This short story was published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Spring 2000.
All three of us are in bed—me, my married lover Vic, and Jahmi the cat— when the earthquake hits.
Those first few seconds I think the bed has plunged sideways, like my dressage horse, Night Train, when I ask for too much. I confuse the bed with the horse and real life with the dream I was having, and I think I’m alone because usually, I am.
So it startles me when Vic bellows, “What the fuck?”
Yanking me out of bed, he shoves me against the door frame, shielding me with his body. I’m still too close to sleep to appreciate how remarkable it is for Vic to swear in English, Usually he swears in Farsi.
The room feels like a locomotive is coming through it. The light fixture—a Tiffany-style shade suspended from the ceiling by links of swag—swings faster and higher until it shatters against the ceiling. I flinch. Vic tightens his arms around me and groans.
I love how his eyes look early in the morning, bruised, like ripe figs. Before he shaves, his beard sparkles with gray, like he’s been sprinkled with sugar. He’s my forbidden fruit, the Belgian chocolates my step-mother keeps under her bed when I visit so I won’t gorge on them and “make a pig” of myself.
And then everything stops. Out of habit I glance at the clock. Its digital face is blank. No numbers—no electricity. I feel very wide awake but not scared. The first time I rode Night in the West Coast selection trials, I was so wide awake I threw up.
I squirm out of Vic’s arms. “I have to see if he’s all right.”
“You can do that later. Besides—you have no clothes on. You’re naked.” Now that the danger has passed, Vic has only one thing on his mind. Before leaving he will reclaim me, the way he does after every horse show, every time he drops by and I’m not here, whenever he hears another man’s voice on my answering machine—even if it’s only my boss at the tack store, or one of my students canceling a lesson, or, occasionally, my father.
I have no other men friends. But Vic professes to think otherwise. He tells me constantly how sexy I am, how beautiful—there must be many men who desire me, he says. Am I not tempted by the trainers who come into the tack store? He knows how good-looking some of them are, how shamelessly girls swarm around them, hoping to be noticed, admired, invited to bed. I tell Vic no one interests me but him, but we both know I’m lying.
There’s Night Train.
I allow myself to be pulled back to bed. It’s Vic’s unshakable belief that a good fuck will cure anything—fear, sorrow, even menstrual cramps. But it can’t cure my premonition that something is still out there, waiting to happen. There will be after-shocks. There always are.
Vic crouches between my legs, preparing to enter me, when suddenly he reaches back and plucks Jahmi—named for a famous Persian belly-dancer—out of the bedclothes. “I thought I felt something tickling me!” Jahmi meows faintly, as though to deny it, and Vic laughs. For such a slight man he has a big, infectious, booming laugh. “Damned cat was swishing her tail against my balls! Can you imagine what a climax I could have had if she’d done that just a few seconds later?”
“Can you imagine what a climax you could have had if we’d been making love during the earthquake?” I counter, hoping Vic will misread my impatience. I want this over with. I want to check Night.
Sure enough, Vic’s expression changes instantly from mirth to such naked, abject need that I feel my body strain towards his. In the time we’ve been together I’ve learned a lot from Vic, such as: my feelings for him depend almost entirely on the intensity of that need.
Vic grabs my hand. “Then let’s imagine it. Help me. Help me, goddamn it!”
And so, amidst the shudders of Los Angeles emerging from yet another earthquake, Vic and I make love—passionately, desperately, the way any two people do who steal their happiness —as though this time might be our last.
Vic is Armenian, born in Iran—or, as he prefers to call it, Persia. He speaks English, Armenian, Farsi, Arabic, and French. His real name is Vikan. I took a roll of film to his camera store once, and when I came back he took the prints out of the envelope and leaned over the counter to look at them with me. He kept coming back to one shot of me dismounting—dressed in my tight tan breeches and high black boots—taken from the rear I have good legs and other attributes men notice, and Vic noticed.
“Very nice, very nice, he muttered, running his forefinger over the matte finish like some desert rug merchant checking weave and texture.
“What are you looking at?” I asked, playing along. Vic is an attractive man. “You must like it.’
“I like it very much. I am wondering whether it is possible to see more.”
