I had been out of the hospital for six months when I went to see the Zelda Fitzgerald art exhibit at a local museum. It was only right to pay my respects. She was one of ours, after all. Hopkins was the first American hospital at which Zelda was treated for schizophrenia. She was on Meyer 5, one floor above the eating disorder ward. She wrote her one and only novel there before moving on to the Highland Hospital in Alabama, where she died in a fire at age 41.
I chose Guerlain Après l’Ondée as my perfume that day. It’s a French perfume created in 1912, and Zelda had spent a few years in Paris while her husband was writing The Great Gatsby. I thought it would be nice to wear a perfume that she might have recognized.
It was an awfully small exhibit. Only four paintings, and none of them her best. Some of her paintings were really gorgeous, you know. All of these bright colors. I was about to leave when I noticed a tiny frame in the corner. It was a paper doll. A blonde man with painted cheeks and pointed shoes. I had read that Zelda had made hundreds of such paper dolls for her daughter Scottie. And in front of two college students and a very bewildered tour guide, I absolutely lost it. I didn’t understand her other paintings, the ones with the grotesquely muscular ballerinas. But oh, God, did I understand that paper doll.
I still remember the hospital very well. I remember every person that I met there. I remember the sickening smell of the carrots and green beans left steeping in hot water for too long. But what I remember best is the boredom.
Eating disorder patients were required to stay in a main room from 8 in the morning until 10 at night so that the nurses could make sure that no one was purging or exercising. This room had a TV, but the remote was controlled by an older woman who insisted that her Christian morals would be violated by anything other than the Charlie Brown Christmas special. We were allowed to have computers, but not computer chargers. Apparently someone had used one to hang himself shortly before I arrived. The other eating disorder patients mostly kept to themselves. There was nothing to do. The boredom was agonizing. That’s how I got started with the piggy banks.
Every morning at 11, a lovely woman named Ashley would bring up an arts and crafts cart. I’ve never been much of a crafts person, but what else was I going to do? So every day, for one hour, I would paint piggy banks. I made them for my parents, my roommates, my boyfriend. I covered them in stars, hearts, gemstones. I honestly can’t explain it, but those damn piggy banks were the happiest and calmest part of my day.
When I saw Zelda’s paper doll, I thought about my piggy banks. I got to leave the hospital after 29 days, finally free of my sickness. I got to give my boyfriend his University of Iowa piggy bank and watch him laugh and admire it.
Zelda never did. She kept making those paper dolls, dreaming of the day that she would be able to give them to her daughter. That day never came. She just got sicker and sicker until she died alone in a locked room. She never got to see what life is like après l’ondée- after the rain.
It never snows in September in Baltimore, but it was snowing hard when I left the museum. I couldn’t get a taxi home. The end result was a 45 minute walk home in a t-shirt and (un-waterproofed) Uggs. Truthfully, I barely noticed. I was enraptured by that freakish, glorious snow, as exquisitely delicate as the perfume on my wrist. Some people call Après l’Ondée a sad perfume. Nothing could be further from the truth. Après l’Ondée exists to remind us that we must get through the rain, because what comes afterwards is beautiful.