I was trembling, tearing open the envelope, with its official return address, University of California, San Diego, Department of Music, Graduate Division. “I am happy to inform you,” it began — but didn’t I know the rest, hadn’t I known it in my gut for months, ever since I kissed and mailed the application, that my westering dream would, in fact, come true? “The Department of Music is recommending that you be admitted,” and then I couldn’t see the words, for I was crying and running to tell my wife and four-year-old twin sons: We’d be moving to Southern California.
I didn’t say that last bit right off. I read out the “offer”: Full-tuition scholarship, a teaching assistantship that would pay me $5000 a year, on the Ph.D. track and, in only five years, I’d be a bona fide Doctor of Music!
“What do you think?” I asked my wife. We had discussed the move some; she’d end with “We’ll see if you’re accepted.” Truth be told, we hadn’t been getting along well. The last two years had been tough. The reason was, the reasons were, kids, routine, income: It was difficult for me to find work, so we lived off her earnings. She was a weaver with a booming business. With more time on my hands, I pursued several commissions; one, music for a solo ballet dancer. But these rarely topped $200. A set of bunk beds cost that. She and I didn’t share incomes; everything was split, and she kept a tally. Arguments over money came and went.
“If this is what you really want to do —” she said. We had been sleeping in the same bed but with a clearly maintained two-inch channel of space between us for months, or longer. I looked at her and the tears welled up again.
“I want us all to go so I can have a chance to make something of myself and so, because, I want us to stay together.” At 32,1 was an odd mix — maudlin, like my mother, but somewhat daring, a composer of both avant-garde and traditional music, like no one I knew. Too long in one place, one idea, and I needed a change. But, as I say, I was broke. It was February 1982: The 1980 recession, which put me out of a bookstore job, still lingered.
On top of that, I was an Anglo stuck in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we lived. I’d been reviewing music concerts for the newspaper once a week ($50 a pop) and scouring the Help Wanted ads. The good jobs were in state government or education, and those went to Hispanic-surnamed people, the Bacas and the Trujillos. You had to be Hispano even to wash dishes. To keep me afloat, my wife was paying me (actually, she was deducting it from my debt to her) to build a new fence around our house (actually, she owned it).
“What do you boys think about moving to California?” my wife asked. In the fall, when school started, they’d be five and would begin kindergarten.
“Okay,” Jeremy said, a little too easily.
“It’s going to mean leaving your friends at the preschool,” she said.
“Okay,” he said again. He had such even-temper surety about everything.
“Remember the ocean,” I blurted out — we had visited San Diego the previous year, staying with my wife’s mother, who had relocated to Mission Beach — “where you guys made sand castles and the shorebirds we fed and the zoo and the killer whales at Sea World, remember?”
“That’s San Diego?” Blake, our other son, asked excitedly. “Okay,” he echoed Jeremy with a tad more enthusiasm.
I looked at her again, felt her wanting to go. In fact, one reason I applied was her desire to get free of her business. She and three other women had a weaving cooperative on Santa Fe’s famed Canyon Road. Their success (annual sales of $300,000) required intense organization, keeping books, employees, apprentices. At last, they hired an attorney to discuss who owned what, and everything got personal. Bickering ensued, until my wife suggested a breakup, which the others agreed to. Thus, my California dream my wife had seen as her opportunity too. Besides, her mother wanted her to come, told her she could sell her rugs and shawls at local craft fairs. (I’m not sure my wife needed money; she saved half of what she made, so she told me.)
“Well, I guess we can try it,” she said, at last. With small conviction. I figured marshaling conviction was my responsibility. I also believed that if I was happy, she’d be happy. I gave her a hug and a twirl and did the same with our sons.
Two days later, she drove us to a Volvo dealer where she’d picked out a brand-new dark blue DL station wagon. “If we’re going to San Diego, we have to have a new car.” I said fine: What was $249 a month for four years. Our future in California would pay for everything.
Over the summer, we packed, held yard sales, painted the inside of the house, and I thought a lot about my dad, who had died in 1975. As a new father myself, I treasured his example: His marriage with Mom never lost its resolve, despite raising three sons and moving every five years for a new job. My obese older brother Steve was often out of control while I, the middle child, the “good son,” seldom acted out. To which my dad responded with tender directness. During the week he was absent a lot, off selling paper products. But when he was home, he’d take a long time tucking me in at night, asking me about my days playing baseball, making models, warming my cheek with his bristly one. It was a loving protection I never forgot.
So, the four of us and our new Volvo, towing a 12-foot U-Haul, drove west in early September and in three days beheld the Pacific Ocean. Near the end of the second day, we discovered the Salton Sea and looked on in Twilight Zonish horror at a phantom community with paved, named streets waiting for houses. The empty lots of Desert Shores looked as though either a very efficient tornado (and a Red Cross cleanup crew) had scraped the site clean or else the homes were invisible. I said to my wife that it was probably the latter: We needed to become citizens of the Golden State — Californianized — to see them. They were there. We just hadn’t materialized within the parallel realm. Yet.