Joyland

New York |

To Choose a Horse

by Lauren Wallach

edited by Emily Schultz

Pablo always took the stairs but we met in the elevator. I had seen him before. Down the hallway, or in the earlier part of a day. What are you writing? I forget which one of us asks for the other’s name, but we do. From the first floor to the second. I don’t tell him what I’m writing.

In the morning he’s holding a hot coffee cup. The outdoor tables, shaded by just one tree, or two. So what is the title of your piece? Which piece? The one you’re writing. Just tell me the title. And two sentences of what it’s about. Fine, I say, “The Final Seduction.” That’s the title.

The sun is bright even though I have my sun hat on. I put my mouth to the straw and cold water on my hand drops to my thigh, the iced coffee is gone sooner than expected. Afterwards I realize how much I had been sweating.

So. You write about men.

Yes. I do. It is only almost true, but feels right and truer as soon as I speak the words. What’s your title?

I don’t have a title. His left leg is loosely crossed over his right. He leans in, his eyes now squinting from the sun. Come on, I say.

“The Initial Seduction,” he says. His expression unchanging. The way his head is tilted, the way he’s leaning in, the way his eyes are questioning. Or is he telling me? Or is it the sun? How dare he mock “The Final Seduction” I think, and a drop of sweat falls down somewhere on my body.

I was always on the verge of a certain uncontrollable laughter. He tells me about a strange, horrific death at a sporting event. And I can’t stop. Why is that funny? He asks. It’s not funny I want to say, to tell him. But I can’t breathe, so I can’t speak. I can hardly even see.

He arrives earlier than me in the mornings. He’s alone at a table, which I approach. He stops what he’s reading, looks up upon my arrival and asks, Are you sick? No, I say, I just woke up. And he says, with a concentrated look, motioning to an empty seat, sit down.

See that tree? Where the leaves are going back and forth?

Yes.

That’s called a quaking aspen.

What does that mean?

That’s the name!

But why is it called that?

It quakes and it’s an aspen. So it’s called a quaking aspen.

It quakes and it’s an aspen. (It trembles by the slightest wind.)

You see the white flowers over there? I know what those are called, and the yellow flowers, I know those too. That’s Queen Anne’s lace, and the yellow one is goldenrod.

We’re sitting in silence except to talk about the flowers at the edge of the tracks. What a classy train station, he says with a look of satisfaction and excitement, and a smile he tries to hold in but comes out anyway, teeth concealed, as he turns both ways to look around. Classical music plays outside as we walk toward the entrance. There are no other people, just the soft sound of metal pieces of flags hitting the poles they’re attached to, sounds of tall grass or distant trees moving back and forth in the wind. So bright and blue and clear, as if we are in some cloudless dream. My father walks ahead of me two steps or so and his right arm goes to the side, pointing with his finger, then his left. There is a beat to his movements and I hear him say something very low, his voice blending into the music and the grass and the trees.

What are you doing?

I was trying to figure out where we are, which direction the train would come in from. North, south… he trails off and does it again.

This way, he says, pointing forward.

At the end of July my father came to visit me. It was his small vacation for the summer. This is his last summer living in Brooklyn and his last summer drinking. I won’t like it when he’s gone. I will have preferred it when he was drinking. But we don’t know any of that yet. I wanted something special to happen for him, but neither of us did any planning. So we didn’t know where to go around the town, which was actually a small city. Days before we had contemplated hiking, boating, something outdoors. We were far away, outside of the overheated, crowded city. This was the weekend to do something. I only prepared with the Acropolis. A few days ago I booked him a room at the Acropolis Hotel.

The Acropolis Hotel had a gaudy, antique interior, and everything inside was of a deep tone, and red. There were mirrors from the floor to the ceiling, and every so often you could catch a scene of what was going on somewhere else. I loved it there and felt deeply at home. These deep tones and mirrors, the structure, the thick crystal glasses, the inside rain smell, the dark dance hall in the back, locked up and reserved for high occasions, the old elevator, the sweeping (red) staircase, the portraits of long ago ballet dancers in the narrow hallways, and the display of ten different pies every night.

