When I was young I lived next door to a horse. The man who owned the animal came every day to ride and feed him, and to clean out his stall at the edge of the property. My mother said the horse had been living there forever, long before there were laws to forbid that kind of thing, back when vacant plots of land could go undeveloped for years. I knew from school that the horse had once been a colt, uneasy on his legs, and before that, in his mother’s belly, folded up like a somersault. Like people, horses were mammals. The horse next door wasn’t human, but he had big, sad eyes like one.
Rachel and I had an argument and I took a bath. I shaved my legs and left the little black hairs to pepper the tub. The argument had been about the lock on the front door; she was upset because I’d forgotten, again, to deadbolt it before coming to bed. “We’re two women living alone,” she said. “This is the big city.” She threw up her hands in that way she does when she’s mad, like she’s an actress onstage, playing angry. “Who knows what could happen?”
Like most of our fights, it was silly. Later on, after we’d made up, Rachel played me some opera and told me she just wanted us to be safe, and happy. I said I’d work on it.
Rachel used to be married to a singer, a classically trained one named Brett Brettigan. He’s a tenor. He cheated on her twice, first with an old friend of hers and then with the upstairs neighbor. Since the divorce, though, they’ve tried to forge a friendship. Sometimes
Brett Brettigan calls from his condo in Westwood, and when I answer he asks if my roommate is home. Rachel doesn’t want him to know the truth about us because he might tell her family. She says she’s waiting for her grandmother to die before she breaks the news to the rest of them. “What am I?” I ask. “Some kind of terminal disease?” But I’m only pretending to be offended. Before Rachel and I began dating, I’d never so much as kissed another woman. My attraction to her still feels like an aberration--a detour.
Nevertheless, when Brett Brettigan calls, I want to say to him: Don’t you miss the way your ex-wife smells when she comes in from the garden? You know what I mean, Brett: that gardening scent of hers--equal parts sweat, perfume and soil. And don’t you miss the way those wisps of hair cling to her neck after a long day of weeding? Couldn’t you just lick that soft, salty space beneath her ponytail, before traveling down her neck?
The horse next door was white, with a few gray spots scattered here and there along his back. My father said a horse was measured in hands, and that the one next door probably measured about 16 or so. I was very young when my father told me this, and I didn’t understand what he meant. Was there a person who traveled from farm to ranch to riding school, laying his palms along the warm velvet surfaces of every stallion and mare he could find? How big were his hands, and why was he chosen, and what happened when he retired, or died? I was too young to know the answers to my questions, but too old to ask them aloud.
The first time I touched a boy, I crossed and recrossed his 17-year-old body with my 15-year-old hands. I pretended I was a professional. This boy wasn’t a horse, but he could have been from the way he nuzzled and bucked, from the way I described and defined his body with my own. I counted under my breath, 10, 11, as I moved my hands across the boy’s chest and down his arms, skating delicately over his nervous parts until he hummed like water before it boils. We were in his bedroom on a Sunday afternoon in March. We closed the blinds.
To keep the squirrels away from the vegetable patch, Rachel strung dried chili peppers onto fishing line and stretched it across the lip of the garden. She explained that humans were the only animals who enjoyed the pain of chili peppers, and that the squirrels would try them once and stay away for months afterward. I was skeptical at first, and was surprised when it worked. While the squirrels nursed their wounds, Rachel and I ate tomato and basil salads every night for weeks.
Before Rachel, I assumed that if I ever slept with a woman, I’d find it overwhelmingly foreign. I figured I’d do it once, if at all, as an experiment, like the milk and ginger ale combinations my friends and I would make each other drink in junior high. Something to try for the sake of trying. Exhilarating in its newness, sure, but a joke too. Disgusting even.
But it wasn’t like that at all. The first time, Rachel and I shared a bottle of wine on her back porch. We’d met a few months before, soon after I’d moved to L.A., and although I’d memorized her birthday and her phone number, I didn’t expect anything to happen. She’d been married, after all, and I didn’t think I’d be bold enough to make the first move. But we were alone at her house, and drunk, and then I took my foot and rubbed my toes along her muscled calf. I stood up to retrieve another bottle of wine and Rachel stopped me by putting a hand on my waist. I remember I was wearing a linen dress, a gift from my mother, and it fell loosely around my body, ending just above the knees. Rachel flashed me those eyes, which I later came to understand as a sign of drunkenness, and she slid her hand down my waist and along my hip, until she hit the hem of my dress. She paused there a moment, then reached underneath. The movement of her hand felt like when a butterfly lands on your arm. You think: Wow. And then: Please stay where you are. And then: Please let me keep you.
It was like that for a while, I guess.
The boy I slept with kicked me out the minute we were done. He said to hurry up, his mother was coming home soon. I ran toward home but instead snuck over to the lot next door to my house. I had to be careful because my parents didn’t like me going over there. They said it was trespassing, but that didn’t stop me. I visited the horse all the time; it comforted me to watch him.
