I watched the scene play out with trepidation from my perch on the side of the baby pool.
Tova had been following a little girl she was calling Ariel thanks to her Little Mermaid bathing suit, who seemed to be about her age. Wading through the water, then out and around the pool, back in and down the dolphin-shaped slide, she was delighted to have made a friend and playmate.
I couldn't read the other little girl.
Soon enough, the dynamic seemed to change between the two -- the other little girl became more apprehensive about Tova's presence; she went to her mom and camped out with a snack while Tova stood a few feet away, just watching.
I sent Kyle to retrieve her and encourage her to play with the other little kids.
A slightly older girl came up to Tova then, who was still requesting Ariel's presence, and asked her her name.
Tova stopped her impending tantrum and giggled, excited once again for a playmate. I sat grateful to the little girl for her observation and the parent(s) who taught her to be kind to littler kids.
Except, in the span of a minute or two, I could hear the new little girl talking to Tova with a completely different tone.
"I SAID, I don't want to play with you! I want to play with other kids!" she snapped at my still-smiling baby girl as she tried another evasive tactic and Tova refused to take the hint.
I called out to her and told her to back off, come play with your brother, and she dissented, continuing to follow the older girl as if they were playing a game of chase.
But, from the look on the girl's face, they were not.
I stood up from the edge of the pool and waded around small children and pool fixtures to where Tova had the older girl cornered, still smiling her sweet baby smile, and the older girl glared in disgust at her.
"Tova Regina," I said sternly enough to catch the attention of the nearby moms. "She said she didn't want to play with you anymore, so you need to give her some space,"
The older girl looked at me with equal parts gratitude and irritation.
But Tova, Tova's face scrunched up with confusion and her as-of-late trademark defiance.
"No! NO SPACE! All done Mommy, go siddown!" she yelled at me as her chubby open palm pumped towards me ferociously, motioning for my immediate halt.
"Tova, she doesn't want to play with you. You have to leave her alone," I repeated more sternly, hoping the severity of my tone would hide the lump that had formed in my throat.
The older girl had already escaped from Tova's attention, so just her and I stood in the corner curvature of the baby pool. Tova turned to where she expected her new "friend" to be, only to find two newly-minted toddlers taking parent-enforced turns on the slide. She spun from right to left and back again, scanning for the older girl, her brow furrowed and her cherubic mouth slightly open.
"Where's a Ariel? Where's a Ariel?" she asked the growing anxiety, confusing the two new-then-gone friends as her motions became more flail-like, the reality of the lost playmate sinking in.
"I told you, sweetie, she didn't want to play with you anymore, so she left." I tried to find the place between maintaining authority over the situation and the softness I wanted her gentle, happy little heart to have in this moment.
Her mouth parted into a frown, a wail emitting from her tiny frame as she reached out for me to pick her up, the heartbreak of rejection finally dawning upon her usually carefree existence.
I lifted her to my waist where she wrapped her legs tightly around me, sobbing into the space between my neck and shoulder. Rocking slightly back and forth, I whispered encouragement into her ear, that it wasn't really about her, but the other little girl, and that sometimes things don't work out the way we hope and while it's okay to be sad about that, we have to be able to just be okay with that and find something else to do.
Maybe it's because I've been feeling really insecure lately, especially as it comes to girl-on-girl friendships in my life or residuals from the night before and my realization that yet again my sweet girl will have a hodge-podge, low key birthday due to a serious lack of funds and the impossible timing of late August and everyone else's incompatible schedules or locations, but my heart broke right with her. Years of being the odd-girl-out, the bullying and the non-invites and the desperate need to be wanted and seen as something more than the shape of my body and the lack of eyesight combined with recent friend-breakups in the past few years have made these tenuous waters for me, and here I had to be the bearer of bad news to my daughter.
I am now her introduction to the Mean Girls of the world.
The nearby moms seemed to share in my heartbreak as Tova cried and cried, so very obviously still a toddler in a preschooler's body -- at least, the frowns and worried foreheads peeking out from behind various sunglasses seemed to convey empathy for a situation we've all experienced as children and now, slowly and hellaciously relive through our children as we fail to protect them from the world and it's hardness, as every parent fails to do. I rocked and rocked, shushing her and telling her how much I love her and how great she is, wanting nothing more to wash this heartache away for her, and knowing that it will only get harder for the both of us from here.