Ever since Madison watched King Kong on TV she’s been having fantasies about scaling the Empire State Building with him. That big ape carrying her into the clouds, clutching her like a twig in his leathery glove of a hand. When attacking planes get too close, he lashes out while holding her to his chest. He takes bullets in the face for her.
Her husband, Frank, protects her with the facts. When she tells him she wants to go to New York for her birthday, he grabs his laptop. He is an actuary. She waits for a statistic.
“You want to get pistol-whipped for your birthday? ” Frank asks. “There’s a 0.28 percent chance.”
Madison stretches out on the bed. “Decent odds.”
Frank goes into the adjoining bathroom to pluck his one long nose hair, which reappears each spring like a tulip. “I suppose you want a pony, too? ”
“Yes, a white one.” Madison shudders. She is afraid of horses. Ponies are worse. They are the kneecap-biting form of the horse. “And I want to go to the Empire State Building.”
Frank stands in the bathroom doorway, touching his stomach rolls. Reading from his phone, he tells her that thirty-seven people have flung themselves off that building. “Did you forget to flush the toilet? ” he asks.
Madison is still lying on the bed, thinking about King Kong and the moment he plummets.
“I’m pretty sure I flushed,” she says.
“It doesn’t look like my shade.”
“Maybe someone broke in and peed in our toilet? ”
“Odds are low.”
Frank returns to the bathroom. Madison thinks of King Kong lying there on the pavement. All furry and ruined.
Madision has never taken a vacation from her marketing job. She gets anxious at the thought of all those days strung out before her, nothing but hammocks and mai tais on the horizon. Lately, the thought of spending several days in a row talking to Frank has made her short of breath. They are good together in small doses but falter when it comes to anything beyond one-line conversations. At Madison’s request, her vacation is paid out annually, despite visits from the bubbly human resources intern, Ginny, who explains the benefits of taking time off.
“Isn’t there somewhere special you have always dreamed of going? Machu Picchu, for example? ”
“I’ll think about it,” Madison said last time, and went back to work while Ginny was still sitting there going on about Incan ruins.
When she finally requests time off for her trip to New York, her boss throws a surprise going-away party.
“But it’s only for four days,” Madison says. “And two of those are the weekend.”
“It’s wonderful.” Her boss grabs her by the hands as if she has just told her that her cancer (which she does not have) is now in remission.
At the party there is a cake in the shape of an apple. Ginny is beaming, as if the vacation were her doing. She points to the banner she’s standing under: “If You Can Make It in NYC, You Can Make It Anywhere.”
When they board the plane, Frank orders drinks.
“Not until after takeoff, sir.”
“Consider it a pre-order.”
The Air Canada flight attendant does not look at Frank when she speaks. She carries on slamming overhead compartments shut. Madison is certain the woman dreams of lifting her leg and pissing on everyone.
As the plane takes off, Madison sits with her elbows squeezed against her sides. Even with her own husband she can’t claim the armrest. She closes her eyes and tries to sleep but can’t. To ensure the plane stays in the air, she must stay awake. Years ago she took simuflight training to get over her fear of flying. The program was only a partial success.
An airplane couldn’t be happier in turbulence. The reason you think it’s not okay is because you don’t realize how happy the plane is.
When they descend into New York, she tries to imagine what it was like for those people whose plane landed on the Hudson. As she hears the landing gear come down from the fuselage, she wishes Captain Sully were piloting their plane, that steady, soothing voice telling everyone to brace for impact. A voice that could almost convince her it wasn’t going to hurt.
“Forty-seven percent of fatal accidents happen during final approach and landing,” Frank says.
“That’s helpful. Thank you.” Madison has never mentioned her simuflight training to Frank. She did not know him then and figures it would not change things now. They are well past the point of wanting to know new things about each other.
When they get to the luggage carousel, Frank’s orange bag torpedoes out first. He has wrapped it in plastic like a bologna sandwich. Madison watches as the bags are collected, but her black one never comes. While they file a complaint with the airline, Frank investigates the odds of losing black luggage.
“Don’t tell me,” Madison says.
“Okay, but just know they are high. Very high.”
