White Horses

We were crossing to get to the waffle place, because that’s what we did back then—ate waffles heaped with scoops of beautiful white ice cream—when Janice had her attack right in the middle of Montezuma Street.

“I can’t breathe,” she said, holding her hand to her chest and tipping over to rest her other hand on her knee. She had stopped on the double yellow lines, panting. She yelled again. “I can’t breathe.” By then I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

“Come on,” I said, lamely. She shook her head.

“I’m in imminent danger,” she said.

Cars idled at a stoplight a block away. From the other direction, a herd of dumb vehicles rolled silently toward us down a wide slope. I dashed across two lanes and put my arm around her shoulders.

“Let’s go,” I said. She pursed her lips and breathed out long ribbons of air, like a woman in labor. Inside the waffle place she sat resting her head in both her hands.

“I think I need to go to the hospital,” she said. “My heart might stop.”

“You should eat a waffle,” I said, mostly because I wanted to eat a waffle. She shook her head, staring down at the table. “What about one without ice cream?” I offered.

“My fucking heart,” she said.

At the emergency room, there was a young woman dragging around an oxygen machine and a couple staring blankly at a blank wall. It was a Saturday morning, bright and beautiful in a way that made everything seem worse.

“This is all in your head,” the nurse said, checking Janice’s vitals in a small blue room.

“I feel like I’m going to die,” she sobbed. “I feel like something horrible could happen at any minute.”

“You’re having an anxiety attack,” the nurse said, ripping the blood-pressure sleeve off her arm.

“Isn’t there anything you can give her?” I asked. Janice held her hand to her throat like she was about to strangle herself.

“She needs psychiatric help,” the nurse said, turning to me, as if I had some authority. “She needs to lie down and breathe deeply.”

“Fuck you,” Janice said through her tissue. “You try breathing deeply when it feels like your heart’s going to stop. Try it. Fucking try it.”

I gave the nurse I’m-sorry eyes even though I wanted to say Look, her parents are dead. She’s had a hard life. She’s lived alone since she was sixteen. Give her a Xanax, a Tylenol, a goddamn sugar pill. Tell her it’s all going to be okay, at the very least. Instead, the nurse left and never came back. We sat in the blue room for an hour and a half. I read wrinkled fashion magazines while Janice lay on the examining table, breathing.

“Would you like to hear about some sassy summer cuts?” I asked, to which she did not respond. “How about we take the quiz to see what our blow job IQ is? It addresses the use of hands with the blow job, how to deal with the head of the dick, the integration of balls. I think we could learn a lot.”

It turned out we were both Fellatio Pros, which came as no surprise. I read her a section about how stars are just like us because they get groceries and wear sweatpants and drink iced lattes.

“I wish they would put in a photo of Reese Witherspoon sitting on a park bench and the caption would just be like ‘they have existential crises,’ ” she said.

“Stars, they’re just like us,” I said. “While doing their laundry, they meditate on the profound meaninglessness of life.”

“Fuck,” she said, sitting up and rubbing her face with her palms.

By the time we got back outside, the air had changed, cold veins tunneling through the midday heat.

“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” Janice said.

“That seems impossible,” I said. She shrugged.

“Lots of things do.”

#   #   #

After the hospital, I took her to the casino because that’s what Janice liked to do. Something about the expectation of chaos calmed her down.

“Tell me something you forget,” Janice said on the casino floor before jerking back a shot. She was wearing a green shirt with gold sequins arranged into the words Ahead of the Times. “Something on the edge of the cliff that’s just going over. Or else stand at the edge and look down into the pit and see what’s there.”

She fed a stack of money through the opening in the bottom of the Plexiglas window. The little man on the other side licked his dirty thumb and flipped through the bills.

“Okay,” I was saying, trying to think. The casino ceilings were pushing down on us and the only real light came from a bank of glass doors at the top of the stairs. I closed my eyes and imagined looking into the abyss. “What about a long grass lawn and two dirt lanes running on either side of it? The lanes are lined with tall trees and when you get to the end of the lawn, there’s a big brick building with some sort of turrets, or maybe they’re chimneys, and a wide staircase leading up to big wooden doors.”

