Richard Johnson was the patriarch of the Johnson family. He was small, somewhat effeminate, and a ring of red hair circled his balding scalp. He had deep lines on his face and an equally deep well of sarcastic humor to call upon when needed. He often smoked cigarettes, sitting cross-legged on a stool in the screened-in patio downstairs.
“Just so you know,” he said when I first arrived, drawing in a puff of smoke. “We’re going to be bringing you in to the dentist. Those teeth are going to be taken care of.”
My stomach dropped. I hated the dentist. The last one I’d gone to was the one my stepdad brought me to see about a year before. That dentist I had kicked in the chest after he made me hold a mirror for him while he poked my gums with a sharp metal stick. He refused to ever work on me again after that.
“I don’t want to see a dentist,” I said quietly. I fidgeted with my shirt.
“Well, that’s too bad. You’re a ward of the state, now. You’re going to have to go to counseling, too.” He sucked in another swig of smoke. “Every week.”
Richard was an odd guy. In the end, he was probably the least weird member of the entire foster family I lived with for a couple of years in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was the least intimidating, the least emotionally-charged, the most fun (when he wasn’t bringing me to the dentist). He organized a “Guy’s Night Out” which happened once a week. We’d go see a movie, or go to Joker’s, or maybe out to do some bowling or laser tag.
My foster mother, Elaine, was a teacher and although she seemed to have some patience due to her profession – she was awfully high-strung. She had short, gray-ish hair and her look and mannerisms reminded me of Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. It really was uncanny. The way she looked, the way she lisped and waved her hand while she spoke, the way she rolled her eyes and laughed. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he had actually studied her and shadowed her for the role. She and I never really had much of a connection. She didn’t seem too curious about me, or interested in my future. I was almost more of a house guest of their first foster son – Cody. She seemed to be quite taken with him, and in a sort of weird way – not your typical mother-son relationship.
The Johnsons had two daughters; Eliza and Kate. Other than that, the rule was that there were to be no girls in the house. Kate was off to college, and so I didn’t really see her that often. To my teenage mind, I thought she was super-pretty. I think I maybe saw her twice the entire time I lived there. Eliza was often home, though, and she loved the “no girls” rule because it meant she was free to flirt with any of the men in the house she wasn’t actually related to (aside from me, thankfully). Eliza was often loud, raucous, and her face got red when she spoke. She was talented, very smart, and played the piano,though – and those are the things we connected on whenever we actually spoke.
Aside from me, there were three other foster kids in the house, all boys. On top of that, the friends of said boys – often a stable in the Johnson home – brought the total number of non-related males in the house to nine or ten, depending on who was over. Once, Eliza got herself in hot water with her father after she’d walked upstairs, naked, and entered the room we foster kids shared (this is before I arrived) and laid down next to Cody. He told her loudly to get out, prompting my foster parents to come upstairs where they found her naked. Scandal. Even at my young age, I could see she had a thing for Cody and his friends.
After I’d arrived, it seemed that that sort of thing had died down, somewhat, aside from the time that Cody had gotten mad at our foster mom and decided to rip up a note he’d written her once. She was devastated, and in a strange high-school way when teens break up with each other – not in a mother spurned by her son kind of way. It was awkward.
Cody was an interesting kid. He was a little bit older than I was, by a year or so, and he’d been the first foster kid the Johnsons had picked up. He wore track pants, a “wife beater”, a ball cap, and big sneakers. His face was always in a sort of half-grin, and he was always riding a BMX bike around the city and smoking cigarettes. He introduced me to Adam Sandler’s stand-up and comedy CDs. He also introduced me to the Wu-Tang Clan, and rap music in general. I think he took pity on me when I first arrived, seeing how nervous I was. He showed me some boxing techniques on the punching bag downstairs, and one time he even helped me with a science project for school where I had to build a housing for a fragile egg and drop it inside the box from a window so that it wouldn’t crack or break.
When I arrived, Cody was the only other foster kid. He had two friends, Brian and Jason, and they would come over often and we’d all play Dungeons and Dragons or video games or watch action movies. That aspect of foster care was great. When I had originally moved to New Hampshire, I was hated by the other kids in school because I was a lot poorer than they were. They threw rocks through my window, I was chased through the streets, I was messed with at school. Now, here I was in a sort of stable home life with pseudo-brothers I could count on to stick up for me, and friends to hang out with on a daily basis once they got to know me.
Later on, we acquired two other foster kids. Tyler and Adam. Tyler was a sort of less-nice version of Cody. He was short, he had a temper, and he was super-sarcastic. Adam was a younger boy with serious psychological problems. He’d been molested, probably even more than I had when I was younger, and we all learned to steer clear of him or else he’d try to touch your penis or put Legos in your butt. Yes, seriously.
I lived with these people and learned their quirks. I often wondered why I was living there with people who often had “real” problems. Of course, I did have problems, but I didn’t see it that way. At that point, I still wet the bed, I exhibited behaviors consistent with those who’ve been sexually assaulted. To me, my pain and life hardships were “normal” and as such – I wasn’t really as affected by them as other people might be.
We all ate dinner together, something I wasn’t used to. Three meals a day. They taught me to eat with silverware, since more often than not I just picked up whatever food we were eating and ate it directly with my hands. It was how I was brought up. They said I ate like “a savage” and that they wouldn’t have it in their home. When I arrived at the Johnson’s, the social worker who’d dragged me along brought me clothes shopping and threw away all my other clothes because they stunk like piss and dirt, and were falling apart at the seams. No, none of these things were normal that I was used to, but I didn’t know at the time.
When you move into a foster home, you expect them to be like something out of a sitcom like Leave It To Beaver. It wasn’t the case there. Aside from all the strange family politics going on, and the troubles of kids like Adam and Tyler, the Johnsons were not a conventional family. First of all, they swore like crazy. The first night there, I’d resolved not to speak to any of them. The social worker threatened that if I didn’t talk to them and if I didn’t make myself likable, that I’d be placed in a group home. But the family coaxed me out of my shell by demonstrating that they weren’t an uptight bunch, dropping multiple F-Bombs and saying “shit” and “god damn it”. They said these things enough so that I laughed during dinner. Before then, I’d been morose and disgruntled, having been lured to the guidance office at school before they locked the door behind me and informed me that I’d be going to a foster home, against my will.
Life in the foster home was a short duration of time in the long run, but for me – it was a time of change, of self-reflection, of healing, of lots of things. There are too many little stories, too many events, to go all into one blog post. What I’ve done here is give you an introduction to the circumstances, to the cast of characters in my life at that time. In later posts, I will tell you about certain events that happened, certain encounters with people, certain things that go along with being a ward of the state. Take from it what you will.