The single in her natural environment (pre-mingle).
A few Saturdays ago, I found myself squished into a little black dress at 11 o'clock in the morning, listening to a sex educator and relationship therapist give advice on the best way to land a man for keeps.
"In the past, men were hunters," the expert said. "And women were gatherers." There was still an element of that, she said, that was present in our personalities today.
I glared at my housemate, whose blonde, curly hair I could just barely see over the heads of the hundreds of other women crammed into the conference room. She glanced over at me and grinned.
The expert was still talking. "Men don't like 'alpha women,'" she went on. "They like to feel needed."
Around me, I saw a few women nodding their heads, but most of them just looked kind of bored. As the expert started explaining how the oxytocin released when women orgasm can cause them to pair-bond, the woman next to me sighed gustily.
"Do you think we're ever going to actually meet any dudes?" she whispered to me. "Or will they just keep us here forever?"
"We're trapped," I said, widening my eyes. "Trapped like rats!"
We'd all received swag bags full of beauty products, but there was nothing in there for sustenance except Lemonheads and 5-hour-energy shots. In the case of a surprise "Hunger Games" scenario, the "alpha women" would have to fight for dominance fueled by nothing but Diet Coke and willpower, spending the night curled up on a nest of free Paul Mitchell straighteners and crafting markers of allegiance from novelty nail art.
I giggled. It's possible I was feeling a little punchy already.
The woman next to me laughed, too, before pulling out her phone to play Candy Crush. At the front of the room, the relationship expert was advising us not to sleep with a man until we'd locked down emotional monogamy.
It was going to be a long day.
I maintain that this was totally my new housemate's fault. The first weekend I moved in, she sent around an ad for a singles' event that was being held in a few weeks' time. It was being sponsored by a local television show, and it promised mingling and raffle prizes, both of which rank about even with "John Cusack marathon" and "free burritos" as motivation for me to leave the comfort of my bedroom.
I filled out the mandatory multiple-choice survey, which was full of questions about my "ideal date" and whether I wanted kids someday and attached the required photo of myself. My housemate, Jill, thought it would be a great way for us to bond -- envisioning an evening full of glitter and stealthy drinking, I agreed heartily and sent in my application.
Two weeks later, we both got an email. The call time was at 10, it informed us ("In the morning?" I asked Jill, and we both winced), and the dress code was "to impress."
"Do you still wanna do it?" Jill asked me as we ate dinner the night before.
"Sure, why not?" I said. (Please see: "mingling, raffle prizes".) "What's the worst that could happen?"
"Um, we'll get stuck in a group with random dudes who we hate and it'll be totally awkward," Jill said.
"No! No, listen," I said. "If it's awkward, we can just ditch our groups and hang out with each other. You know. Bonding."
Jill looked doubtful.
"BONDING!" I shouted, banging my fist on the kitchen table.
OK, I guess it wasn't completely her fault.
When we arrived at the event the next morning, we were immediately given numbers to hang around our necks the whole day. "I feel like a racehorse," a woman behind me muttered.
Clearly the feeling was catching. "What if they have to rate us, or something?" Jill said. "Or -- oh God. What if they call out our numbers and guys, like, write down whether or not we're pretty?"
Another lady near us whipped her head around. "Oh, Lord, don't even say that," she said. "It'd be crickets."
Jill was just being paranoid, but I knew where she was coming from. Throughout the day, I kept getting this feeling like I was being paraded around for display. The numbers didn't help, of course, but we also had to walk from the conference "holding room" down Navy Pier to stand in the late-summer heat for about an hour while the TV crew took shots of us eagerly waiting to single-mingle. All the tourists gawked at us, which I guess was understandable -- 300-odd women clomping two hundred yards in heels isn't exactly a subtle tableau -- and I waved at them, just to give my hands something to do.
I was still pretty chipper at that point, despite the weirdness of the relationship counselor session -- after all, they hadn't given away all of the raffle prizes yet, and I was meeting some pretty cool people. As the producers asked us, please, to keep smiling -- "I know it's hot, ladies, I have hair, too, but just a little while longer" -- I struck up conversations with some of the women standing near me.
"I'm working 30 hours a week as a hotel host downtown," one of the women near me said. "But I'm trying to get a non-profit together to mentor young girls about going to college."
"Awesome!" said another woman. "Here, take my card, I'm a videographer. I'd love to help."
"I like your dress," the girl next to me said.
"Thanks!" I said. "Buffalo Exchange."
"Rad," she said, and we high-fived.
"Ladies, smile!" the producers reminded us, before ushering us back up the pier to the holding room.
The second time we had to make the trip down the pier, someone pointed upwards. The windows on the second floor of the building were filled with guys -- our guys, specifically, the ones that we were supposedly eventually going to mingle with. They all stood against the glass, lined up shoulder to shoulder, looking down at the mass of dressed-up women, each of us wearing a number on our chest. The reflection from the afternoon sun didn't give me a good look at their faces, but I could see one or two of them grinning. It made my skin crawl.
