By the time I met Jack when I was 24, I had already been self-diagnosed with chronic insecurity. There was no need to Google the disorder for confirmation. After a couple of brutal dating years in NYC, I was floundering in the equally brutal Los Angeles where being 7 pounds overweight made me feel like I did at 13 – chubby and ugly. While I had shed my braces and most of my zits since then, I was still just as socially handicapped. This is the only reason I can think of that explains the events that follow.

On the evening in question when it all began, I had been sitting by myself for hours in a bar when all of a sudden I saw a man walk across the room and a shiver raced down my spine.

Since most of my romantic intel came from movies rather than actual life, a shiver, I was led to believe, meant that “he’s the one” and so I was determined to make Jack mine. I’m willing to bet, however, that if I went back to that night in that bar, I would see that I was sitting underneath the air conditioning vent.

With unknown determination inspired by the allegedly destined shiver, I strode over to the other side of the bar to spy Jack talking with a guy. He could do much better, I decided. Not necessarily with me, just in general. I thought he was so handsome and he just looked like a nice guy, someone I wanted to talk to. I later learned that people could be just as deceptive as looks.

I decided to hover in Jack’s general area in case he searched the room for someone other than the guy he was talking to – oops – now making out with. I don’t know what came over me but I was convinced that I still had a chance.

And then my chance came. Jack came up for air and stared right into my eyes. Forget the shiver, my knees wobbled. I don’t know what he said to extricate his tongue from the situation but before I knew it we were talking. In his bed.

By the time our much less tawdry second date ended, I was falling fast. Here’s what I knew about Jack: he was 30, grew up in Minnesota, had a significant ex who still lived with him, a dog named Ralph, and he was a screenwriter who wrote under a pseudonym. The only thing I know now to have been true is that he had a dog.

Shortly after Jack and I started dating, I was scheduled to fly home for July 4th. Just a couple of days before my trip, Jack suggested that he might be able to come with me. I gathered by then that he was financially well off but even so I was not comfortable with him spending nearly $1000 for a last minute ticket to New York. So while I was screaming with excitement inside, I played it cool on the outside because I couldn’t encourage him to spend such a sum. Jack didn’t come after all because, as he put it, I didn’t exude enough enthusiasm. He managed to make me feel horribly guilty for not insisting that he spend his money. He was revealing himself to be a formidable talent.

I noted early on that Jack did not carry a wallet with him; he kept his money haphazardly folded in his pockets and so bills would often fall to the floor when he paid for things. I wanted to get him a gift so a money clip seemed like an obvious choice. Jack later told me that it made him suspect that I was only interested in his money. Damn, I should’ve been more discreet.

One day Jack invited me to go to Brazil with him. I didn’t see that coming. A movie based on one of his scripts was to be filmed there so he would be spending time on the set. Did I want to join him? I actually didn’t know. I had just been unexpectedly laid off from a temp gig (go figure) and should’ve been looking for a new job, not travelling. He did offer to pay for my airfare but I wasn’t comfortable with that; he might start to think I was only interested in him for his money.

I would think about it. We would talk.

And then, like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, he disappeared from my life. Days went by without any word from him. Since he didn’t return my calls and since I didn’t have a computer at the time, I wrote a letter and left it in his mailbox begging him to explain what happened. No reply. The guy I was in love with went radio silent and I couldn’t make sense of it. He clearly lost interest in me but it would’ve been nice if he had the nerve to tell me so. Since he didn’t, I spent way too much time confusedly wondering what happened.

I left one last pleading letter in his mailbox and by the time I got home there was a voice mail message from him. Damn it, I just missed his call. He had been in Atlanta visiting friends and was at the airport there about to board his flight to Brazil. Huh? He said that he would be gone for a few months so perhaps it was best that we stop seeing each other.

I was devastated. Crushed. The little voice inside my head did not, at that time, point out that he only lived 10 minutes away. It did not tell me that he called after weeks of silence at precisely the same time I was at his house dropping off a letter. No, at that time, my little voice was comatose because if it had been paying attention I would’ve realized that I was perhaps dealing with a compulsive liar. Instead, I was dealing with buckets of KFC and red wine chasers.

Time passed and since I didn’t meet anyone else who made me shiver or wobble, I continued to think of Jack. I cannot explain why I would think fondly of someone who ditched me. Some are fools in love; I was a schmuck. Nearly a year and a half after he allegedly left me for Brazil, I made the call I never should have made. We didn’t talk about what happened, we just acknowledged that we both missed one another. So, just like that, Jack was back and I was so grateful (/pathetic).

Everything was back to “normal” which still felt slightly dysfunctional. There continued to be new and familiar red flags waving every which way but I was apparently colorblind. A few months after our renewed ties, Jack announced that he would be taking an extended vacation to Europe. Of course. There was no talk this time of my joining him.

