MY LITTLE PONY
A memoir by Tama Janowitz.
Janowitz fans, unite! You’ve loved her books and her Letterman appearances; in the 1980s you bought Amaretto because of her. And the fabulous Ms. Tama’s memoir, Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, is being published in August 2016 — yes, that soon! — and we are more excited than a Slave of New York who finds her very own rent-controlled classic six on the Upper East Side.
Tama has been a friend of Broad Street since our very first issue, in which we published her memoiristic essay “My Little Pony.” We offer it to you now as a taste of good things (and some painful revelations) to come.
MY LITTLE PONY
I had a pony named Misty Belle.
It was fly season. I bought her a fly-mask and I sewed tassels on the tips of the ears. I did not know that she could twirl her ears. She could twirl them in the same direction and in opposite directions. I played music from a little player when I rode and when she started twirling her ears in time to the music the tassels swirled around.
When I got down the trail I was riding a Vegas stripper from the 1950s and I could not stop staring at the tassels going in time to the music. Maybe the tassels weren’t such a good idea.
A short time later she twirled her ears so hard the tassels flew off. I wasn’t a very good sewer. I wasn’t a good rider, either, but then Misty Belle was not a very good horse. She was more an idea of a horse or a non-working, preliminary prototype from an early meeting.
I started riding in the winter. I went to Miami on a magazine assignment. The editor took me to the weekend house of the man who owned and published the magazine. The magazine’s first issue hadn’t yet come out. I was supposed to write a “story” about the man’s hotel, which had originally been a private mansion.
We drove about one hour to the man’s weekend house. When we got there his orangutan was playing on the swing set with the man’s daughter. The orangutan was four years old and very tender toward the child. I sat next to them. The ape began to roughhouse with me, climbing on my back and — although he looked like a small, dumpy old man — he was immensely powerful. His red hair was coarse and wiry. The child sighed and went off to play alone. She seemed to be used to the fact that people made more of a fuss over the orangutan than her.
When the handler took the orangutan away, the little girl wanted to give me a ride in her pink Barbie convertible. She was five years old. Her car was a real Mercedes-Benz, miniature and electric. It was a tight squeeze for me. Her bodyguard ran behind us. There were giraffes in a paddock — a large male with his five wives and a baby. We passed a zebra, llamas, macaws, cockatoos, and a gibbon. She drove me past the thirty-foot-tall enclosure cage of the chimpanzees. They threw sand at us, hard.
A pool had been dug out of the ancient coral bedrock and the coral had been used to build a small mountain along one side, where the flamingos were kept. Three times a day the pool drained, naturally, and was refilled by an underground spring. You could cross it by paddleboat.
Next to a tiled wading pool was a miniature town, with a Wendy house with gingerbread trim, a fire station large enough to have a fireman’s pole from the top floor, and a child-sized restaurant. In another paddock was the little girl’s beautiful palomino mare.
We circled the avocado orchard and peacocks. The estate was surrounded by a high fence. The bodyguard still trotted behind us, sweating in the heat as we arrived back for lunch: lobster tails prepared by the eighty-five-year-old cook, who had been Tito’s chef and then the cook for the American ambassador to Sweden.
At the end of the afternoon the host asked me, “Do you ride? Come back and we will ride horses on the beach!”
“Great!” I said. “Fantastic.”
In upstate New York it was gray and the snow was gray. I was living in my mother’s house. It was full of thirty years of her accumulated possessions. The house was dark. It was warm in Southern Florida. There were palm trees. I saw myself galloping
down the white sand, laughing. Then I remembered. I couldn’t ride.
I went for lessons at the equestrian center at the nearby university where my mother had been a professor for thirty years before I had to put her in the nursing home.
I took a private lesson. The instructor was an undergraduate named Emilia. She was pretty. She was one of those women who have no hips. I used to see them a lot in New York City, creatures with no hips and no rear ends. Emilia wore jodhpurs and a polo shirt and little gloves and riding boots and everything about her was clean and tidy and tiny and you knew she was going to graduate the Ivy League university and get a good life.
I didn’t know what that good life was going to be but I figured it would probably not include a kitchen where the food had expiration dates from three years earlier and when you opened the box moths flew out.
Emilia had only been riding a few years but she was one of those people who only needed to ride a little bit before they are experts.
When I was younger I would have hated her but now that I was older I could look at her and think, Wow. What a tiny, perfect creature.
It was good not to have to be consumed with envy and hatred. I remembered when I was a bit older than her age, I was in Time Out London for the publication of a book I wrote, and there was a photograph of me and my dog and the caption said, “Which one’s the dog?”
