Carmela Clendening knows what she wants in life — and isn’t afraid to go after it.
So when John Fernandez walked into a New York bar flanked by two beautiful women in September 2007, she was only temporarily deterred.
“Wow, who is that?” she asked. A mutual friend said he was a business school student from New Jersey and that the accompanying ladies were his sisters.
Clendening moved in, started a conversation and invited him to lunch the next day. Fernandez declined, saying he already had lunch plans with his sister.
But the next night, Clendening and Fernandez, who had overlapping groups of college friends, wound up at the same birthday dinner. As they talked, she became even more intrigued. Like her, he was Filipino-American, Catholic, financially secure and big on fitness.
“There were things that just clicked,” recalls Clendening, who lived in Washington and worked as a staffer for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “He fit an ideal I was looking for.”
When Fernandez mentioned he had plans to meet up with a buddy for a bike riding weekend in Washington, Clendening responded, “I have a bike.”
“She was very forward, which I kind of loved,” says Fernandez, now 33. “She sort of invited herself out. I thought that was very interesting.”
They walked out together and traded contact information. Clendening used an upcoming race as an excuse to call him for running tips. When they got into an e-mail exchange about energy policy, she could tell he’d studied her boss’s position on the issue.
Two weeks after they met, Fernandez traveled to Washington. The bike ride never happened, but he and Clendening shared a first kiss. “I was never nervous around him,” she says. “That was one of the good things.”
By the time he left, they knew they’d see each other again. “I was like, ‘That was fun. I can’t wait,’ ” Fernandez says.
She made the next trip up to New York and then he returned to Washington. By winter, they’d fallen into an every-other-week schedule of visits. “It was pretty natural,” says Clendening, now 31. “It was like a treat — like a vacation every time we saw each other.”
With Fernandez, Clendening got to take a break from talking about politics. They ran together, hung out with friends and found that they could turn almost anything into a competition. “Even walking down the street is fun for us,” she says.
But what impressed Clendening most was the way Fernandez treated his family — and how that was reflected in their relationship.
“He is so unbelievably generous — always wanting to do things for me. Every time we’re eating a meal, he’s like, ‘Do you want the last bite?’ That little act was very symbolic to me of the kind of husband and kind of father that I wanted for my kids and for me,” she says. “He was just very different from every other guy I dated in the sense that he was very giving of himself.”
Fernandez was enchanted by her smarts and beauty — and also her ambition. “She’s very driven and she has these very lofty goals, and it kind of helps me to keep on track,” he says. “I could definitely see us doing big things together in our future, and I was excited about that.”
Fernandez graduated from business school and got a job with a financial company in New York the following year. Because their careers were so rooted in their respective cities, there was no prospect of being together anytime soon. But in many ways, they say, the separation strengthened their relationship. “There was definitely a lot of mutual trust between us,” he says. “And part of being long distance is we have to have good communication.”
After the 2010 election, Clendening was ready to move on from politics. She tried to find a job in New York but was hired by Hewlett-Packard in Washington. Fernandez looked for a position in Washington, but nothing seemed to work out. Still, neither questioned their future together.
In December 2010, they arranged a last-minute trip to Paris. Standing before the Eiffel Tower at night, Fernandez pulled out a ring and asked Clendening to marry him.
Even as they planned the wedding, they weren’t sure where they could make a life together. But in December, HP offered Clendening a position in Palo Alto. She’d always dreamed of living in California, and Fernandez’s firm had an office in San Francisco.
Ten weeks before their wedding date, they finally landed in the same city. “We’re kind of on neutral ground. I wasn’t coming to her city, she wasn’t coming to my city,” he says. “And we’re making decisions together about what kind of furniture we want, where we want to live. It’s been fun.”
On May 12, Fernandez blinked back tears as Clendening walked down the aisle of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in the District. After exchanging vows, they celebrated with friends in the gardens of the Meridian House. Bringing the feel of California back with them, they dined al fresco, setting up farm tables and chandeliers in a grove of Linden trees.
Just before dinner, Clendening and Fernandez grasped hands. Guests looked on as they danced under a blue sky to the song “Stand By Me.”
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