The moment of recognition came one evening at De Luca's. He was having drinks with his friend Mike, who was kind of a good time Charlie, but whom he had never recognized as his quintessential opposite. He had gone to the bathroom, kind of a Roman type space, with water trickling, opera playing, mirrors everywhere. In an instant, he caught a glimpse of himself from all angles: his stooped posture, his frizzy red hair, his reddish fat-yet-narrow face, blond eyebrows set low over close set, tiny blue eyes.
"Shit, I'm ugly," he thought. "This is why I've been unsuccessful as both an actor and a waiter."
"I'm an ugly man," he said, his voice echoing off the tiles of the bathroom. Even his voice sounded ugly. "Why didn't anyone tell me? Why didn't I realize?"
Back in the restaurant proper, he approached Mike apprehensively, shell-shocked beneath the weight of his revelation. Why did he spend so much time with Mike? Often when he was with Mike, they met women. The women were of course totally consumed by Mike. Mike Blake, actor, author. Was that why he and Mike Blake hung out so much? Was there the germ of some sort of reasonableness there?
Mike was intelligent, talented. He wrote a screenplay which he sold for 250,000 dollars. The name of the screenplay was Proteus Nine. It was science fiction, incredibly creative, engaging. They inked Steven Seagal, which kind of doomed the whole thing from the start. Still, Mike made a bunch of money, enough money to buy the vintage Jeep Wrangler he had long coveted, and to not really work.
On the other hand, the ugly man had never managed to complete one of his screenplays. Since moving to LA, he had only been an extra. They used the ugly man to pad crowds, busy city sequences, concerts... He wasn't one of those extras you wanted walking across the street, oblivious to the lead role passing in the opposite direction. He was less an extra and more human bulk.
As thoughts regarding work ran through his head, he realized he was still listening to Mike talk.
"I'm just an ugly guy," he blurted.
"Like Paul Giamatti."
"Paul Giamatti's not ugly," the ugly man said. "Paul Giamatti has a frail beauty."
"Come on, you aren't ugly. There are a lot of guys who look like you. Just look around."
They looked around. He was the ugliest man in the room.
He slid down off his bar stool, all five feet, seven inches of him sliding down, seeming to take an inordinate amount of time, almost as if he was oozing off his stool.
That was the end of his friendship with Mike. Sometimes certain relationships don't survive transitions. It was as if a spell had been broken, the spell of his own self-illusion. He would no longer let himself be the sore thumb at De Luca's.
It was night. He walked down Sunset Blvd, past the huge Hustler shop. He went back and went in. He browsed the pornos, looking at the other men browsing the pornos, strung out on vicious forms of internal and external ugliness.
Jesus! What it means to be an ugly man! He thought. Your entire destiny is governed by the fact that people make excuses for not looking at you. He left the Hustler shop, a shiver running down his spine. He stopped in at a liquor store and bought a fifth of Bim Black.
He made the turn onto his own street, walking up the silent little block toward the hills.
He entered the little door embedded at ground level in the bottom of the triplex. His flat was little more than a kitchenette, smaller than a studio. Everything was in one room. "Ok, I get it," he thought. "Ugly man, ugly living space."
He poured some whiskey into a coffee mug and sat at the rickety little plywood table.
"I have to get out of show business. What the fuck am I doing?"
The whole point of show business was you had to be appealing. Even your archetypal ugly men—Woody Allen, George Costanza—these were deeply appealing men. Yet, there was nothing appealing about him. He was neither pleasantly plump nor downright silly, nor funny or pathetic looking. He got up, went over to the kitchen sink, looked in the mirror. His face held a disturbing, warped quality, as if it had been pushed a little to the left.
Often, over the course of his life, people read in him some emotional disturbance that wasn't there. The emotional disturbance of course was their own disturbance at having their perceptions of harmony shaken. His face was troublesomely, challengingly ugly. It got to people on a level, made them feel like something was wrong. It exposed them. No one wants that sort of thing. Ugliness should be opaque, like a brick wall. You can hammer on that ugliness all day long, and it will take your blows because it's a strong, supportive kind of ugliness. His own ugliness was brittle, threatening to splinter at the touch.
He got out pen and paper and began to make a list of jobs.
Janitor. Janitors were notoriously repulsive. Not just ugly, but creepy ugly, in-hiding ugly. Computer programmers had a kind of geek chic: neither attractive nor ugly, but syndromatic. Air conditioning repair man was more like it. Cable guy. All these jobs were in reach. Ugly men all over the country made a living at these jobs. They made a living enough to afford a ticket to where they could find a bride who would accept them because of their money. They could go and find a women totally worn out by poverty, willing to accept ugliness as an occupational, gold-digging hazard.
