“You don’t have to do this,” she had said to him as they put cold shrimp in Tupperware.
Ramon shook his head. “Your mother was a good woman. You’re all good people. So yes, I do have to do this. And you have to let me.”
Nina looked down at the table. There was still so much to clean, so much to do. And when it was all done, then what? She couldn’t even begin to imagine.
That night, after everything was put away and Ramon had gone home, the Rivas sat together in the living room. And finally Hud said the thing no one had said all day. “I cannot believe Dad wasn’t here.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jay said.
“Maybe he didn’t get the message,” Nina said. But there was no conviction in her voice. She had called his manager’s office. She had put an obituary in the paper. He had been designated the executor of her mother’s estate, which meant the courts had already called him. He knew. He just didn’t show up.
“Do we need him?” Kit asked. “I mean, we’ve never needed him before.”
Nina smiled forlornly at her little sister and put her arm around her, pulling her in. Kit rested her head on her sister’s shoulder. “No,” Nina said, breathing in deeply. “We don’t need him.”
Hud looked at her, trying to gauge her expression. Surely, she didn’t believe that. And yet, still, it did make him feel better, the idea that they already had everything they needed right there in this room.
Jay kept staring down at his own feet, trying with everything he had not to cry ever again in front of anyone at all.
“We are going to be absolutely fine,” Nina said, reassuring them. She was turning eighteen soon. “I’m going to make sure of it.”
Nina didn’t sleep that night. She tossed and turned in her mother’s bed, smelling the sheets, trying to hold on to her mother’s scent, afraid that once it was gone her mother was gone, too. As the sun rose, she was relieved to be free from the pressure of attempting to sleep. She could give up trying to be normal.
She stood out on the patio and watched some seals go by, four of them in a group, popping their heads out of the waves. She wished she could join them. Because presumably, they weren’t living through one of the worst days of their lives, trying to figure out how to make sure their siblings weren’t put in foster care.
Nina breathed in the salt air and then exhaled as hard as she could, emptying her lungs. She thought of going for a swim and felt guilty, as if it was a betrayal of her mother to want to enjoy herself at all. She knew her brothers and sister would feel the same way. That they would welcome their own despair and push away their own joy. She understood then, in a way that she never quite had before, that she did not have room to flail about. She had to model for her siblings what she wanted them to do for themselves. They would not be OK if she was not OK. So she had to find a way.
Once the sun fully woke, Nina went into their bedrooms and gently opened the windows. She handed each of them a wet suit as they rubbed their eyes open.
“Family shred,” she said. “Come on, let’s go.”
And they all, groggy and heartbroken, their chests wounded, their brains foggy, put on their wet suits, grabbed their boards, and met her out on the shore.
“This is how we survive,” she said. And she led them into the water.
• • •
Nina became what Nina had to become.
She went to the grocery store. She made dinner. She did math homework with Kit while she studied for her own chemistry test. She paid the property taxes. When one of her siblings broke down in tears, Nina held them.
When the roof started leaking, she put a pot underneath it and called a roofer. The roofer told her that, in order to do it right, the entire back half of the house would need to be repaired. So Nina called a handyman who came over and tarred the cracks in the shingles for a hundred bucks and stopped the leak. Imperfect, haphazard, but functional. The new Riva way.
There was a system put in place, each one of them asked to grow up overnight in specific and efficient ways.
Hud was in charge of cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen. He would leave them spotless every Sunday and Wednesday and then get upset when Jay got sand in the sink.
“It’s the sink, man,” Jay would say, exasperated. “It’s easy to clean.”
“Then you clean it! I’m sick of cleaning it and having you come in and mess it up again,” Hud would say. “I’m not your maid.”
“You are though,” Jay would say. “Just like I’m the fluff and fold around here.”
Jay was in charge of the laundry. He handled his sisters’ underwear and bathing suits with chopsticks, unwilling to touch them whether they were clean or dirty. But Jay quickly became a wiz at stain removal, each mark a puzzle to solve. He threw himself into researching the right combination of liquids that would unlock the dirt from Kit’s soccer shorts. He found the golden ticket by asking an older woman in the laundry aisle what she did to get out grass stains. Turned out, it was Fels-Naptha. Worked like a charm.
“Look at this, motherfucker!” Jay called out to the rest of the house one day from the garage. “Good as fucking new!”
Kit peeked her head in to see her white shorts bright as the sun, unblemished.
“Wow,” she said. “Maybe you can open Riva’s Laundry.”
Jay laughed. They all knew there was only one future Jay would entertain for himself—and that was on a surfboard. He would go pro.
When he wasn’t at school or running the wash cycle, he was in the water. Hud was usually out there with him, helping him perfect every single movement he could control in the waves.
Kit often tried to join. And Jay would tell her the same thing every time. “I’m not out here to play, Kit. This is serious.”
Often, after having been rebuffed, she would watch Jay and Hud out in the water from her spot on the deck, a pair of binoculars in hand. She could do what Jay was doing. Someday, he’d understand.
“Go ahead and get out there,” Nina would encourage her while vacuuming or making dinner or trying to speed-read a book for English class. Nina’s A’s and B’s were quickly becoming C’s and D’s, a fact she kept to herself. “Jay doesn’t own the ocean.”
Kit would shake her head. If they didn’t want her there, she didn’t want to be there, even if she did. Instead, she would watch. And maybe learn.
When she was done watching, she would always put the caps back on the lenses, put the set of binoculars back in their case, and then put the case on the shelf in the living room. Because Kit was in charge of tidying up. And she took it very seriously.
Every single night, before she went to bed, she picked up all of the books and magazines and put them in stacks. She grabbed all of the glasses and put them in the sink. And if she couldn’t see an imminent use for something, she was ruthless about what went into the trash bin.
“Where is my permission slip?” Hud asked one morning when he came to breakfast. Nutritional concerns had been thrown out the window the moment they lost their mother. Grocery store donuts and sugar cereal and chocolate milk took over the kitchen. Kit, not yet thirteen, had taken to drinking coffee with half-and-half and four sugars. Nina tried her best to get each of them to at least eat protein.