Chapter 1: Ashish CHAPTER 1 Ashish
List of totally overrated things:
- Love (yeah, again)
Ashish Patel wasn’t sure why people ever fell in love. What was the point, really? So you could feel like a total chump when you went to her dorm room only to find she’d gone out with some other dude? So you could watch your mojo completely vanish as you became some soggy, washed-out version of your former (extremely dashing) self? Screw that.
Slamming his locker shut, he turned around to see Pinky Kumar leaning against the locker next to his, sketchbook in hand, one purple eyebrow up (as usual; she’d probably been born like that, all skeptical).
“What?” he snapped, adjusting his backpack with way more force than necessary.
“Oh.” Pinky blew a bubble with her gum and then continued chewing. She’d drawn all over her black jeans with a silver marker. Her parents would probably be pissed; no matter how often Pinky messed up her clothes for her “artistic statements,” their corporate lawyer selves could never get on board. So yeah, they’d be pissed. But not as pissed as when they saw she hadn’t thrown out that Pro-Choice IS Pro-Life
T-shirt they thought was so “vulgar.” “Still IMSing, I see.”
Asking about IMS—Irritable Male Syndrome—was Pinky’s common refrain when Ashish was grumpy. According to her, it was about time people began blaming cis men’s
emotionality on their hormones for a change. “I am not…” Ashish blew out a breath and began stalking down the hallway, and Pinky fell easily in next to him. She was tall—almost five feet eight—and could match him pace for pace, which was really annoying sometimes. Like right then, when he wanted to get away.
“So why do you look all cloudy?”
“I don’t look—what does that even mean?” Ashish tried to keep his voice mellow, but even he could hear the thread of irritation running through it.
“Celia texted you?”
Ashish opened his mouth to argue but then, sighing, reached into his pocket for his cell phone and passed it to Pinky. What was the point? She could read him like an open book. It wouldn’t be long before Oliver and Elijah, his two other best friends, found out too. Might as well get it over with. “I don’t care, though,” he said in his carefully-practiced-last-night I am so over Celia, in fact Celia who?
Ashish didn’t lean over to read the text with Pinky; he didn’t need to. The words were burned into his freaking retinas.
I’m sorry, Ashish, but I wanted you to find out from me. It’s too hard… I can’t keep driving myself crazy thinking about you. Thad and I made it official tonight.
Ashish had had to read the text about twenty-two times before it finally sank in that (a) Celia was truly going out with someone named Thad
, (b) she’d been the one to move on first, and (c) Ashish’s first real relationship had been a spectacular bust.
Ashish had been irrationally optimistic that he’d get to the moving-on stage first. He’d had to suffer the indignity of being dumped; the universe had to hand him the consolation prize of dating someone new before Celia did, right? Instead the universe decided to blast out a cute little song called “Ashish Is a Loser and Everyone Should Know It.” Well, screw the universe. Screw it all the way to the Milky Way. He was Ash-freaking-shish. He was debonair. He was brilliant.
Okay, so he hadn’t had a date in three months. So his basketball game was suffering a bit. His mojo wasn’t gone
, though. It was just… on hiatus. Kicking up its shoes on the table, snoozing. Taking a little trip to Hawaii or something. For frick’s sake, even his über-nerdy, Boy Scout–level goody-two-shoes older brother, Rishi, now had a serious girlfriend.
Pinky handed the phone back to him. “So what?”
He glared at her as they rounded the corner to the cafeteria. Oliver, Elijah, he, and Pinky had eaten breakfast together before school started every morning since freshman year. Now that they were juniors, it wasn’t even a tradition anymore—it was just a habit. “Easy for you to say, Priyanka
. You’re not the one who’s in serious danger of damaging your playa rep.”
,” she said, glaring at him like her eyes were blades that could slice and dice. “Only my grandma calls me Priyanka.”
Ashish felt a prickle of guilt. He was being petty; he knew she hated to be called Priyanka. “My bad,” he mumbled.
Pinky waved a hand. “I’m going to let that go because you’re obviously having a bad day. But seriously. Just date someone else. Come on.” She pushed him with her shoulder and scanned the other students at the lunch tables. “Oh, look. There’s Dana Patterson. You’ve had the hots for her forever. Go ask her out, right now.”
“No.” Ashish pushed back, but not hard enough to knock Pinky over, though he seriously did consider it. His palms felt tingly, like they might be on the verge of sweating. At the thought of talking to a hot girl. What the hell was happening to him? “I—I don’t want to ask her out, okay? It’s just—it’s weird to ask girls out in the cafeteria.”
Pinky snorted. “Really? That’s the excuse you’re gonna go with?” They got in line for breakfast burritos.
“What’s weird?” a familiar male voice said from behind them.
