Flash in the Ring



I saw Brandy in his stall, and knew something was wrong. He had lost about ten pounds, and his big brown eyes looked dull with pain. Even his beautiful chestnut mane was shabby. The girl working in the stable that morning told me Brandy had an infect...

I saw Brandy in his stall, and knew something was wrong. He had lost about ten pounds, and his big brown eyes looked dull with pain. Even his beautiful chestnut mane was shabby. The girl working in the stable that morning told me Brandy had an infection, and wasn’t eating. “Hang in there boy” I said, patting his neck softly. I slowly walked down to the end of the stalls, to see which horse I’d be assigned to for class, instead of my pal.

   Tillie was a dark bay mare, smaller than Brandy. My first thought was that she’d be easier to mount, maybe slower, but sleek. But I saw a hint of her wild spirit as she was saddled. She kept tossing her head from side to side, and pounded the hay on the floor of her stall. I tried to reassure myself that she was just reluctant to work, and that once we started riding, she’d be fine. But there was stubborn resistance in her walk, and I had to face the fact that this was no quiet filly.

   I led her to the long line of horses in the center of the ring, and I said a few uneasy hellos to my classmates. I suddenly began wishing I was leaving with the rest of the departing 10:00 class. “Oh come on Sue,” I chided myself.  “Hey girl, nice to meet you,” I said, trying to calm her down. I slowly and deliberately tightened her girth, and gathered her reigns on the left, to mount. I got an angry stare, and a sudden chill right to the marrow, as I saw her ears lay back flat. She was angry.

     I was embarrassed that I needed Karen, my instructor, to hold Tillie’s reigns as I mounted, but that was the least of my problems. I couldn’t even keep her in line with the other horses. Tillie moved to snap at my friend Lisa’s horse, cranky and ready to pick a fight. Lisa knew I was struggling. “She’s nothing like Brandy, eh?” Lisa commented. I just nodded, not wanting to give up more than that. I was told to fall in near the back, which was strange to me because Brandy and I used to lead. Ego, I suppose.

     We began walking, so far so good, and I started to regain some confidence. Tillie’s not so bad. Karen told us to get in position to trot. I leaned forward in the saddle, and gave Tillie a slight but firm tap with my boot heel. She broke into a trot abruptly, but I was ready, and after a beat or two, I started posting. Her pace was faster and choppier than Brandy’s, but I adjusted in no time. Not bad, I thought….. BANG! She broke loose into a full gallop in two seconds. I flew by the rest of the horses, passing like a speeding Ferrari in the fast lane. What the hell?? I heard, and saw a million things at once, too much. The large rectangular windows flew by me, horses and riders all of a blur, and Karen’s loud but calm voice echoed through the ring. “Lean back in the saddle, bring your arms down to your sides,” she commanded. “Pull down on the reins, elbows down to your sides!” I can’t. I can’t!!!!

     As Tillie galloped around the ring, my fingers stung from the force of my death grip on the reigns. Her hooves pounded the dirt in harrowingly precise rhythm, an equine metronome.  Eerie silence from the other horses and riders, their outlines flew by, blurry frozen stillness.  They’re getting quite a show, aren’t they? “Sue, get your arms down, lean back in the saddle” repeated commands from Karen, to no avail. My life, up to then, flashed in my mind. Is this it? Am I done now?

I saw my third birthday. My dark blond hair in my eyes, and I wanted to go back to sleep, but Mom says I have to open my presents before the kids went to school. “Isn’t that dolly cute?” Mom asked. “Look Sue, it’s a Captain Kangaroo record, you love that show!” A camera flashed and I stared down at the doll, loving her but too dazed to say so. Jimmy, Joyce and Tommy waited for me to squeal with delight, but I let them down. Wait, I adored my dolly and the record, come back you guys! I’m sorry!

     I then saw the crowds of disinterested shoppers at the Willowbrook Mall, passing me by as I stood tearfully next to the security guard. I am lost and no one knows me! Will someone have to adopt me? Just like Oliver Twist in the workhouse?  Where are you Mom?

