Saving Face

Chapter 5
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Sept. 16 2009 6:17 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

It's Tuesday afternoon and Dr. Simon, our regular pediatrician, is out with the flu. Dr. Evelyn Grassi, new to the practice, is checking out Ellie's ears.   We've never seen her before, and she is very, very young. Dr. Grassi has plugged Ellie into some headphones that are chirping, woofing, and mooing by turn; Ellie sits kicking the examining table with her heels, cocking her head from side to side to listen.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Dr. Grassi has already briskly examined Ellie's sight and her hand-eye coordination. She has wordlessly tested her reflexes and her reaction times. The doctor has tried unsuccessfully to elicit even a "mama" or "dada" from my daughter (I assure her that Ellie has at least those words, although she doles them out only grudgingly), and she is starting to look annoyed, as though Ellie and I are here to test her. Ellie, having had enough of the headphones and the little hammers and the age-appropriate stacking blocks starts to kick the table even harder with the backs of her feet.

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"Well there is nothing developmentally wrong with her," concludes Dr. Grassi, almost shouting to be heard over the thumping. "She's met all her milestones and is well within the normal range for every physical marker as well." The nagging little voice inside my head that's been certain my daughter has something terribly wrong with her finally falls mute. Of course there's nothing wrong! Ellie is, if anything, more curious, more animated, and more cheerful than Sam was at this age. She just doesn't talk.

"So, why do you think she isn't talking?" I ask Dr. Grassi, smiling as Ellie continues to bang, bang, bang on the table with her green frog boots. The doctor is making a few final notes in a chart and rubbing her left temple. I glance down at her hands. No wedding rings.

She looks up at me accusingly and blurts, "You know, you have to talk to them constantly or they won't learn." In case she was less than clear, she adds: "Do you talk to her at all?"

My eyes fly open. Surely this doctor isn't suggesting it's my fault Ellie doesn't speak. "Of course I talk to her. I talk to her all the time." I falter. Do I look like the kind of parent who doesn't speak to her children?

I am always doubly careful about how I dress when I take the children in for check-ups. I want it to be clear that we are careful, responsible parents. To my usual uniform of Modified Office Casual blue button-down and khakis, I've added a jaunty gold scarf and navy blazer. My dark hair is in a low ponytail. True, my lip gloss has rubbed off, but I think I look coolly professional; a prettyish, thirtysomething woman with sensible places to be. I realize suddenly that Dr. Grassi must somehow believe that I am the kind of mother who might have placed her daughter in a child-care situation where nobody speaks to her. What? Because I'm not wearing velvet yoga pants and matching hoodie, I'm a neglectful workaholic?

When I was pregnant with Sam, I never thought I'd take more than the 12 weeks of maternity leave I'd been offered. After he was born, Sam was fussy and sleepless and while I loved him from the first second they draped him across me, I would frequently find myself staring at him, wondering what it was he wanted from me and why I'd yoked myself to this complete stranger, no questions asked. I wondered every day what he saw in me and whether it would last.

It wasn't until he was about three weeks old and Cole and I started looking at day care centers that I started to panic. I remember taking him to a little university day care, recommended by everyone in town and reluctantly handing him to one of the workers there, a sort of human shelving unit comprised of jutting chin, breasts, and hips into which she promptly tucked my sleeping son. Suddenly he looked like any old baby.

I remember looking at the tiny plastic bottles of expressed milk in his diaper bag, with the blank spaces so you could Sharpie in the name "Sam," and I remember thinking that growing up, my sister and I had labels on every coat, sock, and T-shirt we owned. Sometimes I felt like Frances compulsively labeled our things just so she'd recall our names. And I remember seeing, in that instant, all the ways in which my son, who would arrive here every morning at 7:30 and be picked up at 6, would soon belong to this place and to these people, and even get used to it and that I would become the other woman.

And because it was cheaper to live here than in New York, and because we could basically make it on Cole's salary, I begged a few more weeks off, unpaid, and waited to get over it. Do I talk to my children? I think so. Do I sing educational songs and finger paint and sit on the floor with flashcards? I don't know. Not enough, I suppose. I have always seen my job as principally being to clean up as quickly as they can dump things out. I have, through sheer neglect, evidently made my daughter stupid.

I need Marina. Mumbling something to the receptionist as I flee the doctor's office with Ellie in one hand and her tutu in the other, I head straight to her house. Marina is one of those intuitively wonderful moms who would just as soon play blackjack with educational flashcards as wave them before the blank eyes of a toddler. Her girls, 6 and 4, are always giving their stuffed animals makeovers or blowing bubbles or face painting or selling brownies to the neighbors. They plant sunflowers. They wear two different colored sneakers.  

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When she opens the door, Marina looks even worse than her compulsive tweeting would suggest. "What took you so long?" she grouses, as she stomps into the kitchen. She's wearing a man's navy blue T-shirt (Bob's?), loose jeans, and her hair looks like it hasn't seen the right side of a conditioning spray for days. I suddenly realize that I am a bitch. Marina had made the hourly tweeting of her husband's infidelity sound so breezy and fun, I forgot to notice she was coming unglued. She drops a quick kiss on Ellie's head then steps in for a proper hug. I hold her for a very long time and she stands there, motionless. "I'm sorry," I say into her hair, which smells really terrible.

"Let's have tea," she says, pulling away with a smile. I make her sit down, then I fill up the kettle, pull down two mugs, and retrieve a tin of white cucumber tea. There's a half-eaten box of crackers on the kitchen table, which may represent Marina's breakfast, lunch, or both. I realize that now is not the time to unburden about Dr. Grassi's terrorist-style bedside manner. Marina sets Ellie up with an old Elmo jack-in-the-box from a basket by the back door. Then she rests her head on the table and looks up at me.

"Bob came by today. He took the girls to school. He'll bring them home later."

"Did you talk to him?"

"No, I sent the girls downstairs then hid in the bedroom until I saw his car pull away."

"Did you even talk to him to arrange the visit today?"

"No, his mom called and arranged it. He's staying at his brother's. Or I guess that's his cover story since he can't exactly move in with a second-year law student. Oh and now his mom wants the girls for a visit after school tomorrow. Somehow, the minute you announce you're getting a divorce, everyone's clamoring to get your kids away from you." It doesn't read bitter when she tweets this stuff.

I stir my tea and offer Ellie a cracker. She shakes her head. "Did you call the lawyer Cole recommended?"

"Not yet," she sighs. "It seems like the road of no return. Like the shortest distance between being here and being all alone for the rest of my life. While Bob, after a suitable interval, will marry his student and surround himself with all of our friends and small collectibles."

I put down my spoon. I never thought of Marina as lonely. She always has some new friend or other, a new sculptor in town or a Pilates instructor or the owner of a fabulous new boutique in Belmont. If anything, it always seemed to me that Bob was the lonely one in their marriage. But I guess he has his students, and his colleagues, and his family right now. Whereas Marina just has a lot of women with toned arms she could call, but won't. Her parents are in Seattle and her employer is a graphic design company in San Francisco. For the first time in all the years I have known her, Marina looks completely shipwrecked. I lay my hand over hers.

"Anyhow," she smiles, trying to slough off the mood. "I don't need a lawyer. I have you. Your 'Welcome to Your Divorce' posts are great, Erica. Everyone is sending them around you know. I even have a friend who tweeted "Take the Hard Drive" late last night.   It nearly caused a Twitter riot. I had four new people friend me last night just for you."

"Yikes Marina," I yelp. "I'm not allowed to be doling out legal advice on the Internet! It was just me goofing around."

"Well, Charlotte Stern from your law school class doesn't think it's all that goofy.   She friended me last night when she heard you were giving funny divorce tips. I guess that surgeon she married got caught with his scrubs down again and she told me your advice was the smartest thing she's heard anywhere. And that includes her high-priced divorce lawyer."

Charlotte Stern. She graduated No. 3 in our class and went on to clerk at the 4th Circuit and then at the Supreme Court. She taught law at Harvard for a while before she married the handsome surgeon. She kind of vanished after that. Charlotte's the smartest woman I've ever met. And she's reading my goofy divorce advice? I wonder whether Charlotte friended me after she read my posts and so I sneak a look at my iPhone to see whether I have any new friend requests. I do!

"If I'm going to keep writing those silly divorce things for you, I need to put up a big old disclaimer that it does not constitute legal advice," I say, thinking out loud. Ellie is starting to fuss now, and I try to tempt her with another cracker.

"Well it constitutes legal advice to me," Marina says firmly. "I did everything you told me to do, including the hard drive, and I am eagerly awaiting your next directive."

"Honey, you need to get a real lawyer. If you're serious about doing this the hard way, the sooner you do this, the better. And I need to go get my son."

I kiss Marina and make her promise to take a shower. Then I collect my bag, my daughter, a cheese stick for my son, and go.

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Welcome to Your Fifth Night of Divorce

HUMORLESS DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A LICENSED MATRIMONIAL LAWYER AND HAVE NEVER WORKED ON A DIVORCE CASE. I HAVE SOME EXPERIENCE IN THIS ARENA AND SOME OPINIONS, TOO! TO BE CLEAR: I AM NOT OFFERING LEGAL ADVICE REGARDING YOUR SPECIFIC CASE. MATRIMONIAL LAW DIFFERS FROM STATE TO STATE. TO FIND OUT THE EXACT LAW IN YOUR JURISDICTION, PLEASE CONTACT A MATRIMONIAL ATTORNEY. THIS ADVICE IS STRICTLY FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES.  

And now, back to the good stuff!

So you want to protect yourself and your kids. And your husband has been the primary breadwinner (as in, he gets paid to work all day and you don't). Your next mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make like a bank robber and grab all the money and run. That's because his mission in the coming days will be to hide, divert, and spend anything he possibly can to keep it away from you. If you have been the stay-at-home mommy, now's as good a time as any to raid the family piggy banks and open new accounts to make sure you have enough money to see you through the early divorce proceedings. Soon enough you'll get your temporary support order. But for now, take what's yours. You've totally earned it. Online transfers will work, a little password changing may be in order to keep joint accounts out of play. Oh, and if you need to take a little teensy cash advance on all of your credit cards, just do it.

Tonight's activities also include locking down your valuables. This might include fancy jewelry, his grandma's jewelry that he gave you, your artwork, the coin collections, photo albums, Pink Floyd albums, safe-deposit-box keys, etc. These things needn't be worth millions to be of value to you. Just be aware that they might be useful in gaining some leverage in negotiations (particularly if something is of sentimental value to him: hel-lo autographed hockey stick!) and might also be liquidated in an emergency if cash is ever low.

Now let's talk about you. Yes you. Have you looked in the mirror lately? Do you look like someone's backed a garbage truck over you? Look at your hair! Is it sticking up? Look at your boobs! Are they hanging down? Get in the shower. Blow-dry your hair (use product). Now call a girlfriend. Go out for coffee. (Just make sure you've changed all the locks at home first.)  

***

Who wants to name Erica's upcoming divorce for women blog? Punning encouraged!! 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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