Of Iron and Bronze – 23

23.

“So how’s it going?” I said, doing my best to sound nonchalant. As though I’d been prepared for this encounter all along.

“Not bad,” she said. “You?”

“Not bad.”

So far so good, I thought, although she was looking at me expectantly. Did she want to hear more? Was this some subtle means of conveying interest? Did she feel the spark of excitement that I’d felt upon opening the door and seeing her here?

“Are you going to close the door or did you want to train in the cold?” she asked.

Right. I stepped inside and shut the garage door.

Libby tightened up the plates on her bar and readied herself for another lift. As I set my bag down and took a seat on one of the folding chairs I watched her take an easy snatch at 80 kilos. She was in extraordinary form. Even compared to as recent as October she looked better: more refined, more confident, more consistent from start to finish. At the advice of Nikos she’d begun approaching the bar and setting up over it exactly the same every single lift, whether it was 35 kilos or 85: a focused stare into the distance, a deep breath in which she stood tall and raised onto the balls of her feet just slightly, and then squatting down to grip the bar with her right hand and then her left, at which point she let her hips sink slowly into position. Once they reached the proper angle—just above the knees—she was off, driving against the world with her legs and bringing the barbell in and exploding up to finish the pull.

It had become astonishing in its effectiveness. Since bombing out at the Mets a couple months ago I could think of only a handful of times she’d missed a weight.

Not only did they look the same, her lifts all sounded the same. The aural rhythm of her lifting, which she’d had since Nikos first taught her how to snatch, was becoming still sharper and even more consistent. Pop, crack. Same tempo, every lift: the bar in her hips and then her Adidas-shod feet against the platform. It was mesmerizing.

“Looked good,” I said, enthralled as much by her—the slight sheen of sweat on her muscular arms, the errant strands of hair that clung to her face, the slightly labored breathing from the effort—as by her lifting.

“Thanks,” she said. “Nikos told me to go up today if it looked easy.” She looked from the barbell to me. “What do you think?”

I wondered for a moment if she was kidding; I’d seen other people take warmups that didn’t look as easy as the lift she’d just done. And then I remembered that she was, in weightlifting terms, still new. Preternaturally strong and lightning fast with huge wells of power—but a neophyte in the sport nonetheless.

“I’d say you could go up.”

She nodded and loaded a pair of change plates onto the bar.

“No Christmas Eve plans for you?” I asked, in an effort at conversation as I laced up my shoes.

She paused a moment, as if remembering that it was indeed Christmas Eve, and then responded. But her focus remained on the bar the whole time. “Later tonight,” she said. “Just a small dinner at my parents’ house. And then tomorrow we’ll go to my grandparents’.”

“Myron didn’t want to come train?”

She shook her head and made the usual face she reserved for her brother, which was something between impatience and annoyance. “Who knows what he’s doing.”

She chalked up and walked to the bar and went through her routine—standing tall, deep breath, setting up over the barbell and crouching down—and put the weight overhead with the precision and intensity of driving a nail home with a single blow. And this at 85 kilos, technically 100% for her.

As the bar fell back to the platform and she stepped away she looked at me once again.

“More,” I said, nodding.

“Ninety?” she asked, and I could sense great hope in her voice.

“What do you think Nikos would say?”

“He’d probably say 87 first,” she said, slightly deflated.

“Eighty-seven, then 90,” I agreed.

Only on the next lift—87.5 kilos—did the weight start to look like a near maximal attempt, although I suspected this was more mental than physical. She still had huge reserves of strength: the bar came off the floor with great ease and went overhead quickly, although it was slightly less crisp than her previous lifts. The impending 90-kilo snatch had been weighing on her for some time, and I sensed she was thinking of that lift even as she took the 87.5 attempt.

“Ninety?” she asked again, though with a shade less confidence than before.

I nodded.

She loaded the weight—an efficient blue and yellow plus collar per side—and sat down. As she waited to take the lift and I began warming up with the bar we made meaningless small talk. Doing anything over the break? Training. You? Same. And so on. I hoped to leave her some opening to address all that was unsaid between us, or at least give her the chance to suggest we hang out, but nothing came of it.

Her first attempt at ninety was an uncharacteristic mess: the approach and setup was the same, but she rushed it off the floor and left it way out front. She looked at me afterwards, waiting for some direction. I felt a great urgency to give her some cue or feedback that would correct all that had gone wrong: ripping it from the platform, cutting the pull, trying to dive under the weight. Probably a few other things, as well. It needed fixing from start to finish, but the best I could muster were the trite aphorisms of the sport.

“The weight’s in your head,” I offered, pointing to my own head. “Don’t think about the weight. Do it like you did the 85 and the 87 before.”

