They leave. The room is quiet again, the faint sounds of adult voices carry from the backyard. I want to forget this night. I get my blue satin nightgown with white lace stitched to the seams out of the drawer, slide it on, and get in bed to hide under the crumpled covers. I pull the clean sheets and blanket all the way up to my nose, even though it’s twice as hot in my bedroom than it is outside. I go to sleep thinking about meeting Penny tomorrow. Penny is my stepdad’s parents’ old mare who I get to learn how to ride. My mom showed me pictures of her. She’s dark brown with a slightly darker mane and tail. She’s as tall as my dad, double my size. My mom bought me a white cowboy hat with a blue feather in it to wear.
No matter what side of the growing fault line I am on, I no longer feel safe in my home, in my room, in my body at not quite ten years old. My awareness is growing and it doesn’t feel like a blessing. I am naked, stripped of the innocence childhood is supposed to insulate until we learn to protect ourselves. My innate goodness is not valid at my mom’s house or at home with my stepmother—I’m the stepchild, the ‘guest’ on the invitation to the party. “Be good, stay out of the way, do what you’re told or there will be consequences.” These are the rules. The consequences feel dire: your parent could leave you or die or not come back for you.
I feel uncoordinated and heavy, too big and awkward and at best invisible; I am a burden to those who are assigned to take care of me. I am a burden to my dad, to my mom, to my stepmother, to my stepfather. I understand I am expendable and to ask to be listened to, to be loved is too great a risk, the answer I get could splinter my illusions. My only option is to wait on the good deeds of those who are responsible for me at any point in time—to be happy with what’s rationed.
As if breathing in the smell of rain on sidewalks or dust on a lonely road can fill you with what you need to know to survive, I learn to not need anything or anyone, to arrange myself to stay hidden and silent, to stay out of the way so that I don’t attract attention. I learn to do whatever I need to do to hold on tight, never expecting anyone to hold on to me. If it is to be, it’s up to me.
“Good morning!” my mom chirps from the stove. She’s making scrambled eggs and toast, sliced peaches wait on the table covered in yellow cotton, with a sugar bowl, a vase of pink roses, and a crystal pitcher of squeezed oranges all arranged in the center. “We’re going to Pep and Artie’s house today. Pep said he’ll have Penny saddled up and ready for you to learn to ride.”
“Me too?” my brother asks.
“Yes, of course, Jeffrey. We might be able to get Pep to give you a ride on his tractor too.” Jeff’s face lights up on the word tractor. He likes nothing more than to play with his cars and dump trucks in the dirt, roads excavated in every direction.
“What should I wear?”
“Jeans and tennis shoes will be fine. I think we’re going to stay in the arena today.” I’ve never been near a real horse before, only the one when I was little that had springs and rocked back and forth. It was my favorite.
“She’s a natural,” Pep tells my mom as he holds the lead and old Penny saunters in a circle around him. “She’s going to be a great rider, I can tell.” In fact, I am a horse girl. Who knew? I can’t get enough and Pep is the consummate teacher: patient, kind to me and his beloved horses, always welcoming and positive. By the time I’m in eighth grade, my mom and stepdad have ten acres on the same property as his parents and aunts, in a house they had built while living in a camping trailer for a year. Most days I will walk the mile long dirt road to Pep’s barn while my mom is doing payroll at her job in town. I can disappear on the back of a horse, into the puffy clouds that float so close to the sun.
Summer after summer Pep teaches me how to have confidence in my ability to care for another, how to keep myself from falling, how to stand in my own power. Every summer, Pep teaches me about grace. Learning to ride a horse is at the top of The Things That Saved Me list. I learn to lure the horse with a bucket of oats and put the lead rope over its neck and nose. I pull Bay Boy from the grass he grazes, brush and groom his dusty coat. I coax the bit into his mouth, wind the bridle around his head and ears; eventually I am strong enough to heave the saddle above my head by myself, cinch it tight around his belly, wait and cinch it tighter before I shove my foot in the stirrup and lift myself onto his back to a higher vantage point than normal life. Pep teaches me the signals his horses know so well: lean forward or back to go faster or slow down, tap the left or the right with your heel while gently moving the reigns held in one hand to one side or the other to make a turn, pull back or right or left on the reigns for corrections or changing direction. He teaches me how to post when the horse trots, eventually riding in an English saddle. My stepdad’s father teaches me how to fly on the back of a horse through the wheat fields that surround their property, through gates held by barbed wire and the Walla Walla River, through the wall I am building to protect myself. Every summer I will spend my time wondering when I can ride again. “Tomorrow?” And, I will spend the rest of the year figuring out how I can get a horse of my own.
“It won’t cost too much. We can just pay someone to keep it in their barn, buy a little hay. I will do everything. Pppllleeeaaassseee can I get a horse?” I will beg my dad long after I am supposed to be asleep, while he tries to watch the eleven o’clock news.