I had arranged for CNN to send its car service for a pickup at the law school. It had seemed like a fun idea at the time, very Sophia Loren. But now as I stand and wait, I feel like everyone who walks past is stifling laughter. Look at the big media pundit, shivering in the cold with her perfectly balanced life.
Cole hugs me for the third time since I stepped off the stage and kisses me on the forehead. "You did fine, honey. It's that student who should be mortified right now. That wasn't a question. That was a federal indictment!"
"Hmph." Leaning up against him makes me feel like I won't dissolve into the sidewalk.
"Do you want me to ride up to CNN with you?"
I shake my head, wordlessly. It's a sweet gesture. But quite honestly, I didn't want to leave our kids with Danny tonight. Or maybe ever. Every time I close my eyes I see Amanda—his girlfriend—standing at the microphone with her smug dissection of my personal (and very private) inconsistencies. I'll bet even Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir couldn't pass Amanada's feminist standards. What did I ever do to her?
Cole must be reading my mind. He knows I will drive down the bumpy road of this afternoon's humiliation a thousand times before I rest. "The speech was great. You told those women what they needed to hear. Amanda didn't ruin it for you. I bet half the audience is mortified that she sandbagged you." I want to believe him, but all I know is that I walked into that auditorium a feminist hero and walked out feminist roadkill.
The car service finally pulls up. I kiss Cole quietly and tell him I love him. Marina runs out to say goodbye and hands me my briefcase. I must have left it at my seat. She pulls me in for a long hug. I heft my bag up onto my shoulder—God, it feels heavier than it did this morning—and turn to see a scowling driver emerge from the town car. Damn it all. I was secretly looking forward to the distraction of Hughie and his giddy self-promotion. Not to mention a few rousing rounds of "God's Washboard."
"I could drive up with you." Marina has a teeny Marina-ish twinkle in her eye. "We can plot how to get back at Quid Pro Ho." I manage a smile. "I'm OK honey. Go home. Make dinner for Bob and the kids. Take care of your family." I must have really stunk if both Cole and Marina think I can't be left alone in a limo.
She brushes a flyaway hair off my forehead. "OK. You'll be fine. But I am totally going to get a hold of that know-it-all wench's phone and reprogram Danny's number so that it calls Papa John's."
I crawl into the car and throw my bag on the seat next to me. I scrunch myself into the corner of the backseat as it crawls through the twilight toward Washington. The driver mutters under her breath and glares at the GPS. I can't figure out what she's so pissed off about. It's 120 miles in two straight lines from Charlottesville to Washington.
I keep replaying my stupid non-answer to Amanda's ridiculous un-question in my head. It gets dumber every time. Twenty minutes into this long silent drive and I can't stand my own buzzing head for another second.
There's a stack of papers on the plushy seat beside me. I'm supposed to be preparing for tonight's interview with Spencer Buckley. Yet another woman is threatening to move the children away from her cheating baseball playing husband. She wants to be closer to her mom. I have a file of clippings and my own blog posts about the scandal. It suddenly occurs to me that I need to stop writing exclusively about broken marriages. It's like collecting only the chipped Franklin Mint figurines.
I can't read a sentence without being transported back to Amanda's little Torquemada performance and my own blinky reaction. Should I have just told them the truth? That having your "insides match your outsides" isn't the goal of the women's movement? Maybe that's the Dalai Lama's goal. But the real goal of most women I know is to stop feeling so damn tired all the time. Right now I just want to be home, smelling the top of Ellie's hair as she gets out of the bathtub. Ellie doesn't think I'm roadkill.
My phone beeps and I look at it anxiously. I'm panicked that the law school speech is about to explode onto You Tube. Cole told me if nobody asked me to sign a release it probably hadn't been podcast. I'm not sure I believe him, although I want to. It's a new message from Whit Campell. "Break a leg tonight, gorgeous. Meet up when the show is done? There's a bar on the right just as you exit the building. I'll meet you there as soon as I can get away. Can't wait. XOXOXO Whit." Until recently I thought Whit really respected me professionally. But I wonder how much you can really respect someone when your signoff is lifted from the texts of seventh grade girls.
