A man who rides, p.1
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A Man Who Rides


  A Man Who Rides

  by Stefani Wilder

  Stefani Wilder is a pen name for Robin Stephen

  text copyright © 2013 by Robin Theodora Stephen Deutschendorf

 

  stefaniwilder.com

  robinstephen.com

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please contact the publisher.

  ISBN: 978-0-9844912-3-0

  Brown Wing Press

  Iowa City, IA

  brownwingpress.com

  First Brown Wing Press Digital Edition

  for my husband

  ❂

  You know how sometimes time seems to freeze for a moment, and the scene you’re in stays with you forever?

  I’m not talking about your iphone, I’m talking about your mind. And I’m talking about those rare instants that are too perfect for photography.

  I guess we’re more likely to miss them now that our lives are digitized, but they still happen. They feel like they belong to another world. You forget to fish in your purse for your phone. You forget to try to save something for later. Time freezes, and you watch. Later you find the memory alone is more than enough.

  I had a moment like that, and it changed my life.

  It happened on the way to work one day. It was a Monday morning and I’d stayed the night at my parent’s house. (Yes, I still do that sometimes, even though I’m almost 30. We’ll explore the pathetic state of my social life later.) It was early because I had to get home and shower and change and head to work. It was summer though, and the sun was already rising. It wasn’t brutally hot yet, but the flat, clear sky held that promise.

  I had crossed the narrow bridge that spanned the Rio Oro wash, made my way through the subdivision that abutted my parents’ small neighborhood, and was about to pull onto the road that would take me to the state highway. I had stopped at the stop sign and looked left at an empty road. Then I looked right.

  And that’s when I saw him for the first time. At first, I thought I was seeing things.

  He was sitting on a horse right in the middle of the road, and he had a flag in his hand. It wasn’t the kind of patriotic flag they carry in a Fourth of July parade. This was a long, skinny stick with an orange flap on the end, almost like you see cops using to direct traffic, but not quite. I looked at him and he held up the flag at me to say, ‘Stop.’

  I stared, foot on the brakes. There was a cloud of dust behind him and he was backlit by the sun. He was silhouette more than anything. His horse had its head up and a little to the side. I could see both of them in profile. The dust looked like glowing mist. Behind them, the foothills and mountains were lit in pink and gold.

  That’s the moment that stuck with me, that is etched in my mind forever. I remember thinking, Who is this guy? He seemed like something out of a myth: a modern Zorro caught out in his morning commute before he could round the ridge and disappear.

  I sat for a moment, waiting, and rolled my window down in case the man wanted to say something. He didn’t. He seemed to have forgotten me. He was looking a little over one shoulder, and I heard a shout and the jingle of tack.

  Another guy trotted his horse past the first one. He was moving on the shoulder of the road, and behind him were about a dozen other horses, these ones without riders. They trotted with their heads high, their eyes wide and dark in the weak morning light. They followed the lead horse in a jostle of heads and haunches.

  The lead horse went through the intersection where I sat in my car as I gaped through the windshield. The horse and rider turned right and continued into the neighborhood across the road. All the horses followed. Another rider appeared midway back in the group. This one was a woman, a long braid hanging out from below her flat-brimmed hat.

  There were not that many horses, really. Soon they had all passed. I lost sight of their hind feet in the dust. I looked back at the single rider, who still sat his horse in the road. He lowered his flag and gave it a little flick, indicating I was free to go on my way.

  I took my foot off the brake, turned on my blinker, and turned left. In my rear-view mirror, I saw the man’s horse walk out of the road to follow the herd, moving into a smooth canter when it reached the dirt shoulder, and disappearing into the dust that still looked like mist or fog.

  ❂

  Two hours later, I heard the back door of the gallery open and close. I looked up from the book I was reading. August was always dead. There was literally nothing to do, but still I felt guilty when Anne came in and found me reading. I put my bookmark between the pages and closed the book, stowing it beneath the counter next to the stack of old-fashioned receipts for imprinting credit cards that had been sitting there since before I’d started here five years earlier, but weren’t ever used.

  I sat and waited, listening to the sound of Anne dumping her purse and keys in the office and the click of her heels crossing the tile floor of the back hallway that led to the service entrance and the bathroom. It was a small gallery: part of a strip mall that sat across from an upscale shopping center. On one side we had a pet store that specialized in exotic birds and small animals. On the other was a graphic designer. There was a central area between the three stores, with a fountain and an excessive amount of vegetation that our landlord spent an excessive amount of time keeping green and happy this time of year. But he was retired and had nothing to do other than maintain this little strip mall to excess. He was dapper and sweet and didn’t talk your ear off, and Anne said the patio was one of the reasons she’d decided to take this location. Walking through all those plants got people in the mood to buy art. Or so she said.

  This time of year, people didn’t seem to buy art no matter how many blooming bushes they’d walked by in the recent past. Some of them wandered through, small groups a couple times a day, but you could tell they weren’t going to buy. It was in their body-language, the way they drifted from piece to piece, avoiding eye contact when they turned in your direction. I always left those people alone, either staying in the work room in back if I had something to frame, or looking at the computer if I didn’t. Anne used to tell me I should engage everyone in conversation, that you didn’t sell things by sitting all still and quiet like a cottontail trying to avoid the notice of a coyote. That was fine for her to say. Anne was the kind of person who could get fifteen minutes of good conversational mileage out of, “Fine, thanks.” After she watched me trip over myself a few times trying to talk to the drifters (as I took to calling them), she stopped pushing me to do it.

  Anne came clicking into the room, gave me a look, and turned on the radio. It was my other mild insubordination. When the gallery was dead, I tended to leave it quiet. Anne never liked anything quiet. But I’d been working for her for five years. I knew the gallery like she did. The regular customers trusted me, were comfortable with me, and some of them even preferred to deal with me. So there was no way my little trick with the radio was going to hurt my ability to retain the job. Anne thought it was funny.

  “Good morning, Erin,” she said, walking to the front door and checking to make sure I had unlocked it. Which I had, of course. At first it had offended me when she’d done things like that. Now I knew it was her way of keeping moving, of using up nervous energy. “Any action today?”

  The gallery opened at 9:00 all week, but it was rare for Anne to arrive before 10:30 or so.

  I adjusted a stack of business cards that lived on th
e counter so they were square with the edge. “I saw the nuttiest thing on my way to work this morning.” Then I told her about the guy on the horse, and the small herd moving up the side of the deserted little road in the glowing dust.

  Anne did a circuit of the room, straightening frames that were already straight and dusting invisible dust off of surfaces. She looked at me when I was done talking, amused. “Maybe you should track this guy down. It sounds like you’re half in love with him already.”

  I stared at her.

  “I mean, he must live around that area, right? How far can you drive a herd of horses in suburban Arizona?”

  The land around my parents’ house was a patchwork of small acreages and subdivisions, with the subdivisions gaining more ground every year. Many of the acreages had horse property. “I always wanted my own horse,” I said. “I took riding lessons for years. I had to stop when I went to college.”

  Anne walked over to one of the potted plants we kept around. This was a colossal spidery thing that was always dropping long, skinny leaves. She stooped to pick up one that must have fallen since I’d come in that morning. “There’s no time like the present.”

  It was Anne’s mantra. She said it all the time, to clients and customers and me, of course. But for some reason it sank in that time. I sat there, looking at Anne but seeing that guy on the horse, sitting in the cloud of dust.

  Anne tossed the dried leaf into the trash can and clicked her way back towards her office. “I’ll be in the back if anyone needs me.”

  I pulled my book out again, but gazed at the page for a long time without actually reading. I glanced behind me to make sure Anne wasn’t coming back, pulled out the pad of paper we kept next to the computer, and began to write down some numbers.

  ❂

  I looked at my watch. It was 5:45. I had arrived five minutes early, which meant I’d been sitting here for twenty minutes. I looked towards the door again, but there was no sign of Trace. I considered leaving. I always considered leaving, of leaving her in the lurch for once. But I never did.

  Because there she was, walking past the hostess. Julio’s Mexican Cantina was midway between my apartment and her house, and we met for drinks once a week. Trace was dressed in nice jeans, a black top and some sort of heeled boot. When she saw me she smiled and waved and hurried over to the table. She pulled out a chair, hanging her purse on the back, and said, “Ugh. I’m so sorry I’m late. Kylie got a flat tire on her way over.”

  I wanted to say, “And you can’t leave your daughter in your husband’s care for fifteen minutes?” But I didn’t. Instead I said, “It’s ok.” Trace had been my best friend since middle school, and even if she could be a tad unreliable about punctuality since she’d become a mother, she was always there for me when push came to shove.

  A server came over and we ordered drinks, G & T for Trace, a pale ale for me. Trace crinkled her nose at my choice. “I still don’t know how you drink that stuff.”

  I took a sip of my water. “I think I’m going to get back to riding horses.”

  Trace looked up from her drink, her expression curious. We’d taken lessons together for a few years, before high school. “What brought that on?”

  I felt myself start to blush, and suddenly I didn’t want to tell her about the cowboy. It was one thing to tell Anne. Anne was great. She was a friend by now, but she was also my boss and she wasn’t connected to my life beyond the gallery. We didn’t hang out socially. Our families didn’t get together for holidays. There was no chance of her passing my strange story on to anyone else who knew me.

  I shrugged and wiped up the puddle forming around the bottom of my water glass. “I can afford it,” I said. “I budgeted the whole thing out this afternoon.”

  Trace was giving me that suspicious look of hers, that one she gets when she’s sure there’s something I’m not telling her. Then a tone sounded and she turned to paw through her purse. She pulled out her iphone and looked at it, her face softening into a smile. “Aw,” she said, and handed me the phone.

  It was a picture of her daughter, Olivia, who was sitting on a bright green and orange pad on the floor with a rubber ducky half in her mouth. I looked at it and made the obligatory noise to express how cute it was. I handed the phone back as it gave off another tone. Trace read for a moment. “Kylie says they’re having a good time.”

  “Good,” I said, and our drinks arrived. I took a few sips of my beer. It was cold and hoppy, just what I needed. Trace drew some of her G & T through a straw, slouched in her seat, and let out a big sigh. “It’s so great to get out of the house.”

  I knew this was the part where I was supposed to ask her how Olivia was, express interest in her latest baby milestones, and coo over the latest round of retro-style photos I’d already seen because I followed Trace on Instagram. I knew because that’s what we did every week.

  I tried not to be resentful. Babies were a big deal, and Trace’s husband, Andrew, was the creative director at this tech startup developing some top secret app. He had an unpredictable schedule and a lot of stress. He was not around enough to have gotten into the swing of taking care of the baby. Monday nights out with me were Trace’s break, her one chance to unwind a little. Except all we ever seemed to talk about was Olivia.

  I thought again of the cowboy sitting in the road. I couldn’t seem to get the image out of my head. Before Trace could say something about Olivia’s latest teething toy, I said, “So yeah, I could afford lessons for sure, and maybe even the cost of boarding my own horse.”

  Trace sipped on her straw again. “Maybe you’ll meet a hot cowboy.”

  I gave her a gentle kick under the table. “Trace, I don’t need to meet a hot cowboy. I’m with Ben.”

  Trace gave me a wicked grin. “I’ll believe that when I see some evidence of his existence.” She flipped open the menu as I resisted the urge to point out she would have met him already if she hadn’t been busy making me sit alone at this very table the day he came over, asked if he could buy me a drink, and settled for taking my number with him when I explained I was waiting for my chronically late friend. She kept talking. “And anyway, hot cowboys are excellent as far as scenery goes, even if you’re a married mom.” She waved her left hand to display the glittering rock there. “I’m starving,” she went on. “What are you going to order?”

