This is the place Effi Barry calls "my sanctuary": a brick house on Suitland Road, a living room with lacy drapes, a thick peach rug, books on African art carefully fanned across glass tables alongside pictures of 5-year-old Christopher Barry, a tall vase of rich, full roses. The 24-hour police detail is housed in a discreet guardhouse outside, and beyond that is what Effi and her husband and their close friends refer to again and again as "the fishbowl."

"It's not only a fishbowl," Marion Barry says. "It's one filled with barracudas and those other fish . . ."

"Piranhas," she offers.

"Piranhas, alligators, crocodiles . . . "

He leans forward while he lists the vicious denizens of this world, as if relishing the image, a low chuckle coming from inside the new double-breasted blue blazer he had brought into the house, still wrapped in its Raleigh's plastic, a few minutes earlier.

"You do the best you can not to murky the waters too much," Effi Barry says, "because you realize other people will do that."

The stories started circulating eight years ago, she says, during the first weeks of her marriage to Marion Barry, the man who would soon be mayor of Washington.

"There have just been all kinds of rumors and innuendoes," she says. "I've moved into the Watergate . . . He lives in the Hilton . . . "

Marion Barry, a man given to blunt talk, confronts such stories in character.

"I shouldn't say this, it's too personal," he demurs, then continues with scarcely a pause. "But I will. Our personal life and sex life is fine."

It is the kind of statement Marion Barry -- direct, forceful, aggressive -- delights in. It is the kind of statement Effi Barry -- wary, restrained, private -- would seem to prefer never having to hear.

Today, March 6, Marion Barry turns 50. Mayor for seven years, he has not yet announced his candidacy for a third term, but has established a campaign finance committee and announced who would manage the campaign if he does run. Twelve years of being the mayor, he says, will be "a sufficient time." For Effi Barry, he says, four years of being the mayor's wife would have been enough.

"Two years is enough!" she says wearily, to a laugh from the mayor.

Political enthusiast and political skeptic sat next to each other in one of three plump peach sofas in the living room of their house one evening earlier this week. Occasionally, a series of thuds echoed through the ceiling, indicating that Christopher had not kept his scheduled 8:30 bedtime. He had just declared his independence of mind by denouncing a new bronze sculpture his father brought home as "the ugliest thing I've ever seen!" A large picture of him sat on a living room table; a china plate emblazoned with a photograph of him as a baby hung on the wall. In the kitchen, magnetic plastic letters spelled out "Chris" on the refrigerator.

Effi Barry, 40, draped in a swooping red gown, propped her legs up on the table to rest her feet, on which she had surgery to reverse what she called "the aging process." The straight line of her back had relaxed slightly; several days after returning from the hospital, she said she was still feeling groggy, and she leaned her head back against the pillows.

"My rude awakening was that you can't just trust people," she said. "You enter any relationship: 'What does the person want?' That's how I have survived this town."

She also has survived by removing herself. Though she campaigned for her husband in his last race and still appears with him at some social/political functions, she is hardly the mobile equivalent of a man who calls himself the "Mobile Mayor." Three years ago, citing health reasons, she cut back on her involvement in city affairs. Eighteen months later, she was hired as a vice president by JAM Corp., a public relations and advertising firm.

"Our first year of marriage was a political campaign, which is totally bizarre," she said. "Your second year of marriage, you're still trying to get accustomed to the state of being married, and then you have to deal with being the first couple of the capital of the free world. I'm a very private person, and I really fight being a public figure. I'm an only child, and I'm basically a loner, but I had all those things that run against my nature and against my grain.

"Marion's first year as mayor, I think I got caught up trying to be everything to everybody. I hit the ground running without anyone to lead me -- accepting every invitation, making appearances at every ribbon-cutting and then going on to a full-time job until I experienced burnout."

Now, she said, "Christopher's in our life, he's my main priority. The banquets and functions will go on forever, but my child will only be young for a short time.

"Marion's away from home most of the time. To be a politician's wife, to be married to a man who is dedicated to making positive change, it's basically leading the life of a single parent, because I have to be two parents at once. I'm a single parent.

"It also puts another dimension to the personal relationship he and I have by virtue of the fact we're never together in public."

Hence the innuendo, she said.

"I tell Effi about a few things I hear from time to time," Barry said.

"The first rumor was right after Marion got into office the first time," she said. Both were invited to a White House state dinner for Anwar Sadat. He went alone.

"I read our marriage was on the rocks," she said. "But I was in New York. My godmother was dying of cancer. She waited long enough to die in my arms. Here I was going through this personal trauma of losing someone very close to me, and I have to come back and read that kind of garbage!"

