Where the fuck have my balls gone.
This is a statement, not a question.
"Where the fuck have your balls gone," Eli says. When he says this, he doesn't really care where they've gone. He's saying that they're not there, that you may have never even had them.
"How many times have you hit this in training? Don't act like this is hard. Come on, Nate."
Hands slapping my shoulders and back, stinging the muscles to life with sensation. Eli's right, I've lifted this weight or more dozens of times in training, a dozen times this past month alone. But if you can't get your head straight, even 70% of your best snatch can still fuck you.
I've missed this weight twice, and in competition you get three attempts. The idea is to open with a weight you know you can do in your sleep, to ensure you post a total. Then you push the weight for the next two attempts. The worst thing that can happen in competition, other than getting injured, is you miss your starting weight three times - you bomb-out, you don't get to post a total.
And this sounds simple, obviously you only lift a weight you know you can handle, right? But weightlifting isn't that kind of sport; it's more like throwing, the movements are explosive, ballistic, and there's things like bar trajectory and center-of-mass to keep track of. Technique is a huge part of weightlifting, if your shoulders aren't over the bar when you start the "second pull," the short, explosive extension of the body that accelerates the bar up, you won't have leverage; if you don't jam the shoulders up and the head forward when the bar's overhead, you're going to lose it; if you don't catch the jerk overhead before the bar starts to fall too fast, you're going to miss it. So in a weightlifting competition, you're either going to look like a clumsy fuck or a badass.
When you lift, there's a certain point at which the movement becomes automatic and you don't remember what happens until you receive the bar overhead or on your shoulders, and I can't remember where I fucked this last one up, all I remember is thinking, it's not enough, not enough, the bar's out in front, too far to push my head and shoulders under, I haven't locked it out, and gravity lets it fall back down in front of me. Three red lights flash behind me, no-lift, I'm already leaving the stage.
The announcer's going on about "good effort from Nate Shaw," asking for a big hand from everyone, and they give it, but it just makes it suck more, you never want sympathy when you know you've done better. When I walk back into the warm-up room from the platform, nobody's clapping.
"Hey, it happens man," the other lifters say.
"The fuck were you thinking," Eli asks me a week later over lunch - over-stuffed turkey-and-swiss subs with olive oil and vinegar.
"Fuck if I know."
"That's why Renee's shacking with that tall, skinny emo fuck instead of you."
"Then again you're a little on the scrawny side, too, so she probably went for the lesser of two pussies."
Let me tell you why I put up with this asshole's shit. Eli and I are weightlifters. We met a year ago, we used to train under the same coach until he more or less stopped coaching us. We were the last of the college-age lifters that trained under him, everyone else our age had already left to train on their own. It's not because he's a bad coach, he brought one of the country's best heavyweights to the top, but he's thinking of the future. Most of the college students like us started training late in high school or in their freshman year of college. In terms of producing phenomenal lifters, that's too late. Kids in China, eastern Europe, they start training in grade school, and that's primarily the age group that he focuses on at his facility. People like me and Eli who start a little late, we can get "good," "eventually," sure, but we're not championship material, we're not names that'll get his name spread throughout the weightlifting community. This guy's got two up-and-coming kids who've been training since age 11, they're breaking junior records in their sophomore year of high school. Kids like them are who he focuses his efforts on coaching, they're the ones who're going to make him known as a successful coach. The older students, like us, he'll help us out, sure, but he doesn't coach.
So one day after a training session in which we went through a workout on our own, with some breaks to watch a 14 year-old go for his biggest clean-and-jerk yet (he eventually got it, scrappy bastard), Eli stops me on the way to my car and says, "Look, dude, fuck this shit, I dunno about you but kids make me nervous, let's just meet up at my dad's garage gym and do some stuff on our own."
At the time I didn't like kids, either, at least in that environment, so I figured, why the hell not.
