Saving Face

Chapter 1
Novels, stories, and more.
Sept. 23 2009 5:05 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo.

You know that small secret shiver of delight you get whenever you hear about somebody you know splitting up?

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

I'm not getting it.

"But why?" I ask Marina, again, juggling phone, water bottle, and steering wheel. "Is he cheating?"

"No," she says.

"Are you cheating?" Like I wouldn't know. Marina hasn't participated in an unreported sexual act since 1989.

"No!"

"Is he stealing office supplies? Seducing his students? Plagiarizing arcane law review articles?"   I strain to imagine poor Bob committing these or any other such wrongs. Aside from his invisible floor-length cape of boringness and a tendency to begin every sentence with the law professor's "So," Marina's husband is pedestrian in every way. He was, as far as I can tell, born 43 years old and has spent the rest of his life making middle age his primary place of residence. He's 36.

"He hasn't done anything," sighs Marina. "I haven't done anything. We just aren't happy. We haven't been happy in years. There he was, walking out the door just now, and I couldn't think of even a single reason he shouldn't."

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh," says Ellie from the backseat, where she is eating Cheerios from a small plastic bowl. As each one sticks to the wet pad of her finger, she brings it up close to her face and then politely greets it by name. "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."

"How can you be unhappy?" I flick the left turn signal and work the car over into the passing lane, "You're happy, Marina! You're the happiest person I know!"

"We're bored. We're stuck. We never laugh. Other than the kids, we have nothing in common. We fight about stupid little things. We never have sex. I hate his hair." She stops, as if surprised at this last complaint.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," says Ellie.

I can't believe this is happening. And yet even while I can't believe this is happening, I can't believe that most of my brain is still stuck on what right up until this minute I was calling a crisis of my own and what my brain apparently still considers one: Tonight I will be hosting a clothing swap to benefit my son's super-select kindergarten. All the mommies will bring their old clothes, put $100 in a kitty, then down buckets of white wine and "shop" from their friends' discards. For a few weeks after such an event, you walk around dressed exactly like your friend Gina or her best friend Amanda. Your husband wonders where the four weird backless sweaters came from. At which point it's time for a new clothing swap.

But this morning when I started culling from my old, out-of-style garments, everything was either a size 8 or 10. I hold Ellie, currently in the car seat behind me serenading her cereal, largely responsible, although it's been two years and I think that cover story is wearing a little thin. Being the bearer of the largest clothes at a clothing swap is like being the kid who brings sardines to the cafeteria. In a growing panic this morning, I rooted through my old boxes of pre-pregnancy clothes, but in the dark intimacy of the cedar closet, they had somehow grown together into a mass of indistinguishable navy suits.

So I spent this morning at the mall, hastily picking a creditable selection of mid- to high-range styles in a size 6. The plan was to pick Ellie up from preschool, get home, snip some price tags, launder them, and then hang them in old dry cleaning bags. I feel thin already.

"Erica. Do you think Cole would take me on as a client, or is that too weird?"   Marina is asking, having just related that the most dramatic moment in her adult life involved Bob packing up a gym bag and sorting through mail before leaving the house.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," coos Ellie.

"He'd never represent either of you," I say. "You're our best friends. I can ask him to recommend someone good. But are you really sure you're ready to talk to a divorce lawyer? Don't you want to think this over a bit? And you know you can do this without lawyering up right?"

The part of me that isn't thinking about perhaps spilling just a teensy drop of bleach to "gently age" the teeny little size 6 pencil skirt I've just purchased cannot believe what I am almost hearing here. How can Marina and Bob be calling it quits? They were in our wedding. We were in their wedding. Bob still has my Margaret Atwood books.   Marina is my best friend. What will we do for New Year's? Who laughs eight years into a marriage? And who the hell has sex six months into a marriage? Oh God. Maybe I should have bought those cuffed white pants in a size 4?

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Ellie smiles at me. And "ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," I moan back.

"What?" asks Marina.

I need to get back to the mall and trade these clothes for 4s. And I need to do it right now.  I still have time before Sam's school lets out. If I take Main Street and cut down to the bypass, I can make it.

"Hey, Marina, let me call you from home," I say. "I can hardly hear a word you're saying. Let me call you soon OK?" I hang up abruptly and wonder, yet again, when I became the sort of person who can't listen to my best friend's worst news in real time. I need time to process this. What I can do, as I process, is get all the way across town, swap 6s for 4s, and fetch my son from his school in 45 minutes, with a toddler in tow.

