I have frizzy brown hair and I am nine years old and right now my whole universe is a gape—null, nada, total annihilation—and that gape is shaped like a horse. The word Shenandoah sounded like quick-flanked gallop, like tresses flowing mountain-winded, like chestnut shimmering through mist. Like hill and vale (whatever a vale is?), and lush unfettered whinnying breaths, and glory glorying mane and neigh.
Now it’s just this crappy hotel room. Now it’s just this crappy rain. Not at all what the Excursions Brochure promised, and the hotel comforter—pink and brown, what a combo—stinks besides.
Mom says Maybe horseback riding won’t be cancelled. Dad says It’s not the end of the world.
So I take the bath that should’ve been the lavender-scented ablution necessary for a girl like me (frizzy brown hair, no siblings, only friends being Mom/Dad/GrandMomWhoLivesWithUs and watches Wheel of Fortune with me every night) to rise up, glistened and triumphant, as a horseback rider. I’d imagined a grotto, chiseled from marble, appropriate for cleansing a horse-maiden prior to her ride. But actually this tub is made of gritty gritty plastic, agape in places with dismal grey grout.
I see myself reflected in that bathtub’s metal spout, my blub-lips clownish, my nose, which kids at school call Jew-y (in the bad way), my eyes a contagion of red like conjunctivitis, which some people say makes you dirty but is actually just part of growing up at least according to GrandMomWhoLivesWithUs. I realize that I look like a sulky Muppet, like a snot-glommed baby brat who hasn’t gotten her way. I realize that this is no different from when GrandMomWhoLivesWithUs went away to see Aunt Mary in Myrtle Beach, and I thought she’d come back with a stuffed animal snow leopard as a trip-gift but instead she came back with that dumb plaster of Paris mouse.
I think of the word spoiled. I recognize spoiled in my face, which is made ugly and quite un-Eowyn-like from crying; I recognize spoiled in my hands, clenching and unclenching like ineffectual sea anemones.
But still. But still.
I thought we were going to go horseback riding, and even that possibility made everything so different: I was going to ride a burnished beast. I’d be flint-eyed and not at all the kid I’ll be two weeks from now. Two weeks from now—when school starts— is when I’ll have to volunteer to feed the classroom hamsters at lunch because I know no one will sit with me in the lunchroom. And then after school I’ll come home and talk to GrandMomWhoLivesWithUs about Vanna White and how hard it is, how the other kids don’t really get me.
If I’m not a horseback rider, then I’m just a sniffler, a shuffler, a loser. So even though I know I’m being a baby, I can’t help but feel that this afternoon is an axis on which a whole lot turns.
The world, I realize, can be one way. And then suddenly—alchemically—another.
The thing is, we do go horseback riding. The rain dulls down to a drizzle. We wear gross-looking raincoats, and the horses saunter so slow and boring I feel like I want to take a nap. I look at Mom’s back and at the desultory butt of her horse for way too long. Horseback riding, it turns out, mostly aches and itches.
When we come back to the hotel room—that hotel room in the beautiful but rainy Shenandoah Valley—the phone makes a hotel-room phone noise. And then it makes that noise again. Mom talks a little, then un-grasps the receiver. Plastic clicks on plastic.
She says, Your GrandMom is sick. She says, Cancer.
And it’s odd because you’d think, yes, this is the moment that I’m chastened, that I can’t believe that I was mourning horses—fucking horses. But I’ve already gone to the way-out borders of what can be wrong for me, and it’s misty, and I can’t see past to all the other stuff. So no, I can’t imagine how my GrandMom’s hands will wisp across hospital bedsheets, and no I can’t imagine how she’ll glom through wrong names and list mine amongst the annals of the already-dead.
I am nine years old with frizzy brown hair.
I do not know how far sadness can go, its stamina, how fleet it is.
I do not care to know.
Rachel Toliver has work published or forthcoming in The Pinch, The New Republic, Monkeybicycle, PANK, Third Coast, Phoebe, Brevity, and Literal Latte. She is an MFA student in Nonfiction at The Ohio State University.
Photo by Frank Dina