Saving Face

Chapter 20
Novels, stories, and more.
Nov. 25 2009 4:46 PM

Saving Face

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The candles have guttered down into two puddles, and Ellie is fighting sleep as she melts deeper into Cole's lap. Marina's two girls and Sam are piled up in front of the television in the other room in various states of wakefulness. People have had so much beer and wine and dessert, they are now telling backyard chicken stories. Of which there are more than one might expect here in the 21st century.

"My neighbor has chickens now, in a coop out back," says Kate. "And do you know what they like to eat best of all?"

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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"Corn?" ventures Marina.

"Soup?" grins Cole.

"Mmmmmm, tofurky?" laughs Rachael, the intellectual property lawyer.

"Chicken!!!" howls Kate. "Turns out the chickens love steak and hamburgers and brisket, but they like cooked chicken best of all!"

"Ewwww ..." Everyone in the room recoils in disgust.

"Soylent Green!" groans Marina.

Then Karen laughs and says she grew up with a weirdly territorial attack-chicken that had staked out a corner of their backyard and scared them all witless. "For years, if we were playing baseball and anyone hit the ball into the chicken's jurisdiction, roughly deep right, it was an automatic home run."  

Cole stands up with a snoozy Ellie in his arms. "I'll just put her down," he says. When I get up to follow, he says, "I've got it." I kiss the top of Ellie's sweaty head, and they start up the stairs. Marina starts telling her own backyard chicken story. She is one of the few women I know who tells long, funny stories like a man does—certain she will delight the whole room and laughing before she gets to her own punch lines.

"I grew up on sort of a hippy commune, and there were always chickens around and the dogs were always going after them." Her hand is resting atop Bob's on the tablecloth, and he's smiling like he's never heard this story before. "Once there was a dog going after one of the chickens, and my dad was holding it back and hollering for me to come, and I assumed it was some huge life or death emergency, so I dropped my book and raced outside and jumped off the porch, and somehow I completely blacked out midair! And when I came to, which was only a few seconds later, I started to pass out again, so I grabbed onto the porch steps to steady myself and then my mom and sister came home right at that minute and saw me rocking back and forth holding onto the porch stairs, and they thought I was having some weird transcendent religious experience and started to freak out. And my dad was still holding the barking dog!! And 20 years later, you can ask anyone about the chickens, and they'll say 'Remember the time Marina passed out in midair?' "  

Marina is laughing so hard that she's almost collapsed on the table. Bob is smiling gently at her. He has barely said a word tonight, and he looks worn out. He hasn't eaten much of anything, but Marina had told me to expect that. What I didn't expect was that he would look like he's asleep sitting up, like every thread of creativity he'd possessed had been slowly unraveled from the inside out.   He holds onto Marina's hand like she's a jumper cable. Rachael turns to ask me how I'm coping with my hectic new schedule.

"It's a little nutty," I say. "I'm trying to put up four or five new blog posts per day, responding to any interesting news stories of marriages or divorces or custody disputes, of which there appears to be an unlimited supply. I started working at cafes, which is better than working at home because the kids and the fridge and all the distractions make it impossible, but there are still TV spots and radio interviews almost every single day and now speeches."

"Erica's been asked to do a big speech called 'Having It All'for the UVA women's law group next week!" Marina brags on my behalf.

"Whatever will she do without Helen Van Patterson-Patton there to support her?" chuckles Kate.

"Oh, Helen will be there," laughs Marina. "If she can get away from the winery ..." Marina's new capacity to laugh at herself is kind of stupendous. "Our Erica is going to be the spokesmodel for having it all, on your own terms. Bye-bye, big law. Hel-lo working from home."

"Blogging part-time is not exactly a viable business model," I say. "Blogs don't pay enough for anyone to live on, unless you're at Gawker or Wonkette."  

"Do the radio and TV shows pay any?" asks Karen. I hear Cole's footsteps on the stairs.