     Then I came down the stairs on my tenth birthday to an empty living room, and no happy birthdays. My sister Joyce scowled. “Lynne’s in the hospital, she couldn’t breathe last night. Mom and Dad took her”. I felt so sorry for myself as I opened my presents alone. I cried as I walked that morning to school. Oh God, I was so selfish, I know, but I was ten!!

     Next, I am in the seventh grade, and almost got into a fight with one of the “tough girls”, Kathy Pansini. I gave her the finger, but she deserved it! My first flash of Sicilian indignation! She stared me down, and I stared right back. But no punches were thrown. But I shook with fear though when I saw her at a distance, for weeks, hiding behind the brick corner walls of the school. Thank God it happened right before summer vacation!

     Now, I was 15, on my first date with a dark eyed mistake named Neil. I fidgeted nervously across from him in the booth at the diner. His Mom was a waitress, frizzy haired and snapped her gum and called me dear, as she looked me over. She talked like real Jersey, not like how my teacher-parents wanted us to talk.  Neil’s black leather jacket and mag wheels were crazy cool, just like Sandy and Danny in Grease. No, not really. My first “in love with love” awakening. He turned away from me by the summer, a lucky escape.

     Jump ahead to junior year, history class. Teacher was late and I sat on the windowsill, apart from the rest of the class that talked about parties and gossip while I closed my eyes and felt the sun. I don’t like your cliques! I opened my eyes to see my sandy, long haired secret crush, Dave, known as “Reevo” to his friends, sit down only few feet from me. I felt his dusty blue outlaw eyes gaze on me and my cheeks burned. My shyness weighed down my eyelids like armor, too damn scared to gaze back. I fought it and looked up, just once, and felt a delicious electric spark.

     Then I was in college, trying to tell Charlie I couldn’t see him anymore. We stood outside Edelmann’s Bakery in Garfield, with the street lights shining down on the teen aged tragedy. “But Sue, I was thinking of marriage,” Charlie pleaded as his voice squeaked. I didn’t love him, should have told him that instant. Instead it took hours of migraine phone calls before he gave up. He finally returned my records and cassettes; scratched and tapes pulled out. Take that!

     Finally, I was in Mystic Seaport, the previous summer, walking around with this older guy Kevin, who seemed perfect for me. We sat at a picnic table, finishing our ice cream cones and he looked at me, a slow smile on his face. He’s a helicopter pilot, and He likes me! I blushed.

     Okay, listen to Karen. Get your arms down, elbows to your sides. Tillie was galloping at light speed, and I just couldn’t get my body low enough in the saddle to pull back hard on the reigns. I just can’t do it! Got to try. We turned a corner and with every last ounce of strength, I pulled back, because I knew it was my last chance. Tillie slowed ever so slightly, a moment’s hesitation, but galloped on. We headed for the top corner turn and I knew, this was it. She headed straight for the wall. It’s too soon, not my time yet. Not yet!!!

     I screamed a desperate “NOOOO” and hurtled into the wall, throwing my left arm up to shield my face. Crash and burn. I landed with a thud on the ground, dust cloud shrouding me. I’m still here! I lift my head up, which felt like an adult bowling ball on the shoulders of a child.  Inhale. My lungs only squeaked and nothing came in, no air, just dirt. My eyes struggled to focus through my tangled hair, and I tasted blood on my lips, dirty scrapes starting to sting my hands. Tried to lean on my elbows, but my left arm collapses like my clumsily built card houses. Ok, I’ll lean on my right, I think stubbornly. I look up and see Tillie, about 20 feet away, calmly gazing at me, not a care in the world. My green eyes flash with anger. How dare she??!!

     I hear the briskly solid boots of Karen stride up to me, guiding me on my shaky feet.  She shook her head of brown corkscrew curls side to side, with a strange smile. “Now you’re a veteran” she said, with a pat on my back.

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