It was everything anyone could talk about at Buckingham Palace.
From the staff that roamed in the corridors like working ants in an anthill, to the secretaries, and even members of the family itself, the name ‘Kennedy’ had been echoing through the place for days. The long, solemn corridors of the palace hadn’t seen that kind of excitement in a while, perhaps not since Princess Margaret’s wedding, and Elizabeth found herself intrigued in more ways than one about that whole fuss, while she watched the president and his first lady in Paris on the TV.
Philip himself has been restless, reading newspaper article after newspaper article about the Kennedys’ trip over breakfast for days, gathering every bit of information he encounters about the first lady, babbling about ‘Mrs. Kennedy’ every time he gets the chance and slowly stripping Elizabeth out of any particular anticipation about being in the same room as her husband once the Kennedys finally come over to Buckingham Palace. Not that this restlessness of his is any different from his natural state in the past few months – years, perhaps – which is growing quite old for someone as constant as Elizabeth is, and his new obsession over the Kennedys is just the right reason she was looking for to – there’s no kind way to put it – avoid him for a few days.
To be totally fair, and she needed to be, even Elizabeth herself can’t help but spend a few more minutes in front of the mirror than she normally would. She can’t stop herself from feeling like a young queen once again, hiding herself behind the shiniest jewelry and the finest fabrics, just so she can feel slightly capable of standing next to Jackie Kennedy, the face on every newspaper all over the world. She remembers when she had all the headlines to herself. Perhaps she’s really not that interesting, as she suspected all along.
But when Jackie Kennedy enters the ballroom – which goes dead silent in anticipation for her entrance – Elizabeth suddenly understands what everyone is so fascinated about.
She walks over to Elizabeth first, walking with such confidence and looking her in the eyes with such an electrifying gaze that it takes Elizabeth a few seconds to notice what an absolutely grotesque break in protocol this is.
“Your majesty” Jackie offers her hand, the prettiest smile Elizabeth has ever seen on her face, and the queen can’t help but play along. There is no curtsy, not even a bow, and Elizabeth can’t help but feel like she’s no longer reigning over the situation, in any way.
“Mrs. Kennedy” she replies, simply, and it throws her off so much that when the president approaches her with an awful sounding ‘royal majesty’, she doesn’t even feel her stomach turn as much as it should have.
Like she’s inebriated, even without a glass in her hand.
Elizabeth has been through all kinds of difficult tasks, nailing them time and time again as any strong monarch should. None of them has proved to be as challenging or as draining as taking her eyes off Jackie Kennedy.
There’s a small reception before dinner, and after Elizabeth has made the proper introductions, she finds herself looming the first lady like a child too shy to approach a potential friend at a playground, speaking to everyone around her except for Jackie. And she feels much like a child, a young girl again, with all the nervousness and restlessness – and if she searches deep into her chest, a strange type of curiosity and excitement she hadn’t felt in a while – that hearing Jackie make small conversations with the people around her brings. Much like the corridors and halls in her palace, she feels like she is seeing color, after endless months of gray winter.
That’s probably why she surprises everyone, even herself, when she jumps on the opportunity when Jackie asks for a tour of the palace.
They go alone. No husbands, no bodyguards, no secretaries. Elizabeth is usually one to find comfort away from all those people, alone with someone else, but she finds herself trying her very best to look as composed as always.
All while avoiding Jackie’s eyes.
“Now, this is the picture gallery” Elizabeth walks one step in front of Jackie, and for the first time, it’s not about protocol, it’s about protection. She wants to keep her face out of view. Not wants – it would be a sin to want that, to have the prettiest face she’s ever seen out of her sight – but needs. She knows all her efforts will come tumbling down if she dares look Jackie in the eye. “this is my great-great-great-great-grandfather, George III, and he bought Buckingham House in 1761 for his wife, Queen Charlotte.”
