Last week Ashley and I attended a fundraising event put on by the Young Professionals of Houston in support of city mayor, Bill White’s bid for the U.S. Senate. Our presence wasn’t due to our rampant political activism per se (I was surprised to learn that Mayor White was a Democrat, this after he’d already completed two terms as mayor.), but because of Ashley’s work in designing the invitations. In recent month’s Ashley has been doing more and more freelance work, growing a client base that now spans across the country. The increased demand, by her admission, is baffling, but not to me. What separates Ashley from the myriad of others able to navigate the incalculable nuances of graphic design software is a little something known as flair, an assertion I am fully qualified to make as a former marketing professional completely free of the biases from being her husband. And despite Ashley’s tendency to downplay this, many, from customers to casual observers, feel the same as I.
The greater significance in this goes beyond the cursoriness of simple success warranting the typical congratulatory remarks, but in knowing the fuller circumstances of Ashley’s story: A substance-abusing father who died of a drug overdose in her teen years; the cheating husband who abandoned her, the struggles as a single mother with two small daughters; the blatant job discrimination and string of lay-offs as a result, the strength she provided to her sister after their mother barely survived an aneurysm amid the afore mentioned hardships; the constant threats of creditors and landlords bereft of compassion in demanding payments, the tormenting forces of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Anyone of these events would be enough to push the sanest of people to the brink of their emotional faculties—me included.
It was befitting then to hear Ashley’s name being applauded in recognition for her creative contributions the very moment after the lady holding the clipboard like St. Peter at the pearly gates asked if she were on “The List.”
“That would be me,” Ashley replied with a blush as the clapping faded.
“Oh, you’re actually a co-host too,” the gate keeper said, a hint of surprise spiked the pitch in her voice as if a member of the royal family had just revealed themselves to her. “And you?” she asked turning to me.
“I would be the ‘Plus One.’” Referring to myself by numerically rather than by my birth name should’ve seemed odd, especially when I’ve had the more experience introducing Plus Ones than in being one myself. Usually I’m also the one playing locomotive to Ashley’s caboose in navigating our way through crowded rooms, but Ashley needed no one to lead her anywhere that night and doing so would’ve proved futile since every time I looked over my shoulder, Ashley was engaged in conversation with someone or another. My function for the evening was relegated to ordering drinks, protecting orphaned purses and learning how to operate the photo function on an innumerable cell phones—duties I performed without complaint.
Returning with another round of vodka-laced beverages wedged precariously between my overextended fingers, I was stopped by the sight of Ashley conversing with Mayor White. There was no anxiety in her face or nervous signs of fidgeting, only poise, and a resplendent comfort in her surroundings and with her current company. Rather than insert myself into the scene, I stood back, content in acknowledging the senselessness of stealing a second of Ashley’s celebrity even in handing her a drink without a word.
Since the day when our bread-winning roles were reversed, Ashley has made a name for herself at work receiving a personalized mention in her company’s annual letter to its stockholders; making her own network of friends (Hi Beth, Liz and Lauren); and as a result gaining a confidence that continues to carry her towards new opportunities. When I congratulate her on these successes Ashley counters with reminders that her achievements were in some way predicated on my presence. I disagree, and furthermore, for me to think so would only be foolish and arrogant on my part. At best, my role is auxiliary to Ashley’s work, having nothing to do with the talent, creativity and know-how that has earned her the credit she has, for years before me, been due. The fact that the Mayor personally asked Ashley in their conversation to do more design work for him in his senate campaign further proves my point.
Towards the end of the night, I joined my wife and her friends outside for a cigarette. (Yes, I know, but we belong to that nefarious group of commitment-challenged individuals responsible for the creation of that category known as “social smoker.”) As people sauntered up to our little huddle social smokers, Ashley and I were limited to only visual contact. From my vantage point on the other side of the awning where we were all gathered, I could see Ashley chatting away with those that surrounded her, and mentally I rehearsed the dexterous mannerisms of Don Draper wielding a Lucky Strike. As I continued to entertain myself, a young blond asked me for a light to which I obliged with all the coolness of a true gentleman from the late 1950’s. This in turn lead to a conversation over the course of which, I noticed my wife flash her eyes at me in an amused expression as if to ask, “Who’s the bimbo?”
The smile on my face must have tipped off my present company, and she turned to look over her shoulder. “That’s my wife,” I explained holding up my ring finger.
“Yeah? And how did you meet?” the Blond asked blowing smoke from the long unconcerned drag she just took.
“So that really works, huh?” There was a skepticism in her voice, the source of which I had difficulty attributing to either her own unproductive experiences with e-dating or her questioning the validity of the strength of my marriage.
“Heck yeah!” I responded. What followed was a fifteen-minute oral history of my relationship with Ashley finishing with the purpose behind our presence this evening. I’m not sure if it was the part about me staying home, the five kids, the minivan, or my claim to being a writer (an admission that by itself indicates the number of Absolut and soda’s with lime I had downed), but somewhere along the way, the Blond’s interest seemed to wane. Or maybe she realized her function equated to that of an out-of-date magazine lounging in a dentist office, a mere time-filler for a man in love with his wife and proud of her for getting up after every fall.