“Remember you can tell your grandchildren about this,” Jen’s husband snidely told her. She got out of his dark blue Mercedes wearing her best fitted navy Olga Cassini interview suit, and inhaled the cool crisp autumn morning. “You have a run in your stocking. Also, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes, to pick you up from your interview,” he added before driving away. General Bill Nathan knew that his wife’s old Honda could break down anytime and he didn’t want to be embarrassed. He’d volunteered to drive her the twelve miles through the DC traffic to the Old Executive Building before heading out to play golf at the Army Navy Country Club. Since Bill retired, he had playing golf six days a week and enjoying lunch with his friends the Club.
After almost thirty years of marriage, Jen understood her husband’s controlling, unhappy moods. She knew that he hated DC. Thankfully, Jen thought, he’d been placing in a few golf tournaments.
Bill expected his wife to serve a homemade four course dinner, seven days a week, with cocktails and various hot appetizers exactly at 5:30PM. She began with a plain salad without dressing, then fresh meat with a complementary side vegetable and some kind of potato dish and with a glass of appropriate wine was served. Exactly one hour later, a low-calorie dessert with decaffeinated coffee was presented. If her husband brought home a surprise guest, she would make last minute accommodations without comment. Jen didn’t mind the routine. She’d grown accustomed to it and took pity on the General since he was forced to retire knowing that politically he’d never make his second star. For the past three years, Bill had been home seven days a week.
Jen’s husband purchased a used silver Honda Civic for her and their two children, when they were stationed overseas. Over the years it had grown quite rusted due to the salted icy roads of Germany, England and DC, and a four-inch hole had grown into the floorboard. Bill purchased a new Mercedes sedan for himself with his retirement package, explaining to his wife that he’d worked to earn it and her Honda was still functional. Bill decided to go through their home expenses after the purchase, to relieve Jen of one of the family duties.
“Scott doesn’t need to go to college,” Bill announced. “We can instead invest that money in a beach front winter home in Florida. Maybe something in Coco Beach.”
Jen looked up from the ironing board where she was pressing Bill’s golf slacks, “But Scott said that he wanted to enroll in Barry University for the fall,” she said.
“Paying for four years of boarding school at New York Military Academy should be fine for him,” Bill replied, “I had only a high school diploma when I entered the military.”
“But you had to get a college degree to become an officer, remember.” Jen reminded.
“That’s nonsense” Bill scoffed. “He could easily find work as a maintenance person. Scott doesn’t seem like college material, anyway.”
Jen’s eyes puddled as the steam from the iron rose up. All the scrimping, saving, discounts for educational travel, and major networking she’d done hoping to provide her children a better life, crumbled with Bill’s declaration. Her comfortable looking life was a facade. She’d married an angry man who needed their children socially, but really had no desire to be a father to them. As she let the hot iron linger on Bill’s crisp pleats, Jen realized she could no longer depend on her husband for her future.
Her “military life” socially frowned upon a General’s wife working outside of the home. Jen understood her job, according to her husband, was to entertain and socialize on base and help her him progress his standing. She’d not had a real job for 30 years. She hoped her 25 years’ experience as a volunteer manager with the Red Cross, would count for something. She figured she’d need to make some kind of real income to pay for college applications, SAT classes, and tutoring for her children. Jen had no idea how to even start looking. Later that week, while Jen was grocery shopping at the base commissary, she noticed an advertisement for a part-time legal secretary tacked up on the community bulletin board, and immediately called to get an interview, when she returned home.
Luckily, not many people had applied to work in the dark, cramped legal office, so she was offered the part-time position within walking distance from her house immediately after interviewing. The hourly salary was so low, Bill told her to just keep her own money, when she told him about the offer.
“I guess it would be okay. As long as you’re home by 4:00PM. You can pay for your own expensive fashionable clothing and extraneous gifts for the family,” Bill said. Jen knew she would use her earnings to pay for her children’s college applications and put aside some for her own car without her husband knowing about it.
Within a year, Jen was promoted to full-time, developing new skills and confidence that she had never felt before. She was constantly surprised when her bosses complemented her on her quick flawless typing, rare shorthand skills, and her openness to learn more. She had never received complements from her husband. Jen didn’t realize she held any value inside or outside her home.
In two years, Jen put in hours of hard work, early mornings, and baked dozens of varieties of homemade cookies. Her supervisors knew she had the ability to expand her limited world and began encouraging her to look for further opportunities outside the base. They suggested she apply for a federal job with the Vice President of the United States. When she brought home the lengthy application, Bill laughed at her, “You don’t even have the ability to fill out the that thing out. Be a doll and refresh my drink.”
As Jen turned to watch Bill drive off, she quickly double checked her hose. She looked up at the looming steps before her and thought back to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, forty years earlier, standing on the Becker County Court House steps. She remembered the exact feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, and humbleness filling her chest dressed in her business best.
Jen entered the Beaux Arts building. She noted the polished black marble floors as a guard checked her ID at the front desk. Her interview was to be with Jennifer Fitzgerald, Vice President Bush’s chief of staff. The immaculately coiffed Jennifer in her cream St. John suit walked out and greeted Jen into her classically decorated office with a warm handshake and smile. “Please make yourself comfortable, and have seat,” she said, indicating a 19th century ivory stuffed chair, next to the mahogany antique cocktail table in the sitting area.
“You have great references, can type well, and I can’t believe that you actually know shorthand. George really needs someone to precisely dictate his conversations and letters to his constituents,” Jennifer explained. “Can you tell me a little about yourself?”
Jen gently cleared her throat, “Well, I’m married and have two children in college. My husband is a retired USAF General. We moved to Alexandria from Upper Hereford, England after beginning assigned to many other places for the past 25 years.” She omitted the fact that she’d been forced to move every two and a half years to appease her husband’s military career, and was left home alone most of the time raising their two children. She kept silent about how Bill had volunteered for an additional two years as a fighter pilot in Vietnam when she was pregnant with their second child. These details felt irrelevant as Jen uncrossed her legs and sat up to better focus on Jennifer’s questions.
Two and half hours later, Jen returned to the base by a yellow cab, carefully preparing the evening’s stuffed baked clams, mini quiches, and olive cheese balls appetizers, as she wore her ruffled trimmed apron, when the phone rang. The General picked up the receiver and announced that a Ms. Fitzgerald was calling. “I’ll take in our room,” Jen replied. She untied her apron, left the kitchen and climbed the staircase, leaving Bill behind to freshen his own drink.