"Ri-car-do!" the tan, sleek woman yelled from her chaise lounge. "Stop that! Don't sweat!"
Theresa didn't really need to give Melanie that jab in her arm. She was already giggling into her beach towel.
"Don't sweat..." Melanie murmured into the ground. "That's a great one. A hundred degrees, we're at the beach and the kid's not supposed to sweat!"
"I think it has something to do with catching pneumonia. If he sweats, then any little breeze and he's nailed."
"There's no resisting the killer draft." Melanie rolled over onto her back, laughing openly now. It was a long-running joke between them. Drafts in Italy are deadly. All their friends could tell the same story -- being yanked away from an open window because of the draft, or causing consternation in a household by airing the rooms all at once rather than one at a time. Even plants had to be put out of the draft, and there were books on the subject to prove it.
"I'd rather face down a draft than liver pain." Theresa raised herself on her elbows so she could look at Melanie's face. "I can't sit on the floor with Sandra without imperiling us both. It's a struggle sometimes," she added, looking about the beach for their kids.
"Safe and sound?" Melanie asked.
"Safe and sound. Probably sweatin' like mad."
"Oh, looks like somebody's up from her nap." Theresa stood and walked over to the little body lying on a towel underneath a beach umbrella. "Sleep okay, sweetie?" She brushed the hair out of Sandra's eyes, then leaned over and let her mouth rest on the toddler's cheek. She loved the smell of her, especially when she awoke. A mix of baby powder, Coppertone for Kids and her own baby body scent.
Sandra nodded and got to her knees, fully awake and heading straight for the pail and shovel.
"Get those diapers off her," Melanie called from the towel. "It's too damn hot. They'll give her a rash."
With a practiced hand Theresa scooped Sandra up by her belly and flipped her over on the towel, blowing on her stomach in order to make her laugh while she deftly pulled the diaper off. Before Sandra had time to realize she was being kept from her toys she was already back on her hands and knees and crawling happily toward her things.
"Two seconds flat," Theresa said, sitting back down next to Melanie.
"Gotta be quick," Melanie agreed.
The two women had been friends since before their children were born, having met at the American Embassy during an initiation program for U.S. citizens living in Rome. At first, the only thing they had in common was their interest in art. Melanie had majored in art history and had just been hired by a private English-language school to teach 9th through 12th graders, while Theresa was an art restorer, part of a team the city had hired in a bid to sponsor young graduates. They came from different states and had different backgrounds, but as the years went by they found they understood each other better than anybody else. Melanie was from a big Irish-American family in Boston, the fifth out of ten kids. Theresa was from San Diego, the eldest of two. Melanie took more quickly to Rome, used to the raucousness and melodrama that passed for everyday life in Italy, and her good-natured adaptation helped keep Theresa from being overwhelmed.
"Mama, can we go swimming?" Danny ran up so caked in sand he looked like a breaded cutlet.
Theresa checked her watch. "What do you think, Mel? It's been almost an hour. You think anybody's going to turn us in for derelict mothering because we didn't wait three hours after they ate to let them swim?"
"I don't think anybody's paying us that close attention," Melanie laughed, getting up. "Grab the kid," she added, glancing over at Sandra. "Danny, ask Melissa if she wants to take a swim as well so we can get you all with one go."
Danny nodded and ran happily toward the shore while Theresa picked Sandra up and set her on her hip, pointing to the sea and allowing her to take her bucket and shovel so that she wouldn't care where they were going.
They'd been coming to the same beach establishment for three years now, renting a cabana every summer and sharing the babysitting. Melanie was free since school was out, so she took Theresa's son, Danny, and baby Sandra along with her children, Melissa and Tony, to the beach in the morning while Theresa went to work. Theresa had gone to a part-time schedule after Sandra was born, so she usually made it there by two, at which time they ate and fed the kids. Then Melanie left and Theresa remained with the children until closing, though more often than not Melanie stayed, preferring Theresa's company to that of her mother-in-law.
The water was perfectly calm and clear, the little pebbles sparkling in the sunlight and making soft swishing noises as the sea ebbed slightly with the gentle tide. Danny and Tony had masks and snorkels and swam side by side looking for sea life. Now ten, they had been buddies from birth and even resembled each other-light brown hair bleached blonde by the sun and skin the color of caffe latte. Theresa plunked Sandra down right on the shore line, squatting near her to keep her safe.
"Where's Melissa?" she asked Melanie.
"Having too much fun playing volleyball," Melanie replied, pointing to the court the kids had made with rolled up beach towels. "There are some cute boys on her team. When you're 14 that's more important than a lot of other things."