Eli's dad was never home. He had a half-rack for squatting in his garage among some other miscellaneous gym equipment, artifacts of the 80s (maybe the 70s), and a few years ago Eli had invested in an old, used York bar with some mismatched bumper plates. His mom didn't like him going over there to train (Eli's parents were divorced) but it was a shorter drive and sometimes he liked to train a little late or a little early.
I met him on a Thursday for our first "official" autonomous training session. We lifted for hours, spending most of the evening loading unnecessarily high percentages of our best numbers and lifting our hearts out, trying to get it from the floor to overhead. Through it all Eli played the alpha dog, keeping us focused, bringing out our aggression. We didn't have a formal coach in the garage, no one who could analyze our technique and tell us what to correct, but what we lacked in technical knowledge we made up in raw energy. We fed off of each other; between us, I wasn't particularly strong or explosive but faster under the bar, Eli didn't have bad technique but he relied on an impossibly brute force extension generated from his welterweight1 frame, and whoever lifted a "big single" first that day, after the warm-ups and the lighter work, would set the mood for the rest of the session. We either tried to smoke the living shit out of the weight, shooting under to catch it so fast that we lost our timing and the bar crashed on us and made the recovery harder from the squat (but that didn't matter to us, I mean we smoked THE SHIT out of the lift so we didn't give a fuck), or pull it straight to the ceiling of the garage.
And off to the side, Eli with his game face on, would remind us why we were there. "Head up, head up, good. Now tight, keep the chest up. Let me see some drive here, down and explode up, dominate that shit."
Training was never scheduled. Eli would give me a call, or I'd send him a text, and we'd meet accordingly. It was a little haphazard, but to me it was the only meaningful thing I did every day. Even when summer came, the evening session in the garage is what I looked forward to, breaking out into a cold, shock-induced sweat with the blood pounding in my ears and two more lifts to go. It was probably one of the happiest times of my life.
And then I met Renee.
* * *
She was 5'3" and 110lbs of cute indie rock girl. She was in my A&P lecture. That's not where I met her, though. We ran into each other at United Market Place while we were both getting lunch. I don't go to class a lot, but I remembered her black-framed glasses and the red bandana in her hair and those Cupid lips pursed into a frown.
She said, "Hey you're in my A-and-P class right?"
"Yeah, hey, what's up."
"Dude, I haven't been to class in like a month, since the last exam, am I missing anything big?"
This is stupid but I have a habit of falling in love with girls who are so charmingly cavalier about their irresponsibility and self-admitted character flaws. And that voice, the mischievous smirk on those lips - "Not really, just some figures that aren't in the text. If you want I can copy mine for you and give you the notes."
We met at the library after lunch. When we went to the copying room on the second floor she sat on a desk and leaned back against the wall while I printed out the copies. In my head I was imagining locking the door and pinning her wrists against the wall and smothering her mouth with mine. I handed her the papers and gave her a run-down of the notes.
She said, "thank you so much," and winked good-bye.
After that she came to class a lot more often. I did, too. We took each other to lunch afterwards regularly, on the pretense of going over the material that was covered in class. We honestly did do some genuine discussion, but we snuck the clever questions, the coy answers in with each rendezvous. But before long there was a problem.
"So what do you do?" she asked, "I mean, when you're not spending time with me, of course, I know I am your entire world but surely there's more to you than just me."
And see this is where the dichotomy starts. If you're training for a non-mainstream sport, throwing, weightlifting, anything that tests the boundaries of human performance, man, that's your fuckin4 life. You don't do anything else, and you don't want to do anything else. And some people can see that and they'll think, man, that's dedication, that's athleticism. And then some other people, a lot of people actually, will look at that, and they'll think, man, that's kind of boring, what's the point, is that even a sport? I mean especially weightlifting, there is no following to this sport. The only spectators are people who used to lift, and maybe a track coach or something. Basically the only people who know about it are the people who actually train or have trained. And to those people, there is nothing greater than this sport. To every one else, people who can snatch hundreds of pounds from the floor to directly overhead in under a second haven't even earned the right to be called athletes.
