Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Looking Up

Home, 5:37 pm EST

She was supposed to call. Wasn’t she? Hadn’t they talked about it, or texted about it, just earlier that week? She had said she would call at 5:30 on Thursday. Was it Thursday? Yes, it was Thursday, she had marked her calendar that hung on the wall next to the picture of their old German Shepherd, Rufus. Her daughter had given her the calendar for Christmas, well over a month ago now, when she had been home for break. Each month was a different picture of them: together at the park holding sweating cups of iced coffee, standing side by side in front of a Broadway marquee, sitting on a twin bed in her half unpacked dorm room on her first day of college. Her favorite was July, a picture of them in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The petals are billowing around them like a delicate pink tornado, and their flushed cheeks are pressed together, their smiles so close it could’ve been one big, toothy grin.

February, the month it was open to now, was a picture of just her daughter, sitting cross-legged on a bench reading a fat, scholarly looking book. Her pen is poised over the page, lip bit in concentration. She seemed warmed under the golden wash of midday sunlight. One of her new friends must have taken the photo, she thought to herself, looking at the glossy paper that now reflected the fading light coming through the living room window. Yes, it was definitely Thursday, and she had definitely promised she would call on Thursday at 5:30. Her phone buzzed, and she checked it, an excited smile spreading quickly, but it was just an email from her husband. 12 Things New Yorkers Don’t Know About the Subway, the subject line read. Steve had probably sent this to Anabel, too. She could never tell if Annie thought her new husband was endearing or cheesy or both. He wasn’t featured in the calendar.

Now it was 5:45 and Annie still hadn’t called. She went outside for a smoke. Steve didn’t know that she still smoked. She sat down on the chilled plaster of the front stoop and looked out onto the quiet TriBeCa street. This is where Annie had learned to ride her bike, wobbling up and down the short expanse of sidewalk while she held onto the frame, steadying her little girl until, finally, she let go.

The sun was setting now. Late in the day for February, she thought. It was unusually warm today, almost 65 degrees, and she didn’t need a coat sitting outside, taking drags from her cigarette. Annie used to hide the packs when she was younger, burying the little paper boxes in her closet and insisting she didn’t know how they got there. Now they joked about it, even though she knew Annie worried. She liked that she had this joke with her, that Steve didn’t know, that there were still things that were just theirs. Even if it was just her smoking habit. 

She looked down at her phone. No new notifications. The sky was being filled in before her eyes, like someone behind the clouds was taking a wide brush and painting big, sweeping strokes of color on their canvas. The blue had turned velvety purple mixed with fuchsia and deep navy and burnt orange and the feeling of light buoyancy. She remembered the game she and her daughter used to play, where one would close their eyes and the other would try and describe the sky without using the names of the colors. It’s like that car that’s always parked across the street. Baby blue? Yes! Then Annie would giggle in that intoxicating little girl way that would fill any mother up to the brim. She hadn’t thought about that game in a long, long time. The memory of that sweet, small girl, with her short pigtails and open face made her eyes well, blurring the different shades of the clouds, making them all bleed together. Beautiful. She wanted to show her daughter the sky that had taken the color of their bizarre neighbor’s ever-changing dyed hair. She took a picture and another drag. The smoke from her now stubby cigarette drifted skyward, dissipating amongst the spilled paint in the heavens. She opened up a new message, chose her photo, and sent it. Then she put out her cigarette, taking one last look up at the changing sky, and went inside.

 

Connecticut, 5:37 pm EST

She sat in the dining hall, absentmindedly pushing chickpeas around the soupy balsamic remains of her salad bowl. It was a loud, fluorescent, and overwhelmingly large place, and she and her friends were grouped tightly around the table, heads pushed close, talking about the pretentious kids in their film class. We get it, you’ve seen Citizen Kane, you’re, like, so smart and cultured. There was that ever-present buzzing noise that came from somewhere above them, somewhere deep in the pipes and machinery, which wormed its way into Annie’s brain. Soon, she started to have trouble focusing on the ins and outs of Coppola’s filmography and could only hear the ringing bouncing around the walls of her skull. The balsamic was suddenly too bitter, too acidic, burning her throat. The table’s grown-up conversation soured as it hit her ear, now sounding childish, like little kids playing pretend, stomping around in boots much too large for their tiny feet.