  I looked at her for a moment. She’d always been the pretty one of the two of us, and even now that she was married and had a kid, she was slender, wore just the right amount of makeup, and had a way of breezing into a room and striking up a conversation with the most interesting person there. I noticed two guys sitting at a table behind us. The one facing us said something to the other, who turned a little to look over his shoulder, then turned back around quickly. I knew they weren’t looking at me, and felt a strange, bitter wave of something strangely close to jealousy. I tamped it down and we devolved into talking about the relative merits of red and green sauce on enchiladas.

  I rode my bike home. There was a wide, paved path half a block behind Julio’s that wound along the edge of a wash and past my apartment complex. I always liked to ride along there at night, although my mother worried it wasn’t safe and gave me a can of mace approximately every six weeks. I asked her once if she’d prefer I drive drunk. She gave me her steely ‘I am not amused’ stare and pointed out I could always take a cab.

  But taking a cab to go half a mile seemed ridiculous. Plus, I liked riding my bike. When we’d been in college, Trace and I had biked everywhere: to class, to work, downtown. I had a mixte single speed one of her pre-Andrew boyfriends who’d been into the bike scene had helped me acquire and fix up. It had a big wicker basket on the front and an old-fashioned bell. I adored the thing.

  I pedaled along the path, looking past the railing into the sandy bottom of the wash. Small footpaths left by dog-walkers and joggers left traceries among the sprouted sagebrush. Out of nowhere, I thought of my cowboy. I imagined him, loping his horse along below,
turning his head to look at me, matching my pace, spurting ahead to run up the bank and… then what? There was a railing separating the wash from the path. Could ranch horses jump?

  This was my problem with fantasies. I always got hung up on practicalities.

  I pedaled the rest of the way back to my apartment, locked up my bike, and trudged up the stairs. I flipped on a light and hung up my keys and purse, checking my phone in case Ben had texted me. He hadn’t.

  My mom was always telling me I should get a cat, or one of those small dogs, or a Great Dane, which was supposedly an awesome breed to have in an apartment. Mostly the thought of having a pet seemed like too much trouble, but at the odd moment, coming home to an empty apartment with a fading buzz, I thought she might have a point.

  ❂

  I pulled off the deserted neighborhood street and squinted down at my phone. It said, unhelpfully, ‘You have arrived.’

  I looked around. In front of me there was a white house with a fenced yard where two large German Shepherds were watching me with interest but not barking (yet?). Behind me was a red house with a small shed in the back and a fence made of rusted piping. Two donkeys wearing fly masks were dozing in the shade, but it didn’t look like a ranch, per say, or the type of place where someone would give horseback riding lessons.

  On the other side of the street stood a row of smaller houses with smaller yards. The road was narrow, the pavement cracked, and it was a loop, one way only. You drove up one side, it swung you around past the two big houses and took you straight back to the intersection where I’d seen the guy on the horse with the flag.

  It was Tuesday afternoon. Tuesdays, I didn’t go in to the gallery. It was the deadest day of the week and Anne opened late and closed early. My promise to myself was to use my Tuesdays for writing, and usually I was pretty good about that. Except today I was stuck on this weird little road beginning to wonder if I’d made up the whole thing about seeing a herd of horses at dawn.

  But I hadn’t, because I’d found a reference to the ranch on the internet. It was called the Tipped Z, it was a historic ranch, and according to Google Maps it was right exactly where I sat in my car.

  Except it wasn’t.

  The dogs had come all the way up to the fence and were sitting, their big ears pricked in my direction as if they were either expecting me to scale the fence and try to rob the place, or give them a treat. I tapped a couple of icons on my phone, got a message that said, ‘recalculating,’ and then the same unhelpful comment: ‘You have arrived.’ I resisted hurling the thing out the window.

  I saw a movement in my rear-view mirror, and a truck pulled around the corner behind me, rolled up next to my car, and slowed down. It was a battered thing with visible rust on the body and an engine that rumbled like a freight train. I felt my face flush as it rolled even with my window and rocked to a stop. There was a girl inside, wearing a flat-brimmed cowboy hat and sunglasses. She had to lean all the way across the front seat to roll the window down, and must have let her foot slip off the clutch. The truck engine shuddered to a halt as I rolled my window down too, just in time to hear the girl say, “Damn.” But then she looked at me. A smile split her face as she said, “You okay?” She was maybe half a dozen years younger than I was, with a pretty face and smooth complexion.

  I gave a helpless gesture at the street. “I was trying to find the Tipped Z Ranch.”

  “Oh,” she said. “You can follow me.”

  Before I could say anything else, the truck roared back to life. She didn’t bother with rolling up the window.

  Mystified, I waited for her to drive forward. She passed the yard with the German Shepherds and started around the bend that would bring us back to the stop sign. Then she turned right, disappearing behind a high screen of bougainvillea hedges. It was as if she she’d driven her truck straight off the road and through a portal to Narnia.

  I got to where she’d turned and craned my neck to the side, finally seeing a wide, dirt driveway that was more than a 90 degree turn off the road. The fence of the next house ran along one side, the bougainvillea hedges on the other. I turned hard to the right and bounced onto the dirt track. When I cleared the hedge, I saw the old truck chugging along in the distance, following a long driveway that looped back past the house where the German Shepherds lived.

  No wonder I hadn’t seen it. It was like they were going out of their way to make the place hard to find.

  I hung back behind the plume of dust the truck was kicking up. We drove for a few minutes, the driveway continuing its slanted course. Finally, it bent and headed towards the foothills. A moment later we passed a large sign that said, “Tours by appointment only.” Then there was a gate with a sign over the top that said, “The Tipped Z.” There was a brand below: a Z nearly upended, balanced on one point on a line bent in an arc.

  The gate was closed, and the girl in the truck slowed down to punch in a gate code, motioning me to follow her through as the gate opened and she rolled forward again. There was another sign above the gate controller. This one said, “Gate code is 1234. ALL visitors MUST have an appointment. NO EXCEPTIONS.” That made me feel self-conscious. I, after all, did not have an appointment. But I appeared to have been invited in, so I rolled through the gate after the truck and watched in my rear-view mirror as the gate swung closed behind me.

  The driveway continued between two fences and ended at a long, low barn structure. The truck pulled up and parked slant-wise in front of a ramada that jutted off the side of the barn. Three dogs came trotting out, first running up to greet the girl, then shifting their attention to me as I parked my Hyundai Elantra next to the formidable pick-up and stepped out. The dogs were all the same breed, but it wasn’t any breed I’d seen before. They had mid-length wiry coats, with patches of an assortment of browns and blacks and whites and grays all over their bodies. They came trotting up to me, ears forward, tails not wagging. One of them gave a short, sharp barked that sounded alarmingly business-like. I felt a moment of trepidation.

  The girl said, “Dogs. Barn.”

  She didn’t yell it, or even raise her voice, but the dogs all froze at the words, turned as one, and trotted back through the open door from which they’d emerged.

  The girl was out of the truck now. She walked around the front of her vehicle, hand extended. “I’m Nora.” We shook. “Sorry about all the smoke and mirrors and signs and everything. Mom spent like three years applying for historic ranch status and then we got it and all these people just started showing up here. It was the strangest thing. They’d come in busses and all unload and there’d be like 20 people wandering through the pastures trying to feed the horses carrots.”

  I looked around the vast dirt parking area. “You should put in a taco stand or something, charge for tours and lunch.”

  She stared at me for a moment. She had wide blue eyes and a dusting of freckles across her cheekbones. Her pale brown hair was pulled into a single long braid that hung down her back. She looked so shocked I thought back on my comment, trying to figure out how it might have offended her. Then she burst out laughing. At first, I wasn’t sure if she was laughing at me or what I’d said, but she laughed so openly, after a minute I found myself smiling. “You obviously haven’t met my dad. Or my brother, for that matter.”

  I felt self-conscious then, thinking she’d ask me why I was there. Instead she went on as if I’d never said anything. “It turned out this magazine ran this whole story that was totally wrong. Somehow they thought being a historic landmark meant being open to the public, and they wrote this whole piece about the ranch’s history, most of which was wrong, and put in all this stuff about visitors being welcome to drop by any time. It was a total train wreck. And the worst thing was it was one of those fancy southwestern lifestyle type magazines that salons and massage therapists put out around their waiting rooms, so even though they published a retraction when my dad called to complain, there are still copies sitting around. You never know when a convoy
of sunburned tourists is going to turn up.” She gave me this huge grin, like we were sharing some kind of inside joke. “Dad says watering the bougainvillea is going to bankrupt him, but it’s worth it for his sanity.”

  I found myself at an utter loss for words after this outpouring. I stared at her in silence, feeling like a nosy trespasser, and trying to think of something to say in response to her story.

  There was a movement in the doorway. I thought the dogs had come back. But when I turned my head, I saw him.

  It was my cowboy, the one I’d seen by the stop sign. Even though he wasn’t riding a horse or carrying a flag, even though that day he’d been half hidden by the weak light and a cloud of dust, I knew it was the same man. It was as if every cell in my body gave a little tug towards him, like iron filings lining up to point at a magnet.

  He wore a hat like Nora’s, with a flat brim and top, but it was pushed back on his forehead. I could see his face. He had smooth, classic features and was clean-shaven. He was slim-hipped, and wore a pair of leather leggings over his jeans. They had fringe on the edges. They would have looked ridiculous in about any other context. But on him they were nothing but sexy.

  “Nora?” he said. “Who’s here.”

  I felt even more ridiculous. I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce myself. “I’m Erin.”

  Nora didn’t even look over her shoulder. “She’s with me, Clint.” Her tone was impatient, but not defensive.

  Clint, my cowboy, didn’t give me a second look. He disappeared, stepping back into the darkness of the barn. The leather leggings were open in the back. I looked away before his sister could notice me noticing the attractive way they framed his backside.

  “My brother,” Nora said. “You see what I mean?” She gave a comical roll of her eyes. I’d known her for all of five minutes, and it felt like we’d been friends for ten years and were the best of co-conspirators. I couldn’t help it. I laughed, finding it impossible not to like this girl who was as open and transparent as her brother was opaque and mysterious.

  ❂

  By the time I got home, the heat of the day had swelled to its full crescendo. I drank several large glasses of iced tea while I stood in my kitchen and stared out the window, trying to process the morning’s events. My shirt was soaked with sweat and my shoes were dusty. After a tour of the barn and one of the pastures, I had finally managed to ask about horseback riding lessons. Nora had said, sure, she could give me lessons. Her offhand manner had surprised me, so I’d asked if it was something she did a lot. She’d said not a lot, that they didn’t go out of their way to have horses around that were good for beginners, but she’d taught plenty of people to ride. That had made me feel a little better.

  We’d agreed on Tuesday mornings at 5:30 as our lesson time. Then Nora had showed me a litter of wire-haired puppies and I’d forgotten to ask how much she charged.

  I hadn’t caught so much as another glimpse of Clint.

  I was setting my iced tea glass in the sink and trying to decide whether to take a shower or try to get some writing done when my phone buzzed. I picked it up and saw a text from Ben. “Drinks tonite?”

  I frowned at the little screen. Ben and I had been dating for about three months. We’d never had a talk about how serious we were, or if either of us was seeing other people, which didn’t bother me. What annoyed me was his habit of going off the radar, totally disappearing for four or five days sometimes, not answering phone calls or texts. Then he’d pop back up with this kind of invitation, leaving me to wonder if all the cell phone towers in the greater Tucson area had been malfunctioning.

  I resisted the urge to reply, and got in the shower. I took a long, cool soak, washing the dust from my skin and thinking about the Tipped Z and Nora (and Clint), and not Ben.

  When I got out of the shower the LED light on my phone was blinking. I picked it up and saw another text, also from Ben. “Graze at 6:30. See you.”