"Nope. Not a dime," I say. "Right now I am just kind of careening around from one blog post to the next, and then from the radio studio to the TV studio, and then from Java Java to make dinner. I'm twice as busy as I was two months ago but somehow earning less. It's kind of been a merry-go-round, and I haven't had much time to take it all in." I steal a look at Cole, who is listening intently. "None of us has had time to take it in yet. But I think it's going to slow down a bit, and we'll normalize it all very soon."

"They do have meds for that," says Bob.

And everyone goes very still. Then he smiles, on a slight time delay, and everyone around the table cracks up.

Bob picks up crumbs from the tablecloth with the pad of his thumb and removes them to a new pile three inches away. "It's hard to know when it's adrenaline and when it's just too much," he murmurs, still without emotion.  "But it sure gets tiring."

Everyone sips their wine quietly. I don't know if Bob is talking to me, to Marina, or to himself.

"So that's the thing," he says. "We're told how not to be sick, but we're not always told how to be well."   Cole takes my hand under the table. I don't know why he's there all of a sudden, but I am glad for it. Then, Bob and Marina's daughter Gemma darts into the dining room to ask breathlessly why the chicken crossed the playground. Without waiting for a response she hollers, "To get to the other slide" and runs back to the playroom.    Kate and Karen murmur something about freeing their babysitter and stand up and begin to clear dishes.

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The post-party cleanup isn't half-bad when there are no sticky pots or mixing spoons to soak. Cole pops Sam into bed while I rinse wine glasses and fill the recycling box with plastic trays and cardboard boxes. When Cole comes back down to the kitchen, I put my arms around his neck and tell him I'm sorry I have been on such a tear these past few weeks.

"I'm sorry I said blogging was unworthy of you. You were right. That was snotty."

"I love you," I say, glad to be able to say it and relieved that we are inching our way back to apologies, if not perfect understanding.

"Mmmmmmmm. Why?" He strokes my cheek.

"Because you are a wonderful dad, a generous husband, and a masterful operator of the defrost button. You are a good friend to Bob and a better friend to me. And I'm truly sorry if I've been a little self-involved these past few weeks."  

"Bob wasn't talking about you back then, you know, right?"

"What?" I look up at him.

"What he said about medication and all the velocity. He wasn't saying that you're manic or anything like that."

"No. I know. And in some ways it's true that I've been a little more manic than is healthy. Or at least that I hadn't quite reckoned on how my own high-speed chase was affecting you or the children. I haven't figured it out yet, Cole. I just know that I need to be back in the world of adults again.   I guess Frances was right about that one thing today, even if she was wrong about almost everything else."

"You know what I really, really don't want to do right now?" hums Cole into the warm side of my neck.  

"What?"

"Talk about your mother ..."

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Another 4:30 a.m. text message from Whit. I read it lying next to a still-sleeping Cole, which feels bad and also delicious.

You continually surprise me. Just caught your session on a podcast of Morning Joe. It's a nice refreshing pause in the middle of my nights to hear a strong, forceful voice instead of all the waxy blonde TV women who have deeply held political opinions only after someone else does it first. You should try the writing in the night route. ... It's amazing how much clearer and calmer your mind is in the dark and with a glass of wine, and what surprising insights you can stumble upon.  

I take my phone into the bathroom and hit the reply key.

I need to know why you don't try the sleeping-in-the-night route. It's been working pretty well for several millennia I'm told.

Erica

Two minutes later my inbox chimes with his reply.

Then why are you up, Momzilla?

Whit

Should I tell him I have the red wine hangover or that I now habitually wake up at 4 just to read his e-mails? I decide to tell him the truth.

This is the only time of the day when nobody is asking me to find something lost or fix something broken. Or change something wet. Or water something thirsty. Or pet something that wants to be on my lap. This is the only time of day I don't have to feed the blog or answer my mail. So I like to pretend I'm in Paris. Or still back in New York. ...

Four minutes later.

And what do you think about when you're in Paris? Or New York at 4 in the morning?

I count to 20 then hit reply.

Sleeping.

