In the days when I lived on the backs and behinds of horses, I knew a young woman by the name of Jil. Life was fresh and we were both just starting off, me driving carriages by night and sitting in the conventional life of typing legal documents by day, she reeling in her life from the effects of too much regulation.
I’d had it with the modeling profession!, she shared with me one day, grinning ear to ear in the aisles of the Old Town Chicago stables housing our carriage horses. So I cut it all off!
Like Sinead O’Connor?, I asked, mouth open. Really, why?
I just couldn’t take it anymore. All those anorexic 16-year olds, all those adoring photographers trying to get into my pants. I did it for a while, then one day I said GOODBYE, shaved my head and left the building, never to return again.
I stood there, harness in hand, on my way to place it on my black Percheron for the night, Mister Bill. He was waiting impatiently for me to finish, nickering and prancing his hooves on the freshly-bedded sawdust in his stall. It was five-thirty in the afternoon in the carriage barn, we were due out on the streets near Water Tower Place for the night shift by six o’clock. My boyfriend was taking a shift alongside me for the night, in response to my threatening to end our partnership if he didn’t do something to earn a few dollars and chip in.
I tried to envision Jil, her bald head lying underneath all those wild black curls dancing on the top of her head, prancing away from the cameras. Never before had I met a woman so beautiful, wild and bold. I knew that I had made a new friend in that instant, the way you know you’ve found just the right place or stumbled upon just the right moment, to match a feeling you had or a want unfulfilled. I wanted to be near her, wanted her to like me.
I was a 20-nothing fish out of my own waters, naïve in the world, just a few years in from the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, exploring my life in the big city. I had graduated high school a few years earlier, moved out of my parents’ apartment that afternoon, and after spending time coming into and going out of my first office job, found myself later in the company of attorneys by day and horses by night. It was a lucrative and rewarding mixture at the time, keeping me out of bars and the prevailing rituals of attending college, barhopping, dancing and generally hanging out that normally accompany early adult life.
I’d found the second job driving carriages shortly after I moved to the city. I wanted to be outside playing with horses, learning the streets of Chicago. I thought I was the luckiest 20-nothing to be privileged to do so. I lived with my boyfriend twenty-five years my senior who was only too happy to join me in my horse-centered world. We’d met at the polo club where I spent my high school days on the backs of six horses a day six days a week for four years street. You’d make an excellent partner, he exclaimed to me one day in the barn at the polo club, seven months shy of my eighteenth birthday. Wanna go in on some polo ponies?
I thought it was a good opportunity at the time. I had, after all, spent four years taking care of the very ones he was now offering half-ownership in. The cost was nominal – sweat labor. The joy of opportunity to play polo where I grew up working, priceless.
I took him up on it, and supplemented my working existence with practice games on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Sunday matches. The attorneys I worked with hardly minded, but for the Korean associate: I don’t think it’s usual for a secretary to take off at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to go play with horses, he exclaimed, belching up his kimchee.
Would you like me to stay late tomorrow night to make up for it?, I offered.
No. I just wonder, who you think you are…
Despite this and similar conversations about the appropriateness of a working-class girl playing polo alongside men of means on the field, I rode out onto the polo fields every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, anyway. Friday nights and Saturday afternoons were for something else – hanging out on the streets of Pearson and Michigan on the Gold Coast of Chicago with my draft horse for the night, waiting for passengers.
I preferred life on the fringe. It balanced out the conventional existence of a downtown law firm by day.
My polo-playing boyfriend twenty-five years my senior was in and out of jobs, mostly living off the fat of my labor and the benefits of my youthful energy. Some days, if he hadn’t pissed off the owner and was in his good graces, he harnessed up and took out a carriage on the street to earn a few bucks alongside me. Other days he managed the group of drivers out at the carriage stand, but mostly he spent it doing what people from other walks of life would say, shuckin’ and jivin’. Yet on more days, he took the real manure and hauled it away from the carriage barn to the farm just south of Chicago, a few hours away.
