There was something vindictive about that day, the heat was heavy and filled the air with stagnancy. Spring daring to masquerade as summer. Every room was a jar of tar with how you had to wade through. That must've been my first warning that something was afoot, that fate was rubbing its hands in mischief.
I spent most of those last few days of the vacation at the store, with Naomi for reluctant company at first, and then just Tosh. Whenever the heat relented enough to drive the intense irritation away, Tosh began endlessly rambling about the beach and bicycles and did-you-knows about chickens. Her fizzy bun bobbing in tune with the hollowed melody of Oh Klahoma.
I lay my forehead against the coolness of the tabletop then, resting my burning, sweating eyes. Trying to find a happy place from all this like they tell you to in self-care posts on Twitter. It sounds easy the way they put it, with rainbow emojis and floral motifs. 'Imagine a garden! Fill it with everything you love!' etc. I picture myself on an empty road during a soul-chilling storm.
"And the teacher- Ms.Lily, which I'm not sure is her real last name, but anyway- made the entire class clap. Because I was the only one who remembered to round the answer! And- Dad, are you even listening?"
"Uh-huh," I mutter back, soaked to the bone in rainwater on the curve where a past street meets the present.
She continued, and we sat there, father and daughter. A pair dreading the chaos of the third; she was the second warning, Naomi was. (It's nice, wrapping up everything like this. Trying to explain it to you. People only think foresight trapezes in after the problem. Like this whole thing is something I've already tossed over my shoulder and smiled at, like I'm writing this after the tsunami has passed. No, reader. I'm still watching the wave frozen in space, curling towards me. There is a fear that never leaves.)
That whole year, Naomi was a soap opera. Careful at first, dissembling all the propped up rules and boundaries with subtlety, then crashing into the house of cards or the Jenga tower or the domino line-up with abandon.
Hello, Derek. Hi Ali. How are you doing Finn? Care for a beer while you wait for Naomi?
It became routine, I cared, but not enough, it seemed. The dad-with-a-shotgun shtick was only punctuation at that point. The boys -and the odd girl- knew that. Naomi scoffed at it. So! High heels and cheap makeup and staying up all night on the phone (and unseen cigarettes and whiskey yawns and aunties who wear insults on their fists). A friend of an ex-friend told me that maybe this was her crying out for attention, that she just wanted to rebel. That this was natural.
If it was a cry for attention, she certainly didn't want it from me, said the slammed doors and the rolled eyes. Our conversations dissolved into complaining and demanding on one end and tired submission on the other. I should have put my foot down a long time ago, she said, I can't just start caring now. I have no right.
I stayed there that day, cheek lying on the tabletop long after it stopped being cool. Tosh rambling then stumbling every time she asked if I was really listening. I was; I gathered up every word and gently slid them into my pockets. Couldn't she see that, couldn't Naomi see that? Tosh wanted to leave, wanted to creep into the cafe down the street with the free internet and air conditioning- where Naomi was. I could read that much by her expressions alone. She tried to make up a good excuse, but she also didn't want to leave me alone. I inspire pity, it seems.
"Anyway, I kept telling the principal that he started it but he was like 'both of you are to blame blah blah blah', can you believe that?" She exclaimed, albeit a bit more subdued. There were words that were biting at the inside of her cheeks, waiting to come out. A moment later, they met the air:
"Hey... Dad? You look really tired, do you want to take a nap upstairs? I could mind the shop if you want."
I considered it. I could've let her go, let Tosh- cute, naive, chatterbox Tosh join her sister down the street. I could've had mercy and freed her from the burden of talking to her father. But not that day. That day I decided to be a little selfish. Remember this. This is the third warning. Three strikes.
"Actually... I was thinking we could go see what your sister is up to. Then onward to B. Robbins, the three of us, huh?"
Tosh was ecstatic.
There weren't any customers today and apart from refurbishing Mr. Leibniz's canoe, there wasn't anything I needed to do immediately, so I had no qualms in closing early and immigrating to the other side of the street. Tosh practically skipped through the cafe's doors, leading the assault on her sister. The lash of the sudden cold air on my sweaty body was enough to warrant a short pause, and a long, devouring inhale. The chill traveled throughout my insides and cooled down the hectic burn of my cells.
And then, Tosh, bless her soul.
"Naomi! Naomi, Nao, listen. Dad's taking us out! All of us, ice cream!"
Or, better yet: "What."
Not a question; a simmering threat. She began to boil. So much alike.
There was an all too familiar silent war: the cavalry rode on a glare. The cannons were stuffed with bitten-off words. The auxiliary was the confused face of the girl next to her.
It punched me in the throat, the weight in my chest free-falling down to my stomach. I saw her then, I saw Naomi. Not this one, my Naomi, with tight braids and pink Hello Kitty overalls. I saw her being obliterated. A bucket of ice water was dumped, the rainstorm stuttered; a repressed epiphany.
Who allowed her to meet her ancestors? Who signed off on that? I've done everything a father could do! I'm not an omnipotent mother, I have my shortcomings! This is not something I agreed to.
My defense was triggered, and what a blow it was.
The sisters were horrified, but, more than that, surprised.
That day ended horribly for me; daughter-less, and in a pink plastic chair slurping down flavorless ice cream, something that would prove to be a sort of foreshadowing element of the days to come.
I have begun to see once more the prosecution in the foreground of my mind, howling. "How can you be expected to raise them?" "You're a child yourself!" "They prefer us!" "Get a life." Naomi, brilliantly smart Naomi, ate up their evidence, straightened her tie, and flew to the other side. Taking notes all the way, believing them, practicing them, her rose-tinted lenses falling into the mud.
She hates me, is my ever-running, ever-rampant commentary. My daughter hates me.
I never go there anymore, if you were wondering. That curve. The rain. I've moved on to other gardens, other scenarios since I came to this winter town. Scenes with great, warm fireplaces and soft rugs and the relief of an aching back meeting a velvet pillow. Scenes were I still have them both, just as they were when I loved them best.