In the Faded Blue Light
By Don Donato
NOTE: Presented here are chapters three and four of an eight-part novella — that will continue in the winter issue.
… except that it was wrong, of course, to love my teacher when I should have loved you. But I didn’t have you to love – not since long before I loved her. I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practically unfitted.
[letter, Zelda to Scott, 1930]
Townsend left the bar, and I turned to Zelda. “I would like you to meet my friends, dear.”
Zelda got up and stood next to me.
“This is Catherine,” I said, gesturing to the girl on my left. “And, of course, you know Cynthia,” turning and nodding to my right. Catherine snapped her head up.
“You know each other?” Catherine asked.
“No, not really,” Zelda replied, “it’s just my husband being his obnoxious self. Ignore him, despite the fact, that he does mean harm.”
“Oh, my mistake,” I said, “From the way you were looking at each other, I assumed… my mistake.”
Catherine smiled, her lips flat and tense, as if restraining any protrusion. It gave the impression that her thoughts lay bursting in her mouth. Her smile faded and then re-emerged as if vacillating with the thrills and uncertainties of an inner, burgeoning story.
Cynthia extended her hand toward Zelda. “I would hate to have to call you Mrs. Fitzgerald all evening.”
“It’s Zelda,” their hands remained together. “… Zelda,” she repeated.
Catherine broke the ensuing silence.
“I have a great idea. Let’s go to my apartment, much more comfortable. It’s not far. We can walk. What do you say, Scott? Maybe you’ll find some new inspiration.”
Cynthia looked in Zelda’s direction, her words fell softly, “Would you like that?”
I gave Zelda a quick look. She was pensive, her focus distant and intense. She remained still and tensed in the manner of a house cat entranced by a strand of dangling twine. I wondered when she should leap. It was the first time I had to compete with a woman. That’s what it was all about, I was sure. It was just another way for a selfish wife to make her husband feel more inadequate.
“Alright, let’s get out of this place,” I said. The girls moved off their stools and headed toward the door. I turned to follow. Hell, I could hardly walk. When we hit the street, I flagged down a cab. Zelda got in first. Catherine gestured for Cynthia to enter next. Catherine got in, and I started to walk toward the front passenger seat.
“Scott, get in,” Catherine said, “there’s plenty of room back here. Cynthia, do you mind pushing over.” Cynthia pressed closer to Zelda.
Catherine turned her body toward me, and I squeezed in next to her. She remained facing me. She smiled, sometimes looking at me and sometimes staring out the side window. The protrusion of her lips now unmistakable.
We stopped in front of a brick building. It was like the kind that have grown plentiful in New York City. Multiple floors sat perched one upon another. The difference in their remoteness from the life below was all that distinguished one from the other. A dozen steps jutted out onto the sidewalk and led to a set of glass doors made nearly opaque by lace curtains. We exited the cab, and Catherine held my arm as we made our way up the stairs. I looked back and saw Cynthia and Zelda walking up side-by-side.
We entered the apartment and found ourselves in a parlor with blatant décor. A red, velvet upholstered couch simmered against one wall. A square glass table sat unnoticed between the couch and two armchairs reminiscent of a time in Europe when comfort succumbed to the desperation for dignity. Cynthia sat on the couch. She partially faced Zelda with one leg bent such that it lay flat with its outer thigh flat against the seat; her other leg draped the couch normally. Zelda sat motionless between them.
Catherine and I sat in the opposing chairs. I felt comfortable sitting upon the aged search for dignity.
Catherine popped out of her chair. “What are we drinking?” She walked toward the small bar against the wall behind us. She returned with a bottle of gin and a glass.
“I know what you want,” she said to me, and put the bottle and glass on the square table. “It’s them two I’m not sure about,” she said, looking at Zelda and Cynthia.
Cynthia had laid her head on the back of the couch and stared at Zelda in a scrutinizing sort of way. Sometimes she righted her head slightly, then tilted it again into the back cushion, as if to reassess the new perspective. Zelda was motionless, unrevealing; her focus consumed by Cynthia.
