The Quicken Tree
The next morning at 4:00, Eric sat in silence beside his father in the truck on the way to the racetrack. He was still half stoned and his eyes felt like someone had removed them to scrub out his sockets with sand paper before putting them back in.
He hadn't slept. He'd lain awake after he had gotten home from the bar, staring at the ceiling in that tiny bedroom he shared with his two brothers, wishing like hell he had never gone out. It wasn't as if the sex had been worth it. Nothing was worth this. No matter how careful he had always tried to be, no matter how hard he had worked at hiding his sexuality from his father, it was only a matter of time now before his dirty little secret was out. Someone had seen him. Not just getting into a car in a questionable neighborhood, but actually cruising in a gay bar. And even though Eric knew that Morgan would never cause him any grief for that, he was really in no position to, he had still seen him. And that was more than anyone else had ever done. There was no taking that back. Paulo's son possibly seeing him get into a car seemed like such a vague threat in comparison. And that had shaken him up enough.
So much for his anonymity with the men he had sex with, as if he could put on blinders and they in turn could somehow make him invisible and keep the stigma of being gay from him. Because, after all, if he never let anyone know who he was, then nobody would ever be able to get close enough to him to label him, right? And wasn't that was the safest way to live anyway? Keeping everyone at arms length or better yet at the end of that proverbial ten-foot pole. Travel light and don't pick up any unnecessary baggage on the way. And hadn't he been proven right about that?
Because in the long run, all it had really taken was just one stupid mistake. A simple error in judgement on his part. He'd been caught staring like some kind of infatuated, teenage girl because he had let his guard down for one moment and had naively allowed himself to really like this man, because he had thought, what harm could it do. Morgan was a nice guy. And instead of leaving, or actually running like hell, the way he should have done when he had first seen him, he had been caught flat-footed because of that like for him. Just a momentary weakness in character and despite all his carefulness it had been that easy to find him out. And if he was going to keep on making stupid mistakes like that, he might as well just go up to his father and give him a detailed description of what his boy did with his nights. Blow by blow, so to speak.
Eric propped his elbow in the open window of the truck and rested his head in his hand, tenderly rubbing his forehead with his fingertips to ease the jumble of half formed thoughts circling around in there. The rat in the maze, he thought, chasing his own tail. If he didn't get a grip on himself and get his head in order soon the rat was going to die of old age in that maze.
Maybe it would be all right. Maybe he could just go to the clinic, get it over with and head home early. His lesson was one of the first ones that morning; Morgan's wasn't until later in the afternoon. Maybe if he was lucky, Morgan wouldn't even turn up this morning. There was really no reason for him to be there at all until after the lunch break. It wasn't as though he'd even watched much of the clinic yesterday, except in bits and pieces. In truth, the only lesson Morgan had watched all the way through had been his. And as flattering as that might have been for Eric yesterday, surely today, Morgan wouldn't want to see him any more than he did him. At least he hoped that was the case, because if he didn't see Morgan today, he'd never have to see him again and maybe Eric could just pretend the whole thing didn't happen. And that he hadn't been so foolish. That just maybe, last night had been some kind of stoned aberration; fodder for some future wet dreams or jerking off sessions. And this man that he liked and was obviously attracted to, had not caught him staring at him across a crowded gay bar, and now knew things about him that Eric had never shared with anyone before.
If Eric could just get through his lesson and get Max loaded up right afterwards, he would gladly give up the clinics for awhile. He would drive off and disappear from the face of the earth as far as anyone connected with those clinics was concerned. He would come home, work his ass off, stay out of the bars and off the street and become a dutiful son and what ever else he had to do to make sure nothing like this ever happened again.
But for how long...He wasn't exactly the celibate type. How long before he'd go out again, because he would, that was a given. A couple nights alone contemplating his own stiff cock and he'd be out the front door, all good intentions left behind.
So, how long before he knelt in front of still another nameless trick and looked up into his face after he'd sucked him off and suddenly realize it was the new client that had just moved his horses into his father's barn. Would that be the final thing that gave him away? Or would his luck just run out, and it would be a cop he picked up one night. And if that happened, as far as his father and brothers were concerned, he would have just disappeared like his mother, because he would rot in jail before he ever gave anyone his real name.
Eric could handle Conor's sarcasm; he'd learned to turn it off when he was a child as a means of survival. He could even shut out the particularly viscious kind where Conor would just keep picking at him like some bastard form of Chinese water torture.
In his worst nightmares he had never been able to imagine how badly Conor would react if he ever found out that he was gay. Eric supposed the worst thing a father could do to a son was throw him out, and he had no doubt that Conor would do that to him. It was the inevitable shame and disgust that his father would feel for him that Eric feared the most and not just for himself. It was the fact that Conor, without him there anymore, would eventually have to turn it on someone else, and that would be his brothers. And it was the fear of how that would effect them and how they would think of him because of it, that had kept Eric up all night and made him want to run like hell now.
