(Welcome to week 10 of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-9, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Ten. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, guess who’s back?)
“So what’s with the whole Rabbi thing?”
This is how Nathaniel Hawthorne opens our first face-to-face meeting with Laura and her legal team. The question is not meant to be taken literally. In fact, it’s not really meant to be taken at all. The question’s sole purpose is to establish Nathaniel Hawthorne as the alpha dog in the room, capable of tossing Arnie Fischel around like a rag doll whenever and wherever he
“Excuse me,” Arnie Fischel says, looking up from his briefcase.
“Y’know,” Nathaniel says, rolling up his sleeves. “The Rabbi thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s none of my business what you choose to call yourself. Hell, call yourself the Sultan of Swing for all I care. I’m just sayin’, by the look of things, you’re no more a rabbi than I am the Duchess of York. So what do ya say we just cut the bullshit and agree to address one another as Counselor?”
Silence. Then the sound of Arnie Fischel snapping his briefcase shut.
“Very well, Counselor,” Arnie says, several seconds later. “I’m happy to comply with any request that will help these proceedings move forward more smoothly.”
These proceedings aren’t actually proceedings at all. They’re legal maneuvering, a litigious pissing contest, if you will … a chance for both parties to brandish their weapons and size up the opponent. The real due process takes place via phone calls and emails and court-docs-o-plenty. The real due process is soaked in legalese, drowning in fine print, cataloged in published precedents and writs of execution.
The real due process boils down to putting a price tag on our marriage – determining who deserves which cut and why. The real due process does not end until everyone at the table exacts their pound of flesh.
Fortunately, divorce is one racket where I can afford to come out on top.
That’s no more a reflection of Laura’s extramarital double-dipping than it is a reflection of my subpar parenting skills. It’s a reflection of the fact that I have enough capital reserves to see these proceedings through to their unnatural conclusion.
Laura, of course, has some capital reserves of her own … enough in fact that she could probably afford to delay the final settlement for quite some time if she so desired.
I know that. Nathaniel knows that. Unfortunately, Laura does not know that Nathaniel and I know that. All of which explains why she is sitting across from me right now, cross-legged and ashamed. We are on the second floor of a law office, located in a tiny strip mall along the west side of Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr.
I haven’t been this angry at – or attracted to – Laura in years.
Rabbi Arnie Fischel looks, sounds and dresses just like Fyvush Finkel, by the way.
Get it? Got it? Good.
Moving on …
When we were first escorted into the conference room today, the giddy look on Arnie Fischel’s face made it unclear whether he was planning to shake Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hand or hump his leg.
Fischel’s fawning was so apparent, in fact, that I felt a certain air of prestige knowing Nathaniel Hawthorne was there to represent me.
Forget about the $19,000 retainer. Forget about the fact Nathaniel bills me for everything from sharpening pencils to washing his car. Forget about the fact that – between expenses, admin costs and billable hours – my retainer dwindled to nothing in less than a month. Forget about the $390 an hour I’ve been paying Nathaniel Hawthorne ever since.
Forget about all of those things because the reality is – to anyone in my financial situation – they’re all cosmetic.
Hiring Nathaniel Hawthorne affords me the luxury of being a spectator to my own divorce – a not-so-innocent bystander watching from the Imperial Box as my gladiator enters the ring, prepared to do battle.
Laura is doomed. She knows she is doomed. She has known it for weeks, perhaps even months. At this point, the best she can hope for is Arnie Fischel’s ability to guilt me into meeting her halfway.
Nathaniel is three steps ahead of Arnie at every turn. When we sit down at the conference table, Nathaniel immediately goes on the offensive, laying down a series of ground rules. When Arnie attempts to relinquish control by demanding Nathaniel furnish him with specific paperwork within 24 hours, Nathaniel reaches into his briefcase and produces prepared copies of the requested documents.
When Arnie broaches the subject of my drinking, suggesting it could have the potential to capsize my career and tarnish my relationship with my children (should the media ever catch wind of it), Nathaniel wheels his chair back slowly, leaning his index finger against his temple at a 45-degree angle.
“Well, I’ll be,” Nathaniel says, completely nonplussed. “You sure are one slippery son-of-a-gun, aren’t ya?”
“I’m sure I have absolutely no idea what you’re referring to,” Arnie says, a slight-yet-satisfied smirk now evident on his face. “I’m simply looking out for my client’s best interests. If your client’s years of bingeing were to become the subject of media scrutiny, my client and her children could both be irreparably damaged. I’d like to think we could avoid such a catastrophe, provided we were able to work together in an effort to reach a fair and balanced settlement.”