She said she had homework or something, taking her bowl and empty cup to the dish station. She was trying to get out as fast as she could while still being polite to the dining hall staff who endured far too much and also nodding hello to what felt like every person she made eye contact with. She finally escaped, pressing the whole weight of her body against the two huge double doors, falling out into the dimming twilight. She breathed deep, filling her lungs with the crisp air her city body could never quite get used to. It had been warm that day, even though it was February, and it had seemed like every single person on campus had taken the opportunity to fuck homework and just lie on the quad instead, soaking up the rare sunlight in too-soon shorts and flowy dresses. It was growing colder now, though, as the sun set. She stood on the stoop of the oversized collegiate building and watched as the sky changed. It held the same colors as that painting in the common room of her dorm, she thought. 

Then, she remembered. Godammit, she had meant to call her mom at 5:30. She really had, but then her friends had wanted to get dinner early so they could go to the some comedy show that evening, and Annie didn’t want to argue or even worse, be left behind. Plus, her mom was always crying when they talked on the phone. She missed her, of course, but there’s only so much crying a daughter can take. Her mom was constantly crying— at commercials, strangely specific ABBA songs, and whenever their old dog, Rufus, was mentioned in passing. And she would’ve cried had they talked on the phone, and then she would’ve put Steve on while she got a tissue, and Annie would have to ask about his day and how is Mom and did you catch that article on the downsides of rent control in The Times? So it was easier sometimes to just not. 

But now, as she gazed up at the sky that looked like someone had painted with only the brightest shades of watercolor, she remembered that game they used to play. It looks like Mrs. Doyle from next door, with her hair that’s always dyed different colors, she would’ve said. She feels her phone buzz in her pocket. It’s a text from her mom, and yet another email from Steve. She opens up the text, and it’s a beautiful picture of the sunset taken from the stoop of their home. It looks just like the one here, blooming over the rolling hills of campus, but different, somehow. There’s a message along with it. Just look up.

Horse Girl

You are a horse girl. You have always been a horse girl. You collect figurines of horses, ceramic and delicate, that you wipe the dust off of every morning with a special cloth you stole from your mother’s eyeglass case. You dream of them, too, close your eyes and then you are riding a beautiful blonde mare, holding onto her mane as she gallops through fields of tall grass that just brush the bottoms of your bare feet.

You have never ridden a horse and this is the greatest tragedy of your young life. For your ten years, you have just wanted to be near one. To touch one. But horse riding is an expensive hobby, you are reminded again and again by your mother. She is tall and uniquely beautiful, with bright red glasses resting against her angular brow. Her hair is cut short and blunt, the ends tickling your nose when she kisses you goodnight. 

This morning, you wake up early. Keep your eyes shut for just one second longer. Try to remember the way the horse felt, hold onto the feeling of her mane in between your fingers. The wind in your hair. But it is too late. When you wake up, it is full and immediate, the way only a child can. You sit up, one of the stuffed horses you sleep with rolling off the side of the top bunk bed. You have a bunk bed, but no siblings. This is one of the things your parents don’t talk about.

You climb down the ladder in the dark, knowing the placement of the rungs by memory more than touch or sight. You retrieve your fallen horse, this one dark brown, named Chocolate Chip, and place him in his spot by your pillow. Then you set about your morning routine, the one that happens before your parents wake up and it’s time for breakfast and brushing teeth and getting dressed. The one that is yours alone. You take the cloth made for glasses out from your jewelry box where it’s hidden. Pick up the first figurine, the one on the far left. Start with her snout, then her ears. She is mid-jump, front legs raised elegantly in the air, her hind legs just ready to lift from their little ceramic stand. She is white, and gets dusty easily. Clean her gently, as your mother has warned you that ceramic is a fragile, breakable thing. You have a figurine for every birthday—you don’t know if you love horses because of them, or if they were gifted to you because of your love for horses. There are ten now, lining your dresser like a small battalion. Soon there will be an eleventh—your birthday is now exactly two weeks away. You hope, selfishly, to have your party at the stables in the park, even though you know you will have the same party as the year before. In your living room, and there will be cake, red velvet, your favorite, with cream cheese frosting. Last year, your father found a horse shaped out of marzipan to put in the middle, surrounded by the ten candles. The marzipan was like nothing you’d ever tasted, and you cried when you bit into the horse’s head, feeling, suddenly, remorseful.