And so, he just kept coming back to the maze. And everywhere he turned he ran into a solid wall. And what Eric was beginning to suspect, that frightened him more than anything else, was that this maze he was in really didn't have any way out.
They reached the barn and Eric got out of the truck with his father and began to mechanically go through his morning routine. His father switched on the lights under the eave, but the fog was so thick that morning that Eric could barely see across the forty-foot or so distance to the barn on the other side of the aisle. There were just the disembodied voices of the other trainers and grooms as they went about their morning chores.
Paulo showed up a few minutes after Eric and his father did, and pretty soon after that the catch riders, those riders that worked for no particular barn, started wandering down the aisles looking for mounts. Two stopped off at his father's barn. Eric had seen both of them around before and they were obviously the same two that Conor had used the day before since he wasn't galloping. Sixteen horses, five bucks a ride. That would be coming out of his wages and not his father's pocket, to be sure. The clinic aside, this had been a very costly weekend for him.
At seven o'clock, Eric slipped into his father's office to change into his breeches and boots. His father followed him inside.
"What time will you be back today?" Conor asked him.
Eric pushed back the sleeves of his washed-thin sweatshirt and reached down to pick his jeans up off the concrete floor. "Probably early," he said, without looking at him. "I don't know for sure."
"Good, I could use you this afternoon. I've got a couple of horses running and a couple more being picked up by their owners today. They want to get them out of here before we move."
Eric glanced sharply up at him as he picked his keys and wallet up off the folding table his father used as a desk.
"What?" Conor asked him.
He slipped his keys into the front pocket of his breeches and held his wallet in his hand. He picked up his cigarettes. "I guess that means we're still going to Florida."
"Did I ever say we weren't?"
Eric shook his head at himself. No matter how carefully he tried to follow the treacherous twists and turns of his father's mind he always managed to dupe him. "No, you never did." He started towards the door.
"Don't you want to know what I decided to do?" Conor asked him.
He stopped in the doorway, looking back at him. "Besides the fact that we're still going to Florida, why should I give a fuck?"
His father met his eyes a long moment. "I've decided we'll just do the winter circuit the way I planned and then we'll come back up here."
After he had already accepted the fact that he would have to give up the clinics. No matter how much it had hurt, he had already accepted it for his brothers' sake. "Fine," he muttered, "Whatever." He started to leave again.
"And I'll look around for a ride for your damn horse," Conor added. "Maybe I'll just save some money and he'll be our only pony horse down there."
Eric stopped again, glaring back at him. After the fight they'd had yesterday after noon, Conor was back to this, where they had started, like nothing had happened. Like he hadn't really threatened to drag his brothers all over the country and wanted him to sell his horse and had made Eric, out of desperation, offer to give up the one thing he loved to do. This bitter, angry man who hated his own life so much, he had to make every one else in it just as miserable. The fight they would have over what Eric would allow his horse to be used for aside, what else was it going to be in two weeks? Or even tomorrow for that matter. When would he ever learn to stop letting him bait him like that? Aloud, he said quietly. "Would you please just stop jerking me around for a few minutes."
Conor glared at him. "What the hell is the matter with you now? I thought that would make you happy."
"What do you want me to do, thank you?" he asked sarcastically. "All right, thank you, Conor." He looked away from him. "Thank you," he repeated it, softly this time and walked out of the office.
His father followed him. "You know, I think the sooner we get out of here, the better. I don't know what's going on with you. What," he asked. " Did your girlfriend leave you last night or something?"
He laughed aloud, still walking away from him. "Sweet Jesus," he muttered, still laughing. "Something like that." He wiped his hand over his burning eyes, trying to sober himself. He kept walking, passing Paulo, who was saddling their first horse that morning. "I'll see you later," he said. "I don't know when I'll be back. Maybe I won't be back. Maybe I'll take a fucking bus to goddamn who knows where." He turned around, looking at his father who had stopped beside Paulo to stare at him as if he'd lost his mind. Eric continued on towards the truck, walking backwards so he could still look at his father. "What do you think of that, Conor? What does it feel like not to know if I'm really telling the truth or not? Does that jerk you around a little, you son of a bitch?"
Eric tried to get rid of his anger on his way to the clinic. It wouldn't do him or his horse any good to be pissed off in his lesson. He couldn't see making it any more of a waste of money than it already was.
By the time he got to Fox Den and parked the truck in the back by the trailer, he had pretty much gotten his anger for Conor under control. Now all he had to do, was get through his lesson without seeing Morgan.
He unloaded his saddle, bridle and pads from the tack compartment in the horse trailer and stacked his brushes on top so he would only have to make one trip to the barn. Carrying his tack down the aisle to Max's stall, he saw that Morgan's tack trunk was open and his radio was on the ground beside it, playing softly.