"I wouldn't take my eyes off her, Signora," somebody said, making Theresa jump.
She turned and saw a woman standing near Sandra.
"What? No, of course not," Theresa said stiffly. "I'm right here."
"I saw a baby almost drown in a puddle," the woman continued, splashing water on her neck and arms. "They move so quickly."
"No, no, I'm watching," Theresa said, trying to keep the impatience down.
The woman smiled. "Tiziano! Come out! Now!" she then yelled at a boy playing in the water. "Half an hour he's been in there," she explained to Theresa. "Too much. He must dry off now and get warm again."
"Aw, come on.... Please..." the boy called back unhappily.
"No! Now! Look at your skin. Wrinkled like a prune. We won't go until six so you'll swim again."
"But it's warm. I'm not cold."
"Come in right this minute," the woman threatened, starting to wade into the water in his direction.
Grumbling and mad, the boy nevertheless splashed towards the shore, looking at her warily and keeping his distance as though afraid she'd hit him.
Theresa watched them walk back to their cabana, the woman berating the boy as they went, slapping the back of his head a couple of times for emphasis.
"I hate when they do that," Theresa said, watching the exchange. "God, our kids swim until they're blue and it's never done them any harm. That lady thinks she needs to tell me how to be a good mother but she ought to take a look at herself -- I mean, really! Gold earrings and lipstick at the beach?! If anything ever happened to her kid she wouldn't even be able to wade out and save him, with all that paraphernalia she's got on. If nothing else she ought to mind her own business."
"She was just trying to be helpful," Melanie shrugged. "I ignore the advice I don't like. And, you know, image is everything. Why else wear mink to buy milk?"
"Well, I hate it. Like the other night, Claudio and I went to dinner at that little place near our house, and we were arguing about something -- I don't even remember what -- and suddenly this old guy at the table next to us leans over and tells me he thinks Claudio isn't explaining himself properly and goes on telling me what Claudio really meant to say. His wife got in on it too, saying that I had a point, and before you know it the whole place was involved in our conversation!"
Melanie smiled. "I kind of like that. At least nobody's pretending they don't hear what you're talking about. If you're going to have a discussion in a public place don't you think it's more natural for the people around you to pitch in if they think they can help get things squared away?"
Theresa rolled her eyes. "They're just busybodies. Drives me nuts."
Melanie shrugged. "I don't mind when some old guy tells me to button my coat 'cause it's cold. These are the same folks who'll hold your baby for you while you handle stuff at the bank or help your kid if he falls."
"I guess," Theresa said, relenting. "It's just hard to get used to. Besides, all I hear is what I'm doing wrong. Nobody says, 'my, what a polite boy you have', or 'what good grades he's getting...' All I get is 'you let him climb trees? He walks to the store alone? Aren't you worried he'll get hurt?'"
"Gotta get a thicker skin, girl, I keep telling you that. Just smile wide and say 'don't worry. He'll be fine.' Leave it at that and don't think about it another second. That's what I do."
"Where do you think you're going?" Theresa caught Sandra's arm as she began to scuttle into the water. "Want to go swimming?" She'd been careful, allowing Sandra to sit and play at the water's edge without insisting on taking her in, as Sandra had seemed frightened when she first saw the sea. She figured a day would come when the baby would decide on her own. "Looks like she's ready," she glanced happily over at Melanie. "Did you bring the water wings?"
"Right here." Melanie pulled them out of her worn beach bag and gave one to Theresa to blow up while she did the other one.
Once they were nice and firm Theresa slipped them onto Sandra's arms and then waded deeper into the water, letting her float beside her. Sandra kicked and splashed happily, sometimes getting a mouthful of water because she was laughing with her mouth wide open. Then she'd sputter and choke and Theresa would haul her up and slap her back, offering to take her back to shore. Sandra adamantly refused each time, and Theresa looked back at Melanie, smiling widely.
The afternoon drew to a close but the awaited evening breeze never did waft in from the sea and the air seemed more still, humid and hot than it had all day. People were beginning to pack up for the dreaded ride home, taking last minute, icy showers in an effort to stave off the oppressive heat. Theresa had just finished hosing Sandra down and drying her thoroughly in the hopes of keeping her as free of sand as possible, and she called to Tony when she saw him heading for the showers.
"Tony, where's Dan?"
Tony shrugged, and continued towards the shower stalls.
"What do you mean?" Theresa asked, trailing after him with Sandra on her hip. "You don't know where he is?" She caught his arm and made him stop.