That afternoon when I entered the stall, the horse didn’t move from where he lay, just looked up at me with those sorrowful eyes. I felt the urge to measure him from hoof to withers, as I had done to the boy, but I didn’t. The horse had lived alone for so long, his only company a block of salt nailed to the stable wall. Part of me was afraid. He might be skittish, violent.
Instead, I touched my tongue to the salt lick, then ran.
I sometimes think about Brett Brettigan. His height. His muscles. His beautiful tenor voice. I’ve seen photos of him; there are many. In one, he’s standing backstage somewhere, making a goofy face and holding his hands in mock-prayer. You can tell he’s backstage because of the row of curtain ropes behind him. In another, he’s got his arm around the waist of a woman who isn’t Rachel. It looks like they’re at a barbecue. The position of the woman’s head against Brett’s shoulder gives them away--she’s the neighbor. In my favorite photo, Brett stands over a pot of boiling water, lobster in hand. Rachel showed me this picture not long after I moved in. She pointed to the lobster and said, “That’s me.” I thought I detected nostalgia in her voice, and I couldn’t blame her. We were cuddling on the couch. It felt like a slumber party.
What does a salt lick taste like? Like the dirtiest coin.
In our kitchen, there’s a knife from Brett and Rachel’s wedding. They used it to cut the cake, a chocolate-raspberry affair with a white chocolate ganache and rose petals scattered over each tier. The words Brett and Rachel Brettigan, March 18, 1994, are etched in a florid cursive along the knife’s silver handle. We use it all the time.
A few days after our fight about the lock, I took the knife into the garden and hacked at all the weeds, thinking about Brett and Rachel Brettigan cutting cakes, Brett and Rachel Brettigan naked. Then I replaced Rachel’s face with my own. I had her breasts and her solid runner’s legs, but my brain and mouth. Brett Brettigan was touching me, but I was also Rachel. Brett Brettigan’s hands were large and mannish, and I could smell the muskiness of him under his cologne. I could feel him pressing against my thigh, Rachel’s thigh. He kissed me hard, like that first boy I was with did. I still think about that, after all these years.
When Rachel got home, she wanted to know why I’d brought the cantaloupe in before it was ripe. She said, “Patience is a virtue, baby,” and snapped her fingers like a beatnik. I told her I’d thrown out the wedding knife. She wasn’t upset; she assumed it was jealousy and was flattered. “The thing wasn’t very sharp anyway,” she said, pushing the hair out of my face.
That year I turned 15, on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, a group of boys snuck into the lot next door and spray painted the horse green. When I awoke the next morning, my mother called me to the kitchen window. “Look at that,” she said. “He looks like the horse from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ” I could see what she meant, but it wasn’t true. Unlike that horse, the one next door did not turn from green to purple to blue and back again, but stayed that one awful color. And he didn’t look magical, but sickly and artificial. The paint seemed to swallow him; it was splattered across his flanks and it covered his face, too. He tried to blink away the green on his lashes. He did it again and again.
No one knew how to get in touch with the horse’s owner, so we did nothing. My parents sent me to school, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the horse. I prayed his owner would check up on him earlier than usual. I imagined the sweet relief of hose water against his hide. How good it would feel, I thought, to be made new again.
I didn’t plan on telling Rachel the horse story. We’d finished talking about the knife and the conversation had turned to something else--animal cruelty maybe, or small-town shenanigans--when it came up. “The horse was dead when I got home,” I told her. “Some people thought the animal was just old, that he was bound to die that day. Like his death was God’s will or something. But most of us were convinced it was the fumes of the spray paint that did it. Maybe the horse had a hard time breathing with all that paint on his face, or the chemicals seeped into his body and poisoned him.”
I described to her what I saw as I approached my street corner that afternoon, how the horse’s owner stood at the edge of the lot, arms crossed, talking in a low voice to the cluster of people who had come to see what they could do. I described to her how from afar I saw the horse, lying dead on its side at the door of the stall, as though he had thought to go inside to rest, but hadn’t made it. I described to her the truck that came to take the horse away, and how it took four strong men, including my father, to hoist the animal onto its bed. I described to her the way my stomach fell to see the horse’s legs gripped by those hands. And then the truck drove off, and the spectators went home, and the lot was empty.
When I was finished, Rachel asked, “Why are you telling me this story?”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t even told her everything. I hadn’t told her about how the next day I discovered that the group of pranksters included that 17-year-old boy whose room I’d been to a week or so earlier. He hadn’t spoken to me since. The boy’s father owned a hardware store, which was where they’d gotten the paint.
The horse’s death might have been an accident, but that didn’t make a difference in the end. The blame remained.
I didn’t tell Rachel about this, because I imagined her saying breezily, “Oh, the cruelty of men,” in her glib little voice, and I didn’t want her to say that. It wasn’t true, anyway--not always. And so what if it was? It was where I’d come from, and where she’d come from, too. It was where, I knew, I’d eventually return.