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
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!’ ”
The Question
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
              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,
                 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.