You finish cleaning each of your horses before your mother can open your door, still in her nightgown and voice gummy with sleep. Without her red glasses, her face is softer, and she gives you a tender kiss on the head before telling you to stop playing and get to the breakfast table. You follow her down the narrow hallway of your apartment, and the wood feels cool on your bare feet. The sun is rising now, just outside your kitchen window. The warmth inches across the room as you eat your ketchupy scrambled eggs until the whole room glows golden. Your father reads funny headlines aloud from the morning paper, and your mother laughs.

You resent the clothes your mother picks out for you. You wish you were wearing tall leather riding boots and trousers, pressed and clean, but instead you put on your same old striped shirt with the hole in the elbow and your skirt that brushes against your shins and makes them itch. 

You ride to school on the subway with your father, who holds your hand when the car gets stuck between Carroll and Bergen, like it always does. You despise the underground rides, never enjoying the feeling of being trapped in the tunnels. You prefer to run places, to run down the sidewalk and leave your parents in your dust, feel the wind pushing back on your clothes as you pummel ever forward. 

When you get off the subway, climb the stairs two at a time and burst out onto the sun-drenched asphalt. It is one of the last warm days in autumn. Breathe in the smell of it, of the leaves still green and covered in morning dew. You are allowed to walk the one block from the subway stop to your school without your father. This is your time, take it. You skip, jump over the cracks in the concrete, savoring each moment outside in the world with no one to shepard you.

Go to your locker first—this is your new special place. You are in fifth grade now, middle school. You know it is a big deal, the freeing indepence of having your own locker still fresh. You have your own lock, red like your mother’s glasses, and a combination that is unique to you. Say it under your breath when you feel lonely, or small, and feel the power of it on your lips.

In Science class, Ms. Bennett tells everyone to pair up for a project on studying plants. Don’t be too obvious about who you want to be paired with—let your eyes glance around the room lazily, like you couldn’t care less about who your partner is. You do care, of course, truly not-caring is not something you’ve learned yet. Let your gaze settle on Samantha, with her long, blonde hair and freckled round cheeks. Do that thing with your mouth, a half smile, and raise your eyebrows just so, like, Well, I’m game if you are. And she smiles back, and nods, her ponytail flouncing up and down. The baby hairs that fray out catch the sunlight and look like threads of gold.

The whole class lines up at the door, in pairs, and Samantha hooks her arm around yours. This feels bigger than it is. You walk together like this, following the line leader and Ms. Bennett to Prospect Park, where you will study maple trees. Samantha suggested maple because of their sweet syrup, and you agree, because you would agree to anything she said, really. Once your class has made a base camp under the shade of a large oak tree at the edge of the Long Meadow, you are free to run off with Samantha in search of your own maple tree. If you run just a step behind her, you can watch her ponytail swing from side to side, and maybe she will turn around to call your name.

You lead her to a tree that’s far away from the rest of the class, next to the trail that runs around the park. Near the park’s stables. The leaves are still dense and green on the branches, and you reach to pluck one. You and Samantha sit in the grass and examine the veins of the flower-like leaf, trace its shape in your notebooks. Hold it up to the sun, see how it reveals itself to you.

Finish the assignment quickly so that you have time. You know what you have to do. You tell Samantha to wait a second, that you’re going to get water from the fountain just ahead on the trail. She hesitates at first, reminding you of the buddy system, how you are not meant to be out in the world alone, but reassure her that it’s okay. Tell her you will be right back.

Once you’re on the trail, it’s just a minute or so to the left and there they are. Girls, your age, older, younger, lead horses to and from the wooden stables, and you watch from your spot just out of sight. One girl, you guess maybe a year older than yourself, mounts a dappled brown mare and trots right by you, feet away. She is just down the trail when someone calls out to her, telling her to come back, she forgot her helmet. She dismounts, ties the horse to the fence lining the trail, and walks back the way she came. Watch her, the way she moves. How she holds her head up. Her leather boots, coming up to her knees, are impossibly smooth, gleaming in the afternoon light. Her trousers are stainless, khaki colored and beautiful, her crisp white button down tucked neatly into them. It is almost enough to have been so close to this girl, the one you so want to be, and you almost turn around to go back to Samantha and your maple tree.