  That annoyed me too. I stood in my bedroom, wrapped in a towel, my wet hair stuck to my neck, torn between the impulse to text him back with some snide remark about being otherwise occupied tonight, and the tug to go straight to my closet to start trying to decide what to wear.

  I had a bad habit of showing up early to everything. This was fine, most of the time. I even considered it sort of a virtue. I liked to be the person friends could rely on, the one who ensured the party wouldn’t start an hour late.

  But with dating, it was horrible. I hated being the first to arrive, and I hated sitting there looking like I was waiting for someone who hadn’t bothered to get there on time to meet me.

  So I had developed strategies. If I was driving I’d often park a few blocks short of my destination and walk the rest of the way. Or if it was too crushingly hot for that, I’d sit in my car with the AC on and read a book. This could be risky though, because if your date arrived and saw you sitting in the car….

  With biking, it was harder. When I left my apartment and settled onto my bike to head for Graze, I saw I had more than enough time to get where I needed to go without hurrying. I proceeded to make my way towards the restaurant as slowly as allowable by gravity without putting me in danger of toppling off my two wheels.

  Graze was a few blocks further up the bike path than Julio’s. It was a ritzy cocktail bar. Ben liked it. I was not a huge fan. Their beers were uninteresting, so I tended to let Ben order me froofroo drinks I would live to regret.

  As I pedaled, I let my mind drift back to that morning and seeing Clint step out of the doorway wearing those leggings. He seemed to have this way of appearing, always on the edge of things, always partly out of sight. When we’d gone into the barn later, there’d been no sign of him. If Nora hadn’t spoken to him, I’d have been doubting I’d seen him at all.

  There had been no horses in the barn, either. The inside of the old structure had turned out to house nothing but dogs, tack, and hay. There were some empty stalls, but Nora had said they kept the horses outside, that they were happier out there, even in the summer.

  I saw Ben as soon as I walked in. He was sitting at a table for two near the back windows, looking at his phone. As I stepped through the swinging doors into the cool blast of conditioned air, I felt goose-bumps rise on my arms. Graze was one of those places that seemed to assume that because it was hot outside everyone would prefer to be blasted with AC to within a few degrees of hypothermia. I could feel the sweat start drying on my forehead, and wondered if I could sneak past Ben and get to the ladies to freshen up.

  But he looked up, saw me, and waved. As I approached, he shifted in his seat to slip his phone into his pocket. I will say one thing for Ben: when he gave you his attention, he gave it all the way. I don’t remember him ever sending or receiving a text on a date. Maybe that’s why he dropped off the map when I wasn’t with him – he was busy giving his undivided attention to other people.

  He was also undeniably good-looking. I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d ever get around to introducing him to Trace, but if I ever did, it would be satisfying to see her reaction. Ben was attractive in the effortless manner of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. His blond hair was always gel-free but somehow fell just so. He tended to wear simple clothes, but they looked fabulous on him because he was ripped. He’d also had the benefit of extensive childhood orthodontia. He flashed me his perfect smile as I walked towards the table. He rose to kiss me on the cheek and said, “I’m glad you could make it.”

  We sat, me trying not to wonder if the heat and sweat had done something lurid to my appearance.

  “So what’s new?” Ben said after the server had taken our drink orders and retired. “You look good,” he added, trotting out the gorgeous smile again while reaching across the table to tuck a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

  He was good with compliments, dropping them in like that at odd moments, making them feel genuine. I was not so good at receiving them. They made me flounder like a large fish in a shallow puddle of water. I felt myself sta
rt to blush and looked down at the menu. “Thanks. I’m good. I just signed up to take horseback riding lessons today. How about you? What have you been up to? I guess you’ve been busy?”

  If Ben guessed my last comment was a subtle allusion to the fact I hadn’t heard from him in almost a week, he didn’t give any indication. He smiled at the server when she came back with two ice-filled glasses of water. “Horseback riding lessons?”

  I squeezed my lemon into my water and poked it down past the ice with my straw. Now that I’d brought it up, I found I didn’t want to discuss my cowboy, or anything connected to him, with Ben. I gave a light laugh. “It’s something I did when I was younger and always wanted to get back to.”

  Ben fixed me with his direct gaze. “Good for you.” He said this with a level of gravity that might have been more appropriate if I’d announced I was giving away all my belongings and moving to Southeast Asia. “So many people always wait for tomorrow.”

  “How about you?” I said again.

  Ben sipped his water. “The usual. Work and work.” Ben worked for company that consulted for the US Department of Transportation, and in spite of having asked quite a few specific questions, I had only the haziest conception of what he did for a living. I knew it had something to do with developing marketing strategies based on the data received from road repair and construction equipment, but that was about all I could gather. I knew sometimes he got on a private plane and flew off to present his findings to small groups of middle-aged men in suits, but whenever I pressed him for details, for anything more specific, he would turn the subject, saying he didn’t want to talk about work.

  So far I couldn’t even figure out if he liked his job or not. Ben had a total knack for not answering direct questions. It was one of the things that was starting to get to me about him. I couldn’t figure out if he did it out of a deep-seated sense of modesty, or if he was being deliberately slippery.

  “Where are you taking lessons?” He looked up to thank the server as our drinks arrived. I asked about the artichoke dip, and by the time the server left I could pretend I’d forgotten all about Ben’s question.

  I set my water and abused lemon slice to the side in favor of the pink monstrosity Ben had acquired for me. With another guy, I might take the froofroo drinks as a veiled insult – a snide remark on the feminine palette. I don’t think I could stand to date a guy who ordered me a fuzzy navel while he sipped whisky on the rocks. But Ben drank them too. When I ordered beer, he always seemed a little disappointed.

  I’d hung my purse on the back of my chair. Now I heard my phone give off a notification, letting me know I had a new text. I felt gauche for forgetting to silence it, while immediately starting to wonder who it was from. It was probably Trace sending me yet another photo of Olivia in the bathtub (not many people send me texts), but I had given Nora my phone number that morning. What if it was her? Or, what if it was Clint? Maybe he was the shy type, and he’d wanted to speak to me today, but hadn’t been able to find the nerve. Maybe he’d snuck a look at his sister’s phone, figured out which number was mine, and sent me a message.

  “Did you want to check that?” Ben had an amused look on his face, as if he’d been able to follow the gist of my internal dialogue.

  I took a big swallow of my pink drink. It had a slab of grapefruit skewered on the rim, which I should have removed before sipping. It bumped into my eyelash and made me blink. I set the drink down. “I’m sure it’s nothing important.”

  ❂

  It was dark and considerably cooler out by the time we left the restaurant. It was a relief to leave the sterile AC air behind and step into the warm desert night. Graze was the sort of place that got more crowded as the night went on, and the parking lot was quiet by comparison.

  Ben walked with me to the bike rack, his expression dubious as he watched me paw through my purse for my keys. I’d had three of the gigantic pink drinks, and my physical coordination was not at its best. Ben had only had two, because he had to drive home. And also he weighed a good deal more than I did. He watched me find my key-ring, select my bike lock key, fit it into the lock and unlatch the U-lock at about one-eighth the speed of a normal, non-geriatric human being, but without fumbling at all. He said, “Can I walk you home?”

  I wasn’t sure where Ben lived. I knew he had a house in one of the nearby subdivisions. He’d told me which one on one of our first dates, but I’d forgotten. We never went there. He’d been up to my apartment once, only because we’d stopped off between a restaurant and a bar so I could change my shirt, which had gotten an entire bowl of salsa flipped onto it when a server had walked around a corner too quickly and run headlong into me as we’d been making our way for the door.

  We were still in the ‘arm’s length’ phase of our relationship. For my part, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go much past that. Mostly (I could admit) this was because I couldn’t gauge how interested Ben was. I had a huge aversion to being the one who cared more.

  I set my lock in my basket and rolled my bike free of the rack. “It takes a lot longer to walk home than it does to bike.”

  Ben looked at the bike and glanced towards the parking lot. “I have a truck.”

  I hesitated, but Ben put a gentle hand on my arm and steered me away from the bike path. He loaded my bike into his truck’s bed without apparent effort and drove to my apartment without having to ask for directions, which impressed me because he’d only been there once and that had been weeks ago.

  My apartment complex was quiet, and there was a guest parking spot open near the covered parking where my Hyundai spent most of its life. I slid out of the truck and walked around to the tailgate, saying thanks as Ben lifted my mixte down from the bed of his truck like a gentleman from the 20’s handing his lady off a train. I made to take the handlebars, but he said, “Where’s your rack?”

  I immediately thought of how this comment could be misinterpreted. I had to stifle a giggle while simultaneously realizing my sober self would not find that funny. I led Ben to the bike rack and he watched me execute my careful maneuver with the key and U-lock again. When I turned around, he was standing there like a (clothed) underwear model, lit by the soft glow of the yellowish lamps that were dotted around my apartment complex to keep the walkways from becoming too dim and shadowy. He said, “I had a nice time tonight.”

  I had just enough time to drop my keys back into my purse. He took a step forward and slipped his arm around my waist. He was not overly tall, and I didn’t have to do more than tip my chin up to put myself in optimal kissing position. He smelled of aftershave and tasted like grapefruit.

  Ben and I were in the phase where our good-bye kisses tended to get a little steamy, but so far had never lead to anything more. He was a good kisser. I closed my eyes and leaned in.

  Then, quite suddenly, I saw Clint. Ben and my apartment faded as my imagination took me somewhere else entirely.

  Clint was wearing his snug jeans and flat-brimmed hat, walking into the dim, dusty aisle between the empty stalls, surprising me. Before I could say anything, do anything other than turn toward him with a start, he wrapped me in his arms and pressing his mouth to mine with no preamble, no explanation. His kiss was a thing of need, a searching thing, a question and answer in one. I gave in to it, feeling his hand pressing the small of my back and the way my heart had begun to race. I kissed him back, letting my desire for him grow and expand, letting it race up my spine and take me over. I kissed him and forgot to think about anything else.

  Ben pulled away and looked at me. I came back to reality: the bike rack, the lamps, my apartment complex. A car door slammed in the distance, someone laughed, and an engine revved. Ben was staring at me with large, startled eyes. He said, “Erin,” his voice low and intent.

  I had never kissed him like that before. I’d never kissed anyone like that before. My blood was still singing in my veins. Even though I knew I was looking at Ben and not Clint, I was high, both on the pink grapefruit drinks and so
mething even more intoxicating. “Do you want to come up?”

  ❂

  “You look tired,” Anne said the moment she saw me the next morning. “Is everything ok?”

  I wasn’t so much tired as hung over. Ben had declined my invitation, kissing me again and saying he’d love to come up, but he had to get up early for work. I had barely gotten myself upstairs and into bed before collapsing into an undignified, drunken slumber. I’d woken up with a sense of relief roughly proportional to my headache. The headache was from the grapefruit drinks. The relief was from knowing that if Ben had come up, I’d have done exactly the same thing. Inviting a guy into your apartment for the first time and passing out five minutes later had to be the worst sort of bad form.

  “Hung over.” I was squinting as I looked at her because she was standing in front of one of the side windows, and it was really bright out. “Ben was feeding me these pink froofroo drinks all night, which turned out to be surprisingly strong.”

  Anne gave me a measuring look. “That sounds fun.”

  “It was great until this morning.”

  “And how are things going with Ben?” Anne said it casually, moving around to my side of the counter to sort a stack of mail. Anne had a way of engaging you without seeming overly interested. Women who wandered in off the street would start spilling confidences almost upon meeting her, and men would be confessing their insecurities a few minutes into a conversation.

  I sipped water from my Nalgene bottle. “They’re fine.”

  Anne gave me a look over her shoulder. “Fine never means fine.”

