From O! Jackie
I tend to believe that a happy marriage is a mere fantasy we convince our daughters is real, attainable. The fact of the matter is that marriage contains only phases or pieces of happiness¾ those occasional, detached moments that are captured in party and holiday photographs.
My husband’s faithfulness to being unfaithful tortured our marriage. The relationship never seemed about just the two of us. I suffered a great deal, both publicly and privately, but few people knew. Those who did know could not comfort me.
Ours was a complicated history. We were both so complex, so set in our ways, and worst of all, we were the product of our parents, though we vowed not to resemble them. And when two strong and independent people are united¾ with domineering and opinionated parents behind them¾ such a couple may spend their lives trying not to tear each other apart.
Despite everything that’s happened, I feel no regrets. Yet there are times when the enormity of one’s choices is difficult to bear. You struggle to hold on to a shred of sanity. Sometimes you pacify yourself. Other times you live in delusion. Sometimes you simply fail to hold it all together.
* * *
Jackie Kennedy’s class in American history at Georgetown University had been cancelled for the day. With her afternoon free, she decided to surprise her senator husband and see if they could lunch together. She glimpsed her reflection in a storefront window. She ran a hand along her full skirt and Audrey Hepburn-thin waist. After fluffing her cropped hair, she tugged on a pair of bright-white kid gloves. Jack would be pleased.
It wasn’t often she went to his office. Jack was working, and she didn’t want to bother him. Even with a cook, a maid and a valet to tend to everyday chores, the twenty-four-year-old wife still found plenty to do. There were parties to host and parties to attend, dresses to shop for and shoes to buy¾ for the task of looking stylish was an art form Jackie determined to master.
In the first six months of their marriage, the newlyweds had been busy. Jackie improved her husband’s style while JFK made a name for himself in politics. Thanks to his wife, Jack no longer showed up at work in mismatched socks or unpressed suits. Jackie helped him with his public speaking skills and made sure he arrived at the airport in plenty of time. Details were important to Jackie, and Jack’s life improved because of it.
Since becoming the senator’s wife, Jackie had faced a difficult adjustment. Jack traveled extensively, but the loneliness was tolerable. He regularly brought home a parade of friends and aides, unannounced, but she grew accustomed to the in-house crowd. Frequent moves were taxing but doable, the whirlwind lifestyle demanding but manageable. What drained and anguished her most was Jack’s family.
The Kennedy clan was loud, rambunctious and numerous. They preferred heated debates at the dinner table and rough games afterward. Jack thrived on his family’s presence and basked in their company.
Jackie’s quiet nature and polished manners made her transition into the family awkward. An introvert, she received lackluster attention from Jack’s sisters. Some Kennedy women interpreted her shyness as a snub.
Somehow, the couple would need to create a balance as they meshed their different worlds.
For now, she dismissed thoughts of her in-laws and picked up her pace. After all, she could be spontaneous. Jack would be pleased, she reminded herself. That made Jackie all the more eager to see her husband.
After working her way through the Senate Office Building toward Jack’s office, Jackie found that his secretary was away from her desk. As she glanced around, she suddenly heard giggles from behind office door No. 326. Puzzled, she decided to let herself in, with only a gentle knock to broadcast her entry.
“Surprise, darling…,” she began.
And was he ever.
Jack sat in his chair behind the desk. A beautiful young woman was between Jack and his desk, buttoning her blouse. Her cheeks flushed, and she fumbled as strands of her blond hair kept falling in her way.
Jack nearly sent sparks flying as he zipped his pants.
The young woman hopped off the desk and straightened her skirt. She avoided looking at Jackie as she made a beeline for the door. Then she paused, as if her escape was interrupted by programming, and asked Jack, “Is there anything I can get you?” An obnoxious wave of her perfume stung Jackie’s nose.
Jack shook his head and scowled at her. He stood and went to his wife, who had not taken her eyes off him since entering the room.
“Jackie. Wh-What are you doing here?” He forced a weak grin.
Jackie didn’t answer. Didn’t blink.
Jack’s smile widened and he reached to embrace her. He was stopped by a gloved but sharp slap on the cheek.
Jackie gasped, bewildered by her own action. Jack stared at her, his face awash with disbelief. As the shock slowly faded, he gave her a look that warned her not to do it again.
“Jackie, it’s not what you think,” he lied. His natural, winsome smile appeared and he batted those heavily-lidded eyes. “She’s just some intern or aide. Meaningless.”
“Meaningless to you, perhaps. But if you found me tangled in the arms of another man, would that be meaningless to you, Jack Kennedy?”
Jack sidestepped that verbal trap.
“Don’t be upset, Jackie. You should’ve telephoned and let me know you were coming.”
Jack held his wife in his gaze. He expected his charm to put her at ease. It was one of the best weapons in his manly arsenal, and it served him well with the ladies.
Shouldering the shame that should have been her husband’s, Jackie averted her eyes. She huffed and turned to leave.
