Little Gods

Caroline Swicegood

     
   

Lucy stood by the door with her coat in her hand.  Ten minutes earlier she had whispered in Dan’s ear that it was time to go and he had nodded and started making the good-bye rounds, shaking hands and kissing cheeks of every person in the room.  Now, he lingered in the corner, laughing with three other men—the professors from Milan he was hoping to collaborate with, Lucy knew.  Gianna, the host, walked around the crowded apartment handing out glasses of prosecco.  When she got to Dan, she grabbed his hand and kissed him once on each cheek; he said something and pulled her in for an American-sized bear hug. 

In the middle of the room, Gianna’s daughter, the youngest of three, slept on the couch amid the music and loud chatter in her party dress, shoes on and mouth sticky from sweets.  As Lucy watched, the young girl fluttered her eyes open and looked hazily around the room.  Lucy froze when she lifted her head and looked at her.  The girl’s face scrunched up and her bottom lip started trembling.  Quickly turning around, Lucy caught Dan’s eye and motioned him over.  She grabbed his arm.  “We’ve got to go,” she said.  She could hear the beginnings of whimpers and quiet cries behind her.

Gianna strode over.  “Lucy, you impress me!” she said.  “When I was pregnant, I was in bed by ten, every night, all nine months, every time.”  She made a flat motion with her hand, as if saying done.  “You look lovely, bella.”

Lucy smiled.  The last few weeks had been a never-ending stream of advice, comparisons, and personal anecdotes from the women around her.  Sometimes—most of the time, actually—it felt intrusive and irritating, but Gianna never overstepped boundaries or tried to push advice onto her, just little quips here and there, acknowledging that they had something in common now that they previously didn’t.  Instinctively, Lucy put her hand over her stomach, even though a bump was barely visible.  Dan’s hand followed hers and he rubbed vigorously, as if trying to summon a genie from a magic lamp.

“Great party,” Lucy said.  “Thank you so much for inviting us.”

Buon Capodanno!  Tanti auguri.”  Gianna said.  They kissed each other’s cheeks.

Altrettanto, carina mia, altrettanto,” Lucy responded.  Happy New Year and best wishes to you too, my friend.  Dan put his arm around her waist and dragged her out the door, throwing a wave over his shoulder at Gianna as the little girl’s soft cries on the couch turned into full-on wails.

They started walking, Dan shrugging into his coat before grabbing her close again and kissing her neck.  “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?” he asked.  The falling snowflakes, so fine they were barely noticeable, melted before they hit the ground.

“It was fun,” Lucy agreed.  She had suffered through similar events with university people before meeting Gianna, the head of the linguistics department.  Most of Dan’s coworkers’ wives were either blank, quiet, or both, but Gianna had a good career of her own and a long, straight backbone that never bowed.  She reminded Lucy of her friends back in New York and they took to each other immediately.  “Sorry for cutting the evening short.”

“Hey, you lasted until midnight.  I know you’ve got to be tired.”  He stopped and held her at arm’s length, a look of total adoration taking over his face.  Then, like a magpie spotting a coin at the bottom of a well, he flitted his glance towards the Grand Canal and the look was gone.  He started walking again.  “Did you hear what the Milan group said?  They’ll be here for the conference and want to talk about organizing some kind of summer program.”  He stopped suddenly again.  “How do you feel?  Want to take the vaporetto?”

Lucy rocked back and forth, her boots squeaking from her already-swollen ankles.  She was tired, but was just getting over the random bouts of nauseous from the first trimester and didn’t want to risk it by taking one of the waterbuses.  “No, let’s walk.  It’s not far.”

Dan started talking about the conference and the Milan group again and Lucy concentrated on how the cold air felt on her skin, feverish from the stifling party, knowing it didn’t matter whether or not she listened.  When they first moved to Venice a year ago, she had spent most evenings getting lost in these narrow streets while Dan stayed late at the university, excited by the unexpected step in his career.  Teaching architecture in a city that was such a blend of cultures was an exhilarating prospect in any case, but especially so since it got Dan out of the office and back into the academia he loved so much.  He taught his survey course by taking his students on walks for the first week, pointing out examples of Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish styles as they wandered.  Once or twice Lucy had caught sight of the group mid-promenade and the students stared at Dan the way college students typically stared at young, good-looking professors: with starry-eyed reverence.