  I stared down at the countertop, running my fingernail along a deep scratch that had been there since before I got my job. “He’s really great. We always have fun. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.”

  I hadn’t confessed this to Trace, hadn’t admitted it even to myself. “We had a fun time last night, and now I probably won’t hear from him for another four or five days.”

  Anne tossed a stack of promotional mailings into the recycle bin and turned to face me, crossing her arms. “Is that so bad? It seems like you’re the kind of person who might enjoy that. You dumped the last guy because he was stifling you. He was texting you about 50 times a day, as I recall, and it creeped you out.”

  She was right, of course. “Is a happy medium too much to ask?” My voice sounded a bit more plaintive than I meant it.

  There was a jingle of the door’s bell and we both looked up.

  It was Ben, looking fresh and perky, carrying a slender glass vase that held a single orange daisy. He smiled as he strode across the room, said good morning to me, and set the vase on the counter. He was done introducing himself to Anne by the time I recovered from the surprise of seeing him. Of course he knew where I worked, but he’d never stopped by before.

  He turned away from the countertop and looked around the gallery, treating Anne to a look at his excellent profile and biceps. “This is a great little place,” he said. “I must have driven past a million times without ever realizing it was an art gallery.”

  “I thought you had to work this morning.” I said this without thinking, before even thanking him for the flower. It came out sounding exceptionally ungracious, and I felt bad before I even finished the sentence.

  Anne gave me a quick, startled look. Always tactful, she excused herself. “It was nice meeting you, Ben,” she said as she stepped around the counter. “I’ll let you two chat.” She headed for her office.

  Before she was out of earshot Ben said, “I did. I had a 4:30 am conference call with some of our guys on the east coast, so I’m on an early lunch break.”

  I looked at the clock. It was 11:12.

  I tried to think of something to say, something friendlier and more appreciative than what I’d managed so far. My eyes fell upon the daisy. “Thank you for the flower. It’s really pretty.” I winced internally. I sounded like an eighth-grader reciting lines for the school play. I dropped my voice and glanced over my shoulder. “I am so hung over today. What was in those drinks?”

  Ben laughed, walked around the counter and kissed my forehead. “I hope you aren’t suffering too badly. I have to run, I just wanted to say again that I had a great time last night.” He looked down at me and I remembered the kiss by the bike rack. I felt heat rising to my cheeks. I felt like the worst sort of liar. Ben and I had kissed good-night plenty of times, but never before had I imagined he was Clint.

  I managed to say, “I did too.”

  He kissed my forehead again, stooped lower to give my mouth a quick peck, then he was gone, striding across the gallery and out the door before I could even entirely process that he’d been there.

  ❂

  “So, how was your week?” My mom handed me a glass of wine and sat down on the bench across from me. It was Friday night, and we were on the back patio of my parents’ house, watching the sunset throw color onto the mountains. Before I could answer, she raised her voice and said, “Boswell, Norman. No!”

  Boswell and Norman were my mother’s two Bull Terriers, and they were currently showing a little too much interest in the cheese plate my mother had placed on the low table between us. Although they were experienced show-dogs, my mother’s canines did not possess quite the level of training as the three wire-haired animals I’d seen on the ranch earlier that week. Their skills were apparently reserved for inside the show-ring.

  When at leisure around the house and yard, Boswell, Norman and my mother all seemed to share a tacit understanding that my mother did not reign supreme. When she told them not to do something, they tended to look at her for a minute or two with their dark, triangular eyes. I always imagined they were weighing a complex set of variables when they did this, calculating a) how much she meant what she’d said, b) how far away she was, c) how likely she was to try to enforce her command, and d) the possible benefits of defying her. After a delay, they seemed to usually decide to ignore her, and went on doing whatever they were doing.

  In this case, however, my mother a) sounded like she meant it, b) was quite close to them, c) was likely to enforce her command, and d) could probably intercede before they could actually make off with any cheese. So Boswell and Norman gave in, turning to wander off the patio exuding an air of disinterest, as if they’d never wanted any cheese in the first place.

  Mom watched until their white haunches had disappeared around the low retaining wall that separated the patio from the surrounding desert. She leaned forward and put a slice of cheddar on a sesame seed cracker. She gave me an expectant look, and I realized I hadn’t answered her question. “Oh,” I said. “Fine. Good. I went out with Ben twice.”

  “Twice in one week?” Mom’s enthusiasm came through even around the cracker. She had never met Ben, but she was generally in favor of all activities I could participate in that might lead more rapidly to my marriage. Not that she ever explicitly said this, but it was obvious, and all the more painful because she tried so hard to pretend she didn’t care if or when I settled down. Reporting back to her on my relationship with Ben up to this point had been painful for both of us, since it had been crawling along at such a slow rate even she couldn’t find a way to put a positive spin on it. She took a sip of wine. “That sounds like progress.”

  I remembered that kiss again, thinking of Clint by the bike rack, and again felt that strange guilt. “I….” I stopped. I couldn’t tell my mother I had kissed Ben while fantasizing about a cowboy I’d developed a sudden but intense obsession with, and now Ben was treating me as if I was an entirely different species of girl than the one he’d been dating up until now.

  As if on cue, my phone dinged. I fished it out of my pocket, looked at it, and held it up for Mom to see. “Ben. He says to say hi.” I’d told Ben we were having a special family dinner and so I could not go out with him again tonight. It was a total lie. My mom hadn’t even known I’d been coming over until I’d shown up with two bottles of wine.

  “Oh. How nice of him. Tel
l him hi back,” my mom said. She added, “What’s he doing tonight? He could join us.”

  I resisted the urge to be annoyed. “I’m not going to text him back just now.” I set my phone down and took a rather large sip of wine.

  It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my mother. 80% of the time, she was great. There were just a few points we didn’t see eye to eye on, and my love life was one of them. She felt anyone I went out with more than once should automatically receive an invitation to the next family gathering. I tended to feel that shouldn’t happen until someone had given someone else a ring, at the earliest.

  “It couldn’t hurt to mention it to him,” Mom pressed. “He can’t be that busy if he’s texting you.”

  “Mom.”

  She sniffed and sat back, leaning against the bench and assuming a wounded air. She could be relentless on certain subjects, and I was afraid she wasn’t done.

  Fortunately, my father chose that moment to arrive, pulling his battered Ford Explorer into the driveway and stepping through the front gate to meet the onslaught that was what Boswell and Norman considered a friendly greeting.

  My father was not a dog person. Boswell and Norman were my mother’s, just as the salt-water fish tanks dotted throughout the house were my father’s. My parents believed leading rich, separate lives was the key to a happy marriage. They supported each other’s interests, but didn’t share in them.

  This didn’t stop my dad from stooping to give Boswell and Norman a few hearty rubs on their firm, broad heads. He saw us, waved, and walked around the side of the house. He set his briefcase down on the bench next to my mother, and bent to kiss me on the cheek.

  “TGIF,” he said, accepting the glass of wine my mother offered him. He sat next to his briefcase, bumped the two inquisitive dog noses away from the cheese plate with his shoe, and looked across the table at me. “How was your week?”

  “She went on two dates with Ben.” My mother supplied this information in such a bright, happy tone, I had to suppress a cringe.

  “Two!” My dad, too, was all enthusiasm now, sitting forward with an intent expression that suggested I’d won the lottery.

  For three months during our sophomore year in high school, Trace had become convinced my father was gay. I never did figure out what put her onto the notion, and there were terrible holes in the theory (his long, happy relationship with my mother, to name one). But she went on and on about it for weeks, collecting evidence, reading into his every word and deed. Trace’s parents had been going through a divorce at the time, and she’d been depressed, so I’d been willing to forgive a lot. I could even take her point, just a little. My dad dressed well, he watched chick flicks with my mom, he genuinely cared about things like who I went to winter formal with, and was in many other ways not a typical dad. Still, her having some grounds for her views made me less happy to hear her go on about it, not more.

  Fortunately, Trace got what she deserved in the end. One weekend my parents had left town for an overnight trip to visit my grandmother, who had been having some health issues, leaving me alone overnight for the first time. They’d agreed to let Trace stay over with me, and she’d convinced me to raid my father’s dresser, certain we’d find gay porn. Instead, we’d found several sets of nude photos of my mother, a bottle of lube, and a book called, Sex After Kids: Keeping the Bedroom Steamy While Raising a Family.

  She’d never brought it up again.

  “Yeah, two,” I said, suddenly wishing I hadn’t come over.

  Unconsciously echoing my mom, Dad said, “That sounds like progress.”

  I looked from one shining face to the other and felt a sudden, crushing sense of defeat. I went out with a guy twice in one week and it got my parents this excited? Probably the kind thing would be for me to join the clergy and take vows of celibacy, and thus put us all out of our misery.

  ❂

  “Heels down,” Nora yelled. Her voice was at full volume, but it was good-natured. Which was somewhat surprising considering she’d said that same thing to me about four times already.

  I was in the middle of my first lesson, which meant I was astride a giant horse named Duke. According to Nora, he was an oversized teddy bear of a horse, easy-going about everything, and beginner-friendly. He was gray-going-white, had a blaze and socks you could barely see anymore, and had stood still while I’d fumbled around trying to get my foot into the stirrup.

  I’d been nervous driving over to the Tipped Z in the first light of day. It was early, and the light on the mountains was all peach and violet and baby blue. I’d spent the whole drive with a knot in my stomach, and it had knotted up further as I drove past all the hostile signs. I’d punched in the gate code, hoping Nora hadn’t forgotten our agreement.

  Seeing her truck in the driveway had filled me with a sense of relief and only the teeniest little hint of regret. After all, if Nora hadn’t been there I would have had to go in the barn and wait. And while I was waiting I might have ended up running into Clint….

  But Nora had had Duke ready by the time I poked my head around the inside of the barn door. She’d given me a huge smile and said, “We’d better get you mounted up before that sun hits us.”

  So we’d left the barn and walked through a gate into an outdoor arena, Nora leading Duke and me trailing behind.

  I’d excavated my closet the night before until I’d found a pair of cowboy boots that were more suitable for a night on the town than riding a horse, but they had a heel and a smooth sole. That was the important part. I’d promised myself that if this first lesson went well, I’d get a more appropriate pair.

  In the arena, Nora had stopped, turned, and handed me the reins. She’d said, “If I was my brother I’d talk for like an hour now about respecting the horse, pressure and release, and a million other things, but my personal teaching philosophy is that that stuff doesn’t sink in until you have a chance to feel it. You know how to mount one?”

  Mercifully, I did know how to mount. So ten minutes after driving past the ‘Tours by appointment only’ sign, I was sitting on a horse trying to remember what I knew about riding.

  The first fifteen minutes were torture for all three of us. The reins were different from the ones I’d used as a kid. Nora showed me how to hold them, but I was awkward. I kept dropping my coil, and the first few times I did, couldn’t figure out how to pick it up again. Nora had to show me three times before I got it, at which point I wanted to sink into the ground with shame.

  Shortly after that, things started to improve. I remembered what my childhood instructor had called my ‘following seat’ and how to move with the horse instead of bouncing around in the saddle. My lower leg relaxed and Nora stopped having to tell me to put my heels down. I started to feel a lot more natural.

  Duke sighed and gave his head a shake, his ears flopping around.

  “See,” Nora said. “You’re looking a lot better now. Let’s see a trot.”

  In spite of the early start, it was hot by the time I stepped off Duke and we walked back to the barn together. I was covered in sweat, as was Duke, but I was happy. I felt I’d done a good job, and based on Nora’s smiles and commentary, I thought she thought so too. The lesson had been so absorbing, I’d even forgotten to think about Clint for a while.

  We were nearing the barn when Nora said, “So this week was about me watching how you already ride. Next week I’m going to start making you change. So be prepared.” She gave me a wolfish grin. I grinned back, and we stepped through the large side door of the barn, which was pushed all the way open.

