“Run your hand along his leg, but be firm. He needs to know that you know what you’re doing, so he trusts you.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I told you, when I tried to lift the horse’s hoof to clean it. It was like trying to pick a stop sign right up out of the ground. You snorted behind me. “Give him a pinch,” you said.
“I’m not pinching a horse. Stop trying to get my face kicked in.”
“Save you money on a nose job.” You shoved me out of the way, and picked up that horse’s hoof as easily as if you were pulling a lever, running both your hands down the velvet knobs of his leg.
“Just gotta fake it sometimes, or you’ll never get anything done,” you said, picking grass and mud out of the hoof.
“I get stuff done,” I said, sulking.
“Something real, I mean,” you said. I always grasped for the last word like it was a carrot you dangled from a stick. I wonder if, by telling you all this now, I’m still doing it. Me, sixteen, and you, nineteen. My mother, Mark, and your dad: the people on the farm that summer. You and I always acted like we were alone, and we were not.
My mother and I started coming to the farm when I was eleven years old, just before she and Mark got married. It had been in Mark’s family for decades, acres and acres of land in a Virginia town that only had one stoplight, a handful of restaurants, and no schools. “What is there to do here?” I asked my mother on our first visit, when we stood in the main house’s empty foyer with our bags. I was mad to be missing any part of summer at home in Chicago. She pushed her sunglasses into her hair and shrugged. Mark had dropped us off and immediately gone to tour the pastures with your dad. A sick cow, or a cow that had to be buried. I don’t remember. My mother hitched a duffel bag onto her shoulder.
“Enjoy nature, why don’t you,” she said. “Become well-rounded.”
I heard you before I saw you for the first time. I’d been wandering around the property alone, and I found the empty carriage house Mark kept frowning about fixing up and renting out. It was tiny, just two rooms and a stove, but the previous tenant still managed to trash it, and then skip out on his rent. I figured it was haunted, and meant to walk quickly by, but I froze when I heard you singing. You were quiet, but the farm was quieter. Radiohead. I pushed the door open with the toe of my muddy platform sandal and there you were. Fourteen and skinny, your limbs made entirely of corners. You were crouching over a shoebox but you jumped when you saw me, your voice catching on the chorus of “Creep.”
I sang, “I don’t belong here,” and you grinned. That easy. You told me you were named after our sixteenth president and you made fun of me when I had no idea. “People usually guess Abra ham,” you said later, to make me feel better, “but that’s wrong too—that’s from the Bible. They almost never guess Lincoln.”
I told you I wasn’t named after anyone and you said, earnestly, “But I know another girl named Tessa.”
You had six tiny kittens in the shoebox, so small their eyes weren’t even open. When I asked you their names, you shook your head. “Don’t get too attached,” you warned. “Last time one of these barn cats had kittens, the dogs found them and tore them apart.”
I don’t remember if the kittens survived, but when I close my eyes I can still hear you, your jumpy fourteen-year-old voice, singing sad songs to a shoebox full of lost causes.
The first time I met your dad, I was twelve. I’d seen him around the farm, and heard him hollering for you. But the first time I really spoke to him was because Mark bought a pool table, and he was bored with constantly winning against my mother and me, so he invited you and your dad over one night to play. Despite the fact that Mark always won, I turned out to have a pretty decent eye and could occasionally sink a few shots, so he let me be on his team.
The table was in the dining room, and my mother had two antique church pews that she put on either side of it, so we all sat across from each other while whoever was up made their shot. You and I pretended to be sports announcers, narrating every move. Mark and your dad made their way through a case of beer, and my mother sat in whichever pew Mark wasn’t in, saying encouraging things whenever it was your turn, or mine. Eventually we switched teams, and it was Mark and your dad versus us. We flipped a coin and I had to break. When I leaned over my cue, your dad put his hand on the small of my back and said, “Look at her. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
I always wore Lip Smackers lip balm, flavored like Dr. Pepper. I can still remember how it tastes. It makes me nauseous now, how childish it was.
