Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue NYC

Translated by J.T. Townley

“On the cheek?” the bishop asked ironically. “Are you sure, young newlyweds?”

That morning, Scott’s breath stank so badly of bourbon it turned my stomach, and we gazed at each other without kissing. Scott laughed because it was time for him to be a man, and, just then, being a man was simply too absurd a proposition for him. So, after giving the bishop and me the once-over, he said, “Okay, I give up.” Then, kneeling, he panted, “All right, Zelda. For better or for worse, now you’re one of the guys.”

“Amen!” shouted the horde in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. “God bless this union!” proclaimed the bishop. The nave bubbled with laughter, my eardrums thrummed with all the applause, and I was seized with vertigo.

On the front steps, the flashing cameras blinded me. But that was only the disturbing, confused debut―the beginning of a much more profound blindness. The sky above Fifth Avenue wasn’t soft either, but dirty, gray-white. The metallic white of nothingness.

In the limousine, Scott wrapped his arms around my shoulders and glued his lips to my ear. “Baby’s mad. Baby is so angry.” (I pushed his mouth away, and his rank breath along with it.) He opened the minibar and uncapped a bottle of bourbon, which he held out to me as if I were one of his buddies. I drank straight from the bottle, just like one of the guys. I suddenly felt―what, exactly?―out of place, inane and false in my white lace and veil; I felt like a fraud in this ceremony. Scott hadn’t asked if I was a virgin, which I’d taken as a sign of his so-called gallantry, yet another manifestation of his faded elegance, because the question was embarrassing to ask and, whatever my response, he could never be sure if I were telling the truth.

But right then, in my long ivory dress, beneath the frothy white veil that somehow I managed to tear off, wrestling with the tangle of pins the French stylist had stuck into my scalp (which he’d already scalded with a curling iron), I realized that Scott didn’t give a damn if I was a virgin. I watched him in profile suckling the bourbon, eyes half-closed, smiling between guzzles. “It won’t all be roses." I’d hardly uttered the words before the car braked and the door opened, but it wasn’t pavement I set my white pumps onto, it was a long red carpet. I waited until Scott had made his way around the limo, laughing and staggering, then took his arm in my lace-covered hand, and together we ran the gauntlet. More flashes, more clapping hands. A shiver runs down my spine. A black veil descends over me. My knees give out, I lose consciousness, and I fall to the ground. All those gaping, voiceless mouths. All that white noise.

* * *

..1940

“In white?” asks the young doctor who reminds me of Irby Jones―same large, ultramarine eyes, same thick eyelashes, same marble-white skin, which is a little unsettling, as if all the blood in his face has fled to his crimson lips. “Are you certain? I think I recall that in an earlier session, you complained about eloping”―He leafs back through his notebook―“‘unceremoniously,’ you said, ‘like thieves in the night,’ were your exact words.”

Without a reception and without my parents. The Judge and Minnie didn’t deign to make the trip. Everyone was opposed to our marriage: Scott’s friends disapproved as much as my family. I think my dress was blue. My hat, too. And beneath the hat, my hair really had been burned by that asshole of a French hairdresser. In the taxi, after the blessing, Scott really did open a bottle of bourbon, but we just sipped from it―the nauseating taste is still fresh on my tongue. As for the restaurant, no, I can’t picture it. It might have just been a dump like any other.

“A virgin?” asks the intern. “But he sent you abortion pills six months before your wedding. Why would you need an abortion if you were still a virgin?”

“I refused to take the pills. Violently refused, disgusted with myself. I asked him what he took me for, a whore? That’s how I would’ve felt if I’d swallowed even one of those pills. That was our first spat.”

“What about the child?”

“Between the time I wrote to him in New York, because I wanted him to share my fear, and the time I received that packet of pills by way of response, I got my period. My hellish period. So I knew I wasn’t pregnant.”

“Then you were lying. In putting him through that, you were lying.”

“Yes, I lie, just like 99.99% of the people on this planet.”

“We’re talking here about manipulation.”

“And I manipulate, sure, like 99.98% of the people on Earth.”

“Does that make you proud?”

