It was a few nights after I'd encountered Joel in Scottsdale Judaica World. "Two weeks of wondering wherefore had my Romeo gone, and then there he is, behind a display of stuffed dreidels, with another woman -- his daughter," I said ruefully.

Alison, Ellen and I picked at the Thai food Ellen had ordered in.

"I thought these things only happened to me," Ellen chuckled.

"Well, at least you know he's capable of making a commitment," Alison added wryly.

"But did he call?" Ellen asked.

No, he hadn't.

Which was just as well since I really didn't know what to do.

"Look, it's just a cup of coffee..." Alison said, trading in her chopsticks for a fork.

But was it?

Ellen seemed to take something closer to my more tentative view.

"There's no such thing as 'just a cup of coffee,'" she said with her usual authoritative tone. "You shouldn't get his hopes up if you're not willing to pursue something serious."

"Oh give me a break," Alison said, rolling her eyes. "You don't even know the guy... what's the big deal?"

There’s no such thing as ‘just a cup of coffee.’

I thought back to a conversation I'd had with Dan Albom after Rick and I broke up. Dating, I had realized, is a responsibility.

When you go out with someone, you are taking on the chance of hurting him -- or getting hurt yourself. There are few activities more emotionally treacherous than dating.

But those wounds, while they certainly hurt and certainly engendered some guardedness, are nothing compared to the pain that comes with serious relationships -- the pain of trying to see your future with someone and then seeing that future dashed. Of getting your hopes up that this will be The One, that the search has ended... and then, nope, it's time to trudge out again into the cold, to take another chance, to try again.

That disappointment hurts.

Picking the bits of tofu out of my Tom Yum soup, I reflected: when you take that first step of getting involved, you have to know that you're taking someone else's heart into your own hands. It's not fair to date someone who's looking to get married, if you're not. It's not right to continue a relationship when you know that he doesn't have something you need. He'll end up getting more emotionally involved and, in the end, get hurt worse.

It's ludicrous to go into a relationship thinking you can change someone. And it's even more inane to ignore something you know is an issue and just figure that you can work it out somehow.

There are few things more emotionally treacherous than dating.

With Rick, I didn't know when we started getting serious that marrying a non-Jew wasn't an option for me. But I still bear the burden of having hurt him terribly. I got hurt too, but it doesn't lessen my moral culpability for what I did to him.

Will he be able to trust someone completely the next time? Will he believe what they say, when I kept walking into the relationship even after I realized deep down that it wasn't right? Or even does he bear some sort of ill will toward Judaism because it thwarted a relationship that might have worked out otherwise?

I gave him those wounds he now carries, healed or not. I had done as much as I could to make them up to him, and now I had the chance to avoid the same mistake.

I tried applying this to my current dilemma. I've never dated someone who has a child, or someone who is divorced. And it is an issue. It's not something that I can just overlook or get used to.

Just in the realm of plain, old dating (forgetting marriage), I would have to realize that Joel had responsibilities to his daughter Michal. In addition to juggling work schedules, there would be vast blocks of time when I wouldn't be able to see him because he was taking care of her.

I would have to accept, if it went beyond the coffee stage, that I wasn't his priority -- nor should I be at that point. His daughter would come first.

I would have to accept that I wasn’t his top priority.

And then there was the great vault forward: One of the best parts about being a young, single professional -- the consolation prize when you really would prefer to be married and having kids -- is the ability to do what you want when you want to. When dating, that means you get to be flexible and spontaneous. I thought of past weekend excursions we'd gone on at the spur of the moment. I am accustomed to that freedom.

I chuckled thinking of the few occasions when Rina managed to "get away," like to an afternoon of shopping, and she ended up calling home at least once or twice to check on the kids. She was away, but her thoughts were with them.

Even when a parent is ‘away,’ her mind is with her kids.

I shared my thoughts with Rina the next day.

"And you're not even touching whether you and the kid get along, or all the issues with an 'ex,' " Rina reminded me gently. "I'm not saying not to go out with him. You just need to consider all of it."

Oh, baggage, I thought, wondering absent-mindedly what compromises people made to go out with me.

It suddenly struck me as funny that we were grappling with these issues -- but Joel hadn't even called .

It was then that I heard the distant sounds of "Ode to Joy" -- my cellphone ringing in my bag, which was sitting on the table in Rina's entryway. I ran to get it but it already read: "1 missed call." I didn't recognize the phone number.

I waited a minute and then checked my messages.

"It's him!" I told Rina.

I listened to the message, my jaw dropping further by the word.

"Jessica, it's Joel Rabkin, from the Judaica store..." he began, "Look, I’m sorry I didn't call you sooner -- I, uh, felt a little weird because I realized that you didn't know that Michal was my daughter. I don't know how you feel about, uh, having coffee with a divorced guy with a kid, and I just wanted you to know that I understand if you're not comfortable with that. It's not a small thing, and I don't want to minimize it. I don't know, maybe you want to talk about it with me first. So, if you would still like to get together, I would love to, but I wanted you to know that I understand if you don't..."

I hit the number to replay the message and handed the phone to Rina, who seemed equally surprised.

How brave and open and honest, I thought.

Emotional honesty excites me the way other women respond to bulging pecs.

Violins were fiddling madly in my head. I like emotional honesty and awareness. And that strength of character. Wow.

"It seems you think you can live with the other stuff," Rina said. "Now you have to ask yourself -- are you willing to be a step-mother, if it went, say, past the second date?"

The thoughts flowed freely: It wasn't something I'd ever planned on, but somehow the idea of stepping into a partially formed family was acceptable to me. It could at least exist within the realm of possibility. I didn't know about Joel's individual situation, and couldn't know unless I got to know him. But I was open to the possibility.

I took the phone back from Rina and dialed.

Here I go. One small step for a date. One giant leap into the great beyond...