“OK, fair enough,” Nathaniel says, leaning in for dramatic effect. “I mean, who wants a catastrophe, right?”
Nathaniel winks at Arnie Fischel from across the table.
Arnie nods approval, sharpening his gaze.
“In fact, when it comes to litigation, I’ve found a catastrophe’s really nothing more than a man-made distraction,” Nathaniel says, his eyes locked on Arnie. “And when it comes to distractions, well, you might say I’m a bit of an expert, having caused or avoided so many of them throughout my career. In light of that experience, I’m thinking the best way to avoid this specific distraction is to cut you down to size right here and now, before you go on ahead and do something so irretrievably stupid you couldn’t possibly weasel your way out from under it.”
“I think it best you mind your tone,” Arnie says, the smirk now gone from his face.
“I think it best you mind my tone,” Nathaniel barks back. “My client is dry as a bone, Counselor. Has been for the past three months or so. He’s never been arrested, accused, or even suspected of any type of criminal behavior involving alcohol. On top of which, he loves his kids more than you love the fucking satyr, you droning dreykop. Now, if your idea of representing your client’s best interests boils down to some type of backdoor blackmail where you threaten to leak some bullshit story to the press in order to get your way, well, then, Counselor, I highly recommend you slither back beneath whatever rock it is you crawled out from under before I have no other choice but to bring my iron boot down upon you.”
“And what exactly is that supposed …”
“I’ll tell you exactly what the fuck it means,” Nathaniel says, his index finger now wagging directly in Arnie’s face. “It means if the press should even catch a whiff of any story about my client’s past drinking habits, I won’t bother asking any questions about who leaked what or why. I’ll simply get down in the dirt and start slinging mud with the lot of you. But I gotta warn ya, Counselor …Once I start slinging mud, you do not want to be anywhere near my line of fire.”
“Do I need to remind you these proceedings are being recorded?” Arnie says, referencing a video camera at the far end of the conference table.
“Good,” Nathaniel says, acknowledging the lens. “’Cause I want you to remember everything I’m about to tell you verbatim. And what I’m about to tell you is this: If you dare smear my client in any way for your own client’s benefit, the first thing I’ll do is release a statement to the press, documenting your client’s extramarital affair in vivid detail. In fact, I’ll personally phone that statement in to the Daily News, The Inquirer and The Main Line Times, along with every major network affiliate in the city. Hell, I may even agree to do some live interviews myself. I do have a certain on-air presence, y’know? Once I’m done with the press, my next call’ll be to the Anti-Defamation League, at which point I’ll explain how deeply offended I am that there’s some kosher counselor out on the Main Line who has the audacity to call himself Rabbi, despite the fact he has no real religious pedigree whatsoever. Now you want to talk about catastrophes, Counselor? Once a story like that breaks, you won’t be able to land a job defending jaywalkers in Jersey. You’ll be vilified, ostracized, completely un-jew-ified, if you get my meaning. Why, you’ll be a goddamn, modern-day Abe Hirschfeld by the time I’m done with you.”
Nathaniel falls back in his chair. He takes a sip of grape soda through a straw, allowing everything he’s just said to settle in for a moment. Then he leans forward one more time, eager to deliver the kill shot.
“Hell, why stop there?” He says, shrugging his shoulders. “Who knows what we might find if we start investigating financial records. Seems like there’s a shit ton of sloppy accounting going on out there these days. In fact, some of it may even be considered illegal.”
Nathaniel shoots a quick glance toward Laura as he says this … just long enough to make the point. Then he turns his attention back to Arnie Fischel.
“So what do you think, Counselor?” Nathaniel says. “You want to continue to waste your client’s time and money talking about distractions, or you want to get down to the meat and potatoes of what we came here to discuss?”
Arnie looks Nathaniel directly in the eye, seemingly unfazed.
“Having listened to that entire rant and recorded it for posterity, I’m beginning to think that perhaps it’s you who’s consumed with distractions, Counselor,” Arnie says. “All that fuss about media coverage and live one-on-one interviews … Well, let’s just say it causes one to wonder whose interests you’re really here to represent. I, on the other hand, am keenly aware whose interests I’m here to represent. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest we set aside all the soap box rhetoric for now and focus on the task at hand.”
“Sounds good to me,” Nathaniel says, rocking back and forth in his chair as he sips the last few drops of his grape soda through a straw.
The rest of the meeting is tense and unremarkable. Arnie continues to pursue a preset list of agenda items. Nathaniel continues to derail him at every turn. Laura sits with her arms and legs crossed throughout, refusing to speak unless spoken to.
I sit directly across from her with my hands folded on the table.