  The space we walked into was large and dim, with sunbeams falling down from some high windows. There was a riding mower parked in one corner and hay stacked in another. A flatbed trailer that hadn’t been there when we went out was pulled inside, large enough that it nearly filled the space.

  “Hay delivery,” Nora said, leading the way around the obstacle. I glanced at Duke, but he was unbothered as we edged through the narrow space lef
t to get into the barn.

  We walked around the trailer, and that’s when I saw Clint.

  He was standing up on the stack of hay, heaving bales into place. His shirt was notably absent, and his torso was slick and gleaming with sweat. In the early morning light from the high windows, he was quite the sight. I stopped walking, Duke coming to a good-natured halt next to me.

  I was staring. I knew I was staring, and that staring was rude, but I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the scene before me. The air was filled with hay-dust. Clint had a lean, useful look to his muscles. His abs stood out in low relief as he bent, picked up a bale and tossed it up to the next tier on the stack. I was transfixed.

  “Erin?” Nora had noticed my absence, and was now peeking back around the nose of the truck that was attached to the hay wagon. I felt my face flush, and I hurried forward.

  “What are those leggings your brother wears?” I said it more to cover my embarrassment than out any real curiosity. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

  “They’re called chinks. Like chaps but with no back. They offer the same protection while you’re riding, but they don’t get you near so hot.”

  If she had noticed my gawking, she was kind enough not to mention it. I led Duke around into the aisle between the stalls, where we took his tack off and brushed him down.

  We were nearly finished when Nora’s phone gave a chime. She fished it out of her pocket and flipped it open, squinting at the small screen. She looked up at me and said, “Shoot, I guess we went a little over. I have to run. Will you put the tack up? Tack room’s there.” She pointed at a closed door, grabbed Duke’s rope, and was gone before I could thank or pay her. I called to her retreating back, “Next Tuesday at the same time?”

  “Sure.” She waved a hand and glanced back to give me one final grin. Then she disappeared around the nose of the truck.

  I stood alone for a moment, looking down at the saddle, which sat on a collapsible rack set on the front of one of the stalls, the bridle, which hung on a hook, and the pad, which lay over the back of the saddle. I listened to the sound of Duke’s footfalls fade. The only other sound was the dull heave and thunk of hay bales. Clint was still out there, stacking hay.

  I picked up the bridle, which was surprisingly heavy, and opened the door Nora had indicated. Inside was a short, dark hallway. I fumbled along the wall but couldn’t find a light switch. I pushed the door open as wide as it would go and ventured in, my eyes adjusting to the dimness.

  The hallway stayed narrow for a few feet, then opened into a large room filled with tack of all kinds. Racks of bridles hung along one wall, saddles along another. I strained to see an empty hook, a place where the bridle in my hand might belong, but it was all a dim jumble of ropes and leather.

  I stood, feeling lost, until a light flipped on behind me.

  I spun around.

  Clint stood in the doorway, holding the saddle and pad and looking at me with an expression I couldn’t read. He’d pulled his shirt on but hadn’t buttoned it. I could see an inch or two of shining skin in the gap.

  “Hi.” I blurted this out in an inelegant tone that seemed too loud in the quiet room.

  “You Nora’s student?” Clint’s voice was smooth and calm, just deep enough to resonate.

  “My name’s Erin.”

  His hands were full, so he thrust his chin towards the bridle hanging in my hand. “That’s a snaffle.” I glanced from him to bridle. I had no idea what he meant. I knew a snaffle was a kind of bit. Was he trying to give me a lesson on tack? I gave a tiny nod of my head, just enough to indicate I’d heard him.

  He waited, as if expecting some greater response, then thrust his chin again, indicating a wall other than the one I’d been staring at when he’d come in. “Snaffles go on that wall.”

  I turned and saw a wall of bridles behind me, where one hook was clearly missing what usually hung there. I hung the bridle up in a spasm of embarrassment as Clint walked by me and placed the saddle on an empty rack along the saddle wall, flipping the pad upside down to sit on top. When he turned around, I was staring at him.

  “Thank you.” This came out sounding too sincere. I cringed internally as he looked at me. I knew my face was red, my hair was messed up and sweaty. I certainly looked like a total wreck while he was standing there being the most gorgeous person I’d ever seen in the flesh. I tried to think of something more to say, anything to keep him here, to talk to him. “Do you need help with the hay?”

  He blinked a couple of times, and his mouth cracked into a teeny little smile. It changed his face entirely. He went from seeming aloof and intimidating to sweet and friendly. “That’s awfully kind, but I guess you’ll be sore enough tomorrow as it is.”

  He took a step forward. For one wild moment I was convinced he was going to sweep me into his arm and kiss me.

  Instead he extended a hand. “I’m Clint,” he said as we shook. “Nice to meet you, Erin.”

  ❂

  My beer and Ben arrived at the same time. I saw him walk through the front door as I thanked the server, saw him scan the room, saw his face light up when he saw me. He wove his way through the round, high tables, stopping at one point to let a slim server with a tray through a narrow spot.

  I’d arrived early on purpose. I did this partly so I could establish that I would be drinking beer, not pink froofroo monstrosities. I didn’t want any more embarrassing drunken episodes with Ben. I’d also done it because my contact with Clint that morning had left me so riled up and restless I’d been pacing my apartment all day like a caged tiger. A caged tiger intent on accomplishing as many household chores as possible, that is. I’d come home intending to write, but every time I sat down to imagine my scenes and characters, I instead spiraled into extended fantasies involving the tack room and Clint’s already unbuttoned shirt. I’d resorted to washing towels, cleaning the baseboards, dusting the fans, and finally reorganizing my medicine cabinet. I’d been staring at the expiration date on an old prescription bottle and wondering how I’d managed to hold onto it for six years when Ben had texted asking if I wanted to grab a drink. I’d fled the apartment like it had been on fire.

  Ben reached my table, still smiling. “Hey,” he said, and leaned in to kiss me. This was new. We’d only started doing the kiss hello thing since the night by the bike rack. He slipped into the seat across from me. “How was your lesson? That was today, right?”

  I thought about Clint again: the way his muscles had bunched in his shoulders and forearms as he’d lifted the bale, the sweat glistening on his chiseled abs. “I rode a horse named Duke.”

  Ben maintained excellent eye contact. “And what did you learn?”

  That Clint is even sexier when he smiles. That he can carry a saddle in one hand and a pad in the other. “To keep my heels down.”

  Ben blinked, the smile fading a little, but then the server came to take his drink order. By the time she left I was ready with a question of my own. “How was work?”

  Ben waved a hand and told me about some big deal that kept stalling because of something to do with photography. He was wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt. It was bright yellow, said A & F on the front, and had a soft, distressed look to it. Not many guys could pull off a shirt that color. But Ben managed it. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I mooning around all doe-eyed for some cowboy I had seen a grand total of three times when this very attractive, very nice guy was perhaps starting to like me in a way that might amount to something?

  He finished his story, and I made a sympathetic noise. His drink came. It was yellow, like his shirt. I was wondering if he’d done that on purpose when he reached across the table and took one of my hands. This surprised me, but I let him. He drew my hand closer, so it was in the middle of the table, and wrapped it in both of his. “Look, Erin,” he said. For one horrible moment I thought he was going to break up with me. I had just enough time to wonder what kind of idiot breaks up with someone when she still ha
s almost a full beer, when he said, “I want to apologize.”

  “For what?” I scrambled around in my memory to come up with something he might have done to offend me. He was looking at me with his perfect eyebrows pinched a little, creating a crease between them.

  “For before.”

  I waited, not sure what to say. I had no idea what he was talking about.

  He let out a little sigh. “For the last few months. I’ve been. I was.” He seemed to be having trouble getting the words out. “I was in a relationship for a long time, and that ended before I met you. I was looking for something fun. Something relaxing. I didn’t want to get serious. So I kind of kept my distance with you.”

  This was news. So far we had avoided the topic of prior relationships like the plague.

  “But I wish I hadn’t. The more I get to know you,” he gave me his best, dimpled smile, “the more I like you.”

  I felt gooseflesh rise on my arms. Was this happening? This gorgeous guy saying this to me, in a public place, no less.

  It seemed like it was my turn to say something. “I like you too.” My voice came out sounding wan.

  He didn’t seem to notice. He let go of my hand with one of his long enough to take a sip of his yellow drink. I could smell pineapple, and when his hand touched my skin again, it was cold.

  “I want to ask if we can sort of start over, go forward with a clean slate.”

  He must have been able to tell I’d been avoiding him all weekend. Apparently, being unavailable immediately after kissing a guy like he was a sexy cowboy did a lot to stimulate his interest in you. I tucked this away in my brain. It seemed like the sort of knowledge that might come in handy later. I said, “Sure. Sounds great.” Ugh. Could I have come up with anything more fake-sounding if I’d tried?

  His earnest look darkened, and he looked down at the table top, gripping my hand a little harder. “Also….” he started.

  “Erin?” a voice said. I looked up and saw Nora walking in with two other girls flanking her. She wore a cute little top and tight jeans and I realized when Ben released my hand and turned in his seat that her brother was not the only one in her family who had been blessed with good looks.

  “Hi Nora.” Ben and Nora looked at each other, wearing nearly identical polite smiles until I said, “Ben, this is Nora, my riding instructor. Nora, this is Ben, my….”

  Ben got out of his chair to shake hands with her. “Boyfriend,” he said, smoothly finishing my sentence for me.

  I thought of the way I’d stopped next to the truck to stare at Clint that morning. Nora had seen me staring. And now Nora knew I had a boyfriend. Although up until that moment I hadn’t even been sure that was what I should call him.

  ❂

  “Has Larson-Juhl called?”

  I looked up from the mat I was about to cut. Anne stood in the doorway of the workroom, wearing black pants and a black t-shirt and black heeled boots. Anne was one of those people who can wear all black and look normal instead of like she was trying to make a massive statement.

  I hadn’t even heard Anne come in, which was unusual. I’d been in this odd, keyed up mood ever since my lesson and what had followed. I kept bouncing back and forth between improbable daydreams of Clint, guilt about Ben, annoyance that Nora knew about Ben, and fear that Nora would tell her brother I wasn’t single.

  I stared at Anne for a moment, processing. It was 11:00. I had opened the gallery that morning at 9:00, like usual. I had checked the messages and answered the phone all morning. Larson-Juhl was the frame supply company from which we bought most of our materials. And they had not called that day. “No.”

  Anne swore under her breath and stalked off. A moment later I heard her dialing the phone in her office.

  I looked back down at the mat cutter. I lined up the blade and pressed, getting the angle right so it wouldn’t make a wobble in the corner. I leaned forward, slid the blade to the end of my cut zone, and eased off.

  I liked cutting mats. If you were going to be a perfectionist about it (which you had to be if you worked for Anne) it was difficult enough that it required most of your mental attention as well as a fair bit of physical coordination. This meant it did a good job of keeping your mind off things like the guy you were on the fence about telling the sister of the guy you were fantasizing about on an hourly basis that he was your boyfriend.

  I opened the mat cutter and rotated the mat, positioning it for the next cut. In the other room, I could hear Anne on the phone. He voice had the over-amped besty tone she used when she was asking for a favor. I kept cutting.

  A few minutes later, I heard the phone go back into the cradle. Anne reappeared in the doorway. “All sorted out,” she said. “They’re going to overnight it at no charge.” I remembered that our Larson-Juhl delivery the day before had been missing a frame for a piece that belonged to a high-end, high-stress client who would not leave his artwork in the gallery overnight. He would bring it in so we could measure it and choose materials (while he hovered outside the workroom door). We’d order the frame and he’d take the artwork home. He was scheduled to bring a piece back on Monday morning and pick it up Monday afternoon. So we needed to have that frame ready to go by the time he did the drop-off.