“Now that’s enough. My husband isn’t paying you to insult me. In ten years, you’re at least the thirtieth psychiatrist I’ve had pretending to figure out what’s wrong with me. The fiftieth, counting both continents. Now be so kind as to have someone take me back to my cell.”

“Your room, Madam.”

“My cell. I know what I’m saying, Doctor.”

* * *

..1920

They threw us out of the Biltmore Hotel for indecent behavior. We moved to the Commodore. The whole of Manhattan passed through our suite, night and day, and we made so much noise and tied up the elevators so often that the Commodore chucked us out, too―with a court order to pay for the cigarette-burned carpets.

Scott needed to get back to work and I needed to fulfill my biological function: I was carrying my first child. So we rented a cottage in Westport. At first, our friends came out from Manhattan on weekends; they’d barely stop in before they were all scouring the once-peaceful bars of neighboring towns, drunk and rowdy. During the week, Scott would sober up and we would quarrel over nothing. That’s where the problems between us began, in that beautiful abode by the sea, where we had everything we needed to make a happy home. I swam for hours and hours in the Sound. I tried learning Japanese from Tanaka, our maid, but it was too difficult, too slow, well beyond what I had patience for. I went to see Scott in his ocean-view office and said, “You know French, right?”

“Uh-huh. More or less. You’re giving up on Japanese? It’s not like you to quit on something. You can use my Rosenthal method for French. I left it in the Princeton cafeteria.”

His tense back told me I was irritating him. It’s amazing how expressive a person’s back can be―a tensed neck can say I don’t love you anymore before the face lets on a thing.

“I want to learn it where it’s spoken.”

“How’s that?”

“Let’s go to France.”

My older brother Anthony, Jr. used to say that you had to see Paris, since that’s where all the important things in literature, dance, music, and painting happened. Still not turning around, Scott grumbled, “Yeah, one day. Why not? It’s a good idea. After you’ve had the baby and I no longer feel bled dry from having to spew out all this ad copy so the three of us can stay afloat.” Then he raised his head and turned three- quarters in my direction. “You haven’t forgotten about the baby, have you?” I stepped back into the hallway; I thought I was going to cry. All I could think was, You’ll have to make it up to me. And I went back to swimming in the sea.

The Judge’s daughter doesn’t cry. Not for the son of a door-to-door soap salesman. It’s just the salt and iodine making my eyes red.

                                                                                                             * * *

..March, 1940

You were too young, Doctor. Seeing us like this now, our youth a memory, both of us lost to obscurity, you can’t even imagine how famous we were, the Great Idol and me―“his Ideal Woman,” as the society columnists used to say. We made the front page of all the papers, and our photos adorned the windows of all the Manhattan theaters and cinemas. They paid us a fortune to attend promotional events at which our only job was to show up on time, clean, smiling, and sober. We were the ones who invented celebrity, especially the business of celebrity.

We always walked out in front (even out in front of ourselves) down the red carpet, the photographers moving back out of our way. The sound of our shoes crushing flashbulbs set my teeth on edge, as though I were chewing on shards of glass.

“Uh-um,” coughed the medical student in the white coat. “Sure, I have a vague idea of who you were. Do you remember Lillian Gish?”

Me: Of course, I remember her. Amnesia isn’t one of the symptoms of my disorder. Someone must have told you that. Lillian was a great actress and our neighbor in Westport, for a time. We only ever invited men over; Lillian was the only woman. When we went back to live in the city, a small group of us would often dine at the Blue Bar in the Algonquin, and when there were lots of us we’d take the big round table. The crowd was always lively, the hotel ebullient. That was the era when movies were made in New York, you know. Movie people mixed with those from the literary world, novelists with actresses. Lillian was my favorite.

Him: Miss Gish was interviewed last week in the Hollywood Chronicle and spoke of you. About you and your spouse, she declared, ‘They were the Twenties.’ I’m quoting from memory.

Me: Lillian said that? That’s nice of her. Actors are usually so uncultivated, but not her. It’s strange: I only had two women friends, and both of them were actresses. Not including Love, of course.

Him (frowning like a child): You mean ... the Russian dancer? Your ballet teacher, Liobov?

