The All of It

Emily Strasser

When asked, when did you know? Rachel searched her memory for the usual signs. The teacher crushes, the unspeakable love for a best friend, the smell of grass and sweet girl sweat in the locker room after soccer practice, memories lifted from more confident lesbians with more certain origin stories. But there was nothing like that, no moment when she knew for sure the words to describe her difference until Devon, at twenty-nine, and that late-blooming realization—so I’m this, too. 

When they asked, the memory that rose, unbidden and inexplicable, was of watching a grey bird, shadow-like, wings nearly translucent in the sun, carrying a blinding-white slice of sandwich bread up into the blue sky. It had been lunchtime at Camp Twin Lakes, the summer she was ten. Rachel had come out of the showers just in time to see the bird land on the rim of her plate, choosing it among all the others laid out on the picnic table, and in one motion, jerk his head, catch the soft crust in his beak, and lift straight into the air in a burst of wings. 

Stepping out behind Rachel, nearly bumping into her, one of the other girls laughed. "Oh my god! Look!" She pointed at the bird for the others who came out after her, their hair still wet from the showers. There were little gasps and laughter as they all clustered around and watched the bread rise like a lost balloon. 

Rachel, though, was so quiet that they all fell silent, hushing each other. They stared up into the sky, shading their eyes as the bird passed in front of a cloud, the bread disappearing for a moment, then emerging again against the blue, so square and white, this strange made thing above the woods and lake, their little cabins, their wet braided hair. 

Rachel felt small and held in the green bowl of the clearing beneath the boundless bright sky. She felt a tug in her middle, some big, sweet sadness, and knew she would always feel this way now, no going back, part wild thing, part person.

The bird sank toward the trees, then dipped into the forest. The girls shook themselves, blinked into motion again as Miriam came out with the last of the sandwiches, graceful in her high-waisted jean shorts, her red hair braided in a crown.  

Now they spoke over each other to report the strange event—"Guess what! A bird took Rachel’s bread! It stole it right off her sandwich, haha!"

"Well," said Miriam, giving Rachel a teasing look. "See what happens with no mayo." She set the other plates on the table. Rachel was confused. "Nothing to hold the bread on," Miriam explained. 

The girls were impressed by this logic, and for a few minutes as they ate their sandwiches, they wondered how the bird knew that Rachel always refused mayo, that she always sat at that spot, third from the end, facing the forest. "It’s not like that bird tested every single sandwich." The fact of Rachel’s dislike of mayo had been a source of gentle teasing. It was as much about her preference as about her adamant refusal to even try it, an unselfconscious independence some of them vaguely envied, though they could not have said so. They thrust carrot sticks and potato chips dipped in mayo into her face, offered her Oreos spread with it. The bird’s targeting of her sandwich excited them, vindicating their attention to this minor difference.

"Maybe it’s watching us. Maybe it’s a ghost." The girls shivered a little and laughed, swinging their legs under the table, then began to discuss the afternoon activities. Whether to do crafts or archery. Whether the new kayak instructor was cute or creepy. 

Rachel stayed quiet, her eyes unfocused on the edge of the woods. The bird, she thought now, must be tearing the bread to shreds, beaking them down his throat. Part of her was just now dissolving into his pink stomach to be transmuted into the energy that powered his wings, to be digested and deposited on the forest floor to fertilize some seedling. So she had been chosen. This dark and secret part of her, this vast, empty, wild beating space.

Now, sitting beside Emma on the porch swing in the blue dusk, letting her bare foot brush Emma’s as they rocked, body humming with that almost unbearable burn of big new love, Rachel wanted to tell her about the grey bird and her sandwich. She wanted to say, I’ve never told anyone this before, so that Emma would lean closer, put a hand on her warm knee, maybe. But she caught the words in her mouth, put them back inside. If she said it, she could never get it back. So she told some other story, about Laura’s downy neck in 10th grade math class. She watched the cup of Emma’s ear lit pink like a shell, and her dark hair tucked loosely there, falling forward along her cheekbone and thought—I am filling it now, but it will never be filled, the filling and the emptying the same, the all of it, the all of me.