Riding lessons, p.1
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       Riding Lessons, p.1

         Part #1 of Riding Lessons series by Sara Gruen
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Riding Lessons

  Riding Lessons

  Sara Gruen

  To Bob,

  for so many reasons


  Chapter 1

  "Are you ready?" says Roger as he gives me a...

  Chapter 2

  Harry was gone, although I didn't find out for almost...

  Chapter 3


  Chapter 4

  Two weeks later, we're on a plane to New Hampshire.

  Chapter 5

  When Mutti comes around the corner the next morning, I'm...

  Chapter 6

  The next morning, the four of us pile into the...

  Chapter 7

  At quarter to seven the next morning, there's an ungodly...

  Chapter 8

  Pappa is deteriorating quickly, falling straight off the edge. Eva...

  Chapter 9

  With infallible teenage logic, Eva expects me to drive her...

  Chapter 10

  When I head for the stable in the morning, I...

  Chapter 11

  There are some men who would let that be the...

  Chapter 12

  I wake up fretting in equal parts about Hurrah and...

  Chapter 13

  Other than Courtney, there have been no responses to my...

  Chapter 14

  Valium head again. Lead weights behind my eye sockets, cheesecloth...

  Chapter 15

  I love the French. Such a civilized people.

  Chapter 16

  Mutti won't speak to me. Not that night, nor as...

  Chapter 17

  I wish I were dead.

  Chapter 18

  By nine o'clock, it's clear that I'm going to have...

  Chapter 19

  The room is dingy, like a conference room at a...

  Chapter 20

  "Hey there."

  Chapter 21

  "Keep your heels down, Malcolm."



  About the Publisher

  Horse * pow * er ('hors-pau (-&) r)

  1. (Noun) A standard measure of power defined as the energy required to lift 33,000 pounds at the rate of one foot per minute, or 55 pounds at the rate of ten feet per second.

  2. (Informal) The extraordinary capacity of a horse to elevate the human spirit.

  Chapter 1

  "Are you ready?" says Roger as he gives me a leg up, and I laugh, because I've never been so ready in all my life.

  And Harry is, too, with his red neck flexed and his ears swiveling like antennae, but never together--if one is forward the other is back, although sometimes they land impossibly out to the side, like a lop-eared goat's. He stamps and snorts as I lower myself into the saddle and gather the reins, and I forgive him, this time, for not standing still while I mount because while it's terrible manners there are extenuating circumstances and I, too, cannot be still. I run the reins across the black gloves that cover my wet palms and icy fingers and look back at my father, whose face is lined and stern, and then at Roger, who smiles up at me with his face a perfect composite of tension, pride, and joy.

  He lays a hand on my booted calf and says, "Give 'em hell, babe," and I laugh again, because I have every intention of doing just that.

  And then Marjory is leading us to the gate--actually holding the reins, as though I can be trusted to take fences of almost five feet but not to steer Harry into the arena.

  "Watch your pace going into the combination," she says, "and don't let him rush you. Collect him sharply coming around the turn after the water jump, and if you get past the oxer and you're still clear, hold him back and take it easy because you've already got it even if you take a time fault."

  I nod and look across the arena at the judges because I know that already. We can take eight faults and still tie for first, and if we get none or four we've done it, and nobody else has a hope. Marjory is still talking and I nod impatiently and just want to start because Harry and I are going to explode with the excitement of it all, and we're ready, we're ready, oh, we're ready. But I know it's not Marjory who gets to decide so I try to remember to breathe and ignore her and suddenly it's easy, as though I'm in a wind tunnel and all of everything beyond Harry and me is on the outside.

  Then I get the signal and I think that it's time to go--think it, that's all--and Harry goes, walking forward so deep on the bit his nose is pressed to his chest, and as we step into the arena I can see our shadow on the ground and his tail on end like a flag. The man on the PA introduces us--Annemarie Zimmer on Highland Harry, with a commanding lead and yadda yadda yadda--but no one's paying attention because they're staring at Harry. No gasps or murmurs this time, not on day three, but then someone goes and wrecks it because I hear some bastard man say, "Now there goes a horse of a different color," and I know from that one remark that he's missed days one and two and I hate him because I know he feels clever for the remark. But I suppose I'd say it too, since you don't see many or any striped horses out there, and before Harry I never knew such a thing existed, but here he is, and there's no denying that. Not today. Not here.

  I hear the whistle and press my calves against him and we're off. Harry shoots forward like a coiled spring, so compressed his haunches feel like they're right under me.

  I tighten my fingers, No, no, no Harry, not yet, I'll let you, but not yet, and his ears prick forward, together this time, and he says, All right, and gives me a collected canter that feels like a rocking horse, so high on the up and so low on the down. And we rock around the corner and approach the first jump and he asks me, Now? And I say, No, and he says, Now? And I say No, and then a stride later I can tell he's about to ask again, but before he can I say Yes, and he's off and I don't have to do anything else--won't have to until we're over and on the other side, and then I'll just have to ask him again, and he'll do it because he loves me and we're one.

