SOME MEN, NO MATTER HOW MUCH TIME AND ENERGY THEY EXPEND on other men, no matter how deeply they invest themselves in rivalries with peers, can only discover their true selves in the company of women. Scott Fitzgerald was such a man, and for that reason he spent an inordinate amount of time listening to women, even those he didn’t know, believing that in their conversations he would learn something about himself. Just now, seated across the aisle from two working-class Irish women, the older of whom kept using the younger one’s name at the beginning or end of every few sentences, he jotted down fragments of an argument. Mother and daughter, most likely—they debated a topic of mutual concern, except the daughter never once returned the personal address. On first glance the mother might have been fifty-nine or sixty, but, no, she was working-class and not all that well kept, so subtract a few years. One minute she was peremptory, haughty, conducting herself as someone used to getting her way; the next she was docile and supplicating, aware that her wishes could not prevail.
“What are you writing, Scott?” From the seat nearer the window Zelda raised herself, eyelids heavy, having nodded off for a few minutes but now pulling upright to grab at the corner of the Moleskine notebook he tucked inside his jacket. “Is it about me?” In her voice the old touch of paranoia, the worry she could not master. Asleep for only a short while, she did not trust the world to have remained the same. For all she knew he’d reached his limit while she napped, vowing once and for all to be rid of her.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” she said, and the remark startled him.
“I’m not sure what I meant.” She mulled it over for several seconds. “Give up on me, I suppose. I wish you wouldn’t.”
“Zelda, no one’s giving up on you.”
They had come to the decision to check her into the hospital together, cabling Dr. Forel, who thought she might do best back in Switzerland, but when Scott saw the panic enter his wife’s eyes at the prospect of a return to Les Rives de Prangins clinic, he promised Forel she hadn’t backslid quite so far. No, all she required was a restful month, maybe two, in which to regain her equilibrium. So Forel recommended the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, familiar territory, a city they already knew, where Scott might establish residence without much trouble.
“I want you to understand I’m only doing this so you’ll stop worrying about me,” she started to say, her words swallowed by the squeal of metal on metal, the shrieking release of air announcing yet another station. It bothered him, this habit she had of seizing the most inopportune moments for intimate conversation, as if there were no difference between things you could say in a railway passenger car and things that ought to be whispered, if ever, in a church confessional.
But is it really so odd she should choose this moment to speak of such matters? Only consider the situation from her perspective. Over the past few weeks she has been convinced for hours, sometimes days on end, that this time round the voices won’t be silenced, this time they won’t cease until they’ve wrung from her every last ounce of soulfulness, rendered her incapable of retrieving the self she has twice salvaged these past two years. There were stretches of clarity during which she couldn’t remember the hallucinations, or her own desperate words, or why she allowed Scott to label her “sick” and submit her to evaluation by so-called experts altogether hostile to the premises by which she wished to conduct her life. But what galled her most, what stayed with her, were the broken promises. Almost two years ago she’d entered Prangins voluntarily, expecting to be released within weeks, only to be kept there against her will for sixteen long months, not knowing if she would ever be allowed to leave. A year and a half of her life stolen from her. She vowed during the fourth month of imprisonment never again to surrender her freedom without a fight. Here she is today, seated beside a husband mired in an alcoholic tailspin altogether as self-destructive as her own slow unraveling, and yet no one arrives to propose stowing him in an asylum. No one so much as notices that as he sits there primly, playing the role of jailor and deliverer, there is alcohol on his breath. Every time he turns his head she can smell it on him, the sweet, pungent stench of his own ruin.
What happened to her wasn’t so unusual. With Scott two thousand miles away, gone for weeks on end, working on that movie in Hollywood that was never going to get made, Zelda remained in Alabama with her family, her mother and sister watching her every move, her father dying under the mask of his terrible dignity, leaving her with graveside thoughts of how she was like him and also (she hoped) not like him. “Please tell me what normal looks like under those circumstances,” she pled on her own behalf. “Please tell me how you’re supposed to grieve without knowing how far inside the pain you can venture before everybody starts barking, fussing, trying to determine whether or not you’ve lost your mind.”