By then, the rumor had gone around that we'd each been "paired" with a specific man based on our questionnaires. "If my guy's terrible, I'm going to go read fan fiction in the bathroom," I told Jill.
She laughed. "If my guy's terrible, let's just go get drunk."
At that point, the group was growing restless. We'd been there for four hours or so, our feet hurt, our makeup was melting off, and we smelled like sweat and catered sandwiches. As a result, we'd started becoming more comfortable with each other, more candid about what had brought us to the event in the first place.
"I'm just over men in this city," one woman said. "They all want a mother. It's like, I've already got a kid!"
"Honestly, I'm not that into the idea of having a boyfriend," said someone else. "But it'd be nice to have someone to, you know."
"Screw?" someone suggested, and everyone cracked up.
Everyone's reasoning was different -- they couldn't find a man to commit, they were only finding needy dudes, they just wanted to date a guy taller than them for once -- but the end result was all the same: they'd figured, meh, a singles' event is worth a shot. Better than nothing. (Plus: raffle.)
Meanwhile, I kept trying to smile at the producers and the PAs, because they'd probably been awake way longer than we had and were being awfully good sports about all the complaining going on. This was, after all, how they were spending their weekend.
"OK, ladies," the dude who seemed to be in charge said. "We're going to film you like you're all heading for the doors into the ballroom, but don't go inside yet. Just turn around!"
The pre-recorded TV host's voice advised us not all to rush in at once -- that an eligible man had been picked out for each and every one of us.
"There are bugs everywhere," said one of the women next to me flatly. "I'm more excited just to get away from these bugs."
Finally, the crew opened the doors to the ballroom. The crowd started to shuffle forward, some women leveraging themselves up from their sprawls on the steps or from where they'd been half-leaning against walls. We were all clearly a little deflated.
"Ladies, look pretty!" one of the producers called to us as we passed by.
The rumor had been true: As we filed into the ballroom, I saw hundreds of tiny tables-for-two set up, with a nervous-looking guy stationed at each one. My number was in the high 200s; as I shuffled my way toward the back of the room, I saw couples starting to greet each other, standing up straight, smiling with their heads cocked to the side. Small talk, en masse, and half of me wanted my table to be empty and half of me suddenly felt so eager for connection that I ached with it.
No such luck, either way. His name was Greg. He was fine. He told me that the relationship expert had told the guys that women like to feel "taken care of," and that hobbies were important to put on your OK Cupid profile. We talked for half an hour about "Two and a Half Men," his favorite show. He was perfectly nice. I suggested that we dance to the Top 40 being piped over the speakers, but he politely demurred. At the end of our "date," he shook my hand and wished me a good afternoon.
I didn't win any raffle prizes.
On the way out, I ran into one of my friends from the crowd. "How'd it go?" I asked her.
"Oh, well," she said, wrinkling her nose. "He told me I'd look better with long hair? Which. I guess, but you didn't have to say that."
"Rough," I said, patting her on the shoulder. She shrugged.
"Well, there's always next time."
A few weeks later, watching the show when it aired, I was struck by how smooth it all looked. Those producers did their job damn well: instead of looking grumpy and stressed-out, we all look thrilled to pieces. When the host announced that -- surprise! -- it wasn't mingling after all, that we'd just have one "first date" with a carefully selected eligible bachelor, it does actually look like we're pleasantly shocked rather than shruggingly resigned, which had definitely been the mood in my corner of the crowd.
Unsurprisingly, the sense of rigmarole involved was also magnified tenfold. Watching the show, it becomes apparent that we, the single women, had to be "caught:" we'd thought there'd be mingling, a familiar, relatively even playing field, and instead had ended up making charming small talk with a stranger for half an hour or so. I suppose it makes for better television -- like our relationship expert had taught us, the hunters and the gathered, together again -- but in reality, it just heightened that feeling that we were there as the entertainment.
I like going on first dates, I really do, but I think the fun of them lies in their potential for flexibility, or at least for weirdness. At that event, where pretty women and men had been arranged at individual tables like bouquets, the artificiality of it all made it harder to ignite that spark. (For me, anyway -- I saw a few couples making out on the dance floor, and Jill totally got her date's number.)
I'm still glad I attended, though. For one thing, I could think of way worse ways to spend a Saturday than standing around being dressed up and then making stilted conversation with a random dude. But more importantly, without exception, every woman I met at that event was smart, funny, and damn hot. Most had really fascinating careers; a few were even minor celebrities who'd been on the show before. Together, catalyzed by anxiety about flirting and grumpiness at how the humidity was fluffing our hair, we relaxed into each other. A lot of us exchanged business cards, and we promised to call.
And, at the end of the day, it was just me and Jill left on the pier. "Wow," I said. "That's a great view of the city."
"Yeah," she said. "Selfie?"
"Of course," I said. "Bonding."
"BONDING," she repeated.
We both made faces for the camera. We were just two sweaty, single ladies, tired of smiling, up against the world, ready to go home and put our sweatpants on.