When Bree and I pulled into the driveway of Sarah’s house, it was dark.
Not that I expected an epic fanfare or anything upon my return, but given what day it was, what I didn’t expect was nothing. For a couple of seconds I actually wondered if the GPS had led me astray – I had only just moved into Sarah’s spare room right before I’d gone away for two weeks, after all – but then I saw her boyfriend’s banged up ute in the carport. This was the right house, owned by the right people, and it was dark and empty and they were somewhere else on my birthday.
It was hard not to be disappointed, even if I was well into adulthood now.
“Sarah and Rob aren’t home?” I asked Bree as we got out, thinking she’d probably been here to drop off her stuff before she came to meet me at the airport.
Bree shrugged. “I think Sarah said they needed to go pick something up for Rob? I didn’t really ask.” She saw my expression as I opened the boot to get my luggage. “Don’t worry! They didn’t forget or anything, Sarah said something like, ‘You’re making Min a cake, aren’t you?’ just before. They’ll probably be back soon. Here, I’ll take the smaller case.”
I handed it to her. “Oh, well,” I said, trying pretty hard to be pragmatic about them abandoning me on my birthday, “I suppose celebrating alone with my girlfriend works just as well as it did the last few years with my boyfriend.”
Bree gave me a look as we hauled the cases up the stairs to the back porch. “Gee, don’t sound so incredibly enthusiastic about it,” she said. “I was going to cook you dinner and spend all night in your lap telling you how totally impressive and amazing you are at whatever game you want to play, but I can always—”
“—I didn’t mean it like that,” I said, ruffling her blonde curls with my spare hand as I dumped my case by the back door. The porch light wasn’t even on; that was weird.
“I know what you mean,” Bree said, apparently not bothered about the light. “I get it. You were kind of hoping Sarah and Rob would make a big fuss over you.”
I sighed, feeling around in my pocket for my keys. “Silly, isn’t it? I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Yeah,” Bree said, brightening again. “You’re in your late twenties.”
I scoffed. “Please, 26 is still mid-twenties.” I stopped sorting through my keys for a second, frowning. “Hey, don’t you think it’s kind of weird Sarah didn’t leave the back light on for us? She’s normally really good about stuff like that. I wonder if she’s okay.”
Bree looked blank. “I’m sure she would have called if she wasn’t?”
Sure she would have called… “Oh, shit!” Something suddenly occurred to me. “I don’t think I switched my phone off Flight Mode in the airport because someone jumped on me too quickly.” I hurriedly fished it out of my pocket so I could fix that. The second I did, a whole stream of notifications came through, including seven voicemails from a private number. Sarah’s number was private.
Bree looked a little impatient. “Don’t you want to wait and do that when we get inside?”
“Nah, it’ll just take a second,” I said, dialling voicemail and propping my phone between my shoulder and my ear as I fit my key into the lock. “She’s left me a few voicemails, I should listen to them in case they’re really important and I—”
But I didn’t get the chance to finish, because the very second I opened the door and set foot inside, the lights burst on and a chorus of voices yelled, “Surprise!”
I just stood there for a second with my jaw open. There was a group of people, most of whom I recognised from Sarah’s movie nights, all wearing pleated skirts or tailored pants, blazers, school hats, neckties, and knee-high socks. Sarah had pulled the kitchen table into the centre of the living room for the spectacle and was standing on top of it. I didn’t see at first because I was too distracted by all the people, but on the table at Sarah’s feet were dozens of presents. While I was standing frozen in place and gaping at it all, everyone began to sing a cheerful, drunk version of Happy Birthday to me.
I was just… I’d been winding up to spend the night alone with Bree; I hadn’t thought… well, I knew these guys, but we weren’t buddy-buddy and they had their own lives, you know? They were busy. But this… it didn’t feel real. If they hadn’t been singing ‘Happy Birthday, Dear Min’, I don’t think I would have really believed any of it was for me.
When they were done singing, Sarah cleared her throat ceremoniously and held up a piece of paper which looked suspiciously like a running sheet. “So,” she addressed me, grinning. “You’re probably wondering why there’s a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings dressed in school uniforms in my house. I mean, apart from the fact that we’re all totally rocking them. Am I right, guys?” Rob cheered enthusiastically, and the rest of them laughed at him as Sarah continued. “Well, it’s for two reasons. First of all, it is your birthday, and we all know you have a thing for schoolkids…”
I had to laugh a bit at that. Beside me, Bree joined in. She was still wearing her real uniform.
