The High Hour

Phoebe sits, legs crossed, on a white plastic chair. A slight breeze thumbs through the pages of fashion magazines scattering the table. Charred pieces of rye toast lay on her plate lathered in crème fraiche and apricot marmalade. Pieces of fruit cut into small geometric shapes – strawberries, cantaloupe, melon, apple and orange covered in muscavado sugar are untouched. She dips her finger into her green tea that has long gone cold. Seated outside the café of the Delano Hotel, Phoebe’s cellular phone is on vibrator mode in the event that Evan calls.

Her waitress strolls up wearing white denim jeans and a white shirt with Gillian in red cursive. She holds a pad but no pen.

“You always binge eat?” Gillian says, pointing to the full plates of food.

“How is my appetite your business?”

“It’s not.” Gillian strides back into the café’s kitchen.

Evan saunters towards the table and picks up a piece of Phoebe’s toast. Sniffing it, he drops it back on the plate. Crumbs scatter the table.

“I’ve been out all morning and have gotten no fucking color,” he says. Stroking the keypad of his phone, he checks messages. Evan shakes his bottle of sunscreen and a plop of white creamy lotion spits into his palm. He lathers himself in SPF 45.

“Perhaps if you exposed your body to the sun a little longer,” Phoebe begins, “we only got in last night.”

“We’re here a day and already you’re a comedian.” He reaches in his backpack for the Miami Herald. “Jesus Christ, is there even a business section in this goddamn paper?” He flaps the pages like wings.

“We’re here a day and the first words that come out of your mouth are ‘I’m getting no fucking color.’” She continues, “Tell me how I’m supposed to feel.”

Evan glares at the article on the table, “Do you plan on feeding me that couples’ therapy bullshit this whole trip? Advance notice would be helpful.”

“No. I plan on abusing your credit cards on Lincoln Road. Then I plan on having dinner at the Delano and maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll fuck the busboy.” Snatching the sunscreen, Phoebe yanks the nozzle off and pours lotion on her stomach. She rubs in short vigorous strokes.

“I knew this wasn’t going to work out, but no, you had to have your way. You had to insist.”

As Phoebe looks at her husband, her eyes narrow, her mouth peels down to a frown. Evan covers his face with the newspaper as if protecting himself from Phoebe’s harmful rays. Snatching her drawstring bag, Phoebe says evenly, “I’m going for shells.” She clips past Evan and jogs from the hotel café down to the shore.

 

Phoebe takes long steps, sinking her feet into the sand, feeling the cool earth against her pink skin. Ignoring the signs on the beach that warn of riptide, she steps closer to the water. Foamy waves lap at her ankles. She leans down and roves her fingers under water, searching for shells. After dropping fifteen porcelain whites into her bag, she walks deeper to find fluorescent shards of amber, broken sienna shells, amethyst colored glass, and curved baby conches. Phoebe unearths mauve colored shells shaped like Chinese fans. Relaxed, she walks down a mile of the beach’s perimeter and the sky overhead begins to darken; the clouds thicken and puff like down pillows. Further down the beach, the clouds dip lower to a point where they could touch the surface of the waves that have turned black.

Out into the ocean, she can see sheets of rainfall. People still remain in their lawn chairs, their bodies’ shift comfortably on gold gaudy hotel cushions. Against one of the dunes, there is a food stand that serves ceviche with beer or red wine in plastic cups. Flamingoes decorate the sides of the stand and men in button down denim L.L. Bean shirts and fluorescent trunks balance tin foils of greasy Cuban fare on their arms like waitresses.

Drizzle begins to fall and Phoebe clutches the shells still in her bag, tight.

 

Over the past year, Evan, who used to comfort her while she repeatedly told him stories about her father, who had left her, has grown restless. Once he snapped, you don’t need a husband, you need a father. But Phoebe can’t help herself; she randomly bursts into tears in department stores staring at photos of picturesque families in silver frames while Evan quietly walks away. At night, Phoebe stands at the foot of their bed and fingers the cool fabric. The edges are ironed so flat they appear store-bought. Evan’s body curls into a fetal position at the very edge of the bed. Under the duvet, Phoebe stares at the ceiling. It has been a year since he made love to her. A year since he rested his head on her back. In the morning, instead of their moist morning nuzzles over morning coffee and scones – Evan now grabs an English muffin and air kisses Phoebe. As he leaves the house, he waves at her with his Wall Street Journal.

