Juliet in June
[ fiction - september 07 ]
Not counting the reception after the funeral, this was Juliet's first party as a widow. As she buttoned her navy linen dress, she knew every bereaved spouse inched back to life, but few did so at age thirty, with a party in their parents' living room.
She was dressing in the bedroom where, as a little girl, she had barely reached the windowsill that today came up to her knees as she stood beside it in high heels. She had put off preparations to the last minute, knowing too much time would lead to reflection, and in seconds she would think away her resolve, tear off the clothes, and stay upstairs. Instead of soldiering through, she would give in to the dread that accumulated during the weeks since she had encouraged her parents not to cancel their summer party. They proceeded, after her father's consultation of the 'Gracious Living without Servants' chapter of Amy Vanderbilt's New Complete Book of Etiquette turned up no taboo against entertaining six months after a death in the family. When the evening was still a month off, and she was helping her mother address envelopes and fill them with invitations reading "Arthur and Daphne Field request the pleasure of your company at a summer buffet," Juliet thought the party would be a safe foray beyond the company of her parents. But she was faltering, now that it was here and turning back the calendar was as impossible as reviving the salmon that had been smoked and filleted for hors d'oeuvres.
After Alex died, her mind and emotions had flown so far beyond her control, she had come to think of them as the limbs of another person. Her feelings were not to be trusted, and the only place she felt safe was home with her parents in New Haven. Since January, she hadn't dressed up, much less curled her eyelashes and patted rouge into her cheeks. Tonight, as her features took on definition, she risked smudging her handiwork by pulling on a T-shirt, sinking into bed and opening one of the Nancy Drew mysteries that had occupied her since returning home from Washington.
She shuddered at the sound of conversation below but knew that failing her parents was worse than facing their guests. Every day she saw the strain in Daphne and Arthur's faces as they monitored their youngest child's passage through grief. All winter she had mourned and since April had accomplished nothing beyond sleeping through most nights and making it out of bed by noon, incapable of reassembling her old life. She balked at her parents' nudges to answer calls and letters from Washington friends, and resisted the psychiatrists, siblings and priests lassoed for her recovery.
The library books Daphne brought home went unread, and suggestions that Juliet revive the journalism she had pursued before widowhood brought on reproachful glances, as if such exertion were unthinkable. Instead, she passed days with childhood books and solitary rounds of board games, advancing along with the seasons from Candyland and Chutes & Ladders to Scrabble, Boggle and Othello.
Juliet shook her hair, wavy from hot rollers borrowed from Daphne, in front of her face, and tossed it back over her shoulders in a final attempt to slough off anxiety. She bared her teeth at the mirror, extended a slender arm, and shook the soft chestnut paw of the stuffed bear on her dresser.
"How do you do?" she asked. "I'm Juliet, the basket-case widow roosting upstairs. Mummy and Daddy are desperate for me to do something, but I pretty much just hang around the house." She could probably get away with that since the oldest guests would barely hear or absorb what she said, and because as Alex's widow, she enjoyed a sweeping amnesty from social conventions.
She descended the stairs slowly, remembering how she and her four older siblings had helped at these parties, fighting over who would serve the popular hors d'oeuvres and who would be stuck explaining the embarrassing Limburger and walnut canapés to suspicious guests. Now the trays were passed by Mrs Reilly, a hydrant-shaped woman with grey hair and a white apron, whose bland food and strong cocktails had made her as indispensable as a corkscrew for parties among the Fields' neighbors. This evening, she passed the trays while Katie, her niece, helped Arthur with the bar and served at the buffet in the dining room, where guests had spilled across the hall from the living room.
Juliet edged behind the buffet table to the corner where her father stood and noted that although she hadn't seen her parents host a party for some time, their habits were unchanged. Arthur, in dark suit and red tie, shielded himself from conversation by darting around with refills. Although he and his wife had entertained for decades, he still moved between the living and dining rooms with the febrile shyness of a bellboy trying out at the Ritz.
Daphne was a voluble contrast, standing near the door in a sleeveless yellow dress welcoming guests and deftly folding them into the party. She approached every social occasion with goals such as strong-arming neighbors into volunteering for her charities; Juliet knew tonight's primary goal was edging her widowed daughter back among the living. A secondary objective was showing off the house, which Daphne was determined to have sold before Arthur, who was almost seventy, retired from the hospital.
"Can I help with anything, Daddy?" Juliet asked.
"I think Katie and Mrs Reilly have it all in hand, although I keep misplacing things. You're all right, then?"
