It wasn't love at first sight when I first met Joe. I was married to my college sweetheart; Joe was also married. No, it wasn't love at first sight, but immediate friendship. He was a part of a circle of friends I was lucky enough to meet after I moved to Atlanta. Joe and many in the group had gone to college in Boston, as I had done, and were New Englanders, as was my ex-husband. It was a great fit.
For Joe and I, we were fast friends. We both shared a true passion for music, history, films, trivia, good drinks, and a good time. We were friends for 10 years, and in that time, I witnessed Joe go through a divorce, have an engagement go sour, and go through breakup after breakup. He was there to visit with gifts at the hospital when I had my daughter, and later my son. We celebrated our 30th birthdays together, and traveled together—once to try out to be on a new music trivia game show. (We didn't make it.)
When I went through my divorce, I had the opportunity to travel on a chartered sailboat in the Virgin Islands for free, and bring five friends. Joe was one of the people I invited. It was not my intention to be anything more than friends with him. And then, there we were in the Caribbean with our friends and having a blast when we first kissed. It was electric. We didn't tell anyone; we didn't want it to ruin our friendship and the group's dynamic when it ended, as we knew it would.
Six months later, we were still keeping it a secret and going strong. The first time we told each other we loved each other, we were in New York City. I stumbled trying to explain that having loved him as a friend for 10 years, it was impossible not to already be in love with him. He felt the same way. Friends started to figure out we were a couple. They all knew of his many ex-girlfriends and felt an "A-ha!" moment: I was the perfect woman for Joe, they thought. They liked us together. At a friend's wedding, as we danced together, Joe told me he was going to marry me one day.
We took vacations, spent our weekends together, spent time with each other's extended families. We just didn't do much with my kids. Newly divorced, I didn't know how to be a single mom, let alone date as one. Joe had never had kids and hadn't dated anyone with kids. We saw each other when my kids were with their dad for the first year of our relationship, both agreeing that they were too young (3 and 4) and we didn't want to hurt them if we didn't work out.
After a year and a half, still madly in love, we decided it was time to involve the kids. I remember one of our first meals: my son needed to use the bathroom and I got up to take him and asked Joe to watch my daughter. A look of fear struck his face, albeit briefly. Later that night, he got a call from a friend who is a single dad, who was going on his second date of the day. Joe said they had swapped lives. It stung.
For the next six months, more and more little moments like those took place. I was invited to his sister's for Thanksgiving, but when I reminded him I had the kids we were uninvited; too many people. Other times, my kids would run to hug him, and he would complain they had dirty fingers and get irritated.
Then he was offered a new job in the City that would require him to get a new place. I brought up possibly moving together, after all, we'd been together for so long. He thought it was too soon, and rented a studio apartment. What about when I had my kids? What about schools? Whenever I would ask about our future, timidly, not knowing how to broach the subject, he would answer that our current living situation was only temporary, also timidly, also not knowing how to broach the subject.
We allowed the tension to build until we got to the point that we broke down with a huge argument. He was digging in his heels and telling me I was being crazy and before you know it, I just knew. It was one of those moments of clarity and I knew he wasn't ready and I couldn't sacrifice my kids' happiness and my own waiting for him to be ready. I knew I'd have to walk away.
It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, even more so than my divorce. When I was getting divorced, my ex and I were no longer in love. I still loved Joe. We were perfect together—when my kids were not around.
The heartbreak was so great that I moved to another state to start anew, taking a new job that gave my kids a great life. It took me another three years before I began to date again, and even when I did, I didn't want my children to meet any of the men I dated because I feared they would be hurt. It's been 9 years since our breakup, and I still think of what could have been, "if only." I know I made the right choice. My kids are so happy and healthy, now 13 and 14. They are strong students and I put them and my career first and don't regret it. Do I wonder what he's doing now? Yes. But I'm at peace with my decision to stand up for myself and want to be loved as a mom and a family.