The American people — critics and allies alike — like to compare Barry and me to the Obamas. Like the Obamas, we are an African-American couple who ascended to the White House with two young daughters. Both presidents were Ivy League educated lawyers. And Michelle Obama and I, having both been born during the third week of January, occasionally celebrated birthdays on the King Holiday.
What people often intentionally overlooked was how different Barry and I were to the Obamas. Barry and I weren’t married at the time of our elder daughter’s birth — a situation we did not rectify for several years. Having dropped out of college, I am not an Ivy League educated lawyer like Michelle Obama nor do I possess her grace, charisma or charm. And yes, both presidents answered to the nickname “Barry” at some point in their lives, but the names “Barack” and “Barrington” bespeak two very different backgrounds. And, no, despite all the efforts of Barry’s PR machine to create the image of a peaceful cohesive family, Barry and I did not enjoy a particularly happy marriage.
Barry and I were the anti-Obamas.
That means that I have the dubious honor of being the first First Lady to leave her husband after he left office. And all the mail I got after I left — fan mail, hate mail, and everything in between — wanted to know why I had done it when Hillary Clinton and Melania Trump, two women who had had just cause to leave, had chosen to stay. And many of these letter writers erroneously assumed that I was the first First Lady to ever consider divorce, period.
The first official First Lady to ever have been divorced was my immediate predecessor, Karen Pence. However, she and her first husband dissolved their marriage so long before her second husband, Mike Pence, became president, that many people did not even know she was a divorcee.
In addition, to being the first Former First Lady who ever sought to divorce a former president, I am also the very first First Lady to give birth out-of-wedlock and, I am proud to say, I was also the first First Lady to legally retain her maiden name, something that feminists celebrated. And, standing at five feet and one-quarter inch tall, I am also the shortest.
Before that, I was the obscure wife of an obscure New York City councilman, who despite her commitment to her career, was more of a stay-at-home mother than a work-from-home mother. Before that, I was the even more obscure wife of an obscure New York State Assemblyman. Before that, I was the single mother of a daughter, a daughter that I loved fiercely but never planned to have.
And before all that, I was a struggling novelist whose work was better loved by critics than book buyers. I paid the bills with a hodge-podge of writing assignments — freelance magazine articles, copy-writing, music reviews for one online music magazine, book reviews for yet another, the occasional paid blog posts. I was even a Carrie Bradshaw of sorts, dishing up sex advice for one of the many free weeklies that littered the seats and floors of New York City subway cars back in the early Aughties.
Before that I was just Shelley Jane Diggs, daughter of Mary Jane Diggs, a nineteen-year-old high school dropout.
Several months before my birth on January 15, 1972, my mother watched a movie — probably the made-for-television schlock that she preferred — with a character named Shelley. My middle name is Jane because my mother’s middle name is Jane. My last name is Diggs because my mother’s maiden name is Diggs. She never married my father because he was already married to someone else.
My mother never married anybody actually. After she got over my father’s refusal to leave his wife, she dated a string of men before choosing to settle down with the father of my brother, Mike, in 1974. He didn’t last long; by the time my brother made his appearance in mid-1975, Mike’s father, Big Mike, was long gone. My mother had quite a few boyfriends after that break-up. Some of those guys lived with us for periods lasting a few weeks to a few months. Then my mother hooked up with the father of my two youngest brothers, the twins, David and Jonathan, in 1980.
As you might have guessed, my childhood was rather tumultuous. No one has it easy with an emotionally immature, sexually promiscuous mother, especially not when they’re growing up in the Tompkins Houses in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
I resolved early on to get away from my mother. I didn’t like her very much, a feeling that was mutual. I decided that my best means of escape was college. Although my grades were good, I couldn’t get a full ride to an out of state school so I decided that Hunter College was a good idea. I went full-time and worked two part-time jobs to come up with my share of the rent in the Manhattan one bedroom I shared with three other people.
That went well for a year. Then the grant that I needed to cover tuition was defunded and I was unable to borrow enough to stay in school. I dropped out, resolving to go back. And like many people who make similar vows, I never did.
Wanting to be a writer, I took on an unpaid internship at a fledgling feminist magazine while I worked fifty hours a week as a food runner in a theme restaurant. The unpaid internship allowed me to make the connections necessary to land a paid internship at another magazine which in turn resulted in a paid staff position at said magazine. While I never wrote for that periodical, I did make friends with a writer who gave me advice on how to get published in other magazines.
By the time I reached my twenty-fifth birthday, I had published ten magazine articles and was polishing up the final draft of my debut novel. By the time I was twenty-eight, I was earning modest royalties from that book and working on a second. By the time I was thirty, I had published the second book to good reviews but poor sales. I had also landed a column at NYC ALTERNATIVE.
