I have these fabulous legs. My body is unsteady, a rounding of the hip, a crow’s foot tip-toeing at the corner of my eyes, but my legs are unchangeable: curvy pillars that never disappoint. My thighs have thickened throughout the years, but as a result of commanding strength and muscle, not from fat. They could epitomize my life, my legs, and they elicit the most popular compliment I receive: a stranger’s attracted eyes admiring the flirtatious length from knee to calf, swallowing while remarking, “You have really great legs.”
They have flaws, of course, for perfection is not only impossible but also horribly boring. My hallux resembles a hammer-head. I have two unchecked, dented in, and curved broken pinky toes. They are quite skinny too, my legs; a friend’s fingers can wrap around my ankles as if they are flimsy wrists unable to carry human weight. When crossed on top of the other my knee cap bulges like a cat’s back while yawning, like a cliff amongst plains. Then there is the peroneal nerve damage on the left, coupled with the drop foot I’ve refused to succumb to. There were once holes in that fibula, empty hollows scattered throughout the bone, tumors eating away at the tibia; pain I danced through for years. My foot had to swell like a golf ball to garner any special attention. Growing pains, the doctor explained. A purple scar from the marrow-transplant rests faded, but still half visible to the naked eye. But no matter, most men are too distracted by the glistening shine off the silky (and quite muscular) arch of my calves to notice. Who can blame them, for they are beautiful things, my legs.
Above the legs stands a collection of insecurities. My skin is often moist with oil and my nose breaks free and proud, extending far away from the rest of my face, directing attention at the blackheads that have yet to recede since the fourth grade. My stomach ripples when I sit down, an overarching wad of fat, proof that I am a woman who loves her stuffed filet of sole, sage-crusted chicken, potatoes au gratin, and endless bites of lava-like chocolate cake. My hair is thin and short, brown and boring. My heavy Brooklyn accent is married to a slight lisp: together they strain the innocence in my voice. I am undeniably clumsy. If I am nervous, or hungry, I bite my nails until the cuticles are raw and bleed. I am always nervous. I have sex for fun. I am happy, almost nauseatingly happy, very happy. This happiness is not only contagious but contributes to the level of my attraction. I am charming; I’ll make you smile. Most importantly there are these legs, and they never disappoint.
My legs were those of a supermodel at quite a young age. Always the tallest in the class, I would thank my legs for the fact that I could see above my classmate’s heads. Standing at the back of the line, I examined each wrinkled shirt or dandruff peppered hair while not a single look could inspect my own ripped stockings or stained white shirt. At ten years old I was already five feet, walking with the assuredness of a very tall man or the dropped confident shoulders of a successful woman. My height demanded double-takes. In Miss Margaret’s School of Dance I proudly pliéd in front of the mirror, watching my young muscles flex. Lack of rhythm later forced me to abandon my dreams of becoming a Rockette, and lack of height (I would grow only three inches since the first year of double digits), forced me to realize that my supermodel dreams must cease.
I could not always use my legs (yes, that bone-marrow transplant, those tiny fractures in the tibia caused by the angry tumors that ate, ferociously, those holes in the fibula). The word “cancer” spun my mother into a vertiginous panic, forced my father into a sobered reality. For my benefit, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fromhartz, attempted to educate the class the day before my surgery with a lesson titled “Tumors and Cancer.” Benign and malignant would appear on that Friday’s spelling test. I would be excused from the quiz, but was strongly urged to write about my thoughts on each of the words. I came home from school that day hardly understanding any more than I did before. The moments I remember are meager: metal wheels clinking, embarrassed and adored, as I crashed clumsily into metal chairs during fifth grade graduation; then, somehow, a year or two later, falling down the stairs of Junior High, a loose screw on the crutch. Strangers pitied me as I hobbled by, that poor girl who couldn’t use her legs.
It was my father’s assertiveness that forced me to walk again, quicker than the doctors predicted. I was a few weeks off the wheel-chair and had already fallen with my crutches in public twice the previous week: once in the middle of a crowded restaurant, my skirt catching the carpet, my pink and yellow polka-dot underwear on display for all of the diners to see; the other, just a few days later, at the movie theatre: I forgot I couldn’t walk—just forgot. As if I were a tree, I fell down heavy in the middle of the row, my chin melting into hardened nacho cheese. My father recognized my frustrations before I did, hated those forced acts of charity and dolent looks from strangers; he could hardly stand the sight of his newly handicapped little girl.
