I feel him eyeing me the moment I step into the room. Jacob Reynolds. I recognize him from his Meetup.com profile: the goatee, the ferrety features, the hooped earring. In his picture, it looked like he had slicked back his hair with mousse or maybe oil, but tonight it's pulled back into a long, blond, ponytail that swings just above a studded silver belt. The mustache from his picture is gone, as is the confident poise that placed his hand beneath his chin, turning his head just so towards the camera. He smoothens the side of his head with one trembling hand.
The lights in the Tupelo Music Hall have been dimmed to a soft, lavender glow. A crowd hovers by the open bar in the back. Small tealights sit on large, wooden tables next to mints, heart-shaped candy, and paper placards with numbers on them.
“Pre-registered?” asks the woman at the front table after I hang up my coat. Caramel-colored curls dangle around her face. They look well-groomed and artificial.
“Yes—Eva,” I say, and she finds my name with a neat, manicured nail.
“Great!” She crosses out my name and hands me a name tag. “Thank you so much for coming.” Her bronze concealer shimmers as she smiles at me. “Enjoy.”
A few people are seated at the tables but the rest swarm around the bar, sipping their drinks to look occupied. I see a lot of turtlenecks and graying hair. An older woman with cropped white hair stands next to me in a stiff black blazer with shoulder pads. On the opposite side of the room, another woman confers with a few friends. She's wearing gray business slacks.
I spent an hour trying on different outfits before the event. Jill, the organizer, had described the dress code as “casual.” I shot for conservative; mature. Matronly, yet attractive. Having just made the low age bracket of 21-35, I wanted to add a few years to my young features. I didn't want to look underage. I wanted to look date-able. And I didn't want the older women to hate me.
I went through countless articles of clothing in my closet—homely cardigans that flopped against my hips, black dress pants, wool skirts. Nothing looked right. What I intended as formal ended up school-girlish. When I tried on a sweater-like dress that I thought looked mature, I cringed when I saw myself in the mirror. Too form-fitting. I ended up wearing a blue skirt that stretched from my waist to an ambiguous area between my knees and ankles and a starchy white blouse.
I stuck out anyway. Even before I arrived at Tupelo, I felt conspicuous. A few men in the parking lot turned to stare at me, their eyes sliding up my legs. A woman in a dark fur coat watched me pass, her gray curls mingling with the stiff, black hairs. I felt silly and young. On the way there, I got lost. After asking for directions at a grocery store, I panicked and parked at the first place I found, a couple of cold and lonely blocks away from the actual venue. Out of vanity, I wore flats despite the blizzard the day before. My feet were soaked in slush and my tights were a cold, wet mesh.
White River Junction looked like a toy town at night—the brick seemed too bright, the lamp light too yellow. It was deserted. I padded down empty sidewalks alone. After a minute of walking, I was out of “downtown” and the dense streets gave way to an open sky and wooded lanes. Tucked into the back of a crooked parking lot was Tupelo. The ramp and ruddy wooden siding made it look half-barn, half-trailer. I opened the door and stepped inside.
* * *
The event is about to start. The large woman from the front desk is tapping a microphone in the middle of the open floor. She must be Jill.
“Hi everyone,” she simpers into the microphone, and the low buzzing by the bar falls to a hush. “Welcome to the Mix and Mingle Speed Dating Event. Please help yourself to drinks. They're serving a few of my specials tonight: 'Damn I look good' and 'Conversation Starter.'” A few titters. She smiles on cue.
“I became single about four years ago,” she says, sweeping her gaze around the room. “Then I tried dating again but it was just so hard to meet people. So I started this.” As she talks, another woman starts handing out white forms. Each form is split in half, one for women and the other for men. It's a chart with three columns: Name, Yes, and No. We're supposed to fill out our contact information on top and mark the corresponding boxes as we migrate around the room. The back of the paper is our “cheat sheet.” There are suggested ice breaker questions like: “Who was your hero when you were a child?” and “What makes you cry?”
“The ratio's a little off tonight,” Jill says and looks at the few men scattered by the bar. The room murmurs, and Jacob slips me a tight smile. She directs them towards the tables and tells the women to form a queue by the bar. We're supposed to rotate around the room. Most of the women edge back into the darkness, but I jump forward, my nerves singing in my chest.
“You have five minutes with each person.” Jill checks her watch. “Starting... now!”
The first open table is Jacob's. We shake hands and try to read each other's name tags. I had my own set of icebreaker questions in my head, but they evaporate the moment we make eye contact. We squirm in silence for a few nauseating seconds.
“Um...” I flip over Jill's form to see the cheat sheet. What's your favorite TV program? What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you?
“So what do you do?” I blurt out. “Like, are you a student, or still working, or what?”
“I'm a student at the River Valley Community College,” he answers after a pause. His eyes dart to the side. “I study creative writing.”
