I am nearing the half-century mark, and the veins and capillaries of my body are breaching.
As the bodies of my daughters, smooth and fresh, emerge into womanhood like newly-formed sculpture, I marvel: this one soft and alabaster nestled against me, this one dark and firm, her face in my hands. I must have been this unblemished, once. I must have been armored in flesh, my insides mysterious, marching into the fray. I must not have known, then, what was underneath, the corridors to truth in my body, what was hidden but waiting.
I take inventory in my middle age, these passageways announcing to the world: this is what comprises me.
Last week I smiled at myself in the mirror, and a thin blue line spread across my cheek.
My skin, it seems, is thinning. Pulled tightly across the bulges made by endless smiling, everything is fine, I loved that movie, tell me again, hilarious, it is losing its armor and spilling its secrets. It is called venulectasia, the small veins pressed against the surface, smarter words by smarter people urging themselves closer to the light. Purple as tulips in May, they urge, these lanterns, my eyes.
As a teenager, I had the requisite pimples, polka-dotted unevenly on my nose, chin, and forehead, but my cheeks were smooth and clear, fair and creamy. One spring break in college, I went on vacation to the beach with friends, and when I came home, my tan face made a backdrop for the perfect smile orthodontia had bought me. “Wait til your boyfriend sees that tan,” my father said.
Now my skin has stopped absorbing sunlight, somehow, a light tinge of freckles below my eyes in the summer but little else. I am fading, I think, into the years of invisibility.
I grin again. The line expands, gruesome, tinged subtly green by the sallow of my winter skin.
I search for the name of the veins that cross my breasts like a map. Bilateral venous affection, a study says, and it’s true, I feel affection pulse through them like magic, misplaced now that my breasts aim downward and no one grabs them between two chubby hands and pets, pets, pets.
Nurse you, mama? comes the sound of a ghost in my hallway as I stand naked in the bathroom, running one finger down the edge of the raised artery. It is like a river, a river of milk turned to blood, deep against the boundary between pale and slightly-less-pale skin. I take my décolletage south in February, leave it bare against a tropical sun, let it darken and redden. The vein remains, passing through the burn line delineating red and white, equally visible on both sides of the border.
I was buxom – a horrible word, dirty and silly – until my children drained me and left two tubes of skin with small sand-filled apples at the bottom. I stopped wearing underwire bras and wrap them, instead, in soft stretchy fabrics, white and beige and black, pressed tight. I’m done with buxom. I’m joining the comfortable, the blue line peeking out from the border of smooth white, drying my daughters’ underwires on a rack. I am wash and wear, now, practical and free.
There it is, the truth of what has always lived under my skin: the same blessed blood as everyone else, the same blessed blood I’ve always had.
I want to know whether veins are embedded deep in the stretch marks on my belly, the marks that look blue, dark and shadowed, the ones so deep they look like storage for the feeling of being finger-painted with welts as I waited for my first daughter to be born. I can bury a fingertip in one, wiggle it, plumb the deeper levels of skin. I look at the internet, and page after page tells me how to hire people to get rid of them, how to buy products to get rid of them.
I don’t want to get rid of them. I want to understand them.
After four pages of search results, I find an explanation: the second layer of flesh, the dermis, contains fibers that strain and tear during periods of rapid growth. These tears create an inflammatory response and turn the dermis red or purple or, on my fair surfaces, blue as veins.
I read on. Stress emboldens the trauma, the hormone cortisol pouring fuel on the fire in my skin. I remember my brother’s fiancé, screaming through the phone during my first pregnancy – how could you get pregnant before the wedding, I won’t share my wedding with a baby, it’s so selfish – and the conversations with my husband, my parents, we’ll go, we won’t go, we’ll go, we won’t, all while passing my hand over the stretching, tearing layers of dermis just below the surface of my bulging belly.
As it strained I erupted in hives my midwife called pruritic plaques and papules of pregnancy. I clawed at my belly day and night for weeks, sleepless, in flames.
These stretch marks are not veins through which revealed vitality flows. Nothing passes through them; they are traps for past frustration.
