FROM THE PORT BEYOND MORRO CASTLE, WHERE THE FERRY DOCKED shortly after dawn, Zelda and Scott traveled by car through the countryside up along the northern face of the island into the province named for the seaside city of Matanzas. For anyone else in her condition, the adversity of the last two days might have proven too much, but that was the thing about Zelda. All who met her at her best spoke of this quality—the quickness of mind, almost too quick, her way of racing ahead to the next adventure until you could feel it pressing down on you like an already existing event, as though the future were written in advance, needing only to be deciphered. Always this eagerness to conquer life, this resilience with which she met adversity: she was inexhaustible, buoyant, expectant.
The morning so far had passed in a blur. First, the knock at the door in the middle of the night, jolting her from sleep as she cried out, “Scott, Scott,” fearing he’d gone back to his room and left her alone, except he hadn’t, he was there, in pajamas and bathrobe in bed next to her, already awake in the dark. “It’s nothing, Zelda,” he said. “Probably the bellboy with that Coca-Cola I asked for hours ago.” Of course, it wasn’t the bellboy, not at that hour, and she could hear the whispering as Scott cracked the door, the heaviness of the man’s voice in the hallway, heavier for the fact that he was whispering. Almost certainly it was Mateo Cardona, his bass tones mixing English and Spanish, his use of cognates making the excitable phrases easier to understand. “Traigo noticias del incidente.” He had news of some sort. Scott pulled the door shut behind him and she could hear footsteps in the corridor, trailing off. Now and then, over the rhythmic whisper of the ceiling fan, with her ear pressed close to the doorjamb, she detected the interplay of voices in disagreement down the hall, and after a while footsteps walking toward the room, someone turning the knob, the door cracked in a rusty breath.
“Would it not be simpler,” Scott was asking, “to go to the police, explain what we saw?”
“Except it will not change anything, except we do not know what others think they saw or what they will say, for example, about how the fight started.”
“Well, I appreciate all you’ve done for us, I do, and I’m glad for the bulletin.”
“Then you will do as I advise.”
“If you think there’s no reason to go to the police,” Scott said, “we won’t.”
“And I will call on you tomorrow evening,” said Cardona, his voice penetrating into the hotel room. Zelda studied her husband’s profile as he closed the door, his robed chest and pensive chin silhouetted by light from the hallway.
“What did he want? I don’t understand why he keeps bothering us. It isn’t over, is it? It’s never over, everything always catches up with us.”
“Zelda, please don’t talk that way,” he said, pacing the room. “Of course it’s over. It has nothing to do with us. Mateo just wanted to tell me what he’s learned about the investigation into the events from the other night.”
“You’re handling me,” she said. “You were always the only person who could calm me. Once I told you that, but you were insulted.”
He halted, as if hunting down a memory in his head. “Not insulted,” he said. “Maybe, though, there are things one would rather be called by one’s lover, other than ‘calming,’ I mean.”
Scott stood with shoulder pressed against the drapes, staring into the night, retreating from the window after a while to rest on the writing desk.
“What are you thinking?” she asked, but he was distracted. Soon he was scratching notes to himself in his journal and she knew better than to interrupt him.
When at last he walked to the bed and laid the notebook on the night table, she ran her palm inside the smooth folded lapel of his robe onto the hardy cotton flannel pajamas, thinking to herself, He is always so cold. Her fingers teased his pectoral muscle through the flannel, sliding down to and encircling the nipple, wandering up over the edge of the collar onto naked skin so that she might nestle her palm against his clavicle and let her nails play dapplingly on his neck. She was not thinking about the day ahead or how much longer they might stay in Havana. Let Scott take care of their itinerary, when they awoke, what they ate and when, what they saw—he loved to be in the world and in control. She would follow his lead, except maybe when it was the two of them alone in a bedroom, where for a while she might take charge, trading parts in the dance, tantalizing him with the qualities he liked so much in a woman: daring, whimsy, forwardness. When things worked well between them, he relished the low rumble of her voice, seductive, wanting what it wanted, the way she took her pleasure on his body. “Would you like to?” she would say, unbuttoning the pajama shirt before plunging her hand down over the smooth skin of his stomach, beneath the elastic waistband of his pants.
