November 2011. My mother comes to visit me in New York for a week. The quilt I fling across the guest room bed is coming apart, fraying at the edges. She insists on repairing it, so I lug my sewing machine out of the closet and set her up at the dining room table. As she mends the quilt, I ask her if it hurt her feelings when I asked her not to watch me swim when I was in high school.
“I guess I thought it was a teenage thing,” she says, looking over her glasses at a seam. “I wonder how old I was then?”
I walk to the kitchen to reheat some takeaway coffee and say over my shoulder, “I was around 14, so you must have been, what, 44?”
“…but I might have watched anyway.”
“What do you mean, you might have?” from the kitchen.
“If I wanted to see how you did, I’d watch from where you couldn’t see me.”
I watch the coffee heat and think about this. I smile.
Back in the dining room I hand her some coffee. “I never use that machine, but I will if you show me how to thread bobbins.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she says, “but you have to thread carefully, because if you don’t it will go all bohol-bohol.”
I ask her about the other swimmers’ parents.
“I remember all of the other parents thought you were very pretty and very fast.”
“Which were you more proud of?”
During my wedding reception, my mother, dressed in a white toga with a garland crowning her head, performed a dance to Elvis’s “Hawaiian Wedding Song.” Her lips moved silently to the lyrics as she swayed around me and James, perched on a coffee table. She gracefully placed leis around our necks. At the conclusion of her dance, as the applause was petering, she bowed and cried out, “See! Leanne’s not the only talented one!” Everyone laughed, but I exchanged a quick glance with James. What? He looked back at me, eyes wide.
At the end of her visit I wake my mother early to drive her to the train station. She throws back the covers when I whisper to her; her limbs—in the dark, in her underwear—look like my own. Earlier in the week she borrowed a dress of mine to go to the Glamour Women of the Year Awards; she tried on several before deciding on a vintage black-and-yellow one. I was both reassured and weirded out that they all fit and suited her, even though her body is a different shape, and much shorter than mine.
Downstairs the blue light filters through the windowpanes as I put the kettle on, and make weak, milky tea for her Pirelli thermos. When we step outside, the air has a thin, mauve cast, is cold as lake water. ♦
Excerpted from Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. Copyright © 2012 by the author, reprinted courtesy of Blue Rider Press.