“It’s always so exhausting,” she remarked, as he shifted in his seat, “for you too, I suppose, when I start to go crazy.”
“Zelda, don’t be so dramatic, please. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I can stop if I concentrate. It’s only your constant worrying that wears me out.”
“Would you like it better if I didn’t care?”
“Honestly?” she asked, catching herself, making sure she didn’t say anything that might prove irrevocable. They have uttered such words before, each of them many times. Even now she could trace the damage, if she cared to.
The train came to a halt, the departing passengers lining up at the front of the car. Still others stood before their berths, shuffling and twisting to face one another, yawning, stretching indolent limbs as newcomers filed down the aisle in search of empty seats.
Zelda clutched at his sleeve, asking him how long she would have to stay at Phipps and if afterward they could travel to Europe as a family. The three of them—Scott, Zelda, and their daughter Scottie—could have dinners in Montparnasse and make a study of how Paris was changed since the mid-1920s when they’d known it so well. Except this time, unlike the miserable return three years ago, they wouldn’t mind the changes so much, since they were older, wiser, sobered by life. In the final years of the twenties they had indeed gone back to find their once-cosmopolitan city a travesty of its former grandeur, the cafes reeking of decades of spilled alcohol, the salons populated by hackneyed hangers-on, everything they stumbled on seeming gaudy, motley, or crass. So Zelda had dedicated herself to the regimen of ballet, one last chance to become more than an amateur, all hopes distilled into a passionate crush on her mentor, Madame Egorova, and, oh, if after that she couldn’t remember details, maybe she just didn’t wish to remember. Suffice it to say she pushed herself to the dire end while foreseeing it clearly, knowing full well how much it was going to cost her, this love of dance.
“If the novel earns what it should,” he said, “I don’t see why we couldn’t visit Paris.”
“We’ll have room to move about,” she mused without glancing his way, as if talking to herself, “and do the things we were going to do. We could purchase the home I’ve bought for us a thousand times in my head, which I’ve decorated and redecorated as many times, the one secure place I always wanted and we’re probably never going to have. I could take up ballet again—”
Scott twisted in his seat, studying her, warning her without words that she was straying beyond permissible bounds.
“Yes, Scott, I was only speaking hypothetically,” she said in a spirit of concession, and then, taking a deep dancer’s breath and heaving cheerfulness into her voice, added, “I’ve decided to concentrate my energies on becoming a writer such as yourself and Ernest. Someone who spends his time observing life pass him by and puts poignant remarks on the page about the many activities, such as fighting in wars or killing bulls, he himself cannot do.”
“True enough,” Scott said, “writers are like parasites.”
“Please don’t become melancholic on my account.” She waited on a reply and when it wasn’t forthcoming resumed. “About Paris, then, where will we live this time? Maybe, if I were well enough, you could cut down on the drinking.”
Here was the reliable reprimand, the fight for not only power but first principles. Hadn’t his drinking and antics provoked her mad search for a vocation of her own because what they’d built wasn’t sound enough? And if she pushed too fast, too hard, pressed her body to do things it had never done, stretched her mind to the breaking point, wasn’t he in the end the cause of it all?
The train was in motion again, passing under a viaduct, the percussive roll of its wheels amplified and played back against the funnel-like walls. When they emerged from beneath the overpass, the voice of the older woman across the aisle could be heard distinctly. “Listen to me, he was always so fond of you, but you could never believe him after that one night, not that I entirely blame you. Don’t you see, Clara, you’ll put me in a bad sit—”
“You imagine I care,” the younger woman cried, facing forward. Several passengers in the berths near the front of the car jerked their heads, fixing rubbernecking stares on the two women.
“You know what,” the older woman said, her voice heavy with exasperation. “You’re sick; your memories and thoughts are so twisted, it’s shocking.”
A nearby passenger rose from her seat, seeking out the conductor in order to direct his attention to the ruckus. The conductor looked over the woman’s shoulder as he listened, eyeing the two women, and a minute later he made his way toward them.
“Isn’t it dramatic?” Zelda whispered. “What’s your theory as to the cause of the row? I’ll tell you my surmise. The older one is a stepmother, and the younger a victim of incest by the hands of the father. Though the stepmother tried her best to protect the girl from violence, she nevertheless failed to do what a guardian ought to have done.”
