Swimming Lessons

by Christen Kauffman

My grandmother serves a banquet
of rotisserie chicken, carrots and peas
mixed with neon green beans that look
impossible to grow. In the yard there are 
bikes, the Rainbow Brite doll I carried 
under my arm, barbies naked for anyone
to claim, little women dappling
the driveway in hot sun. My grandmother
yells for their bodies to be clothed,
made decent while the men watch baseball
between bites, so we take them their 
dresses, push each stiff arm into its Velcro
tomb. This is where we learn which 
bodies can be free, exposed without 
harm. How my grandmother tells us
to clench our fists right, walk with purpose
& never ask a stranger for help. Help,
we say, when our bathing suits get stuck,
hands clamped above our heads, her fingers
pinching at the hair beneath our arms.
She tells us to shave it off, make ourselves
as little dolls, hairless cats that men
will want to pet. Tell me how we learned
both: to live for a man’s open mouth,
to fear when he approaches us too fast.

About the Author

Christen Noel Kauffman is author of the lyric essay chapbook Notes to a Mother God (2021), which was a winner of the Paper Nautilus Debut Chapbook Series. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays(University of Nebraska Press), Nimrod International Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Willow Springs, DIAGRAM, Booth, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, and The Normal School, among others