Saving Face

Chapter 15
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Oct. 1 2009 2:46 PM

Saving Face

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My inbox isn't quite as overheated as my voice mail. There's just one brief message, from someone named Whit Campbell at CNN.   It, too, is a little less overheated than Zoe Fine would have suggested. It says merely:

Ms. Hirshblatt, would you be interested in coming on Spencer Buckley's show, The Buck Stops Here  

tomorrow evening to discuss the Lyndon Laden affair? In light of the breaking news, the network is doing a special Sunday night show. Please let me know at your earliest possible convenience so I can arrange for a pre-interview with myself or another one of the producers. Best, Whit Campbell.
Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

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My phone rings before I can hit reply. It's Zoe, taking a deep drag of nothing. "Jesus H., Erica, where the hell have you been all day? I'm stroking out here."

"Sorry, Zoe, I was hiking with my family and didn't have any phone reception."

"Hiking?" she asks, in the same exact voice one might use to say, "Drowning rabbits?"

"Yes, hiking," I say, ruggedly, in the same exact voice one might use to say, "and also shooting moose from helicopters."

But Zoe is so excited that she's begun to wheeze. "CNN has been trying to book you for tomorrow for a special show to talk about the Lyndon Laden divorce. It's just huge. Huge for BarCzar. Huge for you. You have to do it Erica. It's just spectacularly good timing for everyone."

"Except maybe Mrs. Senator Laden," I mumble.

"Whaaaa?" But Zoe is a snowball hurtling down a hill. "I called them back about an hour ago and said you can do it in-studio from Washington tomorrow night. You can do it, right? They're sending a car to Charlotte, North Carolina. That's where you live right? Look, make sure they spell BarCzar right on the banner, OK? With the period and everything? Ok? Now, listen, I have to go do a thing. But call me tomorrow when it's over, OK? Just remember, young, voicey, hip ... " She's still churning out synonyms as she shuts off her phone.

I take a deep breath and go upstairs to find Cole. I have to admit that "What will Cole say about all this?" was in fact the third thought to cross my mind when I heard Zoe's messages. The second was, "What will my mom think about all this?" The first was, "What will I wear?"

I wish I could call Marina about that last question, because she would know and she would be right. But I don't know how she will feel about my parlaying her family tragedy into a major TV appearance. Cole first, I tell myself. Marina later.

Cole is just shutting Sam's bedroom door and tiptoeing out as I climb upstairs. He is still basking in the afterglow of the bonfires and the kettle corn; smiling the wolfish smile of a man who's caroused in nature all day and now wants to carouse with his woman. The question for me: sex or disclosure? I opt for disclosure. CNN is waiting.

"So, honey, I just got an e-mail from somebody at CNN. I guess Senator Laden just kicked his wife to the curb, and they want me to talk about it on Spencer Buckley. Because of Splitigation." I wince and screw up my nose at him. "So, what do you think?"

Cole stops advancing toward me and sags against the door of Ellie's bedroom. "That was fast," he says. He zips up his fleece.

"Yeah."

"Do you want to do it?"  

"I think so," I say, staring hard at my sneakers. "But I absolutely don't need to do it if it makes you uncomfortable. I mean, you're already in hot water at work over Splitigation. I can totally call them back and say I'm not interested.

"Not for me, Erica. I can handle it. If you really are interested, you should do it. But," he peers at me, "don't do it to beat up on me, or Bob, or your Mom, OK?   Do it because you're smart and good at it. If this is what you want to do, do it well."  

"I'm sorry," I say, hoping that covers it all, and also what's to come next.

"Me too," he says, starting toward our bedroom.

"Maybe you can help me out with Splitigation over the next few days?" I ask.  "You know, sort of remind me to be a lawyer first and flame-throwing daughter of Frances second?"

