Can We Speed This Date Along, Please?
I decided to go speed dating on a whim, after a conversation with a Facebook friend about some targeted ads that frequently appeared in my newsfeed. Facebook apparently thought I should get out more, and that speed dating might be just the thing I needed.
“If I were single, I’d try it out,” my friend had said.
“Why not,” I’d agreed, “It would be an experience.”
What I hoped to get out of the experience, I didn’t know. It’s not as if I believed I might actually find a match, or even check “yes” for a second date. Or did I? That’s a secret I kept from even myself.
It was easier to investigate others’ reasons for speed dating. The web is full of speed dating blogs, magazine articles, and even scientific studies, and these sources are full of phrases like “clock is ticking,” “tired of the bar and club scene,” and, “difficulty meeting new people.” What I found through my research was that some people speed date in search of true love, some do it for fun, some hope to make new friends, and some just want to get laid. I also learned some interesting speed dating factoids: women are more likely than men to try speed dating, but men are more likely to be repeat customers; women tend to be stingy with their yeses, while men give theirs out more freely (it’s not uncommon for men to yes all of their speed dates, believing their chances of success are greater the more women they spend time with); roughly 75% of all speed daters have at least one yes by the end of a speed dating event; discriminating speed daters have a number of specialized events to choose from, including yoga speed dating, “skinny people only” speed dating (the event slogan: “Yes, men, we check labels at the door!”), sci-fi speed dating (for self-proclaimed nerds), poly speed dating (for those committed to non-monogamous lifestyles), green speed dating (for the environmentally conscious), and “cougars and cubs” speed dating (you guessed it).
I joined the Charlotte Singles speed dating club (which I found on Meetup.com), and then, for months, discarded the weekly emails reminding me of each coming event, as if I only wanted to think about speed dating—not actually do it. When a close friend mentioned to me that her daughter was looking for babysitting jobs, I took that as my cue and contacted the Charlotte Singles organizer to ask if there were still openings for the following night’s event. Corey gave me the option of trying either age bracket—25–36 or 35–55, as I was, at 36, on the cusp—and recommended that I try each. While I was open to either experience (and even the possibility of attending more than one event), I was more drawn to the older crowd, and asked Corey to save my spot within it.
Choosing what to wear was, naturally, the most stressful part of my preparation. [Side note: when I Googled “what to wear speed dating,” I was advised to wear a wrap dress.] Luckily, my boys were there to help (and by that, I mean not at all interested in helping). When I walked into their room to ask, “How do I look,” Nathan responded with a disinterested shrug and went back to his video game. Ty asked me where I was going.
“Speed dating,” I said.
“What’s speed dating?”
“It’s an event with an equal number of men and women, and each woman dates each man for five minutes.”
“Mom . . . that’s just gross.”
Ty’s response sent me into a giggle fit. Maybe it was the way he grimaced, or maybe it was the purposefully dismissive tone with which he delivered his final judgment. But most likely, it was my nerves. I ran back to my bedroom, laughing like a madwoman and pulling my clothes off all the way. Ty must have sensed my nervousness because he followed after me. With his help, I settled on skinny jeans, heeled boots, and a low v-necked t-shirt with a crochet cut-out in the back. I wanted to look put-together, but not like I was trying too hard. Even more, though, I wanted to be true to myself. By the time I left the house, I felt I’d pulled off both and I was a ball of anticipation—the good kind.
I arrived at the Sunset Club in downtown Charlotte at 7:45 p.m. The event was to start at 8:00, but the event coordinators asked that the participants arrive early to “check in.” The club was privatized for the event, so I expected to meet the speed dating crowd upon arrival and was disappointed to find that I was only the third person there. Relief came in the form of an invitation from the event host, Christian, to sit at the bar. I ordered a Cruzan and caffeine-free Coke, but the bar had neither Cruzan nor caffeine-free Coke, so I went with a bottled beer. Christian handed me a sticker nametag, a pen, and the evening’s roster of ten men.
