Matt & zoe, p.13
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       Matt & Zoe, p.13

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
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  The woman’s eyes widen in shock. “What? Oh my God! What happened?”

  “Car accident,” I say. “And you’re here for?”

  “Mary’s lesson, of course.” The mother looks nearly offended that my mother is dead. I want to punch her in the throat. Mary, meanwhile, looks like she’s going to burst into tears.

  Jasmine says to me, “Mom has a small group of girls on Saturday mornings.” Then she says to Mary, “Come on, Mary. Walk with me down to see Mono?”

  The little girl nods and takes Jasmine’s hand. Both girls run off.

  I take a breath, trying to focus myself on not committing any violent acts this early in the morning.

  “I don’t know what your arrangement was with my Mom.”

  “Your Mom? I’m so sorry.” She actually looks genuinely sorry. She seems to sink into herself, as if whatever hot hair she had inside propping her up had been released through a slow valve. She says, “I used to bring Mary here Saturday mornings. But I guess—”

  “You still can, for now,” I say. “I don’t know if I’m going to take on all of her work, but I can for the next couple of weeks until things are sorted out.”

  “Are you qualified?” She looks skeptical.

  “I’ve been riding since I was younger than they are. And I assisted my mom for years before I went off in the Army. You can leave her.”

  The woman looks inappropriately grateful. I think she has somewhere to be, and looks at this as a babysitting engagement. Fine. Something about the girl just made my heart sad.

  The woman makes her escape. It makes me wonder how many other students there are, and where they were last week? Where was I? It’s all fuzzy. Did they knock on the door and we just slept through? I can’t remember. What I do know is that I need to clear the fog out of my brain and get moving.

  I walk out of the barn and scan the yard. Jasmine has a bail of hay on the back end of the garden wagon, a four-wheeled cart made out of a steel. She’s showing Mary how to stuff the feeding nets with hay for the night. I approach the two of them.

  Mary is still sniffling. “Hey, you guys,” I say in a low voice. “So—is the normal drill same as it used to be?” I look at Jasmine with the question.

  She says, “Chores, stalls, everything, then lessons. Usually there’s three or four girls.”

  I nod. “Okay. Well, we’re almost done in the barn. I’ll go sweep up while you finish bagging?”

  “I got it, Zoe.” Jasmine’s voice has an edge to it as she says the words. I expect her to roll her eyes next.

  I shrug. She does have it. So I walk back toward the stable and begin to sweep. I find myself doing with aggression. I’m gritting my teeth. Mary’s mother—she never even introduced herself—immediately raised my hackles. Her perfect suit and perfect shoes, her self-centered initial reaction to my mother not being there, all conspire to fill me with rage. I sweep harder and harder, grinding my teeth and trying to contain the red hot emotion that surges inside of me. I feel as if my face is contorted, my forehead hurts and I’m struggling to keep my chin from trembling and I’m horrified to realize that I’m crying. Crying. I don’t want to cry, I don’t need to cry, I need to stay strong for Jasmine and how the hell am I going to do that if I can’t even keep it together?

  I drop the broom and walk toward the back of the stable, staring up at the corrugated metal ceiling with its streaks of rust along the edges and—

  “Zoe? Are you okay?”

  I spin around in horror.

  Matt Paladino stands in the door of the barn, his face a mix of concern and … what? I don’t get his expression. His eyes are wide and brown and focused on me like laser beams. He moves toward me and says, “Are you all right?”

  “Of course I’m all right,” I say, but the tears running down my face—still running down my face—reveal the lie. I don’t want him to see me like this. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I step back into the darkness of the stable, but he steps forward.

  “Zoe? You’re crying.”

  Gritting my teeth, I say, “My parents just died.”

  He walks closer. “I know. And I know how much that hurts.”

  My shoulders sink and I turn away from him. “Go away, Matt.”

  He doesn’t go away. Instead he approaches even closer. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder. That’s all it takes. I let out a sob, then another, then he pulls me to him. I manage to keep my arms up in between us, my palms flat against his chest, but he wraps his arms all the way around me. And I cry.

  He whispers in my ear. “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” I know he’s lying. I just cry harder.

