On Monday I am exhausted from my weekend at the barn and over the top excitement on Sunday when my Dad finally gave me the go ahead to try my hand at being a braider and going to Finals. I spent most of Sunday evening on the phone with Lisa and also Mary Anne setting everything up and then had to pull a pretty late night to finish up homework. Despite how tired I am I can still feel my heart beating along with excitement. I am going to Finals!
In the morning, I don’t even bother to give myself a final once over in the mirror before I am running out the door in my usual uniform of jeans and a sweater. For once I step into the yellow candescence of Wilson High with my head held up and I’m actually disappointed when I don’t see Eric at the lockers. I’m not sure how much he understands about horses but I want to shout out my good luck from the rooftops! In homeroom I stare off into space thinking about homework since I did mine quite rushed last night and I’m not sure I did all the problems correctly. I’m also in a daze thinking about braiding, Finals, Mike, Finals, and the possibility of getting a ribbon at Finals when suddenly Eric’s voice cuts through my fog,
“Hey, Space Cadet – what’s with the boots?”
Boots? I slowly return to Earth mentally and look down at my boots. My heart drops a beat and immediately I flash though all the possible reasons I might give the school nurse or my homeroom teach for going home. Pneumonia? No…I sound fine. Sick to my stomach? Ew no that’s gross – all I need is everyone at school talking about how Katie went home because cramps or something. I’m so paranoid. Should I tell them my parents need me? No…my Mom would never corroborate and break me out of here. No, sadly I think I am going to have to face down the rest of the school day wearing two different boots and I’m pretty sure no one is going to think it’s the newest fashion trend. I sigh loudly and Eric stops smiling and says
“Katie are you OK? It’s just….you’re wearing two different boots….” He breaks it to me gently in case I’m so crazy I haven’t figured that out yet. I must look really dazed. I snap to and give him a weak smile
“Great…well there goes my day! I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have my driver’s license yet – based on these boots, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay on the road this morning.”
I’m relieved when Eric guffaws at this but I think he immediately senses that I’m not finding it as funny as I should and stops laughing and sort of peeks at me to see if I am going to suddenly get hysterical and start crying. Relieved when he sees no sign of tears he begins to tease me unmercifully and so cleverly that I finally am genuinely laughing at myself.
The bell ringing is a harsh reminder of reality and I dart up and scurry to my next class hoping that no one will notice the boots – no one meaning Mike, of course. In my next class, I develop a clever way of sitting such that one foot is tucked under me at my desk so that when seated only one boot is visible. This does an excellent job of hiding the boot though I think my classmates begin to wonder if I have a bladder problem and my butt is starting to go numb. I am already stressing over how I will avoid Mike since he sits directly behind me, however, handily I make it through and no one seems to notice. I repeat this trick in 2nd period Physics.
By third period my butt is completely numb and my back is sore from sitting in my odd little position. I am still exhausted from my late night last night and too late I realize that I have again zoned out and have not been listening to what my Calculus teach Mrs. Ramsey has been saying. I finally hear,
“Next” and feel the pregnant pause of my classmates starting at me wondering why I’m not getting up to go to the chalk board and write out my homework problems. Realizing there is no way out of this either, I rise quickly out of my desk and walk to the chalk board. It takes about 45 seconds before the first titter of laugher reaches my ears and I feel my cheeks flush pink and my palms begin to sweat. As I start working out the problem on the board I can feel a slight tremor in my hand and hear the whispers spreading like wildfire. My teacher is watching me chalk out the problem but also senses the buzz in the room. Unknowingly she enhances my agony by asking,
“Is there a problem with this question? Some of you look confused.”
Here it comes.
Jake Locher, our resident funny man and also the quarterback of our football team delivers the response “We were just wondering if Katie can tell us what one plus one equals?”
I immediately know where this is going and unfortunately turn my head slightly to see Mrs. Ramsey’s response. Mrs. Ramsey is confused and gives him exactly what he wants, she pauses and then opens her mouth to give him a come back and immediately Jake’s best friend Kevin chirps,
The class erupts into laugher, which is only increased by my mortified look and the look of shock and understanding on Mrs. Ramsey’s face as she looks down at my boots and realizes what the joke is about.
