Judy Blume meets RuPaul’s Drag Race in this funny, feel-good debut novel about a queer teen who navigates questions of identity and self-acceptance while discovering the magical world of drag.
Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.
Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.
From debut author Tanya Boteju comes a poignant, laugh-out-loud tale of acceptance, self-expression, and the colorful worlds that await when we’re brave enough to look.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens CHAPTER 1 The first time Ginny Woodland spoke to me, I vomited all over her Reeboks.
At the time, I was a haphazard assortment of fourteen-year-old body parts—frizzy black hair sprouting from an unruly ponytail, bug eyes, wide nose, ashy dark skin, practically inverted breasts, and a variety of other genetic hilarities.
She, on the other hand, was a year older, and her body parts were decidedly better suited to one another. Fair skin, freckles, a cascade of fiery red hair—from the neck up alone she was a Botticelli to my Picasso.
Her artistic head bobbed along beside me now—even more beautiful three years later. She’d just finished her shift at Old Stuff, the thrift store where she worked part-time, and I’d biked over to meet her and walk her home—part of a petrifying plan I was no longer sure I could carry out.
Sneaking sideways glances at her as we walked, I could tell she was in a good mood. She was humming some tune I didn’t know and tapping a pebble forward with her toe each step she took. I wished I was as at ease as she seemed. But as my bike rattled along beside me, my heart rattled even more inside my chest. I was trying to generate some magical source of courage to say what I came here to say, but all I seemed able to do was plod along beside her like a dolt, listening to her hum.
Though we’d known each other for three years, somehow that initial nausea had never fully disappeared, even though our relationship had managed to move past that early, revolting debacle.
When I’d first laid eyes on her in the ninth grade, Ginny had been playing basketball in the schoolyard, her lean arms and legs accentuated by a sporty top and knee-high socks, and my heart just about leaped out of my mouth.
Up to that point, my heart hadn’t experienced much in the way of leaping, or thumping, or any similar exertions. Life had been crammed with more “existing” and “observing” than other, action-related verbs. In fact, that September, my best friend Charles and I had made a habit of sitting at the same table at lunch in the schoolyard, under a forlorn cottonwood tree, watching and waiting. We didn’t mind the tree’s patchy shade or despairing limbs—the heart-shaped leaves abandoning their branches and floating down around us felt like a shield against the pandemonium of more boisterous teenagers nearby.
Our tree also provided a great vantage point from which we could safely observe all the high school “flora and fauna,” as Charles called the school’s cliques. He’d fabricate scientific-sounding categorizations for them while I’d invent extended metaphors—two nerdy kids playing a lunchtime game to distract us from the fact that our only friends were heart-shaped leaves.
“Ah look, Nima, there’s the dividas et conquer-ass,” Charles would say, pointing to one of the popular kids in grade eleven who swept past the courts with a trio of minions tailing him. Charles’s full lips would twist into grotesque shapes as he used an unidentifiable accent. “These trees are known to grow in tight clumps for protection, but will easily turn upon one another if forced to fight for the sun, scraping their way past each other’s tough bark and branches and displacing their own flowering blossoms in the process.” He’d curl his fingers into claws and force them upon one another in a simulated attack, his eyes going cross-eyed.
“Notice,” I’d add, “one member has separated from the group—a single fallen petal from a tree of deceivingly delicate blossoms. What fate will follow for our forgotten friend? Will the damp ground seep into her fine features? Or will some romantic soul pass by, pluck her off the pavement, and savor her forever?”
Admittedly, I could get carried away. When I did, Charles would throw a Froot Loop at me—he always had Froot Loops in his lunch, sometimes for his lunch—and we’d dissolve into giggles.
This was less exciting than some high school experiences, I suppose.
However, it was from the sparse shade of our cottonwood tree that Ginny Woodland—with her athletic body and radiant smile—took hold of my heart and sent it spiraling into a whole host of action verbs.
