I Wish I Had Been What I Thought I Was
With the assumption it would have a better life, I took a puppy out of a box in front of the Safeway and brought it home to my mother’s house in Oklahoma, where I had returned to live at around age nineteen, and planted it by the persimmon tree in the backyard for my mom to discover when she went out to weed, which is what other people, I think, call gardening. When she found the dog, I said, Let’s call her Zelda.
I had been reading Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald at the time. I read out on the front stoop or listlessly at the kitchen table and was not much beyond the first half in which Zelda is young and mutinous and diving off rocks in a nude-colored swimsuit that fifty-some years later still had men in Montgomery wondering, Was she naked? I’d picked up the mass-market paperback, the one with a drawing of Zelda as a ballerina on the front cover, months before in Mobile, Alabama, where I had failed out of my first year in college.
Who doesn’t confuse themselves with the book they are reading? Why read if you don’t?
So I was not much beyond the first half when I found myself borrowing lines from Zelda’s letters to Scott and working them into my own letters to people I missed or people I talked myself into missing. I wrote about remembering the time I touched the back of so-and-so’s neck, “where the hair is short and mossy.” Wait a minute, I thought. Is that true? Did it feel like that? But then I went on to something about sitting in a cemetery “under big dead moons.” The cemetery in Broken Arrow is a field of flat plaques and plastic bouquets pinched into dirt. To the right, a rusted water tower once painted to look like a pencil. To the left, wheels of hay to be picked up by one of the tractor-trailers passing down County Line. Had the cemetery been otherwise, I would have written about “weepy, watery blue flowers that seem to grow from dead eyes.” I was dying to write about flowers growing from dead eyes.
If I could intervene now, I would say, Crowd the cemetery with too many moons and blue flowers! With ferns that roll out toward you, fronds like reptile tongues! I would say, Go ahead and let letters be fantasy. Because in the end it always happens anyway, when you’re finished and you’ve signed your name and you’re reading over what you’ve written one last time and even though you’ve tried to be so good there it is again, the discovery that what you have expressed is not the way you are but the way you want to be.
I borrowed Zelda’s lines, because why not? It’s very possible I could be Zelda. I could be anyone I wanted to be—anyone, especially then, nineteen, out on my mother’s stoop.
I also borrowed Zelda’s lines in the sense that they crawled into my brain and nested so that writing them felt like recording a thought rather than memory. And then I’d go back to the book because, of course, deep down I’d know. I would pick up the book and scan for underlines and say oh and then I would outright steal because whatever I had remembered she said, she said it better. This is what must have happened to Scott, Zelda’s letters and diaries creeping into The Great Gatsby, into Tender Is the Night. As she wrote, years later, in regard to The Beautiful and Damned, “Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
Not to say that Scott needed to steal from Zelda (he did quite well on his own), only that Zelda’s mind, once you were up inside it or it was inside you, was inescapable. She may not have been able to carry a plot, but her words worked a magical intimacy that you felt and wanted. When she described something, she captured it and its inner life simultaneously, an X-ray flickering into sight under the doctor’s light, both the outline of the leg and the hidden bone. And those early letters from Montgomery are especially potent because she (seemingly) dashed them out on the way to some other, greater activity, like skinny-dipping or a Georgia Tech homecoming. Yes, yes, she wrote, the “great incandescent globes” of the streetlights are “black inside with moths and beetles,” but do we have to write all the time? “Please, let’s write calmly and whenever you feel like it,” she pleaded with Scott, who was in New York eking out the last chapters of his first novel. She complained that some of his letters felt, the worst of all possible things, “forced.”
There’s nothing more troubling than encountering a (seemingly) casual writer, especially when you’re still sitting at your typewriter or keyboard trying to write a letter and wondering what the hell’s wrong with you anyway and you’re really no good at writing letters, you’re really fooling yourself to try, and then here’s this pretty girl, this debutante, noting bugs with her heart so effortlessly on display that the words are nothing more than the breeze that blew them into her head. Your words drag you into the basement where there’s a cardboard box of forgotten potatoes, eyes growing into roots.
But we must be careful.
