Two best friends. A shared birthday. Six years...
ERIC: There was the day we were born. There was the minute Morgan and I decided we were best friends for life. The years where we stuck by each other’s sideas Morgan’s mom died, as he moved across town, as I joined the football team, as my parents started fighting. But sometimes I worry that Morgan and I won’t be best friends forever. That there’ll be a day, a minute, a second, where it all falls apart and there’s no turning back the clock.
MORGAN: I know that every birthday should feel like a new beginning, but I’m trapped in this mixed-up body, in this wrong life, in Nowheresville, Tennessee, on repeat. With a dad who cares about his football team more than me, a mom I miss more than anything, and a best friend who can never know my biggest secret. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to become the person I am inside. To become her. To tell the world. To tell Eric. But when?
Six years of birthdays reveal Eric and Morgan’s destiny as they come together, drift apart, fall in love, and discover who they’re meant to beand if they’re meant to be together. From the award-winning author of If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo, comes a heart-wrenching and universal story of identity, first love, and fate.
“Beautifully written, Birthday is an altogether singular contribution to the gradually growing body of transgender literature and, indeed, to mainstream literature, as well.” ALA Booklist, starred review
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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I'm holding my breath, hovering between wavering sunlight and deep, dark blue, arms twirling while my feet kick up and down, slow as tides. I'm not ready to go back up; too much waits for me above the surface. But I know I can't just float forever. Life always forces you to move, one way or the other, whether you're bursting into sunlight or swimming down.
The pressure in my chest is soon too much to bear. I hold my arms close and wriggle my whole body, shooting out of the water like a mermaid.
"A minute and a half!" Eric hollers, splashing me in his excitement. I can barely make out his grin as I wipe water from my eyes.
"Told you!" I say. I can see him clearly now. He's small, a few inches shorter than me, with smart, quick green eyes, shoulder-length blond hair, and a narrow, angled face that swoops down to a point at his chin. "You still wanna take a turn, or do you just give up?"
"Never!" Eric says. He gulps in as much air as he can, holds his nose, and disappears under the water.
I focus on counting out the seconds, light-headed even though I've finally caught my breath. My heart is hammering. I'm gonna tell him when he comes back up. Ten seconds. I'm gonna tell him I'm supposed to be a girl, that I can't stand being a boy anymore, that I feel like I'm dying a little bit more every day. Twenty seconds.
A girl a few years older than me in a red bikini strides by the pool, heading for some distant part of the water park. I catch myself staring at her body, at the shape of it, at how it moves. I realize I've pressed my forearms over my chest and force them back down. There's nothing to cover.
Thirty seconds. Eric's parents and my dad wave from their table near the pool and I wave back. I'm gonna tell Eric, and if he takes it well, I'll tell Dad. It's not that I want to. I have nightmares about making things weird with Eric or adding more stress to Dad's life after everything that's happened, but more and more it feels like I'm gonna explode. I've tried holding it in. Every day I feel a little more numb, a little more monstrous, more afraid I'll look in the mirror and find myself twisting into a tall, hairy man who never gets to turn back.
I've been thinking things that scare me — about not wanting to be alive anymore — and I need help. Maybe that help is my best friend, sitting calmly and letting me talk and telling me the way I feel is actually normal, that he's going through it too, that it's part of growing up and we'll pass through it together. Maybe that's my dad finding someone I can talk to, a therapist or something. I don't know, but whatever it is has to happen soon — I'm thirteen, and the bone-twisting terrors of puberty feel close.
Forty seconds. How do you tell someone a secret like this? How do you put it into words?
Fifty seconds, and Eric splashes back into view, arms flailing.
"How'd I do?" he rasps.
"Terrible," I say. He splashes in my general direction — he's practically blind without glasses — and I laugh.
"How long was I under?"
"Not even a full minute," I say, splashing him back.
"Whatever," he says, rolling his eyes. "We don't all have your natural talent."
