Poor Horse Girl. She was cross-eyed and flunking the fourth grade because she couldn’t stop drawing horses, big beautiful stallions that galloped across her math homework and into her English compositions. Her feet pointed out like a penguin when she walked, the opposite of her eyes, and she wore oversized sweatshirts that she decorated at home with a fabric pen. Her lips were constantly chapped, and after lunch she carried around half a cookie in her braces, but there was something about her, an invisible breeze like you could fly a kite inside her energy.
Max was the first to catch the fever. It was during P.E. He was minding his own business, contemplating The Empire Strikes Back, wondering what Lando Calrissian’s motivation was in handing over Han & Co. to that ratdick Vader, when Horse Girl did a somersault, and her puffy sweatshirt flipped up, and Max’s heart stopped for a whole beat during which he realized that Lando had no choice: as Baron Administrator of Cloud City, he was simply trying to spare his citizens from the vaporizing effect of the Storm Trooper’s E-11 blaster rays.
At recess, he yanked me and Leonard off the dodge-ball court and marched us to the far end of the soccer field, where we sat in the caboose of the playground train.
“Okay,” he said. “Here’s the deal. I just saw Horse Girl naked.”
Leonard and I looked at each other in the way fourth graders do when anybody says the word naked.
“Not all of her,” he went on. “Just the top. She was doing somersaults in P.E. and her shirt came up. I saw her boobs.” He said this in a tone of confession. As in, help me, brothers. Help me understand what it all means.
“Horse Girl doesn’t have boobs,” offered Leonard.
“She has nipples,” said Max. “Pink ones. They gave me a huge boner.”
None of us knew what to make of this. Horse Girl was obsessed with horses. That’s all we knew about her, and all we cared to know. The idea that she had something as improbable and magic as girl nipples under that puffy sweatshirt was more than our grapefruit-sized brains could handle. We went home and built a replica of the Millennium Falcon out of Legos, and for the rest of the year we avoided her, regarding Horse Girl’s existence as an anomaly, something to contemplate only in secret, perhaps, or better yet not at all.
That summer, inspired by a Swedish porno called Stockholm Splash, my dad built a wooden hot tub in our backyard. Six, seven hours a day, while Dad was at work, Max and Leonard and I sat in the Jacuzzi, grinding our shorts against the jets, goggle-eyed and woozy. The blast was intense; it made our peckers feel like they were being stabbed by a thousand tiny knives, but we couldn’t pull away. I don’t know what Max and Leonard were thinking, but I’d concocted an elaborate fantasy of Horse Girl somersaulting on endless gymnastic pads, her nipples cross-eyed like her face, the secret eyes of a body I’d never thought about until a few months ago as anything other than elbow-y and sweatshirt covered.
Eventually my mom grew concerned about the prune-skinned zombies in the hot tub. She wrapped us in towels, and we sat on the living room floor with chattering teeth, eating grilled cheese sandwiches.
September dragged a wool sweater across the sky, and our clandestine subaquatic masturbatory club was nipped in the bud by the start of a new school year. We showed up the first day in JCPenney jeans and stood in the hallway looking at the computer printout on the wall. I’d been assigned to Mrs. Allen’s class with Leonard, but Max, that lucky jet-humper, was in Mrs. Holstrom’s class with Horse Girl.
Max worked quickly. By morning recess they were playing tetherball together, and at lunch they announced they were going steady. I was crazy with jealousy. There they were, walking down the hallway holding hands, telling everybody that when they turned eighteen they were going to get married and move to Hawaii and buy a ranch with one thousand horses. The next day Horse Girl showed up wearing a new homemade sweatshirt that said: GINA + MAX = FOREVER. The words formed an arch over an elaborate fabric pen mural of a dozen unicorns in hula skirts juggling pineapples.
By October they were behaving as husband and wife. They gave each other neck rubs, argued at the lunch table, passed a carton of chocolate milk back and forth during particularly riveting episodes of Schoolhouse Rock! One day at recess, they disappeared behind the janitor’s shed for almost thirty minutes. When they reappeared, Horse Girl’s sweatshirt was on backward. In confidence, Max informed us that they’d done basically everything, including kissing with their mouths open. He said that while their spit went back and forth, her eyes straightened out, and the surprise of her uncrooked gaze gave him the power of a Jedi Knight.