It is as easy to romanticize the early, cavalier Zelda as it is the later, crazy Zelda. When I finally got to the second half of Milford’s book, I still felt secretly jealous of Zelda, even in her decline. Even when she became a manic ballet student in Paris at age thirty. I saw nothing desperate in her tireless rehearsals, weeping and bent in exhaustion over her instructor’s knees, her husband at a bar, her daughter with another nanny. This, I thought, was a woman with conviction. I was certain Zelda was the better writer, that she had been sacrificed and strip-mined for her husband’s career. Save Me the Waltz was so much better than Tender Is the Night! I won’t go too far into what I made of Zelda’s schizophrenia and her institutionalization, my easy sentimentalizing of her insanity, which I thought to be her best work of art. Oh, if only I could be crazy! If I could “walk the shaded paths of asylum gardens.” That’s what I took away from her insanity, shaded garden paths in Switzerland, the flaming third floor of a psychiatric hospital, a charred slipper. She made crazy look like something to do, like a cracking open, a final pleasure.
Now I still think, yes, she did have conviction. But where does conviction lead you, really?
I also have to wonder, why am I rereading the story of Zelda rather than Zelda’s story?
When she gets a chill, my mom still says the old expression that someone just walked over her grave. Isn’t it strange, the idea that you could be two places at once, both alive in front of the microwave and dead beneath six feet of dirt and a plastic bouquet? Not that you intuit the future, but that you are living the present and the future simultaneously? In an early letter, Zelda warned a friend to take heart because “nobody was ever going to be like we think they are.” Years later, from a mental institute in Baltimore, she wrote Scott, “I wish I had been what I thought I was.”
Because that’s the sensation of rereading Zelda: inevitability. The narrowing toward a future that already exists. This inevitability is not just the trick of biography. Yes, we know the end. We know the book is gunning toward the graveyard: Scott dead of a heart attack, Zelda burned down to one of nine “indistinguishable” piles of ash. And there were times when I did want to yell, Stop! Hold the train! When I cried for Zelda, in her mother’s living room in Montgomery, not knowing that Scott was dead in Hollywood. When every event—the last time she left her mother’s house saying “Don’t worry. I’m not afraid to die”—presaged tragedy because tragedy always feels inevitable after the fact.
So there is that, but then there is also a deeper inevitability, a sense in her letters and in her actions that Zelda knew herself, like we all secretly know ourselves. She knew herself, and then she went on to expect something bigger and grander. Something more. I am rereading Zelda in my late thirties, an age when I have to admit what I’m living is my life. Zelda was too old to be a ballerina, but she tried anyway. All the boats and sunburns on the Riviera didn’t change Zelda, only relocated her. Like Oedipus, you spend your life trying not to be your father’s murderer and your mother’s lover, but in the end, you can only ever end up being yourself. You know this, but what can you do? What happens when you lose the illusion you could be otherwise?
Of course, this dilemma is not just Zelda’s; it belongs to everyone (of a certain age). How the heart hurts to see it play out in front of you, though. To witness it in print complete with photographs: a girl ankle-deep in pool water, a woman’s drawn face at the gorge in Constantine. Toward the end, the words “exigency” and “imperative” crop up in her letters again and again, in part, I think, because she felt her life bearing down on her. There’s a passage from an Alice Munro story in which a middle-aged woman keeps thinking about a teenage girl, a girl who disappeared from a camping trip and has become the subject of schoolyard rhymes and town lore. It goes,
I dare you to run away. Was it possible? There are times when girls are inspired, when they want the risks to go on and on. They want to be heroines, regardless. They want to take a joke beyond where anybody has ever taken it before. To be careless, dauntless, to create havoc—that was the lost hope of girls.
The lost hope, the drawn face at the gorge in Constantine. Because you can’t run away. You can only think you can run away. And, after a while, you can’t even think that anymore.
As for the puppy Zelda, she grew into a dog that my mom had to care for after I moved out of the house and into a boyfriend’s apartment. I lose track of those early pets—there were so many coming and going—but I think she was another one that my stepdad eventually, when interest had waned, dropped off in the country where his friend had a farm. I suspected the reality of this farm, but back then it was easier not to think about it.