Cyrus’s hooves jolt to the ground as we clear the oxer. The second we land, I grasp my left rein, tugging us into a rollback. We gallop toward a vertical that’s got to be taller than me, and it’s in this moment that I realize it’s the first time since The Breakup that I’m not thinking about It.
Then, of course, once I realize this, I’m thinking about It again. I promptly lose the distance to the vertical, we chip in, and knock down the rail.
“Focus, Mila!” Trina calls from the center of the ring.
This woman. It’s like she can read my mind, every time.
Seven frantic strides pass from the vertical to an in-and-out combination as I try to gather my reins and get Cyrus under control. For a moment, an image flashes through my mind of Cyrus and me crashing through the jump; I’m flying headfirst into the ground. I can see my body lying on the ground, forever unmoving. A shudder runs through me as I push Cyrus on toward the in-and-out.
We leave long on the first jump of the set and I grit my teeth together, certain we are going to smash through the next one. Instead, we canter one stride in between and then soar out of the combination, clean. I let out a shaky breath.
I slow Cyrus to a walk, patting his neck. “Good boy,” I murmur as adrenaline shivers down my spine. Cyrus pulls the reins out of my hands, the rough leather scorching my palms as it races through my fingers. He stretches his long, dappled gray neck toward the ground—a frequent gesture of his once he finishes a course.
Trina strides over, her short legs making quick work of the sand arena, her bleach blonde hair glinting in the afternoon sun. She’s one of the trainers at Zen Elite Equestrian Center, where I board Cyrus and take lessons. And, despite our ten-plus year age gap, Trina’s one of my closest friends. Especially after everything that happened with Anya.
“Alright, so the course started out beautifully with this line right here”—she points to a bright blue vertical with a row of multicolored faux flowers resting beneath it, and then five strides to a giant oxer—“that was perfection. The first combo was smooth, but then you lost your concentration after that tight turn.” She fixes me with a look like I’m a toddler caught with a spoon in a jar of Nutella. “You’re here to forget, Mila. So, forget. And focus on Cyrus, the jumps, the sand, anything but Michael. Feel me?”
I force a laugh, but even as it escapes my mouth, the sound is bitter on my tongue. I’d prefer if no one else in the world knew about my pain, except maybe Cyrus. And the fact that the whole barn knows about it is the literal worst.
“Last thing’s last,” Trina continues, “but let’s just pretend you rode clean and made it to the jump off.”
I nod as she points out a shorter course, and then I heel Cyrus into a canter. We start off with a single vertical, then a wide turn to a triple combination.
I dig my heels into Cyrus, and he responds with a flick of his tail and picks up his pace. We sail through the combination, and I barely have time to imagine falling off. All I can think about is Cyrus’s powerful body, bunching and elongating beneath me as we rocket around the course.
Every movement is instinct; Cyrus and me are one. We are flying. We are beyond this earth, somewhere in a different dimension where all I can feel is the wind in my face, the horse connected to me, the reins in my fingers. I’m not even sure I’m breathing.
We pivot back to the oxer we knocked down in the first round, and I sit back slightly to adjust our distance. Cyrus responds perfectly to me and it’s heavenly as we glide over the massive jump. A momentary free fall where it’s just me and Cyrus, Cyrus and me. Nothing in the world matters.
His hooves hit the sand, and we bounce back to Earth. My calves press against him to urge him on to the next jumps, but he doesn’t need it. He’s going, no matter what.
We gallop around the ring, clearing every jump with ease. The jump off ends with a skinny vertical that I swear Cyrus has to suck in his belly to get through. We sail over it, and I smile.
We pull up and I release the reins so Cyrus can put his head down. He snorts at the ground gratefully and I can’t help but laugh at him. I pat his neck, sticky with sweat, and have to wipe my hands on my breeches before taking the reins again.
Trina’s clapping as she walks over to us. “Excellent.” She beams. “Really excellent, you two.” She pulls a mint out of her pocket and gives it to Cyrus, whose ears perk at the sound of the wrapper. “Look around, Mila. Look at these heights.”
