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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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.