I haven't written much about my foster father, Ray. On the one hard, the three or so years I lived with him (mid-second-grade through mid-fifth-grade), and the faith he always had that I wouldn't turn into my mother, were both life-saving. On the other hand, he's an alcoholic pedophile who's turned into a kind of creepy bitter loner as he gets old. We don't talk very often now, and it's mostly about birds when we do.*
I think my mother more or less stalked Ray for as long as she knew him. He's ten years older than she. They were clearly friends, and probably lovers, before I was born (simple blood typing suffices to prove he's not my biological father; eye color, too, for that matter). When she moved to the city with me, in 1976, after my grandfather went bankrupt, the only apartment she could afford was in an extremely scummy part of Manhattan. Ray let her use his address to get me into one of the good public elementary schools. And when she cracked up hard (walking up and down the middle of 14th St. naked, apparently, while I was locked into the apartment), she signed custody over to him. (Yes, it pissed off her parents but good.)
Ray grew up in San Francisco and Marin County. His father died very young, and his mother remarried. He has three much younger half-siblings who live out here still. In 1978, and again in 1982**, he flew me out for a summer vacation. Big TWA widebodies, leaving from the Saarinen terminal at JFK: the only way to fly, baby.
We stayed with his mother and stepfather, in a lovely little mobile home park in San Rafael. No, really, it was very nice, carefully landscaped and all double-wides on foundations. I don't know if it was intentionally a retirement community, or whether that was just who-all ended up living there. There were little lakes, and a pool and a hot tub. I walked barefoot in the (ouch!) spiky grass and sunbathed by the pool.
As I lay baking, I tried to figure out which way was east, and I thought about how far three thousand miles really was. And I wondered if Ray was planning for us to just stay in California, like my grandmother kept saying he was***.
If anyone had asked, I would have applauded such a plan. We were building towards an epic, nasty custody battle, and the side I was living with had me pretty thoroughly brainwashed already. And, let's face it: my mother was crazy, and my grandmother was extremely bitter—over losing her house, losing her daughter to illness, losing her granddaughter to an atheist of evil intent. Weekends with them sucked a whole lot.
But I've been left with a sense of double consciousness when I'm out here, ever since. I could have gone to grad school in California. I remember standing, looking out over the ocean, on a beautiful sunny March day (sun! March!), and realizing that, despite the weather, despite the beauty, despite the fabulous program I'd been admitted to, I didn't want to live someplace so alien. I'm always aware of the distance. There's a little undercurrent of betrayal that feeds my distaste for the brown hills, the dust, the traffic, the derelicts, the uninsulated houses, and the eucalyptus groves.
*The last time I saw him, we walked around Central Park. We saw a green heron by the Beveldere, and some fancy ducks, and then watched the Pale Male powwow for a while... a chick was being fed. I didn't see him when I was in New York this fall. He didn't come to Annajane's funeral. And I haven't told him I'm pregnant.
**Yes, the second trip was after the custody battle. I don't know how, or why, my grandparents agreed to it, and the tension was much higher than it was for the first trip. I also lived with Ray the summer after 9th grade—after that, I found academically-based ways to leave home whenever school wasn't in session.
***Of course, it was ultimately my bloood relatives who kidnapped me, more or less. They got a court order one Christmas that blocked my going back to Ray's.