Published in The Raven’s Perch of March 2016
She turned from the mirror, still brushing her hair: ten, eleven, twelve. Clothes put away, bed as tautly made as a soldier’s; big fat, faded Pooh-Bear, showing his advanced years, propped on the lone pillow; Mother’s seascape behind the bed the only splash of real color on pale peach wallpaper. Not to complain about the watercolor, but all her friends had puffy pillows, bedspreads and drapes in bold colors, and rock groups’ posters on their walls.
“Mother,” she’d complained last week, “my room is so juvenile!”
“Amelia, when you get to college in another year, you can decorate your room however you’d like.”
Mother was a control freak. Like being at the front door to welcome her home after her first date. Dad tried: “Carol, you’ll drive them into the car,” he said next morning. Mother cut him short. “Henry, we will not have that conversation at the breakfast table. Besides, Amelia isn’t that kind of girl.” And she continued to wait up as though a doorstep kiss was a crime.
Forty, forty-one. On the next movie date, she had Jerry stop for a few minutes a block before the house. “Your lipstick is smudged,” Mother said the minute she closed the door on the poor boy. So Millie learned to put on fresh lipstick before they drove the last block.
Sunlight brightened the pristine white curtains: The promise of a sunny May morning to start the week. She sighed, and turned back to the dressing-table: One hundred strokes, every morning before breakfast. The face in the mirror was pretty enough. Blue eyes unshadowed, but eyebrows plucked, a concession by Mother. Lips a bit full, perhaps, and nose pudgy, but only if one looked close like this. Minor imperfections overwhelmed by the golden mass of hair that framed her face, illuminating it, falling in carefully untamed waves to her shoulders and throat like a gossamer golden shawl.
She glanced down, tempted by the mist-bottle of perfume Dad gave her for her sixteenth birthday. But Mother would make her scrub it off on a school day.
Ninety. Ninety-one. George Carter, who sat behind her in calculus, called it her mane. That was Friday, before class. George, who until then had paid her no attention. Who seemed older, never hung out after school. He lived near the center of town in a little bungalow, the girls said, with a single mother who needed him to earn serious money. He gave lessons after school at Grabowski’s riding stable, they said.
She drove by after school, imagining she might find him leading some equestrian quadrille of starched riders in black derbies. Instead he was alone, cantering a reddish-brown horse around the ring bareback, hands buried in its thick auburn mane, his own coppery hair and red-checked shirt bright against spring-green grass and trees. She almost got out and walked to the rail to smile as he came by, but thought better of it.
“You’re late for your cooking,” Mother said when she got home.
“Sorry, Mother. I mean Mom. I was hanging out with the girls.” An innocent fib. “Spring fever.”
“Never mind. Let me braid up your hair.”
“Maybe you could help me make a sock bun instead.”
“A sock bun. It was in Seventeen. You cut the foot off a sock and roll up the ankle part to make a kind of donut, and then roll your hair into the donut.”
“Ruin a good sock to wear on your head? That’s absurd.”
“It’s supposed to be easy, once you’ve done it a few times. I could go upstairs and get the magazine so you could help. We could get my hair in a bun way up on top of my head.”
“Amelia, you’re late already. And that sounds too chi-chi for a girl your age. Turn around.”
Her mane quickly became a thick rope, which is how Mother – whose own hair was short — insisted she wear it for sports and hikes and chores. The weekly cooking lessons had gone on since eighth grade, as though Mother couldn’t invent any other way to daughter-bond. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” she always said. Today’s project was strawberry-rhubarb pie. “Your Dad loves this, you know, Amelia. It’s a family recipe.”
“I remember.” She tried to look somber, and deepened her voice. “Handed down from threadbare but ambitious Irish immigrant grandparents whose first job in America was picking strawberries.”
“Don’t mock your father, young lady. And it was great-grandparents. Mind you don’t get too much sugar in that; it’s supposed to be tart.”
She heard Dad drive in, home from school, but he waited until the pies were in the oven, baking fragrantly, before daring to trespass into the kitchen. “You make Millie look like a schoolmarm with that braid,” he complained.