It was a Saturday night in August. The heat pounded against the front door, peeled wallpaper from the paneling. I wobbled down the stairs, realized I forgot something in my bedroom. I asked my father if he would get it for me. Get up and walk for it, he said. He cradled the crutches in his arms, securing them tightly, stealing them away. I whined. Go get it, he said. I asked again, politely. Again he told me to walk. Do it, he said. I know you can. Walk for me. As if I could, as if it were the most simple thing in the world to do: walk. But my father knew I was capable. He trusted that I could handle the initial pain, and that I would learn, not from doctors, but on my own how to walk (life) off. I tried and my knees collapsed. My legs had failed me, I realized, as I thumped to the floor. My father stood still, watching. Try again, he insisted, you can do it. And that’s all it takes, isn’t it? So I did, I tried again. I’ll never forget the feeling of my back first cracking, my hamstrings stretching in a straight line with the wall, my bones relearning the technique of being on their own.
My legs are worldly. Unlike their anxious, scatter-brained owner, they are austere and determined in the things they do. They tell tales of foreign countries, they have learned how to survive. Though it was my decision to study abroad in London during my Junior year of college, it is my legs that deserve the seal of independence. With only an hour of arriving in Surrey my legs took me for a walk. Walking through roads still unfamiliar in their twists and bumps, my eyes passed hawthorns and hazels they had ever yet to see. I didn’t know where my legs would lead: across the massive shopping center in Kingston, into the local pubs of Teddington, passed the signs of Wimbledon. Though my mind was weary from travel, my legs were ready to begin this new life. Can’t we keep going, they begged, so I let them lead me. It was the first of many great walks throughout London. England is made for walking with its serpentine roads, deceptive in directions, I was never sure where I would be guided. I perused those streets—into home-made shops and grand retail stores—until, in the gathering twilight of those first few hours, I was caught off guard by a group of football fans, mindlessly bumping into Jack Brewster.
Jack Brewster was as handsome and captivating as his name, except more. He was tall, an extensive six foot seven—I hardly made it to his chest (though I’m not complaining, those pecs were such wonderfully muscular things). He bent down when entering every room, as if asking for forgiveness for his unplanned tallness. He could whisk me up without bending. When I first saw him, my mind spun like a whirling dervish: how devilishly charming he was. His father was a movie producer, his mother a designer. I wrote e-mails to my sister about his beauty. I never questioned where his tan came from, but his bronze skin danced even in stained shadows of fluorescent light. His eyes were like the Roman Baths: one second a transparent blue, the next a muddled green. He was an artist, but the kind who uses tracing paper to determine his lines, not one who designs his own. Transparency, I believe they call it. He introduced me to curry. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Jack Brewster.
Except that Jack Brewster couldn’t get it up. We tried for three months. He bought sex-dice and we let chance decide on where we should kiss (or lick or tickle). We turned off the lights so our imaginations could control our actions. He licked salt off my naval before we downed shots of tequila. We tried role-playing; I was a nurse who was there to inspect his failing penis: I wanted to be the remedy to this frustrating impotence. But nurse or maid or just plain me, he was always just Jack Brewster. Nothing could convince him to break free from being Jack Brewster, too handsome for his own good. He stared at himself in the mirror one morning, licking his lips once or twice every few seconds. “Blue is definitely my color” he’d chime. I wanted to roll my eyes, I wanted to scream “you narcissistic fool you can’t even fuck me!” but I was polite, a lady. “Blue is a good color,” I agreed from under the covers.
The fault for this unproductive bedroom time could be equally mine. My hands, usually attracted like magnets to the body of a lover, would rest comfortably on my own thighs when we would watch a movie. My legs crossed in the direction opposite from wherever he sat. It wasn’t the issue that there was no sex that strained the relationship with Jack Brewster, but the issue that there was no conversation. I was at first impressed with the assuredness he carried himself with, the stories he told: I was a dementor (or something of the other) in Harry Potter, I draw (he meant trace) Audrey Hepburn, my father lets me live in his beautiful fully furnished enormous home while he’s away on set. Slowly I realized that this was all he knew: England, tracing paper, and the color blue. He couldn’t even learn how to turn me (or himself) on. How shallow of a person to lack the interest in learning more. It was a terrible moment when I realized that the looks out-shined the man. I’ve never finished a book, he said (proudly!) And that was it. I was to leave him forever. Of course, my legs knew all along, never naturally wrapping around his beautiful, beautiful body.
