Dave and Emma were supposed to have the beach condo to themselves for a week, but Dave’s grandfather showed up on Monday, and it was clear he planned to stay. He owned the place, so Dave and Emma couldn’t exactly ask him to scram, but he’d told everyone he would be at his home in Connecticut that entire month, carefully packing up his late wife’s belongings and golfing with a senator he planned to support in the next election. Then Dave’s uncle Troy arrived two days later, after his wife kicked him out of their house in Coral Gables. Now Dave and Emma had to share the guest bathroom with Troy, who took at least three long showers a day. But the worst thing was how he came into their room at night, after they were in bed.
On Wednesday night, Dave was tugging at Emma’s underwear when the guest shower stopped and the bathroom door opened onto their room. The light was off, but the fan still whirred, and the moistness of steam mingled with the crisp, conditioned air. After a pause during which Emma lay rigid under Dave’s motionless hand, footsteps came deeper into their room—the nicer guest room that Dave’s grandmother had painted seafoam green before she died. For a minute, Dave and Emma closed their eyes and pretended to sleep. Eventually, Troy turned and left, his bare feet making little sound on the carpet.
He came in the next night, too, creeping close enough to touch the bed. In the dull glow of the security lights outside their third-story window, they could make out Troy’s arms up in the air, red-handed.
“Hey!” Emma sat up this time and pulled the sheets around her naked torso. “What the hell is your problem?”
“Sorry! Sorry!” Troy walked backward, toward the door. “I got confused.”
When they heard Troy’s own door shut, Emma said, “Do something.”
“He’s going through a difficult time,” Dave whispered.
“So he gets to spy on us every night?”
Dave loved his uncle; he didn’t want to make things harder for him. “I’ll talk to him. I promise.”
It was Thursday night. Emma and Dave would be driving back to Providence on Sunday. In seven days, Emma would move out of their apartment and climb on a plane to San Francisco. Soon after, he would start an internship at his cousin’s New York film studio. He felt badly about how the trip was going; he thought he’d planned such a romantic end to their relationship.
He tugged the sheet loose from Emma’s body, but she wrapped it more tightly around herself. “I’ve kind of lost the mood, you know?”
Oh, he knew. Those dark and serious eyes, the way the muscles tensed in her long neck, even though she was smiling at him again. Emma could never hide how she felt, and he loved that about her. Everyone assumed that he was always happy, even when he wasn’t.
Except for the little glitch in their condo plans, though, Dave was pretty happy here on the beach with his family. Troy was a problem, but he wasn’t the problem. Emma had been in a bad mood since they’d decided to pursue their goals on separate coasts. Dave figured that she was waiting for him to suggest they try the long distance thing, but every long distance relationship he knew ended when one person cheated on the other, and he didn’t want to wait around for that to happen. Probably what Emma hated most about breaking up was the idea of Dave with someone else. He didn’t much like to think of her fucking some California hippy, so he didn’t. But Emma turned things over in her mind obsessively. That was why he hadn’t told her he planned to stay at Laurel’s until he found his own place in Brooklyn. Laurel was so upbeat that it made her seem naïve, even stupid. But of all his friends in New York, she had the biggest apartment.
Emma leaned into him, and he put his arm around her and turned on the television. They didn’t own a TV in their place in Providence because Emma had wanted it that way—quieter, less cluttered. He flipped through the channels, then settled on reruns of The X-Files, which he and Emma used to watch in his dorm room when she was still dating his buddy Mike, who was studying abroad that semester.
In the morning they woke early. They had no choice: Dave’s grandfather was belting out “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in the kitchen while making breakfast. Sizzling bacon had never sounded so loud.
“The lovebirds!” Frank cried, when Emma and Dave emerged in their pajamas.
Emma wore one of Dave’s threadbare shirts without a bra, and she had just realized that her shorts gave her a wedgie, but thankfully, Frank did not stare. From what she had observed down here in Miami, he was kind of a dirty old man. Just nine months after his wife’s death, the large condo was filled with photos of him and his bikini-clad young girlfriend at resorts in Mexico and Hawaii. Yesterday he’d seemed especially interested in lingering in his parked SUV to watch a clothing-optional photo shoot at Glitter Beach. At least he tried to enjoy his old age, she reasoned, and his wealth.
