I took a few moments to get settled under the umbrella on the pontoon boat, before dabbing sunblock on my nose. We were about to launch out onto the lake of the cleverly named "The Lakes" development in Tempe, after brunching with new friends of Joel who live there. After Joel had subtly begged to borrow the couple's pontoon boat (what looked to me like a motorized picnic table on inner tubes), we were floating down the 100-feet wide waterway.
Watching me, Joel burst out laughing. "You do realize that you look like Katherine Hepburn in 'The African Queen,'" he said, smiling.
"Well, hopefully, I shall remain unsunburned," I said haughtily. "And my slavic features say 'thank you' for the comparison to Miss Hepburn's more patrician ones."
The real resemblance, I knew, was the floppy straw hat I'd borrowed from our hostess. Joel had attended a lecture series that her husband, Larry, had given on the Arab-Israeli conflict at the Bureau of Jewish Education. They'd struck up a friendship and Joel brought me along when they'd invited him for a bagel brunch.
There was the strange, under-discussed issue of his divorce and his 5-year-old daughter.
The wife was a cute woman who amused me (and probably would've impressed my mother) by transparently trying to figure out how serious Joel and I are -- without actually asking. In truth, things were progressing nicely... "progressing" meaning that they were moving slowly forward. But, I -- little Miss Melodrama -- felt surprisingly non-melodramatic. I felt as if we were both being cautious and were very aware of developing The Relationship. And said Relationship was developing: Joel had referenced the "we" word on occasion, but there was still the strangeness of the under-discussed issue of his divorce and his 5-year-old daughter.
For my part, I was liking Joel more and more -- for instance, his interest in and dedication to Israel. And I found it interesting that, at 34, he had struck up a friendship with someone in his 60s (our host Larry).
And now I was discovering that he was a wanna-be ship's captain. I watched, amused, as Joel ran around the dock taking sea-faring instructions. From what I gathered, piloting the pontoon boat took all the skill required to steer one of the cars at Disneyland's "Autotopia."
Once on board, we promptly rechristened the boat as the "Karine-B" (without the ammo, of course). And when I pulled out my SPF 14,000 sunscreen, Joel snorted and shook his head, good-naturedly muttering something about it being January.
"Come on, Doctor Rabkin," I chided, "Surely you tell your patients about the dangers of sun exposure -- even in winter."
"Remember that most of my patients are under 8," he said. "But I always remind their parents to slather them in this stuff."
"Does Michal sunburn easily?"
Michal -- Joel's daughter -- was a topic I was desperate to crack. I still hadn't met her, and we hadn't discussed if the time was approaching.
"No, not at all. She can start to look Pakistani... it's hereditary. Shelley could stay in the sun forever and never think twice about it..."
"-- Shelley?" I interrupted gently. "-- Oh, uh, Shelley is Michal's mother," he said, a touch uneasily. "My ex-wife."
After a short uncertain silence, Joel tried to move smoothly to another subject.
After a few milliseconds of uncertain silence, Joel smiled at me and tried to move smoothly to another subject.
-- Arrrrrgh, I thought silently. Suppressed tension. I was frustrated with myself for not knowing how to say, "Hmm. That was awkward, wasn't it?"
We drifted along in the water in relatively companionable silence, and my thoughts somehow drifted to Jane Eyre. I started telling Joel...
Capital R-Romanticism (not "romance") speaks to me: "There is an order to these people's lives," I said, "an understanding that their whims are not what should rule them."
I found myself wondering, I told him, whether this was a sign of maturity. It reminded me of my disparate reactions to the wonderful movie (and of course, the book is even better -- and has recipes) "Like Water for Chocolate." The first time I saw it, I was carried away -- by the romance.
When I saw it again a year or two later (having grown up quite a bit in the interim), my reaction was quite different: I thought Tita was an idiot and should have stayed with the stable, decent doctor who loved her. Had I now completed the circle to utter old-fogeyhood? Was I now a certified non-romantic, even if I still loved Romanticism?
Too much damage had been done for us to trust each other anymore.
"Picking the doctor is always a good plan," Joel said with a smile. "But I know what you mean. I always thought of it in terms of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, all the verbal jousting. That if you really love someone, you spar. You know how much 'chemistry' you have because of the constant back-and-forth and the intensity of bickering and making up."
And then, for the first time, he told me a little about his divorce.
"I didn't learn how wrong I was and how differently I needed to behave and react until it was too late," he said. "By the time I figured it out, too much damage had been done for us to trust each other anymore."
I didn't ask questions and instead let him talk.
"My greatest regret, is that Michal will grow up with the early knowledge that love can't overcome all. Or worse, that she'll think we didn't try."
Behind him, the sun was glinting on the sky-blue metallic front of the boat and on the green-blue water in front of it. Listening, I was struck with the thought that, if this goes anywhere, I will remember this moment -- squinting from the sun and the hum of the electric motor -- as the first time we made a real emotional connection.
Yup. A little romance, even for this non-romantic.