In the looks department, I’m no Helen of Troy.

I know that you’re surprised to hear this.  I’ll give you all a moment to regroup.

I’ve learned this fact both from obvious sources (like mirrors) and from my mother, who told me at a very young age that I was “more interesting than pretty.”  Granted, she said this in response to my incredibly foolish and naive “Mommy, am I pretty?” question, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to forgive her.  (Note to parents: It wouldn’t kill you to lie just a little bit to your kids.  At least enough to cushion the blow.  Just sayin’.)

The reason I bring this up is not to solicit compliments, but to open up the conversation about why certain types of people find me attractive, and how many of them I’ve met at the library.  I’m specifically talking about certain types of people that I used to encounter infrequently, but since I began my career as a public librarian the numbers have climbed steadily.  Most of them have exhibited varying levels of mental instability, so for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll call them “psychos.”

After I graduated from an all-girls high school and began to go to a co-ed college, my social life escalated with positive and negative results.  Among the negatives:

I briefly dated a guy who was a friend of mine.  We’ll call him B.  He wrote poems for me, including one with a line about how I incinerated his soul with my eyes.  I was too flattered by the attention to grasp how unstable he was.  The first time he called from his dorm to tell me that he’d just swallowed a bottle of pills I should have run away screaming, but I didn’t.  B was the beginning of what I later called my “Statue of Liberty” phase, as in “give me your tired, your poor, your drug addicts, your alcoholics, your suicidal depressives, etc.”  I befriended and dated several guys who fit into that category.  All of them were smart, artistic, dramatic, and impractical — a combination that starts out being attractive but which is ultimately frustrating.  It was flattering to have their attention, and it was flattering to feel needed.  After a few years of this behavior, though, the realization clicked in my mind that these guys were a lot like my father, and that helped me to break the cycle.

While I was working at my college, I received an anonymous obscene letter one day in my office mailbox.  It was almost ten pages long, very graphic, and very personal.  I was physically ill for weeks afterward, and I almost quit my job because of this.  The security staff never found out who wrote it, and to this day I still have no idea.  It could have been a fellow student, or one of the faculty members who paid a lot of extra attention to me.  I always assumed that it was someone who didn’t know me very well, because anyone who knew me at all would have understood how something like that would absolutely shatter me.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I started working for the library system.  On my very first day, a patron started following me around the building, staring at me and muttering to himself.  As the days turned into months and years, my dresses and skirts grew longer, I switched from sheer stockings to opaque tights, and I generally found ways to cover myself up.  While I was a trainee, I was approached by a variety of male patrons.  Usually they would ask me out for coffee, or fall back on the old standby of, “Read any good books lately?”  By far my strangest encounter was with a young man who looked and seemed refreshingly normal.  He came up to me at the information desk on a Saturday morning (I was working every Saturday because of my school schedule).  He talked to me for a few minutes in a friendly manner before blurting out how happy he was that he got to see me every Saturday.  And then he uttered the immortal line, “I’m so happy to make you smile, because my therapist tells me that I should try to make pretty girls smile every day.”  Um … WOW.

Then there was the man who used to sit and stare at me every day while I sat at the information desk.  He was one of several patrons who would come in every morning and stay in the building for hours.  BTW, this is often one of the possible indicators that a patron might have mental issues.  But we never know if our “all-day” patrons have freelance or other untraditional jobs, or if they’re on welfare, or are homeless, or are mentally or physically disabled.  Anyway, one day this man, whose sole interactions with me up to that point had consisted of “Where’s the bathroom key?” and “Why isn’t there any staff at this desk?” came up to me while I was in the stacks looking for books for another patron.  He came around the side of one of the bookcases, leaned against it, stared at me, and said, “So, when are you and me gonna get together?” It was just like out of a bad 1970’s movie, except I was a librarian and he was an “all-day” patron who didn’t shower as frequently as he should have.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, my answer was, “Thank you very much for asking, but I’m afraid I’m already taken.”  Because that sounds a lot nicer than, “GOD, no!  Not if you were the last man on earth!”

