The Clintons are about to be tested by the rigors of a commuter relationship.

The White House will become a swanky pied-a-terre as Hillary Rodham Clinton settles into the couple's new $1.7 million residence in Chappaqua, N.Y. She'll pack; she'll move; she'll leave Billy behind.

Picture this: President Bill heads up to the private residence after a long day in the Oval Office. He shuffles into the kitchen to slip leftover chicken-fried steak into the microwave. He shoves the whole Styrofoam container into the appliance, watches the turntable spin, listens to the whir of the fan and waits for the warning bell to ding. He eats his meat straight from the carton. Standing up. Alone. The wife has the silverware, the kitchen table, the chairs.

Of course, that's fantasy. In our dreams, we make them--Bill and Hill--another common commuter couple.

But they are nothing like us: a president in the twilight of his administration and a first lady making a historic bid for the Senate. Their soon-to-be long-distance marriage endured an infidelity that made international news, triggered an impeachment hearing and tied the country in emotional and political knots. He is arguably the most powerful person in the world. She, arguably, wants to be. Nothing about them is average.

Now, we want to know what the commute will mean for a relationship that has weathered not merely a brief storm, but a year-long typhoon. Will they fight about who has to sit around all day waiting for the cable guy? Worry about all those expensive long-distance phone calls?

But of course, we know they won't be asking those questions. They will be commuting between the White House and a million-dollar home. They have Secret Service protection. They will never get stuck in a traffic jam. They never have to dial information.

So we fret over other mundane questions. Who will get the red sofa? What about the rocking chair? Will all the chintz in the private residence make the move to Chappaqua? (Where's all this mysterious furniture coming from, anyway?)

Where will Socks and Buddy live?

(Socks stays in Washington. Buddy is likely to become a commuting pet. "Buddy travels easier, so he may go up [to Chappaqua] periodically," says spokeswoman Marsha Berry.)

Because Bill and Hillary are silent--and shouldn't they be?--we asked other commuting couples about their experiences and hope that in some way they apply to the Clintons. Furniture--taken or left--becomes symbolic of family, independence, love, transformation. A solitary dinner becomes a metaphor for desertion.

What to Pack

Nothing will happen until the many security issues have been settled. At that point, the Clintons will select a moving date, most likely sometime in mid-January.

Traditionally, folks move in and out of the White House on Inauguration Day. As the outgoing family leaves for the Capitol--the swearing-in is an effective diversion--the moving vans pull up. Old administration out. New administration in. Fast, smooth and coordinated by the chief usher's office.

This time, though, things will be different, less predictable. Furniture, boxes--at the very least a large duffel bag--must be hauled out early and without a convenient distraction. (Does she have matching luggage? Will her tchotchkes be packed away into old cardboard boxes?)

The subject of packing and who will do it sends folks at the White House into a tailspin. No one wants to answer questions: He knows; she knows; no one knows; it's none of your business.

Still, some spare answers have emerged: Apparently, there is furniture. A few pieces have been in use on the third floor of the White House in the family's private residence. The rest is tucked into local storage provided by the White House, says Neel Lattimore, Hillary's former spokesman.

The Clintons have furniture from when they lived in the Arkansas governor's mansion, Lattimore says. While the White House is fully furnished, the Arkansas governor's mansion is not; only the public spaces on the first floor are furnished. The Clintons had to provide their own beds and sofas and such for the private living spaces on the second floor, according to a spokesman for the Arkansas governor's office.

Their furnishings date, at best, to the 1980s. One envisions a glass-top coffee table with a dolphin-shaped base chiseled out of black marble. Maybe they have one of those ubiquitous brown suede sectionals that were so popular during the '80s?

No. The Clintons chose chintz. Think Laura Ashley, faux English country, reconstituted homey. They have a butcher-block kitchen table.

There are no particular pieces that Hillary has talked about moving immediately into the Chappaqua house. No word on which family photos will go to quickly make the new place feel like home. Might she dig up the collection of quilts, campaign buttons and frog paperweights from her days in the governor's mansion?

We envision the Clintons wrestling with the same decision that a lot of commuter couples must: Will the commuting spouse establish a fully equipped second residence? Will she temporarily live the life of a monk with only the barest essentials?

Veteran commuters have taken various approaches.

"We didn't want to live our lives as if we had two homes," says Lee Knefelkamp, a professor at Columbia Teachers College/Columbia University. Knefelkamp commutes between New York and Washington, where she shares a house with her partner of 14 years, Evelyn Beck, a professor at the University of Maryland. "This is a pied-a-terre. Our home is in D.C."

