A Good Man, The Wrong Time by Tina Wagner Mattern
~ Joe ~
In 1976 my father and I owned a thoroughbred racing stable. It was the end of the season at Portland Meadows and our trainer had arranged for our horses to be shipped to Spokane, Washington, where they would run for the summer. Once they were settled in, Dad and I decided to fly up and catch our favorite horse, Flying Thistle’s, first race. Arriving at the airport, we made our way to the gate. The flight was going to be full and we were unable to get seats together, so Dad went to the counter; “Maybe there’s been a cancellation and two together have opened up,” he said. Meanwhile, I stood in the boarding area, watching the always interesting array of people coming and going. And then I spotted a guy; a very cute, rugged looking, cowboy-type guy across the terminal…watching me. It sounds ridiculous to say, and smacks of a clichéd phrase from a bad romance novel, but I swear, as our eyes met, lightening flew back and forth across the room. I was just about to leave the line and go ask him to father my children when Dad appeared at my side. “No deal on the seats, sorry. But we’re only two rows apart.” I nodded and then looked once more across the aisle…and sighed. The guy was gone.
Oh well. The gate attendant made the announcement that the flight was ready to board and suddenly there were people rushing into the line ahead of me. Dad was up ahead with them. Moments later I was on board, making my way down the aisle to the seat number listed on my ticket. Looking up at the row numbers, I was almost to mine when I glanced down and saw Dad in an aisle seat… right beside the guy I had been having an affair with from across the room only moments before!
In a split second, I made a momentous decision and went for it; “Hey, Dad” I said. He looked up at me. “You’re in the wrong seat! Yours is two rows back. Ya gotta move!”
Dad glanced reached for his pocket for the ticket stub, then smiled and shrugged instead and got up. I showed him to the seat, and then turned and dropped into the now vacant place next to Hunky Guy, who was looking at me rather wide-eyed.
“Hi!” I said, completely delighted with myself. “Bet you’re wondering how I pulled this off!” He smiled but then said, “Well yeah, but I don’t know…don’t you think you were kinda hard on that poor old man?”
Huh? I wondered what he was talking about until I realized he didn’t know that that “poor old man” was actually my father and not just my disrespectful way of addressing an old guy.
I laughed. “That “old man” is my dad!” I told him. At which he smiled even wider. “Well played,” he said.
“I’m Tina,” I said, extending my hand.
“Joe,” he said, taking it.
* * *
On that initial flight from Portland to Spokane, Joe and I talked nonstop from wheel’s up to wheel’s down. I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of Dad’s and my horse story, and then steered the conversation to one I found much more interesting; who is this seductive guy sitting beside me?
By the time the plane landed in Spokane, I knew more about Joe Taylor than I had learned about my last boyfriend in the 3 years we’d dated.
I learned that Joe lived in S.E. Portland, not that far from me; that he was a commercial pilot who often contracted with the U.S. Forest Service during fire seasons, as well as flying for skydiving clubs. Hey, another sky-jockey in my life! I thought. I told him that two of my cousins were pilots as well; Doug, who flew professionally for Georgia Pacific, and my cousin, Steve, who had a private license, flying as a hobby.
I learned that Joe and his wife were separated and that he had a 3-year-old son, named Joe-Ben, who was, in his own words, “The most amazing gift I’ve ever been given.” His face glowed when he spoke about the birth of his little boy. “He was born at home,” Joe said. “We had a midwife there but I delivered him; I cut the cord and when I held that tiny body in my hands, I felt like my heart was going to explode with love.”
As I listened, seeing the awe in his eyes as he relived that day, a little voice in my head whispered, “Yes! I want that.” I had wanted that for as long as I could remember, but my experiences with past men had taken their toll on me. My dreams of true love and a baby were, if not dead, in a coma. Now though, hearing Joe speak of his love for his child. …
Another thing I learned that day was in answer to my query about why he and his wife were no longer together. He hadn’t taken offence at my asking such a personal question, just sighed and said, “Truthfully? I really don’t know. I came home from work six months ago to find a note from my wife, saying that she didn’t love me, that she didn’t think she had ever loved me and that she was leaving me and filing for divorce. She was gone and so was my son.” The pain in Joe’s eyes as he told me this story spoke volumes. “I have no idea where they are,” he said. “But I’ll find them. And get my boy back.” I nodded, deeply touched.
