Recent Work By Thomas Phillips

I first posted this on Thursday night. I apologize to everyone who read the first version, because with all the typos it looked like the ramblings of a drunk. The reality is someone edited the story without my consent. I’ve contacted the editors at TNB about the issue and I’m assured it will be handled properly.

In any case, this is the second part of a story I posted on June 15th. I intended to follow up much sooner, but unfortunately I had to take a little break from the Internet.

If you don’t feel like going back to it, I’ll give you the Hollywood pitch of the previous post: A college kid (me) meets the girl of his dreams,  but there’s a problem: She has a boyfriend already. So the natural question of part two is if the erstwhile lovers can overcome this obstacle, and if so, how3?

The last post ended when Sophia invited me to a fraternity party she was officially attending with her boyfriend, Jack. At the party, which was also a concert, Jack spent most of his time wandering around talking to his friends, while Sophia and me listened to the band together. At one point we wandered off the fraternity grounds and found an old playground across the street. We sat in a couple of old swings and looked at the sky. The stars were too bright, like someone had turned the power up too high, and neither of us said anything for a while. When I finally looked  Sophia again, she was staring into my eyes, leaning close to me, and I knew the moment called for me to kiss her.

But when I moved toward her, she pulled away. I remember this like it was yesterday.

“1 have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“Jack’s waiting.”

“You mean wasted?”

Sophia stood up and glared at me.

“Don’t do that.”

I was angry with her but I tried to pretend like my comment was a joke.

“Don’t do what?”

After she walked away, I 4resolved not to see her again. I felt like an fool for being so drawn to a girl who couldn’t or wouldn’t return those feelings. I still spent time in the computer lab every day, but luckily the summer schedule changed and she didn’t come by anymore. But then one day, maybe two weeks later, she showed up in my ICQ chat list and wrote me soon after.

“I installed ICQ on the computer in my apartment!” she wrote. “We can talk on the Internet now. 1sn’t this cool?”

And pretty soon we were talking every day again, about everything and nothing. She told me about her family, about her classes, about a boyfriend in high school who once hit her after dropping a touchdown pass in the waning moments of a playoff game. I 5told her about my mother, how her bullying had affected my early relationships with girls, that I staggered through four years of high school without asking a single girl on a date. Or we just chatted about whatever was going on at that moment in the day. This was a dumb thing to do, obviously, because the only way she was ever going to see what we meant to each other was if I took it away from her. But I couldn’t bring myself to play games. I wanted to know what she was doing, what she was thinking, and I wanted her to know the same things about me.

I was also still learning to play the guitar.

You see, I’d never let go of this idea, the one I had back at the concert. If Sophia liked men who played guitar, why couldn’t I be one of them? And what could p9ossibly be more romantic than singing to the woman you loved, in front of the world, and declaring your love for her?

After working my way through a book about guitar chords, called CAGED, I started practicing a particular song—“Only You” by Yaz. I know it’s a sappy song. It’s embarrassing . But you have to consider my mental state at the time. I felt like I was living in a fairy tale. I felt like I had to prove my love to her, like a prince longing for a faraway princess. I just had no idea the fair maiden I was after was Rapunzel.

It wasn’t easy to work out how to play that song on the guitar, considering the synth-oriented sound of the original. I think I practiced in front of the mirror about 5000 times. I know for sure my fingers bled. But finally I decided I was good enough to make it through the whole thing without screwing it up too badly, and that’s when I wrote to Sophia on ICQ and invited her to join me for a drink at a bar called Ike’s.

I knew her boyfriend, Jackass, would be out of town that weekend, and I knew on a Saturday the bar would be packed. But that was the entire point, to make the scenes as dramatic as possible. My biggest fears was that Sophia would turn me down, but to my surprise she accepted readily. In fact I remember precisely what she wrote after we decided on a time for that Saturday night:

“This is gonna be a night to remember.”

