Moments after I got into Joel's car, the plush interior filled with the resonant tones of the "Hallelujah Chorus" -- as if the car was thanking the Lord that I'd entered.
I burst out laughing.
"Handel," Joel, a touch pink, said with a sheepish shrug.
"I think I should always be greeted thusly," I said with a smirk.
He smiled, looking half amused and half bashful.
This was our fifth "date." Coffee twice, lunch once, a lecture, and now dinner.
I was following Rina's approach of "targeted" conversations, but I felt like we were dancing around two biggee issues -- his kids and his past.
Instead, I'd learned absolutely mortifying information. Joel, while appearing perfectly normal as a 34-year-old, had been an unapologetic Trekkie as a high school student.
"I can still tell you the Federation Star Date," he had said as he began to loosen up on our third date.
And he was unrepentant: he had a personal e-mail account that contained "1719," a reference to the U.S.S. Enterprise's serial number or something.
"You're not serious," I had gawped. In college, I had once accidentally happened onto a Star Trek Convention taking place in the otherwise perfectly respectable Copley Hilton in Boston. The place was overrun with adult men wearing what would otherwise be Halloween costumes and individuals of indeterminate gender outfitted in "Starfleet" uniforms.
"Joel, that is serious," I had laughed. "That's not mild geekdom -- that is full-fledged, someone-call-a-doctor dorkhood..."
I'd once argued that geeks made the best boyfriends. But this was a serious case.
It was a funny thing. Joel came across as such a confident, together guy, but the idea of him associating with that subculture -- one that William Shatner (Capt. Kirk himself) had made fun of on late-night TV -- remade him in my mind. I had nothing against associating with geeks. But this was a serious case.
It had occurred to me that Joel was more shrouded in mystery than most of the guys I knew. The divorce. The geek. His 5 year old daughter. Usually, I could develop some sort of socio-emotional profile for people quickly, but he didn't fit any I could imagine.
At odd moments, I had felt like seatbelts burst out of the overstuffed chair in the coffee place, immobilizing me -- and my mouth.
-- "So, Joel," I would begin casually in my mind... "EXACTLY WHY DID YOU GET DIVORCED!??!"
"Oh, really, you haven't yet joined a synagogue?" I would -- back in reality -- reply politely.
-- "WHAT ABOUT YOUR EX?? DOES SHE UNDERMINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR DAUGHTER??" would scream inappropriate Jessica...
"So you recently moved into Rina and Steve's neighborhood?" I would say, oh-so-blase...
-- "AND YOUR DAUGHTER -- HOW IS SHE ADJUSTING!??!" I would squawk silently...
I wanna know. I wanna know. I wanna know.
The divorce must have been a huge emotional event. How can I get to know him without talking about that?
"Really, Jessica," Rina laughed at me when I told her about it. "You are out of control. You are SO not there yet. Just get to know the guy first..."
"But it is right THERE..." I said. "It has to have been a HUGE emotional event for him. How can I get to know him without talking about that??"
"Okay, so when are you going to tell him about how you and Rick almost got married, or how you hung around for two years waiting for Andy to propose..." she said. "Wait until, say, you've known him for a month until you expect him to share his deepest pains with you."
I had crossed my arms and sunk into her green couch. As I sulked, something clicked. When Ellen or Alison or I described compatibility with certain guys, there seemed to be the "compatible on paper" thing. Not obvious things like attraction, or even mean the more complex things -- like sharing life goals and values.
As Rina told me about a wedding shower to which she'd just gone at which the bride-to-be received three hot water urns, I thought back over the last few relationships I had had.
Andy and I adored each other, but didn't share the same view of the immediate future, let alone distant. With Harris, I was attracted and enjoyed his company and we seemed to share many of the same goals -- but had few of the same values. Rick and I were great, except we couldn't share the fundamental commitment of building a Jewish home. And so on...
The missing ingredient had been Emotional Compatibility: being comfortable making oneself vulnerable to the other person.
It dawned on me that all along, the missing ingredient had been Emotional Compatibility: being comfortable making oneself vulnerable to the other person. Feeling understood by him, and feeling that you understand him.
It's something you can't know until you've been in a relationship that moves consciously in that direction, through making small openings in conversation for something substantive.
My thoughts tumbled out of my mouth in a jumble. Rina nodded.
"And that's why you can't rush things," she said.
Joel seemed more in control and aware than I'd suspected. Back in his car, he turned the Handel down a bit and told me that he felt as if he'd been avoiding the topic of his daughter.
"It's been a while since I went out with anyone who doesn't have kids," he said, uneasily. "And I guess I felt strange about it."
"Well, I've never dated anyone with kids, so it's strange for me too," I said, equally unsure. "This sounds dumb... but why don't you tell me about her?"
"Well, I never loved any girl the way I love her..." he said with a laugh, and, lighting up completely, described the little girl I'd met briefly in the store: shockingly serious for a 5-year-old, with a forceful will, and a smile that tested every ounce of "don't-spoil" will power that a parent could have.
Rina had told me that I could learn a lot about Joel by observing how he talked about Michal. And watching the way he melted talking about her, I found myself melting, too.