Saving Face

Chapter 4
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Sept. 15 2009 6:14 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

Nobody will ever tell you, when you first have babies, how intimately connected your acts of intimacy become to the running times of Pixar movies. Back in the days of Saturday morning cartoons, you could probably just lock the bedroom door and leave the kids in the company of Scooby-Doo for a few hours. But in the DVD era, such things cannot be left to chance. As I listen to Cole rushing the children down the stairs this morning, then to the rattle of plastic in the kitchen as he their prepares bottles and sippy cups, I can only imagine his silent cursing and shuffling as he waits through the FBI anti-piracy warnings. And coming attractions. When he huffs his way back upstairs and closes the bedroom door, I need only raise an eyebrow. His response, "Toy Story, running time 81 minutes" is what passes for foreplay these days.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

We're just getting round to the next-to-last button on my pajamas when his phone rings. "Ignore it," I beg, but he's already rolling toward the nightstand. "What's up Kayne?" he's saying.  "No, no, we had to get up early anyway to milk the children." He's sitting on the edge of the bed, fumbling for pajama bottoms. I reach for the remote.

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Cole is up to his eyes right now in a massive relocation case. His client has basically shared physical custody of their children with his ex-wife without incident for two years, but now the mother wants to leave the state and take their three boys with her. Move cases are always heartbreaking because there's no room to compromise. This one is particularly awful because the mom wants to move back to Ohio to be with her recently rediscovered high-school sweetheart, and Cole's client is pretty sure he's about to go from having his kids 40 percent of the time to seeing them for a few weeks in the summers and at Christmas. The case is about to go to trial, which is rare, and now a judge is basically going to hear all sorts of nitpicky evidence about why mom wants to move and how the move will be so great for the kids, how much better the schools are in Ohio, and then, after taking all that into consideration, she will make the formal legal decision to obliterate either their mom's future dreams or their dad's. In family law, which is all about the Solomonic splitting of babies, out-of-state-move cases are cage-match-style winner-takes-all. Cole's client is freaking out as the trial approaches. I know this because right now I can hear his shouting over Real Housewives.

People are always sort of surprised to learn that there's just not a lot of "law" in family law.   You can count the important Supreme Court family law cases on Ellie's fingers and toes; the systematic dismantling of families is left instead to a stewpot of state statutes, judicial intuitions, dueling "expert" reports, and vague, conflicting narratives about what's in the "best interest of the child." Cole began his legal career as a prosecutor, and he got very, very good at domestic violence cases. His mastery of restraining orders and complex custody arrangements made him a natural for matrimonial law after we moved back here to have kids. He's fallen hard for Kayne—as he does with all his clients—and he's been killing himself to build a case around the idea that Kayne's wife is a selfish, vindictive layabout who wants to move away mostly to have sex with some guy in Ohio but also to thwart his relationship with his kids.

As is often the case with a custody dispute, allegations of child abuse, adultery, and sex acts with the family bunny have become tangled up in counter-claims that mom skips T-ball practice to take the kids to piano lessons and that dad recklessly took one of the boys to a new barber before checking with mom.

Cole hangs up the phone and comes over to my side of the bed to kiss me on the nose. That's also foreplay—for the apology, which arrives immediately after the kiss. "I'm sorry sweetheart, I have to go into the office and go over Kayne's trial testimony again. His head's about to blow, which will pretty much prove conclusively that he's the abusive-rage-a-holic Ana's making him out to be."  

"I understand. Go ahead, honey. Call if you're going to miss dinner," I say, wondering how to fill a whole Saturday without Cole's crackling energy. He's the one who leaps out of bed on the weekends, full of plans for farmers markets and petting zoos and museums.   If weekends were left to me, I'd probably sort the kids' toy bins. With 42 minutes left in Toy Story, I run a bath, wondering what we can do to fill the day that looms ahead.

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As I rest my phone on the bathroom counter in case Cole calls, I catch Marina's latest mad tweet, Rilke! He's quoting Rilke in the margins of student papers now?? Since when has he read Rilke?  

 

I need to call and invite her to come out with us today. She needs to be out of that house.

The minute I settle myself into our claw-foot tub, Sam and Ellie are peering at me over the side, hopping around, begging to be let in. For Ellie this represents one of those not-to-be-missed opportunities to pry her out of the sparkly pink tutu.   So out go the scented candles, in go the Power Rangers Bubbles; off come the sweaty pajamas and the tutu, and we're booked in for 40 minutes of Death Match IV: Little Mermaid Meets Wolverine.

"Momma," says Sam, crafting a little beard of soap bubbles for me, while Ellie dances Little Mermaid around the rim of the tub, "Are clowns people?"  

"Yes, Sammy."

