Fiction | In Search of Scott by Will Kitson

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Will Kitson


In Search of Scott

I remember the first time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. I was 20 years old, in the second year of university. Life was pretty uninteresting, with all those Victorian novels about politics and factories and such; and so when I read This Side of Paradise, it was a kind of a revelation for me. I had no idea a book could be so powerful and inspiring. I devoured it in less than a week. I talked about it at length in class, about how the words were like magic, how energetic the prose was, how mesmerizing the characters and their lives were. And the lecturer — a tall gangly man who often got overly enthusiastic about Tennyson — nodded along thoughtfully. ‘You’ve really got to the heart of Fitzgerald’s work,’ he said.
_______I declared myself a Modernist and dressed like a Romantic; I memorised whole passages of the book and quoted Amory Blaine in the bars on campus. I soon told anyone who would listen that it was my lifelong ambition to become a great writer, just as Scott had been, and that I wanted to travel the world and meet and see beautiful people.
_______Seven years later and I was working at a small advertising agency in East London. I’d travelled a bit, spent the occasional weekend alone in the odd European city. And I’d written, too. I had two unfinished novels saved on my hard drive and about half-a-dozen unpublished short stories. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I’d done too many cheap slogans for multimillion-dollar brands. My most popular one was for Specsavers: ‘We help you to see better’. By the same age, Scott had already written three timeless novels and dozens of successful short stories.
_______
And so I was happy when my boss told me the branch was downsizing, and that I was to be let go. ‘You can leave today if you’d like,’ she said. I packed up my desk — the unused Moleskine journal and Parker pen, and the old museum and cinema stubs — and walked home.
_______
First, I called my mum. ‘I’ve finally done it,’ I said. ‘I’ve left my job. I’m going to become a writer.’ ‘I thought you were a writer,’ she said. ‘No Mum, I mean a proper writer.’
_______
And then I messaged my ex-girlfriend, Isadora. ‘I’ve done it. Finally quit. Gonna become a proper writer now. No more messing around.’ I re-read the message a couple times and then added: ‘Maybe I’ll come visit you in LA.’
_______
Isadora was a young American I’d met in Paris a year before. I was sat in a bar scribbling down ideas for novels when she walked in. I noticed her immediately because she drank up everyone in the room as soon as she walked through the door. She was a petite brunette with such deep brown eyes it was impossible to tell whether she was listening attentively to every word you said or looking straight through you. We spent the best part of a week together, walking in and out of arcades, drinking endlessly, sleeping late. It was the first time in my life I’d felt close to living like Scott did. At the end of the week, I asked her if she’d come live with me in London. She said yes, but she went back to LA anyway and we never spoke about it again.
_______
And so when Isadora said I should ‘definitely come’ visit her, I didn’t hesitate. I booked my tickets that evening. 10 days out there, on a flight that left the following week. I’d never been to California before — I’d never left Europe. But I couldn’t think of a better place to start the next chapter of my life, in the city where Scott had spent the last few years of his. 