If her family had that kind of money, maybe she’d be as relaxed as Dave. Who knows, maybe she’d be into golf. Maybe she’d be moving to New York to rent a painting studio instead of to California to work at the advertising agency she’d interned for last summer. She had not loved the work, but it was the only place that gave her a job after graduation. Dave had offered to help with her college loans, but she didn’t want to be remembered as the girlfriend he saved from financial ruin.
“Sit! Eat!” Frank gestured to the outdoor patio. His skin was leathery and white chest hairs poked through his guayabera—the only type of shirt he wore down here, procured from a favorite tailor in Cancún. Troy was already outside at the glass-topped table, his back to them.
“Everything smells wonderful.” Emma grinned, trying hard to mask her discomfort in the company of these men. She shivered and rubbed her arms. The condo’s excessive air conditioning only emphasized for her a sense of forced preservation, the prolonging of a relationship that probably should have ended a long time ago.
Outside, Troy cupped his tanned hand around a mug that read, “Best Grandfather in the World,” and did not look up from his paper as they joined him. He wore a button-down shirt unbuttoned over surf shorts.
“Hope you two slept as well as I did,” he said.
Emma frowned. “Actually, we were wondering, Troy—”
“Yeah, Troy, we were—” here, Dave paused, and Emma gave him an encouraging look.
In the pause, Troy had enough time to grab a croissant. With his mouth still full, he said, “I know you guys don’t have a lot of time left here. Please say you’ll let me take you to the boardwalk. We’ll rent rollerblades. I’ll buy you lunch.”
And then Frank was outside with the bacon. “You can have them for the afternoon, as long as you bring them back before six. I’ve made reservations at Donavan’s.”
“Nana’s favorite restaurant,” Dave explained. “It’s in a classy hotel. Old-timey.”
“I beg your pardon,” Frank said. “You should see the crowd I run with now.”
Dave laughed. He had a lot of heroes, most of them deeply flawed. “There’s always some Liberace type playing the Lucite piano. People dancing the foxtrot. Everyone gets very dressed up.”
Emma flushed. “I’m not sure I have anything to wear.”
Frank sized her up from behind his bifocals. “I’ll have Krysta bring something. You’re about her size.”
Troy frowned. “She’s coming?”
“Why do you think I delayed my golfing trip?” Frank smiled at Emma. “Troy disapproves of the age difference.” He shrugged. “She’s here with her daughter, Rumi, very sweet, who’s been shooting a commercial out in LA. Auditioning for some TV pilot.” He sighed happily. “A continent between us, but somehow it works.”
Emma looked away. She’d heard plenty already about Krysta. Dave was wary of her, but not as wary as the rest of the family, who thought she was after Frank’s money. And so what, Emma thought, if Frank wanted to spend his money on youth and beauty. It was an old story, and it was better than being old and alone.
Frank was still looking at her. “You’re going to like Krysta, I can tell.”
“She’s very pretty,” Emma said, thinking of the photos inside. It seemed like a safe thing to say.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what she thought of Krysta or her daughter with the name of a Persian male poet, or anyone here. It was time to focus on her new life in San Francisco. Though so many had moved west before her, it still felt like a thrilling, unexplored territory. It also felt a little lonely.
It was June, and although Emma disliked the chill of the air conditioning, out here on the balcony it felt too hot and humid. Dave loved it. Look at him! With his eyes shut, baking in the patch of sun on his side of the table. Kind, loyal, easy to please. Her heart leapt a little when his green eyes opened and smiled at her.
If only they could be alone for a minute!
Crumbs trailed across the white tablecloth. Troy glared down at his newspaper, muttering to himself. Frank chewed loudly, and Emma looked away, embarrassed. No one seemed interested in keeping up a conversation. She took another piece of bacon. At her house, everyone would be talking, reading aloud from the newspaper, planning the next meal. In the noisy silence, she focused on the clatter of forks on porcelain, on the beach sounds below: the crashing waves and giddy children calling to their parents. Since Tuesday, they’d spent afternoons in the back of Frank’s Lexus while he gave them a tour of Miami, pointing out the hotspots, stopping only for sightseeing trips to the aquarium or to let them out to try lox y arroz con moros, his favorite Miami specialty. Today she just wanted to lie on the beach with Dave. He tapped her foot under the table.
