01
Jul
  

“Ringling Mothers & The Suburban Circus”

Dear Readers:  ‘Thought I’d give you a little something extra for beach reading. This is a fictional tale of a Stay-At-Home Dad, who utilizes the help of a savvy group of Suburban Moms to win his custody battle … armed with their unusual advice, he goes the “distance” to cross the Finish Line …

Enjoy, and I’d love your feedback. Happy Summer! xoxo LB

By Lisa Barr

Daniel’s wife lay spread-eagle on the sweaty hospital bed, her volcanic stomach threatening to erupt. He had to admit Hillary was ugly, monstrous, as moisture oozed from her puffy face. A vein protruded from her forehead with each scream. Her legs were elevated, exhibiting her swollen vagina, which was stretched so wide open that Daniel was convinced it would devour him.

Yet, Daniel thought, his wife was strangely beautiful lying there.

“Push, Hillary, push!” The doctor and the nurse lifted her legs close to her chest.

“Push!” the doctor repeated.

“I see the head!” Daniel shouted, forgetting his queasiness. “C’mon, Hill. Bring our babies home.”

“Shut up!” she shrieked, the parched skin of her face straining against the jutting bones.

“I love you, Honey. You can do it.” Daniel pressed his body against the side of the bed, holding his hand out like a conductor as he tried to administer the last phase of Lamaze.

“Stop that! You look like a fool! They’re coming. Finally! My God, Daniel –”

He rushed over to the foot of the bed, aligning himself with the dark, mysterious cavity that he had spent most of his life trying to understand. He peered into it – the shaved, oblong crevice that had given him ultimate pleasure and now, any second, children.

A tiny head of dark hair began to push through. One shoulder popped out first and Daniel and the doctor pulled out the rest of the body together. The baby was slippery and lined with a white jelly, her pointy head was like that of an extraterrestrial. Before Daniel had a chance to embrace his newborn, the nurse whisked her away. Then his other daughter’s head surfaced. She emerged bald, equally lubricated but more rat-like – Daniel was surprised that he could think this about his own child. Tiny as she was, his second daughter made her debut with a drawn-out scream that outdid her older sister’s by a long shot.

The doctor, a close family friend, blinked back tears, and Daniel knelt beside his wife as she embraced the twins.

Daniel rewound the video and played it again for the third time that morning. He pressed pause as his wife held the babies and he laid his head on her still-tender stomach. His children had been cleaned off by then, and he could still smell the newness of their skin, and the even stronger odor emitted from the dried pools of sweat visible under his armpits. They were connected, all of them, by those scents.

And now it was over.

* * *

Daniel could remember so clearly when Hillary had loved him. It was four years ago, early October, and unseasonably warm for Paris. The outdoor café was crowded, loud and smoky, but Daniel hardly noticed. The night breeze from the nearby Seine lightly fanned his wife’s face. Hillary’s thick dark hair was pulled back, tucked girlishly under the tan beret they had bought earlier that day. Her cheeks were slightly rosy and the golden flecks in her eyes shone through the dominant gray, like sunshine peeking through rain clouds. Daniel thought he had never seen such a monopoly of beauty.

They finished their coffee and walked hand in hand along the bridge. Daniel stared at the glittering Eiffel Tower in the distance. It was suspended in the darkness like a giant constellation dropped from the sky. He imagined what it would be like to sail over the river. He envisioned the faces of his children, wide-eyed and awestruck as he expertly steered a small boat along the waterway. But he didn’t own a boat, nor did he have children then. Daniel shuffled his sneakers against the cobblestone.

His wife, beautiful and giving as she was, wasn’t ready to have kids. He had broached the subject with her dozens of times, and hundreds of times more in his head. Hillary was never ready. A pediatrician, she didn’t want any children of her own.

He felt the coolness of his wife’s hand inside his warmer one. They had met as freshmen at the University of Michigan, and they had been together ever since. What they shared together was enough for her, but not for him. Not anymore.

The yearning had become so strong lately that it was unbearable. When he had shared a watered-down version of his feelings with Hillary, she had teased him for having an overactive maternal longing. What’s wrong with paternal longing, he retorted. Next time, she said, you’ll tell me you want to breastfeed. Daniel had looked away, embarrassed, because he had secretly wondered what that would be like.

Squeezing his arm tightly, Hillary laughed as a street musician serenaded them with a mandolin, belting out a badly accented version of  “Light My Fire.” As Hillary threw several francs into his hat, all Daniel could think was – did the musician have kids?

Hillary looked at Daniel with a raised eyebrow as they walked toward the Latin Quarter. She knew everything about him, and probably guessed what he was thinking. Daniel squeezed her hand, feeling the delicate bones of his wife’s fingers. “Hill, I want to have children.”

She pulled her hand away. “Why bring this up now, Daniel? It’s so perfect.”

“It’s always perfect.” His voice rose, and he tried to keep it even. “It’s always so neat and organized.”

“What’s wrong with that? Seventeen years of being together is a long time. And that’s what this trip is – a celebration of us.”

Daniel clenched his teeth. “Tell me you don’t think about it.”

She shrugged nonchalantly, as if he’d asked whether she wanted her croissant chocolate or plain.  She said,  “I’ve told you so many times that I take care of children all day. And when I come home, I’ve had enough. I don’t know that I’d have anything left to give to more kids.”

He stuck his hands deep inside his coat pockets. “But they’d be our kids.”

“Let’s eat dinner.” She gestured toward the small lights illuminating a strip of restaurants in the distance. “I’m starving.”

Daniel walked toward the railing. The water was thick and black, like mud. He felt his wife touch his back.

“I can’t give up my career,” she whispered into his neck. “Not now.”

“We’re nearly thirty-seven,” Daniel said, not turning around. “When is the right time?”

“I don’t want to be one of those mothers who leaves her kids all day with a nanny. What is the point?”

Daniel couldn’t look at her because he’d begun to blink back tears, and Hillary hated when he cried. He suddenly felt angry. He remembered the time he’d lost the account of a long-time client to his competitor. As he smashed his distraught face into his pillow later that night, Hillary had wrapped her arms around his neck, and massaged it until he began to cry. She’d lifted his downcast face up to hers and said with a small but serious smile that she heard crying all day long – at least her husband could spare her. She’d laughed as though she were only joking, trying to lighten him up. He had laughed with her, and stopped crying. But now, he was struck by how totally cold and unfeeling her words had been. And there were other times, when tears filled his eyes that she had looked away or left the room. It was as if crying was a sign of weakness in adults, pitiful. Clearing his throat, he said to her, “What if I left my job?”

“Left your job?” He felt the nervous vibration of Hillary’s breath against his skin, like tiny shocks. “It’s your firm.”

Daniel turned to her, aware that his eyes were still watery. “I know it sounds strange, but I’m tired of being an architect. Sick of building sidewalk malls and demanding clients. I want a family.” He paused, having rehearsed what he was about to say and readied himself to stand behind it. “You have the children.  I’ll take care of them.”

Her eyes came wide open. “Like a Mr. Mom?”

“What’s the difference?”

She shook her head sternly, an adult again, having none of it. “It’s not natural. People will talk.”

This isn’t natural, Daniel wanted to yell. You’re a pediatrician who doesn’t want kids – that’s not fucking natural! But he bit down on his bottom lip, resisting the urge to hurt her. He pulled his wife close to his chest and inhaled deeply. A musky fragrance from this morning’s cosmetic counter sampling still graced her skin; coffee and dark chocolate lingered on her breath.

“Have my children, Hillary. I’ll take care of them. You can work. It’s what I want.” He searched her eyes, which had clouded over, the golden flecks having waned like the final rays of a sunset. “It’s what I have to have.”

She looked at him intently. “Or else?”

He squeezed her hand, but turned away. The ridiculous musician was serenading another couple at the end of the bridge.