Then there was the time she lent her car to a friend, which resulted in a story Barry called "a classic example."

"I said, 'People are talking because your car is [at the friend's] in the daytime, but mostly it's there after 10 or 11.' She said 'goddammit!' -- it's one of the few times she'd say that -- 'I can't even lend a friend my car!' "

There has been constant attention to what the Barrys consider their private lives. The purchase of their house, for instance: When they chose the $125,000 Suitland Road property in 1979, they received a discounted mortgage from the Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association, where Effi Barry sat on the board. The bank said discounts were given to all employes. But after questions were raised about it, Barry said he would pay the undiscounted, going rate in order to "scrupulously avoid any action that might cast the slightest doubt on the intergrity of myself, of my wife or the bank."

And her job: After Effi Barry said she was having trouble finding a job because of potential conflicts of interest, she joined JAM. Then the press raised questions about conflicts that might arise from JAM's business with the city, annoying Barry, who said there was no conflict.

And their associations: In 1984, Barry admitted he had had a "personal relationship" with city employe Karen Johnson, convicted of selling cocaine. He said he had occasionally visited her at her apartment over an 18-month period that ended in 1982, but said he was unaware she was involved with drugs.

"People are always talking about him," says Barry's close friend, developer Jeffrey Cohen, godfather of Christopher. "Marion Barry spends a lot of time on the streets working. Effi has chosen not to follow that route. There's not a day that goes by when someone doesn't say they're having an affair with the mayor or would like to or did two years ago, and that's exactly because Marion Barry is a politician who's out there. If he didn't go to 19 meetings a day, they wouldn't say it."

Marion Barry's official day is easily 14 hours long, the mayor said. "I try to make Saturday 'home time' with Christopher, except invariably something comes up."

"Unlike other children, the only time he gets to see Daddy is on the TV," Effi Barry said. "We discuss issues that happen, and he'll say, 'Why don't these people like Daddy?' "

One weekend recently, the father took his son and a young friend to a hotel and checked in for the weekend.

"The guys' weekend to hang out," Effi Barry explained.

"I took them to a movie," he said, "played with them. Then I put them to bed in the other room, thought they were asleep. I went back in -- they were up watching TV."

It is a common Christopher tactic. To his mother's distress, Christopher has a special interest in the R-rated movies on HBO.

"He's seen 'Bachelor Party.' He said, 'Mom, I saw that!' I said, 'Christopher, you shouldn't see that.' Then we talk about why. He's not fazed by naked women or curse words. The only thing he laughs at is underwear: 'Oooh! I saw his underwear!' "

When she talks about her son, Effi Barry seems to loosen, to relax. She shares a pride with her husband that prompts both of them to mention that Christopher reads on a second-grade level, although he is only in kindergarten at a private school in the District.

Helen Moody, an "image consultant" who advised Effi Barry on clothes during the initial six months of her husband's first term, says that in the past seven years the mayor's wife has become "more guarded."

"She doesn't come into a room and circulate. She comes into a room and allows other people to circulate around her. But I know one thing she always smiles and opens up for is a comment about Christopher."

While the Barrys talked, Christopher was a whirlwind in pajamas, racing through the house, leaping onto a kitchen counter to snag an ice-cream sandwich from the freezer, counting at his father's request to 80 in Spanish with a furious energy, slithering across the floor when told to go to upstairs, where he was later discovered dancing on his parents' bed to the sound of the TV.

"Put your brakes on, Christopher!" his mother warned during the living room performance in a voice suggesting the admonition was a familiar one.

Barry wants Christopher to take karate classes after school: "Discipline!" he said. Effi Barry worries about the boy being spoiled, but also about too much being expected of him.

"Just like adults in the public eye are expected to be supernatural people, the children are expected to be supernatural people. No tantrums. 'Did you see that! He's just a spoiled brat!' " she said, her voice growing hard as she imagined the things people might say about her son.

"This is our only child," she said. "It took us a long time. When you become a parent at this age, there's a certain state of awe about it."

In the years before the first child, Marion Barry was married twice, Effi once. A native of Ohio, she moved first to New York and then, when her teaching job fell victim to a budget cut, to Washington, where she became a health inspector for the city department of environmental services, met Marion Barry and carried a torch for Manhattan.

"I said, 'Why go to the Apple when you can come to the core?' " he remembered.

"Or the pit," she muttered with a laugh as if at an old joke, then hurried on to say the city has changed, grown more sophisticated, since she arrived here.