It's not just that moments ago I experienced the near-miss of Amanda exposing my e-crush on Whit. It's that while she wasn't right about much, she was right that I have to stop living all these secret half-lives. I need to cancel drinks tonight, Not yet. Too rude. But I'll just tell him I'm tired after the show and bail. Then I will go home to Cole and tell him at least a good part of everything that's happened.
I tuck my phone back into my purse and take another run at the huge stack of printouts.
Spencer Buckley is in a mood.
I'd thought he was in a mood the last time I did the program, but tonight he's been hollering nonstop at the makeup artist about the size of his hair (too small) and also the size of his ears (too large) and tottering around the green room on his wee legs as he terrorizes an intern with one demand after another.
"Julia, where's that research about child poverty rates after a divorce?" he's barking. Then, "Julia, why don't I have those numbers about kids and drug abuse following a divorce?" He ignores me, perched on the makeup chair as I wait to have the obligatory cheekbones laid upon my shiny, naked face.
"Julia!" he shrieks. "Where the hell is my Diet Coke?"
Because I am Buckley's first guest of the evening, we enter the main studio together. He pretends to be seeing me for the first time and greets me with a frosty nod as the technicians attach microphones to our respective lapels. Even though I have become more expert at these interviews in recent weeks—I now know to tell them to turn off the monitor and I decline to do pre-interviews—my Armani doesn't seem to be working as it once did. My heart's hammering even harder than it did last time I did the show. I take a deep breath and tell myself nobody knows about the law school fiasco. I take a deeper breath and tell myself I am here to talk about divorce law and child custody, which I know as well as anyone and certainly a lot better than Spencer Buckley.
The producer counts us in with her fingers, then Buckley bares his top gums as he smiles into the camera. "Tonight, on The Buck Stops Here, movie icon Zane Astor's wife announced this evening that she was leaving him. Why? She found text messages between him and the nanny suggesting that the young woman was looking after more than just the Astor offspring. Astor himself claims the texts were harmless flirtation. His wife, Lisa, says they're evidence of much more than that. Tonight. Emotional affairs: When does an e-mail flirtation cross the line into infidelity?
I can't find a breath. This isn't the topic I'd prepared for. This isn't the segment they'd booked me for. I start looking wildly around the studio. Where the hell is Whit, anyway? There's obviously been a mixup. I hadn't even heard about the Astors.
But Buckley has launched into his intro: "At first it all seems perfectly innocent: e-mails that slowly morph from courteous to cutesy. Text messages about how your partner doesn't appreciate you. Secret plans to have secret dinners that you describe to your spouse as 'just business.' My topic tonight: In an electronic age, at what point does tweeting become cheating?"
He swings his chair to face me and looks earnestly into the camera behind my right shoulder. "Erica Hirshblatt is a prolific feminist blogger and media commentator who has written extensively about marriage, divorce, and infidelity. In fact, the last time she came on this show she accused me of wanting women to, quote, shut up and stop complaining while they're getting screwed, end quote. We've invited her back to the program tonight as an expert in divorce law. We want her to tell us whether Lisa Astor is correct in saying that an emotional affair—no sex, just text—has crossed the line into infidelity. Erica, tell us if you think women should—as you've so colorfully put it in the past—"grab the money and run" when they discover their husband has been swapping sexy e-mails with another woman." He grins again. "Welcome back to The Buck Stops Here."
I am half out of my chair in a panic until I realize I am tethered to this nightmare with my earpiece and microphone. Any attempt to remove the equipment would mean reaching halfway up the inside of my blouse. I'm stuck. I sit, straighten the front of my suit and mumble, "thank you."