* * *

Daniel wasn’t a fighter. As a kid, he’d submit to bullies rather than use his fists. He liked to build things, not destroy them. His older brother would tear down his Lego towers, kick apart his building blocks, throw up the board game if he was losing, and Daniel, without complaining, would rebuild the buildings and put away the game pieces. But his children, now two and a half years old, were his life, and his wife knew it.

She left him no choice. He would have to fight back.

But how, he asked himself over and over, staring at the stilled video screen — how does a father win custody of his kids? He didn’t want to settle for joint custody. He could not imagine not being able to put his girls to sleep every night. He wanted sole custody – and he deserved it.

But little girls need a mother, the courts would say. Hillary, a well-known pediatrician, looked so good on paper. Daniel glanced at some zigzag portraits his daughters had done. He thought, I look great on construction paper. But what judge can see that?

He stood up from the couch and heard Molly crying. Maybe it was Maddy? No – the shrill wail, peppered with staccato breaths, definitely belonged to Molly.

Molly’s crying woke up Maddy, who began to cry too. Daniel glanced at his watch. They were up a half hour early. He turned off the TV and tucked Goodnight Moon under his arm as he headed up the stairs. Their favorite book always seemed to calm them, and Barney would do the rest while he got breakfast together.

“Daddy! Daddy!” Molly sobbed, followed by Maddy’s soft weeping from the other room, “Me too. Me too, Daddy.”

First he entered the rainbow room he had painted himself and scooped up Molly, who clung to his neck and quieted immediately. They walked into Maddy’s room, a Noah’s ark of stenciled animals, which he’d also designed. His other daughter jumped up from her bed and clutched her father, planting wet kisses on his cheek. Daniel wore his daughters proudly, like a jeweled necklace. They made funny faces into the mirror – Maddy stretched her lips wide and stuck out her tongue, and Molly’s fine golden hair was sticking up on one side as though she had a plant growing from her head. His whole body ignited as his girls giggled at each other in stereo.

My girls, damn it – not hers.

He changed them, and waited patiently as each walked down the stairs. Maddy was always quicker, but Molly more determined, counting each step loudly, proudly, and always missing the number seven.

Watching them, Daniel guessed that Hillary’s affair had begun over a year ago, at the height of his evolution into Mr. Mom.

He remembered the disgusted look on his wife’s face when he had unveiled the girls’ first birthday cake, a three-tier yellow cake, which he’d baked himself and then frosted with chocolate. He had decorated the top with Disney characters and pink jellybeans. As he entered the family room with the musical candles playing “Happy Birthday,” he saw Hillary’s shoulders tense up. Her lips pursed with a forced smile. Daniel could read her mind: Couldn’t he have at least bought the cake – did he have to bake it? He knew she was picturing him wearing the daisy-patterned apron, which she never used.

He saw himself in his wife’s repulsed gaze: He’d become the mother that she could never be.

Hillary’s lover was not only a doctor, but also head of pediatric oncology at Children’s Memorial Hospital, AND a triathlete. Daniel knew the guy vaguely. They’d been introduced at a Christmas party last year. He had noticed the lustful way the man had eyed Hillary in her low-cut black velvet dress, but missed the look Hillary had given him in return. He was poised, bearded, doused in aftershave, not exactly handsome – but no one would ever picture that guy in an apron.

After breakfast, Daniel tucked his University of Michigan T-shirt into his cut-offs, then double-knotted his daughters’ sneakers. They whined as he put on their sun hats and covered them with sunblock, but laughed hard when he tickled them. He gave each her Barbie and a plastic purse filled with trinkets, which bought him five minutes.

Daniel quickly packed up the backpack, stuffing extra clothes inside, as well as a plastic container with pre-cut melon, two sandwich bags filled with Cheerios and three boxes of apple juice (Maddy always drank two). He threw the cell phone and some money into the bag, loaded the wash into the dryer, then buckled his girls into the double stroller and headed off to Turtle Park.

Daniel walked faster than usual, not stopping for coffee. He passed the familiar green awning, and saw some of the mothers from the park standing in line. He was too wound up for caffeine, too preoccupied to listen to their daily banter. Maybe he would bypass the park altogether today. He began to run the stroller, feeling the hot summer wind ripple through his T-shirt as his daughters squealed with delight.

“Turtle Park, Daddy!”

He glanced over his shoulder and saw his daughters pointing in the direction of the park, which he had evaded by a good fifty yards. He stood still for a moment. He felt like hell, exhausted from thinking, still burning with anger over his fight with Hillary last night – she’d come home at nearly eleven – but why should his girls suffer?

Daniel slowly backtracked and strolled through the park gate. Lizzy, Kim and Jill were already in the sandbox with their kids. Even from here, Lizzy looked especially pretty. She wore her long hair loose today, and a short skirt that he hadn’t seen before. She had good legs too, slim, shapely calves. A few weeks ago he had noticed several clusters of spidery veins and stretch marks marring the backs of her thighs. She wore her pregnancy blemishes like badges of honor.

He had admitted to himself months ago that he was attracted to her. She wasn’t as blatantly beautiful as his wife, but she was sexy, smart and funny, and had given up a prominent law career to raise her daughter. Since Lizzy had started coming to the park nearly a year ago, not once had he seen a nanny with her daughter, Emma. Daniel felt a surge of anger run through his body.

Hillary wasn’t a good mother.

In the beginning Daniel had made excuses for her – postpartum depression being the number one alibi. But things had spiraled from bad to worse. She had nursed the girls for just over a week, then abruptly stopped. Ironically, she encouraged mothers in her practice to nurse for at least six months. Less than a month after delivery, she went back to work. She then refused to get up during the night to feed the girls, claiming there was only one breadwinner in this family, and she needed her sleep. Daniel had understood – that was the deal. He noted each refusal, and let it slide. Until Hillary decided to lengthen her Saturday office hours; then the excuses ran out and the resentment settled in.

Even when she was with the girls, Hillary was AWOL. She occasionally played with them after work, but she was impatient, tired and distracted. When she read them stories, her voice was expressionless, as if reading a prescription aloud. The characters all had the same voice. Daniel could not believe that this woman, this cold imposter, was his wife.

The girls needed a mother, craved one, so Daniel filled the void, becoming Mommy and Daddy rolled into one. That’s when his wife had stopped sleeping with him. That’s about when she began to cringe at his touch. That’s probably when she started attending out-of-town conferences, fucking the brains out of Dr. Watson.

He had discovered Hillary’s affair with Jack Watson because she’d wanted him to know. She had become sloppy, carelessly leaving the den door wide open when her cell phone rang late into the night – and not even bothering to whisper. She had begun “working” later than usual on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. And her lies had become so weak that they seemed to fall limply out of her mouth, like when his girls had taken too large a bite of food. The excuses ranged from emergencies at the hospital to unexpected paperwork. Each lie varied slightly in detail – the insincere tone of her voice, however, was constant. Daniel knew something was going on, but chose to avoid a confrontation. He admitted to himself that he almost didn’t want to know.

One Saturday, when Hillary was supposed to have been attending a weekend conference on vaccinations in Milwaukee, Daniel had decided to take the girls Downtown to the Planetarium. They’d had a wonderful time gazing at the black-domed ceiling with its illuminated stars and galaxies. He’d answered what seemed like a thousand “But why, Daddy?” questions, and was starving by the time they left the museum. He decided to stop for hot dogs and take the girls for a walk around Lincoln Park.

He had strolled them in the direction of the park’s petting zoo, when he saw in the distance, on the running path, what looked like the back of Hillary’s hair blowing loosely against the broad bare shoulders of a powerfully-built man. They were walking too slowly – serious joggers were circumventing them. Daniel stopped the stroller, kicking down both brakes. He recognized the way the clingy blue fabric hugged the woman’s ass into a perfect heart shape.

