Girl Number 8

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Finding love in the 21st century sometimes feels like child’s play, but Jennifer Marie Dunn is undeterred.  

At the Vu Lounge inside the Hyatt on Bay Street, there are more than enough places to sit.  Rings of chairs that look like props from Game of Thrones make a circle in the center of the room with small tables arranged along the periphery.

Like most hotel bars, the décor sends a passive and conflicting message: the antique sconces on the walls sit at odds with the flat-screen TV’s muted display of sporting events.   Where the lounge’s name implies rendezvous swank, the blue recessed lighting pulses like fiber optics, which makes you feel like you’re either riding in a limousine or underwater, possibly drowning.

The outdoor terrace squats above the cobblestones of River Street, and may be the best spot in town to watch fireworks, but I can’t say for sure because there aren’t any fireworks tonight.

Ready, Set

Along the south wall, two rows of arm chairs have been positioned with tiny round glass tables ensconced between them.  The perfect setting to meet lots of men in a matter of minutes.  This is what dating had become in the 21st century—speed and strategy—the purest expression of the Pepsi generation, where (to borrow from Carrie Fisher) instant gratification takes too long.

Speed dating works like this: Everyone gets a name tag with an assigned number, just like all the dystopian societies you read about in books.  Perhaps this should be rechristened the Love-Hungry Games.

I am Girl Number Eight.

Every six minutes, the event coordinator rings a dinner bell (no joke—a dinner bell) and the men rotate politely to the next table.  All this rotating reminds me of playing musical chairs at someone’s birthday party in elementary school.  Like all children’s games, it’s violent, brutal and aggressive.  It’s an all-out, god-awful, adrenaline-fueled war that involves spiteful pinching, anxious elbowing and the systemic shame of being the last one left standing.  This is how I feel about dating in my late-20s, early-30s.

Yes, the music still plays.

Yes, there are plenty of chairs and chair-seekers left in the game.

But sometimes, those chairs aren’t even suited to giving yourself  the Heimlich maneuver if you’re choking.

Lately, I’ve been meeting all the wrong chairs anyway; the ones virtually unfit for sitting.  Let me put it this way: Even Goldilocks’s “too hard” versus “too soft” dilemma wouldn’t have prepared her for the myriad complexities involved with the occasional suck-year of misadventures in modern dating.  Sometimes the chairs are pretty and soulful, but there’s no back to lean against.  Like museum chairs, they aren’t designed to be able to hold anyone.

Or the chair seems comfy enough at first, but up close it’s actually sad and sagging—soaked in whiskey and abandonment issues.

Unlike musical chairs, at the end of speed dating, everyone fills out a form with their desired numbers—kind of like ordering Girl Scout cookies.  You’re also supposed to write down a note or two to remember the people the next day.  I’m taking way more notes than anyone else and my furious and awkward scribbling makes the men suspicious.

The Rules

The speed dating promotional director’s name is Ellen, and her success rate is measured in weddings.  Two is the current count.   She was a bridesmaid in one of them and wore the classic ugly dress.

Ellen’s rules for tonight’s event: “No politics.  Save that for when you’re really drunk or you get to know each other better.  Let’s keep our alternative lifestyles for the second date.  No one wants to know you’re a nudist in the first six minutes of meeting you.  Also, no prison confessions.”

She’s been doing this for eight years, mostly in Jacksonville. She’s only recently expanded to Savannah to set up other single’s events, like lock-and-key parties, one of which happened the previous night.

Lock and Key parties work like this: Men each get a key and women each get a lock—can you guess where this is going?   Everyone mingles, meets, greets and then the men stick their keys in the women’s locks.  If the lock opens, both people get a prize.  This takes place at Doubles Night Club, part of the Quality Inn Midtown on Abercorn.  Not kidding.

The age group for this event was advertised as 24 to 39, but two men are who are clearly past the age of 60 have decided they’re exceptions to this rule.  When one of them arrives at my table, Geriatric Guy Number Six mixes his vodka and water at my table in two separate glasses because he “trusts no man to mix it” for him.  He speaks with a thick accent from I’m-not-sure-where, and I can’t understand much else he says after that.

The Players

As far as the average demographic for speed dating goes, according to Ellen—most of the people here have tried online dating first.  They generally work in IT, software, or some field where they’re not exposed often to the opposite sex.  Also, teachers, nurses and people who work strange or long hours.  People sign up for different reasons, but hope for the same result.

Guy Number Eight is studying to be a nurse; just moved from Athens (“Too many bars, too much football,” he says) and doesn’t want to meet a girl at a bar.

Guy Number Seven is older than my father.  He has a demonic eye contact.

There’s no Guy Number Five or Guy Number Two because they didn’t show up.  Guy Number Four is a software guy.  For whatever reason, I ask if he believes in love at first sight.

“Love is work,” he says.

I disagree.  We go back and forth like schoolchildren for a minute or two (“Yes, it is.” “No, it isn’t.”).  I’m hungry for the dinner bell.

Guy Number 3 is a friend of mine who I dragged with me.  Pavlovian responses dictate our conversation; we mostly talk about food.  He says Ellen just told him that the owner of one of the dating-industry companies she works for just married his girlfriend because she was about to be deported.

Guy Number One tells me he’s “number one.”  I pretend not to understand, to give him an out that he doesn’t take, choosing instead to repeat what he said, only louder. He may have used this joke at every table.  He’s the only man who asks me questions about myself the whole night.

Guy Number Nine says he googled tips on speed dating prior to coming: how to act and sit, what to ask.  He gives me not only the creeps, but also his business card, which isn’t allowed.

Not Playing Nice

When it’s over, people order their cookies.  The next day, Ellen sends email addresses to people who are chosen.  She says that sometimes you have to keep coming back to connect with someone, that it depends on the crowd.  It goes back to that old cliché about kissing a lot of frogs before you meet Prince Charming—an adage that fails to mention how many long, monotonous hours you have to clock volunteering in the reptile cage at the local zoo.

But finding love and companionship is more than just fairy tale princes, speed dating and long-winded chair metaphors—it’s a billion-dollar industry.  And with 100 million other adults in the U.S.claiming single status this Valentine’s Day, it’s good to know I’m not alone.

I—Girl Number Eight—didn’t hand in my form, didn’t order any man-cookies and didn’t respond to the men who chose me.  I’m actually on a dating-diet this month (it’s going very well, thank you) and I’m learning that when there are no chairs I like (or my friends would approve of), I’d rather sit this one out.