Excerpt from the essay “Here Is Always Somewhere Else,” published in Black Warrior Review.
Section 8 of 11
I start riding horses the same year Lani admits to a heroin addiction, but I quit and she doesn’t. She refuses to speak about it, unless it’s to absolve herself of her erratic behavior. In these instances, she says, “You don’t understand, you’re not an addict,” as if this one attribute explains the struggles of her entire life. I remind her of her paintings and photography. “You are an artist and a student and a daughter and a sister. You were chair of the philanthropy club. You’re even a waitress,” I add, and she says, “I got fired last week.” When she’s not on a bender, my parents drop her off at NA meetings, and over the course of a few months she accumulates two orange “Clean and Serene for Thirty Days” key tags and a dozen white ones that read “Just For One Day,” which she stores in a wooden jewelry box inside her desk. She says she is trying her best. My parents also try, but they don’t know how to help her. They drive her to a rehab deep in the Virginia wilderness, lock her in their house, take away her car, but she always finds a way to escape, and they love her, so they always welcome her back.
I try to help Lani too. I research transitional colleges and outdoor programs, rehab centers and the NA tenants, but the wall she builds around herself is hard and cold and impenetrable. The wall not only divides her from me, it separates her from the country of herself. Inside, I imagine she wanders the streets of haunted ghettos, sleeps in musty, tormented basements. I try to occupy my life with other things. I try to be a runner, but I can’t get past the Crack-Max without stopping. I try to leave my boyfriend, but I’m not strong enough to stick by my decision. I try to finish writing a novel about two sisters in a contemporary Jewish family, coming of age under the shadow of the Holocaust and addiction, but I’m consumed with self-doubt. I try to play guitar, but I don’t take lessons, and I never figure out the strumming patterns of my favorite songs. I try to overcome my fear of horses by learning how to ride them, and on Wednesday evenings I take lessons at a stable thirty minutes away in Richland, Michigan.
“Pretend you’re a sack of potatoes,” Ken says and shoos me around the arena. He slaps the side of his faded dungarees and clicks his tongue. “Hold your ground. You’re bouncing like a trampoline.”
I study Francis’s shoulders as she walks around the track. They rise and fall in waves. Francis is an old, thick quarter horse with a creamy coat, high withers and grey, wiry tufts of hair around her eyes and ears. At twenty-one, she’s the same age as Lani, and old enough to know that I have no idea what I’m doing. I hold the reins too loose, then too tight. I roll my center forward like a seasoned rider, but a minute later I’m bow-backed and hunched, my heels pointing up in the stirrups instead of down. Francis is lazy and takes full advantage. She skims corners off the side of the track, spiraling in, making her trips around shorter and shorter with each loop.
“Give her a tug,” Ken commands, and I do but she barely moves. Ken gives me a death-stare from underneath his dusty cowboy hat, and I think he must have been a heartbreaker when he was young. I yank the weathered reins to the right and Francis jumps over. “There you go,” Ken says. “Thank the good lord Jesus.”
Francis is no chump. She walks right up to the edge of the rink until her skin almost grazes the fence, and she knocks my leg into it, drags my calf against the splintered wood until it hurts. I wince, grit my teeth. I wage a secret battle with this bull of a horse. “I won’t let you win,” I whisper, barely moving my lips. “You’re not as great as you think you are.” She saunters on, releasing a trail of fresh horseshit behind us.
“Time to trot,” Ken tells me. I give Francis a kick and begin posting. “Wrong diagonal,” Ken says. “Sit in the saddle. Try again.” I give Francis another kick, but she won’t go. Ken is exasperated. He’s repeated these same lessons once a week for the past two months. During my first lesson he told me I was a natural. “With a little luck,” he said, “you’ll be jumping in no time.” But I haven’t progressed since. He seems equally disappointed in me as he is in his failed prediction.
“If you’re too afraid to kick her, you got to hit her.” Ken hands me a black whip. “Smack her on her behind.”
I sit up and pull my shoulders back, give Francis a whack. For a moment, she walks along the fence, but she abruptly turns in, heads for the center of the arena and stops.
“You’re not listening,” Ken says. “Quit being scared. Slap the shit out of her. Do you know the meaning of tough love?” he asks, but I don’t, and he doesn’t wait for me to answer. “If you don’t demand she meet your expectations, she’ll never listen.”
Two young boys lead two lean, brown horses twice their height into the entrance of the arena. I look at my watch. The horses are saddled and ready for the next lesson. Ken doesn’t notice them. “Darling,” he says, “you’re not going anywhere until you get that horse to move.” He pauses for a second, laughs. “But isn’t that the truth.”
I hug Francis between my legs and give her a whack. She doesn’t budge. I squeeze my legs tighter, stroke the nape of her twitching neck with what I think is a steady hand. I send her a message telepathically. I know I suck. It must be annoying. But just trot. I’m doing my best. I give her another whack, but still nothing. She doesn’t even flinch.
Ken lunges through the gate and runs in my direction. “Do you know what hard means? Give me that whip.” I reach it toward him, and he grabs it from my hand. He swings the whip straight at me. It whirrs, whistles, lands flat against my arm. The welt is immediate and red. “Now,” Ken says. “I bet you’ll listen when I tell you to smack that damn horse as hard as you can.”
The two boys in the corner laugh quietly. I take the whip and Ken walks away. When his back is turned, I raise my arm and swing it down in a sharp smack. Francis doesn’t move. I hit her again, but not as hard as I can.
Adeena Reitberger is a writer, editor, and teacher in Austin, Texas. Her stories and essays have been published in places like Black Warrior Review, Mississippi Review, Cimarron Review, Nimrod International Journal, Sierra Nevada Review, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. The essay this excerpt appears in was listed as a notable in Best American Essays 2014. She is the coeditor of American Short Fiction, an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Austin Community College, and an advisory board member of Conflict of Interest.