“That’s something you forgot?” she asked, cupping a tower of chips.

“I guess,” I said. She nodded and raised her empty glass above her head for another drink.

This casino was the kind of place where burnt men with missing fingers shot dice and shriveled women wore fanny packs full of little bottles of gin. The dealer who worked the poker table presided with perfect posture and one glass eye. Janice called him Frankenman.

I tried to remember what it was, the building. Some sort of church. Some place I’d gone when I was a kid or else imagined I would live when I was grown up. And then I remembered another lane in another place and tall white trees in a single line all the way to the horizon, and something about buying a yellow Easter cake in a blue box. There was a bright beach and faded animals moving in the distance, kicking in the tide.

“I wonder where they come from,” I asked, and she said, “Phoenix, I bet” because she thought I was talking about the big women who smelled like powder and their wide-faced daughters with little eyes infesting the resort and casino that day, all in pastel or hats or suntan colored hosiery and white dress flats.

But I had meant the memories that waver up from somewhere deep inside you and feel like dreams. Or maybe I had meant the mouth-breathing mothers and inelegant girls. I had been drinking.

“Look at that one with the feathers,” Janice said, pointing up the stairs to a beautiful woman’s hat, the only beautiful woman in the building. “They wear them all the time over in England, not just on special occasions. I would wear little white gloves and a skirt suit and a hat every day if it wouldn’t make me a total lunatic.”

The problem was I remembered everything. For instance, every detail with Armand, the man I had been living with before I drove west. He was a lawyer descended from some sort of minor European royalty, the kind of family who had an estate and crest and stables somewhere far away in a place where the townspeople would still be able to recognize him from the noble shape of his nose. I had met him when I was waitressing at a businessmen’s bistro, one of those mahogany and leather establishments, one of those long white apron affairs. He just swooped me up and put me in his pocket and I never went back there again. You just stay here in this room, he said, meaning the apartment. Stay, he commanded, moving his hand as if he were holding a small child underwater. He was standing by the door in a crisp suit and smelled of blackberries and gin.

The good parts of the time we spent together are still there but have faded like pictures of your parents back in their beautiful days. It was the times near the end that came back to me as if they were some sort of cold, shimmering liquid shot directly in my veins. A moment in front of his open closet staring at the pale blue line of pressed shirts. The stripes of cold sun cutting through the shades. The tight weave of thread in a yellow silk tie. How silent the apartment was and how I moved through it with the same weight of silence. How delicate his hands were. The shape of his teeth. The thin white light of the hallway. Sliding a blade across the bone of his jaw. My hair falling down away from me. Him standing over me, touching my bare head.

We left the casino under thin light fading fast to a cold, uneasy dusk. The boys had come to pick us up. Benny danced across the parking lot, grabbing at Janice’s clothes. He said something about a blow job and Janice gave him the finger and he tossed his head back and let out a crack of a laugh that launched up and tapped the wide sky.

I told Stan I had lost all of what was in my bank account and then a little more.

“How is that even possible?” he asked. “A little more?”

Pretending to consider something of great import, he squinted toward the faraway mountains up north in Flagstaff, the tops frosted with early snow. What was coming was cold. I could see it in the hunch of his spine.

#   #   #

“Janice was asking me to remember something I forget,” I tried to explain to Stan in the back seat of the car. Benny was driving, gunning through yellow lights, then red. I laughed and look at Stan, who was white knuckling the handle above the window. Janice said something that sounded like metal getting dragged across the ground.

Stan stared out the window at what went by, the old stone armory and the Smoki Museum with bent Kokopellis playing flutes. We turned down Whiskey Row and cowboys strutted up and down the sidewalk with holstered guns on their hips. Every last building and bar on the street had burned down back when the town was young. They say they ripped the walnut bar out of the Palace, along with the player piano, and kept serving in the street while the town went up in flames.

“I climbed this mountain in Washington once,” Stan was saying. He took the end of his mustache between his fingers and rolled it. “In the snow, with picks and crampons and everything. One of my picks broke while I was going up and I nearly died. I wasn’t tied in.” He paused and two bikers who looked like they’d been dipped in boiling water and cooked outside-in came out of the bar and at first I thought they were dancing. They staggered there on the sidewalk, jamming their fists into their stomachs, into their flesh.

