I had just enough time to go wash my face when the phone rang again. This time, it was Rina.
"That was rather an awkward situation and you handled it well," she said, launching right into the fallout of my having met Joel's ex-wife during a surprise visit to Rina's house.
"Well, I guess I have some questions for you, but..."
"Jess?" she asked into my pause, apparently unable to read my thoughts.
"I just got off the phone with Rick," I explained, before she could think the half-sigh was her fault.
I mm'hmmed the aural equivalent of a nod.
Part of me hadn't thought it was a good idea to return his voice mail, but the greater part of me felt that, however much I didn't want to be confused by speaking with him (today of all days), I owed him the courtesy. And maybe there was even a part of me that wanted to speak to him.
Not too surprisingly, his sudden "missing me" and desire to hear my voice came just as he'd broken off his first semi-serious relationship since we'd broken up. He wanted to try getting back together.
"Oh, Jess... why does it have to be so hard?" he interpolated with a sigh. "We... we had something good..."
For a fleeting moment, I saw Rick's face the way he looked in his kitchen the first time he told me he liked me, and then his pained expression -- his face dissonant against crimson Sedona canyon walls -- as he explained why we had to break up. I thought of his sweetness, his earthiness, his openness.
"Rick, you sound like a '80s single," I said, gently. "And I told you..."
"...I know, you're seeing someone..." he said.
But you're going to break up eventually, he said. And I'll be waiting for you.
They're so different, I marveled. He is sweeter than Joel in many ways, and certainly more open. Rick's happy disposition is nothing like Joel's intensity. I thought of Joel sitting at my parents' Seder table, deeply engrossed in the Haggadah, oblivious to the goings-on as he puzzled through something in his head. Rick is kind and amiable by nature; Joel's decency and thoughtfulness is something he had worked to be.
"But you're going to break up eventually," he said, lightly. "And I'll be waiting for you."
-- "Rick, that sounds a bit threatening," I replied, perhaps only half-joking.
That's when Rick took the offensive and began reminding me how much we liked each other, what worked about us, how hard it was to end things, and how wrong we were to do so.
-- I wanted to slam my hands against my ears. Stop! Stop!
How dare he try to manipulate me? How dare he burst back into my life and make insane demands after we'd clearly discovered why our relationship could not work. It wasn't like we just gave up -- we tried.
"Rick, this isn't fair to you. This conversation has to stop because I don't want to give you any impression that there's hope for us," I had said finally.
-- "Oh, Jess," Rina murmured as I told over the story. "That must have been so hard. Are you okay?"
I had grown and changed so much since we broke up. Hadn't he?
Strangely, I was. The discussion had left me feeling very calm -- and resolute. Rick and I did "almost have it all," as the song would say, but almost isn't there. We had tried and analyzed and worked and did everything we could, and in the year since we'd broken up, I'd come to realize even more that, as much as we had liked each other, we were not right for each other.
I had grown and changed so much since we broke up. Hadn't he?
I reminded myself: Rick was a good person. But Joel understood me better. He could help me process my emotions, precisely because he understood their complexity. Joel viewed working on himself to be a better person as a continual obligation; he was constantly looking to see how he could improve his character. He stimulated and challenged me -- I could never be complacent with him. And, he had said a few weeks before when he gamely agreed to doing some silly online compatibility test, I balance him out. I lighten his intensity.
"It means you force me to have fun. You don't let me take myself too seriously, and you keep things interesting," Joel had said with a lazy smile, expounding on the silly test results I'd printed out for him. "Most of this other stuff is nonsense, but that is dead on."
It was so clear to me now: Rick and I had been wonderful together in many ways, but it was a different league altogether.
"He still doesn't know what he wants," I told Rina, sadly.
After this conversation, it was love, but with some steely underside.
I felt calmed by my sense of clarity. The very reason why Rick and I broken up in the first place -- a lack of shared goals -- was the most important reason why I wanted to be with Joel. I'd had good feelings -- of the fuzzy, pink, cotton candy kind -- for weeks. After this conversation, I was feeling something else: Ready to move forward.
"Uh, oh..." Rina said, sounding surprised. "I expected you'd be upset after stumbling into my visit with Joel's ex-wife Shelley, and mad that I didn't..."
"...Tell me that you knew Joel's ex-wife?" I asked.
"Well, yes," she replied.
Initially, I had been, truth was. But I had realized three things. The first was remembering that things are not always what they seem, and that it's a good idea to withhold judgment, or -- better yet -- to try to judge favorably.
The second was that I love and trust Rina and have every reason to believe that she would never deliberately withhold something like that from me, unless there was a very good reason.
And the third was the -- duh -- realization that of course she knows Shelley. It had come back to me in a flash a few hours earlier: When I ran into Joel and his daughter Michal in Scottsdale Judaica World (oh so many moons ago), Rina's son Ari had introduced me to Michal, saying that she was in his kindergarten class.
"Exactly," Rina explained. "I always knew her as one of the other mothers, but we never got much beyond chatting. We always said that we should plan a play-date for the kids, but didn't do so until today. I never connected that she was Joel's ex-wife!"
I nodded. They hadn't been sitting there discussing me or Joel. Shelley had been explaining something about changes in her custody arrangements, when Rina realized that she knew the ex-husband in question. That's when I stumbled in...
Thank God I hadn't jumped to any conclusions. This was the sort of misunderstanding that could totally jeopardize a friendship.
Yet I still wanted to ask Rina about the one juicy comment I overheard: Shelley saying something about "not having any more kids because of Joel." But it wasn't Rina's place to answer something I shouldn't have heard in the first place.
Joel and I need to have a no-holds-barred discussion of what exactly happened with his divorce.
Yet this was the tip of a bigger iceberg. "I've had enough of these piecemeal revelations," I told Rina. "Joel and I need to have a no-holds-barred discussion of what exactly happened with his divorce. If he can't be honest and open about it, then everything I feel about him means nothing."
As we discussed it further, I heard scratching at the door, so I peeked out the window. It was Joel, laying something down on my doormat. He jumped when I opened the door. On the mat was a bouquet of white daisies.
"I didn't expect to find you here," he said, chuckling at being startled. "I thought you were with Alison and Ellen..." He stood up to walk in.
"Joel, we need to talk..." I said as he brushed past me, realizing too late how formal I sounded.
"Oh, uh, well, yeah," he said, searching my face. "That's why I'm here."
I tried to prepare a speech in my head:
I think the world of you. But I need to understand what happened in your marriage." Too harsh?
"I need to understand why you haven't told me..." Too whiny?
"I want to be with you forever and ever, but part of me doesn't trust you because you won't let me into the most important parts of your past and present?" Whoa, way too much.
Before I could get it out, he looked at me and said: "I want you to meet Michal."
How's that's for timing!