“Remember that time we went rollerblading on the bike trail?”
“You tripped over some poor toddler on his tricycle.”
Dave winked. “Yeah, that kid was such a klutz.”
Emma smiled. For a while she had hoped Dave would ask her to move with him to New York. He didn’t have to worry, now; she needed a change. She didn’t want to depend on Dave or pine away while he made his indie films and flirted with all the eager, hipster-actresses with their dark fingernail polish and ironic way of smoking.
And she definitely didn’t want to go rollerblading. Right now, there was nothing she wanted less.
* * *
They went, of course. Troy was the youngest of Dave’s mother’s four brothers, and he had always been the nicest. Which, in Emma’s eyes, might not be saying a lot. One had been indicted for insider trading, and another had recently left his third wife for his family’s twenty-two-year-old dogwalker. Troy always seemed different. When Dave was just a kid and Troy was in college, Troy used to take Dave flying in his grandfather’s little waterplane, the one he took between Connecticut and the lake house in Maine. He used to let Dave steer sometimes, which was especially exciting because his mother had said not to do it.
“He can date who he wants,” Troy said. He skated backwards, slowly, while Dave and Emma adjusted the rollerblades Troy had rented for them at a nearby skate and surf shop. “But this Krysta is a real con artist, if you ask me. I think she uses the kid to make him feel sorry for her.”
“Grampa’s no fool.”
The boardwalk was now filled with big-hatted tourists, joggers, and power-walkers. Dave caught himself staring at three girls rollerblading by in string-bikinis, their backsides glistening with sweat or tanning oil. He looked at Emma, but she hadn’t noticed. She’d given up on the roller blades and was just sitting on the bench next to him, eyes downcast or closed, feet in the skates, latches unlatched. She said his family always talked about money, and he felt embarrassed that it was happening again.
“What else could it be?” Troy asked. “You see the pills he takes every morning? Thanks to western medicine, he can still get his dick up.”
“You guys go on ahead,” Emma said, tonelessly. “I’ll catch up.”
“Are you sure?” He felt terrible. He was messing everything up, making all the wrong decisions. They should have gone to a B&B on the Cape instead, like they’d talked about. But he’d thought Emma would appreciate staying somewhere for free, and it really was a beautiful condo, especially on that first day when they’d had it to themselves and didn’t leave it once; it hadn’t felt like prison then. He thought fondly of the sex they’d had that evening on the sofa, the French doors open and the air conditioning off so they could hear the waves. It already seemed so long ago.
He said, “I’ll talk to him, I promise.”
Her hair was starting to curl loose from her ponytail, the way it always did in high humidity. He forgot and remembered all the time how lovely she was. Just sitting there, practically vibrating with irritation, she still managed to draw him in. Putting his arm around her, he kissed her hard, right in front of Troy.
As they skated away, Dave wondered what they would both be doing a month from now, three months. He thought of the August garbage smell in New York. Once he and Emma had gone there together in summer, and she’d walked around with her nose in a handkerchief for days.
Back in Providence, she said it was the best trip they’d ever taken together.
Emma felt relieved to be left alone. She took off her own sickening-pink blades, and barefoot, walked them over to the skate shack.
“They don’t fit?” the cute attendant asked. His nametag said Javier. “You want a smaller size, probably. You have tiny feet.”
“I’d rather walk,” she told him, accepting her flip flops.
His short hair was neatly combed, and he wore a white oxford shirt tucked into khakis. Everyone else out here was practically naked. Emma laughed, and Javier did, too, misunderstanding.
He looked at his watch. “Break just started. Mind if I come?”
His question caught her off-guard, but she was feeling annoyed at Dave and Troy, and she liked Javier’s formal look, so she said yes.
They walked back to the boardwalk and joined the other pedestrians. Javier was a senior at the University of Miami, majoring in Civil Engineering, something that struck Emma as so useful that when he asked what she did, she was embarrassed to tell him.
“While you repair our country’s infrastructure, I’ll be designing all those stupid online adds you ask your browser to hide.”
Javier shrugged. “Everything has its place.”
“We’re talking about ads for shampoo and deodorant.”
“I don’t know about you, but I use those every day.”