“Oh Katie! Was the power out at your house this morning?” She asks me.
I honestly cannot tell if she is laughing with or at me and I just nod my head and shrug my shoulder and say “Rough morning” and then I do something that is very out of character for me. I wink at Kevin and scoot back to my desk and am rewarded with another round of laughter.
Back at my desk I see a few heads turn and smile at me and after about 10 minutes the beating of my heart slows down to a point where I can breath. When the bell finally rings I have decided that I am pretty proud of myself for turning the joke back from being about me to with me. I almost don’t care anymore and Spanish class flies by quickly. Most of my classmates seem to have figured out or heard about the boot drama and are smiling at me instead of openly ridiculing me. I keep the joke up by winking and giving that sheepish grin whenever they make eye contact with me. At the end of Spanish when I am supposed to be concentrating fiercely on Gloria Estefan song lyrics, instead I am thinking about facing the reality of lunch and then the rest of my day hearing the giggles as I walk through the hallways and trying to avoid Mike. The Seniors in Civics will likely have not heard about the boots and therefore I will be open for possible fresh torture tomorrow and I’m not confident I’ll be able to turn it around so cleverly with Mike watching.
I am pondering this thought as I dump my books in my locker before heading down to lunch. I have just slammed my locker shut when Eric pops up out of nowhere and gives me an offer I can’t refuse.
“Katie…hey…I heard about the boots in calculus. Have you about had it - you want out of here?” He’s dangling car keys in front of my face.
I am a good student and generally follow the rules but mentally I’ve been looking for an out all day and this is an opportunity I cannot refuse.
“You mean it? Won’t we get caught?”
“Nope. I’ve got a pass. Did you forget? I’m a diabetic. I just told the nurse I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home. My mom works, so normally I’d drive myself but when my sugar is low it’s not safe. So….I mentioned to her that you live nearby and could take me.”
I’m impressed at his masterful skill and ashamed that I forgot he was diabetic. That must be really hard and it definitely puts the boots into perspective.
“But Eric – I don’t have my license yet”
“You can drive, right?”
“Well yeah but I mean…I’ve only driven my Mom’s stupid minivan and not on major roads.”
“Relax, you’ll be fine. Just pull out and we can switch when we’re out of sight of the school and Mr. Combs.” Mr. Combs is our Assistant Principle and is rumored to spend his days driving around town looking for truants.
Next thing I know I’m getting my books back out of my locker and my coat and Eric is steering me out of the building. I see a few students eyeing us wondering why we are in our coats, but no one stops us. Once outside, I am suddenly so relieved that it feels like this huge adventure and I laugh out loud. Eric grins and I am scurrying to keep up with his long stride as we make our way to his car.
I am a nervous wreck driving Eric’s car. Not that his car is so special (just your basic Ford) but I really haven’t driven that much and definitely not a car and definitely not with a boy next to me. My first thought is I feel so low to the ground – like Fred Flintstone. Somehow I navigate out of the tiny school parking space and manage not to damage anything and pretty soon we are cruising along toward my home. I am laughing and feeling reckless at this point. This is the wildest thing I’ve ever done and it actually feels pretty good! Eric is more animated than I’ve ever seen him in school and he keeps excitedly pointing out other cars that he insists he sees Mr. Combs in while I am screeching with laughter. At stop lights I can see the people in the cars next to us staring and wonder what we are doing out of school and what exactly is so funny. Which, of course, makes it even sillier to us. I’m turning down my street before it hits me – what am I going to say to my mother about why I’m not in school?
I slam on the breaks too suddenly. Eric’s head bumps the back of his seat and at first he thinks I’m somehow having trouble driving.
“The gas pedal is on the right!”
“Yes, I know!”
“So push it down, that’s how we go forward”
“Eric! Will you shut up? I know where the gas pedal is! What am I going to tell my Mom!”