  “Good.” I made another cut.

  Anne leaned against the doorframe and gave me a little smile. One thing I liked about Anne is she didn’t carry stress. She’d come in worried about that frame, but now that it was sorted out it was like it never happened. “So, what’s up with you the last few days? You’re acting like a girl with a crush.”

  “Am I?” I tried to keep my tone casual. I finished cutting the window in the mat and set it aside, walking to the rack where we kept the glass and scanning the pieces for one close to the size I needed.

  “Well, you jump every time I come into the room, it takes you 25 seconds longer than usual to answer simple questions, and you’re blushing. Right now, I mean. Blushing.”

  I could feel the heat in my cheeks and ears as I turned away from the rack. I set my chosen piece of glass on the work table and looked up at Anne. Her face was friendly, amused, and open. I felt a sudden frantic urge to tell her everything. I had called Trace twice this week, but both times all I got was five minutes of her partial attention and a lot of banging and cooing in the background. Most of the time I didn’t mind. I got that it was difficult to connect with your friends when you’d just had a kid. But I needed to talk to someone, and Trace wasn’t there for me these days.

  “I have this huge problem,” I said.

  Anne’s face went serious and she came into the room, seating herself in a wooden chair that stood near the bins for small pieces of mat board. “Spill,” she said.

  Now that I had an audience, I had no idea how to sum up my problem. “So I’m dating Ben.” This seemed like a logical place to start. “A couple days ago he introduced himself to someone as my boyfriend.”

  Anne’s eyes narrowed as she took this in. “You don’t sound happy?”

  “The person he introduced himself to was my riding instructor.”

  Anne gave a small nod, lips pursed.

  I heaved a sigh and plunged in. “Her brother,” I stopped. After wanting to talk to someone about this for days, again I felt this hesitation. It was as if telling someone about Clint would make him real, and making him real would steal whatever magic had caused those sunbeams to fall on the hay bales just so, had made him crack that sweet little smile when I’d offered to help him with his work.

  Anne waited. Crazily, I wished someone would come into the store at that moment and save me from myself.

  The seconds ticked by. The room was quiet except for the distant drone of the radio playing in the other room. I had no choice.

  “I met her brother a few days ago. And he’s… well… he’s gorgeous. I mean, amazing.” I stopped talking. I had been right not to want to talk about Clint. Trying to put what I felt about him in everyday terms was like trying to explain an or
gasm to a virgin. Not that Anne was a virgin. I didn’t know a lot about Anne’s personal life, but I did know she lived a bit of an alternative lifestyle.

  Anne considered, sitting with her legs crossed, one foot wiggling. Anne never held entirely still. “It sounds like you have a mild case of grass is greener syndrome?” She phrased it more like a question than a judgment. “I only met Ben the once, but he wasn’t exactly lacking in the gorgeous department.”

  I sighed and picked up a glass cutter. “I know,” I said. “That’s the problem. It’s ridiculous. After all these months wishing Ben would pay more attention to me. Now he is, and all I can think about is,” I hesitated, before saying, “this other guy.”

  The bell on the front door jingled – my wish coming true too late to save me. Anne stood, speaking in a low, quick tone to make sure her voice didn’t carry to the person outside the frame room. “There’s nothing wrong with thinking about someone other than who you’re with,” she said. “Monogamy is about the body, not the mind. Everyone gets a nutty crush from time to time. Sometimes the best way to get over an infatuation is to go with it. Close your eyes and let your imagination run wild. You get great sex for a while, without cheating on the person you’re with.” She winked at me, and walked out the door.

  ❂

  I pulled the spinach pastry hors d’oeuvres from the oven and scooped them onto a little hand-thrown ceramic dish my mother had given me when I’d moved into my current apartment. I glanced at the clock, stashed the dirty pan and spatula in the dishwasher, and glanced around the kitchen. I’d decanted a bottle of wine twenty minutes before. It stood on the counter, breathing. A thin line of fragrant steam rose from the pastries. I’d decided against the candles. It had seemed over-the-top. But the kitchen was bright with the late sun. The walls were white, the counter-tops blue tile. Everything looked tidy and inviting. I had just decided to do one final sweep through the bedroom and bathroom when the doorbell rang. My heart gave a massive lurch and started to hammer.

  Trying to compose myself, I smoothed my hair, glanced down at my shirt to make sure I didn’t have spinach goo smeared on my stomach, and went to let Ben in.

  I’d spent all of Friday night writing middle-school worthy diary entries, and soul-searching. Sure, Clint was gorgeous and mysterious, and I’d seen him sitting on horseback in a cloud of dust at sunrise, holding a flag and waiting as a herd of horses streamed by. It was the sort of thing you don’t see in the real world. It was a glimpse of a different kind of man, a different kind of life.

  But I had to be realistic. I didn’t even know if Clint was single. I knew he was Nora’s older brother, and Nora was a couple years younger than me. There was a good chance he was either married or in a serious relationship. There was an even greater chance he wasn’t interested in me at all.

  Ben was interested. Ben was attractive, gainfully employed, nice, fun to hang out with. And interested. He was interested in me, and I had been interested in him before this whole Clint thing. It was time to stop being an idiot. This morning, I’d texted Ben and invited him over for dinner.

  I opened my front door. Ben stood on the little patio outside, holding a colorful bouquet and looking extra handsome in a bright white shirt tucked into a pair of gray chinos. When he saw me, he extended a hand, palm up. Not sure what to do, I put my hand in his. He bowed over it, raising it to his lips to kiss the back. He straightened up with a little smile, and handed me the flowers. “Bonsoir, mademoiselle.”

  I took the flowers. We’d established early in our relationship that we’d both taken French in college and had attempted one or two fractured conversations since then. “Merci, monsieur.” His accent was better than mine. I wanted to say something about how the flowers were beautiful, but couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound trite. I settled for, “Come on in.” In English.

  Ben stepped inside, closing the door behind him. “It smells great in here.”

  My mom was a good cook, and all through my childhood she’d been the one who put the food on the table throughout the week. But she did it because eating was a necessary part of staying alive. My dad, on the other hand, was into cooking. Weekend meals were his jurisdiction, and we’d taken many a long drive around town together, looking for some elusive ingredient. I’d been his apt pupil from the ages of 7 to 13, at which point I’d turned sullen and refused to come out of my bedroom most nights. I’d learned a lot from him, though, and now that I was over being a teenager, I often went over on the weekends to help him put together nice meals. “Thanks,” I said, and gestured to the plate of spinach puffs. “Help yourself. Would you like a glass of wine?”

  I went to the decanter, pouring two glasses with the awareness that Ben was watching me. This made me jumpy, and I paid extra attention to the glass, the red liquid, the counter. The last thing I wanted to do was knock something over.

  Glasses in hand, I returned to the table. I’d spent the whole day preparing for this, and now that Ben was actually here, in my apartment, I had no idea what to say or do.

  Ben took a sip of wine, then set his glass down. He walked around the table and slipped his arm around my waist. He kissed me once, gently, and leaned back to look at me. “Thank you for having me over.”

  I resisted the urge to crack a joke and slip out of his grasp. Instead I looked him in the eye. “Clean slate, right?” Then I closed my eyes, and kissed him.

  This time, I did it deliberately.

  I thought of Clint. I thought of Clint coming into the tack room. In my fantasy, he didn’t turn the light on, and he didn’t have a saddle in one hand and a pad in the other. He also wasn’t wearing a shirt. He walked up behind me as I stared at the wall of tack, and took the bridle from my hand, our fingers brushing. Then he kissed me. He kissed me with a firmness that took my breath away, walking me backwards until I bumped up against the wall and he could hang the bridle on its empty hook.

  In real life, in my kitchen, I was now pressed up against the kitchen counter. I could feel Ben’s kiss shift from polite to something a lot more interesting. He took the glass from my hand, and set it on the counter.

  In my head, Clint’s lips strayed from my mouth, creeping down my neck to my collarbone while his hands slipped up under my shirt in the back, his rough palms leaving little tingling lines on my skin.

  In real life, Ben’s hands did the same thing. Except his were smooth and warm. His kiss grew deeper and more serious, slowing down and jerking me back to reality for a moment. Ben was actually a really good kisser. For a few minutes my brain emptied, going devoid of all thought, either of Ben or Clint. I felt my body lighting up, pulses racing from my lips outwards, snaking up and down my spine. My heart was pounding. So was Ben’s. I could feel it under my hands, which had untucked his shirt and wormed their way onto his chest.

  Ben leaned down so his mouth was close to my ear. “Erin,” he said. “I don’t want to rush you.” I could feel how excited he was, the heat rising off his skin as he leaned against me and the counter. I could feel how excited I was. I hadn’t felt this alive since, well, since a time I preferred not to think about just then.

  I kissed Ben’s jaw. “You’re not,” I said, and led him to my bedroom.

  ❂

  “I slept with Ben.” It was Monday evening, and Trace and I were in our usual booth in Julio’s. I said it because she’d been 20 minutes late and had scarcely looked at me in the half hour she had been here because she was so busy exchanging texts with her new babysitter. I’d wanted to say something dramatic to get her attention, but she only gave me a vague smile without taking her eyes off her phone. That rocked me well past annoyance into real anger.

  I looked at Trace a moment longer, giving her one more minute to snap out of it and respond. She continued to stare at the phone, the screen casting a pale glow on her chin.

  “Trace,” I snapped, keeping my voice down but injecting the word with as much force as I could muster. “I’m trying to talk to you here. But if micro
managing your kid’s life is more important than major things happening to your best friend, maybe you should go home and I’ll find someone else to talk to.”

  I hadn’t meant to say so much, but as soon I’d started to speak a little pocket of intense anger I hadn’t known I’d been carrying around with me had uncurled and flowed through my whole body. I had spent the last few days vacillating between an elation that bordered on ecstasy and the dull, anxious feeling of having lied to someone that mattered about something important.

  When I said her name, Trace looked up as if seeing me for the first time all evening. As I continued my little diatribe, her face went pale. Now her eyes were wide and startled, as if I’d slapped her.

  Now that I’d started, I couldn’t seem to stop. “Andrew is home, for crying out loud, and there’s a babysitter. Seriously, Trace, you need to let go a little. I don’t think the sitter’s choice of a bedtime story is going to impact Olivia’s chances of getting into Harvard.”

  Trace glanced down at the text she’d been in the middle of composing, and swallowed. She held her finger on the power key until her phone played the little tone that meant it was shutting down. Her eyes, I was horrified to see, had gone all misty and red-rimmed. She took a deep breath, put the phone in her purse and said, “Erin. I’m so sorry.”

  Now that I had both her attention and her apology, I wasn’t sure I wanted either. I almost wished she’d said something awful, like, “Hold on a sec. Let me send this.” That would have entitled me to storm out the door in a white rage.

  Instead, she blinked and dabbed at the corner of her eye with her napkin. “You’re right. I’ve been the most wretched friend. It’s just that….” She stopped, catching herself on the verge of spiraling back into Olivia world. She looked up and gave me a trembly smile. “See? I can’t even stop with the ‘me me me’ while I’m apologizing to you.”

  I felt my anger drain away as quickly as it had blossomed. I looked down, fiddling with my napkin. “I didn’t mean for that to come out so harsh.”

  Trace took a sip of her water. She seemed to be regaining her equilibrium. I had already finished one beer. She was only halfway through her glass of wine, but after the water she took several big gulps and almost caught up to me. “Anything less harsh might not have gotten my attention.”

  That’s when I realized she literally hadn’t heard what I’d said about Ben. She knew I’d said something, and it was something she should have heard, but she’d missed it.