“Cynthia,” Catherine called, “you know where everything is. If you want something, please dear, just take it.” Catherine looked down at me. “Scott, let’s go on the terrace. You can see most of Manhattan from there.”
I poured myself a half-glass of gin, took the bottle, and followed Catherine through a pair of French doors. She closed them behind us. I walked to the surrounding railing. The night had wrapped itself around Manhattan, and spots of light broke through from the streets below. It looked as if the heavens had been torn from the sky, and the stars and every wish made upon them lay bare in the streets. The world’s hope and reverie, unprotected from the disorder which trampled upon them, twinkled courageously and pitifully. I strained my eyes to find the bright future I had once placed there, but I found only a fading flicker, jumping chaotically. I looked closer and my concern deepened. I realized what had happened. The future no longer fueled the dying flame. I fell limp, stricken by shock and an overwhelming sentimentality. My past now was all that kept the fire alive.
Catherine sat in a rusted iron chair. I stood next to her and watched Zelda through the glass doors. Cynthia raised her head and rested her arm on the back cushion. Zelda looked up and saw me staring. She turned to Cynthia and gave her a smile. I folded my arms and shuffled uneasily. I looked down at Catherine who was silently watching the glowing and fading of Manhattan.
I swallowed the last of the gin in the glass in my hand. I grabbed the bottle and lifted it. Catherine held the bottle steady as we poured me another drink. I sat on the table facing her and continued looking through the glass doors.
Cynthia’s body was now firmly against Zelda’s. Catherine turned and looked at the two women.
“Is this Zelda’s first time?”
“With a woman?” I replied, my gaze steadily fixed on what was going on in the next room.
“No, I meant the first time living in New York?” Catherine smiled. She rubbed the back of her hand against my thigh. “Don’t worry about Cynthia. She’s quite harmless and gentle. Zelda is in good hands.” She moved her chair back. She got up and stood between my legs, which dangled from the table.
“What about you, Scott? Would you like to be in good hands?” My eyes were fixed on Zelda. Her head was leaning slightly. Cynthia bent her head in the other direction and pressed her lips against Zelda’s neck.
Catherine ran her finger along the zipper of my pants. “You like what you see, don’t you, Scott?” I stretched my arms out behind me and put the palms of my hands flat on the table. I leaned back. I did like what I saw. It turned my stomach to imagine Zelda with Townsend, but with Cynthia it was different. My blood raced. I wanted Zelda more. Cynthia left her wanting for only what I could give her. Every kiss she felt was mine.
The pulsing of my body, which had begun so simple and strong, began to recede and left in its wake an unnerving quiver. My gut wrenched. Betrayal had seethed its way in. Zelda was a predictable, self-consumed woman. It was clear she wanted nothing more than to mock the wonder of a frightened and hopeless child. She placed her hands onto Cynthia’s back. Her head weaved softly in thoughtless swirls; each stillness steeped in a dreamy detachment. She glared at me as she nuzzled each kiss which fell on her. The gin had destroyed any rationality which had survived in me. An inner trembling appeared in its wake.
Catherine placed her hands on the fronts of the upper parts of my legs and stroked them gently. I glanced at her and directed my eyes again over her shoulder. I saw Zelda put her lips on Cynthia’s neck. I turned to Catherine. With her eyes penetrating mine, she began, slowly and steadily, to lower my zipper. Her back was facing the doors. Zelda couldn’t see exactly what was happening. I wanted nothing more than to shove her face into the torture she so readily found necessary for me. I let Catherine continue.
Cynthia pushed herself onto Zelda, who fell back against the arm of the couch. Cynthia moved her lips to the front of her lover’s neck. My wife, with a smile that had become a smirk, stared at Catherine and me through the doors.
Catherine stopped and looked up at me. She was silent, and her eyes lingered in the quiet. She bent over. Her head dropped into my lap. The glass doors flew open. They bounced off the walls, nearly closing again, their panes rattling. Zelda rushed past us. Her eyes were blank and undirected. Her focus was distant, penetrating the surrounding blackness. She extended her arms and grabbed onto the terrace rail with both hands. Catherine and I rushed toward her, and we each took one of her arms. We pulled her back. Tears began to run down Zelda’s cheeks. I stood in front of her and put my arms around her, caressing her. Catherine went inside.