As they get into a taxi, Madison hopes her luggage will show up. She wore a velour track suit and Crocs for the flight. In simuflight school, they said it was very important not to wear anything restrictive. If her bag doesn’t show up, she will have to do some shopping. She is not starting a new decade in Crocs.
When they get to the hotel, Madison calls her daughter, Lily. Frank sits on the bed. He hasn’t spoken to Lily since she started experimenting with lesbianism and he posted a sign on the front door on Thanksgiving that read “Cancelled Until Further Notice.”
Madison thought he was outside hanging her wreath made of shellacked persimmons, which she likes to put up during the holidays. She figured a bird had hit the window, but it was Lily throwing her pumpkin pie at the door.
“People were meant to procreate,” Frank said to his wife. “If everyone were gay, we’d die off. Is that what you want? ”
Madison’s mother used to tell her, “Honey, when it comes to men, there’s always something.”
Although Frank’s proposal had been unromantic—“There’s a fifty-fifty chance you will say no. If you say yes, we have a 40 percent chance of divorcing in less than thirty years”—they had been mostly compatible.
On Thanksgiving, Madison explained to Frank that Lily wasn’t actually gay, she was just experimenting.
“Hair colour is an experiment. It grows out,” Frank said. “Two women necking on my front lawn can be videoed and put up on the Internet for life.”
It wasn’t just what he said that bothered her. It was the way he clawed at his actuary’s tie and loosened it to let the words out. Later that night, while Madison and Frank sat at opposite ends of the table eating cold turkey and stuffing, Lily drove by, honking. She had gathered a small group of friends, and they held a minipride parade in front of the house. There were men in ass-less chaps and cowboy hats. Rainbows painted on butt cheeks. Two women in wedding dresses threw confetti. The parade circled twice before leaving.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Frank,” they shouted.
Madison stood there mentally cataloguing all the reasons Lily couldn’t be a real lesbian. She did not wear man jeans with a lumberjacket. All her clothes were tailored. She didn’t work for a grassroots organization that churned out badly designed promotional material telling people (in mismatched fonts) to save the estuaries.
“This lesbianism can’t be permanent,” Madison said. “I have evidence.”
The confetti from the pride parade started to work its way onto their lawn and up their driveway.
“There’s your evidence,” Frank said.
Madison looks out their hotel window. Below, people pack the sidewalks of Times Square. When Lily finally picks up the phone, she says, “Speak.”
“Just wanted to let you know we arrived safely,” Madison says.
“It’s too bad half a plane can’t crash. You arrive safely. Frank? Not so much.”
“I wish you would let me fix things.”
“Good luck with that. Okay, bye, Mom. I do love you. Happy birthday.”
When Lily hangs up, Madison keeps talking. “That’s so great, dear. I’m glad it’s all working out. Send my best to Patty.”
She goes into the bathroom, sits in front of the vanity, and looks at the damage forty years can do: crow’s feet, laugh lines (ha!), loose skin around her neck. She should have it removed and made into a handbag. Save a lizard.
Frank comes in and rubs her shoulders.
“I think Lily is keeping something from me,” Madison says.
“Might be a good thing? ” He continues rubbing her shoulders. “New York is waiting.”
In the morning, a concierge knocks on the door and returns Madison’s luggage.
When she opens it, she realizes it’s not her bag. There’s no name on the tag, just a business address for a cupcake bakery in Toledo. She can’t help but look through it; she’s careful at first, then she starts rifling. These are the clothes of the woman she wishes she were. Elegant. Effortless. A take-chargey kind of woman.
She removes her track suit and looks through the bag more carefully. Inside, there’s a list of things that go together. “Day 1: Red bauble necklace with nude peep-toe shoes and silk wrap dress.” She follows the instructions and puts on this outfit, minus the woman’s Spanx. The dress fits as if it were custom-made. Madison feels fabulous, lighter. When she comes out of the bathroom, she takes her itinerary out of her bag. She used to feel proud of her organizational skills until Ginny told her that perfectionists are just people addicted to process. She puts the itinerary in the garbage.
“Let’s see where the day takes us,” she says.
