell. A few people in the crowd gasped audibly. There were oohs and ahs even from some of the refs.

“God-damn!” said Pete.

Libby just rolled her eyes.

Yet it was hard to deny: he was that impressive.

At the end of the session Ricky and Myron finished with equal totals: 285 kilos. Ricky managed 120/165—the last clean and jerk a huge leap of faith, given that he hadn’t cleaned over 145 recently—and Myron did it via a more balanced 130/155.

“Not bad,” said Ricky afterwards, as each of them stood side by side bedecked with their medals: gold for Myron, silver for Ricky—out of three total competitors in their weight class (third was a new lifter who totaled 152.5 kilos and who wore his medal like it had been awarded for valor in combat).

Myron nodded. “That was fun.”

“You gotta come around more often,” said the older man. “Lifting like that without a coach and regular training, just think what you’d be doing with six months of good training!”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Myron. “We’ll see. See what kind of time I have.”

“You wanna come around, me and Nikos and Russ are happy to have you. Libby knows, right? She got Nationals in her sights. You could be there too.”

“After today I just want a total on my sights…” said Libby.

Ricky put a good-natured hand on her shoulder. “Today wasn’t anything. Forget about today. Think about the next training, the next meet. Stay hungry. We’ll get you ready.” And at this last point he looked at me and grinned—no doubt a not-so-subtle reminder of the conversation I was supposed to have with her at some point…

“Speakin’ of hungry…” said Pete.

“You don’t got some fancy gourmet shit you brought for dinner? Eh?” said Ricky.

“I ate it all! I didn’t think we’d be here till seven in the evenin’.”

“You been comin’ here for years. Ain’t never been a meet we got outta here on time.”

“Well c’mon! Let’s get to eatin’!”

“Myron, whaddaya say? You wanna come for some food?”

There was real hope in Ricky’s voice—as though in this opponent, his physical antithesis, a man twenty-five years his junior—he’d found someone to look up to.

But Myron just shook his head. “Nah, I gotta get going. Told some friends I’d meet up with them. Thanks though.”

“Okay, well. Good work! Take it easy.”

We parted thus—some of us off to eat, some to get an early start on partying down in New Brunswick, some to activities of other designs and other makings. Pete, Libby, and I joined Ricky, Russ, and Nikos for a small feast at a diner—just the right setting for a post-mortem of the day. We ate pastrami sandwiches and greasy cheeseburgers and platefuls of fries and finished it all off with a round of milkshakes. We shared our stories and lamented missed lifts and made plans for the days and weeks to come. When it grew late and we grew tired—and eager to join in the revelries of our peers down in New Brunswick—we parted reluctantly, wanting to draw out that day just a little longer. Competitions were a rare nexus of togetherness—a more focused and distilled time compared to the frenzied training days, when it was less certain everyone’s time in the gym would overlap—and we each knew it would be several months before another such opportunity presented itself.

“You did good today,” said Ricky, shaking each of our hands. “Made me proud. Made us all proud.”

Nikos nodded in agreement. We chatted by our cars idly for a few more moments—torn between this crew of the sports’ veterans and our peers—and then said goodbye.

* * *

Back in New Brunswick we joined our companions—most of whom were firmly established in partying. A few lifters lived in a house not far off College Ave, and there we toasted to the day and drank cheap beers while standing around a dimly lit living room and squalid kitchen. The night wore on and we became first rowdy, then thoughtful, and then alternated between the two. We played 80s songs through a cheap speaker set hooked up to someone’s laptop and sung out with great emotion to “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Here I Go Again,” as though our very souls depended on a sincere performance. In between songs we bonded with each other in the overly familiar way of the inebriated—friends, random acquaintances, anyone within earshot.

At one point Robbie—who’d had an amazing day on the platform, at least as far as his abilities were concerned—drunkenly professed to me his love for weightlifting and those he’d found in it.

“This is the best,” he said, slurring and looking slightly greener than usual. “I mean, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t find this sport. You guys. You know?”

“I know,” I said.

“It’s like, this changed me, man. I don’t know what I’d be doing. You know what I mean, Jonathan? Do you know what I mean?” He said this last with terrible urgency and sincerity in his voice, as though a failure to communicate would be too much for his drunken self to bear.

And I—deep into my own partying—nodded and agreed and knew it to be true.

Despite the best of intentions I was swept up in the celebrations, and much of that evening was lost to a fog of Keystone Light-induced amnesia—to my great regret. There are bits and pieces of what followed that conversation with Robbie: more toasts to the day with a handle of Captain Morgan’s rum being passed around the room; shouting at passersby from the porch; consoling Libby over her bomb out by relating my own failures in weightlifting (and trying to act sober in doing so); and then, at some point, she and I walking back to my apartment together, our shoulders touching with every step, as if we could not wait until we were inside to initiate a less random physical contact…

 

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