Saving Face

Chapter 2
Novels, stories, and more.
Sept. 11 2009 4:20 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

"Hey Erica," calls Danny as I help Ellie into the mudroom, shopping bags sliding down my arm. Sam ties on his Batman cape. He's been cheered immensely by repeat playings of his current favorite song, "Dumpy Wumpy Baby" ("I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, that much is true"), on the way back from school. We hang up jackets and put backpacks and today's art offerings into bins. Ellie lunges crazily for Chairman Meow, the cat.  "Gaaaaaaaaaaa," she shrieks.

Ellie isn't talking yet. For a while, we thought it was funny that she was like Maggie on The Simpsons, and it was so fun and ironic to have a baby who would alternately fall down and then be silent. But now we're starting to worry a little. I have an appointment with the pediatrician to discuss this on Tuesday.

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"Snacks in here guys," calls Danny, and they race into the kitchen.

"How was your day?" he asks me. Danny is young enough to listen to the answers to such questions and possibly even young enough to remember them a day later.

"The usual," I say, tossing my purse onto a kitchen chair. "Periods of prolonged waiting punctuated by brief flurries of lateness."

Danny smiles as the children launch themselves at his thighs. Having a "manny" makes me the envy of all my friends; he's a college senior who's been helping out since Ellie was born. He was Sammy's camp counselor that summer and it was love at first sight for both of them. Danny's off to med school next year, and I have not-infrequent visions of packing up the entire family to follow him there, cramming the four of us into his tiny New York bachelor apartment with our baskets of dirty laundry and demands that he replace our dead batteries. It's an immediate blast of relief to walk in and have him here: He's already cut the grapes in half, put away the breakfast things, and emptied out the dishwasher. Danny is what my husband would be if I paid him $14 an hour.

"Danny, still work for you to stick around until 10 tonight to help me with the clothing swap?" I ask. "Cole is going to be working late, preparing for this hellish divorce that goes to trial Monday."

"Sure. I can put the kids to bed and then help with the food and cleanup if you like."

"You'll want to stay out of the living room while they're trying on clothes," I laugh. "It will be a whole football field of Spanx out there."

Danny sets out plates of grapes and cheese and animal crackers for the children, and Sam starts cheerfully biting the heads off his cheese sticks. Sam is going through a funny eating phase. Maybe it's not quite a phase, since this has been happening for over a year. Sam refuses to eat the "tails" off anything.   In his view, the tail is the last little bit of any food—the last quarter-inch of carrot, the last bite of a french fry, the tip of his cheese stick. At the end of each meal, Sam's plate is littered with tiny nubs of uneaten food that must be thrown out immediately before he can leave the table.    

While the kids are fed and then wiped down and diverted with Play-Doh, I load the washing machine with armloads of my new clothes. As I stuff in a size 4 blouse, my iPhone beeps to tell me someone I know has just updated their Facebook status.

I glance to see who it is, cursing the instinct that led every mom I know to join Facebook one week in November last year. We have all been members now just long enough to cyber-stalk three old high-school boyfriends apiece; fill out nine cyber-quizzes (I am Mary Anne, Marina is Ginger); and upload 2,000 baby pictures that, as it turns out, look remarkably similar to all of our friends' 2,000 baby pictures. I can keep up with my old lawyer friends in Manhattan if I want to, but of course they all stopped updating their own pages a year before I joined. Joining Facebook has turned out to be like getting a new pet or a plant: one more thing that needs to be tended just as you were wishing for one or two less.

I am only half-surprised to see it's Marina posting an update already. She has turned rapid-fire status updates into a form of performance art and her relationship with Twitter is, if I were to be honest about it, vastly more robust than her relationship with Bob.   A stay-at-home graphic-designer-slash-mommy, Marina is a monument to living life artily—hammered-silver cuff bracelets and garments I am not permitted to call "kaftans" to her face.

"Marina Samuels is Free at last!" she has written. "Marriage finally over and I am ready to rage. Party in the backseat of my Prius? I have a sitter who HAS NO CURFEW. (And he's my ex-husband!) Guys aged 18-25 especially urged to apply! Arooooooooah."

