My Father’s Girlfriends
From time to time he slept with one who had what he called “real class,” who knew how to dress. Maybe she’d spent time in Europe and had a taste for luxury. She worked for some specialty store and would watch coolly as my father — looking masculine yet stylish, darkly Mediterranean, recently manicured, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up on his forearms, his colorful silk tie loosened — showed her the latest in sportswear and then asked her to dinner, business, of course (though she understood). A sleek brunette, maybe, with great legs. Next day, he’d send flowers and a romantic note. “Women,” he told me, “all of them, crave attention.” From time to time it was a prostitute, though by thirty-five he’d mainly outgrown that sort of thing. Nothing tawdry, not the tough whores he and his buddies used to drive up to Albany for when they were eighteen. But nothing extravagant, either. A small, neat West Side apartment. Curtains in the bedroom, like home. She’d never make him rush. He could take an hour if he needed to. “They’re the only ones,” he told me, “who really know how to please a man.” But nine times out of ten the women were like him, Jews or Italians out of Brooklyn and the Bronx, one step from the ethnic ghettos, trying not to smell of pastrami or spaghetti sauce, or talk with an accent, dressed to kill, slick and ready with a joke — good-looking, youthful women who glanced in the mirror a lot and wore beautiful clothes; who knew their looks were an asset and were determined above all not to be old-fashioned. Who’d discovered quickly what marriage could offer and what it couldn’t. Who could keep their mouths shut and not tell other people what they didn’t want to know anyway. They liked to gamble, but not too heavily. The way I imagine it, only once in twenty-five years did anyone come close. He was forty-five and watching the gray make its steady advances like a disorganized guerrilla army through the countryside of his thinning hair. She worked for a department store in some small Midwestern town, and something about her shyness cut way into him. She was fifteen years younger. They only slept together twice, but he was haunted. She never asked for anything, and he was afraid he couldn’t forget her. Worst thing he’d ever felt. He knew what it would mean if this ever got out — what would happen to the family, what his sisters would say. He wasn’t somebody to throw it all away on one spin of the wheel. So he let it die out. Sitting home, watching TV, and tossing the football with me in the street. Somewhere in his early fifties he got attached to a seamstress who worked in his business — a motherly woman with a sick husband. She made him dinner when they worked late. He gave her extra money, quietly; just relaxed and let it happen. Only his wife couldn’t tell. She used to say, over and over: “Jack worships the ground I walk on.” Sundays, twice a year, we went to the cemetery where his father was buried. We mumbled the Hebrew prayer for the dead and, keeping with tradition, put a small rock on the gravestone to show we’d come. Usually, we went home without a word. But once, when I was twenty, wiping tears away, he started to tell me about my grandfather: “He never raised his voice. He was the sweetest guy. I’d hear my mother yelling at him in their room. And he never yelled back.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because everything she said was true — he ran around and gambled and . . .” He stopped. “He was the nicest man. Everybody loved him. But just once I wanted to hear him yell back at her. She was right, but I wanted him to raise his voice. To say, ‘Stop!’ ”
My mother at seventy-six has raised a question. It has occurred to her that my father forty-five years ago spent many Saturdays at work. My mother, who rarely thought of anyone but herself; who could not weep more than half a dozen tears when her husband collapsed in the bathroom and died of a coronary on the spot; who remarried within the year and had the time of her life taking cruises around the world that her previous husband could never have afforded — she is starting to wonder was he really working all those Saturdays. Now, in the quiet of the big apartment, with time to think back, she has remembered a woman who phoned once and hung up. And this is when she calls me and asks if I know the answer. And of course I do — I, the secret-keeper, who has found his way out of every embrace. I know the answer, the phone number, the way to the apartment, her body in a black kimono as she answers the door.
There is a difference between having a
thousand experiences and having the same
experience a thousand times.
— Mark Twain
No one can tell exactly how it is for you, but you know all too well. You’re finished, slightly sad, unsatisfied, and you get up, trying to be polite, and go home. You turn on the engine and music blasts into the car and you shiver but don’t turn it off. It’s a short trip home. It’s a short trip.