There is a relief map on my thighs, small hills and many rivers, rough terrain traversed by brave fingers in the dark, in bed, while my husband sleeps. I trace the tributaries of the main body of water on the outer left thigh, a deep lake with tendrils facing down. My mother had these passages blooming on her legs by the time I was a teenager, wearing long shorts that didn’t hide the smears of burst blood vessels on the backs of her calves that have now, decades later, germinated on my own.
When I run near Lake Michigan, my calves tight against three-quarter-length leggings even in the heat of summer, I feel the shock of pavement travel from my sole to my hip, up the echoing bodies of blood that now appear flung across both legs, front and back. In the cooler air of spring, I stop at the beach, the taste of that blood in my mouth as asthma increases the pressure in my lungs, forcing red blood cells to leak into the small air sacs there. I take two deep drags on a rescue inhaler, raise my arms up, open my chest, and wait.
Blood pumps through every passage: legs, chest, face. I watch the artery in my wrist pulsate. I breathe and breathe.
I have purchased bright red tights to wear with my dresses, thin leggings and soft, flowy summer pants. These tributaries, these rivers and valleys, these overflowing banks with texture and color, they’re too much, too private, too raw against shorts and skirts. I turned my gaze away from my mother’s legs. Now I hide my own, ashamed of them and of shame itself. It’s just me, same me, I think, but I hide them anyway.
One night, brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I look down at my left hand and see every vein standing stark and visible, blue and rounded. I spit and call for my husband. Look at this, I tell him, and we marvel at the prominence until we wonder why. My toothbrush-clutching hand, now at my waist, is the same, thick with blue veins like small worms.
I reach to the cabinet above to replace my toothbrush, still wondering, still worried as my husband holds his hands out in comparison. Hey wait, he says as I reach down for my phone to call the doctor. Look now, don’t move.
With my hand above my head, closing the cabinet, the blood has drained down again. My hand, for the moment it waves above my head, is young and plump again, a smooth finish, no protrusions. When I drop it to my leg, the worms return.
We search for the answer, which is simply: thin hands, age, genetics. In the morning, I repeat the trick for my teenaged daughters. Watch my hands get smooth. Watch my hands get veiny. They are bemused, for a moment, and then they look away.
In thirty years, I will ask them: do you remember my hand trick? Can you do it now?
At age 40, I lost enough weight for everyone to notice. In a frantic loop of quiet exterior and bursting, teeming thoughts, I whittled myself down to rules, contests with myself, and deflection. I thought it was a secret until one night, traveling alone with my daughters, I couldn’t sleep and stayed up all night reading and pacing the tiny cottage we shared with friends. On the beach the next day, I lay still and watched a spot in the middle of my swimsuit pulsate in rhythm.
I can see my heartbeat, I told my friends. Can you see it? My heartbeat?
They murmured yes, the nurse friend telling me it’s because you’re so thin.
It doesn’t matter that, after that summer, my foot grew a bone spur and my lungs held me up with a winter of pertussis and my body rebelled against deprivation and overexertion and abuse. It doesn’t matter that it happened without me knowing, that the shift was as imperceptible as the first strange period of perimenopause, the reflection back to remember, oh yes, I think it started then, I think things shifted then. It just happened, like months just happen, and one day I was laughing on another beach, eating peanut butter filled pretzels and warm blueberries, leaned back, and my heartbeat was safely beneath the surface.
I am glad for the temporary nature of that thin body, for the return to substance, for the hiding of my moving heartbeat. The proof of my warm sap began to spread in still-life blue and purple and red across the surface of my skin. I have a heart, but now my body protects it in a blanket of flesh. It sends its regards via emissaries.
Mystery, accuses the map of blood across my body, is a form of lying.
I ask: Is flesh a mystery?
Flesh is the decoy, the map replies. All roads lead to the heart.
Under my daughters’ skin is their own map, which will reveal itself in time, the mountains and valleys, streams and canals, neutral and necessary, flowing from my womb to their future. Imagining it, I run my fingertips over my heart.
You are here, it says.