White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to which I regretfully belong, all said the same thing to me last Sunday.
The three of us had been sitting in a back pew (a compromise between my evasive, ungodly influence and their exhaustion over fighting me about the non-biblical specifics of church attendance). This meant that when the pastor finished the prayer after his sermon, paused, and asked to “call up the other elders of the church to pray together over George and Patricia Cornelison,” several hundred heads swiveled back to find us.
The only proper response to a sea of scrutinizing pale faces is invisibility or war, but war wasn’t an option, so I practiced controlling the wayward skin around my eyes and mouth that wanted to contract and grimace.
The pastor explained to the flock adorned in autumn colors and dehydrated hair about how “our foundational elder and his wife” would “be absent from us, as George undergoes extensive treatment,” and, “we are so thankful for his years of dedicated service to our congregation, and we just pray that the Lord…”. It all became a buzzing frequency in the back of my head that was piously echoed after the service like a religious Cards Against Humanity.
“My uncle had what your dad has, and the doctors gave him six months to live, and he only made it about two months, but I just know the Lord is watching over your father.”
“Come here a minute, honey, let me hold you and pray over you. Dear Jesus, we just ask that you wrap up sweet Grace in the palm of your hand and be with her while…”
My parents left the driveway and the city before the next morning’s sun had risen in the skyline. Before the sun had finished rising, before I had even let the two long-legged gray beasts outside to potty, I was on the phone with my mother bargaining about my undergraduate spring tuition.
“How are your grades looking this semester?” she asks dubiously.
“Especially now that you’re not dating that boy?”
I looked down at the frail tabby purring himself to sleep in my lap, one of his claws still daintily stretched to knead my sweatpants. “They’re great,” I insist.
They were not great.I had missed an assignment in Anthropology 1000 and gotten a 68 on the first exam, and I didn’t even know when the next assignments were due for my four other classes.
“Well. Tell me how midterms go, and then maybe we can make a decision. But I don’t know what you’re going to do if you don’t finish school, especially with all those animals. You will probably have to give them away.”
My dogs whimper in their sleep.
I don’t leave myself a generous amount of time in between that first alarm and leaving the house in time for an 8:30 morning lecture, so my friend’s first official invitation to ride horses, for this evening, is bouncing around the inside of my skull like an old Windows screensaver. I can almost feel the thoughts and memories the invitation collides against.
The last time I was on a horse was so long ago, middle school, which is ages and ages for a college student. I don’t even remember if I rode a gelding or a mare, or if the saddle was pommelled and Western or sleek and English. Probably Western. It was a friend’s birthday trail ride. Before that, I had only been placed upon the backs of my Grandfather’s dairy cows, which to me, had been as good as a horse.
I stare at the toothpaste collecting around the edges of my mouth and imagine myself on a mare with a rich mahogany bay coat. Then the invitation bounces against a knot in my head: my dad, my mom, tuition, and what I will do if I can’t afford college mingles in the same internal space with the future and care of my four-legged friends. FAFSA considers me a dependent, and my Head of Household, my father, makes too much money for the offered loans to cover even half of tuition. I understand the irony.
I don’t normally have conflicting plans, or any plans. People at church stopped inviting me places because of my responses to men, mostly. I’m not a “hand-wash the dishes while the college boys crack jokes about women in the kitchen and sit around drinking sparkling grape juice” kind of girl, I’m a “let me tell you why you’re wrong using a lifetime of constant theological indoctrination while I pet the hostess’ cat” kind of girl.
I am thinking about all of this and definitely not texting and driving when I message Mandy back. “I would love to.”
I’ve known Mandy since I was four and she was five, but I’ve never been to her house. It’s a whole-ass family property, really, because her text says that her grandfather lives in the white trailer at the top of the driveway. Across from his four or so acres of meticulously-mowed grass and the Trump flag flying above the American flag, there are roughly ten acres of fenced-in pasture sprawl on the right, starting on the other side of the driveway and continuing down under power lines. At the top of the pasture there is a white and rusting bumper-pull trailer and a short twenty-year-old pulling cinder blocks out from under the trailer hitch, which is already connected to the back of a shiny red Ford F-150.
I park on the outside of the pasture and don’t remember getting out of the car or locking it because there are fucking horses in that trailer, and I haven’t been on the back of one since attending a different friend’s birthday in middle school.
Mandy and I met at the piano studio where her older sister and my brothers and I took lessons from a severe Presbyterian woman. I’d brushed off Mandy’s small attempts at friendship over the years because her Facebook posts were full of poser-tomboy-deer-hunting and what felt like a whole lotta false bravado and cheesy Bible quotes. Her biblical references were overused cliches that were always taken wildly out of context, like, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but the quotes had been less and less frequent over the years.
