THE LOBBY OF THE HOTEL AMBOS MUNDOS WRAPPED ITSELF AROUND the bar, in front of which sat dark rattan couches with gold cushions for well-to-do Cubans and foreigners, wood tables and chairs off to the side for those opting to sit less conspicuously. The ceiling fans whirred quietly in the heat. A half dozen towering wood-shuttered windows on the north wall opened onto the persistent buzz of Calle Obispo. Seated at the bar, early in the evening, counting drinks, Scott alternated the hard stuff with Coca-Colas. Their second day in Havana had been passed mostly in and around the hotel, he and Zelda strolling down to the harbor once in the afternoon. Just now Zelda was again catching up on sleep, and he suspected he ought to be doing the same. Twice he had asked the bartender to save his stool so that he might run upstairs and check on her, but she hadn’t responded to his knocking on her door either time. Returning to the lobby, he reclaimed his seat only to be approached by a handsome Cuban he’d noticed earlier sitting with a cocoa-skinned girl on a sofa beneath one of the windows, its dark wood shutters thrown back.
“My friend, you are American,” the Cuban said in impeccable English, his Latin accent softly infecting his n’s, rolling his vowels.
Often distrustful when inebriated, Scott could be just as suspicious en route. But he took an immediate liking to this Cuban who had been educated at Columbia University in the late 1920s. On learning that Scott hailed from Princeton, Senor Mateo Cardona insisted on buying him a drink and fondly toasting the United States. Next he led him across the lobby to join the long-legged girl who sat alone on the gold sofa, distracting herself by tilting her head to listen with apparent rapture to a nearby piano. Scott installed himself in a chair to the left of the sofa, the piano at his back yielding amicable jazz as he peered over the girl’s bare shoulder at the streetcars, automobiles, and horse-drawn carriages passing with regularity.
He paced his drinking by his companion, persuading himself that he was only showing respect for the customs of Havana. So far the strategy was working: the alcohol hadn’t gone to his head. Maybe it was the humidity of the Caribbean night. For he was sweating beneath the collar of the blue pinstriped Arrow shirt he wore under a Scottish tweed sport coat, his new acquaintance remarking on his stylish wardrobe, from the jacket to the shoes to the hat, worrying nevertheless that Scott must be warm in such attire. He is flattering me, Scott thought, conscious of the decade-old tweed of the sport coat, slightly worn at the elbows. He now and then wiped his brow with a paisley silk handkerchief, the thought of removing the jacket increasing his self-consciousness about how much he was sweating, which of course made him sweat all the more. But he didn’t wish to succumb to a bout of those chills that often emanated from deep within his body. Even on the warmest of days they plagued him, only Sheilah knew how badly, harbingers (so he feared) of the final onslaught of tuberculosis that would draw him under. For months now, through a California winter as mild and dry as anyone could remember, he had felt a tickling in his chest, his breathing often difficult, and he couldn’t keep warm except when burrowed inside his cottage, wrapped in an extra layer of clothing, a blanket over his shoulders, a stiff drink in hand.
Several times the Habanero raised his glass to “nuevas amistades,” Scott grateful for these easy hours in a foreign place, relishing the elation of unearned intimacy that was alcohol’s greatest gift. He made the choice to trust it for as long as it should last, wishing he could know how long that might be, but of course that was the one thing you couldn’t know. Mateo asked what Scott did, translating the answer for the girl, his voice full of respect when he used the term un escritor and next asked for Scott’s surname. He rocked back in his chair, tilting his jaw, hesitating as he chose his words, before inquiring if by chance the American author before him bore any relation to the writer who had invented the flapper, whose Saturday Evening Post stories were once read by all of New York, whose novels Mateo believed he might also have read. Scott didn’t ask him to name titles.
