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, lightheaded 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, a person 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 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 doesn’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 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 out 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 trashcan, brace my hands on the rim, and throw up.
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 trashcan. 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, but I want to be there for him, and 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 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 pee wee 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. Or 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 bicep. 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 around 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.
“Did you enjoy your birthday?” Mom asks me once I’ve stopped wincing.
“It was okay, I guess,” I say, swallowing and looking down at the cake. I worry sometimes that I’m ungrateful, because I know we have a lot of money compared to other families in Thebes, but I don’t think they should have gotten us a birthday cake this year. There was just no way it would compare to what Morgan’s mom, Donna, used to make. Even a cookie cake would have been a better choice.
“If you wanted to stay, all you had to do was say so,” Mom says.
“No,” I say. I flatten a palm against the plastic dish covering the icing. “It would have been weird without Morgan.” Mom gives me a sad smile—I feel like she gives me more and more of them every day.
“Everything’s weirder with Morgan,” Dad says from the driver’s seat. Peyton snorts beside me. The two of them share a look in the rearview mirror. Mom clears her throat and makes a point of noisily turning the page in her book, but Dad ignores her.
“What do you mean?” I ask, but Dad just drums his fingers.
“Thought he’d have grown out of it by now, that’s all.”
“Guys . . . ” Mom says, but I can’t help but push on.
“Grown out of what?” I ask as if I don’t know. I’m thirteen, I’m not a little kid, but adults still act like I don’t know anything.
“Being a faggot,” Peyton mutters. I feel heat rising in my cheeks. There it is.
Mom shoots Peyton a look. “Peyton, please.”
There’s a moment of silence, but it doesn’t last. In my experience guys like Peyton and Dad are sort of like sharks: one drop of blood in the water puts them into a frenzy. Dad runs his fingers through his hair and glances at me in the rearview mirror. “Used to be football kept him a little tough. But come on, Eric, the boy’s always been kind of a sissy.”
“What?” I say. “No he’s not. What the hell?” Maybe Morgan can be a little girly sometimes, but he was the best player in pee wee and youth league.
“Language,” Mom says.
“Hey, Dad,” Peyton says. He leans forward, grinning like a coyote. “Hey. Remember when Morgan threw that shit fit”—I wait for Mom to correct his language but it doesn’t come—“’cause his parents wouldn’t let him dress up as that Chinese cartoon girl for Halloween?”
Dad barks out a laugh and slaps the steering wheel. All I can think of is how that was two years ago, when Morgan had just gotten the news about his mom’s cancer. I can only guess that he probably didn’t know how to feel about anything.
“It wasn’t a girl,” I say, “It was Mulan’s male soldier costume, so if anything he was—”
“God, who cares about that stupid cartoon, nerd?” Peyton says. “He cried over Halloween either way. Like a girl.”
“Alright, alright,” Dad says, but there’s laughter in his voice. The sound makes my skin crawl. “All I’m saying is that Tyler needs to show the kid how to be a man. He’s a goddamn football coach—he’s gotta whip that boy back into shape.”
Heat flares into my face. I tuck my hands into my pockets so Peyton can’t see that they’re shaking. I rest my forehead against the window and focus on the glass’s coolness. Morgan always knows how to deal with Peyton. I wish I could just cut loose like he does, snap off some gut punch of an insult, or scream and kick something over, but all I can ever seem to do is fold my hands under my arms and stay quiet. And yet somehow Morgan’s the “sissy”?
Peyton jabs me in the shoulder. “What’s wrong? Is widdle baby Eric upset?”
“Go fuck yourself,” I say through clenched teeth. What do you know? I guess I did have it in me.
Mom snaps her head around. “Language!”
“Fine!” I say.
“Don’t raise your voice at your mother!” Dad yells.
“Yes, sir,” I say. I want to talk back, but making Dad angry is a one-way ticket to grounded.
A long, rumbling silence passes, and just when I’ve started to calm down, an ad for Dad’s car dealership, the place every McKinley son is doomed to work if he can’t pay his own way through college, comes on the radio. He turns up the volume.
Dad started the business straight out of high school and it’s his pride and joy. Sometimes I think he loves those stupid cars more than our whole family put together. He turns the volume up with a “whoop!” and sings along to the hokey jingle, and my mom and Peyton join in.
Dad catches my eye on the rearview mirror. I stare back.
I push my lips together and start to hum.
He smiles at me, his mouth spreading wide, almost smug, but I notice his eyes don’t crinkle up. I smile back as long as I can manage and turn my gaze back to the road.
It’s still a long way home from here.
Meet Eric and Morgan. Born on the same day, at the same time, in the same place.
They’ve always shared this one day together, but as they grow up they begin to grow apart. Everyone expects Eric to get a football scholarship, but no one knows he’s having second thoughts. Former quarterback Morgan feels utterly alone, as she wrestles with the difficult choice to live as her true self. Both of them are struggling to be the person they know they are. Who better to help than your best friend?
Told on one day every year, over six years, this is a story about how change pulls people apart… and how love brings them back together.
Not available for purchase in the EU.
“Rarely have we seen a story like Meredith Russo’s Birthday”
The New York Times
Meredith Russo was born, raised and lives in Tennessee. She started living as her true self in late 2013 and never looked back. Her debut, If I Was Your Girl, was partially inspired by her experiences as a trans woman. When Meredith is not busy writing she can be found, reading fan fiction and fantasy novels, arguing with strangers about social justice, and raising her two amazing children.
“The biting sadness of Morgan’s loneliness, anxiety and desperate need to assert some form of control – at one point hurling herself into apparently ideal maleness by weightlifting to add rapid muscle mass – are beautifully balanced by the friend’s constant fondness, deepening gradually into love as they discover more about each other and themselves.”
TLS (Times Literary Supplement)
“An emotional, winning touchdown.”
“I couldn’t put this book down, I fell so in love with Eric and Morgan. Birthday broke my heart and made me tear up, but it was also so triumphant. This book will save lives.”
Camryn Garrett, author of Full Disclosure
“There is so much hope and light and love here.”
Rachael, Waterstones Bookseller
“Birthday is a luminous and profoundly moving coming-of-age story of love, family, friendship, destiny, and the struggle to live as one’s truest self. It will break your heart, piece it back together even stronger, and do it again and again until the last page.”
Jeff Zentner, author of The Serpent King