I still labeled Mandy off as your typical country Republican until I got that bona-fide invitation Friday morning with a date and time to be put in a saddle. My relatives are all southern conservatives. I put up with them every holiday season. Every Sunday with the congregation. I can put up with it today if it means horses are involved.
Mandy waves a flannel arm at me and adjusts her Georgia Bulldogs cap with the other.
“Hey, Gracie-girl! Long time no see!”
I didn’t realize her hair was even shorter than mine until she flips her ball cap off and over one hand in a move that looks like she practices it in the mirror, and she fluffs the curls on the top of her head with a hand that’s so twitchy, I wonder if she is the same nervous and awkward former homeschooler as me. Her eyes are the Hollywood kind of piercing blue underneath dark eyebrows and her cheeks are flushed, and she’s in sensible, thick, straight-legged jeans pulled over her leather Western boots. We’re both in flannels, but I have white-washed skinny jeans and Nike sneakers and this woman is the first person who has ever made me feel remotely like an actual city girl.
My tongue is tied until I hear the unmistakable noise of a horse blowing hard out of its nostrils from inside the trailer, and then I give up on any sort of country-girl connection with Mandy because I’m squealing and almost bouncing despite myself. She flashes me a startled look, like, “Is this girl okay?”
“Uhh…well, they’re all loaded up and ready to go,” she says, fiddling with her belt buckle that has a shiny bronze “M” on it.
I ask if I can see them and she’s still facing me when she rolls her eyes and waves me on over to a door at the front of the trailer. It opens with a rusty squeak, and a mahogany-colored horse with a white strip down her face sticks her nose out and chuffs inquisitively at me. I already know her name is Jill because Facebook, my Weimaraner, and Mandy’s horses are the only reason we’ve kept in any sort of contact after her older sister stopped piano lessons years and years ago.
She has liquid doe eyes peppered with fragments of honey and cedar, and she smells like hay and pasture and musky-earth-horse-dog. She has soft whiskers around her velvet nose, which is shiny, like Mandy oiled it.
Behind her is a sandy gelding Mandy tells me is twenty-nine, which apparently isn’t all that old for a riding horse. He is a palomino Quarter Horse and his name, Corduroy, fits him perfectly. His eyes are even softer than Jill’s, and when he looks at me, the feathery whiskers around his eyes wiggle and dance like he is greeting an old friend.
The truck is big and has polished-looking tan leather seats and is nicer than any of the cars my dad has ever bought, and once we’re finally driving, I have to ask Mandy to repeat herself constantly because my neck is craned and my eyes are glued past the rear window and onto the trailer, as if I could pierce through the aluminum metal or whatever like Superman and see the two horses inside.
Mandy finally shoots me a prickled look once we’re on the highway because I’m clearly not paying attention. “They’re not gonna disappear out of the trailer, you know,” she says pointedly. Her mouth is almost in a pout, and she’s so childish for a moment that it’s almost cute, so I give my craning neck a break and try to make a concentrated effort.
We move from parents and delicate discussions of their health (her dad has a chronic heart condition and a perpetually bum back from breaking it Jumping ((motorcycles over several school busses)) for Jesus, and my dad is…you know) onto lighter things like church boys, and I fish around for any sense of progressiveness in her and am rewarded with an explosive rant about racism and homophobia in southern churches.
There’s enough fire and assessment behind her eyes when she looks at me and enough venom in her voice when she talks about church and boys for me to risk it.
I’m surprised when my throat tightens and my hands go cold. I look at her face and look away. “I’m bi.” My neck jerks a little, like it’s trying to be arrogant from a pattern of self-defense at this disclosure.
You don’t have a crush on me, do you?
You just haven’t met the right guy.
If I were you, I’d be afraid my parents would find out.
“Same,” she says, and her grin is cocky but her eyes are nervous until I make her take one hand off the wheel to give me the cheesiest high-five and we bond over hiding “really good friends” from our parents. “But I’ve actually never officially dated any of them,” I admit sheepishly.
Mandy’s smile is confident, daring, even. “That’s actually why I invited you today, after all those years mostly ignoring each other,” she admits, running a hand down the back of her head in a way that makes me want it to be my hand, my fingers, in her hair. “I was seeing this girl, Rawen.”
“Rawen Johnson?” I demand, thinking there is no way the world is this small.
Her eyes almost bug out of her head.
“You know her? Well, she and me were supposed to go horseback riding tonight and she was s’posed to spend the night, and then her mom found out.”
