AT THE FAR END OF THE PIER THE FLYING BOATS OF PAN AMERICAN Airways rested like dormant leviathans, their fat bellies dependent in the water. She looked up ahead to the planes, then behind her toward the white stucco terminal building, so many times that Scott said, “Zelda, please stop that, you’re making me dizzy.” Most likely they were being followed. She couldn’t say who it was or what he wanted, maybe a private eye hired by the Highland to keep tabs on them. A bad report to Dr. Carroll might bring an end to these trips with her husband, who despite his many flaws was her only company in the world.
“I was checking to see how many people will be on our flight to Havana.”
“Well, stop turning your head.”
“Okay, Scott,” she said, feigning childlike submissiveness, all the while thinking that with his petulant, nervous impatience it was he who was childlike.
A stewardess passed them, walking briskly toward the plane, and Scott touched her elbow. “How much longer ’til we board?” he asked.
“Don’t bother the nice girl, Scott,” Zelda said, smiling into the woman’s vacant yet comely face, appeasing her. In all likelihood Scott had stolen a drink before they left the hotel, perhaps during the early morning errand he ran shortly before seven, without explanation, saying only that he would be back in twenty minutes. She was dressed by the time he reappeared, moving out of his way as he dashed into the bathroom, far enough to the side that even if she had been trying to smell his breath, and she wasn’t, she couldn’t have done so. He emerged from the bathroom primped, a blue silk cravat-shaped tie knotted in a neat square, the white shirt collar framing his freshened face, only his eyes showing signs of weariness. Not twenty minutes later he had them arriving at the Pan American Terminal at Dinner Key well ahead of schedule, too early for his own good. He had been going at this clip since yesterday at the sanitarium, where he was hasty and abrupt, speaking few words to the attending nurse, insisting there was no need to call a doctor and then escorting Zelda through the lobby with such haste you might have thought he was abducting his wife rather than taking her on holiday. It seemed to Zelda that if he slowed even a little, his body would give out. She hated traveling with him in this condition, not simply because it was in violation of hospital rules—she could hear the doctors warning her, “His drinking is not good for you”—but because Scott might prove incapable in an emergency.
“He’s been traveling for two days straight,” she told the stewardess, explaining his impatience. “He’s a writer in Hollywood and he’s very tired.”
“Not long now, sir,” the stewardess answered. “Would I know any of your pictures?”
“Did you see Three Comrades?” Zelda asked.
“No, I’m afraid I never heard of it.”
“It was an important film last year and won several awards,” Zelda told her. “Look for Gone with the Wind later this year.”
“Did you work on that also?” the stewardess asked Scott. “I think I’ve—”
“Yes, he—,” Zelda started to say.
“Not really,” Scott said simultaneously.
“He’s quite modest,” Zelda explained.
“That’s a refreshing quality in a famous person.” The stewardess smiled, then moved on.
“Why did you do that?” Scott snapped.
“What did I do?”
“You made me the author of a script I worked on for three weeks, without permission to insert a single sentence that wasn’t already in Margaret Mitchell’s execrably mediocre novel, a script from which as far as I know all traces of my input have by now been excised, every one of my lines rewritten.”
“Scott, it makes no difference,” Zelda said. “She didn’t know the other film and I thought it might make her feel important when she’s out with her beau this summer to be able to say, ‘I met the screenwriter of this film on a flight to Havana.’”
“You could have told her about something I actually wrote.”
“Like The Great Gatsby, for instance, because everybody—oh, never mind.”
“If she hadn’t heard of Three Comrades, she’s not likely to have read Gatsby.”
“I don’t see why you had to humiliate me.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You’re a wonderful writer, but that doesn’t mean people have heard of you. If you were less wonderful, perhaps more people would have heard of you.”
“And the Saturday Evening Post?”
