I walked through the front door with Cayden behind me, and the smell of black beans and grilled peppers and mojo filled our noses. We were promptly greeted by six barking, tail-wagging, overly excited dogs ranging in size from a gremlin to a baby Ewok. They jumped on me, then jumped on Cayden, then back to me, and back to Cayden until Mom came to the rescue.
"Cooper! Get down! Joey, cool it," she said, taking control of the dogs before hugging me. "It's about time!"
Then she grabbed the liquor/beer bags from Cayden and handed them to my dad, who had materialized behind her.
"It's so nice to meet you!" Mom said as Cayden bent down to hug her and I hugged my dad.
"Such a pleasure to meet you, too," Cayden said, in his proper yet adorable accent.
"Wow, you're so tall!" Mom said, looking up at Cayden from her height of 5'2".
While Dad and Cayden shook hands, Mom turned to me, "he looks so much bigger in person."
It was true. He claimed to be 6'2" but something about his presence was towering. Mom and Dad ushered us into the living room where everyone else was waiting. I was relieved to see that there was no banner, no party hats, no old pictures of me from my awkward years (age 12-15) blown up and hung above the fireplace. So far so good.
"Hey, about time!" my brother in law Jay said, getting up from the couch and hugging me.
"Sorry, umm...traffic, accidents, stalled cars, you know," I said, leaving out any mention of the quickie and the shower. "Jay, meet Cayden."
This spurred a round of introductions, where Cayden met my older sister Noelle, younger brother Corbin, and younger sister Meg.
"Ah, we finally talk in person!" Cayden said when he met Meg. If not for Meg and her international calling, Cayden and I wouldn't have spent that incredible night together in Brooklyn. We wouldn't have fallen in love. We wouldn't be here, in my house, with my family. Thanks, Meg!
After the human introductions were done, I pointed out the four-legged family members. "That's Joey, Cooper, Remi, Roxie, Jasper, and Emmett." My house wasn't always such a zoo, but when everyone came home they all brought their dogs and our family increased, from 7 to 13.
"Can we eat now? I'm staving." Corbin said, making his way to the kitchen table. He'd driven down from Norman, OK, earlier that day to spend the weekend in Keller. If I had to say I was most like anyone in my family, I'd have to say Corbin. We've both always been the over achievers, the writers, the straight A students. That smart ones, the funny ones, the Sooners. Only difference: He was also the popular one. Everyone knew Corbin and everyone loved Corbin. I can't say I had quite that effect on people. Oh, and all the ladies love him. Even my 25-year-old girlfriends ask if he's legal yet. To which I answer, "Yes, but don't even think about it."
We all made our way to the kitchen to claim our seats around the table. I had imagined it so many times: Cayden at the dinner table with my family. And it was finally happening. It was exactly like I'd imagined it: Perfect. He just fit in like a part of the family. It was as if that chair next to mine was meant for him. Like he was the missing link from our 8-seater kitchen table. Like he was family member number 14.
"Whitney, go show him how it's done!" Dad said, gesturing toward the heaping plates of food on the counter.
Cayden followed me to the counter with his plate, both of our stomaches rumbling.
I pointed to the shredded beef in front of us and said, "That's Ropa Vieja. It's delicious." Then I pointed to the pot next to the the beef. "And that's black beans. There's the rice, over there. You can either eat it all together, or eat the ropa veija separate and the black beans and rice together. It's your call."
We all filled our plates and cups and reclaimed our spots at the table.
I pointed to the plate in the middle of the table. "And those are what we call Cuban French Fries. They're not French fries at all really, but they taste similar. But better. It's actually Yucca. And that plate right there? Those are corn fritters. I'm not a fan, but Noelle is obsessed. Help yourself!"
If there's one thing my family was good at, it was eating. Well, eating and drinking. Family dinners usually led to drinking games, followed by an impromptu trip to Pappa Gs, one of the only bars in Keller. But before we dug in, we all held our alcoholic beverages up for a cheers.
"To good food and good family. Let's eat!" my Dad said.
"Cheers!" We all said in unison and clinked our bottles and plastic cups (full of vodka and a splash of Red Bull).
The dinner went exactly as I'd hoped. Cayden fit in with my family the same way he fit in with Ronnie and Shanna. He laughed along as he listened to us poke fun at each other.
"Hey Meg, remember when you dated that Chase guy? What a goober!" Corbin said.
Dad chimed in: "Yeah, didn't we see him in a parking lot somewhere and I said, 'Look at that dork,' and then one of you said, 'Umm, that's Chase. Meg's dating him.'"
"Oh give me a break! He wasn't that bad! Noelle dated that crazy guy in Houston who hit his own mom or something."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I did no such thing," Noelle said, although the rest of us nodded in agreement. This conversation led to another one about which of us had snuck out of the house and how many times. (Noelle was the winner on this one, too. Meg and I were both innocent, and the jury is still out on Corbin.)
Jay and Cayden laughed and commented and egged us on. Jay seemed happy to have another male at the table. In fact, with Cayden there, the girl-guy ratio was even for once. But no matter what, the women of my family always dominated the conversations, while the men sat back amused at how our ridiculous stories played off one another's.
"Ready for seconds?" Dad asked Cayden as he stood up from the table. I couldn't fathom the thought of seconds because the cluster of Percy Pigs, heaping plate of ropa vieja, and four Leffes were occupying every square inch of my stomach. But somehow Cayden decided to manage plate two.
"Hey, babe," I called from my chair, while Cayden scooped ropa vieja on his plate. "Go easy on the beans, OK?"