I woke up as the plane was descending into LAX. I’d tried my best not to sleep to avoid the jet lag. I began the journey reading Fitzgerald’s biography, which I’d bought a few days beforehand from a newly opened bookstore. I was looking for a catalogue of Scott’s adventures and literary triumphs. But instead, the biographer wrote as if he thought Scott — even in his early years — was nothing more than a spoiled opportunist, who would later turn into a vulgar drunk. There was nothing about young Scott’s inspirations, the work that had sown the seeds of his later genius. Every page was filled with unnecessary attacks that had me shifting angrily in my seat.
_______
I put the book away and stared out the window. The plane was somewhere over the north Atlantic, approaching the east coast of Canada. I’d never flown over an ocean before, and I found it tiring trying to make sense of how vast it was. I started counting the lush pockets of white that dotted the blue water. It was like counting sheep. I gave up every time I got to 41 and then started again. Soon, I relaxed back into my seat and drifted off.
_______
As I slept, I dreamed of writing a bitter rebuttal to the biographer, where I attacked him personally, and claimed he was just jealous of Scott’s talents, and that any flaws in Scott’s personality had been necessary to fuel his artistic spirit. Then I dreamed of Isadora. In the dream, she met me at the airport. I walked up to her, all cool and casual, and said, ‘fancy seeing you here,’ and she giggled, and we kissed and she collapsed into my arms.
_______
When the plane landed and my phone came back to life, I saw a message from Isadora. ‘Working late. Won’t be able to pick you up. Sorry! You should be able to get an Uber pretty easily. Can’t wait to see you!’
_______
The Uber driver was an Iranian who’d been living in LA for over 15 years. He asked me where I was from, and I lied that I’d flown in from Paris. I asked him why he’d moved to LA and whether he liked it, but he wasn’t interested in talking about himself. He was more interested in talking about cars in America. ‘There are no French cars in America. Have you noticed that? No Peugeot, Citroën, Renault. No French cars.’ I asked him why, but he said he didn’t know. ‘No French cars,’ he repeated.
_______
After 30 minutes driving, we looped off the highway onto a slip road and glided into a leafy suburb. The driver cruised, looking left and right for the turn-off, ignoring his GPS. We passed a large building adorned with a fantastically oversized American flag that drooped sadly under its own weight, only swaying slightly every few seconds as a morsel of breeze found its way through the stifling evening air. The car soon pulled into a driveway. ‘Bonnes vacances, monsieur,’ the driver said as he handed me my luggage.
_______
I walked up the little steps of the apartment block to Isadora’s door, number 2328. Through the window, I could just about make out a lounge and a silhouette inside through the thin blinds. Something about the light made me feel nauseous, and I wanted to be sick or at least be back in London. I rested on my suitcase for a moment and imagined what it would be like to turn around, take an Uber back to the airport and get on the next flight home. But I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I knocked on the door.
_______
‘Oh wow! You’re actually here. I can’t believe it.’ Isadora dreamily leaned into me and kissed me on the cheek. She was just as I remembered — her eyes were strangely intense and her face was alive with a beauty unblemished by disappointment. She was wearing a long, black dress that hung easily off her slender figure. She took a second to look at me, half taking me in, and then turned around, drifting back to the sofa.
_______
‘Fancy seeing you here,’ I said, standing idly in the doorway. She smiled and patted the empty place next to her, and then lay her head on a cushion. Exhausted, I heaved my bag over the porch step and sat beside her.
_______
It was 10pm local time, and so 6am for me, and even though the fatigue was becoming overbearing, I made sure to speak with energy and fervor. I told Isadora how liberating it was to have left the corporate world behind. I told her about the ideas for novels I’d thought up since leaving my job. Her attention was divided between me and the TV, which boomed with audience laughter. But as if to remind me that she was listening, she would occasionally look up at me, smile and lay a soft hand on mine. I tried several times to take hold of her hand and squeeze it, but in my tiredness it seemed like an impossible thing to do well. ‘Do I get a kiss?’ is what I wanted to say, but my tongue felt too heavy. My eyes began to sting with tiredness and, as I was telling her about Scott’s unfair biography, they gave in, closed, and I felt a wave of relief overcome my whole body. My muscles relaxed and, just before sleep took over entirely, I whispered, ‘Why haven’t you kissed me yet? Do I get a kiss?’    