Lucy had given up her job as an editor when they left New York, although she still did some sporadic freelance work.  Her unemployment provided plenty of time to become acquainted with Venice, the rough-hewn cobblestones and rolling, symphonic utterings of the conversations.  She had never been as enamored with their new home as Dan—who had started encouraging people to call him Daniele—but she liked it well enough, had accepted it as a new and unique adventure.  That was before the pregnancy.  While unplanned, it was theoretically not unwelcomed at this point in their marriage, but she suddenly found herself looking at their life in Italy anew, wondering what having a child in a foreign country would be like, and so far from their families.  It wasn’t that she thought Dan wouldn’t be a good father.  She knew he would be.  Dan was enthusiastic, if a bit distractible; he was earnest and loyal and kind.  A mere month after they had started dating, he had helped her through the emotional minefield of her estranged father’s death and the unexpected task of settling his estate with single-minded support and quiet actions that, in the end, were what got her through it all.  Even during this pregnancy he had sworn off alcohol in solidarity, drinking only in small amounts when she did.  Really, she couldn’t imagine a better partner to raise a child with, regardless of the continent.

Dan began whistling Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” the song that was playing as they left the party.  Unsurprisingly, he was thrilled with the idea of raising a multicultural, bilingual baby, and Lucy wasn’t sure enough herself that she wanted to go back to the US to push the issue with him.  She didn’t even know if the problem was the location or if she just wasn’t sure she was suited to this role at all, regardless of where they were living, and that question had trailed behind her silently for months until it was too late to make any other decision.  Tonight, the streets were crowded with people leaving parties and going to new ones, streaming out of bars in heavy coats and hats, the women clicking along in high heels over the uneven streets.  Strangers exchanged well-wishes and raised open bottles of wine to one another.  There was celebration and goodwill all around.  Lucy felt the baby move, which it had just started doing the week before; it felt quiet and odd and she imagined the slow-moving bubbles at the bottom of a not-yet-boiling pot of water.

Originally they’d had an apartment that Dan’s department found for them on the first floor of a building in San Polo, a more expensive sestiere than where they were living now in Cannaregio.  They didn’t have a chance to see it before signing the lease and the apartment reflected their budget in such a location—two rooms with tile floors and low, falling-down ceilings, one small window that hardly let in any light, a bathroom with a shower stall that usually had to be bailed out with buckets before it overflowed and seeped, and, inexplicably, a life-size velvet hanging of Marilyn Monroe on one wall.  Then, the city flooded for the first time four months after they moved in.  No one had warned them what that meant for people living on the first floor, mostly ignorant non-Veneziani.  Three feet of water poured in.  They’d spent the night with one of Dan’s colleagues and when they went back the next day the waters had receded but not disappeared, Marilyn floating forlornly on top, her skirts a dirty brown.  All the furniture was destroyed and the clothes they hadn’t been able to grab were mostly waterlogged beyond repair.  Lucy had sat on the open window ledge and cried, her feet dangling in the flood, while Dan fanned out his moisture-swollen books.  They’d been at La Serenità since, month-to-month renters in the hotel with a shared bathroom down the hall from their room.  Again, Lucy was mostly fine with that before the pregnancy; now, she skimmed the rental listings each day and tried to choke down panicked visions of washing the baby in the bidet in the hotel and drying him off under the electric hand dryer while tourists showered and brushed their teeth around them.  Dan, as usual, was immune to the stress and confident they’d find another place in plenty of time.

They turned onto their street and headed towards La Serenità.  Behind them, a party barge plowed down the middle of the Grand Canal, music blaring and fireworks shooting from the bow, laughter and shouts exchanged between the barge-partiers and those passing in smaller boats.  Lucy would have sworn she could hear the clinking of glasses but of course they were too far away for that.  The one small glass of red wine she’d had at midnight warmed in her stomach.

Dan’s laughter made her look forward again.  A girl of about five or six was skipping around them, sparkler in hand, waving patterns in the air.  He squatted down.  “Che bellina,” he said, and the girl giggled.  “What are you doing up so late?”  A boy a little older than her ran up and grabbed her hand and they darted off down the street.  Here in Cannaregio, it was as crowded as it was along the Canal, but more residential, less posh, mothers with scarves over their heads and fathers smoking cigarettes in canvas trousers, children milling around and shouting.  One of the fathers picked up his daughter and she took the cigarette out of his mouth.  “Ciao Sofiiiii, ciao Sofiiii, ciao ciao Sofia,” he crooned as she pretended to smoke it.