The summer I turned fifteen, you let me drive your pickup truck out into one of the pastures at night. I was barefoot and had to stretch to reach the pedals. You were amazed that I could already drive stick—you assumed that because I rode the subway to school I wouldn’t be able to drive at all. I surprised you again on the way back when I told you that what you thought was a shooting star was actually the space station. “See, I know shit,” I told you, but in truth it had not occurred to me that I might impress you, too.
The things I knew in Chicago never seemed to apply on the farm. I knew: that I had to switch from the Brown Line to the Red Line at Fullerton, but if I rode ahead to Belmont I could stop at McDonald’s on the way to school. I knew that if I forgot my key on the way home I could ask the doorman in our building for his spare. I knew that I could listen to as much Hootie & the Blowfish as I wanted in the car as long as I also learned the words to “No Diggity” in order to look cool at parties. I knew that if a man in a suit and a toothy smile sidled up next to me at Wal-greens asking me how old I was, I could mutter, “Jailbait,” and spin on my heel. You wouldn’t have found any of these things interesting, nor useful, but during the school year the things you thought were useful wouldn’t have mattered to me at all.
It was my mother’s 50th birthday the weekend we arrived that summer, and Mark threw a party. I made a carrot cake, my mother made whiskey sours. We put lanterns in the trees and I tried to float magnolia blossoms in the pool. You and your dad walked up while I was on my hands and knees in the grass, digging the flowers out of the filter. You were taller than your dad, and you were wearing a button-down tucked into your jeans. On the drive from the Raleigh-Durham airport Mark told my mother that you were taking classes at the community college an hour away even though you’d gotten into UVA. You didn’t want to leave your dad alone, and besides, you didn’t get enough financial aid. When my mother asked if there was anything we could do to help you, Mark looked at her like she was crazy.
I stood up to say hello, wiping my hands on my dress. The dress was old, a peach-colored gingham sundress with a sash. I smelled the cedar closet in my room every time I moved. Your dad grunted at me and went inside through the sunporch. You and I were awkward, kicking at the lip of the pool. The start of every summer was like we were meeting each other all over again. You told me about the classes you were taking, mostly history. You didn’t mention UVA. I told you about my swim team going to state championships. One of us mentioned the weather.
I made a joke at some point about clogging the filter with the magnolias, saying I would have to dive in and collect them all. “You’d be on your own,” you told me, and I made fun of you for being in college and not knowing how to swim. You told me that when you were little, your cousin got trapped in a riptide and almost drowned. I felt bad then, and I offered to teach you. It was my idea that the teaching of skills be an exchange. I thought horses were terrifying. We shook hands.
In the car on the way from the airport, my mother also sniffed out the details of the party. The guest list: most of Mark’s family in the area, a few friends they’d made in town, you, your dad, and some of the part-timers Mark hired every now and then if your dad said he needed extra help. Mark wanted it to be a surprise. My mother threw up her hands. “If you wanted to surprise me, you should have taken me somewhere I like.”
The whiskey sours tasted like an act of revenge. The drinks were poured in plastic cups and spread out on the kitchen counter for people to help themselves. You took two while my mother blew out candles and we smuggled them back to the sunporch, although I doubt anyone would have stopped us if they’d been paying attention. We slouched side by side on bare chaise lounges, the cushions still in storage. My face was hot. You unbuttoned the top button of your shirt. We watched the lanterns dip in the breeze and listened to the cicadas. I asked if you’d ever played Never Have I Ever, the game that all of my friends in Chicago played when they got within sniffing distance of alcohol. You rolled your eyes. “How come you never want to play any games you can win?”
“Never have I ever ridden a horse,” I said, and you gave me the finger while you drank.
You had: learned to juggle, gotten suspended from school, been to a rodeo, gone streaking as a prank, walked through a drive-thru, stayed up all night, smoked weed, read an entire book in one day, smoked cigarettes, snuck into a movie, graduated high school.
You had never: been on an airplane, ridden the subway, played strip poker, worn lipstick, been to a rave, played laser tag, had sex.
