"Mama, they are calling you -bella, those Italians at the corner!" My daughter turns to me here yes ablaze, cheeks flushed by excitement. She throws her arms around me.
As if seeing her for the first time, I notice her pearly skin, soft face framed by the cascades of blond, wavy hair, her delicate, budding breasts rustling like the aspen leaves. This is not a thirteen-year-old child, but
an awakening woman. Yet, she is my child whose purity and innocence I must protect from the call of the jungle. In Venice, for the first time with her as my partner, everything is more exciting and beautiful seen through
her eyes. I have been here before, and the crudity of men is nothing new. They don't even annoy me anymore.
"Baby, you think I am beautiful because I am your mother." How long will it be till a man crushes her innocence and romantic vision of love?
"Mom, I am not the only one who thinks you are beautiful. Dad does too," she tosses her wild hair emphatically. "At my school, they say you are the best looking mom." She looks at me as if begging.
Poor baby, she is right: I don't want to hear it, sick and tired of sneering, whistling and men's impertinent eyes, offensive when they think they are flattering.
"They say it to all women.." At thirty-nine, I know just how much it is all worth. But my pure, innocent child? Earlier in the day, I saw her blush all over when a middle-aged, heavily pomaded owner of a gift shop turned to her, not to me, in an attempt to sell us some jewelry. She cannot see through the male baseness and cheap sales strategies for which Venetians have been known for centuries. I bought her that necklace and a ring anyway. Her first jewelry. Till now she had to borrow mine. The pale pink coral rose-bud reminded me of her. The gift made us all happy: Maja, me, and the sleazy jeweler.
"Mama, how do you know men are lying? They looked sincere.": She goes on, persistent just like her father.
"That's something you will have to learn, for your own safety. Words are not the best way of communication. Sometimes people don't say what they think, or think what they say," I hasten my steps. "It is getting dark. We need to reach the hotel soon.Streets are not safe at night. Those men may be interested in my purse, not me."
"Oh, I never thought of that," Maja touches her new necklace.
She doesn't know my valuables are not in the purse. My father gave me a lesson in Greek history when I was a teenager. It was more than that, though. When other Ancient Greek women boasted with their adornment, Mother Grach pointed to her two sons: "These are my jewels."
Smiling to myself, I grab my daughter's soft hand in mine, and we run all the way to the hotel. The dampness is growing stronger, the salty air penetrating our summer clothes. A small shiver climbs up my spine.
Safely in our room, I lock and bar the door, then undress for a long, soothing shower. My tense, aching muscles start to relax. Drying myself, I am looking in the large, gold-framed mirror. I never quite liked my body. Once, off handedly, my husband remarked," Women would kill for a body like yours." Coming from a shy man, I considered it an odd statement. True, I have no problem keeping trim, no need to sacrifice the joy of eating. However, my looks brought me more annoyance with the men than anything else.
My mom was a real beauty in our family. Maja inherited her angelic blue eyes and curly blond hair. I got my dad's dark eyes and a mane of chestnut hair, a nose that would suit a man better than a woman. What do all those people find in me? Mom had legs and body like a Greek goddess. She was still attractive when she died of a heart attack at age 66. How did men treat her? When I was Maja's age, she counseled me obsessively "Don't ever trust men. All they want is sex. Hungry dogs," Her lips would turn into a thin line, face showing disgust. Ah, mom. Where is she now to help me prepare my angel for womanhood?
In the bedroom, Maja was asleep, TV loudly wasting energy on some sappy romance.
In the morning, we pack our suitcases to pick them up at noon, eat a quick breakfast and head toward Piazza San Marco to spend our last lira before we board the train for home.
In the ancient streets of Venice, the sun is already high in the sky, gently kissing our faces and bare arms, water murmuring to its banks, rippled by the busy motor boats and slick, black gondolas. Noisy flocks of pigeons scurry around white iron tables in search of food. We are instantly grasped by the enchantment of the ancient odor of canals, aroma of freshly baked pizza, and vivacious music coming from all directions: "Volare o-oh, cantare o-o-o-oh." The symphony of the Renaissance architecture blending with the Mediterranean colors, sounds, and scents unite in a nondescript concoction enveloping us as it has countless tourists through the ages.
Italian men take good notice of us. Not only me. Maja is included too, thirteen-year-old Maja, who is just now noticing her gender (we are still carefully avoiding the word "sex"), blushing around the boys, self conscious about her long, skinny legs, little freckles on her otherwise peachy skin, and the lack of any noticeable rounding of her torso.