Of course Morgan was there. bright and early, too. Eric had to wonder who it was he had pissed off in this life to be so fucked.
He put his tack down on the bale of straw outside Max's stall and opened the gate, going inside. His horse was nosing contentedly through his breakfast, unaware that he had been at least half the fuel for such a heated argument the day before.
Eric looked at the big horse. No matter what his papers said, there was no temperamental thoroughbred in Max. He was as cool and stoic as a plow horse. When it had become obvious to everyone that he was going to be too big to ever run, Eric had bought him from his father for a hundred dollars as an unbroke two-year-old. Eric had been thirteen at the time.
Anxious to do the best possible job in training his horse, he read everything he could get his hands on. He managed to get rides to shows so that could watch the professional horseman schooling their mounts, and committed everything he saw to his memory. Haunted by the memory of the dressage exhibition he had seen as a child, he had an ideal in his mind of what he wanted to do with his horse. Slowly the big, clumsy two-year-old had developed into something Eric had been proud of, even though it had been a rather solitary accomplishment at the time.
And then, these clinics had come along. Eric wondered now if they hadn't been a curse in a way. Before, he had just sort of bungled along; not particularly happy, but resigned to where his life would probably lead him. Working along beside his father, eventually training race horses himself, burying himself deeper into a closet with each passing year, as long as he could manage to keep his father ignorant of his other life. Raising his two brothers and making sure they got the education that he had never been allowed. Maybe even getting married in the natural order of things, even though he had no interest in women sexually or otherwise. And this had been the ideal image of what he thought his life might be. No particular highs or hopes or dreams, except maybe the ones for his brothers.
Eric had felt a little dead inside whenever he had really thought about it, but he didn't linger over it for any length of time. He was young and he had that young prospective that maybe he wouldn't even make it to thirty, so what the hell.
And then, these clinics had come along, he thought again.
Eric looked at his horse, seeing the subtle changes the more strict dressage training had already begun to show in his large frame. His musculature was higher on his body now as he had begun to use his back more. His haunches were round and powerful, not the typical sloping croup of a racehorse. If he were a human athlete, Max would look more like a gymnast than a runner. And that was more or less what a dressage horse was, half gymnast, half classical ballet dancer, and his rider was his partner. Max and he had enjoyed an amiable partnership together so far.
But Eric had to wonder at this point, if it wouldn't be easier to just sell him. Cut this one dream out of his life before it could cause him any more harm. He didn't know what the going price was for a second level horse, but Morgan had seemed to think that Max was worth some money. Maybe Eric would call the office here tomorrow and mention he was for sale and see what kind of offers he got before they left for Florida. Maybe that would be the best thing all around. He would pull his head out of his ass the way Conor had suggested he do, and he would just move on. This hungering for something, that he should have known all along he couldn't have, wasn't doing him any good at all.
Eric turned and looked out over the stall gate. The morning fog had lifted but it was still a hazy sunlight. It was going to be a little cooler than yesterday.
It was quiet by the barn. Everyone was over by the arena watching the clinic. The only sounds around the barn were the horses moving in their stalls and Morgan's radio down by his stall playing one old 'doo wop' song after another.
Eric looked towards the arena. The auditors' seats were full. The first lesson was over and Hoehn was standing in the middle of the arena talking with the rider for a few minutes before his next student arrived. Eric should have been tacking up for his own lesson, but he'd been hit by this lethargy as soon as he had arrived that morning, and having to actually ride his horse in a lesson right then just didn't seem fair.
Eric continued to stare out over the stall gate. And even though not consciously looking for him, it only took him a few seconds to find Morgan amid the other spectators. His distinctive blond hair stood out, appearing almost white in the absence of pure sunlight. He was standing at the far end of the arena between two women, listening politely to what looked like a one-sided conversation. He had his sunglasses on and was wearing the red suspenders again and even from a distance of over two hundred yards, his presence effected Eric like a hard punch in the stomach. Why couldn't he have just stayed away until after the lunch break? Eric had gone from euphoria yesterday afternoon, to some place this morning that had to be just up the block from hell. And he just didn't want to deal with anything else.
He took Max out of his stall and put him on the crossties to tack him up. At best he was only going to have a half-hour to warm him up before his lesson.
Eric had taken off the leg wraps and was getting ready to give Max a quick brushing off when he looked up over his back and saw Morgan walking straight toward the barn. He might have just been heading toward his own stall, but he still had his sunglasses on and Eric couldn't tell if he was looking toward him or not. He dropped the brush he was holding onto the bale of straw beside his saddle and walked off in the direction of the courtesy booth.
He was surprised that it hurt. Turning his back on this man he barely knew actually hurt, as if Morgan and the clinics were somehow connected, and by turning his back on one, he had really turned his back on the other.