His heart began to beat dangerously fast. Should he run the stroller in front of the lovers and expose the affair? Should he call out Hillary’s name? Should he allow his daughters to witness their mother’s betrayal? Perspiration from his back was raining into his underpants. The fresh spring air, which just minutes ago had felt invigorating, became rancid and suffocating. Somewhere in the back of Daniel’s head, he heard his daughters’ voices  – “Daddy, sheep! Look, Daddy, goats!” He heard the bah-bahing and meh-mehing too, but he was unable to move.

The bed of red and yellow tulips in front of him began to taunt him like a group of bitchy schoolgirls: How could you be so stupid?

Daniel looked away, heating up with shame and rejection. He had known, and Hillary knew that he knew, but she hadn’t seemed to care. He’d seen it in the guileless, detached way she’d look at him when he asked where she’d been, and why so damn late. It was as if he were not worthy of any explanation. And now, as he watched his wife’s seductive sway, he saw the lie with his own eyes, and could no longer pretend that it wasn’t happening. That guy with the tight black shorts and powerful hamstrings had replaced him.

He felt young and helpless. Tears rolled thickly down his cheek and stuck to his skin like rubber cement. He glanced down at Maddy sucking hard on her two fingers. She was thirsty. Move! he ordered himself, starting to run. Get them out of here now! As the stroller’s tiny wheels careened against the pavement, he imagined sparks shooting out from behind him. His head felt airborne, blown away by the shrinking figure of his soul-mate stroking another man’s arm.

 *  *  * 

Kim and Lizzy waved when they saw Daniel, and he waved back. He unbuckled his daughters and they immediately ran to the sandbox. He strapped the backpack over his shoulder, walked to the far ledge of the octagon-shaped box and kicked off his shoes.

“You’re here early.” Lizzy smiled as he sat next to her.

“The girls woke up earlier than usual. It was either sunshine or Barney.”

“I hate Barney,” Kim confessed. “He’s stupid and his voice annoys me – not to mention that laugh, like a stoned hyena  – but Ryan thinks he’s a god.”

Chuckling, Daniel dug his feet deep into the sand, feeling the familiar comfort of the moist grains between his toes. “A Barney video buys me twenty minutes – he is a god.” He gestured across the sandbox. “Hey, look at Emma. She’s ready to take off.”

Lizzy grinned with pride as she watched her daughter wobble from one sandstone turtle to the next. “She took three steps yesterday. Caught the whole thing on video too. It was amazing.”

“The best,” Daniel agreed as Kim ran to her son, who was crying because another child had usurped his shovel.

Lizzy studied Daniel’s profile, and he could feel her critical eyes on him. “What’s wrong?”

Daniel gave her a sideways glance. “What do you mean?”

“I’m a lawyer, remember? I’ve made a career of studying faces.”

“Nothing. Really.”

“C’mon, Daniel. What’s up?” She inched closer, her smooth thigh grazing his.

“Why have none of you ever asked me why Hillary never comes here?”

Lizzy hesitated, as if searching for the right words. “Hillary is the busiest pediatrician in town.” She made a panoramic sweep of the sandbox. “Show me one kid here who doesn’t see your wife. When would she have time to come to the park?”

Daniel shook his head. “Bullshit, Lizzy. I bet when I’m not here, all of you have a field day with the fact that you’ve not once seen my wife at the park.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I just want the truth. You were a big-time lawyer  – but you’ve made it out here at least four times a week.”

“I left my job, remember? Your wife’s practice is insane. The waiting room is a total zoo.”

Lizzy’s eyes were like amber in the sunlight, reminding Daniel of Hillary’s ethereal gaze in Paris. He leaned close to her. “Given what you know now, would you do it again?”

She stared at her bare feet, as if counting the pros and cons with her toes. Emma made it to the third sandstone turtle, and as her daughter yelled, “Mama, Mama!” Lizzy clapped and whispered, “It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I miss work.” Her voice became tiny, faraway. “I miss who I was when I was working.”

Daniel said, “I want to know what you’d do if you had to choose between a major court victory and seeing Emma’s first steps.”

Lizzy was unwavering, her voice strong again. “There will always be another day in court.”

Daniel’s head fell into his hands.

Lizzy quickly glanced at Kim, who, though immersed in a conversation with Jill, also saw the head drop. “Daniel, what is it?”

Daniel wondered how much he could reveal. Hillary worked with parents every day of her life. Why did she resent him for being a warm and loving father? She’d once told him during a heated argument that the day he’d stopped working and started baking, she’d become turned off.  She used to love me, Daniel thought sadly. Now I embarrass her. Lifting his head, he said to Lizzy, “Do you think I’m weak and pathetic because I stay at home with my kids?”

He could tell by the way she rubbed her lips together that she wanted to lie. “No,” she began, then changed her mind. “Well actually, in the beginning, we all did. It made us uncomfortable. What were you doing here? Why weren’t you working? Were you –”

“Ball-less?”

Lizzy placed her hand on Daniel’s shoulder. It had been months since a woman had touched him. “I got to know you. I saw the way you were with your girls. Wonderful, amazing.”

Daniel cleared his throat. He had nothing left to lose. “Have you ever been attracted to me?”

Lizzy yanked her hand away. “Don’t go there, please.”

“This is something I need to know. I need a woman’s perspective.”

She hesitated, and then said firmly, “No.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure. You’re very cute.”

“But I’m Mr. Mom.” He looked away, and said under his breath, “A transvestite.”

“What?”

“That’s what Hillary called me – Mom-in-drag.” Daniel threw down a handful of sand. He was going for a slam, and the sand was disappointingly quiet. “She wants a divorce.”

He could see Kim and Jill’s ears perking across the sandbox, and he didn’t care.

Lizzy lowered her voice. “When did this happen – why?”

“According to Hillary, I’m becoming a woman. My friends are women, my thoughts are womanly, even my touch, she says, has become womanly. She’s with someone else.” Daniel’s eyes welled up and for the first time he didn’t try to fight it. “She asked me for a divorce over the weekend. It’s not so much the Other Guy. It’s my girls – she wants them.”

“She can’t do that to you.”

Daniel turned slowly. He was just inches from Lizzy’s mouth and had the overwhelming urge to kiss her. He forced himself to slide sideways, at a respectable distance. Right now he needed a friend. “Lizzy, Hillary may be a pediatric goddess, but she’s a terrible mother. She’s never with the girls. And even when she is, she isn’t.  I wonder if she even loves them at all.”  His eyes felt hot. “I’m not a fighter. But I’m not without balls either.”

“Why does she even want the girls?”

“I think it’s her career. How could a pediatrician possibly hand over her kids – something must be wrong with her. People will talk, patients will whisper and then leave. She can’t stand that. The kids are pawns.” He paused to watch Maddy adjust her sunhat like a little lady. He often pictured them as adults, with the same gestures. “To me – they’re my life.”

As he spoke, Lizzy’s face began to appear smarter, like a xylophone morphing into a computer. He could almost hear the churn of her legal mind. She stood and wiped the sand off her skirt, each swipe outdoing the previous one. “You’re one of us.” Her stance was invincible, the playground chieftain. “We won’t let this happen to you.”

* * * 

Hillary came home from work at a quarter to ten. She’d probably had dinner with Watson, then a leisurely lay. No explanations, no excuses tonight. Daniel stared at the clock as she entered their bedroom.

She began to peel off her nylons, watching him in her vanity mirror. He pretended to be busy digging into his drawer for pajama bottoms.

“Daniel.” Her voice was firm, commanding. He looked up. “I want you to move out.”

He stared at her in disbelief, squeezing the limp fabric of the plaid pajama leg as he stood. “You’re having the affair. You move out.”

“Let’s not make this messy.”

Daniel laughed as he pointed out the food stains and handprints decorating his shorts. “I happen to like messy. Finger paints, books, blocks, puzzles, markers – the messier the better.” Dropping the pajamas, he threw up his hands dramatically. “But why mention those things at all – you don’t speak that language.”

