BIKINI AND KITE
She was wearing a red string bikini and flying a kite. While kite flying is pretty common in Liberty State Park, a two-piece bathing suit, thin as a shoe lace, is certainly a garment that is out of the ordinary. She looked great in it too. Her body was designed to wear as little as possible. She was either a model or Playboy Playmate or both—tall, full-breasted, fit, tan, long blonde hair. I saw her while riding by this green field near the Hudson River, as I did almost every day that summer, two years ago, when my life had taken a sudden turn for what at the time appeared to be for the worst, but eventually I realized, that particular turn was for the best.
In the winter, my live-in girlfriend of four years and I split up. I had to find a new apartment, then hassle with moving. In the spring, my white collar career hit a serious skid and by June, I was let go. I spent most of the summer riding a bicycle for a couple of hours each day, lost in a morose contemplation of what to do with the rest of my life.
It was in late August when I saw this woman—an apparition of pure beauty I will never forget. I can’t completely articulate whatever revelation I did achieve, but I know that revelation did not occur just by glimpsing some sexy, partially clad female hard body frolicking with a kite against the backdrop of the mighty Hudson River, the towering citadel of lower Manhattan, and the gleaming teal clarity of the Statue of Liberty—the revelation was part of a continuum, the last sign of a passage that gave me back my life and vision.
That July, I was a mess. I had gone through filing for unemployment, which was as humiliating as I had imagined it. My former job and colleagues filled me with resentment and bitterness. I was finishing my fifth year as a Senior Editor, and my tenth year in a career as a trade magazine journalist. I was good at it too, aided not just by an ability to write but a minor in economics. I had informed knowledge about business trends. You work hard, do the best you can, make yourself valuable and be as honest as possible and you basically would be a successful professional with a long term career—two weeks of vacation a year and retirement at sixty five.
Even before the company’s shit hit my fan, this faith had been compromised. Downsizing had become the economic buzz word. People talked about the Freelance Economy. Job security as a concept was out of date. During my tenure, I saw very competent people get fired for no valid reason. Sometimes it was a personality conflict—almost always an issue of the ego of the person doing the firing being threatened—or the fact that the person had been there long enough so that they were making a decent salary and were fully vested in the profit sharing/pension plans. Fire them, bring in a younger person at a lower salary and improve the bottom line, an option made more viable if the magazine was losing money.
I was fired for all those reasons. I was fired for doing a good job. But that is not what this is about. It’s about that summer, when for the first time since graduating college, I did not have a job. I had a pretty decent severance package, was eligible for the maximum in unemployment, and had been saving some money. My college loan was paid off and I basically had more money in the savings account than I owed to credit card companies and enough to cover rent and other expense through the Fall. I had an updated resume, some freelance possibilities for future sums. I could afford to take some time off. I did not feel a pressing need to go out right away and start interviewing, then enter some other office in a similar position and wait a few years for the same scenario to replay itself. July was a horrible time to look for a job anyway. I needed, as they used to say in the 70s when I was growing up, to get my head together.
I decided to re-read all, or at least a good many, of the 20th century novels that mattered to me. Some of the highlights included: To Have To Have Not, Confessions of Zeno, Women, Angels, The Confederacy of Dunces, The Little Sister, Going After Caciatto, Red Harvest, Lolita, Clear Light in August, The Sportswriter, Good Morning Midnight, Clockers, Tender is The Night, Hope of Heaven, everything by Frederick Barthleme. It was a pretty eclectic mix, made up of books I had not read for ten years and books I read as recently as the summer before, when my ex and I vacationed in Cape May and talked about having children.