What a waste, I thought. I needed something original! Something that would make her see that she was truly strong enough for this, that not only could she do 90 easily but that 95—nay, one hundred kilos—was within her reach. But as she set up over the bar for another attempt after taking a minute to recover I still had nothing to offer beyond tired clichés:

“Easy weight!” I said. “Take it strong!”

I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in this attempt given how poorly the previous one had gone, so much so that part of me was tempted not to watch. But then she put the barbell overhead with an ease and grace that was almost as surprising as seeing her here in the first place. It was perfect: the sort of lift that an athlete remembers for their entire life, and as she stood and put the barbell down I could see in her face that she knew this, as well.

She pumped her fists in a small celebration that was pure, unadulterated joy even for being so restrained. Had she been elsewhere she might have jumped up and down or screamed but in the small garage, with only me as audience, she contented herself with this.

I, too, wanted to jump for joy, and embrace her in the process. But I settled for a quick applause and then a high-five. For a moment this brought us close together—closer than we’d ever been since our encounter that one night—and I could feel the heat from her body and the excitement in her breathing. I caught a whiff of some pleasantly mundane smell—her soap or lotion—and for a second it pulled not so much concrete memories as the mere sensations of memories to the surface of my consciousness. At which point, in this heady mix of exhilaration and physical effort and swirling chalk and smells, the door to the garage flew open and the doorframe was filled with the jubilant figure of Ricky.

“Ho ho ho!” he said, looking like some strange, hairy monster from the North Pole as he stood against the backdrop of the snow outside wearing a t-shirt promoting an event from Christmas 1986. “You guys start without me?”

* * *

At hearing of Libby’s 90-kilo snatch Ricky was elated.

“Ninety?” he cried, almost in disbelief. “You gotta be kidding me! You’re unstoppable!” And he shook one huge finger at her. “Just stay focused,” he said.

We trained. Or at least, Libby and I trained while Ricky watched and talked. He listened to the story of Libby’s snatch twice—once from her, then confirmed and embellished by me—and he seemed to watch it in his mind’s eye. He then spoke of similar stories from his past and the pasts of others, stories of athletes making huge PRs and coming back from terrible misses and breaking through mental barriers at certain weights.

“Took Jonathan like a year to finally get past 110,” he said at one point, winking at me. “He could do 107.5 all day and then he shit the bed the minute we put another two kilos on. Then one day, he just nailed it.”

“Yeah?” said Libby, looking to me for verification. It wasn’t entirely true—it’d been more like a few months, rather than a year—but what was a lifting story without some hyperbole? No true story is without its baroque adornments.

“I still remember that lift,” I said, thinking back on it.

Ricky smiled, and I knew that he, too, recalled it. A near-perfect snatch, done some five or six years prior (or more?) at FDU.

When Libby and I were nearly finished with our training Ricky finally realized how late it’d become, and he’d done nothing more than put his shoes on and do a few half-hearted stretches.

“Shit!” he said, suddenly rushing to action. “What am I doing? I gotta get a move on! Supposed to be at my sister’s place for dinner in a coupla hours. Jonathan, you mind if I take this 70 kilos right now?”

“Fine by me, Puj. I’m done with it. We can strip it down to the bar if you want. Or 50 kilos. Whatever you want.”

He waved this aside with the confidence of a man accustomed to taking big weights (and benefiting from supra-physiological hormonal levels). “Ain’t got time! Gotta hurry up here.” He looked at us and smiled his big, ludicrous grin. “Gotta get in shape if I want any hope of competing at Nationals with you guys, right?”

“Yeah” said Libby, smiling back—and more than a little skeptical, from the sound of it. “Are you going to compete?”

“Why not, right? I feel great! Nationals, here we come!”

He laughed hugely, bent down to the barbell, and threw his back out by lifting the weight an inch off the platform.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 22

22.

By mid-December the Power Gym and FDU were closed for winter break, so those of us committed to training were forced to cobble together whatever we could via a combination of commercial gyms, special outings to the few other dedicated weightlifting gyms in the state—the Barn and Moorestown—and Ricky’s garage. Often we’d wake up knowing only that we had to train somewhere, but uncertain of the location until the last minute. A text or call would come through from Ricky or Nikos or Russ saying something like “We’ll be at the Barn at 4” and Pete and I would then rush to get ready and be on our way. It wasn’t an ideal way to train, and plenty among our group simply decided to use the winter break as an extensive recovery period.

“See you next year,” said Joe at our last Saturday morning session at FDU before the break.

But those of us with true grit—or at least those of us who thought we had it—suffered these inconveniences.

“We need a place of our own!” we’d cry, lamenting the fact that FDU or Rutgers didn’t just give us a set of keys and free reign of their gyms.