But both agree that Washington also has grown more socially segregated during that time. Barry remembered a dinner they attended at the British Embassy in honor of Prince Charles and Princess Diana; as is very often the case, they were the only black guests.

"I know many black people interested in the arts who could have been invited," he said, but added that "it wasn't anything deliberate."

But 10 years ago, "people would have consciously thought about it more," she said.

"Some people don't like to face the fact time is moving on and you're getting older," the mayor said. "But to me, it's a lot of fun. First of all, you're glad to be here. You appreciate life. I went back to Memphis for my 30th high school reunion and 60 people from my class had died, and those were only the ones they knew about. Some they'd lost track of. We lit a candle for each of them. That was very moving and emotional."

But Barry is a man born poor in Mississippi who arrived in Washington as a vocal civil rights activist, went on to found the job-training program Pride, win seats on the school board and the City Council, then become mayor after a close election in 1978. He is, as he put it, "a survivor."

"When I was getting started in Washington, if you weren't born here you were an outsider. I didn't fit into the mainstream of the black or white community. I was out raising hell. Then I became mayor -- the mayor with a signature can put 500 people to work. Outside the system you really are only responsible to yourself. How do you stick to your values and principles and survive politically? I have these survivor skills. I have a PhD in survivor skills."

One of the skills is knowing how to relax -- "You work hard and sometimes you play hard," is how he put it. Poker games ("it's minor league"), occasional tennis ("I'm too lazy to play"), it all helps ward off the dangers of political life.

"A lot of public officials end up either in bad psychological states of mind, or alcoholic," he said. "I'm neither."

But there have been rough times. The past two years have brought Karen Johnson's conviction, a grand jury investigation into corruption in city government, the convictions of his second wife Mary Treadwell for defrauding the U.S. government, and of his closest political adviser and friend Ivanhoe Donaldson for stealing $190,000 from the city. However, it has not, Barry insisted, been his hardest period on the job.

"You all keep saying that," he said, referring to the press. "Effi knows it was much more difficult my first year in office."

"The budget crisis," she volunteered.

"Those years were the most difficult time in my professional and personal life, notwithstanding Karen Johnson, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Mary Treadwell, all that stuff," he said.

"You can't hold a person responsible for other people's mistakes in their lives, even though there's some association," said Effi Barry.

Before the 1982 election, Marion Barry said if he lost the race, "I know there wouldn't be too many people there . . . Just a few. Maybe 10. Maybe Effi, Ivanhoe."

Now he says that was meant as a comment on the fleeting associations of political life. About Donaldson, who was sentenced in January to seven years in prison, he said, "I don't like to compare myself to Jesus -- I'm not even in that league -- but everyone's got their Judas."

Whatever the emotional impact of acquiring a Judas, Barry predicted that the case will not hurt his administration or his chances of being reelected, despite recent reports that City Council Chairman David Clarke and others are now thinking of joining former school board member Mattie Taylor in the field of challengers to Barry.

"I'm better off than I've ever been," he said. Although others have disputed it, Barry asserted as he has in the past that his administration started the investigation that led to the discovery of Donaldson's crimes. "If anything, the Donaldson situation has helped me in a certain part of the community where I was weak. It's hurt me no place except among my enemies and those people on the council who want to be mayor."

And at that he smiled, the grin of a man who says he probably knows more people in Washington than anyone else, who calls himself "pretty popular in this town" in tones that suggest he feels he is understating the obvious.

So when he announces (it is a question of when, not if, he said), he will be confident that life in the fishbowl will continue.

Which raises certain dilemmas: domestic help, for instance. Two women come in once a week to clean (work, he is quick to point out, that is not paid for by the city), despite the fact that Effi Barry is, according to her husband, "a clean freak."

"That's the way I unwind," she said. "It's my therapy."

"That's why I mess up on purpose," he said. "I leave my things everywhere."

"It's like a trail," she said. "Even Christopher says, 'Oooh, Mommy! Daddy's bathroom is messy!' "

Now Effi Barry would like someone to live in, to help with Christopher, but can't find the right person.

"The utmost concern is loyalty and discretion," she said. "You have someone in the house -- you hear in the streets about your home and about your life."

She will not allow the sanctuary to be breached. For years, "my stated policy was 'no press in the house.' I'm very particular about whom I will let into my home."

But two years ago the policy collapsed; the Barrys hosted a press party in the house.

And how was her mind changed? Frail as she may appear, Effi Barry would be no pushover.

"I," said the mayor, "convinced her."

And with that, he smiled.