“Yes, I’m sure she’s seen the Saturday Evening Post and maybe even our glamorous picture on it when she was a little girl, but I’ve learned the hard way not to mention—”
“Well, never mind,” he said. “Just don’t ever again advertise me as a third-rate writer on a third-rate film I’m not even going to get a screen credit for.”
Soon they were boarding, crossing the tarmac and filing down the pier to ascend a moveable staircase positioned against the aircraft, into which the people up ahead in line were disappearing, one by one. Zelda said in an offhanded manner, “Into the belly of the whale, each his own Jonah,” and Scott was scratching something in his notebook, probably her phrase.
Within minutes of taking his seat he fell asleep, and she slanted close to his wilting head, close enough to discern the bouquet of his breath beneath the Lucky Tiger Bay Rum aftershave, but whether the traces of alcohol were from this morning or yesterday or the day before she couldn’t tell. The engines revved, the rapid-fire slapping of the propellers churning the air, and she could feel the waters beneath them become choppy, rocking the aircraft in a cradlelike motion. For several seconds she doubted she would be able to master her fear and she squeezed Scott’s forearm with the thought of waking him, but no, that would be selfish. Only wake him if you really need him, she scolded herself, adding in a faint whisper, “Don’t be foolish, Zelda,” then conjuring the things Scott might say to console her, running through a list of commonplace assurances. He had flown dozens and dozens of times. It was perfectly safe. Nothing could happen on a plane that couldn’t happen by any other mode of travel, say, while driving a car. Except plummeting into the depths of the ocean. She laughed at the recklessness of her imagination, at the part of her that would not submit to etiquette, even to an etiquette she herself had invented.
From her seat by the window she could feel the cyclonic whir of a nearby propeller. Lifting her eyes, then lowering them again, she tried to focus on an individual blade and keep distinct its peculiar oblong shape before it finally spun free, dissolving into the blur of its own speed. As the aircraft drifted out into Biscayne Bay, she pictured its nose pointed toward the ocean and again looked at Scott, still asleep, oblivious to the danger of takeoff. Soon the flying boat was heaving its pregnant belly into flight and she could feel the fingers of water gripping the sides of the aircraft, not wanting to let go, until in an instant it tore free, wobbling and bobbing on the Atlantic winds as it climbed the sky, every now and then slipping and falling back so that there was a hollow sensation in her stomach and she clutched Scott’s forearm. But even as she fought back the nausea, the plane steadied itself on the contrary winds and she allowed a simple, exhilarated thought: they were on vacation, Scott and she, on a flying clipper headed for Havana.
Contented, she closed her eyes and let her mind wander. She was twenty-two again and famous. She graced the covers of magazines, an icon of style quoted for her witticisms, and she said to Scott without melancholy, “This is as happy as we’ll ever be.” His stories in demand everywhere, his name on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the voice of a generation. As yet no envy: somehow she too would find her place in the sun, Scott would help her get there. On a lark she wrote a review of The Beautiful and Damned accusing Scott of plagiarizing her diaries, but she hadn’t meant anything by it. She tried to remember what it felt like to live in the glory of his achievement and his even greater potential, with no ambitions of her own, at least none she had announced. Then she saw them in the spring of 1924: on an ocean liner, headed for France, husband and wife eager to shed their younger selves. “America is the eternal present,” Scott said, adding with biblical solemnity, “the land of mother’s milk and money.” It was harder in the States than anywhere else, he speculated, to cast off the glamour of being young and beautiful and carefree. So they fled to Europe. To grow up and live economically and put frivolity behind them, maybe stay several years if France could hold their interest. Scott had much of Gatsby on the page, the rest of it in him, ready to be written, though he kept calling the book by another name, what was it he had wanted to call it, she couldn’t remember—well, it didn’t matter.
