“Park Avenue Paradise” by Ivan Jenson
The suicide’s body landed only a foot away from where Jake and his old friend Eton stood. They had just stepped away from that very spot after lighting up their cigarettes. Neither of them really smoked back then in the summer of 1998. They were just messing around. When they heard the thud, at first they didn’t know what it was until they saw him–a pale geeky-looking man in his thirties dressed in black slacks and a white button-down shirt, just laying there with his legs and arms splayed in a zig zag position. He had the bemused yet hopeless expression of a man who had truly run out of options. He lay half on the grass, half on the city sidewalk. Jake looked up to the roof from where the man had jumped to his death. It was approximately twelve-stories high. Jake had a friend who lived in the building. She was a Ford model who he had spent two years hanging out with until he broke it off because he wanted to be more than just platonic friends. It was a building that represented heartbreak to Jake.
A few people gathered on the sidewalk. Somebody must have called the police because two cops arrived on the scene within minutes.
Jake and Eton kept walking because they were headed for a party at a loft on 14th Street and Avenue A. They were speechless about what they had just witnessed. And the only way they expressed their shock was with nervous laughter.
The vast loft was owned by a famous artist who was in his 70s and his raw, expressionist paintings were hanging in museums and worth tens of thousands of dollars. Yet the artist did not seem to mind that a bunch of strangers were getting trashed in his living space and art studio.
Jake ended up in a conversation with the artist’s alluring daughter. She lived with her father. She was not an artist; rather, she worked on Wall Street in a sensible job and she had plans to leave the city as soon as she saved up enough money.
“Where do you want to go?” Jake asked, already feeling abandoned.
“I want to live in Alaska near my brother who’s a fisherman.”
“Isn’t it really cold there?”
“Not as cold as this city. And I’m not talking about temperature.”
Jake knew then she was a New York City hater. You either loved or hated it–there was very little middle ground.
The artist’s daughter soon lost interest in Jake. Before she wandered off she said, “Sorry, I feel like a social butterfly tonight.”
Eton had copped some cocaine and was busy talking with a small group who looked equally hyped-up and wide-eyed.
“I’m going to get going,” Jake said to Eton. Once his friend started doing blow, he was beyond reason, and Jake was not in the mood for chemical stimulants.
“Are you sure? Think of the connections you could make here. Shit, man. Stick around.”
“Naw, I gotta go.”
Outside, the streets of the East Village were peopled with the hip, beautiful, old, touristy and homeless. Jake saw an attractive young woman on a payphone–her face was wet with tears.
She cried into the phone, “I cannot take this Godforsaken place anymore. I don’t have one true friend. Nobody has time. It is all about either money or sex, Mama. Everybody is looking out for number one. I never get call-backs. Let’s face it, a pretty face is a dime a dozen. There are so many actresses prettier than me, and my drama coach said I am not believable in my love scenes. I can’t afford to study anymore. My agent wants me to stop checking in all the time. I am two months behind on my rent. Can you please drive down here and help me move back? I want to go home. Dorothy was right. There is no place like home.”
When the young woman saw Jake, she turned her back on him to shut him out.
Jake walked on. This confirmed his theory that there were those that could make it here and those that could not handle the pace, heartlessness, and the hustle it took to get make it happen in the Big Apple.
Just a few weeks before Jake had met a tourist woman while selling his art on the street. He already had a steady Long Island girlfriend, but he could not resist this rich woman. He had agreed to meet her in at the Royalton Hotel where she was staying. When he entered her suite they instantly tumbled into bed. She later called for room service, and they dined on burgers, French fries, and Coca-Cola. And this wealthy heir to millions kept promising the world to him. Jake had complained to her about his girlfriend’s limitations in the love-making department. The rich woman’s response was “Get rid of that prude!” She kept trying to pressure Jake into leaving his girlfriend, claiming she would buy him a townhouse on Park Avenue and finance all his art supplies until he became the Superstar Art World Darling that he deserved to be. She said they would both live together in what she called ‘Park Avenue Paradise.’ He sensed a desperation in her or mental illness or that maybe she was making it all up. She professed her love for him and whispered about having millions of dollars to burn.
Jake considered his diminishing opportunities on the night of the suicide. He had to admit his life at thirty-six was not exactly falling into place–he only had sixty bucks to his name and his girlfriend had stopped making love to him. So, he did two things: he bought flowers at the corner bodega and placed them at the site where the man once was. Then he called his wealthy mistress from a phone booth. Her Clive Christian No. 1 perfume permeated his clothing.