Hillary began to brush her hair roughly, reminding him of Molly combing the golden mane of her Barbie. His daughter would press her tongue against her bottom lip, thrusting it forward with concentration – just like Hillary right now. He often wondered how both girls had taken on so many mannerisms of their mother when she was never around. Daniel noticed that Hillary had highlighted her own hair with honey-blond streaks. He barely had time for a daily shower, a twice-a-week shave – let alone a haircut.

“And by the way, if I did move out, which I won’t,” Daniel walked forward, self-conscious around his own wife, watching his disheveled image in her mirror, “what would you do with the girls? Turn your waiting room into a day care? Or better yet, let them baby-sit each other?”

She slammed the brush onto the table and stood. “Fuck you, Daniel.”

“No, fuck your Dr. Watson – that’s your specialty.”

Hillary walked past him, grabbed a light sweater and a sundress from her closet, preparing as always for the following morning. “I’ve hired a nanny, for your information.” She shook the clothes in his direction, dismissively. “That way you can go back to work, where you belong.”

“When your nanny comes, I’ll fire her.”

Hillary took off her work blouse and threw it on the bed. “You’re not going to win this, Daniel.”

He didn’t say anything. He stared at her nipples through her lacy black bra and felt his fists curl, like two alley cats glaring at each other behind his back. He stormed out of the bedroom, stomping his bare feet down the carpeted stairs. Again the sound was disappointingly soft. He angrily entered the den, slammed the door with a satisfying crash, and fell into the soft cushion of the large leather chair. He spun, each rotation more aggressive. He felt like he was on the tilt-o-whirl, spinning purposely out of control, until he heard the bath water running. He stuck his foot out against the desk to brake.

He took out the neatly folded piece of paper tucked in his shorts and dialed the number scribbled on it in crayon. Lizzy’s husband answered, and by the speed with which he gave Lizzy the phone, Daniel was certain he knew the whole story.

“Sorry I couldn’t call you earlier. The girls refused go to sleep.” He pressed his lips against the mouthpiece and whispered, “Hillary’s in the bath. She asked me to move out.”

“Move out!” Lizzy repeated. “Don’t go anywhere, okay. I’m already working on your case. The other mothers too.” She paused. “I hope you’re not upset that I told them.”

Daniel smiled wanly to himself. As if he thought for a minute that they didn’t already know. “It’s fine.”

“When I came home from the park, I called my firm and explained the whole situation to the senior partner. We don’t do divorce, but they found your case particularly interesting. It was suggested that you sue Hillary now – get her before she gets you.” Daniel could hear Lizzy shuffling papers. “You’ve got a good case, Daniel.”

“Adultery and negligence.”

“Not to mention that Hillary is the most popular pediatrician on the North Shore, and the local press will have a field day with this one.”

“And your firm, of course, will get free publicity.”

He could practically see her smiling through the phone. “You’re good. Exactly. But Daniel, are you really ready for this? Because I believe this case is going to be big. And I’ve done big.” Her voice suddenly sounded tired. “Big means you can forget sleeping at night.”

Daniel cradled the receiver and thought about the girls. This would be painful, but at their young age, they wouldn’t really understand it. It would hurt them so much more if Hillary stuck them with a nanny. Kicking his feet up on the desk, he saw the family portrait above the couch, taken at the Chicago Botanic Garden when the girls were nine months old. Hillary, in a rare moment, cradled the kids with her million-dollar smile. He stood in the background posing against a tree, straight out of GQ Dad. Suddenly an overwhelming melancholy hit him. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, he heard Lizzy’s patient breathing, and the terrifying words escaped from his mouth: “Let’s do it.”

“Good. If Hillary agrees to joint custody – is that acceptable?”

He hesitated, then remembered his fight with Hillary in the bedroom. “I don’t want my girls packing a suitcase every other day.” He glanced up at the wooden ceiling beams, rough, like tree trunks. “And I built this house. She should move out.”

He could faintly hear Lizzy writing.

“The truth is I don’t want my girls stuck with a nanny half the week. I’ve been taking care of them since they were born. Hillary deserves a dinner here and there, a night over the weekend. Nothing more.”

“Would you settle for joint?” she asked again.

“Not if I don’t have to.”

“All right then.  Our chances our better if we take preemptive action. Kim’s first cousin is Jessica Trippe, a bigwig in advertising who knows everybody in the local media. Jill’s brother is a producer for CNN in Atlanta, with great connections here. We’re putting our heads together and strategizing.” She paused. “The three of us have already booked appointments with Cheryl Goldfine.”

Hillary’s nemesis. Daniel could barely speak. The lump in his throat made room for a whisper,  “Why are you doing this for me?”

“You’re one of the good ones,” Lizzy said.

*  *  *

The next day, Daniel felt the buzz at the park, a drone of whispers, even before he walked through the gate. As he entered with the girls, smiles froze, conversations stopped. He waved with uncertainty at Lizzy and Kim, huddled together at the picnic table, their flaxen shades merging conspiratorially. As he proceeded toward them, everyone on the playground made an obvious effort to appear normal.

He made a pit-stop at the small tornado slide near the picnic table. His daughters climbed up the wooden steps and slid down blissfully together. Daniel knew they would do this about ten more times before becoming bored. He walked over to the women, stood at the head of the table and said, “Tell me, why do I feel like I’ve returned from war with my legs missing?”

Kim glanced sheepishly at Lizzy.

“Does everybody know?” Daniel slowly eyed each of them.

Lizzy said, “We thought it best to get the ball rolling.”

Another mother, who was assisting her one-year-old up the baby slide, changed her mind, picked her daughter up off the last step and came over to the picnic table.

“Daniel, just so you know, I support you one hundred percent.” Annette Simon wasn’t pretty, but she was wholesome and strong-looking, the kind of woman who could ride a horse while breastfeeding. Leaning over, she whispered, “I’ve already made an appointment with Dr. Goldfine.”

Daniel laughed nervously. “Thanks, Annette. ”

As she walked away, he whispered, “Everyone knows?”

“Annette has the biggest mouth this side of Lake Michigan,” Kim explained. “Lizzy said word-of-mouth is our best weapon. By the end of the day, we figure every mother who sets foot in the park will know, plus two friends for each, outside of the park.” She added, “And that’s low-balling our expectations.”

Daniel stared at her in wonder. Kim was suddenly an expert on his life. Normally, she was a big complainer. Her son this, her teenage daughter that. On and on. But now it was as if his situation were giving her a renewed sense of purpose, as though he had hand-delivered her back to her twenties.

Lizzy glanced down at her yellow pad, at the sandbox, where Kim was helping her son load up a crane. “Jill will watch the kids while we talk. We don’t have a lot of time. Kim, you first.”

Kim leaned forward – even the speed of her voice had increased. “Daniel, the reason you’re going to win this case is because you are a great story. People will sympathize with you.”

Daniel wiped the sweat clinging to his sideburns with the palm of his hand. “I don’t want to be a story. What happened to the simple strategy of present the evidence, winner takes all?”

Lizzy shook her head. “Not going to work in divorce court. Here’s what you don’t have.” She flipped through the notepad and pointed to a pink highlighted section. “Hillary is a pillar of the pediatric community. She’s on a trillion boards, all on behalf of children. We’re going to have to assassinate her character in order to win sole custody, and it’s your word against hers. We’re going to have to prove more than neglect. We’ll have to show outright desertion.”

“That means directly involving Jack Watson, who won’t be able to live this down either.”  Kim’s smile was unnaturally wide. She was back in the game, an expert again on the intricacies of Chicago’s society set. Kim added,  “His ego is enormous, and his bitchy wife lives and breathes on photo ops.”

