“I’m too old to start again.”
Four days after Daisy’s decision and that was all he said: I’m too old to start again, I’m too old, I just want to be alone old sport, I’m all right really, I’m too old to start again, I’m too old. Perhaps I’d given him reason to push me away; my cliched platitudes did nothing for the spellbound broken from his chains. Today, I promised myself, today would be different. No more You have to move on and There will be another and Staying inside won’t do you any good. Those phrases meant nothing to a man at the depths of his despair. Today I would speak my mind, consequences be damned.
But it was an hour into my daily visit and everything remained the same: the two red chairs and the little table between us in a dining room meant for dozens of guests and a feast; the tired words I abused so readily in my desperation to say anything of use; and the oppressive silence of a deserted castle. Gatsby had his head in his hands.
“No, old sport.” He held up a hand. “It’s the truth. I appreciate your sentiments, but look at me. Thirty-two-years-old, five years lost chasing a married woman, not a single true relationship in my life, no friends, criminal activity...”
I allowed my incredulity full bloom. “You cannot say you haven’t a friend in your life.”
He chuckled wryly and rubbed at his pants legs the way a stressed man rubs at his temples. “Why ever not? Acquaintances, perhaps, but most of my relations are of financial necessity, people who can advance my position: business partners, bootleggers, the like. Who could I call ‘friend’ and who would consider me theirs?”
I straightened my back. The platitudes were behind me; I was speaking my mind. “And myself?”
Head shooting up, Gatsby blinked owlishly. “Yourself?”
“Yes. You don’t consider me a friend?”
“Well—” His brow furrowed. “Now, I—”
That confirmed my suspicions concretely, but as I had taken my thoughts as truth long before, the admission made little difference. Evidently, Gatsby noticed his slip-up and began to ramble. “Old sport, now don’t you think—”
“I understand,” I interrupted. “She’s my cousin; my arrival was practically handed to you on a silver plate.”
Gatsby pushed back from his chair. “Nick—”
“I could advance your position with her and I did just that.” I too stood. Maybe I intended to leave. “I don’t blame you.”
“That’s not fair, you—”
“You didn’t treat me poorly or dump me the moment you got what you wanted, so really—”
“Would you let me finish!”
Gatsby grabbed my shoulders with such force that I started in his hold. I had never seen his friendly face so fierce, his eyes blue torches under the downward arch of his brow. His countenance burned with stern frustration. “Now you listen here, old sport,” he spoke through strained breaths. “I will not be painted a heartless monster. For everything else I’ve done, I don’t care, but don’t you dare think I only spoke with you to get to her."
Now would be the appropriate time to release me, his peace said. But he did not, his eyes smouldering with unsaid words, his frown twitching indecisively. Breathing out heavily through his nose, he finally let me go. Gatsby started to pace back and forth. Occasionally, a tanned hand ran through his golden hair. I found my nerve to speak again.
“Then what is it?”
The man stopped abrupt in his step. His expression was puzzled, as if the outburst moments earlier had never occurred. “What is what?”
“What am I to you, then, if not a used opportunity?” An afterthought. “Or what was I?”
Full circle, Gatsby sank into his seat again. The torches blew out. He put his head in his hands. “... here.”
“Pardon?” I asked, not catching his muttering.
“You were here,” Gatsby emphasized. Our eyes met. “You are still here.” His head fell into his hands again. “And I have no idea what that means.”
The piercing whistle of the kettle steadily rose above the ensuing silence. I excused myself and headed to the kitchen. Preparing a pot of Earl Grey tea, I carried out the wooden tray with a small pitcher of cream, a bowl of sugar cubes, and two mugs. Gatsby remained where I had left him, gripping at the tumours of thought plaguing his brain. I placed the tray on the glass table. Gatsby at last looked up, curiously.
I sat back and folded my legs. His brow was scrunched up. “Old sport—”
“It means a friend,” I said.
It took him a moment to understand. “A friend,” he repeated slowly, as if he truly did not understand the word; and, it struck me, although he’d used it, perhaps he never had.
Silence lapsed again and Gatsby dropped into contemplation, steeping in silence. When I reached for the teapot not a minute later, Gatsby beat me to it. He poured my cup; I offered no objection. Sticky fingers plucked sugar cubes and cream plumed black tea into skin-toned swirls. We chatted at length about pleasant nothings over dwindling mugs and for the first time in days, I saw Gatsby smile. It wasn’t perfect—it wobbled, threatened to spill over into sobs, cracked on natural laughter that must have felt unnatural to the pristine vision of himself—and was all the better for it. Jay Gatsby was dying, but James Gatz had only just begun; and I would be by his side at the funeral to lay the weight of a lifetime not lived into a grave unmarked, unattended, and beautifully unadorned by flowers.