Sarah let me finish chuckling, and then sobered. “And secondly, I know high school really sucked for you because of how you are, and you didn’t have a proper graduation party the first time around. You didn’t have a proper anything the first time around. And, like, I can do better than that, Min,” she told me with a smile. “I can make a fuss over you. So here’s the celebration you always should have had!” She held up her beer towards the ceiling to toast me. “Congratulations on leaving the crappiest employer on the planet, getting into the course of your dreams, and Happy Birthday!”
Everyone cheered and drank deeply, and I… God, they all looked so happy for me. They were all smiling and toasting me and they’d all dug up their old uniforms, just for me. And all those presents… Real people didn’t come home to birthday parties like this, did they?
Apparently, if they had friends like Sarah, they did. Fuck, I couldn’t tear up in front of everyone.
Fortunately, Sarah rescued me by climbing down off the table in her scandalously short school dress and coming to give me a big hug. “Sorry,” she said, not sounding very sorry. “But it’s kind of compulsory to be the centre of attention on your birthday.”
I hid the fact I was smiling and hugged her back very tightly. “If you make me cry in front of everyone, I will kill you.”
She pulled away and narrowed her eyes at me. “Challenge accepted,” she said. She then grabbed my hand and towed me into the scrum of adults in school uniforms to be hugged, patted and wished Happy Birthday by everyone.
Sarah had invited all the people she usually had over: Liz and her husband Chris, Andrew and Gay Matt, the other Matt ‘Smithy’, as well as Rob and one of Rob’s friends, ‘Dazza’, who looked rough, spoke broadly and was covered in tattoos, but seemed otherwise very friendly.
I hadn’t really wanted to ask myself the question, but as I finished up shaking hands and getting hugs from people, I kept kind of hoping I’d see Henry’s face amongst everyone’s. We were very freshly broken up and I knew it was a serious long shot because he’d told me he didn’t know if we could stay friends, but I wouldn’t have put it past Sarah to invite him anyway, not at all. I also wouldn’t have put it past him to accept that invitation. It would have been really nice to have him here at this.
When I got to the last person, though, it wasn’t him. It was someone who had on a skirt that was even shorter than Sarah’s, and while she did actually have a very nice pair of legs, she obviously wasn’t that comfortable with showing so much of them.
“Gemma,” I said, greeting her. She smiled and went to hug me, but she tilted her head in the same direction as I did and we nearly smacked noses. I had to laugh. We got it right the second time.
“Happy Birthday,” she wished me belatedly as she pulled away. I must have been glancing downward as I thanked her, because she noticed and went a bit red. “Oh, god… it’s been at least ten years since I put my uniform on. I didn’t know it was going to be this short.”
“Yes she did,” Sarah said loudly behind me.
Gemma looked mortified but didn’t get the chance to say anything else about it, because I was dragged all the way back to my bedroom and deposited there by the host. “Your costume’s in there, Birthday Boy!” Sarah told me as she pushed me inside. “Don’t come out until you look as terrible as we all do.” The door closed in my face, and I had to laugh at it.
My ‘costume’ was spread out on my bed, and it turned out to be pretty much what all the men were wearing: generic tailored pants, a white shirt and – I checked the crest – a St. Peters Boys’ tie. Everything was in my size, too.
This is so surreal, I thought, grinning down at the uniform. Someone had thrown a party for me, complete with costumes, and there were actual people at it! I put my phone on the table and went to try everything on.
There was a gentle knock on the door while I was buttoning the shirt up over my binder. “It’s me,” Bree’s voice said, and then she burst straight in without waiting for an answer and practically bounced over to me. “So how cool is this whole thing? Sarah’s been planning it for ages!”
Well, that at least answered the question about whether or not Bree had been in on everything. “You were part of all this!” I accused her faux-sternly, but I’m pretty sure it was clear I was bluffing.
“Maybe!” she answered brightly. “Sarah did all the organising, but she’s always at work and she needed someone who could do stuff for her during the day.”
“You’re at school during the day.”
She looked very guilty. “Yeah,” she said dismissively, and then hung off my waist as I tried to get my tie done. “So, did you guess at all? Like, did you think, ‘these guys are hiding something from me’?”
“Surprisingly, no,” I realised. “Or maybe not surprisingly, I was away for two weeks.”
She giggled. “Yeah, you being up in Broome did kind of help, but seriously, I thought you were going to guess when we got home just before. So I figured if I could just keep you, like, focused on your disappointment at Sarah and Rob being ‘gone’ and everyone totally forgetting about you, you wouldn’t think of other reasons the house might be dark.”