“Zelda, you shouldn’t speculate so wildly.”
“Oh,” she said, a mischievous smile lighting her face, “now I recognize the girl; she is to be my roommate for the next several weeks at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins. She and I and perhaps several other crazy people on this train are on a journey to be cured of our neuroses and dementia praecox and assorted afflictions of the soul. We’re all of us on a pilgrimage.”
He could tell from the tone of her voice that there was nothing truly precipitous in these speculations. She was playing with her own story, imagining it as dispersed among the masses and somehow less terrifying for its typicality. Today was one of her good days, and there hadn’t been many of those since the middle of December. No telling how long the clarity would last, of course. The break had been building since the onset of the holidays and when it caught up to her these past few weeks it overwhelmed her with predictable brutality. Scott had observed the irregularity in her behavior on his return from the West Coast. She would start down wild trails of thought, obsessing over the smallest details, unable to relinquish arbitrary desires, no matter how contrary to common sense they were. As a Christmas gift for Scottie she re-created the world of their travels on the scale of model trains—a tour of the globe from Rome to Paris to New York, wooden and papier-mache constructions of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, all positioned along the Lionel train tracks encircling the Christmas tree. Weeks and weeks of desperate craftsmanship went into the gift, as she distracted herself from her father’s final absence from the world by attending to the minutiae of the models. Though she was far inside the disease by the time he returned from California, their reunion brought about a detente. For a while she was happy and spoke magnificently in the collective—We will do this, we will do that—but at the end of a trip to Florida in early January they quarreled and the next day she was kneading the tender skin above her eyes in an effort to roll back the spikes of pain that nibbled at tranquillity, her vision newly troubled by halos, also a sudden tightness in her lungs that manifested in wheezing breaths; and there appeared on her lovely cream skin a patch of eczema, starting at the neck, spreading like poison ivy down over her shoulder, across her breasts, upward to the shadow line of her round, China-doll jaw.
On the return trip she admitted defeat, but only to him. “Oh, Scott, I’m broken again.” When they arrived in Montgomery she pretended he’d invented it all, claimed never to have said any such thing, wishing to expose him to her family as her cruel jailor. It might have worked, except the eczema was by then climbing her cheek, contradicting her declarations of health and autonomy. For an entire Sunday afternoon she waded imaginatively through the bare grass of a field that ran behind her parents’ estate and accused Scott of being brutal for not letting her fulfill her wishes, as though it never occurred to her that it was the dead of winter. In her mind’s eye she saw her dancer’s callused feet and strong naked calves sporting in the grass and it was always summer. She spent whole days languishing in nostalgia, settled on the porch, remembering the soldiers stationed in Montgomery who’d once come to her door attired in military costume, also the dozens of local boys who’d religiously courted her. She was susceptible to visions—of Judas Iscariot, Napoleon, Jeanne d’Arc, and the Spanish artist El Greco, whom Scott loved so much and she thought merely another Mediterranean mystic. Her visitors told her secrets: Judas was Christ’s favorite for several hours after the betrayal; Jeanne had always suspected the voices she heard were from the devil.
Since leaving her mother’s house in Montgomery, Zelda had been positively exuberant, not in itself cause for concern, but Scott had to watch her all the same. She wished to gossip about the two women across the aisle, but he interrupted to report that he was headed to the dining car for some coffee, would she like anything, and she reminded him that she rarely drank coffee.
He reclaimed the seat next to his wife. Across the aisle the berth was empty, the two Irishwomen nowhere in sight. For several minutes Zelda remained silent, eyes clamped shut in fake sleep, until she leaned forward, yawning, extending her arms in exaggerated languor into a fully stretched Y, turning to him with mouth half open, a shy smile on her lips. Expressing no curiosity as to the whereabouts of the two women, she instead commented on his shoes. “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like your new shoes.” She knew how to play to his vanity. “You strike such a fine figure in the world, Scott.
