Saving Face

Chapter 16
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Oct. 2 2009 1:31 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

It seems nobody at CNN has ever encountered a guest who shows up nine hours early for her show. When I explain politely to an intern in a black turtleneck with a white bra underneath   that I am here for the special Sunday night edition of The Buck Stops Here, she looks at me blankly then parks me in the green room. The green room! Marina would be freaking out right now. I reach for my phone in my bag but then put it back.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

The green room, as it turns out, is dark yellow. There is a boxy beige couch, a coffee table, a coffeepot, and coffee. A television tuned to CNN plays Mrs. Laden's press conference on a loop. There is an autographed hockey stick that says "The Puck Stops Here! Thanks a million, Buck!" A not-very-clean electric razor   is charging on a side table next to an MSNBC pen. The other door leads to a small makeup room, currently vacant. And for the first time in years, I am staring straight down the barrel of nine hours of "me time." It's hellish.

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I try to slow my breathing and focus on the interview like it's a law-school exam question: What do I really want to say here tonight, about divorce and women and their families? Why can't I talk to adults the way I talk to children? With children you can be direct, simple. But suddenly it seems I can no longer say anything to Cole unless I sidle up to it diagonally. And just about every word I said to Marina last month was rooted in a misunderstanding, which led to even more imbalance on the blog. Even Hughie, the driver, can say what he wants in clear, declarative sentences. I am a lawyer: I can be straightforward and honest, and people will listen. "Grow, up Erica," I tell myself.

I pull out my green binder and a stack of law review articles, and grab the MSNBC pen. I can ace this thing. I know I can.

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It takes almost an hour to do my makeup. The makeup woman appears to be set on fashioning an entirely new face over my existing one, and what starts off as a fun flashback to childhood slumber parties ("Hey, that black eyeliner is awesome …") quickly starts to feel like onerous urban redevelopment ("I'm just going to put concealer and powder all over your cheeks and draw in some cheekbones with the contour ..."). I haven't eaten anything since last night, and my stomach grouses quietly as she works. An intern comes in and ties Anderson Cooper's dog to the couch in the green room.   Jeff Toobin stops by to pick up a notebook. He's very handsome. I introduced myself shyly and tell him he has a bit of cream cheese on his tie. He thanks me.  

Just as the makeup woman is renovating my lips, Spencer Buckley himself strides into the small room and takes the chair opposite me. He's so short that his feet don't even reach the ground when he leans back.   Weirdly, he has a normal-sized torso but also teensy little legs. Now I understand why they have to put him behind a desk every night.   Buckley has congressional hair, meaning that each strand has been chemically plumped up to look three times larger than it actually is.

"Hello. There. Gorgeous!" he booms, as he swivels his makeup chair around to face me.

"Er, hi there, Mr. Buckley," I say, just as the makeup artist giggles, "Hey, Spence!"

Right. He was talking to her.

He swivels the chair back to look at himself in the mirror and says, "You must be the Splitigation lady, huh? You're a lot cuter than you write; that's for sure." He winks, and I long for Purell. The woman doing my makeup, ditching me with only the left half of my top lip done, swiftly goes to work on Buckley. I check my iPhone for messages. One line from Cole: Good luck. Another from Whit Campbell: Sorry no pre-interview. Crazy day. Just the standard divorce stuff. Good luck!

Just the standard divorce stuff? Who the hell has ever had just a standard divorce?

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The work on my top lip finally having been completed, I watch the first part of the show from the green room. First, Spencer Buckley introduces a taped piece about the Laden's marriage, his meteoric Senate career, the tawdry affair. His other guest is a political consultant who, perhaps not surprisingly, expresses the decisive view that Sen. Laden's political career is probably over.

"But should it be over?" asks Buckley. "Should it? Shouldn't what happens in your pants stay in your pants?" He looks earnestly at the camera. "When we come back, someone who wants to give Mrs. Laden a little Lorena Bobbitt-style advice about what's in her husband's pants. Our next guest thinks women should stop taking their husbands' infidelity lying down and start taking it to the streets! When The Buck Stops Here—right after these messages."

Everything after that happens on fast forward. I'm hustled in to the studio and hastily stuffed behind the desk next to Spencer Buckley. I smile nervously as one technician reaches up my jacket with a microphone he clips to my lapel and another stuffs an earpiece in my ear. It pops right out.

"It's too big," breathes the technician. "Get me a smaller goddamn earpiece. Please!" People scurry. Buckley scans his notes, refusing to look at me. I breathe deeply. A small burp comes out, startling the technician fiddling with my lapel. Then another, smaller earpiece is jammed into my ear. Still too big. There's no time to locate another one. The makeup girl darts forward to pluck something small that's lodged in my hair. Cat fur. I try to think of something clever to say about that but wind up staring dumbly as she balls it up wordlessly and walks off. It's very, very hot under the lights. I wonder if my new contoured cheekbones will melt right off my face, midsegment. Has that ever happened?

"You'll have to hold the earpiece to your ear," barks someone. I stuff my finger in my ear like I'm out on a beach, covering a typhoon. Then a disembodied voice from inside the earpiece instructs me to look at Spence, not the camera or the monitor.

"OK," I whisper.