Mateo prodded Scott to help him remember what it was like to stroll beneath the skyscrapers of New York City, or take the ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn, or comb the beaches of Rockaway, or walk into one of those many speakeasies filled to capacity with people whose “good time” was sought in relaxed defiance of prohibition. Mateo hadn’t visited New York since the end of 1930, and Scott’s own returns to the city over the past decade had been infrequent, chaotic, or worse, so the two men toured the city together in their minds, revisiting nights passed at the Cotton Club or at 21, deciding they must surely have become drunk together, unknowingly, in the same Manhattan joint, on the very same night. It was like the crush of first love, the thrill Scott once felt on being introduced to his classmates Bunny Wilson and John Peale Bishop on the Princeton lawn, squandering time with spendthrift eagerness in lofty conversations about novels, poetry, Broadway. It was like the charge of first eyeing a young Zelda at a military ball in Montgomery, intuiting what she would someday mean to him.
His thoughts turned to Ernest, who might be here in this city, in this very hotel, ready to walk through the door in the next few minutes. Weeks ago Scott had left word with his editor Maxwell Perkins, asking where Ernest stayed when in Havana, receiving a wire the same afternoon with the name and address of the Ambos Mundos. The last time he’d seen Ernest? At a Hollywood screening of a film about the Spanish Civil War that Ernest had narrated, Scott attending the event in the company of the playwright Lillian Hellman. Taking Ernest aside, he offered hasty congratulations as reporters clamored for words from the icon who was Hemingway. As Ernest walked into the throng of photographers and journalists, putting himself at the beck and call of those for whom his propaganda was intended, he yelled out, “You look well, Scott, better than I expected.”
When Max had cabled Scott, he mentioned that Ernest might be in residence in Havana during the spring, even asked whether he should relay a message, advising the first of his prized writers, “You and Ernest have suffered different miseries these last few years, Scott, but you should stay in touch. The only thing I can offer either of you is the recommendation to guard your friendship!”—the gesture, though well-intended, as unrealistic as it was sentimental. Max knew full well the difficulties between the two writers. Scott sent a wire in return, judicious in its understatement:
DEAR MAX THANKS FOR OFFER TO PUT ME IN TOUCH WITH EH BUT HAVE TO ANSWER PROBABLY NOT STOP TOUCHED BY NOTION BUT MOST LIKELY ZELDA AND I WONT HAVE TIME STOP SHE WILL HAVE AN ITINERARY REPLETE WITH BEACHES AND HORSEBACKRIDING AND PHYSICAL ENDURANCE AND TRIP IS ALL FOR HER STOP SO IT MUST REMAIN STOP EVER FONDLY SCOTT
Scott could expect Max to sniff out the allusion to Zelda’s old animosity to Ernest, reason enough in itself not to make contact. Still, the irony wasn’t lost on Scott that if he truly wished to avoid Hemingway he might have visited any Havana hotel other than the one in which his former friend regularly stayed.
“Our memories of New York do not bring you pleasure,” Mateo said, breaking Scott’s train of thought.
“Memories often do not,” Scott said.
“Then we must think of something else altogether.”
The charismatic Cuban was distinctively Mediterranean in appearance, with thick, dark hair, eyes brown-black and piercing like those of some magnificent bird of prey, and a long, rugged, lightly tanned face, his sloping nose set symmetrically like a pitched tent above a paintbrush mustache and two quarter-moon lips. In a beige linen suit, a white shirt, and brown and red striped tie that accentuated the lines of his lean body, he wore the last throes of youth well. He hailed from a traditional Catholic family that owned a tobacco plantation outside the city of Santiago de Cuba and openly professed loyalty to the Spanish crown. Since the mid-nineteenth century any man who didn’t join the family business went on to become an architect, lawyer, engineer, or government administrator, their contributions as citizens demonstrable in the buildings, roads, statutes, and policies of their beloved city. When Mateo chose study in the United States, he broke with tradition and cast himself as the family’s black sheep, further alienating himself by later supporting the now defeated Republican cause in Spain as well as a succession of failed progressive reforms here at home. So fierce were the disagreements with his family that on returning from New York to his homeland, he had emigrated within his own country, from the east up to Havana.
