Saving Face

Chapter 14
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Sept. 30 2009 1:34 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

The only thing better than the makeup sex?   Makeup housework.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

The smell of fresh blueberry pancakes is a happy surprise when I finally I amble downstairs Saturday morning, but that's nothing compared with seeing Cole at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Lest this stunning visual escape my notice, he calls out. "Hey! I'm washing dishes!"   I melt.

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The next thing I notice—after the pancakes and the dish-cleaning—is my children. The two people I have devotedly bathed, fed, and dressed every single day this month. Yet somehow, between Marina and the blog, they have spent most of their time either bouncing around town in the back of my car or double-parked in front of PBS Kids while I pound on my keyboard. I've been lugging them around like oversized carry-on bags for days now. Sam is reading a Batman book at the kitchen table, and I realize how badly he needs a haircut—he looks like David Cassidy. Ellie needs a new booster seat. She has been the Harry Houdini of all known child restraint systems, but this morning she is listing forward over the kitchen table like Kate Winslett in Titanic. She looks like she could hit the floor at any instant. Come to think of it, she's looking a bit shaggy, too. Haircuts for everyone today!

I shuffle over to the coffeepot and fill a mug. (Has Cole actually emptied the dishwasher? Does this mean we don't even need to discuss our angry words of yesterday?) I can feel the invisible tug of my laptop, the blog, my inbox, reader traffic. I have grown used to checking each of them before waking the children in the morning. But today, I decide that I can just ignore it all. What's Zoe going to do to me if I take off a few hours on a Saturday? Dock my virtual salary?

"Marina called," Cole says, wiping a lick of syrup off Ellie's ear.

"I'll call her after breakfast," I sigh, pulling up a chair next to Sam and reaching for the pancakes.

"I don't think you really need to," he says, ducking down to locate a sponge under the counter, so that I cannot read his face. "She just wanted to ask me some questions about Bob and his medication and some other involuntary treatment stuff. I think she's crazy busy today. Maybe just give her a bit of time to get things stabilized over there?"

"She's really going to blame me?" I can't keep the annoyance out of my voice.

"I think she feels like she spent a little too much time last month worrying about stealing the hard drive and not enough time really talking to Bob."

"But I kept telling her to talk to him. She was the one who decided she needed to go dark to punish him. She knew about his history. Not that she bothered to share it."

"Let it go, Erica. She'll be herself in a day or two. Marina always needs someone to crash into and fly off of. You know that. So right now it's you."

I swallow some pancake and reach for another. "Let's get out of the house today," I say, impulsively. "Outdoors. Away. Nature."  

Cole looks like he's been tripped with a hockey stick. The last time we went camping together (in law school), I brought a Water-pik, a flat iron, and my rolling suitcase. We have more or less stayed indoors ever since.

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As I start to make the sandwiches and collect juice boxes, Cole pulls out a laptop and gets online to figure out where in nature we should go. Sam, accustomed to weekends alternating between the kids' museum and the playground, helpfully suggests things like "the pyramids of Greece" and "Madagascar" and "Kalamazoo."   It's kind of great to finally see the Fun Czar forced to work within a committee structure.

Later, when everyone is buckled into their corner of the car and Cole points us dubiously toward Nature, he turns to me and says, uneasily, "Er, so what was that you were saying last night about your suit?"

"Huh?" I am fiddling with the snack bag on the floor at my feet.

"You said I gave away your Armani suit because I was threatened by your career?"

"Yes," I say, feeling stupid. I suppose we are going to have to talk about the fight after all. I stare out my window. "Well, it showed up at my clothing swap a few weeks ago, and I was told everyone at the law school had worn it over the past several years. But I never would have given that suit away in a billion years.   So I guess I went a little nuts and figured you were the only one who would have done it."

We stop at a red light. Cole shakes his head slowly and sets his mouth in the line I recognize from last night. "I would never give that suit away. I know what that suit represents to you, or what you think it represents."

"What does that mean?" I say, rewinding abruptly to the angry place before the makeup sex. We sit in silence.

Then suddenly Ellie, who's been looking at Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus     and rhythmically kicking at the back of my seat, blurts out her first complex sentence. "Go now."  

We'd been so lost in reprising the dumb argument about dumb things, we'd both missed the traffic light turning green. When did I start missing things, anyhow? Cole doesn't drive. We're both turned to face the backseat. Ellie just spoke! I put my hand on his knee and squeeze a little. Ellie talked. And her first sentence may have been the most pragmatic words spoken by any member of our family in days.

"Ellie, did you just say 'go now?' " I beam and nod wildly. For weeks I've been spinning out in my guilty brain the dread day Ellie would say "Danny" instead of "Mamma."   But in real life children tend to punish their mothers' return to work in far less dramatic fashion, like peeing on a throw pillow.

Sam, perhaps realizing that his years of monologuing are about to come to an abrupt and unwelcome end, interrupts to announce, "You are so beautiful, girl-mommy.   Like a sweet ole car."   I suspect it's a sort of first-child Hail Mary, a way to forever stake his rhetorical claim, but I elect to take it as a compliment. Especially when Cole grins and agrees that I am indeed as beautiful as a sweet old car. We turn on Dan Zanes and sing. We are stunningly bad singers.

Cole has chosen an easy trail near one of the mountain resorts in the Blue Ridge nearby.   We park the car, hike for 10 minutes, and then demolish our cheese sandwiches and pears as if we have just scaled Kilimanjaro. We finish the last 10 minutes of the hike hauling an empty cooler. Ellie, in the jogging stroller, has been chattering much of the way, mostly in what sounds like fluent Portuguese. Still, she's making sounds we've never heard before   and every once in a while we hear a distinct "ready now" or "go now." Then, evidently exhausted from all the firing up of neurons and flame-throwing of synapses, she collapses on my outstretched legs like a wet towel   and sleeps hard, lips working fiercely like she is trying kiss her dreams.  

Cole and Sam fly a kite   and I close my eyes and try to suck out the last of the autumn sunlight like a peach. When Ellie wakes, we head down the hill and back to the car. There's a fall harvest festival happening at the mountain resort, and the children smell cotton candy and beg to hear the music. Cole and I smell the children and the cotton candy. We wordlessly agree. The day stretches into the evening. The kids parade down the mountain, with noise-makers and streamers, and then a tiny fireworks shows with about four real explosions to go with a lot of gray smoke and noise.   There's kettle corn and caramel apples and local beer. Jolie Fille is playing Cajun music. And as Sam dances in circles with his sparkler and Ellie drutters her fine new words to herself from on top of his shoulders, Cole holds my hand and I shiver. This is the life we chose, and this is why we chose it.

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When we get home, I carry a sleeping Ellie to her crib and Cole gets crazy spinning Sam into his pajamas while I check voice mail. There are 14 new messages. My first thought is that something terrible has happened to Bob. But the first message, and all 13 that follow, shows the same Washington, D.C., number on my caller ID. And every one of the 14 messages has the same message, left in an ever higher register: "Erica. Zoe Fine here from BarCzar. Where the hell are you? Listen, the cable bookers are burning my cell up. Senator Lyndon Laden   just left his wife of 20 years for some chickie who works at the Library of Congress! And his wife is giving a press conference in the morning.   Your timing couldn't be better. The bookers all discovered Splitigation at the same time and they're going nuts for your advice. We need you on TV tomorrow night to talk about divorce and rat-bastard men and Splitigation. Call me soonest. The instant you get this. It's Huge. Huge. You're going to crush."

******

All right, readers. Next: What happens to Erica under the bright lights of cable news?

If Marina and Erica were still speaking what tips would Marina give for rocking a television interview? 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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