Saving Face

Chapter 13
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Sept. 29 2009 11:17 AM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to enlarge.

My fantasies of a long bubble bath and quality time with the deep conditioner have been replaced by the reality of a fast shower and swipe of red lipstick. Cole and I quietly kiss the children goodnight, thank Danny for staying, and then grimly buckle ourselves into the car before I turn to him and say, "OK then, lemme have it."

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

"It's not a joke, Erica."

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"No part of me is joking. None. It's been a hideous day."

"Yeah, for me, too," he says. "Kayne lost."

"What?" My heart flips over. "When did you find out?  Why didn't you call me?'

"I'd have thought you'd be delighted. Ana's already got the boys packing the moving truck. They leave town next weekend. The judge felt that Kayne's job demands would require the kids to be in almost full-time child care and that they'd ultimately be better off with their mother, grandma, and soon-to-be stepdad in Ohio. You got what you wanted. Ana gets a whole new life."

"I never wanted you to lose your case. And I think Ana's a horrible person for standing between those boys and their dad. I just think family courts need to recognize that they are holding women to a model of motherhood that's stuck in the last century."

"Well, there's nothing like trading in your hardworking trophy husband for a richer one to advance the cause of women's rights."

"Cole. You of all people should understand that you can't ask women to give up everything to raise their kids, then stand in the way of them pursuing their dreams when the kids are no longer babies!"  

We pull up to a red light and Cole looks at me for the first time in a week. "This isn't really about Marina or even Ana at all, is it? The truth is, this is all about you. This crusade has been all about you from the start. You feel like a martyr for having taken time off from your big career, and now you're lashing back at everyone—including me—for holding you down." The light changes and he presses too hard on the gas pedal. We jolt forward so hard that I lose a sparkly hairpin.

"Nobody made you take time off from your job. Nobody made you move back here so we could have a porch and a tire swing and a sandbox out back. You wanted to take time off and you're making the whole world pay for it.   You want some kind of purple heart for doing something you chose to do." He shakes his head, finally lowers his voice. "Do you really think it's a coincidence that you've chosen to become a national media expert in my field of professional expertise? Couldn't you have left just a tiny corner of the world for me?"  

I breathe deeply, trying to choose among the swarm of angry words buzzing in my head. "I cannot believe," I say, "how threatened you are by my success. I cannot even believe you just said that I am deliberately trying to occupy the sacred private corners of your professional world. I have been listening to you complain about arbitrary family court judges and the meaningless 'best interests of the child' standards for five years now. And I frankly think you're just pissed off that I'm brave enough to put out there in public the things you're barely willing to whisper at the dinner table."

Cole's lips are set in a hard line as he jerks the car into the parking lot in front of the restaurant. He waves jovially to one of the partners before turning to me with his parting shot: "And I can't believe you're willing to cherry-pick sound bites from my litigation career, your best friend's wrecked marriage, and your own unresolved crap with Frances for a goddamn blog."

He gets out, slams the car door, and starts striding for the restaurant. "Tom! Harriet!" he calls to the elderly couple near the front door. "So good to see you." I scramble out the passenger side, slam my wrap inside the car door and have to tug to get it out, and then I trip over the gravel in the parking lot to catch up to him as he greets two other colleagues. I get just close enough to his ear to hiss: "You never liked that I made better grades than you at law school, and you never liked that I got a better clerkship, or made more money at the firm. You've loved having me sidelined so much, you gave away my Armani suit!"  He looks startled. I blow past him into the restaurant and find the room.

"Gladys," I say, warmly, kissing the cheek of an elderly woman nearby. "How wonderful to see you. Fantastic necklace!"

There is nothing more painful than walking into a party with a spouse you're not speaking to. Except maybe doing so after he has accused you of cannibalizing your best friend's misery to forward your own career. The fact that I am certain everyone here is whispering about me makes everything that much worse. And as always happens when I feel like everyone's whispering about my professional shortcomings, the thought pops into my mind that—if Cole and I can ever make up—we really should have a third baby. The room is dotted with small candles, a makeshift stage, and bars in every corner. It's sweltering. On one side of the room stand a pair of ice sculptures in the shape of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and the University of Virginia's rotunda.

As I turn from checking my wrap, the first person I see is Kate, the public defender from the brown-bag lunch. She's striding toward me in an amazing short gold sheath dress. It immediately crosses my mind that I need to invite her to the next clothing swap. I consider ducking behind a catering station, but it's too late: She's headed straight for me, smiling broadly, hand extended. I stop a passing waiter and grab a glass of white wine. I drain it so fast my eyes buzz.

"Erica!" she says, then lowering her voice. "Your name really is Erica, isn't it? Because I'm kind of thinking that old Helen wasn't really a Helen."   She's still smiling, which leads me to feel only fractionally less foolish. "Should I be worried that hers was the best advice at that entire event?"

"Which part?" I ask, grinning "The part where she explained that the only way to avoid gaining weight growing up in a Boston orphanage is by signing up for the cheerleading squad and avoiding carbs?"

