Beauty Queens


Nicole rolled her eyes. “C’mon. That’s just a desert island trope.”

“Well, right now, it’s the desert island trope that’s sucking me down. Would you help me out of here?”

“For real? Quicksand?”

Shanti screamed as she slipped down another inch. The quicksand was up to her knees. “Ohmigod! I’m, like, totally going under! Would you just freaking help me, please?” Shanti’s careful, vaguely British-inflected Indian accent was gone. In its place was pure California Valley girl.

Nicole’s astonishment gave way to a smirk.” Freaking. Is that Hindi or Tamil or what? Did your grandmother teach you that? Was it part of your family’s Ohmigod-totally-awesome-popadam recipe handed down through the generations?”

Shanti stretched her arm out and wiggled her fingers for a vine. She fell short by an inch. “I am so totally going to kill you when I get out of here. Like, for real.”

Nicole put a hand to her chest in pretend shock. “No way? For real? I’m, like, totally scared!”

“Help me!”

“Why? You never help anybody else.”

“You won’t help a sister out?”

“Oh, no. You did not just play that.” Nicole squatted till she was face-to-face with Shanti, who was in the quicksand up to her thighs. “You are not my sister. You are a total fake and a liar. Tell me why you did it.”

“I needed an edge.”

“Being Indian was your edge?” Nicole scoffed.

“Yes. No! I mean, I am Indian, but, like, not — look, they want this: They want the Indian girl whose parents sacrificed everything to give her the American dream. They don’t want some Valley girl whose parents, like, shop at Nordstrom and have a housekeeper named Maria. They want Princess Priya33. That’s the story they were looking for. That’s the story that makes them feel good. That’s the story that wins every time. So that’s the story I gave them.”

“So who are you, then? For real this time.”

“I don’t know! That’s the freaking problem, okay? I’m not Indian enough for the Indians and I’m not American enough for the white people. I’m always somewhere in between and I can’t seem to make it to either side. It’s like I live in a world of my own. ShantiBetweenLand. I swear, that is the truest thing I can tell you. Now will you please just get me out of here?”

“Don’t go away,” Nicole said as she jumped up.

“Funny! Not!” Shanti yelled. “You better be saving me, Beyoncé, or I swear I will come back like one of those too-much-eyeliner ghosts in a Japanese movie and haunt you forever!”

Nicole searched the area for a branch or a vine, something to hoist Shanti’s sorry ass out of the muck. And as she did, she thought about passing by Shaniqua Payton on the school bus. She could hear Shaniqua behind her, saying, “How come you talk like a white girl? Like your black ass is all that and you too good for us? You with your pageant shit. You can act all high ’n’ mighty, but who you think’s gonna have your back if it comes down to it — me or whitey?”

All the other kids had stared and Nicole had been too embarrassed to do anything but stare straight ahead. Later, she’d told her friend Megan about it and waited for Megan to say something comforting, something that proved she belonged.

“Don’t even pay attention to her,” Megan had said. “You know what? She’s just one of those angry black girls, Nicole. You know how they get.”

Nicole had felt the comment like a crack across her cheek. In that moment, some part of her had known that Shaniqua might have been a jerk, but she had spoken truth. And sometimes the truth did not set you free. Sometimes, it was a hard, lonely prison of a place to be.

Between people. That’s what she and Shanti were.

Nicole ripped a vine off a tree and tested its strength between her hands as Shanti screamed her name. “Keep your weave on, Bollywood.”

“It’s not a weave! It really is an old Indian remedy!” Shanti shouted, and it made Nicole smile. Girl was getting pissed off. Good. Pissed off people stayed alive.

Nicole held the vine away. “I’m going to pull you out. But first, say you’re sorry for being such a liar.”

Only Shanti’s head was visible in the bubbling mud. “I’m s-sorry.”

“Promise you’re going to be yourself from now on and not some lying weasel. Unless who you are is a lying weasel, in which case I am letting the quicksand keep you.”