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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, 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 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.
Copyright © 2019 by Meredith Russo