After that I could never feel good about myself or pretty because no matter what I saw in the mirror, I always knew the caption.
When you are older and you put on weight it is there on you and you think, How did this extra weight get on me? This weight doesn’t go away. You can eat less and you can run on a treadmill but since the weight doesn’t go away it is easier just to give up. It is like another entity joined forces with you and since the other entity obviously won’t leave, you just have to learn to live with it. In my case my entity was a twenty-pounder.
That was something else I got compassion about. Now when I saw people who were overweight I didn’t think, the way I had when I was young, That person should lose weight; I just thought, Oh, they got joined up by another entity, too.
I couldn’t believe I was middle-aged. I was out of shape, I was overweight, and I couldn’t ride.
If you are middle-aged, people keep a wide berth from you in case they catch it. Men wince and bolt — in case you might be trying to make a pass at them, I guess. I hadn’t gotten much in the way of admiring glances when I was young but when I was young I had always somehow thought someday I would grow up and become a beautiful swan. There was no book about an ugly duckling that emerged as an ugly duck.
Years before, I’d had a big tumor in my stomach and I also had a lot of fat there. I got an operation to kill the blood supply to the tumor in the hope that this would cause the tumor to shrivel up and die, and right after that, to speed things along, I went to a doctor and I had liposuction. That was a mistake. Afterward, I still had fat deposits; they were just moved to other regions.
The tumor didn’t shrivel up and go away either. It calcified. When they finally took it out, the doctor showed it to me. I had been living all those years with a tumor the size of a five-month-old fetus. When it was gone I still had a large stomach.
I wasn’t even all that interested in myself but I had to look at myself once in a while and then I had self-hatred.
I took a lesson at the university’s Equestrian Center. The riding arena was huge, big enough for indoor polo, unheated. There were many women in breeches, wearing high black boots. No one made eye contact but they all looked efficient and knowledgeable and superior.
Emilia said I would ride Jack, a nearly comatose horse they used to evaluate riding skills. It was freezing, although the arena was enclosed. I took out a pair of gloves. “You can’t wear those,” Emilia said. “They are not proper riding gloves.”
I figured I would get on this horse and I would ride this horse but when I got on the horse I did not think I could ever have ridden before because there was nothing holding or keeping me on the horse. My legs curled up and I tipped forward. I think my body was trying to protect its five-month-fetus-sized tumor, even though it was no longer there, the way an amputee might still get an itch in a missing leg, or a passenger in a car looks for a missing seatbelt.
The horses at the university were sad. They were kept tied in standing stalls all day facing the wall except for the once or twice — if that — they were taken out and used in the arena by the students. It wasn’t abuse in the sense of neglect — they had food, water, vet care — but a horse is an animal that wants to graze and run, and these horses could only stand and stare straight ahead.
I still wanted to go horseback riding on the beach in Florida, though. I needed to get better fast. I looked in the phone book for nearby stables and I made an appointment for a lesson.
The stable was far away but it wasn’t until I headed out I remembered I couldn’t drive. I had a license but each time I got in my mom’s car my head began to hurt and I couldn’t breathe and I started to cry. I had lived in the city my whole adult life and I never had a car and if I went to visit my mother she did not let me drive.
When I went for my first lesson at Painted Bar Stables I didn’t know my way around the area. I drove for about one hour until I arrived at what the MapQuest printout said was my destination.
I was at an Early American covered bridge. I was not trying to get to an old covered bridge in Newfield, New York.
I drove around for a while more. I could not just “pull over.” I might hit something. Someone might smash me from behind. I might be in an illegal spot. But at last I stopped and called the stables. “I am not able to find you,” I said. “I am in Newfield and I can’t drive.”
“Why are you in Newfield?” a woman named Erika said.
“My computer told me to go to the covered bridge in Newfield.”
“I am located in Burdett. That is not near Newfield. Newfield is about forty minutes away. There is another stable in Newfield. Were you going to the other stable?”
“No!” I said. I started to cry. “I’m sorry.” I said. “I can’t drive and now I will not be able to get to the lesson in time. I feel terrible.”
Erika could hear how upset I was. “Let’s reschedule,” she said. “You shouldn’t have a lesson if you are this upset.”
I didn’t understand why my computer hadsent me to this place. It was very pretty but had nothing to do with where I wanted to go.
About a week later I had my rescheduled lesson with Erika. This time I had the right directions. The road was like a rollercoaster for cars. My head was throbbing. I was completely terrified. After about one hour of pure terror I got to her stables.