I glance at the gigantic jumps Trina set for our practice, and there’s an overwhelming moment where I realize that we had cleared all of them—and done it really well, too. This is it, I let myself think for just a second. This is everything I’ve wanted.
Suddenly, the thought turns sour as I think about Anya. How she should be here. And only a year ago, she was here, jumping these same jumps, on this very horse. She’d gotten everything she’d wanted, until fate took it all away.
“You’re ready,” Trina says. “If you want to move up, you could try the open jumper meter forty class next weekend.”
It takes me a minute to understand what she’s saying. “Move up?”
The Winter Equestrian Festival, more commonly known as WEF, is starting next weekend. This practice is supposed to be our last before we start the months-long event, with horse shows every weekend. Last season, I was in the Low Amateur Jumper division—with obstacle heights up to 4’6”—but that was before Anya’s accident. Before I acquired Cyrus, my sister’s Grand Prix horse. I look around at the jumps to confirm that we’re jumping way above my normal heights. These jumps are Grand Prix level. Trina’s saying something, but I’m not quite catching it because I’m trying not to relive Anya’s accident in my mind. The image floods my mind—her body collapsing on the ground of the International Arena, Trina and I watching helplessly from the in-gate. I’m yelling her name, running to her. But there’s nothing I can do.
“You’re one of the most talented young riders I’ve seen in a long time, and now you’ve got the horse to go to the top,” Trina says, but I see through what she’s trying to do—she’s saying whatever she thinks I need to hear to get me to let go of my fear of pulling an Anya. And it’s not working.
Trina’s silently grinning at me, her deeply tanned skin bunching at her cheeks, her eyes squinting expectantly. I shake my head and begin walking Cyrus around the ring to let him cool off and try to catch my breath as dread claws at my chest.
“You’re gonna say nothing to that?” Trina says, almost offended.
Almost because she knows me, that I’m not trying to offend her. Almost because she knows about Anya. Almost because she knows ‘moving up’ means something different to me than to other riders.
“I don’t have anything to say,” I say truthfully as I fiddle with the buckle on my reins. I close my eyes as Cyrus plods around the arena, each stride jouncing me in the saddle. I tangle my fingers in his mane, needing something to ground me as a panic attack threatens to grab hold of me.
Trina’s silent, giving me time to think of something to say.
“Well, think about it,” Trina says. “You’ve got the thumbs up from me. You don’t have to enter into a Grand Prix quite yet. Just try the meter forty class.” She glances at her Rolex, a watch she won at a Grand Prix several years ago on Cyrus’s sire, Blue Thunder. “I gotta get ready for my three o’clock, but you consider it.” She pauses, glancing up at me. “And I know from experience that it’ll help you forget about Michael. At some point, you’ve got to make the jump.”
“Maybe.” Or…everything could go back to the way it was, and I’d be perfectly content.
But I don’t say that because I don’t want to disappoint Trina. She’s invested so much in me and Cyrus.
She gives me a stern look, her blonde eyebrow raised, and then waves at me before turning on her heel and leaving the arena. I force myself to focus on my breathing, to think about anything but the jumps, or my memory of Anya’s accident.
I lead Cyrus out of the sand ring, passing the open, grassy field we sometimes use for flatting horses. Behind us is the Zen barn with its white concrete and black gabled roof. It’s truly a state-of-the-art equine center, complete with a water rehab area for the horses. The farm is dotted with lovely fountains, picturesque gazebos and comfy outdoor furniture to hang out in between rides or to relax and watch whoever’s in the ring.
I steer Cy down the barn driveway and out onto the equestrian trails that snake around the equine neighborhood of Wellington, Florida. The trail edges past a canal and turns into a long stretch under shady oaks with Spanish moss dangling in the breeze. I stare up at the trees, the afternoon light filtering down through the branches. A bead of sweat drips from my helmet and streaks down my cheek, almost like a tear. A tear that I refuse to cry, even after so long.
