When you're running away from a bad marriage, Willie Nelson is the music of choice. His voice has just the right nasal, reedy, twangy quality, which encourages singing along, as well as making it okay for an occasional self-indulgent splash of tears to roll down your cheeks. I was driving to North Carolina and listening to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and although my eyes are green, it did actually pour the day I left my blue-eyed husband, Marshall.
Marshall and I had been together eight years. He had had three affairs. I had forgiven him twice. And it was about four months after his last fling that the realization struck me: I had been far more gracious than any woman had a reason to be. I was tapped out. Not only did I no longer love him, but the way he walked annoyed me, the color of his hair annoyed me, his ears annoyed me, the fillings in his teeth, the air he exhaled--all had become intolerable. I had begun to hate him, and found myself spending alarmingly more frequent moments planning his dramatic and imminent demise. There was choking, electrocution, car accidents, hanging, knifing, head wounds, poisoning . . . well, it wasn't a good omen for our relationship, and I made my decision.
The first one I told was Ruth, my older sister. Saint Ruth of the Perfect Life, as I had always thought of her, was horrified. We were having our weekly ritual of coffee and fabulous scones from a secret-source bakery whose location she was reluctant to share, since Ruth always likes to have the best of everything, as well as exclusive rights to it. I dropped my news.
"I am leaving Marshall," I casually mentioned. She choked on a mouthful of fabulous scone.
"What did you say?" She wheezed crumbs at me from across the table, trying to compose her lungs.
"I said, 'I am leaving Marshall.' "
She looked alternately alarmed and sympathetic, but I could see in her eyes that she was secretly pleased with my news. Now she would have the best marriage. She recovered quickly.
"Are you sure you want to do that?"
"Why don't you let Henry prescribe something for you? You're probably just going through . . . something."
Henry, her husband, was a psychiatrist, and like many psychiatrists, he was more of a pharmacist than a therapeutic patch maker of holes in the psyche.
"Jesus, I finally come to my senses, and you want to drug me out of them again?"
"Not drug--just to calm you down a little, restore some tranquillity, so you can think clearly. Just view it merely as a misdirected discharge of his sex glands. All he did was fuck some woman!"
"Three women--that I know about. There could be a line around the block where his office is."
Ruth tapped her manicured fingers on the gleaming granite countertop.
"They all fuck around. Live with it, darling. He was a great catch."
"I can't live with it."
"It would break Mother's heart."
She was not above firing off her ultimate weapon. Citing our mother was the one thing she could always count on to sweep me back into line. She always used it, whether it was the time I wanted to get engaged to a handsome illiterate named Bolt, or when I ran off to try my hand at Clown College before Real College. Ruth knew my weak spot: I was on an eternal quest to find the ultimate mother figure. One who would guide and comfort me and share some of the burden of my having been put on earth without consultation. And the fact that Ruth was older than I and had spent more time with our mother bestowed upon her, she felt, a certain cachet and authority, which I always acquiesced to.
Except this time, it wasn't working.
"Mother's been dead for ten years," I said. "She doesn't care anymore."
"Mother liked Marshall."
"Mother needed better taste in men."
Ruth rolled her eyes heavenward, as though looking for a conciliatory vision from Mother.
"How can you end a marriage so casually?" She poured us more coffee.
"I'm not being casual at all."
"And how were you planning to tell him?" she continued. "Marshall's so . . ." She trailed off vaguely.
She could have finished with any number of descriptive adjectives: nasty, controlling, selfish, lying, cheating . . .
"Vulnerable" was what she finally said. I never would have thought of vulnerable.
"I think it's his blue eyes."
"I am going to leave him a note pinned to my pillow," I said. "He's going to find it after I'm gone. Now promise me you'll keep your mouth shut."
She sighed and blinked twice. I took it for a yes, finished the last of my fabulous scone, and left her fabulous house.
And that's how I left him. Of course, after waiting a few weeks.
First and most important, I needed a place to go. Second, I would have to quit my job of rendering high school students comatose by trying to instill the wonders of the English language. And last, I needed to take stock of my worldly possessions and then cull them down to a box or two that would fit neatly into the back of my little Mazda.
That first one was going to be a bit tricky.
I was thirty-three. And a tad overweight. Okay, chunky. With no devouring passions in life except cheeseburgers, chocolate, and my weekly horseback-riding lessons, a holdover from childhood and college. There were no promising adventures looming on the horizon, no ambitious plans. I just wanted somewhere else.
It was at my riding lesson that lightning struck and gave me the rest of my plan.
