The father saw Nikki Watkins first outside through the kitchen window. Not that Heather Watkins did not care to react to her husband’s sudden thrill in her seat overlooking the flagstone patio, her mind and almond-shaped eyes were too preoccupied, proofreading and perfecting the upcoming speech that was certain to determine whether she would ever be promoted to high school principal or remained assistant principal for the next decade.
He had yet to clean all the papaya juice from his hands when Nikki leaped into his arms the second he opened the front door—a neoclassical door decorated with metal and glass ornaments that gave the house’s exterior the resemblance of an ancient museum in Istanbul or Kazan, Russia. The boisterous laughter he let out while holding on to her slender back did not come out of a total surprise, but rather a silly awkwardness. Nikki’s visage was not only now a perfect replica to that of her mother, but he held no doubt in his mind that the two women now weighed the same.
For a brief moment, their new next-door neighbor had considered Nikki to be none other than Mrs. Watkins when Nikki had exited the taxicab and stroked Mr. Watkins’ old Mercedes’ front grill coupe in the hot noon sun. Heather. Wait up. You got a second? Those words were right around the tip of his tongue. It was as though a swift intervention from God himself had prevented those words from being spoken out.
Nikki, who looked now a good thirty-five pounds lighter at nineteen years of age, had not seen her parents in eleven months, not since the aftermath of the controversial election of George W. Bush against Al Gore. Although she had hinted to them on the phone that she had become a frequent visitor at the gyms in the Caribbean islands and changed her diet quite a bit, it was still a shock to witness the unforeseen transformation.
Still, the father had to shout trice at Heather for her to leave the table to grant her daughter the ravenous hug Nikki had yearned for so long. “Hmm. Who are you supposed to be now?” Heather asked, eyeing her daughter from head to toe before making her perky return to the table. She swung her long black hair over her back with a disgruntled grunt as if her daughter should have been more heedful not to disrupt her outfit or smudge her makeup. “I guess you’re done finding yourself, eh?”
“Give it a rest,” the father said.
“Just trying to be friendly.”
“Whatever. How long are you planning on staying?”
“Nikki, don’t answer that.” The father took his daughter’s hand and spun her around on the white oak laminate floor like a young ballerina warming up before practice. He then led her into the kitchen, leaving her small travel luggage by the front door. “Care for a smoothie? You must be starving.”
“What’s in it, Dad?”
“Ah, the usual. Strawberries, bananas, and all that stuff you used to like.”
“Smells like a new recipe to me.”
“That would be my new salad dressing.”
“Okay. Maybe later.”
“Whatever you like, sweetheart.” He stirred the dressing one last time and wrapped the crystal bowl in plastic wrap. “If you’re leaving tomorrow, I shall miss work today to listen to all your stories. Wild, hot, steamy sex in hotel rooms, I wanna hear it all.”
“What? I mean it. I want to hear all about the unforgettable fun you had on those fancy, sandy beaches. Love the new look, sweetheart. I do. You look freaking gorgeous. How did you do it?”
Nikki hopped from the kitchen counter, where she had sat for just thirty-five seconds. “Oh, Dad. That’s sweet,” she said and hugged her father tight.
“Now, I wish I had tagged along on this wild adventure of yours.”
“You could use it, Dad. I must admit. You look a bit tired.” They laughed while Heather frowned at her paper, pretending she had not heard a peep. But when her cupid bow lips parted, the brief grin on her face was not due to the misspelling she had discovered from her speech. Instead, it came as a reaction to her daughter’s revelation that she was leaving in less than a week, although she swore she had detected a slight uncertainty in the young woman’s voice.
“When are you heading downtown?” Nikki asked her father.
“Got a few hours,” he said—his speech articulated with perfection despite the sizable slice of the cucumber he had put in his mouth, which could have even caused him to choke. “Closed late last night. But Antonia’s opening today. Wanna stop by later?”
She nodded and said in a whisper, “Got something important to talk to you about.”
“All right, then. You know where to find me.”
“Thanks, Dad. I think I’ll take a nap in the meantime.”
The father put the smoothie and dressing inside the fridge. He kissed his daughter on the back of her hands and ambled out of the kitchen.
