“Sweetheart, where are you?”
“We just got in, Dad. The bus is pulling into the station right now.”
“What?” I looked at the clock. “I thought you were going to call from the road in Jersey!”
“We did call, but no one answered,” Rachel said.
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, reaching for my wallet. “I just realized that Lillie set my cell to vibrate. Okay, well, hang tight and we’ll be down to get you as quick as we can.”
“Oh, that’s cool, we’ll take a cab.” She lowered the phone. “That’s our bag over there, Ray-be, next to the red one.”
“You’ll take a cab? Are you sure?”
“Dad, of course I’m sure. We’ll be there in a minute. I love you. Bye!”
“Bye, I love you.” I turned to Collie. “They’re taking a cab.”
“All by themselves?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Apparently.”
His face lit up. He ran from the room. “Jason! Jason! They’re here and they’re taking a taxi—by themselves!”
“They can do that?” Jason called back.
After a lifetime of traveling to New York—in planes, buses and automobiles—my teenage daughter was now shepherding herself to my door, her future husband in tow.
She felt verse enough in city life to tackle a cab ride with her man on this, his first foray north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Lillie and Collie raced to the lobby to await their arrival.
“Look what we found, look what we found!,” Lillie sang, tugging her sister’s hand through the door.
“Hey, baby,” I smiled, kissing Rachel’s neck as I hugged her. “Hmmmm, I missed my girl.”
“I missed you too, Dad. So look, here’s Ray.” She turned to indicate the fellow behind her tugging a suitcase on rollers. Collie stood behind him, beaming as he carried a bag.
“Welcome to the city, Ray,” I said, taking his hand. I pulled him into a hug. “And welcome to the family, son.”
“Thank you, sir,” Ray said.
“Sir?” Collie laughed.
“You can save that ‘sir’ stuff for when you meet my dad,” I smiled. “Come in, come in.”
Lillie pulled Rachel back to her room to show off her Hello Kitty collection.
“Let Rachel take off her coat at least,” I called after her. “Here, let me take your coat, Ray.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, pulling off a sleeve. “I mean . . . thanks.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said, reaching into the closet for a hanger. “I think I’m going to like having another Southern man around for a few days. Maybe the kids will pick up some manners.”
Ray grinned, handing me his coat. “They seem all right . . .” he drawled.
“They’re Yankees,” I whispered. “I’m raising Yankees, son.”
Ray laughed. He stopped and suddenly jammed his hands in his pockets, looking down the hallway that had swallowed his reason for being here.
“Go on back,” I said, hanging his coat. “The kids want to meet you, and they aren’t likely to turn Rachel loose anytime soon.”
Ray grinned. “Just like her other brothers and sisters.”
I watched Ray amble toward the sound of Rachel’s voice.
Cute, I thought. They are joined at the hip.
Ray was a head taller than Rachel, a solid beefy fellow with a cherubic face topped with bangs. He arrived in jeans, t-shirt and an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. For the next several days, he would always wear some variation of this basic ensemble.
On first impressions, he struck me as quiet and deferential. I wondered how long it would take him to loosen up so that I could get to know him a bit—particularly in the first days of their visit, when we would be with my kids.
I could certainly feel for Ray. It’s hard enough to have a conversation with a total stranger who just happens to be your girlfriend’s father. It’s that much harder when your girlfriend’s siblings are always about.
Oh, right, not girlfriend. Fiancée.
I would have to do my best to put him at ease in our exchanges of sidebar asides.
After the kids settled a bit, we sat in the living room to talk about their trip and plans for the coming days.
“Is there anything special you want to do with Ray while you’re here, Rachel?” I asked.
“No, nothing special,” she said, looking at him. “I mean, he’s never been to the city . . .”
“I’ve never been to any city, really,” Ray said. “Well, DC with my family, when I was a kid.”
“Yeah,” Rachel continued. “So I thought we’d go to the museum. I dunno, maybe the Empire State Building. Oh, and I want to see the Christmas tree.”
“It’s a tree,” Ray said. “We see trees at home.”