Occasionally, he supplemented his contributions by striking deals with those men of means, talking them out of ponies unsuited for their athletic limitations and garnering them, instead, for our own growing string of mutt polo ponies. The cost of acquisition was always low enough –though there is no such thing as a free horse – and it would come back to me much later, when I had to sell them all to pay our joint debts incurred by that partnership I naively agreed to.
The arrangements I’d made to be able to create my horse-centered world didn’t matter as much to me at the time as the fact that I got to be in it. I was happy and naively trotting around my own life, when I first met Jil.
I couldn’t have predicted it would ever turn out this way, but when on our first night out to a seedy country music dive bar in Chicago’s now-trendy Bucktown neighborhood, Jil took off her bra and hung it on the rearview mirror, and I knew I had found another flying fish. She was the wildly unrestrained sister for which my heart longed.
I knew I shouldn’t have let you two out together, especially not to a bar!, my polo-playing boyfriend chided, holding me up by the elbow as I sobbed getting into the car.
Neecy, Neecy!, I’ll call you in the morning!, was the last thing I heard coming out of her mouth. As I turned to look, the two police officers were pushing down on her wildly curly black head, tucking her into the back seat of their squad car.
I warned you to go easy on the Tequila, my polo-playing boyfriend chided later. It was the last thing I heard from him before I passed out that night, grinning from ear to ear, having seen for the first time in my twenty-six years, the inside of my first seedy country music bar.
It was also the only time I’d ever seen a woman stand up on a pool table, rip off her shirt and whip pool balls at the heads of three burley Harley-riding Miller Genuine Draft-drinking bar patrons.
In those days, I saw her infrequently at the stables. Situated just a few blocks from the center of the once-hippy mecca of Old Town back in the 60s, the neighborhood was changing with that mixture of all that was established and all that was oncoming. It was on its way to being bleachified, bordered by Sedgewick to the west and the city’s worst projects in its history, Cabrini Green.
When I ran into her at the carriage barn a couple of weeks later, we avoided the recounting of the story of how her ride went in the back of the squad car, and I didn’t want to ask how it all turned out.
I thought she would be hesitant to repeat our adventure and might me think me far too uncool for her high-flying adventuresome lifestyle, so I was surprised when she invited me out again for another night on the town.
I go out dancing all the time, she exclaimed a couple of weeks later, bridling her horse for the night shift upcoming. I stared at her in wonder, curiosity piqued, feeling honored and relieved. I smiled. Jil was willing to talk to the uncool girl dating the intermittently jobless older guy.
Can I come?, I blurted out. I’ve never been out dancing.
You poor thing, she cooed in that sisterly boy-have-you-NOT-lived kind of way. Sure!, It’ll be fun – just meet me at Neo’s at nine this Saturday, she exclaimed, trotting away with her dapple grey horse by her side.
Hey, I don’t think that’s a very good idea, my polo-playing boyfriend remarked from the back of the barn.
Gotta go, late to catch the first ride out at the carriage stand!, I uttered, trotting away.
You used to turn the song down in the car, she exclaimed excitedly over the telephone, just as I was hitting the high notes – singing along – Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman! …
I laughed, leaning against my dishwasher. I know, it was kinda fun, I couldn’t deny my deliberateness, I loved embarrassing you, making you laugh.
It’d been twenty years since I’d moved away, from the carriage barn and away from my polo-playing loser boyfriend. Twenty years since I’d sold my last polo pony and carriage to pay the IRS for our joint debts. Twenty years since I’d moved to Colorado and established a life in the Rocky Mountains on a small ranch outside of Boulder. Twenty years since we’d ridden in my 1976 maroon Monte Carlo – the Monte Creepo – down some Chicago suburban road together, elm and oak trees shading our entrance to some backyard summer barbeque of some random polo player we kind of knew.
