“There you go,” she said, handing them back to Kit.
Kit stepped into the shorts and buttoned the fly. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her long, tanned, muscular legs looked good.
“Give me your shirt, too,” Nina said.
“You’re gonna cut my shirt?” Kit asked.
“Not if you don’t want me to,” Nina said.
“No,” Kit said, intrigued. “Go ahead.”
Kit lifted her shirt off and handed it over. She was standing in just her bra and the shorts. Kit could feel herself narrowing, curving her back, trying to hide her chest from her sister. Nina looked over at her.
“Don’t stand like that. Stand like this.” Nina stood behind Kit and grabbed her shoulders, pulled them wide. Kit’s chest popped out.
“You’ve got a great rack,” Nina said. And Kit laughed because she’d never heard her sister talk like that before.
“It’s true,” Nina said. “Us Riva women have great boobs. Mom had great boobs. I have great boobs. You have great boobs. Own your birthright.”
Kit started blushing and Nina felt both gleeful and sad. Kit had never been willing to let Nina in in this way. Nina had always hit a wall trying to talk to Kit about boys and sex and her body. But she should have pushed her further earlier. They should have had this conversation earlier. It was Nina’s job to make sure Kit learned how to be herself, all sides of herself.
Nina had been so worried about making sure Kit was safe and protected, making sure Kit never felt like an orphan, that she’d babied her. Nina knew that. She was trying to stop. It just … wasn’t that easy. To let go.
But Kit was an adult now. There wasn’t much left for Nina to do. In fact, maybe the only true parenting left was to make sure Kit understood this very thing: how to be whatever type of woman she wanted.
Nina took the T-shirt and considered cutting the neckline, chopping one of the shoulders off. But no. “Are you OK showing your stomach?” Nina said.
Kit looked down, assessing.
“I think you would look good showing it off,” Nina clarified.
“I guess,” Kit said, going along. “Sure.”
Nina took her scissors to the bottom half of the shirt, cutting it straight off. She handed the T-shirt back to Kit, now as a loose crop top.
Kit put it on and could feel the air on her abdomen. You could see the very bottom of her baby blue bra from certain angles.
“Wow,” Kit said, looking down at herself. She liked that she looked both different and the same. She was herself, only with cooler clothes.
“All right,” Nina said with a ponytail holder between her teeth. “One more step.” She took Kit’s long, wild hair into her hands and gathered it on the top of her head, creating a high pony. She then put mascara on Kit’s lashes, blush on her cheeks, and handed her a tube of clear lip gloss.
“As for shoes, I think your huaraches are perfect,” Nina said. And Kit felt a tiny flutter of joy, that she owned something that was actually OK as is. She turned and looked at herself in the mirror.
She thought she looked cool. Like, actually cool. She could feel herself starting to well up.
Nina came up behind her, put her arms around her, and said, “You look like a million bucks, babe.”
This outfit made her feel like there were parts of herself she was just meeting for the first time. Kit could barely contain the smile on her face. She hung her own arms around her sister’s and said, “Thank you.”
Nina always knew just the thing, didn’t she? Kit wished she could be that for someone, be that for Nina, the person who knows just the thing.
“Are you feeling all right?” Kit said. “About the party tonight? And, you know, people asking about Brandon?”
Nina waved her off. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You know …” Kit began, unsure exactly how to convey just how much she cared. “It’s OK if you aren’t OK. If you … need to talk or just want to cry about it. Or anything, really. I could listen.”
Nina turned to Kit and smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “You are the best. I’m OK, though. Really. I’ll be fine.”
Kit frowned. “All right, well … if you ever change your mind.” But Nina wouldn’t. They both knew that.
Too much self-sufficiency was sort of mean to the people who loved you, Kit thought. You robbed them of how good it feels to give, of their sense of value.
But Kit put all of that out of her head. Because she was determined that this be the night she finally cut loose.
Nina kept their family afloat week to week on the restaurant’s income, one ill-timed emergency away from total disaster. They lived that way for three years.
Three Christmases trying to find a way to afford presents. Three years of birthdays, all celebrated with each of their favorite cakes, recipes re-created from memory because June never wrote them down. Three first days of school, three last days of school, for all of her siblings but her.
When a cute guy buying a hamburger at the restaurant asked her out on a date one afternoon, Nina froze, as if her brain had short-circuited. “Uh …” she said, dumbfounded that this guy thought she was normal, could be normal.
“I just mean …” the young man said, backtracking. He was tall and blond and had a humble smile. “That you are maybe the prettiest girl I’ve seen in my entire life and I thought, you know, if you’re single and free, maybe we could … I don’t know. See a movie.”
She’d had two boyfriends before her mother died. She’d even called a guy friend or two since then when she was feeling particularly lonely. But a date? This guy wanted to take her out to do something … for fun?
“No, thank you,” she said. She breathed it out with a sigh like a helium balloon. “I can’t,” she added, but she found no words to explain it further. And so she moved on to the next customer, trying, as she did every day, to sell more fries and sodas than they had the day before.
At the end of the day, that’s what everything came down to: money. She could approximate her mother’s German chocolate cake recipe. She could tell Hud the same things June had told her when she was having a bad day. She could sleep three hours in a night in order to fix Kit’s science fair project. But money was the one thing she couldn’t will into existence.
She had to run the car near empty so often she twice ran out of gas. She started postdating checks, taking out credit cards she couldn’t pay back, and turning off all the lights in the house when no one else was home to save electricity.
When Jay’s wisdom teeth needed to be taken out, Nina spent three weeks trading calls with insurance companies to get dental insurance through the restaurant. When Hud fractured his wrist after slipping off the roof of the car, he’d refused to go to the hospital because he knew they couldn’t afford it. And so Nina, knowing the cost might break her, had to convince him to go regardless of the cost. She negotiated the bill to a sum she could not attain and then went to bed every night for weeks with a clenched jaw, thinking of what would happen when the late penalties added up.
Nina made them lemon roasted chicken when they missed June. She stayed up late watching TV with Kit even though she had to get up early the next morning. Nina encouraged Jay and Hud to get out there in the waves and practice, even if it meant the bathrooms didn’t get cleaned or she had to do the laundry herself.