The conversation had taken a sad turn but then Joe turned it around; “I want to hear more about you; in addition to the horse business.” He glanced down at my left hand and said, “No ring, so…?” I confirmed that I was very much single and had never been married. He smiled. “Good to know. Okay, so tell me about your family,” he said. And so I did….
When we landed in Spokane, Joe and I exchanged numbers and agreed to see one another again in a week, when we were back in Portland.
* * *
Joe Taylor turned out to be everything I had been looking for. Unlike the men in my past, he was kind, thoughtful, generous, talented, funny and hardworking. He loved children and animals, had a reverential respect for women and a deep, abiding Christian faith; the kind that most Christians only wish they had. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with him. And as the days and months went on, I could see that he was growing to love me as well.
There was just one hitch in our seemingly fateful finding of one another…one major hitch; Joe’s faith. An unshakable, vows-before-God-are-eternally-binding, faith. I learned of this early on in our relationship when, one night, a kissing session, (which was amazing by the way) began to escalate. Suddenly, Joe pulled away and said, “I can’t do this!”
“Oh yes, you can definitely do this,” I murmured, pulling him back to my lips.
But he again drew back from me. “No,” he groaned. “I can’t do this!” He buried his face in his hands and added, “I can’t make love to you; have that kind of relationship with you. I’m married!”
Totally confused and ready to be angry, I said, “What are you talking about? You said you were separated; that your wife was filing for divorce! You don’t even know where she is!”
Joe looked up at me, “Tina, everything in me wants to love you, believe me. You’re lovable beyond my wildest dreams. But I made a vow before God when I married my wife. A sacred vow! Just because she left me, just because she doesn’t want to be with me anymore, doesn’t mean I’m not still married to her. Till death! That’s what I vowed.”
Let me just say here, that while I was a “believer”, and really had no doubts that there was a God; I was not, at this point, a “born again” Christian, like Joe. I had no clue what God thought about wedding vows in this situation. Joe’s wife had left him, for heaven’s sake. Not only that but she had kidnapped his son! If those weren’t grounds for someone to move on and find someone new to love, I didn’t know what were!
“Look, under the circumstances, I’m pretty sure God doesn’t expect you to live the rest of your life like a Monk, all alone and loveless,” I said.
He sighed. “I won’t be loveless; I’ll have my son. Look, I admit, I don’t understand all this; It sure’s hell doesn’t seem fair. But until God lets me know otherwise, I have to go with my conscience.”
It was my turn to sigh; as badly as I wanted him to love me, to be in his life permanently in every way, to maybe be a stepmother to his sweet little boy…I respected his commitment to what he considered sacred vows. Didn’t necessarily agree with him but there we were.
Despite Joe’s dilemma of how to reconcile his faith with his growing love and physical attraction for me, he did continue to spend time with me. It was obvious that he wanted/needed to be near me. He took me flying; I brought him to meet my horses, Mom and Dad who liked him immediately; he was so easy to be around; warm, funny and engaging. Dad, in particular, took to Joe, recognizing many of his own traits in him. Joe, like Dad loved working with his hands; carpentry, mechanical, didn’t matter, both could fix virtually anything given the right tools.
I just remembered a great Joe story: One day when Dad was at my sister’s and my house on in a NE Portland neighborhood, he was musing about the impracticality of our detached single car garage. My sister and I had been taking turns parking out of the weather.
Just after Dad had announced that he was going to tear the old garage down and build a double, Joe drove up. Getting out of his truck, he smiled at Dad and me and said, “How’s it goin?” Dad told him his garage plan, at which Joe pursed his lips, seeming to be considering something, then said, “Tell you what; don’t tear the old one down. I’ll buy it from you!”
Dad and I laughed but Joe was serious. “I had planned on adding a bedroom to my little house; but this would make the whole thing much easier, less work and less expensive. I have a friend who has a house-moving business; moving a small garage like this would be a piece’a cake for him. And he’d make me a good deal.” Dad thought it over and then agreed it would be a great arrangement for both of them. He named a ridiculously low price and the two settled on when the work would begin. To this day I love to tell the story of how we once held a garage sale…and sold the garage! Just one sweet, funny memory of my time with Joe; there were so many in the months to come.
Both Joe and I were music lovers, so many of our evenings were spent either at his place or mine, listening to one another’s albums; I played my favorite Moody Blues and Rod McKuen tracks for him and he introduced me to a singer I had never heard of before; Mickey Newbury, a soulful songwriter/singer with a voice like an angel. Newbury’s songs, with their lonesome train whistles, thunder and echoing raindrops in the background, told stories of love and loss, loneliness and joy. Willie Nelson was another of Joe’s favorites. I knew of him but had never been into Country-Western music so had never heard any of his songs. One evening Joe put on Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger album and I fell in love with Nelson’s distinctive voice and songwriting. We played his “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight, Darlin?”over and over.
