The Lady on the Horse

photo by Andy Hurvitz
photo by Andy Hurvitz

That foggy day was her last moment of childhood frolic. When she rode Charlie home to her parent’s house in the late afternoon, she saw her mother being carried out on a stretcher. Two white suited men loaded her into the back of an ambulance.

She pulled the horse and tied him up to a front porch pillar. Running up to her father, she couldn’t catch her breath to speak.

“Oh, my God! What is this? Dad please tell me she’s all right! What is it?”

He only stood there with teary blue eyes. He stared at the ambulance and clutched an empty bottle of lithium in his left hand.

At the top of a windy hill near La Jolla, California, a light breeze blew off the Pacific. It ruffled the dark blonde hair of a 30-year-old woman, Juanita Carl. She often walked along the beach by herself. This was her choice. She had been alone for six months now after walking out on her husband Johnse.

Johnse Carl was an inventor, a businessman, a high tech fanatic. He worked in computer related satellite equipment for space research. He had a lot of money. Juanita spent so many nights alone. While Johnse worked in the lab, she would walk along the moonlit beach in La Jolla and think of ending her life, so empty were her days.

They had met at Burger King where he managed the counter. He was the only worker with ambitions beyond fries. Juanita knew it when she walked in at sixteen and ordered a whopper. He asked her for a date and she came by later to hear him speak while he mopped the floor.
As he poured Pine Sol into the bucket, he exclaimed: “I want to invent something! Like those guys down at Scripps. Only I don’t want to be a poor researcher, I want to be a rich entrepreneur.”

“A what?”
“An entrepreneur. Someone who creates their own wealth.”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“No. I’m not. I just can’t believe that’s all you want. To be rich….”
“That’s cause you already are Juanita.”

Juanita Adams was rich. Her parents had come from Oklahoma in the early 1940’s and took some of their meager savings and bought an old hotel downtown. When San Diego developed, the hotel was sold and they reinvested the land in the country east of the city. When the city finally overtook the country, they were wealthy landowners.

Just east of La Jolla, the Adams built a rustic California ranch with white board and batten siding, wood shingled roof, green shutters and a generous stable. The property was in a canyon, surrounded by eucalyptus, pine and firs. A gravel driveway, shaped like a horseshoe, lent an air of horsey wealth and quiet ostentation. This was the kind of house, where all Americans dreamed of living. It had a wood paneled library, a beamed family room, and French doors leading out onto a slate paved patio.

Lydia Adams, “Mom”, was a famous equestrian in Southern California. With her regal jaw and pulled back hair she was well-bred and polished. She had been in many horse shows in the 1940’s and 50’s. A fiercely competitive woman, she acted as horse trainer to Juanita as the little girl practiced dressage. A typical Saturday afternoon would find the two women in the spacious front yard, with Juanita on top of her horse Charlie while her mother barked orders.

” Put your whip down Juanita! Relax! Your arms are too stiff!”
“I can’t help it!”
“Yes you can! Don’t ever say you can’t help something!”

Johnse had ambition, Juanita had class. Johnse got into Cal Tech on a scholarship and Juanita went the liberal arts route at UCSD. In college, she would ride the still verdant hills around her parent’s house.

One foggy and cloudy Sunday in February, eighteen year old Juanita took Charlie for a ride on the beach near Torrey Pines. She loved the sound of the waves crashing onshore and how beautifully Charlie jumped over the large pieces of driftwood on the sand. She took the reins and steered Charlie in shallow water ,kicking up the spray and pulling back onto the dry beach again. Zig-zag, back and forth, wet and dry. It was a game of control. She was boss.

Her mother’s words echoed in her head: “Don’t ever say you can’t help something!”

That foggy day was her last moment of childhood frolic. When she rode Charlie home to her parent’s house in the late afternoon, she saw her mother being carried out on a stretcher. Two white suited men loaded her into the back of an ambulance.

She pulled the horse and tied him up to a front porch pillar. Running up to her father, she couldn’t catch her breath to speak.

“Oh, my God! What is this? Dad please tell me she’s all right! What is it?”

He only stood there with teary blue eyes. He stared at the ambulance and clutched an empty bottle of lithium in his left hand.

She would never understand why her mother had left her motherless at eighteen. At the cemetery, Mom was eulogized for all the right reasons: she loved her husband and daughter, she was a wonderful rider, she was active in the community, she was a friend to the animals. Why then did she kill herself?

Johnse had come down from Pasadena for the funeral. She hadn’t expected him, but when she saw the skinny and awkward physicist dressed in a black suit, she suddenly felt a wave of gratitude and fulfillment.

