Saving Face

Chapter 12
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Sept. 25 2009 7:03 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

Sam and I are folding laundry in the living room while Danny changes Ellie's diaper upstairs.   Sam loves to fold laundry   so long as every garment—from socks to t-shirts—is folded the way you'd usually fold a sheet. That means we must each grab two corners then walk slowly toward each other with grave expressions. We must perform this ritual act of folding again and again until the sock or T-shirt in question is folded into eighths, or better yet, sixteenths. We will know something is well and truly "folded" when it is small enough to be tucked into a little red Sunmaid raisin box.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

As he folds, Sammy sings a little song of his own devising: "There's a hungle, and there's a jungle. And the birds are chasing somebody. A Heena hinna heena hinna who."   As singing Sam goes to pluck another shirt from the laundry basket, I find myself gazing again toward my laptop, open on the coffee table. My most recent Splitigation post, on relocation, has kicked up a serious dust storm of controversy, and I'm seeing traffic—and my reader mail— soar. Surprisingly, I find I like the hate mail almost more than the "go girls." The hate mail confirms that I was right all along: Women send mail about their babies. Men keep talking about their property.

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Cole, having read last night's relocation post, has stopped talking to me altogether. He did send an e-mail that read: This has to stop. I can't even tell where your jokes end and the personal attacks on me begin anymore.  

Here's the funny part: I honestly never thought of any of this as an attack on Cole. So maybe I've been a little overinvolved with Marina's legal issues, but Cole has argued both sides of move cases before.   I'm not writing anything on Splitigation he hasn't argued in a courtroom. And telling women facing a divorce to stop negotiating away their own dignity hardly makes me a bra-burning radical. I'm starting to think all this has a lot more to do with Cole's own insecurities than my blog.   I nevertheless send him a note promising to talk later.

Cole and I are meant to be going to a firm dinner tonight—a fancy dress-up thing at one of our favorite restaurants, C&O. It's going to be pretty awkward if we still aren't speaking when we pull into the parking lot. You can always tell those couples because they head to different sides of the room to start drinking. That's not what Cole and I do. Once upon a time I would get stuck at the far end of the corner table with the old ladies, wives of partners who would quiz me on where I get my hair cut and how proud I am, on a one-to-10 scale, of Cole's meteoric rise at the firm. (10!)

But tonight I'll walk in as the crazy lady who blogs in her nightie—one poised to spill client secrets and bring down the whole firm. I'd walk across searing asphalt for a little black dress with a functioning zipper to wear. Barring that, I'll go with a pencil skirt and skyscraping heels and my head held high. I am not, I tell myself, doing anything wrong.

These days, the first phone call from Marina always goes straight to voice-mail. Her self- confidence is so wobbly that she checks in with me before she opens a can of tuna. But when it immediately rings a second time, I pick up.

"Bob's a no-show again," she says without preamble. "Gemma can't take much more of these fake-outs. I don't know what to tell them." I can hear Norah screaming "stupid, stupid, stupid" in the background.

"Have you called the office?"

"No answer."

"The apartment?"

"Still no phone, and he promised last week he'd have one put in!"

"Cell?" I ask, pointlessly.

"Yeah right," she retorts.

"Have you driven by his apartment?" I ask, ever so slightly impatient that I have somehow, inch by unwilling inch, inherited the pants in her family.

"Are you completely nuts? I've never been near that place, and I have no plans to start now," she says. Without missing a beat, "Could you?"

I sigh a huge sigh. "I have to be at a firm dinner in two hours. I can swing by there for just a minute but I think you guys are going to need to work out a better system."

"I already called my lawyer," she says. "He just told me to keep good notes on all of Bob's erratic behaviors."

I tell Danny I have to run a quick errand and ask him to start quesadillas for the kids. I zip up a hooded sweatshirt and grab car keys, purse, and the scrap of paper on which I have scrawled Bob's new address. Ten minutes later I find myself on a dingy block of student housing where even the chained-up bicycles look desperate to bolt.   I park quickly, sprint into his building, and ask myself yet again what I will do when I see Bob that will not involve my fist and his bloody teeth all over the ground. I wish I'd thought to send Cole by instead, but Bob has been dodging my husband—one of his own best friends—as diligently as he has been avoiding me.

I search for his apartment on the third floor, smelling curries and grease and mold under each successive door along the corridor. When I find his apartment, the sound of Oprah Winfrey loudly interviewing the bra doctor pours out into the hall. I knock. When nobody answers, I knock again. Finally losing patience, I begin to pound.

"Bob, I know you're in there, I can hear the TV!"   Open the damn door!" After what feels like minutes, I hear some shuffling and a slow creak. The door cracks an inch. The left side of Bob's face, unshaven and bloated, appears in the gap.   If this is what an extravagant midlife sexual spree looks like, I'm sticking with my once-a-weekish.

"What the hell is going on?" I ask. "Let me in."

"Why?"

"You missed visitation again. The girls are melting down." He closes a bloodshot eye for a moment.

"Shit," he whispers, more to himself than me.

His door swings open.