At 6am the next day, I was wide awake. I had nothing but my underwear on and was next to Isadora who, back turned to me, was wearing a thin, black nightgown. I couldn’t remember taking my clothes off or getting into bed from the night before. The last thing I remembered was passing out on the sofa.
_______
I slipped out, careful not to wake Isadora, and got dressed in the living room, where my suitcase had been left. She wouldn’t be up for hours, and I wanted to explore the city a little — maybe even walk to the beach — so I took a set of keys I found by the front door and headed out.
_______
I didn’t know much about LA apart from the obvious stuff, but I wasn’t under the impression, like some people, that it was all glitz and glamour. I’d heard the American dream was dead, that Hollywood was a scam, that the people there were all superficial. But I was also sure that, wrapped up in all of that, there was a newness, a kind of unpretentiousness, that Europe lacked. Walking through the streets of London, there was always a stiff rigidity that hung palpably in the air; whereas walking through LA, I felt like I was walking into an open expanse, unknown and unclear.
_______
I wandered through a small park by Isadora’s apartment. It was pleasant and suburban. There was a basketball court in the middle, and the whole place was empty, save for a few homeless men stirring on benches. I headed west towards the pier, but I never made it all the way. I walked for 30 minutes or so, navigating my way across seemingly endless, gigantic roads and industrial estates, before deciding to turn back.
_______
When I returned to the apartment, it was nearly 7am. I made coffee and continued reading Scott’s biography. I got up to 1924, when the Fitzgeralds moved to Europe. Those were the years I’d heard the most about and come to idolise. The drunken meetings with Hemingway and Stein, living on the Champs-Élysées, the fist fights with the Italian police.
_______
I decided to write down a few ideas of my own. It was something I liked to do: come up first with the titles of novels and short stories, and then take it from there. ‘In Search of a Dying Dream’; ‘From LA to SF: A Tale of New Cities’; ‘Death and Deceit in an Unwalkable City’.
_______
‘LA’s a lot more vibrant than London, don’t you think?’ I said to Isadora.
_______
‘I don’t know. I’ve never been.’ It was 9:30am. She sleepily sipped at her coffee. ‘Did you think of anything special you wanted to do while you’re here?’ she asked.
_______
I told her I wanted to see Scott’s old haunts and showed her a list I’d made.
_______
‘They’re all in Hollywood. I hate Hollywood. But you should go. You’ve gotta go to Hollywood when you’re on vacation in LA.’ She did say she’d show me around her area. We could cycle to Santa Monica pier, she said, and then head down to Venice Beach for lunch. Maybe a trip to Malibu in the evening. I skimmed the index of the biography. Yes, Scott had lived in Malibu in the late 1930s.
_______
‘What about a romantic dinner one evening?’ I said. ‘My treat.’ She smiled at me, leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and I took her hand in mine. ‘You know that I love you, right? That I came here for you.’
_______
‘You’re crazy,’ she said, and she rested her head on my shoulder.

The weekend came and went like a dream. We did everything Isadora had suggested. We cycled together, ate lunch on the beach, drank with her friends. Each time we left the apartment, we’d drive past the leafy park and the oversized, drooping American flag. I still woke up at 6am every day and walked through the neighbourhood, although I never made it further than I had on that first morning.
_______
Monday was when we’d agreed I’d go to Hollywood. I didn’t want to leave Isadora. In fact, I said I’d be happier spending the day with her and skipping Scott’s old haunts altogether, but she reiterated that everyone should visit Hollywood and that, besides, she had to work.
_______
And so I took an Uber from the apartment to Hollywood Boulevard. It was blustery and overcast, and for the first time since I’d arrived, the large American flag was blowing impressively in the wind.
_______
I took out Scott’s biography and picked up from where he and Zelda were holidaying on the French Riviera. Zelda was having an affair with a pilot named Jozan, while Scott was working on Gatsby; and, in the height of summer, she asked for a divorce. It struck me as strange that those two events could happen simultaneously — that while one of the most significant novels of the 20th century was being written, the author’s marriage was falling apart. I wondered whether it was a catalyst for Scott’s genius, and whether that type of drama was missing from my own life, but I didn’t like the idea of being cheated on, so I put the biography away and went back to looking out the window.
_______
I didn’t know what to expect from Hollywood Boulevard — perhaps overpriced cocktail bars filled with movie studio wannabes, or reams of tourists taking pictures of the star-encrusted pavement— but I was surprised at what I found. The place was drenched with an overwhelming stench of urine, and even though the afternoon sun had pierced through the cloud cover, a heavy greyness pervaded the street.
_______
There were bars, but they were mostly empty, and looked cavernous and pitch black from the street. The tourists seemed too wary and confused to stop long enough anywhere to really take in their surroundings, and so they were constantly scuttling on, and it felt as though they were leaving me in a desperately lonely, empty place.
_______
My first stop was Scott’s favourite bookstore, where I imagined there would be an entire section dedicated to him, and souvenirs and trinkets adorning his name. Instead, Pickwick bookshop had been turned into an X-rated store. Likewise, the Garden of Allah hotel, where Scott had lived for much of his time in LA, was gone, replaced by a run-down shopping center.
_______
And then there was the Trocadero — a classy bar where Scott had often drunk. That still existed, but it was now called the Sunset Trocadero Lounge and didn’t open until later. I bought a burger and a couple beers from across the street, and sat on a bench outside the bar, looking in. Red-topped stools were placed upside-down on the tables, and there was an empty pint glass on the far end of the bar next to an old cloth. I tried to imagine Scott sat in there. He would have been in his late-thirties, about 10 years older than me, happily successful and admired by everyone in the literary community. I imagined him sat at the bar, with dozens of aspiring writers lined up waiting to shake his hand.
_______
I picked the biography out of my bag and skipped ahead to the Hollywood years. Feeling slightly drunk already, I opened the second beer and read. The biographer was giving Scott a hard time again. I didn’t buy the bits about how he’d failed to acclimatise to a career as a scriptwriter, or how he ended up becoming a dejected hack drunk just trying to earn enough to get by. But I read on anyway. I must have sat there for at least another hour, in which time I went back to the store and bought a third beer.
_______
It was getting cold, and the staff arrived at the bar to set up before opening time. The biographer said Scott spent his last years fighting alcoholism, that most people thought he was already dead when in fact he was living in a small apartment in Malibu. He did die on December 21st, 1940, of a heart attack, aged 44, leaving nothing behind but his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.
_______
The Sunset Trocadero Lounge opened its doors right before I left. I took an Uber back to Isadora’s hours earlier than I’d expected to. I walked up the little steps and, exhausted, knocked. A man opened the door wearing a vest and shorts. He was tall, handsome and muscular. He looked down at me with an attractive, brilliantly white smile, and I immediately thought that he looked like a perfect American. Isadora stood in the doorway to her bedroom. She was wearing her thin, black nightgown. For a moment, her eyes darted desperately between us and her fists clenched awkwardly, before she gathered herself and reclined onto the sofa.
_______
‘This is Al,’ she said to me, nestling her head into a cushion and turning on the TV. ‘Al, this is the guy from Europe I was telling you about.’
_______
‘Nice to meet you,’ Al said, shaking my hand firmly. There was an awkward moment as I stood on the porch, and he guarded the entrance with his thick arm. ‘How do you like LA?’
_______
‘I like it a lot,’ I said, ducking under his arm and sheepishly looking over to Isadora.
_______
‘Iz tells me you’re a writer.’
_______
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘I work in advertising.’