“More as in more frequently, or do you mean you’d like to see more revealed?”
“Both” he said without hesitation, looking straight into my eyes. Pace to face, we’re exactly the same height.
That night Vic took me to an elegant little Pasadena restaurant—he had grilled aji tuna, rare, I had steamed vegetables—and then he took me to bed. That was three years ago.
Vic puts up with my show schedule, my dog, my miserable cooking, Night. He gave me Jahmi. Sometimes I wonder what being married to him would be like, an idea so far-fetched it’s like imagining myself as a movie star. Vic has told me: Wait until my boys are out of school. They are the ones I worry about. Naira will be taken care of, but I cannot leave my sons while they are still children. I’m touched. Vic is quite the traditionalist quite the honorable man, for being an adulterer.
Yesterday I did something I never do; I called him at work because he had forgotten my birthday, although I didn’t tell him that. I also didn’t tell him I hadn’t received a single card or phone call, not even from my father, who calls the first Monday of every month to ask “Do you need anything? Money? Keep in touch—you’re all I have.” He means, all he has left of my mother. He has another family now.
But sometime between my call and dinner Vic figured it out, because over coffee he presented me with a necklace, a gold horseshoe set with diamonds on a rope of gold chain. When he tried to fasten it around my neck, I told him I didn’t want to wear it—the horseshoe was upside down. Horseshoes have to resemble the letter ‘U” because otherwise all the luck will run out. Then I started to cry.
Vic bundled me up and drove me home, He almost never stays the night, especially in the middle of the week. It’s too hard to explain to his wife.
This is the dream I was having when the earthquake hit. Vic and I were waiting for a train. Vic was getting aroused, even though his wife was seated right across from us. I’ve never met Naira, although I think I would recognize her from Vic’s description. Vic began rubbing up against me, indifferent to the other people waiting—who were indifferent to us—his excitement mounting. Finally he took his prick out of his pants and began fondling it, then hiked up my dress. But he couldn’t resist turning to his wife, his stiff cock clenched in his fist, and saying proudly, “Naira, look”
I was fifteen when my mother died. Two weeks later my father took me to Europe “to make up for not being a very attentive father,” he told me in a strained, sorrowful voice I had already learned to mistrust because it meant he’d made one more decision I’d had no say in. He hadn’t been home much during my childhood—most nights he didn’t get in until nine or ten o’clock, long after I’d been sent to bed—and he didn’t notice that my mother was getting sick until it was too late. I noticed, but I thought of my father the same way I thought of our family doctor. Why volunteer that you hurt? Let him find out. That’s his job. It was my father’s job to find out that my mother was in pain, but he failed her.
I hated Europe. I was forever staring out some window—a train, a rental car-at green, wooded hills, and wishing I were riding my horse. Before we entered each new country, my father made a point of asking what I wanted to see or visit—something else he had failed to do during my childhood. I told him I didn’t care. I was fifteen years old and I missed my mother. So he chose where we went—museums and art galleries, for the most part. But when we got to Ireland, I told him I wanted to see the Dublin Horse Show. To his credit, he suffered through every performance all week long. But when it was his turn, my father chose the church where Handel is said to have composed the Messiah.
“You’ll like it,” he assured me. “There’s a crypt under the church where the dead date back to the Crusades. But for some reason—probably the chemical composition of the soil—the bodies don’t decompose. They dry out, instead. Their skin turns to leather. Maybe the guide will let you touch one. I’ve heard they’ll do that.”
Sometimes I think of Vic as a crusader, his cock clenched in his hand instead of a sword, conquering new nations, fax machines, the Internet—ruthless, unstoppable.
Right away Vic started asking about my other lovers—how many, how old I had been. At first I was very cautious, the way I would be riding a strange horse for the first time. I’d heard about men flying into jealous rages when told about their woman’s other men.
But the details aroused Vic, the clinical parts that women usually leave out. It was as if he were imagining himself there too, watching me make love to those other men, even being those other men. Licking me. Rubbing my wetness. Penetrating me. Using their imaginations and techniques to exploit my body in ways he couldn’t do alone.
