“Oh please. You cannot still be crying over him.”
“Well….he was….my husband…” The past tense uttered for the first time sent Laurel into a second round of head-in-hands sobs.
“I have three ‘was’ husbands honey, you don’t see me crying.” Jackie looked at her distraught niece from across the small sofa they were seated on and tried not to be annoyed. She scanned the shabby decor her ex-nephew-in-law had insisted upon furnishing the apartment with. An apartment that Laurel was well aware she could no longer afford. “This,” Jackie said with a sweeping hand motion “this is why I told you not to marry for love. It’s never enough.”
“But I did. I did love him. I still do!” Laurel insisted with earnest brown eyes and a tear-streaked face momentarily raised from wet palms.
Her aunt let out a long sigh as a prelude to her assessment. “That man is trash from New England. And he’s not even a Kennedy.” But with that statement, Jackie’s wheels started to turn. She couldn’t undo her niece’s past martial mistakes—this ex-husband had so little money he wasn’t even ordered to pay alimony—but she could guide her to more appropriate choices in the future. “My dear,” Jackie tried to take on the tone of an older, caring family figure, “why don’t you come stay in New York with me while you….recover. You obviously won’t have to worry about rent,” Jackie’s three ex-husbands were strategic choices to guarantee earthly comfort. “I’m sure you can get out of your lease here in D.C. with the housing market as it is, you’ll be surrounded by culture, and you could even take a sabbatical from work. It’ll do wonders to recharge yourself.”
Laurel stopped crying. Jackie took that as a yes.
When Laurel arrived at her aunt’s townhouse in the Upper East Side she had one suitcase and a half-empty box of tissues. Jackie spied Laurel as she exited her taxi cab through the foyer window and read this sad scene as a challenge—a challenge to find her niece a match that was suitable, wealthy, and had a good family name. No, Jackie did not think love was necessary for a marriage, but respect and friendship helped. That’s why Jackie’s first marriage had ended—a lack of respect. At least that is how Jackie, and most women, would describe a husband’s continued infidelity, a lack of respect. The mistresses were a disrespectful annoyance, but Jackie had never loved her first husband. And a fault divorce from a relatively rich man left her with a nice lump sum while she strategized to find her second husband, Teddie. Oh, Teddie, Jackie sighed to herself. She may have actually loved Teddie. But Teddie only loved…Teddie. And gin. The memories came back involuntarily—in flashes of fits, broken dishes, and echoes of slurs that were thrown at her as casually as some people would say “dear.” Jackie felt a sharp ping on her cheek from the ghost of her second husband’s memory. And then, of course, there was Charles, her third husband, who the very thought of sent swells of silent sobs into her throat.
No. I will not think of the husbands now. Jackie shook her head as if to shake the memories away at will. Her life had been lived. She had made choices to secure it. Now it was time to impart her wisdom to Laurel. Poor, little Laurel. It’s much harder to learn of infidelity when you love your spouse. Or so she had heard.
Jackie opened the front door and held out her arms. “My dear niece, come come.” Laurel melted into her aunt’s arms whimpering like an injured cat. Jackie could feel Laurel’s hot tears through the sleeves of her cashmere sweater. “No more tears, Laurel,” Jackie told her firmly. “New York is for living, not mourning.”
That night, Jackie had made reservations for them at Chez Moi. The celebrated high-end French bistro was like the modern-day Paris Opera—the place to see and be seen. Jackie and Laurel arrived at the torch-lit black-painted facade as an odd pair. Jackie strutted with confidence and cashmere; Laurel with smudged mascara and melancholy memories across her face. They were greeted by Albert, the pristine and constant host of Chez Moi. Dressed in a tuxedo, he effortlessly guided the two women through a dark oak interior to a center table where he had made sure Jackie’s favorite bottle of champagne and two chilled glasses would be waiting.
