Mild As May
When I am a little girl my dad takes me to church, and after Sunday school everyone drinks coffee and eats donut holes. I don’t want to talk to people, so my dad gives me his car keys, and I lay in the backseat with the radio turned to the country music station. Even in winter the sun heats the inside of the car and I put my coat over me like a blanket. My dad feels bad for taking me to church, but my mom made him promise before she left. I like the songs about cowboys; during the sermon people bow their heads to pray and I imagine riding through the mountains on my horse. I could be someone with a gypsy soul, wandering the countryside, breaking women’s hearts, leaving them, far away from them. My dad gets me a cowboy hat for Christmas, it’s too big and I never wear it.
As an adult I mostly forget about my cowboy fantasies, but my friend Lauren wants to be girlfriends, and I think we should be except I don’t want to, and I start listening to country music again. I buy hiking boots, a flannel shirt, a metal flask for whiskey. I take trips to the mountains. Even though I stay in a cabin with electricity and when I build a fire I use a Dura-flame log, I can do it for days not thinking of anybody. I drink whiskey out of the flask. I smoke Marlboros, but I don’t inhale the right way and the leftover taste in my mouth turns my stomach. I go on hikes, I go swimming at a lake no other tourists have found.
Lauren keeps asking if she can come with me and I keep explaining to her, “I need to go alone.” If I drink enough, Lauren and I fall asleep in my bed and I wake up with her arm around me. “Let’s get out of the city,” she says in the morning; in the sunlight I can see wrinkles around her eyes, and I am as relaxed and as warm as I have been in years. She says, “Take me to your mountains, I want to see.”
I take her New Years Eve. We drive to my favorite lake and bring champagne, a bottle opener, paper cups, a flashlight. My car gets stuck in the snow when I’m trying to park and I panic; we’re in the middle of nowhere but Lauren grew up in New Hampshire and knows all about cars and snow. She drives and I stand outside awkwardly waving my arms to direct her even though she doesn’t need me to direct her. She gets the car unstuck. According to the clock on my cell phone it is turning midnight. In the falling snow we hold each other but we don’t kiss. Later our opened bottle of champagne spills in the wind, leaves golden drops in the snow.
In the back of my closet, inside a trunk, I have things from when I was a little girl. Water must have seeped into the trunk somehow because the cloth dolls’ heads and arms and legs have rust stains on them, like blood. When he was taking woodworking classes my dad built a miniature stable for the plastic horses I was collecting, at the same time he got me that hat, the time my mom was living somewhere in Colorado and we didn’t know how to reach her and my dad kept saying he thought she was in a cult but we weren’t sure. There were a dozen horses. The Arabian was my favorite, white with gray spots. I named her Misty.
It’s almost spring and there’s slush on the sidewalks that soaks through my boots, and Lauren is in my bedroom again and I get out the horses. On my knees I pull out the trunk from the closet and I show her every horse.
“They don’t belong stuck in a closet,” I say. The stable is empty; all the horses are standing upright on my carpet, in a cluster, like a herd.
“They don’t,” Lauren agrees. “Let’s take them to the mountains, set them free, so they can run wild.”
I smile but something is wrong, like she’s telling a joke she doesn’t really understand. I knock over one of the horses to see what happens. She clicks her tongue, sets it upright.
I drink enough so later I start crying and say to her, “If only you would have met me a long time ago, before everything got messed up, I could have loved you.”
She says, “Tell me everything.”
I can’t remember if I do or not.
It’s one of the times I go by myself to the mountains — early summer when the water is too cold to swim in and these black flies swarm around me, biting my neck, leaving bloody marks — that Lauren starts having sex with a girl who is married. They listen to sad songs together. The songs aren’t about cowboys. Lauren asks me, “Are you mad at me?” I am mad at her but I don’t know how to explain why. It’s raining and the mud is soft here in the city.
I take out the trash. In the trash bag are my plastic horses and their stable. I try to picture Lauren’s married woman, a sweet girl with long smooth hair, who a lover could open gently and easily, the way someone opens a book, turns a page slowly, doesn’t want to reach the end, possibly never does.
On the front lawn, the trash bag breaks open and the plastic horses tumble onto the mud. I bend over and pick them up, brushing off the mud from their plastic bodies, and I hold them in my arms like I’m waiting for something or someone, but I’m not a little girl any more and I put them back in the bag. I gather the torn plastic. I drop the bag in the bin so there won’t be anything to set free, and I go inside.