Next to her Scott fidgeted in his seat but slept on. Outside, the even rows of white clouds folded like crests of waves on the empyreal blue. She wanted to pause memory where it had taken her, stay there without moving forward, so as not to arrive at her summer’s flirtation with the French aviator Edouard Jozan, to which Scott would respond so punishingly, their intimacy poisoned thereafter by his aversion to her charisma, artistry, and uninhibited sexuality, by her aversion to his freedom, talent, and stature. Envy, the beginning of a new era in their lives. In the spring of 1924, though, there was as yet no real division. She wished to stay within those long weeks in Paris when they were always together, implausibly happy. Stay entirely within that spring so as to fall in love again with Sara and Gerald Murphy, Zelda and Scott’s elegant doppelgangers—all of them so enchanting. Paris was like a gala every night, one at which Zelda always struck a figure, her performance sometimes histrionic but never boring. She experienced again the charge of her body when she danced in clubs, how she held the attention of so many men, moving with athletic knowingness, always pushing at the limits. Scott, in a sour mood, might come and wrap his jacket around her on the dance floor, especially when she started pulling her skirt up, but he was titillated by her antics and never remained angry long.
She didn’t believe in the adoration of the public, but that didn’t make her any less aggressive about seeking it. She took baths at parties, causing guests to line up to use the toilets and knock and then crack the door as she hailed them, saying, “I’m bathing,” and they might ask how long, and what was she doing anyway bathing in the middle of a party. Some of the desperate souls would beg to be allowed in to use the toilets, men and women alike. The women coming forward to sit on the rim of the tub and peer into the water to witness the shape of her splendorous naked body beneath soapy bubbles. The men pretending not to look at her as they asked teasingly if there were other American girls like her, and would she mind letting them know ahead of time which parties she was planning to attend. More than once a gentleman offered to scrub her back and she leaned forward, breasts skimming the surface as she folded her chest to her knees and let him work the brush along her spine, as far down as he could reach.
“I’m braver than the others,” she said aloud in a whisper.
Scott, stirring in the seat beside her, asked in a mutter if she had been speaking to him.
“I see the way the world is,” she said in a low voice, “and refuse to look away.”
She ordered a ginger ale from the stewardess and asked how long until they landed, surprised to learn they were almost there. Scott opened his eyes and sat up.
“Oh, hello, did you have a good nap?” She was doing her best to sound like an ordinary wife, concerned only about the little things that bound them in the day to day.
“You’re in a good mood,” he answered, as if he’d been uncertain of what to expect.
“But why shouldn’t I be?”
Perhaps he suspected she had gone and made herself young again. For whenever she came all the way into the present tense, embracing the possibility of the world before her and what might still be done in it, he grew nervous.
“Right, why shouldn’t you be?”
“All I meant,” she said, “was that my talented and handsome and supremely beneficent husband has traveled thousands of miles to take me on an adventure.” She heard the theatricality in her voice, worrying for a second she would be unable to carry it off, until she realized she meant everything she was saying.
“I’d still like to take care of you,” she added, sensing that deep down he remained hers, though he couldn’t trust the part of himself that was devoted to her. “Of course, I’m not sure how much I can help, or if you even want my help anymore.”
Well then, he proposed, let them try to take care of each other as best they could, day by day, starting small, starting with tonight, moving on from there.
It was the end of the dry season in Cuba and the road from the airport crossed through the heavily cultivated plains of the campo, the American-made cars up ahead trailing clouds of red dust so that the windows of their car had to be kept up despite the stifling heat. Below them were the harvested fields of sugarcane and tobacco, here and there a hacienda embedded in a grove of trees, its colonnaded portico steeped in shadows. They passed hovels set close to the road where dirty, naked children played in yards full of dilapidated farm machinery and rusted tools. It reminded her of the South of her childhood, the aristocratic decadence of an Old World culture disdaining yet nonetheless dependent on the degrading poverty that everywhere surrounded it, but she felt no nostalgia for a style of life amid which she’d once shown so splendidly. One day last year after suffering a bout of eczema, she had looked into a bathroom mirror at the Highland Hospital and glimpsed a person unrecognizable to anyone who’d known her as the Judge’s rare jewel of a daughter, whose talent for fusing nobility and experimentalism only added to her allure among the staid Montgomery girls. As she ran her fingers over tormented skin, she envisioned herself slipping off to reside among the rural poor, forever disdaining what she’d once been for an existence based on the body’s most basic capabilities. But what of Scott? she had asked herself even at the time. She was his last reason to live, his excuse for failure but also his remnant purpose in the world. She could imagine him roaming the countryside in search of her, inquiring after his flapper-bride at every inn and farm in the Asheville area, until one day he encountered a peasant midwife with mildly pocked skin and a voice hinting of forgotten hardships, so charmed by her way of speaking that he stopped to take notes, unable to recognize the midwife as his missing wife.