His memories of New York City were bittersweet, since he looked back on those years as the best of his life. He had thrived in that cosmopolitan city, on the easy exposure to new ideas in arts and letters, in the commercial and social sectors. In winding up a story about an evening at the Algonquin, he reached out to touch Scott’s jacket, saying, “Listen to this,” as if to impart a secret of great significance, except each sentence that followed proved no less generic and predictable than those that had come before. His stories about New York were twice-told stories, constructed over the course of a decade to account for his time among the yanquis. When he spoke of the crash, Mateo talked as if it were a distinctly perceptible event, as if the market when it came down made a sound like a building collapsing and everyone rushed into the street to see what was happening, the loss of investments and savings and stored-up dreams instantaneous, the resulting suicides occurring all at once, people tumbling out of windows everywhere, littering the streets and sidewalks like corpses on a battlefield.
“Where were you in October 1929, mi companero?” Mateo asked him. “What did you see?”
“On a camel’s back, most likely,” Scott said.
Mateo translated his words and the girl laughed, spitting out a bit of her drink.
“It’s no joke,” Scott said, “though I thank you for laughing all the same. I seem to recall that I was in Morocco with my wife.”
“I think to myself,” the woman explained, “there are no camellos in New York, and the picture is muy raro, how you say—”
“Bizarre,” Mateo interjected.
“We were ignorant of what had happened for several days,” Scott said, “catching only echoes of the event in the international papers.”
“And it is no joking matter, of course,” Mateo said to the girl, reprimanding her for her irreverence. “I must walk over several suicides as they lay dying in the streets, their spines shattered, no reason to hang on anymore.”
But it wasn’t like that, Scott wanted to protest. Even war wasn’t like that most of the time.
Just then he felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. Staring at his shoes, he tried to remember where and when he had purchased them. The room was revolving like a carnival ride, the lobby populated in its corners by soft, shadowy black forms, everything in the foreground out of focus.
“I have to be off.”
“Mi companero, we are enjoying your company, you cannot leave. Besides—”
“I must see to my wife’s dinner,” Scott said, aware that he was being rude, but knowing from experience that if he did not get food in his stomach soon, he would lose hold of the night.
“Besides, it is uncivilized to eat before nine,” Mateo declared. “I miss much about your America to the north, except your dinner hour. This I could never bring myself to accept.”
“We only arrived yesterday, we haven’t made the transition. My wife is still catching up on sleep,” Scott said, “and she will—”
“I will tell you what we shall do,” Mateo said, refusing to relinquish his new friend. He proposed that they walk to the end of Calle Obispo and enjoy a drink at La Floridita, renowned for its daiquiris and seafood. Scott yielded to the friendly coercion because he thought the open air might do him good, postponing thoughts of Zelda and dinner until he regained his equilibrium.
His equilibrium, however, was in no hurry to return. They walked several blocks into the flow of automobile and pedestrian traffic on the Calle Obispo, under awnings that cast nighttime shadows folding one over the next. The tourist crowds thinned and soon the people passing were mulatto or dark skinned and spoke only in Spanish. The girl, silent for much of the night, attempted to describe an event of some sort, at first in broken English, next in Spanish, then lapsing into pantomime. She gestured at the steps of nearby buildings and the natives assembled there, turning to Scott, asking, “Entiendes?,” fearing he hadn’t and so repeating her phrases, mentioning Americanos and Cuba libre and maybe also the sufferings of friends and family in the wake of the depression and the country’s many internal military conflicts. He couldn’t remember her name, only that it was a thick Spanish word beginning with a Y or a yielding J, and his inability to do so troubled him. He asked Mateo how many blocks until they reached the Floridita.
Not far, the Cuban promised, motioning up the street into the dark.
At the next corner Scott still couldn’t make out any likely destinations.
“It’s too far.”
“My friend, it is not far at all,” Mateo said, guiding him by the elbow. “We will soon be there.”
The girl, still gesticulating, pleaded with him to follow.
“What is she saying?”
“Only that she wishes you to join us, she is sure you will like La Floridita, she has many friends who drink there regularly.”
“Tell her that it is kind of her, kind of both of you, but I can’t, not tonight. Zelda will soon come downstairs looking for me and she will be alarmed when she can’t find me.”
Earlier in the evening Mateo had explained what he did here in Havana, and if only Scott had been paying closer attention, he might have recalled more than the word liaison and a vague account of recruiting American investors. Was it possible that the past three hours were part of a Saturday evening con to draw a lone American down a forlorn urban street?