“But I can’t remember what it was like at the peak,” Stan said. “I think there was some sort of great bird in the sky, or maybe a pile of rocks that looked like a castle. Something particular about up there. But I can’t really be sure.”

“You can’t remember the top of the mountain?” I asked. “That’s weird.”

“Not really,” Janice said. “He’d nearly died.”

“Exactly. Shouldn’t it be more vivid then?” I said.

“I’d been engaged and the girl had just broken it off that day,” Stan said. He never said things like this.

We were driving past the gas station without any attendant, just some pumps on the top of a dry hill. Up there you could look south over hundreds of acres of Ponderosa Pine that had been scorched the past summer from wildfires that crept for miles and miles. Janice had been saying since the start, Just you watch, this entire state is going to burn.

“I didn’t know you were engaged,” I said, even though what was more surprising was that he was capable of emotional stress. I saw him hanging by one arm, holding on to an ax dug into the ice.

We drove past the little shop with a sign out front that had a big red heart on it and the words GUNS SAVE LIVES, then past the Pinecone Inn where old rich people in dusty clothes gummed Friday evening prime rib.

Stan knew I wanted to get married, not exactly to him but in a theoretical way. I wanted something beautiful, but there was no finding it during those times. Had Stan gotten me a diamond ring it would have been dull and wrong. These were the only sorts of things he had ever given me.

When I had been with Armand, he bought me whatever I wanted, jewelry in little blue boxes and trips to the beach in Florida. He made me shave his face in the shower with a straight razor and then told me he had left pieces of his hair in various places around the apartment so he could tell if I had moved things or looked in places I shouldn’t touch. One time he put his words together in such a way as if to suggest people of whom I was not aware were somehow watching me either via small cameras or else posing as custodians and delivery men.

By the end, all my clothes were falling off because I’d lost so much weight and I either slept all the time or not at all. For the first six months I lived in Arizona, I had this twitch where my head would jag back and forth. Janice called it PTSD and said the energy of what had happened between me and Armand was stuck inside me, kicking around. She said probably I was repressing things and I had to move them through my body somehow, and then she stood up and shook like she was possessed. Get it out, she kept saying. Her head tipped back and she fell to her knees, shaking. You have to get it out.

At the salon where Janice and I worked together, there were rumors that she used to strip in Texas and had lived with a meth dealer, that her mother had been murdered by a serial killer, that her father was poisoned by his second wife, that her only brother was the leader of the Aryan Nation in some high-security prison. All I had ever heard from her was that her mother had been a beautiful heiress, her father had been an anesthesiologist, and that their parties were famous all over Mississippi, with tents and big bands and long tables covered with white linens and flickering candles. She said that on long car rides to Florida, her brother used to curl up beside her in the back seat and sleep like a chipmunk.

#   #   #

We spent that night inside a box of light. Benny poured drinks called buttery nipples, and Janice put on a silk hat. She kept a glass case full of them in the corner and locked it with a key she wore around her neck. An investment, she said.

The place was packed with antiques that had once been worth something but had gone bad due to neglect. Lamps with tassels falling from the shades. Old leather chairs split in the middle of the seats. An entire mantle of stopped clocks covered in a thick layer of dust. Someone should really wind those, Janice would say as she walked by. She’d had the kitchen redone with black and white checkerboard tiles and shiny steel appliances, a deep porcelain sink and trendy track lighting, and I thought things were looking up, that Janice was going to care about something and would take care of it. Within a month it all looked old again, dirtied and worn in a way that should have taken lifetimes.

Out back, broken flowerpots, old dog houses, rusted lawn furniture, crooked tables she was going to mosaic one day, a horse trailer with two flat tires eased back down into the ground. I asked her once where the horses were and she said there had never been horses, that she had bought it for the horses she would have one day, but they never showed up.

