‘It was like some­thing out of a movie’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ON LOVE - BY ME­GAN MCDONOUGH me­gan.mcdonough@wash­post.com

Barack Obama can add an­other ac­com­plish­ment to his ré­sumé: playing match­maker for Ash­ley Baia and Su­sana Raquel Berger, al­beit in­di­rectly.

The cou­ple met in March 2012 while work­ing on the former pres­i­dent’s re­elec­tion cam­paign in Vir­ginia. Both of them had also worked on the Obama 2008 cam­paign, but it wasn’t un­til an all­staff event in Wil­liams­burg that their paths crossed.

Ash­ley, a former White House staffer and field direc­tor in Rich­mond, no­ticed her close friend Brian Gill wav­ing to Su­sana on the fi­nal day of their re­treat and told him she thought Su­sana was cute.

Min­utes later, when Brian walked up to chat, Su­sana con­fided that she had a crush on the boss, who hap­pened to be Ash­ley.

“I’d love to tell you that I care­fully hatched the plan to get them to­gether,” says Brian, “but truth be told, I was merely a fa­cil­i­ta­tor.”

“There was some­thing for us at first sight that just clicked,” says Su­sana, 30, a re­search an­a­lyst at the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union.

See­ing an op­por­tu­nity, Brian ar­ranged for Ash­ley to stay at Su­sana’s brother’s house on Capi­tol Hill, where Su­sana was liv­ing, dur­ing cam­paign events in Washington.

Af­ter work, they bonded eas­ily and quickly over pol­i­tics and board games, and chat­ted like old friends. There was just one is­sue: Ash­ley was tech­ni­cally Su­sana’s su­per­vi­sor, even though she didn’t re­port to her di­rectly and they lived in dif­fer­ent towns.

So they ap­proached a pos­si­ble ro­mance with cau­tion. They also rec­og­nized the often short-lived na­ture of cam­paign-trail re­la­tion­ships.

But, as time went on, they found it in­creas­ingly difficult to hide their at­trac­tion, and one night in late April, af­ter a com­pet­i­tive game of Set­tlers of Catan, they shared a kiss.

They man­aged to keep their long-dis­tance relationship se­cret for the re­main­der of the cam­paign. “We’d like to think we were pretty sly about it, but some peo­ple def­i­nitely caught on,” Su­sana says.

In early July, dur­ing a rare two-day break from the cam­paign, they stayed at a bed-and­break­fast in Fred­er­icks­burg, Va., the half­way point be­tween their two cities, and grew closer.

“For the first time, we didn’t have to hide our relationship and were able to act like a real cou­ple,” says Su­sana. “It was per­fect.”

It wasn’t long be­fore they ex­changed “I love yous,” and af­ter Obama’s vic­tory in Novem­ber, they moved in to­gether.

“We went from liv­ing sep­a­rately in dif­fer­ent cities to liv­ing to­gether,” Su­sana says. “We may have skipped a step or two, but it al­lowed us to fig­ure out the next phase of our relationship.”

Af­ter Obama’s sec­ond in­au­gu­ra­tion, they be­gan plan­ning for the fu­ture.

“There’s a feel­ing when you come off a cam­paign, es­pe­cially a pres­i­den­tial one, of grief,” Su­sana says. “It’s this huge part of your life that you’ve been ded­i­cated to for so long — 18 hours a day, seven days a week — and then, sud­denly, it’s all over. You’re (a) ex­hausted but also (b) fig­ur­ing out what your life is about now.”

Crav­ing a new ad­ven­ture, they packed their be­long­ings into Ash­ley’s Mini Cooper, em­barked on a month-long, cross-coun­try road trip and moved to Oak­land, Calif., in July 2013.

The trip so­lid­i­fied Ash­ley’s feel­ings for Su­sana. “I re­al­ized then that I could spend a month in this tiny car with this woman and still laugh and have fun ev­ery sin­gle day,” says Ash­ley, 32, a vice pres­i­dent of 270 Strate­gies, a po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm.

Af­ter their first year to­gether, Ash­ley felt so con­fi­dent and com­fort­able with their relationship that she be­gan drop­ping not-so­sub­tle hints about mar­riage. But Su­sana im­plored her to wait.

“My par­ents, who I view as hav­ing the ideal mar­riage, had a long courtship … which lasted nearly a decade,” Su­sana says. See­ing how well it worked out for them, she pic­tured spend­ing at least three or four years with her part­ner be­fore en­ter­ing into a mar­riage.

So the dis­cus­sion was tabled. But in Oc­to­ber 2013, life threw them a curve­ball: Su­sana’s father, Fred, was di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer.

“It changed our lives a lot,” Su­sana says. “We were just start­ing to build a life to­gether on the West Coast and it was very much cut short.”