Before them on the road the sky now brightened. Off to their left, groves of trees rose and fell and rose again, then tumbled downhill like bowling pins into the Gulf. The car rode up high over a clearing, only grass and low brush between them and the coast, the shallow skin of greenish blue along the sea’s surface dissipating into thin bands of morning light. Observing trees strung with red flowers Zelda aligned them in rows of garlands, as if there were a pattern in everything she saw.
“I find it so exhilarating when you take care of things,” she said, “when you know exactly what we should do next.”
“I’ll always look out for you, Zelda.”
“Isn’t it a wonderful thing,” she said as if speaking to someone other than Scott, a stranger or perhaps the driver of the car, “to be a man and to know your own mind?”
Not more than three hours ago they lay in a hotel bed, her hands inside his pajamas, but he was stirred without being aroused, too tired or drunk or maybe too agitated by Senor Cardona’s interruption at their door to concentrate on what she was doing. “I’m sorry,” he said, excusing himself for the fact that he wasn’t ready to return to her yet. It was okay, she assured him, there was time. But she worried it was false comfort: what if the news from Cardona was bad, what if they had to leave town? In the next instant Scott announced, “We’re departing for the beach this morning.” She didn’t question him as he threw off the covers and changed into street clothes, pulling his jacket on, the hour still shy of four. “I’ll go downstairs to see about a car.” Minutes later he was bursting through the door, his energy having the inverse effect on her, making her head sink into the pillow.
“I’ve ordered a driver to come for us in an hour,” he said. “It will take us to a ferry that leaves for the other side of the harbor at dawn.”
Now she really was irritated. In an hour? Why hadn’t he asked her first?
“Scott, I’m so tired, what’s the sudden hurry?” she asked. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
A small V-shaped inlet revealed bungalows with burnt-sienna roofs in a Mediterranean style. They rode through sleepy towns where children kicked footballs at the side of the road, the curtains of the bungalows drawn, here and there a man in a doorway staring out into the street as if searching for an event that would tell him to start his day. Zelda asked how long the drive to the resort would take and Scott promised to have them checked into the Club Kawama by early afternoon. He instructed the driver to pull over at the next filling station so that he could use the bathroom. As they drew up to the pump, Scott snatched a bag at his feet, and when she asked what was in it, he said it was nothing to worry about, just something he’d meant to throw away back at the Ambos Mundos. She could tell he was lying. Maybe he planned to sneak a drink while in the toilet, but that didn’t make sense of the bag, which was too light and in the wrong shape to contain a bottle. It hung from his arm, bulging at the bottom like the mouth of a bell, a scrap of ivory fabric peeking out from the top. When he returned to the car, he no longer carried the bag.
“Part of me resents myself for being happy when you take care of things, it’s so very Southern of me,” she said as they resumed the drive. “But I’m not going to think that way on this vacation, no zealous modern women in this car. I’ve decided to let myself be appreciative that my own Deo is watching over me again, protecting me should anything go wrong.”
She sat close to him in the backseat, inside his personal space, in the way of a woman wishing to send out the signal that she is receptive, her scent, energy, and entire being part of the signal.
“I still consider you my best friend,” he said.
“I always let you help me.”
They were in different places, caught up in different rhythms of thought.
She resolved not to be saddened by the dashed dreams of recent years. Several times she had declared, “Scott, I can feel it, I’m almost well. The doctors say I’m making progress and I’m stronger than I’ve been in years, mentally, physically, emotionally, as happy as I’ve been since the early days of our marriage.” But the business of getting him to take a chance on her, a full-time chance, of persuading him to let her move to California so the two of them might start over, well, that was an altogether daunting proposition. It required a perfect trip, several days to drain the stored-up acrimony, bile, and censure, days in which they might learn how to be good for each other again. Everything fell on her shoulders because she was the one who, while persuading him to let her back into his life, was at the same time begging for her freedom. She had to be careful not to slip up, so damned careful.
He placed his hand on the back of her head as he sometimes did when she was sleeping. She could remember the gesture from years past, waking to the soft pressure of his hand, then closing her eyes again.