“We will escort you to your hotel,” Mateo announced, turning on his heels. “If you wish to enjoy our company, we will join you for dinner at a restaurant on the Plaza de San Francisco near the harbor, but perhaps you and your wife will be eager to dine alone.”
When the familiar pale rose building of the Ambos Mundos came into sight, the street again populated by people speaking multiple languages, Spanish, English, but also French, German, and Portuguese, Scott remembered his hunger and felt torn about what to do next. The places Mateo had proposed along the harbor seemed far away, but in a spirit of compromise Scott allowed himself to be led to the rooftop restaurant of his own hotel.
“You are worried about Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald, perhaps?” Mateo asked once they were seated, and for a second Scott couldn’t remember having used his wife’s name. His companion offered to run downstairs and leave a message for her. Only tell him which room. Before Scott could think better of it, he had given out Zelda’s room number, realizing as Mateo walked away that it would have been more circumspect to write a note to his wife and leave it with one of the bellhops at the front desk.
Seated alone with the girl, Scott studied her closely. He wouldn’t have put her at more than seventeen, the age of his daughter Scottie. Experimenting with English phrases, she inevitably lapsed into Spanish, frustrated to discover from his earnest but puzzled expression that he couldn’t understand a word she was saying. So she took to giving him language lessons. “Tenedor,” she said, lifting her fork as Scott nodded. A band played a sauntering style of local music, and she began to identify their instruments for him by opening her hand in a soft sweep. Bajo de pie. Guitarra. Maracas. After what seemed a longer than necessary interval, Mateo rejoined them, reporting that he had run into a friend in the elevator but nevertheless completed Scott’s errand.
“Not long until nine o’clock,” he said with evident satisfaction at having spared his guest the mistake of eating at an uncivilized hour.
“And where would you go,” Scott asked, “for a late-night cocktail on a Saturday night in Havana?”
Mateo named several clubs and bars—the bar at the Plaza Hotel, the Two Brothers Bar near the docks, the Pan American Club. “I will show you any of these, or I will escort you to places off the beaten track, in honor of Manhattan speakeasies.”
The waiter brought the first course, and Scott placed an order for a chicken dish and a side of Moros y Cristianos for Zelda, trying to imagine how he would take the food from the restaurant when the time came to leave. He sampled the vegetables course, yuca and chayote, the latter a kind of squash, and was enjoying a hearty yellow soup when all of a sudden there was a terrific two-beat carom of metal on metal like the sound of two large trucks colliding at high speed or a sharp thunderclap heard from the center of a storm. Scott surveyed the restaurant, then the street, looking for calamity, for violence, for panic. The waiters hadn’t dropped their plates. The customers conversed with one another as they had moments earlier. Only the behavior of the girl at his side was altered. Her tongue rolling in rapid Spanish, she demanded Scott’s attention as Mateo repeated her name again, so that this time Scott caught it, memorizing it by saying it several times in his head: Yonaidys, Yonaidys. Now translating her sentences into English, Mateo managed to keep pace with the zealous outpouring of words.
“That sound just now,” she explained, “it is the cannon that goes off each night at nine across the harbor at Morro Castle.” She couldn’t say exactly how old the tradition was, older than herself, older than Mateo or Scott, older than anyone she knew. When she was a child her mother would say to her, “As soon as the canonaso a las nueve sounds, los ninos must go to sleep.” It was a custom, so someone once told her, started perhaps by the British when they wrested control of this great city from the Spanish, the signal by which they closed the harbor each night. Over the years in a country where there were not so many clocks, not so many watches, not so many whatever, it became a way of telling everybody, it is now nine o’clock. An everyday threshold for the people of this city—the end of day, beginning of night.
“So you might enjoy that,” Mateo was saying on behalf of the girl, “if you go to the castle, they have a ceremony around that issue, soldiers who form and march and ignite the cannon.” In pomp and majesty the custom was observed each night.