I take a deep breath and a moment later, Cyrus does the same. As if we’re feeling the same thing. I lean down and rub his neck. “You’re such a good boy,” I say. “I’m sorry I’m not ready to move up, and I’m not sure I ever will be.” I sigh again. “You deserve better, big guy.” He tosses his head, and I can’t decide if he agrees with me or not.
Back at home, I scarf down some cold spaghetti Mom left out with a note that says, ‘Your sister misses you, please come hang out with her’—a common occurrence these past few months.
I trudge upstairs and pause outside of Anya’s room, listening. Blue light emanates from under the door, and I can tell they’re watching something. In the year since Anya’s accident, since I moved back from the dorms at the University of Miami, I’ve become adept at standing outside Anya’s door, figuring out what movie she and my mom are watching. Today, it sounds like Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, a longtime favorite of Anya’s, but particularly after the accident. It’s a bit morbid, in my opinion, and my body gives an involuntary tremor as I turn away from her door.
I tiptoe to my room, not wanting my mom to hear me and call me in. It’s one of those things I can’t quite explain—I moved back here to be helpful, but over the past few months it became harder and harder to cross that threshold into Anya’s room. The days and weeks after the accident, watching my only sister, my best friend, shrivel into a shell of herself was more than I could take.
I suspect it’s one of the reasons my dad moved out, although he had plenty of others, judging from his hot new secretary that seems a little…friendly. I swallow down the hard lump in my throat, the one that’s there more often than not these days.
I want to text Michael, to vent to him about how hard this is. How I miss diving into my sister’s bed and telling her all about my day. How empty I feel coming home to a house petrified by grief. But I can’t text him; he’s not mine to text anymore.
In my room, I toss my purse on my bed. My room is frozen in time from my 18th birthday, right before I went away to school—the floral bedspread that looks like Vera Bradley threw up all over the mattress; a pegboard of birthday cards, favorite shots from various shows, old high school graduation invites. My vanity still has more makeup brushes on it than I know what to do with. In the corner beside the window sits a desk with rows of expansive bookshelves. My brand new business textbooks for the upcoming semester are stacked neatly beside my laptop. Next to the bookshelves, my high school diploma sits in an elegant frame. It’s situated above center, with space for at least two more diplomas underneath. My dad’s idea, of course.
Even in high school, I wasn’t the type of girl to have a bunch of hot guys or boy bands postered onto my walls. I opted instead for a picture of a gray horse in the sun, his mane blowing in the breeze. It’s one of those cliché stock photos that had nonetheless beckoned me. Ironically, the horse looks a lot like Cyrus, though my mom and I purchased the picture long before Cy entered our lives.
On the far wall opposite my bed are more personal pictures—one of Anya and me dressed up in our white breeches and black coats, ready to ride in a Sunday classic; another of our family on a Fourth of July yacht ride with Dad’s company; and a magazine cover of one of Trina’s big wins with Blue Thunder from back in the day. In the shot, Blue is coming down off a huge oxer, his front legs straight as he heads toward the ground, his hind legs still arching over the jump. Trina’s face is tight with concentration, and I can almost see the moment they hit the sand, charging through the timer—clean. Her arm raised in jubilee, the crowd cheering with her.
A small tug on my heart reminds me that that could be me. On Cyrus. This season. If I want it, which I don’t. Not after Anya.
Again the image comes—uncalled—to mind. The sprawling International Arena at WEF. Cyrus, riderless, his reins tossed over his head. Anya’s stirrups flapping, empty. The jump behind him, crushed as if King Kong just smashed through it. Anya, on the ground. Never to move below the neck again.
I shake my head, attempting to clear the image. When it doesn’t budge, I move toward my laptop and open it, looking for distraction. I pull up a Word document and scroll through my graduate school application essay. The topic? Describe a challenging situation in your life and how you overcame it. Classic.
My challenge? How to not write about what happened with Anya. Because I definitely haven’t overcome it. Not even close.