  Julio’s was crowded. All the booths were full, and most of the tables in the center were occupied as well. Mexican music played over the sound system and the buzz of conversation and laughter was loud enough to more than cover anything we might say here. Still, I felt reluctant to repeat myself.

  Trace waited, and when I didn’t say anything, she bit her lip, took another sip of wine and said, “That last thing you said. Did you say you slept with Ben?”

  I nodded, looking down at my beer and thinking about that night. It had been a great night. We’d tumbled into bed, where we’d stayed long enough to burn dinner. Ben had proven to be a considerate but enthusiastic lover – a good combination, as far as I was concerned.

  “Was this your first time since….” I nodded as Trace ran out of gas.

  “Since Jake,” I said, finishing the sentence for her. “Yes, it was.” Jake had been my college boyfriend, and Trace and I had discussed him enough to last a lifetime.

  Trace gave me a sly smile. “Good for you. How was it?”

  “It was great,” I said, knowing it was true even though it felt like a lie. It had been great, because every time I’d started to cool down or have second thoughts, I’d conjured up a mental image of Clint and gotten myself fired up again. “It was really good for a first time.” I said this as if we didn’t both know I’d only had a first time twice before, so didn’t exactly have a huge selection of partners to compare Ben to. Between the two of us, Trace had always been the wild one. It figured she’d also be the one to settle down first.

  “So do you think this could turn into a long-term thing? I thought you weren’t sure about him?”

  I could tell Trace was trying to ask the right questions, to slip back into the role of besty she’d occupied in my life for so long. But the longer the spotlight of our conversation stayed focused on me, the more uncomfortable I felt. I almost wished she hadn’t turned her phone off so an Olivia-centric message could diffuse the focus a bit.

  “I wasn’t sure about him”

  “But you are now?”

  I looked out the window. Julio’s was in a strip mall, and the view was indifferent. I watched a young couple walk past the front of a parked Ford Taurus, a toddler clinging to the woman’s hand. I imagined myself as the woman, the man as Ben, and the toddler as our child. The thought made a little surge of panic dart through my body. “I’m sure he’s fun for now.”

  Trace frowned at me, finishing her wine and leaning back in her seat. “That doesn’t sound like you, Erin.”

  This was the problem with best friends. When they’re paying attention, they can see right through you.

  The server hadn’t given us coasters, and my beer had left a large puddle of sweat on the table. I looked down and poked at the puddle with my finger, dragging the water out in little lines to make a star pattern.

  “Erin,” Trace said. Her voice had that stern ‘I will root this secret out of you if my life depends on it’ quality that always filled me with a mix of annoyance and the warm fuzzies. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”

  I had thought sleeping with Ben would solidify things, bring him into focus and relegate Clint to some silly dreamscape I had no business dwelling in. Instead, I thought of Clint more than ever.

  The server came then, bringing us new drinks and taking our entrée order, giving me a brief reprieve. When he was gone, Trace gave me a nudge under the table with the toe of her sandal. I sighed. “The thing is, I should be head over heels in love with Ben. I thought sleeping with him would move things forward. Instead I just feel,” I stopped. Instead I just feel like I want to set up camp in Nora’s tack room and lie in wait for her brother. “I just feel unsure.”

  Trace gave me a sympathetic smile. “There’s nothing wrong with a casual relationship. It’s the 21st century. Sex doesn’t have to lead to marriage. You’ve been single for a long time, and I think you should enjoy yourself.”

  “Thanks, Trace.” Somehow her affirmation only made me feel worse. I looked down at the table, and I realized I’d written CLINT in water from the puddle my beer glass had left. I smeared it out before she could notice.

  ❂

  “First off,” Nora said, “you ride with too short a rein. I want to see those slobber straps pointing down, not up.”

  We were sitting in the outdoor arena at the Tipped Z. The sun was just peeking up behind the mountains. Slobber straps, I had learned earlier, were the leather attachments that connected the reins to the snaffle bit. The particular ones on my horse were a light brown leather with some tooling along the edges and a small Tipped Z brand stamped in one corner. They were quite nicely made, and every time Nora referenced them I couldn’t help but think there had to be some more attractive word we could use to talk about them.

  I was astride Duke, who had a hip cocked and his ears tipped lazily to the sides. Nora was on a chestnut mare named Sally. Sally was an interesting brownish red, and she had no white on her anywhere. Nora was wearing a pair of chinks similar to the one’s I’d seen on Clint. As she sat on her horse, she had one hand resting casually on the horn, her reins so long I wondered how she’d have any control if her mare decided to get uppity on her.

  I never had told Trace about Clint. We’d had a great talk. After I’d spilled the beans about Ben, I had asked why she was so worried about Olivia. She’d confessed Andrew so far had been about the worst parenting partner she could have imagined. The night had ended in her shedding a few tears and giving me a long, fierce hug
good-bye while promising to be a better friend.

  I’d gone home, gone to bed, and had a dream involving Clint and the tack room.

  I hadn’t seen Clint this morning. There was a huge stack of hay in the barn where the truck had been last week, and other than Nora and two wire-haired dogs, I hadn’t seen a soul.

  “What do you do if your horse runs off?” I said this in response to her comment about my reins.

  Nora gave me a blank look. “Duke won’t run off. But if one did, you’d just pick up one rein and bend him to a stop. Now, I want you to go to the top of the arena and walk a circle.”

  After the first lesson, I had been sore. Clint had been right about that. A week later, I was feeling good again. I was also pleased to feel myself moving with the horse a lot more easily from the start. I could feel myself relaxing into a position that had once been natural for me. I pointed Duke up the rail, and we walked to the top.

  Nora reoriented her red mare so they still faced us, saying, “I want a quality circle, and not on the rail. Walk around the barrel there and keep an even distance from it at all times. Keep a nice bend in Duke’s body, and, no, you’re collapsing in. He’s going to want to hurry on that side because he’d rather be down here with me and Sally. That’s ok. Try again. Remember to use your legs to bend him and support him and keep him in that turn.”

  An hour later, I was exhausted. I’d had no idea when I’d asked Nora to give me lessons that I was hiring the most precision-obsessed taskmaster on the planet.

  We had spent thirty minutes on the circle. It had taken that long before I could keep Duke from cutting in on one side or dishing out the other. Nora kept stopping me to demonstrate how she and Sally could walk a perfect circle without hands, even though Sally was 3 years old and had only been started that spring, and Duke was a seasoned ranch horse.

  After the circle, Nora had taken pity on me and let me trot and canter along the rail for the last fifteen minutes. That had felt great, and I’d been smiling in spite of myself by the time we stepped off. It was hot by then, and Duke’s neck was sweaty when I petted him to thank him for the ride.

  Nora and I walked side by side back towards the barn, the breeze cooling the sweat on our skin. I could smell horse and leather and sand. I felt relaxed and happy.

  “I don’t want to pressure you or anything,” Nora said as we led our horses back into the barn. I glanced at the stack of hay. No Clint. “But it’s hard to make much progress if you only ride once a week. You have a good seat, and you’re confident and natural on a horse. I think you could get somewhere if you put the time in.”

  I thought about the meagre paycheck I brought in from the gallery, and the half-finished novel I was not writing at that very moment. Nora’s lesson price was reasonable, but it wasn’t nothing. I was about to say something neutral along the lines of, “I’ll think about,” when Clint walked in.

  He stepped through the small door near the parking area as I fell back to let Nora go first down the aisle between the empty stalls, one of the wire-haired dogs at his heels. As usual, the mere sight of him sent a series of sparks down my spine. He looked at me and saw I was looking at him. For a moment, our eyes locked. It was a shock to have him appear so suddenly: the real Clint, flesh and blood, standing right in front of me again.

  He was wearing his hat, and he tipped the brim in my direction, like a cowboy in a movie. I expected him to say, “Ma’am.” Instead he said, “Erin, right? How was your ride?”

  “Oh,” I said, as startled as if I’d been addressed by Duke. “Well, I spent half an hour trying to walk a circle.” I regretted my own honesty the moment the words left my mouth. I should have tried to come up with something more impressive to say, something that would have made him conjure up an image of me loping freely through the sunshine with my hair flowing behind me on the wind.

  But Clint didn’t seem surprised. Instead of turning dismissive or superior, he cracked his adorable smile. “Most won’t stick with it so long.” As he said this, he walked towards me, and I felt dizzy with the certainty that this was it: something was finally about to happen. He was going to reward my perseverance with something extra special. He stopped right next to me and extended a hand. My heart did a backflip and started beating triple-time.

  His hand reached past me and smoothed Duke’s forelock, then ran down the gray gelding’s neck. “Did he give you a good one?”

  My heart was still hammering. I was so close to Clint, I could smell the light scent of the soap he must have shaved with that morning. I had heard his words, and although my mind was scrambled, I believed my command of the English language had not deserted me entirely. But I had no idea what he was talking about.

  Clint glanced away from Duke and must have registered my blank expression. “Duke,” he said. “Did Duke give you a good circle?”

  A ridiculous, trembling laugh escaped me. “Yes. Yes he did.”

  Clint gave Duke a pat on the shoulder and walked off as Nora poked her head back out of the stall barn to see what had happened to me.

  ❂

  I stood up from my chair as my desktop faded to the blue screen that informed me my computer was shutting down. Raising my arms above my head, I felt several small pops in my spine.

  I glanced out the window. The sun was starting to fall, and my stomach gave a little rumble. I padded barefoot into my kitchen, enjoying the feel of the cool tile floor under my toes. I looked in my refrigerator. Condiments rattled in the door, but the shelves showed a depressing lack of options. A wedge of cheese stood next to a carton of milk and a hank of withering beet tops I’d been intending to use in a salad but hadn’t. I threw the beat tops out, closed the refrigerator, and stared indecisively out the window.

  I had spent the entire day producing words for my novel. I’d been so giddy and high over my (admittedly brief) interaction with Clint, I had let Nora talk me into committing to riding on Sundays as well, and either getting a lesson, if nothing was going on, or helping with ranch work if there was some sort of activity going down that I could be guaranteed not to screw up. Nora had cheerfully said that they were sometimes a bit shorthanded, and the days I worked for them would count as credit towards the days she gave me lessons. She said it might end up breaking about even.

  That had been all the additional persuasion my addled brain had needed. I’d agreed. But on my drive home I had given myself a stern talking-to. I had laid down the law. I had agreed with myself that if I wanted to keep taking riding lessons, I needed to make sure I did not let them take over my Tuesdays and Sundays. Tuesdays and Sundays were for writing, and writing was the key to the entire Grand Plan of my life. Without writing, I was a late-twenty-something making a laughable wage at an art gallery. With writing, I was a struggling artist.

  So I’d marched into my apartment with a purpose, put my phone on silent, taken a quick, cool shower, and gotten down to work. I’d closed all programs on my computer except Word, and I’d written. All day. I’d written quite a lot and was feeling proud of myself for exhibiting such maturity.

  But now I was hungry, and I had no food. My choices were either to go out, go shopping, or go hang out with my mom.

  I wandered into the bedroom and picked up my phone, which I’d left to charge during its silent day. I unplugged it and woke it up, and my heart gave a clench. Not the good kind of clench when you see someone you had been hoping to hear from called. No. Sitting in my notification bar were the words: “15 missed calls.” They were all from my mother.

  My mouth went dry as I frantically unlocked the screen. The first call had come about twenty minutes after I’d gotten home from my lesson. I hit the screen to call her back. As the phone rang on the other end, I began to pace. My father was supposed to be on his way to Iraq. He was a chemical engineer and consulted for the military, and they regularly flew him overseas for reasons he could not discuss with us. I knew my mom had been scheduled to drive him down to Davis-Monthon Air Force Base that morning.

