Good Narrative Principles

July 10, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

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

July 8, 2015
by Lee Eiferman

Phil Stories: The Real Deal

IMG_6176Phil’s second wife, Helena, was in Phil’s mind, “the keeper”. His first wife should have been his training wheels, someone who teaches you how to be in a relationship and then leaves. Instead, he paid for a messy divorce. Phil hated emotional mess almost as much as he disliked spending his money on stupid things like matrimonial lawyers, which were, in his mind, right up there with other professional money pits like interior decorators or personal trainers. And so he vowed that in the future he would date more wisely.

He made a grid with a checklist and evaluated each date against a fixed metric. There were the obvious requirements; she had to like him. There were the ethical requirements; she had to be available, single, unencumbered. And finally, there was a cautionary metric, shorthand for a situation he’d rather not repeat, ever. He simply wrote “Shenzhen”.

Helena by every metric proved to be Phil’s ideal of a reliable mate. She had a career as a travel agent. The work was just the right degree of demanding as it left Helena free to enjoy her weekends. She never took her job home with her. Nor was she distracted by the allure of motherhood. it simply didn’t appeal to her. Instead, she loved to travel and sought out destinations that were exotic, authentic and obscure. Phil gamely sacrificed his vacation time to Helena’s military like maneuvers. It wasn’t Helena’s style to simply book a hotel on a beach and spend the days lazing in the sun. Traveling with Helena meant no exotic drinks or time to read trashy novels. Suitcases were rarely unpacked. The drive to and from the far-flung airports was always hairy and gut-wrenching; partially due of the rough roads that jangled Phil’s fine dental work, but primarily because of the inevitable spectacle of poverty that left Phil feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

Once they were comfortably back home, boring friends with their travel photographs and tours of their fine new trophies, Phil was able to relax. In fact, if you were to catch Phil off-guard, or better yet, gave him truth serum, he’d admit his favorite vacation destination was home.

The trouble started one day while they were buying a new bed. Phil was having the time of his life, bouncing on the various mattresses, rolling from side to side, thumping the pillow top offerings with his hand, his hip, his slender neck when Jody, an unusually bookish looking saleswoman, leaned over him and smiled indulgently. She assumed here was a man who was in touch with his inner child. But Phil, oblivious to the messages he was sending out, was in his happy place — buying something for the woman he loved. He was putting on a show of testing the mattress to draw Helena in, to encourage her to put down her phone and join him on the bed. He was hoping to wake up the sexual tiger long dormant in Helena.

But Helena had no interest in buying a new mattress. Instead, she was anxious to get to a new store specializing in safari apparel before they closed.

They never did buy a new mattress. Perhaps if they had, Phil and Helena’s marriage might have survived the grind of time and growing indifference. Rather than be delighted and seduced by Phil’s increasingly extravagant gifts, Helena grew surly when the wrapped box failed to match expectations.

Phil was spinning out of control.