  There's the flap-flap-flap of leather on leather, the heavy incalzando of hoofbeats, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, and then a massive push, a hundred thousand compressed pounds exploding forth before--

  Silence. As we arc over the fence, the only parts of me in contact with anything are my calves and hands and the balls of my feet although it looks like I'm lying on him, so forward am I and curved around his neck with my face alongside where his mane would be if it weren't braided into a row of nubby topknots. And then bang! We've landed, and as soon as his front hooves make contact with the ground I'm back in the saddle and we're headed toward the brick wall and it's perfect. I can tell we're going to be clear because that's just the way it is.

  We're flying now, and it's a wonder to me that we touch the ground at all because clearly we don't need to over one, two, three more fences. I lose remembrance of the order of it but don't need to remember because I feel it, looked at it until it became a part of my being, and here we are at the spread now, where White Night and Frito Misto both refused, but not Harry--on and past, to the water, and I'm letting him now, trusting him, and we're flying. I bring him in on the turn, just like Marjory said, and now we're headed for the double oxer, only the combination left between us and the finish, and if we clear just one more, the ribbon is in the bag and we're off to the Rolex-Kentucky, and who knows, maybe the Olympics, because why not? Because anything and everything is possible.

  Let me, he says, and I say Yes, because how can I not, and I feel the energy gather in his haunches and then pow! He shoots us off the ground and the crest of his neck rises toward me and I thrust my hands forward to keep the reins light and it's beautiful. I catch a glimpse of a few faces over the boards in the spectator stands and I know they're rooting for us, holding their breath--even Dan, who is out there although he's still mad about Roger--and the moment I feel Harry's hind ho
cks clear the top I know we've done it. We've taken first place, and although we're still airborne I'm rejoicing because we've done it, and it can't be taken away.

  His front hooves come down and his neck stretches out, and I allow my fingers to graze his coat in a secret caress as I move my hands back in anticipation of his mouth returning toward me. But it doesn't. Something's not right, although I can't process this because the ground is coming at me as though his legs were sinking right through it. I am confused, because we cleared the jump and I was paying attention to how his legs came down and I'm irked, not scared, and then I'm not feeling anything, because there's an explosion as the ground smashes into me. And then blackness.

  The blackness is broken by occasional windows of light and gyrating color, snapping open like the shutter of a syncopated camera. Voices are swirling Oh my God, oh my God, can you hear me, don't try to move her, let us past. Then blackness again before another white light and the rhythmic thud-thud-thud-thud of helicopter blades, and someone saying, "Annemarie can you hear me? Stay with me Annemarie. Annemarie, stay with me," and I really wish she'd stop because all I want to do is sink into the blackness. And then I do and it feels good and I wonder if Harry is there.

  Chapter 2

  Harry was gone, although I didn't find out for almost three weeks. When we came down over the double oxer, Harry's long pastern--the largest of the three bones between his hoof and his foreleg--shattered into nine pieces. His scapula, sternum, and pelvis were broken as well, but it was the pastern that clinched it. There was nothing to be done with those nine bits of bone, so they shot him where he lay.

  I was even more broken than Harry, but they didn't shoot me. I was airlifted to the Sonoma Valley Trauma Center, where it was discovered that my neck was broken. Also my collarbone, left arm, eight ribs, nose, and jaw; but it was the neck that really counted.

  Because of large doses of methylprednisolone, I floated in and out of euphoria for two weeks, blissfully unaware of the fact that I could no longer move any part of my body. When I finally fought my way to the surface, I was assaulted with questions: What's your name? Where do you live? Can you tell me what year it is? And I was tired--so very tired--and wondered why people were bothering me with questions that seemed so obvious, and also why the answers remained inexplicably beyond my grasp.

  Can you wiggle your toes, can you squeeze my hand, can you feel this, they continued, and of course, I could not. My body felt like a sack of sand with a head attached--I had lost all knowledge of my limbs, that sense of knowing where your pieces are even when you're not moving them. The awareness of pressure from clothes, a whoosh of air across bared skin, a sudden reminder from your finger that it's still attached. All that was gone. There was nothing, there was deadness. It was as if someone had lopped my head off and put it on a plate, and somehow attached the necessary mechanics to keep it alive. And of course, once I became aware of this, I wished they hadn't bothered.

  Some time later, through the haze of morphine that was necessary because my face had just been reconstructed, I heard my father speaking with a doctor.

  "Will she ever ride again?" he asked.

  His voice was muffled, and I had to strain to hear above the equipment that surrounded me: the hiss and release of the ventilator, the machine that chirped in time with my heart, the blood-pressure cuff that wheezed to life at regular intervals.

  I think they were behind a curtain, but they could have been at my feet. I don't know, because my head was screwed into a halo, and I couldn't turn to look. The doctor took so long to respond I was afraid I'd missed his answer, but there wasn't a thing I could do to make it easier for his voice to reach me--I couldn't cup a hand behind my ear, I couldn't watch his lips. I couldn't even hold my breath to make it quieter.

