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Unterberg Poetry Center

I said meeting my Father's Mistress didn't hurt. I lied.

It was August of 1984 when my brother and I met my Father's once mistress, future bride and now, ex-wife. Though she was technically no longer his mistress – my parents had separated two weeks before and my mom, brother and I had moved out of our family home – this was what I'd heard all my mother's divorced friends call her, along with a few other things, when they thought I wasn't listening. 

My dad had taken my younger brother Joshua and me to the Tulare County Swap Meet on one of our court-ordered weekend activities. It was there that we “bumped into her”, this in quotes because even at ten years old I knew, in the same way that I knew “nerd” wasn't a schoolyard term of affection, that our introduction wasn't a coincidence. Just because grown-ups say so doesn't make it true.   

We pulled into the swap meet's dirt parking lot just after 8am. The sun hadn't even climbed past our small town's tallest building but it was already so hot that the air was visible and wavy. The second skin Chemin de Fir jeans my dad didn't notice I wore but my mom had forbidden saran wrapped my thighs in 105 degrees of sweat. To say I was uncomfortable as we exited the car and plodded towards the swap meet's entrance would be like saying bee stings don't hurt. It was an understatement.

It wasn't until my dad waved to someone, a young woman with frizzy brown hair who was nearly as skinny as me but who had boobs the size of cantaloupes, that I figured out why we were there in the first place. When my parents were married my brother and I were dragged to all manner of antique fairs and second-hand shops, Sunday outings meant to symbolize togetherness and the importance of family. But we all knew this was my mom's invention. Dad was just the chauffeur. 

He loved to haggle but hated shopping. Every outing was the same, his tolerance for bargain hunting diminishing at a rate inversely proportional to his increase in aggressiveness behind the wheel.  After two or three hours of vintage tea kettles and heirloom armoires he drove with all the patience of a maniacal and partially blind octogenarian. Rather than parallel parking when we pulled up to our destination – an estate auction or a garage sale – he'd simply pull his huge gray company van onto the seller's lawn. 

Of course, this Sunday outing was different.  My dad was nervous and I knew why. Love, at any age, is hard to hide.

“Jennifer! Hey. Over here.” His voice skittered and tripped as he called out to her. I imagined these words bouncing along the walls of his throat then ping-ponging between his cheeks, across his tongue and out his mouth. The image reminded me of skipping stones on a lake. They make little splashes across otherwise calm water but sink after losing momentum.

“Funny we should see you here.” He then broke from the triangle that he, my brother and I had formed to give Jennifer a peck on the cheek. She tilted her head to the side and, looking up from the corner of her eyes, smiled at my father in a way that made me mad and happy at the same time. 

My dad didn't officially ask her to join us, but we entered the swap meet together and abided by what seemed an unspoken agreement to remain a consistently close but sufficiently cautious ten paces apart while parsing the ground's narrow aisles. Each time my dad stopped to inspect an old typewriter or examine a set of cast iron trivets, I looked for Jennifer. Was she okay? Did she get lost? Did she feel left out? 

I should have been angry at her. She was horning in on what were already the precious few moments my Father had been willing – the wrong word, perhaps, given that these moments were legal mandates – to spare, to share with my brother and me in the months that followed my parent's divorce, the philosophy for which seemed to be, “let's punch each other’s lights out and see how long we stay standing.”

But instead, I felt sorry for Jennifer. There was something in her casualness that belied grief and frustration, sadness and need. She tucked all of it in beneath a pastel pink tank top and a tight-lipped smile, but her childlike desire to be at the center of things was palpable and familiar. I suspected that, like me, she knew how it felt to be second-most, third-most, tenth-most important to someone. I wanted to know why my dad loved her. I wanted to know who I had to be to make him love me.

At lunchtime my dad, my brother and I stopped for pizza and lemonade at the far end of the swap meet where all the food stands were. Jennifer stopped too. There was nowhere for her to pretend to be shopping. I told my dad to invite her to sit with us. He did, and I shared my soda with her and asked about the cats that she had pictures of on her key chain.

When we finished eating, I collected our paper plates and soda bottles and took them to the trash can at the opposite end of the long picnic bench where we'd sat. I was gone only seconds, but in the time it took to throw out the garbage, my brother, my dad and Jennifer had gotten up from the table and begun making their way towards the swap meet exit. My dad was holding Jennifer's hand. I skipped to catch up to them. 

It was then that I realized I'd had it all wrong. It wasn't Jennifer who needed inviting, it was me. In fact, she had replaced us all. Soon, she would buy my father new shirts, introduce him to her friends, take him camping with her family, move him far, far away and make sure she was never second-most important again.

We said our goodbyes. My dad whispered something in Jennifer's ear, then she left in her hatchback and my dad drove me and my brother, too young to notice the little tsunami that had just drowned our former life, home in the van. 

Later that night, when my mom asked, “How was it with your Father?”, I answered with an understatement.

“Fine,” I said. It was like saying bee stings don't hurt.

Amanda Cargill writes about food, travel and the arts in Latina Magazine and on Latina.com and TheLatinKitchen.com. She received her BA in Sociology from UCLA and currently resides in Brooklyn.