Ashish turned to see Oliver and Elijah, his two other partners in crime since middle school, saunter up to join him and Pinky. Oliver was the taller of the two, but Elijah had the muscles that just about everybody in school swooned over. They were both black, but Oliver was paler than Ashish, while Elijah was a shade or two darker than Pinky.
The four of them had been Richmond Academy’s “Fantastic Four” since seventh grade, when they’d coincidentally—some might say fatefully—all concocted the same harebrained excuse about why they hadn’t done their book reports on The Scarlet Pimpernel
. Apparently, Mrs. Kiplinger, their English teacher, found it hard to believe that all four of their mothers’ water had broken on the same exact day. The excuse was totally ridiculous, considering Mrs. K. found out they were lying with a quick phone call to each of their moms. Despite (or maybe because of) their shared lack of finesse in executing subterfuge, they became instant best friends in detention.
Pinky answered before he could. “Ashish suddenly thinks it’s weird to ask girls out in the cafeteria.” She smiled at him spitefully and he rolled his eyes.
“Since when?” Elijah said. “You ask girls out in the greeting card section at Walmart. What’s the difference?”
They’d laugh until they choked on their own spit if he told them he was nervous. “Nothing.”
Oliver, the more empathetic of his best friends, put his arm around Ashish. “Aww. Tell Ollie what the problem is.”
He didn’t have to say anything, though. Pinky filled them in on Celia’s latest text.
“I don’t get it,” Elijah said, frowning. “You were already broken up, right? Ever since you went to her dorm and found out she was out with that guy Thad. So what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal,” Ashish said, annoyed that his friends really didn’t get it, “is that I thought this whole thing with Thad
was supposed to be temporary. She said it wasn’t serious. She was just… bored or experimenting in college or whatever. We were still texting. There was still the possibility that we might…” He stopped abruptly, feeling more like an idealistic loser than ever. He’d really thought they might get back together at some point, hadn’t he? God. He wasn’t the basketball-playing Romeo/GQ
model he’d thought himself to be at all; he was a freaking Teletubby. And he was now seventeen. One year away from being an official, card-carrying adult. Why couldn’t he keep a girlfriend?
Oliver, sensing his embarrassment, pulled Ashish closer. “I’m telling you, Ash, you gotta just get back up on the horse again. Just do it. Celia’s doing it.”
“Yeah, man,” Elijah added. “It doesn’t even have to be a particularly nice horse. Any old mare will do.”
Pinky glared at him. “Nice.”
Elijah made a What?
face, and Oliver shook his head and sighed. Pinky turned to Ashish. “Look, if you’re afraid, I can do it for you. I know Dana… sort of.” She took a half step in Dana’s direction.
Ashish grabbed her shoulder. “I’m not afraid
, for crap’s sake.”
“Then do it,” Pinky said, crossing her arms. “Right now. You won’t have a better opportunity.” Ashish darted a longing glance at the burritos, and she added, “I’ll save your place in line.”
Ashish adjusted his backpack and surreptitiously wiped his definitely damp palms on his shorts. “Fine. You jerks.” And then he walked over to where Dana sat with the other cheerleaders, dressed in a crop top and amazingly tight jeans. She’d probably end up in the principal’s office over that outfit before the day ended, but that was the cool thing about Dana: She just never gave up.
She looked up as Ashish approached, her face breaking into a smile. Tucking a strand of short blond hair behind one ear, she slid over on the bench. “Ash! Come sit with us.”
Dana had been pretty openly flirty with him at the last few basketball games, even given that he’d been a ball-fumbling shadow of his former shining-captain-of-the-team self. Ashish knew she’d say yes if he asked her. He should
ask her. Pinky, Oliver, and Elijah were right: The only way forward was through. He needed to get this first-date-after-Celia thing out of the way. Jeez, it had been three months. It was way past about time.
“Thanks,” Ashish said, sitting. He smiled at her friends Rebecca and Courtney. And then stopped. His smile faded. What was he doing here? His heart was so not into this, it was on another continent entirely. Ashish suddenly felt like a total jackass.
Dana put one hand on his. “Hey, are you okay?” Her blue eyes were soft and open, concerned. Her friends leaned in too.
“Fine,” Ashish mumbled automatically. Then, as if his mouth had been charmed by an evil, sadistic magician, he found himself adding, “Actually, no, I’m not. I got dumped three months ago and last night I found out that she’s making it official with a guy whose parents actually looked at his red, scrunched-up newborn face and said, ‘You know what? This miniature human looks like a Thad Thibodeaux.’ Thad Thibodeaux.
I met Thad once at a party, you know. For some reason known only to him, he likes to punctuate every sentence with a thumbs-up sign. And she chose him
. Over me. So what does that say about me, exactly? I’m lower on the dating ladder than ‘Thumbs’ Thad Thibodeaux.