And I love to wrap my legs around men almost as much as men love when I wrap my legs around them. My ankles twist and turn, fitting to whatever mood has settled in the air. Sometimes they rest over another pair of legs, but the favored position is one in which the legs hug the others hips, so that the lover is trapped, so that he can never leave. While London had many great things –Arsenal, tea-time, trivia night at the local pub– for me, it lacked the presence of great lovers. New York City is ripe with great lovers. In New York, everywhere you look there are lovers: their fingers crawling into the other’s pants inappropriately on the subway, whispering sweet-nothings in the middle of a crowded movie theater, throwing belongings from a ninth floor apartment into the middle of a busy street. These are the actions of passionate people whose emotions steer their lives. The construction workers outside the Hippodrome building on 42nd and 6th would be great lovers. When I dabbled in corporate and walked to my office in the early morning they waited, every day, with a whistle and a hoot and a great legs! to start my day.
While most of the men I meet are hardly “in-love” with me, we have all shared an equal love for my legs. Starting from ankle to calf, their eyes follow the trail to my inner thigh. From time to time, I’ll act up, unwrap those skinny black six-inch heels, the ones the Victoria’s Secret supermodels wear in the catalogue, and stand perfectly straight with my hands on my hips, oh these old shoes?, my head cocking sideways, my legs making the point. Watch out, my legs warn, you’re in for trouble.
And trouble they have been. A particular night in Maryland, a vacation during President’s week: my mother, sister and I, my mother’s best friend, and her three sons. The ages ranged: the youngest son two years younger than I, the oldest son fifteen. My mother and aunt took the night off from us kids, it was the fifth night into the weeklong vacation and (strange how it only now occurs to me) they were craving conversation, at least one glass of White Zinfandel. We were all as happy to get away from our mothers as our mothers were to get away from us: a person needs a small break every now and then.
We hopped from the outdoor Jacuzzi into the living room with our wet clothes still on, no one around to scold us. We sat too close to the television watching repeats of Melrose Place, the sex and deceit still years beyond my understanding. We had a food fight with burnt popcorn, ate too many double stuffed Oreos for dinner, got bored with no one telling us what to do. It was a large condo: three bathrooms, four bedrooms, and the most extensive kitchen I’d seen at the time: a marble island twice my size spread across rows of cabinets built for storage: the perfect sort of place to play Hide & Seek.
Like most Hide & Seek games, we played with one predator who seeks those in hiding, except in our game, we always turned off the lights. The older kids enjoyed it for a good cheap scare, but I often felt peaceful, as if in a moment of solace in the vacuous darkness. The sense of fear only arrived when the light blinded my resting eyes, and the inevitable “Caught you!” following suit. My sister was the seeker first, skipping over me with a wink, trying her best to save me. I pointed to where I saw him hiding (hand-picked my own fate). She threw on the lights, her “Caught you!” bouncing off the empty condo walls. Round two: the seconds dwindled down, 5, 4, 3…I squirmed between book shelves in the bedroom. The counting stopped. The bedroom door opened. Ready or not.
“I knew I’d find you first” he said. My heart pounded against the wood, its echo beating through the empty oak drawers. The lock pushed in. I ran out from between the shelves pouting. “Damn,” I said, pretending to be old enough to use the word. I’d had enough of this game; two rounds in and I was already running out of places to hide. He stood in front of me, towering over the bed. I knew from the voice that it was still him, but the pressing heat made him feel larger, taller, a threatening version of the older boy I knew. His voice attempted to charm me when he told me my legs were as beautiful as Cindy Crawford’s, the super-model I wished I could be. “Are you still wearing those wet socks?” he asked, scooping me from under the armpits onto the bed. “You know that’ll make you sick.” His hands spread the entire length of my legs, his middle finger thicker than my bones. He forced a finger into the damp sock that stuck to my skin. It peeled off my heel. He threw it into the corner; damp, shriveled the pink bow meant to decorate my ankle now stretched, unrecognizable. He tickled the arch of my foot with his pinky, and raising a finger to his pursed lips, hissed shh.
It has taken me a while to understand, but I now realize that a young girl with gorgeous legs is never viewed as a young girl, but as a pair of gorgeous legs. Sexiness is blinding. Any form of beauty must, at one point, surrender to some sort of pain. As Oscar Wilde once said, wisdom comes with winters. When I traveled to Berlin, I walked the perimeter of what remains of a now preserved concentration camp, watching forget-me-nots fight through the gravel. It was the sort of beauty that demanded respect: complicated, flawed, hopeful. Not like these legs of mine, sexy and unchanged, but like their owner: stained yet sanguine.
Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, editor, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. Her anthology “50 Whispers: Poems by Extraordinary Women” debuted as a #1 best seller on Amazon. Her work can be found in River Teeth, Barrelhouse, PLUME, and many other places. She teaches for St. John’s University, for the College of Staten Island, and for the nonprofit organization Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.