He received a postcard in the mail whose message read:
I haven’t written in far too long,
and for that I apologize
nothing more, no address or name, but he knew Thea’s handwriting so he waited a day then met her next sunrise at the pier.
“How many mornings have you been coming here?”
“This is the first,” she said.
“No way.” Larkin thought about that. “The postmark was three days ago.”
“Oh, I know you,” because it was true, he had waited a day: he’d studied the glossy photograph of the port on the postcard’s front and the loops in Thea’s t’s and h’s and f’s on its back. Purchased at a gift shop not far from where they sat. “And surprise surprise, we missed the sunrise.”
But they were seeing each other again in new morning’s light, in this familiar spot, where the ghosts of fishermen yawn with the sea breeze and the gulls squawk over fish wrappers in the trash bins. Larkin presented Thea with one of the twin iced coffees he’d acquired.
“How you like it,” because some things won’t change. She met his eyes as if to defy him, as if to say she had changed and no longer took it black with sugar—until she accepted the plastic cup, pulleying her stare from Larkin’s eyes to the sweating drink in her hands.
“Thank you,” she said. Had she changed her hair? Or did Larkin not remember how it once was, how it fell against a pillow.
“It’s astounding we haven’t run into each other,” he said, “in the neighborhood,” and so wondered if indeed she hasn’t been here this whole time.
Thea produced a flask and added some of its contents to her iced coffee. Larkin uncapped his drink and placed the cup on the bench between them; Thea obliged. “I never told you about my brother,” she offered after she poured.
“Kirby? Why, what happened?”
“No, I mean, we never really—just listen, okay? You’re always taking words out of my mouth, or putting them in or something.”
He cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers and remembered when he used to put his arm around her.
“It’s all about being here,” she said. Maybe Thea had gotten out of town for a spell. He had seen her once or twice, he was certain, but kept his distance all the same so how was he to know. When they’d split, Thea had cited their relationship as the safe bet. He had his regrets, too.
“So your brother.” Larkin replaced the lid on his drink and took a good pull: Thea had given him plenty.
“It’s just, he’s always running around with a broken heart,” she began. “I don’t understand how he does it. He’s like a child running with scissors.”
What Larkin knew of Thea’s brother he’d mostly garnered from the half dozen times he’d been in Kirby’s company: at a show for some unknown garage band, that night they all smoked cigarillos on Thea’s roof, their uncle’s retirement party. Kirby was Thea’s junior by only a year, but that year may have been a lifetime, Thea once said.
Thea unearthed from her purse a bundle of breadcrumbs wrapped in cheesecloth, tied with baker’s twine. “My gift for the morning birds.” She undid the pack and although no birds yet paid them any mind she tossed a few crumbs to the pavement and waited. The gulls didn’t bother but the smaller finches were pleased and hopped with glee.
“He was here visiting a month or two ago. He was in town to take me out. At least that’s how he sold it. Because we were both, uh, recovering,” questioning her diction, “so to speak, I mean we had been talking and it seemed like,” but she didn’t finish. “Anyway, Kirby was here. He asked about you,” she remembered, “of course.”
Kirby was in town at some point that summer: the thought strutted the sidewalks of Larkin’s mind. He imagined Kirby making the case for Larkin, trying to convince his sister she’d made a mistake, to go back, if at that point Larkin would have cared.
“He’d rented a room at the Edison,” Thea went on. “We were lounging by the pool. We never made it to the rooftop there, did we. It’s magnificent. They have this pyramid fountain thing going on, like these stepwise stone fountains all over the place covered with a film of running water, and you can rest your drink there or grab a seat,” but all Larkin could think of was Thea in some swimsuit he’s never seen. He glanced at her knee, her thigh, up to the hem of her shorts and what a bikini wouldn’t hide. “It was a scene,” Thea said. “I mean, it was nice that weekend. The sun and all. There were a lot of people. Partying up.”
Larkin said, “I know, I’ve been.” It was one of those things they were going to do but never did: the rooftop pool at the Edison. One of many. Which became a new kind of list, and Larkin had checked off a few on that list, sometimes alone and sometimes not.
“You have?” Thea tossed a handful of crumbs to the ground. “Right. So you know what I’m talking about then, they have that bar in the middle of the pool? We’d been all day drinking, Because there’s nothing else to do in this town, according to Kirby, and that’s what we were there to do, but you know how Kirby is, he makes friends everywhere, right? He can’t stand to be alone, is what I think it is.” Thea considered her revelation. “That’s what it is, isn’t it. He can’t stand to be alone.”