“Cool!” I exclaim, my mind grabbing at his response for a follow up question. “So... What are you writing?”
“A romance novel,” he says. “It's gonna be called 'Charlotte's Song.' It's based off life experiences. I'm working on a chapter now that's called 'Unnecessary Pain.'” His voice is nasally and high-pitched, the kind of voice I imagine a congested squirrel might have.
“I want to write another book when I'm done,” he continues, tracing a strand of hair over his ear. “Have you read The Catcher in the Rye?” When I say yes, he nods. “Well, it's gonna be like that, except instead of a Holden Caulfield-type character that's depressed, he's just gonna be angry.” He smirks to himself and leans forward. “Think the f-word instead of 'goddamn.'”
He wants to be the next J. D. Salinger, he tells me. I smile and nod as I take it all in. I study his goatee. It's substantial. It juts a good half-foot from his chin, stiff as though deadened with wax. It's completely straight and immobile even when he turns his head. It reminds me of a beaver's front tooth.
He's in the middle of giving me a synopsis of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher when Jill calls time. Jacob looks wistful.
“Well, it was great meeting you.” He fidgets as though he wants to shake my hand again.
We take up our forms as I stand to leave. Hiding mine, I check “No.”
In the confusion of switching partners, I get bumped back in line. As I wait, I start chatting with a woman behind me—“Betsy.” She has long, gold-red curls that are balanced on top of her head with bobby pins.
“Are you a Dartmouth student?” she asks.
Damn. I think. Cover blown.
“How'd you know?” I laugh and tug at my skirt.
“Well...You look young,” she says, almost sad. She inspects her outfit with embarrassment: a ribbed green turtleneck and bell-bottom jeans. Her powdered face is illuminated in the violet light.
“Is this your first time too?” I ask.
She laughs like the answer should be obvious. “Yeah...” She shrugs. “Thought it might be fun. I've been to Meetups before, but just for hiking.” I nod in solidarity (“Hiking? Right on.”) and mumble something about the natural beauty of New England. My conversational mojo is already sapped.
Jill calls time and sweat rushes to my palms.
“You'll be fine,” Betsy assures me, her green eyes flat. You look young.
I introduce myself next to an elderly man whose forehead extends back behind his ears. Mike Grove. I recognize him from Meetup.com as well. I surfed the website more than a week before the event, shopping for prospects. They were grim. There had been Jacob with his goatee, a Jason Trent who described himself as being on the “attractive edge of geekdom," and then men in their forties and over. Under the question “What age range are you interested in?” Mike wrote: “ 35-60 approx” but “True Age is determined by your Personality, Spirit, Soul, and Mindset/Attitude.”
“I'm Eva,” I say as we shake hands.
“What?” Mike strains forward, my hand still caught in his. “What's your name?”
“Eva,” I say, shouting over the background music. Were they playing Whitney Houston?
“Sorry, I'm legally deaf,” he says, releasing me as he points to his ear. “That's why I have Gracie.” A Rottweiler whines from under the table and bumps my foot with her nose. I take my time, petting her and mooning over how cute she is.
“So what are you—undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate...?” he asks once I surface. To be polite, I decide to lie.
“Yeah, I'm a grad student at Dartmouth. I'm studying computer science.” I cross my fingers in my mind, hoping that he doesn't know anything about computers. I'm lucky. He doesn't quiz me. But instead, he rattles off a list of degrees, maybe to impress me or maybe to assure me that he's academically “on par."
“I just got a fine arts degree from Mount Holyoke,” Mike says after listing both undergraduate and graduate degrees. He pats the bulk of the Nikon sitting on top of the table. He just got into photography, he says. I almost tell him that my dad recently picked up photography as well, but decide against it.
Mike used to be a law enforcement officer, which explains his barrel-shaped chest and thick shoulders. He's retired now and spends his time with the Quechee Camera Club (“Over a hundred members!”). When I tell him that I live in Texas, he does a terrible rendition of a southern accent: “Ah'm a Texas ranger. Ah'm gonna go out to my car and get mah Texas ranger hat.”
I'm not sure if he considers me as a potential match or if these five minutes are just an opportunity for him to flirt with someone two generations younger than him. In any case, I can't take him seriously. Especially at the end of our five-minute session when he suddenly puts on a pair of enormous glasses that cover half his cheeks. They remind me of photos of my parents from the 90's. After my session with Mike, Jill decides to split the group in two: above forty and under forty. Later, on Meetup.com, Mike will protest this decision, stating that we should have had an “open age group setting.”
I meet a man from the beef industry next—Justin. He saves male calves from dairy farms, who are normally destined to die outside on wood chip piles or picked up by veal trucks that prowl the rural back roads of Vermont. He raises them for two years before sending them to the slaughterhouse. He's thirty and unlike the other men I've talked to, he isn't from around here: “I've been all over the world and now I just want to settle down. Got a piece of land for me and my animals.”