All these years he had tried to force himself into the life of a handsome, talented man from a good family. He shuddered at the thought of Mike. What had Mike wanted out of their relationship? Maybe out of some deep-seated, incomprehensible insecurity, Mike needed an ugly foil to go around with as a constant reminder of his own beauty.
"Ever think of settling down and having children?" his mother asked him the following day from over the telephone.
This seemed like a good moment to break the news. "Yeah, I guess I've thought about it. Of course I've thought about it."
"I guess someday you'll decide you might like to have children," his mother said, oblivious to realities.
The big difference between his experience and his mother's was that companionship was not a choice for him. His mother was not ugly, not even a Plain Jane. She didn't understand companionship was not something offered to him from out of a range of choices. It was not within his life's lexicon of trajectories, which primarily consisted of toward, and away from, homelessness.
"I guess so," he said, not knowing what to say.
His parents and much of his family were handsome drifters. He often observed handsome people produced ugly children, as if life were trying to right a ship, to teach a lesson.
Working on the margins of the celebrity world, he had observed beautiful celebrity parents often gave birth to ugly children. Take Jake and Deborah Osbeck. Their kids Tyler and Jessica were downright beasts, like inbred Central European royals. They were the children of beautiful celebrities. They had boyfriends and girlfriends. The boyfriends and girlfriends were unsuccessful musicians or unknown models. They came to visit on the set.
When you were the children of celebrities, you married better looking but poor wanna-be celebrities or celebrity bartenders.
The ugly 32-year-old continued to work as an extra, although he stopped trying to stand out. He graciously accepted his role as human background bulk. He managed to hang onto just enough day shifts at The Grill to make rent. He quieted within himself. His co-workers troubled him by what he now perceived as their cloying, frustrating fantasies. They weren't ugly, but were for the most part confused plain Janes. The troubled plain Janes weren't really speaking with him: they were simply speaking—to the air, to the room at large. They lectured to no one in particular on fame, fortune, despair, and confusion. Had it always been like this? He had never noticed their monologues when he had been among them, entrenched in a lie.
In the evening, he rode the bus down to the community college. The bus: now that was the ugly man's natural environment! Everyone on the bus was either seriously ugly or born in a way that made total assimilation impossible. There was something angelic about the men and women who rode the city bus in LA. It was as if God had spared them from the burden of differentiating themselves from society and coming to grips with their own oddity. They seemed brimming over with acceptance, like saints. Riding the bus, he felt his troubles lesson, felt himself in a humble world where even the most brutally ignored people had a place.
Sometimes, you couldn't quite peg the mental capacity of the bus riders. It was occasionally hard for him to delineate between the insane or the lucid yet wall-eyed ugly. Being cross-eyed did not necessarily indicate a lack of capacity, nor did Tourette's syndrome make for a totally unpleasant riding companion. In fact, some of the most delightful passengers were those who rattled off lists at random, did intricate, unbidden calculations, or announced out loud the objects of their interest. "There's a Maxima. Another Maxima. Another Maxima..."
Riding the bus in LA was an experience reserved for society's forgotten men and women, as was standing around for hours on desolate, scorched strips waiting for the bus to arrive. There was no point of real contact. The only speech came in the form of unbidden, random babble, as if dialed in from Proteus Nine.
Before bed at night, he wrote in his journal: "It's not that people don't reach out to other people. It's people don't reach out to me." He couldn't help but giggle. Another grim epiphany, but he felt comforted by it all the same. It meant things were out of his control, that control itself was an illusion.
Then he wrote, "In this society, it matters less who you are and more what you look like."
He shed a tear and then fell into an unruffled sleep.
Since his epiphany in the De Luca's restroom, his sleep had improved.
He rode the bus down to Contra Costa Community College, which was planted like an alien colonizer on a strip of blasted earth. The landscaping consisted of dirt and ripped, plastic garbage bag material anchored in the dirt, come loose in areas, flapping in the wind. The skeletons of shrubs scraped up against stucco walls. Inside the building, he saw many ugly people like himself with that brittle, critical mass kind of untouchable ugliness. Big glasses, narrow shoulders, heads too tiny, too big, frail, obese, pasty, hairy, squat, gangling, blank, transparent, mottled, dripping. His people. Not only that: the people. The ones who toiled beneath the gloss of the lie.
Contra Costa Community College was only for the ugly and those cloistered entirely within the Spanish speaking community struggling to acclimate to an alien society. The two groups didn't mix, as he learned over the six months of his air conditioning repairman training.
That's where he met Daniel and Maria, an ugly couple from Orange County who had moved to the city because they wanted to be stage actors.
"We really feel like we have something to offer, but we discovered that it's impossible to break into the L.A. market!" said Maria.
"Impossible," affirmed Daniel. "What were we thinking?"