“Sometimes I see you from afar as if I didn’t know you and my heart runs fast like a young girl’s as I entertain a perfectly meretricious thought. ‘Oh, how handsome he is,’ I say to myself, ‘a stranger come to seduce me.’ Then I take a second peek, embarrassed not to have recognized you, ‘Oh, but it is only my husband,’ reprimanding myself for the intent to cheat on the good solid you who stood by me when I was cracked and doubted I could ever again fake wholeness. Poor you, I think, to be married to a sexually tawdry wife who is ready to run off with the first man she sees, regardless of his station in life, owing only to his handsome face. He could be a waiter for all I care.”
“Which should I find more flattering,” he asked, “your dutiful loyalty to a tired old partner or the flash of excitement I now and then inspire from afar?”
“You needn’t be so analytical, I only meant to compliment your shoes.”
“Which you, of course, helped pick out.”
They had discovered the shoes, independently, months ago, in an advertisement in Esquire, Scott lifting the magazine after Zelda laid it down, then asking minutes later what she thought of the two-toned leather brogue shoes the man in the photograph was wearing. She uttered a small cry of joy, delighted by their like-mindedness, having instructed herself that if he commented on the pair of Florsheim shoes, she would have to buy them for him at Christmas.
“Still, you’re the one who wears them well,” Zelda observed, “and now I’ll be able to imagine what you are like in the wide world while I am tucked away in the insane asylum.”
There was such excitement in a pair of new shoes. You looked down at your feet and detected the shine on them, unblemished, undiminished, and it was the beginning of experience all over again, the promise of falling in love, the thrill of imagining what he would be like under his clothes. After that came the worry. How long could the newness last? So you kept track, wondering at what point the shoes would no longer be mistaken as freshly purchased, at what point they would require polish to restore their luster so that you might venture onto the streets with a pair of shoes that looked as good as new—except you would know better.
“You make me want to take them off.” Scott smiled and she put her hand in his lap.
He was still so charming, she told herself. All he had to do was let the affect back into his voice and he was again irresistible.
Look at her in that pose, the hand in his lap asking to be taken up, this small ritual by which they unburden themselves of history all at once. There is style in her gesture, one might almost call it a moral style. It is their style as a couple, and it has seen them through so much adversity, this penchant for reconciliation in the midst of ongoing conflict. The charm and lightness with which she faces down illness; his stubborn habit of perceiving her latest breakdown as merely one more setback in a string of soul-wearying events. Neither of them, Zelda no more than Scott, ready to admit defeat, their optimism unflagging despite all that has proven contrary to it. They have always been this way, he might tell himself, and their life not always so tragic. Never mind what people saw from the outside: everything could be forgiven, the past converted, all might be made new. If only, she reasoned, improvising a test, if only he will pick up my hand. He has done it so many times before, intertwined his fingers in mine, turned his wrist and mine inward, together.
“So,” Zelda said after a long silence, withdrawing her hand from where it lay unembraced, “I suppose you’re wondering what became of the lousy old Irishwoman and her daughter.”
He wouldn’t listen to her anymore if she insisted on using that word.
“Please, Scott. Lousy, lousy, lousy, you’re so damned fastidious.” But when she looked up and saw that he wasn’t going to be teased out of his mood, she gave in. “Oh, all right, haggard, that haggard Irishwoman, is that better? I thought they were both perfectly dreadful, making a spectacle of themselves in front of the entire train.”
“They weren’t so bad. I felt rather sorry for them, especially the mother.”
“When it was she who wronged her own ward,” Zelda exclaimed. “Oh, let’s not talk about it.” Here for the first time all afternoon he recognized the illness in her voice, otherworldly in its intensity, capable of expanding in several directions at once and leading almost anywhere except toward that which could be reasonably deduced. “While I’m stuck in bedlam you’ll befriend such women, and their unseemly daughters will attempt to steal your heart.”
“Zelda, control yourself. You don’t believe a word you’re saying.”
“It was probably the new shoes,” she conceded, adopting a philosophical tone. “People buy new shoes and suits and dresses when they’re ready to fall in love with somebody else. I know you still love me, but you must often be overcome with buyer’s remorse. Excuse me, but I didn’t notice the cracks in her porcelain skin or that her mind was so fitful, some might say fundamentally impaired—do you suppose I might trade her in? Oh, wait, maybe I better not.”