And, since I had the time and bike riding did not cost any money, I decided to go bike riding. The year before, I bought this cheap mountain bike to use for riding around Cape May. I never played sports in high school, and although I did yoga and some weight lifting in college, exercise was always an anathema to me. As was any sort of diet or respect for nutrition. I drank like a fish and ate like a pig. My exercise consisted of walking to and from the subway. I had ballooned up from a 32-inch waist in college to a 40-inch waist, and even those pants were getting tight on me. My sister, the nurse, warned me I was becoming a prime candidate for a heart attack. I remember, after a night of Jameson Whiskey and Harp Lager, my head thudding with an excruciating hangover, looking into the mirror while I tried to scrape off the stubble from my sweaty face with the Trac II in my shaky hand, and thinking my GOD!, my jowls are twice the width of my forehead!
I probably looked pretty foolish those first few days, a fat slob trying to balance his heap of a body on a bicycle, huffing and puffing around the park, being passed by the young and trim on their expensive bicycles or in their trendy Rollerblades.
Liberty State Park is right near my neighborhood in Jersey City, a tree-lined, residential enclave in what used to be a factory town. The neighborhood, declared an historical district in the early 80s, boasts brownstones the envy of Brooklyn or Boston and the rents are easily a third less than Manhattan, which is only ten minutes away via the Path train.
Rivers are rich with symbolism and implications and the Hudson is no exception. From the vantage point of that park, which they say was the most visited park in the United States last year, one can see the urban magnificence of Manhattan—if the day is clear enough, you can see all the way up to the George Washington Bridge—and on the far bank, Brooklyn with its steeple-filled skyline. Then, to the south, there’s Staten Island and Bayonne—less impressive than the capital of the world, but in contrast actually appear like remnants of a forgotten wilderness—distant green islands dotted with civilization. Then there’s the river itself, flowing right into the Atlantic. All rivers run into the sea but the sea is not yet filled, which is from Ecclesiastes, is one of the things I think about whenever I view the majesty of this waterway.
I love to see the boats and ships—the yachts and speed boats of the rich and want to be famous, the Circle Line cruise ships sputtering around the island-metropolis, the huge oil tankers being guided in and out of the harbor by tug boats whose seamen you know probably do wear All Spice, or the rust-orange Staten Island Ferries where the passengers hum The New Jerusalem theme from Working Girl as they commute back and forth to Manhattan from the neglected Borough. What I always find surreal are the huge passenger liners, shiny and white and flying some sort of Scandinavian flag , the passengers standing on the deck trying to relive those immigrant memories of leaving Europe and passing the Statue of Liberty and feeling freedom for the first time. Those ships look as big as three football fields as they pass, juxtaposed against the sky scrapers on the other side of the river.
Then, there’s the supreme Tower of Babel itself, lower Manhattan—Wall Street, where Capitalism is perpetuated in all its flourishing glory. An island dense with sky scrapers, all beneath the twin towers of The World Trade Center, which are strong enough to withstand a truck load of explosive fertilizer. Sometimes, when I’m looking across the Hudson at lower Manhattan, I’m exhilarated from a kind of pride in America as the pinnacle of Western Civilization and an affirmation that the human spirit can accomplish greatness. Millions of people working millions of jobs, accomplishing millions of tasks; the complex machinery of economics happening on a day-to-day basis, where every dollar spent winds up somewhere else and along the way, jobs are created, needs are filled and wealth is expanded. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can’t help but be amazed.
But that July, my muse tended to be far less grandiose. I was a miserable, unhealthy wreck. Liberty State park is actually two parks linked by a long brick walkway along the river. Parallel to the walkway, in the grassy marshland section of the park, is a bike path, where the state has also set up little exercise stops, such as a balance beam, slats where you can do sit ups, and a pull up bar. I could barely lift my fat body high enough for the top of my skull to reach the bar, much less my double chin.
If you take the walkway one way, and the bike path another, the complete circle is a total of almost three miles. At first, it seemed to be a killer. I would take one of the novels I was reading, ride along the bike path, take a break, read, drink a Gatorade or ice tea of whatever I brought, then ride back on the walkway. When I reached my apartment, I would lay down and rest for a half hour. Soon, I didn’t bother with the paperback. I just didn’t want to read. Here it was, in the middle of work day, and I had nothing to do. I could not free my mind from despair.
