My mother lies on her back on the big double bed
lifts her right leg, straightens it, pumps her foot.
See how swollen my ankle gets?
Her ankle is smooth, shiny
scribbled with thin red veins.
She lifts the left leg, her pajama leg droops.
I wish I had nice legs.
Her legs are lumpy with bulging blue veins
that twist and double-back on themselves
like a range of rounded hills.
My legs didn’t always look like this.
I am eight. Her legs have always looked like this.
They are my mother’s legs,
her varicose veins, her swollen ankles.
My mother will not wear shorts
or a bathing suit. At the pool at the navy base,
she sits in the skinny stripes of shade
cast by the fence while I teach myself
to stand on my head underwater.
Mom! Look! Did my legs go straight up that time?
She hides her legs under ankle-length slacks
wipes sweat that creeps out from under her bangs.
She has always done this.
When I am eleven, I watch my mother lift her legs,
pump her ankles, press and probe her veins.
It is summer, eight in the morning, already eighty degrees.
Why won’t you wear shorts?
I don’t want people to see these ugly veins.
They are my mother’s legs. What is ugly? What people?
Why do you care what people see?
She has always taught me not to care what people think.
They might say something.
They might point at me.
Finally, I use her fear against her:
People will wonder why you wear
long pants in the heat.
It hurts to say this next part:
They will picture your legs
even worse than they are.
Next Saturday at Ann & Hope,
I stop at a rack of ladies’ swimsuits, on clearance.
You’re a ten, aren’t you?
In the fitting room she is furtive,
yanking at suits, trying to make them cover
parts of her she thinks are ugly.
What do you think of this one?
Yellow and aqua plaid, it looks like a tablecloth.
You look great.
At home, she lies on the big double bed, lifts her legs,
coats them with a fake orange tan.
At the pool, she scurries across the grass,
into the shallow end,
churns her legs into deeper water
pushes off, swims with a high stroke.
I imagine the people around the pool
jumping to their feet, cheering,
swinging their beach towels
in wild circles.
But they don’t. Fathers slap Coppertone
on reddened backs, mothers open soda cans.
The lifeguard yells, No running!
My mother treads water,
shields her eyes with her hand
waves to me to join her.
As though she has always done this.
Dawn Paul teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art. She is the author of two novels, The Country of Loneliness and Still River. Her poetry has been published recently in Naugatuck River Review and Lindenwood Review. She is a frequent performer on the Improbable Places Poetry Tour.