GIRLS WHO LOVE HORSES
A secret: I write everything correctly the first time, or correct enough for anyone else. Someone will die, today. Or perhaps someone will not die. Remain alive, rather than live. These kinds of events always seem to me a piling on. Wedding weekends, darkly sashed funerals. If one thing happens, why not another?
On the deck of the pool, the ladies in the wedding party are getting off-the-shoulder tans, wearing well-cut red or white suits depending on complexion. The groom is a boiled lobster already in the sun. A steamed crab. A selfish shellfish, either. In my black shift, dark heels and white chapeau, I am a domino plunked in the midst of a brightly colored postcard and feel appropriately matte. I am charged to take down the goings on of this grand event for the newspaper and must, as much as I can stand it, keep to the margins.
I imagine that the bride is en suite, in suite: cosseted beneath a canopy of intentionally flimsy things. Oh, the ephemera. But no. In fact, the bride is coming in from picking cucumbers in the dusty fields, from kissing the tender flanks of Jersey cows before they're lead to slaughter. The mother of the groom clucks and suns on the porch of the manse while clutching an orange stick. She watches the bride come down the drive on her trusted chestnut. She longs to clean the dirt from her new daughter's nails, to push back her cuticles and expose the fresh white lunulas. The bride coos to the horse; her whispers pick up in the breeze. "Barnaby," she says. "Good boy, good boy."
Where is my photographer? Where is my randy partner to take pictures of this new young Liz Taylor? It's as though we're reenacting National Velvet, re-filming with the addition of several modern updates: a color television in the Brown parlor, for starters. My partner would be the casting agent. I want Natalie Wood instead, he'd say emerging from behind a column. "Yes," I respond aloud, forgetting myself. "So noted." The bride looks up from Barnaby sharply, and I color. She ties Barnaby's reins to the grand banister of the front steps, licks her upper lip and begins to proceed inside.
I like the looks of this bride so much, I ask her if we can switch roles. But as the question is lingering, she's already skating across the marble floor of the great room in messily tied saddle shoes.
My partner crops up at last back on the pool deck. He is braiding the hair of the maid of honor. She is the Lobster Groom's sister and has traveled from Los Angeles. Also, she has epic curves. I ask her when she realized her brother and Liz/Natalie were in love. She says, "It was when the bride's rowboat capsized in the English Channel, and she swam to the Dover Cliffs." The Sister from Los Angeles goes on to describe how the bride allowed herself to be corseted in the groom's arms. "That kind of woman," she finishes, "you don't hug until you're sure she wants it." "Great," I say, and move on down the line of deck chairs to ask the other ladies this same question. They deal me an identical hand again and again, flipping the same cards in different ways as if I would not notice.
I stride back to the front porch to interrogate the Mother. "You've briefed them," I say, and she nods. This kind of woman you don't want to accuse until you're sure. "Then this piece," I say, "it's already written?" She nods again, her manicured shrub of hair beginning to fall in the country heat. I ask her why, then, I should be here at all. "To bear witness," she answers. A flash of her teeth like a brilliant boomerang. My exit.
The chef is wilting in the steam bath in the back kitchen. I stride in for no reason at all, my eyes on his wet, solemn eyes and the copper cookery swaying suggestively. Chef's body is broad at the shoulders, but thins to oddly small feet. There is, in this, a visual cue I detect; Chef is strong but gentle. Perhaps this is too reductive a deduction. Perhaps, simply, he was nourished only later in life. "Where are you from?" I ask him: a test, a hurtling hurdle. "Philadelphia," he says. The word sticks in the air, Philadelphia, like a noodle thrown against a wall. Is it done? It is done. "An odd question," he says. "Yes, of course it was an odd question. I get paid, I suppose, to ask odd questions," I respond. And apologize. "Will you be writing that in your announcement?" he asks, a curl of grin crimping one corner of his mouth. I lean my palms against the counter in a gesture of false airiness. "I wouldn't think so." Chef is not slicing, as I feel in this moment that he should be. He instead dries dishes with a thin towel, throws a glaze of a gaze that coats my every inch of skin. "I'll make a plate for you if you'd like." I straighten, and nod. "Later perhaps," I say, and leave feeling dizzy.
Photographer is nipping the buttons away from women's blouses. Oh, I can hear them clattering down the corridors.