I think this is true for a lot of things. If you tell someone, "I'm a writer," people who like to read and write will think that's cool, oh you're so artistic. Everyone else is going to think you're a nerdy fuck with glasses.
Every time this question comes up, and you tell them, you're taking a gamble. Am I fuckin up right now?
I went with my gut instinct. I told her the truth.
"Sucks for you," Eli told me later that day in his garage. "Did you tell her the part where you don't have a life?"
"What did she say?"
"I dunno, she joked about steroids for a second and then said she had to go meet a friend."
"That's probably indie rock girl-ese for ummmm well I just lost interest in you forever so I'm going to go listen to The Strokes with my indie rock guy friend that's in a band."
"MotherFUCK," this is accompanied by the crash of bumper plates behind me - I'd snatched the bar overhead, but couldn't hold it there, it's just too much.
"Come on, man," Eli says, "Get tight, you're loose as fuck in that overhead position. And forget about the girl, what do you expect from someone so existentialist? Wait, hold on before you go again, let me tell you the most important thing you will ever need to know in life - hide your strengths."
I wait a second, I let that one sink in. Then I understand. "What the fuck has that got to do with anything? Isn't that from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Are you fuckin kidding me? Get the fuck out of here, Gandhi, I'm trying to lift."
"Yeah, but it doesn't mean what you think it does. It means, don't talk about who you are. Don't let people know about the things you value in life. They don't care, they don't even understand. You and me, we're fighting the good fight. People spend their entire lives sedating themselves with literature2, drugs, sex, money, and they call that happiness, girls like Renee call it fun. If you want anything else in this world, you're on your fuckin own."
* * *
Eli has his first real girlfriend at a ripe, teenage 17.
His mom told me she was a pretty, sweet little thing. She doesn't know how he conned her into dating him. Eli insists that it worked the other way around. Either way, that girlfriend took him into his first foray into the world of under aged drinking.
I am sure you know the story, his mother would tell me: pretty girls in high school are invariably raging alcoholics. She goes on to explain to me why this is so: "Do you think boys are going to ask ugly girls to party with them?"
"Were you an alcoholic in high school, Ms. Gavin?" I asked her.
"I was not an ugly girl."
Anyways Eli goes to a party. This means he goes to I guess a junior's house, they have a college friend buy them a lot of Keystone, because it is cheaper than Bud or Miller, and maybe ten or twenty kids sit around the house drinking, maybe the more adventurous ones use a beer bong, a couple people smoke cigarettes and talk about how pointless it all is, all of it, the smart ones skip the formalities and took the first taker to a private room or backseat. And he never notices it at the time, but the next day he will hear that someone was high on coke that night (to Eli the rumor of drug use has always seemed to be just that).
"Come on," this is what is always said at these kinds of social functions, "come on, I need another beer, I'm not drunk yet."
Everything's good. Eli knows most of the people. The conversation is fun. The girls are being attention whores; they are kissing each other at the persistent requests of their male counterparts. Others are allowing themselves to be sweet-talked into a hook-up. Eli's girlfriend has her hands under his shirt, running up and down the front of his body. They make out. She says, "baby you're so wonderful." Eli thinks to himself, this ain't bad. It's kind of fun.
The next weekend they go to another party. Different house, the crowd's a little different, but they're drinking Bud tonight. Someone brings out a beer bong - "hey isn't that from Joe's?" - and claims that they can't get drunk otherwise. Girls start kissing girls, then they start kissing guys, and Eli and his girlfriend lock themselves in a bathroom. Tonight he notices white powder on the counter.
Outside in the hallway he can hear a girl murmur in a velvet voice into someone's ear, "baby you're so wonderful."
Eli thinks it gets old after a while. His girlfriend doesn't. They break up.
"I'll get over it," he says.