Nikki smiled as she scanned a series of snapshots attached to the door of the fridge. Pictures she had taken with an old Canon camera. They all consisted of her and her father cooking together in white aprons both at home and the thirty-year-old restaurant her father owned in downtown West Palm Beach. Photos of celebrities and politicians such as Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, and Jeb and George W. Bush were to be found in the living room—all gallery-framed in fine oak materials. “Dine at Watkins, I tell you, isn’t just about the exquisite taste,” the mayor said when he first introduced Nikki’s father to governor Jeb Bush. “Places like these are the backbone of our community. Last year alone, my good old friend here gave out 500 meals to the less fortunate. Imagine that.” At the time, even Heather, who was supposed to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Jacksonville, had canceled her trip to help prepare the meals. This was the time when Nikki had a clear career goal: maintain just enough culinary skills at the local colleges right after high school and return to work for her father posthaste.
A quarter to three, Nikki awakened from her two-hour nap. She took a shower, wrapped herself in a towel and followed the jingling car keys in the living room. Heather was already at the door when Nikki’s hasty footsteps stopped her in her flirty skirt.
“Do you need something?” Heather asked, unable to ignore Nikki’s most curious eyes. “I mean, why are you here?”
“I don’t know, Mother. What do people do when they miss family and friends?” She did not give Heather a chance to reply. “Where are you off to?” she asked, instead of telling her mother how much she admired the new top she had on.
“Shopping for a new dress,” Heather lied. She had already acquired the elegant cocktail dress a week ago, a brand-new pair of shoes, too.
“What’s the occasion?”
“Birthday party. Saturday evening.”
“What do you care?”
“Will you not be gone by then?”
“Is Dad going?”
“Do you need money, Nikki? Can’t think of another reason you’re here, to tell you the truth. I mean, after you’ve been absent all this time.” After she took a long, but casual look at Nikki, she exited the door. She did not envy Nikki’s youth. At the age of forty-four, people still mistook her for a much younger woman—the types of women who sometimes appeared in Victoria’s Secret ads but without the heavy makeup or plastic surgery. She just did not know what to make of her daughter’s new look.
Apart from the shoes that stood one inch longer, everything inside Heather’s wardrobe pleased Nikki. She stood at ease, hands on her hips, feeling proud and sexy. At first, the four stylish hats hanging on a wooden wall-mounted coatrack were most gratifying to the eyes, although she had never had a thing for hats, nor was she planning to wear one any time soon. The possibilities were endless. There, she imagined herself at a wedding, a funeral, or even an informal event like going to a nightclub or some beach party crowded with horny, sexy beachgoers. Without trouble and further delay, she picked out a white pair of jeans and a black twisted crop top from the wardrobe and then went to rendezvous with her father.
By the time Nikki arrived at the four-star restaurant, which her father had refused to let go despite four lucrative offers back-to-back, it was past three-thirty. To make her entrance at the front door was to grant customers and workers alike the attention she was not seeking. So, she made a detour. The maintenance man held the heavy paneled door for her after throwing out the last two bags filled with trash into the dumpster in the back of the building. From there, she took a stroll to her father’s office located on the left side of the giant meat freezer. The father himself had just returned from the restroom. He was still drying his hands with paper towels when he observed her beautiful shadow behind the desk through the glass door.
“Dad, you got a minute?”
“For you, sweetheart, I got three.” He approached her even closer so she could reach him at ease to kiss or hug him if she wanted to without having her step away from the desk. She did neither. Instead, she pointed to a medium-sized photograph on the wall exhibiting her elated grandmother after winning her last award for Outstanding Restaurateur. “I know,” he said. “I’ll get a new frame. Soon.” The fragrance Nikki wore was familiar to him, but he remained reserved about it just like he chose to remain silent about her change in outfit. “Okay. What’s going on with my little girl?”
She sank in her father’s chair with a broad smile. “Dad, I need a loan.”
The father occupied one of the two remaining chairs opposite her, hands folded beneath his shaved protruding chin. Patient enough, he waited to hear the details of her proposition—whatever they might have been.
She leaned forward and said, “Tim is out of my life.”
He straightened himself and grimaced with a scoff, as though he wanted to hear anything else except this.
“It’s over, Dad.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
Nikki grinned. “He had no influence over me whatsoever. It was my decision, Dad. Mine alone, to drop out.” Rumor had it that she also took off because of her ex-boyfriend’s infidelity and new political affiliation. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, um, okay, I just wanted you—”
“To hear it from you.”
They smiled at once, followed by sweet, pleasing sounds of giggles and laughter. Then, he glanced at the small wedge-shaped clock on the desk, then got to his feet while rubbing his eyes a little. After revealing to his daughter that he had a few errands to run before the place got busier, she volunteered to chauffeur him around. “You look tired. I got Mom’s old car outside. That’s the least I can do.” She took his hand to exit the office. “Um, Dad, are you going to this party next week? I don’t remember the last time my…mother was this excited about something.”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Whose party is it?”