“We will be sure to visit the castle,” Scott said. He was imagining his wife sitting up in bed, staring into the darkness of a strange room, groggy and disoriented, jolted from sleep by the blast of the cannon.
What the girl remembered most of all, well, what she meant to tell him, she could remember saying, “No, Madre, I cannot sleep yet, it hasn’t sounded, you know, el canonaso hasn’t sounded.” She didn’t know what else to say. It was in their memory, every night, all who were born or made their home in this city.
The waiter brought the main course, a filet mignon, setting the plates before them, and Scott stood up to take him aside, asking if he might bring the extra plate of food as soon as possible.
“I must go and check on my wife,” he announced as he reclaimed his seat.
Mateo looked surprised. “It is just a loud noise. She will have slept through it, either that or she will go back to sleep.”
“But she will be up and about, expecting me to take her to dinner. She needed the rest yesterday, but she will wish to see Havana tonight,” Scott replied, resenting that he had to explain anything to a man he hardly knew. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll see if she’d like for us to meet you later for a cocktail.”
“Muy bien,” Yonaidys said agreeably, alert to the growing tension.
“Eat and we will discuss many things,” Mateo said, and Scott had the sense he was being bullied.
He could stomach hardly any of the meal. He took small bites, trying to look as though he were savoring each, spreading the rice and plantains across his plate, nibbling at pieces of steak, the food settling high in his stomach, ballooned from all those drinks. The waiter returned with the check and Scott saw that the bill was given in pesos. He had forgotten about the need to change money. He calculated the exchange rate in his head, adding several dollars to the standard tip, the extra money meant to appease someone or maybe just to allow for the possibility that his math was poor. “This should cover it,” he said, putting the money on the table. “Will they accept American dollars?”
“It is no problem, my friend, but you were to be our guest.”
“Another night,” Scott said, worrying about his impulse toward generosity. Always this habit, even while in debt, even when he couldn’t predict next month’s income: the worst part of the past ten years was having to hear that damned voice in his head—You can’t afford this, let someone else pay—every time he went to pick up a check.
Yonaidys rose from her seat, folding her arms around Scott’s shoulders, tilting her chin so that he might graze her cheeks with his lips.
“Please, if Mrs. Fitzgerald is not too tired,” Mateo said, also standing but not yet embracing Scott, “we will be here for at least a few more hours.”
“I’ll do my best to persuade her.”
“If we have left and you wish to find us—”
“You can leave a note for me at the front desk,” Scott said, uncertain whether he was brushing his host off or making plans to enjoy his company another time. He wouldn’t know anything for certain until he had returned to the room and made sure Zelda was safe.
Once he was free of his dinner companions, Scott’s affection for them returned. He believed again in his talent for spotting the “good ones” at any party or bar: those people there to be looked at—because, after all, who wasn’t?—who also delved beneath the surface, seeking the beauty from every gathering because memory of it might be all there was to keep you afloat years later when the tribulations came.
The arrow of the brass dial above the doors indicated that the elevator was on the bottom floor. Too impatient to wait, he made for the gray marble staircase, his dread returning as he envisioned his wife waiting for him, alone and afraid. Taking the stairs in a hurry, he found that he was short of breath after a single flight, annoyed by the fact that he could be winded from descending stairs, but refusing to slow down. Halfway down the next flight, the dizziness set in and he reached a hand to one of the railings as he watched the caged iron elevator ascending, empty except for the operator. By the time he reached their floor, he was panting, having to rest his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He had been pushing himself too hard, for weeks now. Not just the drink, but the worry over Zelda’s and Scottie’s expenses, the constant trolling for work in the wake of his expired contract at MGM, trying to land on a picture, any picture, not caring how good or how promising it was; all he needed was a job that paid well enough to keep his head above water while he made room for his real work, the kind that mostly didn’t pay well, not for him, not anymore. He needed time to immerse himself in the new novel about Hollywood, for which he had already prepared copious notes. It was doubtful he would get much rest on this vacation, most of his hours to be spent worrying whether Zelda was happy, making sure she didn’t slip back. He couldn’t let that happen, he had to bring her back to Asheville intact.
“Where were you?” Zelda said as he entered the room.