Vic especially wanted to hear about the first time. So I told him about the wild boy with the motorcycle I met at college—my first semester and, in spite of my father’s offer to buy me a Porsche if I “applied myself and brought my grades up,” my last.
In truth, there haven’t been very many men. If they’re not horsemen, we have nothing to talk about. If they are, I’ve learned to stay away from them. The good ones, the ones with more talent and experience than I have, are too dangerous.
So after I ran out of real-life lovers I made some up—whole Boy Scout troops of them, men I’d never met, situations I’d never been in, trying to imagine stories that a man like Vic would want to hear.
If I didn’t love him, would I bother?
Vic dawdles in my driveway, listening to the news on his car radio. By now the sun has come up, that winter light the color of candle wax that casts such harsh shadows and always seems to be in my eyes. I’m so impatient to see Night that I shift from foot to foot like a five-year-old who has to pee. Vic doesn’t notice. I can’t see much damage—a collapsed chimney here and there, cracks in the pavement. But according to the radio, buildings and freeway overpasses have collapsed all over LA, and fires from ruptured gas mains rage out of control. The death toll rises steadily. Seismologists at Cal Tech warn us to prepare for aftershocks. Finally, leaning out the open window of his Cadillac. Vic kisses me goodbye.
I run to the barn. It’s dark no electricity here, either. I’m not even sure Night is in his stall until he swings his head towards me and I glimpse the white rims of his eyes. He’s entirely black and all I can see of him is movement, a rush of shadows like dreams colliding in the dark. “Hello, macho man. How’re you this morning?”
In answer Night paws the door, nickering throatily. He doesn’t nicker because he’s glad to see me. He nickers because I feed him.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get your breakfast. And when you’re finished we’ll go for a ride—a delayed birthday trail ride through Griffith Park, all right? lust the two of us.” I picked that up from Vic, “all right” instead of “okay.”
Night is imported, a Selle Francais, with a stallion’s pronounced jaws and thickened throatlatch. Vic claims to admire Night, but I suspect he’s afraid of him. Most people are; Night is unpredictable and not very friendly. After leading him out of his stall I ease his halter off. Night takes off bucking the length of the corral. My dog races him along their respective sides of the fence, barking.
A car door slams.
A woman walks towards me, very elegant, with chestnut highlights in her dark hair. Her skin is paler than Vic’s, although when she speaks, her accent is identical. I know immediately who she is.
“I followed you last night, Naira says. She looks distraught but in control. I wonder if she has a gun. Vic told me he learned how to handle firearms from the French, and taught his family, too, in case of another riot.
“Vic promised to be home early last night. We had a dinner engagement. When he told me that suddenly this meeting came up, I didn’t believe him, So I drove to the store. I was in the parking lot when you arrived, but you didn’t notice me. I followed you and Vic to the restaurant, then here. It was so late there was not much traffic, and that white Cadillac of his—there are not too many like it. And then I waited.”
“You were in your car when the earthquake hit?”
“It woke me up. I was very frightened, like those rides at Magic Mountain the boys loved when they were small. Possibly I should have driven home then to see if they are all right, but my youngest drives every day to class at UCLA. They can take care of themselves. So I decided to wait. I wanted to meet you.”
I try not to let my astonishment show. Vic’s sons are college age?
Night, having completed his early-morning calisthenics, watches us intently, ears pricked, as I try to think of something to say to Naira besides “so now what?”
She nods in Night’s direction. “He’s very beautiful. You checked on him last night before you went inside, the way I used to check on my boys when they were children.”
“He’s my Grand Prix dressage horse.” Against my better judgment the words spill out. Vic isn’t interested in my life, the parts he’s not in. And who else would I tell? “We were long-listed for the Olympic dressage team three years ago. This time I think we’ll make it.”
Naira nods again, sympathetically. “And this is important to you?”
“I’ve wanted to ride in the Olympics ever since I was a kid.”
As though intending to join our conversation, Night trots purposefully over to the fence, but I move away, just in case. Sure enough, just before he reaches us he charges, ears pinned, jaws gaping.
“Oh my. What a lot of teeth.” Naira backs up. “How old?”
