My Dad’s Girlfriend


    When my parents divorced, the only bone of contention was the family photographs,

two shelves of albums with wide cushioned covers embossed with golden curlicues. 

Black pages inscribed in white ink, in mother’s Palmer script, have grown thick and

stiff with age.  Snapshots are fixed onto the page with glued corner mounts, telling tales

with smiles and linked arms.  Only babies are caught unaware, mouths open, wailing.  

    My favorite pictures are of my parents when they were young, before my brothers and I

were born.  My mother and Kiki, high school girlfriends, are sitting back to back with a

ginger lei draped around both of them.  The soft rope of flowers snares their slender

necks.  Their shoulders rise high with pleasure.  In another one, my dad stands in a

khaki uniform with a crisp cloth hat shaped like a long envelope.  His sister asked him

to pose in front of the big mango tree at my grandmother’s house.  He is leaning against

the old woven trunk, his hand on his thigh, looking out.  My dad told me that he was

gazing at their beloved dog, Lucky, who was eating good slop from a pan.  On that day

he was eighteen years old and leaving on an army carrier ship for war. 

    The most intriguing picture is of a woman. The caption reads, “Monty’s girlfriend From

Here to Eternity,” a code for something.  It is wallet-sized, slightly faint and blurred, an

image caught in a cloud of bright light framed in night and vanishing walls.  Mother

found it in dad’s cigar box of personal items, given to her by his family when he was

officially pronounced dead—somewhere in the “Pacific theatre,” a term used by

General MacArthur on the radio. 

    Dad eventually showed up alive, curbing my mother’s flow of tears and heroic stories. 

He had to explain the surprise in the cigar box.  “An old girlfriend, before you, w-a-y

before you.”  “Way before?” mother said.  “When you were a boy drinking beer out of a

baby bottle?”  

    As a child I studied this photo and tried to crack the old movie code.  The woman is

looking straight into the camera.  Her leaning posture against a high counter, fine swirls

of smoke teasing the air above her, makes me think it’s a bar somewhere in Honolulu. 

She’s wearing lipstick and a dress with a sweetheart neckline.  Fine collarbone, fine

hollow cheeks.  Her soft hair is permed into waves barely touching her shoulders.  

    My dad told me she was “girlfriend material, not wife material.”  The word “material”

sounded like “equipment,” the way my dad talked about cars.  She doesn’t look like my

dad’s type.  My mother is shorter and rounder with a habit of pressing children to her

breast when she hugs them.  The family acknowledges she is very smart and talks too


    My dad first saw my mother at a church picnic.  He asked her for her phone number and

she wouldn’t give it to him.  So he asked Kiki, who gave him both her number and my

mother’s.  Their first date was at my mother’s house.  Her thick black hair freshly

washed, she wore pincurls snugly coiled and crisscrossed with bobby pins.  She showed

him a place to sit on the lanai, but he preferred to stand, nudging her to a shady spot, a

low ledge protected by old split a’pe leaves as big as umbrellas.  All seven of my

mother’s brothers stayed home that afternoon, feigning naps and chores.  Her two

sisters were also home, dipping white shirts in liquid blue Vano starch.  Each finished

shirt, ironed twice, could stand up without a man inside it.  My mother wore no makeup

because she hoped that my dad would see her inner beauty.  He smoked cigarettes and

talked her into meeting again the next day, a walk along Ala Moana beach.  Her

brothers thought my dad was a bad boy because he went to a tough high school.  He

was worried that my Uncle Danny was going to kill him if he kissed my mother.  Uncle

Danny had a hot temper and tattoos. 

    On a visit home to the islands, I again came across the coded photograph.  By then,

there were no family secrets and my parents were talking divorce.  Settlement of

property was swift and legal, but the photo albums were pawns in a family war.  We

ended up drinking too much and leafing through all the volumes.  I looked for the

telltale rise of my mother’s belly under her wedding gown but didn’t find any. 

(Conceived on a promise, not a vow, I still love the smooth, slippery feel of satin.)  So,

it was a shotgun wedding–seven brothers staring down my dad.  Smiling, he said that

true love is like surrender, it makes a strong man weak.  

    When I asked about the mystery lady, he pulled out a cigarette, rolling and tapping it

slowly, then finally speaking. I crossed my legs and sucked on a coffee candy, resisting

an impulse to fill the air with officious bits of California wisdom.  If we had a day

instead of an hour, I would advise my dad to stop smoking, eat whole fruits and

vegetables, exercise regularly.  But we had only a moment between a steaming lunch

and a heavy dinner of meat and kim chee.  My mother was out of the house and it was

his turn to talk.  

