During the first few months of my relationship with Jared, despite the fact that I was falling in love with him, I was beginning to distance myself, the way I had in so many relationships in the past.
I was 24 years old and in my second year of graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the same university where I’d gotten my bachelor’s degree. Spring semester was almost over, and I was lying on a hammock with one leg draped over the side, a giant butterfly tattoo covering my left calf. The tattoo was pen drawn, designed by a 5-year-old, and the 5-year-old in question sat cross-legged in the middle of the hammock. My friend Courtney lay opposite me.
When Courtney’s boyfriend had invited us to this ramp jam—a party that centered around skateboarding—we didn’t expect to be the only adult females present. We also didn’t expect to find ourselves in the company of a quirky 5-year-old girl.
Almost as soon as we walked into the testosterone-filled zone, Courtney and I sequestered ourselves on the hammock, and Joanna almost immediately latched onto us, welcome distractions from her summer-afternoon malaise. A different child might have found herself warming up the back seat while her parents appraised real estate. But Joanna, the child of much younger, hipper parents, had nothing to do but watch her dad and uncle skateboard until we showed up.
Courtney had brought her Polaroid camera and I had a pen, and there was a hammock there, so we easily passed the time taking pictures, drawing butterfly tattoos, and swinging rowdily in the hanging chair.
Later in the afternoon, her father, Jared—never married to her mother, but a steady and wonderful part of her life—breezed over. His round, olive-toned face, big, bright smile, and intelligent eyes struck me as familiar. I was fairly certain he’d been a student in the English department, too, but it was more than that. I hadn’t known about his child, but since we were just saying hello, it didn’t matter to me—though it would certainly come up later. After a short conversation, he went back to skateboarding, and Courtney and I left.
As we walked back to my apartment, Courtney handed me the Polaroid of Joanna. In it, I saw a little girl with almost-wavy, mouse-brown hair, a ski-jump nose, and big eyes wondering at the camera. When I left the party, she stuck with me as much as he did. On some deep level, I thought, “I’m going to be a part of that little girl’s life.” Maybe that’s why I saved the photo.
It was almost a year after the ramp jam before Jared and I started dating. There was nothing spectacular about our reconnection. I saw his profile on a social media site. I sent him a message. He wrote back, “You want to get a drink sometime?” OK.
I knew he had a child—I’d met her—but it didn’t matter at the time. Over the years, I’d made so many rules about whom I would and would not date, and it hadn’t worked. I’d met plenty of guys who matched the image (constantly in flux) of my Perfect Someone. Crushes, basically. But the Perfect Someone never materialized. But here was someone, as plain as it sounds, with whom I could really talk. So, on a hunch, I kept going.
On our third date, we saw Sideways together. It was a romantic flick I didn’t have to feel guilty for liking because of its grown-up plot, smart dialogue, and cool cast. Afterward, we devised ways to extend the night, deciding on the Sundown Saloon, one of our snobby college town’s only dive bars. We stood at a tall, round bar table in the back of the almost empty bar. As usual, it smelled like spilled beer and cigarette smoke. There, over bottles of Budweiser, he told me he had a child.
“I know,” I said, a small smile on my face. “I met her, remember?”
His face brightened. He thought he was dropping a bomb, but I already knew about his daughter.
But things didn’t always easily slide into place. I managed to accept the fact that he had a child without reservation or judgment only because I’d told myself I’d only get to know her if things got serious. I won’t get involved, I thought. I won’t hurt her. I won’t hurt him. He won’t hurt me. We’ll keep it casual.
“Do you want to come over for dinner?” Jared asked one afternoon early in the summer. “Joanna’s here. She’s playing, but we can pick some food up later and barbeque.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun. Besides, you haven’t really met Johanna yet.”
Yeah, that was the point. But during the course of the conversation the impossibility of abiding by my new rule dawned on me. It’d been a couple months, and I couldn’t say no every time he invited me to hang out with him and his daughter. So, with mixed feelings, I got in my car and headed over to his house.
During the first few months of my relationship with Jared, despite the fact that I was falling in love with him, I was beginning to distance myself, the way I had in so many relationships in the past. Not only did I not want to hurt Joanna, sometimes I would see us through other people’s eyes, or the eyes of my younger self—or a self inside me that I don’t like to acknowledge. Through those eyes, our situation looked flawed, and so I held something of myself back.
I realize now that if he hadn’t had a child, I would have found something else to fixate on. So even though I’d broken my rule about not getting to know his daughter before I knew we were going to last, I’d made other guidelines regarding her that I was rigidly sticking to. For instance, I’d told myself I wouldn’t spend the night at his place on the weekends when she was there. I didn’t want to confuse her, and rightly so. But after being in a relationship for five or six months, it became harder to obey that rule, especially since I hadn’t told Jared it existed.
I decided to tell Jared about my resolution one Sunday after we’d dropped Joanna off at her mom’s house. I thought it was only fair to let him know why I would abruptly leave his apartment on certain nights. On a deeper level, my intent was to keep our relationship simple, and safe, but I also think I was testing Jared. Would he fight for our relationship? Would he let me keep things so compartmentalized? Or would he simply shake his head and walk away? I was giving him something of an ultimatum, and yet I’m not sure if the end result I wanted was for him to stay or go, for us really to begin, or to end.
We went out for coffee at a Starbucks in the suburbs of Denver. Holding my cup of coffee with two hands, eyeing the barista, I told him, “See, I’m just not comfortable spending the night at your house when she’s there.”
“Why?” he asked, always a little defensive when I stepped into the parenting realm.
“I just don’t know how long we’ll be together,” I replied, my eyes traveling back to his face. “And I don’t want to confuse her.”
“It’s not like I have women over to my place all the time, or ever for that matter. I don’t think Joanna has even met a girlfriend of mine since college.”
“I know. But, like I said, what if we break up in a couple months?” I held eye contact.
“I don’t know. You can’t predict those sorts of things. Hopefully we won’t. Hopefully we’ll be together a year from now, more than that…five years from now.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I think you’re using the fact that I have a daughter to push me away,” he said a moment later. “I think you’ve been doing it for a while.”
I knew he was right, and the tension I was holding in my body released; and like that, the battle was over, though the war wasn’t yet won.
I made plenty of rules in the early years of my relationship with Jared. Don’t spend the night when Joanna is there. Don’t babysit her. Don’t move in with him. And maybe those rules helped me navigate a difficult situation. But I did the same thing—found ways to keep up a wall—with every guy I ever dated. There were plenty of, “If he doesn’t call by 9pm…” and, “If he hasn’t said ‘I love you’ yet….” In this relationship, though, I found someone who called me out on my immature behavior and was willing to grow with me, most of the time, someone with whom I share interests and have fun.
And I didn’t just find him; I found Joanna, too. But until I let go of the rules that I stacked in front of me like bricks in a wall, I didn’t get close enough to them to find that out.
A writer, editor, and mostly armchair traveler, Bess Vanrenen lives in Denver with her family. She has an MA degree in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s the editor and a contributor to Generation What? Dispatches From The Quarter-life Crisis and she’s currently at work on a novel.