When they get to Central Park, Frank complains that he needs a hip replacement, so they hire a horse and carriage to drive them around. Madison is nervous but figures the animal is too far away from them to do any real damage. They are on their way to Strawberry Fields when PETA ambushes them.
“Horses don’t belong in cities. Shame on you!”
One protestor is dressed as a unicorn. Some hold blow-up photos of mangled horses killed in traffic accidents. Others hold photos of the animals’ filthy warehouse living conditions.
“Those horses own up-and-coming real estate,” Frank says to the protesters. “Some people can’t say as much.”
Madison jumps out of the carriage, ashamed.
“I saw it on Sex and the City,” she says. “I thought it would be nice.”
She explains Carrie and the Russian to the unicorn while making a generous donation. The unicorn thanks Madison, says she understands and, shaking a glittery hoof in her face, tells her not to do it again. Madison is prepared to pay the driver and just walk the rest of the way. But when she turns around, she sees Frank and the horse-drawn carriage trot off to Strawberry Fields without her.
“I won’t be bullied by left-wingers,” Frank says.
Madison considers going back to the hotel but can’t remember the name. She runs after them but is quickly hobbled by Cupcake Lady’s shoes. She flags down a rickshaw and jumps in.
“Follow that carriage!”
The rickshaw driver sets down the shafts and looks at her. “Are you kidding me? ”
“Sorry. Go as quickly as you are able. I need to pistol-whip my husband.”
“Do you have a pistol? ”
She shakes her head. The rickshaw driver slowly picks up the shafts again and saunters after the carriage. Madison watches the horse’s butt swish from side to side in the distance.
Lily wanted a horse for her fifth birthday, but her mother gave her riding lessons at the Pony Corral instead. Terrified, Madison watched from the lounge area as the pony trotted by and Lily shouted, “Again, again!”
She remembers the pony smiling. Do ponies smile? She also remembers when Lily fell off, how she was too afraid to go out and help her. She offered to pay another mother to do it for her.
“What’s wrong with you? ” the woman asked.
“Ponies freak me out.”
“When my Jenny fell into a ravine on Mount Rainier, I instantly got over my fear of heights and tight spaces. We climb almost every weekend now.”
“So you won’t do it? ” Madison asked.
The woman took her money and went out into the arena to pat Lily on the shoulder and dust her off. When she came back inside, she said, “Your daughter is just fine. They’re made of rubber at that age. You, on the other hand, need some work.”
When Madison catches up with the carriage, Frank is already at Strawberry Fields paying tribute to John Lennon. The driver is waiting for him. Madison looks at the white horse, whose name is Steve. He is calm with big, wet eyes. He wears blinkers so he can’t see much, and he has nice fluffy feet like those fancy chickens. He doesn’t look miserable. He doesn’t look like he needs a unicorn to advocate for his retirement.
“Does he really live in a warehouse? ” she asks the driver.
“How does he relax and stretch out? ”
“He does yoga.”
When Frank returns, he grabs Madison’s hand. “I’m sorry. But this horse isn’t suffering. I think you can see that.”
“A lot of things don’t look like they are suffering.” Madison slowly reaches out and pets the horse’s neck, making its skin quiver. She gets in and they spend the rest of the day exploring New York in silence.
When they get back to the hotel, Madison calls Lily and gets her answering machine.
“You’ve reached the newlyweds. Leave a message.”
She wants to hang up, wants to track down and assassinate the inventor of caller ID. “Well, congratulations. I had no idea. I’m so happy for you.” Be casual. People elope all the time. “New York is wonderful. Frank bought me a brooch from a vintage jewellery shop.” She touches her “Vegans Make Better Lovers” PETA badge. “We’re having the best time. Anyway, congratulations. I’m going shopping tomorrow. I’m going to bring you home the most fabulous wedding present.”
By the time Madison hangs up, she knows Lily didn’t elope; she simply didn’t invite her.
On the eve of her fortieth birthday, Madison—dressed in another woman’s clothes—and Frank go up to the viewing deck of the Empire State Building. A saxophonist is in the corner, playing with his eyes closed. Frank asks him to play “Happy Birthday.”