Also, ‘sides the clatter, a flash of bride in the corridor. She does an impression of creek water in a drinking glass that can't be beat. She pins her mane up. She appears, for stretches at a time, like a well-groomed lady. I ask her whether she'll take me to the stables. She says, "I hardly think there's anything there you'll find of interest." The bride is polite, but her ladyhood is a thin veil slipping. Her temples are taut as she waits for my response. "I'll just follow along, if you don't mind." I know she cannot reject me outright.
Carefully, the bride picks her way out to the front of the manse and unties Barnaby. I tail her as she leads him down the great stretch of dirt drive to the little roadway and I can hear the Mother clucking, see her waving her orange stick in the air like a crone's wand.
Running after the bride, the yet-to-be bride, and her horse. The land around the manse is green and flat, with a single twisted tree in the short distance. Farther away, hillocks rise to voluptuous mounds and a river winds itself in irregular tucks and gatherings. Gates and falling down fences appear oddly on the horizon, as if dropped down with no particular care to property lines.
The bride trips over a root, a root of that only tree, and uses Barnaby's foreleg to pull herself up. Then she is up on her horse bareback, galloping just like that, and I lift my heels with increasing speed in an attempt to gain on her. The ground is uneven and I fight against stumbles over and over. I look down with each raise of my foot.
Am I a fraud? Am I sent to be a voyeur, and not a writer of announcements? Measure my inappropriate doggedness by the difference between her breaths and mine. It involves subtraction. She and the horse slow to a walk. I am gaining on her, but gradually. Such a wide margin between her and me does not uncover my true purpose, even to my own mind.
A partner again, Photographer again, bathing in an arm of the river by my path. The love must have run all the way to the river in the sun. He is naked, bucking. Perhaps not bathing. Writer, do not be a sundering naïf – it will get you nowhere. This I say to myself, as staccato breaths pump themselves in and out of my lungs. I peel away from the bride's trajectory. It is the Sister from Los Angeles below Photographer. I take benign note of his every partner, as he has kissed me more than once with un-chaste spurs. With our close partnership, intimacies were bound to happen; they are bound to happen again. Sister from Los Angeles is below Photographer rocking, her braids undoing themselves, slipping out as if laces from eyelets.
I will hear the hot bits after the ceremony as we are tying up loose ends. The bride is on the horizon. I think: if she stops by the farm gate yonder, I might catch up. I will ask her once more to switch roles, when I get to her pretty face under the sun going down. At night, she must have hooves. At night, a loosed bridle fallen to her shins. At night, a dressage pony becomes an unbreakable foal. A Lipizzaner becomes a sweated Appaloosa, bradoons and bits cast away into the ether. No, at night Writer has hooves; this creature bride is hoofed each hour of the clock, unshod and stunning.
Barnaby does not tarry at the farm gate. Instead, they move on shuffling through dust and seem to dissolve after descending a hill. I continue to walk without much more direction than the pair's vanishing point.
There are moments in one's life when one does things, simply because there is nothing else to be done. There are moments in my life when I do things, because there is nothing more attractive doing. Half a decade ago, when my husband left me – years ago when my husband went on a sales trip and never came back – I switched my life over as if I was twenty again, (a seven year lie). I went in to the city and lived with twenty year-old girls, worked in an aromatic leather shop whose smells I missed after the work hour was done. I was a clerk; I was a secretary; I met a man who let me string words together and then invited me into the inky, pleasing bedlam of a newsroom. My husband, in his younger days – by which I mean his school days – liked to paint historical events re-imagined, with the men of note as animals. Washington was a rhinoceros in his black felt tricorn. I doubt my husband still paints now, but perhaps he does wherever he is. Heaven knows; Heaven may not know.
Over the hill, the dirt of the steep path gives way to rocks and pebbles where there can be no mark of hoof. The light of the day grays behind a cloud. Certainly, I was expecting such a setback: the piling-on. I walk as a horse walks, as coconut shells were used to imitate horses onthe radio. One two, one two, one two. If someone were to eavesdrop on my footfalls, would they think me four-legged? I am deep in this pattern when the heel of my shoe catches on a clod of earth. In half a minute, I am folded, misshapen, and smarting. For a moment, I cannot move. It is a tortuous notion that should the bride have looked behind her from her hidden progress, she would have witnessed this indignity. This notion is worse than the pain.