By the time he had gotten half way down the aisle, he felt like an ass. Morgan had never been anything but decent toward him every time he'd seen him. Why should he be any different about what happened last night? Not facing him wasn't going to change anything. He'd still seen him in a gay bar. What did he really think Morgan would do about that anyway? Say something to him about it? What was he so afraid of?
Eric got a cup of coffee and started back toward Max, but by that time it was too late. Morgan was already gone.
The first part of his lesson went badly. That was no surprise. In his state of mind he would have had a hard time chasing a cockroach off the kitchen floor, much less riding a thirteen hundred pound horse around a dressage arena.
Fifteen minutes into his lesson, after he had blown the instructions Hoehn had given him at least three times on how to ask for a proper change of lead, Eric stopped dead. He sat on his horse on the long side of the arena and just tried to clear his head.
"Why are you not listening to me?" Hoehn shouted at him from the center of the ring. "Are you having trouble distinguishing your inside rein from your outside rein today, Mr. Whelan? Should we tape different color paper to each of your wrists like when you were in kindergarten and I could just say red rein or black rein? Would that make life less confusing for you and your poor horse?"
Eric had seen a rider go off course once, during a grand prix test at a horse show. When the judge had blown the whistle to let him know he'd been off course, the rider had stopped for just an instant before confidently going back to complete the part of the test he had forgotten. When he had been part of the way through that and the judge blew the whistle again, he had just stopped and stared. And it was obvious at that moment, when the whistle had blown the second time, that every part of the test he'd ridden many times was completely gone. The rider would have been hard pressed to remember his own name.
That's what Eric felt like right then. And he was sure that everyone who was watching had just realized that he didn't belong there. That he was just a pretender that had crashed the sanctity of their clinic. To make matters worse, when he looked up, he saw Morgan standing by the end of the arena watching him. And right next to him was the man he had seen him with at the bar.
Eric looked down at the big lop ears of his horse. He had done many flying lead changes on Max before. They were the usual stumbling block between second and third level, but Max had a natural affinity for them. Eric had just been too stressed to be able to feel when his horse was in the correct position to do it and so he had over- steered and gotten an incorrect bend and Max had only changed behind. And that was when Hoehn had started shouting, because it had been the third time he had screwed up like that.
Re-grouped, Eric had Max pick up a left lead canter and went around the arena. Crossing the arena on the diagonal, still on the left lead, they nailed a clean change just before they went into the corner at the other end. And after that, his lesson began to slowly improve.
Every time he passed the end of the arena, he saw Morgan standing there still watching him from behind his sunglasses. He stayed until the end. The other man watched for awhile until they had gone on to work on something else and the next time Eric had passed by Morgan, he was alone again.
When his lesson was finished, Hoehn walked into the center of the arena to talk to him.
"I think you are a very talented rider, Eric," Hoehn said, looking up at him with that feral smile. "I would like to see you again in six months and see how you've improved."
"Thanks," he said coolly.
Hoehn turned his eyes on Max. "This is one very fine horse. He could go Grand Prix for you with no problem at all. It's you we have to work on."
The praise did nothing to help his mood at all. The lesson actually just made him feel more like shit than he already did. All he wanted to do was get out of there.
He walked Max out of the ring on a loose rein. Looking up as he passed the next rider, he saw Morgan standing about fifteen feet outside the arena, waiting for him. There was no way to avoid him. He had to walk either right by him or over him, in any direction he decided to take out of the arena.
Resigned, Eric stopped Max beside him.
Morgan smiled up at him. He couldn't see his eyes behind his sunglasses. "It was a good lesson today."
"Not from where I was sitting."
"You were just a little tense today, that's all. It transferred to your horse."
"Yeah, I guess I was," Eric admitted. He looked away from him, staring across the grounds toward the cross-country course where a horse and rider were leisurely hacking. He couldn't look at Morgan. He kept seeing that image of him dancing under the strobe lights. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw him take off his sunglasses and slide them into the pocket of his breeches.
"You dodged me this morning," Morgan said quietly.
So he had been coming over to see him. There was no use hiding anymore. Eric made himself look at him. He was in a navy polo shirt and rust breeches and wearing the red suspenders. He could see the tight bulge of his biceps underneath the short sleeve shirt. And the large raised veins in his upper arms stretched down below his sleeves to his tanned fore arms. The hair on his arms was a pale gold. "I did," Eric said. "I'm sorry."
Morgan nodded, his grey eyes going over his face. "Was it because of last night?"
"What do you think?"
Morgan shrugged. "I think it was no big deal, Eric. Don't worry about it."
No big deal. Eric had lain awake all night just to see him shrug it off like that. No big deal. He stared down at him incredulously.
Morgan smiled up at him. "Why don't you get your horse put away and then come see me," he said. "I still want to talk to you."
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