Joel hadn't touched the mug of chamomile tea I'd put in front of him. He was watching me carefully as I moved around my living room. After everything -- my chance encounter with his daughter and ex-wife, my apprehension to trust him because he was holding back the details of his marriage and divorce, and his unexpected declaration of readiness to move our relationship forward -- now was the time for The Talk.
"I don't like talking about my marriage or my divorce," he explained. "It's not just the pain that it didn't work out. What's equally bothersome is that I was a terrible husband."
I leaned toward him, murmuring that I was sure there was enough blame to go around. I was confused, though. Initially, I had given the whole issue of Joel having been divorced much less attention than his having a daughter. Of late, though, I had started thinking about the divorce more and more.
Alison was blithe about Joel's "starter marriage." After all, it seemed that a surprising number of people we knew -- either now or people from high school or college -- had been married briefly, and then divorced. A few had kids, but most had ended the marriage after a year or two and said they were lucky to have seen that it "wasn't going to work" before kids entered the picture.
Most of my friends' marriages ended before kids entered the picture.
Joel never said anything like that -- that it "just hadn't worked out." He had told me that by the time he realized he needed to behave differently for his marriage to work, too much emotional damage had been done to repair their relationship. And I knew he mourned that Michal was growing up with parents who weren't married to one another.
He looked a bit choked up, and I knew he was composing his thoughts. Mine raced: Had my idea of marriage evolved away from that of many of my contemporaries?
I had lost the notion of marriage as a perfect union, a built-in Saturday night date for the rest of your life. Sunsets and roses, giggling and playing footsie while paying bills each month. Instead, I viewed marriage as the beginning of something -- the beginning of a life-long project: building a family together and staying in love. Love, I had come to believe, was as much a decision as an emotion.
Were the people I knew who opted out after a year or two simply not realistic about what marriage is? Had they entered it expecting that the infatuation would never fade? And then, once they saw -- oy! -- it had faded, they were stuck with this annoyingly real person -- and off to the lawyers they go.
Had they simply given up when the going got tough? Marriage, I believe, is a commitment. And real Love is a commitment to a commitment: a pledge to stay with this person, even -- and perhaps especially -- when the going gets tough. Or was I just being too judgmental?
I figured this conversation needed a nudge, so I dropped the biggest bomb in my arsenal.
I figured this conversation needed a nudge, so I dropped the biggest bomb in my arsenal:
"Was Shelley talking about you when she said that she can't have any more kids because of 'him'?" I asked.
After a pause, he nodded.
"Well, sort of," he said. "The final straw before we separated was that she had an operation without consulting me."
"While you were married?" I gasped.
"No, no," he said, looking deeply pained. "it's not so simple. Shelley's not such a horrible person -- and, at the time, she felt that I drove her to it."
They had dated each other during their undergrad years at the University of Chicago, but didn't get serious until Joel had started medical school after a year's fellowship following college.
"I thought we were the perfect couple," he said. "I was going to be some sort of world-renowned surgeon, and she had already finished her MBA and was doing extremely well as a junior executive for a huge Chicago ad agency..."
"But you're a pediatrician..." I interrupted.
"Hold on," he said ruefully. "I'll get there."
They had the perfect wedding -- the full nightmare smorgasbord in her parents' Long Island country club.
Her dress and the sushi station alone would have paid off a car loan.
"Her dress and the sushi station alone would have paid off one of our car loans," he said. I knew the type of wedding and I was rather dumbfounded. It seemed the exact opposite of the sort of wedding Joel would want.
"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "It was what her parents wanted and mine went along, and I thought it seemed great at the time. My priorities were very different then."
The first few years of marriage had been fine, he said. Even somewhat idyllic.
"The truth was," he said, "we didn't see each other all that much. I was totally overwhelmed -- and happily so -- at being a third-year medical student, and Shelley was very supportive. Some of the other wives -- or husbands -- complained about being med-school widows, but, first of all, she was very immersed in her own career, and, second, I had never hidden how driven I was. I was determined to graduate at the top of my class and get a great residency..."
And then on to an overwhelming career? That seemed so non-Joel. He liked his pediatrician practice precisely because it was flexible enough for him to be an active father to Michal. Who was this status-obsessed man he was describing? I didn't comment and continued listening.
Their whole relationship, he explained, had been structured around their busy schedules. They both worked very hard and then, when he had breaks from school, they'd "get away" to this or that resort. Shelley was making money hand over fist, and Joel was doing exceedingly well and did get into the best residency program in Chicago.