“Zelda, I’m not listening to any more of this.”
“In the end you always decide to stick by me because you’re loyal and you would rather that I get well than have to start over with some new woman and train her to put up with the insanity of living with a writer and his neuroses.”
The conductor came down the aisle, calling, “Next stop Baltimore, folks,” his voice trailing off as he passed to the rear of the car.
“I don’t believe this emptiness is all I am,” she said, snaring Scott’s arm, digging into his biceps with her fingernails even as she pressed against him.
“Of course not.” He ran his fingers along her forehead close to the hairline. “You’re a mother, a writer, an artist—mostly, you are my own girl whom I always love.”
“And you’ll come visit and remind me of who I was and who I’m going to be again afterward, won’t you?”
Scott watched the terror sweep across her face and take refuge in the corners of her eyes.
“Do you suppose,” she asked, making an effort, toying with abstraction, as though observing herself from the outside, “Trouble has followed us all the way from Montgomery?”
“What will he do if he catches up to the train?”
“Well, he spends most of his time chasing us. It’s a game to him, the pleasure in pursuit.”
Here she lifted her face to Scott so he could study the line of her chin in profile, the soft skin marred by the eczema only partly masked by face powder. He put his hand on her shoulder, but she pushed it away, so he asked, “Where is Trouble now? What is he doing?”
“Oh, probably running alongside the train, panting heavily. It has been a long chase and he will be there, I imagine, waiting for me at the Phipps Clinic.”
“Trouble is always waiting for you, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he likes me better than you. But you also deserve your share of Trouble.”
“You always were generous about sharing your Trouble with me.”
A white-haired woman in the seat ahead cast a reproachful glance. Zelda, with her round Indian face and slightly slanted eyes, returned the woman’s scrutiny with such dread intensity that she turned forward again without uttering a word.
They had invented the game on that trip to Florida before everything went bad. Only this past fall they had purchased a bloodhound to whom they gave the name Trouble (“Like a character from Hawthorne,” Zelda declared in a burst of inspiration). Late one night in Florida Zelda was feeling blue and began to pine for her dog, recalling Trouble’s droopy face and fond way of following at her heels, and she said aloud, with childish simplicity, “Oh, I wish Trouble were here with us.” Without missing a beat Scott answered, “Haven’t we had trouble enough the past few years?” and Zelda thrilled at his off-the-cuff double entendre. Within minutes they had concocted her new favorite pastime, which involved using their dog’s name in a string of sentences that might as readily refer to a bloodhound’s behavior as the rough lot in life of a black blues singer.
“Maybe that nosy woman is angling to take ownership of our Trouble,” Zelda said in a voice loud enough that the eavesdropping woman ahead of them might hear.
“Oh, he’d be too much for her,” Scott said.
Soon the train was braking and everywhere at once air seeped upward through the floorboards, like the last exhalations of a military truck on which the tires have been shot out. But when Scott declared his intent to see the conductor about the luggage, Zelda lurched for his elbow, saying, “Don’t leave me,” her antics at once staged and altogether sincere.
“Oh, all right, we’ll both go.”
Along the train passengers disembarked, throngs of working-class people from the cars farther down, the blacks in even greater numbers at the rear. On the platform white men in suits stood erectly, waiting for the next departure.
“Zelda, do you need anything? Otherwise we should find a taxi and start for Phipps.”
“Yes, whatever you think best,” she said, trying to sound cooperative even though her stomach was tumbling in on itself. Humming a song, slowly recovering its words—Oh, I got that trouble in mind, it’s true—she trailed Scott through the turnstiles into the main concourse of Baltimore’s Penn Station, scouting for exits as they crossed its cold, marbled, cavernous center and now headed through one of the high arched doorways that led to Charles Street.
I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line
And let that midnight train satisfy my mind—
“Stop that, Zelda,” Scott insisted. “Do you hear what you’re singing?”
A taxi pulled forward and the driver took the bags from Scott.
“I was playing the game without you,” she explained once they were in the cab. “What else shall we talk about? Let’s pretend we’re a young couple starting out, the two of us newly on our own, heading to the theater and dinner because you’ve sold your first book.”