For the first time on our little adventure Eric stops smiling. It’s like the sun going behind a cloud. We stare at each other for a second.
“Nothing because we’re not going to your house, get out.” He’s already stepping out of his side of the car and rounding over to mine. I do as he says and then he’s throwing the car into reverse and we’re peeling out of my street and back onto a main road. The sun has come back out again and we find ourselves laughing hysterically again.
“Eric! Where are we going?”
“To the mall? Isn’t that where girls go when they’re not at school?”
“Oh my God, no Eric! Mr. Combs will find us there!” An image of Mr. Combs with his bald shiny head and bristly mustache hiding behind a Sabarro stalking truants comes into my head and I am gasping for breath I’m laughing so hard.
“Of course not! Mr. Combs doesn’t go to the mall! Look at what he wears!”
“No way! I’m sure someone would recognize us and report us” Now I have an image of Eric and I both in those funny glasses and fake noses prowling around the fake mall potted trees.
“Ok fine…where can we go waste 4 hours?” It’s out of my mouth before I can even stop it because I’m feeling so uninhibited.
“We could go to my barn”
“You’re what, Ed?” For the first time the nickname is actually funny.
“My barn in Fairmont!”
“So you DO live in a barn! I knew that whole house thing was just a cover!”
“No seriously! The barn where I ride….do you want to go? Do you know anything about horses?” Suddenly I’m more serious. I feel like I want to share this and besides….the barn is where I am always happy.
“Uh…sure if you really want to. I’m sure Mr. Combs doesn’t have any jodphurs” Eric makes sure to gesture with his hand to indicate the old style of riding pants that balloon out at the hips and then says “Tallyho! How do we get there?”
Twenty minutes later we are pulling into the barn parking lot and I’m wondering what exactly I’m going to do with him there and how I’m going to explain to my presence in the middle of a school day to Mary Anne.
“Well…here we are then. Your first visit to a real barn. You said you’ve never ridden or really been around horses before?”
“No…..I grew up in San Francisco….not a lot of horses trotting up and down Lombard Street.”
I actually didn’t know that Eric was from California. I look at him with new respect. How hard must it have been to move so far from home so late in high school?
“Ah well you’re in for a treat then….as long as you can get past the smell” Eric wrinkles his nose and I laugh. To me the smell of the barn is heavenly as it is always associated with joyful times in my life but I know it can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers.
“Come on…you’ll get used to it.” Emboldened by the adventures of the day I actually grab his hand and lead him towards the barn. When we enter the actual stable I inhale deeply and sigh, smiling. Eric’s eyes widen – adjusting to the lower light level. He takes it all in and immediately begins asking questions. He and I are chattering away as I introduce him to some of the horses – starting with my favorite school horse Figment. Figment is a sweet bay Thoroughbred with a small white snip on his nose and two white socks on his hind legs. He’s friendly as a dog and immediately slobbers hay and water dribble on both Eric and I. I can tell Eric is slightly grossed out but determined for it and I beam at him. Eric continues to take everything in asking questions from “where do they pee?” to “how to you clean them?” to “have you ever fallen off?” all of which I answer honestly. Finally I decide it’s time for him to see the horses at work and we chatter our way up to the observation room that is situated above the indoor arena. It’s heated in the winter and where the parents usually hang out while their kids are riding. I actually don’t come up in it often so I look at it with fresh critical eyes and try to see it through Eric’s eyes.
I suppose it is kind of filthy. There is mud on the floor and it has a slightly stale smell. There are trophy cases up here though filled with big shiny silver plates and trophies. Ribbons line the perimeter of the room and there are pictures everywhere showing gorgeous horses jumping colorful fences. Eric is drawn to the trophies and plates.
“Why do they always give plates?”
“Well those are for the horses to eat off of. Otherwise what would they eat from? They would break china.” I deadpan.
Eric considers this for about 15 seconds
“Shut up!” and we both laugh.