I’d had crushes on girls before. I’d realized in sixth grade that girls did something to my body and brain that boys never seemed to when Cassidy Grims dared a bunch of us to touch the tips of our tongues with one another’s. My tongue touched the tips of three girl tongues and four boy tongues that day, and let’s just say I had zero interest in touching any more boy tongues, but the flutter in my heart and the warm surge in other parts of my body made me want a lot more girl touching of all kinds.
Unfortunately, no more touching had taken place by the time ninth grade rolled around, but those warm and fluttery feelings perked up considerably when I saw Ginny. It didn’t even matter that she seemed, as I discovered, to prefer boy tongues.
But after barfing on her shoes, those feelings remained concealed, I remained an unfortunate assembly of features, and Ginny continued to be a distant desire.
Today I’d finally decided to bridge the gap.
In my mind, it’d been long enough since the Barf that I’d replenished whatever minor amount of self-respect I had in order to finally divulge my everlasting love for her. On top of that, she’d be graduating and leaving behind our small West Coast town for a university at the other end of the country when the summer ended. It had felt like a now-or-never situation.
But here, in the late afternoon light and with her smiling and laughing beside me, too many obstacles were presenting themselves.
For one, I’d apparently been rendered speechless.
As preparation, I’d envisioned the love scenes I read during my brief romance novel phase and practiced the conversation in my head over and over again.
Ginny, it’s time you knew: I’ve loved you for three years. Make me the happiest girl in the world?
Ginny, I know you haven’t shown any interest in dating girls, but gender is a construct. Be my girlfriend?
Ginny, before you leave for university, you need to know I loved you even before I barfed on your shoes.
Ginny, you’re perfect. I love you.
Those all seemed preposterous now. How was it that I had all the words in the world to refashion life into metaphors, but still couldn’t form a damn sentence around this girl?
Another obstacle was her current attire. It was June, and warm (and getting hotter by the second), so Ginny wore a spaghetti-strap tank top, revealing her adorable freckly shoulders. I swear, those freckles would be the death of me. They’d been part of my downfall from the beginning.
That woeful, pukey day in ninth grade, I’d been staring blissfully at them as she sat in front of me on the gymnasium bleachers. After watching her (in an innocent, non-stalkery way) play on the outdoor courts each lunch hour throughout September, I’d somehow convinced myself that attending basketball tryouts would give me ample opportunity to win Ginny over with my wit and literary flair. If you ask me now to check my math on that particular equation, I might politely decline the request, but at the time, it all made perfect sense in my pubescent brain.
So it was on a chilly fall day in October that I found my scrawny self in a group of mostly tenth-grade girls who looked like they had more justifiable reasons for being in that gym than I did.
I’d strategically situated myself just behind Ginny. Her hair soared from the top of her head in a high ponytail, the red, precisely trimmed tips reaching the nape of her neck. The light brown freckles that dotted her shoulders were perfectly visible because she was wearing an actual basketball jersey, not a cotton T-shirt that said SCREAMING WEENIES—NO MESSIN’ AROUND! on the front and had a cartoon on the back of a serious-looking hot dog in a cowboy hat hollering and waving around a smaller hot dog like a gun.
This is what I was wearing, by the way.
I was busy counting each freckle on her right shoulder when Mrs. Nicholls, our PE teacher and coach, marched in bouncing a basketball and carrying a clipboard. Tossing the ball to one of the girls in the front row, she told us to call out our names one by one so she could write them down.
Just the sound of Ginny’s voice on a normal day sent my insides rolling, and at her enthusiastic “Ginny Woodland!” my stomach performed a full backflip. It was still trying to find its footing when my turn arrived, and my own name toppled from my mouth sounding like “Numatark” rather than “Nima Kumara-Clark,” which is my actual name. A few girls snickered, but Ginny looked back at me, and the freckles on her cheeks lifted in a friendly smile. I almost threw up right then and there.
But “the Great Basketball Barf,” as both Ginny and Charles so cleverly christened it later on, occurred about halfway through the tryouts, which were moving along fabulously.