Lizzy brushed back the tendrils escaping from her ponytail. “Daniel, you know you’re a wonderful father.” She eyed him squarely. “What’s your vice?”

“My vice?” He paused. He didn’t have to think too hard. “I inhaled.”

“Inhaled? In high school? College?”

“I still do.” He looked at the women guiltily. “Occasionally.”

Kim asked, “With the girls around?”

“Are you kidding?”

“I had to ask.”

Lizzy’s fists were thrust forward over the length of her yellow pad. “Do you have pot in the house?”

“Yes.”

“Where do you buy it?”

Daniel knew this wasn’t going to go over well. He looked down at his lap. “From one of my former partners’ sons.”

The women gasped. The rosy picture was fading to light pink. Lizzy got up and circled the table, in prosecution mode. “Does Hillary smoke?”

“No.”

“Does she know where you keep the drugs?”

“Of course. I’ve never hid them from her.”

“Has she ever complained?”

“Before the kids, a few times.”

“Now think hard, Daniel,” Lizzy said extra slowly, sounding like a toy low on batteries. “Has she ever complained about your smoking since you had kids?”

“No. Never.” Daniel scratched his head, feeling slightly anxious under her severe gaze. “Not once.”

Lizzy said firmly, “Get rid of all your paraphernalia today. No – I’ll watch the girls and you run home now.”

He stood. Lizzy grabbed him by the elbow as he turned. “Is there anything else you want to tell us, Daniel?” The strange coldness of her voice oddly reminded him of his second grade teacher, who had once caught him sneaking a locust into the classroom. She, like Lizzy, seemed to be able to see through him. The teacher had hovered over his desk, demanding to know if this was the first time he’d brought locusts to class. He had caved under her penetrating gaze, and confessed that he’d been slipping the insects inside his desk for two weeks. Lizzy added, “We need to know everything.”

Wishing he could run away, Daniel put his palm over his face and whispered, “Porn.”

Kim rolled her eyes. “Regularly?”

Daniel blushed, feeling as if he’d been caught masturbating by his mother. “Off and on.”

Lizzy demanded, “How off and how on? Every night? Every day at naptime? Do you rent them? Online?”

Daniel leaned back. The questions seemed to come at him like machine gun fire. He couldn’t imagine an actual courtroom. “I’m Old School. I rent from the same video store in Highwood once a week.”

“Shit,” Lizzy said in a way that made Daniel feel like he was covered in it.

“She hasn’t slept with me in eleven months, okay?” he shouted in his defense. He quickly glanced over Kim’s shoulder and saw eyes ignite around the playground. He glanced at the baby slide. Annette Simon, who’d been eavesdropping, had her hands fastened to her hips. Her eyes narrow like a librarian’s, glaring at him.

*  *  *

Daniel threw his sandals into the closet and slipped his running shoes over bare feet, then ran all the way back to the park. The legal team had moved from the picnic table to the sandbox, and his girls, who were busy playing, didn’t seem to know he’d been gone.

Breathless, his heart pumping on overdrive, he blurted out, “She took it. My pipe. The marijuana.”

Lizzy and Kim glanced at each other anxiously. Lizzy briefly closed her eyes, as though envisioning Hillary in a trench coat and sunglasses stuffing a leather satchel to the brim with Daniel’s supplies. “I was afraid of that.” To Kim, she said, “ Call your cousin immediately and let her know that Jack Watson is the Other Man.”

And back to Daniel, “I need you to baby-sit Emma. I’ll pick her up from your house at four.  I’ve got to go to the office, call in a few favors, and get the technical stuff in gear. I’ll find out who Hillary’s lawyer is, how bad this pot thing’s going to hurt us.”

He opened his mouth to respond, but Lizzy got there first, “You need to write down every incident since the girls were born that may be of importance. I assume you’re in charge of the bills?”

He nodded.

“We need to identify and prove Hillary’s neglect of her own children. We need to show that she gave everything to her practice and nothing to her household.” Lizzy began to crack her knuckles. Daniel was surprised at how mannish she suddenly looked. “Remember, Hillary’s important to the community,” she continued. “The fact that she doesn’t make it out to the park won’t hand you custody.”

Lizzy started throwing things out of her diaper bag, frantically searching for something. Daniel felt dizzy. It was as if he were watching a human tornado. Sighing with relief, she pulled out a Tupperware container filled with dried fruit. “Emma’s constipated,” she explained, handing it to Daniel. “And take down my cell number.”

 *  *  *

Hillary hadn’t wasted any time. At 2:45 that afternoon, the doorbell rang. Daniel peered into the peephole and saw a middle-aged woman with stringy blue-gray hair and a faded raincoat. Daniel checked and saw her Taurus parked in the driveway. Holding Emma, he slowly opened the door.

“Daniel Roth?”

He nodded hesitantly.

She quickly handed him a fat envelope, her long, silvery nails lingering on the edge. “You’ve been served.”

“Who was that?” Maddy held onto his leg, which was shaking as he watched the woman scurry back to her car.

“Daddy, who was that?” His daughter tugged at the hair on his legs.

“A delivery woman.” Daniel’s voice quivered, and it took all his energy not to cry. “Let’s put on Barney,” he managed.

“Not again, Daddy!” Molly called from the playroom.

“What do you want to watch?” The envelope felt like a brick in his hand.

“Clifford,” Molly yelled.

“No, Sesame Street,” Maddy demanded.

Emma began to cry. Jesus Christ. Daniel bent down on his knees. Being small, like they were, humbled him. He took Emma by the hand. “See girls, fighting makes Emma sad. We don’t want our friend to be sad, do we?”

His daughters looked at each other, then shook their heads. I love you. I love you. Daniel’s head began to swim. Then the makeshift dam he had constructed broke, and he couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.

“Daddy’s crying,” Maddy said. “Daddy, don’t cry. We’ll watch Barney.”

 *  *  * 

Daniel splashed water on his face, stuck his head under the faucet and drank. There was no towel around, so he dried his face with his T-shirt, which still reeked of sweat. He reached into his pocket for the torn piece of yellow paper and dialed Lizzy’s cell phone.

“Elizabeth Horowitz.”

“Lizzy.” He clutched the portable with both hands. “I was served. Hillary wants sole custody.”

“Damn, I knew it.” He could hear her bang her fists against something. “I got here too late. I can’t file until tomorrow. On what grounds?”

Daniel stared at the document. It shook in his hands. “Irreconcilable differences. And, oh god, drug abuse.”

“Okay, okay.” Lizzy began talking to herself. “Let’s start from the beginning. Who’s the lawyer?”

“Sheila Gibbons. G-I-B- “

“From bad to worse. She’s good,” Lizzy mumbled. “She’s brilliant, extremely savvy. Judges love her. Lots of people owe her favors. We even tried to hire her.” Lizzy was silent for a long time. “Sheila’s probably holding your pipe in her hands as we speak.”

“What now?”

“Check Hillary’s closet. We need proof of her and Jack Watson.”

“What, like a cum-stained dress?”

“How I wish. Yes. Something. Hotel receipts, new jewelry. You said it’s been going on a year? And she admitted it to you? Well as of this moment, the affair is over. Believe me, Sheila’s advised Hillary to stop sleeping with the good doctor and to clean up her tracks. She’s probably already swept through the house. But check everything to be sure.”

“And if I don’t find anything?”

“We’ll set our sights lower. I’m giving Jack Watson’s wife a call. Men are sloppier. If anyone’s going to find anything, that woman will.”

Daniel hesitated. This was dirty. What had he imagined? A handshake, air kisses, and it would be over? Lizzy out of the playground and into a courtroom was a shark – everyone knew that.

“Jack has kids,” he said quietly.

“Daniel, you can’t win this passively. You have kids too, and Hillary’s going to steal them if you don’t fight back.” She paused. “I’m not heartless. I’m going to call Sheila now, and find out exactly what Hillary wants before I make a move, okay? Then I’ll counter-sue.” The receiver seemed to grow heavier with each of Lizzy’s breaths.

