The first week after I broke my foot (before I knew I broke it), I was on crutches, unable to bear any weight. This was unfortunate, as we were taking a brief family vacation to DC. Kevin was attending the International AIDS Conference, and Sophie and I were invited along for a long weekend. We had plans to hit the Mall and the National Zoo and the hotel pool.
Sophie wanted to see Obama, but he couldn’t fit us in.
We had originally intended to see the zoo on the way there, with Kevin. But we got a late start, hit a ton of traffic, and then it began to rain as we neared the outskirts of town, so we scrapped the idea and headed straight to the hotel. On the way back home, I took Sophia to the zoo alone.
I used my crutches to hobble to the information center, where I requested a wheel chair, knowing I would not be able to cover 163 acres of urban park, the crutches boring into my armpits.
As I pulled out in the wheel chair, I quickly discovered that the National Zoo is built on an incline. Sophie and I were at the very bottom. The nadir. We made a valiant effort to tackle the hill, Sophie pushed from behind, while I tried to wheel. But my hands were already raw from several days of sightseeing on crutches, the chair was of poor quality and favored the right, and Sophia is four, after all.
We kept crashing into the curb. Or garbage cans. I was trying very hard not to get frustrated with Sophie (for being four and not being able to push me in a wheelchair up a steep incline in 95-degree heat), who was really doing her very best to help me.
A lovely woman and her son saw us struggling and offered to push us to the top. (I don’t know what I was thinking, that we would get up there and I would coast downhill, catching cursory glances of the animals as I passed?) I was just grateful for the help, and took it. Her son, who ambled along side us, had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was very young, she explained. He had lost all functioning and, initially was only able to move his hand. After years of therapy and persistence he had regained much of his ability, “but we spent years using these things. A lot of people helped us along the way.”
She went on to tell me that she was an FBI agent who tracks down pedophiles. “I’m really out of shape,” she joked, “pedophiles don’t run.” She proceeded to tell me all sorts of interesting facts about pedophiles. They are rarely strangers. Typically, she said, they are coaches, teachers, tutors—people who have honed a skill that gives them access to children. “Beware of anyone who offers you free lessons, because they say your kid shows a particular talent they want to cultivate.” She explained that it the victims usually have exhausted parents who are grateful for the assistance and flattered by the promise the abuser sees in their child.
Sophia climbed on my lap and she wheeled us to Panda Pavilion, but there were no pandas to be seen. It was too hot for most of the animals to be out and about.
Sweating and panting a little, the FBI agent pushed me top, dropping us off at the information center. I thanked her profusely as she handed me her card, “just in case you ever run into a pedophile.”
At this point, it was clear that, if Sophie and I were to see any animals, I’d have to find a better way. At the information center I learned I could rent a motorized scooter. I reserved the only one left in the entire zoo, only to discover it was back down at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, there was a shuttle that would take us there.
Once on the scooter, Sophia and I zipped around the park and saw every animal there was to see. We covered more ground than would have been humanly possible on foot.
Turns out, there is no award for being hardcore.
We left a little after four and hit terrible rush hour traffic around the loop. I wanted to drive straight through, but just outside of NJ Sophie needed to use the rest room. We pulled into a truck stop. Inside, Sophie eyed the ice cream and rows of candy bars. She begged me, “Can we get a snack?” I challenged her to find the healthiest food in the truck stop. We decided it was a pack of pistachio nuts and bottle of water. As I pulled the pack off the shelf, I felt a pair of eyes on me. A tall man, next to the rack, stood smiling at me. When I made eye contact with him, he laughed outright, at what, I did not know. I smiled back and ushered Sophie to the front of the store. He stayed put, but his laughter followed me.
At the register, I paid for our nuts. An older, graying man in a baseball cap was leaning into the counter. Just standing there. Sophie was dancing and singing a rambling made-up song. His eyes followed her movements, and he remarked how beautiful my daughter was. Again, I felt a slight dis-ease. Then he told me I should teach her American songs. Songs about the flag. His voice grew louder, “In fact, you should buy her a flag, so that she knows she’s an American.” I thanked him for his advice, grabbed Sophie and the nuts and hobbled back to the car.
“Get in the car.” I told Sophie. “Quickly. I want to get out of here.”
“Why?” she asked.
Yes, why? There wasn’t any real danger around me. Or was there? Was I primed for fear of these two men by my earlier conversation, or was my intuition tingling. And what do I tell Sophie?
I thought of my own bed that was waiting for me. How good it would feel to finally put Sophie to sleep and lie down. How much I was ready for this day to end. “Because.” I told her, “There’s no place like home.”