“Now, Henry, don’t interfere. You don’t want hair in your pie.”
“Mmmm,” he said. “Might be delicious.” He retreated when Mother gave him a dark look and flapped her hand at him. Poor Dad. She treated him like a child too. Millie went upstairs as soon as the pies were baked to brush the braid out laboriously. Maybe Mother would let her use a hairnet like girls wore at fast-food jobs.
Dad loved the pie. “You’ll make some lucky man a great wife,” he said. “I wish your mother got home to cook like this every night.” He gave Mother a smile to insist he was joking, and added, “instead of gallivanting around the countryside trying to sell houses.”
“I sell some, Henry,” Mother said. “Be grateful.”
“I am, dear.” He tried to make a contrite face, brows knit, and put his palms together like a monk’s supplication. “We’re both grateful, aren’t we, Millie?” He gave her a surreptitious wink.
Dad had used his vice-principal’s clout to get her into advanced trig and calc. The class met in double session Mondays in a room lined with old-fashioned blackboards full of neatly-chalked formulas. Half the students had gym just before, so the smells of sweat, soap and shampoo competed with chalk dust. George Carter was waiting for her when she got to class. “Wasn’t that you Friday?”
She squirmed. “I was just driving by. I thought it might be you, and stopped for a moment.”
“Longer than that,” he said, “unless there’s two red Corollas in the neighborhood.”
“I never even turned off the engine,” she protested. “You were bareback, all by yourself.”
“Nobody came for lessons, so I was exercising horses. I like to ride that sorrel mare bareback.”
“Isn’t it hard without a saddle?”
“At first. You learn to use your legs, kind of squeeze with your thighs. Come out on a slow day and I’ll give you a lesson.”
“Class?” said Ms. Walters. “Amelia? Let’s get to work now. Open your books, please.”
As class ended, George handed her a folded-up note. “My cell phone. You can call a half-hour after school to see if I have lessons, and if not you can come over. Drive into the yard and park near the barn.”
He had students that afternoon when she called: a ladies’ book club learning to ride, he said. The next afternoon was his regular class of junior-high students. Not wanting to seem too eager, she decided not to call again. But Wednesday, Mother’s afternoon at the real estate office, he told her in class that he would have no riders after school.
She brushed her hair in the car and drove over. From the road, one saw only the oval track and the brick-red hay barn; the low, weathered-brown stables were tucked behind, across an unpaved yard studded with horse droppings. She could imagine being at an isolated Western ranch far from the suburbs.
He must have heard her drive in: He was there to open the car door with a gallant flourish. “Glad you came. Let me show you around.” His checked cowboy shirt emphasized broad shoulders and chest that school clothes camouflaged. He looked older than he did in class.
There were fourteen big square stalls down two long corridors, each with clean straw whose freshness disguised the horsey smells. Half the horses were boarders, he said, fed, groomed, and exercised if they hadn’t been ridden for three days. “The owners save some boarding costs by letting Morris use them for lessons.”
“Morris Grabowski. He’s in at dawn, seven days a week. Has a bunch of women’s groups who take lessons most mornings, and more at noon, plus saddling up for owners.”
“Should I say hello to him?”
“By now he’s home, down the street. He has me do the afternoon lessons and chores and close up.”
“Are you the one who keeps it clean?”
“I only tidy up. Morris has a kid who comes in every morning. That’s how I started, mucking out stalls.”
Horses’ heads appeared as they walked, poked long-necked from the stalls, nickering softly. “They’re looking for treats,” George explained. He took some sugar cubes from a pocket, and let a horse take one from his palm.
“Don’t they bite?”
“Never. Not if you do it right. Here.” He took her hand in his, shaping it perfectly flat. His hand was big, calloused, masculine. He put a sugar lump in her opened palm, and steered as she reached out tentatively. The horse snuffled it up with thick lips, surprisingly soft after George’s hand.
“It tickles. Can I try another?” He gave her another cube as they walked to the next stall. “This is the one you were riding, isn’t it?”