“You’ve held up brilliantly,” he said. He was thanking her, in code, for not making a fuss about their hasty departure from the hotel. While she dressed he had packed her bags and composed a note for Mateo Cardona. “I’ll just leave my address at MGM, don’t you think?” he called out while she was in the bathroom, and she suggested the address at Scribner’s would serve just as well. “It all depends,” she said. “I can’t decide whether we’re trying to give him the slip or whether you really want to see him again.” She walked to the threshold of the bathroom to see if her words stirred anything, but Scott was all business, head tucked low, pen to the page, shouting over his shoulder, not seeing how near she stood, “Five minutes.” On their way out of the hotel room, at the last minute, she discovered his journal on the night table by the bed. He might have left it, the entire vacation a casualty to that one mistake. She slipped it into her own bag, wanting credit for its recovery, vowing to return it only once he realized it was missing.
“Scott, I need you to be honest,” she said, sliding across the leather seat to separate from him. “I know you love me and you’re loyal to a fault, more loyal than anyone has ever been.”
He was looking over the driver’s shoulder ahead of them at the road, trying to judge the treachery of the terrain. “Despacio,” he muttered once or twice, loud enough that the driver might have heard but casually enough that it was just as likely he hadn’t.
“Once not many years ago,” she said, starting again, “we traded bitter words about divorce, oh, when was that, it seems ages since, but I don’t feel that way anymore.”
“I know you don’t.”
“I can only recall all that barbaric hate and resentment in the abstract.”
“We can let it go,” he said. “It takes discipline, not to let ourselves return there.”
“Still, maybe you’ve decided you’re better off without me. It’s okay if in the end that’s what you decide, Scott, but you should just say it—I’ll grieve the loss of you, but I’ll pull through somehow, you know I will, look at everything I’ve survived.”
“Zelda,” he said, “please don’t talk that way. I’ll never abandon you.”
“I know that, Scott,” she said. “But please listen to me, you’re missing my point. If you can’t live with me again, in my presence, in the same house, if too much has happened and we’re too much for each other, you need to tell me so I can begin to make plans for how to live my life after the Highland without you.”
He was silent as she stared over his shoulder at the splashes of water and sky.
“Let’s not be sad, Scott,” she said, pressing her cheek to his, brushing her lips on the corner of his mouth, and then he turned and cupped her chin in his fingers, crushing her mouth in a kiss as though determined to keep her.
“I’m still your future, Zelda,” he said. “You’re still mine.”
Those were the words she’d come all this way to hear, but having won them so easily she couldn’t trust their meaning. She was tired of the conditions placed on his promises: if she continued on the course she was on, if only some director bought his next script so that he could buy time for the new novel, if her doctors said this or her doctors said that, then maybe, and only then, could they resume planning a life together. She could recall promises after a trip to South Carolina, in letter after letter, promises running back to the year he was holed up in Asheville and broke his shoulder on the diving board showing off for that nurse, oh, what was her name, Scott recklessly making promises to his wife about resuming their life together while falling for one frivolous, mentally unsound Southern belle after another, all of them mere shadows of her former self. Really, the folly of it—Scott playing the bachelor, acting with impunity because he was wretchedly tubercular and drunk and she so sick at the time he imagined she would never find out. Still she forgave him, and on each trip they took thereafter she imagined a future they might yet spend together, but it always ended with Scott again putting everything on hold. Chunks of each year passed, without the doctors signing her release, without Scott forcing their hand, God only knew how he could afford the payments for the Highland. It was all so extravagant, his endless worry; maybe he could never be free of the memory of what she was like when broken.
“Let’s not take two rooms at the resort,” she said as the car banked into a curve and rode within inches of a tall rock outcrop built into a hill to which the skeletal roots of a tree and a portion of trunk clung; and Scott sucked air asthmatically as she was thrown into him, pressing against his ribs, not wanting to straighten herself even after the car righted itself on the road.
“We really can’t afford two rooms anyway,” she said, “and I always feel so much better when you’re in the room with me, in the bed next to mine.”
“Yes, that would be fine,” he said, a hint of formality in his reply, maybe also shyness.
“Only if you want to.”
