A Year of Brilliant Water

Had I known that Jackie’s boss was making a play for her, right there at the party she and her husband Jonathan were throwing, I would have liked him even less than I did at first impression. He—Andy was his name–was a nice guy, thoughtful and sensitive and all that, but irritating all the same.

Andy was half a head taller than everybody there except for Jonathan’s boss, the public TV newscaster with the sonorous voice and the forehead as high as a dolphin’s. He was always “Jonathan”—nobody ever called him “Jon,” not even Jackie, which may explain Andy’s appeal. Both Andy and Jonathan worked for non-profits, but lived well; it didn’t take a detective to figure out there was trust fund money behind both of them, although Jonathan was less subtle about letting you know it. He’d leave brokerage statements out on his desk when we went to visit, like Poe’s purloined letter, but his intent was not to conceal but to disclose.

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There was a high-end store downtown that bore the family name but Jonathan wanted no part of it; he wanted to take part in the great debates of our time, and be recognized as a thoughtful commentator. He’d tried every angle in the book to get hired at our local liberal paper of record, but I guess nobody told him that he was NOKD—“not our kind dear.” He had that rag-trade background, if you know what I mean.

So he ended up catching on at public TV, which in my mind was just as good. You were on the right side of all the issues as far as the local prevailing thinking went, and you didn’t have to cover fires in triple-decker apartments or stabbings and shootings in poor neighborhoods. You only addressed the big national and international issues, even though anybody who mattered in New York or Washington didn’t give a damn what a little channel in Boston thought.

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But while Jonathan was talking about big things, Andy was—as I understood it—doing something about one of them, the big one. Jackie humbly introduced him to Marci and me as “one of her fellow earth-savers.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a smile that you’d say was self-deprecating, if you were charitable.

We chatted a bit, the four of us with no one joining in. Jackie and Marci went to college with Jonathan, so I always felt like a fifth wheel when we got together. At least Andy acted interested, where Jonathan tended to lord his position as a minor local celebrity and future philanthropist over you.

“Do you like to hike?” Andy asked me.

“Depends on where we’re going.”

“It’s the journey, not the destination!” Jackie chimed in. She’d dragged Jonathan to Nepal for their honeymoon, and stayed in touch with their Sherpa.

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“There’s a lot of easy mountains not too far from here in New Hampshire.”

“I’ve climbed Monadnock twice,” I said.

“You should try Kearsarge next,” Andy said.

“Or Chocura!” Jackie added, more excited than I thought justified by a hunk of granite.

At this point Jonathan appeared behind the other three, appearing a bit anxious to join the group. They were talking and didn’t notice him, so after a while I looked at Marci and nodded in Jonathan’s direction. She didn’t understand at first, so I cleared my throat until she said “What?”

“Jonathan’s trying to say something.”

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She gave him a look without sympathy. She’d heard whatever complaints Jackie had about living with him in the first year of their marriage, which he had such high hopes for. “May you have a life of brilliant water,” the minister had said at their wedding, “like the diamond in the ring, which you may now place on the bride’s finger and repeat after me.”

They had had a Book of Common Prayer wedding, with nothing improvised. She was a beauty and her parents were paying for it, so he—in a last act of grace—had acceded to their wishes. They had moved into a home far away from the city, in an exurban town that young people typically didn’t live in unless they grew up or worked there, but she wanted to be near the ocean and the mountains.

The first year had been brilliant, or at least that’s what Marci kept hammering into me. I was a faceless drone in a corporate job, Jonathan was not. Jackie had room to build her harpsichord, Marci did not. They had a wonderful house on the North Shore where they had lively dinner parties, we had a place on the back side of Beacon Hill that was dark and cold and too small. We didn’t have all the furnishings you got when you got married because we weren’t, just living together; they’d taken the leap, a further one in Jackie’s case since she didn’t want to leave the little town in Connecticut where she and Marci had grown up, while Jonathan needed to be in a major media market. And so the quaint little house in Newburyport had been their compromise.

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“Jackie, do you want to move people on to the activities?” Jonathan finally managed to get in sidewise between a crack that formed momentarily in the wall that the two women and Andy formed with their backs.

“There’s no rush,” she said with an airy toss of her head, and continued talking. I felt sorry for the guy, even though he wasn’t my favorite human being. I’d tried to connect with him back when we first got together as couples but it was clear he didn’t think I was anybody who was going to help him get wherever it was he wanted to go.

I could see him seething a bit over Jackie’s shoulder, and then Christopher, Jonathan’s boss, came over to talk to him.

“Do you want me to read from Dickens’s Christmas Carol?” he asked.

“Maybe later, after we’ve eaten,” Jonathan said. The guy clearly wanted to hear himself talk—it was a diplomatic way of putting him off. “Can I have everybody’s attention please?” Jonathan said to the crowd and, surprisingly, people turned to hear him without being asked twice, except for Jackie, Marci and Andy, who continued to talk until they finished their conversation.

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“We have all kinds of arts and crafts supplies over on the table here for you to make Christmas ornaments with,” he said, and there was a murmur of appreciation that a party among the sort of young strivers we all were back then could include such a creative activity. “Nobody’s a pro, so there’s no need to be embarrassed if you make a mess. Unless you make it on my Shiraz here,” he said, pointing to the Oriental rug he stood upon.

There was laughter and a general movement in the direction of a game table on which were laid out felt and thread and glitter and glue and other makings for ornaments. I joined the crowd, hoping Marci would follow me, but she stood there with Jackie and Andy, talking on, not seeming to care.

I got some black and white and orange felt and a needle and thread to make a penguin, and came back to sit down by the trio. “Are you going to make anything?” I asked Marci. She had been so close to Jackie for so long, I wanted to make sure she didn’t get Jonathan upset without intending to. If she meant to be an accessory to marital friction, there was nothing I could do to stop her.