The view from the Imperial Box has never been better.
In the weeks that follow, I have very little direct involvement with the divorce proceedings. Nathaniel insists on handling the situation himself.
“It’s my goddamn job,” he says.
I find it difficult to dispute that logic.
Nathaniel sends me email updates every Friday. He calls me every Monday to follow up and map out goals for the week ahead. He bills me for both the phone calls and the time it takes to type every email, all of which is A-OK with me.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is well worth his weight in bullshit.
He’s authoritative and likable, the type of person who makes a great leader, but a horrible friend. He’s a fantastic lawyer, provided you give him free rein to do as he pleases. He provides tremendous reassurance, so much so that it’s easy for me to believe he and I are becoming fast friends, although I’m sure that’s not the case.
The point is, it’s easy to see why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s been so successful, lo, these many years. It’s also easy to see why he’s spent the bulk of those years alone.
It’s warm outside now, and the ideas are forming faster.
Sentences bounce. Paragraphs flow.
Plot points play off of one another like shapes in a kaleidoscope.
My bedroom windows are open. The curtains rise and fall with the wind.
The streets outside are quiet and empty. School yards are vacant, corners abuzz, fire plugs left drained and dripping in the midday sun. This is summer in the city, complete with its menagerie of softball games and sidewalk cafes, summer concerts and flea markets, yard sales and block parties, water ice and double dutch … Mister Softee humming along 22nd Street like a broken-down ballerina on wheels. Electric bills are higher. Laundry bags are lighter. And the fountains along JFK gush and spray like geysers, as wide-eyed tourists negotiate the thin line that exists between Love Park and hate.
Philadelphia feels more at ease in the summertime … and so do I.
For the first time in years, there is balance in my life – the type of balance
one achieves by living well … the type of balance one achieves by being well.
Summer offers me the opportunity to spend more time with my kids. It offers us the opportunity for weekends at the shore and mornings at the zoo. It offers us the opportunity to spend entire afternoons sunning ourselves along the banks of Boathouse Row, watching the clouds and the boats as they drift across the Schuykill.
Tommy and Sara have been to my apartment, and – to my surprise – they appreciate the intimacy of the place. The first night they slept in the city, they took all the blankets from my hallway closet and built themselves a fort in the middle of the living room floor.
They fell asleep with the TV on that night, war-torn and weary, sprawled out across the hardwood floors of majestic Fort Lee.
This made them happy.
This made me happy as well.
I write every night now. I sleep during the day.
I am rediscovering my voice, redefining my method.
I feel like a writer again, perhaps more so than I ever have before, despite my undying penchant for starting sentences with conjunctions and ending them with prepositions.
I write. I revise. I delete entire blocks of text out of pure frustration.
I am my own harshest critic, thoroughly repulsed by 90% of what I put down on paper. I am humble and I am patient. I power down my cell phone. I disconnect my wireless router. I close the blinds. I block out any and all distractions. I take the time necessary to sift through all the drivel in pursuit of the 10% that actually matters.
I have a Facebook account. I have a Tumblr account. I have a Twitter account, which is directly linked to my Facebook and Tumblr accounts.
I tweet. I tumble. Therefore, I am.
I did not register for these accounts so I could tell people who I am, or where I am, or where I was, or who won the big game, or what I think about Kim Kardashian’s latest tweet. I did not register to provide partial quotes from movies, or books, or songs, or my crazy Uncle Buzz, for that matter. I did not register to preach, or postulate, or prop myself upon some type of cyber soapbox. I did not register to post 137 close-up pictures of myself sitting at a bar, smushing cheeks with my BFF. I did not register to post pictures of myself being awesome, or looking awesome, or acting awesome, or crazy, or nice, or even unintentionally cruel, for that matter.
I did not register to post pictures of myself standing near celebrities, nor do I plan on tagging pics of myself sucking face with some insignificant other. I did not register to earn a badge, own a farm, wage a war, sign a petition, fill out a survey, or take part in an internet meme.
I did not join to get poked, tagged, liked, grouped, categorized or critiqued.
In fact, I stop just short of saying I did not register because of some insecure need for constant validation, because the reality is, that’s exactly why I registered.
My ex-agent Ben Butler, acting in his new capacity as BFF and confidante, advised me it might be wise to get my name out in the public eye again, especially if I was hoping to shop my biography around to publishers before the end of the calendar year.
Built-in audience = considerable advance, according to Ben Butler.
This is why Jenny McCarthy gets paid to write books on parenting.
This is why Glenn Beck gets paid to write books about gobbledygook.