Larkin motioned for the bag of crumbs and Thea handed them over. “This right here,” he said, marveling at the charm of the package, the cheesecloth and the twine, “is attention to detail.”
“So he talks to some couple floating beside us for a while and then ropes in some passing whomevers, but they all lose steam and Kirby’s restless. He’d been restless all day. ‘So I’m taking a lap,’ he says. ‘I’ll get us drinks,’ drinks we already had. But I let him do his thing, in his funny, fat-striped bathing suit, like pastel green and blue and pink. ‘You look like a dyed egg,’ I told him. ‘No, it’s your eggs that are dying,’ he joked.
“I should have left that part out,” Thea mused.
“Anyway I’m sitting there and off he struts, leaving me alone. Fine by me. I have my drink, I have my book. Two guys tried to talk me up, the one more so than the other, but I was having none of it.”
“You did that thing where you don’t talk, you just nod and nod.”
“Must have annoyed the hell out of him. But at least he tried, right?”
“You know, Larkin,” and Thea reclaimed the bag of crumbs, “you and me, we did have some of those things,” recalling an unfinished conversation from some time ago. “Not all, but some.”
“Don’t make me regret coming here this morning, Thea. I paid four dollars for that coffee.”
“So Kirby goes off on his merry, horny way.” Larkin laughed and Thea remembered another story. “So horny, that one. Ha, he tried to kiss me on the mouth once, when we were kids. We were very young and talking about kissing. I still tease him about that. I’m your sister, idiot. I slapped him in the face.” Thea said it again, “I slapped him in the face, although he insists it was a punch.”
“You’ve told me that before.”
“Fine. So he’s on his horny way. Gone maybe fifteen minutes, but when he comes back he’s got that patented Kirby smile. Christ, I saw it coming a hundred feet away. The worst part is he sees me see it on his face and that just makes him lean into it more, right? So when he swims up I just wanna punch his face—but he doesn’t give in yet. He swims up to my book and he flips the page with his wet finger and says, ‘Theodora, you’re going to have to toss the book one day. You can’t be one of those girls that doesn’t go down.’ Like, what the fuck Kirby.”
“Can I say I miss your brother?” Larkin said. “Because now I miss your brother. Tell him hello. Will you tell him we saw each other?”
“So ‘oh I forgot the drinks’ he says, by the way, and then swims away again, following that grin of his. He’s gone for ten more minutes, and it’s great, no one bothers me, I can read in peace or really just people-watch, but this time when Kirby returns he says, ‘You’ll never guess who’s here.’” Thea rolled her eyes at the memory. “Although he did have the drinks, I’ll give him that.”
It was a simple pleasure and a hope Larkin had not forgotten: to hear Thea tell a story again. He considered some of her clauses and let others meander this way and that, wondering how many of her words he’d heard in however many months, as if there were a tally somewhere.
“It was Emmaline,” Thea said. “Remember Emmaline? ‘Kirby,’ I said to him, ‘tell me you’re joking.’ ‘She told me weeks ago, sis,’ and this whole time he knew it! It was a bachelorette party and they—”
“Please, Emmaline? She’s all about being free.”
“Have you seen her around?” Larkin did remember Emmaline, but only as a topic of conversation: he’d never met Kirby’s mythical lover, the one that got away but sometimes came back.
A tugboat bellowed out on the water, scattering the finches that had gathered by the breadcrumbs; just for a moment the birds thought of flying away, but with short memories returned to the crumbs.
“No, and I had no intention of seeing her anywhere. But Kirby dragged me over. She was with a whole slew of Kirby girls, you know what I mean? All with their tits out. Nice girls, I’m sure. I know I had met some of them before but hell if I knew their names. And Kirby girls are always surrounded by chattering boys. Right there in the middle of it all is Emmaline, with some guy on her arm, some scruffy boy with very few ideas. ‘You remember Thea,’ Kirby says to Emmaline, as if I’m his in, wading right up to her, and that’s when I see it in her eyes: she hadn’t invited Kirby at all. But that’s the way Kirby is. Doesn’t matter if he’s invited. Long as he’s there, she won’t want him to go.”
“I never saw the harm in Emmaline, to be honest,” Larkin said, and it raised Thea’s eyebrows. “Oh neither did you,” he added.
“Larkin, sweetheart, you don’t know what you’re talking about. What are you talking about? Did you ever even meet her? They’re no good for each other. They’re too,” and Thea looked for the word in her iced coffee, “emotional.”
