She knew they knew she was losing it. It was clear from the way they doted on her, the way they no longer trusted her to remember what they needed for school, the way they had started whispering to one another in front of her.
But she could change that if she’d just stop waiting for that asshole to fix it all. If she’d just face that she had to fix it herself.
She breathed in deeply. And poured herself another glass.
She put on an old Mick Riva record, his second album. She listened to “Warm June” over and over and over again, and with each go-round on the record player she’d pour herself another glass. She’d meant something to him. He could never take that away from her.
June turned to the vodka bottle again to see she’d emptied it. She went through the kitchen to get more but, instead, found a dusty old bottle of tequila.
She opened the tequila. And then she drew herself a bath.
She watched the bathroom steam up from the heat of it and breathed in the mist. It felt comforting and safe. She untied her robe, stepped out of her clothes, and slipped into the water.
She rested her arms along the walls of the tub, relaxed her head back, and breathed in the warm air. She closed her eyes. She felt like she could stay in this bath for an eternity. And everything was going to be fine.
It was her last conscious thought. Forty-five minutes later, she drowned.
June Riva, that once tenderhearted dreamer, was gone.
• • •
When Nina came home the next morning, she found her mother in the bathtub, slack and lifeless.
She rushed to try to pull her mother’s body from the water, to try to wake her. She could not process her mother’s pallor or stillness. Terror clutched her chest.
She ran through who to call at lightning speed but came up empty. Grandparents (dead), father (deadbeat). There must be someone, anyone, who could fix this.
As Nina knelt there on the bathroom floor, she felt like she was falling, falling, falling, falling. The pain had no limit, the fear no boundary. There was no net to catch her, nothing to bounce off of, no ground floor to end her agony and distress.
The moment Nina fully understood that her mother was dead was the moment she understood there was no one left in the world to count on, to lean on, to trust, to believe in.
She held her mother’s pale hand as she called 911. She held her tighter as the medics rushed over.
Nina watched as EMTs bolted into the house, hurrying to her mother’s side. Nina stood by the door, breathless, as they told her what she already knew. Her mother was dead.
Nina watched her mother’s body being carried away. And she thought, for certain, she would come back. Even though she knew that was impossible.
She called Vanessa’s house and when Vanessa’s mother answered, Nina summoned all of her strength to ask her to send Kit home right away. And then, unsure how to get ahold of Jay and Hud, she paced the floor.
The two boys came home shortly after and when they did, she forbade them from going inside.
“What happened?” Jay said, panicked. “Fuck, Nina! What’s going on?”
Hud remained silent, in shock. Somewhere within him, he already knew. When Kit got there, moments later, Nina took them all down to the shoreline, just underneath the house.
She knew it was up to her to say what had to be said. To do what had to be done. When there is only you, you do not get to choose which jobs you want, you do not get to decide you are incapable of anything. There is no room for distaste or weakness. You must do it all. All of the ugliness, the sadness, the things most people can’t stand to even think about, all must live inside of you. You must be capable of everything.
“Mom died,” Nina said, and then she watched all three of her siblings fall to the earth.
And she knew, in a flash, that she had to be able to catch them. She had to be able to hold each of them up, as they screamed, as the water came and soaked their socks and squeaked into their shoes.
And so she did.
Do you know how much a body can weigh when it falls into your arms, helpless? Multiply it by three. Nina carried it all. All of the weight, in her arms, on her back.
Kit was trying to get dressed for the party.
The sun was just beginning to set. The blue-and-orange sky was faintly turning purple. The tide was low, the seagulls were squawking down on the shoreline. Kit could hear the waves softly rolling from her opened window.
She was standing in front of the mirror in her bedroom, wearing a bra and a pair of light-wash jeans. She did not know what shirt she wanted to wear and was already second-guessing the pants. But tonight was important.
She was going to kiss a boy. Seth would be there. Maybe she could work up the interest to kiss him. Or maybe someone else. Hopefully somebody else. Surely there would be at least one dude at this party she could … feel something for. And if not, she just had to rip the Band-Aid off and do it anyway. But she should look good, right?
She wasn’t actually sure how to look good, wasn’t sure what she thought looked good on her. She’d never really tried to look beautiful before. That had been her mother’s thing; it was her sister’s job.
As she looked at herself in the mirror, she thought of her sister’s long legs, the way Nina always wore short skirts and shorts. She thought of the way her mother used to sometimes take the better part of an hour to get dressed on her good days—curling her hair into a bob, applying lipstick with precision, choosing just the right top.
The two of them always looked so pretty.
Kit took her favorite T-shirt out of the closet and put it on. It was a men’s white crewneck that said CALI in faded yellow letters. She liked it because it was soft and the collar had stretched out. She realized, looking at herself, that maybe those were not the best parameters for what she was trying to achieve.
And so, realizing she was out of her league, Kit grabbed her two options for shoes, and went to the head of the family, her swimsuit model sister.
June’s body was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.
As she was lowered into the ground, she was surrounded by her children, as well as the cooks and cashiers and waitstaff of Riva’s Seafood, some of her childhood friends, and a smattering of acquaintances from around town—the mailman, the neighbors, the parents of her children’s friends—who had always appreciated her sincere smile.
The Riva kids were lined up next to her casket, dressed all in black. Jay and Hud, sixteen, wore ill-fitting suits; Kit, twelve, pulled at the shoulders of her hand-me-down shift dress, chafing in her black flats; and Nina, seventeen, was dressed in one of her mother’s long-sleeved wrap dresses, looking twice her age.
The four of them stood together, their faces stoic and detached. They were there but not there. This was happening but not happening.
Their mother was lowered fully into her grave. As Jay started crying, Kit started crying. Nina reached out for all of her siblings, and pulled them tight. Hud squeezed her hand.
Afterward, everyone gathered back at the house. The staff from Riva’s catered everything. Ramon, having been hired by June just a month before as the new fry cook, stayed late to help them all clean up. He was ten years older than Nina and had a wife and two kids by that point. Nina knew he needed to go home to them.