Papers cover every surface, Styrofoam takeout containers are stacked in a precarious pile beside the TV, with half-smoked cigarettes   buried in mountains of half-eaten rice and graying mac and cheese.   There is more than one half-empty vodka bottle standing open on the kitchen counter.   Bob is wearing checked boxers and a UVA Law sweatshirt that may have at one time been Cole's.   Everything smells like a pizza box.

"Bob, what the hell?" I ask, too stunned to step beyond the doorway. When he refuses to answer, I stride over to turn down the volume on his TV. "What is up with you?" He stares at the wall behind me and shakes his head.   "Bob," I repeat. "What's going on?"

When it becomes clear that he either can't or won't answer me, I start picking up the worst-smelling garbage within reach. Bob stops staring at the wall long enough to say, "Don't," then collapses on the couch to stare at Oprah. I'm flummoxed. I was perfectly willing to buy into the notion that every man within shouting distance of 40 flirts with the purchase of either a BMW Roadster or a Harley-Davidson   and repurposes the entire basement for some hare-brained winemaking venture. But I didn't think a midlife crisis involved collapsing back into infancy.

There is no way Bob is having an affair with anything other than Cole's sweatshirt, which looks not to have been washed in weeks.

"Bob," I try again. "I know you won't talk to Marina, but have you been near a computer in the last three weeks? Do you have any idea what's been happening with her? She's been pouring her heart out about you on Facebook and Twitter. She's been so mad at you, she hasn't been able to see straight." He continues to stare at the TV. I don't know whether he's incapable of talking at all or if he's just not talking to me.

I find myself wondering if Cole is going through some sort of midlife freakout himself. I wonder if part of his hostility toward me and my blog has to do with the growing realization that he just isn't going to be the next David Boies or Clarence Darrow. Maybe a man has a midlife crisis when he realizes he is too old to be a professional athlete or an astronaut. For women, the midlife crises happen when we don't recognize the person we used to be for all the carpooling and the picking seeds out of watermelons. Is it possible that 36-year-old men want to be teenagers again while 36-year-old women just want to be grown-ups?  

"Gemma had a dance recital last night, Bob. You should have seen her: She's amazing."

Silence. I give up. I'm doing no good here. I try to put my arms around him, but he's still staring. On the front steps of his building, I put in a call to my friend Kellyanne at the law school to ask, as subtly as I can, whether Bob's been coming in there at all.

"Weird that you ask," she says. "He's been here but kind of absent, showing up for class but always in the same suit and mismatched shoes.   And his students say he's always hyper-prepared but often with the wrong lecture. In fact, someone told me he gave the same lecture twice last week without even noticing.   Something is up but when the dean asked if he was OK he just mumbled something about getting back on his feet."

I thank Kellyanne and quickly head home so I can call Marina. Sitting in my driveway, knowing I'll be late for the party, I describe Bob's strange behavior, the state of his apartment, and Kellyanne's story about work. Marina is quiet for a long, long time. I expect her to call him a selfish asshole. "Oh my God," she finally says. "He's off his meds."

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Marina never told me Bob was bipolar. By the time Cole and I met him in law school, he'd been medicated for years. She tells me today, for the first time, that when she first knew him, he was wilder than she was, a sleepless thrill-seeker and joy-rider who would crash for days when it all got to be too much. For their friends, Bob has played Ricky to Marina's Lucy for so long they almost believed it. But Bob has always hated his meds, hated the way they made him feel, Marina tells me. Bob's invisible cape of boringness was, it turns out, a blanket of damp chemicals.

"Has he gone off them before?" I ask.

"Never without discussing it with me and his doctors first, and never for very long," she says, slowly. "But in the last year or so he had started complaining that they made him feel so passive, almost dead. He said his sex drive was all but gone. He said he couldn't write."   She pauses. "He told me a few months ago that he felt like I was the mother of three children now, not two. But I've been so certain for so long that he'd get bored and take up with some girl in a sundress, I never even heard it."

I cannot believe this is happening. Marina and I are now immortalized in the law school newspaper for pretending to be work-life experts, because we were stalking an innocent young woman named Amanda Matthews. Marina almost died because she was tailing this girl. And now, based on what my friend has just told me—and the month's worth of garbage piled up in Bob's apartment—I'm thinking it might all have been for nothing, for Lifetime Television. We've been chasing a big fat cliché all over town, all over the Internet, because Lucy forgot to tell me that Ricky is bipolar. I don't want to ask. But I have to. "Do you think he even had an affair?"

Long pause.

"Maybe. Or maybe he just started hanging out with students and that made him feel young and great and like he didn't need the meds anymore. Maybe she was flirting with him in a seminar and he felt fantastic. Every time Bob has ever started to feel really fantastic, he's declared himself cured."  

"Does any of this make you less inclined to leave town?" I ask, holding my breath.

"Leave town? Are you insane? He needs me. I'm on my way over there this minute. I'll drop the girls at his mother's."

"But," I say. And then close my mouth. Something I should probably have done a month ago.

******

Readers: What's the most embarassing thing that could happen at a fancy law firm party? And does Erica really need her Armani suit of armor, or is she better off without it? 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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