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Sweet People

If I were asked to describe myself using ten adjectives, “tact” would not be among them. So it was that, upon being introduced to a young man at the opening reception for David’s latest photographic exhibition at a gallery in Dallas, I promptly inserted my foot in my mouth.

The woman doing the introducing was Emily, the young man’s mother and my second cousin by mar
riage (as it was explained to me, Emily’s husband Steve is David’s Dad’s cousin’s son). “This is William,” Emily said as I shook the hand of a bespectacled, curly-haired boy. “And this is his best friend.” I smiled and greeted the kid standing next to William. “They’ve been friends since kindergarten, and now they’re in the eighth grade, so you can imagine they’re pretty good friends,” Emily explained.

This is the part where I should have just smiled and busted out an Emerson quote about friendship. Instead, I looked from William to his friend and back to William, and then, in a conspiratorial tone, I said, “In about a year or two, you’ll have a falling out and then hate each other for the rest of your lives.”

Emily gasped.

I’d expected a knowing giggle from the adults, but as I searched the faces around me, all I found were heads pulled back as far as they could go and faces crinkled in a mixture of confusion and horror. “Just kidding,”
I said halfheartedly to the kids. I should have stopped there because I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice when I added, “I’m sure you’re going to be friends forever.”

It was my first time meeting this faction of David’s family. When we made it back to our hotel later that night, I agonized over how I might have offended the weirdly nice people over the course of
the evening. Was it when I’d said, “Shit! Oops, sorry I said ‘shit,’ but it came out before I realized it shouldn’t and now you’ll just have to deal with it,” to Sarah, Emily’s 11-year- old? Or was it when I was regaling the group with my detailed comparison between reality television and grue- some car wrecks?

I’m not used to sweet people. Emily, who, with her baby-blue eyes and blond ringlets of hair, exudes
the innocence of an angel, showed sympathy even for Kim Kardashian. After I’d flippantly commented that the only thing I knew about K.K. was that she’d gotten famous because she bared her notorious caboose on a sex tape that made its way ’round the net, Emily’s face fell, and she looked truly sad for the celebutante. “Wow, you are nice,” I’d said, marveling at the reach of her compassion. The more I thought about it, the more anxious I became about our plans to spend the following day with the whole family.

David and I were collected from our hotel by the family of five. Steve drove the burgundy minivan, Emily rode shotgun, and the three kids — quiet, smiling, polite — were in the back, leaving the two seats in the middle to David and me. Because Texas is known for its barbecue, Steve had planned to take us to a few notable purveyors of smoked meats.

“See that one? Big Al’s? They put too much vinegar in their sauce,” Steve said as we passed by Big Al’s on our way to his personal favorite, the original location of Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. “Sonny Bryan’s uses a hundred percent wood smoke, and they only allow hickory in their smoker.”

While we waited for Steve to order some ribs and brisket (“Just a bit, for tasting and comparison. We’re really only here to get the sauce so we can use it when we get to Lockhart Smokehouse.”), I chatted with Emily and the kids. I’d imagined that with such nice parents, the teens and preteen would be sheltered or naive. But as I spoke with them, I discovered otherwise. Hannamae, the eldest, is an artist; William has the engineering mind of an inventor; and Sarah, the youngest, is more grounded and mature than a few 20-somethings I know.

The second barbecue joint was located in the ultra-hip Bishop Arts District. “Lockhart only uses post oak in their smoker,” Steve explained. After poking around a few of the stores (modern design and eclectic art), we got our brisket, ribs, and other fixin’s to go. The Lockhart dining room was closed for a private party, but we were happy enough to bring the food back to Steve’s home in Plano, a house into which you could comfortably fit 15-or-so San Diego bungalows.

We ate in the backyard, among the flowers and trees. I breathed in the greenery and smiled at the burbling sound of a waterfall (from the Jacuzzi to the pool). After reaching the consensus that Sonny Bryan’s ribs were better, Lockhart’s brisket was better, and everything was better with the sauce, the family went back into the house. William disappeared upstairs, Hannamae disappeared into her phone, and Sarah and Emily (who is a singer and songwriter) disappeared into the recording studio with a group of Girl Scouts who’d shown up to prep for leading camp songs.

Miraculously, I managed to not offend for the whole day. Either that or these people were getting used to me. Or maybe they just had a calming, normalizing effect on me.

I was disappointed when it was time
to go, but David and I had a flight to catch. Steve drove us to the airport, and we insisted he bring the family to San Diego soon (they’ve never been to California).

“I hope they come visit, but I don’t think I’ll introduce them to my family,” I said to David as we were waiting for our group to be called for boarding. It’s true that — as my mother loves to say — we put the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” but not everybody shares our dark sense of humor, and the last thing I wanted to do was traumatize the newbies.

“They were just so… normal,” I said. “Hanging out with them was like being on the set of a sitcom. They made me want to play the role of the crazy, quirky distant relative.”

“I think you already do,” David said, showing his dimples.

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