The fabled showdown between Ricky and Myron, in which the latter was heavily favored for victory even if his training had been varied and inconsistent at best, was not to be. There had been no sign of Myron since we’d arrived at the Arnold, and when he finally responded to the texts Libby’d been sending all day his response was as simple as it was cryptic:
Shit sorry got stuck somewhere
“What does that even mean?” cried Joe, who was alternately staring at this message and around the room, as though the answer to the riddle were to be found somewhere among the lifting crowd.
“It probably means he was out with his deadbeat friends and totally forgot,” said Libby.
Ricky was disappointed, but Myron was just one player in the session’s highly anticipated festivities. The venue was filled to capacity with all manner of spectators: die-hard weightlifting fans, current athletes, ex-athletes, old coaches, strangers unsure of what they were waiting for, bodybuilders and powerlifters wanting to see a little action from a sister sport. Adding to the excitement was the knowledge that a handful of foreign athletes—a few Russians, possibly an Eastern European—would be lifting in this session, which featured the heaviest weights to be lifted during the whole competition, regardless of weight class. There were nine competitors total, ranging from a 77 up to a couple of superheavies, all doing relatively big weights. Declared openers in the snatch ranged from 135 for Ricky up to a huge 170 kilos for a Russian ringer, a young 94 competing slightly heavy as a 105, by the name of Dmitry Klokov.
“Didn’t he miss this weight three times in training last week?” I asked, as Ricky’s name was announced for his first attempt.
“Yeah but he just shook Arnold’s hand,” Pete reminded him.
Joe nodded. “Dollar bet you guys: make or miss?”
Joe won three dollars on that bet but lost more on subsequent lifts. In the midst of the outrageous final session, with the motley crowd going wild for every incremental increase of the barbell’s weight, Ricky managed two lifts: 135 and 165. But none of that seemed to matter: with the music playing before each attempt and the cheers of fans and newcomers and the carnival-type atmosphere Ricky thrived. He knew what the crowd wanted. Yes, they came to see big lifts, and in that they were not disappointed; 180 and 220 by Klokov, to name just two. But what they really wanted was a performance, and in that respect Ricky was Hamlet and this the Globe Theatre. Just the look of him—beastly, hairy, something you weren’t sure you wanted to invite into the house—was almost spectacle enough. Within that hyper-tanned and carefully curated fitness world he was something rare and unfamiliar, which made him that much more captivating. And though he missed four of his six lifts he fought for each one like a man in mortal combat against an opponent. Nobody in that room could say he’d given up early. On the contrary, some likely felt that giving up was probably a better option…
“Never,” said Ricky afterwards, when another coach passed by and told him to take it easy for a couple days. No doubt he believed that and had no plans on stopping. Ever.
We returned to the hotel after eating and recounting the day’s events, all of which were already being modified and exaggerated and spun into our own histories. Those of us ready for round two of the Arnold, all the post-competition celebrating and carousing, headed down to the hotel bar after some brief pre-gaming in mine and Pete and Libby’s room, during which time Joe managed to spill an entire can of Steel Reserve on one of our beds.
“My beer!” he cried, nearly in tears.
“Fuck your beer,” said Libby. “That was my bed!”
But Joe seemed unconcerned with this, and soon we were all down at the hotel bar, along with a few other lifters from our area who’d also made the trip to the Arnold. Pete and I grabbed a couple gin and tonics and found a nice low wall to lean against, from which we could survey the crowd and its attendant madness. The hour was late—midnight, perhaps later—but the bar was still filled and the crowds showed no signs of letting up. By sheer coincidence (or was it?) there was a Big Beautiful Woman event going on at the bar, so the patrons were a curious mix of the fit and the Rubenesque. Yet everyone mingled well within the context of the Arnold’s celebration of all things body-related, and thanks to the drinks and the music it was not long before a cheerful chaos was general.
“This is great!” said Joe, who’d been drinking steadily since the spilled Steel Reserve. “Libby, Pete, Jon—shots!”
“I think I’m good…” Libby started to say, but Joe wasn’t hearing this. He turned to the bar and slapped down a twenty, unsettling his current drink in the process. “Barkeep! Four Jagers!”
