I stand in the hallway between the kitchen and my living room and feel a quick flush of party pride. The room is buzzing with talk and laughter, wineglasses are backlit by dozens of silver votive candles and blue bowls spill over with glass beads and stems of freesia. Thank you Martha Stewart Living, May 2008. Without you, I'd be all roses all the time. Props, as ever, go to Marina for the effortlessly hip playlist she's loaded onto my iPod. I have dutifully set it on repeat and forgotten about it, still unclear, even after her ninth explanation, what precisely is wrong with Dave Matthews.
If it weren't for the control tops and underwire and the growing mountain of discarded garments in the center of the room, the word elegant would describe this event perfectly. Guests offer up awestruck compliments as I drift around with fresh hors d'oeuvres and wine.
Jessica Kantor, whose son Noah is Sam's best friend—Robin to his Batman—takes a gougere. "You've outdone yourself yet again, Erica," she says, shaking her head. "If it were me, this would be hot dogs in blankets and wine coolers in the yard."
"My God, Erica, the dates stuffed with goat cheese are heaven. Can I get the recipe?"
"I can't believe children even live in this house Erica. It's immaculate. Mine always looks like we've just been burgled."
I smile and offer yet more food, basking in the praise; dreading the inevitable moment of near-nakedness that will follow when I am forced to set down my appetizers. I am also making efforts to ignore Marina's half-hourly tweets, which have quickly become focused around her suspicion that Bob has a very young girlfriend. Dusting his pants for fingerprints, reads her latest, OMG I am CSI: Charlottesville!
All the clothes have been hung on temporary racks around the perimeter of the room. Sizes 0-2 are arrayed on the wall beside the kitchen, the 4s and 6s hang in front of the fireplace, the 8s and 10s go mostly ignored next to the staircase. Everything else is massed next to the front door, including a bag comprised of equal parts sweaters and cat fur, supplied by Josie Bennett, whom nobody wanted to invite again in the first place. Accessories, jewelry, and bags have been arranged on the couch in Cole's study. Shoes in their boxes are stacked outside on the screened-in porch. (If there is to be any outbreak of violence at this event, it will be over the shoes, and it's easier to hose down the blood spatters out there.)
The three dozen women here have sorted themselves not by dress size, however, but by vocation. The working moms arrive late and steaming like horses. They have dashed over straight from work, starving, and are here only to support the school. They haven't seen their children since breakfast and they will grab a suit and a designer purse and run. They are efficient but brutal in their judgments, unafraid to tell a colleague "that jacket's too tight, try this one instead."
The stay-at-home mommies arrive early and will stay late. They are so overjoyed at being allowed out and at eating foods not served in oblong wicker baskets, they seem to achieve some kind of contact high just walking into the room. They laugh loudly, sip their drinks slowly, try every appetizer three times, and devote more time to dressing one another than themselves.
To overcome their reluctance to try on anything but sweatpants and hoodies, the stay-at-home moms screen little movies for one another about the social possibilities for every garment: "Try on that blue sundress, Michelle."
"It's totally cute. But where would I wear it?"
"Are you kidding? It would be perfect for afternoon drinks at some great little restaurant with a deck at the Outer Banks."
The working moms talk about disasters with baby-sitters ("then Patti just announced she was leaving for Peru for two weeks, starting Monday ... ") and whose boss is least sympathetic to the occasional sick day or begging out of a meeting to get the kids their flu shots. I can swear I overhear a couple of the stay-at-homes talk about the chicken coops they've built from recycled 18th-century wine barrels in their backyards (Thank you Martha Stewart Living, May 2009!) and how much Atticus and Phineas have benefited chiropractically from sleeping in a Guatemalan hammock instead of a toddler bed.
My efforts to break into the professional parent circuit have been hampered by my innate aversion to boards, committee work, and organizational meetings. Since joining the PTO of Sam's school, I've been astonished by how many hundreds of e-mails it takes to pick a caterer or how many dozen coffee meetings it takes to set a menu. I have, additionally, learned that it is not wise to shout "hire an intern" in the midst of such discussions, and that invariably, after the thousandth phone call and the hundredth meeting, the committee chairwoman will ultimately announce a menu entirely of her own choosing that will be catered by her best friend.
In the six years since we left New York, I have consistently joined the wrong organic farm shares and signed my kids up for the wrong rhythmic dance classes. So I like to think of myself as part of the working moms group, a recovering Manhattan lawyer with plans to return to that hectic life, as soon as either Ellie or I reach some milestone I am not quite able to identify at this instant. I also feel that I ought to be grandfathered into this coterie of professionals, having contributed many, if not most, of the best suits to these events over the years. As I hover around the perimeter of their conversation with my Viognier and gazpacho shooters, the women offer up little conversational olive branches that hint at my past life as one of them.