Emma laughed—no one really believed what she was doing was important, not even her mother (who still found the idea of the starving artist kind of romantic), but when Javier smiled, his teeth were white and slightly crooked, and Emma looked down at her sunburned feet, suddenly sad.
“Hey, don’t worry,” Javier said, “everything’s going to be okay.”
He took her hand very lightly in his, and even though she didn’t know him, she felt better. It reminded her of holding her sixth grade boyfriend’s hand at recess as they walked around the track together. Light, hopeful, not weighed down. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day, as it had been every day so far, but for the first time, she felt like she was really seeing it. For several minutes, they allowed themselves to move with the crowd, fingertips touching. Together, they passed blindingly white apartment buildings and the grassy, aloe-covered dunes. When a jogger came between them, Emma got pushed ahead in a swell of shirtless men, one who carried a retro boombox tuned to a Whitney Houston song. When she looked back, she could see Javier—small in the crowd, handing a woman the hat he’d accidentally knocked off her head. She stopped to wait for him, but several feet away, Dave and Troy were leaning against a railing, arms around each other. Troy’s back was heaving, and he seemed to be crying.
* * *
Threading in and out of other pedestrians, Troy railed a little more against Krysta, then Aunt Patricia—whom he suspected of being involved with a younger coworker. She hadn’t understood that his own flirtation with the VP the previous year had been nothing. Nothing. No physical relationship had come of it, aside from a chaste kiss under the mistletoe at a company Christmas party. But months later, Patricia had found the text messages on his phone—why hadn’t he erased them?! He was kicking himself for it now. He adored Patricia. Beautiful, buxom Patty. And his girls! He would have committed suicide years ago if they hadn’t come into his life.
Out of nowhere, then, he brought up Emma. “What’s her deal?” he demanded.
“You know, her agenda? Girl’s tense.”
Dave chuckled awkwardly. Maybe it was the right time to bring up the room issue. “Well, you know, I wanted to talk to—”
Dave looked behind him: Troy tripping over a crushed soda can, Troy falling onto his bare knees. He cried out in pain, and as Dave helped him up, he started to cry. “How the mighty have fallen,” he choked out between sobs. Dave had to steady them both against the railing, which is where Emma found them. For the first time on the trip, she looked relaxed. She didn’t ask any questions.
On the drive back to Frank’s, no one spoke, and when they arrived, Troy stopped the car and didn’t get out. Dave experienced a fearful premonition—an image of Troy driving off to the highway and plowing into oncoming traffic on purpose, but Troy smiled, thanked them both for the outing, and headed back out. He needed time to think, he had an appointment with a lawyer, and there were still some things to organize back at the house.
When they opened the door to the condo, icy, silent air washed over them, and it appeared as if they were alone. Dave perked up.
“You want to test out those Jacuzzi jets?”
Emma seemed to be in an agreeable mood. “Sure,” she said, “but first you need to clean your uncle’s hair out of the tub.” She paused. “What did he say, by the way?”
Dave backed into the bathroom, very slowly. “He feels like a jerk.”
Emma felt distracted, thinking about Javier. She’d forgotten how nice the world looked after meeting someone you liked: sharper, cleaner, more welcoming. Smiling to herself, she went to the closet. Who cared if she wore her beach sarong to dinner tonight? But here were two unfamiliar items of clothing: a tan sheath and a satiny halter-dress made from a dramatic turquoise fabric. Both were exactly her size.
Holding one up to her in front of the full-length mirror, she thought she heard something, a giggling down the hall, chords of music. The condo was large enough that it was possible that people were there and she just hadn’t heard them.
In the bathroom, Dave was kneeling, pouring bubble bath into the water. He looked so earnest that she felt a little guilty about Javier.
“I think your grandfather and Krysta are here. Fooling around.”
Dave turned off the taps and the Jacuzzi jets, and behind the drips from the faucet hitting the foaming water, the voices got louder.
And then clapping and Frank’s unmistakable cry of joy, “You are a goddess! A goddess!”
Emma sank down on the floor with Dave. The tiles were wet under her knees. “Oh boy.”
Dave squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry about this, Em. About everything.”
“I know.” She tucked her head between his neck and shoulder.
“And look at this princess!” Frank shouted.