 

Dinners have become silent save for the clinking and scraping of silverware on plates, awkward coughs and a brief cold statement as if both are filing police reports summarizing their respective days. One evening, Phoebe suggested they either start a “date night” or take a much-needed vacation. Referring to a piece of paper that lay on her lap – her scribbles on books they should read, vacations they desperately needed to book – she quoted him prices on package deals to Aruba and spouted out paperback titles recommended by the Lifetime Network. Evan’s eyes shifted from the microwave to the refrigerator clocks as if he were counting time, willing it to pass by. He picked up the evening paper and loudly flicked through the pages. Exhausted, she collapsed into the damask dining chair and sulked.

“What?” He said, “What did I do now?”

Phoebe stared at a print of Bluemner’s A Situation in Yellow on the wall. “Nothing, Evan. You’re doing nothing.”

 

One of the shells, an octagon shaped deep brown cracks in Phoebe’s hand.

As she continues to wander the beach, Phoebe recalls an evening when Evan complained over dinner that the herbs in the lamb were too dry, Phoebe ran out the next day and purchased $32 worth of herbs: coriander, sage, parsley, mint, oregano. She toted clear plastic bags of the green leaves in her handbag. On the drive home, she pulled over four times and stole heavy whiffs until her eyes watered and she collapsed into a coughing fit. After she parked in her driveway, Phoebe stared at her bounty. She threw the herbs in the bin.

 

The shells slide from Phoebe’s hand and tumble onto the sand. The trickle of raindrops grows heavy and she can hear the hard tapping of the water onto the beach umbrellas. People clasp their straw tote and canvas bags and scurry like field mice to the safety of their hotels; the sand weighs down their run up the boardwalk. Phoebe knows that Evan is standing in their hotel bathroom, toweling his hair dry; moving the terry cloth from one side of his back to the other. Evan would never get caught in a downpour.

 

* * *

 

“So what’d you find?” Evan asks, watching television. He lies in bed wrapped in an extra large periwinkle blue robe, cupping a Dewars on ice. Lying outstretched, legs spread wide, left foot dangling off the side of the bed; Evan still manages to look austere, almost evangelical in his coldness. Phoebe walks over to the mini bar and pulls out several quarter bottles of Californian red and lines them neatly, like cards, on the bureau. Evan rubs the hotel sheets against his thighs.

“Nothing really. A lot of them were broken.” She unscrews one of the bottles and gulps down the bitter wine. It coats her stomach like cough syrup. Phoebe quivers.

“Just because something is broken doesn’t mean it’s not worth keeping,” Evan says, his attention turns to Phoebe and their eyes lock. “Take the number your father did on you.” He wraps his arms behind his head and his gaze shifts back to the television – a game show. “I kept you, didn’t I?”

“Don’t think you didn’t add to it,” she says quietly. Two bottles under her arm, she heads into the bathroom and slams the door shut. Her body, still soaked from the rain, slides down the back of the door. The volume rises on the television. You can play it safe and go home now with what you have or you could play the next round and risk it all. Phoebe unscrews all the caps to the audience's cacophonous applause – feet stomping, hands clapping and wolf whistles. She closes her eyes, tight. Martin, I’m going to risk it all! The audience goes wild with approval. Rounding her back, Phoebe draws her knees into her chest. She hears Evan walk across the carpet. The chink of miniature ice cubes echoes throughout the room. “Fucker should’ve gone home,” he says.

Evan knocks on the bathroom door. “For Chrissake Phoebe. What? Are you going to sit in there all night?” He continues, “Listen, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Is that what you need to hear? Is that what you need me to tell you?”

“No, you’re not,” she whispers loud enough for him to hear. She can feel his weight lean against the other side of the door. “Bullshit you’re sorry. You don’t even know what you’re sorry for.”

“Phoebe, what are we going to do?” His voice falls.

Phoebe beats her thighs with her fists. She is fifteen again: hearing her mother sob behind her bedroom door, and her father’s footsteps down the carpeted staircase. Brushing aside the thin curtains, Phoebe spied a woman in the front seat of her father’s car. The engine hacked but the car started, leaving them behind. When Phoebe had tried to comfort her mother, her mother said, “You must have done something.”

Sitting on the bathroom floor, Phoebe’s nails make hard crescents in her palm. The muscles in her arms contract and tighten. DON’T LEAVE. Jaw locks, her eyes open wide. What would she do if he actually did leave?