“Zelda, you’re up at last.”
“Where were you?”
When it appeared she might sleep through the night, he’d gone for food, figuring she would be hungry when she awakened.
He held the plate of food in front of him, but as soon as it came within range she slapped at it, connecting with a blow strong enough to have toppled the warm dinner onto the bed if he hadn’t been ready for just such a response.
“I don’t want your food,” she said. All her fear converted to choler, she was imperious, impassive, prepared to put everything on him, her eyes the color of granite, her skin ashen. “I want to know where you were.”
She held his gaze without flinching, her expression radiating a fierce indifference. She was waiting for him to say the wrong thing, to make the mistake that would allow her to detach from him and everyone else.
“Have you been drinking?”
Maybe a drink or two with dinner. After all, she had been asleep a long time.
“Where were you?” she asked again.
She sat erect, stiff backed, sheets pulled up to her neck, her fingers clenched so hard on the white cotton that the blood had gone out of them. Also she was shaking, either from the cool night air or from her muscles relaxing now that he was here at her side and she didn’t have to fight the terror all by herself.
He had stopped in to check on her several times.
“Scott, there was someone at my door.”
She must have heard the cannon, that’s all, it was a custom of the city.
“I know what I heard. There was someone at the door and you weren’t here.”
Again he tried to explain about the cannon, which went off at nine each night to mark the closing of the bay. Most likely the carom of the blast had penetrated her dreams.
“No, there was someone at the door, knocking over and over. I heard voices in the hall. They knocked at my door and they might have gotten in, but you were nowhere to be found.”
The old, pure pity for her overtook him. He knew what to do when she was like this, how to handle her, if only she would let him. All he had to do was walk to the bed and sit beside her, reach his palm onto her shoulder, his moves methodical and understated as if he were appeasing a vigilant watchdog awakened in the night that recognized his smell from years ago but couldn’t yet place him. Slowly he let his hand drop, gliding it over her well-defined arms until he was cupping the opposite shoulder, now kneading his thumb into the tautness of her neck.
But she jerked away, her torso unbending as she tilted to the side, rolling from him like an ocean buoy toppled by the rise of a wave.
“Don’t,” she said. “I want an answer. Tell me where you were, why you left me alone while someone was trying to break into my room.”
He hadn’t been gone long, he assured her, realizing he would have to play the bluff all the way through. “I stopped to check on you not an hour ago, Zelda. I cracked the door, you were sound asleep, perfectly safe the entire time. I was never more than a few minutes away.”
She was almost ready to believe him, he could see it in her eyes.
“It was only the cannon, which sounds, well, it sounds like a huge gun, the crash and echo. I’m sure it startled you and then you heard the knocking in your dream.”
“But it was so real.”
He wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close, maybe too close, because she abruptly jerked free, head cocked to the side.
“You were with him just now, weren’t you? Or did he visit last night while I rested?”
Now it comes, Scott thought.
“He’s here in this city, maybe at this very hotel. I knew it, you arranged it all.”
He wouldn’t listen to any more of her nonsense.
“I want you to take me downstairs. I’ll bet he’s down there waiting for you.”
Did she know how unreasonable she sounded? She was just saying whatever came to mind, with no thought as to whether she believed it or not.
“Prove to me he’s not here,” she said, throwing back the covers. “Take me downstairs.” She stood before him without a stitch of clothing on, without so much as a pang of modesty. Despite all her sufferings this past decade, despite the troubles inflicted on face and skin by her broken, patched, and several times refurbished mind, her body was as shapely as ever, her breasts fecund, muscles toned and vital, everything about her charged with sex.
All right, he said, suffering stabs of lust for her but banishing them. “Whatever you want, that’s what we’ll do.” He was happy enough to go downstairs. First, though, she had to eat a few bites of the dinner he’d gone to so much trouble to fetch for her.
“Why didn’t you just wake me in an hour like we planned?” she asked, walking onto the shallow balcony where she might be observed by almost anyone, letting the cool night air into the room, then turning and sauntering toward him, her nipples newly alert. “It’s Saturday night, maybe our only Saturday night in Cuba, and now I’ve slept so long and it’s so late.”