The cabin itself looked cute and cozy from far away, but the closer you go to it, the more it became apparent that the whole thing was falling apart. The entire house sat slanted on a sandstone foundation that was washing away from too many seasons of strong summer monsoons. Janice was always talking about digging trenches, how we should really dig trenches around the entire place and seal the stone with latex, then wrap the entire thing in plastic and bury it again. What a great day for digging trenches she’d say, and we’d laugh, and not think about it again until the next hard rain.

Janice said she always felt like there was something creeping under everything, growing down there. That in bed at night all she could think of was mold and pestilence. That’s the word she used. Pestilence.

I said I always felt like there were beautiful things running way out at the edges of things. That she should close her eyes and stretch her arms out at her sides when she was lying there, and think about how there are these perfect white horses galloping way out in the distance. That they were part of some life we’d had or were going to get and we just had to believe.

“Sometimes when I’m driving I like to squint way out at the horizon and try to see them,” I said. “There are wild herds out here. Honestly. We could actually catch a glimpse of them one day.”

This is when she rolled her eyes.

“You are going to kill yourself driving around like that,” she said.

“Probably,” I said.

And that night—it might have been the booze or the swift change in barometric pressure, it might have been something about the fast wave of cold air, the rarity of high-desert snow, but everything had started to sparkle with unfamiliar light, as if every molecule had inside it the faintest glow.

“But what exactly do you mean by it?” Benny was asking Janice.

Benny’s hair was long to his neck and curled and blonde as a baby’s. He sat in a kitchen chair by the fireplace and Janice had tied a towel around his neck so that I could give him a trim. Stan was over on the couch with a magazine that had extinct creatures on the cover.

“What Stan said,” she said. “In the car.”

“But it doesn’t make sense. If you forget it then you can’t remember it.” Stan laid himself down on the couch and huffed.

“Yes, you can,” she said. She was straining and had the light of the fire flames in her eyes. Benny was all sunshine and air, even at night, even in an airless place. He glowed up at her and she puckered her lips and blew in his face.

“Not too much,” Benny was saying to me and I followed the buzz of the clippers with my eyes. I put my hand in his hair to feel the length and he touched my arm with his fingertips.

“Stan,” I kept saying and laughing. “Stan, where are you?”

I heard him and Janice in the kitchen talking, and then they laughed. Benny was telling me about some midgets he’d once hired to pitch a big white tent.

“Janice doesn’t remember anything from before she was ten,” Benny said. “She’s obsessed. Obsessed.” The back of his neck pulsed red and he felt warm and everything was disintegrating around us. I remembered gold music wafting through black velvet and the sound of two people’s feet as they moved. Everything that happened before that night must have been far worse than we ever could have imagined. What had happened? What had been so bad? I remembered every last detail down to the threads of his socks, but I still couldn’t tell you anything. I couldn’t tell anyone.

I was staring then, and Janice and Stan were over at a painting on the wall, and Janice was moving her hands.

“This is me,” she said, “and this is mother.” She pointed at the painting, a room with a portrait of a woman hung on the wall. A little painted girl gazed up at the mother portrait, and Janice gazed up at the little painted girl. Mother wore a straw hat with a blue ribbon.

“That’s very nice,” Stan said. “Mother was beautiful.”

“Yes,” Janice said, as if this were a realization. She touched her hat with one hand. “Yes.”

“I’ll give you one of my photographs,” Stan was saying and I wondered What photographs?

#   #   #

And then we were all naked in the hot tub on the back deck under a full moon, and Janice was talking about a princess dying in a car wreck and how she couldn’t stop thinking about how her skin must have been peeled back to the bone. As she talked, white clouds hung around her head in the cold air.

I kept drinking silver cans of beer but this only turned things worse. On New Year’s Eve a few years back, Armand had ordered in rare steaks and baked potatoes and pieces of peach pie that were delivered in paper bags by a tired man. Later that night, he made me take off all my clothes and then bound my wrists and ankles with duct tape and shaved my head. He told me it was because he loved me.

“Hottest sex,” Benny was saying. “With who was the hottest sex?” Like this was really going to be great, I was thinking. Like anything good would come of this.

