In one night, I had dinner at an all-you-can eat salad bar in Arcadia, met my father's first girlfriend in 25 years and weathered a nearly disastrous poetry emergency.
Sound the onomatopoetic sirens; this thing was a relationship 911. Free verse was about to cost my father the best relationship of his life. And it was my fault. What rhymes with "Zero tact"?
So there I was, sitting across the table from dad's new girlfriend, trying to impress her, using my best table manners, eating forkfuls of canned beets on my self-consciously dainty salad and thinking to myself: "This is just weird."
That's when she paused, fiddled with the charms on her necklace and pushed her bangs away from her eyes.
She said, "I didn't know what to wear. I had on a different outfit, but my kids and grandkids made me change clothes. I was really nervous to meet you."
"Me too," I replied, exhaling. "I'm used to introducing boyfriends to my dad, but I've never been on the other end. I'm so glad you're nice!"
And it would have been quaint if that were the evening's only awkward moment, the one we joked about later. Instead, our initial moment of bonding caused me to let down my guard. It happened slowly. First, we talked books. I recommended "The Corrections" and she suggested a short story by George Orwell. I loved her, black top, khaki pants and all.
Her most shining moment was when she joked about my dad's "fold out" yard, the one at his mobile home.
"The yard is Astroturf," she explained, in a just-us-girls way. "When I come over, your dad unfolds it for me. It's like the mobile home's red carpet."
That she could not only accept a man whose "home" needs its tires rotated, but also make little inside jokes about it and at one point, according to my dad, even fix a leak in the mobile home's roof, made me adore this woman. A nice lady, a high school Spanish teacher, even. I wanted to put in a good word for my dad, which is when things went sourer than yesterday's bowl of wilting Caesar.
"Have you seen Dad's Web site?" I asked innocently, sure she had. "I went on there the other day. How do you like having all those poems about you online? I hit the word 'ravage' and I was out of there."
She fiddled with the charms again, which is when I noticed the crucifix. This is also when I observed her face flush and put it all together: schoolteacher, religious, neat ponytail, Republican. She had no idea about the poems, or the fact that the word "ravage" had been used in a sentence with her name.
"You know I'm a very private person. I told you whatever happens is between us," she whispered, a bit panicky, glancing sidelong at my dad.
"Yeah, between you and anyone with access to the World Wide Web," I muttered.
My dad and I burst into that explosive embarrassed kind of laugh, but we stopped short because she wasn't laughing. She got up to splash her face with cold water. He looked at me, beads of sweat on his upper lip.
I couldn't stop apologizing. She returned from the rest room looking damp, but composed. Within a half an hour, she was fine.
Dad and I got in the car to drive home and before we were buckled in I asked, "How bad is it? She could be logging on right now.
"It's really bad, Teresa. There's one poem -- the ravage poem -- she just can't see."
From the car, we dialed his Web master, a friend of mine, waking her up. When she looked up the poem, doing a search for the word "ravage," she said simply, "You better hope I can pull it down before this lady sees it. Wow. Why did your dad post this? OK, it's been deleted."
We knew we had beaten her to the computer. And we started laughing again so hard I almost drove off the road. Love makes you do crazy things, makes you write volumes of pseudo-erotic poetry with forced metaphors and unfortunate rhyme schemes, makes you want to scream from the leaky rooftops, makes you want to post your drippy thoughts on the World Wide Web for no good reason at all and makes you spill your dad's secrets over croutons and fountain drinks just trying to engage his new girlfriend, to flatter her.
As I drove, I was flooded with the feeling of how right this all was, that my dad fixes cars and posts poetry on his auto shop Web site, that neither of us have any tact, that she didn't really care, because he has finally found someone as nice as he is. It was poetic justice.
Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She's on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.