Saving Face

Chapter 17
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Oct. 12 2009 1:44 PM

Saving Face

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Chapter 17

The ride back to Charlottesville is a wild rumpus on four wheels. I make Hughie stop at the CVS on Dupont Circle for a bottle of cheap Oak Leaf chardonnay   and some Solo cups. Then Hughie and I work up a scorching two-part harmony to "Howl for the Holy Ghost."   But every few minutes I have to tell him to turn it down, because my cell phone is ringing itself silly. Zoe is over the moon. She's already gotten calls for me to do two radio shows first thing in the morning. My sister calls from Boston, baffled but proud. Then Marina calls, so frantic with excitement she can hardly speak. After the preliminaries ("hair looked great ... makeup was fantastic ... blouse totally made your eyes pop ..."), we each blurt out apologies at the same time.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

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

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"Marina, I'm sorry I got so caught up with the blog. I totally lost touch with reality ..." I say just as she offers, "It was ridiculous for me to blame you for what happened with Bob ..."

We laugh, promise to meet up tomorrow for coffee, and hang up. I feel like I can breathe again. Until we pull into my neighborhood, close to 1 in the morning, and I start wondering whether Cole has waited up for me. He's probably sleeping—hopefully sleeping—I tell myself, and I glug some more white wine just for insurance purposes. I didn't think the adrenaline high from television could survive so much travel and so very much Hughie, but between the e-mails and the phone calls, I'm still buzzing.

Illustration by Deanna Staffo.   Click image to expand.

Hughie lets me out of the car only after I agree to take three more CDs, an autographed harmonica, and his business card. Laden with this all this bounty and the half-empty bottle of chardonnay, I teeter up the front steps to my house and open the door as gently as I can with full hands. Cole is in his pajama bottoms and a long-sleeved T-shirt in the darkened living room, hunched over with his forearms on his knees. Probably the very first time Eve came home a little tipsy from a bachelorette party, Adam was waiting for her in precisely this posture: still-life of the profoundly wronged male. I drop my purse, binder, wine, and collected Hughie paraphernalia on the coffee table, and drop into the overstuffed armchair opposite him.

"You looked great," he says, looking up and offering one of those lipless smiles that reflects either humorless mirth or the fact that he's just ruptured a kidney.

"Thank you," I say. We sit in silence for a minute. I was hoping he'd noticed the cheekbones, but evidently we're moving on.

"Are you planning on taking the kids and just leaving me?" he finally asks, looking up at me as if he's all but given up on us.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Erica, nobody who writes the way you write and talks the way you talk about marriage could possibly be in a happy one," he says. "Listening to you tonight, anyone would guess you're married to a serial cheater with a rage disorder."

I feel my eyes stretch to near-popping, so random is this accusation. "Cole, that's insane. What I write and say has absolutely nothing to do with you or with us. I love you. I have never thought for even a minute about taking the kids and leaving you."

He's on his feet now, pacing the length of the area rug. "Well, you sure have a lot of displaced anger you've directed toward all the remaining husbands of America."

"But it has nothing to do with my husband," I repeat, baffled that he can't see the difference between my work and my private life. "When I talk about unhappy marriages I'm talking about other people's marriages. About the average cheating husband and the average stay-at-home mom."

"And what about the average cheating wife? What about the average stay-at-home dad? Do they even get walk-on roles in your cramped little view of the modern American family?"

"I just don't know of a whole lot of female senators who ditch their clueless husbands for the perky summer intern. I promise that when we achieve that kind of perfect gender parity in this country, I'll rail against the women with equal fervor."

He blinks at me and sits down again heavily. "Whatever happened," he finally asks, "to the promises of balance and moderation in your future media appearances?"

"That jerk was baiting me! He was quoting me selectively and trying to make me look unhinged."

"Erica, you've given him a lot to work with. He could have picked any three sentences at random from Splitigation and put them up there on the screen and you'd have looked unhinged."

"Are you taking his side?" I sputter. "He was a Neanderthal!"

"I thought you were there to talk about the Laden divorce, not do Punch and Judy with the host."

"Well, he punched first."

"And then you basically called him, and men who think like him, rapists."

I reach for the Oak Leaf and swig straight from the bottle. Then I put it back on the coffee table much harder than I'd planned. There will be a mark.

"Look, I didn't expect you to be delighted with what I said out there, but I thought you'd at least understand. The man was a cretin. He deliberately set out to embarrass me."

Cole is rubbing at his face like he wants to push his skin right off the bones. It's not just the show that's bothering him. He's still only halfway through the fight he started and never finished last week in the car.   I wait. I can see in the way he's looking at me that I've become someone he doesn't recognize, a person he'd hate if he met her at a conference of divorce lawyers.

"Look." He rubs his face again. "I get that you feel like you want to matter again, to be respected again. And I really do get that you feel like you need to help other people, and I even get that you thought you were helping Marina when you were pushing her to split up her family."  

"She apologized to me tonight," I cut him off. "That wasn't all my fault."

"Look, I don't want to make this about fault. I just want you to really think about whether this is the way you want to be putting yourself out there in the world again. Do you really believe you're helping people? Serving people? Doling out provocative divorce tips on the Web? Saying indefensible, scandalous things on cable talk shows? You're a smart person, a great lawyer. I can't see where turning yourself into a cartoon of a feminist helps you or anyone else. You used to laugh at the women at law school who spewed crap like you spewed tonight! Do you really think you can be a serious lawyer when you're turning yourself into the constitutional Hooters girl?"

