Dr. Carroll never quits, prodding and poking.
The doctor’s face flushes in alarm. “Your father chased you with a carving knife? Why do you think that was, Zelda?”
She has been a good girl, even helping those patients who need assistance in exercise and dance, and so has earned a hike in the steamy late afternoon near Sunset Mountain with Dr. Carroll’s assistant Landon. The rain begins to thump down on her head, but Zelda does not mind; she is thrilled to be outdoors, comforted by the dank, dark woods.
She’s not altogether sure how she came to be here, sitting on the sofa in this bright white room. Dr. Carroll looks at her from over his glasses.
She believes that the things she sees in the clouds are hers alone — no one else can pinpoint the Degas dancers tying their point shoes, or see the faces of zinnias, the tufts of the beard of Moses, the snowsuit-padded child zooming down the hill on a sled, and other scenes — the backs of knees, for instance, or the intertwined bodies of lovers — that are not polite to mention, but that she mentions nonetheless, whenever she has the chance to leave listeners in stunned and open-mouthed silence. Zelda knows, by intuition, that, say what they may, no one can give life to these shapes better than she.
Now, in the spacious wooden-floored room devoted to arts and exercise, Zelda works at her easel. She always chooses to set up in front of the window that has the best light, and today it is the one in the left-hand corner, where the sun’s rays stream down like warm honey from behind the clouds and through the large glass panes. On her palette, she mixes the different shades of browns and pinks. The smell of the oil paint stings her nose and provokes in her a heightened sense of awareness. As she mixes, Zelda sees from out of the corner of her eye a patient meandering towards her. The woman appears to be, like Zelda, in her 40s. She has left the group of men and women at the craft table at the far end of the room and comes to stand beside Zelda. The patient’s hair is unkempt and she sucks her thumb, drool running from the corners of her mouth. Her clothes sag and hang, and she stares blankly at the canvas.
She wants to stick out her tongue at the world. She’s always had the impulse, ever since she was a child, and that’s how she feels at this moment, at age 47, now that she’s out of that wretched hospital at last, puttering away in her mother’s garden, digging up clods of dirt with her trowel. Raking her fingers through the earth, breathing in the rich dark soil, she feels the sun’s rays begin to heal her tired body. When she first came there was one lonely jonquil outside her bedroom window, but now, she looks proudly at all she has planted — crocus, jasmine, lilies, larkspur, phlox, marguerites. Lifting her face to the sky, she sees dark, menacing clouds moving closer and she smells the oncoming rain.
The next day, after a lunch of fried chicken and mashed potatoes with her mother, Zelda, in unusually good spirits, decides to walk to town to see a painting in a gallery she read about in the paper.
Back she goes to Highland Hospital, in spite of her good intentions to be well. Although the stone walls and antiseptic smells oppress her, she has come to look on this place as a refuge from the world’s expectations of sanity. In a tiny white room on the wing of the first floor, the nurse, a girl — young, lovely, but with a bit of the pinched, hassled look about her — is giving her an injection. Zelda is not sure what it is, but silently submits, desirous to be left alone with her thoughts.
And then Zelda breaks away. She feels the beat of the drums way down in her body, and she wants a solo. Pulling up her dress to her hips, she shakes her fanny in perfect double-time rhythm. Everyone stands back to watch, amazed, as always, by her verve and courage. She doesn’t care what they think — she knows that every inch of her is moving in time to the music — that she is the music and the energy and the pulse of nighttime. The spotlight is on her and she twirls, her skirt swinging out, and she comes to one corner of the room where she sees Dr. Carroll sitting on a stool snapping his fingers and bobbing his head from side to side. He smiles up at her and tries to tell her something, some word of admiration, but she can’t be bothered with anyone else’s rhythm; she has her own.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900. She married writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920. In 1930 she suffered her first mental breakdown and was shortly after diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not only was Zelda a gifted writer, publishing her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932, she was also a talented dancer and painter. In 1948, she, along with eight other patients, died in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
1924 in Rome