When she was eleven years old, Pash Amini made friends with a set of twins. The two of them had always been in the same classes, from preschool straight on up through fifth grade, and were ecstatic about middle school finally forcing them apart.
They’d been identical down to the last pore, with hard black eyes and soft brown ponytails—Subin’s with illicitly obtained highlights from a girl two cabins down—that fell smooth and silky over their shoulders. Sumi sometimes didn’t bother brushing hers. Pash had shared a cabin with them at summer camp and they had bonded over being the only people in their age group who weren’t born and bred Minnesotans.
At the time, she hadn’t been able to fathom such a luxury. She could never quite force her mind around it, the idea of being so overwhelmingly close to someone that just the idea of something coming between them was appealing. Subin had sworn up and down that Pash was blessed beyond belief for being an only child, but then Sumi had started hurling balled socks at her before Pash could weigh in.
“I think she’s from California,” Bliss had said, and at the time Pash had wondered where she’d heard that. Her family had only been in San Diego until she’d turned seven. It turned out small-town high school gossip was getting a lot of mileage out of the half-Arab girl with the skull-bedecked wardrobe coming to town.
“She doesn’t look like she’s from California,” Corbi had said back, and Bliss had made a face as the two of them disappeared down the hall. “Really, Corbi? Really?”
Bliss, Pash learned in the space of their homeroom class, was a little different. Bliss sketched the Misfits logo onto the back of her binder and rolled her eyes when Corbi hooked pinkies with Colby Miller under their desks. Bliss had on a pair of tuxedo-striped pants that she’d probably scavenged from the boys’ department of Wal-Mart and actually managed to make them look fashionable.
Bliss didn’t blink when Pash strode up to her locker and introduced herself, fingers crossed that she’d find a bright spot in this tiny, miserable town.
“Your earrings are really cool,” Bliss said to her. “Did you make them yourself?”
Pash, she didn’t seem to have registered at all.
“Hey, Bliss,” Corbi chirped, perched on one of the lab tables with her legs swinging. “Hey, Ash.”
Pash set down her shoulder bag and wondered how cheerleaders got through game days without accidentally flashing the entire school. Corbi had a whole lot of leg going on and not a whole lot of skirt. “It’s Pash. As in passion.”
She scrutinized Pash’s face for a moment. “Huh. Is that, like, Indian?”
“It’s the name of a powerful goddess in my country,” Pash said solemnly.
Corbi blinked, then sprang off the table with a grin when her meathead boyfriend appeared on the threshold.
Bliss watched as she let Colby sweep her into a kiss that involved way too many giggles and blocked the classroom door. “Dumb question, but you weren’t serious, right?”
“Nah, I just couldn’t say Patricia when I was a baby. It stuck with me ever since.”
Bliss giggled, which made her look and sound about ten years old. “I called myself Biss and it sounded like bitch. It drove my mom crazy. She probably thinks I did it on purpose.” She slid a glance at Pash from beneath her purple-mascaraed lashes. “Look, I know you wanna ask. Go ahead.”
Over at the door, some poor hapless soul was trying to squeeze into the room without getting elbowed or interrupting the makeout session. Pash snorted. “So you and Corbi, huh? What’s the story there?”
“I’d like to preface this by saying shared history accounts for a lot, okay? Like, she used to wet the bed when we had sleepovers in elementary school. My bed. And I’d share my sleeping bag anyway. I know it sounds weird, but we go back. ”
“Wow,” Pash said blandly, very much aware that she’d never had a go-to sleepover buddy in elementary school or any other school. “Exchanging bodily fluids. Do tell.”
Bliss delicately lifted her middle finger and pushed up her glasses. “It’s kind of a long story. Our moms were frenemies back in the day.”
And that was how she’d learned about Bliss’s pageant history.
She’d been fully expecting to miss Bliss, but every second she’d spent in Bodeen she’d also spent dying to be out of it. And in a lot of ways, New York was everything she’d ever wanted. You had to really work to be bored but, Pash was learning, you also had to work to be heard. In New York, amateur zombie films were a dime a dozen and no one looked twice at her homemade earrings or asked what kind of a name Pash was. After spending most of her life feeling like a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls, she was finally in the bagel mecca and it didn’t seem like her head would ever stop spinning.
Being in New York, Bliss had told her, was like a free ticket to coolness, and Pash was under strict orders not to screw it up. She’d worked her ass off to secure a spot at Columbia, junior year flying by in a rush of scholarship applications and financial aid pamphlets and all those essays she’d written. And there was Bliss, who reminded her at every turn that she had quite a bit of pageant money set aside and wasn’t afraid to use it on a plane ticket.
“I’m taking a gap year,” said Bliss during one of their strictly mandated Skype dates. “It’s very European.”
After an epic amount of bickering, Bliss had cut a deal with her mom: that after a year in Austin she’d start looking into taking at least a couple college classes, if not applying to actual four-year programs.