"I run every morning," I say in a singsong voice. I'd hoped exercising would stop being a part of my life once I quit youth league football, but when your dad's a coach and a P.E. teacher, it turns out you're stuck. "Work as hard as me and you'll be as good as me, scrub." I float on my back, closing my eyes as the sun warms my face and stomach. I take a deep breath. It's easier to imagine saying something when I can't see him. "Hey, Eric?"
"If I tell you something," I say, "will you promise to keep it a secret?"
"Dude," Eric says, sounding almost hurt, "like you even need to ask."
"Good," I say. I open my mouth to tell him. My heart hammers. I glance to the side and find my best friend, aperson I've known since the day I was born, watching me with open, curious eyes. Staring into them for too long makes my stomach tight in a way I don't like, so I swallow and look back up at the sky.
If my life were a movie, the characters would always know what to say and the boring, disgusting, embarrassing parts would be cut away in the blink of an eye. Indiana Jones would never need to have this conversation, and Godzilla didn't have a gender — it just stomped on cars and blew up buildings with nuclear fire. What a charmed life.
"So?" Eric says. He falls back into the water and rises, blinking his eyes dry. Then he flips his hair out of his face and smooths it back. My stomach dips. I sink until I'm submerged up to my nose.
"So what is it?"
I blow a stream of bubbles and look away. He wades over and dips his face, smiling and handsome (shut up shut up shut up shut up) into my field of vision. When he sees my face, his smile shifts the tiniest bit, showing confusion and frustration.
"I feel like I'm supposed to be a girl." I say it under the water, the sound coming up garbled. Did Eric make it out?
He rolls his eyes. "Fine, don't tell me, weirdo."
He didn't hear. I feel sick.
Eric swims away, clambers over the edge of the pool, and stands, looking down at me as I follow slowly.
Our parents call us over and I imagine saying it now: I'm really a girl. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds weird.
We run to meet our parents, our wet footprints quickly drying on the hot pavement. Carson, Eric's dad, is wearing a "Big Kahuna" T-shirt and long, black swim trunks. He's imposing, over six feet tall, with Eric's same blond hair cut short and sharp green eyes that always seem angry. He used to like me, back when I played football. I even thought of him like an uncle. But ever since I quit, he barely says anything to me, even when I sleep over at their house. I've always thought Eric's mom, Jenny, looked classic, like a starlet from a black-and-white movie. She makes me feel welcome at Eric's house, making sure I have a home-cooked meal whenever I'm over there.
My dad, all rangy limbs and a deep farmer's tan from running around on the football field, gives me a tired smile and slouches back in his chair. Our parents have known one another for as long as Eric and I have been alive. They met at the hospital when we were born, trapped during a freak blizzard — the only September blizzard in Tennessee's history, apparently. During those three autumn days, Eric and I came into the world, and our parents — our families — became friends for life.
Since then, we've done everything together. A shared birthday eventually became a shared everything. For a long time our families were closer with each other than we were with our own uncles, aunts, and cousins.
Then Mom died and, not too much later, I quit the football team.
At least we still do our birthday together.
"You boys ready for lunch?" Jenny asks, lifting her oval sunglasses with a smile.
I flinch at her casual use of the word "boys" but try to hide it.
It wasn't always like this; it used to be a dull pain, the ache of a bruise, a faint confusion when school activities split us into boys and girls — but in the last year it's grown unbearable. I might have said something sooner, vaguely remember wanting to say something sooner, but I actually used to like football, and I knew instinctively that two kinds of kids weren't allowed to play: girls and sissies. I didn't want to give up something I liked, and I didn't want to be made fun of. Back then, stamping down my confusion was easier, but over time it's turned into something like you'd see in a cartoon, where a character plugs a leak with their finger only for two more leaks to pop out in its place. Feels like it's only a matter of time before the dam bursts right in my face.
"Not yet," Eric says to his mom as he twists the water out of his hair. "I want to hit the Vortex."