"Yeah, sure," he says, without turning around. I duck into Sam's room and kiss the lump under the comforter where I imagine his head to be. Then I flick on the ballerina nightlight next to Ellie's crib. "Up in a few minutes," I call to my closed bedroom door before I run downstairs to accept CNN's offer.

Dear Mr. Campbell, I'd be delighted to do the Spencer Buckley show tomorrow night. Just let me know where to be, and at what time. Yours, Erica Hirshblatt.

1_123125_2218862_090529_pep_divider_568

If I'm still good at anything, it's research. Research is why my kids sleep through the night, and research is why they drink only organic milk. Sam and Ellie have been raised almost entirely by the Parenting shelves at Barnes & Noble. My nervous friends called their mothers to ask about night terrors, lice shampoos, or croupy coughs. But I called Marina and bought books. I decide that if I have to choose between puffy eyes and stupefied silence on national television, I'll take the puffy eyes. So from 10 p.m. to midnight, I research Sen. and Mrs. Lyndon Laden from Illinois.   They fell in love at the University of Chicago (one of those fraternity-sorority deals), she supported him through law school on her teacher's salary and then quit to have babies when he became district attorney, tried huge cases, then ran for the Senate. Two beautiful platinum-blone daughters, 9 and 12. A rising star in the party, the senator has authored two best-selling books about education reform and his name had been floated for a cabinet post in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Another golden boy with lead feet: This was not, as it turns out, the his first affair. There are e-mails with icky pet names. There are photographs. It's all so familiar, you almost don't have to bother with the details. Except that he moved out of his home last night and moved in with the pregnant girlfriend.

Received 2:15 a.m.

Dear Erica,
We need you in the makeup chair at the studio in D.C. by 9:30 p.m. Hit time for the segment is 10:20 pm. We'll send a car for you if you send me your address. A producer, probably me, will call you midafternoon for a brief pre-interview. If you have any other questions, please let me know. Best, Whit Campbell.

When I can't stand reading about the Ladens any longer, I research Spencer Buckley, whose late-night cable news show I have never managed to watch for more than 15 minutes. Buckley made his name in the Ronald Reagan years, chiefly for following the president around, putting coasters under his glasses. He had a stint as a local TV weatherman in Hawaii.   It seems he once argued a high-profile case in favor of criminalizing sex toys. He has said on-air that he doesn't think "girl lawyers" should get to clog up the courts with "fake crimes" like date rape and sexual harassment. He's been married three times. OK. This guy is probably not going to be a fan.

Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. I devote my time to pacing the downstairs, brewing red tea   and a surviving a lightning round of breathing hard into a paper bag under Cole's desk. By the time the kids begin to stir at 6:15, I look and feel like I've been through some weeklong hostage negotiation. And that's when I start rooting through the closets for something to wear. By 6:45, I'm done ransacking the downstairs closets. I pop in Finding Nemo and give the kids a Pop Tart each so I can go upstairs. I claw my way through our bedroom closets, yanking stained blouses from hangers and throwing them into a pile on the floor.

Cole awakens the same way each morning: By sitting straight upright and yelling "whaaaa?"—a tic he acquired during Sam's brief colicky period and cannot seem to shake. I am dumping plastic bins full of old work clothes onto the bedroom floor and, fighting back tears, I beg him to please, please, please help me find one decent garment to wear because the car service is coming to get me in five hours. Together, we grimly sort through one old, ill-fitting suit after another. The word "Armani" hangs in the air between us, unspoken. By 8:30, I am dressed in a blue blouse, khaki blazer (left unbuttoned), khaki skirt (cannot be buttoned) and red high-heeled shoes.   I have hung an identical backup outfit in a plastic bag next to the front door.

I again consider calling Marina, but I still don't really know what to say. Then I consider calling my mother, but I don't really want to know what she'll say. The only person I do want to talk to right now is Cole, but we are speeding wordlessly past each other like emergency room nurses, trying to get the kids fed and dressed, all my notes printed out and organized in a green binder, before we sit down together to watch Mrs. Laden's press conference.

