It was autumn in the year 1987. I was attending classes at UNH in pursuit of a degree in Animal Science that would never come to be, but at the time I was faithfully jotting notes and trotting around the campus from class to class, like a dutiful student. My horse had been newly moved to a large stable that was ten minutes from the main campus in Durham. This place was full of fancy horses and riders decked out in breeches and boots, with a head trainer who bellowed like a bull at his students. The trainer was so intimidating that I could hardly meet his gaze if I had to pass him in the barn aisles. Flashing a dazzling piano key rivaling smile, he'd say, "Hello, Dear!" at the top of his lungs and strut past with the silver taps on the heels of his boots clacking like castanets on the concrete. I would shrug out a soft, "Hi", and scuttle off to my horse's stall, visibly shaken by this larger than life man's brief acknowledgement.
The days fell into an easy routine as I adjusted to the more flexible schedule of a college gal. I found that I could ride in the mornings between classes on Tues. and Thurs., so at ten o'clock I'd dash off to my car and whiz to the barn. Ten, my Quarter Horse, was stabled in the long, dark back aisle that was adjacent to the indoor arena. The stalls were adequate, but this part of the barn was more or less akin to the land of misfit toys. The school horses lived in this aisle, along with various other odd and end horses that were made up of absentee boarders, or project types. I didn't care where Ten lived as long as it was safe and he was happy, both of which were working out just fine. One of these mornings I was grooming Ten in his stall when I heard footsteps coming down the aisle. Through the bars of the stall I watched a thin, blonde woman clad in beige breeches and tall rubber boots glide by. She looked really happy, almost radiant to be at the barn. I was instantly curious about her. That day while I rode I watched her from a distance as she took a lesson on a horse that I knew only as "Rockets". Rockets, who's full name was Rockets Redglare, was not particularly pretty, nor was he graceful, but he was kind and willing. He had large platter sized feet that belied his draft horse infusion and he was about as flexible as a piece of rebar. Granted my own horse was no picnic with a short, choppy step and flighty nature, but Rockets looked about as comfortable as riding a jackhammer. The blonde woman put him through his paces, carefully executing the exercises set out by the instructor and at the end of the lesson she collapsed on Rockets neck, hugging him broadly with both arms. "I love this horse!", she said with a grin. It was obvious that she really did.
Back at the barn we were both untacking and I decided to introduce myself.
"Hey," I said. "I'm Michele. I just moved here with my horse, Ten."
"Oh, I'm Kathy! And this is my horse, Rockets," she said patting him vigorously. "Nice to meet you!"
We engaged in some polite conversation, with the normal where are you from, etc. as we put away our horses and then it was time for her to go to work, she said. "Where's work?" I inquired.
"The hospital. I'm an anesthesiologist," she replied, waving goodbye.
From then on I met many new friends at the barn, and I'd run into Kathy on some of my morning rides, or occasionally see her on the weekends when she'd bring her two tiny, blonde toddler clones of herself out to feed Rockets carrots. I couldn't help but admire her sheer enthusiasm for coming to see her clunky, oafish horse. Her love for him was so absolute and true that it felt intrusive to watch her greet him.
One morning in late November, just before Thanksgiving, I was getting Ten tacked up for a ride. Kathy appeared in the barn, but instead of wearing her usual broad smile, her face was pale and drawn. I watched her let herself in Rockets stall and clasp her arms around his neck. Ten minutes later she came out, wiping her eyes with her sleeve and I wasn't sure if I should say anything, or just let her be. She walked over to me and Ten, letting out a long exhale.
"Ahhh, I really needed that," she said giving Ten a pat on the neck. "Today has been a super bad, horrible day."
"Trouble at work?" I ventured.
"No, it's not work. Today is a sad anniversary for me." She paused and her expression was pinched before she spoke again. "I lost the love of my life on this day, seventeen years ago. We were just kids really, but he was so special. Fucking Vietnam. It was his last mission before he was sent home."
I told her I was sorry for her loss, all the while feeling very uncomfortable with this sad version of my usually bubbly friend.
"Yeah, sometimes life just sucks, you know? John was a pilot. You know how pilots give themselves call names? His was Rockets Redglare. No one really knows about him, except for my family. I never even told my husband about him. I named Rockets in his memory."
This reveal of information hit me deep in my gut. It was raw and heartbreaking and profoundly sad. A painful piece of her past hiding under what I had perceived to be a happy woman leading a fantastic life, with a career, cute kids, the works. My young brain sought to process the complexity of such a tangle of emotions.
"That's cool that you named Rockets after him. I mean, it's obvious how much you love that horse and everything." It was the best I could come up with at the time.
Kathy nodded, biting her lip and then apologized for bumming me out.
She proceeded to tack up Rockets and the next time I saw her that day she was galloping full speed across the top field. Bending low over his neck they sped along. I remember thinking I was watching an image of pleasure running away from long buried pain.
All of these years later I can still see Kathy's face when she told me about John, her fallen pilot and lost love. I doubt that she remembers telling me the story, but it's one that I know I'll never forget.