Friday, April 10, 2015 marked 90 years since the publication of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the novel that essentially changed my life by confirming the kind of woman – the kind of human being – I wanted to be.
I couldn’t let such an occasion, such an anniversary; pass without some kind of commemoration.
So I drove three hours and 40 minutes to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland. I drove down I-95, which I have become so accustomed to that traversing that interstate is painfully boring. I had my iPod blaring, but my mind was essentially blank, other than lingering upon the object of my affection and then Gatsby and then back again. The object of my affection tried countless times to convince me of similarities between him and Jay Gatsby, of which there are admittedly a few. We sent each other text messages late into the night while watching the film adaptation of the novel, discussing themes and characterization and life. I only knew the novel was published on April 10th because of this man. Gatsby was (is?) our thing. So now, perhaps unfortunately, the fictional world of Jay Gatsby and my first heartbreak are inextricably linked forever and ever, amen.
Maybe that realization, that my favorite book is forever tainted by the inevitable disappointment of romance, made me somber and weird inside, but I was certainly reserved as I pulled into the church’s parking lot. I parked in the further possible spot, closer to the adjacent school than the actual cemetery, but did so for no discernible reason. In hindsight, I supposed I wanted to be ignored and inconspicuous, didn’t want to be a nuisance of any kind. That notion seems laughable though, especially when I consider how absurd I must have looked, emerging from a piece of shit car – part of my front bumper is missing – in a fancy black dress too elegant and too formal for the impromptu graveside visit, with a fancy black coat that made me sweat but offered respite from the persistent mist. I was alone, as always, and walking around aimlessly. I’m sure I looked out of place and had anyone been around, I’m sure they would have chalked me up to some kind of weirdo. To be fair, I guess that’s exactly what I am.
The entrance to the cemetery is across from a sign that reads, “BEAN BLVD.” That cannot be coincidence; I don’t care what kind of logic is thrown at me.
I saw a gate, but it was small and unremarkable, so I assumed there must be a main gate somewhere, adorned with ironwork and a plaque or a sign – something. Looking around furtively, worried I might just be trespassing, I followed the low, wrought iron fence around the perimeter of the cemetery but found no other entrance. I traced my way back, which maybe took all of two minutes as the cemetery is rather small, to that first gate. The latch, with its peeling paint, was worn enough to almost be rendered ineffective. I considered it a particularly cruel kind of irony that this humble, rather shabby cemetery serves as the final resting place of the man who imagined Gatsby and the extravagant, opulent world in which that character existed. I sighed and opened the gate, gingerly lifting the decrepit latch and gently shutting the gate behind me.
The grave was incredibly easy to find, partly because the cemetery is so small and partly because his marker is so large. It’s off to the right of the short, winding path that just ends through the tiny, enclosed area. I followed it, careful not to tread on the hallowed ground of those resting eternally, but had to leave the path eventually. My heels sank into the soggy ground and I berated myself for my inconvenient melodramatics. But then I faced Fitzgerald’s grave.
It’s a simple headstone. It has his name, the years in which he lived and breathed and made the literary world a far better place. His wife’s name is below, as are her years of existence. Perpendicular and impressive is a stone slab that bears the last lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, the work that is often considered the great American novel.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I was the only one mourning and paying homage to a brilliant and destructive man, but I hadn’t been the only one. There was evidence of other grievers. There was a bloated, yellowed with the age, rain-soaked paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. I leaned close and found it was open to pages 116 and 117, where Nick warns Jay that the past cannot be repeated, but Jay is deaf and insistent. “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can. Of course you can.”
There was a sodden bouquet of roses, decimated by the rain, soaked and scattered, looking especially tragic and mournful. Perhaps the passage and gray skies and the cemetery added to that impression.
There were many pens, an obvious but touching nonetheless tribute to an insanely talented author.
There were many pennies, what I mistakenly assumed was an Irish tradition until I took to Google. Coins are left on graves for many reasons, but there are three reasons that appear to be the most common. One reason dates back to Greek mythology, and coins are left as payment for the ferryman that transported souls across the river Styx. The second is related to the military and dictates that leaving certain coins is evidence of a particular relationship. For example, pennies are left by any living soldier visiting a veteran’s grave while nickels are left only by those who attended boot camp with the deceased. The third reason is to simply leave evidence that one visited and was there. How narcissistic is that, having to leave proof of our existence at the proof of another’s existence?
My favorite token was a small bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey with an accompanying shot glass. Next year when I make the trip, I plan on bringing daisies – though I despise the fictional Daisy Buchanan I completely understand what it is she represents, as despicable as it is – and a bottle of gin or some other antiquated kind of alcohol. I plan on having some shots and hanging out for a decent amount of time, telling Fitzgerald how much I admire him, how much many admire him, and that I hope heaven allows for him to see how important he has become.
Much like the title character of his greatest literary achievement, Fitzgerald died alone and in obscurity. Apparently the priest who presided over his funeral services did not even know who Fitzgerald was. Fitzgerald considered himself a failure, and drank himself to death, falling dead in the apartment of his girlfriend, some tabloid reporter that he may have shacked up with to aid his dwindling screenwriting career in cruel, unforgiving Hollywood.
I devoured Gatsby when I was fourteen years old. I have read it at least once a year since, and have convinced myself that I am Gatsby. And as I stood at Fitzgerald’s grave, pondering the possible autobiographical content of his greatest novel, I realized that therein lies the magic of the novel; we are all Gatsby. We all want too much and at times, we can want to reclaim some version of our former selves, tirelessly and obsessively chasing after some enchanted object that we think will fix everything. We are continuously disappointed, but we keep right on chasing, reaching in everlasting desperation.
I thought Philip Roth had it right, that the real human tragedy is that we are all woefully unprepared for tragedy. Now I think Fitzgerald was right, that the real human tragedy is that we are never satisfied. We want too much.
I said a few prayers, thanked him, and empathized with the dead author. I explained that I was a writer and that I feared my talent – if I may be so arrogant in insisting that I have some – would go undiscovered. I told him I was afraid of dying alone, of having absolutely no one to mourn at my graveside, let alone any fans. I delicately turned the pages of the soaked novel, carefully turning pages made nearly transparent by the rain and other elements. I turned to the part where Nick pays Gatsby the sole compliment of their friendship, when he tells Gatsby that Daisy and Tom and Jordan are a rotten crowd, and that Gatsby is worth the whole damn bunch put together. Nick is glad he said that, even though he disapproved of Gatsby from the beginning to the end. It is a beautiful sort of sentiment, and I wondered if Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, had a friend in the end who got someone for him. I softly kissed my fingertips and let them trail along the cold stone as I began the brief walk out of the cemetery, back to my piece of shit car, parked suspiciously outside the adjacent Catholic school like some kind of inappropriate joke made in poor taste.
I drove back home, traveling for four hours, stopping to eat at McDonald’s and then almost immediately wanting to die as the food upset my stomach terribly.
Despite the bizarre and spontaneous nature of the trip, the irritating traffic and uncomfortable way the greasy, cheap food sank in my stomach, the trip was inspiring. I began to develop an idea for a third novel.
And it’s all thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I will return again and again to give thanks and pay homage because he communicated universal truths without restraint. He was unashamedly who he was, embracing his genius and his insecurities and his worth and his faults all simultaneously. Fitzgerald was wonderfully and beautifully human and wrote to be inclusive, to help everyone understand that we are all guilty, that we are all beautiful and deserving of love, that we can all be great. We all reach out, trembling, for the green light.
And it’s okay.