I couldn’t believe she picked up the phone. In that instant, I forgot about the process of rebuilding my life after the car crash of divorce, the ensuing heartaches waving in and out of my life in rapid succession as a typhoon in the South Pacific. I forgot about the emotionally crippled and penniless walking penises-on-legs climbing in and out of my bed. I forgot about the sleep-robbing anxiety that had replaced my nights from trying to find a job in a recession after twenty years of self-employment.
I forgot about the nightmare that was my new waking life.
Mostly, though, somewhere in the talking of my old friend, I forgot about the last twenty years I had spent in another life, the one in which I gave away all the pieces of myself until I didn’t know who I was. I recalled, instead, that there was a time in my life that was my very own, living on the backs and behinds of horses, following the directions and the terrain of my own interior world.
I needed to remember the nickering in the barn of the carriage horses ready to leave their stalls for the streets for the night, the pony my father bought me for fifty bucks when I was eleven. I needed to remember the smell of Neatsfoot oil on my harness and Brasso on the buckles, the saddle soap on my polo bridles. I needed to recall galloping on the sleek Thoroughbred black back of Jezebel before she broke her leg and died. I wanted to know again the June breezes blowing off the shores of Lake Michigan as I trotted my own dapple grey Don Juan down Pearson Street with a carriage of freshly filled passengers, laughing and smiling as we pulled away from the carriage stand. I wanted to hear again, the laughter of my polo-playing jobless boyfriend, standing on Pearson and Michigan, biting down a steaming hot J’s Dawg ‘n Burger, telling stupid jokes of his time as a manager at Goldblatt’s on the south side of Chicago and how he watched from the backroom as people got their athletic shoes stuck in the toes of the escalator, and cackling like a fool.
I wanted to live there for a few moments, spend a few hours. It was a life filled with horses and laughter and the wisdom of real living. Jil had, I suspected, continued to live there, and I found out later that evening, she’d spent much of her time doing just that.
Until she nearly died.
I got through it, she proclaimed brightly. All that wild living. All those people left behind. I found myself and I’m just really happy, here with my son in Michigan, making fish and horse sculptures out of wood, playing with my Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. I enjoy my life, it must have been all those adventures that made me want to settle down…
She sang the journey of her own reclamation of self and dance with life that evening. Like a radiant songbird delivering her tune, bringing reaffirmation and light back into my fluctuating dark-light world. I was returned to my own self in that moment – to that time when the trust for myself could be found inside the knowingness found in the horses I rode and drove behind. She was still a resilient and fiercely bright, adventuresome spirit, training horses, making her art. The bonds we shared — an empassioned life of horses, wild abandon, unbridled energy, joy and vibrancy – were all still there. She’d gone from her reckless life on the edge of danger, tossing pool balls around seedy country bars and Friday nights in the back of squad cars, straight into a journey through darkness. By the strength of her spirit she continued beyond, renouncing all that was bringing death to her spirit. Her own period of suffering through, loss, pain and despair sent her into a reemergence with a stronger sense of self, health, vibrancy, groundedness and perspective. Blessed with an 8-year old son, autistic and beloved, he was now her focus and along with her horse-fish art she created, Jil was the happiest and strongest I’ve ever heard her been. Authentic, enlivened and still uncompromising, she sang the joy of a triumphant wild woman. I fell in love with her all over again, and though I’d lost track of her the way you lose track of the most authentic parts of yourself in the making of an adult life, she was just the one person I needed to find again to give me that life-affirming energy in that dark-dark moment.
We continued to discuss the details of life in just that and other ways, for the rest of the evening. I got myself up off the rose-colored concrete kitchen floor I had been sitting on, washed my face, and went out and saddled my horse waiting to take me for a ride up the mountain, the very next morning. We would continue to resurrect our bond together for many more Rocky mountain sunset-lit evenings thereafter. Once you’ve found a mosaic of empowered femininity, it’s kinda hard to let her go.