This sounded crazy, but it was around this time that Max became frighteningly good at dodge ball. First he hit Larry Weaver square in the glasses and shattered them. Then he hit Leonard in the kidney, and Leonard had to have some kind of operation. Then he pegged me in the forehead, and I lost the ability to read for six months and had to repeat the fifth grade.
Max and Leonard and Horse Girl (via the miracle of summer school) galloped into junior high, while I was left behind in a classroom full of babies. They were only a year younger than me, but the girls had head lice and the boys never blew their noses, and I learned to take pleasure in hurting them.
There was this boy, Lester, a name that almost demands a bloody nose. I gave him several but it was never enough. One day it was 31 degrees outside and he was wearing a ski parka that made him look like an elf and I discovered new and invigorating ways to be cruel.
At recess I asked if he wanted to see a porno mag that I’d stolen from my dad. He said he didn’t know what a porno mag was, but sure. We snuck through a hole in the fence and scooted down the slope to Melville Creek. The rain had been coming down nonstop for weeks, and the creek had turned into a tumultuous river. I told Lester that the porno mag was hidden under a stone in the middle of all that churning water, and that if he wanted to see it, he had to go get it himself. He scratched his forehead, took a step forward, then changed his mind and said it looked pretty cold actually, and besides he wasn’t supposed to get his pants wet. I said that was pretty much the answer I’d expect from a homo-loving queer.
My taunt had a powerful effect on Lester. Not only did he have a shitty name, but his speech was marred by a pronounced lisp, most evident when he attempted to list his favorite Broadway Musicals: Greath, Thouth Pathific, Leth Mithérableth.
Lester rolled up his pants and stepped into the water and waded up to his waist and was preoccupied fishing around for the nonexistent porno, when his puffy parka filled up with water and the current carried him away.
I heard later that he was fine, but that ER doctors had surgically removed two of his toes. When I finally hit middle school I quit going to class altogether and learned how to sell drugs, which turned out to be a coincidence, because Horse Girl was just learning how to use them.
I blame the US Navy. If it hadn’t been for that floating fleet of murdering hillbillies in their pretty white hats and bell bottoms, Horse Girl would have married Max. Or more likely, they would have grown apart over time and she would have found a happy, energetic boy who loved his mother and believed in things like hard work and taking care of his body. Instead she found me, and Horse Girl became the poster child of everything Ronald Reagan warned us about—peer pressure, gateway drugs, what happens when you say yes instead of just saying no.
It happened like this: in the eighth grade, Max’s dad got transferred to a naval base in Hawaii. This seemed to fulfill his and Horse Girl’s dream of moving to the Big Island and having a ranch with a thousand horses. The only problem was Horse Girl’s mother, who wasn’t keen on her thirteen-year-old daughter moving to a tropical island with her fourteen-year-old boyfriend. This was logical and expected, but Horse Girl wasn’t interested in logic. She was flunking pre-algebra. She just wanted to get married to her boyfriend and learn to play the ukulele and raise horses to gallop across the earth, jumping through rainbows. She wrote Max a long letter confessing her love and plan to run away, but Max’s mom intercepted it and, forging her son’s handwriting, replied: “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE, GINA. QUIT WRITING. —MAX.”
The letter hit Horse Girl about the way you’d expect a letter like that to hit a wildly in love teenager. She became suicidal. She started drinking from her parents’ liquor cabinet. Alcohol made her feel like she was floating above her problems. Her mind became a hot air balloon, and the part of her that wanted to die was a thousand feet below, so tiny it looked like an ant trying to hang itself from a noose made of dental floss.
At Ken Stone’s birthday party Horse Girl smoked pot for the first time out of a two-foot bong loaded with a strain called “Northern Lights,” and her heart became the Black Stallion, galloping across the Disney beaches of her childhood. She started drawing horses again. The drawings became exquisite. Sinewy legs. Eyes like obsidian flakes. Manes that turned into plumes of starlings flying sideways across the page.
Mr. Turner, her math teacher, wrote: “D-minus, but holy Moses, Gina, your drawing skills are seriously improving!!!”
One day her best friend Sarah, who always hooked her up with weed, said the dealer was out. There’d been a shakedown up at a higher level. Nobody had anything. Not even schwag.
