Joyland

Montreal |

After We Had Been Married for Seven Years

by Elisabeth Harvor

After we had been married for seven years we fell in love. Although not with each other. And not even with others. We fell in love with horses, with the track, with the way the horses, like beautiful women, walked to the gate, and this unexpected love affair of ours began on the cold day in May that our friends Luc and Odette invited us to go with them to the Hippodrome. They drove over the mountain to pick us up in their tiny foreign car and once we had squeezed ourselves onto its back seat, we were off, driving west. We didn’t know either of them all that well yet, but we hoped to become friends with them as a couple. After all, they both seemed to approve of both of us. This was a surprising thing in itself since most of our friends belonged to two opposing camps: those who couldn’t fathom what I saw in my husband and those who couldn’t fathom what my husband saw in me. These new friends were also older than we were. We were still in our twenties and they had already entered their forties. On that account alone we were fascinated by them. Fascinated but on guard. At the Hippodrome, men in futuristic white chariots were being pulled at great speed down the dirt track by very fast horses. Our infatuation was really just beginning at that point because on our way home we talked about missing the deep bond between horse and rider that we’d found in the horse books of our childhoods, which was why we decided to skip the Hippodrome the following weekend and drive to Toronto so we could go to the Woodbine track. * * * I had expected the interior at Woodbine to be gloomy and leathery, but it wasn’t like that at all. The entrance to the slots looked like the entrance to a golden movie house or a golden city while the nearby mural of Edwardian horses and their genteel jockeys gave the long panorama the quaint calm of another era. We placed small bets on a few races without really caring whether we won or not (and didn’t win), then the next morning we decided to cross the border and drive down to Elmont for the Belmont Stakes. We drove south in our own car because Luc and Odette wanted to go on to New York City and we had to get back to our jobs in Montreal, and as we were approaching Elmont, I sat reading Dillon bits and pieces from a book I had just begun called Laughing in the Hills. "Listen to this," I said, "here’s the part about old ladies playing systems using the sum of their nieces’ birthdays, then dividing that sum into the number of pills in an Anacin bottle and hitting the daily double daily..." "God, I don’t even have any nieces yet..." I smiled and looked out my window to see a fenced-in circle of green grass, a circular corral for two chestnut horses of great beauty, and by the time we were driving past the crowds pouring into the entrance to the track, I was completely under the spell of the long dream of the afternoon, the bright turf. The people at the track also uncannily resembled the people at the track in Laughing in the Hills. Many men who were cripples, crowds of older women in raincoats (the Anacin girls), the smaller circles of younger women who were the racetrack groupies. The most spectacular groupie glanced over a shoulder at Dillon, then smiled the imperious and knowing smile of a flirt. Stylish in a long black riding jacket worn with a very short skirt of raspberry silk, she was Dillon’s type, or one of his types, but when she raucously laughed a horrible self-infatuated laugh, not knowing that Dillon was the kind of man who despised an ugly laugh in a woman, I waited a few moments for her laugh to sink in, then cupped one of his elbows to steer him away from her. "Let’s go out to the ring to say hello to the horses." So we walked out into the sunshine to visit the horses, each equine face marked by the triumphs and sorrows of being a horse, and each horse gazing back at us from its emotional eyes far beyond its hippy walk, its gawky lower legs taped with white tape, its polished hindquarters comically high up, statuesque. Dillon studied the horses with a much more professional eye than I did, checking the The Racing Form and the tip sheet. It was clear that he was going to be the good handicapper while I was going to be the one who would rashly put money on horses whose names I liked. Or just on a whim. But the horses running that night made my dilemma more tricky since on a list of twelve there were so many horses whose names suggested triumph or luck: Ladykiller Blue Skies Latest Model Sweet Dreams Miss Happiness Days of Triumph My first impulse was to pick Miss Happiness, but because we’d heard Lady in Red on our car radio as we were driving south, then heard a news report about a killer who was still at large in the next town, I decided to put down nearly everything I owned—a thousand dollars—on a twenty-to-one longshot on Ladykiller. In Dillon’s opinion this was insane. But Ladykiller surprised everyone that night and so made us 20,000 dollars richer in American money which, back in those sunny days, translated into much more than that in Canadian money while also giving me a name, at least with Dillon, for having a knack. At the end of the evening we met up with Luc and Odette, Odette in a new raincoat, the white shawl she’d wrapped around her head making her look somehow both bandaged and royal. Or at least as bandaged and royal as the Queen used to look back in the days when she was young and crazy about horses. While Luc (in his beret) was doing his innocent best to look dissolute. We followed their car to a restaurant in East Hempstead, then over our roast quail we spoke the new