“She’s my favorite. Ginger. I love it when the owner doesn’t show up, so I get to exercise her.” He patted the mare’s neck, combing the long reddish-brown mane with his fingers, then gently stroked her long nose with the palm of his hand before letting Amelia offer the sugar. “She loves having her nose petted. Try it.”
Ginger’s nose was as soft and fleshy as the lips that took the sugar lump.
“Now the tack room.” She followed him to a room in the middle of the stable where the smell of horse retreated. He must have seen her sniff inquisitively. “Leather,” he said. “And neatsfoot oil that we use to condition it.” Two rows of saddle racks jutted from the walls, like Dad’s basement sawhorses cut in half, bridles and halters draped next to each. Every saddle had a blanket folded on top.
“Those look like Navajo rugs.”
“They aren’t really,” he said. “Just saddle blankets. But a good imitation. Are you Amelia all the time?”
“My Dad calls me Millie. Mother insists on Amelia.
“I like Millie better. Okay?”
“Sure. Tell me how come your Ginger has a beautiful long mane, but the others all have crew-cut hair on their necks?”
“Roached, we call it. Keeping a mane clean takes more work. You must know.” He grinned. “I brush Ginger’s mane fifty strokes a day. How about yours?”
She felt herself blush. “A hundred.”
“It shows. Yours is prettier than Ginger’s.” He had white teeth; his smile was wide enough to wrinkle his eyes.
She steered the conversation back to horses. “So it’s less work if the rest have crew cuts?”
“Roached.” He took from a corner charging stand an electric clipper twice the size of those at the beauty shop. “I’m the barber.” He pushed a button with his thumb. The clipper rattled like a mowing machine.
“I saw a few whose hair stood up a couple of inches,” she said. “Like a Mohawk.”
“Right. Most are clipped pretty short, though.”
“That takes even less work?”
“Sure. But I think roaching is mostly a way to show who’s in charge. Alpha male, like we learn in science class, dominating a horse twice his size. Tall roach, short roach, mane — the man decides how the horse will look. Want to try?”
“No, thanks. So Ginger’s mane has never been clipped?”
“Just trimmed now and then to keep it even. And — share a secret? — I took a lock off her once, down near the withers.”
“Back of the neck, between the shoulder blades. It hardly showed, and grew back pretty quick. The owner never noticed.”
“To remember her by.” He pulled a chain and locket from the neck of his shirt. “Like the amulets Mrs. Gravely said in history class the Crusaders wore.” He tucked it back in his shirt. “You want to ride one?”
“I’d better be going.”
He put the clipper back on the shelf. “You don’t want even to try?”
“I didn’t wear jeans.”
“We keep some jodhpurs around.” He nodded to a closet door at the back of the tack room. “There’s a ladies’ dressing room.”
She shook her head. “No, thanks. Mother will be expecting me. Maybe I could come again and wear jeans.”
“That would be good.” He walked her out to the yard and held the car door for her again. She backed and turned, and he waved into her rear-view mirror as she drove around the red barn and out to the street, back into suburbia.
Dinner was almost ready. “Amelia,” Mother scowled, “you smell like a barnyard. Where have you been that kept you so late?”
“At Grabowski’s, Mom. One of the guys in my class works there afternoons. He showed me around.”
“Well, put your shoes out on the back step and go wash up. Use a washcloth to see if you can get the smell out of your hair.” Amelia did as told, and spritzed on a little perfume. She’d hardly noticed the fragrance’s name until now: Pink Sugar. Perfect. She remembered the horses’ thick soft snuffling lips. Her hair was damp when she came to the table, but Mother didn’t complain any more.
“So you’d like to learn to ride?” Dad asked.
“Don’t even suggest it, Henry,” Mother said. She pursed her lips. “Lessons are expensive. Her senior-year car and our golf club are extravagances, even if I sell a few houses now and then. And we’re not the horsey set.” She turned to Amelia. “Who’s the boy at Grabowski’s?”
“George Carter. Dad probably knows him. He’s a senior, I think.”
