Florence for Expectant Mothers

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It is May of 2001 and our second day in Florence. I am here for a writing class. Terry, my husband, is here because I insisted he come.

We close the heavy, wooden door and lock it with the key that dangles from a dense black ball, the size of a fist. It is a key that cannot be conveniently carried or inconveniently lost. It is nothing that we own or need to feel responsible for.

As we left this morning, walking down the four flights of marble stairs to the street, the maid was turning the black ball key in the lock to our room. While we walked up Borgo Pinti, an unusually quiet road with small shops and few cars, she was yanking the white sheets smooth over the bed and tucking the red cotton bedspread under the pillows. When we turned the corner onto Via de Pilastri, where Vespas and cars gush like a swollen river, she was wiping out the bathroom sink. And, when Terry left me at the meeting point for my class, she was pulling closed the dark green shutters, latching the long, heavy window, and drawing the curtains to shut out the heat of the day.

I don’t realise how much I appreciate her effort until I return from my class in late afternoon and open the door. I blink in the dimness, breathe in the coolness of the room. I wish I had a curtain to shield my body, to quench its heat. I am sweating. The sweat drips under my arms, down my back, my chest, like a gently cascading fountain. But my feet are the worst. They are like fish with just enough water to keep them from dying and not enough to keep them from stinking. It isn’t the Florence sunshine that is causing me this discomfort. In fact, the May sunshine is perfect. It is sharp and white. Colorless. The reason I am sweating is to keep cool this baby in the dark room of my belly.

Terry reclines on the bed. Both of the flat, wide pillows are folded like crepes under his head. He hasn’t shaved and his beard is growing in grey.

“I am so tired.” I say. And, when I see the canister of potato chips on his bedside table, I grab them, stuffing one and then another into my mouth. I might as well be eating wadded up paper. That’s how satisfying they are.

The T.V. is on. Terry is watching the Simpsons. I pick up the remote control and turn down the volume. I do this at home too.

I can’t even hear it now,” Terry says. He always says this.

Face down on the orange tiled floor is Mary McCarthy’s The Stones Of Florence. I nudge it with my foot.

“How’re you liking it?” I ask.

“I think I’ll go visit the Boboli Gardens,” he says. “It should be interesting.”

I smile at this. For days I have been calling my tender, pregnant breasts bobolies. Until now, he thought it was a word I made up.

I spread myself out on the other side of the bed.

“Where’d you go today?” I ask.

“The Arno” he says.

“Is it really green like it is in pictures?” I haven’t seen the Arno yet but I imagine it’s the colour of birth.

“It is,” he says. “What did you see at the place you were?”

“Santa Croce. We looked at Giotto’s fresco, The Life and Death of Saint Francis.”

Terry is waiting for me to elaborate. Besides the fact that I find it hard to describe anything when put on the spot, while I was looking at the fresco, I was thinking about a turkey sandwich. Right now I’m thinking about what I want for dinner.

“I think I need a shower,” Terry says.

“No. That’s me,” I say.

I rummage around in my book bag and pull out a large bar of pink floral soap that I bought on the way home. I stopped in a small shop. I think it was a butcher shop but it was hard to tell. In the glass case were some meats and some cheeses. Behind the case was a spotless man in a white smock. Behind him, on a shelf above his head, was a long row of wines. Tucked back in the corner was a smaller shelf with one bottle of detergent, one roll of toilet paper, a roll of digestives, and a bar of soap. It’s nice not to have too many choices.

There is nothing spry about the way I move, pushing myself off the bed with a little grunt. I think for a moment that I am exaggerating. I’m only in my second trimester. But sounds like that seem to escape from my mouth unbidden with more and more frequency. I head for the bathroom.

The shower head is high on the wall between the toilet and the bidet. The space is small but the water falls in a good, hard current. I lather and lather and lather some more. Everything gets wet except for the toilet paper in its snail-like shell clinging to the wall. The drain in the middle of the floor is clogged. I step out of the bathroom as I would a wading pool and close the door behind me. I don’t care that the bathroom is flooded.

“Ahh,” I say as I sit on the bed, “Do I get one of those pillows?”

Terry pulls one from behind his head, just like pulling a sliver, something that has to be done. I nap. We get something to eat. I go back to sleep.

And then it’s morning. The square, black, alarm clock announces this at a quarter to eight. It’s the first day I’ve slept up until the alarm. After my shower, Terry takes his. While I wait, I pull aside the curtains, unlatch the window, and open the green shutters. This is my Italy–  the birds, the bells, the rising cupola of the Duomo, and the soft sun rising in the pale blue sky. I stay there, leaning out the window until I hear the shower shut off. Reluctantly, I turn back to the red bedspread, the black alarm clock, the orange tiled floor, the muted T.V. While Terry gets dressed, I think about breakfast. How contented I am with my daily foamy cappuccino, my blood red orange juice, and my little square buns, which I break into pieces and top with chunks of sweet butter.

Today, the class is meeting at the convent of San Marco to look at the frescoes of Fra Angelico.

“Should we meet outside San Marco?” I ask. Terry nods.

I’ve opted not to join the class for an afternoon in the hills of Fiesole. Instead, Terry and I will cross the river and climb up to San Miniato. Just before the Academia, Terry falls into the line of people waiting to see the statue of David. I leave him in a blur of tourists.

After the cloister of San Marco, I welcome the walk down to the river even though my feet are sweating and I’ve pulled a muscle behind my knee.