Settled at their table for the evening, Jackie peered through the chandelier-lit room like a hunter on safari. The first potential prey Jackie’s eyes landed on were Kimmie Winthrop. Kimmie was drunk, as usual, and Jackie kept scouring the space. Next, her eyes landed on Linda Schmidt. While Jackie would have loved to align Laurel with the Schmidts, Linda was too smart. She would immediately see through any chess moves for her son. Jackie was beginning to think tonight may be a bust when her eyes landed on Grace Morgan.
Jackie sipped her glass of champagne with a smirk as she eyed Grace from across the room. Unlike Linda Schmidt, Grace would most definitely not see through any chess moves. Originally from Alabama, Grace said phrases like “sure as sugar”, and “bless her heart” un-ironically. She was a rare breed who had married for love but had happened to fall in love with one of the wealthiest and most eligible bachelors of the 1980s. Her son, William, had been married once before. It had been a short-term marriage to an equally wealthy heiress and the union had, thankfully, produced no children. To make things even better, Grace was dining alone.
Jackie raised her glass of champagne and shouted, as politely as one could shout across a crowded restaurant, “Grace!” Grace smiled at Jackie in recognition. “Please, you must join us!” Without waiting for an answer, Jackie signaled to Albert who began to escort Grace to Jackie and Laurel’s table.
“Let me introduce you to my niece, Laurel.”
“Well, aren’t you as pretty as a peach,” Grace told Laurel with a genuine smile. Laurel blushed and was thankful for the low lighting that concealed it.
After making introductions, Jackie knew what had to be done. She poured a glass of champagne for Grace and discretely asked Albert to keep both Grace and Laurel’s glasses full. No, Jackie did not want Grace drunk. If that was her goal, she would have called Kimmie Winthrop to the table. Who, by the way, was now laying on the restaurant’s piano singing loudly offkey as the poor piano player eyed her awkwardly as he expertly struck each ivory note. Jackie needed Grace to be perfectly tipsy in order to encourage her to swap divorce war stories about her son. Jackie bid her time, taking fake sips of her champagne until she could feel the tipsiness of the two other women spill onto the table. It started with sentences that were dropped and never picked up. Then descended into flushed faces and giggles disconnected from any conversation. Jackie decided the time was perfect to make her move.
“Dear, you seem to have some bits of food stuck between your teeth. Go to the restroom and take care of it.” Jackie said discreetly to Laurel, who stood at once and only stumbled twice on her way to the ladies’ room.
Grace watched Laurel on her journey to find food in her teeth that had never been there. “Your niece is just wonderful,” she told Jackie with perfectly polite enthusiasm.
“Isn’t she?” Jackie turned on her most serious expression. “She is going through the hardest time, I’m afraid. You just would not believe what is happening.”
Grace leaned in closer with honest concern.
“Her divorce was just finalized. Her husband cheated on her with a resident in his program,” Grace put her hand to her mouth and gasped. Satisfied with that initial response, Jackie continued. “All while Laurel supported him through med school.” Grace scoffed in disgust. “She’s a wiz at PR and she worked herself into a burnout in order to support them both.” She added the last tiny, little embellishment to convey the essence of her niece and how she would never cause harm to her son’s trust fund.
Grace started to toy with the cloth napkin in her lap. She bit her lower lip with the look of a woman who was about to share something she knew she shouldn’t. Grace carefully looked around the restaurant. The champagne dulling her senses, she determined it was safe to speak her secret to a woman she only vaguely knew. She leaned even closer to Jackie across the small square table. “What I am about to say is very hush-hush, so please do not repeat it,” Grace paused, closed her eyes, and let out a long breath between pursed lips. “My ex-daughter-in-law cheated on William. That’s why the marriage ended so suddenly, and thankfully, without any request for alimony.” Jackie of course already knew this information but pretended not to.
“I’m so sorry to hear that Grace.” She grasped the other woman’s hand in a sign of comfort and confidence. “ It must be very hard as a mother to know that your son was treated that way.” Grace closed her eyes as if feeling the betrayal levied against her son once again. “You know. Laurel was the first of her friends to get married and she doesn’t really have anyone to connect with about…her situation. Do you think William would be willing to speak with her? To help her to know that there is light on the other side?”
