HOW TO LOVE A COWBOY
by Melissa Esposito
Step One: You meet him when you’re seventeen and shy. He helps break the wild colt in under saddle, since the owner has already broken her neck and a fall will kill her. You’ve been around horses since you were three, but a stallion that has bred already is not a kitten; he’s already a tiger. The Appaloosa’s eyes roll wild in his head when he smells a mare in heat, and his one thousand pounds of bone and muscle would crush you.
The cowboy is nineteen and muscular, his blond hair constantly covered by a cowboy hat. While you are cleaning your mare’s stall, you sneak glances at the way sweat trickles down his back in the July heat.
In the end you are too quiet and too gangly and too chaste, so he dates your friend. Your friend is too loud and too busty and too loose. You don’t ask about their sex life, even though you know they have one, because you don’t want to know what his face looks like while she is on top of him. Before you know it, the end of summer arrives and he is leaving for college, taking the stallion with him. The stallion comes back two weeks later, crazier than ever and breaks through two electric fences to breed your mare. The cowboy doesn’t return.
Step Two: You almost forget about the cowboy. You go on with your life and have different loves, different men, different women. You shape yourself into the young woman you wish to be. You graduate with a bachelor’s, and then a master’s in quick succession. You move on to jumping your mare, and you excel at it, constantly winning ribbons.
Step Three: You are single for the first time in four years, and you relish every second of being on your own. Word comes from the barn owner that the cowboy who once helped break the now gelded stallion is back in town for his brother’s memorial. The funeral was held in Ohio, but the family knew everyone in this small Pennsylvania town. The night before the memorial, they will be stopping up at the annual Kentucky Derby party. You bake raspberry cheesecake and Brie and help set up. You bring your oversized sun hat to wear for the race.
The cowboy is nothing like you remember him. The only distinguishing feature is his blond hair, still covered by a cowboy hat. He has been away in Oklahoma training cutting horses. His Wrangler jeans wrap around his bow legs and his face is more round than you remember. All the married women at the party stare at him: he isn’t the nineteen year old they remember. You almost need to wipe the drool off their chins with a napkin. To them he is an attractive man. They all come over and whisper in your ear that you should hit on him because you’re single.
He doesn’t talk much at the party, although you try to pull conversation out of him. It doesn’t matter to you anymore— you no longer chase people. If he is more content sitting in silence, then that is what you’ll do. When you are leaving for the night, when everyone is too drunk and you are too tired, he asks you out for drinks. You don’t agree at first. He takes your number, and you tell him next time he’s in town.
Step Four: This cowboy is very persistent. Message after message until you are worn down, and you drag yourself out of bed to meet him for drinks at a local bar. You fluff your hair and check your makeup before heading out. The night is cold even though it’s May, and you wish you had worn a jacket over your lace shirt and tank top. The bar is not crowded, and you nurse the drink you didn’t really want in the first place. Maybe it’s a rum and coke, pineapple upside cake, vodka and cranberry. You tap your wedge-clad feet on the sticky floor while he attempts to make small talk.
Just recently you have realized that you don’t need people to like you, so you say what you want, even if you sound like a sailor. The cowboy doesn’t swear and looks into his drink when you do, which is frequently. Talk for an hour, nurse your drink. He brings up the fact that he should have went for you all those years ago. You remind him that he barely looked at your skinny arms and legs that moved like a newborn horse. Plus, your acne and unruly blonde hair that you didn’t know how to control did nothing to make you look beautiful. You smirk and know that you have filled out since then, you know good brands of face wash and makeup, and the value of a good bra.
Step Five: At last call, you both head to your vehicles. You try to get into your car, but he pulls you over to his truck. Hesitantly, you get in. A Horseman’s magazine sits on the bench seat and you flip through it. You weren’t highly stimulated through conversation and, despite what the other women think, he isn’t that easy on the eyes anymore. Time rounded out those hard muscles and tight stomach. He leans towards you awkwardly, and you feel yourself pulling away, but he catches you on the back of the neck and puts his lips on yours.