In time as well, there were sweet nights spent in one another’s arms. Joe’s desire for me finally overcame his convictions; but not without guilt, I know. Nevertheless, he was a tender, selfless lover and I’ll treasure those memories of our nights together along with all the others.
As our months together flew by, I fell more deeply in love. I knew Joe’s feelings for me were growing stronger too, but with each passing day that brought no word of his son’s whereabouts, Joe grew more distraught. He had hoped that with a little time to think things over, his wife would have called or contacted him, to tell him where they were; but she hadn’t.
One evening when Joe was withdrawn and unusually quiet. I knew immediately where his thoughts were.
“It’s Joe-Ben, isn’t it?” I said.
“He’s so little,” Joe moaned. “I know he doesn’t understand why I’m not there with him. She might be telling him that I left him, not the other way around. I’ve got to find him!” My heart hurt for him. I couldn’t imagine having a child and then having that child be stolen away.
More and more of Joe’s time when not at work, was spent trying to track down the whereabouts of his wife and son. She still hadn’t filed for divorce, which would have given him some contact information at least; where she was or a phone number. Finally, in desperation he hired a private investigator; it took several weeks but at last he got the call: his wife was living in Ely Nevada…with a “Moonie”; a religious Unification Church cult. Joe was stunned; his wife had been, in their years together, a Christian, although not a dedicated one. And now Joe-Ben was living under the roof of this cultist? All the more reason to get him away from his mother and back to a normal, healthy life with his father. With the phone number, address, and pages of information the detective had presented him, Joe pondered his next move. His first instinct was of course to call her and demand she return his son to him. But after more careful consideration he decided against that course; afraid that she would not only refuse but move Joe-Ben to another location; which would mean more money spent with the detective.
No, he needed a plan, and over the next week, he came up with one; an audacious, plan. And he would need help….
My phone rang one afternoon; it was Joe.
“So…how do you feel about driving to Ely with me?”
Not having heard that the detective’s report was in, I said, “Huh? Where?”
“Nevada,” he clarified.
“Because that’s where Joe-Ben is and I’m going there to bring him home.”
Surprised, I said, “So you got ahold of your wife and she’s okay with this?”
Joe was silent for a few seconds. Then, “No. I’m going to kidnap him.”
A big breath whooshed out of me; “Seriously? I mean, if you’re caught…”
“According to the detective, she hasn’t even filed for divorce yet,” he reminded me. “We’re still married, so technically, it wouldn’t be kidnapping anyway. I’m just going to take my son for a ride…back to Oregon. It’s a long way; I could use a driving partner.”
It took me a few seconds to get my head around all of this, but then my signature what-the-hell, why not spontaneity kicked in.
“Okay,” I said, “When do you want to leave?”
* * *
A little less than a week later we were parked in my car across the street from a daycare center in Ely. Joe checked his watch again. It was 3pm. We had been sitting there for about 20 minutes, both of us watching the center’s door. Joe looked through the detective’s report one more time; leafed through to the page describing his wife’s normal daily routine and said, “Unless something out of the ordinary has happened, she should have dropped Joe-Ben off here this morning, and normally doesn’t pick him up until 5.”
I nodded. “Guess you won’t know until you get in there.” But I was quaking inside because everything hinged on Joe’s wife’s having followed her usual course.
A minute or two more and Joe put the report in the glove compartment and said, “Okay, I’m going in. Start the car and keep it running.” He jumped out and hurried across the street. When he disappeared through the door I did as he asked, then said a fervent prayer that everything would go according to plan.
It did! Not 15 minutes later, Joe appeared in the daycare center’s doorway, with a blonde-haired little boy wrapped in his arms. Joe said something to him and pointed in my direction; the child grinned widely and waved to me as they made their way across the street. When Joe opened the car door, Joe-Ben jumped in next to me, looked up with a big smile and said, “Hi!”
Delighted by his exuberance, I smiled back and said, “Hi, Joe-Ben!”
Joe climbed in next to him, his eyes swimming with joyful tears, and said, “So, sweet boy, ready to go home?” Joe-Ben yipped, “YES!” Clearly, the child had no qualms about leaving his mother and her new boyfriend.