As a young girl she had been tomboyish, up for any adventure, undeterred by taunts or challenges, unable to tell the difference between them. In Zelda there was a daring that went beyond bravery and teetered on the edge of recklessness. She possessed more innate verve than most men of her generation, never mind women. Throughout her childhood she was known for an indefatigable tongue. She could talk for hours on end to anyone who would listen, sometimes at the age of four wandering off her family’s property to find a neighboring mother to regale with thoughts about everything from the proper way to soothe an angry dog to the best among hundreds of possible names for a box turtle. Her deeds, though, soon caught up with her words. Her friends used to say to her, “Zelda, you should have been born a boy.” Scott would later recall on her behalf tales told by Sara Haardt and Sara Mayfield, her companions in adolescent mayhem—a story, for instance, about Zelda racing downhill on roller skates from Montgomery’s Court Square, straight down the middle of Perry Street, weaving among pedestrians, forcing the horse-drawn carriages to pull up, causing Model Ts to brake and choke and often stall, and if no one followed her example, she would bolt to the top of the hill and repeat the act until at least one of the other girls, or a timid boy watching from a distance, worked up enough courage to imitate her. She would assemble parties for expeditions to the Alabama River on the edge of town. Disrobing among the elm trees that lined the river until all she wore was the sheerest of undergarments, she would climb to the highest rock in half-naked splendor, before jumping off without so much as a glance below—even the boys looked before they leapt, but not Zelda, she cast her body out, arms and legs on the air, plummeting with such abandon that her admiring friends would conclude years later that she had been bent on self-destruction even then. All the proof they required was that image of her waiting to the last minute to tuck into a dive or a mock-fetal ball before hitting water.
She carried that lack of inhibition into her debutante days in Montgomery, dancing provocatively at galas, hastening suitors with teasing notes when they were a step slow in getting to her doorstep, doing her best to maim what was left of the stodgy mating rites of the Deep South. One night she drove herself and a friend to the outskirts of town to shine the headlights on their male classmates as they exited a local brothel.
Now, under the boundless skies of Varadero, on this strip of land jutting out into the Gulf, from which Florida could be glimpsed on a clear day by the naked eye, Zelda felt it would require little effort to change herself once more. She was cut off from as much of the past as she wished, in a foreign land, in salt winds with the palm leaves quivering above her. It was up to her to choose what to be. Instinctively she chose again, before they were even checked into the resort: that girl of eighteen from Montgomery who could have had any man she desired, but what she wanted, desperately, expansively, was a blond-haired Yankee soldier from Princeton, possessed of a chiseled but also somehow effete profile, and (when viewed from the front) a soft chin, and deep-set, gently sullen eyes.
The entire resort consisted of a central building, a few beachside cabins, and a square, two-storied stone villa for guests. Scott arranged for transport into town for the evening, and the porter led them to their room through one of the villa’s dank archways, into a sunlit courtyard of mottled cobblestone at the center of which was a fountain, water falling down over the edges of several increasingly widening concentric basins, cascading until it reached a pool in which plants danced slowly if fretfully, in tight loops, every now and then breaking free from the conventions of centripetal motion. In a first floor guest room two maids tended to linen and towels, sweeping the floor, airing out the bathroom and beds. The porter led Scott and Zelda up a staircase at the top of which a waist-high bronze-railed balustrade wrapped the entire second floor.
Their room at the front of the building was small but airy, beaming with light, its French doors thrown open to a balcony furnished with a view of the ocean obstructed only by several coconut palms. Zelda believed in this anonymous place. Just two options on the immediate horizon: siesta or a dip in the ocean. Scott, in favor of the former, tumbled onto the bed as soon the porter shut the door. He hadn’t slept more than an hour or two the previous night.
“Don’t drowse off on me now,” she said.
She wanted him to follow her onto the balcony and share the exhilaration of the nearby ocean, the white sands stretching for miles along the coast, the water layered and thick like colors in a terrarium, cerulean folded onto jade onto emerald, each shade a current of buried history. Scattered along the beach were umbrellas with chairs beneath them, lily pads on a pond blown apart by wind, their occupants stranded in relative isolation.
“Oh, it’s not a social beach at all,” she called from the balcony. “You can’t make me go out there alone.”