Ten men. In my imagination, the club that night was to be packed with prospects. Still, I told myself, I wasn’t expecting anything of the event other than to have something interesting to write about (right, Holly?), so it didn’t matter that there would only be ten prospects. I called out to the lone man at the end of the bar, “You ever attended one of these events before?” He didn’t seem to understand me; either that, or he was hard of hearing. He made a gesture at his ear, squinted his eyes, and said, “Yes, I’ve been to this club.”
The next speed dater to arrive scanned the room like a hummingbird before taking the seat next to me. She introduced herself as Theresa. She was 47 and speed dating was a first for her. Her shyness kept her from going places alone, but none of her friends wanted to go speed dating. [Side note: women often speed date with friends, while men often go by themselves.] I explained that I, too, was shy, which is why I’d been going to things alone—dinner out, movies, concerts, etc.—since I was in high school. Our mutual shyness was enough for us to form a situational bond, and together we settled into a comfortable sort of discomfort.
Rebeka joined us several minutes later. She looked to be about 50, and was petite and quietly pretty, with chin-length hair in carefully-formed curls. Her business-y wrap-dress suggested she took the occasion seriously, and she maintained a strict poise while ordering her “citrusy” beer, “in an iced glass.” The bustier-clad bartender delivered the Sierra Nevada to Rebeka with an orange slice. Perfect.
Another older woman joined me, Theresa, and Rebeka about ten minutes later. She was the only one of us who’d previously been to a speed dating event. It had been at the Marriot, and about 150 people had attended.
In the time the ladies and I shared our knowledge (and mutual uneasiness), several men had made their entrances and were clustered together, as we women were. I thought about leaving after sizing up my night’s dates, but just as I had started strategizing the most graceful possible escape, Christian called the women into a huddle. After his pep talk, which included commonsensical advice like “relax,” “be yourself,” “have fun,” and “take notes,” it was time to take our seats. Christian assigned me to seat #5 and instructed me find my place amongst the series of cushioned, pillowed, loveseat-like booths—each with a place-card indicating a bachelorette number—that lined the opposite wall. The booth area was under a lower-lying ceiling, and was dimly lit, except for some colored accent lighting and votive candles; the lighting, along with the tapestry upholstery, made for a harem-y kind-of feel.
“That looks like a hippy den and I’m not in a free love kind of mood,” I said to the woman next to me. She nodded in agreement as a small yelp escaped her lips. Her eyes said to me, “I’m scared.”
As I took my seat at lucky booth #5, I realized that within just a few minutes, I would be sitting face to face with one of the men in the pep-talk huddle across the room. Cue adrenaline surge. I’m not the type of person to prepare questions for this sort of thing—I prefer to let things happen organically—but all of the sudden I was scared shitless about what I was going to say.
The bell indicated that it was time to begin. The first man to take a seat next to me was Edward. Edward and I had no chance of sharing a romantic spark—I didn’t need to converse with him to know it. His camo shirt and baseball cap (and, was that dip in his lip?) spoke for him. Knowing it was going to be a long five minutes, I made nice with a generic question (but also a good indicator of personality): “Who is your favorite comedian?”
Edward wasn’t “too into” comedy, but he did sometimes watch Tosh.0, and “kind of” liked Daniel Tosh. He didn’t watch the show very often because he didn’t want to expose his son to “certain things.” When I asked what he meant, he said, “You know . . . Tosh kind of acts . . . gay sometimes . . . like, he leaves it to question . . .?”
He seemed to expect me to back him up, but I could only respond with my “so what?” expression.
He defended himself with, “Those are some conversations I just don’t want to have with my son.” His son was eighteen. Creepy. Anything I would’ve said at that point could have sounded rude, so I forced a smile and waited the rest of the date out in silence.
Ray was next. I liked him right away, despite the fact that he didn’t seem to like me at all. He spent at least a minute taking notes from his last date before even coming to sit next to me. I wondered what he could be writing that was so interesting (I also wondered if anyone had ever been stood up on a speed date). I’d already decided I wouldn’t take any notes for the night. If there was someone I really wanted to get to know, I had no doubt I’d remember him—no notes necessary. I asked Ray about his note-taking when he finally joined our date. He said he wanted to remember everything, so that when he went to make his decisions the next day about with whom he wanted to follow-up, there would be no gaps in memory. I made a joke, “You mean so that you don’t accidently yes the wrong person and end up going on the wrong date?”