“Why of course,” Grace exclaimed with her hand over her heart.
Once Laurel returned to the table, cell phones were drawn out of clutches, numbers were shared, and Jackie sat back, smiled, and took the first real sip of champagne since Grace Morgan had sat at their table.
“It’s just coffee,” Laurel uttered from the depths of the guest bathroom. Yes, it was just coffee. But the eye makeup Laurel was currently applying did not go unnoticed by Jackie. Neither did the carefully selected lavender sweater that broached day and evening.
Just coffee…..Jackie thought to herself as a smiling Laurel descended the stairs of the townhouse and entered the hopeful unknown. Jackie paced the apartment like a nosy old widow while Laurel was on her coffee date. I basically am a widow, Jackie thought to herself. All my husbands are dead to me. While anxiously awaiting Laurel’s return Jackie straightened artwork and tugged at her pearls; she drank tea and inspected the crystal on the mantel; she checked the clock and pulled back curtains to look out the window twice every hour.
It was not until three hours later that Jackie caught sight of Laurel ascending the steps of the townhouse. She noted to herself what an acceptable amount of time three hours was for a first meeting as she flung herself into an armchair and drew a newspaper to her face in an attempt to seem casual, if not completely uninvested in Laurel’s date. The click of a key and gentle footsteps announced Laurel’s entrance into the foyer.
“Oh, Laurel, is that you?” Jackie asked with far too much innocence for someone who had been married three times.
Laurel poked her head around the doorframe into the parlor. “Yes, Aunt Jackie. Who else would it be?”
“Oh, I don’t know-a burglar, a real estate broker trying to obtain the last great townhouse on this block. How was coffee?”
“It was great.” Laurel gave no further explanation or elaboration.
Jackie wanted to scream. To demand details to determine the depth of opportunity here. However, what she said was “that’s wonderful dear,” and returned to her newspaper to visually indicate how satisfied she was with Laurel’s answer.
“Yes, dear” Jackie called from behind her mask of black and white print.
“Your newspaper is upside down.”
After coffee came the walk in central park. Then dinner at Meil-arguably, the only restaurant respectable men brought women to romance in New York City. Followed by a date to the Cloisters. As Laurel began to fall into the familiar patterns of a romance unfolding, she was spending less and less time with her aunt. Jackie was of course glad that her plan seemed to be working, but being in close proximity to blossoming love made her melancholy. For the same reasons that gin and hushed arguments between couples on the streets of New York did—they made her think of Teddie. Perhaps the only man she had ever loved. If she was, in fact, capable of love.
Jackie sighed and put on her white wool coat. Time to walk the old cat she thought to herself. After her divorce from Teddie, she walked everywhere as if by walking enough she could somehow outpace the sorrow.
A walk through Central Park could usually perk her up. People always said that the city is a melting pot. But Jackie always thought of it as a show, and Central Park its greatest stage. Its paths called everyone into its grasp where nature, art, and the cityscape converged. Every walk through Central Park was a movie if you treated it correctly. Jackie took languid steps as she transversed through the park knowing she would be a starring character in this evening’s show.
Lost in the assumption that she was on display for others to enjoy, Jackie soon found herself, to her surprise, in the vicinity of Chez Moi and determined that dessert was just the nightcap she needed for the evening. She began to walk with determined direction to the dimly lit facade she knew so well.
Albert expertly intercepted her at the door of the restaurant. “I apologize, Miss Jackie, I do not have a reservation noted for you tonight, a mistake that is mine, I am sure.”
Jackie held up her palm to stop him from apologizing unnecessarily. “You are always so kind Albert. I do not have a reservation for tonight. I was in Central Park and began to fancy the chef’s creme brulee trio,” Jackie could see the crowded dining room behind Albert. Tables were filled with couples, families, and groups of friends. “Is there perhaps room for me to sit at the bar?”