The laughter ends when I look down into the ring and realize that it’s Missy in the ring riding Raja. They make a stunning pair. Eric follows my gaze and locks in on her. I have been jealous of Missy for years but when I see her face look up and spot Eric standing next to me I feel as if someone dumped a cold bucket of water over me.
“Do you know her?” he asks. Oh Eric. Mr. Questions today. Why couldn’t he have stopped with the last one?
“Yes, she’s a junior like us. She’s super rich…she doesn’t really go to school. I think she’s home schooled or something or has some sort of arrangement with one of the all-girls Catholic schools.”
“Well she’s really good….she does it so she can ride more often and travel a lot to compete” I can see he’s impressed. Guys love competitors.
“Why don’t you do that? Do you compete?” It’s like a Harry Pottery Dementor came and sucked the happiness right out of the Observation Room.
“Umm…actually yes. I qualified for the Finals this year which means I get to show in a show against riders from all over the country.” I’ve been so excited about it but now saying it outloud to a non-rider makes me feel a little shy like I’m bragging.
“I thought you didn’t have a horse?”
“Oh, right…yeah I don’t, I am riding my trainers horse. Kind of like catch riding which I do sometimes. That means that someone might ask me to ride their horse for them in a show if they think I have a better chance of getting a good placing. A trainer or an adult rider can only show in divisions open to professionals or to non-professional adults. Those divisions are really competitive. So if a trainer or an adult has a horse they think is really good but they don’t want to show it in the adult or professional divisions, they may ask a high school aged rider (called Junior riders) to compete on their horses in the Junior Divisions. It’s a win-win situation because it gives me a chance to ride a nicer horse than I could afford and hopefully if I win makes the horse more valuable.”
“That’s cool, congratulations!” He turns his attention back to Missy in the ring who is clearly aware that a boy is watching her. She is showing off as much as possible which is saying a lot for her. She has Raja prancing around and I can tell she’s ordered Alvaro to raise the height of the jumps in the ring. Mary Anne is unfortunately no where in sight, so Missy is not wearing a helmet. She’s not even supposed to be jumping without a trainer in the ring but the rules don’t apply to girls like Missy. Her gorgeous long dark brown hair is flowing out behind her as she puts Raja through various gait changes. At one point she looks up and realizing that Eric’s eyes are locked on her she smiles and mouths Come on Down. She’s gesturing that she wants Eric and I to come down ring-side to watch the show I suppose. I have to stop myself from sighing out loud because I do not want to be that jealous female. Besides, I’m sure Missy already has some richy-rich boyfriend from Fairmont.
I’m sad to leave the warm comfort of the observation room and the little bubble of aloneness that Eric and I have been sharing since we peeled out of Wilson High. As we walk up ring-side Missy is standing at the in-gate.
“What are you wearing?” she sneers.
Of course. Of course Missy would notice that right off the bat. I wave my hand as if to say whatever and ignore the question.
Eric however pipes up “Oh you like it? Katie is quite the trend setter at school.”
Missy looks confused at that and introduces herself, “Hello…you must be a friend of Katie’s. I’m Missy and this is my Equitation Horse Raja”
I expect trumpets to sound but there is only silence. I’m sure Eric is trying to figure out what an “Equitation Horse” is.
“He’s big…wow, how big is he?” Eric asks.
“He’s 17.1 hands, yeah he’s a big boy but really he’s a big baby” as she says this Missy pats Raja’s neck and makes sure to lean down and give Raja a big hug around his neck and then looks up through her long eyelashes and tosses her hair back. I feel like she’s practiced this pose before and knows exactly the effect it could have on a male. She definitely looks gorgeous and exotic up there on that stunning black horse. I smell the faint aroma of lavender coming off of Raja and suppress a smile.
“Do you want to pet him?” Missy asks Eric.
“Oh no…that’s ok…I got to pet some of the other horses. You should go back to riding – you looked great.”
My stomach does a flip flop. I don’t know why. I didn’t even give two cents about Eric until today and I always got the feeling he was interested in me. Maybe I was wrong….maybe it’s me that’s not good enough for him. Maybe he was never interested in me. Maybe he was just being friendly because he’s a nice guy and was a new kid.