Elizabeth falters, and looks at Jackie, who’s wandered away from her to look at one of the big portraits hanging from the walls. It’s perhaps the first time she properly looks at Jackie, and she looks somewhat different than she did at dinner. She’s still a glowing thing, with a sort of halo of light around her, and it doesn’t fade, but it seems to soften. She would even go as far as to say Jackie looks younger, looking up at the paintings with such curiosity, and it gives Elizabeth a sense of closeness. Maybe she’s not the only one feeling childish at this point.
“And who’s this?” she asks, freely. Doesn’t call Elizabeth ma’am, doesn’t even look back at her, and Elizabeth can’t find it in her to be bothered by the lack of deference. For the first time in ages, being alone with someone almost as important as she is, Elizabeth feels like a normal, common woman, like she did before her father died.
By God, she sure misses that feeling, and it’s the strangest thing that the first lady should be the one to bring her back to it.
“That’s one of the Pitts. The younger.” Elizabeth says, walking a few steps to stand beside Jackie. “Known for something that’s always rather endeared me to him: crippling shyness. Apparently, he could barely look people in the eye. And yet he became our Prime Minister.”
“I quite understand. I’m also a shy person by nature.” Jackie responds, still examining the painting in front of her, and Elizabeth looks up at her with curiosity.
“Well, you could have fooled me” Elizabeth thinks – and lets slip from her lips – and immediately holds her right wrist with her left hand, putting her arms in front of her body like she’s protecting herself. Even the smallest demonstration of her own character can make her wonder if that’s a step she should take.
But Jackie chuckles, her small shoulders shaking in the most adorable way, and suddenly Elizabeth’s at ease again.
“I’ve heard that before. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been trying to get the courage to talk properly to you all evening, and yet haven’t been quite able to.” Jackie looks at her, a soft smile on her face matching her voice tone, and it occurs to Elizabeth that this is the first time she does so since they started this little tour. And that maybe she’s not the only one who’s avoiding eye contact.
It crosses Elizabeth’s mind to say that she has been in the same position all evening. That she was also nervous and insecure and incredibly curious about the first lady, just as any other man or woman in that palace, and finding herself wanting to get a peek of the woman behind the glamorous persona. But she felt so intimidated by her self-confidence and her beauty that she couldn’t even think of what to say.
But she contented herself with saying: “That alone sounds like a brave thing to say”
Jackie’s smile widens. “Probably” she pauses, and looks back at the painting. “Thank you, for taking me on this tour”
Even though no one is looking, not even Jackie, Elizabeth feels her face softening into a genuine smile “It’s my pleasure.”
The lingering moment, the silence, the possibility that Jackie might look at her again and see her standing there, looking at her with a smile on her face, all make Elizabeth feel so uncomfortable that she finds herself shaking her head slightly to snap herself out of it. She takes a few steps towards one of the doors, in the back of the room, and slips back into character to get herself through the rest of the tour. “Now, you see that door over there? It leads to our private apartments. It’s a shortcut.”
Jackie nods, a polite smile on her face like she just swallowed the words she was about to say and is ready to follow the queen’s lead, and follows Elizabeth into another room.
“This is about as private as it gets in this place. It’s where one feels most comfortable.” Elizabeth enters the room at a slower pace, leaving – as she often does – the persona at the door of her private apartment. She clings onto that feeling of normality – she does so every time she gets to feel it (which is getting more and more rare – and finally, apart from the jewelry, the ball dress, the high heels, she’s just Elizabeth, a woman, showing her home to another woman.
“I quite understand. You have to have somewhere to escape to” Jackie turns around, inspecting the room. The tall bookshelves, full of books that seem older than both of them, somewhat reminding her of her life in the White House – and somewhat giving her the courage to share a small, slightly more personal thought that crosses her mind when she hears Elizabeth’s simple words. “I’ve often wondered…” she starts casually, eyes still wandering around the room, but the change in her tone catches Elizabeth’s attention. “…how someone who hates attention as much as I do, ended up in a goldfish bowl like the White House” she turns around, facing Elizabeth, and smiles softly when she catches the queen looking at her, her face showing a kind of disbelief Jackie’s used to seeing when she confesses being shy. “I know it seems hard to believe when I say that. I just… I’ve gotten used to putting on masks, for a lot of things. When Jack became president, I sort of made my peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to truly be myself… ever again.”