With a happy heart, I put the car in drive and we headed out of town.
Ely, Nevada to Portland, Oregon by car is 809 miles or 12 hours and 22 minutes. Joe and I took turns driving straight through. He wanted to get Joe-Ben far away from his wife as quickly as possible. Once home, he planned to beat her to the punch and file for divorce and custody of Joe-Ben. Hopefully with his testimony and that of his parents of how she had abandoned their marriage and taken their son out of state without his consent, the court would side with him. But that was in the future, for now Joe had his little boy back. And for me, seeing the two of them asleep, curled in each other’s arms in the back seat was justification enough for my part in this wild undertaking.
We made it safely home. I dropped Joe and Joe-Ben off at their place and then headed home to call Dad and Mom and let them know I was back from my daring adventure. Since I had told them about the situation about Joe’s wife running away with his son, they were happy everything went well and agreed it was good that Joe-Ben was with his father now. With that done, I climbed into bed and slept for 10 hours.
I wish the rest of this story had a fairytale ending; Joe got his divorce, got custody of Joe-Ben, made peace with his religious questions, married me, we had a baby girl, and lived happily ever after…. But that’s not what happened. Well, some of it did; Joe did get his divorce and did get custody of his son, and the two of them did live happily… but not ever after.
I’ll explain in a little bit.
For now, here’s what did happen; after getting his son back, Joe had a heated battle in court with his ex-wife, who had moved back to Portland to fight for custody of Joe-Ben. Fortunately, she lost the battle, but in her bitterness, made Joe and his son’s lives miserable; calling, coming to their house to rant and threaten. Joe-Ben, confused and frightened, became an emotional wreck. It didn’t take long for Joe to come to a life-altering decision. After only a month or so of the two of them being back together he came over to my place one afternoon, and while Joe-Ben played in the backyard, he broke the news to me…and in the process, broke my heart.
“Joe-Ben and I are moving to Pendleton,” he said. At my stricken expression, he added, “We need a new start, away from my ex. She’s never going to leave us alone, I can see that now.” He sighed, “I have legal and physical custody of Joe-Ben and have petitioned the court to let me take him, based on the traumatic effect his mother’s behavior is having on him. As of this morning, the petition has been granted.”
I stared silently at him. He was leaving me? They were leaving me? All my dreams of the three of us together forever disintegrated in a moment’s time. Finally, I took a deep, trembling breath and said, “Why Pendleton?” It seemed like a universe away.
“It’s a nice town. I’ve spent some time there visiting with a friend from college. He’s found a house for us to rent and if everything goes well, he and I will be going in together on a little record store. He’s got the money to put up front and I’ll run it.”
I started to cry. “And me? We’re just…what? Over?”
Joe came close, gathered me to him and held me for a few minutes while I struggled to get it together. At last though, he pulled away and after wiping my tears with his shirt tail, said, “You know I love you, Tina. But it was never going to work. I’m never going to be able to marry you. I’ve been living in a fool’s paradise being with you, but nothing has changed really; regardless of what my wife—my ex-wife—has done, I’m still married to her, according to my vows. And, God forgive me I’m still struggling with guilt for the nights I’ve spent in your bed. So, unless or until He tells me otherwise, I’m not a free man.”
There was nothing more to say. Joe and his son were gone in a couple of weeks. He stayed in touch by phone and letters, letting me know how they were doing. The record store business became a reality called, “Joe-Ben’s Records and made a nice living for them.
I did go visit once; I had driven to Spokane to spend a week watching several of our horses run, and decided on the way home to take a side-trip to Pendleton for a few days. It was so good to see Joe. Being back in his arms even for a little while; was bittersweet bliss. As for Joe-Ben; he was clearly thriving in his new home under his father’s loving attention. “He rarely mentions his mother”, Joe told me, which was further evidence that the move had been the right one. They were happy; a loving, working team, and although it broke my heart that I would never be a part of them beyond friendship, I was glad for them.
I didn’t’ see Joe again until 4 years later….
I was married by then and had given birth to our first child, Aaron, when Joe called one day to say he was coming to town to visit his parents and asked if he could stop by. He and I had kept in contact by occasional phone calls and yearly Christmas cards so I had told him of my marriage and the birth of our son.
My husband, Fred, who I had told all about Joe’s and my time together years before, had no problem with meeting him, so I told Joe, “Yes, of course!”