“Lie down beside me first,” he said. A quick nap, then he’d be up for anything.
“But you can sleep on the beach.” She strode into the room, ransacked her portmanteau in search of a bathing suit. While searching her belongings she talked at him. “Dearest Deo, have you seen my dress from the other night? We must have left it in the wardrobe at the Ambos Mundos.” He started to answer, but she immediately interrupted him. “Perhaps you could telephone the concierge,” she said, pressing on his knee with her hand as she headed for the bathroom. Leaving the door ajar as she peeled off her dress, she stood at such an angle that (if he wanted to) he might see her from the bed, the curved lines of her breasts, her round hips. By the time she reentered the room wearing her old one-piece maroon bathing suit with the slender white shoulder straps, his eyes were shut.
“Scott,” she said, “Scott, please, don’t fall asleep. I’ll find your bathing suit and set it out for you, then I’ll run ahead and find us a spot on the beach.” She refused to take no for an answer, singing his name until he opened his eyes, his long-lashed lids quivering. She indicated the swimwear draped on the chair by the desk, also a robe, then gathered everything else into her arms: blanket, towels, two novels, bathing oil, sunglasses. All he had to do was drag his lazy self to the beach.
“No broken promises,” she said. “Let’s make this the trip on which we keep all our promises, starting now, starting with your promise to meet me at the beach in five minutes.”
“Five minutes,” he said, eyes curtained in sleep.
She pulled the door shut behind her, refusing to look back, believing in her power to conjure him. She crossed the courtyard in a straight line and followed a cobblestone walk that gave way to fresh lawns, after that to white sands, the granules grinding under heel against the soles of her sandals. It took longer than expected to procure an empty umbrella. Several of those she visited first revealed traces of people if not the people themselves: a straw hat on a chaise longue, a blue plaid shirt strewn over the back of a chair, sometimes nothing more than a stray towel discarded on the shaded sand. But she didn’t want to take chances, not on someone returning from lunch once she and Scott were settled. So she wandered the beach until she found an umbrella with a single empty chair, the sand beneath furrowed from the prongs of a rake. She spread the blanket on the sand, the upper third in shade, then pulled the base of a folding wood chair onto one of the corners. No need to search for a second chair—it didn’t make a difference, Scott could have the blanket or chair, whichever he preferred, she would take the other, or they might lie side by side on the blanket.
Up the beach toward the hotel a cluster of fashionable young people volleyed English and Spanish phrases as portions of their party played a game of volleyball, the women standing to the side and cheering, their joyous shouts whipped on the wind. Nearer to Zelda two bathers, a man and woman, now stood up, folding their towels and blanket, the woman’s face shadowed by a large beach hat as she pulled at the base of her bathing suit, releasing the sand trapped there.
She turned to Zelda, only her lips visible beneath the brim of the hat as she nodded up the beach. “The wedding party, from this past weekend, what’s left of it anyway.”
“Oh, isn’t that supposed to be good luck?” Zelda remarked, aware that she was inventing freely. “To share a beach with newlyweds?”
“Not if your cabin is next to theirs and they’ve been celebrating for three days straight,” the man said sourly, without turning, his back to Zelda the entire time. She tried to place his accent: maybe Ohio or Indiana.
“It’s the daughter of Colonel Silva, the owner of Club Kawama,” the woman said sheepishly, hoisting her bag onto her shoulder. “She married a prominent young man from New York here at the club this past weekend. Well, enjoy your stay. We’re leaving the resort this evening.”
“I’m not going into the water ’til he arrives,” Zelda said once the couple was gone, addressing the eager ocean.
For some reason she felt the need to have Scott’s eyes on her at all times. She was a strong swimmer, stronger than Scott had ever been, even in good health, but she wanted him to watch her as she swam far out, wanted his witness if she were to go missing from the world. She could taste the fresh, briny scent of the water, inviting her. Gulls cawed nervously overhead. She began to doubt his arrival. Maybe he hadn’t been awake when he made his promise. Maybe she should run back to the room.
