Saving Face

Chapter 10
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Sept. 23 2009 5:05 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

It's been five days since the accident, and Marina's body is mending slowly. The hospital says they will let her go in a day or two if she promises to rest at home. Bob's mother and I will tag-team with the kids and the house. The police say she is on the hook both for the accident and for texting while driving.   Her heartbreak, I can't seem to help with. She talks when her girls come by to visit, but beyond that she's almost always quiet—either sleeping or pretending to be. She won't even dictate any new tweets for me to post. Bob has made some efforts to pick up the child care slack, but he hasn't visited her. When we finally tracked him down the night of the accident, he was alone at a coffee shop near the law school, reading law review articles. He'd forgotten his cell.   He looked almost as bad as she did, and he hadn't tangled with a Hummer. When we told him about her accident, he barely reacted. I've seen him more worked up over a baseketball game.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

There's a message waiting for me on the home phone when I get back from the hospital this evening. Cole doesn't even mention it to me, although he's clearly listened to it and saved it. When I retrieve it, a strange voice bleats:

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Hey this is Zoe Fine from the Web site BarCzar.com.  

I'm sure you've heard of us. Anyhooo ... love Splitigation. Seriously. Love. it. Wanna talk to you about it. Give me a call, soonest. 202-555-2666.  

Of course, I first have to wrangle the kids' chicken fingers (no tails) and carrot sticks (no tails) and leftover roast chicken for Cole, who is and will remain a basket case until the judge makes her decision in his relocation case. He barely grunts at me through dinner, asking only whether I have any immediate plans to cite statistics that disagree with my own emotional conclusions about divorce. I tell him we should discuss this calmly when his trial is over.

Cole oversees the kids' baths while I clean the kitchen. And then, like clockwork, it's time for Total Drama Pajamas (Ellie shaking her head furiously at every pair proffered and settling at last for the hand-me-down Little Mermaid gown that's three sizes too big). After that, mercifully, it's bedtime. Cole takes over at story time long enough for me to leave a hasty message for Zoe Fine saying I can meet up in Washington, D.C., anytime that works for her, and to scan my reader mail from Splitigation.

Some of these women do scare me a little, like the ones who call men "sperm shuttles." But most of them tell me I've given them hope and a bit of resolve, and thank me for being a voice amid the silence.

"E-ri-ca?" Cole is bellowing for me from upstairs. "Is there any chance at all that you could come up before the advent of the Bristol Palin administration?" I turn off my computer and head up to kiss my children. Because I'm pretty sure I'm not getting kisses from anyone else up there tonight.

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The offices of BarCzar are in Washington, D.C., two blocks from the Farragut North Metro stop. By offices I mean office, singular, where an emaciated-looked intern with tomato-colored hair mans phones at the reception desk. She looks up at me pleadingly as I step off the elevator and open the glass door. Maybe she's hoping I have come to take her away from all this. Or maybe she imagines I come bearing cans of Ensure. 

"I have a noon meeting with Zoe," I say before I am fully inside the reception area, "I'm early. Where's the ladies' room?" I can't believe how nervous I am. I used to convene meetings with 20 captains of industry in conference rooms bigger than this whole office. Now I am cowed by a room full of dingy orange bucket chairs and a receptionist in immediate need of intravenous fluids.

In the ladies' room, I look myself squarely in the eye and take what would have passed for deep cleansing breaths in the early '80s yoga craze. I am in a short black suit. Not Armani. My blouse is white and my makeup is more than I have worn since my wedding. "You wanted a career," I tell myself. "You are making this happen. Do. Not. Blow. It." 

Zoe Fine is in her late 50s, with shoulder-length hair that is blue-black from the ears down and light gray up top, like an inverted Civil War map. Zoe is also, evidently, a recovering smoker. Every square inch of her right arm is covered in patches and each time she exhales, she watches her own breath longingly—as if looking for ghosts of nicotine past. Her office consists of a messy metal desk, a photo gallery of her dog, and a computer that appears to be switched off. When I enter her office, she leaps to her feet and extends a hand across the rippling papers.

"Hey, you're Erica Hirshblatt." She says delightedly. "You're too cute. So great to meet you. I'm a big fan of Splitigation. A huge fan. It's so voicey! Fun! Edgy. I just love it. So whaddaya say?"