Me: Privately, I called her Love. It was purely platonic, as you know.

Him: No, I don’t know.

Me: Well, now you do. But such a serious boy like you, reading the gossip rags at the movie theater? Who knew? I never would’ve imagined it.

He blushed, hiding a smile behind his fist. His hands are so lovely―they look like wings.

Me: One day, this was in ’22 or ’23, when he and I were still beautiful and photogenic, one day before leaving for Europe, we were asked to play ourselves in a film adaptation of one of Scott’s novels. I was terribly impatient and overexcited and jittery with stage fright. Scott ruined everything by turning it down. Without him, I was of less interest to them; it was both of us or nothing. In the end, they hired an actress to play me. ‘A professional,’ they said, with a touch of contempt for her that froze my blood. Scott never gave me the chance to do anything, not once. Instead, he devoted himself to ruining any opportunity I might have had to make something of myself.

* * *

Sometimes I would get so wound up, excitement would leap through my veins, and I’d feel my cheeks burning with an influx of blood and life and gut-wrenching fear. I was worth something. My heart would beat to bursting. Can joy be painful? When I’m happy―if only I still could be―I get pins and needles in my legs, I swallow too much air, I choke, my eyes cloud over, I have to give in, and then―curtains!―I fall to the floor.

I wanted to tell you this, Doctor, but I’m saving a little of myself for me.

* * *

And it was there in Westport, in our happy home, that the doll and I fell to pieces. It was there, one morning on the Sound & Compo beach, in that beautiful setting, where the air was so light, so alive and inspiring, where the people were thin and beautiful and high-class, it was there that I began to miss Alabama, to miss that abhorrent patch of earth that was my own.

Red earth, heavy clay for making red bricks and raising cities, solid red-brick homes that won’t budge, homes you don’t have to worry about. And I missed the heavy, sticky scent of pines, which I loathed as a little girl because I thought it caused my asthma. After the pine forests, it was Auntie Julia’s cooking I missed, drenched in fat and sugar, sickly sweet and delicious, its aroma permeating every room, seeping into the wallpaper and curtains, rugs and sofas, even saturating the wainscoting and soaking into the pillows in the red-brick castle’s bedrooms.

An even more perverse feeling was missing the insidious stench of mold; every time I went back to the house where I was born, that smell gave me the jitters, made me feel dirty. I’d get used to it, though, I’d forget about it after the first night home. Getting used to, forgetting.

I couldn’t be happy anywhere. I couldn’t feel at ease anywhere.

That was before the lobotomy, of course. I know the operation isn’t that painful, just a spike they drive in with a hammer beneath the eye, which goes up into the muddled brain. The puncture in the eye socket closes up, and no more worries, no anxiety or grief―not even a scar. Just a black eye that goes away after a few days. I keep what I can of my self, mischievous but alive. Do you understand, young man?

* * *

In that cesspool of chic that was our lives, someone suddenly appeared who wanted to bring out the best in me. It was one evening at a reception Scott was giving at Villa Marie. The man’s name was Édouard, Édouard Jozan, but all his friends and brothers-in-arms called him Joz.

I was wearing my peau d’ange lace dress, so lovely and pink. A very expensive dress―silky, even creamy under the lace. Scott didn’t even pretend to listen to the fat Parisian publisher, our summer neighbor in Valescure, who was shouting, “Lucky devil! My God, Scott! Never has a damn writer had such a beautiful, brilliant damn wife.” I was a real pain in the ass, it’s true, and that’s why Scott wasn’t listening. But he was following every step we took, Joz and I, walking or dancing. Look how jealous he is, I told myself. Take full advantage of it. But my husband’s feelings weren’t on my mind for very long; in less than an hour, I’d been beaten at my own game, and had fallen in love with the attractive man who spoke English with an accent so sensual it made my teeth ache.

* * *

He doesn’t want to subjugate me (he says), but to liberate me (he says). These Frenchmen are priceless―comparing me to a slave, referring to me in the same words you’d use for a common slave. Only a Frenchman could be so impudent. But when he squeezes me in his burning embrace, I don’t really have a voice anymore.

Alabama Song © Mercure de France, 2007