Just then she saw a pale figure walking toward her in the sun, wearing far too much clothing for a beach, a jacket over his navy swimwear, shoes and socks on his feet, on his head a proper tweed hat. His hand perched on top of the hat, he ducked under two or three umbrellas, already wearied as he righted himself and gawked at the water and forlorn beach. She waved, but he headed off in the opposite direction, hooding his eyes with his hand to peer under someone else’s umbrella, hesitantly, infirmly, seeming much older than she’d ever allowed herself to imagine he might become. He was middle-aged, not a specimen of robust middle age—there were some men who grew stronger and stronger late into life—but rather of its decadent variety. He was one of those whose bodies had begun to betray them, the tubercular poets. She thought of Keats and all the sickly young literati, even the brave ones like Byron who wanted to be revolutionaries but instead died of pneumonia while espousing some lost cause.
At last Scott spun around and caught sight of her waving at him and she could relax her arm as he dragged himself up the beach, lips parted wryly as he came into view, his face happy with recognition of her, his smile still so youthful.
“What took so long?” she asked. “I felt certain you’d abandoned me for slumber.”
The smile fell from his face, however, as he hauled his body onto the blanket.
“I lost my journal,” he announced. “Several weeks of dialogue, scenes, sentences, paragraphs, also character sketches, observations to be used in the new novel.”
“Oh, but you haven’t,” she said from the chair above him, worrying that she had kept her secret too long.
“Zelda,” he said sharply, “I ought to know when I’ve lost my own goddamned notebook. I keep it in the breast pocket of this jacket and I always put it back here when I’m done with it, but I’ve checked my suitcase, also the pants I wore yesterday—”
“If you’d let me finish,” she said, knowing she would have to tell him now or he would spend all afternoon brooding. “What I was trying to say is I found it.”
He jerked his chin over his shoulder, tilting it upward, his distant agate eyes fixed on her. She felt the sting of ancient distrust.
“You left it on the night table at the Ambos Mundos and I only happened to notice, lucky for us, as we were leaving the hotel room.”
Relief rippled across his face, mixed nevertheless with irritation.
“Why didn’t you say any—”
“Scott, can’t you just be glad I found your journal, that your work isn’t lost, can’t you say thank you and be grateful I was watching out for you, as I always am?”
He reached an apologetic hand behind him, wrapping it onto her calf, but she refused to acknowledge him.
“Well, I’m going for a swim. Will you join me?”
“Maybe later,” he said. “I’m beat from the trip.”
“Scott, really, you must learn to relax. You might as well have been driving the car the way you kept looking over the driver’s shoulder. You can’t control everything. Sometimes that’s a good thing.”
“Not in my experience.”
“Well,” she said, her tone lightening, “would you at least take off your clothes, those shoes and socks, the jacket, you do look rather ridiculous.”
“You know I have a hard time keeping warm,” he said sheepishly, smiling in shameful solidarity, infected by her mirth.
“What were you thinking just now? Was it witty?”
“I look like a caricaturist’s notion of Paddy the Irishman at a beach, don’t I? Is this the way you imagine Thurber would draw James Joyce stretching his limbs on the Riviera?”
They laughed together as his jacket came off and he untied his shoes. Scott hated the appearance of his own feet and rarely removed shoes or socks. For years he’d slept with socks on, like a soldier on alert.
“I wish I had a camera, I’d send your photo to old Jim Thurber for inspiration, maybe with a caption, ‘A puritan in the tropics,’” she said. “You really should come into the water, Scott. Strip down to your bathing suit and follow me because it will be good for you.”
“Not now,” he said, leaving hope he might join her later. “I need that nap you promised me, now that we’re newly set on keeping our promises to one another.”
“Yes, and we have so far,” she said with satisfaction. “We’re all the way up to two. Before you fall asleep, though, I want you to watch me walk to the water and observe my lazy crawl into the tides. While I toss in the current, you in the sun, let’s think each of the other the whole time. Later you can tell me whether my body still pleases you.”
At the water’s edge she accepted the warm lapping of the waves, her toes sinking into the claylike sand, which molded itself to her feet. She tugged on her bather’s cap, tucking stray curls of hair up over her ears, pulling the plastic flaps taut over the lobes. The afternoon was brilliant along the surface of the water as she squinted, looking out over the straits, several small sailboats on the horizon, a freighter or some kind of navy ship farther out. Someone had told her that German U-boats had been discovered in these waters. She did not look behind her to check if Scott was watching but instead lifted her legs to hold her soles, one foot at a time, on top of the warm, thick water, depressing them into a tide so gentle there was almost no break. Waves ebbed into her knees, rolling on past her toward the shore.