I glance through what I’ve written, about our lives before my dad’s success with ViaTech. How the four of us lived in a studio apartment after we immigrated from Ukraine. Each night we would share a few Cups of Noodles for dinner, thanking God for the one dollar ramen and praying for the American Dream. But that wasn’t necessarily my challenge to overcome. Sure, we’d had to endure some things—like hunger, for instance, when my parents didn’t realize we could get free breakfast and lunch at school—but I wasn’t sure how to make it mine. It’s true that being hungry can make you more hardworking than anyone else around you—because once you’ve experienced true hunger, you never want to feel that way again. It kept Anya and me focused on school. We weren’t the kids who had lots of friends and did tons of extracurricular activities. No, we were the studious but distant ones whose primary friends were each other. Until moving into the dorms at UM, I’d never had a sleepover. In a way, I still hadn’t.
My phone buzzes in my pocket.
“Hey, Tato,” I say to my dad.
“Milochka, how are you?”
“Fine.” My boyfriend of two years broke up with me for no apparent reason, my sister is forever crippled, and I pretty much have nothing to say to get me into any reputable graduate program, but yeah, I’m fine. “What’s up?”
“Just checking in on those applications. Please tell me you’ve submitted them.”
“I’m working on it right now, actually. This essay just isn’t coming together. All the other stuff is done though.”
“Do I need to have Natasha write your essay for you?”
“Dad, that’s totally unethical.”
“I’m just being pragmatic, Milochka. Send Natasha what you have and I’ll have her flesh it out a bit. Think of it as…involved editing.”
“Sure,” I say, even though I know I’m not going to do that.
“Anything else going on I should know about? How’s your sister?”
I run my hands against the smooth metal of my laptop, considering how to answer truthfully. “She’s alright, watching Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken with mom.”
A loud exhale blurs the line. “Why does she torture herself like that? And why does your mother let her do that?” He speaks in Ukrainian, which he unknowingly swaps into whenever he’s upset.
Even though I’d had the exact same thought earlier, I defend her. “She should be able to choose whatever movie she wants to watch.” If fate sentenced her to a life in bed, she should be able to torture herself however she wants, right?
My dad mutters under his breath, some old Ukrainian idiom that I’m not familiar with. “Okay, well keep me updated on those applications. You should get them in this weekend, Mila.”
I bristle when he calls me Mila—he only uses that name when he’s upset. The diminutive, cutesy Ukrainian version, Milochka, is his typical go-to. “Sure, Tato.”
We hang up, and instead of working on my application essay, I shut my laptop defiantly and hop in the shower. I listen to my Breakup playlist, belting the lines from Ashe and Niall Horan’s song “Moral of the Story.” When the song ends, I reach out of the shower and replay it. As I sing along, I want to tell Ashe I’m in pain and still in love. The problem is, I don’t want to not be in love—I just want to be out of pain. When Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” comes on, I try to muster her confidence, and fail.
Out of the shower, I pull up National Velvet for the zillionth time. As I watch a young Elizabeth Taylor pretending to gallop down the pathway to her house, I scroll through my text thread with Michael.
All of our texts are pre-Breakup. Lovely texts, sweet texts. Rest-of-my-life texts.
Just last week he’d sent me a picture of the sunset at the barn and said: Wish you were here with me, you’d make the view 10000x better.
I don’t get it. We had everything—everything a couple could possibly want—and he just threw it away with both hands as if it were nothing. I text my best friend and old dorm roomie, Monica: I need you to make sure I don’t text Michael right now.