Me and Pablo went here before he left. It was my idea. I took him. We sat at a small round table for two, which had a love seat on the side as though two other visitors were meant to join us. When Pablo moved onto the delicately cushioned couch halfway into the night, I followed. There are pieces of our conversation that are set against total blackness, and these words exist outside of any time or place. (It will always be this way.) His gin and tonics, my red wines, the crystal glasses, the red, the carpets, the banana cream pie I order that is like a breakfast, Pablo’s one bite, Pablo saying he had breakfast for dinner, a bagel and cereal—and my asking, Why did you eat that for dinner? I made some wrong choices, he said. At lunch I had made wrong choices too, as Pablo observed my meal hours before. I don’t like this, I said, looking around the cafeteria to see what else I could find. Now I can say it, he said, that looks awful

When we left the Acropolis that night, Pablo said: We can’t go home yet, show me downtown! Not knowing the nightlife of downtown at all, I led us across the avenue, and down a street, and turned a corner, and there hanging in the distance was a dim circular lamp. Let’s go there, I said. Inside it was mostly empty. A few people at the bar watching the game. Everything was wood. Maple. Pablo had a beer and I crunched the ice in my water glass. Pablo was in the middle of telling me I was strange—Has anyone ever told you that before? Do you know that about yourself? From where we sat I watched a woman stand up and walk over to us carrying a martini glass. Hi! She said, very friendly, a large smile, and placed the glass on the table in between Pablo and I. Would you like this chocolate cocktail? Yes! I said. They made it for us, but we’re just not in the mood! Pablo made a face of slight disgust. We all introduced ourselves and shook hands, Oh! she said, are you two a couple? We didn’t answer her and on she continued about who she was, who her friend was, and why the guy made the drink for them in the first place.

I tell Pablo about how often (and hard) I brush my teeth, how I sometimes gnaw on the brush and deep teeth marks erode the back, destroying it within a week’s time. He thought this was unhealthy. Does it fill the void? He asked. We talk about possible “intimacy issues.” Like this: my father doesn’t date. Pablo: does he have intimacy issues? Yes. Pablo: I think I do too. I never care about a problem if it’s being talked about. I will love the problem. Talking about a problem is even better than not having a problem and not being able to talk about it (because there is no problem.) Well, I regretted crunching all my ice cubes. Just some warm water was left, half his beer, and I was the only one who had taken a few sips of the chocolate cocktail. One day, Pablo said, I want to invent a toothbrush for you with bristles on both sides.

We didn’t go anywhere. We stayed in the town. For my father, it was the relaxing thing to do. And for me, it kept me in a steady, heated fog that I attributed to the weather and the affects that the hotel had upon me. We walked around, we went swimming in the Acropolis pool, we went out to restaurants, we drank and ate heavy meals. I showed him the old Victorian houses and he was impressed the way he’s impressed by old houses we see when we leave the city. My father hardly ever leaves the city.

We used to visit old mansions when I was younger. My father, my mother, my brother, and me. Different mansions, all over the country. Mostly in New York. Our escape. A mansion. I always found a room I would pretend was mine. I wandered the entire mansion, and then would sit in my room, and just think about what my life could be like. I saw many things that could happen in nature. It felt more intimate than the city. I liked the thought of seeing someone running toward the house, my windows, from the grass and the woods in the distance. Each mansion had a scene like this, and it was always possible to see someone running toward it. And I did, always see it.

The second night I joined him in a different room of the Acropolis, with two twin beds. It overlooked the pool that no one swam in, except us. It was a small room and let in lots of light. Intricate floral wallpaper lined the walls along with framed black and white photographs of people with large sun hats in dresses and suits, old wooden dressers painted white or red, thick and fully carpeted, each bed atop a frame with tall wooden posts. That night we lay in our beds with the bedside table lamp on, reading. I knew there were people down on the first floor in the bar drinking and eating. But there wasn’t a sound from them. Some of the outdoor lights flickered up through our window. My father put down his book. I’m going to bed, he said, and turned away from the lamp. Goodnight, I said. I heard a sort of scraping. I looked behind me. I knew this sound, like a mouse in the wall. I think I hear something in the walls. My father didn’t respond. I hit the wall hard with my hand and felt a pain run through my arm. I put my book down and turned the lamp off. The scraping began again. Slowly, quietly, a rustling growing louder. I turned the light on. Do you hear that? I asked. No, he said. I turned the light out again, the sound grew. It was as if whatever it was, however many of them, would break through the walls and the ceiling. I hit the wall again. I turned on the light. You don’t hear that? I can’t sleep it’s so loud. There are animals in there!

He sat up. He listened. His eyes circled the room. Just leave the light on then, he said, lying back down. So I lay with the light on, and closed my eyes, but the light didn’t make them go away, whatever they were. I’m calling the front desk, I said, throwing off the covers and rushing to the phone. Don’t! My father said, but it was too late. Hello? Hi, I need to report something. There are animals in the walls in this room. Has anyone ever told you there are animals in the walls?

No one else has ever had a problem, the man at the front desk said in dismissal.

I hung up. Someone had to tell them, I said.

I guess it was meant to be you, my father said.

