A good diplomat's wife.
When I was still in college and Joe was just barely out, he sat the Foreign Service Officer Test. I was too distracted by my own efforts to get myself into law school to really think about what his taking the FSOT might mean for him and for us as a couple. All I knew was that he was (and still is, of course) ridiculously smart and fluent in a couple of languages. Trying to become a Foreign Service Officer seemed to make as much sense as any of the other options he was considering.
I have hazy memories of him telling me about the exam as we drove somewhere — maybe the grocery store? But I don’t remember telling him that I thought I’d make a good diplomat’s wife. He assures me that I did and I believe him. It sounds like something I would have said.
I can pretty well imagine what I thought a “good” diplomat’s wife looked like. I’m sure my ideas had been pieced together from movies and my own romantic interpretation of the couple of stories my father had told me about his time as an embassy Marine guard before I was born. I’m sure I pictured a potential future for myself that would involve traipsing around the world in stylish outfits and hosting cocktail parties, supporting Joe in his very important work of whatever it was that I thought that diplomats do. I’m also quite positive that I would have thought myself an excellent candidate for my would-be “job” because of my self-proclaimed good taste in wine and what I considered to be a highly-developed sense of things done and not done. I had, after all, read Emily Post’s Etiquette from cover to cover several times over.
But Joe didn’t make it through to the Foreign Service that go around. And our relationship didn’t survive me dropping out of law school after the first semester and leaving him in Boston.
I don’t remember him suggesting that we’d figure out a way for me to stay in the city with him. He assures me that he did but that I had already made my mind up about what I believed to be an impossible proposal. I only remember my heart breaking as I drove a rented minivan filled to the brim with all my worldly possessions halfway back across the country the first week of January, 2006. The sting of my tears running dry somewhere near the Indiana/Illinois border and realizing I was probably long past the point of pulling over for the night. And the kindness of the night manager as she handed me my hotel room key. I remember looking in the mirror as I brushed my teeth and being surprised by the woman with bloodshot eyes staring back at me.
I remember the eleven years in between.
When I saw Joe’s Facebook post in May 2017, I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that he’d found a way to become the Foreign Service Officer he was probably always meant to be. We had stayed cordial via social media over the years and had even exchanged a few pleasantries via email every other blue moon or so, but hadn’t spoken much since an awkward lunch in 2013 that left us both wondering if the person we had been in love with so long ago was lost and gone forever. I briefly registered a tiny pang of bittersweet sadness as I allowed myself to think about all the could-have-beens but quickly tamped down the feeling and joined all the other well-wishers congratulating him on his impending move.
And that’s probably where this story could have ended. With me spending an otherwise unremarkable evening drinking tea alone in my apartment, gazing out the window across the alley to the brownstone where F. Scott had penned the novel that would win him Zelda’s hand, and wondering what was next for me.
I didn’t have to wait long. My existential musings were interrupted by a Facebook message bubble popping up on my screen.
“If you want to get that blanket you left in Boston however many years ago back, you’ll have to come to Brussels. They packed it up with my stuff.”
And so it began. An evening filled with witty messages back and forth along with a few expressed regrets (mostly on my part) that somehow culminated in me brazenly suggesting that Joe meet me in London a few weeks later when I would be there for work.
The night we met up at the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens was the same night a van would slam into unsuspecting pedestrians before its knife-wielding occupants would run through Borough Market only a few hours after we had walked across another bridge while I told Joe that the thing I most admired about him was his tendency to never take life for granted.
The next day we walked through Kew Gardens with all the seriousness of two people desperately trying to play it cool.
Maybe it was an aftershock of having been in close proximity to terror the night before, or maybe “I love you,” was simply the truest thing to say to him as he left me at my hotel on the night of Sunday, June 4, 2017. Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to hear him say it back.
It is an odd feeling to be falling in love again with somebody who is both familiar and strange at the same time. It’s an odder feeling yet to begin to realize that you probably never stopped falling in the first place.
It wasn’t an entirely easy thing to do and, at times, it was almost unpleasant. I reckoned with the time in between — when both of us had gone on with our lives and even loved others. I romanticized his multiple moves across the U.S. and criticized my own inability to leave the Twin Cities despite intentions to. And I was simultaneously embarrassed by and proud of where life had taken me in the previous eleven years. There were times that I wondered if one can ever truly come home again.
But I had left London knowing — even more than most things I had ever known before — that the only place that would ever really feel like home was by Joe’s side. And so I suspended disbelief and I leaned into trusting him when he said that he thought I’d make, at least for him, an excellent diplomat’s wife.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what that means: to be a “good” diplomat’s wife. And I’ve learned that, like so many other things in the Foreign Service, the answer is most often “it depends.”
It wasn’t always the case. I’m extremely grateful that the definition of “good” isn’t what it once was. In the “good old days,” a trailing spouse (almost always female) played a supporting role that was critiqued to the point of being included in the officer’s performance evaluations. I’m thankful that my experience so far has been more like the one Jessie Bryson wrote about in 2014. Because I, too, “can’t imagine making a pot roast, let alone being judged for one.”
In the not-quite-year I’ve been at post, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and even become friends with a good number of spouses at all stages in their Foreign Service journey. Some, like me, are newbies trying to navigate how to be supportive spouses while still maintaining individual identities. Others are on their third or even fourth tour and are filled with the knowledge and wisdom that only comes from having been there and done that. It’s the ones who have a life and marriage that look (at least from the outside) like what I would want for myself that I ask for advice and mentorship from — they are the ones who are teaching me how to create a definition of “good” that works for me, for Joe, for his career, and for our marriage.
So, what exactly makes for a good diplomat’s wife?
Photo by Joe, June 3, 2017.