&n
bsp; It seemed to take an eternity for her to pick up, during which time I imagined every sort of lurid accident that might have left my father injured, maimed, or even dead. I was in a cold sweat by the time she interrupted the ringing. Her voice was tense and unhappy, and instead of her usual greeting she said, “Where have you been all day?”

  “Mom,” I said, a sudden lump in my throat. “What’s wrong?”

  “They’ve been kidnapped. There’s no doubt of it. The police were here, and they found tire tracks.”

  “Kidnapped?” I said this uncertainly. I felt my panic solidify and quicken, my mind filling with the unpleasant image of my father with a sack over his head and a gun pressed to the small of his back, stooping to get into a van. Then the second part of her sentence sank in. I adjusted the backdrop of my mental image to Sonoran desert instead of busy street in Baghdad, and felt a chill run up my spine. This was very, very bad. I moved away from the window and spoke a little more quietly. “Oh my god. They came to the house? Where were you?”

  Mom’s tone became more impatient. “Taking your father to the base. When I came back, they were gone.”

  I blinked several times, my mind doing a looping scramble. I felt my panic cool a notch. “Wait, Mom. Who was gone?”

  She released an exasperated sigh. “Did you listen to my voicemails?”

  My fear was starting to fade, morphing into annoyance born of being so badly scared. “Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “Is this about the dogs?”

  “They’ve been stolen,” my mother said.

  It wasn’t only that the loss of Boswell and Norman was a hard thing to take seriously after the narrow escape from maiming and/or death my father had just experienced in my mind, it was something that went a little deeper for me. As I jammed my phone into my purse, fished out my car keys, and hurried down the steps on my way to go over and do what I could to comfort my mother, I admitted something I had previously kept under petty good wraps.

  I had long been harboring mild jealousy issues regarding Boswell and Norman.

  I had my reasons. The year I’d left for college had been a big one in my family. My father had been offered his contract with the military. Two years in Iraq would mean great professional opportunities for him, not to mention putting my parents in a different tax bracket. After the first two years, he would come home, after which he would only need to make the trek overseas once or twice a year.

  And so I’d left for college and my father had left for Iraq within months of each other, leaving my mother alone without even my father’s fish (he’d given them to a friend because she didn’t know how to keep them alive).

  That’s how Boswell and Norman came about. My first trip home from school, they’d been there: two wriggling white puppies who had stolen my mother’s heart. I had tapped down on any feelings of jealousy because, really, who could blame her?

  But the puppies had been only the beginning. They weren’t just any puppies. They were show-quality Bull Terrier stock, my mother had informed me proudly as they’d bounced across the yard chasing a blue ball as large as they were. And she was going to show them.

  It had been the start of a new era. Soon, Mom needed a new house because our old yard wasn’t big enough for Bull Terrier energy levels. That’s when she’d single-handedly demolished all my childhood memories by moving from our little house at the edge of town out onto a small acreage with a large, secure yard. And as if that hadn’t been bad enough, she didn’t just show the dogs. She showed. It seemed like every weekend she’d be loading up and taking to the road in her new Subaru Outback, (the back fitted with a grille and custom carpeting to make a comfortable traveling room for the dogs) driving all around the country to compete in breed shows. Boswell and Norman did well, even winning sometimes.

  They became my mother’s new family.

  I resented them. It annoyed me that I would call to tell my mother I was coming home for the weekend and she’d say that was fine but she wouldn’t be around. Most of my friends had clingy parents who were hounding them for more visits, more time on Skype, more news of their lives. When I called home (it was usually me calling), I got a play by play dissection of the last show.

  Things had evened out when Dad had come home. Mom had slowed down a little. Boswell and Norman entered a golden stage of pseudo-retirement. Mom still showed them sometimes, and she also had them at stud, which meant she had a website about them with pictures and fees and a contact form you could use in case you wanted your female dog to produce the newest heirs to the Boswell or Norman line of Bull Terriers.

  To say my feelings were ambivalent as I drove to my parents’ house that afternoon wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I was glad nothing had happened to my father, and of course, I didn’t want anything to happen to Boswell and Norman either. I was just having a little trouble taking the whole kidnapping thing seriously.

  But when I pulled into our driveway, I could see a small section of the parking area was cordoned off with yellow police tape. The light was failing, but after I parked my car and walked around the tape, I could see two skid marks there, deep in back, shallower in front, like someone had floored the accelerator on their way out. I recalled how my mother always drove when the dogs were in the car, careful not to slam on the brakes or accelerate too fast so they wouldn’t get knocked around. I thought of the two dogs tumbling in a heap and hitting the back of the van (it had to be a van that had taken them, right?) with little yips of surprise and pain.

  That was when I felt the first beginnings of outrage. It sank in that someone had come to my parents’ house and taken my mother’s dogs. It was the sort of thing that happened in Disney movies, and yet it left me feeling angry and violated and helpless all at once.

  I found my mother on the back patio, an open bottle of wine on the low table where normally there would also be a cheese plate that would need to be defended from two inquiring white muzzles. Today there was no cheese, and no Boswell and Norman. I felt my heart sink further.

  My mother had never been one to cry, and as I sat down across from her and poured myself a glass of wine, she looked at me, dry-eyed, and said, “They say there’s little hope. Stolen dogs are almost never recovered, particularly with breeds that have so few characteristics that distinguish individuals….” She broke off, shaking her head.

  I could see the problem. Boswell and Norman were both pure white. Even some of my parents’ good friends couldn’t tell them apart.

  My mom drew in a deep, ragged breath. “And your father doesn’t even know. He’s still in the air.”

  ❂

  “I’m so sorry.” Ben gathered me in his arms the moment I opened my door. I didn’t even have the energy to pretend he was Clint. I just leaned my head on his shoulder.

  It was Wednesday evening. I had stayed Tuesday night with my mom. I’d gotten up early to have time to shower and change before work, but Mom had been awake already, sitting at the kitchen counter sipping coffee and staring out window with a dull expression. I hadn’t wanted to leave, but when I’d asked her if she wanted me to come back after work she’d said no, she wanted some time and space.

  So when Ben had texted asking if I wanted to go out, I had written back saying I didn’t feel up to it, at which point he’d called and asked what was wrong. His initial reaction had been like mine, but as I’d explained I could feel him realizing why it was a big deal. When I was done, he’d offered to bring over Chinese food.

  Since I’d gotten home from work, I’d done nothing but text and email every single person I could think of, sending them photos of Boswell and Norman and asking them to send them on to everyone they knew, promising a reward. The police had said this kind of strategy usually didn’t work, but sometimes if the kidnappers thought there was more to be gained by giving the dogs back than keeping them, they’d respond. So I had emailed and texted friends, posted on every Craigslist within 100 miles, and then I’d run out of things to do.

  When Ben had offered t
o come over, I had thought it was nice of him, but now that he was here, stepping back from our hug to look at me with an earnest, concerned expression, I felt a sudden odd sense of claustrophobia.

  “How’s your mom holding up?” His eyes searched my face. I uncharitably wondered how he would possibly be able to up the ante if real tragedy ever struck my family.

  “She’s devastated,” I said, taking a small step backwards.

  Ben nodded, face solemn under his perfectly mussed shock of blond hair. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

  I took the plastic bag of Chinese food from his hand. “Feeding me is a good start.”

  We adjourned to the table. As I unpacked the food, Ben walked into the kitchen and opened cupboards and drawers, poking around until he found plates and forks. It struck me as a tad over-familiar for where we were in our relationship. He smiled when he saw me watching him, carrying the plates over to the table. At a loss for any other response, I smiled back.

  We scooped piles of food onto our plates and ate in silence for a minute or two. Around a mouthful of General Tsao’s Chicken, Ben said, “So where have you hung posters?”

  I stared at him, a forkful of Mongolian Beef poised halfway between my plate and my mouth. “Posters?” I repeated.

  Ben looked up, wiping his mouth on one of the napkins that had come in the plastic bag. “Yeah. Isn’t that what you do when a dog gets lost?”

  I had to bite down the urge to remind him that Boswell and Norman had been stolen not lost, and it was highly unlikely anyone was going to see them running around on the side of the road and bring them home. I reminded myself he was trying to help. “I sent their picture to every contact I have in my email and phone.”

  Ben nodded. “I saw that, and the reward. But wouldn’t posters, you know, build on that?”

  I wanted to tell him that my mom had friends all across the country, breeders and other showers and advocates for the Bull Terrier breed. I wanted to say hanging posters would be about as much help to her finding her dogs as a kid with a lemonade stand is to his family’s bottom line. But then I realized that if I shot this down, I’d be stuck with Ben in my apartment with nothing to do except what we’d done the last time he’d come over. And I wasn’t in the mood. So I said, “After we eat, maybe we can make some. And then you can drive me around and help me hang them up.”

  ❂

  You never notice how many people you know until all of them are concerned about you at once. Or, rather, all of them are concerned about your mother. The fact that my dad was out of the country lent the dognapping a whole extra layer of tragic heft, and mere hours after my emails went out, legions of women banded together, organized themselves, and worked out a way to bombard my mother with a steady supply of casseroles for the foreseeable future. I could hardly blame her when she started to pretend she wasn’t home. Without Boswell and Norman around to wreak havoc on the dishes left like offerings at a shrine for the hungry, it didn’t even matter if the covered dishes sat outside for an hour or two before my mother retrieved them.

  But even the most attentive of friend networks cannot stay infinitely concerned about lost dogs. By Saturday evening, the sheer volume of delivered food was dropping off. I noticed as I pulled into my parents’ driveway the police tape was gone. When I let myself through the front gate, there was only one covered dish with a note on it set next to the front door. I picked it up with a sigh and let myself into the house.

  The police had turned up nothing, and while my mother seemed to think they weren’t trying very hard I, for one, was astonished they’d bothered to even call back with updates, particularly when the updates amounted to a total lack of leads. Likewise, the emails and texts and three dozen posters Ben and I had hung around our respective neighborhoods had produced no results of any kind. We were all losing hope.

  My mother had made her way rapidly through the stages of grief, and had settled into a sort of detached acceptance that worried me. In spite of the lukewarm reception I got every time I came by, I kept dropping in each day, and each day it seemed a little sadder that there was no hurricane of compact, muscular dog-flesh there to slobber on my pant-legs and cover everything I owned in a dusting of short white hairs.

  I carried the dish to the kitchen, attempted to find a place for it in the refrigerator, gave up, and left it on the counter. The house was quiet, but I knew my mother was home. I poked my head out the back door to find the porch empty, and headed for her workroom.

  Professionally, my mother was an illustrator. She drew illustrations for medical texts, and her work was somewhat sought-after. When I’d been a kid, she’d taken as much work as she could, and I had many memories of sitting on the floor playing with my Breyer horses while my mom perched at her drafting table with photographs of organs pinned up along the wall behind her.

  A similar scene greeted me today, except instead of an array of hearts or lungs, the wall behind my mother’s desk was populated with photos of her two missing dogs. Boswell and Norman’s young lives and careers had been documented far more extensively than my own had. Not long ago, this fact had irked me a little, but when I walked around the corner and saw my mother’s head stooped over her drafting table, the wall of dogs beyond her, I had to step back into the other room for a moment to get hold of myself so I didn’t walk in crying.

  The next time I stepped around the door, I knocked on the frame. Mom swiveled in her chair, her glasses perched low on her nose. On the table before her was a half-finished illustration, the two dogs looking out of the paper with bright eyes and pricked ears. She made a vague gesture towards the page. “It’s therapeutic, I guess.”

  We looked at each other. She set her pen down and stood up with a sigh.

  There was a long silence, and I said the only thing that came to mind. “I brought you some food.”

  Her eyes narrowed, then she gave a small laugh. “For a minute I thought you were serious. Have you seen the refrigerator?”

 
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