Several reviewers cite Patricia Highsmith’s “A Girl like Phyl” as one of the best stories in her collection, Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (2002). They applaud its taut construction and fascinating portrait of the troubled main character, forty-year-old engineer Jeff Cormack. Highsmith’s documented interest in existentialism becomes apparent in this story of a man who struggles to find a clear sense of himself and a purpose for his life when confronted by the meaninglessness of the modern world. The story contains some of Highsmith’s trademarks: the shock of the extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary world and the violence that lurks just beneath a calm surface. Here Highsmith explores the devastating consequences of shattered dreams and recognition of painful realities.
As “A Girl like Phyl” opens, Jeff Cormack, a forty-year-old American engineer, is waiting to board a plane at Kennedy Airport to take him to Paris. The fog has caused several delays. As he waits at the gate, he sees a woman who makes him “stop and stay motionless for a few seconds.” He thinks it is Phyl, but then he immediately insists that it could not be her since the woman looks so young. He notes though that the resemblance to the woman he knows as Phyl is remarkable. When he finally looks away, his hands tremble and he feels “shattered.” He tells himself that he cannot look at her again or try to find her if she is on the same flight. As he walks to the airport bar, he thinks about how late he will be arriving in Paris and that he will still try to reach Semyon Kyrogin that night to work on a deal with Jeff’s oil rig company, Ander-Mack. Jeff is not sure, however, where the man will be staying.
The young woman’s face takes him back twenty years to the time he had met Phyl, whom he has thought of repeatedly. For a few years after they broke up, Jeff thought about her constantly, a time he called the “Awful Years.” After that, he pushed her out of his mind by working hard at his career and soon met and married Betty and had a son, Bernard, now a teenager.
Seeing a woman who looks so much like Phyl dazes him to the point that he does not realize that he has ordered coffee. As he looks around the bar, Jeff spots the young woman sitting at one of the tables. He realizes that she might be Phyl’s daughter, remembering “with painful accuracy” that Phyl had gotten married nineteen years ago. He acknowledges that he is still in love with her, a fact he has had to live with for all these years and hopes he will not be seated next to the young woman on the plane.
Once the plane takes off, Jeff tries to relax and think about the upcoming meeting with Kyrogin. He wonders if there is anyone from a rival company on the flight preparing to meet with the man. Just as he is about to doze off, however, he hears Phyl’s voice saying, “You haven’t any time for me anymore.” He thinks about how he lost her, that he was so consumed with making money and becoming successful that he did not spend enough time with her and so she drifted away from him.
After the plane lands, Jeff stands in the passport line and watches the young woman, who is just ahead of him, drop a stuffed panda. When Jeff hands it to her, he notices that she has Phyl’s teeth. When he gets to his hotel, he tries to phone Kyrogin but has no luck. Later, he runs into the young woman downstairs at the bar. A mistake in her reservation has left her without a room, and she complains to Jeff that she has nowhere to stay for the night.
After Jeff confirms with the desk clerk that there are no more rooms, he suggests that the woman share his suite. While she freshens up in the bathroom, Jeff tries unsuccessfully to get hold of Kyrogin and imagines that some competitor got to him first. The woman tells him that her name is Eileen, and he offers her some scotch. The two chat about his business proposition to Kyrogin. When she tells him that he is “a very serious man,” he notes that her voice is like Phyl’s.
Eileen tells Jeff that she is in Paris to get married and that her mother will arrive the next day. In a few days, after her fiancé arrives, they will all go to Venice where the ceremony will be held. She admits though that she is not sure that her mother will come with them, insisting that “she’s funny.” Eileen then tells Jeff that she is not sure that she wants to get married since she is only eighteen and does not want to get tied down.
As she takes a shower, Jeff decides that Eileen’s wanting to stop the marriage is a result of her need for rebellion, the same urge that caused Phyl to leave her fiancé for Jeff and then return to him a year later. The idea that she came to him only because of her need to rebel is “a horrible thought for him.” Then he laughs when he notes that the only thing on his mind is breakfast, not the attractive young woman in his shower.
When Eileen comes out of the bathroom, she tells Jeff that her father, as well as her mother, Phyl, wants her to get married. The confirmation that Phyl is her mother stuns Jeff. Noticing his pale color, Eileen tries to comfort him, praising him for being “a man of the world.” When she puts her arms around him, he holds her for a minute and then steps back. Eileen tells him that she wants to go to bed with him, insisting that she would not tell anyone. For a moment, Jeff considers her proposition, imagining what Phyl would think if she found out, but he decides that he does not feel vindictive.
He also decides that while he desires her, he does not want to lose his memory of Phyl as she had been when they were together, and Eileen would interfere with that memory. Jeff then becomes angry at Eileen, thinking that if she had the opportunity, she would cause him to fall in love with her and lead him “into misery” as Phyl had done.
A call from Kyrogin breaks the tension. Jeff makes arrangements to call him later that morning at ten a.m. When Eileen looks at him with admiration after his productive phone call, Jeff remembers how Phyl had encouraged him and helped him become successful. For a moment, he looks at Eileen with desire, but the feeling passes, and he decides to get some sleep after gaining a promise from her that she would not mention him to her mother.
After a few hours sleep, Jeff says goodbye to Eileen, wishing her luck, and leaves for his meeting with Kyrogin. Jeff seals the deal with him in less than half an hour and thinks again of Phyl and of how he would come home to her after clinching a similarly important deal.
When Jeff returns to the hotel to pick up his suitcase, he sees Eileen and Phyl in the lobby. As he watches Phyl scold Eileen, Jeff watches her, noting the face that had gotten fatter and her oddly colored hair. What upsets him, however, is her “ugliness of spirit” as she yells at Eileen, he assumes, for spending a night with a man in his hotel room. He sees her conventionality and her hypocrisy, railing against her daughter for doing the same thing she had done with him years ago. He also concludes that if he had married Phyl, she may have betrayed him just as she had her fiancé.
The recognition of Phyl’s true character devastates Jeff as he picks up his suitcase and walks out of the hotel, feeling as if he has “been living on a dream” of Phyl and of his relationship with her. He reminds himself of his success with Kyrogin but then realizes that the deal does not matter to him, that nothing matters, not his business or his family or his life. At that moment, he looks up and, realizing that he is at a busy crossroads, he throws himself in front of a speeding truck.