Jackie’s words echo inside Elizabeth’s mind, searching every corner for a similar feeling, she’s been suppressing since she was 10 years old. The feeling of renouncing her own personality to fit a mold, to fill in such a public role, and the need to make peace with this feeling loom over her like shadows since she was a child, and Jackie’s words are the closest she’s ever gotten to hearing someone describe a similar thing. But even though she understands what it’s like to feel that way, in every scale possible, Elizabeth’s uncertainty captures all the words she thinks of saying, and all she can offer is a sympathetic smile, and a gesture for Jackie to sit beside her when she sits on a sofa nearby.
“Jack’s idea of heaven is a crowd. That’s not who I am, I’m not that strong at all, but that’s who I need to be. There’s no turning back from all of this now” Jackie’s eyes begin to wander again, like the room they’re sitting in is a demonstration of the things she’s saying, of the weight she’s carrying, until they land on Elizabeth’s face “But I suppose that’s not the case with you and His Grace. You seem very strong yourself.”
“Actually…” Elizabeth says before pausing, like saying the words will make it impossible for her to give up on talking once again. “my husband goes by His Royal Highness.” She points out in a low voice tone, a sign of sympathy, like she wants to save Jackie from the embarrassment of anyone hearing she’s been making a mistake even though they’re alone in the room, and Jackie’s eyes widen.
“It’s fine, don’t worry” Elizabeth touches Jackie’s arm, a move that requires no thought, unlike anything she’s done this evening. She’s wearing gloves, and Jackie’s wearing gloves, but the warmth from her skin through the fabrics makes it way too real to not be considered a proper touch, and that surprises her for two reasons. The first, she’s not someone who’s usually comfortable with physical contact. The second, she’s not at all uncomfortable with what she just did. Either way, she pulls her hand back, deliberately, as if a sudden move would make Jackie realize what had just happened.
By the look on her face, eyes frozen on Elizabeth’s, it’s too late to pretend it didn’t happen.
“And I am not that strong, no. Dependable, perhaps. But strong… that is a different concept.” Elizabeth goes on, ignoring the small breach in her character, but Jackie’s eyes are still glued to her face, watching closely, even when she turns away to face one of the pictures on the wall.
Like she’s waiting for her next move.
“And what’s your idea of heaven, Mrs. Kennedy?”
“Please, Jackie is fine” Jackie shrugs, even though Elizabeth’s not looking. “it’s only fair since, apparently, I’ve been getting protocol wrong all evening”
Elizabeth lets out a timid, but genuine laugh, and the nice, warm feeling it brings to her chest takes her by surprise. It’s the last feeling she expects to get from a state dinner. “Fine. Jackie.”
“I like my own company. And to be alone in the countryside.”
“Oh, me too!” Elizabeth blurts out, a naive sort of excitement that lifts her hands up from her lap for a fraction of a second, and makes her eyes shoot back to Jackie like she has forgotten why she even looked away in the first place. “You know… I never thought I would have so much in common with you”
Jackie smiles, an amused type of smile like she’s loving seeing Elizabeth get more comfortable in her own skin. “Oh, me too” her smile instantly changes when she answers, and Elizabeth feels her face getting warm – and cheeks probably getting red – when she realizes Jackie is actually teasing her. “I’m actually a simple person. With simple needs and… simple wants” her eyes linger on Elizabeth’s face while she says it, like she’s trying to make her embarrassment persist for a couple more seconds, but also like she’s trying to communicate a feeling of her own. Elizabeth can’t quite put her finger on it, but if she had to describe, it would be as if Jackie was confessing a sin.
But Jackie interrupts the moment when she suddenly tilts her head to one side, slightly, as if she’s just now realizing who she has been speaking to this whole time. “is it ma’am I should call you?”
“If you’re one to keep a secret… Jackie…” Elizabeth says her name in a carefully calculated manner, to tease her, just like Jackie did before, but Jackie looks far from embarrassed. There is that cheeky smile again, like they’re playing some game Jackie knows she’s good at, and suddenly Elizabeth is the one who’s being teased again. It takes its toll, but she doesn’t let her voice falter when she says: “Elizabeth is just fine.”