Sam looks relieved and then adds some bubbles to the top of my head and sighs, "Momma, I love you so much."

"I love you, too, Sammy-bear." I kiss him and tickle Ellie.

"Mom," Sam looks worried again. "Do you think Dad knows how much you and I love each other?"  

"I think he's OK with it."

The phone starts to ring and I climb halfway out to reach for it, dripping bubbles. It's not Cole.

"Erica, I have the smoking gun!" shouts Marina. "The bastard is totally screwing around on me."

"Marina," I sigh, wishing I had made the time to call her back last night after the party. "I already know that because you are totally ignoring all of my advice and tweeting your own nervous breakdown."

"No, I mean it this time. He is totally having an affair and his whole I'm-bored-stay-friends-amicable-separation line was just bullshit. Bob has actually left me for one of his students!"

"What did you find?" I climb out of the tub and grab a towel.

"Last night I started looking at all the Facebook pages of every one of his students this term and at around 4 o'clock this morning I found this 2-L, Mandy, who had posted a picture of herself at some party with her arms around a guy who is definitely Bob.   His head is chopped off in the photo but I can tell from the watch that he has his arm around some little hair-sprayed tramp who's got one hand on his butt and the other around a goddamn green apple-tini."

"When did you last talk to him honey?" I ask, trying to towel-dry my hair and hold the phone at the same time.

"I'm not talking to him! Are you kidding? If he thinks he's coming anywhere near me or my house or my children, he's out of his freaking mind."

"Marina, you're going to have to let him see the kids! He hasn't done anything to them."

"Hasn't done any ... are you insane, Erica? He has destroyed our family and our home for some floozy, and you're saying I have to let him see my children? No, I don't think so."

"Has he called and asked to see them since he left yesterday?" I ask.

"No! Why would he do that when he probably had to get to a keg-suck, then hear a band and then have crazy monkey sex with someone who is no doubt working her way through law school as a pole-dancer?" Her call waiting starts to go so "monkey sex" comes out "unkey-ex," but I get the idea.

"Don't you need to get the other line, Marina?"

"No. It's probably Bob."

I tell her that she needs to calm down and to bring the kids over to play. She tells me she has too much to do but promises to call this afternoon and maybe come over for dinner. The idea of Marina having too much to do because she's at home rooting through Bob's old student papers and following an imaginary trail of crazy Facebook crumbs terrifies me. Ridiculous as it may sound, the best way to initiate a divorce is dispassionately, the way you'd clip your toenails. I dash into the bedroom to get my laptop so I can watch Sam and Ellie splash while I quickly type out a second installment of "Welcome to Your Divorce"  

Welcome to Your Second Night of Divorce

Night two is when the temptation to do something inexpressibly stupid kicks in. Avoid it. Instead of looking into the purchase of firearms or setting a match to your spouse's high school trophies, busy yourself instead with more useful endeavors, such as protecting yourself from being screwed. To that end, devote your evening to some or all of the following constructive activities:

1. Go through every scrap of your financial information and make copies of all of the following: tax returns, profit and loss statements, loan applications, bank statements, statements of personal net worth, credit card statements, retirement account statements, etc. These documents can be impossible to get when things get ugly, so grab 'em now while the grabbing is good! Same goes for cell phone records. You'd be surprised how much good stuff you'll find in a cell phone record.

2. Rummage through any old love letters between you and your spouse, with an eye toward anything that looks or smells like a promise about marital assets. We're looking for birthday or Valentine's Day cards filled with the usual sentiments like "I'll always love you and take care of you," and "everything that is mine is yours, especially the wide screen TV," etc.  Who knows whether such evidence will be enough for a court to make any decisions about property rights, but they can't hurt, and they are excellent leverage in settlement negotiations.

3. TAKE THE HARD DRIVE!!!!  Take it. Even if you plan to remain in the house, I assure you that your spouse is right now on the way over to get the computer if there's any incriminating information on it. And there is always incriminating information in it, even if it has nothing to do with your divorce. Don't just hide it. Take the time to remove the entire hard drive and have it analyzed by a professional. Financial info, dirty e-mails, sordid Web browsing history—all of this is on your hard drive, waiting to be discovered. By you.

I check Marina's Facebook page, where she has been posting her moment-by-moment forensic investigation into Bob's extracurricular activities with his students. She has already pasted my advice from last night in its entirety, so I just post today's installment above it. For one thing, Marina's more likely to take legal advice from me on Facebook than she is in person. But she also has 600 Facebook friends. If the statistics are accurate, that means that at least 300 of them could use a little divorce advice, too. 

***

I still need to hear from folks who were involved in relocation cases from one state to another. Also I need stories about the strangest person you have met on Facebook. Thank you! 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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