By David Martin
The door to the editor’s office flew open. A pair of gangly legs in an oversized skirt staggered through the door under a heap of paper work.
“We’re going to miss the deadline”, said the editor. She was a middle aged woman with glasses perched on her forehead and coffee always within arm’s reach.
“I have this great idea for a story!” The editor sighed. Every office assistant from Madison Avenue to Columbus Circle had the next Jane Austen novel written on bar napkins or texted to their best friend’s iPhone. She nodded for her to proceed.
Young woman named Sloan took a deep breath. It felt like an eternity. The words began like a sputtering engine that gradually gained confidence.
“A young ambitious female equestrian named Joan trains for the big event”, she began. “A newly hired stable hand intrigues her while the rich boyfriend pressures her to be more lady like.”
A ringtone was heard before quickly being turned off.
“One day she overhears an angry phone call between the stable hand and some unknown party”, continued the assistant. The editor became more interested with each passing word.
“While rescuing an escaped steed an affectionate friendship begins between her and the stable hand”, she said. “The day before the event the stable hand confesses his love for her.”
Silence. She waited for the words return. An associate editor entered only to be shooed away.
“She performs well at the competition”, she said. “Despite the revelation that her boyfriend is cheating on her. With a tear on her cheek she passes the reviewing stand only to spot the stable hand in a suit and tie and sporting the sash of a Duke.”
The editor adjusted her glasses to distract from her trembling lip.
“A tearful reunion ensues” concluded the assistant. “As the horse paws the ground while a soft summer rain falls.”
The editor was impressed and asked for a draft. Jumping for joy the assistant said that now she could break up with her jerk boyfriend.
“But why . . .” asked the editor. “Oh never mind.”
The assistant scampered away full of excitement.
Joan leaned forward to rest. Her hands caressed the neck of the horse under the hot sun. Her t-shirt and jeans were matted with sweat. This part of the competition called for a flat out gallop for nearly a quarter of a mile. The idea of one more go at it seemed doable. Composing herself she looked around to see if anyone had been watching.
Groomed and fed the horse was lead into its stable. A kiss to that big dabbled nose completed the day.
“Excuse me”, said a male voice.
Turning around Joan saw the new stable hand. Most were farm boys indifferent to fatigue and quick to smile. This one was hardly that at all. He seemed moody and distracted. As if an ongoing quarrel raged in his head. With an attempt at a polite nod he went to muck out an empty stable.
“Are you new here?” She asked.
“Yes Miss,” he answered.
“Well take care of my baby boy.”
“He needs to be outside with the others.”
“I know all about that”, she said. “The last time he got a nasty bite by the ear that almost got infected.”
They must have talked for a good twenty minutes before the engine of a sports car was heard.
It was the sound of the football game that finally woke her up. Her boyfriend was in the living room. Sloan decided now was not the time to announce the break up. It would have to be when she had his undivided attention. A text arrived from a friend asking her to brunch.
The Stutz Bearcat bounced along the country road. With every unexpected jolt he cursed. A wandering hand squeezed her thigh while shifting gears. Joan didn’t mind since her mind was so far away.
“So now my competition has doubled.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s the horse and now that new stable help”, he said. “You know, the one that makes Lord Byron look like Charlie Chaplin.”
“He’s actually a nice fellow.”
With a laugh he replied that the only solution would be a spur of the moment trip to Paris. This could be the kind of life style she wanted. Status, comfort and the sense that at only moment one could take off for parts unknown. Plans for Bombay and the Canadian Northwest were willing and waiting. Their lips met in a sudden kiss.
“This is the best mimosa in town”, said her friend.
“I haven’t broken up with him yet,” Sloan replied.
Her friend asked why knowing it would be the same old answer. Relationships were getting duller by the day. She wanted to bring up the story and how it kept her up all night. It was like a butterfly hovering just out of reach of her fingertips.
She tried to articulate it to her boyfriend who responded with a grunt. Why was something as wonderful as the English language now so hard and troublesome? The search for the proper phrase became a quest for the unattainable. Another sip of the champagne and orange juice cleared all senses. It would be a good afternoon.
“Let’s turn off our iPhones for the rest of the afternoon”, she said. Her best friend laughed.
Joan felt like a trinket being shown off in a school yard. It seemed like he was going from one laughing drunk pal to the next. One more slap on the back and she would bolt over the closest fence.
“So he turned down the position at the bank!” laughed one crony. “Now he is probably digging ditches or waiting tables in Brighton.”
“You could at least try to smile”, whispered the boyfriend. “These are my friends. I’ve known most of them since university.”
“There’s a lot on my mind”, Joan replied.
“Please don’t mention that competition.”
“It’s important to me.”
“This pleasant little garden party is important to us.”
Not this again. How it was necessary to let others see a couple united in thought, deed and action. A smile forced its way to her lips.
