Hurt Locker

Ernie Wang

A frequent side effect when bodybuilders abuse synthetic human growth hormone is their head gets bigger. Very high doses of synthetic HGH can stimulate growth in bones and organs on top of the muscle development the bodybuilder seeks, and the nervous system disproportionately funnels the excess to the skull, to the forehead especially. Growth of the nose and ears can reactivate as well, like the manic final sprint of the noses and ears of old people in their twilight years. So the overdosed bodybuilder stares at their morning reflection in the bathroom mirror, pleased with their biceps and swelling ocean of a chest but also alarmed by Munch’s The Scream grinning back at them in front of the shower curtain.

But likely the most dangerous of all possible synthetic HGH side effects is the enlargement and thickening of the heart, which at some point increases the risk of heart failure. The bodybuilder, their body an emblem of fitness, must come to rely on an overworked, recalcitrant heart.

My friend Matheus, eleven years my junior, and I began our journeys into bodybuilding at the same time. As a child, Matheus was beautiful, athletic, and gifted with broad shoulders and full muscle bellies, all of which were amplified by high school, and so his transition into becoming a bodybuilder at an early age felt not only natural but also destined. He instinctively grasped the concepts and components of training, diet, and rest and how they synergize, and he grew quickly, in no time proudly possessing the physique of a dominant adult bodybuilder.

For years, I had no idea how to actually lift the weights, and I refused to accept that I needed to stop eating french fries, justifying those lovely potatoes as jet fuel for the next workout. I excelled when it came to things like statistics and math and taking financial regulatory exams, which was excellent for my job as a derivatives trader, but when my body and its exertion became a part of the equation, my otherwise high-functioning brain stopped processing things logically, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Whatever the reason, my progression—gains, if you will—were miniscule, particularly when standing next to Matheus. But I kept at it. I wanted desperately to look like the most muscular guys at the gym, a list which came to include and then eventually be topped by Matheus himself. I wanted to have a body like Matheus’s.

It had only been a matter of time before Matheus stepped on stage to compete in bodybuilding, placing incredibly and consistently well in his age division from the start. With his physique and arresting babyface, online fans and corporate sponsorship quickly followed. But eager for more, he resolved to go toe-to-toe with bodybuilders twice his age. This ambition led him to begin his affair with synthetic HGH, funded by his lucrative sponsorships, initially in well-behaved doses recommended by his black-market dealer, but then, stunned by the velocity at which he was now approaching physical perfection, in increasingly distressing amounts.

My head was already enormous even without the aid of drugs, and I was nowhere close to achieving any kind of bodybuilding fame either way, despite my own ambitions, and so the use of HGH was out of the question for me, though I had been trying to emulate Matheus in other ways in the gym, from copying his exercises to pretending to exert his level of intensity to incorporating his vernacular, both the street kind and the bodybuilding kind, into my casual conversations.

By this point, and recognizing my ability to process data pieces and arrive at sensible and practical solutions, at least when it didn’t concern the gym, Matheus came to heed my advice on many things: college prep, quelling relationship disorder, how to avoid getting into debt. When his breakup with his girlfriend became unbearable, we skipped town for several days, away from where he felt compelled to feign stoic indifference and to where he cried every night. Back at the gym, his determination and facade restored, he battered the weights with renewed ferocity, as though bodybuilding was the only thing that had ever mattered. 

When it came to his drug use, he became as dense as the cords of muscle strapping his wide back.

“Please stop with the HGH,” I would say.

“Tell me again how compound interest works,” he would say.

“Oh, okay sure,” I would say, and thus the talk would be averted for a few days, until I would inevitably bring it up again.

But was it that I cared that deeply for his health? Or was it something more self-serving? Did I fear the ever-widening gap between his physique and mine? Was I jealous of his tiny head, one that could easily withstand a little HGH-induced growth?

And anyway, who was I to object?

I saw Matheus less frequently after he moved several towns away for college. So when we did meet, the effects of his prolonged use of HGH were much more noticeable than if I had continued to see him nightly at the gym flexing studiously before the mirror. While meeting for lunch I detected the first consequential sign of his HGH abuse: the subtle sinking in of his eyes, like gentle potholes. His eyes didn’t actually sink in, but the bones surrounding them had grown outward a little, which gave that impression. It would have appeared negligible had it happened to virtually anybody else. But on somebody as beautiful as Matheus, the effects were amplified. Perhaps sensing the worry growing about me, which must have been on his mind as well, he pushed back his sleeve and pointedly flexed his bicep. This is what we should really focus on, he seemed to insinuate. I acquiesced.

I trained more intelligently. I ate cautiously and stopped, reluctantly, the midnight McDonald’s runs. I forced myself into bed at a less indecent hour. Slowly, my body began to resemble, vaguely, the bodies of the men in the gym who I had long admired. Elated and confused and inspired, I ramped up my intensity and discipline. But I continued to shy away from drugs. If anything, after seeing Matheus, I was more resolute about this than ever before. I did not want Matheus to peer into my eyes, figure out that I was also taking HGH, and then avert his gaze, to save me from feeling shame and hypocrisy.

Several years of consistent improvement later, and with the encouragement of my newly eclectic circles of friends, I finally gathered the nerve to step on stage, only to place terribly. “You were the only non-juiced dude up there,” the gym friends said consolingly after it was over, as though that was the only determining factor. But it wasn’t. The gap between my muscle development and conditioning and that of the others was a gap that drugs alone would not have bridged. Simply, I was utterly manhandled.

