“I don’t like that man,” said the girl, her voice echoing loudly through the indoor pool facility. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, she hitched her thumb in the man’s direction. Neanderdad quickly grabbed her hand and pulled it down. Then Neanderdad shook his head at his daughter in an attempt to silence her. There was only one person in the jacuzzi besides them, so there was no mistaking who she meant. A glance at the man in question confirmed to Neanderdad that the man was pretending he hadn’t heard. Neanderdad would have gone pink with embarrassment if the hot water hadn’t already turned him lobster-like red.
The boy was oblivious to the ‘unliked’ man, Neanderdad or his sister. He was examining the floor of the jacuzzi by sticking his goggled face onto the surface of the water and looking down. Neanderdad tapped him on the ear and reminded him to keep his head out of the steaming hot water. That was a no-no. The boy nodded that he understood. Then the girl spoke again. Clearly she wasn’t done yet.
“I don’t like that man.” She said again, trumping Neanderdad’s attempt to shush her.
“Why?” he finally whispered, when it was clear that she wasn’t going to let it go.
“Because of the way he looks. His skin is darker than mine.”
And there it was. She had verbalized Neanderdad deepest fear about her motivation. Neanderdad glanced guiltily at the man with the darker skin to see if he’d heard this, but the man was a sphinx. He stared past them—serenely even—as he soaked. Neanderdad shushed his daughter loudly.
“Wrong,” he explained to her as quietly as he could. Then he whispered to her that it was bad to judge people on superficial things like the lightness or darkness of their skin. She continued to frown and cast worried looks at the man.
Neanderdad was devastated. How could this have happened? How had he gone wrong as a parent? How had antiquated and wrong-minded ideas about skin color slipped through the careful defenses he and his mate had built around their family? Had it seeped into his daughter’s consciousness via somebody at her school? From a playmate? Neanderdad didn’t think so. No, he had the unsettling feeling that the girl had simply noticed the difference between herself and this man and was reacting to that realization.
“He’s not the same as me,” she tried to explain. And that confirmed this hypothesis. Her attitude wasn’t caused by social conditioning. It was all about difference.
Neanderdad looked at his pale, nervous daughter, bubbling away in the Jacuzzi, and tried to fight down his exasperation. If circumstances had permitted, Neanderdad would have tried to convey to his daughter just how much suffering the trivial variations in melatonin levels in skin had caused amongst their people over the millennia. But there was only so much a father can get across to a child in a loud, bubbling jacuzzi.
“Well that’s how I feel,” she then said to Neanderdad’s horror and cast the man a disdainful look.
For a moment, while the boy continued to examine the floor of the jacuzzi through his goggles and the girl watched the man reproachfully, Neanderdad considered pulling them out of the tub and heading home. After all, they had been swimming in the main pool for hours. They had also been in the jacuzzi for ten minutes, long enough to frightfully wrinkle the ends of their fingers and apparently develop a frightful xenophobia. Most of all, Neanderdad couldn’t figure out how to talk the girl through her mental process on skin color. Then Neanderdad realized that talking to her wasn’t going to solve the problem. Only talking to the man could do that.
“Hello,” Neanderdad blurted to the man suddenly, startling both the man and the girl. She pulled at his arm to get him to stop.
“Hello,” the man said. Then he smiled. “I think I’m starting to cook in here.” Then, with a broad, kind smile, he winked at the girl and added, “How about you?” The girl shrunk behind Neanderdad fearfully.
“Prune,” Neanderdad replied, filling in. He held up his wrinkled fingers. Then he and the man both laughed. The girl continued to watch nervously as Neanderdad and the man chatted lightly about the swimming facility, the weather and other trivialities.
“Tell me, little lady, are you turning into a prune too?” The man then said, turning to the girl and giving her another smile. Now it was Neanderdad’s turn to watch nervously. But to Neanderdad’s surprise, the girl burst into a big smile and gave an ebullient response.
“I’m past prunes.” She giggled. “I might be all the way to raisins!” The man roared with laughter and she giggled right back. Then, with the shared laugh, the girl’s trepidations simply vanished. Then she exploded into conversation, chattering away about her every experience during the day’s swimming. To his credit, the man in the Jacuzzi carried the conversation with her patiently and didn’t seem the least bit bored by the pointless ramblings of a six-year-old. Neanderdad continued to watch on with great relief at the astounding reversal in his daughter’s attitude when his son popped up from his aquatic adventures to make a startling declaration.
“Daddy, I’ve got to go poop!” His statement echoed through the swim facility. At least ten people turned to stare.
Embarrassed, Neanderdad nodded to the man and then he rushed his brood out of the Jacuzzi. The girl stopped for a moment to give the Jacuzzi man a big goodbye wave.
“Bye! Don’t overcook!” She said, giggling again. The man laughed back and waved, giving Neanderdad the wink this time.
Later, as he and his offspring exited the locker rooms and headed home, Neanderdad walked with his head held high. He was so lost in his revery that he barely registered a heavyset woman walking past them in the hallway. The boy, however, stopped dead in his tracks. He stared, his mouth agape.
“Dad! Look! That lady is Fa––” The boy said and raised his arm to point at the woman.
“Fabulous,” Neanderdad said, completing his sentence. Then he pushed his children down the hall and out of the facility as quickly as he could.