“Carter. Mmmm.” Dad looked at the ceiling as though there were an image there. “I do know him, although he’s not the kind who’s ever sent to the office to see me.”
“I would hope not,” Mother said.
“No. Good-looking fellow. Good student, too. More mature than most of the boys. So he rides, Millie?”
“He gives lessons, Dad. And exercises the horses. There’s a mare he rides bareback.”
“No saddle? He must be pretty good. Maybe he could give you a few free lessons. Show you how to stay on a horse, at least. Always a good thing to know.”
“Henry! We don’t know anything about the boy.”
“I do, Carol. I see him at school. And I don’t think Morris Grabowski would hire a kid who wasn’t responsible. I’ll see Morris tomorrow at Rotary. I’ll ask about the boy.”
“So it’s all right if I go back to learn, Dad?” She carefully directed the question to him. Working at school, he knew kids needed space to grow up.
“I don’t see why not.”
“Henry!” Mother said. “She has homework, you know. All those advanced courses you got her into. Trigonometry.”
Funny she should pick that one as an example. “I can keep up, Mom. It’s not like I don’t hang out with the girls a lot of afternoons.”
“That’s different, Amelia.”
“Oh, Mother! I mean Mom!”
“All right,” she relented. “Once or twice.”
Dad gave her a wink.
“I have a lesson right after school,” George said as class began Thursday. “Junior high kids. But you could come around four.”
“Okay. I’ll see.”
“Don’t forget to wear jeans this time.”
Mother wasn’t back yet when she stopped at the house after school to change and give her hair a good brushing. By the time she got to the barn, George’s students were being picked up by parents in Cadillacs and Benzes and BMWs. He was unsaddling the horses, grooming each one and leading it back to its stall. “Lend a hand?”
“Here, this is a currycomb.” Bigger than her hairbrush, it had three oval rings of fine-toothed steel on its flat face. He helped put her hand through the strap, and shaped her fingers around the edges. “Brush mostly with the hair, not against it, but give it a good hard rub. That’s it. And this is a dandy-brush. Give his legs a touch with it.”
The currycomb loosed puffs of dander. Horses have a warm, earthy smell, she thought, more pleasant than their droppings, but Mother would surely notice. Such big, strong animals, standing patiently to be groomed, following docilely back to their stalls. George was right when he said horses made people feel like alphas.
He left two horses saddled, his Ginger and a smaller tan horse, reins draped loosely over a rail in front of the barn, waiting submissively. He had her lead the last of the others back to its stall and give it some oats. “The buckskin is Scout,” he said as they got back outside. “Well-behaved. Tame as a kitten. See how close his mane is roached? A follower, not a leader. We’ll put you up the easy way, for starters.” He led the horse to a platform reached by three wooden steps. She walked up and put her right leg over the horse, easing tentatively into the saddle.
“Oh, George! How do you keep from falling off?”
“Put your feet in the stirrups. Here, wait a minute, let me lengthen those a bit. Lift this leg.” He stood beside her, reaching beneath a leather flap under her leg to re-buckle the strap. His hair was thicker than she’d noticed, and curly. He took her foot in his hand and put it into that stirrup, then came around to the other side to repeat the process. She felt like a marionette.
“That feel more secure?”
“Not very. I thought cowboys rode big saddles with long legs stuck out.”
“They do. This is an English saddle. You see how your knees are tucked forward, around the withers. You squeeze here.” He put his hand on her thigh, strong and solid, not in the least like the over-eager boys who wanted to feel her up. She felt color in her cheeks. “Flex your quads,” he said. “Squeeze. That’s it. Do it again. Now hold the squeeze.” She was sorry when he took his hand away. “Use your legs. Try not to grab the saddle.”
He led the buckskin back to the hitching post, handed her the reins and in a fluid motion was on his Ginger. Scout needed no urging to follow Ginger out to the oval track. After three times around, Amelia began to feel secure.