And by fabulously, I mean I’d never been exposed to such torture in my life. One such agony occurred when Mrs. Nicholls forced each of us to shoot a free throw, the consequence of a missed shot resulting in a “suicide”—an inappropriately named procedure requiring you to run back and forth between each important line on the court.
Of course, I missed my free throw because, quite simply, I’d never shot one before. I hadn’t even thought to practice or watch a couple of WNBA highlight reels. Let’s face it—I was fourteen, crushing hard, and nowhere near clearheaded enough to think all this through. Was I the only one to miss my shot, resulting in a suicide? No. But was I the only one to shoot the ball over the backboard, hit the wall, and have it rebound into the back of Penny Dupuis’s head?
By the time each of us had our turn (of course, Ginny’s shot barely touched the net as it sailed precisely through the middle of the hoop), most of us were already on the verge of throwing up from the twelve suicides we’d run. So when Mrs. Nicholls randomly placed us in pairs for our next activity/ordeal, and Ginny got stuck with me, and she thrust out her hand to introduce herself and said, “Hey, my name is Ginny!” in the friendliest voice imaginable, I vomited all over her brand-spanking-new Reeboks—flecks of ham sandwich from my lunch dappling the white leather and laces along with much of the gym floor around them.
Ginny stood frozen for what felt like thirty years, her mouth agape and her eyes glued to her shoes. Bent over and holding my stomach, I too shifted my eyes to her shoes, completely incapable of comprehending what I’d just done. The gym remained silent. I could feel my eyes begin to water.
Mrs. Nicholls’s whistle finally screeched across the quiet, followed by, “Well, what’re you all lookin’ at? Somebody get a mop, for Pete’s sake!”
Despite the tight cramping in my stomach, I simply turned and ran from the gym all the way home, determined never to play basketball, talk to girls, or eat ham sandwiches ever again.
With a swift movement, Ginny punted the pebble in front of me as we continued to walk.
“Kick it, Nima!”
The pebble tapped off the front wheel of my bike and paused in front of me.
I gave Ginny a halfhearted laugh, but my body instantly tensed. Given my abysmal athletic abilities, even the smallest things that required coordination—like kicking this pebble, while walking, while holding my bike—gave me anxiety. But if I didn’t play along, Ginny would think I was no fun. And I needed to prove to her that not only was I fun, but I was fun enough to spend the rest of her life with.
So, using my bike for stability, I focused hard on the pebble, performed an awkward shuffle-shuffle-step routine to negotiate the space between me and the pebble, and then tried to boot it as hard as I could.
Because not only was I fun, I was strong, too.
I guess I misjudged the amount of pressure I needed to hold on to my bike, though, because as my one leg kicked, the other leaned hard into my bike, and both bike and scrawny body began to tip dangerously over.
Ginny didn’t miss a beat. Her hands shot out instantly and grabbed an arm and a bike handle, pulling us both back to a safe, standing position.
“Whoa! Close one,” she said, an affectionate grin on her face.
More awkwardness followed when I couldn’t find the words to address any of this mishap and just tittered uncomfortably.
The pebble, of course, remained in the exact same spot it had been, likely snickering at me from its cozy patch in the dirt. Ginny’s grin also remained as she began to tell me a story from her workday—presumably to distract me from my utter failure as a pebble kicker.
That smile—though it just made me feel even worse now—had been a saving grace the day after my big barf. Ginny had approached me and Charles at our usual picnic table at recess. I’d conjured up images of brick walls and barbed wire to protect me from her impending ire, but to my amazement, her friendly grin greeted us and she’d simply asked how I was feeling. My mouth hadn’t worked very well during our exchange, but I’d managed to stammer out an apology, and she’d managed to artfully ignore my general ineptitude at conversation.
Shockingly, I didn’t make the basketball team, but I did become team manager. I think Mrs. Nicholls just felt sorry for me, but I had to take what I could get. I recorded stats and made sure water bottles remained full. I’d also rebound for Ginny at lunch sometimes whenever Charles had something science-y to catch up on, and she tried to teach me a few things about shooting and dribbling.