“I heard about your mother. I’m here for you.”

For months after the funeral, she went riding, almost every day. Johnse wrote and sent her funny cards from school. She did little studying of her own, but eagerly read all the Jane Austen she could lay her hands on.

Mostly, it was the horse that provided the strength for her to move on. Temperament is particularly important for dressage, and as she again started to compete in shows, her speed, endurance and discipline were called into action again.

By May, she had gone to Kentucky to ride. There were many distractions: horses, crowds, parties, and gin. Death and the empty grave were forgotten. At a bluegrass party, a tall and older southern gentleman in grey tweed coat, fawn breeches, boots, collar and tie walked up to her and put his arm on her shoulder. He reminded her of her father in confederate costume.

A terrific stench of Jack Daniels mixed in with the smell of leather, oats and tobacco stepped close to her.

“Young lady, you are just about the finest rider in these championships. Where y’all from?”
“San Diego.”
“How would you like to be my dinner companion this evening?”
“That depends.”
“On what?”

”Where we go to dinner. I’m staying right here in Bowling Green.”
“Marvelous. My farm is also in Bowling Green.”

That night, she found herself in a daring bet. She wagered that she wouldn’t sleep with this older, athletic and white-haired aristocrat. Was she was stronger than his flattering words, his fireplace, and three single malt scotch whiskies that he fed her upon arrival at the farm? Probably not……

A golden retriever came bouncing into a dimly lit living room, and lay his snout directly into her jodphurs. The dog smelled more than the lady could hide. A few minutes later, she left the dog behind and followed the master upstairs to his bedroom.

Kentucky was her trip her to moon. She came back to an empty house in La Jolla. Dad was out of town and visiting an old girlfriend in Oklahoma. She called up Johnse, who was at school, and he was deep in the throes of his final exams. Instinctively, she busied herself in a maze of gala events, charity balls and horse shows.

Yet she would go to the parties, ride in the events, and come home to the big empty house and walk into the bedroom where her mother had once slept.

Her father returned from Oklahoma in September. His old stoic selfishness flared up in quietly irritating ways. He had told her that he would return in late August, then he changed it to September 10th, finally to September 24th. One day, he just walked into his house and threw his coat on the floor of the kitchen.

“Hello Dad. I didn’t know you were coming back today. I was just leaving to take Charlie out for a ride.”
“Didn’t you get my message?”
“The one about you coming back late?”
“No. The one about my leaving you the house and moving back to Tulsa.”
She dropped the whip and pulled a chair and sat down.

“Why would you do that?”
“Why? Oklahoma is my home!”
“You haven’t lived there in 3o years!”
“It’s still my home. My brother lives there. It’s also where I went to high school and its…….”
“Its what…Say it!”
“I met a lady….”
“Oh, I see. You found your next wife.”

“I called Irene, you remember, my high school sweetheart….she loves me…. I know you and I haven’t been that close in sometime…But I want you to come back to Tulsa and we can be a family again.”

“My god! I’m almost 20 years old. I’m not your little girl. I’m not leaving California, to go to god forsaken Oklahoma with its tornadoes, Baptists, and boredom.”

“All right. Tell me what you want.”

“I want to stay in my home, and get my feet on the ground. If you can’t be here with me, just let me alone!”

“Listen Juanita. You don’t understand. I can’t stay here. It’s too painful for me. Your mother lived here. This was her house.”
“Do you have to sell this house right now?”
“No. I just thought you’d want me to…..”
“Just let me stay here. If you want to move to Oklahoma then just go.”

He left for Oklahoma. He did buy her a present before he left: A coffee table book about English Thoroughbreds.

A horse’s hoof grows continually and will renew itself completely over a period of about nine months. In her father’s absence, Juanita began to rebuild some semblance of normalcy in her life. She grew tougher and learned how to get up from the couch and plant her feet on the ground again.

One mitigating factor was the return of Johnse. He started working for a new La Jolla company, Genetech. He was well paid, and renting a lovely new apartment with a swimming pool and a view of the ocean. His work was quite complex, involving computers, defense contracts and secret meetings. He started calling her soon after his arrival, and she pretended to be so busy with her riding that she had little time for him.

She was, however, awakened one morning, by two well-dressed men in pin striped suits, carrying briefcases and ringing the front doorbell. She cautiously peered through the peephole and was reassured by the clean-cut haircuts and their purebred appearance.

“Hi! Are you Miss Adams?” asked a shorter, 25-ish man.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Doug Einhorn and this is my associate Randy Weaver. We work for Capitol Development and we wondered if we might have a word with you about your land holdings.”