She walked still farther out, water swelling up her thighs into the crease of her bathing suit, dolloping her groin like a patient lover’s tongue. Now raising hands above her head, she threw herself into a dive, and there was the pleasure of lying supine on the salty ocean, arms folding and unfolding, a mere seal’s kick to keep herself afloat, easeful, rocking in the waves’ slow rhythm, then torquing her torso also like a seal to twist and roll onto her back, her mind as empty as the sky above her, striated here and there in thin bands of white.
“Oh, I want to dive off of something,” she said, standing over him, dripping onto the blanket, shaking her body and sprinkling his forearms before bending for a towel.
“Zelda,” he said, floundering away from her, flopping onto his side with displeasure.
“Okay, I’ll be quiet. It’s just I thought you would be awake by now. I swam all the way out to a boat and flirted with several sailors and kicked my tail at them as I swam away.”
“That’s nice,” he said. “I hope they were on our side of the war.”
“We’re not at war, Scott.”
“Not yet,” he said, “but wait until Hitler takes a country we care about, such as France.”
“Well, my soldiers were Americans,” she said, and laid her body beside him on the blanket, her wet suit skimming his leg so that he jerked away reflexively. “At least that’s what they told me. Aren’t you even a little bit jealous?”
“Were they real?”
“I didn’t think so. In which case, yes, I’m very jealous. I find imaginary rivals so much more intimidating, since I always endow them ahead of time with such wonderful capabilities.”
“In a manner of speaking they were real,” she said. “You see it was a military ship with an American flag and I swam out toward it, but it was miles away and it was going to take such a long time to get there and I had to turn back because I didn’t want to leave you all alone getting sunburned on the beach. Would you have been jealous if real soldiers had flirted with me?”
“I was trying to sleep here,” he said.
“I know, but do you think you could wake up and solve the problem of finding something for me to dive off?”
“What if we save that pleasure for tomorrow? We’ll find a beach that has a promontory where the water is deep enough for you to throw yourself off and risk breaking your neck, as you’re so fond of doing.”
Now she drew the tote bag to her, looking through it for something to read, warning Scott that his legs—the only part of his body exposed to the sun—were turning red and perhaps he should sit in the chair for a while. She found her copy of Rachel Field’s novel All This, and Heaven Too, one of last year’s biggest sellers, folding it open to the page where she’d left off. Scott sat up and moved to the chair as instructed, casting his shadow over the book.
“Does that mean you disapprove?”
“About the diving?” he said. “Would it make you happier if I disapproved?”
“Oh, probably. But I meant this novel. You sat down and there was a mini-eclipse and it was hard to see the words.”
She began to explain the plot of the book to him. Bedlam, she maintained, couldn’t get enough of stories about people who are insane. Everyone at the Highland was in a tumult about the imminent release of Wuthering Heights starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as Catherine and Heathcliff. It was likely she would return to a house full of hubbub about the film, but no matter, half of the women would be up for seeing it again. As for Field’s novel, it featured an insanely menacing duchess who plagues her duke until, poor man, he must confide his miseries to his children’s governess. “That movie actress with whom you had an affair years ago, what was her name, Lois Moran, the once-aspiring homewrecker, she might be perfect for the part, if only they’d made a movie of this book while she was still young and attractive enough.” Scott ignored the taunt, failing to defend his old lover as he might have in years past. Even Zelda couldn’t feel the prick of her own words, that original betrayal no longer hurting as it once had, the newer, fresher ones (women whose names she didn’t even know) stinging less still. None of his infidelities could reach her here in Cuba. Even after a history of fights, threats, and fallings out, she still felt her advantage over every rival for Scott’s affection.
In the novel the duchess turns up dead, Zelda continued, and naturally the dupe of a duke is accused of the murder.
“Did he do it, did he bump her off?”
