It was our first vacation as a family, Julia, who would celebrate her ninth birthday in Tuscany, was an adventurous and uncomplaining traveler—open to trying anything new—especially gelato, but even the cathedrals and museums at which most kids balk. Michael, also on his first trip to Europe, had an obsessive drive to see everything, and set a manic sightseeing pace. We sped around Venice for three days, riding gondolas and water taxis, taking in Renaissance sculptures and the Biennale exhibit of contemporary art, viewing the city itself as a work of art slowly being submerged in water—like Michaels' beloved and vulnerable hometown of New Orleans. At first I was energized by Michael's and Julia's high velocity tourist style. But each day I found it harder to keep up with them.
Driving into Tuscany, Michael at the wheel, he took a wrong turn and we ended up in downtown Florence, stuck in traffic outside the city hospital. My hand on my hard belly, I had a fleeting fantasy of checking into the hospital. I would point to my Berlitz phrasebook at the Italian for "What's wrong with me, Doctor?" He would smile condescendingly, borrow my book, and point to the phrase "Welcome to menopause!" which he would announce loudly in two languages, to the amusement of his colleagues. The Florentine traffic jam ended, Michael found the narrow, unpaved road we were looking for, and we drove up the mountain to our rented Tuscan cottage.
Signora Francesca Gimaldi, our eighty-five-year-old landlady, whose leathered face was crosshatched with wrinkles, greeted us in Italian. She took a grandmotherly shine to Julia and promptly flagged down the rickety local bus, returning three hours later with two brown paper bags filled with fresh figs—one for her and one for Julia.
Michael and Julia drove down the mountain to Florence over the next few days, to visit the Uffizi Gallery and to explore the city, but I was too tired to join them, so I stayed at our cottage. Signora Gimaldi and I rested on the gray slate patio together, two old ladies quietly gazing at the parched yellow grass, olive trees, and vineyards, the vines tethered to wooden stakes to support the ripening bunches of small, green grapes. I followed Dr. Kay's orders, and drank lots of local red wine.
Rome was beautiful but too hot to breathe. While Michael and Julia explored ancient ruins, cathedrals, and gardens, I became the American expert on Italian park benches. A Roman policeman shook me awake from a nap at the Villa Borghese Gardens and ordered me to leave.
I was famished, but after a few bites I couldn't eat. My cheeks were sunken, my stomach was bloated. On the last night of our trip, unable to sleep, I ran my hand over my abdomen. The swelling was bigger than at the beginning of our vacation. I put Michael's hand on my belly.
"What do you think it is?" he whispered, half- awake.
"Either I'm pregnant or this is a tumor."
"You'll be okay," he said uncertainly, his hand tracing the hard curve.