“Land holdings?”
“Yes. You own 30 acres not far from Del Mar racetrack.”
“I ride there. That belongs to my father.”
“Not according to this deed. You are the owner now.”
“Please come in.”

The men explained that this land was zoned for commercial development and that they were prepared to pay $90,000 an acre so that two large office complexes could be built. Juanita was completely shocked and not at all likely to sell the land which she considered sacred. She did promise to contact her father to discuss this and took the business cards from the young hucksters.

For a few days after the visit of the two men, poor old Charlie seemed to be depressed. The horse normally ate his diet of oats and barley, but he barely touched his meals. He usually whined and neighed when Juanita came close, but now he exhibited a defensive posture in his stable, turning his body sideways when she attempted to mount .
She took him up to the property near Del Mar for a ride. His natural gait of four separate beats, became irregular, and he would bow his head down so far that the muzzle almost touched his chest. She had difficulty controlling the reins and he seemed to want to break free of her control at every moment.

She dismounted and walked up to him and stared straight at him.
“You mustn’t do that! If you don’t behave, I’m taking you back home!”
She dropped the reins and he turned his hindquarters away. The English Thoroughbred was uncharacteristically moody, insolent and angry. She got back on the horse and they rode home.

“I think Charlie is sick.” She told Johnse.
“Why?” He asked as they dined on burgers on the boardwalk.
“He doesn’t eat. When I took him riding, he was just not behaving.”
“Well, if there is empirical evidence—you have to quantify it.”
“Stop talking like a scientist.”
“I mean”, he instructed, ” you better write down what he does and just keep a record. Otherwise, you won’t be able to measure the changes, if any.”
“You’re so logical.”
“Have to be.”
“How come?”
“Can’t live without logic. ”

“Charlie thinks like you also.”
“How do you know?”
“You both want to upset me. Finish your burger.”
On the freeway, he asked her about selling the land.
“So what did you tell them?” he asked.
“I didn’t say anything. I don’t want to sell. I hate it when I drive around San Diego and all my favorite hills are being decapitated for some alien office buildings with horizontal windows, parking lots and security fences.”

“That’s called the free market. Companies expand. People get work. Offices get built.”

“And where do I ride? When do we say stop to the bulldozers? I don’t want to live in a place where I can’t take my horse out and feel free.”
“If you could make a little money, say a million bucks, maybe you’d reconsider.”

“No. I have money. How much do I need? I don’t want to develop my land for some god-damned company who makes something that I can’t understand or pronounce.”

“If I told you that I wanted to build my company on your land would you let me?”
“If I asked you to marry me, would you let me do that?”
“I said if I asked you to marry me, would you say yes?”
“You ask me to marry you? On the freeway!”

A year passed and Johnse was living in her house and she rode and he worked and they made money and things seemed fine.

The wedding had been a simple affair, they had simply decorated the front yard, with flowers, chairs and about 75 guests. Dad flew in for the wedding, and naturally he refused to stay in the house. He and his new wife Irene rented a hotel room in Carlsbad.

When Juanita most yearned for her father, he was in Oklahoma, now that he came back for the wedding and was staying close by, she realized how unnecessary he really had become.

Johnse was barely able (or interested) in attending to the details of the wedding. At the last minute, he asked a friend of his from college,

Doug Einhorn, to be his best man. Juanita met Doug for the first time the day of her wedding. Or at least she thought it was the first time. Then she remembered that Doug had been one of the real estate brokers at her doorstep and she experienced a quiet discomfort at his reappearance that she could not vocalize.

A veterinarian came to the house to look at Charlie a year after the wedding.

He went out to the stable and stayed there for about an hour. He came back to Juanita with sad eyes and bit his lower lip like Bill Clinton.

“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Charlie has equine infectious anemia, commonly known as swamp fever. This is a viral disease that attacks the horse’s immune system.”

“Oh, my God. I’m gonna lose Charlie aren’t I?”
“Well, right now there is no cure. It’s caused by a retrovirus closely related to the HIV virus in humans.”
“My horse is HIV?”
“No, not exactly. You see he might have picked up this disease at the shows, from other horses.”
“It’s my fault then…”

“No. In most cases, a positive EIA test is the first time a horse is recognized as being infected by the virus. The Coggins test is the name for the agar gel immuno-diffusion test that determines the presence of EIA antibodies in his blood. Charlie tests positive and is a carrier of the EIA virus. My fear is that he could infect other horses. Especially horses at shows. That’s what Charlie has. I’m sorry Juanita. I really see no other choice than to put him out of his suffering.”
“No! You can’t do that! I won’t let you. Are you absolutely sure.”
“Positive. The test is 95% positive.”