But what is there to do but soldier on? Upright again I settle into a new role, remove my white chapeau (crushed from the fall and mottled with the taupe of dusty winds) and carry it like a pail. I muss my hair with four fingers to-and-fro and remove my troublesome heels, leaving them behind. In a film: a cowboy looks up from his bonfire on the horizon line. A woman of uncertain age and wild hair wanders up and down the hills in the distance, and the cowboy – unsure of her beauty – remains by the fire cooking beans stirred with fatback. I am not in a film; I am in the east; I have a very certain age and surely quantifiable beauty, though I am sure on this I cannot comment. I walk until I see a stable made of dark wood and set with Dutch doors, horses nosing outwards and nodding as if to greet me. So happily do I greet them in return.
My feet in their pantyhose bend strands of hay as I circle the stable to find an entrance. I avoid the piles of manure scattered about. Writer, you can wash your feet in the river, I tell myself, and settle in to the moment ahead. "Hello," I call out. No one answers, but I hear rustling.
Inside, the stable is stuffed with the warm breath of animals. A young roan turns in his stall. The eyes of horses have, as long I can remember, given me a wild feeling of potential and passed borders. This roan's eyes, pitted chocolate with whites jaundiced, are no exception. As a young girl, I rode occasionally at an aunt's farm where horses were boarded for rich people. There I was a brave celebrity of sorts, often riding a horse named Sheba known best for throwing her passengers. She was owned by a German family, the patriarch of which worked for the nation's embassy and sold her when my aunt passed and the farm was turned into a dairy. At the far end of the stable, I hear murmurs and see Barnaby's great head caught in a blade of dim light coming through the planks. Then there is the bride: stepping in to the blade of light. What can you say to your pursued once you at last come upon her?
You say nothing. You desire her to say many things, to invite you to ride beside her on a horse of your choosing. You might say, "I'll ride the mustang," as one man said to another, looking at a sixteen year-old you and your girl friend in a bar where neither of you should have been. You advance, step in dung and do not recoil. Perhaps you wave at your pursued, hat in hand like a hobo entering into society, as if you have not been pursuing her this whole time. Or as if she had no idea. You stroke the Roan's nose, rub your knuckles along his jaw right below the cheek where the hair of a horse is the smoothest. You wait for her to speak, to discover what she will say of your pursuit.
"I suppose you found me," is what she says. I feel sure she is hiding a darker intonation underneath her kind words, but I cannot hear it. "I would invite you to ride, but it's getting dark now." The bride looks at me strangely. "And where are you shoes?" "I lost them in the battle," I respond, and she looks at me strangely again. She whispers a goodbye to Barnaby and walks past me out of the stable. "Are you coming, or not?" she calls. I rush to follow her, this time bidden, to an old junk car parked outside. On the ride back, we loop together around the skirts of the hills we scaled separately. We say nothing, or rather, the bride says nothing and the recursive silent minutes command my own mouth to stay shut. Inside the manse, supper plates are being cleared and the pair of us divide to our own rooms on opposite sides of the second floor. I wash my feet in the bath in scalding water until I can stand it no more.
In the dark house, I draw centaurs. I wonder about their genitals, in general: whether they are a man's rude member, shrugging immodestly between those equine flanks, or more like an animal's, compact in a furred sheath. I think, too, of my gone husband's animals painted in fancy dress. Their beast crotches had always been a mystery under layers of proper trousers and soldiers' coats.
I can hear Photographer and somelady going at each other in another room. I think of a lion and a tamer. I think of two lions. Here I look out the window for the bride. Was that her? Was that her, picking her way across grosgrain shadows, purple in the night light? No, I watched her go up the stairs and did not hear her come back down. She's no sneaker; she's no heel.
I cannot sleep, nor keep myself in the blue guest room where my luggage hunkers down in the corner, a bad imitation of a sleeping beast. I pull a robe onto my shoulders as a cloak and leave the room quietly, descending to the main floor.