I open my photos and flip through shots from the early days of our relationship. There’s a blurry one from Kickback Tavern, our barn’s go-to Sunday night restaurant haunt. Michael and me with our faces smooshed together, a cover band somewhere in the background. One at WEF with Michael’s bay horse, Khan, in between us. I pause at a photo of us on my birthday last year when Michael took me on a helicopter ride and then dinner at a rooftop terrace with a private chef. It was incredible, one of the best nights of my life, until the very end of the night when it was soured by a shocking revelation that I can’t even bring myself to think about. But when I look at the picture, with Michael in his slick Tom Ford suit and me in Anya’s hot pink Monique Lhuillier dress, it’s like nothing bad ever happened that night. Isn’t that funny, how memories can either grow in their bitterness, or all the bad things slough off until you’re left with a hazy, happy memory where nothing goes wrong?
The nostalgia builds until I open up my text thread with Michael (of course Monica hasn’t texted me back, so what else am I supposed to do?) and start to text him. First, an I miss you—but that feels too desperate, so I erase it. Then, just a hey but that’s too nonchalant. I type and subsequently erase several more options, ranging from over-sharing (a long diatribe about my day) to sappy (I’ve only ever loved you) to petty (Hey Greg! Had so much fun with you last night. Looking forward to Friday. 😉😉). Next I went with humorous: Booty call??
I’m laughing at myself as I erase that option when the three dots pop up that indicate Michael is typing something. I sit up quickly, gripping the phone in my hand, my eyes wide as I watch the dots appear, then disappear. My heart hammers against my chest, threatening to force its way through. I scramble for the remote, pausing the movie.
This needs my full attention.
Was he missing me, too? Did he regret The Breakup?
I watch the text thread so closely, I’m sure Michael can feel me staring through the screen.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I mumble, shaking my phone.
I shake the phone so hard, the ‘redo typing’ message pops up—except I think it says, ‘undo typing.’ With tremoring hands, I click the ‘redo’ button—which I think is the ‘undo’ button—and my previous Booty call?? text comes back onto the screen. In my haste to re-erase it, I click send.
“NO! NO! NO!” I scream at my phone while I try in vain to undo the message, managing instead to heart the text. I fumble with my phone, trying to fix my mistake, but there’s nothing I can do except un-heart the message. I stare at it, gaping at the screen, my pulse is so hard and fast, it feels like my carotid artery might strangle me. In an outburst of frustration, I throw my phone to the floor and pace around my room, raking my hands through my hair as I try to figure out what in the world I can do.
The panic I feel is suffocating. My chest is tight with fear for what seems like the fifteenth time that day. When will it end? When will I feel like a normal person again? I want so badly to cry—to just let it all out—but the tears don’t come, and that only makes me more distraught. Like I’m stuck behind the walls of my emotions and they won’t let me out.
This isn't the sort of text a girl like me would send. Not in a million years, not if someone held a gun to my head and told me to send this text. (Okay, maybe in that particular instance I would send the text. But you get the idea.)
I know I need to figure out a solution. Do I call him and tell him it was a joke? That I didn’t mean to send it? Or does that just make me look more desperate?
What if he responds with mockery or vitriol? I would die. I would literally melt into a puddle of steaming hot liquid embarrassment and cease to exist from sheer shame.
My heart does a double-beat as I think of another option: what if he responds positively to my ridiculous text? And that somehow leads to us getting back together?
My hands shake with the idea. I clamber to my phone and pick it up.
“Ugh!” I shake the phone again, and of course the ‘undo typing’ message pops up and I scream at my phone again. “Stop! Stop!”
In utter defeat, I turn off my phone and climb in bed, too agitated to watch National Velvet anymore. With limited options, I get back out of bed and go through a body weight cardio circuit—jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers. Then three minute-long planks, counting to myself, until my arms and core are quivering.
I hide under my obnoxiously cheerful quilt and turn my phone back on, daring to peek at the text thread with Michael again, but there’s nothing except a text from Monica: Stay strong, Mila! along with a GIF of a female bodybuilder undulating her chest muscles. Any other time, I’d think this was hilarious. But not today. I close my eyes, burying my head in my arms, wondering if I’ll need to stay hidden here forever.
Eventually I go back to National Velvet, and fall asleep sometime after two in the morning, only to have my normal round of nightmares. Except this time Michael is on the sidelines laughing at me.