Fiction: Any Port in a Storm
A version of this story first appeared in Down in the Dirt, a literary magazine edited by Janet Kuypers out of Austin, Texas.
Philip Agnew didn’t care much for vacations. Not that Philip didn’t want to take vacations, but his head told him that he shouldn’t, because he needed to save his money for his wife to spend so she would stay happy, knowing what she knew. Besides, deep down, Philip only wanted to take a vacation if it meant he could go somewhere and be himself.
But here he was on the white sand beaches of Gulf Shores, having reluctantly driven his BMW past the Alabama peanut farms and the yellowhammers singing in the pines. The breeze still tasted like those salty hulls, which saddened him. He’d convinced himself on the drive that ditching his phone and his tablet for the sunshine and the ocean air might be good for a fresh start. But Irene had inevitably complained about the sand, how it wasn’t as white as she thought it would be, how the Gulf wasn’t quite so blue. Instead, his two little blond-headed beauties, Norma and Nadine, were splashing in the shallow end of the hotel pool, while his blond-headed, pink-lipped, powder-faced wife sunned in a beach chair next to a man with a thick tan. How had he let his life become his parents’ motel cliché? Hell, Phil knew Irene was admiring the man with the thick tan, even though he couldn’t see her eyes behind the leopard-print sunglasses, hiding what was left of the bruise he’d given her the weekend before, when she’d said what she said about what they both knew to be true.
That was the reason for the vacation, to figure out the heart of the matter, as Irene put it, how he had let himself get this way.
Phil had finally finished his seven-year residency and been certified by the board of neurosurgeons. So he’d been around rich doctors long enough to know that people took vacations like this, to escape what ailed them. But he also knew a vacation wouldn’t change the fact that his wife was having an affair with the local meteorologist down the street, or that his twins were getting old enough to sense the distance between their daddy and momma. Phil knew a vacation wouldn’t change the lie he’d been living, a lie that had turned from white to gray, a lie that now existed somewhere between his trophy wife and the dream of a real vacation in his head.
After Irene said what she said and Phil reared back and landed one clean, they discussed selling the house in Macon and moving farther south, closer to the ocean, where he could start his career. At least Irene had made her wants known to Phil, if Phil still wanted to be part of this family, to be a man.
“We have the money,” she said. “You don’t have to be so tight.” Irene only had on thong underwear and was pulling a pair of sheer stockings up one slender calf, then the other, sexier than necessary. She didn’t need to get done up for another day at home with Norma and Nadine, but this was a test, Phil was sure of it, to see if he would crack.
“You could talk to me about whatever it is you want to talk about,” she said, swishing her hips as she worked her stockings into place, her perky breasts bouncing free. “Why don’t we go on a trip? You don’t ever take us on trips anymore. We could see if it’s Macon, or if it’s you.”
“You’re right, honey,” Phil said, already certain it wasn’t the Peach State. “Let’s take a trip, see what we see.”
Maybe the Gulf would be just what the doctor ordered, some time to clear his head of that handsome young RN he kept running into at the hospital, the one with the sandy-blonde part. If he moved closer to the ocean, Phil thought he might take up deep-sea fishing. He had the patience. A heavy-duty rod and reel might be nice to hold on to out in the middle of the Gulf. By God, he wouldn’t mind losing his scrubs and loafers for sandals and shorts and a suntanned chest, like the oily man lounging next to Irene. Phil had always admired a man with a tan.
Ankle-deep in the Gulf, beneath the noon sun, he was overcome with a want that bore a hole in him, like the tiny sand crabs scurrying for cover. He just wanted to dig a hole in the earth and surface somewhere else—maybe another world, if there was one out there that would have him. He stared down at the veins in his sunburned feet, glimmering beneath the water. Who would care if he got up the courage to vanish? What did Irene need with him anyway? What did he know that Norma and Nadine couldn’t learn from the man their mother was screwing?
Mark the meteorologist had a head full of shoe-polish black hair and a sturdy jaw. Not a bad-looking man at all, and Phil even found humor in the fact that the very man who forecasted the weather on the nightly news was having sex with Irene, the woman who spent her days trying not to get her hair wet. When they were in high school—Phil a football star, Irene a beauty queen, the perfect Southern pair—he had admired her meticulousness. She made sure her blond hair stayed as smooth as her complexion, and to this day, he couldn’t pinch a fingernail’s worth of skin on her rail-thin frame. He partly blamed himself for Irene’s neurosis, her obsession with keeping up appearances. Before he smacked her, Phil could see what had been pent up for the past few years in her scowl.
“Should we keep our double-date with the Franklins?” he had asked that night, making conversation at the supper table.
She peered at him over the lip of her wine glass.
“Any port in a storm,” she said.