I stopped mangling the knot in my tie to look at her like she had three heads. I kept forgetting how good she was at lying; it was unnerving. “That’s one seriously well-considered lie,” I observed, and then got straight back to fucking up the knot.
“Worth it, it worked!” she declared, batting my hands away from my tie and fixing it for me in about five seconds flat. Then, we both stood back to consider my reflection in the mirror.
It was okay, except my pants had that sagging crotch thing again; story of my fucking life. I tried to reposition the fabric. “Do you think I should put the packer in to fill that up?”
Bree stopped posing for a second. “If you want?”
I looked back at the mirror and sighed. “Will people think it looks weird without it, though?”
She laughed good-naturedly at me. “You’re doing that overthinking thing again! No one else is going to notice, seriously.” She turned towards me and put her arms around my waist. “Besides, everyone out there knows you’re kind of a guy but not, like, a typical trans guy. They call you ‘she’, you know? It’s no big deal.” She pointed at the mirror. “So stop stressing and check out how cute we look! See?” She squeezed my waist.
I looked back at the reflection again. I did like how we looked together, and she was looking especially gorgeous with that great big smile. I tapped her nose with my index finger. “I think you do ‘cute’ enough for both of us.”
Her face lit up at the compliment and she smiled up at me for a second or two. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she said more tamely, and then pulled me down by my tie into a kiss. That, I had missed; it had been two weeks since I’d kissed her properly. Having her Skype me on the weekends from Sarah’s computer wasn’t really the same. And since we were finally in the privacy of my own room, it meant that we could really get—
There was a loud thump on the door. “Time’s up, Birthday Boy!” That was Sarah’s voice. “Everyone here wants to get you drunk and give you presents, special cuddles will have to wait!”
Bree sighed as I straightened again, looking like she was going to whinge about not being able to pash me more, but then she remembered something. “Oh, the cake!” she said, “I have to get it ready!” and then rushed back through the door.
I followed her out, and everyone had pulled chairs into the mouth of the hallway and cheered at me when I emerged. That was a bit confronting, even if I knew everyone.
Still, since the crowd was waiting, I did a slow turn to present myself so they could all appreciate how I looked in my boys’ uniform. That earned me round of drunken applause and a couple of wolf-whistles. When they’d settled down again and stopped yelling compliments, I couldn’t stop fucking smiling like an idiot.
Sarah gave me the once over, impressed. “Nice. Bree got the sizes right.” She took a deep breath and called into the kitchen, “Bree, you did something right!”
“Yay!” was the response as Sarah led me over to the present table and sat me in an empty chair.
There were about 20 full shot glasses on the table between me and the presents. Sarah wasn’t fucking around with the ‘drunk’ part. “Is killing me all part of the celebrations?”
Sarah clapped me on the back. “I’ve seen you drink. Those would hardly make you tipsy, let alone kill you, but no,” she said. “You’ll only drink all of those if you can’t guess which present came from who. If you guess right about who gave you a particular present, they drink one.”
It was actually surprisingly fun. People had brought me pretty funny presents to start with; the ‘boy’ theme was popular, so there was a lot of typical guy stuff like nice leather wallet – which I actually really needed so I knew Sarah had bought me that – a set of three novelty-patterned ties, Football-scented soap, some dog-tags which I remembered mentioning to Gemma that I liked a few weeks ago, and various other random stuff. I guessed wrong on the ‘His First Shaving Kit’ present because it seemed like the type of joke gift Sarah would give me.
She looked insulted to be picked for that one. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I’m waiting for you to decide to start taking testosterone and grow a pretentious hipster beard like a proper art snob.” It turned out to be Rob who had gotten that for me.
Bree patted Rob’s head. “Good choice,” she told him as I took my shot. “Min isn’t a big fan of facial hair.”
Which was one of the many reasons why starting testosterone injections wasn’t very high up my to-do list, despite Sarah’s complete conviction it’d happen eventually.
There was one particular present I left aside; I recognised the delicately patterned and meticulously wrapped paper. The frilly ribbon was also a dead giveaway. Apparently my mother wasn’t boycotting my birthday after all, despite how upset she was at me quitting my ‘perfect’ job and not being able to regularly send money back to South Korea anymore. I didn’t want to open it in front of everyone because I had no idea what it was. I gave it to Bree to put in my bedroom before she presented me with hers: the enormous birthday cake.