I kept waiting for her and her friends to play some prank on me or tell me how weird I looked in my hot dog T-shirt, but they never did either of those things. In fact, some of her friends would even say hi to us when they walked by our picnic table at lunch. They’d never sit with us, mind you, but we weren’t entirely ignored either. Ginny seemed to have blown a cheerful, protective bubble around us, and we were grateful for it.
By the end of the season, I still couldn’t dribble without bouncing the ball off my foot, nor could I seem to find the hoop when it was right in front of me, but Ginny Woodland and I had become friends. And despite my ongoing desire to kiss her and feel her hand in mine and call her my girlfriend, and her ongoing, unfortunate interest in boys, I saved all my emotional turmoil for Charles and told myself that friendship was better than nothing.
And that was the story I stuck to, for a while.
I blinked back the memories of barf and turbulence as I shuffled along beside Ginny now, my face still hot from my blunder. I focused hard on just moving one foot in front of the other, worried about tripping over myself again. But I was also willing myself forward, when all I really wanted to do was stop, get on my bike, and ride away from the impending exchange between us.
Ginny was chatting gleefully about one of her customers at Old Stuff—something about a retiree asking for “hipster pants”—and I quickly assessed the decision-making process that had led me to this moment in order to convince myself that my methodology was sound.
I’d done all the requisite research in the days leading up to my grand revelation.
First I’d asked my dad for his advice, since he’d somehow managed to nab my mother, who—and I’m not trying to be cruel—was definitely a lush bougainvillea to my dad’s stout desert cactus. He had his charms, mind you—a strong chin, enormous but dexterous hands, soft curls that fell across his face. But to see him—looming, pale, slow—next to my mom, whose dark brown skin and compact frame seemed to be in constant, vibrant motion, startled one’s sense of symmetry. So I thought he might have some insights for a skinny brown kid with her eyes on a perfect goddess.
The tricky part was this: my mom left us a year and a half ago, and we didn’t talk much about her or her inexplicable departure. It was sensitive territory for both of us, but I’d figured if I could manage to ask about her, my dad could probably manage an answer, right?
I’d tried to keep it light as I made tea one morning last week and he read the newspaper at the kitchen table.
“So, Delford, tell me: How’d you manage to score Mom?”
He hadn’t even looked up. “I got skills, that’s how.”
I hated when he tried to talk like a teenager. “Right. And which skills would those be?”
He snapped the paper to straighten out the creases and folded it closed. Leaning back and pushing his hair out of his face, he’d replied, “Mad skillz. And that’s ‘skillz’ with a z.”
I flared my nostrils at him and shook my head. “Cool . . . now, how about the truth?”
Placing a finger to his lips, he’d looked up as though the answer floated somewhere along the kitchen ceiling. Finally he said, “I have no idea. I still can’t believe I did score her. That’s the truth.” He looked at me—a glint of wet in his eyes—then shrugged and went back to his paper.
Okay, Nima, I’d thought, maybe not the smartest move. Circling my arms around his neck from behind, I pecked his cheek and offered, “Well, you did, and she was lucky to have you.”
He’d ruffled his paper in response.
Not much to go on there. Next I’d consulted Charles, who also turned out to be generally useless (his love life had remained a desolate wasteland throughout high school too).
He just launched into an indignant lecture, his eyes rolling behind the blue-tinted glasses he always wore: “Think carefully, Nima. Is it really worth the risk? Remember the pre-Ginny era? We were perfectly contented fourteen-year-olds until she walked into the picture!” He’d shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and crossed his bony arms.
His chagrin wasn’t completely unreasonable. After all, he’d had to listen to three years’ worth of woe over my perpetual, unreciprocated desire for Ginny. I guess it was also understandable, then, that his only advice when I asked him how I should finally display my love for her was “Don’t.”