"Well, what about Marcy?" I grab my phone and check my e-mail. "What about Marcy Elliott? I'm helping her! She wrote in after the show tonight thanking me for standing up for all the used-up throwaway wives and said I'd inspired her to try to get sole custody of her kid." I scroll down. "What about this woman from Indiana who says her husband is months behind in child support? What about the 20 e-mails from women whose husbands fought them for joint custody and then just ditch the kids with a babysitter?"

"Erica."

"No, Cole, you need to listen to me. I understand that the blog is embarrassing to you. That it's unserious and unprofessional, and un-"—I'm really feeling the wine here—"un-gravitas-y. But I didn't set out to embarrass you, and I didn't set out to glom onto your career. This isn't about you. I am not plotting my divorce from you. I'm a lawyer, too. I like this, and I am really good at this. You've been pushing me for a year to get back to work."

"I meant a real job, Erica, not a cable news freak show. The reason Danny is still working for us is so you could look for a real job. A job that's worthy of you."

"Ah, so now it's unworthy."

I'm shouting now. Loud enough to wake the children. I haven't shouted in years, not counting tonight's TV performance. Cole starts to shush me, then thinks better of it. He stands up again and shrugs. "Unworthy. Yes. Beneath you. You are a fine person and a great lawyer and, at least until recently, a good mother. But none of those facts is in evidence in your current, absurd, vocation." He pauses and looks straight at me. "Be very careful, Erica. You're becoming ridiculous."

"And you're becoming as pompous and sexist as Spencer Buckley."

We stare at each other. Usually our fights wend their way toward a better place, even if it takes a few days to get there. But this one seems to have dropped us someplace bad and then bolted. There's nothing to say. I gather my binder, my Hughie CD, and my wine, and I head upstairs to bed.

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I used to believe that the principle difference between stay-at-home moms and working moms was the Uncrustables. But today I learn that it's shopping. Marina and I are on a tear to get me some new TV suits.   Marina? She says she is looking for some Lululemon athletica boogie crop pants.   I have no idea what that means, but she's determined.

It turns out that I have forgotten how to shop seriously. Once you have children, there are basically only three types of shopping: online at 1 a.m. with a glass of merlot, crashing crazily through Target for items that will total precisely $200 no matter you buy, or Marshalls at 3 on a Friday afternoon. And that's the saddest kind of shopping of all.

(Something terrible happens at Marshall's on Friday afternoons. All the stay-at-home women who have waited all week to treat themselves swarm in and finger the scarves and the perfumes and the shoes. You can see in their eyes that they will never, ever find what they are looking for. They are the ones who buy the gourmet chocolate-covered coffee beans and the freesia-scented candles that are stacked next to the checkout counters. But what Marina and I are engaged in today isn't just aspirational. It's alchemy. We need to turn me into a TV star.)

This morning the video of me telling Spencer Buckley that there's a name for men who tell women to shut up and stop complaining while they're getting screwed has gone viral on YouTube   under the heading "The Buck Stops Talking: Feminist Blogger Takes Out Blowhard Buckley." I did three radio interviews this morning (ostensibly about Splitigation but in actual fact about what it felt like to render the biggest mouth on cable news speechless). I'm booked to do a couple more shows this week. And I've blogged items about the Laden divorce, the clichéd treatment of women's issues on cable television shows, and the Jon and Kate split in just one morning. Traffic is through the roof. I'm having lunch with Zoe Fine on Friday.

But that all means that I need a work wardrobe, stat. We start at Sephora   and Marina fills me in on a lifetime of female sorcery merely by introducing me to powder eyeliner. I don't even know how it's possible that I completely missed out on powder eyeliner, but I decide immediately that this is another failure of Frances that can never be remedied or rectified. Marina quickly cheers me up with a Shu Uemura mascara. And a new Coach bag. We are not shopping like women with wants. We shop like women with needs. It feels wonderful.

As we stop for a latte, my iPhone beeps with another message. It's Whit Campbell. I smile.

"What?" says Marina.

"Nothing," I grin, looking down at my phone.

"What?" she repeats, insistent that I spill it.

"Just an e-mail from a producer at CNN," I grin.

"Are you going on again?"

"I don't think so," I say. "Lemme check." I check

You guessed right. Lucy the makeup girl told me Spence said that you were cuter than you write. She said she almost fell over. Thank you for waiting to take it out on him during the show and not in the makeup chair. Made for much better television. Everyone here just loved you. Let's have you back soon.

Whit

I must be smiling again because Marina is peering at me like she's missed something.

"Is he cute?" she asks.

"No idea," I say, snapping the phone off and back into my bag.

"He sounds cute ..." she says, narrowing her eyes at me as if I've changed my hair color and she's only just noticed. "Now, where can we find you some new lingerie?

Cole slept in the guestroom last night. We don't bother with the new lingerie.

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As I am stuffed into the changing room at Belk with a small mountain of Ralph Lauren, I hear Marina jawing away with someone just outside. They greet each other enthusiastically, and I hear Marina chattering about a hoped-for trip to the beach as soon as Bob is feeling better. When I yank aside the curtain and step out, I am almost rocked right back into the change room in surprise. Standing there, chatting with Marina, in all her elfin gamine glory, is Amanda Matthews, aka Quid Pro Ho.

"Erica," smiles Marina, "I'd like you to meet one of Bob's students, Amanda."

"Amanda," I stick out an unfamiliar herringbone arm and shake hers stiffly.

"Oh, Mrs. Hirshblatt, I saw you at that work-life balance panel at the law school last month. That was, uh, interesting. And now Marina tells me that my new boyfriend happens to be your baby sitter."

I need to move to a bigger town.

***

I'm back, dear readers! For your next assignment:  What should be the topic of Erica's next Splitigation post? And where did Amanda meet the Manny? Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.