language of the track. Exactas, trifectas, the Triple Crown, Plus 3 and Plus 6, the triumvirates of win, place, and show, but when Luc said that a trifecta sounded like "a fancy three-layered confection," Odette’s eyes shone with an assessing doubt that told me exactly what she was thinking: it’s not exactly thrilling to spend an evening with friends who’ve had the bad taste to be so lucky. Out in the parking lot, Dillon and I hugged our new friends tightly goodbye while they stood as straight-armed and glum as children unwilling to be embraced. So it wasn’t until we were alone again and driving north that we got a chance to talk about the money, the miracle of the money, and what we would do with the money once we got our greedy little hands on the cash. "Fly to Dublin for a week," Dillon said. "Or drive down to New York City and go to see plays," I said, hoping we could skip a holiday with those prancing egomaniacs, his Irish cousins. Who was it who’d said he particularly disliked preordained happy occasions? I felt as he did, but I knew that Dillon would not, Dillon was a lover of family speeches and family toasts and every other kind of falsely happy family celebration. "Odette was much more envious of our good luck than Luc was," I said. "She had such a reproachful look in her eyes whenever she glanced our way..." "Once we start losing huge sums of money at the track, she’ll love us again." We laughed and I liked him in a way that I almost never liked him when we were spending a weekend at home and staying up too late, then sleeping in too late in the mornings. Or getting drenched and cranky if we went out for a walk in late afternoon rain, huddled under a pair of dark umbrellas, the rain dripping endlessly, chilling us. But being in the car in the rain with him was weirdly consoling. We were together but we were also free of each other, free to not talk, free to think our own thoughts. I thought of how I wasn’t a horsey girl when I was growing up. I didn’t envy the girls who wore jodhpurs and riding boots and took their horses to horse shows—in fact I thought they looked stuck-up and rich and discontented—but I was in awe of the gentle hugeness of the horse I’d had my first ride on at a farm outside Halifax the summer I was six. This was the farm where my tender feelings for horses first made me fall in love with their sorrows. Or what I took to be their sorrows but were really the veins below their eyes that made me think of tears. Once I’d been lifted up to sit on this horse, though, I was too sick with fear to think of anyone’s sorrows but my own. It was a foggy afternoon and the farm’s green fields ran in long concessions out to the ocean while the dirt road my horse was walking down so far below me it kept making the world tilt, the five other small birthday guests also perched nervously high up on huge horses, our bodies spilling from one little hill to another little hill, making riding bareback feel like riding on more and more hills that kept rising and falling as farm boys slowly paraded the six of us into a stately yonder. I fell in love with horse books after that, in particular the book about a boy who lived on a ranch in Wyoming. I loved everything about it, the big western breakfasts and the trips into Cheyenne and Laramie and the sunny and lonely freedom of the Neversummer range with its tall grasses and wild horses, the sunlit wind in the eyes of my boy, a world that was so far from the world of horses racing down the track at the Belmont Stakes that I rolled down my window to smell the leafy trees standing unseen in the dark on a rainy night in a country that wasn’t our own country. There was a curious thrill in that too, a thrill in what was so familiar but also so foreign: American rain falling on American woodland. * * * A week after we got back to Montreal we made a down payment on the top floor apartment of an old house up on the Plateau, paid off another installment of our student loans, flew to the UK for a foggy and expensive two days in London, then flew down to Spain for a much cheaper three days in Barcelona. We sat drinking café con leche on Las Rambla, then went to visit the Gaudi cathedral whose spires, at least from a distance, looked like cactus spires. "This cathedral," we read in our travel guide, "is the cathedral the innovative Gaudi was walking backwards into the street to admire when he was struck by a streetcar and killed." "Imagine that," said Dillon, "to die while contemplating your own masterpiece. There must be worse fates." A few weeks after we’d returned to Canada we drove back to Toronto again. We checked into a small hotel in the east end of the city and in the grey evening walked on the boardwalk that ran beside the grey lake, then the next afternoon went back to Woodbine again. Dillon was the winner this time—not a big winner, but a winner nevertheless—and when we went up to the Hoofbeats Lounge to celebrate we ran into a friend of his from his student days at McGill. She had anxious laughing eyes and when she introduced us to the man she was going to marry she invited us to come to their wedding the following Sunday out at Lake of Two Mountains. * * * Aimless and childless, we drove out of the city the following Sunday, happy to be getting away from downtown on such a dead Sunday afternoon. We had a wedding gift for the bride and groom we barely knew: a confection of spun glass, and I could feel a giddy breeze ruffle my hair as we drove across the long bridge over the lake. On its other side of it we turned down a private road into dark woods, then bumped along until we came to the clearing where the wedding house stood. It wasn’t the summer