It seemed some days I would be merely unhappy. Other days, I felt like the biggest loser in New Jersey, frightened by a reoccurring fantasy of having to move back into my parent’s house at age 35. I was basically a zombie. I gave up any unnecessary expenditures. I missed all the summer movies. I stopped the daily beers, going out to my beloved East and West Village bars with my friends, or getting my lunch at delis and having Chinese Food for dinner delivered. I went to the supermarket more frequently. I started having salads for lunch; simple pasta dishes for dinner. And every day, I would take that ride, around Liberty State Park.
Eventually, I was able to do one or two pull ups without feeling like I shredded the muscle tissue in my arms and back. Soon, I was able to circle the park more than once and when I got back to my apartment, I did not need a nap. In fact, I felt energetic, more energetic than I had felt all day. I remember coming back to the apartment and actually cleaning it up and a friend called and cajoled me into visiting a favorite downtown hang out because people hadn’t seen me and they were starting to worry.
My friend’s jaw dropped when I arrived. “Tim, you’ve lost weight.”
“Really?” I replied. For the first time in years, the waistband of my pants was not biting into my stomach. I had not paid attention. I was too busy brooding to notice any alteration in appearance. My other friends agreed. They convinced me that I probably dropped about fifteen pounds.
Despite the boozing of that evening, it wasn’t a setback. I stuck with routine. Discipline has always appealed to me. Even when it seemed tedious, getting on the bicycle, taking the same streets to the Park, I knew that eventually the ride would kick in, my blood and adrenaline would be pumping, and I’d get an incredible endorphin rush. I was beginning to relish that rush, anticipate it with whatever joy I could muster.
I don’t remember it raining any day that July. There simply was no excuse not to take the bike out. Although hot, and sometimes muggy, the weather always seemed to be sunny. My arms and legs had not been so tan in years. I wore these mesh leather bike riding gloves that had this sort of circle on the back, and the back of my hands were marked with a patch of suntan, like some weird stigmata which signified daily participation in outside fitness activities.
I started to enjoy just looking at the river, humming favorite river songs like Watching The River Flow, from my main hero Bob Dylan, or The River, by Bruce Springsteen, the patron saint of New Jersey. It was like stopping to smell the roses, marveling at how the blazing sun glinted in a shifting pattern across the currents.
I heard recent horror stories from the old office. Others were fired. The ax rarely swings on a single neck during these corporate blood lettings. People were calling me with encouragement, even job offers or at least, rumors of work. At night and in the morning, I read literature that I loved and in the afternoon, I was up to five laps around the park and ten pull-ups on the bar. Then, one day, I was happy that I was actually enjoying the summer for the first time in a decade, instead of trapped in an office counting the days until my week of freedom down the shore.
I had this overwhelming feeling that I identified as relief. About four months before, when it was obvious the relationship with the girlfriend had come to end—the fights were over, and she was gone and we both were living in new apartments—I had the same sensation. There was pain and regret; but relief overshadowed those emotions. The same thing with the job, and being so wrapped up in the petty responsibilities of the title. I was no longer forced into making rich white men richer. Good old Nietzsche came to mind: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That frumpy old German with that big ugly mustache, Europe’s prototypical fascist philosopher, was right.
I was relieved, and also relaxed. It definitely had something to do with perspective. I remember, when I was still living with my parents, and coming home from work that night in November, when the house was all dark, and my mother, explaining very quickly, that my father had an aneurysm and died that afternoon. Or, before I moved to Jersey City, when I lived in this small dump on Norfolk Street, coming home and seeing the window open, and all possessions—new computer, stereo, Walkman—stolen. Those were terrible times; much more horrible than simply losing some job—a job that I did hate on a very real and visceral level.