Here, in Venice, Italian boys are smiling at her, whistling their mating wolf calls. I cast a quick side-long glance at her. Her petal like skin is rosier than usual. Is it the sensuously caressing sun, or the call of the wild in the whistling? The shop owners with colorful Murano beads are falling over us, gesturing and using broken phrases of English, French, Serbian or any other language helping the sale. She is treated as an adult, una bella signorina, getting her first piece of real jewelry. I wonder how all this sexually charged attention affects my child so early in life. Here, on the streets of Venice, I cannot protect her anymore. Tired with all the pandemonium of noise, gaudy colors and overly luscious scents, I am eager to return to the safety and cleanliness of my home.
On the train, in a long, empty compartment, the two of us are the only passengers. A young Italian jumps in at the last moment and sits next to a window. He is dark and curly, his finely chiseled, bony face harsh, with the deeply sunken eyes of a hungry dog. There is something disquieting about him: the look of someone older than his age, grown in the streets, ravaged in gutters, a toy of old women, exploited so many times till he had lost the last bit of innocence in him. Now, his amber eyes, aged and tired, are piercing Maja's, lapping over her pre-pubescent body, crushing her, smearing and devouring. Appalled, I can hardly stand his impudent gaze soiling my child.
She is blushing, uneasily moving her eyes from the scenery out the window, to me, to her lap, to the tip of her sandals, to... to... to him, with a helpless, almost tortured look of a little mouse, frightened and repelled but nonetheless captivated, mesmerized by the snake's powerful gaze. The atmosphere is unbearably intense. I am looking sternly at the young man, aiming to discourage him. It does not seem to bother him at all. He is focused on my child.
Riding across the mountains, we pass through many tunnels. Thinking quickly, I am assessing the situation and what I need to do. The train is speeding, making pandemonic clatter, pierced sporadically by a shrill, screaming siren approaching the tunnels. The pitch dark swallows us. How long will it last? I count seconds, as if it may speed the ride. Then, the light comes unexpectedly, blindingly brilliant. I glance at the boy. His right hand is in his pocket. Before we can recover, another tunnel is engulfing us. Out of it, I am shocked: The young man has moved closer, sitting across the aisle from Maja, his gaze even more intense and palpable, the heat escalating. I am looking through the compartment, into the next. It is also seems empty. Strange. What kind of train is this? Where is it going? I know it is the wrong train. That's why it is empty. Obviously, it is going north into the mountains. I must stop the train and think. Where is the stop handle? And where is someone that I could ask? I don't want this dangerous man to know we are lost. He may not be normal. He does look wild. Why does he have his hand in the pocket? A weapon? A knife?
I take my daughter's hand in mine, interlocking our fingers. Our hands are much the same, feminine and slender, but only I know the strength in mine. The train is speeding, clattering, screaming. It rocks us back and forth, back and forth, in a crazy, unearthly frenzied rhythm leading to insanity. What will this man do when the tunnel falls upon us?
The dark devours us again. I embrace my child, covering her with my whole body, expecting something ravagingly evil to happen. Under my familiar touch, Maja relaxes. We do not speak, the noise of the train louder than ever. Not a word is uttered, as if by denying his existence, we erase him, obliterate him, extinguish him.
The light comes on again. The long tunnel suddenly ends. Exhausted, Maja and I are still embracing each other. My gaze carefully sneaks over to the young man, while the train slows down to a halt.
He is getting up. I am holding my gaze firmly upon him. He is moving, lazily, not looking particularly at anything, his hand still in his pocket.
What is he up to?
Without a glance, he passes us, leaving the train.
The ride is over.
Later, recovered and sure we are on the right train, eating chocolate and commenting on some moments of the trip, I carefully and obliquely mention the boy to find out how much harm he has done to my baby. Laughing in a low, new, seductive giggle, Maja nonchalantly says, "Sure I noticed him. A stud. I gave him an eye when he entered, and never took my eyes off until he left. Just to see how much I can do flirting. I wish he stayed longer.." And she stretches like a satisfied cat that ate the mouse after a long, seemingly hopeful game.
Speechless, I am licking my wounds, when she adds," And yes, Mom, you are right about men. Words are not the best way of communication" Giggling again, she crosses her childishly long legs, and-this time-I blush all over.