When Ricky heard the news about Libby he was primarily concerned about how this would play out with Nationals.
“You gotta stay focused on what’s important,” he said. “Work through this later. For now, focus on Nationals. We’re less than a month away.”
He was about to take a lift—he’d decided to join me for a little training himself after I’d arrived at his garage—when he stopped and looked at me. “You don’t think she’ll say nothing, do you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, although in truth I had no idea. For all I knew she was dialing USADA, USAW, and the local police department at that very moment.
“Okay,” he said, sounding not entirely convinced. “Well, just piss clean and it don’t matter, right?”
We trained without regard to program or logic, cobbling together a workout like rootless wanderers building temporary shelter from whatever materials were at hand. A few snatches here, some cleans there, jerks when we felt like it. All held together by the strands of conversation woven throughout these lifts, words drifting around us like tangible things in the warm summer air.
“Ain’t no way to train serious with a girlfriend, or a wife,” he said at one point. “Best training years I ever had was after my girlfriend dumped me leading up to the 80 Games.”
“Why’d she dump you?”
“Said I was training too much,” he said, laughing. On reflection he added: “Which was true, of course. No way around that. But we all trained too much. Pretty much everybody on that team was divorced or single by the time the Games rolled around, even though we didn’t end up competing. Takes a lotta your time. Anything does, if you wanna do it at that level.”
I nodded, did a quick power clean and jerk with 130, and then sat down. The lifting felt good, even if my emotional state was dangerously fragile. I had no clear sense of what my hormonal profile looked like but I imagined it wasn’t ideal.
Ricky stood and added a few metal change plates to the barbell, bringing the weight to 145. He power cleaned it in his fashion—brutally strong, hideously inefficient, a lift that perfectly captured the man himself, in all his faded sweatsuit glory. He jerked the weight to a bent-arm pressout and then brought it down to his chest, at which point he jerked it again in an effort to do it right. The second jerk was better, if only marginally so. He released the barbell, letting it crash on the wooden platform in a calamity of sound and dust and chalk.
“White lights on that second one?” he asked.
“Two out of three,” I said.
“That’s all you need.”
My emotional stability held until later that evening, when I told Pete about the developments after he returned from work.
“Why didn’t you blame me?” he asked, almost angry at my having not done so.
“I thought about it,” I said. “But it seemed shitty. Plus it was all in my room.”
He shrugged and put his hands up. “Same apartment. Maybe you give me shots. Maybe we share a bed. Could be any number reasons! You fool!”
“No,” I said, “she knew. It was a disaster. Fuck.”
And with that I broke down, letting out a cry that sounded like some dying animal and pushing back tears. “Fuck,” I said. “I don’t know if this is from Libby or my goddamn estrogen levels.”
“Prob’ly both,” said Pete. And I was quite sure he was right.
For a moment we said nothing, and I sat and breathed deeply in an effort to restore my emotional footing.
“Listen, if you just wanna be alone, sit in your room, listen to Dashboard Confessional and do your own thing that’s cool,” he said. “But if you wanna eat somethin’, take your mind off this, I got just the thing.”
“I could eat,” I said.
He smiled and went into his room. When he returned he was carrying a little metal safe he owned, in which I’d seen him store documents, our lease, cash, etc. Anything of value. He set the safe on our coffee table and turned the key in it with great care and not a little ceremony. Upon opening the lid he reached in and pulled out a small bottle of maple syrup whose seal was yet unbroken. This he displayed for me the way a curator might show off a rare icon. The liquid inside was a deep amber color and seemed to illuminate his hands.
“I been savin’ this for almost a decade buddy,” he said, passing me the bottle.
“You had a thing for maple syrup when you were, what, twelve? Thirteen?”
“Let’s just say I was ahead of my class when it came to breakfast food, okay? Anyways, I been holdin’ on to this for a special occasion or somethin’. Like if we ever made it to Worlds or the Olympics.”
I took the bottle in both hands as though he were passing me an infant. Despite the bottle’s size it seemed inordinately heavy, as though the weight of years had accumulated within the glass itself. The bottle’s writing was entirely in French, taking it far beyond my own limited experiences with breakfast food toppings and into the rarefied realm of haute cuisine.
He nodded with great solemnity. “Don’t even ask the price or how I got it,” he said. “I knew a guy. Seems like tonight’s a good time to try it out. You down for some pancakes?”
We took the Turnpike up to Andros Diner in Newark, passing factories and refineries and smokestacks along the way. The general industrial landscape of New Jersey, all of it glowing orange in the light of sodium vapor lamps that dotted the great structures, was more than a little comforting—beautiful, even—in its familiarity. At the diner, which was filled with an assortment of locals and regulars and on-duty cops, we feasted on pancakes and bacon and eggs. The syrup was exquisite, although so was all maple syrup, and to my unrefined palette I could hardly tell it from something that’d came from the grocery store down the block. But Pete, in an effort to distract me from my misery, swore to its superiority, and regaled me with tales of its origin and manufacture.
“Small batches!” he kept saying, evoking images of some grizzled old French Canadian distilling the stuff one ounce of liquid gold at a time. “Can you imagine the dedication to that?”
“No,” I said, quite honestly. I had no idea what it meant to be devoted to anything outside the gym.
“Years!” he kept exclaiming. “Years to collect enough syrup to make just a few bottles!”
A few other patrons in the diner, all of whom were content to debase their pancakes with corn syrup chicanery, stared at us from time to time. But Pete was unconcerned.
I considered what he’d said and the bottle’s age. “For all we know the guy who made this isn’t even around anymore, if it’s that old.”
Pete thought for a minute and then nodded. “Man, we could be eatin’ this guy’s final work. His end of life masterpiece. Ain’t that somethin’?”
I let the gravity of this sink in. My own problems seemed that much smaller in the face of the lifetime this imagined character had given for a few ounces of maple syrup.
We sat and talked in the diner for so long that when we were ready to pay we realized we’d grown hungry again, and—to the surprise of our waitress—we ordered another stack of pancakes to tide us over for the drive home. When we finally did leave it was very late, and we arrived back at our apartment well after midnight. I knew Pete had to work again early in the morning but he brushed aside my concerns.
“I could work anytime,” he said. “Ain’t every day I get to share a bottle of overpriced syrup.”
Several years later, when Pete and I were training in the gym alone one afternoon, I brought up that syrup. He recalled it and the late night drive for pancakes.
“You’d had that bottle ten years?” I asked, still incredulous that any weightlifter could save food for that long.
He looked at me from his platform, pausing before taking a lift. “That what I said?”
He smiled and bent down to grab the barbell. “I mighta exaggerated a little. A lot.”
“What? When was it from?”
He did a quick snatch and then considered the question. “April, prob’ly. Mighta been March. Late March. It was a gift for Easters.” Seeing the disbelief on my face, he added: “You needed it, buddy.”