“You have a good seat.” She felt herself blush again, unsure for a moment what he meant. “Now once around by yourself. Give him a kick. I’ll wait here.” She had to kick Scout insistently to get him started, which threatened her balance. She grabbed the pommel of the saddle. “No, no!” George called. “With the legs!” She made it around once, and he had her go around again to where he waited. “That’s enough for the first day. Your thighs will be a little sore.” Scout followed Ginger back to the yard.
“Shouldn’t I be over by the platform?”
“You don’t need that. I’ll show you how to dismount. Put both hands on the pommel, the front of the saddle. Good. Stand, kick your right foot out of the stirrup and sling it over his back. That’s it. Take hold of the cantle, the back of the saddle, with your right hand. Good. Now hoist on both arms, like doing push-ups. Kick your left foot out of the stirrup, and let yourself slide down. I’ll help.”
His hands were secure around her waist. She felt like a ballerina, and in a moment she was on the ground, legs a little shaky. She turned to look up at him, suppressing the urge to invite a kiss. “That was fun, thank you! Can I come do that again?”
“You bet. Right after school tomorrow, if you want. I don’t have any Friday classes.” He let her groom Scout while he currycombed Ginger, and together they led the horses to their stalls.
“It’s getting late,” she said. “Mother will worry.”
“You go along. I just have to give these two their oats and put down hay for all of them. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”
She left her shoes outside the door, called hello to Mother from halfway up the stairs, took a long shower, and dried her hair. There was no trace of the barnyard when she came to the table, she was sure.
“So how was your lesson? Are you a rider yet? ” Dad asked.
“Fun, Dad. Still just a beginner, but George is a good teacher.”
“Morris Grabowski said so too. Said he started out as the kid who cleaned the stalls, and worked his way up. Responsible fellow.”
“Is he handsome?” Mother asked.
“Not especially,” she lied.
“About as tall as Dad, maybe. I didn’t really notice.”
“Amelia. You expect me to believe that?”
“It’s hard to judge on horseback, Mother. And I was focused on the horses. I’ll make a point of looking tomorrow.”
A disapproving frown. “You’re going back?”
“Yes, Mother. Mom.”
“Henry,” Mother said, “tomorrow’s Friday. I’ve got my book club. But school closes early. Maybe you could drop by to see Amelia’s lesson?”
“I will, dear. I’ll report at dinner tomorrow night.” Dad gave Mother a jaunty salute, like a President stepping off Air Force One.
She took her jeans to school Friday so she could change in the girls’ bathroom and get to Grabowski’s only a few minutes after George. “My dad’s coming to see how I’m doing,” she told him. “Help me look good.” And innocent, she added to herself.
“Okay. Suppose you mount without using the platform. Left side. Always from the left. Put the reins around his neck and reach up to hold them at the front of the saddle.” It felt awkward. “Now pull the right rein a bit shorter than the left. Scout wouldn’t bite you, but some horses might; the tight rein stops them from reaching back.”
“I thought horses were docile for alpha humans.”
“Usually. Some have a little rebel in them.”
“He might bite me?”
“Not if you’re in charge. Turn your back to Scout’s head. Left foot up in the stirrup. That way if he starts up he’ll boost you into the saddle, instead of dumping you on the ground.”
She tried and succeeded, with a little extra help to get her right foot over the saddle. She thought marionette again. He came around to tuck her foot into the stirrup and remind her how to squeeze her thighs against the withers.
“All right, something new today,” he said. “When Scout breaks into a trot, you have to post.” He showed her how to rise up in the saddle, half-crouching, her knees bent in the stirrups. He kept a hand reassuring on her right leg. She wondered if all his students got the same manual coaching. She hoped not.
He made her lead today. “Give him a kick.” Scout ambled out to the track. George turned back, letting her walk the horse around by herself. She was starting her second time around when she heard Dad drive into the yard and close the car door. She pretended not to see him, but glimpsed George, on Ginger by the gate, saying hello. Suddenly George put his fingers to his mouth to produce a loud whistle, and Scout surged into a trot. She posted. Not very gracefully, but she didn’t fall off. By halfway around she had gotten the rhythm. Not bad for starters, she thought. Dad applauded as she pulled Scout up by the gate.
