Read an Excerpt
From Twinkle, with Love
Monday, June 1
Hello, namaste, buenos dias, and bonjour, Mira Nair!
Name: Twinkle Mehra
Occupation: Sadly, a junior at Pikes Peak Charter in Colorado Springs. And ugh, the only one who’s still sixteen. Mummy and Papa obviously thought they’d birthed a prodigy when they stuck me in kindergarten a whole year early . . . ha. But that doesn’t matter. If you learn only one thing about me, it’s that I think I have a filmmaker’s soul. Like you, Mira. There are so many universes I want to explore with my camera.
BFF: Maddie Tanaka. Well, used to be, anyway. Now it’s . . . complicated.
Crush: Duh. Neil Roy. Since forever.
So, now that we’re acquainted, can I just say that I’m a huuuuge fan? Like, the biggest. I mean, okay, I’m not deluded. I know you’re never going to read this in a million years. But somehow, writing to you in here feels like you’re listening.
This diary was a birthday present from Dadi, by the way. She was all, “Take this, Twinkle. Put the words of your heart in the pages as you put the images of your heart in your movies.” As far as grandmothers go, she’s pretty cool (and pretty kooky, but that’s a story for another day). Anyway, it sat in my desk drawer for about nine months, but then I thought, Why not? What’s it going to hurt to try to journal? I thought writing to my fave female filmmakers would be way more fun than writing to myself. Or to one of Dadi’s “soul bearers from beyond the veil.” (Too long of a story to go into right now.)
Some might call people like me losers. I myself prefer the term “groundlings.” See, in Shakespearean times, these were the poor people who would have to stand in the front of the stage and got called out (unfairly, IMO) for being rowdy and smelly and having the mange or whatnot. And then there were the snooty people in the back, who got to sit in, like, covered areas and look down at the groundlings and feel all superior in their silk feathered hats. But Shakespeare would never have gotten famous if he hadn’t appealed to the groundlings.
Here’s a little secret, though: I wouldn’t completely mind if I were something other than a groundling. It’s not like I’m silk feathered hat material or anything, but still. To be even one social status level above the one I am right now would change my life because I’m pretty sure it would give me my best friend—who is now definitely one of the silk feathered hats—back. And bonus: It would help transform me from Invisible Twinkle to someone people recognize, maybe even someone who tells stories others want to hear.
So now I’m sitting here in homeroom and Hannah Macintosh just took off her six-hundred-dollar shoes (I know because she told the entire class that’s how much they cost in Milan) to show Victoria Lyons her pedicure. If I were a teeny bit braver, I’d go over there and ask, “Hey, Hannah, did you steal those shoes? I only ask because it seems you like taking things that don’t belong to you, like my best friend.” Maybe I’ll ask Dadi if she knows any incantations that’ll grow me a courage gland.
Oops, there’s the bell. More soon.
Still Monday, June 1
Hey-o, Sofia Coppola.
I’m sitting here trying not to expire of totalicus boredumus while Mrs. Mears explains the life cycle of the royal walnut moth, aka Citheronia regalis, aka kill me now. And you wanna know what Maddie’s doing?
Drawing a six-color diagram of said life cycle. With gel pens. I guess she doesn’t make mistakes? Even Mrs. Mears, the biologist, didn’t draw us a diagram. But Maddie probably wants to be thorough. Oh, and she’s written her name at the top of the page with her new markers (she gets new stationery and school supplies as often as regular people get new . . . Um, actually, I don’t know where I was going with that. She just gets them a lot), along with the date, and underlined everything three times.
Maddie wants to be a physician-scientist. Yeah, that’s really a thing. Being a plain old doctor or a plain old scientist isn’t challenging enough, so she decided she wants to combine them. But I’m thankful. Because if I ever get a rare disease that causes my butt to break out in fluorescent hives or something totally rando like that, I know Maddie’s the only one who could save me. She’s sort of a genius.
It must run in the family. Her dad, James Tanaka, is a world-famous artist who regularly challenges ideas of the mundane with his mixed-media pieces and has gallery showings in the United States, Tokyo, Paris, and London (literally what it says on his website in the “about” section). Plus, Maddie’s ultra-rich. She lives in one of those old neighborhoods in Broadmoor in a giant mansion.
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed even after Maddie gave up her groundling membership and became one of the silk feathered hat people. She’s still super ambitious. I haven’t been to her house in months, but I bet she still has that poster board she made of her five-year plan. It has pictures of the Johns Hopkins campus, where she wants to go to college and med school, places she wants to travel (Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, Edinburgh, London), and pictures of the type of boy she wants to date (Japanese-American like her, with tattoos and not taller than 5’10”; she says she wants to meet him in the second year of medical school).
Meanwhile, I’m like, maybe I’ll waitress/travel after high school? Or go to film school at USC if I can get a scholarship? Or live in my parents’ house forever, decrying the death of the arts?
Maybe that’s why our friendship is as doomed as the Globe Theatre. Maybe I’m not ambitious enough for Maddie. Or cool enough. Or confident enough. Or, or, or.