“Oh, and let’s not forget that the reason Richmond’s spring basketball league has won any games these past few weeks hasn’t been because of me. It’s been in spite
of me. I’ve been performing the same function as that chandelier in the student lounge that doesn’t work. I look pretty but I’m essentially useless. I’d have been more useful serving Gatorade than taking up space on the court. I’m seventeen, and I’m already past my prime.”
Whooooaaaa. Ashish snapped his flapping mouth shut.
Had he seriously, literally just said all that to Damn-Fine Dana and her friends? Ashish thought he should be more embarrassed, but could he really fall any lower? See exhibit A: playing like a JV basketball newb when he was supposed to be the prodigy captain. Or appendix B: being dumped for Thumbs-Up Thad. He’d already scraped the bottom of the barrel. No, scratch that. He hadn’t just scraped it, he was now curled up on its moldy bottom and preparing to take a very long, very soothing nap. Ashish Patel was beyond humiliation.
But Dana didn’t move away with a nervous laugh like he expected. She took her hand off his and wrapped her arms around him instead. “Oh, you poor baby,” she crooned, kind of rocking him. Ashish only vaguely noticed her boobs pressed up against his arm. Meh, boobs
, he thought, and then: Oh my God, what has Celia done to me?
“Breakups are the worst,” Rebecca added, reaching over the table to pat his arm. The beads on her braids clicked together. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s totally her loss, Ash,” Courtney said, tossing her curly red hair. “You’re a hottie.”
“Absolutely,” Dana said, letting go of him to take his chin in her hand. “You’re gorgeous.”
Ashish smiled faintly and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I know. But thanks. I just feel really… off.”
“Totally normal,” Dana said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “But when you’re ready to get some revenge, you just let me know, okay?”
Oh God. The pity in her eyes. He was a charity case. He was a storm-soaked puppy. Ashish sat up straighter and forced a laugh, which came out hollow and fake. “Ah, I’m fine. Really. And I need to get back to my friends.”
With deliberate swagger, he pushed himself off the cafeteria bench and, throwing the best approximation of what Richmond Academy girls called the Ash Smolder their way, sauntered back to his friends.
“So apparently, I was wrong,” Ashish said to them, smiling jauntily for Dana’s benefit, just in case she was still looking at him. “I can
sink lower. I’ve broken through the bottom of the barrel to the quicksand below.”
“Dude, what’re you talking about?” Elijah said.
Oliver grinned. “She kissed you, my man. On the cheek, but still. That’s progress.”
“Yeah, it was totally disgusting to watch, but I’m happy for you,” Pinky said, stepping up to grab her burrito. “Really.”
“Believe me, it’s not what it looked like,” Ashish said, feeling bad about bursting their optimistic little bubbles.
Once they all had their food, they sat at their usual table by the big window that overlooked the organic garden.
“So what happened?” Pinky said, tearing off a big bite of her burrito. “You were supposed to ask her out.”
“I tried,” Ashish said. A concrete wall of hot shame slammed into him as he recalled saying the words “past my prime” to three incredibly hot girls. What the hell? “I ended up telling her about Celia breaking up with me instead.” He said the rest quickly and quietly, needing to get it off his chest but also hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “And I might also have moaned about how much I suck at basketball and compared myself to a broken chandelier.”
Elijah groaned, but Oliver silenced him with a glare.
Ashish took an aggressively nonchalant bite of his sausage burrito, to show he didn’t care that he’d just embarrassed himself in front of three of the school’s cutest girls. A guy had to retain some
self-respect, even if it was all bullshit.
The burrito was Richmond Academy’s specialty spicy cardboard flavor. Awesome. “Wait.” Pinky gave him a funny look. “Were you in love with Celia or something?”
Ashish looked slowly around the table at them all. “Uh. Yeah. And she didn’t feel the same way at all, so now I’m just some high school man-baby she can laugh about.” Oops. He hadn’t meant to say that last part. Talk about super-not-cool.
Everyone was staring at him in silence, their eyes wide. Shocked that Ashish Patel, player extraordinaire, had been in love
. And that he was now completely wrecked as a result. The pity on their faces was the freaking cherry on top of everything, a special prize, just in case he wasn’t feeling like enough of a loser already.
Pushing his tray back, Ashish stood. “You know what? I… I’m going home.” And then he walked right out of the cafeteria, not even turning around when he heard his best friends call his name.
Sweetie held the shampoo bottle up to her mouth. It helped her get into the right headspace. In here she wasn’t just Sweetie, she was Sizzling Sweetie, Sexy Shower-Singing Sorceress. She liked alliteration, what could she say?
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” she belted out.
“Find out what it means to me!” Kayla, Suki, and Izzy shouted back.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” Sweetie sang again.
