The Birthday Buzz

Kelly Murashige

Photo Credit: University of Missouri/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The buzzing starts as soon as you take off your headphones, the metal cold beneath the pads of your fingers. You’d keep them on during class if you could; you have them set to only block out the ambient noise, and besides, your chemistry teacher lectures so loudly that you could wear your headphones with full noise cancellation and still hear her. The school administration would never let you, though. For a “progressive” high school, it isn’t all that progressive.

You scuttle into your assigned seat, the one beside your lab partner, Brinn. Of all the lab partners you’ve had, she’s your favorite. When your chemistry teacher declared that you would be her partner, she didn’t make a face or flick her eyes to you with something like disgust or pity. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. It wasn’t a You’re just the person I wanted to be with smile, but it wasn’t a Because I’m more popular than you but I have half your brain cells, I’m going to make you do all the work smile either. It was the kind of smile you’d never seen before.

You liked it.

Other students trickle into the classroom, taking their seats and pulling out their coffee-stained composition books. You don’t drink coffee because it’s too much of a stimulant, but you like the smell. You’d ask if you could take a whiff of everyone’s notebooks if you didn’t know better.

Brinn arrives two minutes before class begins, but for once, it’s not her footsteps that give her away. Mylar balloons, big and pink and blue and purple, hit the sides of the hallway as she approaches. A crown has been placed on her head, and the fake rhinestones glitter under the yellow lights.

“Happy birthday,” someone shouts from his locker thirty feet away. His voice slices through the buzz around you, and you have to keep yourself from visibly wincing. Everyone’s always shouting.

“Thanks,” she calls out to the guy, turning back for a second to wave.

It’s her birthday today. You didn’t know, of course. You don’t speak to her, really, unless it’s to tell her a measurement or ask her about a post-lab discussion question. You tell yourself it’s okay. It’s not like she knows yours either. It’s not like this makes you a bad person.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

You shift in your seat, your fingers freezing from the frigid air of the lab room. It’s Brinn’s birthday today. The buzzing keeps going, even when you put your palms over your ears. You bring your hands back to your lap. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

Brinn enters the room. A few more happy birthday, Brinns burst out from the room like popcorn kernels. She thanks each person who speaks. As she gets closer, you steal a glance at her and find that she’s carrying a bouquet of pink roses. You like roses.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

When you were little, people made a big deal out of birthdays. The richer, popular kids had their moms—young, with curled hair and false eyelashes—bring cupcakes just after lunchtime. You couldn’t ever get yourself to eat one. You felt like everyone would be watching you. Besides, what if you got a sprinkle stuck between your teeth? That’s what happened at the class Christmas party, and you spent the rest of the day knowing that everyone was laughing at you once you turned your back.

High school just made the disparity between popular and unpopular worse. It wasn’t that people bullied you, exactly. It was more that people didn’t realize you were there. You were the one who got hit by stray footballs. You were the one who let birthdays pass without any fanfare, who watched as a popular guy with the same birthday as you got serenaded by his girlfriend.

Brinn’s voice drifts closer. The scent of roses, like sweet but tepid water, grows stronger. It’s her birthday. You should say something. The balloons bump against each other, giggling in the air. You should say something.

She sits down beside you and says hello, as she always does. You wave, as you always do, and your hand catches on the string of a balloon. You untangle yourself so quickly that she doesn’t notice, but your face burns anyway.

It is her birthday.

You should be saying something.

When you spoke in the first grade, people listened. You were shy, so people thought that made whatever you did say more important. When you spoke in the fifth grade, people spaced out. You were most likely saying something nerdy. When you spoke in the eighth grade, people waited for you to mess up because you always messed up when you spoke. That’s what you know is true, even when your parents say it’s all in your mind.

Here you are, in the tenth grade, and people are waiting for you to say something.

“We don’t have much time today,” your chemistry teacher screeches, “so let’s just continue where we left off.”

Students disperse, some wishing Brinn a happy birthday. One has even said it before. He’s just saying it again because maybe she’ll like him more. That’s your theory.

Brinn stands, still smiling, even though you haven’t said anything. She’s waiting for you.

You pause. You stand. There are a thousand words inside you—BrinnhappybirthdaythankyouforbeingtheonlyonewhohaseverunderstoodmeeventhoughitfeelslikenoonedoesbecauseIknowIamweirdandquietandIweartheseheadphonesbecauseeveryoneelseistooloudanditwasneverlikethatbeforebutasIgrewuppeoplegotlouderandIgotquieterandnowwearebothhereandIcannotmakemyselfsayanythingtoyoubutyoustillsmilehowdoyoustillsmilehowcanIbelesslikemeandmorelikeyou—and you think you’re going to cry.

She opens her mouth, and you know she’s going to yell at you. Her lips part, and she asks, “Are you ready?”

She’s still smiling.

You close your eyes for a second, move your headphones to the edge of your desk, and face her, your heart pounding in your ears.

“H-happy birthday,” you whisper.

At first, you think she doesn’t hear you. Then her eyes soften, the cellophane around her roses crinkling.

“Thank you very much,” she says to you, and for a second, the buzzing stops.


Kelly Murashige is an English major and Political Science minor. She would like to give a very quiet but wholehearted shout-out to all the people who struggle with social anxiety and extreme introversion. Email: kmura7[at]