Saving Face

Chapter 11
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Sept. 24 2009 4:08 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

Marina and I are having a celebratory coffee at the Starbucks on the Corner. Ostensibly, we are celebrating her discharge today from the hospital and my "sale" of Splitigation to BarCzar—an event that actually involved no extravagant boozy lunches, no complicated advice from counsel, and no elaborate contracts, but simply a press release, a new URL, and a logo I am not delighted with. Also, a rather enormous purple pop-up ad from Massengill.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

Marina, her face a patchwork of yellowing bruises and angry brown welts, manages to scare a pair of buzz-cut soccer types away from the window seat with just a look. Both hands covered in gauze, she slowly pops the plastic top off her double latte and stirs in two packets of sugar. She keeps her eyes on her coffee operation as if she's dismantling some kind of explosive device and one false move would blow us all out of the cafe.

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"I need to go home," she says, eventually.

"That's our next stop," I assure her. "As soon as we're done here, I'll run you back to the house and you can clean up before the girls get home. Let's maybe order in a mess of Indian food tonight for all the kids and you just take it easy? I have a coupon somewhere. ..." I start to rummage in my bag.

"No, I mean I need to go home home. To Seattle." She looks at me dully.

"But honey, you can barely walk right now. And you and Bob have only been separated for what ... three weeks? I don't think you want to take off to the West Coast and leave the girls here with Bob and his mother. God, how would that look in a custody fight?"

"I want to take them with me. You think Bob's going to fight me for them? He's barely even picked them up for visits. And when he is with them do you know what they do? They sit around his apartment and watch the Cartoon Network while he sleeps. Or he drops them off with his mom or his brother. You think Bob is going to fight for the girls? I think he wants to forget all about the bunch of us."

This may well be the longest speech Marina has uttered in a week.

She stirs her coffee and glares at me. "You think I shouldn't uproot them, don't you? You think I'm being selfish, right? But let me tell you something. I am sick to freaking death of being selfless. You know why we live in Virginia? For Bob's family. For Bob's  job. Because of Bob's  career ambitions. You know what I gave up to live here? Everything I was before I came here."

I am starting to realize she isn't talking about a visit. She wants to put everything, even me, behind her.

"Look," I begin, putting a hand gently over her bandaged one. "That was the bargain you made when you had kids. And you can't just pick up and leave now just because Bob has left you. He has rights. Trust me, Cole spent a year on his monster move case and the only lesson I learned from it is don't have a kid with someone if you don't plan on living in the same state with them pretty much forever!"

"So I am supposed to sit here in Bob's town, surrounded by Bob's colleagues, while he soars from one success to the next, and do what exactly? Collect child support? Telecommute from my kitchen counter? Stalk his teenage girlfriends? That part is over, Erica. He left me. I need a new start. I don't want to spend the next 10 years waiting to bump into him and his pretty girlfriend at the dry cleaners. I don't deserve that."

"Listen, of course you deserve to be happy and supported and away from here if you want to be. But the courts won't see it that way. They will want you two to share custody as best as you can and to put the best interests of the girls ahead of your own."

"And you think it's in the best interests of the children to have a mother like this?" She lifts up her hands and dramatically waves them around next to her tattered face. "Do the courts have any idea what the best interests of the children even means when the mother is on Twitter all day, just hoping her husband might maybe tune in and listen to her?"  

What can I say? My best friend wants to go home, and if it were me I'd do the same thing. I can't imagine my life without her, but I can't imagine her life in this town, either. Marina needs everyone to be looking at her. But whispering about her? Pitying her? I'd give her six months before she crashed her car again.

I drive her home in silence after extracting a promise that she won't do anything rash without talking to her lawyer.   "You're in huge trouble already, Marina, with the accident and the tweeting and the insurance. Don't give the courts one more reason to take your kids away. Moving back to Seattle seems totally rational to you, but it will look selfish and erratic to a judge, I promise."

I walk her slowly upstairs to bed, bring her tea and some pain pills, and stroke her weird new sticky-uppy hairstyle until she falls asleep. Then I get to work cleaning her house before the girls get home from school. Bob's mother has tried to hold it together around here, but judging from the dirty laundry massed at the top of the stairs and the congregation of evangelical fruit flies in the kitchen, caring for two small girls and a large house has obviously been too much for her. I wonder if it's going to prove too much for Marina.

I also wonder what it is about other women's houses. Even if we're too exhausted to lift the Dustbuster in our own kitchens, give us a Swiffer and a good friend's hopeless mess, and we're unstoppable. Is it still the thrill of playing house—in someone else's home? Or the chance to snoop shamelessly through someone else's stuff? Whatever it is, I track down the bucket and start mopping in ways that my own kitchen floor has never experienced. I'm suddenly the Mother Theresa of Dishpan Hands.

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Splitigation

Welcome to my new home, at BarCzar.com! Here's the part where I tell you unequivocally and in a seriously legally binding way, that this is not the site you want to go to for legal advice about your divorce. Nobody at BarCzar or in my house is responsible if you use whatever I say here as anything other than entertainment. Capisce? 

So? What do you think of my new logo?

Enough about my relocation. Now onto yours. I know I am getting a little bit ahead of myself here, but I want to talk a little bit about how completely screwed you will be if you have primary custody of your children and try to leave the state. This is something you need to think about even before you get your divorce. Truth be told, it's something to think about even before you get married: "If things go south, do I want to live in the same state as this man until my children (who are probably just sperm at this point) go off to college?"

I mention all this because relocation is the big hot sweaty underbelly of divorce law. You won't give it a thought until it smacks you in the face.

The law of relocation is premised on a 20th-century view of what families look like. But we live in a mobile society. And now we're in a recession. Weespecially women with kids to feed and inadequate child supportneed to be able to go where the jobs are. We need to be around siblings and grandparents. But the law wants to keep us trapped in some parody of a Very Brady Family; it wants us frozen in amber, entombed in our own histories.

Courts today largely insist that primary custodians will be held hostage in the same state as their ex-spouses, because absent incredibly compelling circumstances you will not be allowed to move. And, my dears, if you do move, be it for your wonderful new husband in Maine, your fantastic new job in Manhattan, or to attend the only medical school that will admit you? Well, be prepared for a second custody fight that will make your divorce look like a beach picnic. 

No matter what state you're in, the courts deal with relocation requests by asking what would be in the best interests of the child. Some courts do that on a case-by-case basis. Some are guided by state statutes and some follow state case law. The courts don't want to hear about what's in your best interests as a parent. The courts want to know that the kids will flourish in the new situation. Not you, them.

Why am I just a little bit worked up about this whole relocation issue? Because the Supreme Court recognizes a protected constitutional right for citizens to travel freely between the states. The court has gone so far as to say "it is, of course, well settled that the right of a United States citizen to travel from one State to another and to take up residence in the State of his choice is protected by the Federal Constitution."

Let me repeat that: The Constitution itself protects your right to travel. You have the right to find new love, a better career, the support of the people you love. But when you attempt to exercise that right, a court will often come in and tell you that it's in the best interests of your child for you to remain in the broken shell of your old home, your old town—in all the trappings of your old life, minus the loving spouse. You are not allowed to reclaim a life for yourself because the courts requires you to be sitting around on Thursdays and alternating weekends so your ex can take the kids to T-ball.

The more I think on that the madder I get. Courts seem to be completely clueless about the simple fact that it's in the best interests of the child to have a happy parent. And what parent can possibly be happy trapped in the hollow shell of a life they have outgrown? A life they may never have wanted in the first place?

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Today's questions for readers: Do you believe in midlife crises? Do they happen only to men and only in fiction? Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.