“Of course not, or at least I don’t think so, but he’s in the midst of committing suicide in vague, ineffectual remorse,” Zelda said. “I’m sure it was the governess, and what’s worse, she’ll get away with it and live the rest of her life pretending to be innocent.”
“I’m not sure why you read such tripe.” Scott sounded genuinely offended by his wife’s fondness for pulp novels about the insane.
“And why do you care so much that I do?”
He sighed. When she read a book just because everybody was reading it—they’d been over this before, did she really want him to repeat himself?—it was an insult to every writer who tried to make a name for himself by writing well.
“Pardon me, but didn’t we live off of what everybody was reading for a while?”
He said nothing.
“Scott, my tastes aren’t to blame for the poor reception of your tender novel about an insane heroine who just happens to have lived much of my history. Sometimes people read books to distract themselves. I too once wrote a serious novel on insanity, and believe me, I can sniff out fraudulence.” Here she held the novel by Field over her head, finger between its pages as she waved it like a flag, saying, “Fraudulent, fraudulent.” Maybe that was why she read such books, in order to figure out how it was possible that easy cliches about madwomen who cling unjustly to husbands they don’t deserve were so popular.
“You see,” he said, “that’s exactly what I mean by tripe. I don’t wish for you to become bothered by stupid popular notions that don’t help with your recuperation.”
“Always looking out for me.”
Well, she could read what she wanted, he said, whenever she wanted. What had she brought for him?
For Scott she’d chosen their old friend Joseph Hergesheimer, the novel Java Head from 1919, still his most acclaimed. The exoticism of the prose, the splash of the Orient dousing puritanical New England, the lurid approach to miscegenation and its consequences—all of Joe’s old Anglo anxieties made for good beach reading. Secretly, she chose Hergesheimer because she knew Scott had a hard time reading anyone whose star was on the rise. In Hergesheimer, her husband could enjoy the company of another literary light precipitously fallen from on high. Once the most popular writer in America—only a decade ago still outselling everybody, except possibly Sinclair Lewis—Hergesheimer, like Scott, hadn’t published a novel since 1934.
From the west end of the beach a couple approached, walking along the perimeter of damp sand onto which the thin milky foam of dying waves reached with ever greater frequency, the weak tide rolling in. With the sun at their backs, most likely guests at the resort, they showed no sign of breaking stride or turning in toward the row of stone cabins, instead continuing on up the beach and passing maybe ten feet in front of Scott and Zelda. “Tout ne tourne pas autour de toi,” the woman was saying in perfect French, and the man, attempting to placate her, asked what she thought they should do. Zelda studied the two of them, the woman especially, her thin, spry mouth, the wilting jawline and long slant nose, her slender body sporting a cream one-piece, shoulders draped in a wrap of reds and oranges, her sorrel-brown hair knotted in a scarf. The man, whose face Zelda caught in profile, angling evenly from forehead to the knobbed tip of his nose, was darker in complexion. He was square, sturdy. He reminded her of a foot soldier among the Catalans of Spain, someone whose body testified to its capacity for bearing hardship without speaking of it. “I would like to know both of you,” Zelda said under her breath, surprised by her response to them. Unless Zelda misunderstood—parts of their conversation were in French, parts in Spanish—the woman was arguing her right to accompany him to a cockfight.
“He’s not disciplined enough,” Scott was saying, “our old friend Joe. Still, he’s really not a bad writer at all. It’s a disgrace that the public has turned its back on him so absolutely. There are so many fine sentences in this book. He has a talent—sometimes used as a crutch—for measuring people by their eccentricities. I do hate it, though, that he and I are mention—”
“How would you describe the couple that just passed us?”
Scott admitted he hadn’t paid them any attention.
“Well, I’m glad about our search for high places tomorrow,” Zelda said. “That and the swim have made this a perfect first day of our vacation. Only now that we’ve found a beach does the vacation really begin, in case you’re logging days. And that counted as a promise, yes?”
“The promontory, the diving tomorrow.”
“Sure, I promised we would look, though I don’t know the geography of this peninsula.”
“That’s enough for me,” she said. He was silent again, eyes lowered to the page but waiting (she could tell) for what else she might say.
“I just need there to be a next chapter. I’m someone who needs to look forward to things.”
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).