“We are going nowhere,” he elongates each syllable and pauses between each word, stretching them for effect. “Do you hear me Phoebe, fucking nowhere.”

 

* * *

 

Phoebe wakes up. Using the toilet as leverage, she hoists her sore body up. Bikini still on, her skin is blotchy from areas she missed with sunscreen. She pulls a towel off the sink and unlocks the door. Evan is gone, his clothes are folded neat on top of his made bed. His glass on the bureau holds scotch.

Grabbing her bag and beach towel, Phoebe shakes off the clumps of sand, rock and beach glass onto the carpet. With her toes, she spreads the debris like a rainbow, moving her feet from one side to another, letting the sand settle deep into the carpet. Phoebe clicks the door shut and hangs the Do Not Disturb sign.

The afternoon sky is clear – a blinding blue; the white storefronts with their vulgar gold trimmings are incandescent in the white light. Phoebe walks further down Collins Avenue, away from the posh hotels to the sleepy two-floor motels painted mint green and baby pink that boast outdoor cafés. She stops in front of the La Palma Hotel. Two palm trees tower like Roman pillars. Phoebe slides out a plastic chair and picks up the menu sticky from a syrup stain.

Gillian, the waitress from the Delano walks over. “You’re lucky.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s two o’clock. If this were high hour, you wouldn’t be able to sit anywhere outdoors by yourself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Phoebe’s sweaty fingers clutch the laminated menu.

“We’d be seating families of four wearing Mickey Mouse ears. Fat ladies in beach towels and their husbands with back hair.” Gillian says this as if she were rattling off a grocery list.

“Don’t you work over at The Delano?”

“How observant. I work there Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Gillian pulls something out of her hair and flings it onto the pavement. A piece of bacon. “What can I do you for?”

“I’ll have the tuna salad.”

“You don’t want that,” Gillian says. “Go for the tossed greens. The fish and meat is suspect.”

“I’m sure your boss would appreciate you broadcasting this information to customers.”

“Ever had your stomach pumped lady? Trust me, I’m giving you gospel.” Gillian turns and clips through the revolving doors of the hotel.

Phoebe chews her limp greens. For a moment she wonders where her husband could be. It’s Saturday afternoon and he has no scheduled meetings until Monday. Stop obsessing, she tells herself. Pouring the balsamic dressing that resembles castor oil over the romaine leaves, she bites down on stale garlic croutons. After she finishes her meal, Phoebe pushes the plate to the far end of the table and stares out onto the street.

“So, where is the asshole bathed in sunscreen?” Gillian’s frame blocks the sunlight. Her thick black hair is pulled into a neat bun.

Phoebe’s façade withers, “I don’t know. And I don’t know if I want to know. I should want to know, right?” With a fork, she moves a crust of white iceberg in circles about her salad bowl. Gillian sits down next to Phoebe and slides the check under her plate.

“Maybe it’s okay to have this space.”

“It must be nice to live in a perfect world,” Phoebe snaps.

“Oh yeah, perfect. My rat bastard of a father, who left my brother and I with our zombie of a mother, decides to vacation in this hotel with his new family. I served them breakfast this morning, for Chrissake.”

“Perhaps he is trying to make amends, reconcile.” Phoebe’s eyes widen with interest.

“James could hold seminars on bad parenting. I almost pity the poor kid. Almost.”

“How did it feel for you to see him with his new family?” Phoebe is in full pseudo-therapist mode. For a moment, she feels powerful: she is less alone.

Gillian points to her scalp, “You see this?” There are pieces of bacon stuck to several strands. “James suggested they all go for a swim and the little maggot goes apeshit and throws her breakfast everywhere.” She continues, “You ask how I felt after I saw him? I needed a shower.”

“My husband ignores me,” Phoebe releases. “We’ve been together for five years and at first it was amazing, he took care of everything, he made all of the decisions. He took care of me.” Her chest rises and falls like riptide.

“Then what?” Gillian lights a Kent 100 and takes a sharp drag.

“It just, stopped.” Phoebe says, “It was as if I were a charity case he grew tired of. So I do everything short of bribe him to take me on his business trip. I figure we’re just in a slump…”

“You’re not in a slump – you’re fucked. If I were you, I would consult the Yellow Pages. Make friends with attorneys.”

“I was hoping for time, a few days to get through this.” Phoebe’s shoulders begin to cave inward and her hands shake. “I should love him. Instead I just want to throw sharp objects at him.”

