Cole is late for dinner again. The kids have been fed and bathed, and they are in the kitchen in their pajamas, waiting to "kiss him goodnight." And by "kiss him good night," I mean that they will be chased around every room downstairs, tossed to within mere inches of the kitchen light fixture, tickled to a point of near-derangement, and then—only when every nerve and muscle in their small bodies is screaming with the joy of a life well-lived—be taken up to bed.
Every marriage has a Sleep Czar and a Fun Czar. Because I, with my compulsive management of bedtimes and waking times, and the ongoing side drama of the unplanned car nap, have managed to appoint myself the Sleep Czar, Cole gets to be Fun Czar. Which would be fine if only his entire fun-related program didn't have the effect of curtailing our children's sleep. He's been so overwhelmed and overworked by this relocation trial it's hard to begrudge him these extra hours at night. But he isn't the one who'll be cleaning up the milk tomorrow morning when a sleepy Sam spills it all over his good pants. He isn't the one who's going to have to put Ellie down for a nap at 11 a.m. because exhaustion has driven her to tears over a broken bunny cracker.
Sam is coloring at the kitchen table, angry at the whole world because his light-up Batman pajamas are in the wash. "Go to the store and get more Batmans, Mamma," he orders. "Do it right now."
"Sammy, we don't buy new pajamas just because one pair is in the laundry."
"But why not?"
"Because it's a waste of money."
"Money isn't that important, Mom. Somebody gives it to you. You give it to somebody. Nobody really keeps it." Ellie, who is reorganizing my pots and pans in ways that make me quietly anxious, hums softly to herself. When Cole blasts in through the back door, laptop swinging, jacket flying, he's like a quad-shotespresso in a necktie. He kisses the top of my head and dumps a huge stack of files on the counter.
"Hey, little monkeys, what's shakin'?" he shouts, turning to the kids, and within seconds my sleepy children are swinging off the furniture like flying lemurs.
"Hi, honey, how did it go today?" I ask.
"No settlement. Trial starts Monday. Kayne's developing a weird new facial tic from the stress." He takes a computer printout out of his inside jacket pocket. It's an article from the law school's online student paper with a color photo of all the panelists in this afternoon's brown bag lunch. It's a pretty good picture of me, actually; I'm saying something earnestly, with my left hand gesticulating, and I look strangely authoritative. Cole is laughing.
"I didn't know you were being invited to speak to students about the complexity of working motherhood," he grins. "Did you talk about your recent lateral expansion into Lego or last year's brave acquisition of Polly Pocket?"
He's beside himself with laughter. "And what the hell is Marina doing dressed up like a mob widow? And who the hell is," he peers at the caption, "Helen Van Patterson-Patton? Wasn't that a character from Designing Women?" "Have you guys lost your minds?"
Ellie is both screaming and laughing as he blows raspberries on her stomach. Sam is on Cole's back, pulling his tie and grabbing his hair, and I give up any hope of having my children asleep by 9. I duck into Cole's study and flip on the computer. I have 12 new friend requests on Facebook, seven of them from strangers claiming they love my divorce advice. One woman suggests I turn it into a blog and offers to set up the page for me.
Cole, who has now worked my children into screaming, sweaty demons, sticks his head in the door and says, "Don't you think they should be getting to bed pretty soon?" I wave him off while I quickly check on Marina's latest tweet. It's from an hour earlier: Bob bailed on ice cream. Surprise! Girls crying. How to explain daddy loves Quid Pro Ho more than Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough?
Cole pops back into the study a few minutes later, looking annoyed. "Honey, it's getting really late. Let's put them to bed now, OK? You can do that later. Or are you drafting interrogatories for your big Pat the Bunny case?"
I shoot him a look and slide the chair in closer to the desk. "Why don't you start putting them down? Marina's having a crisis."
He looks at his watch. "Marina's in crisis. Well, I guess it must be 8:49 on a Friday night, then."
"I'll be up in 10 minutes. Just start telling them a story. And could you maybe stay away from The World's Greatest High Speed Auto Crashes?" Cole rolls his eyes and herds the still-shrieking children toward the stairs. He is still very, very handsome, my husband, and I love him very much. But despite being in the top 10 percent of our law school class and one of the most able litigators in town, he seems incapable of comprehending that the full basket of folded laundry at the bottom of the staircase isn't there because it complements the ottoman and the window treatments. Is there some Darwinian reason the laundry basket full of clean clothes waiting to be carried upstairs fails to register upon the male retina? Cole leaps over it, like a pirate, and chases the kids up to their rooms.
