With the wisdom of years, we know now what we wrought: a national pastime tainted beyond the telling, a pandemic of wrestlers dying in their 30s and 40s, and high school sophs sized like Pro Bowl tackles, their hearts and livers ticking down to doomsday. It's easy enough to see how we got here. Give a kid the means to rewrite his DNA and what you get, soon enough, is a subset of males who flout the inconvenience that we call rules.
But back in 1976, I saw none of that coming. I'd been training for a month more or less constantly, cutting Anthropology to lift alone, then returning to the gym for an hour at night. Alas, I learned that you can't build pecs from scraps of skin and bone. What's needed to make marbleized, long-strand muscle is the kiln-ready clay of loose flesh, and for the life of me, I couldn't pack it on. Despite lunches dense in complex carbs, all I seemed to get for my gluttony was a series of bowl-busting dumps. At the start of January 1976, I weighed 149. By the end of the month, I weighed 151, and neither new pound waved back at me when I posed in the bathroom mirror.
Then I ran into a kid at a party whom I knew vaguely from the gym. Kenny, as I'll call him, was a poor man's Mark: 5-foot-9 at most and slim through the hips, but he strained the seams of his Huk-a-Poo shirt with a splendid slant-V trunk. He had a nervous way of squeezing his fists open and closed, but it was his eyes that worried me: They seemed to fairly pulse inside their sockets.
He clapped me on the arm, said I was looking a little bigger, and asked what I was "bumping." I scrolled my brief lexicon of bodybuilding. "Um, do you mean benching?"
Laughing, he wrote his number on the flap of a matchbook. "Call me tomorrow, and I'll totally get you started. Oh, and I don't take checks, so stop by the bank."
The next morning, I climbed up a snow-slick rise to his off-campus place in a brick colonial. I rang the bell expecting tawdry squalor, his pad done up in early Hustler. Instead it boasted a leather sofa, a smoked-glass troika of cocktail tables, and the sound system of my dreams.
Kenny went into a back room. A few minutes later he came back cradling a footed case of fine-grained oak and ash. A voile false panel lifted out, baring a stash box lined in felt, with custom-fitted slots for the goods on offer. And what goods they were, those vials and bottles and old-style chrome syringes. I caught myself gaping at the thin-gauge sharps and unsayable, all-capped names, the decanoates and oxandrolones that read like runic chanting. A shiver went through me, deep and wide: I knew in that spectral moment I'd crossed a line.
"So, if I started out with just some basic stuff – "
"A cycle's what we call it. Or a stack, if you're doing a combo. Why don't we hook you up right now?" I shriveled. "Um…all right."
He led me down the hall to a bonus space that he'd fixed up as a mini-gym. I watched as he unwrapped a newish needle and filled it from an amp of something called Deca-Durabolin. "Don't worry, dude. This is top-grade gear from the finest labs in East Berlin."
He handed over the syringe and undid his belt; for a moment, I thought he was going to use it to tie off my vein. Instead, he turned around and presented his naked rump. The skin was a crazy quilt of grays and mauves and hardened lumps that looked like topped-out landfills. "Don't worry about the welts; I'm doing a big stack now. It's just to show where you start out spiking."
He gestured for me to face the wall. "Put your weight on your front foot so the skin hangs loose. If you want, I'll do ya this first time. Spare you the risk of swelling up."
"No, I – I've gotta learn. Just give me room."
He moved to the side a foot and knelt to guide my hand. But before I jabbed, I stopped for a second to think it over. Kenny, taking my pause for weakness, shoved the needle in and pressed the plunger. Stunned, I shifted weight to the right (i.e., wrong) foot; the knotted fibers of the buttock yowled, bruising right before my very eyes. From hip to tailbone, I felt a sprawl of heat, as if someone had scattered buckshot in my ass.
"See? You fucked up," Kenny said. "Next time, listen when someone tells you. It might just save you a hebe-atoma."
"What?" I glared, in no mood for Jew jokes.
"Nothing," he said. "It's a word I learned in Bio. It means bruise, and that one there'll be a smoker."