After Sophia agreed to meet me (this was Thursday), I  drove to Ike’s and spoke to the bar manager. He was a surly bald fellow who listened to my story and looked at me Ike I didn’t have a Y chromosome in my body. But eventually I convinced him this would be a story he would tell for years afterwards, and he agreed to let me set up in a corner of the bar. He even arranged for a spotlight, and told me he’d turn down the other lights when I got ready to play.

On Friday I practiced until my fingers would no longer obey my commands. I played the song over and over and over until I was sure I could play it left-handed if it came to that. On Saturday Sophia wrote me on ICQ and confirmed the time we were to meet, which was 8 P.M.

I arrived about two hours early and spoke first with the bar manager. Then I had a few drinks. While I waited for Sophia to show up I struck up a conversation with some strangers and told them my story. They seemed to enjoy it and helped me watch the door. I kept watching along with them, first hoping she would arrive on time, then laughing to my new friends about how women never arrived on time for anything, and finally agonizing over if she would ever show up at all.

I’m sure you can guess what happened. That’s the whole point of telling this, right? By the time 9:00 rolled around, most everyone around me was watching the door for Sophia. The embarrassment was intense, severe, crippling. Here I was, terrified of getting up in front of a crowd of drunken strangers, ready to declare my love for a woman who was bound to another, and she never bothered to show up at all.

Turns out that Jack, ostensibly out of town, had actually staged an elaborate proposal for the girl of my dreams. While I waited in the bar for her, ready to play the guitar with bruised fingers, ready to sing to her, she was with Jack. Probably having sex with him. Isn’t that what people do after getting engaged?

So yeah. I’m not a fan of true love. I mean, it exists, I have firsthand knowledge that it does, but in the end I think it’s too rare to ever hope it might happen to you. When it does, chances are the timing is going to be off in some way or another. And they’re probably not even that happy. Did you ever notice how the person texting you, the one calling you, is never the one you wish were calling you?

It was a long time ago. I should probably get over it. I mean I am over it.

Yeah, I’m totally over it.

I met her in at a fraternity house before my senior year of college, which is surprising considering how much I disliked most Greeks.

But in this case it was summer, the university mostly a ghost town, and just about anyone left on campus was invited to a big fraternity party. The place was packed. Booze was everywhere. Ice chests packed with beer, kegs standing in lines like soldiers, more vodka and whiskey than an entire liquor store. And the food. Tables stacked with pizza boxes, chips, cookies, even several boxes of Twinkies. It was somewhere around ten o’clock and I’d already gorged myself on pizza, but since I was drunk I thought I was still hungry. The Twinkies were almost florescent under the warm lights in the dining room, so I unwrapped two of the little yellow cakes and smashed them together to make one big one. This seemed like a great idea at the time. But just as I opened my mouth to take the first giant bite, someone cleared her throat behind me.

I turned and saw a girl, miraculously gorgeous, and felt my face flush red. She was one of those blonde coeds so attractive that it was impossible to say anything witty to her. If you tried to approach someone like that you wouldn’t even be able to make your mouth move. And yet she was definitely standing there, seemingly materialized from nothing, watching as I prepared to inhale a ball of fake yellow cake. I waited for her to cut me to the quick. I winced at what she might say.

What she said was, “That’s a big Twinkie.”

And that’s how it started.

* * *

For the rest of the party, the two of us were inseparable. We took Jell-O shots together in the kitchen, played pool in the game room, and spent hours sitting on a sofa, just talking. I remember we turned all the lights off because of a huge saltwater fish tank that stood against the far wall. The tank was lit from inside and cast the entire room in a flickering blue light, almost ethereal, and which somehow added magic to our drunken conversations. Or so I believed at the time. By the time she was ready to leave, I felt like I’d known her for my entire life. Which I realize sounds trite and not very creatively expressed, but anyway that’s how it felt.

