Men in army uniforms are talking and laughing. Candles light the long table. I ask my father for another piece of meat, one with a bone in it. He cuts off a piece and gives it to me, saying, “Here’s one with a bone in it.” It's steak, which I love. I slowly eat the meat, expecting to find the bone. I finish it and still there is no bone. I ask my father where it is and he says, “Well, it's just as good as a bone.”
* * *
I live on the Stewarts’ farm in Carmel Valley. I am their foster child. My father comes for a visit. He takes me to a bar down the road, where he sits me at a table in the dark room and orders himself a drink. I'm wearing a too small T-shirt and my tummy sticks out. He gives me a bowl of potato chips. He drinks more. I've looked forward to my time with my father, but now I don’t know what to do, sitting there while he drinks.
* * *
Even though I fought against going to Michael’s and treat him like the sullen 13-year-old girl I am, I grudgingly notice that he enjoys having Peter and me living in Carmel with him. He takes us to a grocery store in Monterey and tells us we can get anything we want from the store. I fill the cart very high, wildly picking sweets and new foods I've always wanted to try. He buys me a flute so I no longer have to use a borrowed school flute. At night, before we go to sleep, he puts Verdi's Requiem on the record player. I fall asleep secretly loving the sound of the chorus.
One evening Peter, Michael, and I sit on the soft sand of the beach at the end of Ocean Avenue. We've just finished eating dinner on the beach. I'm amazed we can do this since it’s late January.
My father looks at us and says, “Just like a picnic.”
“But it is a picnic,” I say, confused.
* * *
Michael has gone to court to get custody of Peter and me after our mother has all but kidnapped us, whisking us away from Carmel without telling him. The judge doesn’t want to give us to either of our parents, but he decides we should spend some more time with our father. I storm out of the courtroom and say I won’t go back to Michael’s.
The judge threatens a juvenile home so I go with Michael, still crying. I feel lost, that nothing will ever be right again. Michael stops for dinner at a fancy place in Carmel Valley that he knows I like, but I refuse to get out of the car. Peter won’t leave me in the car so Michael drives on to Carmel without stopping for dinner.
Michael doesn’t want us to talk to our mother so he takes us on a road trip, driving east, through the Sacramento Valley, across the Sierras to Reno, all the way to Salt Lake City. He then turns around and goes back to Reno,back to Lake Tahoe, over the mountains again, and through the valley. From motel to motel, swimming pool to swimming pool, I refuse to talk to Michael. I speak only to Peter, and he believes everything I say about how wonderful everything will be if we can live with our mother again.
I am in an inner tube on the icy water of Lake Tahoe, floating next to a girl I’ve just met by the lake. She takes me to their little motel cabin and I meet her father. I can’t stop myself from telling him all about Michael and the custody case. He’s nice, he listens, then he says, “Try to remember that this will be over someday. You won’t feel this bad forever.”
* * *
Michael no longer lives in Carmel, but in a small, dried out strip mall in a neighboring town. He owns this strip mall, with its dirty motel, dark steak house, and poker parlor. I’m visiting him for the first time since I left California almost 30 years before, 40 years after I floated on that inner tube on Lake Tahoe. I’ve come with a friend. The three of us have dinner in the steak house. I mention Peter, and Michael says he never understood why people feel the bond of fatherhood. He talks about his current girlfriend, and how he still can't live without sex. I'm appalled, embarrassed that he should be talking like this in front of my friend. He asks me what good I'm doing the world working at a place like Goldman Sachs and whether I have friends in the 57th Street art world. I bristle, defensive and angry.
I have breakfast with Michael the next morning, just the two of us, in a small apartment above the poker parlor. The apartment is almost empty of furniture, the floors covered with a light yellow wall-to-wall carpet that has a silver, synthetic sheen. There are old German lithographs of knights and saints on the walls. He has covered the small kitchen table with dishes of cereals, fruits, eggs, smoked fish, cheeses, and breads, as if he doesn't have any idea what I'll eat so he's decided to put everything he can think of on the table. I show him photographs of me as a young woman, of my young son, of me in Africa doing fieldwork for my PhD, trying to tell him what my life has been like in the years since he last saw me. Finally, he says, “Well, I guess you did make something of yourself.”
* * *
Michael is dying. I don't go to California. Peter does. I talk to Michael on the phone from the hospice the day before he dies. Peter is in the room with Michael. He tells me Michael can't talk anymore but he can still hear. I'm not sure what to say. I ask him if he remembers our picnics on Carmel Beach. If he remembers how he said, "just like a picnic," knowing he can't answer, just talking into the silent phone.