Marcus has texted a lot. Many of those messages I did not even read before deleting. He sent another hundred roses only a few days after the first. One day he stood at my doorstep. He cried a lot. I did, too. We decided to give us a chance.
I have not talked to Jacob again since we spoke on the phone. He did not try calling me and although I feel like I should at least explain about Marcus, whenever I have Jacob’s number typed in to call him all courage leaves me, my finger hovering over the last button but never pressing down. I fear, when I hear his deep voice, the picture of him leaning on his cane with his bent left arm at his side will burn itself into my mind forever. In the end I have taken the cowardly way out, I know that. I tell myself that this is just the wrong place and the wrong time, that I have a year-long relationship to fight for and just cannot afford the risk getting tangled up in another guy now. But in reality I am afraid to come too close to this side within me that has haunted me for so long.
Weeks later Marcus takes me out for a coffee after we have been to the movies. I have wanted to see the movie since I have read about it but under normal circumstances Marcus would never have accompanied me. Now, everything is different.
I watch his face while he talks. Marcus is handsome, has always been. He told me once that he modelled as a teenager and I can totally see him doing it still. He has the kind of chocolate-colored puppy dog eyes and boyish grin that draws you in and makes you forgive him almost everything. It worked on me at least, on countless occasions. I wonder if it has worked this time as well, making me believe in his endless assertions that he will change, and I ask myself if he will really keep that promise.
Since our near break-up Marcus has indeed made every effort to be the perfect boyfriend. He has even scrubbed the bathroom, twice so far, which, believe me or not, is something to celebrate. He has been sweet and gone out of his way to guess all of my wishes before I even announce them, before I even have them and his hyper-alertness starts getting annoying already. Still, it reminds me of our first months living together, a long time ago, transporting me back to a time when everything was in order. All in all, he is a good guy, I know that. Yes, he is easy with girls and he is super lazy but that is going to change. He promised.
I put another spoon of sugar into my coffee and smile at Marcus. He has the habit of ruffling up his always too long dirty blond hair when he is nervous, or when there is a hot girl around. There has been a time when I had this effect on him and sometimes I wish I still had it. I know it is petty but I like the thought that he is also physically attracted to me. Maybe I should start wearing make-up again or let my hair grow long… As I ponder over that I realize how ridiculous it is. Whatever Marcus does and although I will always admire his toned body, will always succumb to his gorgeous smile, he will never be particularly attractive to me. Not the kind of attractive that makes me stop breathing and lets my heartrate shoot through the roof.
My eyes wander around the bar. I wish Marcus would stop talking about a movie I barely remember the title least what happened after the first two minutes. I seem to have problems concentrating, lately.
It is a sick twist of how my brain works that although the street in front of the bar is busy and people are streaming past the window quickly, my eyes lock onto the man at once. I cannot say if it is the different walking pattern that makes him stand out among the other people, slower and less fluid than the rest of late evening shoppers rushing past, the glimpse of an unnaturally bent arm or the flash of a cane among the blur of passing legs. I never lose the figure among the masses and I do not manage to look away even when the man enters and shifts his weight at the door to turn down his coat collar. It is only when he lifts his head and his eyes find mine across the room that recognition jolts through me like electric current.
I quickly turn back to Marcus but too late. From the corners of my eyes I see Jacob turning on the spot and leaving again.
“And that scene with the vampire when- Where are you going?”
“Um… just to the restrooms quickly.”
“Oh… of course. Shall I order anything else for you or are you satisfied? Something to eat?”
I shake my head absentmindedly and rush towards the exit. There is no sign of Jacob and when I step out of the bar and stand on the busy street in the dwindling evening light, I do not see him. Regret makes my stomach clench as I stand among the people streaming past me, arms wrapped around my torso, the cold breeze making me freeze. After a few minutes I return into the warm interior reluctantly, a heavy weight holding me back. But what would I have told Jacob anyway?
Things between Marcus and me do not stay awkward for long. We have known each other for too long to not fall back into rhythm when we live together. We stay a weekend at his parent's cabin in the woods, talking through the night, cuddling and making out in front of the fireplace, with the light of the flames dancing in our eyes. That night I lie awake, thinking about our past. I still remember the first time Marcus taught me to row and to fish on the lake nearby and the look on his face as I heaved the bucket out of the boat after a successful day out, fish zigzagging around in the water inside, Marcus ready on the landing stage with a thick stick to crack their skull open, when I suddenly let go of the bucket, the water sloshing out and the fish with it, falling back into the water next to the boat in a series of plops. I told him my hand had slipped but I knew that he knew that I was lying. We had canned soup this evening and he never made me go out for fishing with him again.
I make Marcus sleep on the couch for a while but after some time I invite him back into my bed. Our first sex after the near break-up is very hot, Marcus makes sure I come several times and as I watch his face during his own orgasm, and his eyes never leave mine, I am convinced that this is all we need. Our relationship has proven to be strong enough to survive hard times. We will survive more.