"I had to go to the bathroom," Tony said, looking sullen. "When I came out he was gone. He didn't even tell me he was going. I thought he was there at the door, waiting for me. I was even talking to him the whole time, like an idiot." He pulled his arm free and walked away.
A little tremor passed through Theresa's heart but she immediately brushed it aside. So the two of them fought sometimes, made each other mad. It was normal. They were practically together 24 hours a day. She sat Sandra straighter and walked back to the cabana.
"You haven't seen Danny, have you?" she asked Melanie, who was folding their picnic table and putting away chairs.
"Nope. He's not with Tony?"
"No. Looks like he deserted him, didn't tell him he was leaving. Tony's kind of pissed."
Melanie shrugged. "I'm sure he's around some place. Did you check the arcade? Here, let me have Sandra. Go check the video games."
Theresa handed Sandra over and then walked back up towards the entrance, liking the feel of her bare feet on the concrete walkway. It was one of the things she wanted to give her kids -- the feel of summer on their skin, water up their nose, lazy days when they didn't have to do anything or go any place. When she got to the room full of video games she saw one of the lifeguards locking up.
"There's nobody left in there?" Theresa asked, hurrying her steps so that she could glance into the room before the door closed.
"Nobody. You lose someone?"
"No." Theresa remembered how the lifeguard had come to her expressly one day to tell her she should not let her son swim without her. He told her a child of ten should always be in sight of his parents. What on earth he was doing there, sitting on his little chair beneath the big, red umbrella all day, was not broached. "Just looking for Danny."
"Not here. Try the showers," the lifeguard said, locking the door.
Theresa walked slowly past the little kiddie park, wondering if perhaps Danny was there entertaining one of the smaller children, but the park was empty. People were already dragging themselves and their families out the main gates to the parking lot. She lengthened her stride, trying to outrun the fear that had started nagging at her heart. There were people lined up in front of the showers but Danny was not among them.
"Have you seen Danny?" she asked some of the children she recognized as his playmates. Nobody had.
By the time she started walking back to the cabana her heart was racing and sweat trickled down her neck and between her breasts.
"No luck?" Melanie said as soon as she saw her. Worry crossed her features, but she smiled it away. "I wonder if he's hanging out with some kid at another cabana, too engrossed to realize it's time to go home. Or he might be with Melissa, already in the parking lot. Maybe there's some girl he likes but hasn't told us about," she added, winking to make Theresa smile. "Any idea?" she asked her son, who was sitting morosely on the small wooden porch in front of their cabana.
Tony shook his head, but he didn't seem angry anymore.
"Help Theresa look for him," Melanie said. "You take the first row, Theresa will take the second and I'll check the parking lot. Come on," she ordered them. "Move it out."
Theresa knew she was trying to make a game out of it for Tony's sake. It was in the air now. There was no way he could miss it. They were worried and he was scared.
Holding Sandra against her body, Theresa walked slowly down the second row of cabins. "Anybody seen Danny?" she asked now and then as she passed the people who rented them. Tony was doing the same thing across the way, and Melanie was covering the back, but when they met on the shoreline none had news. They were also being trailed now by a small group of people, some they knew and some they only recognized as being regular patrons of the place.
"You can't find your son?" the sleek, tan lady said, coming up to Theresa with her own boy in tow.
There was no use pretending. Theresa was truly frightened now, her stomach churning and panic threatening to fight it's way past her sealed lips. She wanted to scream, 'find my boy! I can't find my boy!', but she held Sandra tighter and shook her head. Tears sprang to her eyes and she let them. It was taking all her strength to keep calm.
"Ricardo says he saw him with another boy, an older boy. Nobody Ricardo recognized. Do you know who it was?"
Theresa shook her head numbly. Sandra had started to fidget and fuss and Theresa jiggled her on her hip to quiet her.
"What's wrong?" people asked as they walked up to the little group clustered on the shore.
"Her boy. She can't find her boy," they were told.
A father Theresa had seen playing with his newborn came to her side. "Has he ever gone to the rocks down by the pier?" he asked her, pointing to the north toward the beach town.
"No, I don't think so, not without me," Theresa said. "Shhhh," she murmured to Sandra. "Don't cry, honey. Not now..."
"Maurizio and I will run down there and take a look," he said, waving over another man. "You never know. Kids just don't think sometimes. I'm sure he's fine." He touched Theresa's arm and smiled at her warmly. Then he and his friend sprinted off across the sand.