It feels like you’re kissing a fish. Those cold, flat lips. He’s pressing you back into the seat like he’s trying to smother you. Your neck can only bend so far backwards. Push on his shoulder to get him to let up a little. He stops and asks if you’re okay. You nod through a tight-lipped smile. He goes back in for the kill, but this time you stop him, pull gently on his hair like it’s supposed to be enjoyable, but it’s really to save your face.
He rubs the inside of your thigh with his grubby hand, and you inwardly cringe. You ask yourself why you’re here.
He says, Let’s go get a hotel room.
You say, What? as if you haven’t quite heard him.
You know, he says, a room.
No, you say. What kind of girl do you think I am? You think to yourself, if he had a tighter stomach you would have agreed. You shake your head and slowly back away from him into the corner of the seat.
We could just talk, he suggests.
No, sorry. You say goodnight and get out of the truck. Get in your car and go home.
Step Six: He texts you the next day continuously, begging to hang out. You’re busy with friends, and you refuse to cancel plans for a boy. He’s leaving the next day and he wants to see you. You don’t care to see him. Make all the excuses possible, and finally, stop answering.
After the weekend, he messages you constantly. He tells you everything he’s doing at work. Since he’s a cowboy it sounds much more interesting than your desk job. You wish you had that kind of job. One where you can work with young horses all day.
You answer. Don’t deny it, the attention is nice. You constantly rib him about how he thought your friend was a better catch. It’s funny. At night he requests pictures of your body, and those requests get more and more frequent and demanding. You make excuses and avoid him. The day of your friend’s wedding he begs for pictures. You send him one in your bridesmaid dress. He asks for more. Tells you to lift up the dress. You slide your phone inside your purse and help the bride get ready for her wedding and don’t answer him for the rest of the night. You have no contact with him for three days.
When he does text you it’s later at night and he is pestering you for naked pictures again. Now, you’re not a prude, you’ve sent them before, but you don’t really think you want to send your toned bikini body to this cowboy who is round like the gaming barrels he used to gallop around. Instead of giving in you ask him what you will get in return. Your phone is dark and silent for ten minutes.
The pictures he sends you are shirtless, with his jeans unbuttoned. His soft body takes up most of the screen and his farmer’s tan is glaringly obvious. You close the picture quickly and crawl into bed. He asks, Do you like what you see? The answer is you don’t, but while you are looser, you are not rude. You send back Yes, hoping the one word answer will deter him. He asks again for a picture, and you dig through the archive in your phone memory and send him an old picture of your stomach. Your face is not included; your shoulder is. If he looks hard enough, he will realize that the tattoo you just added to your shoulder is missing, but you don’t think he will notice. You close your eyes and go to sleep.
Step Seven: The next day you tell the barn owner how persistent he is, how chubby he has become, and how unattracted to him you are. She asks, How does he text you so much with his girlfriend?
Your jaw drops. What? Girlfriend? you stutter.
Yeah, he lives with her, she says.
You don’t say anything. You were never the other woman. You don’t plan to start filling that role.
I feel bad, you say.
You just kissed him. It’s not like he’s married, she says. That doesn’t matter to you. You might as well have ripped the girl’s heart out. You don’t say anything, just give your mare’s neck a pat.
He messages you later that night. You ask, Do you have a girlfriend?
He says, Maybe. Maybe is a definite yes. You feel stupid. Don’t answer. Be thankful that you didn’t sleep with him. Be ashamed that you didn’t take the time to creep on his Facebook page.
Weeks pass and you don’t hear from him. You find the girl on her social media, and you feel sorry for kissing him. Feel sorry for her because she doesn’t know. She’s beautiful and looks happy with him.
Step Eight: You get a message from him one day. It says, What’s cookin’ good lookin’? You delete it and put it out of your mind.
He isn’t the right cowboy to love.
Melissa Esposito graduated from Chatham University with an MFA in 2014. Her work has appeared in the online literary journal Dialogual and was a finalist in the 2014 Writer Advice contest. Melissa still lives in Pittsburgh where she dotes on her seriously spoiled horse and finds time to write outside of her banker’s hours.