“But Zelda, you know it’s early yet for Havana.”
Rounding the corner of the bed still stark naked, then folding her toes over his leather shoes, she stood like that for several seconds, her body gently radiant, each of her movements supple and trained. On her left leg she executed a half-pirouette, with the right held out from her as she fell back into a sitting position on the bed, bouncing once before coming to rest, her legs opened and her pelvis arched as she folded the right leg into her body.
“Okay,” she said, in a voice airy with mischief, “you may feed me.”
All at once she had let go of anger.
“Zelda, you can’t eat like that.”
“Why not? Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
“Aren’t you cold?” he said, laughing, already giving in.
He unwrapped the plate, realizing only then that he had failed to bring any damned utensils. How could he forget such a simple thing?
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she said. So Scott picked up the leg of chicken and lowered it to her lips, instructing her to take a bite. Zelda laughed like a spoiled child and said, “All right, daddykins,” sinking her teeth into the chicken but then having trouble tearing it, saying with mouth half full, “Schotth, you hath to hold it shtill,” as he pulled the leg back until the meat tore free. He opened a ginger ale, held it to her lips, and tilted it until she raised her index finger, his cue to lower the bottle as a trickle of gold liquid dribbled from the corner of her mouth. She smiled at him, and again he held the chicken to her mouth so she might take another bite, and she was like a wonderful, stupendously naked, and sexy child, but also his own thirty-eight-year-old wife with a long history of reinventing herself, again preparing to become brand new, someone trusting and ready to hope. She laughed that exultant, devilish laughter of hers, so different from the laugh she put on in public when trying to imitate the happiness of other people—no, this laugh was truly her own, the kind that couldn’t be faked. It came up dark, eager, and destructive from within her. Here was the Zelda no one else knew, his reckless companion of the bedroom, the eternally youthful spirit she revealed only for him. Holding her palm out, she waved the chicken away, turning her head to the right and left as she struck herself between the breasts, pointing at the bottle and rolling her hand toward her chin, still laughing as Scott raised it to her lips and she touched the drink to steady it, inhaling the liquid until she could free the chunk of chicken lodged in her throat. When she finally stopped laughing, she could breathe again.
“I was choking,” she gasped.
“I saw,” he said. “That’s what you get for eating in the nude.”
“Well, I’ve eaten all I’m going to eat. I’m simply not that hungry and I do so wish to see Havana at night. I’m much happier now that I know something awful hasn’t happened to you and you were checking on me the entire time, now that you’ve stood before me like my very own valet while I sat naked on the bed eating my dinner, my own dear Dodo taking care of me.”
God, how he hated that nickname. He tried to remember when she’d come up with it. Probably after her first collapse, maybe early fall of 1930 when she was writing letters to him from Prangins, flooding them with affectionate, imploring epithets, Dearest One, D.O., next Deo and Dearest D.O., next Dudu and Doo-do, giving rein to her imagination as revenge against reality, letting it take on the properties of an indulged child. Sometimes she would use pet names in the bedroom, while kissing him below the waist or while he was preparing to put himself into her, and if his penis went suddenly soft, she would remark, “Don’t you want me?” or “Did you have too much to drink?,” never surmising that her words were to blame.
Within minutes she was dressed and ready to go, wearing a lavender cloche above a pale-ivory silk dress with short sleeves showing off her still lovely, if slightly too muscular, arms. Whenever healthy, Zelda put on muscle. The nap had been good for her. The glow had come back into her face, her skin like the surface of calmed seawaters, buoyant, lush, reflective.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, stooping as he opened the door to pick up and pocket the note left by Mateo. “It was supposed to go under my door. It’s from the concierge, a question I posed about their dining hours.”
On the stairs it occurred to him that even now his new friends might be waiting for them in the lobby. Sure enough, as Zelda and he cleared the small crowd of guests waiting at the base of the stairs, he spotted the Habanero and his girl Yonaidys seated on the gold sofas, deep in conversation with two new gentlemen.
“Let’s make our way across the Plaza de Armas down to the seaside promenade,” he said.