There are women in the scullery; when I walk in there are women removing their aprons soaked in dishwater and then exiting. Chef is at a countertop alone, setting out cookies and petit fours onto a broad silver platter. I have been thinking of this Chef; I have been thinking of him and have decided that, despite his earlier gawk, nothing is doing. "Hello," I say and he responds, "You again?" with a broad smile. "Me again." I think nothing is doing until I reach past the folds of his kitchen whites draped over his body for a petit four off the platter. As I brush past him, his tongue unsheathes and licks me from jawbone to lower lash. I have been licked before – licked but not licked. Licked like: a sandpaper nuzzle during a newsreel, or a clack-mouthed proposition at the automat. Licked but not licked, until now. This lick is not to be mistaken. I feel its condensatory track beginning to dry and look at Chef with my mouth open. "Would you like to see my room?" he asks, and though it would be so easy to say yes, so easy to find myself trundling his stalked form on a white-sheeted bed in a dark room, I do not. I do not say yes, but I kiss him. When Chef's hand comes and props itself below my chin, the situation goes full stop. We come apart, like a toy a child has played with for too long, separate at the seams of our own discrete manufacturing. The petit four is still in my hand. His hand cups the meat of my flank and the confection is crushed in my fist, and then dropped.
I retreat upstairs, saying nothing nor looking back to him for some could-be meaningful stare. "You know…" Chef hollers in a jocular timbre, "I've heard that making love is the best form of exercise!" I let his words do their fancy, funny acrobatics in the air, before they seem to crash behind me. I am impermeable, times when it is not exclusively necessary.
Sun rises on nuptial day and everyone carries haloes of tizzy save Photographer and me. We have seen such a tizzy before. The Mother is swirling around in her suit, lambasting anyone in her path. The Lobster Groom comes down the stairs, peeling, and trailed by a group of ashen complected young men in search of bromides. The bride is nowhere, is above us, is laying on a chaise longue about to be dipped in her laces and pearls.
Chef is in the scullery, preparing anything un-hot. I duck into his territory wearing my best guest garb, a black sash at the waist of a white dress spittled with grass green dots. I want to see him one last time, to remember the moment of the night before. He fumbles with platters nervously and says that once he had a wife but she died. I feel our spousal absences lap at each other, hungry dogs. I am due out to the garden for the march now, and leave my professional excuse trailing at Chef's feet: my own train.
At the wedding, no moment will go undocumented. Photographer was retained months before to act as the official wedding moment recorder. This double-duty is not rare for Photographer. He is attentive, prone to close-ups. His style is before his time and, so, it's what he's known for. It's why he is hired to high-rent affairs, for his sharp eye. Imagine, every moment in the lock-down of silver nitrates and water baths. Glossy, bordered. How glamorous, how fashionable, how opulent – to have every moment frozen so. Impounded import, imported into countless family archives all for a fee. You never have to forget anything again. Photography. Stop posing, Photographer will say. Stop posing. There's beauty in the unstudied posture. Helluva line, Photographer. He mills around the pre-ceremony crowd, his camera flashing in a series of tiny supernovas.
The guests have stowed themselves onto the manor without my noticing. Perhaps I could not have noticed an elephant coming down the drive, the way the odd players in this wedding are stirring me so. There are fifty, sixty people in their best togs, breaths held in seats and bodies upright: animals waiting for food to be cast in their bowls. The bride comes down the aisle with slow, stiff movements. We can all see that she is dreaming of dungarees. Photographer comes up beside me, puts his hand on my back and hushes into my ear, "Hello, Trouble. Where have you been all my life?" Then he is gone, kneeling as the bride nears the Lobster Groom to steal that moment.
Eventually, the cake disappears into the scullery like an iced perambulator to be sliced. I stand among all the guests in a haze of champagne and string music, thinking of Chef's knife sinking through the layers.
The Horse Bride wears a short navy number, the gown already shucked, and stretches her small mouth into lip-splitting grins beside the glossy, shilling Lobster Groom. He holds the Horse Bride's hand so softly between them as they receive their admirers. Hear, hears wink tinkling from a constellation of slick-headed uncles. The Mother looks on anxiously, as if there is a perpetual breath held in her chest. Perhaps the groom is not so boorish as I suspected. He must understand something of his bride's stable.
At press time, there will be a hurricane in another part of the country. Its fatalities will crowd out my catalogue of gowns, confections, and quippy toasts. At press time, the weekend will be distilled into a handful of spare lines.
All traces of my presence will evaporate. There are no pictures of me at the ceremony, for, why would there be? Later, when Photographer raps on my sleeper car door on the train back to the city, I grant him admission. Sitting alongside him on the bed, we mourn the disuse of our work, wonder what it could all be for and both feel strangely like deserters of an adopted brood. It is often like this; it is always like this. His hands are cupped epaulets on my shoulders as he thrusts into me, watery, and all the light leaks out of the day.