illustrations by ana carolina maciel
Rachel’s family had a huge farm with something like 13 acres. She reminded me about all the acres when she tied me to a tree so far away from her parents’ stone mansion that I could no longer see it over all the rolling hills in the distance.
She had looped the rope around me quickly, while my back was turned, and had already made a tight knot by the time I realized what was happening.
“Untie me or I’ll scream,” I said.
“No one will hear you,” She said.
“Rachel,” I said, my voice catching, my heart pounding.
“Say please,” Rachel said, grinning, running her fingers through my hair and then her fingertips were touching my lips.
I gasped. I took a couple of deep breaths. Something dangerous glinted in Rachel’s eyes. I tried moving my arms and found I really couldn’t.
“Please,” I said.
When Rachel slipped off the rope that was digging so deeply into my arms just above the elbows, I took off sprinting in the direction of her house. Rachel caught me easily, atop her beautiful brown horse.
I was sixteen, she was seventeen, it was the summer before my junior year in high school, and Rachel’s senior year.
“I was kidding, Julie,” Rachel said. “Calm down.” Then, she motioned to the horse, whose name was Dream, said “get on.” If you could hear the cicadas screaming, smell the dry grass waving, feel the sun pounding from a blue sky, you probably would have listened too.
I climbed up onto Dream, feeling a bubble of delight expand in my chest. The bubble was kept afloat on a pool of shame.
“I don’t know why I want to tie you up so badly,” Rachel said as she steered us back towards her house. She turned and smiled at me.
“Maybe I’ll put Dream’s harness on you next.”
I felt a blooming between my legs, and the awareness of an infinite circle.
As an adult, my girlfriend explained a peculiar paradox: what’s unnamed is inherently queer, and naming normalizes. I didn’t have language in high school for Rachel’s tan calves, the blonde hair thriving on her legs. Nor could I name Brittany’s ocean-blue eyes, her corner kicks that hung lazily in the sky before dropping down to earth, where Rachel roundhouse kicked them to the back of the net.
“Nice shot,” I called lamely from my position at left defense. It was the state championship game, and we were winning.
When a girl on the other team, their striker, came catapulting in my direction I sprinted with all my might, I intervened, my feet knew a language with no words, could sense the heat of Brittany’s right foot, way at the other end of the field. I reared back and sent Brittany the ball, it landed right on her instep, it was spring, and everything was perfect. When the sunset threw a yellow-pink light over everything, the referee blew her whistle that the game was over, we won 2-0, we were state champions.
When Brittany tackled me I could feel her stomach against my back, I could smell mud and grass and sweat. I didn’t realize I was smiling until I stood up. The next morning the local newspaper published a shot of that wild grin, Brittany helping me off the ground with her large, soft hand, Rachel running toward us in the background. We were the best AAA girls’ soccer team in the year 2008 in the state of Pennsylvania, we had finally transcended the barriers between our bodies, we were champions.
After graduate school I worked briefly at a production company. One day during a writers’ meeting we were brainstorming a name for a new girl character for a cartoon series and someone suggested Champ.
“That’s not a girl’s name,” said Noah the executive director, his face red and sweaty. I was silent then, the air rushing down around me. My fingers shook as I considered speaking, and what it would mean to speak, but I didn’t say anything.
Brittany’s family owned property beside a lake and a week after Brittany and Rachel graduated from high school, the three of us got in the car and drove north with Brittany’s boyfriend Matt, who is her husband now. This was before I had feminism, before I had given any thought to ethics, and whether something aesthetically beautiful is inherently ethical. I had to go to high school for one more year, without Brittany and Rachel, this I had considered. Thinking about this made me so lonely I could feel my chest creak.
Here’s a riddle: take four high schoolers in a car, three are eighteen and one is seventeen, three are girls and one is a boy, all of them are in love and their love points in every direction. How do you name this love? What do you call it?
When I woke up that first morning at Brittany’s lake house Rachel had cinched my wrists around the headboard and was encircling her soccer sock around my neck.
My pulse quickened against the sock, I took in a quick breath, and met Rachel’s eyes.
“I could kill you, you know,” Rachel said, and the morning light was pouring in behind her from the window, brightening her curls.
I cleared my throat, regretting only that I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth. Rachel tightened the sock around my neck slightly. I wondered if it was the one, she’d worn during the championship game.
“You don’t want to though, right?” I said.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, and she released the sock.
Then, Rachel then lied on top of me, pressing her pelvis against my pelvis, her stomach against my stomach, her shins on my shins. We breathed together watching the dust dance. I didn’t know any words for this except happiness.
When Rachel untied me we brushed our teeth and went in the kitchen where Matt was making eggs. Brittany was sitting at the kitchen table, writing in my yearbook. I think about that often now, when she leaves all of my texts and Instagram follow requests unanswered, how much time she spent on that yearbook entry, how tiny and meticulously she wrote out her feelings for me.
“Did you know Ella and Maria are dating?” Brittany said, that morning at breakfast. These were two girls on our team who had graduated and were now in college. “Isn’t that disgusting?” Brittany said.
I poured myself orange juice and looked out the window at the sun singing to me from the surface of the lake.
“Really weird and gross,” Rachel said, and I didn’t say anything. Silence is one form of agreement.
I always thought I was bad at science but after college I loved learning about physics, and I specifically found the multi-verse theory of enormous, often religious comfort. There was probably a universe where Rachel and I kissed on her trampoline. Probably, if I spent enough time agonizing over these sentences, I could even bend time, hold it in my hands, and know her.
This herstory winds and circulates, the retrospective crush keeps growing larger and requiring more light.
“I don’t know Rachel,” Julie says, and I promised her to tell her stories.
Consider: the horses on Rachel’s family farm. If you believe in the multi-verse theory then everything that has happening has already happened, will always be happening. So imagine me, tied to that tree. Imagine Rachel, chasing me on her horse. The horse’s name is Dream. It always will be.
During college I ran into Rachel at a bar in Manayunk. Sometimes I’ve fantasized that we decided to go swimming, that I watched her strip and she watched me strip and then we both dove into the freezing Schuylkill River, that rust, and rocks writhed below the river, threatening to slice our feet. In this fantasy, Rachel drowns while I climb out of the river and watch her die. I choose myself to save instead.
What happened instead is much more complex. In real life Rachel held me in her arms and said, “I dreamed I ran into you. I dreamed I saw you out, just like this.”
The light pounded from above in an unreal way, it was one of the first times I wondered if I could change reality just by wishing for something really hard.
In real life I met mirrors in college, and they were named lesbian and I took their names and made them my sisters. Loving other girls could be named and the naming, paradoxically, stole some of the light. Light finds a sneaky way to hide inside a name.
Remember me, tied to the tree with the ropes around my wrist? It was like soaring for me, to lose all agency to a girl I loved, and I think Rachel felt it too.
I loved her so I feel bad telling this terrible story about her, but isn’t that what writers do? Aren’t we always betraying the people we love?