Not being able to afford Manhattan but not wanting to leave, I split a tiny one bedroom apartment in East Harlem with another struggling writer. I learned how to like walking everywhere. I learned to like having Ramen Noodles, Ramen Noodles that I purchased with food stamps, for lunch (and oftentimes dinner) every day.
Sick of hair straightening and realizing just how expensive it was to touch up my new growth every six weeks, I cut off my shoulder length hair and started sporting sisterlocks once my natural texture hair grew out.
I learned how to shape my own eyebrows with tweezers. I learned to like never being able to afford the movies or nights out. I only shopped for clothes twice a year and never bought anything that wasn’t on sale. And I bought a thermos and learned to make decent coffee at home, learned to look away from the enticing storefront windows of all the hipper-than-thou coffee shops that every wannabe screenwriter in a rapidly gentrifying uptown Manhattan patronized.
That’s who I was and how I was living at the time Barry and I first crossed paths.
During Barry’s first presidential campaign, a Huff Post fluff piece falsely reported that Barry had returned my wallet to me after I dropped it, a misconception that Barry and his team conveniently forgot to correct, a misconception that inspired thousands of Twitter memes. The truth is I found Barry’s wallet.
It was resting atop a sewer grate at the corner of 125th and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, looking as if it had been carefully placed there, rather than dropped. It was early in the morning and I was the only person within a one block radius. Taking a quick look around, I bent down and picked up the wallet. It had heft to it, strained to bursting.
The wallet wasn’t new, hadn’t been new for quite some time. However, it was a designer wallet, a brown leather Yves Saint Laurent. A rich guy’s wallet.
When I got home, I looked through the wallet. There was three hundred and fourteen dollars in cash, a New York State driver’s license (date of birth: August 7, 1975), a Visa debit card, a Discover card, an American Express card, three department store cards, and a New York Public Library card. The name on all of the cards was Barrington C. Welles.
The photo on the Drivers’ License didn’t ring any bells but the name sounded familiar. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it before.
Right before I went to sleep that night, I remembered. Barrington Welles was the son of the late Charles Lyman Welles, the six-term US Congressman from New York City who had been killed in a plane crash back in 1992. While his father’s congressional seat was no longer open, Barrington, who preferred to be called Barry, was rumored to be seeking a seat in the State Assembly, seeking out the endorsements and political favors that would get his name on the ballot.
I thought of simply mailing the wallet to the address on Welles’ driver’s license. However, I noticed that the license was about to expire. It was possible that he had moved since then.
On top of that, putting a wallet with several hundred dollars in cash, credit cards, and a license with a Social Security number printed on it was a bad idea; greedy postal workers and sociopathic neighbors stole packages all the time.
And unless I was willing to put my return address on the package, there was no way that I could be sure that Barrington Welles actually got it. There was also the possibility that Barrington Welles would get the package and use my address for nefarious purposes. Just because he was a congressman’s son didn’t mean that he was someone I could trust. Besides, sending packages cost money — money that I really couldn’t spare.
A quick Google search told me that Barrington Welles was an associate for a law firm downtown, a white shoe firm in the Wall Street section. It was then that I toyed with the idea of just keeping the wallet. Welles was a son of privilege; his family had money and Welles had to be earning a high salary. He wouldn’t miss the money and he had the means to quickly replace whatever else was in the wallet.
And I was broke. My rent check had cleared, dropping my checking balance down to four dollars and seventy-one cents. Two checks from freelance assignments were late and my cell phone would be cut off on the first of the month if I couldn’t come up with fifty dollars to keep it turned on.
Then I decided against it. I would hate it if someone found my wallet and kept it. And, even if no one else ever knew what I had done, I would know and I would feel bad about it, attracting bad karma all the while. I had an appointment downtown the next day anyway. I could deliver it in person and be on my way in no time flat.
The security guards working the front desk in the building’s lobby waved me to the elevators without asking me for ID or asking me to sign in. This surprised me. I always — always — had trouble with gatekeepers, the people who watched doors, answered phones, made appointments. They either paid too much attention or none at all. They never knew the answers to the questions that I asked, could never help, would never pass along a message to the higher-ups on my behalf. And they were almost always rude.
I guess that’s why I wasn’t more put off by the receptionist’s attitude. The reception desk, sat about fifteen feet away from the glass double doors that led into the Law Offices of Sloane, Petersen, and Richards.
“Can I help you?” The receptionist’s tone was harsh and suspicious.
