Well, V will be belatedly celebrating her Sweet Sixteen at a local fast food restaurant. And her father and I won’t be spending a dime. No, this shindig is courtesy of her employer, who likes that sort of thing.
We laughed, looking at the invitation. This has got to be the oddest Sweet Sixteen birthday party in history.
Sure, V is sweet. Sure, she’s sixteen. But spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fancy-pants party with semi-formal dress; a hall; updos and I-pods for door prizes is a real quick way to turn that sweet into surly. V’s birthday celebration, in fact, was downright subdued this year: Quick bite for lunch and a homemade cheesecake for dessert.
“Should I go?” She gestured to the invitation.
“Yeah, you should go,” I told her. “Invite your friends. Go have fun. Eat some pizza. See a movie afterwards. It’ll be a good experience.”
And V most definitely wants experiences. She wants to grab life by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. She plans to skydive…to parasail…to bungee jump…to sail around the world. She wants to backpack through Europe and travel to India…alone. Yeah, V is all about experiences.
And that’s what we gave her for her birthday this year: Experiences. But we decided to start small, as my husband’s not into sailing and I don’t like to fly. Plus we're cheapskates. So, in addition to a couple of small presents, I printed up two gift certificates. The first was good for an hour of trail riding with me (her father’s not a big fan of horses—all that bouncing!). The second gave her a choice: another hour of trail riding with me or an hour of archery lessons with her dad.
She cashed in the first certificate last Sunday.
* * *
V laughed when my husband told the story about his riding with me, years ago in Arizona. “My horse was always last. Your mother was miles ahead. And there was a storm coming.” He frowned at me. “Or maybe I just kept hoping for that.”
There was a little girl in the barn, about Squints’ height with a mass of explosive hair all around. “Are you going with us?” I smiled down at her.
“That girl’s got more nuts than all the men in this place." The owner gestured around the barn before adding, "she’ll be your trail guide.” He led us to a pasture. There was a small audience out there. “This here’s your horse. Sweet as pie.”
And your daughter’s? Nice and calm. Does whatever you ask of her.” He grinned. “Ya’ ever been on one?”
“I grew up with horses.” I smiled confidently and pointed to V. “This is her first time.”
It’s kind of fun, knowing something that your kid doesn’t know. I may not know the latest lyrics. I may not understand how to navigate my way around Facebook. I may not even know how to program my cell phone. But I do know how to ride a horse. I pictured us, wholesome and happy, galloping along the trail, the admiring glances of people hiking through the woods, wishing that they, too, could be riding that day.
Someone brought over a stool. “Climb on.”
I arched an eyebrow. “I don’t need that.”
Thus committed, I lifted my leg to the stirrup and almost split my pants. I heaved myself up and over and landed—hard—in the saddle. I confess I nearly lost my button. If I had, I’m sure I would’ve set off a stampede.
Another group returned from their ride. Their leader ran up. “There was a dog in the park. Spooked one of the horses. Bucked someone off.”
V’s eyes widened. I felt my own widen, too. Yeah, I know how to ride horses, but not around rabid dogs.
“Hang onto your horns if you see a dog, gals.” The owner said. “Now, giddup.”
Trail horses don’t giddup. They plod. For the first five minutes of the ride, my horse’s muzzle was practically in the tail of our guide’s. It was quiet. Too quiet. “What grade are you going into?”
Our guide turned her head to the side, spoke over her shoulder. “Fifth.”
"Wow! That's impressive!"
We continued plodding in this manner, exchanging a few bits of words here and there, but then, at the end of the pasture, V’s horse refused to move any further.
“Kick her,” the guide suggested.
V kicked harder. The horse refused to move. It may even have laughed. This was not the experience V was looking for. Someone jogged towards us. Grabbed the reins and led the horse into the woods. We were off again.
It was dark in the woods. Cool. Rocky. Hilly. Hell, it was more than hilly. It was downright mountainous. Yeah, I know how to ride a horse, but clearly not down a mountain. I closed my eyes as my horse tripped over loose stones; fumbled over sharp rocks. No wonder our guide wore a bicycle helmet.
“Mom.” Again, V’s horse had balked. She danced and pranced and refused to go further. I turned my horse around to go back and help. But he zipped past V and charged back up that mountain. At the top, he bucked a little. Backed up. His rear hooves teetered on the rocky ledge.
I longed for a button shooting from the waistband of my pants straight to V’s horse’s massive, muscular, stubborn butt.
That would make her go.
But instead, my horse headed for home. He stopped plodding.
“Don’t give up. Turn him around,” the pipsqueak trail guide shouted, as my horse galloped away, into the pasture and practically into the barn. I wondered if V would want to get a gift certificate for a future trip or if we’d just get our money back.
“Lemmie’ get you a better horse,” the owner shouted.
Again, there was a small audience there as we swapped horses. Again, stupidly, I eschewed the stool, dismounting the horse and getting my foot stuck in the stirrup, one leg up in the air, the other shakily hopping around as I held on for dear life to the stinking horn and tried to wrestle my foot free.
I staggered to the next horse, looked forlornly at the damn beast.
“I thought we got rid of this horse,” someone said.
“So did I.”
Somehow I dragged myself up on the horse, wondering what it was that caused the owners to want to get rid of him. Somehow, I bumped my sore, sorry ass five miles through the park, past irritating people holding up uninterested babies and pointing, “look at the pretty horse.” Somehow I managed to stay on that horse, despite the fact that halfway through the ride, a part of the bridle fell off. Somehow, when that beast of a horse sensed he was nearly home and broke into a full gallop, I didn’t scream too loudly.
I do know how to ride a horse, after all.
And when we reached the barn, again, in front of a small audience, I gratefully got off.
Without the damn stool.
Next weekend, V gets to cash in her second gift certificate. Please, God, let her choose archery. And if she doesn’t?
She may just get a fancy-pants Sweet Sixteen birthday party after all.