My father moved out when I was 8 years old. My sister Nina was 6. Sometimes you have to conduct years of stealthy investigation to learn what caused your parents' marriage to fail, but in our case there was no mystery: They never should have been together in the first place. My dad fell in love with my mom for her hard-driving, single-minded dedication to her ideals and her career. And yet although he was himself a dedicated feminist and civil rights activist, after a few years of solo dinners with a good book and an apartment still decorated in milk crates, he'd had enough. Or maybe she'd had enough of him having enough. Most divorces, even in the late '70s, were met with confusion. But people hearing of my parents' divorce mainly just murmured "what took them so long?"
When I was 11, my father remarried, this time to a woman who was 12 years younger than him. Claudia was a rising young star at his publishing house, but this time he made sure to find a rising star willing to orbit around him. As we grew up, he and Claudia gave Nina and me the occasional weekend glimpses of their stately Mamaroneck home, meals consisting of all four food groups bubbling aromatically together on a stove and, eventually, an adorable little stepbrother called Jason. If Frances lost a single billable hour to regrets over my father's new life, we never heard about it.
I creep upstairs to finish putting the children to bed. But Ellie is already fast asleep in her crib, her bottom up in the air and face mashed into the sheet as though she's hit it from above from a very high speed. I drape the blanket, tentlike, over her rump and close the door. Crossing the hall to Sam's room, I spy his dark head snuggled up on the Buzz Lightyear pillow, just next to his dad's blonde one. If Cole isn't already asleep, he will be in 10 seconds. Sliding his hand into Cole's fisted one, Sam whispers, "Hold my hand Daddy?"
"So that we will be in the same dreams …"
There's a message from Marina on the home phone when I get downstairs. She says Bob didn't pick up the kids for ice cream. Gemma stomped up to her room and slammed the door, and Norah was still crying. "This situation is ridiculous. He can't just blow them off like this, Erica. They're children. I think I need to prepare myself for a messy divorce."
I sit down at Cole's computer again and begin tapping. After the now-standard disclosures I write out the following:
Welcome to Week Two of Your Divorce
OK, so it's really happening. I think at this point it's fair to conclude that this is NOT a nightmare. Which means, my dear, it's time to get out of bed and change the sheets. If you and he are not working your way toward a resolution at this point, it's probably safe to say that you are working your way toward a divorce. Take a breath and say it with me now: If this situation isn't fixable, it's time to get your ducks in a row. In some jurisdictions, that means you can run out and file for divorce. In others you can't do it yet but you can still plan for it. (Here in Virginia, if there are children in the marriage, you must be separated for at least a year before you can file for divorce. Of course, until very recently here in Virginia, women also had to wear skirt suits to take the bar exam.)
1. You need a lawyer. If this is going down the road you think it's going, you need a really great lawyer. If you're worried about money because he makes most or all of it, know that it's his responsibility to support you and the children. So you want to strike first, like a serpent. It's your responsibility now to fight for your kids because—say it with me now—kids are not for bargaining, and if you don't protect them now, you will lose them, or parts of them, later.
2. So here's where I tell you to make interim arrangements for spousal support, for child support, and for custody. Since I assume you have the kids and the house right now, I want you to be sure you have sole possession of the house and to make sure he keeps making those mortgage payments. You need to do everything in your power to keep your kids' lives as normal as possible. You're their advocate! Same home, same bedrooms, same routines, same everything. Fight for that!
3. How to talk to your kids about divorce? Gently. Softly. Honestly. Lovingly. Don't say cruel things about their dad. They need your permission to love him. Don't say cruel things about Dad's new friend. They will come to hate her someday without your guidance. Don't pretend to have all the answers. And don't answer questions they haven't asked. Tell them a thousand times it isn't their fault. Tempting though it may be, it's unwise to tell them that dad is dead. Best to say he's just resting. Then say it again. Then everyone gets an ice cream. Chocolate for them. And vodka for you!
I pick up the phone to call Marina. It's past 11, but she picks up on the first ring. "I thought you were Bob," she says.
"Still no word from him?"
"It's just not like him to flake like that. Not if it would hurt the girls," I say.
"No," she sounds worn-out.
"Does the fact that you're answering your phone on the first ring mean you're finally ready to speak to him?"
"I guess I'll have to sometime."
"I think it may be time to call a lawyer, honey."
"I think so, too."
"I'll talk to Cole and get you some more names in the morning."
"Thanks," she says dully.
"I put it all of my other advice on the blog," I tell her.
"I'm migrating my divorce-advice column from your Facebook page to a blog. Starting tomorrow. Will you post a link?"
"Of course," I hear her smiling.
"And tweet it?"
"I still don't have a name for it, Marina." She thinks for a minute then laughs.
"Perfect!" I laugh. "I love it!"
There's a very long silence. Maybe the longest one of our whole friendship. Then Marina sighs and says, "Goodnight, Erica. I love you."
"GoodnightHelen Van Patterson-Patton. I love you, too." I say and hang up the phone.