“Let’s adjust these so they are perfect.”
Daddy is saying this as he hoists you up onto the pony. He’s been teaching you to ride at the Pony Rides by the beach. Horses are your favorite thing at seven. You have all the plastic statues and your grandfather has built you a temporary corral for all of them. The real pony is golden and it trots around the little track. Palominos are your favorites, their blond manes dancing in the sea breeze — almost caramel.
He adjusts the stirrups so they fit your feet perfectly. You slant your heels down in the Western saddle, and he teaches you how to hold the reins for riding this way. In one hand. The scent of the stable rises in horse dung and sweat and burnished old leather and you click your tongue softly. Off you go, trotting, around and around the ring. Later this ring becomes a metaphor for your life as a woman. The sorts of tethers you will wear. Or traces.
“I think what I’ll do is give you the Pill,” he says.
You are nineteen and this is the first exam you have gone to. He adjusts the stirrups and you lie before him splayed open. It’s horrible to lie there like that in front of a male doctor. You look at the ceiling. You look anywhere not to have to catch his eye. These are the years before there is a nurse in the room with male doctors. During the exam he had managed to press himself against your foot and you felt it. You knew what he was doing, because you had just begun your first relationship ever.
Your mother had taken you to the appointment. The most she had ever told you in your teenage years was that she would take you herself to Planned Parenthood. But the subject never came up again because this wasn’t the sort of subject women actually discussed in the late 1970’s. At least not in your family.
“What they want is to see you barefoot, pregnant and under the table,” she’d said. It was the only time she broached the subject.
“When the times comes you let me know, and I’ll see that you have the Pill.”
You lie on the table like a piece of meat, raw, while he continues the inspection. He moves over your prone form and there isn’t any privacy at all. You dig the nails of your palm into one of your hands until it hurts and the pain distracts you from the way he pressed himself up against your foot.
“I think you might be pregnant,” he says.
“If you are, the Pill will cause a miscarriage.”
“Call me if you need to,” he says.
You’ve left with the prescription in your hand, and now you have a little plastic circular case full of tiny white pills that you are supposed to take everyday. It’s just like your mother’s was. You’d seen it in her bathroom many times but that was all he said to you during that appointment.
It was at the house in Hollywood where you miscarried. Years later you realize that what that doctor had done was something called malpractice and you thank your lucky stars that women became doctors after the 1960’s and after feminism made its mark.
You crumpled to the floor on the cool green and black tiles afterwards. You were bleeding and in agony.
You were only nineteen and there was no one to call, not even your mother because she disapproved of your relationship with your boyfriend in the first place.
You were lying in a crumpled heap for a week in a sea of endless blood.
A miscarriage was what the doctor had called it.
“One more day and you would have been dead,” the nurse in the hospital said.
She smiles at you as you lie in the hospital bed. The interns all come in and stand around you as if they haven’t seen anything like this ever before.
He hadn’t know what to do with you. Your boyfriend who was 36 and an actor. He hadn’t thought about birth control at all.
For some reason your grandparents pick up the tab for the hospital bill. But nobody ever talks about what happened except to say, “she must have been in some kind of trouble.”
No one ever mentions the incident again.
* * *
Daddy adjusts the stirrups on a different horse the next time he’s in town. He teaches you to grip with your thighs no matter whether you are bareback or in any kind of saddle.
Brandy rears but doesn’t manage to throw you at fourteen. He rears like men will also rear across the pages of your lifetime.
Daddy slaps his rump and off you go cantering around the ring.
“You just wait until next year,” he says.
Your proper English boots fit perfectly. Mommy got you this riding habit. She wants you to learn to jump, like she did, down in the arroyos. You’ve learned how to post perfectly during the trots.
They send you up to the stables when they want to be alone together, the weekends Daddy manages to arrive. You breathe in the smells and it’s like heaven. The leather, the ceanothus, the mountainsweetness of it all. The clouds dance across the sky as you curry Brandy’s damp belly. You rest your cheek against him gently.
Years later your mother’s best friend will tell you tales of the 1960’s.
“I was pregnant,” she says.
“I couldn’t support another child because I was divorcing him.”
It never occurred to you to think about the women in your mother’s generation and what they might have gone through. Hearing her tell it to you in the year 2009 feels strange. Her history. What the feminists call herstory.
“I saw him too,” she says. “Schultz.”
“The same doctor you saw. He was my doctor in those days.”
“I had to go before a committee,” she says. “It was all men.”
She breaks down on the phone into tears as she tells you the rest of the story. She tells you that the committee at the hospital decided for her. She had to plead her case about the divorce and the husband who was physically abusive to her. She had to get the permission of an all-male committee at the hospital.
“I’ve never really told anyone this before,” she says. She’s crying and she was one of your mother’s oldest and best friends. She’s in her 70’s.
You hold the phone against your ear tightly as your own tears fall, listening.
“Stirrups” ~ copyright 2010 by Valentine Bonnaire ~ all rights reserved.
*authors note: My mother and Uncle both loved jazz and they introduced me to Billie Holiday when I was just a young teen.This is one of my favorite pieces of hers. So is “All of Me.”