She didn’t realize she was crying until Scott reached across the seat and brushed her cheek with his handkerchief. How long since he had touched her face, how presumptuous of him. Make me yours again, she said to herself, but he was always so careful.
Scott had given the driver their destination, a fine establishment in the Old City just off the Plaza de Armas—at the heart of everything, near several of the most famous squares, along one of the central shopping thoroughfares, not far from the fine restaurants and jazz clubs, the sorts of places the two of them loved so much. There was something so gallant about the way he described it that she pictured him as he’d been twenty years ago, a young man with an overinflated sense of his prospects and a tendency to boast of them if only to mask his insecurities. He was far more dignified now—except in his drunken fits, of course—and she wished she could make him believe it. Age hadn’t ruined him.
When they pulled up to the Hotel Ambos Mundos, he told her to wait in the car.
“But Scott,” she said, “after all this time I’m simply famished.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll stash the luggage and we can check in later.”
It was a hot and humid day, with lazy rain clouds sweeping the sky, and as she and Scott descended Calle Obispo several vendors shouted after them and a mulatto shoeshine boy backpedaled in front of Scott while repeatedly clapping brushes and pointing at his shoes. She was conscious of perspiring beneath her dress, worried lest spots become visible on the fabric. It was the hour of the siesta, hardly anybody loitering in the streets, three or four older couples promenading on the plaza, deliverymen and messengers cooling themselves in the long shadowed arcades that framed the square. Leaving the plaza, they passed a hotel restaurant at which the custodial staff wiped down tables, mopped floors, and opened shutters to air out the rooms for the dinner crowds. Eventually they found a table at a restaurant renowned for its seafood, Scott asking the waiter if it was possible to order something other than sea delicacies. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” could be heard from a cafe down the street, the music an invitation sent anonymously into the world. She and Scott were the only patrons in the restaurant except for a pair of old men in the far corner huddled over a game of dominos and a neatly dressed upper-class, fair-skinned Cuban of Scott’s age, who sat with his gray linen slacks pressed against a young bronzed girl who looked no older than fifteen.
“We have decided, gracias,” Scott said, then awkwardly pronounced each of the dishes in Spanish. Soon the waiter returned with a ginger ale for her, a bottle of Coca-Cola and a brown bottle of beer for Scott, who restated his intention not to drink before dinner. It always struck her as funny that he did not count beer as alcohol.
“I like this city,” she said. “I like the indolence of places where the sun is so heavy it drives people indoors to their beds. I like thinking of all the people lying naked on clean white sheets, leaving the cafes and restaurants to those of us in need of food or drink or conversation.”
Scott seemed lost in thought and she decided he must be worried about his career. It was altogether possible that while here in Cuba he would be unable to let go of his Hollywood misfortunes and his anxieties about the novel he was starting.
“Scott,” she said, sipping at the ginger ale, “it’s going to change for you. I believe that deep in my heart.”
He was a forgotten novelist, he told her grimly. It was two years since his last story in the Saturday Evening Post. Even worse, he feared Hollywood had turned him into a hack.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you could never be a hack. It’s not in you.”
Morosely, he imagined bookstores across the country filled with novels on every shelf, none of them his.
“What did you say to the bellhop?” she asked, trying to turn his mind to practical matters. “About our room? Don’t we have a reservation?”
