I felt a blush of humiliation and surprise staining my cheeks. I had been sure Joel would be beyond delighted when I made an appearance at his house -- particularly after he'd been irritated earlier in the evening when I'd explained that I couldn't see him that night. And so -- surprise! -- I show up and his reaction is to tell me to “Go home”?!
I felt stung, and looked around, blinking confusedly.
"Oy," Joel groaned, "As usual, that did not come out right. Let me explain..."
"Michal's here?" I asked.
"No, uh, I..." he began.
"Shelley?" I asked, referring to his ex-wife.
"What??" he spluttered, "No! Jessica... it's nothing like that. I, uh... I should have explained this before, but I thought it would have been a bit presumptuous."
I furrowed my brows. Where on earth was he going with this?
He explained: "After my divorce, I behaved badly. Michal was still practically a baby and Shelley had near total custody at that point, so I could do whatever I wanted. It was great for about a year or so.
"But then I realized that I had totally messed up my life. I had been married, I was a father, and now I was acting like I was 22 again."
He continued: “So I started looking at it as the father of a girl who would someday be dating. And when I looked at it that way, I realize that I had been dating women without really building emotional connections, and that wasn't new. I hadn't been the best of husbands and I was turning out to be a pretty lousy father, too."
(In previous discussions about his divorce, he had mentioned before that he had not been the ideal partner in marriage, but I didn't know exactly how.)
That was when, he said, he started to get his act together. He started to really deal with what had gone wrong in his marriage, and decided that he didn't want to be an every-other-weekend father.
"I had to figure out what I really wanted in life -- what was important to me," he said. "I realized that, more than anything, I wanted to be a good father. And I wanted to have a real family and be a good husband.
"First of all, becoming physical early on isn't fair to the woman. It implies a level of commitment that I wouldn't necessarily be feeling. But more so, it was too easy to let the passionate side replace the kind of relationship-building that needs to be done."
I knew what he meant: the easy slide from dating in "A Relationship," which continues along on its own inertia, but never really goes anywhere. And then you wake up a few months later, all emotionally entangled, and emerge -- even though it ends 'amicably' -- with a little less of yourself, and a whole lot more jaded. I had seen the pattern over and over, especially with Beth. Watching it with her, and later with Alison, was a great part of why I had been so much more conservative in relationships.
"Look, Jessica," he continued, insistently, "people carry scars from unhappy relationships or things that finished badly. I want the real thing, not something that is ‘good enough' in the meantime. I have enough baggage as it is."
I felt overwhelmed, and I didn't know how to react. All along, Joel had been less easily understandable to me than most... he was like the onion in Shrek, except that he wasn't a big, green ogre. But I suddenly felt flooded with everything he had told me, and my own confusion. He is emotionally deep, but so complex... and it seems like every day he pulls out a new skeleton...
I suddenly felt the urge to run.