I am not completely sure what she's offered me, or even that she's read my blog. "Sorry?" I say.

"We wanna acquire Splitigation. Make it an integral part of the BarCzar family. Migrate it over to our site. You'll have almost total editorial control. Huge bump in your traffic. Big, big advertising. You heard of Massengill? Page views right through the roof. Click-throughs. Links to all the major players—I'm talking HuffPo. The Beast. I'm talking young. Ironic! Voicey. Do you write about sex much? Have you done anything on the teen sexting epidemic yet? Teen sexting is so huge right now." She rifles wildly around on the papers on her desk and pulls out a newspaper clipping about sexting, handing it to me with a grin.

"Zoe," I say. "Can I interrupt you for just a second? I'm not sure Splitigation is exactly what you're looking for. It's not really ironic or fun. It's not really about sex. It's kind of about not-sex, in fact. It's about marriages ending, new beginnings. ...  "

"I know it!" She cuts in, breathing out hard. "Fantastic stuff. Hey, do you know anything about elder law? We really need a blog on elder law. Unbelievable growth in all death-based demographics. We'd make a killing. But we'd want it young, you know, very voicey."

I explain to Zoe that I really don't know anything about elder law but that if she still wants to acquire Splitigation, I'd be willing to consider an offer.

"That was my offer!" she puffs out. "Migrate it over to our site. You have almost total editorial control. Huge bump in your traffic. Big advertising. Links to the big boys. Millions—and I mean millions—of new eyeballs. I can see you twittering, live-chatting. Maybe you could live-blog some celebrity divorce case. Is the Christy Brinkley trial sill going on?" She's looking at more newspaper clippings spread out across her desk.

"But what would you pay me?"

Even Zoe's laughter is on the exhale. "Pay you?" she starts to cough. "Who the hell pays their bloggers? Erica, we haven't paid a writer since 2002. You come to us because it's better than writing for your mama. By the way, is your mama really Frances Miller-Kline? You think she wants a column? We could totally get her a column. She know anything about elder law?" For some inexplicable reason, there is a photo of my mother on her desk that she's waving at me.

"But I didn't come to you," I grumble. "You called me."

"Look," says Zoe, swiveling her chair to look at her reflection in the dark screen of her desktop. "That's the business in the online media. You write for you, you write for me, either way you write for free. You'll get a cut of the ad revenues. That's what we can offer. Can be big money down the line. But here's what I can promise you, Erica: eyeballs. I can promise you buzz. I can promise you cable news shows and a seat at the table. Getting paid is sooo last century.   We're all about voice now."

"Would I be able to continue blogging from home?" I ask. "I live two hours away from D.C. I have two little kids."

"You can blog from Amman, Jordan, if you want. I don't care where you're blogging from. Just post six, seven times a day. There's no more news cycle. News cycle is a spin cycle. You have to feed the beast. We're looking to be acquired by one of the big ones so you need keep it young and hip. You do makeovers? Advertisers love makeovers." I open my mouth to say there wouldn't be a lot of makeovers. Then I shut it. Zoe is either a new media visionary or a lunatic. I'm not in a position to judge.

I tell Zoe I'll call her with my answer tomorrow. "Tonight is better," she says, fast-walking me out to the reception area. "We're talking to another blogger about acquiring his election fraud Web site, MocktheVote.com.   Huge eyeballs for election fraud. Unbelievable growth in the whole election fraud demographic. Very young. Very ironic. ..."

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I've arranged to get lunch with my old law school roommate before driving home to start dinner. Paige is an environmental lobbyist who has never quite lost that Last Child in the Woods bafflement over how she ended up in this city of blocky concrete buildings instead of in a kayak off the Oregon coast. Paige and I have kept up over the years, mostly in monthly phone calls. She comes to visit when she can't stand D.C. another day. She leaps to her feet when she sees me, knocking over a basket of breadsticks and wrapping me in a power-yoga hug.  "You look fantastic," she enthuses. "Seriously, you never change."

"You look great, too, Paige," I unfold my napkin. "What's going on in the world of Big Environment?'

"Same old," she says, scanning the specials. "Hey, what's up with Marina and Bob?  I heard she was in an accident?"