“Hi, Dad. How long have you been here?”
“Long enough to see you learn to trot. You did fine.”
“George is a good teacher.”
“Apparently so. I’ll go along now. You know your mother has book club, but don’t be too late.”
She trotted Scout around once more, feeling more comfortable, secure enough to look up and wave as Dad drove away. She came back to the gate where George waited.
“Enough for now.”
“Can you dismount by yourself?”
“I think so, but you help me, please.” She kicked her right leg over the saddle, hoisted up and lowered herself. She didn’t need his attentive hands to get to the ground safely, but welcomed them. This time she turned to invite the kiss.
It was the first kiss she’d really wanted, not just wanted to experiment with. She kissed him back, and he drew her up against him hard. Enough for one day, she thought. Be sure you’re the one in control, Mother always said. But she let him drape the horses’ reins over the hitching post and lead her into the barn.
He had piled up an amazing amount of straw in Ginger’s stall, and had thrown down an old blanket.
“George,” she said, “I think I ought to go now.”
“Stay a little longer.” He drew her close and kissed her again, his tongue probing hers, soft and warm. She let him ease her down into the nest he’d made, his hands gentle and sure at her waist and back, lingering there, then moving. This was the difference between being felt up and making love. She helped him unbutton her blouse. He cupped a breast in one hand and reached back for her bra strap. In a moment he was burying his face between her breasts, kissing her nipples to firm attention, reaching up to kiss her mouth again.
“George,” she said, “that’s enough, I think. I really should go.”
“I’ll stop when you say stop.”
But she didn’t try to stop him as he undid the belt and slid her jeans off. In a moment he had a hand at the spot on her naked thigh where he had taught her to post. Gently, as though stroking the mare’s soft fleshy nose, he found the place where neither Mother nor the health teacher had told her such ecstasy awaited. She heard herself moan. He drew her legs up as though helping her straddle a horse. For a second, she remembered nearing the crest of a roller coaster, a moment of terror. Then fear turned to elation as he was astride her, thrusting, rising and falling, moaning with her until she felt him explode inside her.
“My Millie.” He rolled her onto her side, still locked together. Her head against his shoulder, half dozing, she felt him soften and withdraw.
She roused to the sound of the clipper. He had it at the nape of her neck. “George!” She struggled, but he held her in one iron arm, the other guiding the clipper.
“What are you doing?” Her voice echoed hollowly through the stable. “My father will kill you.”
“You won’t tell him. Just a lock to remember you by. Like a crusader and his damsel. I bought a new locket. It’s just a snippet. Hardly noticeable. It will grow back.” He let go her pinioned arms to kiss her again; she pushed him away, and reached behind, feeling the missing hair the way one’s tongue feels a pulled tooth. She could comb over it, she thought.
George helped her up. She dressed, conscious of his watching as he pulled his own pants on. She let him keep an arm around her waist as they walked out of the stable. He took her hand as he led her to the car, and she let him kiss her again. In the rear-view she saw him, tousled, shirt not fully tucked in, his eyes following her until she was out of sight.
Mother wasn’t home yet, thank goodness, and Dad was reading. She went straight to her bedroom, put on a bathrobe and went down the hall for a long shower, washing herself carefully, feeling his hands there. She dried her hair, and went back to her dressing table to brush it. Her mane. The missing lock hardly showed.
She turned from the mirror. Her eye fell on the Pooh-Bear. She picked it up and tossed it into the closet, then turned to survey the room, still brushing.
There had been some drapes in Seventeen with a Western theme. She could order some, have them sent to Harriet’s house, and put them up on an afternoon while Mother was out selling houses. There would be a huge fuss when Mother saw them, but maybe it was time they have a huge fuss.
And the drapes would go with a Navajo rug. Like the saddle blankets. Maybe Dad would help her find one, but the real thing, hand-loomed in Arizona or somewhere. He would certainly take her side.
She picked up the phone and dialed. “Harriet? I’m going to redecorate my room. Can you come over tomorrow afternoon to help me brainstorm?”