He was offended: “That was an ugly thing to say!”
Ugly is such a strong word. I explained that I felt I’d remember the people worth remembering, and that I didn’t need to take notes. He countered that I was coming into the event with a “mean-spirited” attitude—that he wanted to remember everyone and I was plainly stating that some people weren’t worth remembering.
I told him there was really nothing mean-spirited about me, and that my comment about yessing the wrong person was in jest. He said it was mean-spirited of me to jest with a complete stranger in such a way, under these tense circumstances. I explained that I prefer people to jest with me, as it lightens the mood, and so I was, in actuality, not being mean-spirited at all, but rather the opposite. We then seemed to come to an unspoken agreement to shut up and start from scratch. I asked him who his favorite philosopher was. He told me it was Mark Twain, and made a compelling argument for why. The bell rang. Ray jumped up and gave me a quick hand-shake. He’d hugged the woman before me.
About an hour into the event, the non-speed dating general public began filtering in. The Sunset Club was apparently hosting a Halloween costume party, separate from but alongside the speed dating event, and most of the incomers were dressed up, and elaborately so. It was around speed date number seven that the Mad Hatter, Alice, the Queen of Hearts, and the rest of the Wonderland court strolled by my booth. This not only provided some relief from the pressure of having to converse with speed daters I didn’t have a lot in common with, but it also lent to the surreal feeling of the speed dating process. It was a trip, if you will.
For someone like me, who prefers to let my relations with people happen spontaneously, speed dating is anything but natural. Basically, you must sit face-to-face with a complete stranger and force a conversation (excepting the rare case in which conversation comes easily), all the while both of you knowing that you’re sizing up the other in a non-platonic kind of way. My instinct (read: defense mechanism) in such situations is to take control by asking a lot of questions. Having said that, I spent a lot of my time speed dating acting as a psychologist, or a talk show host. It’s an enjoyable enough role to play, but that’s not what I was there for. I couldn’t help but feel it would’ve been nicer just to show up at a mixer and work the room—no prescribed context, and no pressure. Toward the end of the event, I found myself drifting off during my “interviews,” watching the costumed party-goers and wondering what I might could find “out there.”
The woman next to me at booth #6 seemed to be having a successful night. She interested me: long bangs that flirted with her eyelashes, large hoop earrings, a mischievous smile, knee-high boots, and a flirty wrap-dress (quite unlike Rebeka’s conservative number). Number six had the air of Three’s Company’s Chrissy, and all the men seemed to linger at her booth long after the “Ding! Ding!” of the bell. Hell, even I wanted to snuggle into it. I couldn’t wait to ask her about her night, as she seemed to be having such a great time.
The second half of the speed dating event moved quickly, perhaps because I had more fun as my nerves subsided. All of the men were cordial, but not all of them were noteworthy. Here are some stats, for those of you who are into that sort of thing:
Most frequently asked question: “What do you do?”
Lamest conversation starter:
Him: So, 9/11 . . . what a tragedy.
Me: . . . yeah. That sucked.
Bell: (5 minutes later) Ding! Ding!
Most awkward response to a question:
Me: What made you decide to try this out?
Him: My daughter had a date tonight, so I had nothing else to do.
Worst accessory: Mirror-lensed Oakley sunglasses on a neck strap, worn around the neck.
Most commonly cited reason for speed dating: Inconclusive; no two people said the same thing.
Number of wrap dresses: Five (out of ten women).
My last date was with Ed (not to be confused with Edward, who was afraid of his eighteen-year-old finding out about gay people). Ed was the youngest man there, making him the second youngest person at the event, next to me. Ed sat with an open posture, and leaned in when he spoke. He searched my eyes, and seemed enthralled by our conversation. I decided I liked Ed, if only because of his engaged energy (because I was not attracted to him). He was actively trying to pursue a connection with me, and I was intrigued by the gesture. It was as if he had read a book entitled How to Score and was practicing his mojo, and I wanted to figure his game out. At one point, he pointed to lady #6, and asked if I was her “wing woman.” He told me she had spoken highly of me and said that I was her “wing woman,” and he wanted to know if I felt the same way. Also, he wanted to know what it meant to me to be a wing woman. I hadn’t spoken to lady #6 the entire night, so I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t want to deny the woman I’d grown to admire from afar, so I offered a neutral response: “Sure, I’d be her wing woman. We’re just women who support each other.” Ed asked for my number. I didn’t want to give it to him—even told him I didn’t want to give it to him—but he insisted and my second beer of the night reluctantly handed over the digits.
