Number thirteen is a big birthday; everybody says so. First year of middle school. First day of the rest of my life. Lots of presents on the big number twelve, special haircut. My so-called friends punch me in the arm and talk about birthday spankings. They pretend not to notice the clear lacquer on my perfectly trimmed nails; the closest I could come to a French Manicure without throwing Da into a deep depression.
Dealing with him is a delicate matter. He’s big and strong. Tough as a polyester leisure suit, but sensitive as a puppy. Won’t let me call him Da, like the English kids do on PBS, because, “It just sounds too queer, Robbie.”
And I already sound a little too queer for Da. He doesn’t like the way I talk, or the way I walk, or the frilly way I move my hands, keeping every joint fluid with my fingers having the very last word. Just beautiful. Every motion is romantic poetry, but Da doesn’t like poems either. He doesn’t like much about me, not even my name, which is almost the same as his. But nobody ever called him Robbie in his whole manly life, and nobody will ever call me Bob.
Eddie Sanchez is one of my Mexican friends. There are lots of those at the party, because we live in a transitional neighborhood, which means there is a little bit of everything—black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian.
Da calls Asians Oriental, even though he knows they don’t like it. Da’s kind of black but his Da is Puerto Rican. Mom is Mexican and LBJ. That’s a little bit Jewish.
Eddie Sanchez says, “Blow out the candles dude,” because he wants to get this party over so he can get back to doing real boy things like throwing rocks at cars and smoking cigarettes. He calls me ‘Swish’ when Mom and Da can’t hear him. They think he is my best friend, and I guess he is—even though we hate each other.
“Yes, blow them out, Robbie.” Mom takes my hand and leads me to the ‘seat of honor’ where the birthday boy sits once a year and celebrates a day his father wishes never happened.
Later on, I’ll open presents. Sports equipment I don’t want, and butch clothing that makes me look even more girlie-gay. Maybe I’ll get a gift certificate for Dillard’s Department store where they sell things that fit into the secret section of my closet.
“Take a big breath, Robby.” Mom holds her hands together like a little girl who doesn’t know whether to clap or pray. I make that gesture too when I’m excited and I think no one is looking. I have lots of Mom-gestures. We look alike, she and I. Da says it happens that way sometimes.
“Don’t tell anyone your wish,” Mom says. “Or else it won’t come true.”
I take the deepest breath. I blow at the flames of all twelve candles, glad I don’t have to tell anyone what’s going on inside my head.
I wish I was a girl.
I figured that out this morning when I was all alone.
When I tried on one of Mom’s dresses for the first time ever.
As I looked in the mirror, I knew for sure. I felt as pretty as the girl who played Maria in Westside Story. That was Natalie Wood—she looked Puerto Rican, even though she wasn’t—just like me.
We’re exactly the same size, Mom and Natalie Wood, and I. Exactly the same coloring too, so I used Mom’s make up, and put on one of her wigs. I pitied any girl who wasn’t me.
Mom’s shoes with heels were hard to walk in, but I’m a quick study. Pretty soon, I was swishing around the living room, pretending I had hips, pretending I had all the girl things, including lots of boys pretending not to notice.
The dress’s hem brushed against my bare legs like a friendly cat. It changed my walk. It changed the expression on my face. It changed the way I felt about myself.
I sang a few bars of Like a Virgin, exactly like Madonna; she’s still my favorite. And, right then, I knew for sure what Da suspected for a long, long time.
Who could blame me for sharing my discovery with the world—besides Da, that is?
I didn’t run and hide when the doorbell rang, because Da was at work, and Mom was out shopping for hours and hours. I walked into the living room like a runway model and looked through the peephole to see if it was anyone who mattered.
There he was. A Jehovah’s Witness boy missionary standing on my front porch with a stack of Watchtowers in his hands just waiting to tell someone the good news. Maybe eighteen years old, with a sincere face and really good posture. Perfect for the neighborhood—transitional. Too mixed up racially to make anybody mad, and very cute.
I swung the door open and looked outside left and right, really fast, and then ducked back in, so anyone who saw me would probably think I was my Mom, all dressed up and waiting for her lover.
Mom doesn’t have a lover, actually, but she’s pretty. Neighbors always suspect pretty women, and that kind of scandal is a lot more acceptable than my kind of scandal—even though I’m pretty too.
“Don’t you guys usually travel in pairs?” I made a dramatic gesture, like the blond girl does on Wheel of Fortune, only instead of pointing at letters, I pointed at my living room.
“Come on in.” Witnesses don’t usually get invited inside, and I thought he’d jump at the chance, but he just stumbled into the speech he’d probably started a dozen times but never got to finish.