Having exhausted my limited resources—Dad and Charles—I’d found myself lying on my bed last night, staring at my bookshelf and wondering why I couldn’t just look like the typical, irresistible heroine, or why an enchanted fairy couldn’t whisk me up in one of those magical makeover tornadoes. Then I found myself wishing my mom was there to give me advice, but that just plopped sadness on top of my anxiety over Ginny, so I’d turned to look at the photos taped above my desk instead.
Ginny and me with the basketball team. Ginny squishing Charles into a selfie against his will. Ginny and me with straws up our noses.
I’d reminded myself that Ginny would be gone at the end of the summer, and if I didn’t go through with this soon, I’d be left staring at old photos forever.
Now, sneaking another glance at her perfect face next to me, I wondered for the billionth time what Ginny saw when she looked at my face. When I saw her, I thought about whether her lips would feel soft or spongy against mine. I thought about how long I could stare into her clear green eyes without getting embarrassed and looking away. I thought about kissing each and every freckle on her face.
I couldn’t imagine someone thinking any of those things about me. Whereas my features had been a befuddling mix as a fourteen-year-old, now they just seemed unremarkable. I had zero kissable freckles, plain brown eyes, and constantly chapped lips. People always seemed to think that having parents in different shades automatically made you exotic and beautiful. But I felt like my features might die from boredom.
I clicked my brakes in and out on my handlebars a few times. Should she hit the brakes now, before careening into a cavernous heartache? Or does she shift into high gear and grind her way up the steep hill of romance?
My jaw had grown so tight in the time we’d been walking, it felt like I’d need a crowbar to pry my mouth open. But her house was getting closer and closer, and somehow, the thought of making my declaration in her kitchen, or living room, or—God forbid—her bedroom, seemed infinitely more terrifying.
Staring hard into my handlebars and mustering up every ounce of daring I had in me—which was exactly half an ounce—I finally spit out, “Ginny, I consider you a good friend. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, silly, I know.” She pushed my arm and I almost fell over my bike again—from the push mainly, but also because my feet felt like flippers.
“But do you also know that—”
She stopped walking and put her hand on my arm. I stopped too. “Nima. You know I love you, but I love you as a friend, and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. Okay?” She gave my arm a squeeze and then let go.
My eyes immediately found my shoes.
She knew. All this time. And never said anything.
And I didn’t even get to finish my sentence.
My fingers, wrapped around both handlebars, gripped tighter and tighter until they hurt. Tears pricked, but I blinked them back. As I did, I willed a grin across my face and forced myself to meet her green eyes. “Oh, yeah, for sure. Keep it simple, right?” My voice echoed thinly between us.
The crack in my heart widened when her face settled into relief. “Exactly. Why ruin something as great as this?” She threw her arm around my shoulders and nattered on about my rebounding abilities.
I barely heard a word she said. I was too busy wishing for the Giant Hand of God to squash me with its enormous thumb.
By the time we parted and I trudged up my patio steps, I’d thought about all the things I could have—should have—done differently before blurting out my feelings like an ass. Tell her a funny story. Reach for her hand. Gaze into her eyes. And I thought about the worst offense of all: I couldn’t even finish telling her I love her.
As each missed opportunity emerged, my body slowly caved in on itself. I barely made it upstairs to my room before collapsing onto the bed, where I remained for hours torturously replaying each moment of my unfulfilled desire over the past three years in my head and wondering if I’d ever have those opportunities again. If I’d ever know what it was like to be wanted by someone else.
Sorrow was becoming an unrelenting companion. When my mom left, my heart experienced its first deep wound. Now that Ginny had stomped all over it, I guess you could say I was starting to develop some pretty solid calluses.
Tanya Boteju is an English teacher and writer living on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, Canada). She believes feminism, diversity, committed educators, sassy students, and hot mugs of tea will save the day. She is also grateful for her patient wife who builds her many bookshelves! Tanya may have been a drag king in her well-spent youth and knows that the queer community is full of magic and wonder. With Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, she hopes she’s brought some of that magic to those who need it most.