"I've been wanting to tell you this for a long time," he said. "But it never seemed right. I felt awkward with my feelings. But I really liked you. I was really attracted to you. I just couldn't say it."
On a crisp autumn day in upstate New York, Joel told me the truth about his feelings for me, and what had held him back those many years ago.
He was married at the time. That I already knew. He tried to kiss me at of 49th and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. I remember the bright city lights and the setting sun casting its shadows. I turned my head.
"Why can't we get closer," he asked. "Why can't we make-out in some corner?"
"You're married, remember?" He seemed to have forgotten.
"Yes I'm married, but I care for you," he said, "One day I'll tell you why the marriage no longer matters. I just can't tell you now."
Lines, I thought to myself. Where did he get these lines? But I did like him. Otherwise I wouldn't have stood so long at that street-corner saying goodbye.
Now, years later sitting in a field overlooking a sloping valley, Joel told me the rest of the story.
When we met, his wife was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She was losing recognition of the most basic things. It was a new marriage to boot, less than five years old, and his second. He hadn't signed up for this, for his new partner to slip away so quickly, to be transformed from husband into caregiver.
But he stayed by her side. He watched as disease stole her memories, of friends, belongings, of her entire world. And as she repeated questions, lost direction, and read the same magazine over and over, his loneliness set in. She was there but gone.
"I'm a partner kind of guy," he told me. "I like having someone to check in with and share my day."
"Who do you check in with?" he asked me. "Who do you tell your day to?"
I realized then that I had no such person in my life. But I didn't care. I've never felt the need to report to anyone. So said nothing.
"When did she die?" I asked.
"February, seven months ago."
"And did she remember you until the end?"
"Yes, just before she died, she had a moment of lucidity and looked at me and said, barely audible, "I love you." Then she disappeared into the abyss and died shortly after."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry."
"I learned so much from caring for her. So much. I wouldn't change any of it. Caring for someone in this way is the greatest gift."
A long silence followed.
"Are you seeing anyone?" Joel asked.
"Yes," I replied. "I see someone. But I can't say where it's going. He never wants to say. It's a guy thing I guess."
"If there's an opening, I'd really like to see you. I'm in the city once a week, usually on Wednesdays. Can I give you a call for lunch?"
I smiled and nodded. Maybe it was worth exploring. As I drove back to the city, I considered how much of a full circle it would be if Joel, now single, re-entered my life.
He was outdoorsy, ready to travel, and he had feelings for me. What might I discover about my feelings for him? I let my mind wander.
Three weeks have passed since that autumn afternoon. The days are colder and winter is slowly creeping in. Joel has vanished. There have been no calls. There was no lunch date. I've stopped waiting for anything further.
It's as if the day we met was his confessional, a chance to reveal his story and explain why he'd once been willing to be unfaithful. And perhaps to have the confession witnessed, before it slipped from memory and was gone for good.