“Well then, Queen Elizabeth.” Jackie smiles, and something different that has been lingering between them for a while, that could almost be described as intimacy, demands attention, and Elizabeth finds herself once again needing to look away for a second. “Do tell me more about you. I’ve been talking too much about myself.”
“Oh, I am really not that interesting. Nor as eloquent as you.” Elizabeth says it as politely as she can, but she means it as a genuine compliment.
“I beg to differ. So far, I think you’re the most interesting person I’ve met today.” Jackie puts her hand on the sofa, halfway between them. She hasn’t read the letterhead protocol sheet they were sent on their way here, but there is something on her mind about not being able to touch the queen. So, she sees this as a statement – an invitation, if she’d go that far – that Elizabeth could touch her again if she wanted to.
And she does. She doesn’t know why, but by God, she does.
But for now, all she does is put her hand right next to Jackie’s, while they both pretend not to notice that little move.
“Now you’re just being kind” Elizabeth carries on.
“It’s true.” Jackie insists.
“I doubt that. But it’s like you said, I am also a simple person. With simple needs, and simple wants.” Elizabeth quotes, eyes back to the first lady’s face.
“And what are those wants?”
It’s such a simple question, said with a friendly smile, but Eizabeth is somehow taken aback by the intrusiveness of it. She feels like any answer, even the simplest answer, will leave her vulnerable to Jackie’s wit, and her big eyes widen even more when she says: “I find it… very hard… to answer that question without giving it a little thought.”
Jackie tilts her head to the side, still smiling, like she was expecting this exact reaction. “I’m pretty sure you’re a woman who knows what she wants.”
There is a moment of silence, and Elizabeth finds herself curling the fingers of the hand that lays inches away from Jackie’s. She searches her whole mind for any word that could feel slightly appropriate as an answer, but even with her vast vocabulary, she is not able to find anything. The air in the room seems to thicken, like it’s being gradually replaced by another substance, another sensation, the one she’s been trying to decode for ages now. Her blue, wide eyes shoot back and forth between Jackie’s eyes.
As lost as she’s ever been, but not frightened at all.
“We’ve been gone for quite a while.” Elizabeth nervously says, feeling the need to fill the air between them with words to prevent that other thing from taking over the whole room. Her eyes fall to her hand, and she holds her breath for a second when she notices Jackie’s hand is an inch closer than it was before.
“Yes…” Jackie answers, simply, with a light tone of inquiry in her voice, like she’s not sure what Elizabeth means.
“And they are probably wondering… I mean, they must be…” she’s almost stuttering, struggling with the words in such a familiar way for the daughter of George VI, but much like her father she’s used to turning to actions when words refuse to be her allies. She moves her hand slightly closer to Jackie’s hand.
“You’re worried someone might come looking for us?” Elizabeth doesn’t look up just yet, but she can feel Jackie’s face get an inch closer when she quietly asks that, like she’s waiting for Elizabeth to tell her a secret.
“Strangely, no.” her eyebrows arch, but she still can’t get her eyes to look back at the first lady.
Jackie leans a bit closer, and this time Elizabeth can hear that smile on her voice when she asks, even quieter: “Don’t you like being alone with me?”
“Strangely… yes.” She smiles, and watches Jackie’s hand slowly closing the distance between them.
When their fingers finally touch, Elizabeth lets out a small, uneasy laugh, because a smile just wouldn’t suffice.
“You know, you’re not supposed to touch the queen first” it’s all she can bring herself to say, so innocent that she feels once again like a young princess, and that immature kind of excitation earns a laugh from Jackie.
“I guess… that means you’ll have to do it then. So I won’t break protocol yet again.”
Elizabeth’s eyes finally hold the courage to look up, and Jackie’s face is so close, so flawless, so welcoming, that it seems pointless – stupid, even – when she hears herself naively ask: “Do what?”
All Jackie does is slide her fingers further between Elizabeth’s, and the queen understands they are beyond words now.
