Dating Service Hell

Things were quiet on the dating front. All I did was eat, sleep and work. My life was out of balance. I liked my job as a magazine editor, but some of my closest friends were getting engaged and my singles contingency was disintegrating. It got so bad that even my mom and older (married) sister noticed my homebody habits. They pointed out that at 29 I wasn't "getting any younger" and offered me a "present." And what a present it was -- a six-month membership to It's Just Lunch, a dating service that caters to "busy professionals." For $750 I would be set up on eight dates with men carefully screened for my compatibility.

"Thanks," I said, protesting their offer, "but really, it's not like I don't meet men I'm interested in." Even though lately it was a lot like I wasn't meeting men I was interested in.

"It couldn't hurt to give it a try," said my mother, sympathetically, but in that lunch-won't-kill-you-way many mothers have -- especially Jewish mothers.

"And you’ll get to meet guys you wouldn’t otherwise meet," said my sister, a fast talker with a knack for winning any argument.

She did have a point. There were 15 people at my office -- all women -- and the prospects at my gym weren’t much better. I realized it could be a sort of dating adventure so I finally succumbed and started leafing through the service's brochure.

"It's time to take a professional look at your personal life. You have nothing to lose ... except your single life."

Feeling more like I was on my way to a dissection of my personal life than to something that was going to be even remotely pleasant, I headed to IJL's office in Manhattan for my 50-minute session with one of their counselors, more or less a dating shrink.

My shrink, Marianne, asked me a series of questions and took detailed notes about what I was looking for.

I told her I had dated tall, dark, short, bald, fit, fat and everything in between and realized that specific looks weren’t an issue, it was the whole package. He doesn't have to have washboard abs, I told her, but not someone whose biggest workout is picking up the phone to order a pizza. Funny --yes. Intelligent -- of course (though genius status is not required). One other thing, no mustaches or beards, please.

After a few minutes, the two of us were chatting like old friends. Marianne then handed me a lengthy questionnaire about my education, background and interests. The questionnaire also asked about racial and ethnic preferences. I marked "Jewish only." My mother might as well get her money's worth, after all.

Marianne told me I had reasonable expectations and assured me she would set me up with someone who she would like to have as her boyfriend. Then she explained the next step. The IJL staff would throw my stats into their database and come up with some prospects. A coordinator would call, give me information on my potential match and, if I agreed, arrange a time and place for us to meet. Upon arrival, there would be a reservation in both of our first names, so as to avoid the embarrassing "Are you so-and-so?" process of looking for a stranger at a crowded bar. All I had to do was show up and make small talk. This I could do.

I left, feeling better than I had when I arrived. Marianne and I were clearly on the same wavelength and I trusted she wouldn't force me to endure a noontime meal with a complete dud.

Match #1: Adam

We met at an Upper East Side Italian restaurant. He was tall and dark, with a full head of hair -- so far Marianne was holding up her end of the bargain. He had some sort of Wall Street job (though my liberal arts background makes me completely incapable of remembering exactly what it was). The bottom line was he worked insane hours and seemed to be one of those busy professionals IJL catered to.

Adam insisted we sit in the outdoor garden even though it was 95 degrees and extremely humid. We ordered drinks and started talking, until Adam pulled out his beeper (something he continued to do every 15 minutes), mumbled a few words about work and put it away. Thankfully, by the time the food arrived we'd discovered we grew up in adjacent towns and started playing the name game. Finally the conversation was flowing.

"Remember Mrs. Smith, the biology teacher with the wacky bifocals who used to scream at you if you so much as turned your head 45 degrees to the right?" he asked.

I did, and was about to counter with a story of Mr. Kaplan who used to answer the classroom phone by saying, "Bronx Zoo," when something caused me to stop mid-sentence.

Adam had the end of his fork in his ear. He was rotating it in there, like a Q-tip. I was speechless, but I attempted to put this out of my mind and we finished the meal without further incident.

"If you had a good time, extend your business card. Be aggressive and confident."

As we stood outside on the curb, he extended his card. Reluctantly, I handed over mine, hoping the fork-in-the-ear move was just a mistake.

On our second date, Adam and I went out for sushi and he used his chopsticks to scratch his nose.

When I told Marianne what happened, she was equally as appalled with Utensil-Scratching Guy as I was. Don't worry, she assured me. She'd have another match for me in no time.

Match #2: Greg

Greg worked for a TV news program, which meant at least he and I had an interest in journalism in common. We met at a Flatiron bistro. As we looked at the menu, he mentioned he was a vegetarian and into biking.

"I like thin, Jewish women," he said, "and this service keeps setting me up with these fat women who aren't even Jewish."

I was appalled, but wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, since it was clear that everyone told little white lies on their IJL questionnaires. Maybe he really had been duped, I figured, so I cut him some slack.

"That woman! Do you see her?" Greg yelled suddenly, pointing to a woman walking down the street. "My last date -- her ass was twice that size!"

I was now horrified, but I was also starving. I ordered a hamburger, just to have a little fun with him, devoured it and since it was really "just lunch" I conveniently was able to tell the Obnoxious Vegetarian that I had to get back to the office.

"If neither party wants to exchange phone numbers, then shake hands and say, 'It was a pleasure meeting you.' Then call us ... and we'll move on to your next date."

As soon as I returned to my office that's what I did. Only when I got through to IJL's office, I found out Marianne was no longer with the company. She was a big reason I signed on the bottom line in the first place; now that she was gone I was even more worried about the type of set ups I'd end up with. I put my membership on hold.

But eight months later, still single, I decided to give the service another chance. "OK, gimme another one," I told my new counselor, Lisa, with the same attitude one might use when bellying up to the bar already drunk.

Match #3: Richard

On paper, Richard seemed more well-rounded than an applicant to and Ivy League college: 36 years old, an art collector, an international beer drinker and a world traveler who's into herbal remedies.

In person, he was a slight, bearded, nervous partner at a big law firm who wanted to "enjoy life more." Maybe he scuba dives and spends hours discussing medieval art. Hell, he may even like Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain, but all he seemed interested in talking about was work. His work.

"I just finished working on a motion for summary judgment," he said.

And then: "There's a big document review coming up in St. Louis."

"Yeah," he added, without prompting, "they never taught us how to file briefs in law school."

Dull doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. I had flashbacks to my days as a legal assistant. I was about to slip into a coma. Luckily, before I passed out, I devised a work-related "appointment" and politely excuse myself.

But before I could get to the door he asked for my card.

"Why don't you give me your card?" I said, impressed with my quick thinking and knowing exactly what I'd do with said card once I left the restaurant. He obliged and pointed his index finger at me, making a little clicking noise to simulate shooting a gun.

"Catch ya later," he said, and winked.

I sprinted to the train station. Back at the office I called Lisa and started ranting. "Did anyone there know what I was looking for?" "How were they picking these people for me? I demanded a partial refund, but Lisa told me all she could do was give me "free" dates. At that point, the idea of more dates was like the smell of food when you have stomach flu. I declined.

My It's Just Lunch membership is on hold for a second time. In January I received a letter informing me that there were lots of new potential matches. Maybe one day I'll get up the nerve, or get over the nausea, and give the service another chance.

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