“Then go ahead….Don’t tell me about it……”
“I want to go back out there and take him into quarantine. He shouldn’t be outside anymore. It’s too dangerous. A fly or a mosquito could land on him and then……”

She grabbed her head and screamed.
“Just do it!”

The vet put on a surgical mask and went back into the stable. Juanita came running behind him. She didn’t want to go into the barn with the doctor who was taking her friend away forever. She wanted to remember Charlie as the vigorous horse who had galloped through the salt spraying waters on the beach.

Johnse had been away at a software conference in Seattle. When he came home, he found the stable empty and the house unoccupied. A note was on the counter. He took his calculator out of his pocket and put on his reading glasses. He read an official notice of Death / San Diego County signed by the animal coroner. He knew she would be upset– but he couldn’t get stirred up about a dead horse.

He peered out the kitchen window and in the distance he could make out the faint figure of his wife sitting on the hillside. She seemed to be holding a glass of wine. He was about to open the door and walk out to comfort her, but then he picked up the remote control. He sat down to watch a news report on a new Mars astronomy find. Juanita sat out alone. On the windswept field she felt dazed , confused and mournful. She was quite unaware that her legal soul mate was yards away engrossed in the evening newscast.

A few weeks later, Dad called from Oklahoma. Juanita picked up the phone, and exchanged the usual banalities about the weather, the difference between the flat land in Oklahoma and the mountains of California, etc. Dad asked to speak to Johnse. Juanita asked why and was given a rather cryptic answer.

“Do I need special permission to speak to my son-in-law?” he snapped.

“Johnse”, she yelled, “Get in here, someone wants to speak to you.”
Johnse picked up the phone in the library and she stood within a few invisible feet from his conversation.

Here is what she heard:
“Yep…..well I think it would be a good idea to finally sell it. I mean they’re building all around the area…..I think if Juanita was more logical she would see the tax benefits….well Charlie died….she isn’t going to be riding forever….I know it’s like a little girl thing with her favorite riding place… company is really hot on LaJolla….they need the space…oh, its’ very suitable….high tech…near the freeway….flat land….easy to build….Oh, you’re talking about a million….”

Johnse never mentioned the phone call again, but Doug Weaver continued to play golf with Johnse, and the two men would go out together and in a strange display of male bonding, would often spend the night together, “Just the boys” as Johnse would say. Juanita often spent Saturday night alone “the loneliest night of the week” while her husband might be off with his best friend fishing, drinking beers, or shooting the shit in Tijuana.

Johnse worked long hours, and many times ate dinner at the office. He might work Saturdays also and if he spent Sunday at home, he watched football. The stables were empty now, and the house had a joyless air compounded by her husband’s inattention and domestic inactivity.

It was time for Juanita to do something, and as she neared the mature age of 27, she felt the pressing need to overturn the status quo of helplessness that seemed to haunt her.

Out of the blue, Juanita was startled to hear Johnse suggest something that seemed outrageously incongruous.

“I think we should start having a baby.”
“Great. Are you sure this is something you want?”
“Well, its logical. We’ve been married for five years. I mean when I start a project at work I always examine the variables and add up the numbers and I’d say that we are statistically at the exact point that we should begin procreating.”

It was a better offer than he usually made, albeit with some coldness and scientific rigidity. If he made love as he spoke, she imagined that it might feel like a car engine pumped by a piston. Her orgasm would be like exhaust from a car, a byproduct of combustion—as far from love as Venus is from San Diego.

There was one thing that bothered her. Why did he care about children when he seemed to care so little about her? Would this be the man that would father her children? Why should she lay down and allow herself to be impregnated by the man who couldn’t bring himself to put his lips on her mouth?

She practiced a most unholy deception. She took her birth control pills and told him she had stopped. They made love every night and she was made happy by the fact that once more she knew something that he did not.

After a year, she still was not pregnant and he stopped asking why. He was now deeply involved in trying to create a software program for NASA to help measure whether there was any possibility of life on Mars. He traveled constantly to the great space cities of Houston, Cocoa Beach, Seattle and Ontario, Calilfornia. While his wife remained unfertilized at home, he eagerly set forth to conquer the mystery of whether life existed beyond this planet.

He began to get involved in the early 90’s with a fascinating new project called the “Internet”. It was, she heard, some new computer that would connect all the computers around the world and allow people to trade information with anyone who had a “modem”.