Horse Girl panicked. She hadn’t felt a single emotion in the six months she’d been smoking reefer, and she worried there might be a dangerous backlog. She asked everyone she knew if there were any other dealers in our godforsaken suburb. That’s when my name came up.
I was out of grass too. We all were, but I had tons of coke.
“This stuff is way cooler,” I said, dropping a dime bag on the coffee table.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You still draw those horses? This is the Secretariat of highs. One line and you’ll be rounding the last bend at Belmont Stakes.”
To show her how it was done, I leaned over and snorted that white powder deep into my brain. For a few seconds, I saw flamingos.
She gave it a try.
She loved it.
She stood up and went into my backyard and started doing jumping jacks on my trampoline.
I stuck my head out the sliding glass door and said, “Horse Girl. Cool it with the exercise.”
These were the days when there were narcs everywhere and you had to keep your shit cool one hundred percent of the time.
So we stayed inside and did lines all night and watched Ren & Stimpy on Nickelodeon, and she forgot about her mom and that she had a home. She crawled into my bed at 4 am and fell asleep and I held her all night, feeling the warm breeze of her breath. She was zonked out and snoring a little, and I put my finger in my mouth and touched it to her dry lip. I did this several times until, for the first time since we met in kindergarten, her lips weren’t chapped.
When she woke up she had a horrible coke hangover. She went to the bathroom, locked the door, and started singing The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” over the sound of the shower. Thirty minutes later the shower was still running but without any musical accompaniment. I started to worry, so I pried the door off its hinges and found Horse Girl naked in the bathtub with trees of blood running down her arms. I started screaming, but then I noticed it was hardly any blood at all. She’d tried to kill herself with my electric razor. She’d taken the cover off and attempted to extract the miniature knives, but they were fixed in place, so she’d just lacerated her fingertips, then disrobed and waited to meet Jesus.
I put Band-Aids on her fingers and carried her to my bed. I wanted to kiss her pretty pink nipples, the ones I’d heard so much about in the fourth grade; in the intervening years, they’d doubled in size and now sat atop lovely white mounds. But I didn’t touch anything I wasn’t allowed to. I made her hot chocolate and wouldn’t let her do any more cocaine. She became sober, and I convinced her to play Scrabble, and she let me play DICKWEED on a triple word score even though it isn’t a real word.
You have to understand. I was fifteen years old and the love of my life was sitting on the floor of my bedroom with blood-soaked Band-Aids on her fingers, wearing nothing but frilly pink underwear and a ratty Notre Dame sweatshirt that I used to wear back in grade school when going to college seemed like a realistic, even pragmatic option for my deadbeat existence. Also, we were listening to Pink Floyd, and David Gilmour’s guitar sounded like a laser beam shot from this dimension to another one, and there was a shaft of light coming through the gap in the curtains, inside of which were suspended a million particles of dust—dead skin cells that used to be my body, but which now formed the barely visible distance between my lips and Horse Girl’s lips, lips that protruded just slightly due to a pronounced overbite that her braces, after five years of trying, had failed to correct.
If things got weird, it’s because children shouldn’t have money, but I had money. A fuck ton of it. Because everybody in the ninth grade hated themselves, and drugs helped us forget that, and fifteen-year-old boys with drug connections were the priests and redeemers of the existentially meaningless suburbs of Portland, Oregon, in the early 1990s.
After I beat Horse Girl at Monopoly, I suggested she call her mom to tell her she was okay. Horse Girl complained that her mom was a shriveled-up cunt who wouldn’t let her move to Hawaii. I told her that I was a drug dealer and had $75,000 in a suitcase under my bed and that if she wanted to go to Hawaii, I could totally make that happen. She didn’t believe me, so we took a limousine to a travel agency and bought one-way tickets to the Big Island.
The flight was for the following day, but instead of going home to pack, we told the limo driver to take us to the mall, where I bought Horse Girl a whole new wardrobe. I hung out with a bunch of mothers in the sitting area outside the dressing rooms. Every time Horse Girl came out in a new outfit, she made me say on a scale of one to ten what I thought of it.
I couldn’t help it. I said ten every time.
“I mean it,” she said. “Be honest.”
“Ten,” I said.
“Please,” she said. “You’re not helping.”
“Ten,” I said.
She acted mad, but I think it made her happy.