It was different when we had sex that night. Before, I was always concentrating on making the right moves, being passionate and tender enough, trying to time every step to perfection. But that night I was disconnected. I felt like a flailing version of myself. I dug my fingers into the bed and pulled off the sheets as I finished. Isadora looked down at me strangely before she rolled over and turned the bedside lamp off. I lay there, panting, as orange hue from the street filled the room. It bounced off the ceiling onto the nape of Isadora’s neck and got lost in her black hair.
_______
‘Did you know that Zelda cheated on Scott?’ I asked.
_______
‘Who?’
_______
‘Zelda Fitzgerald. She cheated on Scott.’
_______
‘Oh. No, I didn’t know.’
_______
I lay there thinking about it. I wondered what Scott thought when he slept next to Zelda after her affair. I wondered if he thought about it every time he sat down to write.
_______
I got up, put some clothes on and headed to the door. The keys were on the side, as always. Outside it was dark and cool, cooler than it had been since I’d arrived. But the air was calm and still. I walked the same walk I had done on my first morning. Into the park, across the basketball court. And then west over the gigantic roads and through the industrial estates. I might even have gone further than I ever did. I thought I could smell the ocean, and it made me think of that line at the end of Gatsby about the boats fighting against the current, heading ceaselessly into the future. I considered walking all the way to the ocean and sitting on the pier, but instead I turned around and walked back.
_______
I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and so I didn’t end up going back through the park. Instead, I walked the long way around, passed the oversized American flag. I’d never seen it so close before. The red and blue were faded, the white browned from pollution, and the pole rusted.
_______
And then, once again, I found myself at the foot of the little steps leading up to apartment number 2328. I reached inside my right pocket for the keys, but they weren’t there. They weren’t in the left pocket either, nor were they in my jacket pockets. I stuck my face against the window. I could feel my breath making contact with the glass — warm at first, then cold as it frosted the surface lightly and quickly disappeared. I couldn’t see anything passed the thin blind. It was perfectly dark inside. I didn’t want to wake her. I considering walking around the block until morning or going to sit in the park. But I was too exhausted. So instead, I knocked on the door.


Will Kitson is a Paris-based writer of short fiction and literary essays. Alongside The London Magazine, his works have been featured in The Writer, Earth Island Journal and France-Amérique.


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