While our transatlantic communications got off to a good start, my e-mails began to go unanswered. Then he wrote about how hurt he was that I stopped writing to him altogether which made no sense because I was writing to him.

In his e-mails, he had told me of a French millionaire named Christophe. I had no idea how they met but suddenly Jack was staying on his yacht in the south of France. Christophe, he explained, was in love with him but he assured me that I had nothing to worry about. Although Christophe looked like Josh Hartnett, Jack loved me.

E-mails grew increasingly frustrating until it all became crystal meth clear – Jack discovered that Christophe was breaking into his computer and deleting my e-mails in order to keep us apart. I could not believe it, who does that?! While it was exciting to find myself with my very own arch-nemesis, I suspected that I would be at a disadvantage in this soap opera that was now my life.

I insisted that Jack get off that yacht at once. He could not. It would be rude, he argued.

Christophe, he explained, was planning a birthday celebration for Jack’s mother. He was to fly her and all of her friends and family from the U.S. to France where they would have a party. It would be too impolite to get off his yacht while birthday preparations were being made.

I broke up with Jack over e-mail since phoning was conveniently never an option. I was confident that Christophe would let this particular e-mail get through. Jack’s hurt reply came as he was flying into LA on Christophe’s private jet. He was on his way home and wanted to surprise me. I was more surprised to learn that you could e-mail from a plane.

When Jack and I met to talk, it had been several weeks since I had last seen him and he looked more handsome than ever. He was hurt and angry that I broke up with him so cruelly over e-mail. I explained how I could not be in a relationship with a man who was living with another man trying to break us up. Nevertheless, I wanted Jack back. I also cheated when I played Monopoly by myself as a kid so that I wouldn’t lose; some things are inexplicable.

However, in an unexpected twist, Jack was now off limits. When I broke up with him, I unwittingly threw him into the arms of Christophe. I didn’t realize I had the strength. It was too late; they were heading back to Europe and he couldn’t hurt Christophe now. Great. I was trapped in a sordid love triangle and my competition was a Josh Hartnett looking French millionaire with a yacht and jet. I had a Saturn.

Nevertheless, I kissed Jack goodnight as we parted ways and it took him several seconds to pull back. He felt guilty; he was cheating on Christophe. I felt sick.

It was my therapist who first suggested that Jack might be manipulating me, that some of this might not even be happening. “No way,” I shot back. But then I must’ve suspected it possible because I started to imagine myself breaking into his e-mail account to learn the truth. I had no hacking experience but TV characters across primetime made it look easy. I don’t know if “hacking” is the right word since I guessed Jack’s password on my first try; it was his dog’s name. At least I was not the only schmuck in this farce.

From the very first e-mails my stomach dropped all the way to the floor below mine. Jack was not in Europe with Christophe, he was at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax with his brother. Christophe was not planning some fancy birthday celebration for Jack’s mom in France. Jack was planning a surprise party for her in Minneapolis. In fact, there was no mention of Christophe at all. It all seemed to be a big, obese lie – Christophe, Europe, the yacht, the love triangle and probably Brazil, the screenwriting career and most everything else he ever told me.

As my mind went dizzy from trying to process this revelation, Jack signed into his IM account which meant that he was logged into his e-mail. I ducked. Could he see me? I panicked, raced to mark his e-mails as “unread”, and logged out in a sweat.

I had no clue what to do or how to react. I was mostly furious, incredibly confused and suddenly craving fried chicken. I wanted to confront him so badly, to knock him down with a rapid-fire speech that only an Aaron Sorkin character could deliver. But I was afraid that I would have been forced to admit to reading his e-mails. I wasn’t sure if I had committed a crime or not and he all of a sudden struck me as someone who would send me to jail if he could.

So I said nothing and just let him go. Let it go.

I wondered to myself why Jack went through all that trouble and over 10 years later I still haven’t any idea. Whatever the reason, he happened and I let him happen. The one positive outcome is that I developed a talent for recognizing liars and a knack for Googling people’s backgrounds.

When I finally met Luc, I knew that I could trust him. For starters, his tongue wasn’t down someone else’s throat when he said “bonjour.”

Hey

By Gregory Messina

Essay

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas and the only things stirring were those martinis at G Bar in Chelsea.

It was the year of my mother’s cancer and I went out quite often.It wasn’t that I took comfort in alcohol, I just needed to get out of my cramped apartment when loneliness crept in late at night.Although I sometimes never felt more lonely than while in a gay bar, it’s where I often chose to go just to be surrounded by others.Since I didn’t have a boyfriend whose arms I could turn to for comfort, I looked for whatever arms I could find for the night.

He leaves his imprint on me still, six years later.

Laundry for instance.

I still toss socks and underwear in a pile, to be folded last. I still tie long socks into a knot rather than roll them in a ball since rolling them in a ball stretches out the elastic.

My mother says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She says that beauty is only skin deep.