“By the way, did Emma eat the dried fruit?”

Daniel smiled wanly. “Everything but the prunes.”

*  *  * 

War began on the following Monday – Lizzy launched the first attack.

Daniel had set the alarm two hours early, as if he would even sleep. He’d been drinking coffee since three a.m. Once he heard the light plunk against the driveway, he practically dove out the front door and snatched up the newspaper. Yanking off the rubber band, the plastic covering, Daniel let the unnecessary sections fall to the ground. They twisted and blew across his front yard as he quickly scanned the feature in “Metro.” It was the sad-but-true story of Daniel Roth, a successful suburban architect turned full-time father, whose kids were on the verge of being taken away from him by his wife, the North Shore’s most popular pediatrician. And there were photographs – Daniel holding “Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty” at a Halloween party; and Daniel, clean-shaven, square-jawed and boyishly handsome, nuzzling his newborns at their baby-naming party.

He imagined the neighbors reading and rereading the article over coffee and toast, pointing out their windows toward his house, expressing shock but lapping up each word, while thanking God that it was him and her – not them. He could practically hear their phone lines buzzing with the juicy gossip – his life, his family, being squeezed into a pulp, and he felt sick to his stomach.

His fingertips smudged with ink, Daniel eyed the empty tree-lined street, the domino-like succession of delivered newspapers. He began to shiver as the wind blew open his bathrobe. Pulling the terrycloth belt tighter around his waist, he broke out into a run, the smack of his slippers and the diminishing sound of the newspaper station wagon his only source of company. He was unaware that the Sports section was stuck to the back of his robe, like toilet paper hanging out of a waistband, as he stole every newspaper he could find in a two-block radius.

That night, Hillary wouldn’t even look at him when she came home, nearly at midnight. She marched straight into the bedroom, her face contorted with rage, her gray eyes shooting bullets. Daniel was most surprised by her skirt, which, no matter how hectic her day had been, always managed to retain its shape. Now it was crumpled around her like an accordion. She then  launched into a tirade about the article, swearing like a truck driver, throwing only his things and waking up the girls, who were crying out, “Daddy, Daddy!” – which only made Hillary yell louder.

Daniel remained pokerfaced and silent, as Lizzy had advised him. When his wife finally wore herself out, seeing she couldn’t get a rise out of Daniel, she threw his sandal at him as he walked down the hall toward the girls (it missed), and then locked herself in the bedroom. Daniel scooped up Molly and stuck her in Maddy’s bed. He tenderly rubbed his daughters’ cold backs until the goose bumps receded and they were once again asleep.

Daniel grabbed a spare blanket from the linen closet and lay on the couch in the den. He stared up at the ceiling and heard his wife’s angry voice spit out his name to someone on her cell phone. “Daniel” was repeated with such revulsion and force that it reminded him of Molly coughing with reflux.

Lizzy called him an hour later, saying she had just got word from a journalist friend that Sheila Gibbons would be returning fire the next morning, and warned him to be prepared. “Get sleep, Daniel,” she said firmly. “You’ll need all your strength.”

He pulled the dank-smelling wool blanket over his head, and began to count sheep, cows, herds of buffalo.

*  *  *

The next morning, he and Hillary nearly collided at the front door in a race for the newspaper. But Daniel, his name reviled and scorned, was still a gentleman. He opened the door for her and she roughly pushed past him and headed down the driveway, her floral silk robe flapping behind her. Daniel was surprised she was even wearing that robe – he’d bought it for her last Valentine’s Day. He didn’t know what to do with himself, and he couldn’t just stand in the doorway watching her, so he went into the den and spied on Hillary from behind the curtain. Her mouth bowed as she read the paper – a satisfied now-we’re-even smile. The air conditioning suddenly felt wintry.

He’d known Hillary practically all of his adult life and she had never before looked so foreign to him. Daniel felt chilled. Could it be that he’d never really known her?

Hillary entered the house and Daniel could hear the drop of the newspaper onto the kitchen table. His wife went upstairs and locked the bedroom door. Click-click. She always double-checked it these days. As the shower water ran, Daniel stormed the kitchen and saw that she’d purposely left the article spread open for him to read.

It was a tear-jerking tale of the North Shore’s favorite pediatrician, who had given everything to children – hers and others – only to become a victim of her vindictive husband’s smear campaign. Daniel held the paper at arm’s length from his face. He could not believe the bastard being described was him. A large photo of Hillary embracing the girls at the Botanic Garden accompanied the piece. She looked beautiful and loving, and both girls had ear-to-ear grins. He had been cropped out. A smaller photo showcased the actual petition of support signed by members of the Chicago branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of course they’d get involved, Daniel thought, Hillary is their president. He crumpled the article, then stuffed it down the disposal. Watching the page being gobbled up, Daniel realized that the harsh noise would wake the girls. He stuck the remaining scraps into the garbage can and returned to exile in the den, locking the door. Click-click to you too.

On Wednesday, Lizzy leaked “Hillary Roth’s Double Life” to the local gossip columnists, who ran spicy innuendoes of the affair. Photos of Dr. Jack and Cynthia Watson taken at various society events were re-printed everywhere. On the same day, Lizzy gave an interview to a local magazine, which also quoted several other mothers from Turtle Park attesting to Daniel’s amazing childrearing abilities. Each woman interviewed stated that in two years, they had never seen Hillary at the playground.

On Friday, Gibbons dropped the bomb with a splashy Internet story: “Daniel Roth, Secret Drug Addict Sex Maniac,” featuring quotes by child psychiatrists discussing the dangers of taking drugs while parenting, and throwing out stats that claimed pornography as a leading contributor to child sexual abuse.

Friday evening was the worst blow of all. Daniel’s mother called screaming at him from Boca Raton that the pot smoking and porn had the entire condominium complex talking, so much so that she couldn’t possibly set foot in the country club again. “But Danny,” she said, softening her tone before she closed the line. “I’m still your mother, and even with all the unthinkable damage – even though I can’t possibly show my face at the grocery store again – and, God forbid I should even enter the synagogue tomorrow for Joy Manning’s bat-mitzvah – I still love and support you to my grave.”

*  *  *

Later that night, after the kids went to sleep, Hillary and Daniel faced each other in the kitchen. It pained him to even look at her. Their lives, in less than a week, had become a public mockery. The silence between them was blame-filled and deafening. Everything seemed to slam – cups, plates, cabinets and doors.

Their lawyers had agreed upon a five-page manifesto of rules and regulations so that they could live together and take care of the girls. Daniel had told Lizzy that he was open to mediation under the court’s supervision. But Sheila Gibbons was dead set against any preliminaries. Her client had been defamed, her reputation bludgeoned. She wanted trial, judgment and blood.

Still, this was the first moment of real quiet. The first time Daniel felt he could come up for air. No phones ringing, no doorbells buzzing, no reporters, no lawyers, no “concerned” neighbors, and Watson at home with his wife. It was just them now – one-on-ne, mano a mano. The kitchen suddenly seemed huge and hollow, like a gymnasium. He stood at one end and watched Hillary’s back as she made herself a cup of tea.

Out of her suit and in her jeans, his wife was once again the girl he had fallen in love with as a freshman in college.  He moved closer, longing to wrap his arms around her, to smell her. Hillary, come back to me – he screamed silently.

As he reached for a teabag, he chided himself for still wanting her. “Hillary,” he said aloud, his voice echoing throughout the kitchen. He watched her shoulders tense, her body press closer to the counter.

“Hillary,” he whispered, not knowing what he’d planned to say – just wanting to make contact. But when his wife turned and met his puppy-dog gaze, her eyes were vacant, dead. Daniel dropped the teabag in the sink and walked out of the room. That look hurt him more than the media ever could.