Stan smiled and looked at the sky. Armand was probably sitting on one of the highest floors of a glass building, looking out over the yellow lights of New York City. He was probably wearing a silk tie in a warm room. He was probably standing behind a sheet of glass, thousands of feet up, glowing like a god.

“I’ll go,” Stan said and leaned back and put his hands on his head. “Jessica Pate. It would have to be Jessica Pate.”

“The one with the teeth?” I asked.

“Have you ever considered what it would be like if you weren’t pretty?” Stan asked.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with being pretty,” I said.

“It’s not everything,” he said. And I knew it was about Armand then. It was always about Armand. “Some girls don’t let the guys they’re with treat them certain ways,” he said. “Some girls you want to be with just because they don’t let you get away with shit.”

I squeezed my eyes tight closed and breathed through my nose. The air was thin and everything inside my head was swimming against itself.

“I like your spirit,” I heard Stan saying to Janice.

He thought it meant something about him, how I had dated Armand and now I was dating him. He thought this meant something about the sort of man he was that I would want to be with him. It did.

It did.

Then I said Armand—Armand had been the best, and Stan let out this laugh.

“I’m sure,” he said.

Then Janice said Benny, and then Benny’s turn came.

“What? I have to say Janice, right?” he said, joking around.

And then Janice said, “You don’t have to say me,” even though we all knew he did.

“No, it’s Janice,” Benny said, laughing. “You, Janice.”

“Don’t just say me if you don’t mean it,” she said, louder. “It’s worse if you just say it because you think you should.”

“No, it’s you,” he said, a little more serious.

“Don’t just say it!” she yelled. And then it got really quiet because we had arrived at a certain sort of moment.

We sat there and the snow fell, heavy and wet.

“It never snows,” I said. Janice was staring at something far away from all of us, toward the ravine where we had propped round, ripe watermelons in the summer and then shot through them so they exploded wet fruit.

“It always snows,” she said.

#   #   #

It seemed there had been a fairy tale I’d read once about us, about our time in Arizona wandering through a desert of washed-out vistas, driving a beat-up sedan down to Skull Valley where we liked to eat rare pieces of meat and two-step with unfamiliar cowboys. We thought the past was a place we could find again, but it was becoming clearer and clearer it was gone, that it had taken off and left us with nothing.

I woke up the next morning in Janice’s guest room with Stan pale and snoring like a hog beside me. When I opened the bedroom door, the cold raised bumps on my bare legs.

Janice stood in the living room in a gray shaft of light beaming through a hole in the ceiling. Around her, powdery snow radiated in a thin mist, dusting the ottoman and lampshades and velvet couch. She wore a long white nightgown through which I could see the edges of her small body silhouetted against the light of the bay window. She stared up through the hole in the ceiling, single flakes falling like feathers on her face.

“Oh my god,” I said.

She turned, looking like a ghost.

“The whole time, it was coming from above,” she said. “Who would have guessed?”

I stood beside her and looked up through the crumbled drywall and moldy insulation and disintegrating shingles. The sky was the color of a pearl.

Janice’s lips bloomed with the faintest shade of purple and her bare feet burned red against the white pile of snow.

“How long have you been standing here?” I said.

“A while.”

“You should have a warm bath. Or socks.” She smiled a little and kept staring.

“I just remembered . . . I used to sit in my bedroom window and look down at the garden,” she said. “All summer, I’d look down at the front garden because the bushes were cut into shapes. My dad had the gardener do it in the shapes of card suits. I liked the spades best because I couldn’t understand them. Like, what shape was a spade? What was it? Was it a heart or a leaf or a shovel?”

“Maybe it’s just a shape,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.”

“I’ve decided it was definitely either a heart or a shovel,” she said. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, it makes sense to me.”

We stood there inside a cold globe as winds twisted around our feet, swirling the powder around our thin bodies and over every piece of furniture, pushing the soft snow into the cracks of the speakers, silently covering the flat-screen TV. We stood there for a while as the hole above us slowly grew bigger. All we wanted was for our worst fears to come true. Snow covered the floor and the pillows, every last clock on the mantle. Eventually, the damage would be beautiful and complete.

Front page image by Quinn Ryan Mattingly.

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