“She keeps telling me I need to be myself, but then she turns around and reminds me I need to be marketable.”
Pash made a few theatrical gagging sounds.
“I don’t know who I am,” Bliss said calmly. “I don’t get what the problem is with that. It’s not like it’s anyone else’s business. Eighteen isn’t very old and the world is, like, really, really big. You know?”
Last year, when Bliss took up roller derby, Pash had been behind her all the way (up to and beyond the point of getting arrested while Bliss was busy fornicating with that indie-rock dickbag whose name Pash pretended not to remember), but she hadn’t entertained any illusions of derby being her thing. Ever since she was four years old and refused to eat asparagus no matter how appealing her Montessori preschool teachers tried to make it sound, Pash had had very firm convictions about the sorts of things she was willing to try.
For her college applications, she’d written about being the only Middle Eastern girl in her school, how her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Iraq and were still living in San Diego, how her dad had grown up so inundated with English he hadn’t held onto much of the Arabic his parents spoke to him. “It’s called diaspora,” he’d told Pash once, the summer she met Subin and Sumi. “It’s what happens when you leave the place you’re from.”
At eleven, she hadn’t grasped exactly what this meant. “What if you don’t know where you’re from?”
Seven years later, swimming in diversity, she still didn’t quite get it and it was starting to bother her in ways it never had before.
For a minute, Bliss just eyed her critically. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but there was no sound except one of Pash’s hallmates having an overloud phone conversation in the stairwell and Massive Attack playing in the background. Love is like a sin, my love, for the one that feels it the most.
“So,” Bliss said at last, “you keep telling me you’re in this place that’s basically dripping with awesome but you’re not actually doing anything fun. Got it.”
She actually had a point. Pash had been burying herself in classes, religiously typing various club meeting times into her calendar but only attending a handful, on edge about latching onto her roommate who seemed to have started school with a preformed group of BFFs.
“I need a little time,” Pash said. “It’s a lot to take in. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the Arab student association is, like, more legitimately Arab than I am or whatever. I can’t even find the Middle East on a map.”
“What does that even mean?” squeaked Bliss. “Dude. Promise me you’ll give something a try, okay? You’re not allowed to move to fucking New York and fall apart because you can’t make up your mind. And shut up about your mad map skills, you got straight A’s all through high school, unlike some of us.”
She’d never been as impulsive as Bliss, who’d moved to Austin a heartbeat after her parents gave their blessing and was now sharing an apartment with some other college-age indie nerds she’d found on Craigslist. Basically, she was living the dream life of a filthy anarchist in roller skates, even though she’d had a moment where she was seriously thinking about shaving the underside of her head. Pash had managed to talk her out of it by explaining in unflinching detail that she’d just look like a thirteen-year-old trying to be edgy and would probably made her mom cry to boot, and in the end Bliss had acquiesced even though she still swore her mom would never have known.
“I’m gonna tell you a secret,” Pash said, lowering her voice and waggling her eyebrows. “Getting good grades doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the real world.” Under her desk, she was still clutching the flyer she’d plucked off a table in Butler.
“Whatever, it’s not like I know anything about this. Ivy League is so out of my league.”
“Dude, it’s not like I’m in a castle.”
“Columbia’s little logo thingy is a crown.” Bliss drew up one leg and thumbed at the hole in the knee of her jeans, adding in singsong, “Pash is getting posh.”
“What the fuck. You’re a pageant queen, you’re not allowed to talk smack about crowns.”
Bliss howled with laughter.
“Holy shit,” breathed Pash. “That is so West Side Story.”
There was a knot in her throat, the same knot that always formed when Bliss started talking about her friends’ love lives. Pash swallowed, scolded herself for not hopping aboard the elephant in the room instead of dancing around it, and asked, “And what about you?”
“Eva isn’t really my type,” Bliss said breezily.
“Fuck you, you know what I mean.”
Bliss swung herself back into a sitting position and shoved her hair off her face. “I met a guy at this one reggae show, but I don’t have time for that, you know? I’ve got work and derby and my mom really wants me to take a class or two.”
Something in Pash’s chest loosened up all at once. Bliss was frowning at her.
“You know I’d tell you, right? You’d be the first to know if I ever did meet someone even remotely cool.”
“Duh,” Pash said. “So you know Hiranthi, that girl down the hall? She finally got her nose pierced and she says the guy is really good. I’m thinking about checking it out.”
“I want to get something pierced, but my mom would freak,” Bliss said sulkily. “But I could just do it somewhere she’d never see, right?” She glanced down at her chest and tugged her octopus-print t-shirt in a little tighter. “The thing about nipple piercings is that I’d be worried about, like, falling on them during a bout or something.”
“Wow, what a rebel,” Pash murmured. “You’re getting really badass, huh?”
“You’re not,” Bliss said pointedly. “Go a little crazy, okay? This city’s gonna suck you in and spit you back out if you don’t grab it by the balls.”
