She used her finger to draw an imaginary line down the rental car’s backseat, an objectively minor act of dominance by any standard. It was more a suggestion of what she wanted. An invisible plea: You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine.
She knew, of course, that it was unlikely to keep her brother from disturbing her precariously balanced distractions that got her through the long days in the car. Imaginary lines are mostly just a wish. But more assertive approaches — a yell, a push, a pinch or loud and demonstrative sibling banter — resulted in reprisals from the front. Flashy anger to settle down, they were driving, and then the backseat remorse, the guilt. She practiced compliance and yielding to the powers that ruled, mostly passivity served her well. Until that summer. Until the horse, until the cowboy.
She always knew when they entered a new town because they’d get out for gas and a new map, a more detailed section of the world they were in. Maps played a crucial role in their family car trips. She’d reluctantly take notice of the moments her mom studied the map more closely, the map refolded against the seams into a new subsection, her pencil re-tracing the route and the brother peering between the seats. Her mom’s attention was not a good sign, it likely foreshadowed that soon they would be lost. The girl knew that it was not the time to read out loud the Colorado traveler’s guide that sat on her lap. She knew it was not the time to mention the dude ranch she found in the local guide or give an updated report of motels with pools. Chatter on hold, it was time for quiet, a barely hopeful pause before the storm. Likely there would be an inevitable wrong turn that that would lead to other wrong ones as the car went faster, as the girl wondered why they did not just stop and ask. She dared not mention the locals on the street who were sure to know which way to go. Blame came next, flying around the car like a pesky trapped fly, bumping against the glass over and over again with no escape. The girl forgot about the swimming and horseback riding at moments like those — watching the futility of it all — the grudges drawn again and again to the light like instinct.
Her usual homesickness loomed large on that trip out West, but crested twice in ways she would never forget. Both events sealed themselves in memory for decades to come –failure’s usual fate as reverberations echoed well into the future. Past as prelude, always, until it gets resolved.
The first was on the day that they landed in Denver and drove the rental car away from the airport. An imminent family decision revolved around white water rafting and who would go. She listened as her parents discussed the safety and dangers, she was only nine. Could she really swim well enough? Was she old enough? What to do instead to satisfy her brother’s relentless craving for adventure? She didn’t want them to miss out because of her.
She was not entirely sure on which side she fell, for which she should advocate. She had no idea if she could really stay afloat. She watched her parents struggle with the decision, of what was the right thing to do. Her stomach sighed as they went back and forth, their generalized worry washing over her, again and again. How she wished desperately to be home where decisions about rafting and danger did not exist, where she could climb the apple trees in her best friend’s yard. There, on the uppermost branches, they commanded for hours in a fantastical forest of their own design, they ruled until the dinner bell rang. Then, they would shimmy down the branches, until they reached the widest part of the trunk, the spot where it was safe to jump. Sometimes the girl had to wait, perched and ready, until her friend held the barking dog, the one that would bite her later that summer. On that day, the dog broke free of her friend’s grasp and attacked her from behind, sinking its teeth deeply into her thigh as she frantically tried to unlock the gate. Trapped in the giant shepherd’s jaw, she was too stunned to scream. She stood there and waited. There is nothing to be done if fear arrived first. She had unwillingly learned that fact on the horse.
In the end she and her mom stayed back, they looked at jewelry instead, dodging the bullet of the unknown. Any relief she felt while standing at the counter looking at turquoise was compromised by the wondering of what might have happened if she had been more confident, assertive, brave. If she had gone. Eventually her dad and brother returned undrowned, fresh faced, satisfied and accomplished. Their trip continued on. She resumed her spot in the backseat, redrew her line, opened up her books.
More than anything, she wanted to ride a horse. Although there had been no guarantee, it was mentioned by her parents as a possibility before they left, their lure to improve her mood, to lighten the dread she felt whenever they traveled, always two weeks at a time. Always in June, right when school ended, at the height of her anticipation of lazy summer days. She held onto the prospect, re-visiting the pages in the travel guide, over and over, reading the descriptions aloud. Mostly the ranches were already full. But her mom promised her that she would keep on looking, so her hope remained.