“Sorry, it’s copyrighted.”
Frank hands him $100 and the song is suddenly public domain.
After Madison and Frank walk around the perimeter, she goes into the gift shop to buy an “I ♥ NY” key chain. From inside, she watches the people on the deck. A hand-holding lesbian couple are on a collision course with Frank, who, instead of moving out of their way, puffs up like a blowfish—actually inflates his cheeks—and braces himself. The women don’t blink. They unlock hands and walk around him. Then their hands effortlessly find each other again. Madison goes back out to the deck and puts the key chain in the saxophone player’s hat.
At midnight, they kiss like old married people kiss—as if they’ve forgotten where their lips are. If they manage to connect, it is by mere chance.
Before they leave, Madison looks over the edge of the building, hopeful for a moment that Kong is coming.
When they get back to their hotel, Frank pays the cab driver and gets out. He had spent most of the ride reading from his phone, telling Madison about all the things a forty-year-old woman has to look forward to: increased vaginal dryness, bladder problems, mood swings. He is almost at the hotel doors—still talking about estrogen levels—when he realizes Madison is still in the cab.
“Do you know where those carriage horses live? ” she asks the driver.
The driver nods. “More or less.”
“Take me there.”
As the taxi pulls away, Madison enjoys watching Frank follow on foot until she is out of sight. The ride lasts about twenty minutes before the driver stops in a grungy area that smells like rotten eggs and dog shit.
Madison gets out and looks up at a dilapidated warehouse. In a dirty third-storey window she sees the face of a white horse. She tries the door. It’s locked, so she goes to the back of the building and crawls through a broken window. Inside, there’s a freight elevator, but she worries it will make too much noise. She takes the broken stairs instead. As she goes up, she looks through the open doors and cracked windows. The first two levels are abandoned. She has to admit she sees loft conversion written all over the exposed brick.
When she gets to the third floor, the door squeaks open and the horses turn to look at her. They are surprised but not alarmed. When one goes back to eating, they all do. She imagines they went through a desensitization program much like simuflight school. They likely had balloons popped in their faces, babies pulling their lips, little dogs in coats nipping at their ankles.
Madison walks through the dimly lit barn. It is filthy, and the horses stand in piles of shit. Their butts are enormous. She looks for Steve and thinks she sees him. She will have to walk past his butt and those tree-trunk legs to untie him. At the park, she never noticed just how thick his ankles were.
“What are you doing? ”
Madison turns around to find a man holding a pitchfork.
She puts her hands in the air and says, “I want a pony.”
He looks her up and down then lowers his pitchfork. “For what? ”
“It’s my birthday. Then I’m going to re-gift him as a wedding present.”
“You can’t just come in here in your high heels and pick a horse.”
“These shoes aren’t really mine. They belong to Cupcake Lady from Toledo. I normally wear flats. Crocs, in fact.”
“Right.” The man twirls the pitchfork and looks as if he is contemplating raising it again. “You the lady who followed the carriage yesterday? ”
She recognizes the driver. “Yes, that was me.”
“You should go save a whale or something.”
“I don’t want Steve to live like this. It doesn’t seem right. I want to show him what a pasture looks like, open spaces. My daughter knows how to look after horses. She had training at the Pony Corral.”
He keeps looking at her, twirling the pitchfork as she slowly takes off her wedding and engagement rings. They are each one-carat diamonds and look beautiful in any light, even a damp warehouse’s. Then she empties and hands over Cupcake Lady’s handbag.
“The bag is worth almost as much as the ring,” she says.
“No kidding.” He admires the bag.
“Sell it on eBay. Describe the leather as coffee, not brown.”
“You can’t have Steve. He’s my friend.”
He unties a different shit-stained horse and backs it out of its stall. Big patches of its head are yellow, like faded newspaper.
“This is Sarge. He’s retired, and by retired I mean he goes to slaughter next week.”
“People eat horses? ”
“Europeans and Japanese do. Apparently, it tastes like a cross between chicken and cotton candy.”
Sarge’s feet are the size of anvils. She worries he will crush her. The floorboards groan under his weight, but he looks too sleepy and ready to retire to do anything malicious. Madison decides no one is going to eat Sarge.
