by James Brown
My obsession with muscle comes to an abrupt and sudden end along a narrow, two-lane mountain highway in the San Bernardino Mountains. Elevation 5,500 feet. Dead of winter. Here I am far removed from the cities and suburban sprawl of the lowlands of Southern California. The night before it snowed lightly and the limbs of the pines bordering the highway are white with frost. It’s a beautiful sight, how the branches shimmer in the morning sun, but the roads are treacherous, slick with black ice, the most dangerous kind because it blends into the asphalt. A shining fine veneer. You can barely see it, if you can see it at all. In years past, I’ve spun out on it and nearly wrecked my car, so I’ve learned to drive carefully. I’m making slow but safe progress when a Dodge Ram suddenly appears in my rearview mirror.
I ignore it.
Soon I look for a place to turn out and let him by, but there is none. As we continue down the highway he edges closer and closer to my bumper until his big front grill fills my back window. My heart begins to pound, and I ease up on the accelerator. That’s when he flips on his high-beams and two sets of fog lamps. Together they are blinding. My face feels hot. My ears ring and then, without further warning, I snap. When he lays on his horn I pull the wheel hard to the left, so that the car spins sideways, blocking both lanes and trapping him. Now I have the son of a bitch, and I don’t care how big he is. I don’t care if he’s a tough guy or a coward.
I jump out of my car. I want blood.
At the time of this altercation, I am bench-pressing 350 pounds. I am squatting over 400, and have, according to Paula, no visible neck. At 5’8”, I weigh 195 pounds, nearly all of it muscle, no small achievement for a guy who only ten months earlier topped the scales at a mere 150.
It would be convenient, in terms of a psychological profile, to suggest that my obsession with muscle stems from an inferiority complex related to my short stature. But that would be only partially true, for it is a combination of factors that fuel my passion, among them middle age. At forty-two I feel that I’m losing my edge. I’m not as energetic. I fatigue more easily and my sexual drive isn’t what it used to be. To compound matters, I have, for the better part of my life, strayed as far from the path of physical and mental health as one possibly can without entirely self-destructing. That is to say, I spent the majority of my years on this planet under the influence of various and sundry illicit substances, all of which extracted a heavy toll on my body. When I “bottom out,” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous—I’ve earned lifetime memberships in them all—I am a pale, gaunt, middle-aged English professor with stick-like arms and a pencil-thin neck.
My goal, other than to stay sober, is to rebuild the body I’d ravaged with booze and dope. At first all I want is to feel and look healthy, maybe tone my body and get my wind back. For the average man, achieving these goals would seem more than enough. After all, most men would kill just to lose their pot bellies, let alone add a couple of inches of muscle to their arms. And under normal circumstances, for the normal person, this is where it would stop. This is where you’re supposed to be happy with the improvements you’ve made and work now only to maintain them.
But I am not a normal person.
I have what in layman terms is called an addictive personality, and what I do, basically, is transfer my addiction to booze and dope to the seemingly healthier obsession of pumping iron.
I work out like a demon two hours a day, five days a week. I eat well. I get eight hours of sleep every night. I subscribe to Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazine. I drink foul-tasting protein shakes and spend a small fortune on body building supplements whose companies make ridiculous claims and promises when in fact their products deliver very little. After six months of intense, grueling workouts, I gain a measly seven pounds.
The solution, I think, is to work out even harder, and so I do. Longer hours. Heavier weights. After a couple of months with this approach, I actually lose several pounds and every day feel drained and worn-out, like I have a perpetual hangover. It’s called over-training, and I later learn that it has the reverse effect on muscle, causing it to weaken rather than grow.
In the beginning I admire the guys with lean, hard bodies, and I want to look like them, but as time passes I find myself intrigued with the more muscular physiques of the hard-core bodybuilders. The wide shoulders and broad chest and steel-hard biceps. The thick legs. The defined, horseshoe shape of the triceps. The freaky veins popping out of the forearms and the stripped pattern of striated muscle. I like the idea of power. I like the idea of strength. This is also around the time when I notice that these bigger guys don’t work out as hard as me and yet they make more gains. Where they’re benching 300 or 400 pounds, I’m stuck at 200, and have been for months. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to break past that 200 mark, and I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Am I over the hill at forty-two? Do I lack testosterone? Is it the curse of bad genes? I have no answers, but over the course of the next several weeks I make friends with one of these bigger guys. For reasons of privacy, I won’t divulge his real name, though I will say that among the gym rats he is endearingly referred to as Oak Junior, named after his idol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the original Oak and Governor of this Golden State. One morning he asks me to spot him on the bench press. He has eight plates on the bar for a total weight of 405 pounds. This is a warm-up.