“It’s a big tree, Ray,” Rachel grinned.
“We’ve got big trees at home, Rachel.”
“Is there anything you want to do with Rachel, Ray?” I asked. “Oh wait . . . Rachel. Ray. Like ‘Rachael Ray,’ that perky chef? You guys are Rachael Ray!”
Rachel laughed. “Yeah, we get that a lot,” Ray nodded. “I guess she's famous. I had to find out who she was.”
Talk of a chef reminded Rachel that she was starving. We resolved to go out to Patsy’s for pizza and pasta.
We were dining early, but the place was crowded. After a short wait, we were seated at a table for six.
Now we are six, I thought as we sat. My children and my new son in law. My core family. The family no one can take apart, now grown by one.
“Dad, can we get the world’s best pasta?” Collie asked.
“And pizza?” Lillie added. “Pepperoni, okay?”
“Yes, let’s.” The children like paparadella alla tuscana, a thick, curly pasta in a cream sauce with basil and sun-dried tomatoes. “Does that sound okay to you, Rachael Ray?”
Rachel looked at Ray, who nodded. “That sounds fine,” Rachel said. “But I don’t know if it’s the ‘world’s best pasta.’ There’s a really good place near our apartment.”
“You’re cracked,” I said, dismissively. “That joint won’t come close.”
“It’s so good,” Jason confirmed.
“I dunno, that place is pretty good,” Rachel said.
“You’ll soon forget all about it,” I predicted.
We ordered. As we waited, we dipped bread in olive oil and talked.
I noticed that Ray tended to watch and listen. He rarely spoke unless spoken to.
The food arrived family style. We passed plates to Rachel, who loaded pasta from a large bowl. I added brick-oven pizza from a tray.
Lillie sprinkled cheese on her pasta. She put down the shaker and methodically removed the slices of pepperoni from her pizza.
“Lillie, honey,” I asked. “Why did you order pepperoni pizza if you prefer it without pepperoni?”
“I like pepperoni,” she answered. “I just like it on the side, not on the pizza.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea,” Collie agreed, peeling at his slice.
“As if they weren’t eccentric enough,” I stage whispered to Jason.
“Seriously,” he said, folding his slice in half before taking a bite.
Ray gripped a fork in his fist as he shoveled pasta to his face. Sauce drizzled his chin as he bent forward to facilitate his meal’s journey from plate to mouth.
Rachel twirled a bite onto her fork.
“Well?” I asked as she chewed. “World’s best pasta?”
“I dunno,” she said, swallowing. “It’s very good, but I dunno, I think my place may be even better.”
“It’s a great place, Dad. We go there all the time, right Ray?”
Ray grunted as he chewed and shoveled another forkful.
“You can’t be serious,” I contested. “Ray, what do you think? Is this the world’s best pasta or what?”
Ray’s forklift froze mid-journey. His eyes scanned the ten eyes on his.
“I like Tuna Helper,” he allowed.
He punctuated this observation with a fresh shovel to his mouth.
My laughter barely carried over that of Jason and Rachel.
“Why was that funny?” Collie asked, smiling curiously.
“T-t-timing,” I stuttered as best I could.
“It’s true, too!” Rachel laughed. “He loves Tuna Helper.”
“I really do,” Ray said, his mouth stuffed full.
“I don’t get it,” Lillie said.
“Grown up joke,” Collie answered.
At home later, I helped Rachel and Ray get settled as we prepared for bed. I moved a suitcase as Ray and I shot the shit. He fished a pair of pajama bottoms from his bag.
Without a break in the conversation, he unzipped his jeans and pulled them down.
“Please tell me you didn’t just undress in front of my father,” Rachel scolded.
“What?” Ray shrugged, standing in his boxers. “It’s just your dad.”
“Sweet baby, you gots to understand,” I said. “Ray here is a natural man.”
“Yeah,” Ray echoed. “I’m a natural man.”
Rachel fell back in her chair. “I should never have introduced you two.”
I put an arm on Ray’s shoulder. “Sugar, this here’s my boy.”
He hugged me back.
We had known each other about five hours.