An Ode to Zelda and F. Scott
Early summer / 2017
I have just written to Newman to come here to me. You say that you have been thinking of the past. The weeks since I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, swathed in bandages sick and unable to read so have I.
The strangeness and excitement of Philadelphia. How our love began silent and irreverent in the blanket of a snowstorm. Like excited teenagers, there we were, alone at four a.m., falling into each other like we’d already known, had somehow always known. It was so deep into winter, the sky a perpetual gray sheet, my body shivering under tight jeans and thin sweaters. I never wore enough clothes to keep me warm. But funny how it is, my memories of that time are always that of spring, of rebirth, of awakening. If there were days spent apart, I don’t remember them. I recall a job serving coffee at a Turkish café around the corner from the apartment I shared with my childhood best friend. The apartment was boiling hot in the summer, creaky and cold in the winter. There were mice. But I had fallen in love with the wooden floors and the sense of independence. I remember you, who lived ten minutes away, driving me to this café for my six a.m. shift, though sheets of ice lay on the ground and we were certainly escaping death to get there, just so I would stay over with you, falling asleep after three beers on your tiny red couch that slumped to one side. There was your apartment and the corner store where we bought booze, that bar decorated in fake flowers that served single wine bottles with a straw, where I waited for you one night while you worked later than you said. That was the year you quit your job and stopped cutting your hair, my bohemian prince, and it grew into tufts all around your head. We listened to so much music, that time now, upon reflection, feels like a soundtrack in my mind. Once, you bought flowers and I was so shocked at the act that I cried to the man (in front of you in line at the Turkish café), “That’s my boyfriend and he brought me flowers!” You had to wait several minutes to actually give them to me. The man in front of me didn’t care about the flowers; he had a complicated coffee order.
There isn’t a moment I can point to and say yes, that was the moment I fell in love. Instead, it was a collection of moments, of many thousand moments, that culminated in this: me telling you, I love you while we sat outside my apartment door, idling in your car that always felt (still feels) far too big for either of us. There were flowers blossoming on the trees. It was most certainly spring. It’s true I said it first. Perhaps I’ve never told anyone that.
The summer came and we were heat drenched sweating shades of red (me) and dark brown (you). I quit my job at the café and spent long, languid days reading books in your air-conditioned apartment and drinking white wine with lunch. In the evening, when it cooled, I sat on the porch ostensibly writing poetry, but mostly just waiting for you to come home and quench my loneliness with your presence. It was a summer that induced little physical activity; even walking was a chore, so I tucked into the space of your apartment and rarely left. Those months were characterized by certain sounds: there was the man who lived in the building next to us whose car alarm was overly-sensitive; we’d wake to blaring beeps three times a night and hear it all throughout the day when a child passed by on a skateboard, or a family got too close while walking on the sidewalk. Then of course, always the sight of a sleepy, skinny man in shorts lazily clicking his keys. There was Jay Bird, the homeless man who made his home the narrow strip of our street, always asking you for money, which you obliged. There were the sounds of South Philadelphia: of family gatherings, of laughing, of block parties. On Sunday morning while you slept in, I’d take breaks from reading books in bed to look out of the window and watch the men and women filing out of the Baptist church in their hats and dresses and suits, looking every bit like style icons from another decade. We listened to the same albums so many times that the summer came to be defined by fragments of melody, lines of lyrics.
But I would soon be leaving. I had decided I’d be living a year abroad before I had met you, with no plans on what we had turning into love. But it had, and I was still leaving. The days wound down until there were fifteen, then ten, then seven, then three. We had a going away party. I cried when you took me to the airport. It was late August, and I held you and felt the radiating heat of your body pass through me. I cried watching you wave to me while I ascended the escalators. Who knew airports could be such incubators of sentimentality? Our love became something that lived across an ocean.
I arrived to a grey-skied Oxford at some odd, early hour, and a kind Australian helped call me a cab to get to my new apartment, which I naively thought would be something readily available. I lived in a building with hundreds of other students from all over the world. The walls were bright red. I shared a kitchen with a girl from Hamburg, another from Bombay, another from Leeds. I became best friends with an American. I wrote day in and day out, words that were good and some that were poor. But I was there to learn. I talked with you through a computer screen. I sent you pictures of myself right out of the shower. I don’t think either of us realized how hard it would be.
Things I remember:
Oxford in the spring, its magic, its vibrancy. Students bustling around in black gowns. Proper accents and bi-level buses and boxed cheese and cress sandwiches. The smell of Earl Grey and taste of curry. The cobbled, winding streets. The tea times and the constant etiquette and the bookstores. In the winter, it would get so dark so early that I wondered how anyone could survive. But in the summer, it stayed light until after ten p.m., and I wondered why anyone would ever leave. How I yearned for you to be there with me.
I returned to Philadelphia in the winter. We’d moved to a new apartment on the other side of the city. The new neighborhood felt like the old neighborhood, but stretched out, less confining. Home was a confusing place to me then.
I spent hours writing at a crowded café table alongside a friend who was studying to become a lawyer. You worked in your music studio but came home in the evenings. What little money we had went to beer and food.
We didn’t fight. The knowledge of pending distance made us afraid to argue. Our one year anniversary came and I boarded a place back across the ocean.
You were sadder then, diminished. I never told you, but I worried about you.
Returning to Oxford, things changed quickly. I switched my focus from essay to fiction and explored the deep dive of my imagination. I developed intense personal relationships with a group of English writers and a group of Spaniards. I was working long hours at a café where my boss—a crazed man with unkempt hair and bulging eyes—snuck away to the bathroom to snort cocaine. I read books voraciously and wrote stories and began to call myself a writer. I began to fall in love again, but this time, with a place. I realized I loved the U.K. in a way I never did the U.S.
I decided to stay, but in order to do so I had to convince myself that our love wasn’t worth saving. These were difficult times for us. The thought of your loneliness pierced my heart in ways I hadn’t known before. It was better to completely ignore you than to feel the heaviness that came with knowing how much I was hurting you.
I returned to Philadelphia in the oppressive heat of July. I had the idea of spending a month with my family before moving back to the U.K. for some permanent time. Instead, I spent it both quarrelling and falling back in love with you. We spent a long, warm evening in New York. I let my feet rest on the dashboard and a hand pass through the outdoor breeze as we rolled through the busy streets, me watching the women in their breezy dresses and high heels and wondering what their days were like. The days we spent in Philadelphia, and I remembered how much I’d missed it, despite having tried to convince myself that I’d no longer cared for it. My heart was heavy, it cried.
In early August, we awoke before the sun came up for you to drive me back to the airport. It was a miserable day; rain gushed from the sky and hammered down on the highway. My heart nearly burst for how sorry I felt for you, for us.
I arrived back in Oxford and knew immediately I’d made a mistake. And when I called you, crying, to tell you, you offered no judgment or complaint in response. You said, simply: Come home.
The days leading up to my final leave from Oxford are now a blur, but I can still remember crying as I stared out of the top floor of the bus, leaving for the final time, knowing that part of my heart would always remain there.
I came home to you and gave you my love, unencumbered.
I still know in my heart that love is a God-like; perfect and imperfect and all there is, and that it can travel through time zones and over oceans and weave its way through fogs and remind you, when you forget, of its simple, elegant presence—
Alisha Ebling is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. You can find her writing at http://alishaebling.com or her blog on sustainable living at http://sleeponlywhenitrains.com