house I’d expected it to be, it was a tall grey stucco house standing solid and permanent in the sunshine, and the wedding guests were lying flaked out on the lawn or sitting in small groups down on the rocks. From a distance, they looked so bored and witty and mean that I was very reluctant to go over and say hello. Dillon, on the other hand, was undeterred and marched over to introduce himself while I hung back, pretending to sniff the flowers and squinting over at their menacing little group just long enough to see a lanky woman in a green bridesmaid’s dress smile up at him. A few minutes later the cry of a violin summoned us to the ceremony to be held in the back garden and so we set off in small groups of twos and threes, the willow trees trailing flat yellow leaves across the back lawn from high fountains of green. We were all handed programs listing the music to be played and the biographies of the two who were about to be married. The bride, barefoot and a Catholic, then held out a hand to her groom, a Jewish oceanographer from New Orleans who was also barefoot until a friend carried a silver tray over to him. A single black boot stood on the tray and as the groom bent to draw it on he was rewarded with laughter and applause. The ceremony was then performed by a rabbi, a comedian in a white satin skullcap, officiating along with a renegade Catholic priest in his cassock and a pair of pink plastic beach sandals. At the crucial moment a young girl carried a folded napkin with a bulge in it over to the bridegroom, then set it down on the ground where the bridegroom could stamp on it with the foot in the boot, breaking the wineglass that was hidden within the folded layers of cloth with a whomp. More laughter and applause followed, then we were all led into the sunroom to help shove back the sofas so we could dance. The bride and groom gamely danced with the wedding guests while Dillon and several of the other men danced with the bridesmaids, but when the orchestra began to play Hava Nagilah, we all snaked around the two largest downstairs rooms in a kicking and clapping conga line. After that, I danced with the groom who was small and sexy in exactly the same way my father’s Jewish cousins in Italy were small and sexy, then I danced with another man who told me that the groom hadn’t stamped on a wineglass ("Why smash a perfectly good wineglass, right?"), the bulge hidden inside the napkin had been a 40-watt lightbulb. He laughed, pressing himself with extreme sexual warmth against me. "Get it? A lightbulb, right? Inspired idea, right? Lightbulb as symbol for inspired idea, right?" People were smoking by this time—smoking and drinking, then dancing—and the air was getting so heavy with smoke and the scents of expensive colognes that at the end of the dance with this man I decided to escape to the garden. On my way out into the clear air, I glanced over at Dillon and saw that he was still dancing with the most lanky bridesmaid. She towered above him and because he had to look up to talk to her there was something comic about them, at least when they were waltzing. Little boy waltzes with his mama. But once I’d stepped out into the garden and looked back through the smoky grey glass of the patio doors, the dancing men in their dark suits disappeared in the interior darkness and all I could see were the long dresses of the bride and her attendants sedately jiving with invisible men to Rachmaninoff. A wedding guest in a beaded short burgundy dress was sitting sideways to one of the café tables in the garden smoking cigarillos, one fat thigh crossed over the other. "Hey," she called over to me. "Want to go for a walk on the beach?" I did, and so a few moments later our high heels were clicking on flagstones on our way down to the water, and as we were walking down the final curve of shallow rock steps she called back over a shoulder, "So your husband’s a great dancer!" "Yes, he is!" But then I found myself wanting to ask her if she found him attractive. As I caught up with her, I wanted her to say no. But at the same time I wanted her to say yes. I glanced at her name tag. "So, Linda Skloot," I said in a seductive voice, "do you find my husband attractive?" "Yeah," she said. "I mean I can see that he would be. To some women. Although he’s not really my type." "My feelings exactly, at least at this moment." When she laughed, I told her he had a thing about bridesmaids. "But of course. They’re virgins, after all. Or they used to be, back in times long gone." Then she told me that she had just come back east after living for six years on the west coast. "Your husband would love it out there," she told me as we were seating ourselves on two side by side rocks, "since he seems to be the athletic type. Because it’s really true what they say. You can ski up in the mountains in the morning, then drive down to the coast for a swim in the afternoon. Or you can swing up the Sea to Sky highway and go hiking or biking or surfing and on and on..." "Wouldn’t I love it out there too?" "Not as much as he would," she told me, her glance cool, diagnostic. "Because you don’t really look like the type who’s that into sports." "Only the sport of kings..." She seemed puzzled for a moment, but then she said, "Oh, you mean going to the races. But where’s the sport in that? It’s utterly sedentary." "True," I said. "But it’s still only a lark with us, it’s not an addiction." She smiled a disbelieving small smile. "You might find this hard to believe," I told her, "but being perpetually lucky has its own tiny sorrows." She laughed. "So tell me what they are." "The more we get lucky, the more we keep waiting for the sky to