“Yes, of course,” Albert guided her inside, past the crowded tables, to a spot at the end of the small bar. “I will put your order in right away. Please do let me know if you would like anything else.” If only husbands were as agreeable as Albert. Jackie had a wonderful view of the restaurant from her seat and surveyed the different dining parties. Kimmie Winthrop was on what looked like her third martini, a party of college-aged girls with handbags that could pay tuition laughed as they awaited their orders, old men in old suits solemnly swirled crystal glasses of dark liquor, but then, to her shock, she spied him. A handsome man in a blue suit with thick black hair and a date far too young for him.
“Albert,” Jackie politely raised her pointer finger to get Albert’s attention. “May I order a glass of Cabernet?” Albert nodded and almost immediately procured a glass of the red wine for Jackie.
“Thank you,” Jackie said to Albert as she stood with the glass of wine and walked across the crowded dining room until she reached the man in the blue suit. He looked up at her and had the audacity to smile. Without a word, Jackie calmly threw the contents of the glass into the gentleman’s face. The entire restaurant let out a collective gasp and then fell into hushed, shocked silence. The seconds seem to go on for hours in the silent restaurant. Jackie calmly smoothed her outfit. “My second ex-husband,” she offered to the crowded restaurant as an explanation before exiting.
“Off on another date?” Jackie inquired of Laurel, who was searching for the perfect pair of shoes to match her sweater dress.
“Mhmmm,” Laurel replied to her aunt, barely looking up from her task. Jackie did the math. She knew how many dates Laurel and Will had been out on. She knew how many months they had been seeing each other. And she also factored in what she did not know—the conversations, the text messages, and God knows how else young people communicated these days. She folded her arms across her white cashmere sweater and gave her unsolicited, although in her mind necessary, caution.
“You know Laurel if you let a man string you along for too long they will start to think they can get away without any sort of commitment.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” Laurel asked her aunt.
Jackie was stunned. Absolutely stunned at the naivety of her niece, who had already been taken the fool by one man. “A lot is wrong with that darling. If you don’t secure William, or put pressure on him now, he will treat you like a play think until he is ready to make a commitment to someone else.”
Laurel scrunched her brow and drew the ends of her mouth downward. “Again, what is so wrong with that?” Jackie nearly fell backward in shock. Did Laurel not want to get married? “The ink on my divorce isn’t even dry yet, Aunt Jackie. Yes, I am enjoying my time with William but I hardly feel the need to ‘secure’ anything or jump into another serious relationship.”
“But it’s not a relationship, it’s a future,” Jackie spoke sternly to her niece with a sharp-edged voice and a pointed finger. “You have to make good decisions this time.”
“Right,” the sarcastic tone was seeping from Laurel into the cracks of the hardwood floor. “Because I should take the advice of a woman who has been divorced three times. We both know HOW to get married, but neither one of us knows how to STAY married.”
The words stung Jackie in a way neither one of them expected. With a hand raised to her throat to quiet sobs, Jackie turned away from her niece.
“I’m sorry Auntie,” Laurel pleaded for forgiveness with sincere statements and eyes that verged on tears. Jackie brushed away her efforts nonchalantly as if the pain she had inflicted was already forgotten. She advised her not to be late for her date. With a stinging conscience and a head full of regret, Laurel headed out the door. Once she heard the clack of the lock latch turn, Jackie walked straight over to her bar.
One French 75 turned into three, then four. “Well call me Kimmie Winthrop, I’m the drunkest woman in New York,” Jackie said in mock cheers to her apartment with an empty champagne glass and slightly spinning vision. Determined to walk off both the booze and her hurt pride, Jackie grabbed her jacket and made her way to Central Park.
She had the feeling everyone was staring at her as she walked. Probably because they were. When she noticed mothers tugging young children away from her path, she made a conscious effort to correct her gait and walk straighter, with her head up, like an average, sober person who had not been divorced three times.
Suddenly tired of walking, Jackie wanted to speak to someone, anyone. She racked her brain and memory for the best person to reach out to in this moment and came to the sad realization that most of her friends were strategic, not caring. No, they would not open their parlors to an inebriated, distraught, aging social climber. The only place she could think to go that was not home, was Chez Moi.