There is a specific drawl seeping into her enunciation now, and it feels like childhood memories of aunts under pecan trees, red solo cups full of properly made sweet tea and boiled peanuts, and scratching fire ant and mosquito bites around my ankles and feet.
I sympathize with her plight, and ask if there’s any chance Rawen’s mom would out Mandy to Mandy’s mom. She says she doubts it, but her eyes twitch.
I spend the next month attempting to get my grades up in preparation for the midterm talk with my mom, instead of saddling up the horses every time Mandy gets out of class or work. But we ride together almost every weekend together, and on week nights she asks me out to dinner after she gets off work and she pays for my pizza and Dr. Pepper. It’s effortless, like finding a mirror image of yourself with the same experiences, the same parents, the same terrors.
We go to each other’s churches together enough and apparently enough people are talking at my church about the two girls with short hair for my parents to finally ask me “if I was hanging out with that girl Mandy,” at which point I have to dutifully and carefully diss the theology in Mandy’s church’s pulpit and talk about how nice it is to have someone to talk to while they’re gone in order to soothe their fears.
“I’m worried about your school,” mom says over and over, and each time, I see my four-legged beasts behind cold bars and my stomach sinks to my hips.
“Your father and I aren’t going to pay for you to live in our house, you know, and you won’t be able to afford rent on a minimum-wage job,” she reminds me. “Especially not with all your animals.”
I look at the gray dog whose swan neck is arched over my thigh and resting against me, and I look at the two cats, all of whom have been my closest friends over the past few years, as my beliefs evolved and my church community disintegrated. Mandy’s face pops in my head, cheeks and parted lips flushed as she digs her heels into her mare’s sides and the two become one as they gallop across the pasture like they’re starring in some fucking Disney film.
Mom’s voice is full of reproach and condemnation, like she is in a pulpit speaking to a crowd of nonbelievers, like there is an immeasurable line between us, and it is my fault, because she raised me better.
That month, Dad’s voice just got weaker and weaker and he couldn’t talk for long as his white blood cell count began to drop and the no-shit chemo infusions increased. My mom sent me selfies of her and my dad in N-95 masks in hospital waiting rooms and kept asking me about my assignments and grades. I told all of my professors that I had to leave my ringer on during class because I felt like I was perpetually holding my breath just waiting for the worst phone call. I played catch-and-evade with my parents on the phone because I never knew if it would be the last time I spoke to my Dad, but I had to lie every time he asked me about “how it was going”.
It’s going kind of gay, Dad.
It’s another clear Friday evening and my legs are jello as I reach up to grab the leather Western saddle around the sides from Corduroy and hoist it over him. The stirrups gently smack his back, which is wet in the shape of a saddle and girth strap, and I set the saddle on top of the wooden fence.
Mandy walks over to Corduroy’s lead rope, tied by me in a daisy-hitch knot to the hitching post. She gives it a firm tug and shoots me an approving grin that starts at my eyes and lingers around my mouth.
“Guess the city girl can learn somethin’,” she teases. I don’t even think until I have already bridged the sandy gap between us and we are sandwiched between horses breathing heavily and I can tell her throat is choking because of how thickly she swallows.
My breath washes over her face.
“Maybe you can teach me something else?”
We reach for each other’s faces at the same time and she cups my cheek and searches my eyes.
“You ready?” she asks, tilting her neck and leaning forward.
I think of my dad in his hospital bed, and my mom’s voice when she threatens my future with tuition control, and how the church foyer on Sundays may as well be empty rather than full. Something is slipping away from me and I am suddenly aware that cicadas have begun humming, and songbirds are calling out to their mates as they settle in their nests, and it is the golden hour as the sun begins to set, and the light is making the horse hairs floating in the air catch on on fire, and the scent of sweat and hay from Mandy is filling my nose and my head.
The horses whicker softly when I pull her face towards mine and close the space between our lips. She is softer than any mouth mine has ever felt, and there is no slopping dog-like tongue reaching out for mine. She tastes like salt and peppermint and green energy drinks.
Mandy pulls back and inhales deeply and I realize I haven’t been breathing, either. Her eyes are startled, electrified, and a red flush is creeping up her neck and cheeks.
“Are we really going to do this?” she insists, hand still cupping my cheek. I pull her forehead towards mine and wrap my fingers around her short curls. We breathe into each other softly, settling like two mares bedding down for the night together.
Grace is an English major and a senior at Augusta University. Her published memoir, “Red Bird”, won Best of Student Prose in the 45th issue of Augusta University’s literary magazine Sand Hills.