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When The Smoke Cleared This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     Smoke from her cigarette curled up around her head. A decrepit fan in the corner of the dusty lounge tossed the smoke to the cobwebbed ceiling, disappearing in the heat. She looked me over, her eyes masked with rose-tinted sunglasses, a stony look on her weather-beaten face. She led me out to the arena beneath the blistering summer sun and my first riding lesson began.

* * *

"Damn it, Laura! You're not riding!"

My anger boiled as I tried to recall how many times in the past four years I had heard this. Maria, my instructor, would lean against the arena posts, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. She was a hawk watching her prey, never missing a move.

"Put your heels down. Bring your hands up. Damn it! Put your heels down." The barrage of commands was thrown at me every Saturday morning.

After each disappointing lesson I would tour the barn. A stack of peeling jump standards, a scraggly tree with an abused plastic chair in the single square of shade, broken trunks, discarded reminders of past successes, a hidden radio belting out the Dixie Chicks, Maria's unorganized desk proudly displaying old photographs of horses and friends, the lingering scent of tobacco, and everywhere a blanket of dirt. This barn was like her, rough around the edges with a mysterious past. Maria was born in Holland, became a professional rider at 18, and somehow ended up in a rundown stable in Nowhere, Arizona.

And I hated her.

With all my soul, I hated her. I couldn't forget the weekly insults, the torture she subjected me to. I would leave the barn in tears, cursing her name, vowing never to return. Was it the half-hour of stirrup-less half seat, using only my thigh muscles to remain perfectly balanced as I stood in the saddle? The bleeding blisters I was forced to ignore, each jump I rode over peeling back another layer of skin? No, it was each complaint, each plea for mercy that went mercilessly ignored. I quickly learned to keep to myself, never admit any weakness, and remain in perfect control of all emotions.

She would laugh and refuse my pleas for water, my dry throat aching. "You don't need water," she'd hiss. I became resilient, my stubborn pride winning out. Every week I would return, intent on proving I was as tough as she wanted me to be. I'll show her, I'd think. She'll be sorry when I leave.

Every time Maria watched me ride, she'd gaze at me from behind her glasses, gray hair in a ponytail, dutifully smoking a cigarette. She was the master, the instructor, the judge. Self doubt would wrap its icy fingers around me until she barked out her verdict. This clumsy old woman in ragged jeans was devastatingly frightening.

She demanded that we, her students, look our best at all times: our horses perfectly groomed, our bridles perfectly scrubbed, the rest of our equipment of the highest quality and appearance. It seemed ridiculous, for here she was, an aging nobody trainer, in a rundown barn on the outskirts of a small town. She was teaching us the "old school" rules of riding, the rules she had lived and breathed in her prime. I never retorted, saving my complaints for the other students in whispered conversation. We all felt the same - that we were not good enough and we could never meet her standards.

These second-rate feelings remained, intensified by mediocre horse shows and troubled riding lessons. Ignoring her comments became habit as the years slipped by. I wanted to do well, but she, the only one who could name my accomplishments, remained solidly negative.

But hopeless people can surprise you.

It was like any other summer morning: blinding sun, gentle breeze, the gravel crunching under my boots as I walked to the barn. Maria was there as usual, cigarette in hand, rose-tinted glasses perched on her nose. But she was smiling. This was my last lesson, in four days I would be on my way to New York and a new life. Instead of the regular degrading lesson, she had arranged a party, complete with friends and food.

Everything I could have wanted was there: mounds of cookies and veggies, all my riding friends, and, of course, the horses. Three hours flew by without a single stony look, conversations bursting with Maria's dry humor. She took me aside, said she'd miss me, and embraced me in the only hug she had ever given me. I pulled out of the driveway in tears, not because I would be leaving these people, but because I had been so wrong about the only one who mattered.

The smoke had cleared and suddenly I saw in her not the cruel manipulator I had taken for granted, but a caring guide trying to impress her knowledge on each of us in the only way she knew how.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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