“Townsend, now Cynthia. I think it’s enough for one day,” I said, my words slurring. The room was spinning, and I moved my feet to walk and tried to find the floor.
“Let’s go. I want to go home,” she said.
She turned around, breaking my grasp. I began to stumble. I held on to the table. Zelda walked through the doors, and I tried to follow. After a few steps I lost my balance and fell into the open doorway. Catherine helped me to my feet. A small box containing the necklace had fallen out of my inside coat pocket. I saw the box on the floor, and I picked it up. Cynthia was still sitting on the couch. I turned to her and handed her the box. “This is for you,” I said, “I’m sure Zelda would want you to have it.”
Cynthia took the box and opened it. She removed the necklace and let it dangle from her finger. She gave me a puzzled look, and then glanced at Zelda, whose silent attention remained motionless on the gentle sway of the necklace. She looked at me and quickly turned back to Cynthia.
“There’s a matching set of earrings that go with that,” she said, “if you drop by, I’ll give them to you.” She took a pen from her purse and wrote our address on the back of Cynthia’s hand. When she finished, she smiled and said, “My husband will be out next Wednesday.”
Zelda turned and looked at me, her face stern, her eyes unflinching.
“That’s right, isn’t it, Scott? You have another meeting with Ober as I recall.”
I didn’t answer.
She looked over at Catherine, who was standing off against the French doors.
“Maybe my husband can stop by and see you as well next Wednesday. He’ll be in the area.” Zelda began walking toward the door. She smiled at Cynthia, stopped, and turned back to Catherine. “One warning, dear, just don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
… Finally you got well in Luau-les-Puis and a lot of money came in and I made of those mistakes literary men make – I thought I was a man of the world. –[sic] that everybody liked me and adored me for myself but I only liked a few people like Ernest and Charles Mc Arthur [sic] and Gerald and Sara who were my peers. Time goes bye [sic] fast in those moods and nothing is ever done. I thought then that things came easily – I forgot how I’d dragged the great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach in a time of misery. I woke up in Hollywood no longer my egotistic, certain self but a mixture of Ernest in fine clothes and Gerald with a career – and Charlie Mc Arthur [sic] had a past. Anybody that could nourished [sic] from within make me believe that, like Lois Merau did, was precious to me.
[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1930]
The color, a pleasing combination of the yellow daisies and purple Lavandula, rolled down the hill and disappeared magically into the waiting sand. It reemerged at the water’s edge and bled unnoticed into the azure beauty of the Mediterranean.
I made my way down the narrow dirt path, which started at the beginning of the flower garden and ended on the beach. Villa America stood behind me at the top of the hill. The Villa, located in Antibes in the South of France, was the summer residence of two friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy. They were the product of old money. Gerald’s only career, as far as I could determine, was to keep the villa’s beach front free of seaweed, which he raked judiciously at the end of each day.
My feet hit the soft, white sand, and I began to plod along, my shoes as ill-equipped as my mood for the strain. I walked toward the sea, watching its pawing waves breaking on the shore. When I reached the point where the advancing water lost its puissance and began to recede into the sea, I heard someone come up behind me. It was Gerald, rake in hand.
“Hey, old sport, how you feeling? “ He said while inspecting the sand. “Glad you decided to get out of bed to see the sun set.”
“If there’s anything anyone remembers about the Great Gatsby, it will be the words ‘old sport’,” I mumbled.
Gerald started to rake at strategically spotted seaweed hiding unsuccessfully beneath thinned layers of sand.
“As long as someone remembers it, what’s the difference?” he replied.
What’s the difference? The difference was all that mattered. Sales were poor, but, as Max would like to remind me: the reviewers liked it. The difference was that not one of them understood it.