“Our new neighbor, the new high school principal. I think that’s him your mom’s trying to impress with that speech of hers on Monday.”
“Why do you think she stopped calling you Handsome Dave?”
He shrugged. Back in the car, a red Land Rover, he looked back at the one-story building and said, “Do you remember the second time I brought you here? Do you remember what I cooked for you?”
“Long time ago. I was barely seven.”
“Mm-hmm.” He sighed. “If you’re dead serious about that loan like it’s critical,” he went on as they left the small plaza, “then we should have Mom’s approval on this. See, I’m not even asking you why you need it or how much you need.”
“Fair enough.” Nikki forced a smile and writhed in her chair a little. She estimated about a minute and a half had passed before she spoke again. “Why won’t you even ask me why I need it? Be honest with me. Please, Dad.”
“Short answer, I trust you. Long answer, I trust you.”
But Nikki still did not believe him, even though she had no way of knowing whether he was deceitful. She thought his lack of questioning of the loan’s nature stemmed from his desire for her to come work for him at the restaurant. Along the way, her sweet recollection of her journey had him so animated that he failed to notice when the car made the right turn that led to the house on the left side at the end of the street.
He held out his hand, preventing her from turning off the engine. “Stay in the car. I won’t be long.”
“Where to next?”
“The bank? On Saturday? I’m sure they closed already, Dad.”
“ATM, sweetheart. ATM. Daddy just needs some pocket money.”
She waved at him when he looked back at her before entering the house. Not long, she reached for her new digital camera from her purse, then spotted her father through the kitchen window. He stood there, just the way he used to watch her walk across the parking lot on her way to take the bus to school before she had turned fifteen, except he was not watching her now. He held his gaze down like he was washing his hands into the sink, removing a sticky substance under his fingernails but without hastiness. When Nikki got out of the car with her back to the sidewalk, he still had yet to glance up. Her hand was holding the car’s open door, and the vehicle itself had mostly blocked her view from the high school principal’s house. As she contemplated whether to strike a pose where she stood or beside the tall pink phlox in the yard, she felt the man’s fingers slide through her hair, his wet lips biting her ear in a soft clinch that prompted her to face him in a slow-motion turn.
“When do I get to see you again? You were on fire last night,” the man said with tenderness in his voice but soon sidled backward toward the sidewalk with his jaws agape. By the time he regained his full balance, aiming back for his front door, Nikki had looked up at the window, but her father was gone. She mustered a deep breath and then walked inside the house.
The house fell silent. Her voice cracked, and her heart kept thumping louder, the more she called out and sought for him around the house. In the bathroom down the hall where she finally found him, his platinum wedding ring was atop the countersink. He stared off into space in utter silence, slumped on the bathtub side with his shoulder against the wall five feet from the toilet seat in which she believed he had regurgitated. She kissed him on his damp forehead and vanished out of his sight.
On the verge of tears, Nikki went straight into the master bedroom. She emptied her mother’s wardrobe and filled two large suitcases, leaving just the shoes and a few old outfits that she had no space for. Then, she returned to the bathroom. Nothing had changed in the father’s position or countenance, except for the bitter tears he had in his eyes now, and his forehead damped in more sweat. “I’m sorry, Dad, but she doesn’t deserve you. She never did. I don’t know why you’ve never figured it out. Anyway, I gotta go now. That’s not what I had in mind, you know. But If I’m not gone when she comes home, I’m afraid I’ll be forced to—” The opening and closing of the front door made them both ill-at-ease, her face in particular contorted with an unprecedented look of balefulness. “I’ll be right back,” she said and took a bronze standing toilet paper holder with her.
Nikki came swinging back in less than four minutes, out of breath to a certain extent. Her quick flip of the light switch prompted her father to look in her direction. Her dazzling smile, her jeans flecked with red dots of blood and Heather’s ring around her finger troubled his mind. “Boy, oh boy,” she said. “Was a lot easier than I thought. Let’s forget about this crazy loan thing, okay?” She retrieved her father’s ring from the counter and handed it to him. In response to the growing, perturbed look on his face, which could have only translated to—What on earth did you do, sweetheart?—she said, “Don’t worry about it, Handsome Dave. I ain’t going anywhere. I fixed it.” Still smiling, she dropped on her father’s lap with her arms wrapped around his sweaty neck.
Soidenet Gue: “My work is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys. I live in Florida with my family.”