Phil stared right back over a honey-baked ham, Norma and Nadine oblivious to the aphorism hanging there between the adults. He knew Irene knew why he was hiding, why he had started sliding a pillow between his legs, insisting that it was an old football injury acting up. Med school and the residency, the around-the-clock hours, had made the charade easier to pull off. Now Phil was losing his edge. But he could tell Irene wasn’t sure how to deconstruct their lives either, how to explain why they’d let this thing fester into an incurable wound.
“How’s that new young nurse?” Irene asked in bed after supper, when the pillow went between Phil’s thighs. “Tommy, right? Awful purrrty.”
“Tom?” Phil worked the pillow farther up. “He’s fine, honey. Fine kid.”
Irene sipped her white wine, the one chink in her otherwise spotless armor. The glass made a clink on the bedside table. “Thank the Lord you didn’t give me a son.”
That’s when Philip raised up in bed and slapped her in one fluid motion. She screamed, then spouted insults. “Guess you can be a man.” Her eye swelled and a trickle of blood escaped from her nose. He threw on his white robe and opened the bedroom door. Norma and Nadine were standing there, wide-eyed.
Phil waded deeper and deeper into the Gulf, much deeper than he had planned. But he was still close enough for Norma and Nadine to see their daddy wave to them. The two girls, in their pink one-pieces, shook both hands furiously, then held their noses and jumped back in the pool, not quite at the same time, though that had seemed to be their goal. How old were they now? Nearly six? They’d grown up so fast, already full of personality and dreams—Norma had told Phil she wanted to be a brain doctor just like him; Nadine said she wanted to be pretty like her momma. Phil prayed that their beauty wouldn’t wind up failing them like it had Irene. He scanned over to his wife in her red bikini, lounging by the man with the thick tan. She bent and unbent a few skinny fingers, never removing her leopard-print sunglasses.
The emptiness he felt should’ve hurt, but the casual exchange felt obligatory, in a way, as if he were simply offering a kind gesture to another man’s wife and another man’s children. Maybe Phil could take on the waves, to see what he had left in him. He pushed ahead, lifting one foot after the other and crashing it into the water. He acted on the impulse that shot through him every morning on the way to the hospital, when he drove past all the picket fences lined up in his neighborhood. Phil would punch the gas and speed through Macon, past the HoJo, past Waffle House, past the new Wal-Mart that had put the Old Time Country Store out of business. He’d take the I-81 onramp and push his BMW to ninety, but never could get past the next exit before turning back around toward the hospital. He was paralyzed with fear that Norma and Nadine might develop some mental illness, their father up and leaving—no goodbye, no explanation. Then again, maybe they would be like him anyway. That was up to the Lord, he figured.
Phil dove into a cresting wave, resurfaced, and dove into another with intention, but also with a dread that couldn’t be explained. He certainly couldn’t explain it to the group of doctors he met for breakfast at Waffle House, the men who gave him pats on the back when rumors went around about Irene screwing the meteorologist. Phil wondered if his wife was falling on the sword for him, forgiving him the only way she could.
He resurfaced, waist deep in the Gulf now, still moving toward the horizon, his family behind him, wondering how far was too far. Then the sand dropped out from under his feet and salt water filled his nostrils, flooded his throat. He was used to treading water. He welcomed the cold swirling around his toes compared to the warmth around his chest. It reminded him of the cold stream of water in the locker room showers and the warmth of a man’s hands on his skin.
Scott was the senior quarterback at Macon High, Phil a sophomore receiver. They were two fine boys, raised by fine Christian families. But the more they passed in the halls, the more Phil understood, and Scott finally asked him to stay after practice to work on routes. Phil was alone under the showerhead, washing away the sweat of the session and his impulses, when Scott came up from behind. Phil shut his eyes, trying to keep his mind off the large, soft fingers running along his hip bones and down his thighs. He turned the knob from hot to cold and put his forehead against the wall. He counted every pore in the white concrete, imagining the drops being sucked into it like a sponge. He thought about his mother’s spider veins and her extra-large underwear lying around the house. He thought about Noah’s ark, each animal two by two. Philip tried to think of anything that would keep his body from betraying him. But Scott stroked and thrust until he released the tension in his back, embracing himself.
Phil was neck deep now, and his arms were wearing thin. He paddled around to assess how far he was from shore. He could see every level of the hotel, all the balconies with body-less feet propped up on privacy walls. He could just make out Norma and Nadine, who had moved from the pool to the beach and were playing in the sand next to Irene. She still had on her sunglasses, arms folded, a bony hip cocked to one side.
They were all watching Philip from behind a shirtless, muscular lifeguard in short, navy trunks. He was blowing his whistle and waving his arms, one hand gripping a red floatation device, the only sign to Phil that he might be worth saving.