I handed my shot to a passing teammate and then watched as Libby pretended to throw back hers, instead placing it directly in front of Joe while he was drinking his own.
“What’s this?” he said, trying to focus on the full glass before him.
“Another shot,” said Libby. “I just got it for you.”
He looked at her as though she’d just deposited a small puppy in his lap. Tears of unfettered joy threatened to flood the bar. But he composed himself, tossed back the drink, and headed for the dance floor, pulling her and anyone else within reach along with him.
That bastard, I thought, with something that felt less like jealousy and more like regret. He’d probably planned the spilled Steel Reserve on her bed the whole time. Come stay in my room, he’d offer later, if he was sober enough, your bed’s all wet…
“’Nother g’n’t?” Pete asked, rattling the ice in his empty glass.
“I’m good,” I said. The first drink had just taken the edge off of things, giving the world that slightly fuzzy pleasantness that makes you think another drink, and then another, is a great idea. And it was tempting to take that path; just get totally wrecked, giving myself over to the night and its whims. It’d worked in the past, in a fashion, so why not? But some nagging bit inside me, in the voice of Ricky or Nikos, reminded me of training on Monday, and Nationals in just a few months. My liver probably had a say, as well, given the work it was already doing handling the restoratives…
“I’m gonna head in,” I said, when Pete returned with a fresh gin and tonic.
“Not me,” he said, eyeing the crowd. “Some of these women may just be interested in knowing I’m a chef…”
“If you need the bed just kick me out. Shoot me a warning text and I’ll be gone.”
“I may need both beds if I get lucky.”
I wandered back to the room, thinking of how even just that one drink—perhaps mixed with the fading Modafinil and the bass of the dance music—was enough to rekindle old memories of going out and partying in years past. It seemed a strange era to me, and I struggled to find continuity between that earlier one and the one I was then living. As though someone else had occupied my person for those days and months and years, breaking the continuity of selfhood we normally take for granted.
Drugs are perhaps a common thread. There was always a love of ritual, and the current ampules and syringes and injections certainly satisfied that. But the drugs of old were a means of escaping the present moment, or at least of rendering it bearable or transitory. In some ways I could see the critical link—pouring out a little pile of white powder, cutting and recutting and dividing the lines of powder up, tightly rolling a twenty-dollar bill, or a five or ten or single, if the twenties had all gone to the drug’s purchase—but reconciling the two seemed futile. To me there was a rather firm line between PEDs and recreational drugs. I was certain I was not the same person I had been all those years ago…
Such terrible memories. Then as now I could still feel the metallic drip of coke at the back of my throat, the numbness in the gums; or else the electric surge that came when good ecstasy hit, a moment that seems to send a current throughout the entire body. Sometimes all it takes is a driving club beat for the sensation to return, and I’ll wonder if there isn’t some trace of the drug still coursing through my veins. Other times I’ll be at a urinal and I’ll think back to the hours spent in bar and club bathrooms, doing lines in stalls, talking to anyone foolish enough to come within earshot, sometimes sharing my drugs and then later cursing myself for doing so when they eventually ran out.
Awful. I was glad to be past those days, even if they were closer behind me than I wanted to admit. Glad, even if I could still feel a slight pull from those drugs, like an insistent tugging at one leg, telling me Just another taste; a tiny taste…
I returned to the room. The odor of Joe’s spilt beer was still strong, and I sighed a mix of regret and jealousy and resignation. Better this way, I thought. Leave the partying and late night trysts to the others. I was an athlete. For me, a little sleep was all I wanted. The competition had gone well, but Monday it was back to work. And there was still a long, long drive home in the morning.
I undressed, performed the usual pre-bed ablutions, and slipped under the covers. We had set the thermostat low and the room was nicely chilled, perfect for sleeping. I enjoyed the moments of wakeful repose, looking forward to the sleep that was soon to come. Just as I was nodding off the door opened, cutting the room in half with a beam of light from the hallway, and I worried that maybe Pete was with someone. I rolled over slightly for a better look.
“Hey,” I said.
“Sorry,” said Libby, almost a whisper. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”