~an excerpt from the unpublished hybrid memoir Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw
Ruth and I both love horses, wear jeans and plaid shirts, are strong and kind of skittish around boys. We live in remote parts of the desert, where going anywhere means miles of walking or begging a ride. We are both dirt-poor. No shiny new shoes. No hamburger lunches with straw wrappers and easy laughter flying. Free lunch program and the outside edge of a bus seat, grudgingly given. Home-cut hair and hand-me-downs. These rare afternoons of horse care and trail rides and Uno are an escape for us both. Not only from boredom and chores, but of the need to hide our empty pockets.
I will sometimes, but not often, stay the night. The horse corral, her room, these are good places. Full of comfort and easy conversation. Her father, however, poisons every moment he is a part of. His is a sneaky cruelty meant to shame. Anything she values is fair game. Any audience who cares makes it better for him, especially if it is another teenage girl. I never let him within four feet of me, wear my baggiest clothes, and stare hate at him. I wish I could make him disappear for her, don’t even try to disguise it.
Her horse is everything to her. Riding, grooming, training him to barrels, feeling that freedom of movement. She has been carefully growing out and tending his mane and tail for months, getting ready for the rodeo, hoarding change for ribbons and practicing plaits. Every bit of pride her life doesn’t allow for her own sturdy beauty is poured into that chestnut coat, that black horsehair. One afternoon just three days before show-time, her father saunters into the house, swinging a large, rusty pair of shears. “Spring haircut…” he drawls, and she’s already out the door, running for the stable.
Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork.
I find her swallowing rage and tears, face pressed hard against that broad shoulder, while all around their feet lie ragged hanks of hair. Cut right down to the bone of the tail, and in inch-long clumps along his neck, unrepairable. Unbearable. Had he come out to view the effect of his deed, he might’ve found how dangerous two downtrodden horse-crazy teenage girls could be with a pitchfork. With some predator’s sense of danger, he chooses instead to head to the bar to laugh about how sensitive women folks are.
I stay all day, through endless games of cards, and distract her with fantasies about a horse ranch run only by women. As usual, ramen is the only food available, and not the freshest ramen at that. As we carefully strain the weevils out with the water, mutually ignoring the fact of what we are doing with practiced moves, the dream of owning land stands stark in my mind as impossible. As with the weevils, we ignore it. We need the dream.
* * *
The stars seem closer than usual, even accounting for the fact that I’m up a tree. The storm pushes them towards me, or me to them. The leaves flatten against the wind, dream of flying free. Or maybe that’s me again.
The lightning stretches blue-white light across the length of timeworn mountains and the back of my eyelids. My skin is tingling from widow’s peak to toes curled tight against peeling bark.
This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.
I’m snugged into a thick crook, hugging the trunk, head back and mouth open to better taste the ozone. To better smell the creosote, wet for thunder. Want is deep in me like a jagged splinter, invisible pressure on a bundle of nerves, impossible to grasp with my fingers.
Almost all I’ve known of sex is pain. Passive and stolen away. This rough tumbling of air and electricity, this press of sap and breath and gravity, is another channel entirely. I want to open up like roots to water. Want to climb the sky.
* * *
I was raised with a strong sense of justice and fairness, among people who share easily and often. Nobody has much, but nobody goes without. There are plenty of toys, of books, of clothes, none of it new, but no less good for that. Until public school. Until the contests of popular began, and secondhand was second-class. I hold firm against the taunting until high school, when every day is a war. Everything about me is a target. My name, body, brain, all counting against me. I am tired. Tired of have not. Tired of making do.
I don’t remember the first thing I stole, but I remember whole lists of things I didn’t. Things I never had. I have my own rules—no stealing from people or small businesses, or just for fun. I know it doesn’t make it OK, but it makes it bearable. Most of what I steal I give away. None of my friends have much, either, and whether it is caretaker or courtship, I want something to offer. That giving streak, it runs in the family, and I’m not the first to make questionable choices in service of it.
I swipe steel-tipped three-inch heels from a factory discount store on a trip up to Tucson. Slip my fingers in the toes on my way past the table and out the door, so smooth my friend walking next to me doesn’t notice a thing. I wait until we are in the car to tell her, knowing she’ll freak out. Knowing also that she enjoys living vicariously through me and my bad-girl ways. Knowing these shoes hold some fundamental piece of my forming identity that makes them a need, not just a want.
I wear them with tight skirts and silky blouses and a black cotton duster, a wide-brimmed Aussie hat on my head and dark sunglasses. I learn how to walk in them quickly, climbing the stairs to collect the slips that show who is missing from class, and turning (most of) them in. Working in the front office gives me freedom to prowl the halls alone, and gives my friends and other weirdos a break. Not always, but if they really need it. High school is a sequence of forced circumstances, and sometimes it’s just too much. Sometimes the need to slip away and lick our wounds in private, or in drunken company, is too big. Those slips, they get lost on the way to the office. Sometimes.
I steal bras and underwear, makeup, and seven silver rings of varying designs that I give to the group of girls I most often hang out with. Misfits and nerds and poor kids, a Venn diagram of different that gives us safe ground to meet on. It is 1988 and none of us has found the language to hang our thoughts on, but we stand strong together. Spin stories of protection and revenge against men that hurt us, or want to. Support each other’s crushes, even if we share them. Pass notes and make up code names, quirky semiprecious stones. I have no words for the safety net they give me, the hope they embody. I want to give them a token of gratitude, and my clever fingers slip seven shiny sparks of love into my pocket.