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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

Salt Lick

October 22, 2006|Edan Lepucki | Edan Lepucki is an L.A. native and graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

When I was young I lived next door to a horse. The man who owned the animal came every day to ride and feed him, and to clean out his stall at the edge of the property. My mother said the horse had been living there forever, long before there were laws to forbid that kind of thing, back when vacant plots of land could go undeveloped for years. I knew from school that the horse had once been a colt, uneasy on his legs, and before that, in his mother's belly, folded up like a somersault. Like people, horses were mammals. The horse next door wasn't human, but he had big, sad eyes like one.

Rachel and I had an argument and I took a bath. I shaved my legs and left the little black hairs to pepper the tub. The argument had been about the lock on the front door; she was upset because I'd forgotten, again, to deadbolt it before coming to bed. "We're two women living alone," she said. "This is the big city." She threw up her hands in that way she does when she's mad, like she's an actress onstage, playing angry. "Who knows what could happen?"

Like most of our fights, it was silly. Later on, after we'd made up, Rachel played me some opera and told me she just wanted us to be safe, and happy. I said I'd work on it.

Rachel used to be married to a singer, a classically trained one named Brett Brettigan. He's a tenor. He cheated on her twice, first with an old friend of hers and then with the upstairs neighbor. Since the divorce, though, they've tried to forge a friendship. Sometimes

Brett Brettigan calls from his condo in Westwood, and when I answer he asks if my roommate is home. Rachel doesn't want him to know the truth about us because he might tell her family. She says she's waiting for her grandmother to die before she breaks the news to the rest of them. "What am I?" I ask. "Some kind of terminal disease?" But I'm only pretending to be offended. Before Rachel and I began dating, I'd never so much as kissed another woman. My attraction to her still feels like an aberration--a detour.

Nevertheless, when Brett Brettigan calls, I want to say to him: Don't you miss the way your ex-wife smells when she comes in from the garden? You know what I mean, Brett: that gardening scent of hers--equal parts sweat, perfume and soil. And don't you miss the way those wisps of hair cling to her neck after a long day of weeding? Couldn't you just lick that soft, salty space beneath her ponytail, before traveling down her neck?

The horse next door was white, with a few gray spots scattered here and there along his back. My father said a horse was measured in hands, and that the one next door probably measured about 16 or so. I was very young when my father told me this, and I didn't understand what he meant. Was there a person who traveled from farm to ranch to riding school, laying his palms along the warm velvet surfaces of every stallion and mare he could find? How big were his hands, and why was he chosen, and what happened when he retired, or died? I was too young to know the answers to my questions, but too old to ask them aloud.

The first time I touched a boy, I crossed and recrossed his 17-year-old body with my 15-year-old hands. I pretended I was a professional. This boy wasn't a horse, but he could have been from the way he nuzzled and bucked, from the way I described and defined his body with my own. I counted under my breath, 10, 11, as I moved my hands across the boy's chest and down his arms, skating delicately over his nervous parts until he hummed like water before it boils. We were in his bedroom on a Sunday afternoon in March. We closed the blinds.

To keep the squirrels away from the vegetable patch, Rachel strung dried chili peppers onto fishing line and stretched it across the lip of the garden. She explained that humans were the only animals who enjoyed the pain of chili peppers, and that the squirrels would try them once and stay away for months afterward. I was skeptical at first, and was surprised when it worked. While the squirrels nursed their wounds, Rachel and I ate tomato and basil salads every night for weeks.

Before Rachel, I assumed that if I ever slept with a woman, I'd find it overwhelmingly foreign. I figured I'd do it once, if at all, as an experiment, like the milk and ginger ale combinations my friends and I would make each other drink in junior high. Something to try for the sake of trying. Exhilarating in its newness, sure, but a joke too. Disgusting even.

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