I glance at the clock on the dashboard and tell myself that I used to understand what 45 minutes really meant; I've even been known to cavalierly round it up to a full-on billable hour without a backward glance. Back in the days of depositions and client meetings, I could achieve brilliant outcomes in three-quarters of an hour.   But 45 minutes in the car with a baby and no action plan is an eternity. It's become the time unit from hell.

My phone rings again as I cut sharply to the right and fiddle with the rearview mirror so I can shape my mouth into an O for Ellie. I check the number. It's Cole.

"Hey," I say, in my something-big-happened voice that has never once signaled to him that he should ask whether something big has happened.

"Hi, honey. Do you have Ellie yet?"

"Roger. Say hi to Daddy" I tell the baby.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," says Ellie.

"Are you on your way to get Sam?" asks Cole.

"Um, yes. Right now. Guess what."

"What?" he asks, as I hear the other line start to beep. He's about to pull the rip cord. I talk quickly.

"Marina and Bob are getting a divorce!" I yelp.

"You're kidding! I have to go." And he hangs up.

I have 42 minutes before my 5-year-old son is shot out the door of his kindergarten like a cannonball. Ohhhhhhh, I smile. Actually, 44 minutes if I go by my watch instead of the clock on the dash. I am confident I will not be late again.

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I am late again. Late with shopping bags, which ranks even higher, perhaps, than late with new highlights in the Mommies Criminal Code. I opt to hide the shopping bags under an old towel in the trunk, which makes me even later than I was when I pulled in. It occurs to me when I find Sam curled up in the plaid armchair in the principal's office—with eyes puffed nearly shut from crying and an organic juicebox—that I could have called the sitter to pick him up when it was clear I was going to be 30 minutes late. Why does that never occur to me? We've had Danny, our babysitter, in to care for the kids every afternoon for two years now, but I still find it unthinkable to ask him to do the preschool or kindergarten runs. It's one thing to hand your kids off to a sitter for a few hours in the late afternoons, but I can't imagine trusting anyone else to do the school run. What kind of message does that send their teachers? That you're too busy to hear about your own child's day?

Of course Sam's teacher has already left for the day, so I don't get to debrief her. Still, I think it's so important that they know, and that the children know, that these are not the sorts of tasks you'd leave to a paid caregiver.

Sam flings his arms around my middle and hangs there like a limpet as I apologize to Principal Weston for being late. She gives me the Eyeball of Disappointment, along with the Eyebrow of Long Suffering, as she tells me, for perhaps the 10th time since September, that Sam was very worried and upset when I failed to be punctual, and that it's best if our mommies arrive on time or at least call if they are running late in order to send consistent messages and promote feelings of self-confidence in impressionable small persons. I apologize to her again while Ellie knocks a parenting book off her bookshelf and Sam turns into a human girdle as he continues to squeeze my middle with enough force to cause organs to shift up into my chest cavity.

"Thank you, Dr. Weston," I say again, walk-dragging Sam from her office as Ellie toddles loopily behind us. "We'll see you Monday. Everything's on track for the fundraiser tonight. Yay! So fun! Sorry again. Sorry. Sorry ..."

Trailing apologies of this sort have shadowed my every exit and entrance since becoming a mother. "Sorry." I don't leave home without it.

For Sam's Lunchbox on Monday. Written today:

Dear Sammy-Bear:

Mommy is so sorry she was late to pick you up today. She will be on time next week. She loves you so much and can't wait to see you.

Love,

Mommy

(never sent)

****** 

OK, that was totally fun. Thanks to everyone who is e-mailing, and even more thanks to the Facebookers, who are already doing way too much research and fact-checking than is fair. Also, thanks to everyone who has sent in photos of your pets. To everyone who told me to have a really detailed outline before I start: I am so going to do that this weekend.

I need to know three things for the next chapter: fussy kid eating stories (so far I am working on a 5-year-old boy who only eats dry food but I know you can do better). Also, for those of you whose mothers worked full-time, were they supportive when you took time off to be with the babies? And, lastly, how many tweets a day would be a Twitter addiction and how might a Twitter addiction look? Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. It's Day 1 and I am somehow already behind. (New here? Read the introduction  to learn how you can help.)