It was flat and rectangular and iced like a Cintiq tablet, and there were stick figures of the guests at the party piped all over it. Everyone insisted on singing Happy Birthday to me again so I could blow out the one candle, and then when the cake was cut into slices everyone fought over which stick figure was who so they could joke about eating each other.
“I think wearing these uniforms is actually turning you into schoolkids,” I told them all dryly as Sarah swallowed Rob’s piece whole and everyone leered.
“Shut up and eat your girlfriend,” Sarah told me, nudging my slice toward me. I glanced up towards Bree across the table, and she gave me a coy little wink as I put the piece in my mouth; she’d undone an extra button on her school shirt for the occasion. I needed to be reminded to chew.
Gemma had gone off to the toilet after presents were finished and come back to find her own slice of cake left alone on the platter. She took it and laughed bleakly. “That’s right,” she said. “There are eleven of us, and eleven is a prime number.”
“I’ll share my piece with you!” Bree cheerfully offered before she even realised what she’d said. Everyone was quiet for a fraction of a second before they all burst out laughing, and that just made Gemma blush again. Bree looked horrified at her implication and at Gemma’s reaction. “Oh, no! That’s not what I meant! I just thought we could share because I made Min’s slice really big and I’m really small and I can’t fit all of this in!”
She was drowned out by more laughter, and Gay Matt prompted her, “Could you give us a demo of what you have in mind?” I threw a scrunched up piece of wrapping paper at him.
Gemma ended up quickly eating her own piece, thinking that’s where the jokes would stop. She was wrong. I was surrounded by adults acting like drunk teenagers and it was hilarious.
As people finished eating each other, we took a few group photos of ourselves all in our uniforms and then everyone went to refill their drinks.
I sat back in my chair and enjoyed the familiar feeling of the alcohol setting in.
It’d normally be just me and Henry playing PlayStation in my old apartment right now, I realised, still completely spun by the fact someone had thrown a party for me. Henry probably would have thrown me one, but I don’t think either of us really had enough good friends on our own to pull it off. Henry worked too much; in fact, he was probably still at work. I wondered what he’d be doing if he was here, because I couldn’t imagine him at a party like this. He’d probably enjoy it, though. He was a people person.
I spent a couple of seconds trying to guess what he would have bought me for my birthday. I didn’t have to wonder very hard: I still had that beautiful $27,000 engagement ring in a box in my room, never to be worn. ‘Keep it’, he’d said quietly, even though we’d broken up. ‘It was for you anyway’.
God, I thought, remembering that whole painful night. That was the last time I’d spoken to him. Why on earth did I think there would be any chance at all he’d be here after what I did to him?
I sighed. Well, there were two last shots on the table in front of me and I might as well drink them, right? I went to skull them. I didn’t manage to, though, because Bree’s little hands darted across the table and snatched them and they both went down her throat.
“Hey!” I said, indignant. “Whose birthday is it again?”
“You’ve had enough,” she said cheerfully, and then rounded the table with the empty platter to plant a kiss on the top of my head. She was being amicable enough, but she stopped in the doorway to make sure I knew she was serious before she disappeared into the kitchen.
Rob’s mate Dazza saw the whole thing and looked very amused. “Why’s she allowed to keep drinking and you’re not?”
Because she doesn’t have the same history with alcohol that I have, I thought, and she’s right. “Because she’s the boss.”
He clapped me on back. “Someone’s got you under her thumb,” he said broadly with a grin. “Although I kind of don’t blame you, she’s gold. I only get to give it to girls like that in my dreams.”
“Well, I’m not so much giving it to her as she’s forcibly taking it from me.”
He laughed at that, and I hoped that was the end of the conversation. It wasn’t. I could feel him looking at me like he wanted to say something else, and I knew what type of question was coming next. The other guys knew me and knew how much I didn’t like doing Min’s Gender Q&A; Dazza didn’t, and apparently Rob hadn’t given him the 101.
“How does that work, anyway?” he wondered aloud. “Is it like lesbians for you two? I mean, because you don’t have a…” He at least had the courtesy to gesture at my flat crotch rather than actually say the word for everyone to hear.
I immediately regretted not wearing the packer and I wondered if the fact I wasn’t had anything to do with his question. “Actually, I’m saving myself for marriage.”
He was so drunk that for a second he actually believed me. “Really?”
He laughed, and I’m pretty sure he got the message. “Hah, nice save. So, you were just up in Broome, yeah? That’s where I’m from.” That explained his incredibly broad accent. “What were you doing up there?”