Our white-and-blue birthday cake sits at the center of the table. It says Happy birthday, boys! in red icing, so even if grocery store cakes didn't taste like trash compared to Mom's baking, I still wouldn't want to eat it. I nod along with Eric and try to look like I'm excited about the Vortex too.
"Okay," Dad says, starting to rise. "I'll come with you."
"Hey, hey, Tyler. They're thirteen now," Carson says, leaning back and sipping his Coke. "Maybe it's time to let out the reins a little bit."
"Maybe you're right," Dad says, scratching his cheek. He looks at me, giving me an are you okay? expression.
Dad used to let me run around like a crazy person, used to say it was good for boys to scuff their knees. But then Mom got sick, and then she got sicker, and a year ago she was gone, and ever since it feels like he's either always on the football field, gone, or trying to put a leash around my neck. It's like we're both treading water around each other, unsure of how to act without her.
I let my hair fall into my face. It's always easier to view the world through the veil of my hair. I turn, and with my eyes locked on Eric we jog away from the pool toward the main walkway, closer to the looming shadow of the Vortex.
"You okay?" Eric asks as we get in line and start to mount the wrought-iron stairs.
"I'm fine," I say.
I have to tell him. I have to tell him.
"Is it because you're scared of heights?" Eric asks.
I look around and we're almost to the top now. A breeze whips Eric's hair. A cloud of starlings wheels above the park like a school of fish.
"I'm not scared of heights," I say, rolling my eyes. "I'm not scared of anything."
What a lie.
"Then why are you acting weird?"
"I'm not," I say. I look down at my feet and at the dizzying vista visible through the gaps in the wrought iron.
Eric gives me a look like he doesn't believe me, but before he can say anything else, we're on the top platform with the dark, open mouth of the waterslide beckoning. An attendant guides us to a small, yellow inflatable raft and instructs us to hold onto the handles, not to stand up, not to leave the raft, not to do any of the stupid things teenage boys apparently do, which reminds me for the millionth time: I'm a teenage boy now. It's official. I feel sick.
"Ready?" the attendant asks us.
I nod. Eric shoots his arms in the air and hollers.
The attendant laughs, nudges the raft with a sandaled foot, and suddenly we're wrapped up in dark, screaming motion. The raft careens through the tube, riding so high on the walls whenever we turn that it feels like we might go flying. Eric laughs manically, shielding his face with his arms as water sprays us. I laugh too. The excitement builds and builds, eclipsing every other emotion, until finally I yell into the darkness: "Eric! I want to be a girl!"
"All right!" Eric shouts.
And I can't believe it.
All right? All right. He said all right.
I just let my body laugh, let the laughter twist and erupt out of me like poison flowing out of a wound, and suddenly I feel weightless. A circle of light appears, blinding at first, expanding at the speed of sound, and then we're bathed in sunshine, tumbling, flipping over the raft into the pool below.
I'm the first to the surface. I tread in place for a moment, ignoring the rushing water, the screaming children, the music blaring over the park's PA. I told him. I told him. It's all right.
Eric comes up a moment later, flailing and gasping for air, his eyes hidden behind a wet sheet of curly hair. I grab his arm and drag him to shallow water, sputtering and laughing at the same time.
"That was rad!"
"It was awesome!" I say, splashing as my arms fly into the air.
All right. All right. He said all right.
"What'd you say in there?" he asks me, panting. "I couldn't hear."
"Oh," I say, my insides tightening up.
He didn't hear.
He doesn't know.
I'd had a vision as I'd gone down the waterslide, or a cloud of competing visions, all paradise in their way: Eric telling me I'm normal, Eric telling me I'm not normal but he understands and he'll still talk to me and keep my secret, and distantly, but shining gold and warm, a vision of myself as a girl, walking happily next to him at school as if it's the most normal thing in the world. The visions flicker out like heat ripples on pavement.
My stomach keeps twisting, but it's useless to try to stop it.