“I would rather that we concentrate on the near future. Let’s at least agree on what we should say about what happened and how you slipped back.”
“Get our stories straight, you mean.”
“Not that we have anything to hide, but if we point the doctors in the right direction, maybe the cure will be easier on you this time.”
“They’re very strong-minded.”
“Zelda, they’re doctors, people of reason. Of course they’ll want to know everything that can be of help.”
“They have a strange way of showing their love.”
“What do you mean?”
“Morphine, numbing doses of chloral hydrate, solitary confinemen, restraints—”
“Stop it, Zelda. It’s not love they’re supposed to show—”
“No, that’s your job.”
“They’re supposed to make you stronger, better able to cope with—”
“With you,” she interrupted him. “Yes, I know all of that. What I should have said is that you have a strange way of showing your love.”
She looked at him then, holding his granite jaw away from her. Why do you hate me? she wanted to cry. How did I become your opponent? For hate was radiating from his body, the desperate sense of lost destiny, which was and always would be her fault. Fierce and uncompromising, he wanted back the dream of uninterrupted existence, the writerly life to which she was the obstacle. If he were a harder man, such as Ernest, he would have abandoned her years ago and maybe it would have been better for everyone all around.
“I don’t want to be their child again, Scott,” Zelda said softly, but his heart was hardened against her. So she reached two fingers to his chest, stroking his shirt beneath the tie. He resented her when she was strong and defiant and troublesome, but could never resist her when she was falling apart. He could not stand to watch her suffer at the hands of anyone but himself.
“It’s only a short time, Zelda dear,” he said, his voice an archangel of mercy, come to her rescue—true, first he must hand her over to the enemy, but in time he will return to deliver her and she must remember to be grateful for what he will one day do for her.
“Just ’til you’re well,” he added.
“How will they know?” she asked after riding several minutes in silence, as though sound belonged only to the world beyond their windows, the metal shrieks of electric streetcars and the constant banter of car horns. “The doctors begin from a presumption of guilt, not innocence.”
The patient must prove herself, show perfect docility, sometimes by performing the impossible, like witches with limbs tied together who must make their bodies sink even at the risk of drowning, who if they continued merely as they were, floating on the surface of the ordinary world, were still wrong. Only when she agreed to play the part expected of her—of wife, of mother, of artist in moderation—only then could they begin to talk of her release.
“It’s not like that at all.” He was tempted to believe her, but what good would that do? “It’s also up to you to determine when you’re well.”
“If that’s the case, if it’s up to me to say when,” she said, reasoning like a character out of Plato’s dialogues, perhaps one of the sophists, “then I’m well right now.”
“I know, Zelda, but you must maintain it,” he said. He ran back over the day, able to recall only a single instance in which she had caused him to lose his patience. “You weren’t at all well two days ago.”
“But you see for yourself I am now,” she said, maybe for the first time believing she might convince him to turn the taxi around and drive to a hotel for several days of necessary respite, away from her family. “Scott, what’s it for? Am I going to the asylum to expiate my sins?”
“Is that your opinion of me?” he asked sharply. “I suppose that’s why I work round the clock writing stories, so many of which I hate, just to be able to pay your medical bills.”
“I only meant that the doctors see it that way, Scott.”
But he could remember all those letters from Prangins, accusing him of being in league with the doctors and serving as her private inquisitor, plotting the barbaric things they would do to make her a true believer—though of what he’d like to know, since, he assured her, he had no doctrine anymore. Nothing in which he still believed.
“Please don’t say that,” she pleaded. “You scare me when you speak like that.”
“I’m through with consolations, Zelda.”
“Please, Scott, you must be consoled.”
“For my sake. Please, I’ll make myself better and I’ll let the doctors believe they did it and then I will come and I will be your consolation.”
Zelda tilted forward to ask the taxi driver, an Italian man with a heavy mustache and olive-dark skin smelling of soil, sun, and garlic, how far to the clinic.
“Three to five minutes, signora,” the cabbie said, rolling his vowels in that wonderful Italianate manner, his words far more elegant than he himself could ever be.
