Mar 1997

At the Races

by Rachel Barenblat

Have you ever fallen in love with the lover of a lover?

I mean, something fast and immediate that flowers in your chest like spring lightning. You see them together and suddenly you realize, his hands have known your body, too, pressed your laughing eyes shut. You marvel you never noticed her before, the way her neck rises from her scooped linen collar. You hear someone unexpected, from another context, saying her name and you laugh out loud. And for that hour, or day, or afternoon, you walk around on cotton feet, planning what you'd say if you saw her again.

Or it can be slow and drawn-out, like it was with me. You've known her for months, a few years, even. You no longer feel anything for the man who connects your lives, although you sometimes remember the way he would leave his coffee cup by the bedside when he left for work, or the smell of his shampoo. But you start to watch the way her hair falls free from the chopstick she uses to hold it in place, and you notice the dark strands curling down her neck. When spring comes and she wears sleeveless shirts, you wonder if she shaves under her arms, or if her body is graced with those fine, straight hairs, salty and damp. And you realize you have not always watched her walk, although today it feels normal. You watch her calves move when she crosses her legs. You think about touching the hollows of her collarbones, tracing the line of her neck. Oh, it could be a man, too. You could be mesmerized by his eyes behind glasses, or the way light glints off his unshaven face. You could imagine the s-curve of his lower back wreathed in pale sheets as he sleeps. But I am imagining it is a woman, because that is how it was when this happened to me.

When this happened to me I found myself writing love poems, after a while, although I could not admit they were about love. I insisted to myself they were about small and mundane things, little things I wanted to exalt. So what if they happened to be her fingers, her ankles, places where her body tapered thin. The next day I would write about hills, the flanks of horses, the impossibility of white flesh inside dark red apples, thinking about my hands on her hips, the rise of her breasts. You have felt this way, I know. I can see it in the way you walk, the way your fingers hold a pen. You are not unfamiliar with the recreation of love through strokes of ink.

You will not eat grapes, or oranges, that have seeds. Every once in a while, every two weeks maybe, you think about shaving your head, but you always decide not to. You are sympathetic to my story. The fact you are listening to me, that you have let my voice into your head, reveals these things about you.

You have a tattoo on your left hip, a blue crescent moon skirting the lift of the bone. You like lemons better than limes, although you can't tell the difference between Sprite and Seven-Up. Don't ask how; these are things I know about you. You stand in stationery stores and run between your thumb and forefinger sheets of thick, creamy paper. You fantasize: you could cover these papers with words about her, write everything you know about her in indelible ink. You look out at the rain and you imagine her lashes wet and glittering against her cheek. Your attention is caught by the row of glass vials catching tiny drops of inky light in the window, and you spend half an hour debating color: black, chocolate, perhaps dark green. You imagine your thumbprints all over her body, gentle whorls of darkness, staining her arms and thighs.

One day you run into her at the grocery store. She is carrying a basket and your eyes dart to its contents. The whole way home you will recite them in silent litany: milk, parsley, black plums, whole-wheat bread. She is wearing blue jeans and a tanktop, with no bra. Her hair is braided and you think of sleek ropes made of satin. The refrigerated air is still around your bodies. Sure, she says. I'd love to go. What time on Friday, and do you want to drive? And then you are climbing the steps to your apartment, you can't remember the walk home, your feet have only a faint memory of pressing into pavement. You flop on your back onto your bed and stare at the ceiling, trying to remember every word of the conversation, holding each one between your teeth like blackberries. You wonder if your eyes, or your voice, gave you away: forbidden thought, rich like caviar. You decide she does not know; you knew what was veiled behind your words, but she does not. She did not hear the echoes of your fingers touching her skin, delirious with sensation.

Milk. Parsley. Black plums. Whole-wheat bread.

Friday night you take her to the old stadium where they still race horses on spring nights. Your thoughts flicker to other places of crowds: sports stadiums, Roman arenas, the empty drive-in theatre you walked through once in upstate New York, tall grasses waving at the broken and rusted movie screen. In the car she tells you she always loved the races as a child; she always thought they were incredibly romantic, just like something in a novel. She could picture Jane Eyre at the races, or Anne of Green Gables, clasping her hands in delight as the horses' breath steamed. Now, at twenty-one, she says, she knows the trumpet fanfare is only a recording, and the molded plastic chairs are kind of tacky, and most of the people there aren't millionaires or movie stars or even big gamblers. But she doesn't mind.

And you don't mind. You think you wouldn't mind anything, even tragedy. Here she is with her hand on your arm; she is laughing, and you feel almost light enough to speak.

The races have the same air of excitement for you as a night-time baseball game—the hot dogs, the beer, the brilliant white lights on the track and the black sky above. And the horses, while they certainly aren't thoroughbreds, seem fast and beautiful to you. Despite the comical appearance of the carts they pull, which look like Roman chariots, the horses are graceful. On the far side of the track the horses' legs, small in the distance, move like clockwork. The jockeys are just garish specks of color. You wonder if you could have been a jockey, if they had somehow stunted your growth as a child, kept you at four foot ten. Perhaps if your parents had given you coffee in elementary school, disguised with cream and sugar, you would not have grown. Although then you would be a different person: small and light, and perhaps still childlike. You might not love her, then.

When this happened to me I stood beside her in the cold evening and offered her a cigarette. I watched her fingers depress the trigger on the lighter. For a moment I imagined I was the cigarette, my only purpose to come alive between her lips. She pressed her face into the spaces of the chain link fence, watching. A race had just ended, and the winner was trotting slowly into the winner's circle, at the side of the track, only a few yards from where we stood. As the horses for the next race began to warm up on the track, the owner of the winning horse came out to stand beside it, placed a hand on its steaming flank. The jockey dismounted and stood beside the horse, an impossibly tiny person in aqua silk. Neither of us could tell whether or not it was a man.

We laughed about that. She told me stories I still remember, about going to the beach in late spring and finding a rusted horseshoe in the sand. We made dollar bets and cheered when we won back an extra twenty cents. She asked me to explain the sign bearing, in flashing lights, the constantly-changing odds on each horse. Okay, she said. I think I understand. Give me odds to calculate. Give me something that might be likely and might not be, and see if I get it right.

When this happened to me, the question was in my mind already: what are the odds? That we?

Instead I looked up and asked about something in the sky.

They say it is worse, sometimes, to get everything you want. When nothing goes wrong, you can only blame the outcome on yourself. Your own meanness, or fear, or paralysis: your inability to click the final piece into place. Fear is natural, yes. But so is the movement one makes to push through fear, the leap of speaking when nothing is easy to say.

I am not unnatural because of my passion: you, too, have known longing like this. What makes me unnatural is my stillness. My hands lose their ability to touch, my voice vanishes before it reaches my throat.

When this happened to me, I took her home in silence and we said goodbye at the door. And I have not spoken to her since. But this is happening to you, too, the way all pure things are repeated. Maybe you will have the courage to speak; or, at least, for one impossible moment, to place your hand on hers, and close your eyes.


Rachel lives and writes in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her first volume of poetry, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Her poems have recently appeared in The Berkshire Review, Portfolio, and others. When she is not writing, she is usually baking bread, brewing beer, or singing madrigals.