A lot of your films were about being on the outside looking in, Sofia. I wonder what advice you’d give me. How do I step over the threshold and join my best friend again?
Oh, crap. Mrs. Mears is giving me the evilicus eyeicus. I better go.
Still later on Monday, June 1
Hi again, Sofia!
You’ll never believe who I saw today at Perk (full name: Perk Me Up Before I Go Go, but who has the time to say all of that?) drinking coffee and lounging like the half-Indian, half-white god he is.
Neil. Freaking. Roy.
It’s a travesty, but the only class we share right now is AP English. He’s pretty bad at it, for someone who’s definitely headed to Harvard. He once asked Ms. Langford why Hester in The Scarlet Letter didn’t run away from her town in basically a big F U to society. He implied she was being dumb. And I was like, Neil. How do you not get that Hester wants to stay there and find out what the scarlet A means to her? She clearly wants to try to determine her own identity in an agentic manner versus accepting one that’s forced upon her by a patriarchal society. I even opened my mouth to say that. But then I closed it. Being a human belonging to the wallflower genus, I’m kinda used to swallowing my words instead of speaking them. (Dadi says it’s because my aatma is made of gauze and feathers, whatever that means.) And anyway, this was Neil.
So when I saw him at Perk, I almost walked right into the display by the door, but I stopped myself just in time. He was sitting there, his legs splayed like he owned the place. Patrick O’Cleary and some of the other guys from the swim team were with him, too, all of them talking about the upcoming season and how Neil wouldn’t be at school because he was going to some pre-Olympic training camp for the rest of the month.
I love swim season. Neil, in swim trunks. Broad male shoulders glistening with water. The smell of chlorine. Neil, in swim trunks.
Okay. Here’s something I’ve never told anyone: My crush isn’t just because of Neil’s looks or his hypnotizing athleticism or the fact that he’s a future physicist genius. It’s because if someone like Neil Roy went out with me, the other silk feathered hat people would want to hang out with me too. Like Maddie. Maybe I’d come out of my shell, bringing my camera with me, and people would finally listen to the stories I have inside me. I’ve always felt like I was meant to be more than an invisible wallflower. This could be my ticket to an alternate life, Sofia, a way to become one of the insiders.
I walked up to the counter, overly aware that Neil was behind me now. Was my back sweaty? Was my T-shirt sticking to me? Could he see my cringesome ratty beige bra through it? Curse you, eighty-degree summer days, when I have to walk everywhere and live in a house with no AC. I casually loosened my braid so my hair could cover what my T-shirt might not. Then I tossed a strand over my shoulder and hazarded a look at his table.
Huh. He hadn’t even noticed me.
I deflated a little. I was that overlookable? I glanced around the café at the other silk feathered hats. None of them had noticed me, either. I deflated even more, until I was about half my original size.
My gaze passed over Neil’s identical twin brother, Sahil Roy, who apparently had noticed me and was now smiling, his face bright and happy. He sat at a table with his best friends, Skid (white, short, and wiry) and Aaron (the only black and openly gay person in our class; seriously, diversity, PPC. Look it up). They were being quieter—and geekier—than Neil’s group while discussing that new alien movie, which goes without saying. They’re total groundlings too. I smiled back.
“Can I help you?”
The thirtysomething mustachioed barista behind the counter was staring at me in a way that meant he’d probably had to ask that more than once. His name badge read STAN.
“Hi, Stan,” I said. “Can I get a small iced mocha? I have this.” Rummaging in my pocket, I fished out the coupon I’d gotten for winning an essay contest before winter break and handed it over.
He barely looked at it before handing it back. “It’s expired.”
“No, no, it’s not.” I pointed to the fine print, my palms getting sweaty even at this tiny amount of confrontation. “See? It says June first is the last day to claim this. And it’s June first.”
Stan’s mustache twitched spitefully as he pointed to the finer fine print. “See that? It says June first at five p.m. And it is now”—he checked his wristwatch—“five twenty-four p.m.”
Twenty-four minutes. He was denying me for a lousy twenty-four minutes. “Okay, Stalin,” I muttered as I stuffed the coupon back into my pocket.
He leaned toward me. “What did you say?” Oh God. His mustache quivered indignantly, almost independent of his face.
“Uh . . . nothing. I said, um, thanks, Sta-an.” I stretched his name into two syllables to make the lie more believable and smiled weakly.
“So, are you gonna get anything or not?” he asked, eyeing me like I was a bug he’d found swimming in his perfect coffee.
I looked at the menu and sighed. It was almost five dollars for the coffee, which was my lunch allowance for the week. If I bought it, I’d have to do without at school, and hungry Twinkle was hangry Twinkle. “No, that’s okay,” I said, my cheeks hot. In that instant, I was kind of glad about my invisibility powers. At least none of the silk feathered hats had heard how Twinkle Mehra couldn’t even afford an iced mocha.
