Good Narrative Principles

Phil Stories: When We First Meet Him


IMG_7584When we first meet Phil, he’s set up house-keeping at Uncle Pete’s Self Storage, a pristine, well lit fortress, safeguarding our stuff, squatting on a busy strip in the Outer Boroughs. Phil has made private arrangements with Ena, the night guard, to sleep in a capacious “jumbo plus”, 350 square feet of space, roomy enough to accommodate his new mattress and frame which he purchased from Jody, perhaps the new love of his life.

And while he feels a bit crazy toddling night after night down the long hallway to the men’s bathroom, toothbrush in hand, it is, in his mind, a sane alternative to any and all conceivable options. When asked, he tells colleagues at work and the handful of friends who stuck by him during his breakup with Helena, that he is renting a room from a Chinese friend whom he had met back in his days as an English teacher in Shenzhen. It is an elaborate story that has just the right degree of detail to pass as the truth.

The truth however, is both infinitely sadder and bolder. Meeting Jody, not the first time, but rather the second, third and fourth time, shifted the axis of his world. It began during that unremitting winter when Phil had fallen into the habit of stopping by the mattress store on his way home from work. Initially, his reasons for visiting the store were straightforward — he and his wife needed a mattress. Of the two, he was the more motivated. And that was that.

But just as he was closing in on his decision, Jody encouraged him to lie on the mattress one last time. She spoke to him in a husky and silky voice, urging him to close his eyes and feel the weight of his body releasing into the powercore memory foam. She had him roll on his side and stay there for a moment or two, which he did. He propped his head up under his arm, gazed into Jody’s eyes. She held his stare, and didn’t flinch nor look away. There, in the mattress store, right before closing time, Phil spoke about feelings that he didn’t know were there, feeling he hadn’t named. The truth bubbled through his lips. He told Jody about the demanding vacations that his wife Helena planned and how what once was energizing is now enervating. He spoke about his increasingly illusive quest for the perfect gift for Helena, one that would claim her restless heart forever. Jody touched his forearm sympathetically and didn’t withdraw her hand. Phil closed his eyes and fell into a sound sleep.

When he awoke hours later, the store was dark. He found Jody in the small kitchen in the back microwaving two bags of popcorn for dinner. Phil, humming in that expansive state of being well-rested after a long bout of sleep deprivation, offered to buy Jody dinner, a new winter coat, her own mattress. But Jody had no interest in Phil buying her anything. As a matter of fact, it made her deeply uncomfortable. Phil was stumped, stymied. How could he express his affection, if not through gifts? Jody shrugged indifferently, as if daring him to figure it out.

And so he did. Slowly, he disentangled himself from the life he had built with Helena. It felt to him that he had abruptly walked away, like a husband who goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes or milk and never returns. But the truth is it took Phil months to sort it out.

The puzzle of which came first, expressing his love through things or the poison of substituting the giving of things in lieu of love took time to figure out. And while he did that, while examining the truth of his life by stripping it down to its essence night after night in his capacious “jumbo plus”, the only object he clung to, claimed for himself, was the mattress he purchased on that first night alone with

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