The Portwine Glaze (An Explanation)

I first heard this phrase drop from the mouth of one of the servers at Beast over our dinner shift one night. Portwine glaze, it was describing chicken or perhaps lamb or something. All I remember is seeing imagery of deep purple birthmarks dancing along faces, around necks, and in my case, dripping down legs.

It’s summer, y’all and it’s f’ing hot. Even though I’m an all-season-boot-wearing femme there are even those days where it’s just too damn hot to want to pull them up. I wish I were one of those girls who had easy legs. You know, a free flowing dress, a sandal, a satchel and I’m on my way. But I’m not and for a multitude of reasons, some of which I will not go into here.

Most people know when they see me that I have a pretty prevalent birthmark. A rash, as I used to call it. I’m used to it, those who love me are used to it, even glory in it, loving up the purpley rose color that decorates a lot of my body. G-d bless the lovers who actually see it and not say, Oh, I don’t even notice it’s there anymore, it just blends in.

Yes, it’s who I am. But also yes, it’s there, always there and not invisible.

And while sometimes I forget about it and move on with my day, my life, there are times, like on the subway, when I am reminded that my legs are a bit different.

Going out somewhere in public that necessitates a subway ride usually I will wear boots or leggings to cover up my vulnerability. But you know, sometimes, I defy the need to cover up, the desire to stay safe and decide it’s just too hot or I’m too lazy or too something and go on the train, legs bare, with just a skirt hanging by the knee.

I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I can handle most birthmark related comments regarding my face because I’ve had and well, my face is out there and can’t really be hidden. “Oh, is that a burn?!” “Did somebody hit you?” “What happened to your face?” People are stupid and insensitive and ignorant. This we know. Those comments are few and farther between now, but when I was growing up, they seemed to hit me whenever I was out in public. And while I still get a wave of vulnerability tumble through my belly and it makes my neck arch a bit, I can easily relax and lean into it within seconds.

But it’s an intimate and different experience with the legs.

I sat on the subway the other day, probably listening to some music on my phone when I noticed this middle age lady looking at me intently. She stared at my bare legs, then up at my face, then at my legs for a bit longer, then up at my face. Her face was neutral, she was just studying me. I felt my body burning up but I caught my anger and understood her confusion. She’s trying to figure out what it is, what I have, and why it’s covering my legs. I just stare back at her, not aggressively, not shyly, just stare back, feeling my core rise in the seat and my legs shine in their color. I get back to my music.

I was crossing the street after a run (therefore in running shorts) the other day in front of the library at Grand Army Plaza when this young guy, probably 17 or so, was with his sister. He was staring at the backs of my legs. I look away, not really wanting to deal on this particular morning, but as that crossing light in that location is kind of long, I look back and he is still staring, this time, leaning into his sister and asking, in a voice I can hear, what it is. What is that? It’s some sort of rash, she answers. He nods and they cross the street.

What I’ve determined is that these looks, these stares, are to me the portwine glaze. I am guilty of it myself, when I see someone who has a similar marking. I stare, I can’t help it, I look at its shape, its coloring, its placement. Is it more intense or invasive than mine? I am not aware of the lapse of time as I do my detective work.

I think it’s OK to look. If the lookers are well-intentioned and can hold that space with respect and inquisitiveness. Unlikely, maybe. But possible, yes.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be a part of Meg Wachter’s photo project called, Atypical Cool. Wachter, a Brooklyn-based photographer took a portrait series of individuals “with visible facial flaws, abnormalities, and other imperfections deemed by societal standards of beauty.” The project “aims to highlight their individual and unique types of beauty.”

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