I like to think I managed to forget Jacob. I like to tell myself that I almost do not remember his voice anymore and do not picture his limp from time to time.
But it would be a lie.
I am at the ranch, tending to my horse. In fact, it is technically only half my horse. The other half belongs to Evelyn, whom I know from the stables. We kind of inherited the horse after her former owner died. The heirs could not decide if selling it to a riding school that would take a horse that old or making sausage of her would be more profitable and when they did not come to a decision they lost interest and forgot about it. We adopted it and later, when the heirs realized they were still paying for horsebox rent and vet visits, we bought it for barely more than a handshake.
Still, I probably spend more money on that horse than on myself. We have a host of students who care for it during the week, clean the stable, take it for a walk or a ride and are even willing to pay for that but it still eats a deep crater in my monthly salary. Marcus always complains about it, only lately he has mentioned it less and less. I do not know if it is a sign of acceptance or resignation or if he is just holding back to keep up the new good vibe.
On weekends Evelyn and I usually take turns caring for our horse and this weekend is my turn.
“Our horses are calm, even-tempered and well-trained,” I hear Evelyn’s voice from somewhere near the court. She is living on the ranch the stables belong to and working as a riding teacher on some days. “Our equine-assisted therapy is certified and we have applied it successfully in numerous cases.”
I grunt as I push the wheelbarrow to the edge of the ramp and dump the horse manure on the dung heap, balancing the weight on the single wheel on the narrow wooden plank.
“Um… I have absolutely no experience with horses.”
That voice… I freeze on the ramp, with the wheelbarrow still tipped over. Who am I kidding? I would recognize it everywhere.
“Experience is not needed at all. We will start small and build from there. You do not have to actually get onto the back of a horse during your first session. Or ever. It will only go as far as you feel comfortable.”
Jacob clears his voice. “Okay...” He does not sound convinced to me.
A funny tingling spreads in my body as I dare not to move, intently listening to Jacob’s low rumbling voice, coming from somewhere around the corner of the nearest building.
“There is a therapy session starting right now. You are invited to watch and see if it is something you might consider.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Too late I realize that, shit, they are coming my way. I twist around to hurry back down the ramp but in my haste my foot slips on the grimy wooden ramp and suddenly there is no ramp under my feet anymore. The wheelbarrow clangs loudly as it slides down and finally hits the asphalt at the other end. Luckily, I did not take a dive head-first into the dung, but instead managed to safe myself by hugging the ramp, one leg still up, the other kicking underneath.
“Cait? Is everything okay?” It is Evelyn. She is trying not to laugh, I can hear that in her voice.
“I’m fine, don’t worry. Hanging in there.”
The ramp wobbles as she walks over it towards me. Evelyn is a big woman. Tall, long wavy hair. She grabs me with her large hands and hauls me to my feet like nothing.
“Thanks,” I mumble, trying to find my footing on the narrow ramp, shame coloring my cheeks. “The ramp… my shoes…”
Evelyn pats me on the shoulder, nearly knocking me down again. “It’s freaking slippery up here. Happens to everyone. You okay?”
“Y-yeah…” I look up and past her broad shoulders. I have to suppress a wince as my eyes meet Jacobs’. He is standing at the foot of the ramp, leaning on his cane. His black hair is shorter, sticking out to all sides and there is a faint scruff around his chin. His left hand, drawn up against his chest, nearly vanishes inside the long sleeve of his dark knitted sweater. He looks incredibly hot. His blue eyes dart away from mine and his expression is stony.
“Um… thanks, really.”
Evelyn good-naturedly smiles at me and turns to lead the way down the ramp. “You know, Mr. Barnett, I leave you in the hands of Cait here.” She turns towards me when she has reached the foot of the ramp. Jacob opens his mouth in her back to protest but before he can say anything she goes on. “Can you show Mr. Barnett to the riding arena, Cait? I need to take care of the children.”
I gulp and do not look at Jacob when I move the wheelbarrow to the side. Evelyn has already jogged off in the direction of the riding hall.
“Don't worry, I’ll find my way,” Jacob says in a voice that is colder than I ever imagined it could be.
“No, you won’t.” I finally manage to look him in the eyes again, fighting not to flinch under his glare.
I realize I have straw in my hair. And something much more smelling down the front of my down vest. Great. When I notice Jacob’s look I stop trying to rub it away with my sleeve. “You won’t find the entrance to the stands. It’s kind of hidden.”
Jacob sighs and looks like he is considering leaving again. He shuffles his feet and turns towards where he had come from.
No, no, no, don't go!
“I guess equine therapy might be, uh… useful…” I try carefully.
He draws his eyebrows together, looking grim. “My doc seems to think that.”
Uh, okay, apparently the wrong direction. “But you don't?”
“I... I don’t know.” He turns the point of his cane in the mud, staring down at it. “I don't like horses,” he mumbles.
“I see. Many people are afraid of horses.”
His head shoots up again, his narrowed eyes stabbing at me. “That’s not it. I'm not afraid!”