“Maybe the twenty-five-cent press can keep Gatsby alive,” I said.
Maybe Gatsby would survive on twenty-five cents a copy, but I know I couldn’t. The magazines were buying my short stories. At $4,000 per story, I was the best paid whore in town. I had told Harold I wouldn’t accept any greater amount. I had started writing my fourth novel.
Gerald stopped raking. A green, twisted ball of weeds remained unyielding.
“Sara told me that Zelda stayed at home to practice her ballet.”
“All she thinks about is ballet. We have ballet for breakfast. She’s destroying herself.”
Gerald began raking again with renewed vigor.
“How was your stay in Hollywood?” he asked.
“We got out of there as soon as we could.”
Gerald pulled on the rake which had bound itself firmly into the mass of seaweed.
“Scott, Zelda told Sara that something happened in Hollywood. She thinks it may have something to do with Zelda’s behavior of late.”
“You mean all the ballet? She does it because she is selfish. She ignores me.”
“Sara said she was seventeen. The actress you met in Hollywood… she was seventeen, right?” Gerald stopped and held on to the rake, supporting himself.
I lit up a cigarette, took a drag and looked at the blue, rippling plane of the sea. I followed its expanse until it reached the sky where it turned upward and continued its journey limitlessly into the heavens. I turned away from the comfort of the tableau and connected with Gerald’s eyes.
“Zelda was beautiful at seventeen,” I said, “and she thought she would be the same at seventy.” The truth was that at twenty-six it all started to fade. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said, “you think Lois is too young for me.” I was in my thirties.
Gerald directed his attention to the seaweed, whacking and pulling on it with the rake. I threw my cigarette into the sand. He continued working, appearing not to want to hear what I had to say. I started walking toward the dirt garden path. I turned around and raised my voice above the soft crash of the blue breaking on the beach. “She’s not too young for me”, I yelled, “I’m too old for her.” That was something Gerald and the world didn’t understand. No one, not even a selfish woman, can steal my dreams from me. I can start over and over again. Dreams are timeless.
When I came to the top of the path, the sun had begun to set, and the blue of the sea had started to fade. An uneasiness overwhelmed me. I needed a drink. I headed toward the yellow lights burning inside the villa. As I came closer, I saw the Joyces and Jean Cocteau sitting on the porch which protruded from the back of the house and extended along its entire width. James was sipping a drink and looking my way. Jean stood up.
“Scott, Sara said you were here somewhere.”
I reached the porch and started walking up the three wooden steps warped by the salty mist of the early morning and start of the evening. I had met Joyce about a month before at a dinner given by his publisher, Sylvia Beach. He was royalty in the literary world in Paris, and his novel, Ulysses, had achieved everything I had ever wanted. I walked up the stairs with Gatsby in tow.
Jean stood up and shook my hand and said, “Have a seat, Scott. Tell us what you’re working on.”
Joyce placed his drink on the small round table standing between him and his wife. I nodded to her, and she nodded back. James, still seated, looked up at me.
“I read your stories in the Saturday Evening Post.”
I remained standing and motionless. The ensuing silence permeated my very core. It all said so much. I had nothing. The best thing I had written lay piled up in a warehouse. Zelda was entangled in her hopeless dream of ballet stardom, drifting farther and farther away.
“Gentlemen, I need a drink,” I said. I walked away, opened the door, and entered the house.
“Come back, Scott, I want to know what you’re working on,” James said. I pretended not to hear.
I entered the dining room where Sara was busily directing a maid who was setting the table.
“Scott,” Sara said, “do you want a drink? gin?” She went over to a sideboard and poured me a drink. I sat at the table. I took the corner seat next to an open window.
It wasn’t long before Joyce and his wife and Jean came in from the porch and took their seats at the table. They were followed by Gerald. Once everyone was seated, the converstion turned to who was doing what in the literary world in Paris.
I finished my drink, stood up, and threw the glass out of the window.
I returned to the table and took my seat.
“Sara,” I asked, “can I get another drink? Mine seems to have gotten away from me.”