The developers continued their assault on the land around San Diego. There was not a hill left within 20 miles of downtown San Diego that wasn’t sliced off with a flat topped building and asphalt. Sloburban development tore into the hills, flattened the curves, introduced 24/7 traffic jams to the metropolis and robbed the once sunny settlement of its peace of mind, slow pace, and courtly manners.

She opened the paper and read about Doug Weaver who was now the largest commercial office broker in La Jolla. His office had leased a record amount last year. He was odious to her because the land was just a commodity to him. But land was treated cheaply and sold expensively all around southern California.

The sameness of the super housing, built for repetition, cheaply and inhumanely, deeply disturbed Juanita. She yearned for the open lands that she and Charlie had once traversed. The alien names on the office buildings gave off a sinister air of secrecy as if they were evil marinated in technological conquest: Softech, Genuscape, NetWatch, Hypercalm, Seaecotech, Digital The new construction didn’t sit on the street, it invaded the hills, pockmarked the land and destroyed the once verdant beauty surrounding San Diego.
“Honey, are you sitting down?”

The phone call had come in just as Juanita was done filling out her application for environmental studies at UCSD.

“Hi. Where are you?”
“I told you. Portland…….. The Mainframe conference. Weren’t you listening when you dropped me off at Lindbergh?”
“How’s it going?”

“Fantastic. I got the head of a Stanford think tank who is working with Microsoft on a new space shuttle project and they want to use my software. Bill Gates himself sent his one of his people from Washington to talk to me. I have to go honey. I just want you to know that we might be going to the moon!”

This was great. More money, more prestige, more science. If it was leading her into a brave new world, she could only guess. She only knew that when she opened the windows of her house, the constant drum of trucks, cars and fumes were audible from the never-ending freeway rush that was now the official outdoor orchestra of La Jolla.
Johnse rented an apartment in Palo Alto, Ca. He needed to be there because he was constantly in meetings with technology companies in the newly named Silicon Valley. Once the valleys of California had been named after flesh and blood Spanish missionaries and explorers, like San Fernando , San Gabriel and San Joaquin.

Now they bore the names of the new rulers whose hearts were made of silicon.

He never invited her to spend the weekend in Palo Alto. It was strange, but no stranger than the nights he spent with Doug Weaver. He was a loner, after a buck, and he wanted to get to that place in the heavens so fast that he couldn’t stop to pick up his wife.

Weaver continued to try to make friends with Juanita. He sent her bottles of Sonoma County’s best wines and little notes about how he drove past her vacant lands and imagined beautiful office parks with sparkling fountains.

She wished that she might get happiness from shopping, or trading stocks, or something more tangible. She had land and money and security and the promise of computer wealth. But everything with a living heartbeat was gone, and the greed that consumed the people around her left her alone. She was the lady on the horse and there she stayed alone.

In spring, one year after he rented the Palo Alto apartment, and six months after he signed the contract , and three months after the first check arrived for $2 million dollars, she told Johnse that she wanted a divorce. He was calm and collected and told her that they could discuss it when he returned later in the week.

Why had she stayed married to a man for whom she had no love for so long? Was she so afraid of being alone that she would settle for this? She needed to invigorate her life with the passion that had once animated her. Only one relationship had ever animated and excited her……

She opened the paper to the classified section and saw this ad for a horse:

4-year-old Thoroughbred/Trakehner mare -
”Jovial” for sale at Temecula Farms:
Very quiet and sweet, easy to ride and handle, no vices.
15.3 hands and growing, great mover, always sound, ties, trailers.
Jumping 2’6″, successfully competed beginner novice combined training.
Confident, Bold Jumper, comfortable in the ring and on the trail.
Jockey Club Performance Horse registered, great eventing prospect!

She drove out to Temecula and pulled up to a sprawling, sunny ranch set amidst the wineries and mountains of this blessed land. Mary Beth, the lady who took care of Jovial was careworn, a widow and her whole life had been spent here. When she saw Juanita go into the stable to meet Jovial for the first time, she knew that the horse and its new owner were a perfect match. Jovial was only $15,000 but the price of the horse could not be appraised as the happiness it brought Juanita was beyond words.

They brought Jovial out of the stable and into the sunshine. A cavesson noseband was affixed to the horse, and a well-balanced saddle was placed gently atop the spine of the animal. Though it was a hot day, and the sun was beating down, it was dry, desert weather, just fine for a test ride.

As Mary Beth watched, Juanita led Jovial out of the confines of his cell block and onto the trail which led into the open lands and out they rode so happily….

The End

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