Her apartment was nearly two miles away, and mine a bit further, but neither of us were sober enough to drive. So we walked. After a few minutes of “accidentally” brushing our hands against each other’s, I finally laced my fingers between hers, and she let me. I didn’t feel awkward or nervous like I normally would in a situation like that, where I might be trying to gauge the feelings of someone else, wondering if she felt the same, if I was moving too fast or not fast enough. It was all completely natural. And when we finally arrived at her apartment, I didn’t hesitate to ask for her phone number. I assumed we’d be seeing a lot of each other in the coming days and weeks, so logistically this was the next step.

But her answer was, “I can’t, Thomas. I have a boyfriend.”

It probably seems profoundly egotistical to say so, but I couldn’t believe she was serious, boyfriend or not. We were in college. How close could they be? Of course it was lost on me at the time how I could apply the same logic to myself.

“Don’t you want to talk to me again?” I asked her.

“I do,” she answered. “Very much so.”

“Then let me call you.”

But she wouldn’t. When I asked why she’d spent the whole night talking to me, why she let me hold her hand, she blamed it on the alcohol.

“Sophia, come on. I’m sure you’ve been drunk a hundred times, but did you have a night like this?”

She didn’t answer. She just hugged me and told me it wasn’t meant to be and walked away, and I felt like I had just reached for and missed the most important opportunity of my life.

* * *

Today we take things Facebook and instant messaging for granted, but back then social networking was still theoretical because the Internet didn’t exist in its present form. However, installed on all the machines in the computer lab was a chat program called ICQ, and then, just as now, people used computers more for wasting time than doing actual work.

I was in the lab one day during the summer session, scrolling through the user names on ICQ instead of studying, when I saw one that said “SophiaP.” I’d never had a reason to ask Sophia for her last name, but I also couldn’t imagine there were many people on campus with that first name. So I sent an unsolicited message, and to my delight it turned out be her. She was sitting in the back corner of the computer lab and smiled when I stood up.

We chatted online for more than an hour. About movies we liked and songs we couldn’t live without and why both of us were taking classes in the summer instead of spending it at the beach like her boyfriend. She told me about another summer party the following weekend, where a new indie band called The Flaming Lips would be playing. Her boyfriend was driving into town for the concert, but she invited me to join as well, so I did.

I never saw the boyfriend at the party. He spent most of his time in the bar and I spent most of mine outside watching the band. I’d never heard of the Lips back then but their live show was already fantastic, lit beautifully in hues of blue. Sophia joined me for a while. We moved in rhythm to the music without making much eye contact, dancing together even if neither of us was willing to acknowledge it.

At one point she leaned over to me and said something like, “This music is so spacey, as if it came from another world” and it made me think of our first night together, talking on the sofa, bathed in that ethereal blue light from the fish tank. I was young and surely impressionable, but the whole situation seemed preordained to me, too perfect, almost as if someone had scripted it that way. It just didn’t seem real, how easy and natural it felt to be with her, and it was in that moment I decided I couldn’t give it all away, boyfriend or no boyfriend.

After all, I was a budding screenwriter who felt like he was living in one of his own stories. If someone was going to write us an ending, it might as well be me.

“You just like men who play guitar,” I replied to Sophia.

“I do. You should learn to play.”

And that’s when I had the first inkling of an idea, how I could push this story toward a happy ending. The only thing left was to find a way to make it happen.


Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

I drink too much.

The way I know this is because I often spend Sunday in my living room with the shades drawn, unable to do much more than watch movies and play around on the Internet. Also, my insides hurt.

The problem with stopping is I don’t feel like it. Well, on Sunday I tell myself I’ve had enough, and I abstain until Thursday or Friday, but then one of my buddies calls and says Let’s go, man and by then I’m feeling well enough to start the cycle over again.

I’ve never felt a craving for alcohol, or a thirst, not the way I’ve heard it described. I’m just bored. I didn’t even start drinking until my 30s. When I read literature on alcoholism, it explains how alcoholics have difficulty feeling pleasure because they’re addicted to the dopamine high they get from drinking. Regular activities that normally induce pleasure don’t cut it anymore, not compared to alcohol. But the thing is, I was already bored before I started drinking.

