Some thoughts first started coming together for me when my friend Audrey told me about the Food Chain.

"I mean, I'm sure it's not a new theory. You might not call it that, but I'm sure you'll know what I'm talking about." Audrey has this way of hunching over whatever's in front of her. It makes her look defeated, conspiratorial, and totally natural all at the same time, and that's how she looked as she sat across from me in the dining hall, at the small corner table I chose before she joined me. "The Food Chain is just, um, I'm looking for a better word than 'obsessions' because that's too serious of a word, but it's how everyone's obsessions work." She picked up her fork and waved it limply with one hand. Audrey's voice is husky, like Demi Moore-husky, but less pretentious and with the slightest background vibration of a New York upbringing.

"Okay, anyway, just take your average frustrated obsession as an example. Now, you obsess over that person because they're higher on the food chain than you are. They're more attractive, or they're more popular or more poised or more cool, or whatever it is that you wish you were but you aren't. They're what you're after. Of course, they're not going to go after you too, because you're lower on the food chain. So depending on the distance between the two of you on the, um, attractiveness... general desirability scale, you can either be good friends w ith them, or really good friends, all the way down to your classic 'doesn't know I'm alive' or 'finds me actively frightening.' Some of that depends on your approach, of course."

"Or your height," I interjected. I was trying to slouch a little bit so I could be closer to her hunched eye-level; I wasn't quite getting there, but I was banging my knees against the table and sending my feet over to invade her space.

"Why your height?"

"You don't think I scare people?"

She laughed a little, looking down into her tray, and waved me off. "I dunno. I tend to land in the neighborhood of 'mild diversion/invisible girl' myself." It would be easy to talk about Audrey as another young woman who's prettier than she thinks and has enormously low self-esteem, but she seems to know her low self-esteem too well to fit that category, so instead I'll talk about perfume. I remember reading about people who designed perfumes, how in fragrance design the biggest strategy is to start with a small amount of some very strong, very repellent scent, so that the emergency nerves are at full attention. Then they pile all the nice principal scents on top, but they all ride on this core scent that alerts the body of danger. Audrey looks like that; there's something wrong with the shape of her face that you can't pin down, but it makes her impossible to look away from. And on top of that she has this wonderful skin, big eyes and curled corners to her mouth. She took what looked to be a final bite of her bagel, then set it back down and continued. "Anyway, the person who's higher than you on the food chain is busy chasing someone higher than them. And you're probably gonna get chased now and then by someone lower than you, who you have absolutely no interest in."

"That's confusing 'cause, in regular food chains, things that are higher literally feed on things that are lower."

"Yeah. Yeah. This works the other way."

"Right." I nodded and laughed through my nose a little as Audrey tapped her fingers and straightened her glasses, mugging for me, playing some silly role of the shrewd human systems analyst. Then she laughed that off too and looked back down, smiling.

"So no mutual chasing is allowed at all, then," I offer.

"Absolutely not." I could see her mock-martyred smile get wider. "That's a whole different area altogether." She straightened up, dropped her fork, pulled her long brown hair back behind her ear. Quoting herself. "That's the world of healthy relationships. I've never been there but I'm told it's very nice."

NEXT