So she slackened in her seat, thinking of how long she would have to wait for deliverance. Scott looked at her and he was kind again.
Studying her face, patient and gentle, youthful today as when he first met her, he could remember the possibilities he’d written for them. Last year at Prangins, with Zelda getting worse by the minute, Scott banned from seeing her, Dr. Forel had taken him aside and said, “I have read your stories. You are like the sculptor Pygmalion in the ancient myth, creating your wife and yourself in the image of what you might be, believing in youth as a promise. To be young is to be invulnerable. And neither of you—she more desperately than you, perhaps—can let go of what you were promised. Imagine, a grown woman taking up ballet, eight to ten hours a day, in her late twenties. Only a woman who doesn’t believe in the mortal body, who believes in fables of youthful lore told by her husband, could do such a thing.” It had made Scott angry for weeks afterward just to think of Forel’s harangue.
To hell with them, the psychoanalysts were the booboosie, Zelda was right.
Why not order the driver to turn the car around and drive them to Lexington Market to pick up wine, cheese, and fruit? He formed the proposal in his head. Zelda, if you’ll only discipline yourself, we can skip the doctors. He would take her on a picnic. She would be grateful and all his again, concentrating on his every word, able like any normal person to anticipate what should come next, assembling words and actions and their consequences into a story of self that held together. It might go on for days, weeks. He could remember seasons of terrific performance, the way she attended to him as ardent wife, doted on Scottie, kept things in balance, not indulging the wild habits of thought, the incessant dancing. Always, though, it unraveled, slowly at first, maybe in the wake of a critical remark he made after a glass of wine at the end of a long day of writing. “Zelda, why does it have be so hard?” he would ask, and it was as though a member of the audience had hurled an insult at her, drawing her out of character. In the face of criticism she was awful—breezy, lax in her duties, asking why it was that everyone had to slip through the house quiet as church mice until three in the afternoon each day, and when he said, “You know the answer to that,” she’d say, “Oh, yes, because you’re the great writer.”
Then it would be over. She would prod and prod until she got him to admit his egomaniacal ambition, wresting from him a confession that he was in competition with the immortals, all of whom were, in her view, merely self-adoring seekers of fame. One stray remark and she was ruinous to herself and those nearest her, everything crashing down in its usual manner, as though she relished nothing more than her ability to make him stop writing. “I won’t be responsible for your failure,” she would scream. “I won’t let you use me as an excuse.”
“Scott, listen,” Zelda said, tugging at the sleeve of his jacket, nudging him into the present, her lips pressed against his jaw in a seductive, husky whisper, “we could still escape.”
Again she asked the taxi driver how much farther.
“At the end of this street, ma’am.”
She stared into his eyes but could discern only judgment there.
“You’re not better than me.”
He didn’t say a word.
“Only please don’t say the bad things,” she begged. “Those are just between us.”
“Zelda, we have to be honest.”
“I’ll tell them everything, on my terms, in my way. It’s so much worse coming from you. Please, Scott, promise you’ll let me say the bad things, let me tell them what it’s like when I suddenly realize I’m not there anymore, that this woman who kisses her writer-husband and tells him she adores him or reads a book to her daughter is like a made-up character—I can pretend to be her for a while, but it’s just pretend.”
“As long as you say all that.”
“I will,” she said, “and more.”
And maybe he hears the threat in this last remark, remembering the words she’s already said and those she might yet say about him, everything on record in some psychoanalyst’s office for people to read years later when he is dead.
“But I don’t have to say any of it,” she now whispers, as the driver curbs the taxi before the austere five-storied red brick building and its tight, enclosed arcade with heavy roman arches. The driver removes their bags from the trunk to set them inside the front door of the clinic. “There’s still time,” she says. “Let’s make our escape.” But Scott has already paid the taxi driver and made arrangements to be picked up in two hours and driven to the Belvedere Hotel. And now her husband turns and cradles her arm, her knees folding in dread as they climb the wide, shallow stairs like worshippers at the altar of some unforgiving god.
“I will be sad,” she says as he holds the door for her and she listens for their heels clicking on the mosaic tiles, “watching you walk away in your new shoes.”
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).