It was the fall of 1975, and I was having such a rough go of it that even my hair was depressed. Styled on David Bowie of Aladdin Sane vintage, it was long in back and purportedly spiked on top, but drooped like Three Dog Night in a two-day downpour. I stood 6-foot-1, weighed 150 pounds, and hadn't been laid since Nixon's reelection, making me, like George McGovern, a landslide loser. At the ripe age of 20, I had a mad crush on Ginger from 'Gilligan's Island' and organized my day around the 4 pm reruns. I had plenty of time to watch, having dropped out of college and been fired from a series of flathead jobs, including two at which I actually volunteered.
And so that January, I did what middle-class kids do when life gets bored of beating them senseless – ran, hat in hand, back to college. Though the State University at Stony Brook billed itself as the "Berkeley of the East," it was fairer, I think, to call it the "McNeese State of the North," a school whose students were mostly interested in cars and picking up overtime at Sears. To walk the length of my residence hall was to know both the joys of a fierce contact high and the canon of Gregg and Duane Allman.
With the exception of mine, the one door on the hall kept closed belonged to a tall blond kid with big muscles. Actually, big doesn't begin to give a sense of the guy. The first time I saw Mark, he was leaving the john, wearing a towel so small it gaped at the hip and thigh. He had cannonball shoulders that looked carved from brass – burnished arcs at the top of his arms that flowed into half-moon biceps. His chest was a slab of T-squared boxes, beneath which knelt columns of raised abdominals that bunched and torqued as he moved. I turned around, slack-jawed, and watched him go; it took all my self-control not to applaud.
For weeks I watched as girls trooped by in hopes of scoping Mark in low-rise briefs. Finally I knocked on his door. He listened to my spiel about being an asthmatic who'd grown up skinny and phobic, and allowed that he himself had been gangly until the summer before his senior year of high school. "What," he asked, "do you want at the gym? D'ya want to get big or you want to get strong?"
My head in a sweat, I pondered the question like a man who'd just rubbed an old lamp. "What I really want is… I want to get laid."
The next day I bought my first pair of Nikes and met Mark at the bottom of Stony Brook's field house. Behind airshafts and pump rooms was a tiny space that constituted the campus weight room. It reeked of old mold and stagnant air, and the sum total of its apparatuses – two aged Universals – had oxidized a rusty ambergris. I followed Mark back to the rear machine, where, after a stern lecture about "respecting the room," he had me lie on the bench.
Drawing a breath in, I whistled it out and hefted 70 pounds in the air. They hung there a moment, eyeing the view, then came down much too fast. "Slowly!" Mark yelled at me. "You lift the weight; the weight isn't s'posed to lift you!" Chagrined, I shoved the bar up again and offered some push-back when it dropped. I did a third rep, and a fourth, when something strange happened. A radiant heat began filling my chest, as if someone had draped a compress across it. I did another rep and the feeling spread, inching past the collarbone toward my throat. I kept on going, losing track of reps, attuned to the muzzy, pins-and-needles buzz that was setting up in my ears. It was sharp and soft, then hot and cool. I forgot who I was and even what I was, imagining myself as a two-stroke engine and my arms as pistons firing. Dropping that last rep, I lay there, clinically stoned, wrists hanging limp at my sides, watching fireworks on the back of my lids.
"Up," Mark ordered. "No sleeping between sets."
I stood in a daze, savoring the burn in my chest and the wash of lactic acid down my arms. It was cold enough to see my exhaled breath, and the only sounds that intercut the noonday silence were Mark's bellicose grunts while benching. But when I looked at myself in the unframed mirror mounted crookedly on the wall, I thought, This is the thing I've been searching for; I've found it, and I'm not leaving. I've been paying for that fix, very nearly with my life, ever since.