"So far, so good. But I don't like just going up and talking to people."
"I hate it, too." He straightened cocktail napkins so their corners lined up.
"Mummy's so good at that. I don't know how she does it."
"Thank God for her." He poured a glass of Champagne. "Here. I know you don't drink much, but this will do you good."
"Thank you, Daddy. Wish me luck."
She eased toward a group of familiar faces, struck by how her parents' friends had aged. She flagged down a tray of shrimp puffs, since eating spared her from talking, and limited her to extending her cheek, the corners of her mouth glistening with buttered pastry flecks, to accept sympathetic embraces. She quickly downed half the glass, her movements becoming more deliberate, but her spirits well in hand, relaxed and confident.
After having two more shrimp puffs, a miniature quiche and a sandwich of phyllo glued together with some savory goo, she refined a patter for receiving condolences and explaining her situation: "That's very kind of you. I've been staying with Mummy and Daddy ever since. I'm going back to Washington of course, but I don't know when."
She did not explain that she could drop out of life there because during the eight years she was married, she had gladly shunted journalism behind her primary career as wife. That life had ended in January, when the taxi bringing Alex home from Dulles crashed. At times, she was grateful his death was shocking - she rarely needed to recount it. People were so aghast at the lively forty-year-old lawyer's fate, they couldn't wait to diffuse the tale's sadness by passing it on. He was killed instantly, Juliet learned from a policeman with soft arms and a shirt redolent of detergent and perspiration. That January evening, as the officer's navy girth filled the doorway, it seemed as if he were speaking unusually slowly, before she began to sway, then cut her forehead on his badge as she fell against him.
Aside from desultory freelance journalism, she had held no steady job while married, and although she shared her siblings' interest in reading and writing, she lacked their ambition for self-sufficiency, higher education and careers. She had met Alex while still in college and gratefully left her peers behind, leapfrogging what awaited them during their twenties: entry-level jobs, graduate-school loans, group houses, and heartbreak. Thanks to insurance and the generosity of her late husband's law firm, she could now float for at least a year, especially if that life were no more extravagant than returning home to her parents on Chelverton Road.
"There you are, Juliet. Aren't you a vision," exclaimed Bridie Peck, hard of hearing, long widowed, impressively rich and inquisitive. As Bridie corralled her against the piano, Juliet braced for questions.
"Hello, Mrs Peck. What a beautiful necklace." She watched Bridie tear into the food, which was lost on a frame so skeletal that her shoulders jutted out like hangers under her dress. Her jewelry, a glittering tumble of diamonds the size of teardrops, cut into her withered neck despite an intricate metal clasp with the thickness and complexity of a corset.
"You're awfully thin," Bridie plucked at Juliet's waist. "This is very smart, but it's falling off you. But what can you do? Terrible things happen - it's God's will. You know I'm having a dozen masses said for Andrew."
"Alex. Thank you."
"Even though he wasn't Catholic."
"His family isn't any religion. But he used to come to Mass with me."
"Your family has rallied 'round, I expect?"
"They've been an incredible help."
"Is everyone here?"
"You mean all of us?" The last time the five Field children were together was Alex's funeral. "No, I'm the only one. They're so far away, you know - California, Colorado, all that. And they have children, so there's no way they could make it."
"Your parents have been worried about you," Bridie clucked. "The way Daphne made it sound, I thought they had checked you into a hospital or one of those asylums."
Juliet shrugged. "I don't know what the fuss is about."
"That's right. You'll be married again in no time."
"I mean I had no idea Mummy has me on a suicide watch." Juliet glared at the door, where Daphne, like an exuberant daffodil, bent and swayed to guests. She had expected her mother to funnel people over to encourage her to get a job or do charity work, and realized that Bridie, Daphne's fellow volunteer and a prime spigot of Chelverton Road gossip, must have been deputized to go first.
"You can't sit around here forever. I went through this much later than you did, and it's not easy, but you've got your whole life ahead of you."
"I'm sure you're right." Juliet extracted herself from Bridie just as Seth and Naomi Hunter arrived. The Hunters had been friends and neighbors for decades, but usually missed the party because they spent summers at the New Hampshire farm bequeathed to Naomi by her mother.
The Hunters' lives were chaotic squiggles compared with the Fields' grid of faith, family, and work. Despite Naomi's substantial inherited wealth, Seth and his wife had put careers ahead of family, which consisted only of their adopted daughter, Rebecca. She was older than Juliet but had been shipped off to so many boarding schools, summer camps and reform institutions, she ended up seldom playing with children on Chelverton Road. Seth recently had shifted to emeritus status at Yale Law School, while Naomi's career had flowered in the past decade beyond ballet teacher at the New Haven Music School to philanthropist, as she doled out grants endowed by her mother to aspiring dancers.