“It will be all right,” he assured her. “The concierge himself told me there were many first-rate rooms left, not to worry.”
When the waiter set the dishes before them—a plate of Moros y Cristianos to share, huevos with plantains for Zelda, a plate of ropa vieja for Scott—Zelda determined that his was the better of the two. When he reminded her she’d asked for eggs because she hadn’t eaten breakfast, she said, “But I’ve changed my mind, now I want your flank steak.”
Too weary to protest, he passed his dish to her.
“Oh, not if you’re going to be a martyr about it,” she said.
Scott pulled the eggs to his side of the table, scooping some of the Moros y Cristianos onto his plate, asking if she wanted some also.
“What is it again?” she asked, already cutting into the sinews of tomato-doused meat, taking a bite. “I mean other than beans and rice.”
Zelda poked with her fork at the beans and rice, prepared with pepper, garlic, tomato, and bacon, and took a small bite. “Oh, it’s quite good. Yes, please serve me some Moors and Christians. I suppose I can guess which ones are the Moors.”
In fact Scott wasn’t all that hungry. He told her she could help herself to the eggs he hadn’t ordered and anything else on his plate.
“It’s only a lull,” she assured him, greedily consuming a second helping of beans and rice, and then half his serving of plantains. “I have a good feeling about this year.” She was getting better and better—she could always discern the onset of sanity ahead of time, what it felt like to be determined and unconquerable. She was going to be like that again soon. “And when I’m like that, I’m always good for you.”
Talk of reunion made Scott uneasy, talk of the future, period, made him uneasy.
“It used to be,” she continued, refusing to be cowed, “I was resentful about being so much less important than make-believe, but I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s only for a while, I tell myself. This time I’ll be self-sufficient for as long as it takes you to get the book right.”
Scott smiled, indulging her.
“Scott, you know I’m always right about these things,” she said. “Remember how I sent you away and refused to marry you until you finished your novel and became famous? I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t believe in you. I’m not cruel, just practical when I have to be.”
“Practical and visionary, how rare,” he said. “A lucky combination to find in a wife.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Scott laughed, charmed by her ebullience, by her inexhaustible ability to spin narratives that weaved the past into a tapestry of eternal romance.
The waiter asked whether they wanted anything else. She sensed Scott’s hesitation, remembering his vow of moderation.
“You can have one more beer,” she said, telling herself that if she established this precedent, he might listen to her later on when she said enough already. “I’ll be your conscience. I’m having such a nice time talking to you. Go ahead and have another beer and we’ll sit here in the shade and comment on the people passing on the street.”
Scott raised one finger. “Una cerveza, por favor.”
Zelda studied his profile adumbrated by afternoon light, his classically flared nostrils. A slow-moving donkey dragged a wooden cart loaded with fruit toward the harbor as a bell from a nearby church chimed flawlessly in the Caribbean sky. She could smell her own perfumed skin, ripened by heat, hinting of a leisure that had long eluded her.
Her reverie was interrupted when a young boy bawled at Scott in Spanish, one hand on the rail separating the restaurant from the street, the other on a wooden box camera that he aimed at them, saying, “?Les gustaria que les tome una fotografia?” Scott put his arm around her shoulder, but she pulled away on instinct, not from Scott, but from the boy and the camera.
“Please,” she said, “I’m tired and I’ll dislike the picture intensely and I don’t want you to waste our money. Maybe after I’ve been in the sun for three days and we’ve slept twelve hours each night. I do wish to be terribly lazy, the two of us sleeping off our exhaustion until we’re young and beautiful again; maybe then we can take a picture. Besides, I’m getting nervous that they’ll give our hotel rooms away.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Scott barked, waving off the boy, who took one step backward, still aiming the camera at them, then propping it on a three-legged wood stand and burying his head in the hood attached to it and before they could say anything else depressing the shutter, waiting several seconds, then pulling the box from the case, announcing, “Handsome Americans, es una buena fotografia, very best photograph, you buy from me.” Zelda started to protest, “We asked you not to take our picture, please go,” flipping her hand up and away from her, but Scott put his palm on her knee and said he would take care of everything.
