“C’mon, honey, let’s get you unbuckled,” Jason murmured, bending over the car seat.
“Are we here?” Annabel asked.
“Yeah, baby, we’re here.”
“But where are the faces?” she asked, wrinkling her apple brown betty forehead as she peered over his shoulder. “It’s dark.”
“This is the parking deck. We gotta walk a little first, sweetie. You ready?”
Her lips pursed as she folded her arms across her Hello Kitty stomach. “Where’s Mommy?”
“Mommy’s sleeping in, remember? Grownups need to rest on vacation, too.”
Annabel lurched forward to peer over the front seat, as if Jason was lying and Aimee had been hiding there the whole time. When Jason had hurried Annabel out the door earlier, her shirt on backwards, Aimee had been lying in a tangle of hotel sheets, cashing in the one free morning they had promised each other at the start of the trip.
“We’ll go back and find Mommy soon,” Jason told his daughter. “Now hold Daddy’s hand.”
Annabel slipped her hand into his, her fingers sticky with Skittles. His fingers tightened over hers as they teetered into the sunlight. As always, he was conscious of their appearance, a large – husky, he liked to say – white man and a tiny brown girl.
“Just a typical American family,” he murmured.
“Steps!” Annabel shouted. She ran her hands up and down the metal railing as she jumped from step to step, eliciting smiles from the busload of Japanese women disembarking at the intersection.
“C’mere, baby. We gotta hold hands again. There’s another road.” He led her across the intersection. If Aimee were here she’d be digging in her purse for her ubiquitous bottle of hand sanitizer – hanitizer, Annabel called it – but all Jason had in his pockets were the van keys and a ticket stub from Bear Country USA.
Out of habit, he scanned the crowd to see if anyone was looking at them. During the adoption process Jason and Aimee had been told repeatedly about the stares and reactions they would get once they became a transracial family. Transracial – that awkward word unrecognized by spell check and Jason’s in-laws – was not the family Jason had pictured when he watched Aimee walk down the aisle, but considering the wait for healthy, white newborns, opening their profile to children of color increased their chances of having a baby.
“You’ll be conspicuous,” the adoption counselors cautioned. “You’ll get plenty of looks whenever you’re out in public and people will approach you with questions. You’ll always be on display. It’s up to you to help your child navigate this reality.”
Jason remembered Aimee’s worried look.
“It’ll be fine,” he’d said, squeezing her knee underneath the table. “Obama’s in office. The guys on CNN say it’s a post-racial America.”
“Yeah, okay,” she’d replied, giving him a weak smile that didn’t make the lines around her mouth disappear. She’d had those same lines after the last round of in vitro fertilization failed.
The lines had disappeared after Annabel came into their lives, a squalling, glorious bundle topped with a thatch of silky black hair. Her color had darkened as she got older, just as the nurses predicted, the baby hair replaced by thick strands Aimee learned to braid and comb.
“She’s our daughter and we love her. It doesn’t matter what her skin color is,” Aimee often said, sipping a glass of wine on the patio with their friends.
“Aren’t we past the time when race matters?” Jason added, glancing up from the grill to watch Annabel dart across the lawn with the other children, a raven in a sea of white pelicans. He knew that he couldn’t love Annabel more even if she was his own flesh and blood. Sometimes, although he never said this to his friends or even to Aimee, he thought it would be impossible to love a biological child more than he loved Annabel. Pregnancy and childbirth seemed so ordinary after all they went through to get Annabel. And he pitied the people who only wanted white babies.
“Are we there yet?” Annabel asked, tugging on his hand.
“Almost. The faces are at the end of this sidewalk.”
Annabel wandered to the side of the path so she could balance on the stone pavers, putting one small Croc in front of the other, looking like a tiny tight rope artist crossing a gorge. He took her hand again as they passed under the final arch.
“Look up, sweetie.”
“Oh, cool!” Annabel said, gazing up at the four faces jutting out from the rock. He hoisted her onto his hip.
“Do you remember who they are?”
“So who’s that one?” he asked, pointing.
“Um…uh…I don’t know,” she finished with a grin.
“That’s George Washington, the father of our country. The guy next to him is Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. You’ll learn about them in school.”
“Can we get gum?”
“In a minute, honey. The next guy is Teddy Roosevelt. He’s up there because, um, I’m not exactly sure.” The guidebook was back in the hotel room. “We’ll check later. Then the last guy is Abraham Lincoln.”
His voice faltered.
“What’d he do?”
“He was president during the Civil War. He, uh, he freed the slaves, sweetheart.”
“What’s a slave?”
Her question landed two punches, one in his heart and one in his gut. He squinted into the sun, his mind empty. The Japanese ladies from the bus had finally made it to the viewing plaza. An African American family followed them. For a second Jason had the absurd notion to send Annabel to them. They looked nice. The mom was smiling and there was a grandmother and two brothers. Maybe they could explain slavery to his daughter.
“Um, we’ll…we’ll talk about it later.”
“Okay, Daddy,” she chirped. “Now can we get gum?’
“Sure, baby,” he murmured, his heart falling to his feet. He set her down and she slid her hand in his. Her fingers were as heavy as granite.