Sara brought me another drink and a scowl reserved exclusively for my consumption. The conversation turned to Ernest’s latest work, The Sun Also Rises.
“It’s in its third or fourth printing as I understand it,” James said.
“The first printing sold out in two months. Scribner published it.” Jean said. “You had something to do with that, didn’t you, Scott?”
I raised my hand, grasping my glass. “To Ernest,” I said, lifting my hand higher.
I finished my drink and tossed the glass out of the window again, this time never leaving the table. It crashed on the front sidewalk. Everyone looked up and gave me quick glances. Mrs. Joyce redirected her attention back to her empty plate, keeping her eyes glued to nothing. Jean cast his eyes down and shook his head. What balls he had!
I stared through the yellow of the cottony, dull light which engulfed the room. Before Jean raised his eyes, I threw what I knew in his face.
“Do you prefer I use the pipe?”
James put his hands on the table. He braced himself and snapped, ”Scott.”
Jean picked up his glass of wine, and turned his head in a slow, controlled manner toward James.
“No, no,” Jean said, “it’s quite alright.”
He took a savory sip and placed his glass carefully back on the table. He pressed his lips together, drawing out the last bit of merlot that may have remained. I stared at James as I took a good swallow of my gin. I felt Jean’s eyes on me.
“I’m weaning myself off,” Jean said, “Opium is more addictive than alcohol.”
I placed my glass on the table and rocked it back-and-forth. The room was quiet except for the muffled tap of each teeter of my glass landing on the cloth covered table. I kept my eyes on the pitching of the glass and listened to the ticking of my patience. I broke the silence.
“That’s not what Ernest and Pablo told me. They saw you and the rest of those fairies toking it up at Le Boeuf.”
“Scott, your drunk,” James interjected, his tone terse and large.
“Thank god for that,” I replied.
Jean brought his head down slightly and looked at me through his lashes.
“James,” he said, “please let our friend speak.”
Jean, so sure of himself. The better man. I wanted nothing more than to reach out from the dizziness and pull him into my unruly world. I would hit him where it would hurt the most.
“Jean,” I said, “I saw your play, Parade. It was quite a fantasy. A bit difficult to follow, but I’m sure there must be truth somewhere in there.” His attention centered on me. He paused and leaned forward, resting his arms on the table.
“It was all rooted in sober reality,” he retorted. “Something, I would guess, that often eludes you.”
Jean hotly opposed the burgeoning avant-garde movement. After his play, Parade, opened in Paris, it became clear, at least to everyone but Jean, that the work was an obscure presentation. In fact, the production brought a new word into the French language, a description of a genre, surréalisme, of which Jean was, to his greatest shame and dismay, a self-disavowing purveyor. Jean hated the appellation. He wanted to be known simply as a poet. I raised my head, directed my eyes on him, stiffened my closed lips, and blurted out like an arrow to the heart, “You, sir, are a surrealist.”
Jean shot out of his chair, threw his napkin on the table, and began shouting in French. He was spouting words so quickly I didn’t understand what he was saying. James got up and put his hand on Jean’s shoulder, trying to calm him, but to no avail.
I walked to the window, put my legs through and sat on the sill. With one good push I launched myself onto the sidewalk a few feet below.
The night’s darkness had taken grip. I tried to free myself from it, running along the sidewalk and turning toward the beach. Bright yellow light streamed from the villa’s windows lighting the way. I reached the back and headed for the dirt garden path. The villa’s light shrank to a faint glow. The color I had seen earlier at the top of the hill had faded into blackness. I found the path and stepped quickly, fumbling and tripping my way down toward the beach. When I felt the sand beneath my feet, I looked at the sea and strained to discern the azure which I had seen only hours ago. The Mediterranean was black and dark.
From the top of the hill, I heard Lois calling,” Scott, come back, come back.” I looked up and realized it was Sara. “Scott, what are you doing down there. Come back inside.”
She was right. I needed to go back. I needed to see the color of the flowers and the blue of the sea. I lay down on the sand, stretched out, and waited for it all to come back.
Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”
Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu