Saving Face

Chapter 6
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Sept. 17 2009 9:49 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

How Marina has persuaded me to join her on this stakeout is almost not worth discussing. Once I realized Tuesday that she needed a lot more moral support than I was giving, I tried everything in my repertoire from manicures to long lunches. But she is completely obsessed with Mandy, Bob's new girlfriend, and having tried unsuccessfully to redirect her attention, I am going with the only other child-rearing technique I know: indulging her.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

We are camped out at the University of Virginia law school on a sunny Friday, moments before the noontime crush, hoping to catch a glimpse of Amanda Matthews, aka "Quid Pro Ho."   Marina, having conducted rather exhaustive (and possibly illegal) research, found out that the girl has an antitrust class that gets out at 12:30, and so we are standing in the hallway directly across from the classroom, waiting for class to let out. 

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"What are we going to do when we see her?" I hiss, stating the question that's been plaguing this plan from the start.

Marina, who has dressed for the occasion in a tailored black suit (think Sue Ellen Ewing at a funeral) and high-heeled black pumps, looks at me over the tops of her enormous sunglasses. "Maybe slap her. Maybe hug her. Maybe dump a bag of Bob's dirty socks on the floor at her feet and tell her she'd better get used to picking them up because Bob wouldn't know a laundry hamper if he got hit in the back of the head with one."

"We're just going to get a look at her and go, right?" I fret. The navy skirt I found at the back of my closet doesn't quite button, and the safety pin I've fastened it with is starting to dig into my back. Marina thought it would be a good idea to dress up like police detectives for the investigation. Of course, Marina thinks it's a good idea to wear a costume to her mammogram. "You're not going to confront her or start anything?"

"I just want to see what kind of woman takes a man away from his home and his children."

The classroom door narrowly misses the side of my head as it swings open and students pour into the hallway, weighted down by books and computer bags. Marina peers at the women as they walk by in noisy groups. Suddenly she wrenches off her sunglasses and starts waggling her eyebrows at me like Groucho Marx. Two girls are walking out of the classroom together, both petite brunettes with bouncing Southern hair and who both look remarkably like the woman in the photo Marina has pulled off Facebook.

"Which one?"  I mouth to Marina, as they approach.

"What?" Marina mouths back.

"Which one is Quid Pro Ho?" I mouth, louder.

"What?" snaps Marina.

The two women have now passed us and crossed the hallway into a classroom directly opposite. As the door closes behind them, Marina hisses, "Well, that was useless, why did you have to distract me like that, Erica?"

"I couldn't figure out which one was her!"

"The trampy one," she huffs and stalks across the hall to peer into the classroom.

Whatever class is about to start in there attracts an awful lot of females because the hallway is suddenly full of young women jostling to get inside. Several have to pass Marina, who is preventing anyone from entering because she is still peering through the window.

A flustered girl with a pile of curly black hair comes to a screeching stop in front of the door to the classroom. "Are you here for the brown bag lunch on work-family balance?" she asks. "Lisa, the 2-L who set it up, got swine flu. I told her I would be the moderator, but I have no idea who the panelists are supposed to be."

I am just about to tell her that we are not there for the lunch and were indeed just leaving, but Marina cuts me off with a "Yes, yes we are. I am Helen Van Patterson-Patton, and I was invited to be on today's panel because of my superlative work in the work-family-balance field."  

"Oh, thank God," sighs the girl, shepherding Marina quickly into the classroom. "I'm Lally Singh. I'm a 3-L." She stops and looks questioningly at me. "Are you a panelist too?" she asks.  

Just as I am about to say no, Marina says that of course I'm on the panel and that I am a very accomplished attorney and an alumna to boot, and with that Marina sweeps into the room (think Sue Ellen Ewing at a coronation ball) and starts picking her way down the stairs to the front of the classroom where a table has been set up in front of the blackboard. There are four chairs set up behind the table, three of which are already occupied by women with some ostensible expertise in both work and families. Marina sweeps into the fourth chair, leaving both Lally and me standing on either side of the table.

"Somehow I thought there were only three panelists today," says Lally, brightly, "but I guess five panelists would be even better than three, right? So let's just pull up some extra chairs and get started." Someone pulls two more chairs to the front of the classroom and I sit gingerly on the edge of mine, wondering whether I should save Marina a lot of money in divorce-lawyer fees by strangling her on the way home.

Lally manages to get the roomful of chattering women (and three earnest young men with wedding rings) to quiet down by standing and clearing her throat. A woman with an infant in a Baby Bjorn stands at the back of the room, trying uselessly to quiet the baby. Her colleagues smile uneasily at her, probably wishing she would just leave so they could get some useful advice on blending work and children.

"Hey, everyone. Welcome to this panel put on by Virginia Law Women on balancing careers and families. Please sign in on the sheets in the back if you haven't already done so. I'm so happy to see that so many of you are interested in this issue, although I can't help but wish a few more guys were worrying about this stuff so we don't have to." Polite laughter. "Anyhow, as many of you know, Lisa Hunter, who set up this event, has swine flu, and so I am going to be a sort of laissez-faire moderator in her place and let the panelists mainly just speak for themselves. Then I will ask them a few questions and then leave lots of time for your questions at the end. I am going to start by asking each panelist to tell us who she is, what kind of law she practices, and what her family is like. Why don't we begin with you, er, Helen?"