In college I tinkered with screenplays and finished a few, and several years ago I found an agent. He took my newest script and convinced a well-known producer to buy an option on it. I remember the joy I felt when my agent called with the news. Alcohol never made me feel like that. Ever. So I do know I’m at least capable of strong emotions. But it’s not like I get a call like that every week, you know?

One of the things I hate most in the world is fishing. Because of all the waiting you have to do. My screenwriting career is like a fishing trip where I got a bite on the first cast and then spent the next four years staring at a cork. A cork that doesn’t move. That doesn’t even wiggle.

And what do fisherman usually do while they’re waiting for a bite? Why, they drink, of course. Ask any angler and he’ll tell you…drinking is half the point of fishing.

This is my first post on this site and I feel funny writing about something so personal. I tinkered with other ideas but I kept coming back to this. I know it’s a very whiny essay about a problem for which the solution is obvious: stop drinking. But what I wonder is why I should stop. Why should anyone stop doing something they enjoy?

Recently I had been out drinking, and at the end of the night I was far too drunk to drive my car home. I called a cab, but after thirty minutes it still hadn’t showed up, and I fell asleep in my car. Sometime later I heard a knock on my window and saw a cop standing there. I had no idea there was a law where being drunk in your car and having possession of your keys carries the same penalty as actually driving your car under the influence. This seems pretty harsh to me, since the whole idea of DUI laws is to keep drunk drivers off the road. Anyway, my license was suspended, and I ended having to go to a class with a bunch of alcohol and drug offenders. The terrible experience of being in that class is the subject of another essay, but the reason I bring it up now is because one part of the course involved a series of questions the student should ask himself.

Is my work suffering because of my alcohol consumption? Has anyone besides me been adversely affected by my drinking? My family? My friends? What sort of penalties have I faced as a result of my arrest? Et cetera.

In my case, other than the sheer embarrassment of being taken to jail and having to sit in that class, the only penalties were monetary. My family doesn’t know anything about it. I was married once but I’m not anymore, and I don’t have any children, so the only person affected was me.

You could make the argument that my quality of life would be higher if I didn’t drink, or that I would live longer, but I guess what I’m asking is why those things are necessarily better. Almost everyone would agree they are better, but everyone used to believe the Sun orbited the Earth, too. Just because it’s the prevailing opinion doesn’t necessarily make it the right one.

I suppose living a good and honest life should get me to Heaven, but I got sick of listening to my priest and the Pope condemn homosexuality, so I stopped going to Mass. And besides, if you’re looking for examples of healthy living, the Bible isn’t really the place to turn.

Substance abuse of any sort carries consequences. I know this. The thing is, I see abuse around me everywhere. I see people taking painkillers recreationally. I see them addicted to prescription sleeping pills. And if it isn’t drugs, it’s food. If it isn’t food, it’s television. In fact I wonder if television isn’t the most destructive substance of all.

These problems are particularly bad in the United States. Here we are, the land of opportunity, wealthy like few populations on earth, and yet we act as though we’re miserable. More than 70 percent of us are overweight. In 2008 the World Health Organization surveyed legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries and found Americans led the world in marijuana, tobacco, and cocaine use. Interestingly, countries with far less stringent drug laws also experience far less use. Although it turns out our alcohol consumption is fairly mundane compared to plenty of nations in Western Europe.

Quoting statistics about substance abuse doesn’t excuse my own. But it does make me wonder what it is about the United States that makes her citizens so desperate to alter their own perceptions. Why isn’t the real world good enough? What exactly are we looking for?

The drugs are only going to get stronger. One day, reality television and video games are going to overlap, and I have a feeling what emerges will be the strongest drug of all.

Maybe then I won’t be so bored anymore.