Lucy thought how differently people treated children here than they did in the States.  They were sterner in some respects—it wasn’t uncommon to see a parent swat a child for misbehaving—but there wasn’t the overbearing helicoptering that she saw back home: the Baby Einstein videos, the pressure to get your kids into Montessori schools and load their schedules with extracurriculars with thoughts of future college applications, soccer practices, cello lessons, volunteering, painting classes, 4-H clubs and honors societies, molding the prodigies that all parents were so sure they’d been blessed with.  Here, parents treated their children like little temperamental gods, brilliant and beautiful in their own right, allowing them childhood and taking delight in it with them. 

Dan was still squatting and watching the scene with a smile.  The girl with the sparkler ran by again, now with a second in her other hand.  Her brother sprinted to catch up and Sofia danced while her father clapped and the kids shouted at one another in Italian too fast for Lucy to understand.  Beyond them all, the fashionable ladies and gentlemen still walked along the Grand Canal, and a barge horn sounded, and all the people standing on the street in front of La Serenità cheered in response.  Could she raise a child here, in this land of ancient cities and floods, bread and wine cheaper than water, and little gods? 

“Do you see that?”  Dan stood up.  More fireworks went off from the Grand Canal, appearing above the surrounding buildings.  He strained his neck backwards and looked as if he had never seen such a spectacle before.

“I think you have a girlfriend.”  Lucy gestured towards the little girl who had been running around with the sparkler earlier, and who was now hiding behind her mother’s legs and staring at Dan with unabashed infatuation reminiscent of how his college students looked at him.

Dan picked a sparkler out of a pile someone had left on the front steps of La Serenità, made it crackle and gleam with a lighter, and handed it to the little girl.  She laughed and ran around in circles and he chased her, making monster sounds, while the mother watched, completely unconcerned about the strange man playing with her child—another very big difference from the States.  The mother shook the still-barely-falling snow out of her loose hair, so different than Gianna’s tight chignon bun when she commandeered her three children around the house, and so different still than the highlights, lowlights, razor cuts, and Brazilian blow-outs of the mothers she knew in New York, some of whom slipped up and appeared with frazzled eyes and unbrushed hair to lunches before seemingly getting hold of themselves and pushing those chaotic strands behind their ears over salads and appetizers. 

Because she hadn’t planned on this, Lucy didn’t spend years imagining herself in that role, didn’t know what her mother-persona would be and still was having trouble figuring out that identity; she did know, though, that one of the prerequisites of motherhood was being able to deal with whatever was thrown at you.  She remembered, again, Dan’s stalwart support through meetings with lawyers and excavating decades of neglected files after her father’s death, and how serious he was about the whole thing when he barely even knew her then.  Now, he had one pant leg hitched up and was doing a jig as a group of children swirled around him like some sort of bastardized Maypole dance. 

Another round of fireworks went off in the sky and the colors kaleidoscoped through the powder-fine snow.  The little girl tripped and fell, catching herself on her knees and hands.  Dan was down beside her immediately, helping her up, trying unsuccessfully to brush the darkened wet patches off her tights.  He looked around for the girl’s mother, who was talking to another parent and not paying attention.

Lucy walked over.  “Here, let me,” she said.  The girl wasn’t crying but there was a tiny trickle of blood on her tights and she kept bending over to examine and poke it.  Lucy held out her hand, unsure how to say what she needed to in Italian, but the girl took it anyway and Lucy led her over to her mom.  She stood there dumbly, again caught without the right words, and again they weren’t needed—the mother took the girl’s hand with a smile, a nod, and a “Grazie.”

De nada,” Lucy answered too quickly before realizing it was the wrong language.  It wasn’t the first time she had done that.  The mother smiled again, kindly.

The crowd was quieting down, the children dispersing, and Dan’s arm circled her waist once more.  He dug in his pocket for their room key and held it out.  “Ready?” he asked.

Lucy watched the mother and daughter she had just reunited walk away into the maze of twisting streets, back to whatever hopefully warm apartment they shared, pictured bedtime stories and butterfly kisses goodnight before the girl’s eyes sleepily and contentedly fell shut, the bright lights and merry sounds from the evening running through her head, fueling sugarplum dreams.  She nodded.  “Ready.”

     
   
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Caroline Swicegood is an American writer and educator living in Turkey.  Her fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Upstreet, Prick of the Spindle, and other journals, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Literary Bohemian.  She lives with her husband on the Asian side of Istanbul.