Rachel shuffled from the bedroom. Ray followed a few steps behind.
“Good morning, Dad,” she sighed as she fell onto the couch. Her head landed on pillows and a folded quilt.
“Good morning, darling,” I replied from my desk. “Y’all catch up on your sleep?”
“Yeah,” she yawned. “What time is it?”
“It’s after eleven. The kids just got up too. We were all up pretty late.” I stood and kissed her forehead. “Coffee?”
“Yeah, thanks, Dad. Hey Ray, do you want to . . . ?”
“I got ‘em right here,” he replied, waving a pack of Camel Lights.
“Okay.” Rachel pulled herself up. “We’re going out to smoke, Dad.”
“Breakfast of champions. I’ll have the coffee in a minute.”
With a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes, Rachel’s accent would be chasing echoes of Tallulah Bankhead by sunset.
There are things I indulge my distant daughter.
When Rachel and I were planning their trip, I made an offer my own parents would never have made: they could sleep together in my room. I would camp on the couch.
I recalled bringing Lucy down South to meet my family for the first time. My mother had insisted that we sleep in separate bedrooms.
“Mom,” I argued. “You do realize that Lucy and I live together, don’t you?”
“Yes, but you aren’t married yet.”
“True, but we aren’t virgins, Mom. We do have sex.”
She winced. “My house, my rules, son. You can’t share a bed unless you are married.”
We complied to keep the peace. Lucy slept in one room, and I slept in another. Lucy tried to sneak into my bed at night, but I sent her back. “It’s not worth it,” I said. “Mom will just be mad if she finds out.”
I slept alone on that visit, like the good little twenty-three-year-old child I was.
Now that I’m grown up, I get to enforce the edict “my house, my rules.” At my house, hypocrisy is against my rules.
I know Rachel and Ray smoke, so I let them. I know they know that smoking will kill them if they keep at it, but for now, they have chosen to smoke. I doubt they will smoke forever. Smoking is an enduring phase of late adolescence. Each puff on a coffin nail is an assertion of adulthood, cool and independence. They’ll do it until the new wears off.
I also know they sleep together as a couple, so at my house, I would allow them the privacy to do so behind closed doors.
Though I had to wonder: they weren’t really having sex in my bedroom—were they?
I had alluded to the possibility with Rachel.
“So, you know, just so you know, condoms are in my nightstand.”
“Dad, we don’t use condoms. I’m on the pill, remember?”
“Yes, but . . . well, condoms are great! And they prevent STIs, which the pill doesn’t. So why not use double protection?”
“Yeah, but I hate condoms. And anyway, I’m allergic to latex,” she answered. “Anyway, I don’t think we have to worry about diseases. I’m the only person Ray’s ever been with, and he’s only the third person I’ve been with.”
“Well, that’s a good point, but . . . wait, three? I only know about your first.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I also fooled around with Jack before I hooked up with Ray. Don’t tell him I told you, okay? He’s kind of sensitive about it.”
“Okay, well, I mean, I doubt he and I will talk about things like you and I do. Just, you know, be careful, please?”
“Always, Dad. I’m in no hurry to get knocked up.”
I appreciate it when she assures me of this.
I added sugar and cream to three cups and brought two to Rachael Ray.
“Thanks, Dad,” Rachel said. “I just noticed the time, Ray. We are now officially missing it.”
“Cheers,” Ray said. They clinked coffee cups.
“What are you missing?” I asked, sipping.
“Stevie’s getting married today—at this very minute, actually.”
“Poor guy,” Ray added.
Stevie is my daughter’s former best friend forever. Just a year before, Rachel had brought Stevie to New York for a visit. Shortly after that, the girls got matching tattoos: they each added tiny pink stars, outlined in blue, to their right feet to commemorate their eternal bond.
The tattoos had barely healed when the best friends forever had a falling out. Stevie went into a spiral, breaking up with her fiancé and then quickly making up with him when she discovered she was pregnant. Stevie and her fiancé rebounded to the altar just as her belly began to swell.
Rachel put Stevie behind her. She now spent all her time with the man she wanted to marry forever. She adapted her tattoo to include sparkles. Ray added that tattoo to his back.
Now Rachel and Ray were forever marked as one.
Rachel cozied against Ray as the coffee warmed her belly. He draped an arm around her.
He would love her like this, forever.
That night, we were scheduled to dine with my former forever and always.
Throughout her life, Rachel’s visits to New York have included “girl time” with Lucy. They would reserve time to shop, go to movies, or just hang out apart from the kids and Dad.
This year, as I made plans for Rachel’s visit, I offered “girl time” to Lucy. She declined. “I just can’t, Jefferson,” she explained. “I won’t be able to be nice about the engagement.”