Jack held the door shut as she grabbed for the handle.
“Don’t leave like this,” he said. “There’s no need for a scene. Just calm down a minute. Let me take you to lunch.”
Jackie flashed him a look of disgust. Would she ever be able to eat again?
He placed his hand on her arm, but Jackie swiped it away as if his palm was laced with disease. Surprised, Jack rocked back on his heels and lost his hold of the door.
“Don’t touch me!” Jackie snapped before darting out of the room. She fought back the tears swelling in her eyes.
Jack’s secretary, Mrs. Lincoln, had returned to her post. Astonishment grasped the middle-aged woman as Jackie ran off. Jack ignored his assistant, offered no explanation and closed the door.
* * *
Alone in her modest Georgetown home, Jackie holed up in the bathroom. She had dismissed the maid and the cook for the day and stood before the small mirror, crying. She rubbed her head and face with her hands, wishing she could erase the picture in her mind of Jack and that woman.
How could he be so ungrateful? She had dreamed of marrying a Vanderbilt or a Rockefeller, not a Kennedy. Politics didn’t excite her. But her mother had insisted¾ nearly demanded¾ that she marry Jack. Jackie wasn’t getting any younger, her mother had pointed out. Jackie had even worn that dreadful wedding gown, just as her mother wanted.
The medicine cabinet called to her. Jackie opened it. A small bottle of pills stared back at her. Jackie snatched the pill bottle, then braced herself with the pedestal sink. More tears spilled forth.
Was she seriously thinking….
“I hate you, Jack!” she declared, but Jack couldn’t hear her.
She opened the bottle and sprinkled the pills into her mouth. They were Jack’s sleeping pills, prescribed for when his back pain kept him from resting, kept him from peace.
Jackie wanted to know peace, wanted it to cuddle her and never let go.
She washed down the pills with a glass of water from the sink and hoped for an instant end.
But the image of Jack with another woman plagued her mind again. She invented what she had not seen¾ the touching, the kissing, the penetration. Her stomach felt heavy and sick. She bent down to the toilet and vomited over and over, until she was certain that her insides were no more.
Jackie sank to the floor. No tears were left. Peace had been flushed away. She felt empty, void. Only one thought gnawed at her. What could she do now?
* * *
It was one of the worst moments of my life. And it became a scene that frequented my nightmares. I couldn’t extract from my mind that image of him touching another woman. Little did I know that the incident would be mild compared with the disgrace that lay ahead.
Of course, I knew Jack had been quite the player in his bachelor days, but to find that marriage had not cured him was monstrous. I swore I would never forgive him. I wouldn’t have to worry, though, because he would never ask for my forgiveness.
After my embarrassing episode in the bathroom, I cleaned up. The nausea I had suffered had removed any affects from the sleeping pills. I stomped to my closet and started packing. The telephone rang endlessly. Or maybe I just like to think that it did.
I failed at trying to end my life, but it was for the best. That would have been too poetic, even for me, and it would have liberated Jack. Imagine all the women he would have attracted with such sympathy. No justice would have followed.
Then all I could think about was telling my sister, Lee. But at the time, we were cautious about sharing the struggles we faced. We had learned from our mother that such behavior was improper; it would complicate our efforts to keep up a good appearance. That was more important than a happy marriage, or so we were taught.
There was also the constant pressure Lee and I placed on ourselves¾ to be better, happier than the other. Complaining was useless¾ and a sign of weakness.
So I did what my mother and so many other women had done before me. I endured. I decided that one little tryst could not chase me from the man that, ultimately, I loved.
Jack showered me with gifts and compliments, but never an apology. That would mean admitting he had done something wrong. He was above such formalities because men did not go groveling to their wives, no matter what. I smiled and nodded in all the right places. I received all his advances and pleased him in new ways. But for a time, I felt nothing. A queasiness would come over me until the numbness set in.
I started hoping that being caught in the act was all Jack needed to suddenly begin walking a straight and narrow path where our private lives were concerned.
But I was wrong. Jack strayed again. And again. Sometimes only rumors fed my suspicions. Then there were times when I would catch a glimpse of him stepping out of a party or political function with a lovely girl. They would return separately but with reddened cheeks.
I think I started to grow and divide into two different people. I learned how to play the devoted Senate wife in public, and even with Jack. I could shake hands, make polite conversation, reach orgasm on cue. . .whatever he needed. I honored my duty as a wife and nourished his ego. At that time, all I knew to do was feel sorry for myself.
Throughout our marriage Jack continually needled me with challenges to maintain my composure. It was awful, always having to perform. But one of the few consolations came in the fact that Jack was riddled with chronic back pain and a long list of health issues. Digestive disorders rumbled through him. Days surfaced when he could hardly walk. We were miserable, each in our own way. No one had warned me that marriage could be such a sham.
Purchase O! Jackie here: Paperback / Kindle