“I will. Jackie said she’s not in a hurry.”

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I started to sew as best I could, which wasn’t very well. Eventually Marci put down her drink and went to get the makings for an angel, which she had no better luck with; she tried to glue the felt together to save the trouble of sewing, but it turned into a mess.

Jonathan was holding court, accepting the casual flattery that came one’s way for resisting the tides of convention among our crowd. It was a wonderful idea, Jackie was so lucky to have such a creative husband. This sort of talk flowed easily, since there was an implied pat on one’s own back with each compliment; aren’t we all so interesting as opposed to our parents and other suburbanites who just ate and drank too much when they got together for the holidays.

Jackie and Andy had moved to the tree, out of the way of the arts and crafts, and were sitting underneath it talking intently about something of great importance to them both. Their faces took on a more youthful cast, like college freshman in a coffee shop discussing their plans to change the world before they graduated and realized there was no money in that. I finished my penguin, made a little loop of gold thread to attach it to the tree, and took it over to the table to offer it to Jonathan.

“Hey thanks, that’s great. Look everybody,” he said, drawing more attention to my little creation than I wanted. “Why don’t we have a contest for best ornament? Here’s the early leader.”

There were oohs and ahs, mostly mock but some sincere, from the crowd, and a new burst of energy now that we were engaged in friendly competition. I went back to Marci to see how she was doing and she’d given up and had started over.

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“What’s with Jackie and her boss?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“They’re all by themselves making goo-goo eyes at each other.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You don’t think it’s a little rude to go off like that at a party?”

“No—they work together.”

I just shrugged my shoulders. We’d had this conversation before, how men shouldn’t think of women as exclusively theirs, like a dog. I thought there was probably a happy medium between the two extremes, but I wasn’t going to get into it.

As the evening wore on Jonathan continued to play the convivial host while Jackie and Andy rarely took the time to unlock their eyes. When they did, it was usually for a gush-fest with somebody who was coming or going and they’d stand together, or maybe Andy would withdraw a few steps if he didn’t know the people. Jonathan was usually off taking care of drinks and food, some of which he’d cooked himself. He could have afforded a caterer, but it wouldn’t have seemed right; he and Jackie were into showing others how much they didn’t care about his money, and how they’d do things their way, not in the grand style of his parents.

And so after a while I noticed him getting—a bit frazzled. He was drinking, but not that much, but running around a lot, trying—it seemed to me—to appear happier than he was. Marci had told me he’d turned out to be more high-strung than Jackie had thought he’d be. They didn’t live together first, the way most of us did back then, so she hadn’t seen him during long periods of togetherness, which means isolation. She hadn’t seen him through a winter here, where you’re thrown back on your own resources. In the end, I guess you’d say she’d only seen his social side.

I saw him go to the kitchen and then up the stairs that led to their bedroom on the second floor. It was pure Jackie—a pencil post bed, no TV, everything very plain, uncluttered. There was a throw on the bed from her grandmother, blue and white. Wide-plank floors with Shaker rugs. I’d only been up there once, when he took me to show me what he’d done with a print I’d given him; it was of an old London newspaper hawker, shouting “’Speshill ‘dishun, ‘orrible railway haccident.” The occasion was his promotion to on-air reporter, so I figured a news theme would be appreciated.

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I started talking to Jonathan’s boss—Christopher. I guess nobody was allowed to have a nickname in public television. He’d come from a big Irish family, his dad was a working farmer who died young, so there was more depth there I’d guessed from appearances. He talked about how he loved Christmas, with the rituals and the parties, and this reminded him of his offer to read from Dickens. “Have you seen Jonathan?” he asked me, as he looked around the room. I guess he didn’t want to upset the rhythm of the party by starting a story without permission.

“I saw him go upstairs,” I said.

“I’ll go fetch him,” Christopher said, and bolted away like he was in fact a dog after a stick.

I went back to Marci in the hope of getting out by the time Christopher got back so I wouldn’t be stuck listening to Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, but she was in no mood to leave. She and Jackie and Andy were still having a grand old time, so I got another drink and sat down in a chair near the fire. I could have gone to sleep there—I was starting to nod off—when Christopher came back downstairs and rushed over to Jackie with a look of concern.

He whispered something in her ear, and they went back upstairs after she’d excused herself to Andy and Marci. I was wide awake now, and stood up in case there was some medical emergency. I didn’t want to intrude, but I could tell something was wrong.

After a few minutes Jackie came back down and began to announce, in quiet tones to people in groups as small as she could manage, that Jonathan wasn’t feeling well. Christopher put on his coat and went outside, apparently to bring his car to the door from where it was parked down the country road from the house.

“What’s the matter?” Marci said, and Jackie took her aside so that I didn’t hear very well. The explanation between the two old girl friends was longer and more detailed than the version that had been announced generally. I stepped away and let them talk.

Christopher came back in and escorted Jonathan down the stairs; he looked pale, and his face was red. They stopped as they reached the door for Jonathan to put on a heavy coat, and Christopher waved a common goodbye. “Good night and Merry Christmas everybody,” he said, and everyone responded in kind, including some who had yet to hear the news.

“Feel better, Jonathan,” Andy called out in an affable, sympathetic tone, but Jonathan had already stepped outside.

I didn’t hear the story until we were out on the highway, headed home, the windshield wipers scraping a view through heavy wet snow. “Jonathan seized up,” Marci said. “He’s wound pretty tight. Jackie’s talked to him about meditating, but he won’t.”

“He’s got a tough commute and he works on deadline—I’m not surprised he’s tense. And there was a bit of provocation as well.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Maybe you missed it,” I said, and kept driving.


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