We decided to go to the racetrack on Saturday. We walked there in the hot day. It was further from the hotel than the map said. Many streets were empty on our walk, and we saw many more Victorian homes, which we admired. Down the last stretch of road, crowds of people began to appear. A combination between an amusement park and a stadium. Neither of us had ever gambled before. We paid our price and walked through.

When Pablo left, he went to visit his grandparents in New York. He told me he bought a tie and some books but he didn’t go to Brooklyn. I wondered about the colors of his tie but I didn’t ask him what color or pattern it was. I imagined it: deep red and deep blue. The colors of the dress I wore that night.

The night of the Acropolis I wore a button-down collared shirt-dress with maroon and navy stripes that ran vertical. That’s a very nice dress, Pablo said earlier in the day. He liked the shape, the collar, and the buttons that ran the entire length. Later that evening he said: I really like those colors. I had deconstructed this dress. I found it in a secondhand store, cut off the sleeves, hemmed the bottom. I sewed in the internal elastic that hugged at the waist. It was the best and most ornate deconstruction I had ever done. Pablo was disturbed that I wore used clothing. But after that he was very interested, and wanted to know where and why I learned how to sew.

Have you gone to the racetrack? He texted one day.

I plan to this weekend. The final thing to do before I leave. I will gamble too.

I’m jealous that you get to go to the races, he wrote.

Have you ever been? I asked.

Yes, he said, in Mexico City, and I love it. I love betting (small amounts) on horses and sports.

Nobody knew my father and I were going to the races. (Except Pablo.) I liked the feeling of a race in secret. I imagined the three of us at the races together. I wrote to him while we were there. Every once in awhile, when something happened. Something was rarely happening. A race would last seconds. To choose a horse would last seconds. And this is what I notified him about. The horses I chose. I thought about this: only small amounts.

People walked around with large cups of beer. Women wore fancy and elaborate sun hats. Men were sunburned on their necks. Later on, my father would be too. I wore my simple black sun hat. We looked around in amazement. We watched people move about with plans and purpose. It makes me feel bad that there are all these ordinary people who know how to do this thing that I don’t know how to do, my father said, after we had been wandering aimlessly for a short time. Well now we’re going to do it too, I said. But looking into the books was too complicated. My father studied the details. There were statistics and odds, and many people knew the inner workings, what it takes to place an educated bet. I had a feeling it wasn’t luck. Because I didn’t know anything, and wouldn’t, I knew what I would do. I would place my bet based on a name. My father liked this idea. Once we made our plan we stayed in the sun for hours, leaning on the track walls that divided the horses from the gamblers.

The first horse I chose was Gallant Dreams. Pablo responded: Sounds promising. Gallant Dreams did not win. The second horse I chose was With a Cape, who was #3, my lucky number. Pablo responded: I think that is probably the best name ever. I put the phone in my bag and leaned against the wall next to my father, staring out across the track, empty and open. The race was about to begin. There was an equal rush and quietude. I didn’t write back. There is possibility in silence, and a suspension, though for how long we don’t always know. I didn’t want the race to begin. I wanted to distill this moment right here with my father and Pablo. This is better than finding out. I concentrated very hard and looked out at the track, at all the people in their hats, smushed into the stands or leaning against the wall. Win, I half thought. I was too hot and dazed to concentrate very hard. I could not tell if I was hoping more than I was concentrating or concentrating more than I was hoping. I didn’t want to win from hope, I wanted a “divine occurrence.”  But then what would happen?

The gun goes off. My father wipes some sweat away from his face. I adjust my sunglasses, my black sun hat. We lean in. The horses race by. Like slow motion. Going so fast but looking so slow. There’s With a Cape. She was never at the front. There’s With a Cape, my father said. We clench our fists, we quietly make noises, like go, and oh no, our faces tighten, eyes squint. With a Cape does not win. Each horse arrives. And before the race begins, let’s not forget, how they each also come out to show themselves, one at a time, in their hats and vests and special colors. Look at me. How else will you know who I am, when I’m way over there, looking so slow, but going so fast?

When he placed his bet at the window, he looked down at his paper with the instructions of how to place a bet. Then slowly, he looked up to the teller, who was waiting, and told her the first part: the number of the horse. There were three parts to placing a bet. The number of the horse, the position of finish: win, place, or show, and the amount you want to wager. He looked back to his page each time with the instructions, slow and deliberate, until he had completed. He didn’t see her smiling, but I saw from where I stood. I didn’t feel bad for him when I saw her smile that way. She smiled at me that way too, though it was a shorter, quicker smile, because although I didn’t look down each time in between, I had asked after I placed my bet: So if number three doesn’t win, nothing happens?

No, she said, smiling the same smile I had seen, shaking her head, nothing happens.