My Parents Are Married, But My Dad Has a Mistress
My parents met at a party in New York City during a double date in the early ’70s. The couples switched partners because my mother and father had better chemistry. Less than a year later, they married.
They are technically still married, but have been separated for over two decades. I assumed they loved each other dearly in the beginning of their marriage. Once, I came across one of my mother’s journal pages in which she wrote, “He was fly”; a reference to my dad.
Recently, when I asked my dad about my mother, he said, “I loved her.” He paused then added, “She’s a very nice lady. But in a relationship, you need trust and communication.”
He was gingerly talking about their relationship, perhaps assuming I hadn’t observed and experienced snippets of things that led to their failed marriage.
Outside of family vacations, I don’t recall many tenderhearted moments and loving words between them. They talked, but it was sometimes cordial tinged with frustration. My dad often accused my mother of mismanaging family finances while my mother accused him of cheating. They were right about each other.
When I was a child, certain phone calls were a signal. The phone would ring once. Then the person hung up and called back. If my siblings, mother, or I answered the phone the second time around, the person hung up. If my dad answered, he kept the conversation short, stilted. My mother lamented that it was my “father’s woman.”
Calls like these happened frequently. My mother was likely right about the caller.
As an adult, I dubbed that woman Mistress Lady even though I knew her name.
My mother raised me, and growing up, my relationship with my dad was mostly distant. We became close when I was in college. After years of working on our relationship, I’m now a daddy’s girl. My dad calls me his Number One or The Commander. We talk every other day. He asks how I’m feeling. Tells me to try my best. Inquires about my work and so forth. We launch into a series of I love yous followed by God bless you before hanging up. We talk about everything but Mistress Lady; we never talk about her even though they live together. Every time I return home to New York, I block off time to have brunch with my dad. It’s one of the things I look forward to. Mistress Lady is not invited. I also distinctly remember looking forward to surprising him at his 70th birthday party. My dad invited me, but initially I told him that I had a scheduling conflict. At the last minute, however, I was able to find a workaround and arrived, unannounced.
I didn’t recognize most of the people in attendance. I walked to the back of the room where my dad was standing. His eyebrows shot up and we bear-hugged each other. My dad reintroduced me to two of his friends, and it was good to see their semi-familiar faces. He too, had a surprise for me. Mistress Lady was present as well. I hadn’t seen her in over seven years.
My dad clasped my hand and tried to make me join hands with her. I snatched my hand away, proffered a curt hello and turned my back to her, Mistress Lady, the same woman he had left my mother for. My love for my father had limits.
I had encountered Mistress Lady twice prior to this birthday party. The first time was when my dad had fallen ill and was hospitalized. I was sitting at his bedside when she arrived. Dryly I said hello then we stepped outside to briefly chat, mostly about how she was a homewrecker. I didn’t curse; I spoke evenly, yet she took a step back. I was several inches taller than her, and I’m sure coupled with anger and worry for my dad’s health, Mistress Lady thought I would slap her like my mother did when they first came face-to-face with each other eons ago. My dad had left our home to pick up my birthday cake, but after an hour or so, he still hadn’t returned so my mother left to walk to a nearby bakery. Serendipitously, she ran into my father and Mistress Lady sitting in his car with the windows rolled down. My mother slapped Mistress Lady across her face and continued on.
This, of course, has been an as-told-to-in-pieces story by my siblings and mother over the last 20 years. My mother is still embarrassed about the situation especially since she always preached that “no one should ever put their hands on someone else.”
The second encounter with Mistress Lady was I saw her and my dad strolling hand in hand, close to a decade ago. When I called out to him, they both looked stunned, and Mistress Lady jumped and let go of my father’s hand.
At the party, I didn’t have time to wonder why my dad tried to join my hand with Mistress Lady. I was stunned. If my mother ever found out I was congenial to Mistress Lady, it would infuriate her. My mother never resolved the hurt of my father’s betrayal, and I didn’t want to add more pain to her present. There wasn’t time to contemplate pleasantries because of a slideshow playing in the background. The first image was my father walking my sister down the aisle at her wedding. There were photos of my brothers, brother-in-law, and my dad dining. There were a slew of old-school solo photos of my dad wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses and sitting atop one of his luxury vehicles with one foot perched on the front bumper.
The ones with Mistress Lady were polarizing. They were happy, smiling, holding hands. I was unprepared for those. For a minute, I was furious. How could Daddy do such a humiliating thing in front of us? I wondered. I attempted to avert my eyes away from the slideshow wall but the damn thing looped, and the photos were ingrained in my brain. Up until that moment, I didn’t really process or consider that my father had another life — even though I knew about Mistress Lady.
My sister was standing adjacent to me. I whispered, “Did you see that?”
“Chile…. I don’t know. From the looks of her hairstyle, the affair might have gone on longer than we thought,” she said.
I remained silent. My sister added: “I’m trying to pretend I didn’t see it.”
My brothers were doing a great job of being great pretenders and kept their backs to the photo wall the entire night.
There was not a single picture of my mother or me in the slideshow. Omitting my mother’s photos was understandable, but me? I presumed Mistress Lady intentionally excluded my pictures from the slideshow that she created. Photos of me meant photos of my mother because I am her doppelgänger.
Mistress Lady was petty.
I was hurt.
During the cake cutting, the photographer, who was standing nearby said, “Let’s have a picture with the birthday man and his wife.”
Without thinking I muttered, “She’s not his wife.” He turned around when he heard me, but I didn’t say anything else.
Towards the end of the evening it became clear that I wasn’t a part of Daddy’s family of friends.
They called him by name.
Laughed with him.
Shook hands and hugged him.
Spoke with accents different from his and mine.
Those were the actions of his chosen family.
My dad created another life, and that was a painful realization.
As I prepared to leave the party, Mistress Lady stood at the door, adjacent to my dad. I bypassed her and hugged him. When I stepped back, he made a subtle finger gesture for me to hug her.
That was not an option.
A few awkward seconds later, I sincerely thanked her for organizing the party for my dad; he was elated by his birthday celebration. I left the party with mixed feelings; I was happy for my dad but needed time to process the gamut of my emotions — love, disdain, hurt, and more — which I had experienced in three hours at his party. The next morning, I woke up feeling disappointment in myself for not realizing my dad was more than just Daddy — he had a full, other life that I knew nothing of. The entirety of it made me feel betrayed yet it was an awakening. I’d been forced to see my father in another light, and didn’t like it. I was also moved from hurt to angry about not being included in the slideshow — I wanted to be recognized as my dad’s daughter as well. Mistress Lady was still so petty in my book.
The next day, I intentionally let my dad’s call go to voicemail; I wasn’t ready to talk. As I listened, he thanked me for surprising him at his soiree. He said seeing me was the best birthday gift he could have ever received. He ended the message by saying he loved me.
I listened to all of this in a quandary. I wasn’t quite ready to talk to him. Nothing that I felt could change the fact that Daddy had moved on.
Maybe it was time for me to do the same.