The girl grew up here.
Among glinting bridles, clicking hooves, tossed manes. Among hot walkers and feed buckets. Among horses.
She grew up with peppermints in her pockets, with lost wrappers found stuck to clothing in the wash. She grew up with her small hands stained orange from carrots and leather. With her legs sore from hours perched on split rail fencing, the rungs bruising her slowly.
She was raised in mornings on the track. Her father lost her among the stables, the backstretch workers, the owners’ wives, the exercise riders. She was raised by this village. At home, mangled Spanish crept into her sentences: exclamations, mostly. Protests, sometimes.
Her mornings were short at first. When very little, she’d go half-asleep, hair un-brushed, still in her pajamas. Her fist wrapped tightly around her mother’s fingers. She was never afraid of the horses, but she didn’t always like them. They meant early mornings and loud laughter and conversations with people she didn’t know. They meant her father’s broken wrist, cracked rib, exploded knee. They came to mean, though, usefulness. When she was young enough to listen, she would creep under the betting counters, ears trained for tips. She learned to ride. Not well, but enough. She learned to wrap ankles. She learned patience: in rubbing the horses, waiting for muscle knots to give way, to melt into the spine. In racing. In workouts. She learned that horses need time to recover. Time to heal. More than people, sometimes.
The girl grew up with hands stained gray from working the animals. With her feet aching from hours in stiff boots. She learned to drive on roads strewn with hay and caked with shit and faded with dirt. The girl grew up in a horse racing town: there are not many left. Knowing no other way, it would be some time before the girl understood the place she grew up.
It would be some time before she saw the way the old man’s hands shook as he counted out lost cash from his wallet. Before she noticed the way the cigarettes piled on ashtrays in a fury, smoldering, small curls of white unfurling from their depths. Before she noticed the lines addiction etched.
It would be longer still before she noticed the too-young girls with too much makeup. Before she noticed the phone calls made in whispers. Before she noticed the way hundreds of thousands of dollars were won without a word of celebration. Lost, too, in a similarly quiet way.
She would know all this, all this seediness, all this filth, all this permanent sadness, and still she would find herself more than once against a too dark wall of the barns, chipped paint pressing into her back as the man lifted her up, pinning her, both of them straining at quiet in the strange stillness of a barn at night. In the mornings she would imagine their footprints in the packed dirt. She would run her eyes past where they had been. It would be some time before she would realize in its entirety the cliché, the loud eroticism of their world: the horses, the smells, the quiet, the rules unlike anywhere else.
The pain of obviousness would not ruin this place for the girl. She would come to realize it is only unoriginal in myth, in stories, in legends of the tracks people tell rather than know.
They do not know the world this girl grew up in. They don’t know the quiet of a world shuddered to life at four a.m. They’ve never watched the sun catch against a bit, reflecting across the track in a kind of mirrored Morse code. They’ve never heard the slow rumble of a horse working alone on the turf: how just one can sound as thunderous as a dozen racing. They’ve never seen the way the dust filters through the air among the stables in low-lying, slowly-diffusing clouds: permanent, refusing to settle.