By September, I had to regain some responsibility. I began to work freelance on projects, which eventually turned out that I made more money on, at both the gross dollar level, and at net, because my accountant clued me into the wonderful notion of tax deductions. Rent, books, subscriptions, all this stuff, meant having more money than when I was getting those regular pay checks. I joined a gym and in a few months my waist was down to a 34, and soon even the new jeans I purchased became loose on me. Suits had to be taken in, and in fact, this one suit, which I actually had taken out as I got fat, could not be taken in enough to fit. I figured I’d keep it and be David Byrne from Stop Making Sense for Halloween.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I saw the sex kitten in the red string bikini flying a kite, my zombie period had come to an end. The heat wave had broken, and the winds with the first hints of autumn were starting to blow. There is always a breeze by the river, and that day, the gusts were pretty strong, which made the bike riding harder than usual.
Of course, as soon I saw the woman, my pedaling slowed anyway. I took a very long look. If it was at a beach or pool, I would have still noticed her but it would not have been such a shock. She was smiling at me, but it wasn’t because I had lost that much weight; she was just happy to be flying a kite and probably, due to the way she was dressed, felt a little outrageous. In this context, she was pleased to be watched by a passing cyclist.
At first, the kite almost hit me in the shoulder, as she was trying to get it into the air. But she seemed to be expert in kite technique, and as the perfect breeze lifted it into the sky, I was getting aroused. The kite ascended in an arc then seemed to hover as high as the World Trade Center Towers. Everything—the deep green of the field, the brackish water of the Hudson, the passing ships and boats, Lady Liberty’s torch and backside, the steel and glass structures of New York City—glistened with sunlight beneath the cloudless sky. Her breasts jiggled as she manipulated the strings to control the airborne toy, her blonde hair shining, her teeth glowing in her smile like some toothpaste commercial, her smooth, taught skin the color of a walnut shell. There seemed to be so much to see; so much beauty suddenly apparent.
I wasn’t fantasizing about having sex with her. I’m not a teenager, so while the sight of a pretty woman certainly attracts my attention, it usually takes a bit more for such a physical response. Maybe it was the red string bikini—like I said, at a pool or beach, or anywhere in Southern California, no problem—but in Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, it was… astonishing. But she was only one element in my arousal.
The kite, that had a lot to do with it. The way it kind of danced in midair, then rose higher and higher, taking more and more string off the spool in her hands. On some subconscious level, it struck me as erotic. Add to the entire scene, the fact the dark cloud of depression had finally evaporated from my life and I had a confidence that for a while, I thought I may never again achieve. Essentially, my erection was an acknowledgment and an appreciation of the ultimate life force.
Unfortunately, her boyfriend was nearby and they were soon flying the kite together. I rode around the park a few more times, laughing out loud. Several months later, the weather was cold, but the bike riding sessions had given me a new stamina, and going to the gym became a daily routine. I read up on diet, started counting calories and fat grams. I began to weight train. I was looking good and feeling great.
I went to this party where an old girlfriend—actually, just someone I dated before the relationship with the live-in started—and I had a lively conversation. She had moved to Los Angles, and was in New York for business. She was engaged for a while, but that had broken off. She told me that the company I worked for sucked and I was always more of an author than a trade journalist, which was real sweet. By midnight, she was caressing my new biceps and when she invited me to her hotel room, I accepted. At some point during our love making, I flashed on the red string bikini and the kite arcing high in the deep blue of a late summer sky.
I think about how that August day is connected to those ennui-filled days of July, and also to the days of September, when I began to re-establish myself in a different career. Every once in a while, you realize, that your life does make sense and that is a good feeling. You just have to endure a lot heart ache and disappointment in-between these epiphanies. Maybe it doesn’t happen as often as it should, but when it does happen, it makes you feel thankful about your life, or about life in general, or at least about: red string bikinis, kites, blue skies, rivers, cities.
Copyright 1996, Moment of Being/Memoir as Fiction