“The only thing time buys you is more misery.”

“You don’t know us…” Phoebe says, “We have five years.”

“Four years of him playing father and a year of you being an adult? Some marriage. You should see a therapist.”

“You don’t know me.”

Gillian smiles slyly, “That’s what my mother use to say. Emma used to run around supermarkets high on Xanax trying to convince people in produce that my father was coming back. Then she woke up and realized that she was just a photocopy. James was never coming back.”

Phoebe shakes her head, “Evan wouldn’t leave me. We’ve had problems but that doesn’t mean-” Phoebe twists her wedding band on her finger; she feels the warm gold against her sweaty skin – she pushes the band harder into her ring finger. No, Evan can’t abandon her.

Gillian snaps her fingers in front of Phoebe’s face, “Wake up” and continues, “My father and the nuclear family finish their breakfast and I clear the plates. I’m walking away, because fuck him, why should he know that I care? And I feel him walking behind me and he taps me on the back and he tells me he named his daughter after my mother.”

“That’s shameless.”

“I said to the smug fucker, Is this our big father-daughter moment? And I picked up a cup of coffee and threw it in his face. I’m pissed that the coffee was cold.”

“I think Evan is cheating on me.”

“Highly probable.”

Although Phoebe knows how easy it is to confide in a complete stranger, she feels awkward anyway. “I should get going. You probably have a lot of customers.” Phoebe leaves a twenty on the table.

Gillian shrugs and puts the money in her jean pocket. “You should come back around eleven tonight,” Gillian makes grand gesticulations in the air, “It’s Flamingo night – rich men drunk on well drinks and the women who sleep with them. It’s poetry in motion.”

Phoebe takes out her cell phone from her purse and calls Evan, “It was interesting meeting you again Gillian.” She hears ringing and static.

“Yeah?” Evan’s voice booms.

“Whatever,” Gillian rises and says, “Photocopies, products of the Xerox Corporation. Dispensable.” She walks back to the kitchen.

“Phoebe?” Evan yells.

Phoebe stares at the waitress pushing her way through the revolving doors and presses End on her cellular phone.

 

* * *

 

10:25 P.M. Evan stands in front of the square bureau mirror and double knots his navy tie. He struggles with the knot and, frustrated, yanks off the tie and throws it on the bed. He smoothes his dinner jacket, taming any wrinkles. After he cuffs his shirt and ties his shoelaces, he pats his neck with aftershave. He dabs cologne under his chin. Lying in bed, Phoebe reads The Yellow Wallpaper. She makes elaborate noises turning each page, letting the pages bend and curl under her fingers. Evan is different tonight; he dresses meticulously. He hums. Phoebe’s stomach rumbles like a volcano.

“I didn’t realize we had dinner plans,” she says.

“We don’t.”

“Then where are you going?”

Evan sweeps a fine tooth tortoise comb through his gelled hair. He gleams. “I’m taking an associate out to La Palma tonight,” he sighs and turns to face Phoebe. Brushing her aside he says, “Mother, May I?” and heads into the bathroom.

“What am I supposed to do?” she shouts.

“Don’t you have some busboy to fuck?” Evan slams the door shut.

Phoebe charges to the door and starts pounding. “Evan, this is supposed to be our vacation, remember? You said we’re going nowhere so – let’s change that. Evan, meet me half way!” Phoebe lowers her voice, “You can’t keep pretending that I don’t exist.”
Evan opens the door wide and sits down on the toilet seat. He holds his head in his hands. With his feet, he traces the tiles on the floor. “The thing is, Phoebe, I don’t think I can do this anymore…”

“You won’t even try,” she says, hands on her hips.

“Who are we kidding here Phoebe? We haven’t slept together in months, we barely talk to each other and when we do, we argue. Do you call this a happy marriage?” He pauses and proceeds cautiously, “We need to start dealing with this.”

“Deal with what?”

“Divorce. I’ve already seen someone, I think you should too.” Evan stands up and straightens the pleats in his pants. “How long should we keep up this charade?”

“You know Michael Rosen in Gramercy? He represents women in these situations.”

“You’re giving me a fucking referral? I give you my life and you give me the name of a divorce lawyer? Are you kidding me? Please tell me you’re kidding me Evan.” Phoebe rakes her hair with her nails.

“Phoebe, every time I look at you, I love you less.”

“Is that right?” she says. “Well you know what Evan – every time I look at you, I hate you more.” Phoebe storms out and heads to the elevator. Repeatedly, she jabs the down button.