  “I’ve got to pull myself together,” I cry. “My mom’s students are coming. I think.” I sniff and hiccup. I hate this.

  He says in a low tone, “You go in and clean up. I’ve got this for now.”

  Relief and embarrassment flood me at the same time. I back away and run into the house and scrub my face.

  Now kick (Matt)

  When Zoe runs inside, I do the only thing I can. I keep one eye on the girls outside and begin shoveling the stall which she’d been working on. I was never a stablehand or anything like that, but I know horses and what needs to be done with them. Growing up like I did, that sort of knowledge is ingrained.

  Carlina’s dad—who had insisted I call him Uncle Nick—once said to me, It’s all about your relationship with the horses, Matty. They’ll break anything. They’ll get into anything. But they also love you if you love them. Which means you gotta take care of ‘em.

  I gave up that life a long time ago, but this I can handle.

  Jasmine and her friend come back into the stable and Jasmine lets out a little cry. “Mister P!” She runs over and hugs me.

  I smile. “Hey, Jasmine. Who is this?”

  Jasmine says, “This is Mary. She takes riding lessons.”

  “I see. And what have you two been up to?”

  “Stuffing hay bags,” Jasmine says in a tired voice. I half expect her to roll her eyes. I’m familiar with it. Horses are grazing animals—designed to eat slowly and steadily. Throw a bale of hay in front of them and they’ll eat it too quickly. Instead, most stables stuff hay inside bags, where the horses have to chew it a little at a time as they pull the hay through the mesh bag. Back when I was learning to ride, Carlina’s father Nick used to make his hay bags from discarded netting once used by the big-top acts.

  I move into the next stall over, carrying the muckrake. “You shovel and I’ll sort.”

  “Okay,” Jasmine says.

  We get to work clearing the stalls of refuse. A moment later Zoe returns, looking composed. She raises an eyebrow when she sees the two girls shoveling, then shrugs and begins working on the third and final stall. “Soon as we’re done in here we’ll get going on the horses, okay?”

  Jasmine grins.

  “Mary,” Zoe says. “Who have you been riding?”

  Mary doesn’t answer right away. In fact, she looks like she might crawl underneath the wheelbarrow.

  “She mostly rides Eeyore,” Jasmine says. “Mary’s still new.”

  “That’s fine,” Zoe says. “Everyone starts somewhere.”

  A few minutes later we’ve finished with the stalls and the floor of the barn. Everything is swept clean and dry and the barn smells of fresh sawdust.

  “All right,” Zoe says. “Let’s head out to the paddock.”

  Both girls take off running. I walk at Zoe’s side, but don’t say anything, preferring to absorb the warmth. But as we get about halfway to the paddock, where I can see Zoe’s three horses grazing, she asks me, “So, what brings you back here today?”

  I cut my eyes over to her face. She looks good—fresh, her hair loose, no makeup on. I don’t have a very good excuse.

  “Come on,” she says.

  I shrug. “Honestly, it’s because I wanted to see you. Last night wasn’t enough.”

  She snorts. “So you come and find me falling apart. Tha
t’s fantastic.”

  “Everybody is entitled to fall apart sometimes. And you’ve got plenty of reason.”

  She opens the gate and says, “Slip in there quick, sometimes Mono tries to nose his way out.”

  I follow her instructions, knowing that no matter how strong I might be, I would never be able to stop a thousand pound horse if it was determined to go somewhere.

  She slips in beside me. It takes a few minutes, but we get the horses together and saddled up. Zoe double checks behind me—as I would were our positions reversed—but she finds no fault with how I saddled Nettles.

  “You going to tell me now where you learned so much about horses?”

  I shrug. “I grew up with the circus,” I say.

  She snorts and shakes her head. There’s nothing quite like the truth to misdirect people. With an exasperated tone, she turns her attention to Jasmine.

  “All right, kiddo, let’s get you saddled up.”

  Zoe leads Mono to a position next to a three-foot step ladder and Jasmine climbs up, then into the saddle. She doesn’t give the slightest hesitation, no matter that the horse is huge for her.