“I’m going for eight reps,” he says.
Without breaking a sweat, he knocks them off. I shake my head in amazement. Then I ask him, point-blank, how he does it. How he got so strong, so big. Oak Junior laughs. He has two words for me.
“D-Bol, man,” he says. “The Big E. Deca. Winnie-V. Tes-C.” He looks me up and down and smiles. “No offense, but a few years ago I was a skinny little geek like you.”
I ignore the insult.
What peaks my interest are those strange-sounding names. I have no idea what they mean, but I’ll find out soon enough when Oak Junior and I make a run to Mexico. The drive takes about two hours from my home in the mountains, down through the flatlands and across the desert to the cool breeze blowing off the coast of San Diego. From here it’s only a couple of miles to the border and another to the main drag, Revolución Boulevard, in Tijuana. The streets are lined with pharmacies, and tourist shops offering leather vests, jackets, cheap jewelry, and switchblades. I follow Oak Junior through the crowded sidewalks, down another block, off the beaten path and into an animal supply and feed store.
“What’re we doing here?” I ask.
But Oak Junior ignores me. In a place like this, I’d expect to find Mexican farmers and ranchers, and there are two or three, but the others are all Americans—two teenagers, one young woman with abnormally large biceps, and three clean-cut burly guys. Cops, I think. In Southern California, it’s rumored that many are on the Juice.
The store smells of alfalfa and barnyard manure. Behind us, stacked on top of each other, are cages with parakeets, puppies, rabbits, and ducks, and secured in a glass case nearby are the accouterments of rooster fighting—the shiny, chromed spikes, razors, and gaffs that attach to the leg of the gamecock. And behind the counter, directly ahead of us, are shelves and shelves of little bottles and boxes. Oak Junior points to one and the clerk passes it to him.
“This is good shit,” he says to me.
But it has the picture of an animal on the label. I look more closely.
“That’s a dog,” I say.
He shrugs and turns the box over. On that side it has the picture of a bull.
“Dog, bull, what’s the difference? It all works the same.”
The substance is straight, unadulterated testosterone. We buy that and more, and later on the ride back home I learn, for instance, that the Big E stands for Equipoise, a steroid given to race horses, as is Winnie-V, chemically known as Stanazol. And D-Bol, a longtime staple of the athletic community, is equally popular in the cattle industry. All of these drugs are injected with a syringe. All of these drugs are “stacked”— administered together in various dosages and combinations, making for a potent steroid cocktail.
In the days to come I learn when and where to best stick myself with the needle: it’s typically done on a weekly basis, shooting directly into a muscle, the least painful area being the buttocks. Most importantly, Oak Junior schools me on the host of other drugs you need to counter the potential side-effects of steroid use. For testicle shrinkage, you take the fertility drug, Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, or simply HCG, which is manufactured from the urine of pregnant women. To combat gynecomastia, otherwise known in body building circles as “bitch tits,” you need Clomid, another fertility drug used to induce ovulation in women. For water retention, a common side effect of testosterone usage, you take the powerful diuretic Lasix, normally prescribed for edema and high blood pressure.
In six months, armed with this knowledge, I’m benching 300 and have gained twenty-five pounds. My medium-sized shirts no longer fit. I can’t get into my regular 501s anymore and have to buy relaxed-fit. As for my boxers, they go into the rag pile, too, because I can’t get them around my thighs without cutting off the circulation.
Paula feels compelled to enlighten me one evening. We are stretched out in bed, having just made love for the second time in the last hour or so. For sex drive, certain steroids, especially injectable testosterone, are superior to the fleeting effects of Viagra and its rivals. “Look at your legs,” she says.
“What about them?”
She makes a face.
“It’s like they’re growing tumors.”
She is referring to my vastus lateralis, that is to say the outer thigh muscle, which I am quite proud of having developed.
“And your shoulders too. You better stop taking that stuff. Seriously,” she says, “you’re starting to look like some kind of animal.”
I draw my hand along her arm. I let it slide down between her legs and she pushes me away.
“Enough is enough,” she says. “Leave me alone. It isn’t fun anymore.”
Then she rolls out of bed and begins to dress. I reluctantly do the same, and as I’m slipping into my relaxed-fit Levis I glance at myself in the dresser mirror. The comment she’d made seems far-fetched. I take pride in those tumors in my legs. I take pride in the width and girth of my shoulders and how each muscle—the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoid—are nicely defined. I admire the line of my traps, how they compliment my lats and form a clear triangle of muscle through the middle of my back. In the mirror, to my eyes, I see something completely different than my fiancée: to her I’m overblown and muscle-bound, to me I look cut and solid, anything but overbuilt.