In my hurry to escape, I almost smacked face-first into a muscled chest. OHMYGOD, my brain shouted as I tipped my head back and took in those light-brown eyes, that thick lacy fringe of eyelashes. IT’S HIM IT’S NEIL OHMYGO—oh, wait. My brain registered more details, like the red skull on the black T-shirt. The smile that was half shy, half awkward, not at all like Neil’s full-on, sear-your-retinas-with-its-strength-but-you-won’t-even-notice-the-pain-because-it’s-so-glorious smile.
“Oh, hey, Sahil,” I said, trying to go around him. “ ’Scuse me.”
“Wait. I could buy you that coffee?” he said, pivoting to see me. “Um, if you want?”
I stopped and looked at him, feeling that cringy-hot feeling I always get when people call attention to money. Specifically, how they have it and I don’t. “That’s . . . nice, but you don’t have to do that.”
“No, no, I want to,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets and then taking them out again. “Um, heat wave.”
Huh? Was that supposed to make sense? “You . . . what?”
“I . . . just meant there’s a heat wave outside. You definitely need an iced coffee.” Then he grinned suddenly, this thing that set all his teeth on display, and leaned back. It all had a very rehearsed vibe.
I opened my mouth to (a) tell him eighty degrees and a light breeze hardly qualified as a heat wave and (b) point out that he was edging dangerously close to the napkin holder. Sadly, I was too late delivering point (b).
Sahil sent it flying to the floor, and the napkins went everywhere. He stared at the mess for a minute in silence. And then we both ducked down to clean up the mess, knocking heads (of course; how else would two groundlings clean up a mess?) and groaning.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” Sahil said as I rubbed my forehead.
“That’s okay.” I stuffed the remaining napkins back into the holder and then stood up to face mustachioed Stan, who was watching this unfold with unadulterated glee beaming off his annoying, dictatorial face. “Um, yeah. I’ll have that iced mocha after all.” I figured it was easier to just accept than risk another mini disaster. I smiled at Sahil. “Thanks.”
He waved me off. “Ah, no, no worries.” And then I’m pretty sure he asked me a question, which I didn’t hear because it was then that Neil Roy began to walk toward me.
His eyes were locked on mine and everything.
At least, that’s what I thought at first. But then he got closer and I saw he was looking at his brother, Sahil. Just Sahil.
“Yo, I’m heading over to Patrick’s,” he said. “Can you catch a ride with someone?”
“Sure,” Sahil said, turning back to me.
And then Neil Roy winked at me. Winked. At me. “Hey,” he said, all casually, running a hand through his soft (it looks soft anyway), thick black hair. “How’s it going?”
Neil Roy asked me a freaking question. And I responded by gawking at him. What should I say? Something cool and casual and maybe even a little bit funny?
The seconds ticked by. I realized I was still standing there with this idiotic, glazed smile on my face. OH MY GOD, TWINKLE, JUST SAY SOMETHING. ANYTHING.
But by the time I’d decided to rejoinder with a perfectly acceptable, “Pretty good, and you?” his back was already to me. And those bulging calf muscles were taking him to the door.
I blinked Sahil back into focus, trying to ignore the thudding disappointment at my own geekiness. “Yeah?”
Neil smoothly tossed a balled-up paper napkin into the trash from across the room, and then he and his friends walked outside together. His back wasn’t sweaty. And the other guys had their heads swiveled toward him, constantly watching him, listening to what he had to say. See? That was the sort of guy shiny, future Twinkle Mehra should date.
“ . . . business card.”
Crap. I’d missed what Sahil was saying—again—because I was ogling his brother. Anyway, context. Come on. Look around. Look at his face. What might he have said? Oh, right. He was holding out a business card. I took it, frowning slightly.
Sahil Roy, Film Critic, it said. There was a phone number below it.
“You’re into films, aren’t you?” he asked, tugging at his T-shirt.
Am I into films? Ha. Ha ha ha. Only like Bill Nye is into science. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “Definitely.”
Sahil smiled his shy/awkward smile. “Cool. I am too. You should think about joining the film club sometime.” He rubbed the top of his ear. “And that’s, uh, my cell number there.” He cleared his throat and then coughed violently, choking on his own spit. I patted him on the back while he stared at me, his eyes wide.
“Do you need some water?” I was starting to get worried about the color his face was turning.
He shook his head and walked back to his table, where his friend Skid, sighing, handed him his cup of water. Aaron tossed me a smile and I nodded back.
I found Stan holding out my cup and I took it. “Thanks.” I walked up to Sahil’s table. “Hey, uh, thanks again for the coffee. I gotta go, but it was nice seeing you guys.”
Aaron and Skid held up a hand and Sahil cleared his throat. “Sure, no problem,” he said, all hoarse and funny-sounding. “Take care.”
I giggled. How could two brothers be so different, honestly? “You too.”
I looked for Neil once I was back outside, but he was long gone. Ah, well. Our Bollywood romance would have to wait.
One day, though. One day I’ll be the Alia Bhatt to his Shahid Kapoor.