They were at Daniel and Maria's place. Like him, they lived in the lower, sunken level of a duplex, although they had the run of the entire, dank lower floor. All their furniture was old and worn. Although they were large, their clothing was larger. Daniel's hemispheral jeans continually slid down, revealing his butt crack. Maria's tremendous blouse hung low, displaying her pendulous breasts. They were eating some kind of repulsive barley stir fry. Barley: the ugliest grain.
"So, when did you realize it?"
Daniel and Maria looked at each other. "Realize what?"
"That, you, you know, I mean, that you don't really look... like... show business people."
"You mean we're ugly?" Daniel began to laugh loud and uncouth, barking, throwing back his head, revealing his dark brown nasal bushes.
"We've always known," said Daniel.
"How do you cope with it? I mean, doesn't it bother you?"
"We see each other's inner beauty," said Maria who was in every way Daniel's equal in terms of ugliness. She looked god awful.
He sat clutching his mug of Jagermeister, the ugliest of alcohols. He wondered if he would someday learn to see inner beauty.
"When did you realize?" Maria asked.
"About four months ago."
"That's interesting, isn't it? Some people always know, while others find out," said Maria.
"Not everyone knows!" said Daniel. "It's easier if you always know, don't you think?"
"Definitely," said Maria. "If we have ugly children, we're just going to tell them."
"You're going to tell your kids they're ugly?"
"Definitely," said Maria. "I mean, we won't put it like that. And after they reach a certain age. But I don't think they will be ugly," she said, smiling at Daniel, who raised her hand to his lips and bit it tenderly.
The ugly man wanted to parse the interstices of their love, to chart its course, to trace it back and understand where it came from.
Everyday he got out of bed, looked himself in the mirror, and thought, "Everywhere people are falling in love with each other, reaching out to each other."
This somehow made everything easier to bear. It made life seem sane and comprehensible, softened the impact. Everywhere people are falling in love...
He was approaching the end of his air conditioning repair course. Through Daniel and Maria, he met others like him who possessed a fragile, threatening ugliness. Like Erik, the comic book artist from Vermont, who was training to supplement his income as a night bookkeeper.
"I just don't make personal appearances," said Erik. "It's bad for sales."
They sat around his table, drinking Bim Black, watching the light fade. They had no desire to go anywhere because they knew doing so would be absolutely pointless.
"They often want to meet me," said Eric, his voice partially lost within his sinuses. "They send me letters, even with photographs. Sometimes bikini shots, really actually quite attractive women. Before I realized what the problem was, I used to send autographed head shots in return. I'd send out the head shot, and then I'd never hear back. Once this girl who had sent me dozens of photos and letters felt so bad when she got my head shot, she wrote back telling me she was planning to move to New Zealand. It was hilarious. You could tell she was disappointed by the head shot, but she wanted to preserve my feelings, and so she came up with this weird story. Totally crazy shit. All I wrote was my number and look me up next time you're in LA. I knew I probably shouldn't have sent it, but I wanted to see what would happen. You could tell she had constructed some elaborate fantasy around me."
Erik suddenly began to laugh, a kind of spastic convulsion beginning at his diaphragm, rolling up through his esophagus, releasing a hollow, machine gun, ehehehehehehe.
"Now, I just have fun with it, send them random clippings from National Geographic, pictures of lions and stuff, with a note, like 'What do you think of this?' just to see what their response will be. This one writes, 'Ooh, I like animals, too!' It really gives you a weird glimpse of what life must be like for attractive people, like it doesn't matter what you say, like you could just say, 'duh, blu blu blu,' and people would be like, 'Oh, that's so fascinating! You're so interesting!'"
The ugly man thought of the Nissan Maxima guy on the bus. "There's a Maxima! There's a Maxima!"
He met Dwight Bode, one of the first people he had seen at Contra Costa Community. How could you miss him? Dwight Bode was seven feet tall. He was a giant with long, noodle arms, ginger hair neatly parted on the side, incredibly thick glasses. His most repulsive feature was the overwhelming smallness of his face planted right in the middle of his head. The eyes, the nose, the mouth: it was as if you could cover them all beneath a coffee mug. It was like he didn't have a face, only glasses.
Dwight Bode was a really nice guy, but really, really gloomy. When he drank Bim Black, he wasn't funny and chatty like Erik, or cheerfully odoriferous like Daniel and Maria. He became reckless in his despair, looming, hunched beneath the ceiling, breathing hard, fogging up his glasses. "I just don't know what to do anymore," he said, looking at his hands, his voice incongruously high pitched. "It's so... crippling." He fell to his knees.
Some of his finest memories from his student days came from his walks with a sober Dwight Bode in the hills around LA. They sat watching the stars come out, each beyond the need to try to summit the indescribable with paltry language.
He let his extra jobs dry up. Without hustling, his day shifts at The Grill were slowly granted to other actor-waiters. This allowed for a smooth transition into the life of an air-conditioning repairman.