We took the limo back to my apartment, which was actually the second floor of my cousin’s house, a loveable but scary felon who, when his mother died of breast cancer, cashed in his inheritance to fund a legitimate drug empire. Due in no small part to my knack for customer relations and new lead acquisition, we were, the two of us, doing chemistry experiments on the brains of about four hundred teenagers in the better part of Washington County.
“Hey, who’s the pretty girl?” he asked.
“None of your business,” I said.
My cousin had a fondness for pretty girls. He followed us around the house, offering Horse Girl hot chocolate and free drugs. I told him I’d already made her hot chocolate—the good stuff, Nestlé—and that she had a pretty bad reaction to the coke I’d given her, so we were enjoying the effervescent glow of sobriety. Then I suggested he find his own girlfriend, and would he please leave us the fuck alone?
He said, “Don’t forget whose house this is.”
I said, “Your dead mother’s.”
He punched me in a really important organ, and I started throwing up blood. He said he was going to take Horse Girl into the bedroom and rape her, but then he changed his mind and stole all my cocaine and zoomed off in his Camaro.
There was seriously a lot of blood inside me. Or at least there was before it poured out of my mouth onto the carpet.
Horse Girl asked what she should do.
I said, “Please just hold me.”
She said, “You’re dying.”
I said, “Life is for suckers.”
She held me in a puddle of blood on the shag carpet of my dead aunt’s house. We stayed there so long the sun set over the row of crooked-topped hemlocks near the elementary school where we’d spent so many recesses playing jump rope and tetherball in each other’s general proximity, and then we were just lying there in darkness.
Finally I said, “I love you so bad, Horse Girl. I always have.”
She said, “I’m still in love with Max, but you’re pretty great too.”
It was enough. We started kissing, and I wish to Jesus I could see in the dark like a cat because all I really wanted was to find out if her eyes uncrossed the way Max said they would. But I couldn’t, but it didn’t matter because a few seconds later there was a wildly unexpected development when Horse Girl unbuckled my belt and crawled on top of me and put my penis inside of her vagina.
I came immediately, but she kept going up and down.
I imagined all our babies and started naming them in my brain.
Wait. Those were the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I cried and she cried, and I don’t think she had an orgasm, but I experienced a stillness so profound that I know what the Buddhists mean when they say, “Today is Wednesday, but tomorrow is the invisible mist suspended in the air around a waterfall.”
The next day we flew to the Big Island, but everything got weird. Despite my shameless pleading that we should enjoy this tropical jaunt as an exclusive duo, Horse Girl insisted on tracking down Max. I said, “Don’t you remember that whole dodge ball incident? I still can’t read more than five pages before my eyes start blinking uncontrollably.” She said, “I have unfinished business with that jerk.” So we hitch-hiked around the island, asking everybody if they knew a kid named Max who may or may not have the powers of a Jedi Knight.
Most people had no idea who Max was, and more than one suspected of us of being on drugs, which we were typically, but not today. After a dozen false leads, a fat bus driver named Kahikilani informed us that he’d heard about a wise teenage haole who lived on a commune in Puna; there was a pretty good chance that was our man.
We found him outside a food co-op. He was smoking a joint and didn’t have a shirt on. His abs were incredible and his hair was long and wavy.
“Holy Moses,” said Max. “It’s Kenny and Horse Girl.”
“You turned out handsome,” I said.
“I hate you,” said Horse Girl.
Max exhaled the reefer smoke out his nose. He was clearly bothered by Horse Girl’s choice of words. He explained that there was no such thing as “hate” in Hawaii, only energy. I noticed that he was wearing a crystal around his neck, bound in twine. It had the milky translucence of semen. “C’mon,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
We hopped in a rusty yellow pickup and drove to the beach. Hawaii was beautiful. There were palm trees and wild pigs, and in the distance a violently erupting volcano. Max explained that when the lava reached the ocean it formed new land, and that you could build a house on it for free, only you had to put it on stilts, because if you stepped on the black earth, the crust might break and your feet would immediately turn into bones.
While he was talking, I felt an itch in my shorts. I reached down and pulled out a gecko. It had bright green skin with three red fingerprints on its butt. I named it Trevor and put it back in my pocket.
It only took about seven minutes watching Max surf on that supernatural blue water to see what he meant. He really was a Jedi. The moon pulled the ocean up in the air and Max moved his foam board on top of it and dolphins leapt up all around him and he put his hand down and ran his fingers through the wave like the fur of a beloved pet.
