A great mystery

I am sprawled on the back deck, my sister beside me. We are girls. Our limbs are bony and brown, scraped knees, ashy elbows. T-shirts hang on us like ponchos. Beneath, our nipples are buttons on bed sheets pulled flat over our ribcages, our shoulders army corners, tight and square.

On my thighs I feel the scratch of the straw mat on the deck. It is mid-summer. Our parents sit in two hammock chairs, my mother near to us, my father some distance away, in the corner of the porch near the kitchen door. They both have beers in their hands.

The smell of boiling vegetables floats from the kitchen. My father cooks on the weekends. It will occur to me only later in life that for him, cooking is a leisure activity. For my mother, who cooks Mondays through Thursdays, cooking is a chore, another responsibility between her workday and her evening tasks: packing lunches, checking our homework, shooing us upstairs to bed, patting my back until I fall asleep. When she kneels at my bedside, her knees leave two round indentations in the carpet. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to pee and I find them with my feet. I make sure to step into them, like footprints of some giant, protective spirit, before tiptoeing to the bathroom. When I wake up in the morning, they are gone.

The hammock chairs are secured to the beams overhead by thick, rusted chains, which support the weight of my parents’ bodies, squawking and creaking as they turn, talking to each other, to us, shifting their weight with the direction of conversation. It is slow, familial talk. The talk of two tired parents of seven- and nine-year-olds, of a Saturday in June, of afternoon beers, of decisions that have to be made sometime, not today, nor tomorrow. It is the kind of conversation I do not follow; I am absorbed in tracing the hexagonal pattern of the mat’s straw fibers with my finger, tapping my foot against my sister’s foot. She too is splayed on her stomach, slightly behind me, so that I can see her shoulders only out of the edge of my vision, but our feet meet in a “V” and occasionally knock against each other as we trace restless arcs in the air with our toes. Sometimes I tap her foot more aggressively when I feel that my airspace is being invaded, but I stop short of starting all out war. I do not want to disturb this, right now. I am in close physical proximity to my mother; my father is, for the moment, relaxed and in good spirits; I do not want to call attention to myself and risk being told to unload the dishwasher or set the table or trim the pile of green beans that sit in the colander in the sink. I am quiet.

I crane my neck to look up at my mother, and I notice something: Her knees. Where the smooth, freckled plains of her shins meet the round half-domes of her knee caps, hundreds of tiny hairs—not stubble, but full hairs at least a half inch long, some longer, fine and almost fur-like—glint in the sun. I half-consciously puzzle over this, the sheen of secret, golden hair on a woman’s legs, which are supposed to be smooth. It is one of those mysteries of the world, like Beth Garfield’s tick, which is a strange combination of a flinch and a wink. Or the fluorescent pink rock I once spotted atop a ridge on a family drive up the Mendocino coast. From the spinning world of the backseat, I wondered: who climbed all they way up there with a can of pink paint? And why?

My mother’s knees: why are they covered in this fine hair, when the rest of her legs are bare and smooth? Is it some sort of feminine oversight or rebellion? Does she not know how those hairs catch the sun and betray her? Maybe she doesn’t mind. Maybe she loves the fine golden hairs on her knees, maybe even thinks they are beautiful, like I do. Maybe I will tell her, someday, that they remind me of Rumpelstitskin who weaves straw into gold. And when I reach out to brush the tips of my fingers over those fine hairs, they feel like the softest hairs in the world, softer even than the inner rim of a cat’s ear, which flicks involuntarily when you touch it in just the right spot—another great mystery.

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