At least art was something I felt comfortable talking about, and despite his very rough appearance, he was very interested in what I’d painted and in which café. I ended up talking to him for ages and he was midway through explaining the meaning behind his multitude of tattoos when Sarah tugged on my sleeve and inclined her head towards the couch.
I looked over her shoulder: Bree had fallen asleep curled in a little ball and completely oblivious to the loud chatter and people stomping everywhere around her. This wasn’t just an ordinary Bree-style sugar-crash, either. Clearly those last two shots she’d taken for me had finished her off. I felt a teensy bit guilty about that; she’d hate to miss anything.
Sarah grinned. “Hilarious, right? I mean, apart from the obvious illegality of getting a five year old really drunk?” I groaned, and let her gather me and everyone else around the couch for a cheeky Facebook photo of us all posing around sleeping Bree. The photo I was okay with, it was only when someone asked Sarah if she had a permanent marker that I decided I should probably put Bree safely in bed before anyone could draw a moustache on her.
“Shouldn’t you call her parents to come get her?” one of the Matts joked as I lifted my groggy girlfriend off the couch and carried her towards my bedroom. I didn’t really want to joke about Bree’s family, so I pretended I hadn’t heard him as I closed the door and tucked Bree into my bed.
I couldn’t just dump her there in whatever condition she was in, though, so I sat beside her for a second, stroking her hair off her face. She didn’t seem unconscious-unconscious – at least, not to a level that I should worry about. She’d passed out enough times while completely sober at my apartment for me to know there wasn’t anything too wrong. Still, I checked her pulse, just to be safe.
It woke her up a little. “Are you going to come to bed?” she mumbled.
“Soon,” I told her.
“Okay. Don’t leave your binder on,” she said, and then snuggled into the doona and promptly started breathing deeply again.
I had to smile at that. It was going to be nice to have her in my bed after two weeks of sleeping by myself. That was probably the only good thing about her parents having zero interest in her whereabouts; she could stay over with me as often as she wanted, including coming to surprise parties on school nights. That seemed so alien to me. If my mum had even let me go to a party at eighteen, she would probably have sat out the front in her car the whole time and phoned me every five minutes.
Thinking about Mum made me remember that I hadn’t braved her present yet. From where I was sitting I could see it sitting innocuously on the desk; and the room was so small I could probably just reach out from the bed and grab it. I tested that theory, and then sat back on the bed with her present across my lap.
The ribbon was frilly. That was my first concern because I hated frills, and it didn’t bode well for what might be inside. I had to get this over and done with, though, didn’t I? I was going to have to do it at some point.
I undid that frilly ribbon and very, very carefully peeled the edges of the sticky tape off the paper without tearing it – Mum hated it when I just ripped into presents and I felt like she’d just know. When the perfectly preserved wrapping paper was folded neatly on the bed next to me and I discovered what was inside, I was really glad I hadn’t opened this in front of everyone else.
She’d sent me a cutesy microwavable heat-pack in the shape of a bunny – I’d probably lose that one to Bree – and a book of wedding dresses for ‘the tall’ woman. Real subtle, Mum. It was also in Korean. I leafed through it just to properly horrify myself, and I saw her precise handwriting inside the front cover. ‘Henry would love some of these!’
I’m sure he would if we were still together, I thought to myself. That was about as close as I’d gotten to telling her, because she loved him. If I’d told her we’d broken up, I’d be opening a card full of Anthrax right now. Or worse: I’d be opening the front door to her. I sighed at the book and put it back on my desk.
In the process of doing that, I caught sight of my phone and its little flashing LED: blue for new voicemail. In the frenzy of the party, I’d forgotten all about those. Obviously they hadn’t been left by Sarah like I’d originally thought; and looking at my phone beside Mum’s present suddenly made it very clear to me exactly who had left me all those seven messages. I closed my eyes for a second. exhaling. Of course, my birthday was the perfect opportunity to spend seven minutes nagging me, wasn’t it?
Well, fuck that. Sarah had gone to a tonne of effort to put this party together and I was pretty sure her running sheet didn’t have a segment dedicated to me sitting in my bedroom being nagged and feeling sorry for myself. I was not going to be sucked back into that place by someone who was 10,000km away: it was my birthday, this was my first real party and I was going to fucking enjoy it.
I kissed Bree’s temple, slipped the packer into my underwear, and then went back to the party where I couldn’t be bothered by that little flashing LED.