Phoebe enters the cool evening air with vengeance and sprints to the La Palma Hotel. When she arrives, leaning against one of the palm trees, she pants heavily. It is high hour. Loud Latin music booms from the air-conditioned corridor of the hotel; the thump of the bass buzzes underneath Phoebe’s feet. Glasses chink, cellular phones ring and tipsy high-pitched laughter reverberate. Couples shuffle past her: smartly dressed men in tailored jackets and pretty women with fresh tans. The air smells of magnolias. Spent, Phoebe walks inside the hotel directly to the bar.

“You again?” Gillian smiles, “I’m getting a mild stalking vibe here.”

“He wants a divorce and I want a bottle of red wine.”

“He didn’t waste any time.” Gillian sets a glass down on the bar and pours a spicy Syrah. Phoebe downs the drink in one large gulp and says, “More.”

“See, over there,” Gillian points across the room and Phoebe recognizes the man from the beach. “Apparently, all is not well in the land of James and the nuclear family.”

“That’s your father?” Phoebe says with disdain, “he looks exactly like my husband.”

“Home wreckers tend to look alike. However, the plot thickens. Wife number three has just informed him that she is sleeping with his business associate.” Gillian wipes down glasses with a dirty rag. She refills cherry and lime bins.

“And you heard all of this standing here?” Phoebe sips her second glass and eyes the arguing couple sitting in expensive overstuffed chairs; the Japanese lamps hanging overhead highlight their tight faces. She stares at his bronze, leathery skin – his gleaming orthodontia. He looks like a game show host. James’s drink sloshes about his glass and spills on his trousers and his wife scowls; her cherry lips plump and moist.

“No genius, he told me when he ordered his fourth scotch. He said, It scares me that you enjoy this,” Gillian says, spraying seltzer into a glass with a bar gun. Phoebe’s curiosity stirs when Evan enters the room. Why is he walking towards the arguing couple?

“Enter Exhibit A: the business associate cum home wrecker.”

“Gillian, that’s my husband,” Phoebe stutters, stumbling down from the barstool. This couldn’t be real. She looks down at her trembling hands. Steadying herself against the bar, Phoebe closes her eyes. Patrons move their stools away. Opening her eyes, lashes damp with tears, Phoebe says to Gillian, “I did everything I could do.”

“I’m sure you did,” Gillian says.

“Could I have done something more?” Phoebe sees her husband across the room. He is so far from her reach. Turning back to Gillian, she feels desperate. Phoebe has read all about this – marriages where the love brightens then fades and where comfort is sought from the smell of another’s clothing. Preparing fastidiously as if training for the Olympics, she has pored over marriage resurrection techniques and disaster relief therapy should a divorce occur. But seeing her husband across the room makes all the words on the pages of the books she has read invisible.

“You did everything you could do,” Gillian says.

Evan becomes immersed in the hurricane as James stands up and they are in one another’s faces screaming. The men’s faces are the color of pomegranates as they snarl and bark. The wife crosses and uncrosses her legs wantonly and signals for another cocktail. She purses her lips to a perfect “O” and applies lip liner.

Gillian pulls out two Kools, hands one to Phoebe and strikes a match. Gillian is speechless and they both take long inhales of the cigarettes. They hack and cough and watch the amber flame wither and burn down the length of the match.

Phoebe turns to Gillian and taps her glass for another drink, “Cabernet,” Phoebe says. Gillian uncorks another bottle and they watch as three men dressed in jet-black crepe suits escort the loud threesome out of the hotel. Phoebe watches them tramp past her.

Gillian sets Phoebe’s drink on the bar, “You know the picture frames with the photos of different models of kids, families, the family pet and what not? Anyway, I must have dozens of them. On my dresser, in the bathroom and some of the glossies I take out of the frame and hang them on my fridge.” Her voice lowers, “See, for me, that’s happiness – living the life you don’t have and forgetting the one you do.”

Phoebe grabs her bag and lays twenties on the bar. “I wish that were enough for me.”

Gillian snatches the money and puts it in her tip bin. “What are you going to do now?”

Phoebe clasps her bag against her chest, “I think I’ll go for shells. The beach is quiet – it being high hour.” Eyes glazed, she stares through Gillian.

Gillian nods and says, “Pity her because one day she’ll be standing where you are.”

Phoebe swings through the revolving doors of the La Palma Hotel.

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