Childhood glimpses into the Hunters' permissive and prosperous household had awed Juliet as much as the Mystic Aquarium's display of underwater life. While Seth was relaxed, Naomi was all nervous expression, chain-smoking as she hastened from one crisis to the next, narrating her progress in jarring hyperbole: "It was a sumptuous concert" or "It is the depths of the worst." While her conviction had cowed generations of New Haven parents into registering their children for dance classes at the music school, Arthur and Daphne remained unpersuaded, and although their sons and daughters had taken piano lessons, no Field had ever learned an arabesque or a grand-plié from Naomi.
Tonight the Hunters appeared in their usual contrasting costumes. She was loosely wrapped in a purple sari and Seth was a dandyish seersucker package with a pink cotton handkerchief rising from his pocket.
"You dears. You made it." Daphne waved them inside.
"Thank God we're here." Seth put his hands to his cheeks. "All day in the car with two overheated dogs and no air-conditioning. I'm going to have go back by plane - or ambulance. I can't handle these drives any more."
"Don't listen to Seth. He's just dying for a drink. Daphne, we wouldn't have missed this for the world."
"I am dying for a drink." Seth shook hands with Arthur, who jumped aside as Mrs Reilly shoved past with the cheese board.
"What can I get you, Seth? Naomi, your usual?"
"So, this is the famous party we've been missing every summer." Seth followed Daphne into the living room.
"We nearly didn't this year, with Juliet and all."
"How is she?"
"Mending," Daphne said. "They were married almost ten years. You know she's been staying here."
"He was a lawyer, wasn't he?" Seth said. "In Washington? I can't keep track of all your kids."
Across the room, as Naomi drew near, Juliet greeted her. Although the Hunters had been fixtures of her childhood, she had seen little of them once she was married. Since then, they had shrunk: Seth, compact and slim, had lost an inch or so through telescoping vertebrae; Naomi was no longer tall but curved, the top of her spine like a candy cane between the gentle hunches of her shoulders.
"Hello, Mrs Hunter. It's so kind of you to have come all the way from New Hampshire."
"It's the least we could do. How are you?"
"Well, I've been here since January."
"When my mother died, I simply collapsed. I was shattered." She illustrated her point by trembling so violently, ash fell from her cigarette to her napkin. "You can't rush mourning, and worst of all, some days you bowl along normally so you feel guilty and then others you can't even get out of bed."
Juliet was astonished by this sympathetic side, which seemed incongruous with the zany workaholic who had been such a contrast with Daphne as a parent.
"I really live in Washington," she said. "But I can't face going home just yet. Maybe I should get into something while I'm here."
"No question. Too much leisure is death. I mean - it's the worst." Naomi clicked a flame to her cigarette. "But you're working, so that helps."
"No, I'm not."
"What were you doing in Washington? I always thought of you as a journalist. I'm sure Daphne's shown me clippings."
"I wrote about things like the fight over new streetlamps in Georgetown, and some pieces about books and museums."
"For the Washington Post?"
"No, not the Post." Juliet had answered this question often but still stammered over her reply. "Local weeklies like Washington City Paper. It's free, but it's not bad, and lots of people read it."
"So you are a journalist."
At Naomi's puzzled expression, Juliet blurted, "It just happened. I was barely twenty when I got married, and that seemed a little young to start having children."
"That's the route our daughter's taken."
"She has?" Juliet still pictured Rebecca Hunter as a skinny, stoned teenager with hoodlum friends and expensive hobbies like horseback riding and cocaine, so it was a stretch to imagine her as a mother.
"You know she got married - again."
"She and her first husband had a boy, and husband number two has custody of the son from his first marriage, and now she's pregnant again."
"That's wonderful," Juliet said. "Then you and Mr Hunter will have three grandchildren."
"Not as many as your parents, but plenty all the same. But I want to get back to you." Naomi pushed up her glasses - huge tinted octagons framed in bands of tortoiseshell - on her nose.
"But there's nothing," Juliet protested, although for the first time in months she sensed possibility.
"If you don't mind my interfering, I think you should get back to reporting. Since you're here a while, what about working for the Advocate or Performance?"
"The Advocate's still going? I don't think I write the kinds of articles they'd be interested in."