Has Whit set me up, or is this new topic some kind of huge cosmic coincidence? Is there more than one of us foolish enough to be sending around flirtatious emails to near-strangers? But then, Whit can't set me up, can he? After all, he's the one who wrote the "debriefing" mail, not me! As my brain scrolls through every word I've ever written to Whit for a potential career-ender, Buckley finishes up his endless intro. He's looking right at me. I may have missed his question.
"Erica, it seems we have entered a new age of betrayal. Technically, a man can be perfectly faithful to his wife, even as he carries on a torrid e-mail romance with a colleague from work or an old high school girlfriend. Now you have been an unrelenting advocate for women taking charge of their marital and financial destinies. So I wonder if, as a lawyer, you would treat Zane Astor's alleged emotional faithlessness any differently than you would a one-night stand?"
He grins like he is pushing a cream pie in my face. "Let's say you represent Lisa Astor, and there's a stack of salacious notes from your husband to the nanny. Would you take those e-mails to court in order to establish emotional infidelity? Or does real cheating require more than just words in the ether?"
I swallow hard and look at my note cards. Useless. Wrong scandal. I look into the camera and try to muster cool professionalism instead of terrified-gerbil-faces-cobra. "Well, Spence, I haven't yet looked into the details of the Astor dispute, but I guess it depends on whether he was really just flirting innocently, or, um, having a deep emotional connection with someone outside the marriage."
"A deep emotional connection," he grins. "How can you measure that, as a legal matter? Are you saying it's possible to be unfaithful simply because you have deep feelings for someone who isn't your spouse?"
"I guess it's possible to be emotionally unfaithful, even if you haven't crossed any physical lines." I'm filibustering. "Or telling the person you're writing to that you are unhappy or unfulfilled in your marriage?"
"So you would define those things as cheating for purposes of a divorce?" he presses.
"Not necessarily," I backtrack, still trying to decide if this interview is about Zane Astor's secret email life or mine. "I think the rule of thumb is that if your spouse would be hurt by the virtual relationship, it's improper. But that's not a legal test. The law doesn't care much who's cheating anyhow.
"Not a legal test. Interesting. Well, what about making secret plans to get together? Is that cheating?"
"Not necessarily" I gulp.
"And what about e-mails full of double entendres? Would that constitute infidelity?"
Whit Campbell has definitely sold me out. I imagine him up in some control booth over my head, getting ready to post the e-mails I've written. My life is in the hands of someone I couldn't pick out in a mug shot.
Spencer Buckley is almost erupting out of his chair now. "While you're thinking about that, Erica, here's some audio from a speech you gave earlier today at the University of Virginia Law School. It's kind of a tribute to how some women lead a secret double life."
The studio is flooded with the sound of my own smug Armani-clad voice:
"I'm a stay-at-home mommy with the benefit of a national audience," I'm saying. "I get to influence national conversation on the law, then run home and pack lunches and read Babar."
Buckley grins as they fast-forward from there to the audio of Amanda hurling accusations at me: "You're for trust and old-fashioned marriage and families but also for hiding your assets from your partner. You talk like a feminist, but you write to women like they're exceptionally slow infants."
Buckley jabs a fat little finger at me. "Erica, one of the students at your speech today asked you whether you have been terribly unfair to all these women you purport to be helping with your inflammatory legal advice. You didn't have an answer. Is that because you're not quite the feminist-slash-mother-slash-wife you've always held yourself out to be?"
Spencer Buckley is trying to trap me. With an assist from Amanda and maybe even from Whit he probably has trapped me. But not in the way he had in mind. And because I don't know what the long game is here, I don't attempt an easy answer. Whatever happens in this next five minutes is going to change everything, even if they don't have the e-mails. Sitting here blinking stupidly for the second time today, I understand that everything needs to change and that I'm going to change it now no matter what I do. In the past few months, I have changed everything about my life over and over without ever doing anything deliberately. Looking up now at a gleeful Spencer Buckley I decide I would rather be doing the actual changing, than watching myself mindlessly shape-shift once again.