The night felt darker and lonelier than the previous one, if that was even possible. Denying himself any comfort, he didn’t bother to open the hideaway bed. The itchy herringbone fabric of the sofa irritated his back, but he didn’t move. He stared up at the stucco ceiling and began to see things that weren’t there in the shadows of the room. Humiliation and finger pointing followed him everywhere in his own house. Hillary used to ignore him, now she hated him. He couldn’t decide which was worse. Tossing and turning on the flat, spare pillow, he began to see the darkness in his wife’s eyes everywhere in the room – on the bookshelves, the ceiling, the paintings on the wall, the blank television screen. The clock ticked away somewhere in the room, a relentless, haunting metronome.

His girls were sleeping soundly – Daniel would check on them every few hours – and that’s all that mattered. He wondered if Hillary was sleeping. He wondered if she too wished, even a little bit, that they could turn back time, do things differently. He fantasized that he could sneak back upstairs into their bed, spoon her willowy body against his, curl his warm toes over her colder ones, and smell his wife’s familiar soap scent on his own pillow – then wake up from all of this darkness together.

 *  *  *

It was nearly lunchtime, and Daniel was making grilled cheese sandwiches while Hillary was in the playroom playing “hospital” with the girls. Daniel glimpsed his wife’s face as Maddy pressed the red plastic stethoscope against her mother’s chest, saying, “Now, Mommy, take a deep breath.” He saw that Hillary was actually enjoying herself. And more so, the girls were in heaven, lapping up their mother’s attention, forgiving her absence and abandonment. He wanted to shout out: “Look how much they’ve needed you. Don’t you feel it?”

How can I take the girls away from her?  he asked himself later that night. He made a decision to tell Lizzy to call off the troops. He would settle for joint custody – as long as he got to keep the house, where the girls felt at home. He would negotiate. He wanted this travesty to be over.

Then Hillary’s cell phone rang. Daniel could hear her walking into the bathroom and locking the door, unaware  – because she was hardly ever in the house – of just how good the acoustics were.

It was Jack Watson. Daniel knew by his wife’s sultry whisper, which had once been reserved for him. “It’s torture. House arrest,” he heard her say. “If I have to change Barbie’s clothes or read Goodnight Moon one more time, I’ll kill myself.” Her words faded into,  “I know, I know. Me too.”

Daniel seethed. His wife was playing “house” for appearances’ sake. Meanwhile, he loved and lived house.

He heard the reverberation of Hillary’s voice as if it were the whack of his brother’s foot against a Lego tower. There was no backing down now.

 *  *  *

Lizzy had advised Daniel to wear his charcoal suit and purple paisley tie – the same suit he’d worn to his daughters’ naming party. By now, everyone was familiar with that picture. The goal, Lizzy had explained, was to look as if he had stepped out of the photo and into the courtroom.

But the suit trick was immediately matched. Sheila Gibbons had advised Hillary to wear the same dress she had worn in the Botanic Gardens picture. They were already seated when he and Lizzy entered the chamber.

The only thing missing in both pictures were their daughters. They’d had a discussion, through their lawyers, about whether or not to bring the girls to court. Both he and Hillary were against it – it was the only thing they’d agreed on in months. Daniel’s mother was only too happy to fly in from Florida, escaping the scrutiny of her friends to take care of the girls for the duration of the trial.

The chamber was packed with parents and children. Daniel recognized many faces from the playground. Any remaining space was filled with press, family members and court junkies. The judge, a petite Asian woman, entered and everyone rose. Sitting primly, she put on her bifocals, gripped the file of his life with her small hands and stared unblinking over the rims. The enormous raised black desk seemed to be an extension of her robe; she looked rooted to the podium as though she were growing out of it.

Gibbons, in a smooth, velvety voice, wasted no time in portraying Daniel as a pot-smoking, sex-maniac father – just like the story she had planted on the Internet.

Undaunted, Lizzy spun across the hardwood floor and described the past two years of Hillary’s successful practice, admitting that even her daughter had been a patient. “Dr. Roth,” she said, “is a spectacular pediatrician, with excellent bedside manner.” Lizzy’s face suddenly turned solemn. “But she is so involved in her practice, that sadly, the real patients who’ve desperately needed her attention are her own neglected daughters.”

Lizzy captivated the court as she detailed Hillary’s desertion of her family since the birth of her children. For final impact, she rehashed the secret affair with Dr. Jack Watson. She waved around hotel and restaurant receipts, courtesy of Cynthia Watson, who had eagerly handed Lizzy all the evidence she had found in her husband’s trousers, drawers, jackets, appointment book – knowing, surely, that this case was just an appetizer for her own divorce.

Turning to Daniel, Lizzy’s voice became tender as she painted over Sheila Gibbons’ black canvas, providing example after example of Daniel’s loving nature. By the time she had wrapped up her rebuttal, Daniel looked so good that for a moment he wished he could have fathered himself.

Until he noticed that Gibbons, smiling slightly, was fondling something in her palm. Before she spoke, she asked in a sweet, caring voice that all the children present please leave the chamber. She paused until every remaining eye was focused on the small wooden pipe engraved with yellow flowers that Daniel had picked up several years ago in Cancun.

Staring at the judge, Gibbons deadpanned, “Daniel Roth is perfect, a wonderful example for them. I find it amazing that he, under the influence of drugs, even managed to get up at night to feed and change his daughters.” Shaking her head with visible disgust, she addressed all the mothers in the chamber, as if only they could envisage the dangers such a man posed to his children. Her voice hardened, “We’re lucky we’re discussing custody here, and not a serious accident.” Turning to Lizzy, she added smugly, “I agree, Daniel Roth is truly amazing.”

Lizzy wasted no time. She began her rebuttal even before Gibbons returned to her seat. “Your Honor, Daniel Roth is hardly even a recreational smoker. And never, not once, did he smoke around his children.” She pointed at Hillary. “If his smoking was so opposed by Dr. Roth, why then, if she had full knowledge of this, as Ms. Gibbons stated, hasn’t she complained since the twins were born? If she was so concerned for her daughters’ welfare, why did she extend her office hours during the week and on weekends? Why is it that any free weekend she did have available was spent … ” she raised a fistful of receipts in Sheila’s direction, “with Dr. Watson? I ask you, is that a concerned mother?”

Daniel let out an audible sigh of relief.  By the sympathetic look on the judge’s face, he thought Lizzy had swayed her.

Undeterred, Gibbons signaled to one of her assistants to haul over a large cardboard box. Everyone, including the judge, strained to see her latest surprise. She savored the moment, allowing them to wonder.

Slowly removing her jacket and rolling up her sleeves, Gibbons reached deep inside the box and pulled out a single video, then another, and another, and another. Eventually, she dumped an entire box of ’70s porno tapes onto the floor, and announced, “These are at least four dozen examples of Daniel Roth’s weekly entertainment.” She scooped up several videos, and proclaimed loudly, “Father of the Year.”

Daniel blushed and slinked down in his chair. Satisfied by the loud whispers sweeping the courtroom, Gibbons pivoted slowly on her sturdy pumps and returned to her seat. She paused in front of it as if to take a bow.

The judge called for a recess until the next day. Daniel walked Lizzy to her car. They didn’t talk. They breathed deeply in sync. Her profile appeared unusually pale and Daniel knew they were losing. Opening her car door, Lizzy, still not looking at him directly, said softly, “We got past the pot, but the videos …”

She gazed into the tinted window, as if trying to find answers in her distorted reflection. She then looked up at Daniel, her face an equal mix of determination and uncertainty. At that moment, she looked just like Emma, as the toddler tried to traverse the sandbox turtles, wobbly and slow, but ultimately reaching her destination. “I’ll come up with something. Give me a few hours, Daniel. I’ll call you later.”