My heart is still hammering as I try to decide how to play this. Unlike Marina, who is right now telling these rapt women that her name is Helen Van Patterson-Patton, I can't possibly vamp my way through this thing. I hear Marina spinning a Danielle Steele novel into narrative gold as she invents Helen's astonishing legal résumé. She's already put Helen through a difficult childhood in a cruel Boston orphanage, then educational triumph at Harvard and Yale and Oxford (where she evidently became great pals with both Prince Harry and Victoria Beckham), and she's now explaining that she and her family just recently relocated to Charlottesville when her husband bought a local winery which they have turned into a fabulous success. She is just starting to describe a party she hosted last month for John Grisham's latest best-seller when Lally stops her to ask what kind of law she specializes in.

Marina falters for only a second as her eyes, which have been scanning the crowd, finally settle on Mandy, who is jammed into a desk in the fourth row from the top. "Property," blurts Marina, glaring at Mandy, and I quickly chime in that Helen is an intellectual property lawyer who has taken some time off to raise her kids. And zinfandel grapes.

The woman to Helen's left quickly explains that her name is Olivia something and she teaches contracts here at the law school and that she is in her 60s now and her kids are grown, but that academia is a really great route for women trying to balance work and children. Next to Olivia sits Joanne, who now teaches legal research and writing part time at the law school and has a 7-month-old at home. Then, the woman sitting next to me says her name is Kate and she's a public defender who has just adopted a little girl with her partner and is trying to figure out the juggle in a big hurry. When my turn comes, I explain in as few syllables as possible that I went to law school here and used to work at a big firm in Manhattan but am taking time off to raise my two children, Sam and Ellie, who are 5 and 2.

Lally asks if each of us could talk a little bit about the challenges of trying to work full-time as an attorney and raise children, and since Kate is the only one who evidently does both, she answers for everyone. "It's tricky," she says. "Being a public defender, your client is almost always in jail up until trial or settlement, you're going to the worst parts of town to interview family, witnesses, etc., so your partner is freaking out for your safety. And motion practice happens at the drop of a hat. That said, you're a government employee, which means you aren't expected to stay after hours, and most of us leave for the day after our court cases are done. It's family-friendly as law jobs go, but it's a wonder any of us have families when you realize what kind of world you're bringing them into." The students laugh.  

"That said," continues Kate, "it's really hard, because your clients expect and deserve your full attention, 100 percent of the time, but yet, someone has to be there when the baby is sick, or the sitter is late, or the washing machine has flooded the basement again. And that's always the woman." She smiles. "Even if you're both women."

"Most of us went through law school desperate to get A's in everything," she concludes. "I'm here to tell you that if you meet someone who's getting an A at her law firm and an A at home with the kids, she's either an android or taking really good drugs."

Everyone laughs, and I find myself tentatively interrupting her to add that large firms have certain expectations of the women who work there, and that this is measured exclusively in time served. "Look," I say, thinking of my mother. "If you only want to see your children for an hour at bedtime and brief parts of the weekend, you might want to consider just renting." More laughter. This is a nice crowd.

Olivia says that academia is really a gift to women with young families, and a student asks her whether it's better to try to get tenure before or after you have children. Someone else asks Kate whether her work is depressing and whether she takes it home with her. Joanne says the real problem is that women get so far behind when they drop out of the work force that they can never quite catch up. She cites the same dispiriting statistics about the numbers of women who graduate law school compared with the tiny fraction of women who rise to leadership positions at their law firms, on the bench, or in government.

Then someone in the audience asks Marina/Helen whether intellectual property is a good field for women with new families, and Marina, who still hasn't torn her eyes off Mandy, picks up her water bottle and sips delicately before she speaks: "The good thing about intellectual property," she says, "is that it's all about intellectuals. People who are smart and well-read and such. And they are, generally, I find, very respectful of other people's property. Which is to say that when something, or someone ..." and here she is light-sabering Mandy with her eyes, "takes something, or someone, that is, in a manner of speaking, an intellectual, from someone else ..." Only in a roomful of young women desperate to have both careers and children could this sort of soliloquy be listened to so earnestly. Marina is now talking about the ways in which some property cannot be understood in purely intellectual terms because that property has shared a life with someone for eight years. She is rising to her feet now, and it occurs to me that it would be extremely bad for both her and Bob if she brutally assaulted a student at Bob's place of work.

Thinking as quickly as I can, and wishing that I had one-tenth of Marina's gift for improvisational bullshit, I leap to my own feet, grab my phone from my bag and pretend to be receiving an urgent call. "What's that?" I holler. "Sam's school, you say?" I am talking so loud they can easily hear me in the back row. "He's what? His hair is caught in the paper towel dispenser?"  "Yes, yes, I will be right there. Oh yes, definitely call the ambulance. Yes. ... OK. ... Yes." Seventy-five pairs of eyes stare blankly at me as I realize that I can probably wrap this up already. I place my phone in my purse, look up at the students, and then announce that this is the ultimate lesson in work-life balance.

"When the school calls," I intone gravely, "They. Always. Call. The. Mom." Then, relishing this newfound respect and attention, I turn to Marina and say, "Helen, my car's in the shop. Can you give me a ride?" And then she and I glide graciously up the stairs and exit stage left.

******

A few more questions for my readers: What is something your 6-year-old did or said to tell you they were struggling with a stressful situation? And also, what is the best or worst or most outrageous advice you received from a divorce attorney? 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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