A five-figure advance would be nice, but I’m much more concerned about whether major publishers will actually bid on my bio-within-a-book. If Ben Butler’s on the level, this will not be an easy sell. Add to that the fact I’ve chosen to represent myself, and I’ll be lucky if publishers offer me a free library card and a set of steak knives.
All of which explains why I’m now pursuing public appearances that don’t revolve around car shows or comic book conventions. I need to attract a new demographic of reader – the type that prefers words and ideas to pictures.
May 21st. 7 PM. Barnes & Noble Bookstore. Union Square. New York City.
I have accepted an invitation to take part in a panel discussion entitled, “Chronicling the American Experience.”
I know little or nothing about chronicling the American experience. But I’ve been out on the circuit long enough to realize that doesn’t really matter. I am here to be seen, not heard. I am here to pose for close-up pictures with teenage girls. I am here to be mobily-uploaded, then tagged with witty captions like, “Me and the guy who created Subhuman. Forget why he was there, but he was really funny.”
I am here because I agreed to accept the gig pro bono…the only member of the panel who was willing to do so. I am here because I’m a self-serving egotist, in desperate need of an audience.
I am here because I am a fameball, quite frankly.
But then again, who isn’t?
I am seated on the far left side of the dais. Joining me onstage (in order of proximity): novelist Gary Shteyngart, boxing historian Bert Sugar, and conservative pundit Ann Coulter.
The irony runs so deep you could cut it with a hacksaw.
Coulter monopolizes the conversation, intent upon chiming in even if a specific question has absolutely nothing to do with her. Shteyngart spends the bulk of the hour staring straight ahead with his hands folded in his lap. Bert Sugar spends the bulk of the hour chomping on that same goddamned cigar he’s been carrying around in his pocket for the past 20 years, somehow managing to equate every one of his answers to some little-known piece of pugilist folklore.
I spend the bulk of the hour counting the number of times Bert Sugar crosses – then recrosses – his legs.
Final tally: 22. Bert Sugar is an extremely fidgety man.
In the end, no one walks away with any worthwhile revelations about what it actually means to chronicle the American experience. Instead, Barnes & Noble offers a quick meet-and-greet, during which panelists sit behind a long table on the dais, signing pre-approved editions of their books.
I wonder what that says about chronicling the American experience.
Barnes & Noble’s PR people have asked me to sign copies of Subhuman: Volume One – the graphic novel, not the book. I open each copy to the inside sleeve, where I scrawl the customary “My name is Bobby Lee, and this is what it’s like to be me,” just above the official disclaimer: “Based upon a story and characters created by Bobby Lee.”
Most of the attendees pass me awkwardly, offering little more than a brief smile and a wave. It seems there’s a great deal more interest in having Ann Coulter sign hardback copies of her best-selling book Guilty – a sweeping indictment of liberals, which features a full-length cover photo of Coulter dressed up like some sort of right-wing dominatrix.
I am so preoccupied with the steady stream of people who have lined up to meet and greet Coulter that at first I fail to recognize the Barnes & Noble employee who’s been feverishly waving his hands in my face.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lee?” I hear him say. “Mr. Lee?”
“Oh, right,” I say, completely taken off guard. “What can I do for you … Brian?”
Employee nametags are a godsend.
Brian purses his lips as if we’re about to discuss a matter of great importance. He looks both ways before revealing a first-edition copy of Subhuman:Volume One – the book, not the graphic novel
“Oh, awesome,” I say, admiring the cover. “You want me to sign this for you?”
“I observed a woman in line holding this, Mr. Lee,” Brian explains, anxiously. “I approached her, requested she step out of the line. At that point, I took her aside and attempted to diffuse the situation by explaining you were only signing copies of your graphic novel tonight.”
“Well, it’s not actually my graphic nov …”
“But she insisted I bring this copy over to you and ask you to sign it,” Brian continues. “I’m really sorry, sir. I’m as embarrassed about this as you are. If you’d like me to have security escort her off the premises, I’d be more than happy to do so.”
Brian is deadly serious. I can see it by the sweat on his brow.
“Where is this woman?” I whisper, leaning in for effect.
“She’s over near the escalator, sir,” Brian says, pointing with his eyes. “There’s no need for concern. I posted a security guard nearby. We’ve got the situation under control.”
I lean to my right, trying to see through the sea of Ann Coulter fans who are lined up in front of me. There, just beyond the “Buy-2-Get-1-Free” table, is a tall blonde woman wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and a green, earth-tone bandana.
“It’s OK,” I tell Brian. “You can let her through.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Lee?” Brian says.
“Yeah, I’m positive,” I say, giving him the thumbs up.
How can I possibly be expected to say no to Meghan McKenzie?