Jackie busted through the front door of the restaurant and knocked over a potted lemon tree in the process. The noise echoed across the empty dining room, causing Albert to walk to the front of the house.
“Miss Jackie,” he greeted her with warmth. “I apologize, we do not open until 7 today.” With that proclamation and the thought of going home, Jackie burst into tears. Her black mascara made thick tracks down her face, threatening her white cashmere sweater. Albert, ever the host, gracefully guided her into the restaurant without a hint of judgment or shock. He sat with her in the empty dining room and seemed to magically procure a box of tissues and a pot of strong black tea. Jackie drank the tea gratefully, with silent tears still streaming down her cheeks. With caution and tact, Albert inquired if something had upset Jackie.
“Laurel…” Jackie whispered while staring blankly ahead. “The husbands…No. I will not think about the husbands. But she’s right. Oh, I really made a mess of my life,” Jackie buried her head in her hands and let out a lifetime of sobs.
For the first time in his position as host at Chez Moi, Albert was at a loss for what to do. He filled Jackie’s teacup hoping that the herbal remedy would help her to sober up before her peers began to arrive at the restaurant bringing their pitchforks and judgments. “May I call someone on your behalf to join you Miss Jackie? Laurel perhaps?”
Jackie handed her phone to Albert who excused himself in order to explain the delicate situation to Laurel over the phone. “She would do best with company and perhaps an escort home to rest.” Once Laurel promised to head to the restaurant, Alber rejoined a slightly soberer, but not less upset, Jackie.
“Do you know I have been married three times Albert?” Jackie asked the respectful man seated across from her as she drew a fistful of tissues out of its box. Without waiting for a reply Jackie informed him “They were all terrible, in their own way. But my third husband, Charles, was by far the worst. After we got married every red flag became a waving banner.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Albert replied earnestly. “You deserve only kindness.”
“Well that’s not true,” Jackie said with a carefully controlled smirk. “I deserve far less than that.” Albert began to shake his head in polite disagreement. To shock him into silence and agreement Jackie decided to tell him the truth. “I gave up my child. Charles’ child. He didn’t want her. All he ever wanted was control. And he could barely control me as it was. So I gave her up. I gave her up on the promise of half of his fortune if we divorced.” Jackie could see Albert trying desperately to control his shocked expression. “And not two weeks after all the papers were signed and sealed, he left me. For a fucking Rockette half my age and twice my height. Do you still think I deserve only kindness? Because I think I deserve a circle so low in hell that it’s cold.”
Albert was grateful that Laurel burst through the restaurant doors at that moment as a welcomed rescue. Concern was written all over her face as she rushed to her aunt’s side.
“Well, hello Laurel. Care to join us for tea?” Her voice had an edge that only Albert truly understood at that table side.
“Perhaps we can have tea at home, Aunt Jackie.” Laurel helped her still-wobbly aunt rise from her seat and gather her purse. It was in that moment Albert realized how much the two women looked alike. By looking at their faces side by side, he saw the same brown eyes, the same slightly upturned nose, and the same rosy round cheeks. By seeing them together like this he was seeing Jackie’s past and Laurel’s future.
“Thank you for the tea and the company,” Jackie said to a stunned Albert. By his expression, she knew he now knew. With a wink, Jackie drew a finger to her lips and left the restaurant with her niece, who she had given birth to 30 years earlier in this same city, before handing her over to her much more motherly and stable sister to raise as her own. They walked outside and Jackie had never felt so one with anything as she did with New York City. She could almost feel the concrete pulsing under her feet, the lights of the city seemed to twinkle with her eyes’ command. She didn’t know anything. But she knew she had made her choices. And that she could not undo her past through Laurel’s future.
“Have you ever seen the Rockettes perform,” Jackie asked her niece.
“Only on television,” Laurel shrugged.
“We should get tickets to see them perform this Christmas,” Jackie said determinedly. After all, Laurel and the Rockettes had changed her life.
Erika Neenan is an art historian and author with an MA in Art History from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She grew up on the coast between Newport, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking through a museum as if she owns it, she can be found in her parlor, plotting to bring down the patriarchy.