I open my Fundamentals of Nursing textbook and curl up on the couch in our living room. The velvety blue fabric rubs back and forth underneath my thumb, changing from lighter to darker. Before I finish the first paragraph, I scrunch down to stick my feet out in front of me. My back hurts from being propped at a forty-five degree angle, so I pull out Mama Jane’s throw pillow to tuck underneath for support. Then I feel guilty for smooshing her artwork and put the pillow back. Sighing, I swing my legs onto the seat so one dangles from the back of couch and the other leans on the armrest.
I wasn’t good at this college thing the first time around, but now it nearly qualifies as torture. When I studied for my CNA exams, they were hard but easier to understand. I might not enjoy making beds or singing “Happy Birthday” while I wash my hands according to a particular method, but I live with Natalie. I’m a quick learner when it comes to rules and doing things as told. She’s good at providing motivation that way.
I kick the back of my foot against the couch cushion, reading the words in an asymmetric rhythm. Before I can finish, a hand grabs my ankle.
“Augh!” I scream, knocking my book and Post-It notes to the floor.
“How’s your studying?” Natalie asks, tickling the sole of my foot.
“Natalie!” I bellow, yanking my foot away and restraining the urge to shove my heel into her chest. “Stop bothering me.”
She picks my book and notes up before setting them on the end table and scooting next to me. “You’ve studied enough, haven’t you? I didn’t get to see you all day, and now you’ve got your nose in your book.”
I grumble. There used to be a time when she pulled out the hairbrush because I didn’t have my nose in a book. “Work was crazy. I hate the stupid pre-Thanksgiving sales, and you know how rude people can get. The professor kept us five minutes late, and that meant rush hour traffic on the way home. I’ve got a test next week, and I have to get an A to be eligible for the scholarship.”
I reach for my book, but she catches my hand in hers.
“Stop!” I protest. “I have to study.”
She pokes around the crevices of the couch, looking for her wooden spoon. At that, I do give her a shove.
“Kat!” she remonstrates, but I refuse to apologize.
“I don’t have time for games! If you were supportive, you’d stop bothering me and let me study.”
She’s found the wooden spoon by now, and the worn paleness sends a shiver down my stomach. I don’t know how much leeway I’m given between joking and misbehaving, but her smile has disappeared. Instead, the corners of her mouth tug downward in an unfamiliar way. It takes me a few moments to realize that she is hurt.
“This is what happens when you don’t get spanked enough,” she says, her tone teasing but with an edge. I harumph, too stubborn to play her game.
“Whatever,” I say, flipping my hand in front of her face as I lunge forward to grab my book. She catches my wrist, and the book goes flying a second time. She tries to pull me facedown across her lap, but I won’t stand for it. I throw my head back and glare at her with the full force of my being. “I said no!”
“What’s gotten into you?” she asks, swatting the back of my jeans with the spoon. Although the sting is minimal, my pride roars at the insult.
“I didn’t even want to come home!” I spit out. “I could have studied with the others, but…” Abruptly, I stop. So does she.
“Kat?” she asks, her voice softer this time.
There was a time, long ago, when I didn’t want to return home. We promised never to go there again. She touches the ends of my hair, but I shrug away. I didn’t mean to tell her about Clara’s offer, but I never can think straight when Natty has an implement in her hand.
“What happened?” she asks, and against my better judgment I allow her to pull me closer.
“Some of the others wanted to go out for dinner after class,” I mumble. “I didn’t really want to go.”
Normally that would be a swat for lying, but she continues to stroke my hair. “Why didn’t you go?”
“You were waiting,” I say. It’s not true, but it’s close enough to truth that she shakes her head.
“You could have called me to join you. Or you could have let me know. Why…”
When I started class for real this fall, as an honest-to-goodness nursing student and not just a nurse aide or a one-class-at-a-time pre-requisite fufiller, I was scared. Terrified. The last time I darkened the doorway of a classroom, I would have failed most of my classes if Natalie hadn’t gotten me through it. She woke me up for eight AM stats class, paddled me for not doing homework, and explained everything too difficult for me to understand. This time, I was on my own.
I’d thought I would be the oldest student in the class, but I was wrong. Most of the students were my age if not older, returning after quitting another career or raising children. One classmate, Clara, promised her husband to stay home until her daughter started kindergarten. Now, she has a chance to get the nursing degree she’d always wanted.
“I don’t know,” I mumble. I am one, at most two, “I don’t know”s away from being pulled across her lap, but I hold her hand in mine. Willing her to understand. This time, she makes me sit up.
“Please answer the question,” she says, and this time my only option is to obey. I stutter, staring at the floor while my ears grow hot.
“It’s too expensive,” I whisper, and I look away. It’s the argument we never settle; my dislike of spending her money and her insistence that my money only goes toward school. Instead of the expected slap, though, she sighs. Opens her purse, takes out a few bills, and hands them to me. I shake my head and refuse to take them, but she pushes the paper into my hand.
“I don’t like sharing you,” she says, and I look up to her giving a small shrug as if to say, What can I do? “But you’re supposed to make friends. Think you can still go in time for dessert?”
“No, Natty, I–”
“If it’s too late today, you can go next time. Promise?”
I smile, in spite of myself. Even bossy Natalies can still pull a surprise. I take her hand in thanks, and I give a little sigh.
“You don’t always know best, miss bossypants.”
“I love you, too,” she says, and she slides her fingers through the lengths of my hair.