The man hands Madison her horse’s rope. She pulls, but Sarge won’t budge. The man makes a clucking sound and the horse moves forward.
“Does he come with anything? A leash? A small bag of food? ”
“Sold as is. How far do you plan on taking him? ”
When the freight elevator comes up, she goes inside, but again Sarge will not follow.
“He doesn’t want to leave his friends. They’re herd animals. This is all he’s ever known.”
“If he doesn’t leave, he’ll die.”
“True,” the man says. He walks beside the horse and makes the clucking sound again. Sarge moves forward.
“Can you teach me how to make that sound? ”
They stand and cluck. When Madison thinks she has it down, she asks, “What do you think of gay people? ”
“I like ’em just fine. Long as they keep their shit to themselves.” The man still has her purse thrown over his shoulder and is wearing her rings halfway on his pinky.
Outside, a police siren whines. Somewhere, other people argue. When Madison thinks she has the cluck down, she gets in the elevator.
“What will I do once I get outside? ” she asks.
“I suppose you should have thought about that.”
Before the doors close, the man offers to call a friend who could meet them with his trailer at a gas station. Madison will have to walk with Sarge, her $6,000 horse, for almost twenty blocks. She agrees but has no idea if they will make it or if the friend will really be there.
“What about paperwork for the border? ” she asks.
“Again, you should have thought about that.”
The doors close. Madison formally introduces herself to Sarge. “I don’t normally do this kind of thing.”
When they get to the bottom floor, the elevator doors open halfway then jam. Sarge gets antsy. Madison prays he will behave. She does not know how to negotiate with a horse.
The doors shut and the elevator goes up. When the doors open partway, they are between floors. The other horses move somewhere above them. Sarge paws the floor and seems anxious to rejoin them. Madison would kill for a gin and tonic. She pounds the red emergency button, which does nothing but beep and make the horse more nervous.
The elevator doors close again, and they go back down. Madison listens to the doors trying to work; they click and grind as if they sense her indecision.
She pulls out her phone and makes a call.
“The Cupcakery. Make every day your sweetest.”
“Am I speaking with the shop owner? ”
“Owner. Operator. Baker. Chief decorator. Two-time state champion runner-up for my red velvet cupcakes.”
“How did you feel about coming in second? ”
“Kind of pissed. They said there was too much vanilla in my frosting and the amount of sprinkles I used was garish.”
The elevator starts going down. With the doors slightly open, Madison can see the vacant floors as they pass. Hollowed-out spaces where people used to have lives before the horses moved in. “Will you try again? ”
“The whole thing is rigged, but I’m not going to let some sprinkles keep me down.”
Sarge flares his nostrils and takes short breaths. The elevator stops. The doors open wide enough for Madison to see they are on the ground floor. She pries the doors open.
“Would you like to place an order? ” Cupcake Lady asks.
Madison looks at a stack of crates and contemplates how she will get on the horse.
“We’ve got mocha minicakes on special.”
Madison considers telling her she will stop by when she returns her luggage. That they can share a mocha minicake then. But she knows she will never be in Toledo.
“Good luck at the Bake-Off. This is your year. I can feel it.”
She hangs up. Sarge nuzzles against her shoulder. He is actually cute in a worn-out way.
She tries to position him close to the crates. She is mostly on top of him when she lifts her leg over, tearing her skirt and spooking the horse. He trots forward down the lane, with Madison hanging off the side of his neck. When they get to the first traffic light, Sarge stops on the red, and she both swings and wills herself onto the horse.
“Nice moves,” someone yells from a window above.
Once Madison rights herself, the light turns green and the horse clip-clops forward.
“You’re a gift for my daughter. She’s going to love you.”
Sarge’s ears rotate like satellite dishes as Madison talks to him. They pass parks and tall buildings. The horse seems to have a route in mind. Madison admires his sense of duty. She tries to relax and loosen her grip. Whenever she is about to slide off, he stops and waits for her to adjust. She tries not to think about odds and whether they are in her favour. When she clucks, the horse moves forward.
This appeared in the May 2015 issue.