A minute later he's back, and I can almost see him smiling.

We need to get you back on our set. How's Monday night? Let me know if there's anything I can do that can help make this happen. And don't give me any cheek about your hectic schedule. I'll personally drive down and give you a lift if necessary. It's not every day one's lucky enough to link up with a rising media star.  

My body is covered in goosebumps. I hit reply.

Monday works. I have a speech that afternoon but can come up right after.

Goodnight,
E

Minutes later. 

It's a date. I'll buy you a drink after. Sweet dreams.

W

 

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It's Monday morning, and I'm in the basement closet going through the winter coats. I can't believe I didn't do this four weeks ago when it started to get cold.   Ellie's definitely outgrown her little white furry snowsuit. Sam might get another year out of the mini camelhair trench coat (thanks, Frances!), and Cole has always been more a Patagonia guy than anything else. I'm going through the basket of hats, scarves, and mittens, trying to decide whether to give away the too-small baby things or just put them aside and think about that another day. I thank my six-months ago self for labeling everything and folding it all away neatly in lidded plastic bins.

I'm due at the law school in five hours, and I still can't decide what to wear. Each of the new suits I bought with Marina seems slightly stuffy for a speech to a group of young women, although I guess I need to bring one of them along in the car to tape Spencer Buckley tonight. Danny is going to feed the kids, and Cole says he's going to try to sneak out of the office to hear my talk. Which is making me even more nervous.

I can't even think about the half-promised drink with Whit tonight. If it happens. When a guy asks a married woman to get a drink that's definitely a date, right? Especially if he writes "It's a date"?

Maybe I will bring a third change of clothing. Maybe I will cancel.

I was thinking of going a little bit Stacy London for the speech this afternoon—big white shirt, skinny black pencil skirt, tailored black vest, monster heels.   It's powerful and creative at the same time. But then again it's law school, and I'm guessing I need to be in a suit or the students will just think I'm some sort of rodeo clown.

What the hell do you wear to a speech about work-life balance, anyway? A suit with running shoes?   Pearls alongside the painted macaroni necklace Sam made for me in summer camp last year?  

I push past a bunch of old maternity dresses and the massive winter coat I wore through both pregnancies. I need to decide whether to give these away as well. There's a dry-cleaning bag wedged between the winter coat and a hanging bag of maternity suits. I reach back and pull it out: a suit.   It's black. I suddenly feel warm and slightly dizzy. It's the Armani.

The dry cleaner's tag bears a Manhattan phone number.   Which certainly explains why it's been years since I've seen it. And like one of those games in Sam's Spider-Man coloring book that asks you to find five differences between two seemingly identical pictures, I instantly flash on the obvious differences between this suit and the one from the clothing swap: It's a size bigger, for one thing. I'd forgotten the pants were cuffed.   It's not quite as black, somehow. It's not quite as anything, to be perfectly candid.

I am suddenly horrified, remembering how unhinged I became at the clothing swap, wanting to die as I recall accusing Cole of giving it away in order to keep me powerless.  

I carefully lift the bag off the suit and carry it upstairs to my bedroom. I lay it across our bed like it's an accident victim. I'd thought this suit signified everything I was missing, but laid out on my bed like this, it looks more like a costume I've outgrown.   That said, I'd be insane not to try it on.   It's totally gorgeous.

It takes two pairs of Spanx and some intensive breast reallocation, but I get the job done.   Of course it still fits, and it could be made to fit better. But as I check out the rear view in the full-length mirror, it's suddenly quite clear to me that my magic suit no longer suits me.   If all that New York City hydraulic-piston lawyering was ever right for me, it's not anymore.   I like the career I've built much better.

I need to call Marina and process. I need to call Cole and apologize. I need to call my mother and explain that you just can't go Armani again. But turning around once more in front of my mirror, I decide to wear it to my "Having It All" speech. Because if having it all means anything, it has to mean having an Armani you don't even need anymore.

***

Readers: What happens when Erica meets Whit Campbell? 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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