But. The horse is tied just there, just a few feet away. Don’t hold back. Step closer, first cautiously. Hold yourself back from running to her, stroking her shiny coat. Horses scare easy— you know this. Try to steady your breath as you get closer. And then you are there, next to her, with her. Breath in. Keep the warm, earthy smell of her hair in your heart. Her eyes are nearly black, eyelashes long. Look into them. Remember the way they look, so human. 

And then you touch her. Run your hand down her long face, along the small patch of white hair that covers the bridge of her nose. She won’t even move. Don’t look away, either, hold her gaze. Her hair is rougher than you expect—nothing like a cat or dog—course and strong rather than soft. This feels right to you, the way a horse should feel.

Again, this is almost enough. Almost. But no one is around. The saddle is there, already on. You don’t know when you’ll have this opportunity again. Release her reins from around the fence post. 

You realize, as you swing your leg over the saddle, that mounting a horse is intuitive. Anyone can do this. You feel her breath, her huge ribcage expanding and retracting beneath you. She knows what to do before you tell her, her muscles rippling underneath her coat as she begins to first trot, then gallop down the trail. She gains speed so fast and you are terrified—force your eyes to stay open against the feeling of absolute fear that’s taken hold of you. The wind is unlike anything you have ever felt, whipping your hair around your face, making your eyes water. But it is good, so good. The fear, the wind. Her legs feel like extensions of your own, her body is yours now, too. Let go of the reins, lean down to ride her like the mare in your dreams. Take hold of her dark mane, press your nose into it, inhale as you are propelled forward.

You feel her neck move underneath you, something changing in the tendons under your hands. And then she is lifting off the ground, like your first ceramic figurine, front legs parting from the earth. You are lifting, too, from the saddle and into the air. And you are soaring. Realize that this is what you’ve been searching for this whole time, this rising, this feeling of flight.

The Man Called Sue

He walked up to the mic stand gingerly—he didn’t look like someone who did karaoke, and yet here he was. He didn’t belong in the beer-drenched hall, enclosed in an expensive navy blue suit, tie knotted just so under his Adam’s apple. But despite his buttoned-upness, his hair was overgrown and floppy—that of a young boy who refused to sit still in the barbershop chair. And so he climbed up there, pressed suit and wild hair, and picked his song. It took a long time, and an awkward silence filled the crowded room, a specific kind of silence that comes only with the absence of music in a karaoke bar. One where you can hear clearly the shifting of young people in their seats, their attention turning away from the stage and toward their phones.

And then his song started. Twangy, and slightly old-fashioned. Those who frequented this bar, on 2nd Avenue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, were used to synthesized Top 40s hits. But this was not that. A guitar, only, and the sound of a live audience.

The man (the boy?) started tapping his shiny, wing-tipped Oxford to the beat of the music. A little off-tempo. Bobbing his head dis-jointedly, just enough so that his hair flopped, almost comically, this way and that. The colored lights glinted off the disco ball and drifted across his lapel.

It was a Johnny Cash song. Almost all spoken dialogue. A little silly in its blatant Americana—all fist fights and lost fathers and booze. But the man had such an earnest look on his face that it made the song instantly, easily loved. And he did the voice, too, with a barstool-cowboy gruffness. A sheepish bravado. 

He slowly started to shed—first the jacket, thrown onto the sticky bar floor, and then the tie was loosened and the top buttons undone and the shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He came out of himself until his hair matched his clothes, like an overgrown altar boy eager to ditch church and get back to the neighborhood baseball game.

And then he was dancing. Holding the mic stand, dipping it like a dance partner that he loved dearly. His long-stiff limbs—you could tell he hadn’t moved like this in while—suddenly, awkwardly, beautifully free.

By the end he was panting, rosy-cheeked. The song ended, and he stood there, so different from when he first stepped onto the stage. The room was quiet for a moment. He nodded once, then moved from the spotlight. And then everyone, slowly, everyone clapped. And he smiled, quietly proud. And satisfied, so satisfied.

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