“Gimme those Jujubes!” Izzy sang, at the same time that Kayla sang, “Open sesame!” and Suki sang, “Mayfair, pretty puh-lease!”
They stopped suddenly, and then Kayla said, “Jujubes? Are you kidding me, Izzy?”
“Oh, like ‘Open sesame’ is any better?” Suki retorted from her shower stall.
“What about ‘Mayfair’?” Izzy said. “That doesn’t even make sense!”
“Guys, guys,” Sweetie called. “It’s ‘Take care, TCB.’?”
“What?” the three girls chorused back.
“What does that even mean?” Suki said.
“Nothing, that’s what,” Kayla said. “If you ask me…”
Sweetie knew the argument could go on forever, so she just launched into the “Sock it to me” stanza. The others fell quiet, listening.
This was how they were, their postpractice showers. The other girls on the team didn’t even say anything; they enjoyed it when Sweetie began to sing.
She shimmied in the shower, her round, robust voice echoing across the tile like a symphony of clear bells, bouncing off the glinting silver faucet and showerhead. When she was done, she bowed her head, letting the water rush over her, her arms held up high and triumphant.
There was thunderous applause, just like every other time. Sweetie closed her eyes and smiled, enjoying this one moment when she felt supremely confident and unquestionably beautiful.
Then as the last of the applause faded, she sighed, turned off the shower, and reached for her towel.
Out by her locker, Sweetie dried off and climbed into her clothes quickly. She didn’t even know why she was moving quickly…. It wasn’t like Kayla, Suki, and Izzy would judge her. But Amma’s voice echoed in her head: Cover your legs and your arms. Until you lose weight, you shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops and shorts.
If her mother felt that strongly about a sleeveless shirt, she could imagine what she’d say about Sweetie being naked in the girls’ locker room.
“You slayed it, as usual!” Kayla called from her locker. Her deep-brown skin was flawless, her abdomen toned and her legs shapely. She didn’t rush to put on her clothes.
“Thanks. You weren’t so bad yourself.” Sweetie smiled, trying to shake off her thoughts. She’d kicked butt on the track today, beating her own best time on the 1600 meter run. She should be feeling nothing but happiness. My body is strong and does everything I want it to do
, she told herself, repeating the mantra she’d always chanted silently after one of Amma’s “motivational” talks. I’m the fastest runner at Piedmont High School, and the second-fastest high school student in the state of California.
It was true, too. Sweetie could leave anyone in the dust. There was a reason the local paper had called her the Piedmont Road Runner recently (but it had been a mistake to read the comments on the online article—those were full of people who couldn’t stop asking variants of the asinine question, How does she lug all of that around the track?). Coach was always telling her she could get a scholarship to pretty much any college if she kept it up.
“Hoo, check this out!” Suki called from her locker. She’d thrown on a skirt and a top and was sitting on the bench, bent over her cell phone as usual, her straight black hair all wet.
They gathered around her. It was a picture of a handsome guy in a basketball jersey on the sports page of the Times of Atherton
, the local paper.
“Ashish Patel at last weekend’s game,” Izzy said, leaning in. Her pale cheeks were flushed from the hot shower. “Yum-eeee.”
“I heard he led Richmond to another victory,” Kayla said. “He’s their golden goose. Coach Stevens wants to poach him.”
“Good luck with that,” Izzy scoffed. “His dad’s the CEO of Global Comm. His kind of money would never go to a school like Piedmont.”
Sweetie laughed. “We’re not a hovel. But yeah, we’re definitely not the Ivy League incubator that Richmond is either.” She crossed her arms, frowning a little as she looked at Ashish’s picture. “Is it just me or does he look kinda sad to you guys?”
Kayla, Izzy, and Suki just looked at her blankly.
“What would he have to be sad about?” Kayla said. “The boy’s got everything.” Maybe on paper
, Sweetie thought.
“Why? Is your Sweetie Sense going off?” Suki said, laughing.
Sweetie felt her cheeks get warm. She’d always been perceptive, prone to listening to her intuition about people. But Suki thought it was a bunch of crap, that Sweetie just believed what she wanted to believe. Who knew, maybe Suki was correct.
“Yeah, you guys are probably right.” Slinging her bag over her shoulder, Sweetie said, “Hey, want to get some breakfast before class?”
Suki put her phone away, and her friends all stood, laughing and talking about how Coach had seemed even more stressed out today than usual, chewing viciously on a wad of gum. Then she’d yelled at Andrea for not giving 110 percent and had almost choked on it.
Sweetie kept one ear on the conversation, but her mind kept drifting back to the picture of Ashish Patel at his basketball game. What did a boy like that have to be sad about? Sweetie gave herself a mental shake. Come on, what do you care? It’s not like you’ll ever find out.