The boy, lapsing into Spanish and raising his voice, appealed to el Senor or some godly notion of justicia, wishing to make it clear that he knew only a few phrases in English and any misunderstanding about the photograph must be laid at the feet of the foreigners to whom he’d offered his services. Scott slid his chair back, rose, then strode off the patio, disappearing behind a pillar near the entrance so as to negotiate with the boy on the street, but she could hear the boy naming his price as Scott approached, “Pay me, senor, por favor.”
Already she saw what Scott would do and she was opposed to it. “Scott,” she called after him, “don’t let the boy trick you into buying that photograph. We didn’t ask for it, I don’t want it, I don’t want to see it.” Angry with the young boy, she didn’t believe it had been a mistake at all. For several seconds she even considered that somebody might have sent him to spy on her. What right did the boy have to come and take their picture without permission, intruding on her privacy, ruining what until then had been a happy start to the holiday? If Scott gave in to this extortion, she wouldn’t soon forgive him.
Sure enough, he returned to the table minutes later, holding the photograph by its corner, saying, “It’s really not half bad, if you—”
“Please, don’t. I told you I didn’t want my picture taken, that boy had no right to take it, and you had no business rewarding him for his treachery.”
“We’ll throw it away then,” he said. “First, though, we must rush down the street to the front desk to find out if there’s still room at the inn.”
Scott held out his hand to guide her from the restaurant, crisis averted just like that, and for the first time in years she believed he might set things right in her world. Only as they entered the Ambos Mundos, the porter holding the door for them, did she remember to ask about the photograph.
“What have you done with it?”
Why, he’d left it on the table as she’d asked, so they might pretend it had never been taken.
“But it was taken, Scott.”
And he’d paid for it, then discarded it.
“You can’t erase the past by pretending it didn’t happen. We have to go back.”
“What about securing the room you’re so worried about?”
She released his arm and stood clear of him, the porter pretending not to listen to their mild squabble. Scott stiffened in surprise, eyeing her, his mouth contorted in a grimace.
“First things first,” she said. “It can’t be helped.”
By the time she reached the table at the restaurant, the tip was still there, but no photograph.
Oh, they have found us already, she said to herself.
“The boy must have come back for it,” she said to Scott, who now caught up with her, panting heavily.
“I’m sure there’s another explanation. Stay here, let me find out.”
Deep inside the restaurant, he leaned forward onto the bar as he spoke to the owner, hands gesticulating toward their table. Shortly thereafter he opened his jacket and accepted an item from the man, tucking it into an inner pocket.
“Problem solved,” he said, his face broadening into a smile as he came jaunting toward her. “A man saw we’d left the photo and gave it to the bartender, predicting we’d return for it.”
“That makes no sense. Why didn’t he run after us?”
Scott, pulling the flap of the jacket away from him, reached inside to extract the photograph.
“I said I didn’t want to see it,” she cried. “It’s just odd that he didn’t run after us.”
“I don’t pretend,” he said coolly, “to understand the etiquette of Cubans.”
“I wonder if they’ll intuit our arrival right away,” she said under her breath as they crossed the lobby, scouting for familiar faces. How many days until they were tracked down? There was no place they could run where they wouldn’t eventually be found.
Scott handed a ticket to the bellhop, requesting their luggage before asking her to repeat what she’d said. All she wanted to talk about, though, was whether there would still be rooms available. Just two couples ahead of them in the check-in line. She shuffled her feet in place, and when at last it was Scott’s turn, the clerk informed him that the hotel did have rooms, exactly two of which were side-by-side: at the front of the hotel, overlooking Calle Obispo, very nice rooms. He named a price, which Scott, failing to barter, paid in full. She was sure he spent more on the rooms than they could afford, but she was relieved nonetheless.