  When he finally spoke, his words were drawn out and raspy. "Well, it would be premature to make a projection on how much function she's likely to regain," he said. "Our first goal is to get her breathing on her own."

  Pappa mumbled something desperate, and then the blood-pressure cuff began to inflate. Over its steady inhalation, the phrases "world-class athlete," "Grand Prix rider," and "Olympic contender" floated around like birds; Pappa, agitated, speaking as though he was sure the doctor was holding back. Negotiating, wheedling, and bullying, as though the doctor would do more if he could only be made to understand how important it was that I get back on a horse.

  Again, a pause, and the cuff began its jerky deflation. More fragments of conversation: "spinal shock," "vibratory sense," and "central cord syndrome." And then the cuff fell silent and against the relative quiet of the respirator, I heard my injury explained to my father: how my neck had been broken at the C2 and C3 vertebrae, which usually resulted in catastrophic injury; how extremely fortunate it was that everyone had followed the correct protocol at the scene and immobilized my spine; that the steroid injection I'd been given aboard the LifeFlight would also work in my favor; and finally, that it was possible--and there were no guarantees here, it was important to remember that--but it was possible that when the swelling of the soft tissues went down, I might recover some movement.

  As I slipped back into my opium dreams, those words echoed endlessly through my head, only unlike an echo, they refused to fade: might recover some movement, might recover some movement, might recover some movement.

  If I could have willed the ventilator plug out of the wall, I would have done it.

  Flash forward now. Skip over the nine weeks in ICU and the hell that was mine when I heard that Harry was dead. Past the tortured nights I spent trapped inside my lump of a body and imagining his rotting out there somewhere until someone, mercifully, told me that Pappa had had him cremated. Past the mousy intern with a lazy eye, that incredible individual who first thought to bang a tuning fork against her knee and then press it, humming, against the soles of my feet; past the joy and trepidation I felt when the reverberations of that note--the A below middle C--made it to my brain, indicating that maybe all was not lost. Past the halo traction and titanium skull screws that same intern drilled into my head so that sixteen pounds of weight could be strung from a series of pulleys, stretching my neck and allowing the vertebrae to heal. Past the rehabilitation, the surgeries, the body braces, the parallel bars, the crutches; past the monumental effort and incredible dedication from a retinue of professionals to where I emerged on the other side, a mere fifteen months later, whole and miraculously uncompromised except for an almost imperceptible decrease in sensation at the very tips of my fingers. And finally, past that glorious day the following July when I walked unassisted down the aisle at my wedding, hips swaying under my beaded gown, swishing satin and grace, and breathless with the victory of it all.

  I never rode again, although in the end there was nothing physically wrong with me that would have prevented it. My parents have always believed that I never rode again because I married Roger, but they've got it ass-backward. I married Roger so I could move to Minnesota and no one would ever ask me to get on another horse, because no one seemed to understand that it would be exactly that. Another horse.

  I tend to think about my accident in terms of metaphors, partly because I think too much and partly because when I finally went to college, I studied English literature. I usually compare it to the first domino to fall, one moment standing solid like a punctuation mark, and then the next setting off a chain of events so inevitable, so unstoppable, that all you can do is stand back and watch.

  It's not until twenty years later that the final three fall.

  One. Two. Three.

  Chapter 3


  It's an ordinary afternoon, brutally so, and I'm editing a help file, staring at my screen as though it will yield inspiration. The phone rings, and I reach for it without removing my gaze from the liquid crystal screen.

  "Annemarie Aldrich," I say.

  "It's me," says Roger. "I was wondering when you'll be home tonight."

  "Mmmm. Probably later," I say, m
y mind still on the file in front of me. There's something about the way it's organized, something that wants changing.

  "Do you know what time?"

  "Hmmm?" I say. I've almost got it, I'm almost there: it's the first and third paragraphs, they're--

  "What time will you be home?"

  My concentration is broken and my vision of the topic recedes. I lean back in my chair, aware once again of the world around me.

  Beyond my screen, outside the door of my office, people whiz past. There are telephones ringing, keyboards clattering, the sounds of conversation, a stifled guffaw.

  "Not sure," I say.

  "I'd like to see you," he says.

  "Uh, yeah, me too," I say, leaning forward again. An incoming email has caught my attention. "Yeah, all right. I'll try to be home at a decent hour."

  "I'll wait up," he says.

  "Uh-huh," I say, scanning the message. Damn. The lead writer for InteroFlo wants to submit material for edit this week, is trying to present it as something I've agreed to. Absolutely not, I'm afraid. Not with the SnapShot release. I prop the phone between my ear and shoulder and begin typing a response.

  "It sounds like you're busy," says Roger.

  "I am, darling. You know how it is around release."

  "Well, I guess I'll see you later then."

  "Right, Love," I say, making an effort to sound more animated now that it's clear he's releasing me. "Bye."

  I hang up.


  Another interruption. This time it's my supervisor, whose head and neck are curled around my doorframe.

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