"What are you laughing at?" Joel said portentously, as he caught up beside me -- trying to hold his seat with any sort of dignity.
"Oh, nothing at all..." I said, pulling my hat down lower to cover my wide smile.
-- Oh, the sight of Joel on a horse... ba ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...
After a pause, he said tenderly, "It's nice to see you laughing anyway."
We'd gone up north because I had decided I needed to get a break from the intensity of the last few weeks. After a month of Constant Serious Discussions, Visits to Authority Figures, and Attention Paid Continuously to The Future, I got it in my head that I wanted to go -- of all things -- horseback riding.
So I found the name of a stable outside a Prescott and here we were... trotting along, quite literally.
Joel was letting me ride along in silence. I liked the crisp, piney smell and the quiet, which was broken only by the sounds of the horses' breathing and their hooves clearing underbrush on the path.
We had switched roles: Now, Joel was now ready for me to meet his daughter, Michal. And now I was the one delaying things.
The story of his marriage breaking up had jarred me. Who was this creep he described himself as being?
And I was perplexed at how Shelley "blamed him" for not being able to have more kids -- when getting your tubes tied is a reversible procedure.
Joel said that she'll probably have it reversed when she finds someone else. "For now," he said, "subconsciously or not, she likes the emotional leverage against me."
Well, that's reassuring!
I suspected he still felt guilty, and worse: "Do you think it's because she still wants you back?"
"Oh, I am pretty sure not..." he said. "We've both changed since then... I am not the guy she married."
I nodded vigorously. The Joel I know is kind and caring, devoted to his daughter, and rather unimpressed with social status. The Joel he had described was money- and status-obsessed, emotionally unavailable, neglectful of his family -- and belligerent when called on it.
But now I realized that I had seen flashes of the person he'd described: His hyper-competitiveness with sports, the way he could argue about political issues long after anyone else was still interested, the way he was keenly aware of how much influence any given person had in a community, company, or second-Sunday basketball league. He had a tendency to get very quiet, almost passive, when someone frustrated him. Now I realized that was his way of controlling the temper I'd never seen.
Had he made his peace with what happened in his marriage?
"Well, of course I feel guilty," he said. "To some extent, I always will. But I can't undo the things I did wrong, to Shelley or anyone else..."
He sighed heavily. "At this point, I've done as much as I can to make it up to her -- what is within my power. I've asked for her forgiveness many times. But I can't spend the rest of my life apologizing, and I can't stay in limbo either."
It scared me -- so much that, after a couple weeks of floundering around, we'd ended up going to see to Rabbi Ringman, whom I had gotten to know two years ago when ex-beau Rick and I were at the do-or-bye phase.
I met Rabbi Ringman and we spent a long time talking about the nature of regret and whether people can change their natures. He believed they could, and that in fact people come out stronger than if they hadn't gone through it at all
"It seems to me, Jessica," Rabbi Ringman had said. "There are a lot of untested guys out there. It sounds like Joel stumbled spectacularly... but he may have learned his lesson, and that gives him a depth that many others lack."
-- I hadn't thought of it that way.
"No one is as strong as the one who manages to conquer himself," Rabbi Ringman said.
I nodded, thinking of the beautiful framed print Rina had in her living room with that quote and the Hebrew equivalent.
And so today, riding in the forest, I told Joel about my conversation with Rabbi Ringman. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders.
And I couldn't help but read some sort of significance into the fact that the trail got wider as we got closer to the stables, and we rode side-by-side.
And I laughed at how, the instant we got back to the car after returning the horses to the stable, we both automatically checked the cellphones and beepers we'd left behind.
I had two messages from the photo desk wanting names for a cutline on a story that was running tomorrow, and one from my sister Beth with some sort of information about plane tickets for her wedding next month. I didn't hear the rest of her message, though, because I saw that Joel's face had gone absolutely ashen.
-- "What is it?" I asked.
"It's Michal," he said, looking terrified. "She was in an accident, a car accident -- we've got to get to the hospital!"
He inexplicably handed his phone to me and wordlessly slid behind the wheel, and turned to look at me standing beside the car.
"Joel," I began, not sure of what to say. "Do you want me to drive?"
"No, I'll drive. It'll give me something to concentrate on until we get there."
I quickly ran around to the passenger side and slid in.
"Jess," he said, turning to me seriously, "I know you're not ready for this, but can you come to the hospital with me? I need you."
"Of course," I said. As if there was a question...
It seemed like the entire drive passed in an instant and we were at the E.R. of Mesa Lutheran. Joel wondered aloud what Shelley and Michal had been doing in East Mesa while I tried to find the right doctor or nurse to explain things.
Once found, the doctor explained everything to Dr. Joel in medicalese.
I didn't pick up much from what she told him: "Contusions... internal bleeding... cranial swelling..."
From what I understood, another car had run a red light and broad-sided Shelley's car. Apparently, Michal hadn't been buckled in – she'd been asleep across the back seat or something. Both were unconscious when they got to the hospital.
"Her mother is under heavy sedation," the doctor said, and went off to check to see if we could see Michal.
I stood there, thinking how Shelley had erred on parental commandment #1: Thou Shalt Always Buckle Thy Child.
I waited for Joel to comment on something to that effect. He didn't.
"She's going to be okay, as long as the swelling goes down," Joel choked out in medical translation.
"It's so funny," he said softly. "You spend all this time in medical school learning how to play God, and then when it really counts, you find out that, in the end, it's all a matter of whether God chooses for the swelling to go down or not..."
I nodded, saying little but staying at his side. He kept looking toward me as if to check that I was still there.
We stood in the doorway until a nurse came to take us to the pediatric surgery recovery area.
I immediately spotted Michal, even though sleep (unconsciousness?) hid the big brown eyes I remembered. She looked terribly tiny in the kid-sized bed.
Joel bent over her and somehow wrapped her in his arms without moving her too much. He was crying softly -- and still kept checking to make sure I was there.
My heart was pounding in my chest. I felt something only vaguely identifiable -- something proprietary, I supposed.
I wanted to stroke her tiny hand in mine...
"She's going to be okay," he said softly, looking closely at her bandages.
"You can tell the swelling went down?" I said, my voice booming out unusually loud.
-- "Ssshh..." he said, gently. "She's only asleep, not unconscious..."
Michal stirred, and then looked up at me, and then Joel.
"Sweet little Michal..." a voice whispered in my head...
--"Daddy..." she mumbled in what I assumed was an anesthetized daze. "Daddy?"
"I'm here," he said. "Daddy's here, Michali..."
The proprietary feeling in my chest swelled into something else, something overwhelming. I wanted to wrap my arms around both of them. Oh my God, maybe everything will be okay... Michal is going to be fine, and we're going to be a big instafamily! (All we need now is a mortgage...)
"Daddy..." she said, thickly. "Where's Mommy?"
"She's okay, Michali," he said. "We'll go check on her in a minute..."
I thought a second.
"Joel," I began. "Er, I'll go check on her..."
Joel looked up gratefully as I slipped out into the hall.
Looking for signs to the adult recovery area, I wondered if Shelley would be equally grateful to see me...