  “Take him out slow,” Zoe says. Jasmine listens, riding Mono out at a slow trot.

  As Zoe gets Eeyore positioned next to the steps, she says, “You love to keep some mystery around you. Why is that?”

  “I’m just a very private person,” I say. Zoe helps Mary into the saddle as we talk. “Besides, I’m a public school teacher. You kinda have to stay private.”

  “Heels down,” she instructs Mary. “Now kick.”

  Mary kicks, but it’s such a slight kick I’m not sure Eeyore even noticed.

  “Kick harder,” she says. “You won’t hurt him. But you’ve got to tell him what you want.”

  Mary does it again, kicking harder, and Eeyore begins to walk.

  Zoe walks sideways, keeping an eye on the girl.

  “Eyes on where you’re going,” Zoe says. “Hands at your side. I want you to ride to the barrel, then circle it and come back. Okay?”

  Unlike Jasmine, Mary perches on the animal, back rigid, arms tense by her side and clutching the reins as if she might fall off any second. She nods at Zoe’s words, a short jerk of her head.

  “Mary, I want you to relax just a little. Eeyore can tell you’re nervous. He won’t hurt you, he’s a very gentle horse. When you get to the barrel, turn with your whole body, all right? Eyes back on me! Eyes back on me! Lead him with your whole body!”

  As she calls out the words in a confident tone, I keep an eye on Zoe. She’s a natural teacher, though I don’t know if she realizes it. She watches both girls and their horses as they circle the training ring, her feet shoulder width apart, shoulders loose, her attention focused and intense.

  I take a deep breath as I watch her. It’s an unfamiliar feeling. I’m attracted to her of course—that’s a given, she’s a beautiful woman. But this is different. She’s gentle. Smart. She passionately loves her sister, and by the looks of it, her horses. Her life.

  It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to be with someone like this. Not since high school and Carlina. But as I watch her here in the sunlight of the morning, calling out instructions to the two girls on horseback, I realize I want her more than anything I’ve wanted in my life. High school infatuation was just that—infatuation. This desire… it’s something new, and far more powerful.

  I do that sometimes (Zoe)

  A little after noon, Mary’s mother picks her up. The horses are grazing happily, and it’s long past time to get some lunch. As Mary is driven away, Matt says out of the blue, “Do you guys want to grab some lunch? Maybe up at the common?”

  The words come out forced. Then again, most of the morning, he seemed a little off. I caught him looking at me oddly several times, and I’m not comfortable with the feeling I get when I look at him. A little like I haven’t eaten and my thoughts are unfocused and confused. Plus, I spent way too much time today looking at him.

  Which makes me lightheaded.

  “Okay.” I don’t know who answered him, because I sure wasn’t ready to. Despite my reluctance, I find myself driving in the van, Jasmine at my side, following Matt up to the Village Common.

  The Village Common is a mixed residential and shopping area across the street from Mount Holyoke. A bookstore, several restaurants, shops, offices. Dad used to spend a lot of time at The Thirsty Mind, a coffee shop lined with shelves filled with one dollar books. In fact, that was one of the few things we did regularly together when I was in high school. At least once a week, after school, I’d go up to the coffee shop and spend the afternoon with my dad there. We didn’t do anything—I studied and he graded papers. The thought of walking into the Thirsty Mind right now fills me with fear. Almost as much fear as I have when I think about going into the garage.

  I still haven’t gone in there since I got home.

  Matt parallel parks his car and I pull in behind him. I don’t get him. Doesn’t he have anything to do? I know the teachers are on strike, but … what does he normally do on Saturday mornings? I’m sure he doesn’t spend them shoveling horse shit. I guess I’m still a little gun shy after Chase, because I don’t want to open up even a little.

  I don’t know the first thing about Matt Paladino.

  Except that my heart beats a little faster when he’s near me.

  He steps out of the car in front of us, and for a second I just sit there looking at him as he unfolds from the seat in his blue jeans and shirt.

  He’s too good to be true. And I’ve been down that road before. I’ve never felt so conflicted in my life.

  “Zoe? Zoe?” Jasmine’s voice is high pitched and irritating.