It was wonderful to see him after so long! There was a tiny twinge of nostalgia over the memory of lost love, but I was very content in my marriage and of course totally crazy about our baby boy. The visit went surprisingly well; it was kind of surreal to see the two loves of my life sitting on a sofa together, talking comfortably about the joys of fatherhood, which Joe knew better than most about.
Later that afternoon, when I walked Joe to his car, he told me how happy he was for me; how blessed I was to have a good marriage and a beautiful baby. And then, with a sad smile he said, “You know, you really were my true love…and I let you get away. I’ll always regret that.”
It was a lovely confession and I’ll always treasure it.
I never saw, or heard from Joe again. But that’s not the end of the story….
The years went by and I continued to send Joe and his son Christmas cards but after a while, didn’t receive any from him. I didn’t think too much of it since both our lives were busy. He had the record store and Joe-Ben, and I, by then, had another child, our daughter, Summer. I thought to call several times but somehow never got around to it.
It was almost 11 years later when I was in Spokane visiting with a dear friend, that one evening Joe suddenly came to mind. As I drifted through my memories of him, I suddenly wanted to hear his voice again. It had been too long… Better yet, I thought, I can make a side-trip through Pendleton on my way home and see him and Joe-Ben in person. Hopefully they were still in Pendleton and would be home. I still had his number in the address book I carried with me, so I excused myself and went into my friend’s office to call.
The phone rang once, then several more times. Just as I was afraid he wasn’t home, I heard a click and a woman’s voice said, “Hello?”
Surprised, I hesitated a second or two. Who was this? A girlfriend? Wife?
“Hello?” the woman repeated.
“Uh, hi!” I said. “Is Joe there?”
The woman’s voice hardened, “Who is this?”
Whoa! Must be a wife and not happy to have a woman calling. I took a deep breath and, hoping to diffuse the situation, said, “Oh…my name is Tina. I’m a friend of Joe’s from Portland. I’m in Spokane right now and thought if he were home I’d maybe stop on my way back to Portland and visit. It’s been a long time.”
The woman snorted. “Huh. Well, I don’t think so, since he’s dead.”
Hearing those words sent a knife through my heart. I couldn’t speak. Joe, my Joe was dead?
“Hey, you hear me? He’s been gone for 4 years,” the woman snapped.
“Oh God, oh God, NO!” I groaned, and burst into tears. In seconds I was weeping uncontrollably.
My sobbing took the woman by surprise. She was silent for a moment, shocked I think, over my tearful reaction, then in a much softer, gentler tone she said, “Hey…hey now. Who are you again, honey? I mean, how well did you know Joe, actually?”
It took me several more minutes to slow my tears enough to explain Joe’s and my story; how we met, how I helped him kidnap Joe-Ben, how long we had been together before he moved away. She listened without interrupting.
Finally, I took a deep, quivering breath and said, “I loved him. And he loved me, but he couldn’t come to terms with breaking his marriage vows. And now he’s just…dead?” The tears began anew.
On the other end of the phone line, the woman sighed. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry for breaking the news to you that way. I had no idea who you were…some woman claiming to know Joe but not know he was gone.” After a moment she said, “But now…yes, I do know who you are. I don’t know that I ever heard your name, but Joe did tell us about you.”
I wanted to ask her about that “us”. But first, who was this woman? Joe’s widow? But her voice was that of an older woman. His mother? While I was still struggling to get my tears under control, the woman answered my, as yet, unasked questions.
“Joe was my daughter’s fiancée’,” she began, “They were months out from the wedding when his plane went down in a thunderstorm. My daughter was with him. They died instantly.”
“Oh my God!” I gasped, horrified at the violence of his, of their deaths. Then, eyes closed against the image, whispered, “Joe-Ben?”
“He wasn’t with them, thank God! His father’s death; my daughter’s death…were devastating to him…to us. But we got through it with the grace of God. It took a long time, though.” She sighed. “So it’s just the two of us now. Ben—he calls himself Ben these days—is 14 now, and Joe would have been so proud of who he’s becoming. We’re a family, him and me.”
The woman and I spoke a few minutes longer; I gave her my deepest sympathy for the loss of her daughter, told her how happy I was to learn that she and Joe had found one another, and thanked her for being there for “Ben”. She, in turn apologized again for the cruel way she had sprung Joe’s death on me, and thanked me for my part in rescuing his son all those years ago.
As we said our goodbyes and I hung up the phone I found myself thanking God for bringing Joe this woman’s daughter to love and for giving him peace in his decision to marry again. I know they’re together in Heaven now, and that makes my heart smile.