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...
(The entire section is 1,433 words.)