He kind of let himself go physically, filling out his ugliness, becoming less like Erik and more like Daniel. Being 30 pounds overweight made sense. His hair fell out over a month span. He shaved his head. Since becoming fat and bald, he noticed on occasion total strangers had a word or two for him. They didn't say a whole lot, just commented on the weather, on current events. It was kind of nice. He was morphing from a state of fragile ugliness to durable ugliness: transforming from something disruptive and hard to something intelligible and commonplace.
He began to save money. He found himself making 60 thousand a year, which for him was an absolute fortune.
Since he never went out in the evening and didn't need to think about renting a nice place, he saved approximately 20 thousand dollars the first year after taxes. He had a bank roll now, and he felt like the world was his oyster.
Since that moment of epiphany in the De Luca's toilets, he had learned and accepted the world's terms and conditions. He had learned about his limitations. Most importantly, he had learned everywhere people were falling in love, just not with him. Despite his own singularity, the world revolved on the axis of love. This awareness liberated him from the false assumption he was always to blame for something.
Three years later, having saved up 62 thousand dollars, he bought a ticket to Japan. He just didn't know what to do with himself and thought in Asia things were more possible and he might as well go there if only to binge on his favorite foods.
He spent several weeks in Tokyo, going out in the evening, talking to no one, reading a Japanese novel written in the 1960s about the ghost of a traveling salesman who comes back to live with his widowed wife who, having remarried, doesn't want anything to do with the pesky ghost. And yet the ghost remained. The novel reminded him of Japan in general.
From Japan, he traveled to Korea, and from Korea he flew to Thailand. The Thai expatriate scene repulsed him. Ugly men from around the world traveled there to inflict themselves on beautiful, young girls who, out of sheer poverty, were ready to embrace any form of ugliness, be it disruptive or immovable, creepy or hilarious, radioactive or inert. They would accept anyone as long as he had money.
Although he had engrossed himself in work and had for several years set aside the need to solve the human puzzle, in Thailand old thoughts reemerged. He felt blocked from the possibility of connection, like he was being trailed by inhibiting ghosts. Walking Bangkok's lurid streets, he began to think the problem was really beneath the surface. There was something beyond gross looks keeping him from contact. It was something making him turn one way and the world another, shrouding him, preserving him from entering the common flow of events. At times like these, his ugliness felt magical.
Several weeks later, his rusty, iron junk bound for the Andaman Islands sprung a leak. He had been told this kind of thing happens all the time in those waters. When he heard the crewmen shouting, he could hardly believe it had happened to him. But it had. His ship was sinking.
"They go straight to the bottom," some ugly white guy had said the night before. In a Hawaii shirt, a beautiful girl on his lap, the ugly white guy seemed to know everything about the area. "Plish, glug, glug, glug," he blithely mimed the act of a ship sinking. The mostly naked teen laughed.
The encounter made him desire all the more a long trip on a Thai rust bucket. Anything to escape the freakshow of ugly Americans and their child concubines. So, the following morning he paid the 60 or so dollars and gathered his stray belongings.
He sprang out of his cabin and into the light. The water was already frothing over the edges. The captain chattered frantically over radio, but it was happening so quickly, and they were miles from land. Now they were bobbing in the blue-green sea. There were eight of them, but only four life jackets, which the senior crew had quickly snatched up. A shark attacked the captain, who had been one of the first to grab a life jacket and leap overboard straight from the bridge. They all watched the attack. The ugly man felt no fear as the captain's eyes closed and blood bubbled from his lips.
Another member of the crew, one without a life jacket, suddenly began to struggle. He went under. He came back up. He tried to cling to one of his crewmates, who pushed him away. He tried to cling to the ugly 35-year-old. They went under together. Beneath the waves in full view of the sharks, he struggled to free himself from the sinking Thai sailor. Finally, with his last breath, he kicked away, rising slowly, barely reaching the surface without passing out. The remaining six were in hysterics as the hammerheads circled. Sharks picked off two more during the night. Another sank.
He was amazingly calm. He floated on his back beneath the starlight. His fat belly kept him well above the waves, and his lanky arms and legs tirelessly treaded the salty sea. The sharks were on his mind all the time, but he learned to compartmentalize that anxiety and to live with it as he lived with his own repulsive exterior. He never knew outside of being ugly, he was also surprisingly courageous. After being rescued 27 hours later, sitting on the edge of the bunk, he said the words that brought him full circle from his epiphany three years previous: "I'm an ugly, courageous son of a bitch."
Then, in a moment of celebration, he walked over to the sink and smashed the mirror with his fist. Later that week in Saigon, he got a hammerhead shark tattoo on the inside of his right forearm.
When he returned to Los Angeles several months later, he discovered his old notebook. Reading the epiphanies contained therein, he realized how much he had changed. For one thing, he was no longer the sort of person who tries to understand why life is as it is. At least he thought so. At least he wanted it to be so.