  “Yeah?” I say, shaking my head.

  “Are we gonna go?” Her eyebrows are raised up in the air, and I realize I’ve been sitting here, lost in thought.

  Here’s the thing. I try to stay pretty put together. Every dick in America thinks that women shouldn’t be in the military, and especially that they shouldn’t be in combat. Sometimes I feel like I have a responsibility to represent my gender, to show that I can be just as tough as the guys. I have to pretend that I don’t have nightmares, that I don’t get scared, that I don’t sometimes think about the things that happened and get sick and afraid for my soul. When I think about it, part of the problem with Chase wasn’t him at all. It was me. He’d ask me what was wrong and I wouldn’t say. How could I?

  I can’t even admit it all to myself.

  I sluggishly get out of the car, suddenly feeling defeated.

  Matt gives me a quizzical look, raising an eyebrow. “You okay?”

  I fix a smile on my face. “Of course.”

  Jasmine jumps up and down and says, “So what are we having for lunch? What are we having? What are we having?”

  “Sushi?” I ask. “I’ve been wanting to try Iya.”

  He gives me a sheepish look, even as Jasmine shouts “No!” in horror.

  “I’ve never had sushi.”

  “Oh, well, then you have to try it. Trust me.”

  So I lead the way into the Japanese restaurant. My Japanese is very rough—I lived there for a year, but my language skills are pretty sparse. It turns out to not matter—our waitress is blonde haired and blue eyed and clearly not from Japan.

  I dispense with Jasmine’s objections by ordering chicken teriyaki for her, but Matt and I spend ten minutes discussing the menu. He settles on the flying tiger roll—shrimp tempura, salmon, avocado, spicy mayo.

  Soon enough, our food arrives. After the waitress steps away, Matt leans close and grins. “Hey… they forgot to cook my fish.”

  I laugh. “Trust me.”

  “Are you sure you aren’t trying to kill me?”

  I nod. “I’ll prove it,” I say. I grab my chopsticks and snatch a piece of his roll and take a bite. Oh, my. This place is good. I close my eyes, savoring the flavors. “Go on,” I say. “Try it.”

  Reluctantly—and with considerable
difficulty—he picks up a piece and puts it in his mouth.

  I’m immediately rewarded with wide eyes. He chews as Jasmine says, “You’ll never get me to eat that. Eww. Dead fish.”

  “Better than live fish,” Matt says. Then he smiles. “A lot better. That was delicious.”

  “Actually… in Tokyo you can order live sashimi.”

  His eyes widen. “Are you serious?”

  I nod. “It’s delicious, but … I couldn’t eat it.” Internally I wince. I actually had nightmares after the night Chase and I ate ikizukuri—fish prepared alive. It sounds crazy, but—I saw people torn apart, I’ve seen people I knew, people I was friends with, screaming their lungs out in pain and horror after roadside bombs. People. The thought of even a fish suffering like that—I couldn’t deal with it.

  Don’t judge. I’m well aware that a hamburger comes from an animal, as does the bacon I love to eat. At least some attempt is made to kill them humanely. I can’t stand seeing anyone suffer. Involuntarily, my mind goes to Iraq.

  You know, when those idiots in Congress talk about women not serving in combat? They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Sure, I wasn’t infantry. But most of my tour in Iraq, I was detailed to an infantry platoon. Who else was going to search women during midnight raids? You can’t imagine what it was like. Night after night sometimes. Break down the doors of suspected insurgents. Wailing of women and children in the background, the men laying face down, wrists ziptied behind them. I’d search the women as the men were searched by my infantry compatriots. I can’t count the number of children I saw crying as their fathers were carried away.

  I went through every danger the men did. I went through the firefights, the mortar attacks, the roadside bombs, the ambushes. I still had to put up with the harassment, the occasional grab at my ass, the stupid comments and names. The jerks who figure if you’re a female in the military you must be a nurse or a whore.

  I take a deep, cleansing breath. Be present.

  Both Jasmine and Matt are staring at me.

  “Sorry,” I say. I feel heat on my cheeks. Awkwardly, I take a drink.

  “You went away there,” Matt says.

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