I had to respect that Lucy knew her limits.
That afternoon, I called to confirm the time and place for dinner.
“So what’s he like?” Lucy asked. “He’s Southern, right? Is he all ‘hyuck hyuck, howdy yew all?’” She laughed at her version of a Southern accent, which approximates Gomer Pyle impersonating Goofy.
“Ray is very nice,” I said. “And he is so sweet to Rachel.”
“Of course he’s sweet,” she said. “He doesn’t know any better.”
I suggested we meet early, as we were a large party without reservations.
Rachel wanted to take Ray for his first taste of Indian food. We left out details about the full experience, just letting him know that he would be able to have meat—a prerequisite of any meal Ray eats.
Before we left, Ray told Rachel to stand next to me for a photograph. He had received a new Polaroid camera for Christmas, and he was burning through the film.
“Ugh,” Rachel said as her image came into view. “I look so fat.”
“I would’ve sworn I had eyes,” I squinted.
“You people are too pale to be in the same pictures,” Ray complained.
I snapped some more photographs in the subway. I liked playing tourist with my baby in town.
As we walked down Sixth Street, we attracted the catcalls of many menu-wielding maîtres d'. Ray was quiet in the face of such aggressive hospitality.
Lillie ran ahead when she saw the restaurant we prefer. The maître d' greeted her like a long-lost cousin.
The sense of homecoming was likely an act, but who knows: maybe he did remember the red-haired second grader who has so many birthdays.
We took a table and waited for Lucy. I saved her a seat at the head of the table, between Ray and Collie.
One never has to wait long for Lucy. Punctuality is her fetish.
She came in the door smiling.
“Hi kids!” she waved. “You must be Ray,” she said, extending a hand.
“Yes ma’am,” he stood. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said, her smile never wavering. “And hello, Rachel. Long time!” Lucy extended her hand as she sat.
“I know,” Rachel said, “It’s been forever.”
“What do you make of this place?” Lucy asked Ray.
Ray looked up at the lights and plastic decorations that dripped from the ceiling and walls. “It’s sure an interesting place,” he allowed.
“It ‘shore’ is,” Lucy laughed, opening a menu.
Rachel squeezed Ray’s hand under the table.
I offered to order for the table. I selected chana saag, chicken tandoori, chicken tikka masala, rice biryani and lamb vindaloo, with poori, nan, samosas, aloo papri and piles of the banana pakoras that Rachel craved.
While Rachel and Lillie debated who should have a birthday, I walked to a nearby shop to buy beer for Lucy and myself. I picked up a giant Kingfisher for her and a Cobra for me. (I’ve known Lucy for half my life. I don’t have to ask what beer she wants.)
For good measure, I picked up two candles, one shaped as a man, the other as a woman. As I understand it, these are burned for luck in love and romance.
I stuffed them in my coat pocket for now.
With a little beer in her belly, Lucy began to relax. She teased the kids and while she didn’t exactly warm to Ray, she did engage him in polite conversation on the safe subjects of school, work and family.
He answered her questions diligently, offering nothing more.
Lucy pointed at the platter of pakoras.
“That was too much, Jefferson,” she scowled. “No one wants that many pakoras.”
“I like them,” Ray said. “Can you pass them, honey?”
“Sure,” Rachel said, lifting the plate.
“I want some!” Lillie said.
I took back an empty plate with nary a word of gooey vindication.
After the meal, the thousands of lights were dimmed and the ambient music changed. We clapped as the waiters brought mango ice cream, two dishes with candles for our Irish twins, Rachel and Lillie.
Rachel insisted on contributing to the check, offering me a twenty. I faked the math to return most of her money in smaller bills.
We had planned that Rachel and Ray would stay in the Village to look around as I took the kids home. I wanted to be sure they had some time alone, especially given the crowded conditions at my apartment.
“What are you guys doing?” Lucy asked. “I’ve got, uh, plans in about an hour, but I can walk with you, if you don’t mind.”
“Thanks, that’s great,” Rachel replied.
“Did you see that?” Jason whispered to me. “I don’t think Rachel is too thrilled about Mom joining them.”
“It’ll be okay,” I whispered back. “They need to spend time with your Mom too.”
I was glad that Lucy was reaching out to Rachael Ray. I knew it wasn’t any easier for Lucy than it was for Rachel.
We parted company at Second Avenue, outside a kitschy store Rachel likes, Love Saves the Day. The kids and I headed west toward Astor Place.
“So,” Lucy asked. “What do you want to do?”
“Well, actually,” Rachel said, looking at Ray. “We were going to look for a head shop. I want a little pipe.”
Lucy took Rachel’s hand. “I know a great place,” she grinned, tugging her as she began to walk south.