I slowly wade my way out of the pool. Everything's spinning. I run to the nearest trash can, brace my hands on the rim, and throw up.CHAPTER 2
The birthday cake sits in my lap, bouncing with each bump on the interstate. One side has been carved away, and most of it is behind us in the water park trash can. Morgan tried eating some, claiming he was okay, only to throw up again, and the sight — and smell — cost the rest of us our appetites. So we all decided it was time to go home.
I watch I-75 roll past, carrying us north from Georgia back into Tennessee. My cheeks and shoulders glow with what will probably be a sunburn, but feels warm and nice for now. My older brother, Peyton, sulks in the seat next to me. Apparently he met some girls who were willing to talk to him and Morgan puking interrupted this once-in-a-lifetime miracle. Dad bobs his head to Johnny Cash on the classic country station while Mom looks totally lost in the latest Patricia Cornwell novel. I have a book in my backpack, the story of Radiohead, or I could relisten to the Mountain Goats album Tallahassee, but I don't really feel like reading or even listening to music.
It's hard to focus on anything really. I just keep thinking about what was up with Morgan today, and what his big secret was. He's been kind of ... far away ever since his mom died. It's selfish, and I want to be there for him, but it's more and more like he's never present. He was always quiet and kind of thoughtful, more of a listener than a talker, unless something made him mad, but nowadays I'm lucky if I can get him to do more than grunt and chew his thumbnail in response to half the things I say. Who knew you could feel lonely with someone right beside you?
Morgan's been my best friend since forever. His mom taught both of us to read from the same copy of Go Dog Go. He told me the moment he figured out Santa wasn't real. I joined the peewee football team, even though I hated football, because Morgan was the quarterback. I even asked to be left tackle on the offensive line because taking hits for my friend felt like the most natural thing in the world.
We've spent our summers climbing trees, wandering dry creek beds, and laying in fields watching clouds scud by. We've slept in the same bed every Friday or Saturday night since preschool, talking until late into the night about music (my Mountain Goats phase was preceded by a two-month obsession with Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Morgan's managed to turn me onto some of the metal bands he's into, like Atreyu, and, if he's in the right mood, all the hippie girl music like Kate Bush and Tori Amos that his mom loved and he doesn't mind admitting he loves too), movies (Almost Famous for me and a tie between Mulan and The Royal Tenenbaums for him), and everything else. We used to share everything.
And then, at the start of the summer, I remember I noticed a girl in a different way. I was riding my bike to Morgan's house, and as I sped through his trailer park, I passed a girl I vaguely recognized as the older sister of someone in our class — a high schooler, in a one-piece bathing suit and cutoff shorts, and she was standing in a kiddie pool spraying the mud off her legs with a garden hose. I'd always thought girls were pretty before, and I'd sort of liked being around them sometimes, but watching this older girl bathing was the key in the lock that turned everything else on.
I tried bringing it up with Morgan and for the first time in our whole lives he'd just stonewalled me, said he didn't want to talk about that, and turned over to go to sleep. It seemed so minor, would be so minor for anyone else, but we've never been like that. Never.
I wish I could talk to him about why everything felt so weird today, wish I knew what his secret was. I'm not stupid. I know what it probably is. I've never met a gay person (that I know of), but I'll support Morgan no matter what he tells me. He must know that. He must know I would stick with him and keep his secret, right?
"Awful quiet back there," Mom says. I look up to see her red eyebrows raised and a faint, curious smile on her lips.
"He's thinking about boys," Peyton says, with an exaggerated lisp. I lean back and kick at him, but he blocks and retaliates with a knuckle pop in my biceps. I yelp and rub my arm. Peyton laughs.
Dad and Mom don't notice or don't much care that Peyton just told the car I was gay, which makes me think about Morgan again. I'm not gay, so I've never really thought about it, but guys here really do throw that word around like it's nothing. If I were gay and I heard everyone around me constantly calling everything they don't like gay and yelling "fag!" at the drop of a hat, maybe that would make it hard to come out even to people I care about.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Birthday"
Copyright © 2019 Meredith Russo.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Meredith Russo,
About the Author,