By the time I asked the question, it was too dark on the sun porch to see your face, even with the lanterns in the trees. But I felt you pause for a second before you said, “Cheers,” and I heard the ice in your cup hit your teeth.
We were quiet again for a minute until I said, “I’m surprised.”
You sat up and I felt your legs brush the side of my chair. I closed my eyes, waiting for you to leave, but you said, “Why is that surprising?”
“It just is.”
“Well it just hasn’t happened.”
“But you must have…options.”
You laughed, but not the way you usually laughed at me. “I don’t have time for all that.”
“Sure. Cancer’s not curing itself.”
You did stand up then, so I said, “But you want to.”
“Why are we even talking about this?”
“We’re just talking.”
“I want to win a million dollars, but, wish in one hand, shit in the other.”
“I thought you didn’t have time.”
“To be a millionaire?”
“To meet a girl.”
You were standing with your hand on the screen door. You said, “I know girls.” Looking right at me. My cup was empty; my head swam when I stood up.
“I’m a girl.”
“I know, Tessa. A sixteen-year-old girl.”
“Bullshit!” I yelled. “You were fourteen when we met.”
You were so close to leaving, so I lurched forward and stuck out my hand. I thought you might roll your eyes, or laugh, or shake your head, or swat my hand away, but you clasped it in yours. It was cold from the ice in your cup. I felt the way it feels to stand in line for a roller coaster, when turning around is still an option, and pretending like you’re not considering turning around is part of the fun.
You shook my hand so slowly, if I hadn’t been holding my breath I would have missed it.
I skimmed the pool every morning that summer, pulling chlorine-bleached frogs from the filter. I quickly learned to stop flinching at dead things, or at things that were about to be dead. In Chicago I once saw a coyote walking down the street. I was with my friends on the north side, going to an all-night diner. They screamed when they saw its yellow eyes and ran, taking flight like pigeons, coming to roost in the doorway of a 7-11. The coyote was so skinny its hipbones sawed back and forth when it loped away from us. “What are you, a witch?” my friend Elaine shrieked from the 7-11’s fluorescent aura. “You looked at that thing like you wanted to make out with it.” When I told you that story, you told me that coyotes mate for life. You said if the coyote was an alpha male I could have been their queen. You pronounced it “kai-yoat.”
Our first swim lesson was at the end of June. You came over on a Sunday morning wearing navy blue swim trunks and a t-shirt. You were not optimistic. My mother was sitting on the sun porch, reading a magazine, and you went and talked to her for a few minutes while I did lazy laps. Finally you came and stood on the steps of the pool, still wearing your shirt. I did a flip turn in the deep end and made it back to you without coming up for air. You rolled your eyes.
“There’s a blow-up raft in here, Lincoln,” my mother called, “In case you’d rather have any fun today.”
But you smiled back at her and shook your head. “I’ve got a deal to uphold, ma’am,” you called. “Your daughter wants an eye for an eye.”
“Call me ma’am again and I’ll drown you,” she called back, closing her magazine and disappearing into the house.
“Where should we start?” you asked. I stopped treading water and stood. It hadn’t occurred to me that you might actually want to learn how to swim, and that you trusted me to teach you. I thought our shaking hands was a way of admitting something to each other without having to name the thing. I realized that day, you thought we were teaching each other the ways we’d learned to survive.
On the fourth of July, I rode my bike the mile down the dirt road to your house. Your truck was gone, but your dad was standing at his work bench in the garage, wiping his hands on a bandana.
“He ain’t here,” he called to me.
I nodded. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”
He came out of the garage and looked at me, shading his eyes with his hand. Your dad spit on the asphalt next to his boot. “When I was young, tail waited to be chased.” I had the toes of my sneakers on the ground, leaning most of my weight on my bike seat. I remember feeling my calves tensing up. My palms sweating. “Excuse me?” He just snorted, shaking his head. “I said he’ll be back at eight.”