I was grooming Sunny, the old Palomino that I usually rode. Like me, he was a dirty blonde, overweight, and given to brief naps and wobbly knees. I loved pushing the brush across his faded yellow hair, rubbing in slow, round circles, grooming his cellulite-covered body. Now his eyes fluttered closed, his breathing grew deep and sonorous, and he buckled to the ground.
"Come on, Judy, don't let him do that," Mickey, my instructor, chided as Sunny leapt once again to his feet and gave an embarrassed snort. "You know enough to smack him when he gets sleepy."
While resuming my grooming routine, which now included brushing and smacking, shouting Sunny's name into his ear so he would stay alert enough to remain vertical, I looked around and took a deep breath. It was wonderful to stand in the aisle of the old barn. The ritual grooming of horses while birds chirped at us from up in the rafters was almost hypnotic. It occurred to me that I was happiest here. Happy to help Mickey muck the horse shit out of the stalls, happy to carry the backbreaking sixty-five-pound bales of hay and fifty-pound bags of grain, happy to scrub the slime from the water buckets and fill them back up again with fresh water. There was a peace and a sense of timelessness, a feeling of being insulated from the outside world. I took a deep breath. I loved the scent of horses, that warm, peculiar smell that only horses possess. And there was the horse equipment--the hard brush, the soft brush, the curry comb, the hoof pick--the way all of it lined up in plastic shoe-shine boxes, the sour leather smell, the comforting weight when I carried the bridle and saddle.
Most of all, I loved sitting on a horse.
That an animal weighing over a thousand pounds could be controlled with the touch of a leg or the movement of a hand was an amazing thing. Mickey was a good instructor and had made sure that the basics of riding were constantly emphasized: sitting correctly and quietly and in balance. I mounted Sunny and took him out back to the ring, where we picked up a slow, contemplative trot, with me doing the contemplating.
I was being too quiet.
"What the hell is going on?" Mickey finally asked me after my third excursion around the muddy ring. "You're usually chewing my ear off."
I told her.
"So, are you getting an apartment near your school?"
I hadn't planned to.
"Too bad you're not a kid." She shrugged. "I know an Olympic trainer who takes a few working students every year--they work their asses off, but she teaches them to ride to the top levels."
I stopped Sunny short for more information.
Mickey obliged, but she warned me that I was not a twenty-year-old kid. The work was hard, and besides, what was I going to do with all that training? It's not like there is a riding center in every strip mall, where I could earn a living teaching little girls to sit properly on ponies. It was an impractical thought, Mickey apologized, she had just thrown it out there. "You have to be crazy," she said, "to even think of interrupting your life at thirty-three to pursue something this outlandish."
Of course I wanted to hear more.
Katarina Rheinboldt was the trainer, Mickey explained, and her farm, Sankt Mai, was in North Carolina.
The whole thing was a preposterous, ridiculous notion, and I wrote Katarina as soon as I got home. Her answer came three weeks later in the form of a personal note tucked inside a brochure filled with photos of lithe young women on gleaming horses. She was willing to take a chance on me. There was also a page with a carefully drawn map. I was hooked.
I withdrew all the money Mother had left me, mentally reassuring her that it was for a good purpose, turned my resignation in at school, and started composing a note to Marshall. It was going to be brief and unsentimental. Something along the lines of "Buh-bye, and make sure you use condoms."
Another week was spent struggling to cram a lifetime's accumulation of clothes, books, and all my music tapes surreptitiously into two cartons and a suitcase. What didn't fit, including the old fox-fur coat that Marshall, never an animal lover, had given me, was taken over to Ruth to store in her basement.
She followed me down the stairs.
"You've gone crazy," she said more than once. "You're going to learn how to be a jockey? You're five foot eight, for chrissake, and I can't imagine what you weigh."
"It's only the freshman fifteen," I said defensively.
"You haven't been a college freshman for what? Fourteen years? And to think you always were the pretty one!"
"Are you trying to say that now I'm not the pretty one or the smart one?" I said. "Just because I fill out a B cup doesn't make me a family aberration."
"That wasn't my point. Why on earth would you want to take up riding? I mean, what comes next? Rock-and-roll camp?"
"I'm just going for the experience." I decided to stuff the fox coat into an old trunk next to her oil burner. "I don't know what I'll do after this. I can always teach high school again."
"And don't you have to be like three years old to begin this kind of training? Like ice-skaters?"
I stacked some books neatly in a corner.
"And there's the matter of money. What will you do for money?"
Apparently, she hadn't heard from Mother yet.
I kissed her good-bye and promised to call.
I put Willie into the tape deck and got ready to drive to North Carolina. It was twelve hours from Long Island, New York. I had a map, two hard-boiled eggs, and a couple of tuna sandwiches.
Me and Willie, we were ready.
* * *
From the Hardcover edition.