With Ash­ley’s full sup­port, they moved back East, where they faced more chal­lenges: Su­sana’s un­cle died, they moved Ash­ley’s mother to a new home and helped plan Su­sana’s sis­ter’s wed­ding, and they adopted a res­cue mutt named Ru­fus.

“In the first five years of our relationship, we’ve gone through more life changes and chal­lenges than some cou­ples face in 15 years of mar­riage,” Su­sana says. “I thought, ‘If we can make it through this, we can make it through any­thing.’ ”

Ash­ley’s de­vo­tion, both to Su­sana and her fam­ily, ce­mented Su­sana’s feel­ings, and in early 2015, she let Ash­ley know that she was ready to get en­gaged.

In April, Su­sana’s father’s health took a turn for the worse. Know­ing his days were lim­ited, Ash­ley ar­ranged a meet­ing among the three of them.

Tak­ing his hand at the side of his hos­pi­tal bed, Ash­ley asked for his mar­riage bless­ing. To their sur­prise, he be­came more re­spon­sive and pulled Ash­ley close. “I would be ab­so­lutely hon­ored to have you be a part of my fam­ily,” he said.

Beam­ing, he asked with hu­mor: “Any idea on the time­line?”

Luck­ily, Ash­ley came pre­pared. “How about now?” she asked, and walked over to Su­sana. Tak­ing a knee, she pre­sented her with a bright blue Ring Pop.

Fred died five days later. “Watch­ing Ash­ley share that mo­ment with my dad is all I ever wanted,” Su­sana says. “I just wanted him to know that some­body, some­body who loves me so much, was go­ing to con­tinue to pro­vide for me.”

Two months later, the cou­ple took a 10-day trip to France, ar­riv­ing in Paris the day the U.S. Supreme Court’s land­mark de­ci­sion le­gal­ized same-sex mar­riage. To cel­e­brate, Ash­ley sneaked out of the room while Su­sana was in the shower and bought flow­ers and cham­pagne. When Su­sana emerged, she dis­cov­ered a trail of rose petals, which led to Ash­ley on bended knee hold­ing a real sap­phire ring.

“It was like some­thing out of a movie,” Su­sana says. Her re­sponse was once again cheer­ful and tear­ful.

On Feb. 19, 2017, the cou­ple ex­changed vows be­fore 122 guests at Su­sana’s fam­ily home on Con­ta­dora Is­land in Panama. The four-day cel­e­bra­tion spanned Pres­i­dents’ Day week­end.

“The is­land is the most beau­ti­ful place on the planet, but a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare,” Ash­ley says. Ev­ery­thing, from the ice ma­chine to the en­ter­tain­ment, had to be flown into Panama City and fer­ried over to the is­land.

But their ef­forts paid off, and the fes­tiv­i­ties went off with­out a hitch. Ash­ley walked in with Brian, who of­fi­ci­ated the cer­e­mony, and waited for her bride-to-be at the al­tar. Su­sana walked down the aisle with her mother and car­ried a bou­quet tied with a locket con­tain­ing a photo of her father.

Recit­ing her vows, Ash­ley, misty-eyed, told Su­sana: “The sec­ond I met you, I was done. I knew you were my per­son.”

Su­sana mir­rored her sen­ti­ment. “You are the most in­cred­i­ble per­son I have met,” she said, “and make me feel safe in a way I never thought pos­si­ble.”

In a nod to Su­sana’s Jewish her­itage, the brides, wear­ing tra­di­tional floor-length gowns and heir­loom gold Pana­ma­nian hair combs, stomped a glass in uni­son at the close of the cer­e­mony. Later, for their first dance, they swayed to the Adele bal­lad “One and Only.”

A month be­fore the wed­ding, the cou­ple had flown to Chicago to wit­ness Obama’s farewell ad­dress.

“It was won­der­ful to see all of th­ese cou­ples, some who had kids and oth­ers rings, who had met through­out the Obama years,” Ash­ley says.

“It’s cheesy to say, but he has con­nected so many peo­ple, through friend­ships and re­la­tion­ships,” Su­sana adds. “We will al­ways have the fact that he brought us to­gether, and that is beau­ti­ful.” Are you get­ting mar­ried in the Washington re­gion? Tell us why we should fea­ture your nup­tials here at wapo.st/weddings.

‘We’ve gone through more life changes and chal­lenges than some cou­ples face in 15 years of mar­riage.’ — Su­sana Raquel Berger

SUL­LI­VAN & SUL­LI­VAN PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Su­sana Raquel Berger, left, and Ash­ley Baia were mar­ried Feb. 19 at Su­sana’s fam­ily home on Con­ta­dora Is­land in Panama. They met in Vir­ginia in 2012 while work­ing on Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­elec­tion cam­paign.

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