“Sure – we were just about to start jumping. Raja and I will be doing the 3’6” equitation at Finals so we a lot of practice.” The way she emphasizes the word equitation, I feel like it’s a personal barb at me since I’m not ready yet to show in that division. I’m probably being too sensitive though. Everything about Missy feels like an insult to me. Calm down.
Missy tosses her hair….again….and canters Raja off and begins jumping fences. Alvaro set the fences high and they seem even more daunting from the ground. I watch Eric watching her and feel like my eyes must be turning greener by the minute. I can tell he’s impressed with her boldness and talent as well as her looks. She’s in great form and hitting all of her strides and making it look easy. The sound of Raja’s hooves pounding down the lines is wild and impressive. I can tell Eric is awed.
I hear the slam of the barn door in the distance but don’t think much of it until I hear “Missy! You get down off that horse! You know you are not to jump on this property without a helmet on!” Mary Anne’s voice seems to be echoing around every corner. She is striding into the ring and walks right up to where Missy has pulled up Raja and grabs his bridle and holds it waiting for Missy to get off.
I put my finger up to my lips and grab Eric’s hand and drag him off in the direction of the nearest tack room. The tack rooms don’t have doors but they are set back and somewhat sound protected.
“What’s going on? Why is that lady yelling at her?”
“Because she’s an idiot and she’s more concerned with looking pretty than being safe. You’re always supposed to wear a helmet when riding – especially when jumping in case you fall off. It’s barn rules. Plus she’s not supposed to be jumping without a trainer present.”
“Well maybe she just forgot this time”
‘Eric, please. Nothing that girl does is an accident. She’s a talented rider and she has beautiful horses but that’s where the favorable things end.”
“Are you jealous?” Ouch. He is astute and doesn’t seem to miss much. Darn it.
“Of course I am” I snap back “But that still doesn’t make it ok for her to break barn rules”
“Well it’s not hurting anyone except herself so why do you care?”
“Because it sets a bad example for the younger kids and I don’t want to see her skull smashed in. It would scar me for life.”
Finally he had no comeback from that but I can tell he’s trying to think of one.
“Look Eric…I’m sorry. Why do you care? Worried about her covering up her pretty hair?
Eric glowers at me. I glower back. I hear the sound of Raja’s hooves on the concrete and know that we need to book it out of there to avoid being caught by Mary Anne who most certainly will have something to say about me being out of school. I again gesture to Eric to be quiet and take his hand leading him towards the nearest exit.
“Don’t think I did see you Katie. But we’ll talk about this later.” Mary Anne’s disapproving voice cuts through the stalls from the indoor area. How did she know I was here? No matter, Eric and I have already escaped out the side door of the barn and are outside laughing again in the late September sunshine.
“Well, I suppose we’d better head back to our side of town pretty soon…”
I don’t want to. I want this day to go on forever. The only thing that could have made it better would be that Raja was my horse and I got to ride and show off for Eric. We hike around the barn and get back into the car. The ride home is a lot quieter than the ride out but not in an uncomfortable way. More in a quiet enjoying the warm sunshine through the car windows sort of way.
I’m drowsy from the sunshine, the late night and the overall happiness of the morning. I don’t see the other car coming at me at all. I’m actually fidgeting with the car radio when it happens. We have the music on and I’m searching though Eric’s CD’s to find something we both like. The other vehicle, a large Ford F-150 truck I’m told, is being driven by a 45-year old father of five children. He has just lost his job and is pulling out of the parking lot of his former employer. He’s stressed and angry and for some reason only looks to one side before pulling out. We’re on a major road and the speed limit is 45 mph and he accelerates aggressively to join the flow of traffic. I hear the contact of the vehicles before I see anything. It’s this horrible thud of metal upon metal and then I am jerked sideways and I look up from the radio and see the panicked face of the man almost next to mine as his truck is boring into my side of the small car we are in. Time freezes. I hear Eric shout and that is the last thing I can remember.