“Do you know where you’re going? Did you ask the concierge for recommendations?”
“There’s a place called Sloppy Joe’s where all the Americans go,” he said, improvising, having no idea where it was, planning to ask an American on the street how to get there, calculating his chances of slipping Zelda out the door before his Cuban friends saw them. “I inquired earlier, we’ll be fine, we’ll stay within shouting distance of—”
“Please ask the concierge,” Zelda said, rotating toward the lobby, then wheeling around in the next instant. “Scott, why is that woman waving at you?”
When he looked up, he saw that Yonaidys was indeed waving at him; there was no one else in the vicinity.
“Oh, yes, well, I had a pleasant chat with her companion while I sat in the lobby waiting for you to wake up.”
“Do you want to join them?”
“Let’s go for a walk before it gets too late. You slept so much today. We’ve hardly had a minute to ourselves.”
“Scott, aren’t you being rude?” Zelda asked, but she allowed herself to be led out the door as he waved at Yonaidys. “What’s your opinion of them? The man is certainly handsome, if somewhat swarthy in complexion. What does he do?”
“He was educated at Columbia University; he’s quite Americanized, an investor of some sort.”
The foot traffic on the Calle Obispo had thinned at this late hour, music from an invisible jukebox sounding somewhere up the road, tinny and desolate. An old Model T drove directly toward them on the narrow cobblestone street, as Scott hoisted Zelda by the waist onto a ridiculously narrow sidewalk. Two taxis straddled corner curbs on opposite sides of the street, and the driver of a green-colored Plymouth parked beneath an American flag hailed them. On the Plaza de Armas they strolled inside the columns of the City Hall’s magnificent arcade, which stretched the length of the square, the shadows here in the tunneled recesses spooking Zelda so that she touched his chin and asked again, “Do you know where you’re going?” A lonely horse-drawn carriage, an empty two-seater with a driver up front, crossed the plaza where those walking at this hour did so mostly in pairs. Splendid elms highlighted by electric street lamps cast silhouettes along the walkways. Beneath the bronze statue of a Cuban patriot and several towering royal palms, Scott saluted and tipped a bongo player and guitarist for playing an American jazz tune he vaguely recognized. On the harbor side of the square, he found the Templete, explaining to his wife that the silk-cotton tree beside it had been grafted from a ceiba tree beneath which the first Mass in Cuba had been celebrated.
“Where did you learn all this?” she asked.
“You were asleep a long while,” he said. “The Cuban gentleman in the lobby recited endless stories about the Old City for me. I’ve taken copious notes in my journal. Follow me, I must show you the fort to the north of the plaza.”
They reached an ancient wall of gray coral from behind which rose a Moorish fort with a silolike watchtower, and Scott told her how the famed explorer Hernando de Soto built this fortress, the most secure in all of sixteenth-century Spanish America, in order to make sure his wife Isabel was safe while he set out for Florida to conquer the North American continent.
“For more than four years she waited for him, the New World’s very own Penelope,” he said.
“I know how this ends,” Zelda muttered under her breath.
“Each morning contemplating the sea for hours, searching for clues to his fate.”
“Oh, Scott,” she said, interrupting him, “please.”
But he found the tale irresistible. He couldn’t keep himself from reporting how de Soto surveyed North America for years, the first European to explore the continent as far west as modernday Texas, before succumbing to fever on a stray bank of the Mississippi River.
“No doubt she pined for him the entire time,” Zelda said, and only then did Scott regret telling the story. He suggested they walk on.
The city’s magnificent promenade curved along the harbor, up and about the face of the northern coast where Gulf waves splaying themselves against a ragged shoreline of coral boulders cast a pleasant mist over the pedestrians. The number of people following the seawall at this hour of the night was astonishing, and Scott noticed many foreigners among them. All the same he instructed Zelda to stick close to his side.
“Is it not safe?” she asked. “What did the concierge say about this promenade at night? Should we get a cab? Let’s either take our time and enjoy the walk or, if it’s not safe enough to be out walking, let’s hail a cab.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” he said, scanning the street for criminal elements, because whenever she fretted about her safety, he started to believe the worst really might happen.
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).