Lost in thought Sloan wandered along. There’s that one writing class where one should look at every story as the same. Whether it was a film, novel or comic it’s always about people not getting what they want.
“I can relate to that”, she thought.
Her attention was distracted. Shop windows groaning with commerce. Items she never knew were important to possess.
Suddenly she stopped. Her mind raced. The sight of it set off an imagination starved for ideas. The shop door opened. A bright little bell rang. A friendly face grinned from behind the counter.
“Hello”, said the shop owner. “How can I help you?”
Thoughts lined up in her mind like fighter planes readying for takeoff on an aircraft carrier.
“How much for the bat tattoo?”
The ritual thrilled her. From the saddle to the stirrups to any leather. The early morning added to the drama and sensual tension.
“Where are you going at this hour?” he asked. Her answer was evasive. The sticky fumbling of last night were soon forgotten as she drove to the stables.
“Where is everybody?” Joan asked. The place was empty. There was no sign of anyone even the new stable hand. Then she know. The stable was empty. The horses had gotten loose. Hopefully they would be all found together. It dawned on her what the new stable hand said that her steed needed to become part of a greater whole. That meant her baby boy could be out there all alone. Her heart pounded.
A truck rumbled by. She tried to flag it down. Everything seemed so still as she fought back the panic.
“Where would you like it?”
At first it seemed like an odd question. Sloan thought about it. The tattoo artist stood up.
“See. These are for everyone to see”, he said. His neck, arms and lower legs were a colorful zoo of reptiles, birds and dragons.
“Very nice”, she replied.
“There is more”, he said. “But those are for your partner.”
That word stuck in her head. So clinical yet appropriate. Boyfriend was too old fashioned of a term. Again her mind was ranging and she tried to make a decision.
“Someplace public”, she said.
“How about the left shoulder”, he offered.
“It sends a message that it is closest to your heart.”
The break in the fence was found. Joan’s worst fears were confirmed. There was signs of blood. The horse was now lost and injured. She flagged down a passing automobile whose driver mentioned seeing someone walking a horse matching the description. She ran like that in a dream. The harder she tried the more static everything seemed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She fell onto the road and wept.
“Excuse me”, called a familiar voice.
Looking up was the stable hand gently leading her horse. She quickly composed herself and stood up. He stood back as she buried her face in the mane and powerful neck. This was a private moment
“Where did you find him?”
“Being such a mild mannered steed”, he said. “I reckoned he would be looking for friends and familiar faces.’
Her hands ran over the horse stopping at the bloody scratches. She held back a cry and took a deep breath.
“We can chalk this up to a healthy morning ride.”
“I you say so”, Joan replied.
It was time to break the news to the boyfriend. Not only were they breaking up but she had a nice sexy bat tattoo on her left should shoulder. This meant visiting the gym on a regular basis or the winged nocturnal being would soon resemble Rowan Atkinson.
“So what is it?” asked the boyfriend.
Sloan realized he was utterly clueless. The sense of impending doom had not dawned on him. Would the break up come as a total surprise? Or is he so caught in god knows what that he would just shrug?
“Nothing”, she replied.
A ploughman’s lunch was laid in front of her. The stable hand gestured for her to eat.
“I am famished.”
The rapport began almost at an instant. Before long they were finishing each other’s comments. He mentioned how there were two separate universities at Oxford. Odd thing for a farm hand to know. At one point he cursed in German.
“I’ve been around horses most of my life”, he offered. “I like them. They make me feel calm. Even thoroughbreds.”
“The scratches on the horse look superficial”, said Joan.
“We should check to make sure no splinters from the fence are embedded in the skin.”
“This food is delicious!”
A ringtone played. She reach for . . .
She stopped. The iPhone wasn’t invented yet. Sloan had to back peddle through the rough draft for more anachronisms. This was a time before email. Radio was just in its infancy. In those days most people just sat down and wrote letters by hand. It seemed all so romantic.
“Woa!” exclaimed the boyfriend. “That tattoo rocks!”
So he finally noticed. Part of her wanted to break up with him then and now. But things were comfortable. They looked like a couple. Wait! Is that a good thing? Some couples look great together. As if the world was their oyster and every morning meant a new adventure. Other couples reminded her of an old pair of brown shoes sitting on the back porch.
“The bat symbolizes all that is dark”, he chortled. “That’s what this new video game says!”
She wanted to correct him. The bat meant motherhood and communication. It was the only mammal that could actually fly. Sloan felt his hand caress the tattoo. It sent sparkles up and down her spine. His lips pressed against her bare neck.
“We can always break up tomorrow”, she thought.
With a clink of silverware to glasses the engagement was announced. Behind Joan’s blissful smile was the worry
over her baby boy. After much laughter and cheek kissing she snuck off. Her now fiancé was too busy playing cards and nodding off to cognac to notice her absence.