“I love this city!” I say to Terry as we lean over the concrete rail, catching the cool breeze lifting up off the river. But I realise what I love more is walking out of it, leaving behind the opulence of created beauty that muddles and overwhelms my mind.

On our way down to the river, as we were passing the Medici Chapel, I said, “Terry, you have to go in there. You have to see it for yourself.”

What I wanted him to see wasn’t Michelangelo’s Dawn and Dusk. What I wanted him to see was the chapel, how the Medici’s brought marble and granite from their vast land holdings to lay the floor, to tile the walls. It was shocking how beautiful it was. It was frightening how cold it was. The white and pink marble was like a patchwork of ageing skin, spotted and freckled and lined. The black marble was so dark it was cavernous. The red marble was blood. Two days before, I had stood alone, apart from my class, not wanting to step on anything but the green marble.

While Terry was inside, I wandered the market stalls set up outside and bought a pair of fur lined slippers, perfect for a winter pregnancy.

We cross the river. It is different here, more residential, quieter, as if it got left behind in the many surges of development. There is no Gucci over here, just mustard colored buildings, solid wooden doors, and pots of scarlet geraniums. I am gleeful, close to giddy. Maybe it’s the sunlight, the way it brightens rather than diffuses the colors and sounds.

We climb the steep street up to Plaza Michelangelo and find the old stone steps up to San Miniato. I take off my sandals and climb barefoot. Trees arc. Shade cools the stone under my feet. We are walking the stations of the cross, each tier of stairs marked with a large wooden crucifix. We don’t talk but this isn’t unusual. There is a small garden off to our left, a good excuse for a rest.

“This is perfect,” I say and sit down on the bench.

It is perfect, here among the roses, swept over with the scents of gardenias and lemon trees. And it’s perfect because we can look across the river at the orange tiled roofs, the Duomo sticking its fine Italian nose in the air, as if for a whiff of fresh air. Views like this make me feel big.

The Church of San Miniato is dark. It smells of incense. I sit in the first pew I reach and lean my head back as Terry goes off to find the chanting monks behind the altar. There are so many triangles in the cross beams of the ceiling and the colors are bright. It’s a geometric paradise. It looks primitive to me and I like primitive. I know there is an astrological circle on the floor somewhere that I should have a look at but I can’t take my eyes off the ceiling. I can’t move my feet from the black and white tile of the floor. My back feels fused with the pew. I don’t want to see any more people. I don’t want to see art that depicts anything human. I just want to be back at the hotel, sleeping with my back to the window.

So this is what it’s like being pregnant. Or this is what it’s like to be crazy and full of contradictions. I am elated and then I am sad. I want to climb these hills but my body won’t cooperate. I want to feel the beauty of the art that surrounds me but I stare dumbly at the colors and shapes. I want to be sitting in a piazza cafe drinking wine. I want to see the face of the Duomo change color with the sun as it sinks. I want to be able to button my pants. And, I want to smoke. This is no Eden.

Despite the heat, on the way down from San Miniato, I wear my soft, furry slippers, appropriate footwear for the crazy woman I am. At the Arno, Terry and I diverge, he to the science museum to look at Galileo’s finger, and I go back to the hotel for a shower and a nap.

Our last day in Florence comes too quickly. I have learned how to tell the pharmacist that I’d like something for aching muscles, something with menthol. I have learned how to tell the woman at the deli counter that I want one sandwich, two slices of pizza, and water. And, I understand when I’m told how much money I owe and I count it out quickly.

I could live here, where dogs walk about as confidently as their owners, aloof and indifferent to the traffic, unconcerned to be sharing their streets. Or I could live over there, across the Arno in a mustard colored house.

Today we take the bus to Brancacci Chapel. It is the last stop for the class before we go our separate ways. I am not a calm traveller. Usually I am a day ahead of myself but today I am peaceful. Maybe that is why when I look at Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise, I look harder and closer.

Adam and Eve fall out of the pale blue of the garden of Eden. Adam covers his goat face with fat hands, oblivious to the salmon-colored, black sword wielding angel hovering guard above them. Eve has her eyes closed. Her small pointed chin tilts toward the sky and her mouth hangs open. I imagine the sound she makes. It is a wail and a moan, a combination of helplessness and agony. She covers her breasts, her genitalia. Together, they stagger away from the garden, in constant motion. They make no progress.

Once, when I was younger, my uncle, the Benedictine monk, asked if I knew that the story of Adam and Eve is myth. Of course, I said. I don’t remember what our conversation was or why he would’ve wanted to protect me in that way. But I know that humans need to count and measure, to have beginnings and endings, to have stories to make sense of our world.

Eve came in to the world an adult, memory-less, without any idea of birth or death. It is she that I want to take out of this fresco, bind the myth of her with the myth of me so she doesn’t have to be the first. That way she won’t be terrified when her belly grows and cramps, flutters and growls. She will have mothers and aunts and sisters to tell her this is how life cycles. This is how babies will be born.

3 thoughts on “Florence for Expectant Mothers

  1. This time the last two paragraphs exploded in my head.

    I just want to know whose idea it was to make the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil look like an apple. I know it’s Michelangelo’s fault all these folks conceive of God as a grandfather. I’m sure it seemed like a good visualization at the time.

    When my kids were young, I felt awful about the world I’d put them in; strove mightily to fix at least the parts nearest them. Montessori school salved my guilt some. I have to show you my genesis poem one day.

  2. Amo questo pezzo di scrittura, mia cognata. E un giorno, andrò a Italia – il mio vero amore – anche. Non posso aspettare…

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