"Here. Let me take her," somebody said behind her.
Theresa turned and saw a kid from Melissa's group, a gangly boy of fifteen with a small stud in his ear and a Mohawk haircut.
"We'll play with her so you can look," he said, reaching his arms out. "Come to me, Sandra? Want to come to Egidio?"
"I don't think she'll..." Theresa started to say, but Sandra leaned away from her and into Egidio's arms.
"That's a good little girl, what a sweetie," he cooed at her, gently pinching her cheek. "Look, look what I can do," he said quickly when she wouldn't stop fussing. "Watch." And he puffed his cheeks out as far as he could and blew loud and hard at his friend, who staggered back and flailed for balance as if being hit by a powerful wind.
"Try it," he urged her. "You blow him away. Blow him down."
Sandra pooched her cheeks out like a chipmunk and then blew and spit noisily with all her strength. Egidio's friend hurtled backwards as if hit by gale force winds, a look of clownish astonishment on his face.
Sandra threw back her head and laughed joyfully.
The woman who had pulled her boy out of the water earlier in the afternoon took Theresa's arm. "I've asked Stefano to start calling the neighboring establishments. You know, they go over sometimes for a soccer game. Maybe he asked somebody to tell you and they forgot about it and left. Let's check next door..." and she pulled on Theresa's arm and ushered her away from the water, though Theresa caught sight of the lifeguard pushing out to sea with his life-raft. "Just a precaution," the woman said when she saw that Theresa had noticed. "I'm sure he's fine. Seems kids are meant to keep us hopping! Never a minute of boredom." She smiled widely and put her arm companionably around Theresa's shoulders. "The stories I could tell you about mine..." she said as they walked over to the Mariposa.
Theresa's mind was jangling so loud she could hardly hear a word the woman was saying. "You take your responsibilities too lightly," she heard Claudio say, time after time after time. "You're not careful enough." Bile rose to her throat and her armpits stung with unused adrenaline.
She could feel her teeth start to chatter and she was fighting so hard not to cry she was biting her lip. The very worst thoughts were flooding her. Danny sinking like a stone beneath the sheet smooth silver of the deserted sea. Newspaper articles about this deadly August heat that made some people crazy, causing them to lose control and shoot their wives or jump out of buildings or torture little children. The internet scare, child porn being fueled with the kidnapped innocents of decent families like hers. Theresa had to hug herself hard just to keep on walking, to stop herself from screaming. She felt like she was going to fly apart into little, jagged pieces.
She remembered something her pediatrician had said when Theresa complimented her for her calm in crisis. The doctor had smiled wryly, "Only with other people's children, I'm afraid. When my own daughter had her first asthma attack I ran with her down these corridors screaming, 'Help! Somebody help my baby!' My colleagues have never let me live it down."
When they got to the Mariposa they were met by an elderly gentleman with a limp. "Are you the mother who lost her boy?" he asked.
Theresa didn't trust herself to open her mouth.
"Yes," the other woman answered for her. "How did you know?"
"The owner of this place got on the loudspeakers and asked if a boy named Danny was here. Some of us stayed to check around in case some older boys were being mean and holding him in one of the cabanas - you know those rival beach gangs. Nothing serious but it can make a parent worry."
"No sign?" the woman asked.
"No. But the owner is calling the other places. We'll find him," he said to Theresa, patting her shoulder. "Don't worry."
Theresa took a long, shuddering breath as tears spilled down her face.
"No, no," the gentleman clucked, patting her arm. "Don't cry. He's fine. I'm sure. It happens to all of us..."
"That's what I've been telling her," the woman with Theresa said, holding Theresa tighter around the shoulders. "We've all been through it. It's enough to make you want to kill them when you finally find them."
"Oh!" somebody shouted from the end of the walkway. "You Danny's mother?"
They turned and saw a young boy with shoulder-length hair and surfer shorts so loose they were barely riding his hips.
"Yes!" the gentleman shouted back. "Any news?"
"They found him!" the boy yelled. "Three establishments down. Soccer tournament. Somebody's driving him back!"
"There, you see?" the gentleman said with immense satisfaction. "What did I tell you?"
"He'll probably be at the cabana before we get there," the woman said, turning Theresa toward their establishment. "Thank you," she said to the gentleman.
He waved to say it was nothing.
For three seconds Theresa kept telling herself to stay calm, to walk at ease, to act worthy of this woman's companionship, but she couldn't do it. Smiling briefly by way of apology she suddenly pulled away from her and started to run down the beach, crying out loud like a kid.