With the days dwindling away and the realization of few prospects settling in, an opportunity appeared by chance at a diner they stopped at for lunch. A suggestion of a place, not far down the road, maybe there were openings. She watched from the car as her mom inserted the dime into the payphone, she watched her say hello and then write down some notes on her pad of paper. Good signs, she ascertained from the car, and she was right.
They arrived at the ranch late in the afternoon the next day, parking by a cabin among many, though the rest in the row were unoccupied. She would never actually recall the strange first night by the campfire, she was too focused on the next day’s plan — a trail ride with her family-a cowboy as their guide. Only her family noticed the oddness of the place, the lack of visitors, the lack of enough hamburgers for their family of four. Small discomforts are only memorable when they are not eclipsed by something worse. They would fill in the details for her when she was much, much older, when she was sure any danger had passed and had gathered the courage to ask why they had left in the middle of the night. Her own secret of the place was never disclosed.
She pulled on her cowboy boots, size six, as early as sunrise the next day. Her jeans tucked in, a long sleeve flannel shirt, a hat. Corn muffins for breakfast. Remembered details fade again but the walk over to the meeting spot is clear, the spot where the cowboy appears with five horses, five saddles. A long trail ahead separated by only tall grasses. He looks them over and matches person to horse. There is a flurry of activity as he gets the saddles organized and asks them questions about how they are used to riding. “Used to riding?” the girl thinks to herself, as she considers that what she actually knows is mostly just imagined.
Her heart begins its downward tumble when he gets to her, when he mentions that her horse is a little “willful.” She doesn’t quite understand the impact until she lifts her foot into the stirrup, and the horse seems jolted and surprised. The cowboy tries to explain the nuances of the reins, and the commands, but he already too late, the horse has lost interest in the entire group and is moving on its own accord. A swell of worry rose in her, as if she had been injected by a syringe. She worked to halt the spreading fear. She didn’t want a horse of its own mind, she didn’t even know where they were going. She wanted a horse that followed, an unconsidered detail of her dream. But it was too late to add it in.
And it was too late to change anything, in fact, her quiet fear and rising panic completely invisible. She was trapped in the inevitability of the situation, on a conveyer belt moving forward. They were all waiting to go. There was no moment, no opening and no authority to say hold up there, please, in the assertive voice she practiced up in the apple trees.
She watched her family ahead, their horses on autopilot, surefootedly and obediently heading down the trail. Her horse, however, had stopped and turned and changed its mind, both of them now facing the wrong way. The cowboy shouted instructions but her fear made so much noise she could barely hear at all. She looked at the horse with all her concentration, like her mom did when she studied the map. Premonition of trapped fly, dead.
Not only was she trying to manage the horse, but the cowboy as well. She could sense his growing alarm at her incompetence, his frustration intimately familiar. Her frenzied attempts to control the horse, useless. His attempts to elicit some kind of dominance from her were futile. His patience growing thinner with each passing moment, his own morning upended by fear of a different sort. He stared in disbelief as the girl began to whimper, to sob.
They sparked something in him, those tears, they ignited him completely, a sudden contempt burning through him like tinder. She could see him combusting on the inside, though his outer shell held firm as he spoke in monotone to her parents who didn’t quite know what to do. They were not so practiced as she in noticing emotion.
“You all go on ahead” he said, leaving no room for discussion.
The parents, not sure if they were adding to the confusion, thought maybe it was best.
“We will meet up with you,” he continued on.
She watched her family move on through the woods, imagining they are thinking that the cowboy will have better luck alone. In minutes they are out of earshot and she can only hear the trickling of a little stream. Low hung branches block her view, she feels lost in all ways that she knows. The cowboy looks at the girl straight on. And tells her, in no uncertain terms, what he will do if she does not stop that crying, “right that minute.”
His hand is on his holster, horse whip in his hand, threats spilling out low and strong.
Her tears evaporate as if a cool wind blew, she loses her breath, her body freezes still. No feeling inside or out, but the most desperate yearning growing strong. She silently, so silently begs that horse, willing him with all her might. She dug in her heels and held the reins. This was no time for invisible lines