So for the next few months I continue my quest for more muscle, for that rock-solid physique, and to this end I increase the length and intensity of my workouts. I increase the dosages of steroids. And because protein is the building block for muscle, I increase my diet too. I eat like a pig. Each morning, I consume a dozen egg whites and wash them down with a quart of milk. At lunch, I devour two or three chicken or tuna sandwiches and put away another quart of milk. For dinner, more often than not, I eat blood rare steaks.
Like a bull, I think. Big. Strong.
Now I wear an extra-large T-shirt. The once loose, relaxed-fit Levis are no longer loose or relaxed. Instead, they are skintight, and the inside of my thighs rub together when I walk. Evidently, at least to others, I’ve undergone a radical physical mutation, but less noticeably, at least to myself, I experience another, more insidious sort of metamorphosis.
With the increased energy level from the steroids, almost like a speed high, I sleep on average about four to five hours a night. Of course that sort of schedule eventually takes a toll on my moods which, given my psychological condition, are not altogether stable in the first place, and I often find myself irritated by things that never used to bother me before.
I’m short with friends.
I’m short with colleagues, and in the classroom, when I’m teaching, I become increasingly less patient with my students. My temper is not, as they say, at a slow boil: one second I can be perfectly calm, and then, in the next, I might lose it. Once, while I’m reading the newspaper, I come across an article that upsets me, something to do with politics, and I throw the paper on the floor and begin stomping on it, jumping up and down when Paula happens into the room.
“What’re you doing?”
“Nothing,” I say sheepishly.
“Look at you,” she says. “Your face is all red. You’re sweating.”
“I’m just a little upset.”
“Jim,” she says, “it’s not normal to get that crazy over the newspaper. Don’t you see what those steroids are doing to you?”
“All you’ve done is switched one drug for another.”
“Steroids aren’t drugs,” I say. “I know my drugs and they’re not drugs.”
“Go ahead, keep lying to yourself. Keep letting those steroids make you rage like a lunatic.”
Of course, like any good alcoholic or addict, I’m well practiced in the art of denial, and I can’t for the life of me see how steroids do anything except build muscle. I do concede, however, that they can on occasion increase aggressiveness. But now that it’s been pointed out to me, and if I make a concerted effort to remain conscious of it, I feel I’m perfectly capable of keeping my temper in check. So as far as I’m concerned, Paula is blowing this entire incident totally out of proportion.
“Relax,” I tell her. “I have everything under control.”
Under normal circumstances, I rarely act on my hostile impulses. I may get mad, even furious, and on occasion justifiably so, but my better judgment in such matters typically prevails. Unfortunately the incident along that narrow, two-lane mountain road is not one of these times. Imbued with a sense of invincibility, my anger fueled by steroids, I approach the Dodge Ram and yank open the door.
Techno music blasts from inside. He’s just a kid, nineteen at most. He throws his hands up in front of his face.
“Hey, take it easy,” he says. “I didn’t mean nothing, man.”
I grab him around the throat with one hand. He has on a baseball cap turned backwards and it falls off. I look him hard in the eyes.
“Stay off my ass,” I say.
The kid doesn’t move, not even to try and break away. It might’ve ended there, and I wish it had. But when I let him go, as I start back to my car, he opens his fool mouth.
“Fuck you,” he says.
I turn around.
“What’d you say?”
“You heard me, asshole.”
In a matter of seconds, he’s gone from being fearful to defiant, and it’s a big mistake, one that costs us both. On this lonely road dusted with snow, in a place of quiet and peace, I walk back to his truck. I reach for his neck again, only this time he pulls away and takes a swing at me. The blow glances off my arm, and I grab him by the collar and yank him out of the truck. His shirt rips and he falls to the ground, and as he’s getting to his feet I hit him good on the side of the head, square in the temple, then again in the nose. I feel the cartilage give under my fist and then there is blood. Lots of it. All down the front of his bright white T-shirt.
The fight could’ve gone on. I could’ve hurt him worse, and I wanted to, if not for this voice in my head telling me no, stop, enough. The last thing I remember about that kid are his eyes, bulging with terror. After that, it gets sketchy. I don’t remember, for instance, walking back to my car. I don’t remember driving off. It’s called a “red-out,” like the alcoholic “black-out,” where there’s a lapse in memory. But there’s no forgetting what happened about five minutes later: just a few miles up the road the Highway Patrol pulls me over, and the next thing I know my hands are flat on the roof of his cruiser. He’s patting me down.
“But it was self-defense,” I lie.
As I try to talk my way out of this mess I hear my fiancée’s voice in the back of my mind. I hear her, finally, loud and clear. I am some kind of animal, rabid and enraged. Ahead the road glistens, the sun melting away the dangerous shining veneer of black ice.