"Where you been?" he is asked sometimes. "You never do anything anymore. What are you up to? You need to relax man, do something exciting. You're letting life pass you by."
"I'm just a lazy fuck, OK? There, I said it, get off my nuts," and he gives a comedic shrug.
He's lost most of his training logs from high school, but the important numbers are from his senior year, anyway. The night of his graduation, while everyone he knew was getting smashed out of their goddamn minds, his workload consisted of moving 5852lbs over aperiod of half an hour; ten snatches, twelve clean-and-jerks, less than a minute of rest between singles.
* * *
The next time Renee asks me to lunch, she says, "do you want to come with us," and goes on to explain, "I'm meeting my other friend Paul up there. He'd like you, you're so funny."
You cannot say no to Renee. When she asks you to do something with her she hides her lips, as if you could break her heart if you denied her, but she wouldn't let it show and would go to her car and cry and listen to Death Cab For Cutie.
So I say, "yes," and then I say, "there is nothing I would rather do than have attention that should be going solely to me be divided between myself and a competitor," but the last part is only wishful thinking.
Paul is a tall, lanky emo fuck. When Renee introduces him to me at the queue he smiles charmingly and extends his hand. I hate that I instantly like him. He's so pretty I would make out with him.
Renee giggles, "Paul, this is Nate, this is the strongman who secretly harbors aspirations of competing at the Olympic Games."
"Oh yes," I say, "nothing breaks the ice better than mocking a third party's hopes and dreams. Hello, Paul, I'm the kid with the spark of life in his eyes who can only meet disappointment and heartbreak in the future."
Paul is the lead guitarist in a band, "This Last Denouement," and is an amazing songwriter. His band is probably some of the best talent ever to grace the local scene and he has a record label deal coming up over the summer. When Renee tells me this her hand is on his arm. Paul tells me about how crazy the scene's gotten.
"So other than the lifting, what do you do?" Paul asks me.
"Honestly, not much."
"Do you ever get bored?" When Renee says this she's not being accusatory, it's a genuine curiosity.
Let me take a moment to tell you something you already know about people. Everyone is bored out of their fuckin minds. This is the price of not having to constantly worry about just surviving - what do I do with all this free time? It's weird how sedentary, or even self-destructive, people can get - I've already told you Eli's story. So I always think it's weird when I tell people how I spend my time, and they ask me if I get bored, as if there's something better I could be doing. What could possibly be better than striving to achieve that which, according to all contemporaries, peers, and authorities, cannot be done?
I turn to Paul and I say, "Do you ever get bored with making music?"
Lunch is light, so is the conversation. This is fine. Renee's still laughing at my unparalleled wit and charisma, and so is Paul, so fuck it, at least I make a couple friends. And to be completely honest with you I've got a copy of Cursive's Domestica in my car's cd player (Renee once said that we are all closet emo kids at heart3).
Renee leaves us to use the restroom, and we watch her slip her phone out of her ridiculously large bag and begin to text away. She's on the phone before she even gets to the ladies' room door.
"So, strongman," Paul says to me, "Are you serious about the Olympics? Doesn't everyone roid?"
"Got to try," I say. "Nobody knows better than me how impossible it is. But there's this line I've heard that reminds me of why I even bother, 'my ambition out-stripped my potential,' and like, I dunno, maybe I'll never qualify for the World Team but I can still do something worth talking shit about, you know, that's just putting in the effort, you don't need roids to do that."
"Yeah, dude, I feel you, I feel you. Yeah, me and Renee were just joking, we totally respect that, chasing your dreams, man, that takes balls."
I can taste the shit in my bastardized gyro.
We leave a few minutes after Renee gets back. She pulls me aside before we leave the food court and she says, "I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you like this but you looked so disappointed. I know we might have had something going but I just think we'd really work better as friends. But I think you're hilarious, and I love you. Please don't hate me." Before I can gather my formidable wit to think of some dashing repartee she's with Paul again, and those lips twisted into a smirk graze his cheek.