Now, on one hand this is classic Marina. Especially the poorly spelled wolf call at the end. We've known her since she met Bob, Cole's best friend at law school, and she's always had trouble letting even a single thought gestate for a while on the inside. But I have also been an attorney married to a divorce attorney long enough to know that advertising one's newfound sexual availability on Facebook only hours after the breakup of one's marriage isn't a smart opening salvo in a divorce proceeding. Especially in a small college town where one's husband teaches in the law school and half his students are your Facebook friends.

I fire off an e-mail to her Facebook account: "Yo, lunatic," I write. "Maybe hold off on the whole offering sex to strangers on the internet thing? If I were newly single after 8 years I'd be booking myself in for a week at the spa, not propositioning minors online. Seriously. Not a great time to play Melrose Place. I have no idea if this divorce is for real, or why you think you need a lawyer but really you need to be smart, Marina."

Then, thinking fast about the things I have learned over the years from Cole, I type out some quick instructions.

Welcome to Your First Night of Divorce

1.Don't promise sex to anonymous online strangers! 2.Don't have sex with anonymous strangers online! 3.Retain possession of the house. No matter what you do, if you let him have the house tonight you will spend years in court fighting to get back in. 4.Hang onto 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.   5. Hide the jewelry.   6. Figure out to a decimal point what's in your bank accounts and IRAs. 7. Male escorts = cheaper + more discreet. But as you are now likely aware after eight years of marriage, sex in general is largely overrated.

I hit send and toss up a silent ecumenical prayer that Marina doesn't find a way to make this divorce as dramatic as her wedding, the birth of her children, or her flirtation with a gluten-free diet last August. Then I run upstairs to track down dry cleaning bags for my enviable new collection of size 4 sportswear.

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On my way downstairs from giving the kids good-night kisses before Danny finishes up their bedtime stories, my phone beeps again. Marina has just tweeted Bob came by to pick up more clean boxers. Um. Why?? I shake my head as I turn into the kitchen to set out the last of the appetizers for the clothing-swap. (Alice Waters gougeres. Dates stuffed with almonds and goat cheese.   Goat cheese mousse in cucumber boats.   And tiny shot glasses of ahi tuna gazpacho.) All of my food-related memories from when my sister and I were growing up in the 1970s are tangled up in acres of frozen plastic wrap and defrosting lasagnas sweating on the counter. I try to conjure a memory of my mother fussing, as I am, with matched sprigs of cilantro garnish, but I can't even seem to pull up a memory of my mother in the kitchen. The part of my brain that receives a 24-hour live newsfeed of what my mom would be thinking at any given moment cannot be silenced. If she were watching me now, she'd be thinking: I can't believe my grown daughter, the corporate attorney, is doing artisanal food crafting for a bunch of small-town TumbleBus moms. I should explain that, five years later, my mother is still not yet fully recovered from the delivery of my first child. I had thought the painkillers would help get her through the tough first weeks and the 12-week paid maternity leave my law firm granted would help her adjust. In hindsight, it was probably my decision to extend that maternity leave to six months, then nine, and then to five years and counting, that has done things to her health that have rendered her almost totally uninsurable.

You see, my mother, Frances Miller-Kline, graduated from Harvard Law School back in the days when there were only seven women in the entire class and, to hear her tell it, not a single women's bathroom to be found in the entire 02138 zip code. As such and in light of the fact that—again, to hear her tell it—she took a seven-hour break in the middle of trying a felony-murder case to give birth to me, then put on the same suit and argued her closing to a rapt jury the next morning, she sees every minute I have not spent at my own firm as an affront to the whole women's movement.

She named her new dog Hillary. It's a boy.

Because of Frances' ability to monetize virtually every human feeling and experience, she is an exceptionally good federal trial-court judge today. But as a consequence of that worldview, I have become like a taxi to her, its meter forever running backward to represent my ever-declining net worth. As I sprinkle chopped chives over small cucumber boats, I find myself wondering if there is a single thing about my daily life that my mother would recognize.  

******

Readers, I need to know the worst thing that could happen at a clothing swap and the worst way to find out your husband is cheating with one of his law students. Send mail to me at savingface.slate@gmail.com  or post to the Facebook page. I am having way too much fun on the Facebook page. Way too much fun period. Thanks for the amazing suggestions and feedback.

Become a fan of Saving Face on Facebook and help Dahlia write the rest.

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