I stated my business to her, dropping Welles’ wallet onto the counter. The receptionist, a fortyish woman with a fat pug nose and a wen on her chin, contorted her face in disapproval.
“Sign in, please,” the receptionist said, sliding a sign-up log across the desk.
I picked up the pen and signed even though I had no intention on staying. The receptionist then grabbed the wallet and got up.
“I’ll see if Mr. Welles is available,” the receptionist said without even looking up at me.
“I don’t need to see him — “ I called out after her.
The receptionist disappeared down a corridor. I decided to leave. Judging from the incredulous look on her face when I told my story, the receptionist was probably calling the cops on me from another room. Because none of my good deeds had ever gone unpunished, I feared that I would end up spending the night in the Tombs over a wallet I didn’t steal. Once the receptionist’s footfalls faded away, I stepped out of the reception area and into the elevator.
Six weeks passed. In that time, I fought with my roommate who eventually decided to move, had my sex advice column in NYC ALTERNATIVE syndicated in other free weeklies (which paid enough for me to finally get off food stamps and pay rent all on my own) and finished the final draft on my third novel. I forgot all about Barrington Welles’ wallet.
So imagine my surprise when one day in late summer, Elizabeth, the rather flighty receptionist at NYC ALTERNATIVE, left me a breathless message telling me that Barrington Welles had dropped by the office looking for me.
“He was soooo cute! How do you know him? Call me back when you get the chance, okay?” Elizabeth said at the end of the message.
I called her back and told her about finding Welles’ wallet. She was annoyed that I hadn’t told her.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” I said, truthfully. No one in my social circle would have found that story to be the least bit interesting.
“Well, I didn’t see a ring on his finger and Welles seemed really interested in meeting you.”
“You didn’t give him my number, did you?”
I really had to ask. Elizabeth didn’t understand that handing out personal contact info without permission was a no-no.
“No. I told him to leave his number.”
I had no intention of ever calling Welles. He had gotten his wallet back so we had nothing else we needed to say to each other.
Elizabeth knew me well enough to realize this. That’s exactly why she told Welles to wait for me outside the next day when I was scheduled to pick up my check.
Startled, I looked up to see Welles walk over to me, extending his hand. I accepted his right hand and we shook.
“Nice to finally meet you,” he said.
“Likewise,” I said, even though I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it.
“You sure? Cora tells me that you hightailed it out of the office.” Welles lifted his rather bushy brows at me.
“I didn’t know she cared so much. She was kinda rude.”
Welles nodded, silently acknowledging that he’d heard similar complaints about Cora in the past. “She’s the niece of one of the senior partners so…”
It was my turn to nod. Nepotism always trumped incompetence.
“So, uh, how did you find me?” I asked.
“You signed in, remember? There are only so many women named Shelley J. Diggs in New York City. And I knew one of them wrote this column.”
At that, Welles pulled a folded copy of NYC ALTERNATIVE out of his back pocket. He flipped to the back pages where my column ran. A photo of me accompanied my byline.
“You read my column?”
“Every week. I’m a fan.”
“I was hoping to treat you to dinner or something. You know, as a reward.”
I felt my face get hot. It had been quite some time since anyone had asked me out on a date.
“Mr. Welles — “
“Barry. Please call me Barry.”
“Barry, I can assure you that that isn’t necessary — “
Welles — Barry — grinned at me. “Then do it because it isn’t necessary. Do it because it’s fun.”
I hesitated. First, I wasn’t dressed to go anywhere decent. Second, the fact that Welles — Barry — was a fan of my column could be ominous; too many men thought I was “easy” because I got paid to write columns about “friends with benefits.” Would I spend the evening slapping his hands away? Or worse?
Still, it had been a long time since I’d gone out. Despite the fact that my career was steadily improving, I still didn’t make enough money to afford nights out. And it had been too long since I had had sex.
Maybe I needed to go on this date with Barry, have his hand resting on my knee, sliding up my thigh. Although I didn’t feel an instantaneous attraction to him, Barry was nice to look at — tall, golden skin, green, almond shaped eyes. And Barry had said something about treating me.
And there was nothing in my refrigerator but two bruised apples, a flat beer, cold cuts, and a stale bagel. And there wouldn’t be any more food until I cashed my check. Tomorrow.
When was the last time an incredibly good-looking brother — a financially successful one at that — materialized out of thin air and offered to take me some place? Never.
“I’m not dressed — “
“I can pick you up later. Is eight too late?”
It was already after five. It would take me at least an hour to get home. Then I would have to shower, shave, do my hair, and choose an outfit…
“Eight would be great.”
“Ok. See you then.”