A little girl laughed. A woman’s voice cried, “Ta da!”
Tentatively, Dave and Emma walked into the living room and found Frank on the couch, an audience of one for two figures twirling in long skirts. He beamed at Dave and Emma when he saw them.
“You’re just in time for the fashion show.”
Krysta and Rumi turned. The girl couldn’t be more than seven. She was exceptionally pretty with dark pigtails trailing down the back of her dress, a gauzy pink frock with old-fashioned creampuff shoulders. She smiled at Emma. “Momma bought me a new dress for doing so well on the audition. They said I looked right for the part.”
Krysta curtsied in her snug wrap-dress. “I’m afraid I bought myself a little reward as well.” On the floor were pink bags full of tissue paper hiding more garments. In person, she was older than Emma had expected. Her skin was clear and bright but creased around her eyes. Strands of gray streaked her black hair, which was cut into a sleek bob, much shorter than in the pictures around the condo.
Frank was right—Emma liked Krysta immediately. She might have just gone on a shopping spree with Frank’s money, but she had a sincere smile. “Thanks for bringing the dresses,” Emma said. “They’re very nice.”
“Oh, good, you found them. And please take them home. They don’t fit any more.” She patted her right hip. “Frank likes steak dinners too much.”
Frank stood and wrapped his arm around Krysta’s waist. He winked at Dave. “Isn’t she something?”
Dave shook Krysta’s hand with unusual reticence. The way Frank was twinkling right now, Emma wondered if he was intending to propose to her tonight, in front of all of them.
Rumi spun around again. “It’s a very special day,” she said. “I can tell we’re all going to get along swimmingly.” She plugged her nose, waved her free hand, and wiggled her hips, doing the swim and cracking herself up.
Frank patted her head appreciatively. “Drink orders?” he said. “I’ll bring them to you on the balcony, and we’ll leave for Donovan’s when Troy returns from wherever it is he’s gone. Hopefully he’s keeping himself out of trouble.”
At 5:15, Troy still hadn’t returned, and they all sat on the balcony, waiting in their pretty frocks and handsome suits. Emma didn’t remember Dave packing his navy trousers or the silvery tie she gave him last Christmas, when her cheap but creative gift ideas had run out. Across the rim of his martini glass, he winked at her, and she flushed, smoothing the turquoise skirt of her dress. Rumi giggled at something her mother said to her, then reached out and held Emma’s hand. A little breeze came in off the ocean. The trip was turning out to be a good one, after all.
Frank was already a little tipsy, and when he stood, he wobbled. “I’ll get refills,” he said. “Krysta, did you know Emma was moving to California? Emma, did you know Krysta met her ex-husband on a Buddhist compound near Berkeley? We’re not allowed to use the word ‘cult.’”
“I’ll help you,” Dave said, following his grandfather inside.
He shut the French doors behind him and grabbed the tray of empty glasses. His grandfather had always loved his afternoon cocktails, but suddenly his face looked pale, almost dusty.
“Maybe we should wait till we get to Donovan’s,” Dave suggested. “Before we have any more?” They stood at the liquor cabinet, surveying the options.
“Do you think she’s flighty?” Frank said. He made an uncharacteristically helpless gesture with his hands. “Your grandmother was never an impulse shopper.” He turned and looked at Dave. Perspiration dotted his brow.
Dave shook his head, confused but relieved to hear his grandmother had not been forgotten. “You’re asking what I think of Krysta?”
Frank nodded. “I want to ask her to move here.”
At that moment, two things happened at once. The front door burst open, with Troy standing at the entrance shouting, “They’re in fucking Paris! With her fucking boyfriend, that little shit!” And Frank crumpled onto the ground.
“My knees gave out,” he said. “For God’s sake, help me up.”
Troy dropped his heavy bags, ran down the hall, and uncle and nephew tried pulling Frank to a standing position but settled on a seated posture when he wouldn’t budge. “Keep your head between your knees,” Dave insisted.
Troy handed him an ice pack from the freezer to put on his forehead. Frank brushed it aside.
The balcony door opened. “What happened?” Krysta said, rushing over. “Call an ambulance,” she told Dave calmly. “Get me some aspirin,” she said to Troy. She put her hands—surprisingly thick and stubby, Dave thought—on his grandfather’s back, and rubbed, very gently. “He might be having a heart attack.”