She is giving me the one thing my ego cannot carry. Sympathy is too heavy a load.
* * *
Three weeks later I bomb-out in the snatch at Junior Nationals. Just couldn't keep it up there.
There are more meets, like Collegiates, Nationals and the American Open, but this is my last year as a junior lifter, my last year as a young kid with potential to have the opportunity to lift against other kids my age. After this year I'm an adult, 21, whatever I do is no longer a sign of things to come but of what simply is. A junior snatching 80% of the American record can do great things; a senior snatching 80% of the record is nothing to talk shit about.
I was taking the tape off my wrists in the warm-up room behind the stage when Eli found me.
Outside, the announcer calls for the next lifter, James Perry with one-twenty-six. A moment later there's an expectant silence, then the clink of metal plates against the collars, a thud, and then the weight hitting the platform is muffled by the roar of approval from the spectators. Good lift from James Perry.
"Why do you do it to yourself, Nate, I don't understand why."
I suddenly feel very heavy.
* * *
A week later, Eli asks me, "The fuck were you thinking."
"Fuck if I know."
"That's why Renee's shacking with that tall, skinny emo fuck instead of you."
A few tables away in the Market Place food court, Renee and Paul eat happily together. We wave. They wave back.
"That wasn't awkward at all," I say.
After they are done eating they come over and we make small talk again. God I love small talk. Paul's opening tonight for another local band, do you want to come? No, I'm going to have to pass this one up, but hey, break a leg. Thanks, man. Well we've got to get back to class so we'll see you later, bye, Nate.
I tell Eli, "We've got to lift today."
"Do you want to lift?" he says.
"I want to lift."
Let me tell you one of the axioms of training; after competition, you're going to run cold. Competition drains you, doesn't matter if you hit good numbers or not, the body is affected by the mind, and the mind is telling the body, "we just traveled like five hundred miles, that car ride was killer, we're sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, lifting in an unfamiliar environment, this is some crazy shit," and some things aren't going to work like they are supposed to while your body reels from the chaos and recovers from the stress.
So it is common practice to take some time off directly after competition. Eli and I had agreed to not touch weights until next Monday, but if you haven't figured it out by now, I've got an unhealthy psychological relationship with training.
It's stifling in the garage, there is no air conditioning and this is Texas, summer starts as early as February sometimes. We're breaking a sweat while we're going through the movements with just the bar. It's fuckin ridiculous. But we load 50kg on the bar and start warming up, power snatch5, squat snatch, overhead squat, rest, and by the time we get to 80kg we've forgotten the heat.
Everything feels heavy as fuck, my pulling feels sluggish and my recovery from the squat is always a grind, but once you get to a weight that is trying, you're already on automatic, you're just running on habits you've gotten from your coach, from your training partners, from watching video of world-class weightlifters in training late at night.
I work up to the same weight I opened with at Junior Nationals. There's a smirk on my face but it's not a happy one.
"Aggressive," Eli says behind me, "Jam that shit up there."
There is a point at which the movement becomes automatic, you're not conscious of where you produce tension and where you relax, and the second you extend, when the weight's in free-fall and you're shooting into the receiving position to catch it, there's just this blankness, your mind is empty.
The plates have left the platform and I'm pulling the bar up my shins. It brushes up my thighs, I jam my hips forward and my shoulders back, I shrug hard and let my feet leave the floor and pull under, fast, fast, fast, and in that instant there is no weight, there is no Renee, Junior Nationals isn't even a memory, and I am alive.
1 - a welterweight weightlifter clocks in at 77kg/170lbs or under, as opposed to the boxing weight division
2 - no offense of course to my fellow storytellers
3 - and you know in your heart of hearts that this is true
4 - you probably think this is a typo but no, it's not, this is how everyone in Texas says "fucking"
5 - a power snatch or power clean involves moving the weight into the appropriate position without dropping into a squat, necessitating that the weight is moved a greater distance