"At first, I was thrilled when we got pregnant," he said.
If we get married, I will always be his second wife.
-- I was surprised that his use of the first-plural pronoun stung me. It would always be a twinge, I thought. If we get married, I will always be his second wife.
Things continued normally until, mid-way through, Shelley's pregnancy became very difficult.
"And the truth is, I thought she was exaggerating," he said. "I was so totally caught up in what I was doing that I felt that the demands she was making on me were too much."
I asked what sort of demands.
"Nothing too unusual -- she just wanted to spend more time with me, and she needed much more emotional and even physical support because, especially during the last trimester, she was sick as a dog and I was just not there for her."
"Where were you?" I asked, confused, not recognizing the kind, gentle person I thought I knew.
"I was at the hospital, or was out shmoozing with the cardiologists I wanted to do sub-specialty residencies with. I was the top resident and the hours I put in were enormous and draining, and I felt like Shelley had totally changed the rules of the game."
"But she was pregnant..." I said.
He nodded. Things had changed, and they only got worse once Michal was born. Shelley had a lengthy postpartum depression and Michal was an extremely colicky baby.
"It's a wonder Michal turned out as sweet as she has," he said. "The first year and a half of her life, she had a mother who was exhausted and depressed, a father who was hardly ever around, and, whenever he was, her parents were screaming at each other."
Shelley was working full-time, had a fussy baby to take care of, and was sick half of the time herself -- and Joel was no help whatsoever. Wife would get depressed and clingy, husband would pull away more, and wife would get worse.
"We finally had this enormous fight when she came to hospital because I had pulled a double shift without calling her," he said, speaking softly. "She was totally hysterical and I was furious because she was screaming at me in the middle of the hospital. Finally, I got her into an empty surgical room and she just kept yelling about how this was supposed to be our life and she couldn't handle it anymore... I didn't even raise my voice. I was calm and cold and spoke to her like she was a child: I asked her what had happened to the woman I married and why couldn't she pull it together?"
What had happened to woman I married and why couldn't she pull it together?
Things remained icy until, a few weeks later, he was looking through their desk at home and came across an insurance form. Without telling him, she had her tubes tied.
He was furious. How could she do something that affected them like that without even talking to him about it? Yet another battle ensued, this time with him screaming and she the icily calm one.
He moved in with a friend to cool off and they went to see a counselor. It wasn't until months later that he found out that, the day before she stormed into the hospital, she had been terrified that she was pregnant again. She knew she couldn't handle it, and knew equally that Joel was nowhere around. It turned out that she wasn't pregnant, but the scare frightened her enough that she underwent the procedure.
"It's clear that it was a desperate way of trying to get my attention. And she did get it," he said, his eyes weary with pain. "But by that point, we were both so angry and hurt, we couldn't even try again."
During the trial separation, Joel realized how much of the blame lay with him. "Up until then, I blamed her for going back on the life we envisioned together -- she changed the rules. But then I realized that she just grew up before I did. I had a wife and a daughter and, really, I cared only about myself."
She wanted a divorce right away, but he convinced her to stick with more couples' therapy. They tried for several months, but "Shelley was too hurt and didn't trust me anymore, and I was angry, too. It had gone too far."
They split up and he threw himself back into his work
Listening to all this, I felt totally overwhelmed and drained. I realized that he'd told me bits and pieces of all of this, but it wasn't until it was laid out that I understood the magnitude of what had happened -- and just how nearly unrecognizable he was today compared with who he had been.
He was crying softly.
"You see now why I don't like talking about this?" he said, wiping his eyes. Joel's complexities -- the intensity of his intellect and his emotions, and yet how stoic he could seem at times -- never ceased to amaze me. "I was a terrible husband and father."
"But, Joel," I said, after a long pause, "you're not like that now..."
"Yes, well, I got in touch with my inner cad," he said, smiling uneasily, mocking therapy-speak. But his voice changed. "Jessica, I have worked hard to become someone else... Well, not someone else. But I am not that person anymore."
I didn't say anything. I wasn't sure I could.
He was looking at me expectantly, but I knew he knew what I was thinking: I was terrified. I admired Joel that much more for working so hard to become a good father, who realized that spending time with his daughter is more important than being a flashy surgeon.
But how could I know -- if I ever became needy and clingy -- that he would be there for me? And what about the reality of another woman in his life, one whom he will always feel he has wronged? And what about my always being second to Michal?
Is that how I want to live?