“Good morning. We . . . uh, I . . .are visiting families on your block and we . . .uh, I . . .”
“Yeah, you guys usually travel in pairs. Won’t you please come in?” Another sweeping gesture, his time with a bow. I hoped he didn’t notice the little high-heel-bobble.
He stepped inside, bobbling as much as I did, and he couldn’t blame it on his heels. Nervous. I liked to make boys feel like that. It’s lots of fun being a girl, at least for the first ten minutes.
“What’s your name?” I put my hand on his back and gave him the most gentle shove toward the sofa, where we could sit together—a little too close for his comfort—and he could tell me all about Jesus while I drove him crazy.
My first time feeling strong.
“Jonathan,” he said in a whoosh of air as he sat down a little bit too hard.
“My name’s Rebecca.” I told that lie with a smile, and then I realized it wasn’t a lie. Right then my name was Rebecca. Maybe that was the good news Jehovah’s Witnesses are always going on about.
My first time feeling confident.
Jonathan choked on his own spit for a couple of seconds, probably because I let my hand rest on his leg. Close to the knee, nothing scandalous, except for the fact that here was a religious boy falling for another boy in a dress. He stopped breathing when I smiled, and then paid off his oxygen debt with a few good gasps that made his head spin.
My best smile ever.
“Have you ever wondered if the world could be free of corruption?” Jonathan launched right into his conversion speech, but he talked too fast, because I was so close and so cute that he couldn’t think of anything but me.
He sounded like a used car salesman who wanted to sell a car before his buyers realized it was on fire.
He sounded like a boy who’d finally met a girl he’d only seen in dreams before—and not the kind of dreams that left him feeling rested.
“It’s an appealing thought isn’t it?” Jonathan asked, knowing I couldn’t say no.
But I didn’t say yes either. I leaned forward, close enough to make him tremble. I breathed warm, toothpaste flavored air into his ear, and then I kissed him on the cheek.
“A very appealing thought,” I said. More toothpaste flavored air carried on a whisper almost too quiet to hear because the words didn’t really matter.
“Well,” he croaked as if he had a pepper flake stuck in his throat. “There’s a Bible verse I’m supposed to read, but I can’t remember it.”
He looked like an asthma attack getting ready for a guest appearance.
“Gottogorightnow!” He speed-walked to the front door. Late for an appointment with destiny. No time for a parting prayer. But he stopped after the door was open, and he knew he could get away. He looked at me long enough to be rude if rudeness applied in this situation.
I gave him a finger wave. I blew him a kiss.
“Come back any time,” I said.
Jonathan’s vocabulary was temporarily out of reach so he returned my wave and gave me a goofy grin. Then he was gone, leaving me satisfied, and a little bit nostalgic for the previous few minutes. I guess it’s true. You always remember your first.
Number thirteen is a big birthday all right. Lots of changes—some of them have been coming for a long time now, and it is all I can do to pretend I like the soccer ball Da gave me.
My so-called friends eat cake and sing Happy Birthday, ready to get this party finished, because they all know something’s coming and they don’t want to be the first to notice it.
Even I don’t know what’s coming, until the doorbell rings.
“I’ll get it,” I say, because it’s easier for my friends to leave if I’m not in the room.
I open the door without looking through the peephole this time, because I am in my socially acceptable disguise.
Jonathan says, “Hello.” Calm now, because he sees the unreal me, who has no power over him at all.
“Is Rebecca here?” Polite, and totally non-religious. “I met her earlier today, and I really want to see her again.”
“Oh.” Now I am the boy who can’t remember how to talk or swallow his own saliva. I wipe a speck of drool from the corner of my mouth.
“She isn’t here right now, but she’ll be back.” I consult Rebecca silently, feeling stronger all the time.
“Tomorrow, I say. “Around four p.m.” After school. Before Mom and Da get home from work.
Rebecca will only have an hour, but that will be enough.
I hear Mom walking toward me. Foot sounds made by shoes like the pair I wore earlier that day.
“Robbie,” she says. “Invite your friend in for some cake.”
“Sorry mam.” Jonathan gives his watch a thoughtful look. “Got to go right now.”
“He just dropped by to say happy birthday,” I tell Mom, and she can’t object because he’s already gone.
“He seems nice,” Mom says.
“Very nice,” I tell her. A girl couldn’t ask for a nicer birthday wish.
John T. Biggs is a full-time writer. He has published 60 pieces of short fiction including a linked collection (Sacred Alarm Clock) and four novels: Owl Dreams, Popsicle Styx, Cherokee Ice, and Shiners.