"Ugh, it's a mess. He's moved out. She's barely functioning. This year we all just smacked our heads on the seven-year itch, I'll tell you."

"What happens to them?" she asks, shaking her head.

"I think something snaps in the male brain as soon as the trench warfare phase ends. As soon as the kids start sleeping through the night, the dads all start to realize what chumps they've been. Then they go mental to compensate. They join other packs of hollow-eyed fathers at violent movies and join bands."

Paige nods wisely. "I read someplace that it takes seven years for all of the cells in your body to turn over, so that none of the cells you have in seven years will be the same ones you have now. That means you may well be completely repulsed by the person who used to drive you wild."  

"Can't fight science," I say.

"I know it."

A waiter comes by to fill our water glasses. We both order salads. "What's up with you?" I ask when he moves away. "Anything promising?"

"Job's great. Love life blows," sighs Paige. "Hey. How did your meeting go this morning?"

"Kind of nutty. I think I just met my first-ever Internet entrepreneur who has never been on the Internet. They would pay me the equivalent of a couple lattes a day in exchange for blogging until my hands fall off. Still. It's kind of tempting. Take Splitigation to the next level and all that."

"Splitigation is so great. I have everyone at work reading it. What do they promise you if it takes off?" she asks.

"Nothing past the equivalent of a couple lattes a day. I just don't think this is the time to try to monetize online advice, Paige. I guess the only question is whether I want 'the eyeballs.' When I think about all the people who are being laid off, I guess maybe working for eyeballs is better than not working. ... '"

"And what does Cole say?" she asks.

"I can't tell whether he's more annoyed that I am writing a badass blog about matrimonial law, or that—for the first time in five years—I haven't asked his opinion on it. He pretty much hates it. It's embarrassing and it's unserious. But you know what? He was pretty embarrassed when I was a stay-at-home mommy, too. He used to introduce me at firm events as a 'recovering lawyer.' In fact, I can't honestly remember the last thing I've done that hasn't made him roll his eyes at me like I'm Ellie's incorrigible little sidekick." I pause as the waiter returns with our salads. "In fact, I bet I help more women in a day than he does in a whole month!" I pause, a little shocked at how good it felt to say that.

"Like, wow," Paige says, chewing slowly.

"What?"

"I just never thought you two would be doing battle over anything, much less clashing professional egos."

"Do you really think this is about my ego?" I ask, stung.

"Well, of course it is. Look, you've been trapped in the Mom Cave for six years now. You're ready to bust out. Good. It's OK for you to want to talk to adults again, to solve people's problems again. But I wouldn't pretend like it's all altruism, any more than I would pretend that the years you took off were all altruism. You have something to say, and you want people to take you seriously when you say it. Good for you. It's about time."

"You sound like my mother," I smile, taking a sip of my water.

"No, she'd be telling you to register the kids in military school, find Cole a girlfriend, and run for attorney general. Me, I'm just telling you to sell your blog."

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My mother calls halfway between Washington and home. I could ignore it, but there are tons of dead zones here, so if she says anything too annoying, I can just hang up and call her tonight.

"How's Cole's case?" she asks.

"Hell. Judge has it now so we're just waiting."

"You'd have to shoot me before I did family law," she snorts. "It isn't even law. It's paintball for lawyers."

"Mom, I'm in the car so if we get cut off ..."

She cuts me off. "Did you get the check I sent for Sam's birthday?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"Put it into T-bills. Goddamn economy. What the hell was Obama thinking? Secretary of state my ass. ... Hillary would have had us out of this banking crisis in 15 minutes and still had time to make peace in the Middle East."

"Hey Mom, I think I am going to sell my blog to an online magazine."

"What blog?"

"My blog, Mom? Splitigation? I started it a few weeks ago. I sent you the link?"

"Yeah, I don't really get links. Which online magazine?"

"BarCzar.com. It's a pretty huge legal magazine. Everyone at the law firms reads it."

"Yeah, I've never heard of it. How much they paying you for it?"

"Mom? Mom? I'm driving into a dead zone. I'll call you later,  OK ?"

******

OK,  so what really does cause the seven-year itch? All scientific and nonscientific theories welcome. Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.

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