Oh, really? “Okay... so...?”
Jacob exhales a long breath. “Guess I owe it to my doc at least to have a look.” He does not say more, pressing his lips together.
I take it as a cue to lead the way, past the dung heap, around the corner of the next building and along its side. I am careful this time to match my pace to his, listening to Jacob’s halting steps behind me. We do not speak.
I enter the building through a small door and hold it open for Jacob. A few steep steps lead downstairs behind it. Shit, shit, shit… I actually forgot about them.
Jacob looks down the stairs and then at me, incredulous.
I shrug apologetically and bite on my lip. “That’s the only entrance, as far as I know. I’m sorry. It’s an old building…” I guess the ranch is mostly not very accessible, even with some ramps added here and there. It is a historical building and most of it cannot be changed because of urban heritage conservation.
Jacob limps past me after a moment of hesitation and I bite on my lips to not offer help as he starts down the steps. I would probably be of no use to him, anyway. There is no railing and the space is narrow. Jacob places his cane one step down, leaning heavily on it before he steps down with his right foot. His left leg is not as cooperative, he leans against the wall, twisting his upper body, to free it from the steep upper step. It is slow process and takes a while, although there are only three of them. Three single steps. I never even thought about them.
We walk down the dimly lit corridor, past naked walls plastered with dirty brown tiles. Gradually the way leads upwards and finally, through another small door, to the empty viewing stands.
The horses and their riders are already inside the riding arena. Evelyn is giving instructions. There are other people here, too, to help with the whole process. It smells of horses and dust, so familiar and comforting that it makes me want to smile. I do not come here often. Most of the sessions are for children and it would be weird in general, being here and watching strangers. But I am reminded of the time when I myself was a child and learned horse riding in a similar arena.
Jacob gets up to the wooden fence separating us from the arena and stands next to me. “I’m not sure they are going to be able to carry me,” he murmurs skeptically.
“They sure won’t.” I very much have to hide a grin. “This is the kids’ group and these are ponies!”
We watch the children get on the back of the ponies, some on their own, others assisted by their parents or Evelyn’s employees. I think I see a ten year old with Down’s syndrome and a slightly older boy with cerebral palsy. But not all children have obvious disabilities.
The session starts with all ponies lining up and starting to slowly trot one after the other in a wide circle around the hall. Some children are allowed to ride on their own, others are lead. As they pass us, we mostly look into beaming faces. Only the boy with cerebral palsy seems to sulk.
“He’s not delighted,” Jacob states, and his dark expression lightens up some. My heart flutters at the sight.
“Yeah, definitely not. Maybe he wanted to ride the black pony. Not the brown one.”
“Or he’d rather play Mario Kart with the cool kids,” Jacob replies, a funny edge to his voice.
I observe his grim face out of the corners of my eyes. Has he been that boy when he was younger? I just don’t know anything about him, I realize. He is watching the children with a frown. They ride in circles in one direction and the other and start doing small exercises like letting go of the reigns (or mane, in case of the more scared ones) and stretching their arms to the sides.
“You don’t have to do group sessions,” I say, still not looking at him directly but facing the horses. “They offer single sessions, for adults especially.”
The session wears on and I realize Jacob is starting to subtly lean against the fence to, as I assume, relieve his left leg and the pressure on his right wrist. I scold myself inwardly for not considering this and collect two dusty plastic chairs from the storeroom behind the stands. The look he gives me as I place the chairs on the ground and try to remove the dust with my sleeve is not a friendly one but at least he takes the offer.
The uncomfortable silence between us is stretching into eternity as we sit next to each other, watching the children and the horses trot past us. Fortunately, the session is short and over rather quickly. Most children do not have the ability to concentrate longer and even for the ponies it is tiring.
Evelyn comes up to us when they have finished and the ponies are being lead out of the hall. “What do you say, Mr. Barnett?” She asks over the fence.
“Um… uh…” Jacob says, struggling to his feet. “I’ll think about it. Thank you.”
“Let me know when you are interested.” Evelyn looks at me, slightly surprised. Right, why am I still here? I usually do not show interest in any riding classes. “Would you be so kind and show Mr. Barnett out, Cait?”
We take the same way back, Jacob tackles the steps up while I wait at the foot of the stairs, and I accompany Jacob to the entrance of the parking lot. It is quickly emptying due to the children and their parents leaving.
Jacob turns towards me. “Um… thanks for showing me around.”
“No problem. You should really think about it. They do cool things with the therapy horses here. Not just riding circles…” I blush. “I mean… that’s pretty good for a start, too.”
“Hm… yeah, I guess so.”
I do not reply anything to that. I know this could be my chance but how should I find the words now when I have not managed before? I bite my lips and avert my eyes. He mumbles something, probably wishing me goodbye, because when I look up again with a heavy heart, I see him limp down the gravel pathway towards the cars.
I ask Evelyn a few weeks later but she has not heard of Jacob since. I do not see him at the ranch a second time.
--> Chapter 5
--> Chapter 5