“Sounds like paradise,” I tell him. He smiles and I can see that his teeth are spaced out evenly in his mouth, like rows of porcelain beads. By the time we finish discussing cows, our time is up.
I take a break. I don't order any of Jill's special mixes but I hang around by the bar. There's a girl in an orange blouse lingering there as well. Second to me, she looks like the youngest person in the room.
“I'm visiting from Middlebury,” she confesses. “One of my friends dragged me here.” She jerks her thumb towards the back corner. “I'm actually about to date someone at school so this is all...” She doesn't finish her sentence but waves her glass to gesture at the whole room. A bubble-gum pink liquid sloshes around inside.
“Anyway, are you here with anyone?” she asks.
“Uh... nope. My friend actually bailed on me so...”
“So you're here alone.” The girl widens her eyes. “I'm impressed.”
“Sorry, I didn't catch your name?” I peek at her name tag.
“Oh.” She looks down and plucks at it. “It says 'Pia' but that's not my real name.”
We exchange experiences. “I'm just wingin' it,” she says. “I told my mom I was going speed dating in White River, and she told me to find a sugar daddy.” I tell her about Jacob and describe his goatee and gnome-like stature—he was five feet tall—in ruthless detail. She goes into hysterics and I find myself being cruel on purpose just to make her like me. We shudder at the old men. We make smug comments about the women in the room. We gloat in our youth, sure that every man we've talked to has marked “Yes.”
I ask Pia if she recommends anyone.
“Hmm. Let me see.” She raises herself to the ball of her feet to look around the room. “He's worth talking to,” she says pointing to a thirty-something year old man with a doughy face. “And him,” she finishes, her finger landing on a younger man in the back. I feel like we're at a fish market.
Like almost everyone in the room, Pia is from the Upper Valley. When she hears that I'm a Dartmouth student—I lie and say that I'm a senior, just like her—she lights up.
“I grew up in Hanover!” She beams. “But I'm tired of it, tired of Middlebury. I wanna get out of these small towns.”
And she is. She's going to graduate school in the UK, she says. Finally.
I take Pia's suggestion and my last date is with the young man in the back. By now, I've worked out all my nerves. And now, “Vido”—this last suitor—and I have been at Jill's mixer long enough to bond over it. Our interactions feel organic. We could be two young people flirting at an office party.
“I'm a farmer,” Vido says. After “Pia”, I somewhat doubt the authenticity of his name but guess that he's Italian. In the dim candle light, his hair is ink-black and his eyes are blue. His button-down has tears in the armpit and side. It's a light, cornflower blue; his favorite shirt. “It brings out the color in my eyes,” he jokes. He briefly mentions Green Mountain College as his alma mater (“A great place to get drugs”) and asks me to sit for another round when Jill calls time.
“I think I'm running out of women in our age group anyway,” he says with a sly grin.
I smile, charmed. “Sure.”
At the end of our second session, I finally leave. He whips out our white form and gives me a “Yes”, telling me so as he does it. In a moment of weakness, I give him a “Yes” too, a lonely “X” after a long stretch of “No”s. I'm not looking for anything but I do it anyway. He needs to be rewarded in some way, I think. Needs positive feedback for being the most charismatic and normal male in the room. If Vermont wasn't so romantically desolate, I'm sure he would've been somewhere else on this Saturday night.
Jill officially ends the Speed-Dating Mixer soon after Vido and I separate. A sizeable group from the “Over 40” section have pushed their tables together and are in deep discussion. Everyone else has gathered by the bar at this point; quite a few are paired up with someone else.
Jill announces an unofficial post-mixer mixer at the bar next door. I loiter in the back as I debate whether or not to go. Part of me is relieved that the whole thing is over and wants to flee before I have to mingle with anyone else. But part of me is tempted. After all, Vido and I shared a look before he left for the bar and I feel like he's one match I can count on having. The desire itself embarrasses me. I realize that I'm not here just to observe or be entertained. Not entirely, at least. Like everyone else in the room, I came stubbornly hopeful for a pleasant surprise—a "true match."
My phone buzzes. A text from my roommate asking if everything's okay. I tell her yes, and that I'll be back on campus soon. As I reply to her text, Jacob makes a beeline for me. I pretend to keep texting to discourage him, but after he hovers for a minute, I let him make his move.
“Hi.” He flashes me a smile.
“How'd it go?” I ask.
Jacob shrugs, his eyes fixed on me. “It was okay. I guess my interests are kind of boring—you know, writing and all that.” He continues to stare at me and I give him the answer he's looking for.
“It's not boring,” I reassure him. “I have to go though. It was nice meeting you.”
He nods his head, his goatee punching the air. “I hope I hear from you.”
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.