She tenderly dabbed each wound on the horse. It was these quiet moments she cherished the most. Suddenly there were voices. Anger echoed across the stable. She recognized one to be the stable hand.
“What gives you the right?” he shouted.
An older male voice sought to calm him down with the tone of fatherly authority. An engine came to life and was heard roaring off into the night.
“It’s my life and I can do what I want!”
Joan wanted to go and comfort him. Instead she closed the stable door and walked home.
“That was the best make up sex ever!” said the boyfriend.
She was about to correct him that they had not really broken up in the first place. Before Sloan could speak he was in the shower singing an Elvis Presley song. After a moment she rang her editor who was delighted with the progress report.
“Remember one thing”, sad the editor. “Every story is about people never getting what they want.”
“As if I didn’t already know that.”
“I am really excited about this!”
“We should break up more often”, said the boyfriend stepping out of the shower. “I heard some couples pose as strangers in crowded bars and pick each other up.”
The scenario played out in her head. It made her laugh. That might be something fun to try.
Hooves pawed at the muddy track. All the paces raced through her mind. They started off at a trot and went into a canter. When the moment was right they entered into full gallop. The pounding was terrific. Her heart raced. The intensity almost sent Joan into a trance. Suddenly the hurdle came into view. The horse leapt into the air. For a moment it was silent and graceful. The beast hit the ground running. A flush filled her cheeks.
“Very good”, said the stable hand. “But you need to follow through”.
She was too spent to respond. The stable hand felt like he had just interrupted lovers in an intimate moment. He led them back to the stable.
“I hope you have come around to my way of thinking.”
The enclosure with the girl and the horse was closed.
“What else do you want me to say?”
“That you have come to your senses”. Said the patriarch. “This has to be settled.”
This kind of banter went on for hours. Finally it was over. He looked into the space. The horse had lain down. She was snuggled against the neck of the great steed. A blanket was gently wrapped around her.
“I have a very important question to ask you”, said a friend.
“What’s that?”, asked Sloan.
“Has he introduced you to any of his friends?”
She thought for a moment. Her reply was to shake her head meaning ”no”.
“Then you’re not his girlfriend.”
How do you break up with someone like that?
Joan wondered if being engaged meant getting a new hair style. Perhaps this was an opportunity to go for something more modern. What else changes as one heads down the aisle? New vocabulary? A dress code and jewelry that broadcasts one’s non-availability?
Was he going to treat her differently now? Sentences could now begin with “my fiancé . . .” later to be “my husband . . . “ Was this happiness? Suddenly she remembered something.
“I need to talk to you”, said a friend.
She wanted to ask why as her friend lead her to the far side of the café.
“We can’t be friends anymore.”
Why not?” she asked. “Was it something I had done?”
“No”, replied her friend as she leaned in to whisper. “I have to be with my fiancé.”
It seemed like a conspiracy worthy of the back alleys of Istanbul. After that Joan rarely saw her friend. When they did it was always some chance encounter that would start off with pleasantries. Almost immediately the complaining would roll out like a pack of hunting dogs. At first she would smile and nod. Gradually the bitterness would be so obvious. The strangest thing was not to have been invited to the wedding. It got to the point that she never again asked about her husband or the children who followed soon after. It was chilling to learn some harsh cruelty of life from someone else’s misfortune.
It was the last bucket of blood in the neighborhood. Sloan had tended bar there while working towards a degree in journalism.
Many a night saw her putting some guy in a half-nelson while pouring tequila down his parched throat. The chalkboard outside use to boast things like “Happy Birthday Telly Savalas!” or “Robert! Get in here! She’s topless!” Now it read “Book your bachelorette party now!”
“Maybe I should go in for one Jägermeister shot”, she thought. Instead she just kept walking.
His friends were very entertaining. Always quick with the reply. The jokes and sarcasm were all signs of affection and acceptance. Still it hit home when someone cracked about her losing the upcoming competition.
“If you don’t win”, said one of his friends. “You know what to do.”
“What’s that?” wondered Joan.
“Just keep going straight down the road”, he laughed. “After about a mile there will be a glue factory on the right. You can’t miss it!”
Laughter broke out. A few drinks were almost spilled. She forced a smile. Her fiancé squeezed her hand. It felt comforting. Later they walked along the lake.
I’m sorry about my friends’, he said. “A good laugh is always a priority.”
“Well that’s why you are all still friends.”
“If it’s any help you can also reply with the same type of joke.”
“Oh let me see”, he wondered. “Neville once broke his leg running from a jealous Sicilian husband. We never let him live that one down.”
“And that’s why it is so damn funny.”
The editor went over the latest pages. She nodded and even smiled.
“Is any of this autobiographical?”
“It’s all out of my imagination”, Sloan said. “Every bit of it.”