Erika was young and redheaded and ebullient and friendly. I felt better being with her than I did with the tiny, perfect Emilia who wore a tidy collared shirt and belted jodphurs and paddock boots. Erika had on jeans and a sweatshirt.
It was cold and gray and she said I would ride Misty Belle inside.
Misty Belle was a small horse but I was scared of her.
Misty Belle walked around the perimeters of the tiny arena. There were things that looked like hooks and skewers sticking out from the wall every few feet. Then Erika told me to trot. As soon as the horse went a little faster I pitched forward and my legs curled up and I sat in a shriveled hump on top of the horse. “Don’t forget to breathe! “ said Erika. “Breathe.”
I was waking up at night. It was usually about three a.m. and I was too terrified to do anything much. I lay in bed, unable to sleep. I had a mother with dementia in a nursing home. My mother had been my best friend. I had no money, I had no friends, I was middle-aged, and I was living with my sixteen-year-old daughter in my mom’s house.
A sixteen-year-old is kind of like a horse. You could think it was sane but it might start to buck, bite, rear, or take down a fence.
I kept taking lessons even though I was scared. I was scared of everything. When I couldn’t go back to sleep, I drew a picture of Misty Belle.
I couldn’t draw any better than I could sew or ride, but I liked to think about Misty Belle when I was awake at three a.m.
She had four legs and a head and a tail but none of the parts really matched. She had a big head with one bright blue eye and one brown. A few dark brown markings did not cover her flaws but drew attention to the fact that her back end was lower than her front. She did not have enough markings to make an eyecatching pattern. Her back legs kind of crisscrossed underneath her when she walked and didn’t appear to give enough support to hold up that end. She reminded me of someone stout sheathed in figure-enhancing undergarments, someone’s elderly relative who would trap you in a corner at a Thanksgiving dinner and start off friendly but pretty soon point out to you that you should do something with your hair, your weight, and your clothes.
I had the feeling that if Misty Belle got undressed she would just collapse onto the floor in a pile of horse parts. She didn’t have a very nice personality either. But since I didn’t know anything about horses and I didn’t know how to ride, to me she was perfect.
Eventually I went out on Misty Belle alone for the first time. I was shaking. We walked out of the arena and down the short driveway onto the highway, then around the corner, past the Dandy Gas Station, down the path to the trails. I had gone on this path many times but never on my own.
Misty Belle was also trembling. I figured that was normal. The two of us went very slowly, surrounded by a force field of mutual terror. What was I doing on a dirt path between fields and an electric fence on a horse by myself?
I was a middle-aged woman who did not know how to ride. At any moment I could topple off and lie helplessly on the ground. Also this horse might decide to take off at top speed. She could — we could — become lost and not know how to get back. There were so many factors and she put one foot in front of the next so slowly and cautiously that I grew evenmore frightened. Not only was it possible that I might suddenly topple off her but it was also possible that she might suddenly topple over.
After an hour we got past the final fenced pasture field and as far as the woods.
Misty Belle decided to take the trail. A few feet down on the trail was a branch that had fallen across the path. It had been there for quite some time. It had been there each time I had ridden that trail. Misty Belle stopped. She peered down at the ground and used her snout to cautiously gauge the distance between the little log and the ground. Then, satisfied, she lifted her head and stepped over the branch with great care. The branch was approximately four or five inches high.
When I got back from my ride I could not believe it. I had gone out alone on a horse. We had found our way back.
Then it occurred to me: I was terrified and Misty Belle was terrified. Did we both need to be nervous?
I decided I would let her be nervous for us both.
After that it got easier. She had been over those trails thousands of times before I started riding her. Not only did she know her way on all the trails — they all led back, eventually, to the stables.
A few months later I purchased her. I still could not ride very well. I would have preferred a less plain animal — maybe a palomino with a flaxen mane and tail and a round, golden butt.
Misty Belle would have preferred to have a brave child galloping fearlessly on her over the fields.
Sometimes when I arrived at the stables she would be on the floor of her stall, passed out and snoring loudly. It took me ages to wake her, and then she still did not want to get up. Her gormless blue eye would open and glare, irritated at being disturbed.
But at night when I woke I thought of her soft, flabby nostrils, snuffling my pockets for treats. Then I breathed deeply, pretending we were on a beach with palm trees, cantering on white sand, and I was slightly better.
You can pre-order Tama’s memoirs today! Buy them through your favorite independent bookseller — or, if you must, online.