“He just turned nine.”
“Fifteen years younger than me. Blond hair, blue eyes—you’re perfect for him.” I can’t detect any sarcasm in her voice. “All his girlfriends have been blonds. Vic likes everything American, have you noticed? He knows all the slang, sees every new Clint Eastwood movie. I wanted a Mercedes but he bought me a Cadillac, like his, only light blue. He doesn’t like Armenian food. He wants me to learn to make pizza. Can you imagine?” She pauses to shade her eyes from the sun, her first indecisive gesture. “He is a good father. I’ll give him that. He spends a lot of time with the boys, especially now that they are older. And he can be very generous.”
I think about the gold and diamond necklace in my handbag. Vic pays my rent—I could never afford a house across from the Equestrian Center with its own two-stall barn and riding ring on the money I make.
Just after we started going together, Vic bought me a Thoroughbred mare, a race horse—he spends one day a week at Santa Anita—so that Night could have “company.” It was the only time I’ve been upset with him. “Just how do you expect me to feed this animal? I work for minimum wage—I’m just scraping by as it is!”
I got rid of the mare as a hunter-jumper prospect, but when I tried to give the money to Vic he told me to keep it, that it had been a lesson to him. Right after that he leased the house for me.
“What a satisfying life you must lead—no children, nothing to interfere with your goal,” Naira continues, looking at Night, the lawn I keep forgetting to water, the dog panting at my feet. Finally she looks at me again. “And so determined! I envy you. I teach in Armenian school, and I want very much to get a credential so I can teach in the public schools. Second grade, when they still think adults know everything. But Vic does not want me to work. He can be a tyrant sometimes. I was very young when we married and at first I liked how protective he was because I thought it meant he would take care of me. But I’m older now and I want something else. If I teach, I can be like you. Have my own life, not so much pain all the time.”
I want to tell her that she seems to be a nice woman and I admire her, but she has no idea what she’s talking about. I start to say that, to set her straight— I can feel the words bunch up in my mouth—when she walks towards me again.
“Would you give me your hand, please?”
Thinking she wants to shake hands, I dutifully extend mine. But that’s not what she wants. Instead, she slips off her wedding ring and sets it in my palm. Folding my fingers around it she pats them once, for emphasis. “I won’t ask Vic to choose. He has done that already.” Her voice is steady, unafraid. She doesn’t have a gun. She doesn’t need one. “If you want, you can marry him.”
And suddenly the sun is in my eyes; I’m the one who can’t see. The words I wanted to say grow small and dry until they rattle against my teeth like seeds.
“I must leave now,” Naira tells me. “My boys will be worried.”
I can find only two words, and I say them. “Be careful.”
This is the obsession of dressage. Night Train is very strong—all horses are, but he stands 17.2 hands and if he wanted to, he could kill me. This is not a figure of speech. Night is a difficult horse. He has bitten me, kicked me, bucked me off, fallen over backwards with me. There’s a feeling of intense accomplishment, of elation, at simply staying astride an animal with so much power. But that’s only the beginning. I don’t ask for much—a little more lightening of the forehand one day, a little more elevation at the passage the next. I cajole. I entreat. I’ve learned to be cagey. Some people—even the judges who award Night near-perfect scores—ask if he’s worth that much effort.
Yes. He’s the most gifted horse I’ve ever ridden, and I’ve ridden all my life; my mother taught me. A nudge of my calf at the girth and he moves away— smoothly, no fuss. I sink my seat bones into the saddle and he stops. To anyone watching—Vic, for instance—it seems as though Night is doing it all on his own, that he’s reading my mind. But dressage takes the two of us: me to ask for what I want so subtly that no onlooker is the wiser, and Night, to translate my desires into movements as stylized and breathtaking as ballet.
He may resist and fight, but I win.
And when it’s good between us, it’s like what talking to God must be like.
Once upon a time my father took me to Ireland, where I shook hands with the mummified body of a crusader. I didn’t want to—I cried. But I didn’t cry because I was scared. I cried because the crusader was exactly my height, and if his hands had turned to leather, what had happened to his heart?
© by Joan FryAll rights reserved