"It's not all sex ads, anymore. Their cultural coverage is remarkably good."
"You mean fine arts pieces? That's what I like doing best."
"Then Performance might be a better fit." Naomi's words, said with all the casual assurance of a tailor approving a hem, struck Juliet as a contrast with her parents. Naomi could make things happen and Juliet recognized the thrill of connections at work, which she had known with Alex. He had always known someone, and a phone call later, freelance assignments had materialized.
"Is it new? I don't remember something called Performance."
"It comes out on Saturdays. The Register owns it," Naomi explained. "They started it about five years ago."
"The New Haven Register is still going?" From childhood, Juliet remembered her parents paying four times as much for a subscription to the New York Times, deigning to read the local news only on Sundays. The Register's weekend edition was almost as rich a vein of mirth as the St Brendan's Church bulletin. Juliet recalled Arthur hurling the breakfast table in paroxysms by reading aloud the wedding announcements and the neighborhood crime blotter. Even then, she considered the Register slightly more embarrassing than her high-school paper and now she wondered how to extricate herself from Naomi's insistent gaze.
"The paper's gotten much better," Naomi explained. "They print them both at the big Register plant downtown, but Performance is a separate operation."
"I don't know anyone there."
"Ah, but I do. In fact, I talked the Register into starting it. The first Performance editor was a good friend but I don't know the fellow there now all that well. They're interested in what we do at the school, so I talk to them from time to time. It's a small staff and I imagine they aren't paid much."
"I don't need a big salary. I'd be grateful if they'd even talk to me."
Naomi exhaled a stream of fine smoke. "Let me make a call. We're - what - Saturday? Why don't you come over to the house on Monday so we can have a proper talk about this? I'll see if Seth has any ideas, too."
"I would love to," Juliet said. She watched Naomi glide through the party, cigarette held high, and then wandered along the buffet table and nearly collided with Seth.
"After that close call, you'll have to join me for dinner." He motioned to the chair beside his. "It's not often an aging frog like me has the chance to dine with a princess. Your mother tells me you're going to be running the Times some day."
"Please. I feel conspicuous enough, without Mummy wheeling me around like a freak."
"She's not. She wants what's best for you."
"I know. But it's not as if I left behind some high-powered journalism career in Washington."
"You're what - twenty-eight?"
"So young. We've got something in common, you know. We're both going through big changes in our lives, and we could help each other."
"Actually," Juliet said. "Your wife was just telling me about where I should work here."
"Well, she's the one to talk to. She knows everyone in New Haven."
"She said I should try Performance."
"It's an idea. It's nothing grand, but there's good writing in it."
"Do you think it would be worthwhile?"
"I would advise you to trust my wife. Your mother wants you to be happy, and she's determined to find something for you to do. Naomi's the same way about me."
"But you have a reputation. You're not trying to build one."
"Actually, I finished my last full-time semester in May. I thought I'd stop a year ago, go out on a nice round number."
"1990?" Still unaccustomed to the new decade, she realized that Alex had lived through only one year of the Nineties, leaving her to plod through the rest of them on her own.
"But 1991 has a pleasant symmetry all its own."
"I didn't know you retired."
"Your parents didn't tell you?"
"They must have, but I've forgotten things since January."
"Of course." He bent so close she could smell lavender shaving soap and see where his tan skin grew pale under his chin. "The law school had a big sendoff. Yale's good at putting one out to pasture. I enjoyed every second, of course. In the fall it's just two classes." His eyes widened, as if the lighter load was more daunting than a full one. "Of course, I have to be careful about this." He pointed to his chest. "Since the bypass."
"Didn't you know?"
"That was a while ago, wasn't it?"
"Twenty-six months on August first."
Juliet wanted to laugh at this precision, and wished her brothers and sisters could hear Seth's reply. The Field children always mimicked their parents' friends, and while Naomi was easily exploited, Seth was harder, usually caricatured by bons mots delivered through pursed lips in Chaucerian cadences.
"Naomi fears I'll be bored with the new schedule, so she's lining up projects to keep senility at bay, like putting me on the board of her famous Lowell awards."
"The things for dancers? That should keep you busy."
"On the contrary, I suspect that my wife will continue to run them, as she always has." He rolled his eyes and smiled. "According to her whim of the day, and with her charming horror of organization. But that's all right. You and I, I think, could enjoy leisure. In fact, you look as if you were made for all sorts of leisure."
She wondered if he were flirting or just affected by his gin and tonic.
He repeated, "We could help each other," but the party swirled up against them before she could ask what he meant.