Out in the kitchen, I stood at the sink patting dry the lettuce for the salad. In the living room, my wife and our guest talked over the day's developments on Capitol Hill.
We had invited, the boss for dinner -- that special (and, if joked about, still-intimidating) cliche of American work-life. But in this day of two-paycheck families, there was a twist.
It was her boss, not mine.
While Sandy and the bigwig from the home office tackled corporate concerns, I scurried in and out tending the drinks and hors d'oeuvres.
After setting the table, mixing the salad dressing and chasing after more ice cubes -- I joined them for a few minutes. They brought up White House meetings. I, who had not managed to keep up with the conversation, chirped in with news that the cheese they were eating was something I had bought at the A&P.
It hit me as I lighted the table candles that I had become a corporate spouse -- the male version of the helpful wife who does her part to see her husband climb the ladder of success. Even when it puts demands on one's private life.
Can a spouse's boss be impressed by a dinner salad? Could Sandy's boss, if only subconciously, be sizing me up as the suitable helpmate for a rising executive? I worked magic with the lettuce, just in case.
(Let me interject here that I have a long way to go before I become the complete corporate spouse. Sandy escorted her boss out to the kitchen, and he and I watched her prepare the meat course.)
Sandy is a Washington representative for a large insurance firm. She also holds an executive board position in her national professional association.
Both require that she entertain a lot -- at home at times, but more often at expense-account restaurants. In returen, she gets invited to cocktail receptions and dinners that she's obilged to accept.
My responsibility, as a corporate spouse, is to accompany her when invited and be convivial. That's what corporate wives have done for decades.
Though a necessary and important role, it's definitely secondary. Sandy is the star. I'm the bit player. She chooses the restaurant, orders the wine and picks up the tab. The guests are her colleagues, and I'm the outsider who must be introduced. She leads the conversation -- since, after all, it is a business affair.
I've tried to keep up on her office shoptalk so I can make sense out of what's being said. If put to the test, I can probably name her corporate hierarchy faster than mine. But sometimes I click out. You can only expect so much from a tagalong.
My job involves very little entertaining, so that's why most of the functions we troop out to are hers. Unlike many of my own colleagues, I wear jacket and tie to the office daily -- with the expectation that I will be summoned to join her at an impromptu insurance gathering. Have smile, will travel.
A helpmate's life, as many corporate wives perhaps have found, can have other frustrations.
Sandy's job and association tasks frequently require her to travel out of town. Like many a wife whose husband is away on a business trip, I eat a lonely pick-up meal of leftovers. Then I wait for her nightly phone call. Unfailingly; she'll describe a scrumptions Beef Wellington or baked lobster that kept her at a famous restaurant until way past my bedtime.
That sends me reeling to the refrigerator for a midnight peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich.
Sometimes it's the corporate jet that whisks her away in regal comfort. I'm happy she gets to enjoy those perks, but maybe not so much so while I'm in the basement doing the laundry she's not around to help with that week. i
Once I suggested I'd like to go along on a trip to Tulsa, a city I have never seen. Sandy nixed the idea. She was going to be busy, and I would be in the way. She didn't want to worry about my having a good time. Corporate spouses, I understand, get handed that line a lot.
Sometimes I do get to go along, usually for the weekend preceding a conference she's attending. Naturally, we register under her maiden name, which she has kept. I am thus known to the staff as Mr. Sandy.
At the Tides Inn in sleepy southern Virginia, they had trouble adjusting to this role reversal. Sandy's firm had scheduled a large staff conference. Since we were the first of the group to arrive, the hotel phoned our room with last-minute questions about the arrangements.
The clerk, of course, asked for me. I quickly turned him over to Sandy, but that didn't phase him."Your husband must have misunderstood," he told my wife. "I want to ask him about his meetings."
Sandy set him straight.
I've not yet gone along with Sandy to a predominantly male conference where the predominantly female spouses are entertained with fashion shows and flower-arranging demonstrations. Perhaps those things are on their way out as more women gain the executive chairs in traditionally male professions.
Sandy is also taking two college-level courses a semester for professional certification, and this fall she starts teaching a once-a-week insurance class for 20 students. It's a necessary but time-consuming career step. As a result, more of the household reponsibilities fall to me. That, in turn, reinforced my role as corporate spouse.
She hurries off in the evening with briefcase under arm. I scrub the sinks.
How do I feel about this? Do I resent taking the backseat so frequently?
Strangely, I think it's fun. My own career gives me self-satisfaction, and I enjoy watching Sandy who thrives in her work. I suppose a corporate spouse, male or female, might develop a resentment if he or she lacked their own satisfying role.
We have not had to face a potential conflict that haunts every two-career couple. If one of the spouces is transferred out of town, what do you do? Would I be so content as corporate spouse in, for example, Columbus, Ohio? It's hard to say.
Meanwhile, I can sympathize with any wife who sometimes thinks her husband's job makes him neglectful.
On our last wedding anniversary, I waited in vain for the customary card we exchange. When I mentioned it the next day, Sandy replied -- to her credit, somewhat sheepishly:
"I was so busy at the office, I didn't have time to buy one."