"Any luck with the job search, Erica?" asks Kellyanne Miller, who teaches trusts and estates at the law school. Unlike the other women, who try on clothes rapidly and furtively, Kellyanne is striding around the room in a thong and push-up bra, with no qualms about asking questions while narrowly avoiding poking your eye out with an errant breast.
"Oh, you know, I am talking to a few firms in town, but I'm still not sure Ellie's ready for me to go full time."
"You're still working remotely for your old firm in New York, right?"
"No, not anymore—they've been laying people off left and right."
"What about the volunteer work with Legal Aid?" asks Stacy Cavanaugh-Taylor, a pediatrician whose son Jason is the class biter. "They just loved you over there. They think you and Cole are like the Brad and Angelina of the legal services world."
"You know, Ellie's only in preschool three days a week right now," I say, "and Cole has gotten so crazy busy with this big case going to trial. We'll get back to it next year for sure." I don't know how to explain that Cole has taken to small-town law firm life—consisting largely of old men in bow ties and also of young men in bow-ties—like a fish to water. Me, I feel like my blood slows to a crawl just walking into his sleepy law offices downtown. I keep waiting for the old rush of adrenaline, ambition, or competition to kick back in. But I can't even muster the energy to fight for a used Coach handbag anymore. You know that "look right, look left" speech they gave first-year law students? The speech Erwin Griswold made famous at Harvard, repeated verbatim in the movie, The Paperchase?: "Look to the right of you, look to the left of you. One of you isn't going to be here by the end of the year." The real speech should go "Look at the woman to the right of you and the woman to the left of you. One of them is going to drop out to have kids and then spend years having to claw her way back in."
Stacy nods sympathetically, flicking rapidly through blouses. "You shouldn't rush back to work until you're ready. Once you go back, you're really going to be stuck there, especially in this economy. You've got the perfect setup," she grins. "You're the stay-at-home mom who goes out!" Ladies laugh.
The truth is, I don't know what happens to the hours I am supposed to be spending seeking out contract work or volunteering or setting up informational interviews. I do feel like I'm out looking for work every week, but nobody seems to realize it's a full-time job.
I am trying to feign enthusiasm for a pair of gray harem pants when I notice a suit that looks frighteningly familiar. Approaching it casually from a diagonal, my heart stops when I realize that it is, in fact, my own black Armani: my Wonder Woman suit. This is the suit my mother purchased for me when I graduated from law school. I wore it for her investiture as a federal judge. I wore it for make-or-break meetings with critical clients, for all Come-to-Jesus meetings and to settlement conferences. In my mind this black suit comes with its own lance, snorting charger, and plumed metal helmet.
It is not, under any set of facts, something I would donate to a clothing swap.
Just as I am close enough to lay hands on it, Stacy Cavanaugh-Taylor grabs my suit and whoops. "Oh my God is this a real Armani?" Several heads turn and someone inspects the label and confirms that it is.
"Oh, that's the official law school Ball Buster suit," says Kellyanne, with whom the suit apparently arrived. "Everyone's done a lap in that suit. Try it on," she urges. "You'll feel like Iron Man."
Now would be the proper time for me to point out that the Iron Man suit, in fact, belongs to me, but I am still busy trying to understand how it made its way here today. I am absolutely certain I never loaned it to anybody. This suit is more important to me than my wedding dress. I try to recall where I last saw it. I was already pregnant with Sam when we moved back to Charlottesville. I would have probably hung it up in the basement with the rest of my old work clothes. Did I wear it before I got pregnant again? Had I moved it upstairs when I put away my maternity clothes the second time?
Was it hanging in my guest room? Did someone just take it? Could Cole have loaned it to someone at the law school without asking me? Stacy is buttoning the jacket, and it looks fantastic. She looks like she could cure childhood lymphoma in this suit or negotiate peace in Iraq. I just can't figure out how to tell her that the suit is mine, that I have no idea how many years ago I misplaced it, and that even though it is two sizes too small for me and I have no place to wear it, I want it back. Not when she'll probably cure childhood lymphoma in it.
"It's perfect on you," Kellyanne is grinning. "Black slingbacks, small silver earrings. It was made for you."
"I love it!" Jessica enthuses.
Kellyanne is painstakingly filling us in on the suit's recent biography. As it's been passed around among the women on the law faculty, its career achievements have been truly remarkable. The suit's been worn to oral argument at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, to a climate change summit in Milan, and to a (successful) interview for a Justice Department position with the Obama White House. I am now beyond certain that I cannot ask for my suit back without looking completely absurd. Anyone wondering what's happened to my spectacular legal career over the past five years need look no further: My suit's been having it.
OK, I now love the feedback from the Saving Face Facebook page more than I love eating. Keep the posts and the e-mails coming!! (Remember, your name will be used unless you specify otherwise.) For the next chapter I need to hear: 1) the cutest thing your 5-year-old ever said to you and 2) what happened when you split up with your ex and tried to move the kids out of state. Send mail to email@example.com. Thanks!
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.