With 30 minutes remaining before his daughter’s transcontinental flight was scheduled to land, Franklin made his way to the gate.
Seven months had passed since her last visit, and despite the occasional snapshot she’d send from her iPhone, he knew from experience that even a single season could provide enough time for a 12-year-old child and her father to become as unfamiliar as two strangers. And while he could brace himself for the awkward moment it would take his mind to shift to the new reality, it had been easy to see in recent years that the same adjustment could be trickier for a child, perhaps because children are not programmed to expect their parents to age, as even small changes in his face unsettled her.
In her last e-mail she wrote that there was something she was going to ask him during her visit, and she wanted the truth. He knew what was coming: She was going to ask him about his health. She had heard a rumor that he’d had cancer, maybe even still had it, and she felt she was old enough to know. She knew that if she didn’t warn him in advance that she was going to ask him something, he would be too surprised to say anything other than not to worry, and that everything was fine. But with time to prepare, there was at least a chance he would tell her the truth. She figured 12 was old enough for a person to know the truth about cancer.
Adorning the glasses he usually reserved for driving, he was determined to recognize his daughter before she spotted him. So one after another he considered each possibility pouring out of the gate until a giant plum as big as a bowling ball crashed into his chest.
By any account it was unfair of her not to alert him that she’d be arriving with a new hair color, especially one as different from her natural color as plum, but he couldn’t deny that it was an effective way to thrust her love of surprise back into his world with a bang.
“I love it. I do.”
Her full-force embrace hadn’t lost any enthusiasm since last season, and with a deep breath off the top of her head he managed to catch a whiff of the toddler she had been, surrounded by the powdery air of her stuffed animals and a vanilla hint of her plastic dolls. Part of him knew it was delusion, too much time had passed for her to be carrying even a shadow of these aromas with her, but he allowed himself to enjoy them anyway.
Ending their embrace and setting her feet back on the ground, he slung her backpack over his shoulder.
“Let’s do a camel ride.”
Her words surprised him; it was as though she knew he had just enjoyed himself with her younger version from the past and decided to build upon it. “Camel ride” referred to her riding atop his shoulders — rides that, for both of them, provided some of their fondest memories, and for him sometimes brought regret, as it would be forever sad that such experiences were locked in the past.
He had not carried her on his shoulders in years, and the idea intrigued him, but he couldn’t help wondering how his back would take it. And it was an odd request; the last time he hinted, which had been over a year before, she gave him an embarrassed look.
“You mean here?”
“No one’s here. It’ll be fun.”
“You won’t be embarrassed?”
“No, but if you’re not feeling good I understand.”
“You trying to test me? I feel good. I just want to find a bathroom first — ”
“Bathroom? Since when do you leave me alone in an airport?”
“You’re old enough now.”
“You don’t have to go to the bathroom.”
“I think you want a bathroom because you’re going to take pain medicine for cancer, I’ve heard of that.”
“I really have to go.”
“Then camel ride me there. It won’t take any longer.”
“Fif, I really have to go.”
“If you had to, you would’ve gone when you were waiting for me.”
“Fif, I’m serious.”
“We’ll go together.”
“You wait outside.”
“I’ll come in. It’s not safe for me to wait by myself.”
“You’re not coming in the stall with me.”
“If you have to take a pill, it’s no big deal. I know it doesn’t mean you’re dying or anything, so just tell me the truth and then I’ll wait outside like you want, even though someone could molest me.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“I could be molested. It’s very common.”
“You won’t be molested.”
“C’mon, just one quick ride so I can I remember them in my head forever.”
They’d been moving with the tide of people from the flight. Franklin slowed down.
“Fifi, I’m wondering if you want a camel ride because you know I miss those days, and you’re doing it out of kindness because you think I’m dying — ”
“No — ”
“Fif, I appreciate it. And I could understand it if you miss being on my shoulders, but I promise you I’m not dying.”
“I do miss it, but since last vacation I started writing songs, and I’m writing one about a girl who rides on her father’s shoulders, and I want to try to see if there’s anything I left out. Plus, I need more rhymes. . . .”
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
Mitch Adler, an SAT/ACT tutor and college adviser in East Hampton, was a contributing editor at National Lampoon and won first prize in an internet-based science fiction competition. He has previously contributed other Franklin and Fifi stories to The Star.