What can you remember of Cuba? She put herself through the exercise after Scott had deposited her in her room and gone next door to his. In the country but a few hours, and already she was committing roadside palms to memory, retracing the route from the airport, the highway plunging in and out of fields and trees, the Caribbean sky reappearing in pools of blue by which she kept her bearings. Also the clean washed marble of the pillared porticoes, the gold and rose-colored estates, their windows and doorways shadowed in layers of carbon and opal that refused insight into interiors. It didn’t take much to imagine what was behind those doors, all that plantation history, the backyard slavery and obscured suffering.
“What are you thinking, Zelda?” Scott asked, standing in the doorway of her room.
“Scott, please knock.” Her words sounded harsher than she meant them to be.
“I only came to see if there was anything else you needed.”
“It’s just you scared me.”
“Zelda, am I that strange to you after all these months?” He was regretful, oddly formal, a man who had taken his secrets and hidden them away in a vault so as to pretend there was nothing to hide. You are not mine anymore, she said to herself. Still, she managed to lift her head, reminding herself to be grateful for the trip, folding her mouth into the image of some happier time, say, a photo taken years ago in Cannes on their first visit.
Scott gravitated to the curtained windows and pulled back the heavy folds of fabric so that arrows of light shot into the room, elongating fuselike across the carpet.
He was about to parry with awful words, but at that moment the bellhop entered with their luggage.
“Leave the large trunk here, please, also those two valises,” Scott commanded, handing American dollars to the bellhop.
When the bellhop left, Scott turned to her. “That was unnecessary.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I only meant,” but she stopped herself, not sure she could make him understand her desire to memorize the lovely neoclassical houses along the Prado or the vistas on the Plaza de Armas, her effort to retain this vacation piece by piece. Call it intuition, call it clairvoyance, but something was telling her, in spite of her hopes to the contrary, that her imminent liberation from the Highland was far from guaranteed, that there might not be many more of these trips to be counted on. Each holiday she and Scott took was costly, in all senses of the word: they were down to two per year, and some ended catastrophically, dissolving in bitter quarrels. On returning to Asheville she would try to figure how and where things had gone awry, blaming her own judgment, discovering flaws in Scott’s character further and further back into their marriage, sometimes tracing the damage and misunderstanding to the very beginning, her memory chewing up the scraps of joy little by little, year by year. With so many places lost already, she needed Havana to last. But if she said any of that, he might believe it a sign that she was going crazy again, when nothing could be further from the truth. So she improvised. “Scott, I’m sorry. The light, it’s a fuse, if it so much as touches—”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a headache?”
He walked over to the trunk, which had been set on a stand near the dresser. What she needed right now was to be alone, the wish for privacy so intense she could hear it shrieking inside her. But better to let Scott feel useful, believing again in his own kindness.
“See if you can’t find that yellow silk nightgown you gave me that I love so much. I’m almost certain I packed it.”
His search of the trunk was inefficient, impatient, confused, as he turned up dresses, undergarments, and shoes, sighed, then dug into recesses of clothes that kept sliding back like dirt into a poorly excavated hole. She would have found the gown by now, without the mess. What’s more, she would need to repack the entire trunk after waking from her siesta. At last he extracted the gown, rubbing its fine silk between his fingers, perhaps remembering it on her body, remembering the reams of expensive clothing he’d bought for her over the years.
She walked across the brightly polished wood floor, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“You found it, thank you. You were always so devoted whenever—”
“Was I?” he asked. Honestly, he couldn’t remember most days what he used to be like.
“Can’t you remember how you were when we first married?” she asked him.
Assured that her headache would dissipate once she lay down, he left her to herself, promising to call in time for dinner. A single day in his presence, and already she could feel herself taking on his anxieties and displeasures. She was surprised by how much she relaxed once the man she loved was no longer in the room. Within minutes she lay undressed and supine, spent from the effort of stripping herself, the nightgown on the bed seeming far away, too much effort to reach for it.
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).