And yet, there are still so many thoughts. Elizabeth is hardly one to act without thinking, it would be naive to think that her mind would allow her to do so this time. She can almost hear her heart pounding in her chest as thoughts rush through her head so fast that she can’t make sense of any of them, but there’s a general feeling she’s way too familiar with: you can’t do this. This is wrong.
But she thinks about everything she felt in so little time with Jackie: comfort, normalcy, excitement, curiosity, and many other things she has been longing for, for a very long time, and it’s hard even for her worrying mind to tell her that this is actually wrong. To hell with it, she thinks. She is allowed to do something just because she wants to, for once. Just this once.
Her eyes fall to Jackie’s lips, because it would be too much to look into Jackie’s eyes as she leans over, closer to her, in a moment that feels like an extracorporeal experience. It feels like she’s gradually scaping her body, more and more the closer she gets. Like it’s not her. Like she’s watching someone else take over her mind and her body and guiding her every action.
And kissing Jackie Kennedy on the lips.
It’s a soft, very quick kiss, like she’s testing the waters. Like she’s having her first kiss. She pulls away after just a few seconds, immediately turning her face away from Jackie, cheeks on fire with shame and – to Elizabeth’s horror – excitement. She feels Jackie’s hand on her face, gently pulling her back and kissing her again, a grown-up kiss this time, Jackie’s tongue so smooth in her mouth as her fingers grip the back of her neck. Elizabeth is once again not in control of her actions, and her own hands rest on Jackie’s naked shoulders, feeling the warmth from her skin and cursing those damn gloves for not letting them touch properly.
It’s such a brand-new feeling, touching another woman like that, and Elizabeth is filled with a childlike curiosity she hadn’t felt in a while. Her kiss is gentle, soft, yet so full of passion that Elizabeth feels out of breath – and definitely out of mind – but at the same time incapable of pulling away for air. Jackie’s words come back to her mind, and if she was asked once again what she wants, her answer would be in fact a simple one: she wants more.
It takes a couple of minutes, this time, for Elizabeth to come back to her senses, but not being able to lose touch with reality seems like an inevitable part of her personality. She breaks away, immediately going up to her feet, as if physical distance is the only thing that will prevent her from falling into temptation once again.
“This is madness, I… I mean… we shouldn’t even be…” she stumbles on her words, her hand on her chest as if to keep her heart from pounding so hard.
All Jackie does is get up too, and slide her hands around Elizabeth’s waist, pulling her closer without any effort, and kissing her again without any resistance. Elizabeth gives in once again, as if she had never protested, her hands searching for Jackie’s skin one more time, as if it wasn’t the first time they had ever done this.
But when the bells on the clocks around the room ring just once, like an alarm, a reminder that time still exists, Elizabeth makes sure to take two steps back when she breaks away from Jackie.
“Mrs. Kennedy, we must get back immediately.” She says with a strong tone, despite her faltering breath and racing heart, calling Jackie by her last name as a reminder to both of them of how careless they are being right now.
Careless. The only thing they are not allowed to be.
Jackie understands – she may be bold, but she is not insane – and although she breathes heavily herself, she nods slightly, and follows in silence as Elizabeth makes her way to the door.
When they get back, Philip is restless, curious, asking a million questions about what they have been doing, and although they are all innocent questions, it only serves to make Elizabeth even more out of her behavior than she already is. She gets herself a glass of champagne, dismissing Philip with a look he rarely – if ever – dared to question. She is back to avoiding Jackie’s eyes – she has done so through the long, silent way back to the ballroom – but she can’t help but look for her from afar once Philip finally leaves her alone. Jackie is walking back to her husband, and Jack looks unamused, calmly offering his arm to her when she approaches him. Elizabeth finds herself wondering if he knows about his wife’s stunts – or wants, as she called it – and, for a second, she thinks about what would happen if she ever answered Philip’s questions with the truth. She couldn’t. She has made keeping secrets into an art form, and this is another one that will peacefully rest in her collection.
She will never let anyone know that she found out what’s so special, so amusing about Jackie Kennedy.