That was the week I started avoiding you. I didn’t go to your house, and I stayed away from the barn. I swam every morning, vicious laps that left me heaving, clinging to the ladder on the side of the pool. I helped my mother make and remake beds in the main house’s five bedrooms. I went with her to Home Depot and the grocery store, aimlessly opening and closing doors in the freezer section until she snapped at me to find something, anything else to do. I fell asleep reading on the diving board one day and woke up with a sunburn on my back the color of raspberries. That night, in the bathroom, my mother rubbed calamine lotion on my shoulders. When I turned to put my shirt back on she took my chin between her thumb and pointer finger. For a minute, she just stared.
“I wish I could tell you it gets easier,” she said, letting go of my face to put the cap back on the bottle.
When she finally couldn’t stand the moping anymore, my mother told me to go inspect the carriage house. Mark was finally serious about getting it fixed up, and she wanted me to come back with a detailed report of what needed to be done so your dad could start working on it.
“Why doesn’t he just have Dan go look at it himself?” I asked.
“Because I’m telling you to do it,” she answered.
I went the long way, out the sunporch, past the pool, around the back of your house and past the paddock next to the barn. I thought I might have heard you in the barn, but I kept walking. You hadn’t come to the main house, either. I told myself that I was just following your lead.
Your dad was in the carriage house when I got there. He was standing by the stove, looking down at a twin-sized mattress and blanket, a lantern, and a few paperbacks. I hadn’t been in there since I met you with the kittens. I didn’t know you slept there sometimes; you’d never mentioned it.
Your dad turned and grinned when he saw me.
“Quite the love nest you two have got here,” he said, kicking at the blanket. I shook my head, but he beckoned me closer. When I didn’t move, he shot forward and grabbed me by the back of the neck.
The night I told you about the space station, on the way back to the house, you put your hand over mine on the gearshift. When I told you I already knew what to do, you nodded and said, “I know.”
Your father pushed me toward the mattress. When my feet hit it, I lost my balance and landed on my knees. You’d put a sheet on it, and two pillows. I’ve thought about those two pillows a lot over the years. Had you brought other girls there? Or were you waiting for it to be us? Maybe you just liked using two. I never asked.
The night we played pool, you were standing behind me when your dad touched me, when he said I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t see your reaction. I wonder if it meant anything to you, or if you were able to ignore it. Everyone else in the room did.
In the carriage house your dad wrapped his hand in my ponytail and pulled so that I was twisted around, facing him. He rested his other hand on his belt buckle, and he must have seen something pass over my face.
“You little fucking slut!” he said, laughing, like this was all a joke I was in on. “It’s not as fun when you get caught, is it?”
He twisted the hand holding my ponytail tighter. My eyes watered. When he moved to undo his belt, his knuckles grazed my mouth. He grunted, trying to unsnap his jeans, and I felt his grip relax in my hair. It was slight, but enough. I jerked my head forward, caught the meat of his hand in my teeth, and bit down, tasting Dr. Pepper lip balm, dirt, and blood. He shouted and pulled my head back, letting go of me to clasp his bleeding hand in his palm.
“You crazy bitch!” he screamed, but I was already running, already thinking about the lies I would tell my mother, already coming up with ways I could pretend this never happened, even if that meant forgetting you.
When I was twenty-six, I typed your name into a blue search bar, and there you were, the only result. You were the first person I searched for, even ten years later. According to your pro file, you eventually transferred full-time to UVA. You don’t say what you do for a living, but I like to imagine you teaching high school, maybe coaching a team. We never talked about what we wanted to do as adults, I realize now. Our plans never reached beyond August.
You came by the house the night before we left. My mother let you in through the kitchen, and I heard your boots in the hall before you got to my room. I didn’t know how not to talk to you. I took your hand and led you out the front door. Outside, you asked what happened, whether I was mad at you, and I told you the lies I’d prepared. That it was pointless, I lived in Chicago. That I was going to try out for a swim camp next summer anyway.
That I was sixteen and you were nineteen and if anyone found out, the things they’d say.