“Zumba” by Ivan Jenson
Jake always feels positively tribal at Zumba class. He feels like he is moving with the agility of Baryshnikov. And yet when he sees himself in the wall-sized mirror it seems he is hardly moving at all. In his mind, he is a hairy-legged Gene Kelly in gym shorts with an oversized t-shirt but in reality, he is a middle-aged bald man with a torso as thick as Jack Black.
To his right is that six-foot-tall chiseled-looking guy who always breaks out in an all-American sweat. The guy’s tattooed Elisabeth Taylor-looking wife is doing her thing in the front corner. The instructor is a macho Brazilian named Renaldo with dusty looking dreads down to his waist. Strands of his hair fall wildly into his face as he demonstrates the steps. The music is so loud that at the beginning of each class Jake often questions if he should stay for fear of losing his hearing in his senior years which truly are not so far off.
But for now, he is here with the thick and thin, young and old. To the right of him is the bone-thin elderly woman who dresses in sporty up-to-the-minute fashion. Today she wears a leopard skin leotard and jazz shoes like a broadway hoofer from the Bob Fosse 70s.
The class is dancing to a re-mixed Justin Bieber song. Jake fools himself into believing he is in the middle of a mosh pit at an electronica rave dance at Burning Man. A particularly attractive blonde who Jake once heard is a hot yoga instructor always stations her fine self in the back of the class. Hidden away. And yet, when he makes a three-sixty he catches glimpses of her moves from right out of an Ariana Grande video. Yet, she always has that modest “please don’t notice me” non-readable look on her face. She often comes with her mother who is in quite good shape for a woman of a certain age.
Everyone at the Y knows that this class has a cult-like following. Renaldo, the teacher, with his bandana, looks like David Foster Wallace gone wild during spring break in Miami. He is tanned, stubbled, and has a perpetual Cheshire cat grin that is as infectious as the pumping, grinding music mixes that he brings to class.
For two years, Jake has been taking this class on Tuesday evenings. Once class begins, he reaches a kind of communal rhythmic nirvana that is not achievable in any other area of his staid life. Each time he spots a new attractive woman joining the class for the first time, he dreams that he will strike up a conversation and invite her to the hot tub downstairs followed by sushi and saki and an impromptu roll in his queen-sized bed with his two dogs scratching outside his shut bedroom door, but his life at this point never rises to the level of an Ann Hathaway rom-com.
The truth is he is a guy who is past his mid-fifties. OK–so he looks a decade younger thanks to lucky genes and frequent workouts just like this one.
The truth is that no matter how much he exercises–and he does so daily–he will never have a ripped Vin Diesel body. He is relegated to dream and fantasize at Zumba or to run in place on the treadmill while ogling the hotties on the Stairmasters. The truth is there is a very real chance that if he does not settle down with those interested white-haired seniors or crazy grannies on dating sites that he will die utterly alone.
But until that day comes, he will keep getting his heart rate up at the Y; living it up while trying to bring his blood pressure down. He will keep moving, kicking his feet, shaking his bootie to the ultra-cool choreography.
To Jake, guzzling from his bottle of water between songs is like drinking from the fountain of youth.
And now, just when he and the other thirty-odd members are in the thick of a song by Megan Trainer, the music suddenly stops. Renaldo’s laptop has crashed.
“Sorry guys,” he says to the class with his thick Rio accent.
Renaldo fiddles with the wires and presses some keys yet he cannot make the music start again. It is the last ten minutes of class. He has no choice but to lead the group through the final stretch in total mime-like silence.
Suddenly, everything feels very real. Jake is sure that everyone feels like they are coming down from a cocaine-like endorphin high or like they are stuck at the DMV or at an airport during an endless layover. All joy has left the room. The only sound is the random squeak of tennis shoes. How horrible to realize they are just strangers in a box. Trapped like mice. Mortal, aging, doomed to modern alienation. How wretched!
And then just as suddenly, Renaldo’s laptop restarts again. A song by Taylor Swift comes on. Isn’t she the goddess of pop music? Doesn’t the sound of her coo signal that life is good again?
The class has suffered a near-death experience, but they all are now having their hearts revived.
Jake watches as Renaldo the instructor resumes physically spoon-feeding his aerobic fantasy.
Jake catches his own reflection in the mirror and sees a lost soul who has just been given a second chance at something. He is not sure what, but he will take it, whatever it is.
Ivan Jenson is a fine artist, novelist, and popular contemporary poet who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His artwork was featured in Art in America, Art News, and Interview Magazine and has sold at auctions at Christie’s. Ivan was commissioned by Absolut Vodka to make a painting titled Absolut Jenson for the brand’s national ad campaign. His Absolut paintings are in the collection of the Spiritmusuem, the museum of spirits in Stockholm, Sweden.