fall. Or at least I do." * * * "It has taken us no time at all to learn how to live the impromptu lives of the rich," I wrote in my journal an hour after Dillon and I got back to Montreal. I also wrote about how surprise can feel like love when you have money. Having money, after all, was what had made it possible for Dillon to come home from work and say throw your toothbrush into your flight bag, we’re flying to the UK two hours from now, then we’re going to nip down to Spain for three days, how could I not love the life I was living with him? Dillon was sitting next to me (in the nude, in the heat) reading the weekend papers while we were backed into our pillows so that the fan on the windowsill could pour its hot wind over us as we periodically took sips from our glasses of warm beer, and when we got hungry we went out to the kitchen and Dillon poured us more beer while I stood tearing bits of ham into a pot of pea soup. "It’s like having a Greek god in here," I told him, "it’s distracting." He strode to the end of our narrow kitchen, spun around like a fashion model, then walked swiftly back to me. "You really think my body is beautiful?" I told him yes. "You are gorgeous, you egomaniac..." but I was still feeling cool towards him because at the wedding he had done nothing but dance with Jess, the stooped bridesmaid with the ravishing smile. Or the vacuous smile. "It’s Greek," I said. "it’s perfect." "Greek will do nicely." "A Greek body and an Irish face." "God, what a hideous combination," he said, but as we sat down, then blew on our soup, I could see he was pleased. Then not so pleased. "So why are we having hot soup on such a hot day?" "We’re doing what people in New Delhi do," I told him. "They eat hot foods on hot days. Don’t ask me why..." As we were eating our wedges of watermelon I looked over at him, sitting slumped and freckled and naked on the opposite side of the table, and asked him to define the word beautiful for me. "With examples. In a woman, I mean." Beautiful, beautiful, he said in a mulling voice. "For instance, do you think Jess is beautiful?" "Who?" "The bridesmaid you were dancing with at the wedding." "Oh that Jess. Well, she was attractive, certainly. She had an attractive physique and a pleasant face." "A pleasant face," I said, making an unpleasant face as I got up from my chair, then carried our soup bowls over to the sink. "So is there something wrong with my saying that an attractive woman has a pleasant face?" I glanced back at him as he was getting up from the table to stack the plates. "Well, it’s damning with faint praise, isn’t it? It’s like saying she’s a nice person." "And so she is," he said, dropping the scooped shells of the watermelon into the garbage pail, then boxing at the air all around my hair. * * * Once we started to lose money at the track we had to sell our apartment for less than we’d paid for it. Then we decided to give ourselves just one last chance to win. We were going to the Kentucky Derby, and I had a plan. I had cleaned out my savings, then changed my money into American dollars, and so I was going to place a bet on whichever horse I decided on—5000 dollars on a twenty-to-one longshot—and if I won, we would end up with 100,000 dollars in American money. I also decided to keep my plan a secret from Dillon, I didn’t want him to be horrified and talk me out of it. We flew down to Louisville the night before the derby. The next afternoon, two hours before the race, we took a bus out to Churchill Downs. The stadium was a Victorian antique, it had tiny steeples and CD for Churchill Downs painted in a dull gold on what looked like a giant green barn. I looked down the list of horses for a horse whose name I liked and found one (Come Hither), then after communing with myself for fifteen minutes, I placed my bet. As Dillon and I were about to sit down on one of the higher-up benches he wanted to know which horse I'd picked. "Come Hither." "Did you bet just a bit?" "A bit more than a bit." "Christ, I don’t like to think what you might mean by that." I was already feeling sick, the backs of my knees were damp, I already knew that I’d made a terrible mistake. "Look down at all the ludicrous hats," Dillon said. I looked down at the sea of great hats, the sea of platters. Platters of pink straw and chiffon, platters of white blossoms, black straw sombreros with pink ostrich feathers, but too soon we could hear the bugle call of the trumpet, then the race was already beginning, the jockeys turned into bright lumps of numbered silk as they crouched forward in their stirrups while their horses, like horses from the underworld, flew darkly beneath them. But they weren’t fleet and free like the horses in Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming or the swift Arabian horse in King of the Wind, they were enslaved, they were also a far cry from the horses I used to gaze at from our family car on the Sunday afternoon drives of my childhood, the loveliest horse watching us like a lonely maiden over one half of an old barn’s whitewashed Dutch door on the road to the low gleam of a river. A horse I sent all my love to as I prayed to her to bring me luck. But Come Hither, stately as a wooden horse slowly rising and falling to music cranked out for a merry-go-round, just kept cantering lazily along, and no matter how much I prayed Go thither, Come Hither, and run, run, run, Come Hither, she only drifted, leaving me, every night for weeks after that loss, to gaze at the ebb and flow of horses racing down the track at Churchill Downs as I tried to sleep, Come Hither peacefully cantering along the rim of the track with no particular destination in mind.