"That was useful advice," she grins. "Although I liked the bit where she said that the best place to find a nanny was on Craigslist."

"OK, OK," I laugh. "She wasn't really supposed to be on that panel. Neither was I. I'm just a stay-at-home mom."

"That's not what I hear. Word around the ice sculptures is that you are an up-and-coming blogging star."

"Oh, that," I say. "I screwed up. I read like three law review articles and thought I was an expert in family law."

"Listen," says Kate, putting a hand on my shoulder, "you shouldn't be that hard on yourself. From what I've read of your blog, you're making some good arguments. The family law system needs a bit of a kick in the rear. I'd maybe tone down some of the gender stereotypes, but I think it's time someone called the family law system out for some of its faults." She lowers her voice. "But if you tell anyone here tonight that I said so, I will deny, deny, deny. By the way, I want you to meet my partner, Karen, when you have a second. She just started at your husband's firm, and she's a big fan of the blog. But don't tell anyone here tonight that she says so." Then Kate plucks a glass of wine off a passing tray, clinks it against my empty one and says, "Good luck! Chin up," and floats away. I scan the room for Cole but don't see him. Because we were extremely late for the speed-drinking round, people are already taking their seats for dinner. I slip my phone out of my purse and duck into the ladies room to check in briefly on Marina. She says she's over at Bob's, that she's spoken to his doctor, and that they have an appointment first thing in the morning. I try to ask how he's doing, but she cuts me off.

"Listen, Erica, I have a ton to do. Let's catch up later, OK?"

Wow, I think, staring at my phone after hanging up. You'd think it was all my fault. Between the chill with Marina and the deep freeze from Cole, I think my lips might start chattering. As I move toward the tables, I can hear the "humorous" speeches finishing up and the salad plates being cleared. The room gets hotter by the second, and the two ice sculptures are already melting down into an anatomically flawless pair of female breasts.   I find my place card and slip quietly into my chair. Cole's seat, directly opposite mine, is vacant. I can see him deep in conversation with one of the senior partners at the bar set up on the back corner of the room. I try to catch his eye, but his back is turned toward me. I settle into my seat, swallow my second glass of wine on an empty stomach, and try to make small talk with the young woman to my right. She gets up to call her baby-sitter. The waiter brings dinner and I pick at it, glad to have an excuse to avoid my tablemates.

Cole is still not in his seat when they remove the salmon and start passing out coffee and dessert. The "humorous" skits have now begun: Some paralegals have rewritten all the words to "American Pie" to encapsulate an entire year's worth of firm litigation.  

I gamely try to focus on the singing. The paralegals are only just getting warmed up.

Elliot Manning went to court,
His client, she was very short,
But she looked very tall in four-inch heels.
Manning tried to plead her case
But she tripped and landed on her face
The jurors saw her thong and heard her squeals ...

So bye, bye Manning, Feldman, and Frye,
Litigation in the nation is running dry,
We'll all be working at some Starbucks on High
The day, the law firms die ...

Oh Lord. Kill me now. By the time they get through every litigator in the firm, my kids will be in college. I can't believe how many billable hours must have been lost to the crafting of this song; no wonder the economy is in the toilet. The lawyer to my left has begun openly checking his e-mail on his BlackBerry, so I sneak a peak at my own mail, holding my phone in my lap. Traffic numbers continue to rise, but at least the hate mail has tapered off since last night, so maybe the very worst of the relocation squall is really behind me. The drunken paralegals onstage have nowhere to go but onward. Suddenly I hear a familiar name. My heart sinks to the sub basement.

Cole Hirshblatt had a lovely bride,
She mostly chose to stay inside,
She diapered, lunched, and changed their sheets 
But suddenly she's a work-life queen,
The star of an online magazine
And losing hubby's cases with her tweets

So bye, bye Manning, Feldman, and Frye,
Why bother with law when Nancy Grace is so fly, 
We'll all be working at some Starbucks on High
The day, the law firms die ...

The gasps around the tables are audible. Heads whip around to look at me and then at Cole, still in a heated debate at the back of the room. In the silence left by the audacious paralegals, nobody can miss Cole's voice, raised in anger, as he shouts at the very senior partner opposite him: "Believe it or not, Erica's twice the lawyer I am and has the balls to challenge a family law system that doesn't really work for anybody. I frankly think you're just pissed off that my wife is brave enough to put out there in public the things we're all barely willing to whisper around the conference table."  

Monticello and the rotunda continue to melt into uncannily breastlike formations. The paralegals resume verse 2,000 of their song. And my husband stalks back to the table, unfolds his napkin, and sits down opposite me with the tiniest glimmer of a wink. We may get through this after all.

******

Dear readers, here are my next questions for you: Why would Danny the manny have given away Erica's Armani suit? Also, how will Erica react to Cole's apology? Does she pull back from the blog and the advocacy, or take advantage of his softened position? 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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