One day several years ago I decided on a whim to google myself and see what I would find.  And that’s when I discovered that B was alive and well, that he was married and was living in another part of the country … and that he still had a special place in his heart for me.  You see, when I googled myself I found a blog entry that he had written about a romantic encounter between the two of us.  I had two major problems with this essay of his.  The first is that while he was writing under a pseudonym, he used my first and last name.  Which means that I could find it, any of my ex-boyfriends could find it, and anyone who wanted to stalk me could find it.  The second problem is that the romantic encounter did not go quite the way that he described.  According to his version, I was begging for this encounter to happen.  With tears in my eyes, no less!  But according to REALITY … well, I’ll just say that no pleading was done on MY part.  Which is, I think, an important distinction.  Right after I found this blog, I was so mad that I wanted to find him and push him in front of a bus.  But my friends convinced me to calm down and told me not to write back to him under any circumstances.  So I haven’t.  The post is still there, but he finally removed my last name from it.  Which makes me about one iota less pissed off.

As you can probably tell, I am very cautious about trusting people.  I was already cautious, being a single woman and a born-and-bred New Yorker, but as the people who came out of the woodwork grew stranger and stranger, I strengthened the virtual walls I put up around myself.  So when I let my guard down for somebody new, it’s a big deal.  And if that person abuses that trust, it’s an even bigger deal.  Several years ago I worked in a library that had ongoing safety issues (lots of problem patrons plus a lack of staff support).  Since I was spending so much time with one of the men who was helping to ensure our safety, I let my guard down and we became friendly.  All we did was talk, and we never saw each other outside of work, but we used to have good conversations.  My job at that time was pretty miserable, and talking to him was one of the highlights of my work day.  Yes, he would sometimes talk about problems he was having with his wife, but I thought that I was being a good friend and a good listener by letting him talk and trying to be supportive.  Eventually he left that place and I left that place, and I started a new chapter in my life.  And then one day I received an anonymous email from someone who said that he had been looking for me, that he had finally found me, and that he couldn’t stop thinking about me.  I had no idea who’d sent it, but given my job of working in a public library where anybody could walk in at any moment, I couldn’t stop worrying about it.  I was getting jumpy whenever I was at the information desk, and I started having terrible nightmares.  I would dream that I was fighting with someone, and when I woke up all of my muscles would ache.  Finally I asked my boyfriend to help me learn this person’s identity — they both had email accounts with the same company.  I stood looking over my boyfriend’s shoulder while he looked up the profile, and when I learned that the anonymous stalker who had been giving me nightmares was the same man who I had thought was my friend, and whom I would have trusted with my life … I was absolutely DEVASTATED.

I learned a lot from each of these experiences.  I learned that if a man pays attention to me, odds are that he has some kind of weird secret mental issues, even if he appears to be perfectly normal and trustworthy.  I also learned that if any man starts telling me about the problems that he’s having with his wife or girlfriend, that I should head for the hills.  I also learned to keep my walls up, and that I should only let them down with great caution.

The other day while we were dealing with the aftereffects of the bomb scare, a Man in Authority who was one of the people sent to help us out told me that I had pretty hands.  He actually paid me several compliments, but that’s the one that stuck in my mind because it was such an unusual thing to say.  Oh, and the subject of my hands came up because I was talking about how I was going to try to get the fingerprinting ink off, in case you were wondering.  So anyway, now that you understand a little more about my history and my psyche, you’ll understand a little better why, as I was standing there doing my Lady MacBeth impression, my stream of consciousness went something like this:  Oh, I get it.  He’s trying to distract me from being upset.  Or maybe he’s just being nice to me because I’m the person in charge and he wants me to be more amenable in case he has to ask me to do something unusual like evacuate the building.  Or … wait … what if he DOES think that I have pretty hands?  What if he genuinely thinks that I’m attractive, and this is his way of breaking the ice?  Okay … what’s wrong with him???

You see how this goes?  It’s enough to make my brain melt sometimes.

For what it’s worth, every time something else happens that adds to my conviction that I am, in fact, a psycho magnet, I will ask my boyfriend to clarify if he is a genuine exception to the rule or if he has some personality disorder that’s just waiting to emerge. He assures me that he’s for real, and that there isn’t a Dorian Gray-like painting of him getting uglier every year that’s hiding in a closet somewhere.  Yes, we’ve been together for over a decade, but I think I’m going to have to keep my eye on him.  Just in case.

BTW, any theories as to why you think I’m a psycho magnet are welcome.  Also, please feel free to share your own stories of psycho magnetism so that I’ll know that I’m not alone in this.