But we also lamented the little crosses we bore—driving across the state, training in a cold garage or barn—like a parade of flagellants putting their suffering on public display and announcing it to the world. We took no small pride in the fact that those of us who trained through the winter were making the sorts of sacrifices considered important—nay, necessary—for true weightlifting greatness.

Even a commercial gym, where one might get some squats in, plus maybe some pulls if you were lucky, was a compromise. When we were forced into this corner, due to necessity or sheer laziness and unwillingness to make the trip elsewhere, there was often a not-so-subtle comment from one of our coaches.

“You train yesterday?” Russ asked Pete one day, a Saturday December morning in Ricky’s garage.

Pete gave a half-nod—he knew his answer wouldn’t be ideal—and said, “I went to the Gold’s Gym by my parents’.”

Russ nodded in response. “Did a little exercising?” he asked, smiling.

“I got some squats and pulls in,” said Pete.

“Okay,” said Russ, with great skepticism.

Exercising was what you did in a commercial gym, the way the Victorian-era gentry might take up drawing or music as a diversion rather than a serious calling. Exercising was frivolity, and in the way Russ or Nikos or Ricky uttered the word it brought to mind someone doing lightweight curls with brightly padded foam dumbbells, perhaps while listening to a Walkman.

Training was what you did in a real gym. For our coaches, training called to mind serious effort in pursuit of a goal, no matter how big or small: local competition, Worlds, Olympics, whatever. Training had purpose.

“Well,” said Russ, as though resigning himself to this information, “you’ll get some training in today.”

Though Ricky professed to be willing to go anywhere to coach and train over the breaks, he was understandably partial to his own garage, both for reasons of convenience and for the fact that he’d crafted the space to be exactly as he wanted it. To hear him tell it, when he’d inherited the house from an aunt he was more excited about the garage than the living space.

“Meant I could have a place to train anytime!” he said.

I have little doubt that—were he forced to choose—Ricky would’ve kept the garage over the house.

The garage had started life after it came to Ricky as little more than a dusty box filled with the detritus of its former owner’s life. In those days, before I knew him, all he did was clean out a little corner of the accumulated garbage to give him space to train. (“She was a real hoarder,” he’d said about the aunt.) Per Ricky, he had an old York barbell, back from the days when York still made some of the best Olympic bars in the world, and he’d bring it out to the garage and use it just to stretch and go through the motion of lifting. No plates, no platform; just a man and his barbell on the bare concrete floor, amid ancient dried leaves and the old stains of oil spills.

Then he heard from a friend that a gym was closing and he purchased some of their used metal plates, and then he got some bumper plates from a college that was discarding its few Olympic sets. Once he had plates he knew—after a day or two lifting on concrete—that he needed a platform. Thus came layers of plywood, then rubber mats, then more plates, another barbell, a squat rack… Like a planet gathering mass the garage slowly accumulated all that was needed to train properly. In such fashion a gym—a real gym—was born.

By the time we were training there that December, Ricky’s garage had even developed a level of comfort and adornment, minimalistic though it was. A space heater provided warmth during winter months. A few folding chairs—purloined from who knows where—meant you didn’t have to stand the entire time (much as Ricky said you should). And various posters and photographs, chief among them the famous “Dimas Number One” from Ironmind, kept watch over the space.

In Ricky’s view, it contained everything needed and nothing extraneous (except maybe the folding chairs, although at his age he wasn’t about to complain about having a place to sit).

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve I sent Ricky a text to see if I might stop by to train. I’d tried to rope Pete into joining me but he was adamant about needing to prep a holiday feast at his parents’ house.

“My mom’ll kill me if I don’ help her out with dinner,” he said.

“You never should’ve told her you wanted to be a chef.”

He shrugged and put his hands up. “Can’t go back on it now. I’ll come train tomorrow.”

But Ricky was more than happy to have me come by, and said he may even do a little training himself before he had to head to his sister’s for holiday dinner.

Heater will be on, he texted back. A nice means of reassuring me that I wouldn’t have to start training with an icy cold barbell.

When I arrived I could hear the heater running already, and even just standing by the door I could feel some of the warmth from inside. Despite the heater’s small size it produced heat with an intensity that bordered on nuclear; frequently we had to train with the side door open in the winter, just to keep the temperature manageable.

I could also hear—while still standing outside of the garage—the sound of plates being dropped against the platform. He started without me, I thought, slightly annoyed at this. I waited for the sound to cease, making sure there weren’t more reps to come, and then opened the door.

It took me a moment to recover from what I saw after stepping inside, which was no doubt noticeable.

“Hey,” I said, trying to sound casual.

“Hey,” said Libby, who had much greater success in this than I.

 

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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.

 

[next chapter]

Posted in Of Iron and Bronze, olympic weightlifting | 1 Comment