The DiBenedettos' home was a pleasant chaos of finery and cheap toys for children. Apparently-homemade blocks were quite literally everywherescattered about the floor, on some of the lower shelves, nestled in corners of picture frames. Taking up even more space were books and dolls, as well as the odd child's drawing, framed just as elaborately as the paintings.
Family photographs hung happily alongside both of those varieties, a juxtaposition that made my forehead tingle. The whole interior as I could see it so far struck me as a magazine advert that had had been scribbled on with crayon, but
not in a disagreeable way. "You have a lovely home," I said, quite too aware of how small I sounded.
Giovanni didn't seem to notice my discomfort. There was no room for it in his personal pink-skyed world. He grinned and ruffled his own hair. "Thanks. I'll show you my room after you meet everyone."
"Everyone?" I wasn't sure I'd survive meeting so many people all at once
He shrugged. "Almost everyone. Deanna doesn't live nearby, so she didn't come." He frowned for a moment, but then it was goin, swept away as he snatched my hand up in his.
In this way, he propelled me into a truly cavernous room that was filled with people. To my relief, Saffron was there, sitting at the end of a couch and bouncing a toddler on her knee. She waved to me, and the resulting wave of relief nearly knocked me over.
The torrent of names, introductions, relationship titles, even some job titlesGiovanni's father was a doctorsomehow penetrated my foggy mind and stuck to my memory like blue-tack to a freshly painted wall. Once the last name had been given to me, I was guided to a miraculously empty chair, and a very beautiful brown baby was deposited into my arms. I sat frozen as it curled and uncurled its fingers, moving its head with the total lack of planning that only a baby could manage.
He felt so light, for the first time in
I couldn't even say. For the first time I could remember, I didn't feel like I was the wrong size. Beside me, Saffron leaned over and nearly rested her chin on my shoulder. It was a perfect moment.
"Look how good he is, Mama," Giovanni said, obviously bursting with pride that was unfortunately directed at me rather than the baby.
I felt my face turn red in spite of how much I did not want it to. There was no ready protesthow could I fight off a compliment? "I like babies," I whispered lamely.
"They must like you back," Saffron said, her grin nearly grazing my ear as she turned to look me in the eye. My blush re-doubled.
Letasha scooped the baby out of my arms and handed him to his grandmother, a classically beautiful woman who was petite, but still taller than me. She was smiling at me as if I were a second sun in a garden. "You'll stay to dinner, won't you?"
It wasn't a request that wanted an answer. She was telling me what I was going to do. "B-but it's only just coming on lunch, ma'am."
"Stay for that as well," said Dr. DiBenedetto. He seemed oddly pale standing next to his wife, who was apparently the source of the varying brown complexions that spread about the room. He didn't seem out of place, though. That was what I was
Everyone fit in this picture but me.
A camera flash blinded me for a few seconds. I was too surprised even to cover my eyes to protect them from a second flash. "Give him the baby again," someone said, "he's the only one we haven't got in a picture with Matty."
And there he was again, perfectly content to lounge in my arms. Something about babies, probably something they exhaled, made everyone within ear- and eyeshot start grinning. I couldn't quite forget where I was, but it did feel less incongruent.
I wasn't intruding, was I?
"You will stay, won't you?"
Not fair. Saffron had whispered that in my ear, quietly enough that she didn't publicly add to the pressure. She was just being polite, I knew, trying to help make me feel included, but no one else smelled of strawberries and lilacs, and no one else was tickling the side of my face with her hair.
I barely had the presence of mind to nod, although a very shy, "Alright
" made it out a few seconds later.
As soon as it had, all of the older womenthose over the age of fifteen, that isleft for the kitchen. Idly wondering if meals were always this much of a production, I cradled the baby closer to me. He was the reason I'd been brought here, and I felt as though I needed to show how much I knew that.
Of course, that was when his mother waddled playfully back to collect him for a nap. I almost waved as they both disappeared.
I felt empty, even as Naydalis and Etienne, the four-year-old twins and Giovanni's youngest sisters, patted my hands and asked me questions. Naydalis was the most assertive of the two. "You're soooo pretty," she declared as she played with my fingers, "is it 'cause you eat all your vegebulls?"
"Um, yes." Truthfully, "vegebulls" were mostly what I got to eat, so it could have been true.
She made a face, while Etienne shot her a victorious look. "Even the collyblauers?"
"Cauliflowers? Yes." I attempted a smile, which she reciprocated with a much brighter one.
Etienne pointed over at Lauren, who was coloring in a large book. "See her?"
I nodded. "That's your niece Lauren."
The look she gave me made me think of a teacher planning a sheetful of good grades. "She's
um. Lots of times older 'n me."
"Eight years," I agreed. "That is a lot."
Both of the twins climbed into my lap. Naydalis immediately grabbed for my hair, which I relinquished with an inaudible sigh. She must have started braiding it, I could feel the right sort of tugging. "Are you Gio's friend? He said you are, and he said you're so special and he wants you to be happier." She paused to stroke the top of my head. "And you are his friend, right?"
"Yes," Etienne answered for me. "And Pundit is my friend too."
Gooey happiness like a melting cookie filled my head. Naydalis let go of my hair so she could use her fingers to make faces at her sister. "No, he's my friend."
Two strong arms swept them both off of me, leaving me with that peculiar floating feeling. Giovanni set the girls down and said, "You're both right, but he's my best friend, so I win." They both stuck their tongues out at him, but he just turned to me and winked. "Wanna see my room now?"