The cheap, plastic rocking horse was bleached to a pale blue by the sun, with a sticker smile that was slowly peeling off. The saddle grew out of the plastic back, and was the same faded shade as the horse’s coat. The horse had been donated to the church by some unknown worshipper, and was already well loved by the time it landed in the Sunday school nursery.
I didn’t care. The plastic was cool under my fingers, and so smooth that my belly would twist with longing. There were so many textures that I could not bear to touch— velvet, satin, silk, suede, Styrofoam, leather, polyester—that the undemanding grain of the plastic was a gift. My hands could slip over it—there was no abrasive weft to catch on the ridges of my fingers, no eager fuzz jangling my nerves, no pitted surface to irritate me. The beautiful slide and slip of calm plastic was a quiet haven against my overstimulated skin.
For a time, that horse was the center of my world.
Every week, I waited for Sunday. As the weekend drew closer, my attention span shortened. I hated elementary school anyway. Sounds flowed past me as water, voices and wind and footsteps rushing and crashing together into a wave of unintelligible noise. I was unable to separate meaningful sounds from the insignificant racket of life. The whisper of pages turning and the scratch of pencils were riptides, the gust of the air conditioning like a gale-force wind. The other kids would talk and laugh, but their meaning was lost and I was left repeating the word what, as if I had a vocal tic. What’s happening? What did he say? What is everyone laughing at?
Every interaction I had with my peers was a minefield. Most of my energy was focused on controlling my stutter, which left little for enjoying myself. Every time I mispronounced a word, the other children would gleefully copy me. “She said wabbit,” they would giggle. “Like Bugs Bunny!” The adults thought this was cute. I did not. Play dates, also a cause for anxiety, were obligations to be endured.
On Sundays, though, every fiber of my being was drawn to the blue horse. I was safe when I was rocking. I did not have to strain to pull meaning from indistinct words. I did not need to have the teacher sit beside and guide me through every step of the exercise. There was no burning shame. I was not confused or scared on the horse. I had to rock, and feel good. That was all.
Every Sunday, I was up early. I carefully chose my prettiest dress, in red polyester with a black satin sash tied around the waist. I picked the cleanest pair of white socks I could find and turned them down around my ankles as my mother liked, even though the seams scratched me. It took some time, but I laced my black patent shoes without help.
I knew my mom and older sister would be slow, so I tried to speed the process up. I cleared all the breakfast dishes. I helped my younger brother dress, pulling his pants on, buttoning his shirt, slipping his shoes on his feet.
My parents came down the stairs, and I submitted to my mother’s grooming. On weekdays, I would fuss as she dragged a wire-tipped brush across my scalp, but there was no time to waste on Sundays. I stayed still as she plowed through my tangled hair, and then we were on our way.
The car ride, the walk through the institution-like hallways of the church, waiting until the pastor dismissed the children—all took an eternity. As slow as it moved, time did not stop, and I at last joined the flock of children shepherded into the nursery.
A blonde boy claimed my horse first. I pushed at him, baring my teeth like my dog did when he was angry. It was my horse, my ride.
“No hitting,” a nursery teacher said. She grabbed my arm and pulled me to the time-out corner. I spent a lot of time studying the white plaster walls with cracks running like veins down to the baseboard. I even memorized the shapes of the letters in the sign taped above, though they meant nothing to me.
“We use words, not fists. You have five minutes—when the long hand reaches the four—in the chair.” I stood with my nose pressed against the cool white wall for the five minutes of incarceration, vibrating with impatience. I felt like a soda that had been shaken until it filled with fizz and pressure. The boy climbed off after a few half-hearted rocks. Dumb, I thought scornfully. He doesn’t know anything. The long hand on the clock reached the four, and the teacher nodded at me.
Finally, after the long wait, it was time to ride.
I swung my leg across the back of the horse and shifted into the familiar position. My hands grabbed the plastic handles jutting from the horse’s neck. I moved my hips forward, until the crotch of my white cotton panties pressed against the pommel, and I began my ride.
I rode the horse, staring grimly at the white walls with Bible verses in black script. I rode, as the other kids played with blocks and trains and puzzles. I rode, until the nursery teachers glanced at me worriedly, and whispered behind their hands.
I rode with a holy fury, as my good shoes grew scuffed from the plastic flanks and my hair tangled and sweat dripped down my back under the polyester dress. I could see God, and the prophets waiting for me, looking the way they were drawn in my children’s Bible. The old men with long white beards and robes and staffs waited for me to join them in the terrible glory of paradise that the preacher talked about every Sunday. I rode that blue horse all the way to the Rapture, where everything in the world was good.