    Her name was Mariko.  My dad’s family did not approve of him going out with a

Japanese because of the historic slaughter and occupation of Korea by Japan.  (Never

mind World War II Axis and Allied loyalties.  My dad said he went to war to prove he

was American.  He was young and not in a killing mood.  He hated only his younger

brother who borrowed his money and dress shoes without asking.)  

    My dad and his girlfriend rendezvous’d in bars around town and walked every street

and side street of Honolulu.  He did not have a chance to say goodbye to her before he

went off to war. The days before he sailed–the first time he left the islands–were

crowded with family and friends coming over to say goodbye.  Uncles slipped money

into his pockets, aunties covered his head with kisses.  Children took turns sitting on his

duffel bag.  Uncle Danny was the only brother still at home on my mother’s side

because of his obesity and skipping heart.  He came over and gave my dad a heavy jade

ring, in case he ever had to bribe someone two-headed and foreign to save his life.  Dad

left the ring behind, in the cigar box. 

    After the war, my dad did not look for Mariko, but he heard things about her. Friends

told him that after he left, she returned to the same bars on her own, asking about him

and doing her best to piece together a chronicle of his time away. The war years were

strange times in Honolulu with young uniformed men everywhere.  Mariko’s pretty face

was not overlooked.  She waved the men off and they kept coming back.  She accepted

cigarettes and drinks, and grew dependent on their attention.  

    She did not marry. She worked as a bank clerk.  She rose in the ranks and became an

expert at postwar home loans.  Another of my dad’s old girlfriends, Sylvia, told him that

Mariko’s ambition paid off, that she owned apartments in town.  Sylvia said Mariko’s

beauty faded over the years from too much alcohol and hard work. 


    “Que sera, sera,” Dad said.  “Girls bring happiness and luck into life.  When they’re

young, they’re built for speed.  When old, for comfort.  Too bad your mother and I

couldn’t last.  We made it through so much.”  Dad smiled as he told me this.  I

wondered what he would do apart from Mother.  A handsome old man is not the same

as a handsome young man.  Who will pay attention?  Old trees left standing, propped

up, hollow with forgetfulness.

    After a few years of push and pull over faded memories and storage boxes, my parents

remarried.  My mother said it was a short interruption in a long life.  My youngest

brother and his girlfriend witnessed the remarriage.  Afterward, they went to a Chinese

restaurant and drank a jigger of scotch with each of nine courses—all this before noon. 

My brother said he’d never been drunk so early in the day.  I called from California and

my kids sang Happy Anniversary to the tune of Happy Birthday.

    Neither of my parents had been satisfied with division of memories and their attorney

had openly wavered on the proceedings.  A family friend, Henry refused to collect any

fees.  He said that over the years he ate and drank a fortune at our house.  He wondered

aloud if my parents would continue to host their New Year’s Eve party after the

divorce.  My mother asked why.  He shrugged, “I’m a bachelor.  If you give up your

parties, there’d be no excuse to use my connections for smoked duck.”  My mother

nodded.  Because of special favors owed him, Henry could get the best smoked duck in

the islands, and he brought a big box to our house every New Year’s.  We ate the duck

with warm steamed buns and curling tendrils of green onions, washed down with cold

beer.  Every year, we praised Henry’s duck as if he sat on the eggs, raised them, and

taught them how to quack. 

    My California wisdom is still evolving, it’s past the basic food groups, beyond deep

thoughts. Still, there’s something nattering about it.  My dad’s school of thought feels

richer, rooted in the loamy stuff of life and decay.  The knack to assign provenance to

ordinary things, to speak of the dead in daylight, to tell stories. 

    I watch From Here to Eternity whenever it shows on late night television. Frank

Sinatra, young and skinny, slums around Honolulu with his dark-eyed twin,

Montgomery Clift, looking for girls.  Like the lost boys of Syracuse, they tempt fate

along ancient highways, trading the familiar for the strange.  In shadow, not yet first

light, the dark twin is shot by military police on an oceanside golf course, dead before

the war starts.  I love his sad smile—he smiles when he insults an officer, he smiles

when he gets the girl, he smiles while panting from a fatal wound.     

    The photograph of a pretty girl outside the family is a treasure claimed by both my

parents.  It resides in an early volume of history and cannot be removed or tampered

with.  My father’s memory of it is an alcove, high and tucked away.  Inside are gaudy

bits of wartime romance—folded letters, hula girl swizzle sticks, the red target of Lucky

Strikes.  I look again at the artifact stolen from a cigar box, fixed on a page.


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