*  *  *

Daniel entered the courtroom with confidence the next morning, having spent the entire night mentally preparing himself for the uproar.  But when he saw the shocked, mocking faces, his skimpy veneer of strength fell away like Saran Wrap. Some people stood on their chairs to get a closer look.

Many of the parents on both sides of the chamber took their children out of the courtroom. Daniel Roth – they shook their heads – had gone too far.

Daniel couldn’t look at Hillary, but could feel her disgust smother him. He gazed down at the gauzy brown fabric of the maternity dress Lizzy had made him wear. If the dress itself wasn’t bad enough, the long dark wig that Kim’s daughter had worn in her school play made up the difference. Since there was no time to find women’s shoes big enough, Daniel wore his clunky sandals. He had never felt so humiliated in his life. He had refused to cooperate at first, but Lizzy had demanded that he follow her instructions. This kind of craziness was the way of divorce court. It was, she said, their only hope.

The judge entered with a blank face, but Daniel’s bizarre presence took her completely by surprise, and she, too, could barely manage to suppress a giggle.

Beads of sweat began to emerge everywhere on his dress, expanding over the fabric like watercolors. It seemed to Daniel that the entire courtroom was mocking him, then the momentary gleam in the judge’s eyes iced, her expression turned to wax. Banging her gavel, she summoned both lawyers to the bench.

“What is the meaning of this?”  the judge said to Lizzy, hand over her microphone.

“Please, Your Honor, this is not a joke. I wanted to prove a point.”

“And that is …”

“If Daniel Roth were a woman – a mother, and Hillary the father  – he would win sole custody of his kids hands down.”

“Are you insinuating that I have a reputation for being unfair?”

“Absolutely not. The situation is unfair, and I want to present it to you in the clearest way possible….

Hillary Roth has repeatedly called my client a transvestite – a Mom-in-drag. Thus, I believe it is necessary to bring one woman, one mother against the other, if you will, to prove who really deserves custody of Maddy and Molly.”

Lizzy took a deep breath, as though Daniel’s whole life were riding on that one inhalation. “Your Honor, I would like to call both clients to the stand at once.”

“Ridiculous,” Sheila Gibbons said before the judge could respond. “There’s no precedent for this. I won’t stand for it.”

“I’m the one who decides whether you’ll stand for it.” The judge glared at both lawyers, and lowered her voice. Daniel strained to hear what she was saying, and could just barely make out Lizzy’s response – “It is the only way to give an unbiased, accurate assessment of reality in the Roth household.” Turning to Gibbons, Lizzy said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sheila. You can cross-examine both of them.”

“I’m certainly not afraid – nor is my client,” Gibbons responded, as though they were both back in grade school and she’d been accused of being afraid to take a dare. She turned to the judge, her head held high, her voice unnerved. “Fine, let’s create history.”

The judge shook her head at Lizzy. “I know what you’re capable of, Elizabeth. Anything too outrageous and I will hold you for contempt.”

Lizzy beamed as she approached Daniel. The bait had been taken. By the shimmer of her eyes, he knew that she was about to make him the Greatest Show on Earth.

Lizzy’s voice resounded as she explained why she would be questioning both parties simultaneously, in order to shed some necessary light on the case. “I would like to call to the stand both Daniel Roth and Hillary Roth.”

The judge held up her hand in a halt gesture, as though she were momentarily uncertain whether Lizzy’s tactics could be used as grounds for a mistrial. Everyone watched the judge as her as mouth formed what could be construed as either a smile or a frown, depending on your angle. She then licked the thin line of her bottom lip and, with one decisive nod, Daniel knew that she would allow Lizzy to continue.

Daniel and Hillary approached the bench and stood side by side, with only a narrow river of air separating them. His wife’s crisp and creaseless skirt belied the nervousness of her hands, which were pressing together repeatedly, as though flattening Play-Doh.

“Hillary,” Lizzy began, “so far, it has been your word against Daniel’s, through lawyers and the media. I believe your own voice as a mother is the most essential representation of your capabilities.” She checked her notes and said, “Just some basic questions.”

“What is the name of Maddy’s favorite doll?” She began.

“What?” Hillary glanced at Sheila Gibbons.

Gibbons stood. “I object.”

“On what grounds?” the judge asked.

Gibbons paused a few seconds too long. “Hearsay.”

“Overruled,” the judge replied. “Please continue.”

Lizzy moved closer to Hillary and repeated her question.

“Barbie?”

“Daniel?” Lizzy said.

His quivering lips broke into a grin. “Jenny Popcorn. We named the doll after I made the girls popcorn for the first time.”

“Thank you, Daniel. Hillary, what is Molly’s favorite activity on the playground?”

Hillary kept her gaze steely and said, “The slide.”

Daniel shook his head. “That’s Maddy’s. Molly’s favorite is the sandbox.”

“When and where did Maddy take her first steps?”

Hillary began to pick at her nails. “In the house.” She raised her head, exposing the swan-like line of her neck. Once, Daniel had loved kissing her neck more than anything else. “Specifically, in the playroom.”

Lizzy was waiting for Daniel’s response, but he was thinking about the way Hillary used to moan at his touch.

“Daniel?”

Shaking his head free of the image, Daniel said, “No, it was specifically at the Lincoln Park Zoo. We were in the monkey house and Maddy, at only eleven months, started walking toward an ape. It was unbelievable – he actually clapped.” Daniel chuckled as if reliving the moment. Lizzy glanced around the courtroom. His reaction was honest, proud – and everyone could see it.

“Hillary, how many boxes of juice are necessary for the playground?”

Hillary answered the obvious: “Two.”

“Three,” Daniel said. “Maddy is always thirsty for another one.”

“What number does Molly always miss when counting?”

Hillary’s mouth dropped open, but nothing came out.

Lizzy fired off questions like a game show host, and Daniel hit the jackpot each time. When asked to rebut, Sheila Gibbons shook her head wordlessly.

Tears filled Daniel’s eyes. Hillary was right – he had become womanly. But he was not ball-less.

When he saw the judge’s face, her skinny lips were curled upward. He quickly repositioned his chair to the left and craned his head at a different angle just to be sure – yes, a definite smile.

It was all over.

*  *  * 

The cameras flashed over Daniel as Lizzy led him out of the courtroom. Near the door, he locked eyes with Hillary. He had won sole custody. She had weekly visitation rights, Thanksgiving Day, and every other Christmas break. But he had his girls, and that’s all that mattered.

The victory was bittersweet. Hillary’s reputation was shattered. She wasn’t a good mother, but she was an excellent doctor, and she was Daniel’s first and only love. His gaze told hers that he was sorry, and that he wished, oh how he wished, it could have been different. She glared at him, angry and hard: Fuck you, Daniel.

For a moment he felt embarrassed by the dress. He had removed the wig but hadn’t had a chance to slip on pants. He lowered his eyes in shame, trying to repel Hillary’s hurtful glance by using his closed lids as shields – when suddenly it didn’t seem to matter. Raising his head boldly, he fixed his eyes directly on the woman who was once his entire life: You don’t mean it, Hill. You’re feeling sad and angry and not so strong. You can cry. It’s human.

Hillary looked away, her body pivoting toward the door when Daniel reached out to touch her arm. She stopped moving. Sheila Gibbons immediately took her cue and left them alone, as did Lizzy, who led the media outside for an interview. Daniel, his hand still resting against Hillary’s cool skin, wanted to remind her of everything they had once shared – all the firsts. They had grown up together, and now they had grown apart together. Her taut, lovely features seemed to thaw as she read his mind, the way she always had. The vacant eyes seemed to come alive again, and they were watery – shining like the stars they used to watch together, their bodies knotted on the grass. More than anything, Daniel needed that look, the acknowledgement of a once mutual love.

Removing his hand from the skin that he used to know, Daniel felt a new strength liberating his body. He pressed his determined lips together, and took his very first steps away from her.

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