"You know Spence, I learned a lot at that law school event today. I wish you could have played the whole thing. It was supposed to be about women and having it all but I learned that women—myself included—still sometimes think having it all means accumulating a list of envy-producing accomplishments for others to admire and despair of ever attaining. I also finally learned today that women—myself included— have to stop judging every other woman in their orbit for their choices, be it the choice to stay at home or work, or stay in a bad marriage or leave it."
Spence looks like he has lost control of the gotcha interview of the season. He interrupts me to ask, "Does that mean you regret some of the incendiary advice you've dished out recently? About the need for women to deceive, then leave, their husbands? Uproot their children? Always put themselves first at the expense of their homes and families?"
I peer at him, still trying to get a sense of whether he is about to put up on the monitor the entire canon of inappropriate Erica/Whit e-mails or just use them to get me to stand down. I realize I don't really care. I'm ready to stand down anyhow.
"You know, Spence, I grew up thinking feminism meant women had lots of hard choices but it was better than having no choices at all. So everything I have said and written about women and the law these past months has been focused on encouraging women to make good choices for themselves and their kids. I admit that I have made some bad choices myself —and I've given some pretty bad advice, too. If I'd given careful lawyerly advice I probably wouldn't have a blog or be sitting on your nice set right now. At my worst, I was trying to get attention. At my best, I was trying to tell women to look at their choices coolly and rationally, the way men would.
"But you know I am starting to think all this compulsive talk of women and choices is the real problem. And it's a great big set-up too. All I have done is jabber about how women in impossible situations should choose—between husbands and kids or between money and shame. But talking about every woman as the sum of her choices means women can't ever win; that we sacrifice, fail, or miss out no matter what we do. Nobody ever tells men they have to choose between a wife and kid and a job. Men don't even talk about their choices. They talk about decisions. Women—myself most of all, Spence—continue to brutalize other women for making ever-so-slightly different choices, from breast-feeding to having household help to standing by a cheating spouse. So now every time we go to the office, we are screening the imaginary Fellini movie of the kids we abandoned at home. And if we do stay home all we can see is the Sex and The City movie of us at a job with a BlackBerry and a briefcase."
"A choice is what you have before you make a decision. And I think maybe women need, or maybe I just need, to start making decisions. So you know what, I think you're right, Spence. I have sometimes talked about women as paper dolls made up of nothing more than their bad choices and regrets."
Spencer Buckley looks stupefied. Like there is some trick I am playing here by confessing exactly what he wanted to hear. I take a last breath and finish my thought.
"I want to apologize right now to your viewers for ever suggesting they've made bad choices while I made good ones. And I hope that if I keep writing about women and the law, I'll be more respectful about the fact that decisions are personal, and complicated, and also very private."
Buckley beams into the camera and I can't tell if he's moving in for the killor pulling out the knife. It doesn't matter. I'm done. I'm an inside-out media star and an inside-out lawyer. I'm a mother-of-convenience and maybe only half a wife. I'm not my mother. Or much of a real lawyer. I wanted people to read me and respect me. Instead, they may well see all my giggly preteen e-mails. I won't be here for that segment even if it does happen. Buckley and I look at each other for a long, still, moment and maybe for the first time we understand each other. Then the producer calls a commercial break.
Without waiting to be released, I unhook my microphone and earpiece, shake Buckley's hand once and flee. On the way past the makeup room I grab a fistful of wipes and scrub off the pundit face. I yank up my briefcase from the green room and stride to the elevator. The first e-mail is from my mother. It says, "Good."
The second is from Cole. "I love you. Come home." The third is from Whit. "Great job hot stuff. Meet you at the bar in an hour?" I delete it. Then I go back and delete all the old ones from him. Whatever comes next for me and my career, it will have to involve people with faces to go along with their names.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.