Sit by Me

By Sonia Mehta, age 17, Russian-Indian heritage, Ohio.

“Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”

Anika glances up to see pleading eyes.

“Sorry,” Anika says, looking past the girl. “Our friend asked us to save the seat.” She resumes her lunch.

The newcomer leaves. From the corner of her eye, Anika watches the new girl navigate through the crowded cafeteria. Two noisy upper classmates jostle her to the side. Anika clenches her fork. They keep walking as though the girl is invisible. The newcomer chooses an unoccupied table in the corner and sits. Anika’s chest tightens. She takes a deep breath. No relief.

“Anika, you’re mean,” Cynthia says.

“Her name’s Darsha,” Meghan adds from across the table.

“Who?” Anika feigns.

“The new student,” Cynthia replies.

“Oh, I don’t know her.”

Meghan pushes her thick glasses to the top of her broad freckled nose. “Is she from the same part of India as you?” She tugs at her thin red hair.

“No. Different region.”

“She looks a little like you, Anika. But darker.” Cynthia twists her wavy chestnut hair around her plump index finger.

Anika feels a guilty pleasure hearing these words. The desire for lighter complexions in parts of India is a poorly kept secret. The classified section of the India Today newspaper is filled with matrimonial ads. Prospective brides are described as having ‘wheatish’ or ‘cream’ complexions. The defining characteristic of men is ‘successful.’

“I feel bad for her,” Meghan says.

“Someone should talk to her,” Cynthia adds.

Anika knows this means someone else. The friends look at Darsha. She is short and thin. Her long black hair glistens with coconut oil. It is pulled back into a messy ponytail, exaggerating the roundness of her face. She wears denim pants that are a size too large and a dull green t-shirt. Darsha stares at her plate, playing with uneaten food.

Anika rakes her fingers through her freshly straightened caramel-tinted hair. It accentuates her heart-shaped face. She tugs on the collar of her cropped Brandy Melville shirt.

“We can’t associate,” Meghan says, “or we’ll be losers too.”

Anika considers protesting but does not. She has ascended the school hierarchy to the level of blending in. She can live with that.

Three years ago a girl from India entered a classroom. She prepared for life in the States by watching every movie available to her in Surat, India. She expected to be introduced to the class by her new teacher. Such was the custom in her country. Instead, she was directed to an empty seat.

Within minutes, an American girl raised her nose and sniffed loudly. Other students mimicked the action: a pack of hyenas catching the scent of a prey. They soon triangulated the smell to the backpack under the newcomer’s desk. Disapproving looks followed. Her mother’s khichdi sat in the plastic container. It was the least spicy and malodorous dish she knew to pack for lunch.

After class, she rushed to the restroom and dumped the lentil dish. Next period she made the mistake of answering a question about Alexander Hamilton. She did not know that her thick accent sounded like marbles had been placed on her tongue, “Hamilton was a veddy (very) important patriot. He reeelly (really) cared about a strong federal government.”

A boy jeered, ”Did he reeelly?”

Snickers followed. She never volunteered another answer.

The worst introduction happened in the cafeteria. The room, the size of a football field, buzzed with a slow-moving current of American teens. Each table pre-filled with students laughing and gossiping. Their backs turned to her–a phalanx of shields. She found a corner table and sat alone. She stared relentlessly at her watch, willing the minute hand to move faster.

From her left, sunlight came through a window and separated into a rainbow on the wall. She pretended the colors were a palette of paint. She imagined dipping her brush in the red and produced her grandmother’s beet pickle. The cinnamon-anise smell touched her nostrils. A smear of green brought her Auntie’s fried elephant leaf paatra. Was that the scent of coriander? With a dash of orange, her mouth watered with the sweet cardamom-flavored jalebi.

She felt better looking at the rainbow. It was her color palette . Colors were a part of her life. She used to toss the powdered dyes at her cousins during the Holi Festival every year. The colors transformed them into living canvases.

“Earth to Anika,” Meghan says.

“What?” she mumbles, coming back to the present.

“I said, time for fifth period.”

Anika glances at Darsha’s now vacant seat. She tries imagining the new girl leaving alone. Instead. Anika sees a girl from Surat who once filled the emptiness in her heart with colors dancing on a wall. Anika has recognized the aching loneliness in another but has chosen silence. She leaves with her friends.

The next day, Anika joins her two friends at their usual table.

“Did you hear about Darsha?” Cynthia asks.

Anika looks up from her phone.

“She dropped out,” Cynthia continues.

“So soon?” Meghan says.

Anika’s stomach knots. She stares at the seat Darsha was in yesterday. Empty. That deserted table used to be hers. Her eyes drift to the window. It’s sunny outside, and a rainbow flickers through. My color palette , Anika remembers.

“Does anyone know why she quit?” she asks.

“Probably hated being a loser,” Cynthia answers.

“Where did she go?”

“I guess where she came from. Where was that again?”

“Somewhere else,” Anika whispers.

I wish you had stayed, Darsha. I should have shared my color palette. I could have. She looks again at the rainbow. It flickers merrily, unmoved by her thoughts.

A single cloud rolls in. Its shadow obscures the colors.

—Sonia Mehta, age 17, Russian Indian heritage, Ohio. The story is being published as one of the Noteworthy Entries of our 2021 Youth Honor Awards program. The story was also published by Telling Room earlier this summer.