On the other hand, Fran Chang and Sean Tucker, married just over six years, have put off creating a fully realized home anywhere until they're both living under the same roof. Chang, an attorney, lives in the couple's San Francisco house, with its grad school-style furnishings. Tucker, who is finishing up a doctorate, lives in Seattle. They've been building up air miles since 1995.

"It takes a lot of sacrifice," Chang says. "You're going to forgo buying new clothes if the money is better spent on phone calls, or a plane ticket or a better computer so you can telecommute."

One advantage--of many--the Clintons have is that even if Hillary decides to leave the private White House rooms bare--in a fit of residual pique over the infidelity of the past year, perhaps?--Bill will not be relegated to snoozing in a sleeping bag or taking his meals while squatting on the kitchen floor with his dinner plate. There is a vast storehouse of White House furniture to fill in the gaps.

While Hillary has said that she will try not to buy too many new pieces for Chappaqua, one cannot help but think that once she really takes stock of her household possessions--chintz!--she will reconsider. Times changes. Tastes change. She is not the same person who moved into the White House in 1992.

Back then, she brought along her longtime interior decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, known for her interest in faux finishes, neoclassic lines and discretion. Has Clinton outgrown Hockersmith? The designer doesn't return inquiring phone calls.

Tit-for-Tat Commuting

More enticing than determining precisely what Hillary will take and when--a subject on which the official White House response is the verbal equivalent of exasperated hand-wringing--is debating how the marital relationship might be altered.

There are plenty of high-powered, high-profile commuting couples. And the more high-flying, the less of a problem commuting poses. Position and money allow them to overcome most every hurdle. Consider Clinton friend Vernon Jordan, who has taken on a lucrative new job at the New York investment house Lazard Freres. The Washington-based power broker shrugs off the suggestion that there might be any commuting problems for him and wife Ann.

For average couples, those who aren't millionaire dealmakers, for instance, a typical question might be: Will there be a tit-for-tat commuting agreement? I flew down last weekend so shouldn't you fly up this weekend?

"We didn't try to have an equal perspective on who flies," says Knefelkamp, who has commuted to Washington for more than 10 years. "We're in a commuter relationship and I do the commuting."

The president already has stated his willingness to jet north as often as he can, which is not such a big deal considering he's got Air Force One at his disposal and no one's going to fire him if he leaves the office early on a Friday. Besides, who says they're going to even want to see each other every weekend?

"I always joke, when people are appalled that we don't live together, that it's the secret to a happy marriage," says Celes Hughes. She works on Capitol Hill. Her husband, Brian, attends the University of Virginia law school.

"He can focus on his work. I can focus on my work. Then on weekends, we have a little more impetus to focus on each other."

What can't money and power assure? Communication and trust. Uh-oh.

"I had to go down there in the beginning. People said [to her husband], 'Oh sure you have a wife.' I'm like no. I'm real. I exist. I've got a ring on my finger," says Celes Hughes. "Trust is really critical."

And communication is essential. Not just on the big issues, but on the little things that give the day, a week, a life, its character.

"We try to talk person-to-person every day," Chang says. "He has a cell phone. I have all his numbers. We communicate by e-mail. We keep in touch on everyday minutiae."

The secret to successful commuting is a lot like the tricks of the political trade: Communicate, adapt, compromise.

"You adapt the way that you commute to what you need in a relationship," Knefelkamp explains.

For instance, Knefelkamp and Beck start and end their days with a telephone call, despite the resulting exorbitant telephone bills. Knefelkamp is willing to make a mad dash for the last evening shuttle home rather than opting to catch the first one out in the morning. They adjust to being alone and savor their time together. To a great degree, it's what busy couples have to do regardless of whether they commute.

"Things get you down. You're tired because you're traveling constantly. And after a day from hell, I want to curl up in [Beck's] presence and I can't," Knefelkamp says.

But for those who already have a strained relationship, a commute may provide just the breathing space to keep them out of divorce court. Arguments, recriminations and resentment give way to space, blissful silence and invigorating independence. The distance allows the marriage to survive. Divorce begins to look like an unnecessary bother.

No one sprints for the last train of the day. Meetings always seem to run late. One partner forgets to call. And soon, it doesn't matter.

CAPTION: Bill and Hillary Clinton will live apart when she moves to New York, but they won't be your typical commuter couple.