My mother says that I’m gorgeous. She says that I’m adorable. That I’m not fat, no, she swears, it’s the truth. My mother says I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.

Right, I say with a smirk. Through love cataracts.

My mother says there will be days like this. There’ll be days like this, my mother says.

* * *

We are one. An undulating mass of freshly shaven legs, glitter eyeshadow, cheap taffeta and hormones.

We are women. We are thirteen.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. Or possibly Sugar Ray. “Bad Touch” or “Mambo No. 5.”

When a slow song comes on, people pair up. Pair off. Mary Nash with Roger, Anna with Alex. No one comes for me, though and “we” becomes “I.” Alone, I stand around for a minute, nervously picking at my dress. But I’m not stupid, not blind. I beat a hasty retreat.

I walk fast, with purpose, to the bathroom. In the mirror I can see that I am not what I thought I was. Under the fancy dress, I’m just me. Ugly.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and hang my head between my legs waiting for the moment to pass.

I am, in fact, intimate with ladies’ rooms. With powder rooms and lounges, the loo and the john. In fact, sometimes I feel as though my life has been nothing more than a long line of evenings spent hiding in bathroom stalls.

* * *

My face is the shtetl. I am Galicia. I am the Warsaw Ghetto. I am Zabar’s. The new Woody Allen film. I am some tertiary Philip Roth character.

Because my eyes are dark and brown and heavily-lidded, they are often described as soulful. Or mournful. Sorrowful. There’s something of Susan Sontag in them. And there’s a bit of Rosa Luxembourg in my long, hooked nose. Or maybe Emma Lazarus. In my smile, there are echoes of Anne Frank.

I invite comparisons- not to movie stars- but to Holocaust victims and Ellis Island rejects.

Even my body is foreign: fleshy and puckered. Tits and ass and hips. I have unruly brown pubic hair. One part ChiaPet, one part steel wool. I have a faint mustache that I bleach faithfully. My hair gets greasy and my skin is dotted with fading pimples. I am neither svelte nor toned. It’s telling: there’s no English word for zaftig.

I am much too much.

* * *

I am not a pretty girl. I know this, but, at the same time, I’m hoping someone will come along to contradict me.

I’m not a pretty girl and the most I can aspire to is “striking.”

Striking. Or “unusual.”

In college, a friend asked me to be in her student film. “You have such anunusual face,” she said.

But everyone knows, of course, that “unusual” is the polite word for ugly.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But the thing of it is, pretty does well.

Studies show that being attractive comes with plenty of benefits. Pretty people make more money, more friends. They get more sex and better jobs.

And while my mother would have me believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, science says otherwise. Beautiful people, they say, have symmetrical faces. Lithe bodies. Wide-set eyes and generous mouths.

Even babies know this.

In 1989, psychologist Judith Langlois found that infants have an innate sense of what is and is not attractive and act accordingly. The babies in her study stared significantly longer at attractive faces than at unattractive ones.

Which is to say that I am- and always have been- doomed.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But women have always known this to be a fallacy. We know that all we’ve got is the curve of our ass. That a pretty face is worth more than a Ph.D. We know that when our looks fade, we will be irrelevant, obsolete.

We know this and so we spend our lives, our money, trying to be beautiful. We tweeze and we pluck and we shave and we wax. We curl our eyelashes and we host Botox parties. We starve ourselves or we corrode the pipes with our vomit. We go under the knife again and again. We buy, buy, buy.

And we never give up the hope, propagated by Hollywood and children’s books, that we will wake up one day and be- quite suddenly- transformed. A swan.

* * *

For women, looks matter. Pretty is pretty damn important.

* * *

I always knew this. And when I was sixteen, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be beautiful, I’d better be thin. If I was thin enough, I reasoned, no one would notice that I was ugly. Models, after all, are allowed to be unusual. To have crooked noses that meander leftward and asymmetrical faces. So I’d be thin.Yes.

Yes.

And for a while, I was. I was very thin. I was 95 pounds and then, for a moment, 88 pounds.

But I was also starving. I was puking in the shower and cutting my stomach with razor blades. And I wasn’t any prettier.

* * *

My friend Lacey recently tagged this awful photo of me on facebook. I detagged it.  Because I’m vain and I’m insecure.

“I look hideous,” I wrote on her wall. “And fat.”

In the picture, I’m in the midst of a story. In full flow, prattling on about something or other. I’m clasping my tote bag. Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body is poking out. Maybe I’m extolling its virtues.

My breasts look enormous and so does my nose. I look heavy and cow-like and the photographer has, unflatteringly, shot me from below. Also, it’s my bad side.

And so I detagged the picture. Of course I did.

But I’m giving the picture a second life here. Because, when it comes down to it, this is what I look like. Living and breathing and reading and yes, eating.This is what I look like. Caught up in the moment. This is what I look like.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.