As Dave dialed 911 on the condo’s phone, he watched Emma and Rumi come in from the balcony. Troy passed Krysta two aspirin and a glass of water, which she held up to Frank’s lips. The whole, silent process felt oddly ritualistic to Dave. But even in the calm that Krysta imposed on the situation, Rumi started to cry. It was a bold and throaty sob that struck him as practiced, in spite of the suddenness of everything. A show business kid.
Dave spoke to the operator. He told them where to come. Krysta and Troy were lowering his grandfather down to the ground, keeping his airways open. At the edge of the room, Emma had gathered the little girl into her arms. “It’s okay,” she said into Rumi’s hair. “Everything’s going to be okay.” She wasn’t looking at Dave or anyone else as she said it, but he felt good for a second, as if she were talking to him.
In what seemed to be the middle of the night, Emma jolted awake from a dream in which Troy stumbled once again into their room and stood at the foot of their bed—except this time it was her and Javier in it, and Troy looked down at them and said, “Get out.”
Eyes still half-closed, she felt certain Troy had been in the room again. The light was on in the bathroom, and she heard the buzzing of an electric razor.
Emma went to nudge Dave, but he wasn’t there. She got up, knocked on the bathroom door. No answer. She threw on a shirt and a pair of Dave’s boxers, and went to look for him.
What a strange and awful night! Frank’s arteries were blocked. He would be in the hospital a few more days, and Krysta was staying with him tonight. Poor, dear Dave. He had cried on the drive home, his head in her lap.
Tiptoeing over the carpet and then the cool slate tiles in the dining area, she made her way to the doorway of Frank’s bedroom. Rumi was curled into the corner of Frank’s bed, plush comforter tucked beneath her chin, and Dave sat next to her, one hand on the girl’s small shoulder as he read from a picture book. He spoke very quietly, but Emma could tell he was doing all the voices: his pitch rose and fell, and his brow furrowed and smoothed as the story progressed.
She went out to the balcony to wait for him and leaned over the railing. The tide was going out, and a couple strolled in a trail of moonlight on the sand below. They were dark silhouettes, holding hands.
The sliding door opened.
When Troy said, “Nice night,” she jumped.
His head and face were newly shaven—his scalp was pink and shiny and raw—and it gave him a bitter, menacing look. He leaned over the railing, too, and out of the corner of her eye, it appeared as though he was ducking his head to kiss her.
She backed away, mortified, but he just handed her a drink.
“Bourbon,” he said, “on the rocks.”
She felt like she hated him. She took a sip anyway, and the burn felt good and buttery. “Nice night,” she repeated. “Are you kidding?”
He clinked his glass against hers. “We’re all alive, aren’t we?”
She didn’t answer. Below them, the couple was running into the water with their clothes on.
“Crazy kids,” Troy said, chuckling. “You gonna say yes?”
Wow, she was tired. Nothing made sense. “Yes to what.”
Troy brought his face closer to hers, and she could see the thready, red veins in his cheeks. “Like you don’t know.” He pressed his finger against her fleshy upper arm, and he left it there for a beat. “My nephew wants to pop the question.”
Emma laughed haltingly, but Troy looked serious, and she felt her stomach turn. Had Dave and Troy talked about this while she was asleep? “That’s news—” she stopped. Though she was bewildered, she didn’t owe this man an answer, so she finished off her drink and turned to go in.
Troy said, “Things like what happened today kind of put things in perspective, know what I mean?”
Emma stopped, her sweaty fingertips leaving little smudges on the glass door. He could be talking about anything—Frank, his own wife and her boyfriend in Paris. Javier, maybe. She tugged open the door, and the cold air slipped out.
Dave was leaving Frank’s room, walking toward her. She smiled at him through the glass, and the way he looked—grateful, relieved—she thought maybe Troy was right, though it still didn’t make any sense.
Troy was at her back now, his hand on her shoulder, whispering in her ear: “What do you want, Emma?”
She didn’t know. Not this. And then Dave was out there with her. With them. He wrapped his arms around her waist. Troy shook the ice in his glass. “Don’t go,” Dave said into her hair, into her neck, and still Troy wouldn’t leave.