“But at least you look like you had fun,” others said, handing me a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. Munching on the cookie, my first taste of granulated sugar in months, and which nearly caused me to break down, I did not say anything, but looking back, there has never been a time in my life when these friends, who were loving and supportive, were more incorrect.

There is this crazy argument that the shyest and most reclusive bodybuilders, the ones we least suspect, are the ones who step on stage and suddenly turn into animals and own the crowd and the stage. Several of my friends felt the stage was an answer to a question no one had asked them, like Britney, whose weekends are filled with marathon role-playing board game sessions and whose League of Legends virtual friends list is longer than her Facebook friends list, but who transforms into an absolute savage when she struts on stage in her heels and posing suit, or Arjun, who works as an IT specialist and who can happily avoid people in perpetuity, but once on stage, peeling off his polo shirt and khakis and glasses and loafers, leaving him in just his trunks, he becomes a veritable living Michelangelo statue, communing with the audience through his flawless and passionate posing.

This was definitely not me. Oh gosh no! Ha! Facing the audience and wearing what was essentially a Speedo—smaller than a fig leaf—did not spark savagery in me, nor did it spark a desire to connect with the audience in any meaningful way. In fact, that was the last thing I wanted. I just wanted them to not look at me. Better yet, I wanted them to go home. Even better yet, I wanted to go home.

I do not like to diet for two consecutive meals, much less for five months. I do not like to train legs. I can be astonishingly lazy, and if life allowed it, I could happily lie in bed all day, shimmying about to better feel the velvety coolness of the sheets, getting up only to eat donuts and Nutella and fried pot stickers. Only after putting back on my sweatpants and shirt, with relief, did I realize how much I despised being on stage. It turned out competing was living the nightmare of facing the classroom in just my underwear, only worse: I was also judged by judges with scorecards.

“You’ll bounce back and win next time!” my friends said enthusiastically. I smiled, gratefully accepting more baked goodies. For a moment, I worried I would abandon the gym altogether. But I knew better. I would at least continue to be there for my friends. When Arjun would nail that transition in his routine, that one that’s deceptively tricky and requires a surprising degree of flexibility and balance, I would be the first out of the seat, fists pummeling the air, yelling as though to stamp his name into the rafters high above. Miles from his drab office cubicle but what may as well have been in an alternate reality, his fading collared shirts waiting to be picked up at the cleaner, his anxiety over his last job performance review out of mind, and in the moment struck by the grandiosity of life, he would break out in a smile wider than even his shoulders.

Matheus and I grew distant, but only in the undeliberate way friends do as they find their way in large cities and through adulthood. My interest shifted to writing. After spending the day trading derivatives, I would sit in an introductory class at the local community center and learn about plot and point of view. As an underclassman, Matheus had been smitten by the siren call of an investment banking career, mostly for its stranglehold of the top strata of the socioeconomic and social hierarchy. His passion for bodybuilding did not waver even then, but when we spoke, the conversations focused primarily on the steps he needed to take to secure a job in that hypercompetitive industry. We plotted and strategized.

He joined his university’s investment banking club. To expand his net, he also joined the management consulting club. I met weekly with my new friends from the writing class. We mostly drank and ate and talked, rarely wrote. This was my first lesson on what the writer’s life was really about. We were legitimating our burgeoning new identities. He continued to enter and win shows. I continued to attend them, more frequently with my laptop, to write. I wrote a story about a kid genetically cursed with abnormally large muscles whose only wish was to be normal. I applied to creative writing programs.

Four years later, Matheus embarked on his financial career at a preeminent firm. By then, he had added a heavy cocktail of anabolic steroids into the mix, which caused him to go bald and his porcelain skin to become scaly. His beauty and youth stripped away like topsoil, he emerged an immensely muscular man with an oblong-shaped head clinging onto wisps of translucent hair. When he paused to catch his breath, my worry and vindication flared like hives. No longer able to rely on his looks, he quietly replaced his teenage arrogance with not exactly humility, but a similar kind of gentle charm.

He would eventually be outsmarted and outmaneuvered and pushed out by smarter, more cunning coworkers at his bank. At the next bank, he would leave after a falling out with his managers. At the third and final bank, he would be laid off in less than a year in a round of layoffs, where his only wrongdoing was to be mediocre. Fed up and chastened, he would start his own company, where he still is today. In a way, I had always suspected this was where he would land: at the top of his own empire, with nobody to report to but his demons. He would stop bodybuilding, though he would miss it; of that I would be sure. He would grow wise, but also sadder, which I suppose was inevitable.

In a bodybuilding show, before placings are announced and trophies are awarded, competitors take the spotlight one by one on a brightly lit stage in a darkened hall. For sixty seconds, they sweep through their carefully crafted routine, a choreographed series of flexing poses timed to a song clip of their choosing. For the bodybuilder, years toiling in the gym and months of severe dieting culminate in these sixty seconds of glory.

I was at Matheus’s final show competing as a teenager, before the HGH would morph his head and body and organs, before he would be lured by the trappings of capitalism and get the shit kicked out of him by brilliant bankers. For now, he was just a boy revelling in the attention of an appreciative crowd, his eyes filled with wonder and bliss. Alone on stage, he triumphantly performed his posing routine, his enthusiasm unwavering. Midway through, he heard his name called out in a group cheer from somewhere deep in the audience. He squinted his eyes and widened his smile, but his excitement threw off his focus a little, and he momentarily forgot the sequence of his poses. Quickly recovering, he proceeded through the remainder of his routine with a kind of deliberate concentration. At the end, he gazed out into the dark hall, and then, to thank the crowd, placed his hand over his healthy, beating heart.