He let that slide. “So there you are, face to face with Emmaline.”
“Okay so she gives me a big hug, and she’s all, ‘Thea, you look great,’ asking me what I’m reading, if I’m still living on Monroe. She was trying to play it cool, in front of this other guy I guess but as soon as Kirby showed up this poor sap was done for, because Emmaline and my brother, they’re magnets. ‘So Em, introduce us to your friends,’ Kirby says, because he knows he can. I don’t know how he does it. But that’s the thing with Emmaline, she’s not phased. So she doesn’t budge either.”
“And the guy?”
It was like a hostage negotiation, just keep her talking, because Larkin worried their morning would be finished with the breadcrumbs and so he snatched the bag and held it in his lap.
“Oh I don’t know, he disappeared. I did too.”
“Sounds about right.”
“‘Go get hit on by those boys,’ Kirby told me. He chased me down. I wasn’t going anywhere, but I don’t know, maybe I was. ‘And what, just go up to the blonde one and ask what’s his favorite color? Didn’t mother teach us not to talk to strangers?’ ‘I don’t usually talk to strangers,’ he says, but he was kidding. He wasn’t going back over there without me, but indeed he wanted to go back. ‘She told me she was going to be here,’ Kirby admitted, ‘but she didn’t know I’d show.’”
“Emmaline left the door open,” Larkin argued. “She wouldn’t have let on in the first place.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Why else would she have reached out to him?”
“According to Kirby, she was ‘kinda my best friend.’”
“So I told Kirby I was going back to the room. ‘Just take the scruffy one off her hands for a minute.’ Did he need my help? ‘Sis, please. I’ve been waiting a bloody long time.’ But I refused. No, he didn’t need my help. So fine, he was going to do it himself, and I watched him go again. He swam right up to Emmaline, reached for her wrist—he practically took her hand out of the scruffy one’s—and leaned into her ear. And I saw it on her face: she liked what came from my brother’s lips.”
“What’d he say?”
“I didn’t find out until later.”
“I went home. I saw Emmaline’s face and that was all it took. Kirby could handle it all by himself. He didn’t need me getting in the way. He didn’t need me to get rid of the scruffy guy. It was starting to get dark out and I got a taxi back to my apartment. I guess I was angry at the time but I’ve been angrier. And that was my day at the Edison.”
They’d finished the iced coffees and the finches had finished the bread. Thea carried the empty coffee cups to a trash bin stationed by the railing. She stood there overlooking the water. Larkin took his post beside her.
“So Kirby shows up the next morning at my apartment,” but there was something to her voice now, stained with regret or melancholy. “He had checked us out of the hotel, a day early. He came to drop off my stuff. And when he showed up at my door, I knew he was devastated. It was written all over his face. ‘I’ve got a broken heart again,’ and I’d say he was being dramatic but I knew better. So what was I to do? I let him in, I poured him a glass of seltzer.
“Apparently, Emmaline was going with another guy. ‘I knew that was a possibility,’ he said. It wasn’t any of the guys there. Not the scruffy guy or the blonde one. I mean, she and Kirby still went back to the hotel room. Like I said, he had her on the hook.”
“What did he say to her back at the pool?”
“Oh, right. That. I asked him the same thing, and Kirby said he went up to Emmaline and he whispered in her ear, I wanna do it. Can you imagine? Do it all night.”
“That’s the thing, I admire him for it. I don’t know how he does it, where that confidence comes from. He’s fearless. How does he get away with it? I do that and I’m a slut.”
“If you did that to me?”
But maybe that was too close to home. Thea backed from the railing. Like that she seemed to have lost the thread.
“I never knew your brother had it in him,” Larkin offered, although he did know, and Thea was somewhere else already. “Thea, why are you telling me this?”
“I told him he spends too much time in his own heart,” Thea resigned. “He said I spend too much time in my head. That it pollutes my heart. That’s the word he used, pollute.” Thea folded the piece of cheesecloth into smaller and smaller squares and then finally stuffed it in her purse. “All my life, he’s been out there, he’s taken those risks. The broken hearts, the vulnerability. I want to be like him, but I can’t recover from it.”
“And you regret not being like your brother.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not him, I know that. I know I’m not him.” She had to repeat it to believe it. “What I’m saying is I regret not having this conversation with you earlier.”
Thea slumped against the railing and dared not look to Larkin, who dared not disturb this uneasy balance between them. The pier had settled past morning and would settle into the afternoon the way it always does, warming the air with the scent of the sea as the gulls circled the sky, led by their cries, waiting to dive.