After the bell rang signifying the end of the speed dating event, I found that my scorecard was missing and in its place was a previous dater’s cards, notes and all. Ed and I read over the notes using his iPhone as a flashlight. This mystery man had made some very simple remarks next to only a few of the women—things like “business owner” and “single mother of two” and “religious.” Not one clue as to what he hoped to get out of speed dating, though.
As it seemed a lot of the speed daters were staying after and mixing with the costumed crowd that by then filled the club, I decided I’d hang out for a while, just to see what I could run into. But first I made my way to the ladies room, where I found the two women I’d started the night off with. Theresa and Rebeka were primping in the mirror, as they’d also decided to stay for a while. I asked them how their night went. They felt the same way I did: that there were some great guys they could have some great conversations with, and could even see themselves hanging out with, but with no accompaniment of romantic energy. If we’d paid to attend the “Quickly Find Your Next Friend-Zone Pal” event, it would’ve been a runaway success.
Immediately as I exited the restroom, Heather (speed dater #6) grabbed me, pulled me into her, and said, “We need to talk!” She’d waited by the restroom just to pull me aside, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
Heather hadn’t had nearly as much fun as she looked like she was having during the event, and she had no interest in any of the men. This didn’t surprise or disappoint her, as she was a self-described “cougar,” and proud of it. I loved her spirit. Ed had told her that I’d referred to her as my wing woman, and he’d also convinced her to give over her telephone number, even though she really wasn’t interested in giving it to him. [Side note: Ed texted both of us the following day, with the same exact message: You made the whole speed dating event worth it.]
Heather and I both had babysitters for the night and agreed that we were going to have some fun, even if it meant smoking hookah with a crowd of college boys (Heather’s words). Therefore, although almost all of the other speed daters had already gone home, Heather and I agreed to party together until the club closed. As we carried on a conversation about the guys we’d met at the event, complete with impersonations, a man approached us to join in on the conversation. It was Ray—Ray who didn’t like me. He gave Heather a hug. He looked at me and nodded.
While remarking on the Halloween-theme of the night, Heather made a joke that we should’ve worn costumes to the speed dating event. I said, “Well, Ray came as Freddy Krueger.”
Ray was not amused: “Why do you say that? Is it because I’m bald, or because I’m ugly?”
I replied, truthfully, that it was because of his striped shirt.
Heather burst into hysterical laughter: “He’s definitely wearing a Freddy Krueger shirt!”
That loosened Ray up, and by the time Heather dismissed herself to the restroom, he and I were into some deep conversation. Ray and I were so enthralled in our conversation that Heather realized she wanted to excuse herself again (to flirt with the younger guys at the bar, she whispered to me) almost immediately after returning from the restroom. Ray and I discussed being single parents (and how it seems that many single parents put themselves first and cop out of that responsibility), about watching people we love suffer from mental illness, about the many benefits of psychotherapy, about the value of tucking our children in at night (with “real” hugs), and about juggling all of life’s responsibilities while trying to accomplish self-actualization. It was some of the best conversation I’d had in a long time.
When Ray told me he needed to go home, we hugged. It was such a great, warm, real hug that we both let out involuntary sighs. And that was the best part of my night.
Ray told me he had a really good feeling about me—that he was sure I’d find exactly what I was looking for. I told him I didn’t know what I was looking for. He said, “No one does. Why do you think we’re all here?” He motioned to the entire club. Then he was gone.
Heather and I finished out the night, shared pictures of our kids, and made plans to hang out again. Neither of us knew for sure if we’d try another speed dating event. I suspected she’d at least attempt to get in with the younger age bracket.
As I didn’t yes any of the men there that night, I am entitled to attend my next event for free. I got an email yesterday, announcing the next 25-39 age bracket event. I’m going to think about it—for a few months, or longer—and then I might be ready to try again.