Joan was walking away from the stable when a commotion flared up. Looking around she saw a few ruffians from a neighboring farm punching the stable hand in the arm and laughing. It seemed like the typical nonsense men do to let off steam before retiring to the pub. Suddenly it turned nasty.
“That’s some fancy accent you have there”, said one of them. “Do you actually work for a living?”
“Ask him if he’s ever kissed a girl”, laughed another. “That’s good for a laugh!”
The underlining hostility alarmed her. They may have been dumber than a box of hammers but they knew an outsider when they saw one. Each shove got harder. Angry sneers revealing broken rotted teeth. Sleeves were rolled up. The stable hand didn’t know what to do. A fist clinched.
“There you are!”
They turned around to see her run up to kiss the stable hand on the lips.
“Oh I hope he hasn’t bored you”, she laughed. “It’s not that he tells lots of bad jokes. He just keeps telling the same bad joke over and over.”
The ruffians dropped their guard and backed away. With a wave she led the stable hand off by the arm.
“What are you doing?” asked the stable hand.
“Saving you from a sound thrashing.”
“How much for the book”, Sloan asked.
“Five bucks and it’s yours”, mumbled the street vendor.
Later the discovery lay on the kitchen table. What a find. She retired to a long hot bath. It was a book entitled: “Romantic Weddings from the 1920’s”
The fiancé was in one of his moods again. It was after another boisterous night of drinks with old friends. First he would be silent and then resistant to affectionate advances. When asked what’s wrong his response was a pout. Finally she had enough of it and poured a small basin of water over his head. That snapped him out of his dreary mope.
“Talk to me”, Joan demanded. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
He confessed to being jealous of his friend’s war record.
“Oh for that shiny little medal”, she said. “You should be glad you made it through in one piece.”
“It’s just that he flew planes and had a shot at being an ace.’
“Why didn’t you join the Royal Air Force?”
Now the silent treatment again. Cheering him up was becoming a chore. Civilizing a would-be husband was one thing but mood swings were another.
“Don’t spill any wine on the book”.
Her friend laughed as she flipped through the pages.
“Now this is getting married in style!” said the friend.
“It was the birth of the modern era”, said Sloan. “As the last few trappings of the Victorian age lay in tatters.”
“Oh I like that”, said the friend.
“I wrote it.”
“Did the bride have a last ‘girl’s night out’?
“I don’t know.”
Listening to the words being spoken was at first alarming. Joan felt like this the first time ever such a thing was ever uttered. The stable hand suddenly seemed too eloquent for a laborer.
“I love you”, he said. “Please kiss me.”
Their lips drew closer and pressed. Her hands cupped his face only to feel the slight five o’clock shadow.
“But why are you telling me this?” she asked.
He told her that he could no longer keep it inside.
“So am I supposed to say in return?”
They embraced and held each other tightly. Fingers ran through her hair like a light massage.
“The competition is today”, he said. “I’ll be watching and wishing you the best.”
Her eyes watered as they parted.
All of the boxes were packed and neatly stacked by the door. Sloan made sure that when he arrived that there would be no margin for him to weasel out of it. In addition, she mentally prepared herself for that one last grasp at a little quickie on the futon. It was done. The relationship was over. There was a knock at the door. She opened it to see a stranger. It was a younger looking woman who was everything she was not.
“Hi there”, she said. “I came over to pick up his stuff.”
“Where is he?”
“Playing paintball”, she replied. “He does so every time this week.”
It dawned on her that this woman knew him as much as she did. What she thought was a relationship was merely a pit stop between the main events of his life.
“I’m double parked so keep the door open”, she said. “It shouldn’t take more than a few trips.”
How can you break up with someone who was never with you in the first place?
Two pairs of shoes were visible in the deep mud leading away from the Stutz Bearcat. They were either drunk or quite intimate. He had mentioned a cousin who was also competing. A tear ran down her cheek. Joan tore herself away and readied for the obstacle course.
The field seemed harder now. Her heart pounded out of sorrow. A lack of confidence could prove injurious to the horse. More than ever the steed needed to feel the tight grip of command straddling its powerful back.
Joan saw them in the seats behind the review stand. They waved as if it was hardly any big deal. She knew their secret. Something caught her eye. It was the stable hand. He was standing next to an older version of himself. Both of them in suit and ties sporting the sash of a duke. Their eyes met at a distance. Later they enjoyed a tearful reunion under a late summer rain as the restless spirit of her horse finally felt soothed.
The editor was delighted to find the completed manuscript in her email. Accompanied it was a selfie of Sloan arriving at JFK airport.
A part of the stable featured photos of previous champions. One shot provided the black and white image of a happy couple who won a competition and later married. There was that festive regal look of a bygone age.
“Yes we are hiring”, said the stable manager. “By the way, what experience do you have mucking out stables?”
“Oh a little”, Sloan replied. “Before this I was in publishing.”