Under her desk, Pash was fiddling with one of the spangled headbands she’d made the previous week. “Is that something you read in a Welcome to Austin brochure?”
Bliss smirked. “It’s something Holly said in the hot tub a few weekends ago. Way more reliable.”
“So,” Pash drawled, trying not to spill ramen down the front of her pajama top. “Did you sign up for any classes like your mom wanted you to?”
“Yeah, I’m doing this one on ASL so I can talk to the Manson sisters better, and the other one’s cooking because my mom thinks I’ll starve and I need to prove myself or something.” Bliss took a rather mournful bite of her own ramen. “I kept telling her I could just eat whatever expired stuff Smashley pulls off the shelves at Whole Foods, but I don’t think she thought it was very funny. What about you, anything fabulous and exciting going on?"
Pash held up the flyer.
“What’s that for?”
“Horse racing,” Pash said, exasperated. “It’s a picture of a chick with hearts on her boobs, what do you think it’s for?”
Bliss took off her glasses, tapped her chin with one of the stems, and deliberately slid them back on. It would have looked very dignified if she hadn’t had a stray noodle clinging to her collar. “I think I’m gonna need you to spell this out for me. Slowly and clearly.”
“Amateur burlesque, aka my new favorite hobby.”
The look on Bliss’s face made her wish she’d mentioned this weeks ago.
“Wait, what? Pash, you told me you lasted like two months that one time you took ballet.”
“Because I was the only girl in third grade who had to wear a training bra and I stuck out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else in my class. But, I mean, aside from the debilitating humiliation? The dancing part was pretty fun.”
“So you’re…burlesquing. Okay.”
“Yeah, see, last year my friend did this thing where she started hanging out with a ragtag group of ladies who dressed funny, so I figure now it’s my turn.”
“The Hurl Scouts aren’t ragtag,” Bliss protested automatically. “Come on, tell me more. Do you like it more than awkward third-grade ballet?”
“It’s pretty cool. Like, I used to think you had to be skinny-mini to do that kind of thing, but boobs are kind of awesome when you’re perfecting the fine art of tassel-spinning.”
“I hate you,” Bliss declared. “Go on.”
“I’m getting gelato with Hiranthi in like half an hour. Next time, okay?”
“Bring some cool pasties,” Bliss ordered, slurping up some more ramen. “I need proof that you’re actually doing this.”
“I’m serious,” Pash began. “It’s a lot like what you do: pick a cool name and dress up and get a good workout, only with burlesque you wear less and don’t break people’s noses.”
Bliss still looked skeptical. “And this is an actual Columbia-okayed club? You know, I wiki’d Columbia and you’ve got, like, secret tunnels and stuff all over the place. Black-market burlesque could totally be a thing.”
“It’s just a thing in the Village, not an official campus club or anything. Some of us are students, some aren’t. They think I’m cool because I got arrested once. I told ’em it was all because my best friend sucks.”
“Hey,” Bliss yelped. “So you have no right to make fun of my pageants now, you know that, right?”
“No,” Pash said slowly, “I totally still can. Some of these ladies are hardcore, especially the ones who do pole-dancing too. Your itty-bitty biceps couldn’t handle a pole.”
“I totally have biceps now,” Bliss whined, rolling up a sleeve and striking a pose that made her look like Popeye the Sailor’s malnourished little sister. “So what’s your stage name?” She simpered. “Passionberry?”
“Ugh, too easy. Try again.”
Bliss eyed her hair, which Pash’s suitemate had Dutch-braided back on both sides. “Pippi No-Stockings?”
“Oh my God, shut up. Texas Sage, because I’m a smartass and I’m from Texas. This girl in my art humanities class helped me think of it.”
Bliss’s eyes were the size of saucers. “Holy shit, could that be any more perfect?”
“They give workshops on making your own pasties and tassel-twirling tutorials and stuff. It’s pretty cool.”
“No, I just need a minute to process that. You just described yourself as being from Texas. My heart can’t handle this.”
What am I here for, Santigold was singing from Pash’s speakers. I left my home to disappear is all.
Pash gave a flippant little shrug, thinking of Subin and Sumi and how badly they’d wanted to be separated, of Corbi and how she’d let Bliss slip through her fingers without a backward glance. “Don’t let this go to your head, but you’re the best friend I’ve ever had or whatever. I think that’s supposed to count for a lot.”
“Are we gonna have a Hallmark Channel moment and do some synchronized crying now?” Bliss asked. “Maggie told me this eyeliner is, like, everything-proof and I kind of want to test it.”
Pash heaved a sigh. “If you really want to, I guess? But I was thinking we could just talk some more about boobs.”
"I'm going to marry you when I come to visit," said Bliss. "Just saying. Okay, come on, you don't get to hide your awesomeness anymore. Tell me everything you've been up to."