“I can’t even remember what hate means,” said Horse Girl, watching. “Is it even a word? Did I make it up?”
There was something in the way she was looking at him; she’d become a child again, a scared little girl shuffling down the hallway with yesterday’s brownie in her braces. Her cheeks were the color of hibiscus, and her heart beat visibly above the bikini top I’d bought her two days ago, and I understood that no matter how hard I tried to convince her that I was Simon and Max was Garfunkel, it was too late. She’d made her decision.
I told Horse Girl that I hoped for her sake Max’s superpowers held up beneath the sheets. She gave me a kiss and thanked me for understanding, and I looked into her eyes and they weren’t crossed anymore.
I stuck my thumb out and two Hawaiian construction workers picked me up and gave me a ride to the other side of the island. I found a Walmart and bought a two-man tent and a mess kit, and for the next three days I slept on the beach, cooking Spam in a collapsible skillet for all of my meals. At night, humpback whales thrust their magnificent bodies into the air, and the sound of their splashing entered my dreams. One night I saw Horse Girl riding a stallion along a black sand beach. She was ten years old again, and she was wearing a puffy sweater. On it, in fabric pen, she’d written: MA’ANE’I NO KE ALOHA. I didn’t speak Hawaiian, but I was pretty sure that meant, You are my one true love, Kenny. Twenty years from now, I’ll come find you and we’ll be together again, finally, for eternity.
When I woke up, Trevor was clinging to the side of the tent, making love to a girl gecko.
Trevor, you hound!
I watched them do it. It was beautiful. Trevor’s little green body coiled around his slimy girlfriend like the tendril of a plant. Then he went to town. At one point their wet emerald bodies glowed and turned the color of tangerines, but that could have been the orange sun coming through the tent flap.
Just then I heard a rustling. The flap opened and Horse Girl crawled in. She was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. She flung her arms around me. I kissed the part of her hair. We lay on my sleeping bag, kissing in slow motion, and after a while I heard the birdlike voices of children playing on the beach. I listened to their squealing and the baritone voices of their fathers telling them not to go out too deep, and then I heard the bright, unselfconscious laughter of their mothers eating shaved ice in string bikinis. My whole life I’d thought this world was a mistake, a dingleberry clinging to a cat’s butthole after a long crap, but at that moment the dingleberry came loose and fell in the sand, and crabs surrounded it and covered it in kelp and tiny shells, and I understood that life is what you make of it, and that happiness is a six-hour flight from Beaverton, Oregon.
I keep thinking about that morning. In line at the grocery store, tucking my daughter into bed, watching the sun set from the window of my office where I’ve broken my one and only promise to myself: never to become one of them, i.e. the robots. My parents.
I’m supposed to be optimizing the website of a health-care organization right now, but here I am looking at Horse Girl’s Facebook page. She goes by Gina Sobolewski now. Most of the photos are of her kids. None of them are cross-eyed, but one has the moon face of Down syndrome. Gina’s gained weight, but it looks good on her. She looks tired but happy.
I close out of Facebook and work for a while, but I can’t help it. I pull up her page again. In one post she announces she’s six years sober. In another she boasts her high score at Candy Crush Saga.
This is who we’ve become, Horse Girl.
She sent the friend request last night. The notification made my phone vibrate. I was in bed.
“Who’s that?” asked my wife.
“Oh, nobody,” I said. “Just an invite to some event.”
She turned the page of her book.
My wife and I have been fighting lately. Would you believe that for a second I couldn’t breathe, seeing my old flame as a thirty-eight-year-old woman?
In 1992 a mutual acquaintance, a home burglar named Eddie, told Horse Girl that he was out of coke but had something way cooler. She jammed the needle in her arm and finally those pretty horses ran free over the grassy hills of her doped brain. About a year later she died, and when the paramedics made her walk again she was a shattered, cross-eyed Christ. But for a few months she was mine and I loved her, stupidly and completely, and I rooted for her in the dark like a child after a night of bad dreams.
Kevin Maloney is the author of Cult of Loretta, the forthcoming The Red-Headed Pilgrim, and Horse Girl Fever. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Barrelhouse, Green Mountains Review, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Aubrey.