Kurt's mom is sick again. She's in the hospital. Kurt's dad brings him downtown to visit her almost every day, except sometimes he has to go to the hospital alone. When he does, he drops off Kurt with the neighbors. Mr. and Mrs. Miller want to be called John and Sharon. Their living room smells strange, like cigarette smoke and old cooking. All of their furniture smells of their German Shepherd, Kaiser, who stays in the backyard when Kurt comes over. Whenever Kurt is in the living room, Kaiser stands right outside the sliding glass doors, panting. He's very big and Kurt's afraid of him.
John and Sharon have a daughter named Dina. She's twelve. Kurt's five. When Kurt goes to the Miller's house he prefers to be with Dina. Her room is decorated in white and pale pink and she keeps it clean and tidy. She lets him stay as long as he's quiet and doesn't bother her. Kurt sits on a stool at the edge of Dina's vanity and watches her while she brushes her hair. Every once in a while, she puts the hairbrush down and threads her hands through her bangs; she fluffs the back up a little, turning her head to look at herself from each side. When their eyes meet in the mirror she gives him a small smile before turning her attention back to her own reflection.
Lately, a lot of people want to look at Kurt, or touch him; his preschool teacher Mrs. Dabrowski, Cal and George from the garage, Sharon and John, some of the nurses. They all look really sad; they ruffle his hair and squeeze his shoulders, and Kurt doesn't like it. Dina mostly ignores him. Downstairs, Sharon and John keep the radio on, but Dina rarely listens to music, so her room is very quiet. In the silence, Kurt rests his chin on his hands and watches while Dina parts her hair into a braid and does it up with white elastic bands. She's very pretty. Sometimes she puts on lip-gloss and mascara. When she does, Kurt pulls his legs up under himself and watches while she drags the applicator through her eyelashes with a steady hand, stroking upwards to make the lashes curl. Finally she turns towards him.“How do I look?” she asks softly.
Dina says she's too old to really play anymore, but sometimes if Kurt is lucky she will bring out her Barbie dolls and they change their clothes and do their hair. Sometimes she'll read him a book. When he sits pressed up against her side, Kurt thinks he can smell flowers. At the dinner table he watches her closely to copy the way she holds her knife and fork between her fingers like a grown-up.
One day when he knocks on her door she beckons him over to stand beside her by the stool. “You want to see what I bought today?” She opens a small cardboard box with silver lettering and tilts it until a small round container slides into her palm. She opens it carefully. Inside are two different shades of eye shadow and a small sponge, a mirror on the inside of the lid. “They even put perfume in it.” She hands it to him. “Here, smell.”
Kurt receives the container with both hands. It smells like grease and something sweet and synthetic, and the scent tickles his nose. The powder glitters when he tips it towards the light. Kurt carefully touches the pad of his finger to the surface. It comes away with a smudge of silver gray. He holds it up for Dina to see, and they both smile.
“Look.” She closes her eyes and now Kurt can see it: a glittery shadow on the soft skin of her eyelids, fading out across her browbones. She opens her eyes again. “It's pretty, isn't it?”
Kurt nods. He turns to look at himself in the mirror. Closing one eye he carefully drags his finger with the powder across his eyelid. But the color's too dark, and he's too clumsy and it doesn't look right. Dina picks the container from his hand. “You want me to do it?”
She puts him on the stool and makes him tilt his face up towards the light. Kurt closes his eyes and sits very still while Dina applies the small sponge, then the mascara applicator, and at last the wet, syrupy lip-gloss pen. Dina's breath feels like a warm, recurring breeze across his skin while she works. “There,” she finally says, turning him a little so he's facing towards the mirror. “You can look now.”
Kurt holds his breath and opens his eyes. He stares at his reflection; his eyes look bright against the silver on his eyelids. His lips are shiny and pink. He looks beautiful like Dina.
Dina's standing behind him. “Do you like it?”
Kurt nods fervently. He tilts his head this way and that, admiring Dina's work. He hesitates for a moment. “Can I wear a dress, too?”
Dina's old dance recital dress is a little too big, but she ties the peach colored sash tightly around his waist so it almost doesn't show in the mirror. The skirt hangs low enough to hide his Velcro sneakers. He's swaying a little from side to side, watching the fabric move as the hem of the skirt drags against the carpet, when Sharon opens the door.
“Dinner's --” Sharon stops as Kurt turns towards her. She swallows. “Oh, sweetheart,” she says, and then, in a different tone of voice “Dina come here for a second.” She opens the door a little wider. Her eyes are still soft, but there's something weird about the set of her mouth. Kurt looks back at Dina, feeling unsure. She looks apprehensive. Kurt's still not sure what's going on. He shifts his weight back and forth on his feet, bites his lip.
“Dina,” Sharon repeats, voice a little firmer.
Dina moves to slip past her mom and the door is pulled closed. She is gone for a long time. Kurt sits on her bed in the crinkling taffeta dress and waits for them to return. His palms are sweaty; he wipes them on the white satin bedspread. When Dina comes back it looks like she's been crying. “I'm sorry Kurt, I didn't know about... I'm really sorry about your mom,” she says, and then she helps him out of the dress and puts it back in the closet. She goes to the bathroom and gets a washcloth and washes his face until the skin around his eyes looks blotchy and red in the mirror. Dina puts her hands on his shoulders and Kurt squirms a little beneath the gentle weight. “Let's just read a book, okay?”
Kurt knows that his dad has come to pick him up when he hears Kaiser barking in the garden. He pushes off the bed and runs to the stairs, but stops when he hears Sharon and his dad talking downstairs. Suddenly frightened, he sits down at the top of the staircase. He can hear Sharon saying “Dina didn't mean to -” and “must be so hard for him -” and “it's totally understandable why he would -.” She talks for a long time, but Kurt mostly listens for the low murmur of his dad's monosyllabic answers.
He descends the stairs when he's called for. His dad is standing in the middle of the living room, wearing his cover-alls and his cap. “Hey Kurt.”
Kurt leans against the banister. He checks Sharon's reaction, trying to gauge the situation, but she's just looking at him with big sad eyes.
“You ready to go home, buddy?” Kurt's dad asks mildly. He's smiling but he looks unhappy, too.
Kurt wants to go home really badly, but at the same time he's glued to the spot. Finally his dad walks over and picks him up. He says goodbye to John and Sharon, and then he carries Kurt out of the house and into the chilly evening air. Kurt hugs his dad real tight, hiding his face in the hot, scratchy skin on his neck. “I wore Dina's dress today,” he confesses.
He can feel his dad nodding. “Sharon told me.”
Kurt made sure not to cry earlier, but being carried by his dad makes him feel very small, and he's still scared that he's going to be told off. He tries closing his eyes tightly, but he can't help crying a little bit. Kurt has his own dress in the closet in his room. It's pale blue with a lace front and frilly sleeves. His mom helped him pick it in the girl's department at Target – a couple of days after Mrs. Dabrowski told him off for hogging the Belle costume - and they made a deal that he could only wear dresses at home from now on. Mom had kneeled down and clasped his hands. “This is your dress and you can wear this all you want to, but you can't wear dresses at preschool anymore, okay?”
Kurt rubs his face against his dad's shirt. “Do you think Mom will be angry with me when she comes home?”
His dad sighs. “No, Kurt, I don't think your mom's going to be angry with you.” A big hand comes up to rub Kurt's back. “You're okay, kiddo.”
Kurt goes over to the Miller house again three days later. This time, Sharon shuts Kaiser in the living room and takes Kurt outside to play Frisbee in the garden.