It lasts all of 90 seconds. She steps up to the microphone set up on the lawn in front of the family home and reads a prepared statement in which she says that she was shocked to learn of her husband's recent affair, that she has no idea what she will do next, and that she begs the media to afford herself and her daughters some privacy in this very trying time. She takes no questions.

There is, perhaps, something to be said for tweeting the collapse of your marriage after all.

At 11:15, 45 minutes early, a black town car pulls into our driveway. Cole opens the door to tell the driver I am coming while I take another run at the brown paper bag in the downstairs bathroom. I hug the children and then Cole puts his arms around me and kisses my nose. "You'll be great," he says. "You don't have to answer all their crazy TV questions. You just have to argue your case.   Go get 'em baby."

The driver helps me into the car and then pulls slowly out of the driveway. He tells me his name is Hughie,   to help myself to the free bottled water and that we should be in D.C. in two hours. I spread my papers all over the back seat and begin to make careful notes of the big points I want to address. Nuanced points. Lawyerly points. By the time we hit 29-North, Hughie is asking if I mind if he plays a little music. I smile and say it's fine.  

What comes blasting out through the speakers cannot be readily classified by genre. It takes me a few minutes to realize that I might just be listening to my first Christian Zydeco.  

"So, I guess you're wondering who's singing?" says Hughie, after a minute or two. "Do you think its Dylan? A lot of folks think this is Bob Dylan."

Before I can tell him that it does sound an awful lot like Bob Dylan, he continues. "Of course a lot of people also think it sounds more like Cat Stevens. Doesn't it sound a bit like a sort of Cajun Cat Stevens?"

"It does, a bit," I say, glancing up from my notes to see him gazing shyly at me in the rearview mirror. I don't know what I'm missing here.

"Or don't you think it sounds a bit like a young, Cajun Cat Stevens crossed with an old Bob Marley?" he urges.

He starts to sing along to the music. When I still fail to react he starts to sing along a good bit louder. When he clearly cannot stand it a minute longer, he yells into the rearview mirror: "It's me!"

"I'm sorry?" I startle, smiling up at him nervously.

"It's me! Singing! Isn't that amazing? Wait wait, lemme skip ahead to the next track so you can appreciate the range here," and then he skips to another song that sounds like the first. "I'm very versatile that way," he says, bobbing his head and humming along.

We drive for a few more miles as Hughie silently appreciates Hughie before he says he wants me to listen to another version of the same song from a live performance he did a few weeks back. He asks if I am hearing the banjo. I assure him I am. After about 10 more minutes of this, I ask him to please turn it down a little. Politely. Lawyerly. He says he just wants me to hear just one more song. I tell him I just really need to prepare. "I've never been on TV before. I feel like I'm cramming for a final back here," I smile.

"Wait, wait," says Hughie. "I'll play you some of 'God's Washboard' That will relax you."

I tell him one more song would be fine, but it isn't fine. People used to listen when I asked them to do things. What is it about me that screams "kitchen wallpaper?"

By the time we pull in to the CNN studios, I have been quizzed closely on the differences between two seemingly identical versions of the title song on his live concert album, Driving, and given nine copies of his CD to dispense to anyone "famous" I may encounter at the TV studio.   Hughie tells me he will pick me up in the exact same spot at 10:45 tonight, wishes me luck, and promises a reprise of Hughie Comes Alive on the way home.   I am nine hours early for my cable-television appearance, and I haven't pulled an all-nighter that wasn't baby-based in more than a decade. Nobody ever called for my pre-interview, the buttons are gaping on my blouse and I feel completely underprepared. Not even Hughie takes me seriously. I'm hoping nothing else can go wrong.

******

About half my e-mail is from people who think this story can't end happily unless Erica goes back to a law firm. The other half want her to take better care of her family. Is there any middle ground here? What does a happy ending even look like in the mommy wars? 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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