"And don't talk back when we start talking in your earpiece," comes the voice.

"Sorry," I mouth, silently.

"Stop it," says the voice. "And we're live in 4 … 3 … 2 …1."

Buckley leaps to life and smiles ferociously into the camera. "What comes next for Senator and Mrs. Laden? Time was, a woman would handle her husband's extracurricular activities like a lady. Imagine Jackie Kennedy holding a press conference on the White House lawn to bellyache about her husband's philandering. Please. But our next guest is a lawyer and writer on the incendiary new women's blog Splitigation. She says it's time women stopped acting like ladies and started fighting like men. Erica Hirshblatt, welcome to The Buck Stops Here."

I open my mouth to speak but the monitor shows me on a slight time delay. And so as I begin to thank him for having me on the show, the me on the studio monitor is just opening her mouth to start to say something. And then before she, or I, manage to say anything, Buckley is turning to look at me again with a small, feral smile.

"A few weeks ago, you posted on your blog, Splitigation,the following advice for a woman who's just discovered that her husband is cheating on her. ..."

On the monitor I can see the screen has been filled with a long quote from my first Facebook posting, which Zoe Fine had transferred to the blog and which Buckley is now reading aloud:  

Welcome to the First Night of Your Divorce. ... Hang on to the kids. If you let him have the kids while you are out having sex with strangers tonight, you will spend years in court fighting to see your kids. ... Figure out to a decimal point what's in your bank accounts and IRAs. ... Hide the jewelry. … Male escorts = cheaper + more discreet.

Buckley looks back at me and punches a finger in my direction: "So, tell me, is that the sort of legal advice you'd be giving Betsy Laden tonight, on the first night of her divorce?"

I start to explain that these were chiefly attempts at humor, but the earpiece pops out of my ear. I have to jam it back in and hold it there and on the monitor I can see, in time delay, my mouth open and shut once again, like a cod. Then the me of two seconds ago is quickly replaced by another block quote from Splitigation, which Buckley is reading, with relish:

Rummage through any old love letters between you and your spouse, with an eye toward anything that looks or smells like a promise about marital assets. We're looking for birthday or Valentine's Day cards filled with the usual sentiments like "I'll always love you and take care of you," and "everything that is mine is yours, especially the widescreen TV.

Buckley points at me again: "Is that the way women should win in a divorce? By blackmailing their husbands with old love letters?"

"Look," I finally interject, "you're trying to impeach me with my own testimony here. ... You're just cherry- picking the most inflammatory. ..." A voice suddenly hisses in my ear "Erica. Stop swiveling in the chair!"  

"OK," I tell the voice.

"Not to me; talk to Spence!" hisses the voice.

Buckley is still throwing up selected quotations from Splitigation, with lots of ellipses to cover any inadvertent reasonableness I may have shown: "And you also seem to have very strong views about the need for mothers to grab their children and leave town, Ms. Hirshblatt. That's what we used to call kidnapping. But your advice on Splitigation for Mrs. Laden?

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?

"That's a pretty sad picture of marriage; don't you think? Poor, defenseless women trapped in hollow shells of lives they have outgrown?" Buckley smiles into the camera. "I sure am glad you didn't handle my divorce; I'll tell you that much."

"I bet you are glad, Spence," I say, finally tearing my eyes off the time-delayed monitor and letting the umbilical cord connecting my ear to the nagging producer drop to my shoulder. "Because if I had represented your first, or second, or even third wives in their divorces, you wouldn't have the Porsche or the house on the Virgin Islands. Does your first wife have a Porsche? Did you even pay for your children's college educations? One recent British study showed that the minute a man leaves a childless marriage, his income instantly rises by 25 percent. Their wives have a poverty rate of 27 percent—almost three times' their former husbands. And another study shows that, on average, women's standards of living drop by 27 percent after divorce. Jackie Kennedy could afford to be a 'lady,' Spence. But, by that metric, most women today really can't."  

"And so your sage legal advice is to steal the hard drive and ..." he rifles through his notes "make like a bank robber and grab all the money and run?"  

"No. Spence. My advice is simply that women should be hard-headed and pragmatic about the collapse of their marriage. They should treat it as an economic event, not an emotional one. And that there's a name for men who tell women to shut up and stop complaining while they're getting screwed against their will."

"And we're out," interrupts the voice on my shoulder. "Talk us out, Spence." But Spencer Buckley just blinks a few times, and they cut to a commercial. Before I know it, I'm being hastily unplugged from my earpiece and microphone and hustled out of the studio so the next guest can be seated. Buckley never looks at me. As I collect my things in the green room, the makeup woman gives me a big thumbs-up and asks me if I want some baby wipes to remove all the makeup.

"No, I think I'll keep it on for a while," I say, and check my iPhone for messages. There are three. The first is from Whit Campbell: Way to go there Momzilla. I'm impressed! Everyone's buzzing. And don't take this the wrong way but you really are cuter than you write :)!

The second is from Cole: You looked great, honey. But fair and balanced? Not so much.

And the last comes, blessedly, from Marina: OMG, you are a goddess. You so rocked that! (And the new cheekbones! Beyond, beyond.) Baby mine. You're gonna be a star!

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Dear readers: What does Erica's mother think of Erica's brand of feminism? Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.