It's 7 p.m., and I'm standing near the hostess at Stir Crazy in Legacy Village, checking my cell for text messages. This takes little time, as I have no messages. The hostess, a teenager with oversized buttons pinned to her T-shirt, is busy adding names to the waiting list. She asks for the third time if my date is on his way.
For the third time I say, "Yes, of course my date is on his way," though I don't know for certain. The only thing I do know is that his name is Sam -- or is it Josh? Shit! He's 36 years old, 5 foot 11, with brown hair and blue eyes.
At 7:15, a man vaguely fitting the description appears. His hair -- or rather the little that's left -- is indeed brown. He looks older than 36, and his refrigerator-white skin seems as if it's spent years inside a windowless office. His hands are stuffed deep in his ski jacket. He looks as nervous as I feel.
"Becky?" he says.
"Josh?" I ask.
"No," he says. "Sam."
"Oops." I mumble an apology, muttering something about my nonexistent brother named Josh.
As we're whisked to our table, Sam unveils a Ziploc bag filled with tiny red capsules and pops them like Tic Tacs.
"Is everything OK?" I ask tentatively.
"I'm fine," he says. There's an uncomfortable pause. "I'm just a little bit worried that I might be catching something. I need to go see my doctor."
Great. An unattractive man who's likely an avian-flu carrier. I run to the bathroom and drench my hands in antibacterial soap. My eyes stray to the mirror. Well, at least my hair looks good.
When I get back, Sam starts complaining about all the awful dates he's been on in Cleveland. How there are no good-looking single women left in the state. How he might have to move to New York to find someone even slightly attractive. "You know?" he asks.
I grit my teeth and look at my faux Cartier watch.
My matchmaker is, like, so fired.
Since I moved to Cleveland, my boss has been concerned about my love life -- or lack thereof. He has five kids and believes I'll never be content until I find a nice strapping male -- preferably a Swede who owns an ice-fishing shack -- to have lots of babies with.
Still, he's sympathetic to my plight. "You know, Becky," he said to me one day, "I really feel for you. It's much harder to find a good-looking man than a good-looking woman. Men are such ugly-looking creatures. If I were a woman, I think I'd have to be a lesbian."
He left me to ponder these enlightening words as he went for a smoke.
The truth is, I'm extraordinarily picky. I go on a lot of first dates, but find many reasons to forgo second ones.
There was the guy who kept mixing up the spelling of "their" and "there" in his e-mails. As a former fifth-grade spelling-bee champion who still has the ribbons displayed over her desk, I decided we would never match.
There was the guy with the bushy, mammalian eyebrows. They twitched and danced when he talked. I stopped returning his calls. My hairstylist totally understood.
There was the guy who sent me half a dozen roses after a date. Too . . . um . . . okay, so I was clearly searching here for a reason to avoid him. But the roses were pink.
Of course, I'm not perfect. I try and fail to lose the same five pounds, which make my thighs look like Coast Guard-approved flotation devices. My apartment looks like it's inhabited by a drunken platoon from the Portuguese army. I speak fluent Valley Girl. No one understands a word I say. They just nod and smile.
Being narcissistic, I'm attracted to guys who are, well, like me. Since there aren't very many fast-talking 5-foot-2 Valley Guys who enjoy chocolate martinis and the word "like," this doesn't, like, work very well. My longest relationship was with my Pilates instructor, whom I saw three times a week at Bally's. But in October, she up and left me, saying that she needed to find a "real job" and get "closer to her family." Clearly, she was missing the main point: me. What about my needs? My wants? My abs?
As my quarter-life crisis approached, I decided to get some assistance. Since my personal matchmaker (i.e., my mother) lives in New Jersey, and all her potential choices tend to be guys I hated in high school, I decided to try some local dating services.
They say money can't buy love. But when it's on the company tab, it can't hurt to try.
When I first told people of my quest, everyone -- and by that I mean my sister, my best friend, Stacy, and USA Today -- advised me to sign up for eHarmony.com. The site, founded by this creepy guy named Dr. Neil Clark Warren, uses a complex mathematical formula based on scientific and psychological research. Instead of traditional dating sites, where you arrange dates yourself, eHarmony tells you who it believes to be your best match. Warren boasts that his service leads to more marriages than any other online outlet, which is why he charges $59.95 for a one-month membership.
Before I sign up, Stacy warns me to take eHarmony's 463-question relationship survey seriously. My future husband, she says, is predicated on how truthfully I answer questions like "Based on a scale of 1-7, how self-aware do you consider yourself?"
I pour myself a cup of metabolism-raising green tea, curl up on my couch, and dive into the questionnaire. The self-aware question involves much more thinking than I prefer. I spend 15 minutes debating how self-aware I am, before finally concluding that since I've spent 15 minutes wondering about this, I'm probably not very self-aware. I rank myself a 4.
It takes me an hour and 20 minutes to get through the test.
When I'm done, the site asks whether I'm ready for my matches. Um, yeah.
I try to visually record the details of this moment, so I can recall them later for our children when they ask how I met Dad. I wait for my future husband's profile to appear.
Two minutes later, I'm still waiting.
Finally, a message appears on my computer screen: I'm sorry, you have no matches.
I blink: What? How is this possible? I'm cute, I'm nice to my parents, I have good hair.
I calm myself, using the deep, cathartic Ujjayi breathing methods I learned in yoga class. Perhaps my radius was just too small. Maybe I need to look outside Cleveland Heights.
Exhaling, I expand my preference location to the entire state, then click once more on the icon leading me to destiny.
I still have no matches. What?!
Desperate now, I expand my search to the entire U.S.
How is this possible?
For answers, I turn to Dr. Warren. Unfortunately, he won't return my phone calls or e-mails (possibly because I titled them "You self-esteem-ruining bastard"). So I turn to eHarmony's Frequently Asked Questions section. Apparently, "Why do I not have a single match in the entire United States of America?" is a popular question.
eHarmony has lots of reasons for my singleness. Unfortunately, none of them is very comforting.
I'm told that "eHarmony was not designed to be a fast process" and that "at eHarmony we expect it may take as long as a year to be matched with a well-suited relationship."
If I'm not reassured by the last two answers, eHarmony also lets me know that "the lack of matches isn't about you."
This might be comforting if there were another person I could blame this on, but since the 463-question survey was all about me, I'm not sure who else to blame.
My friend Lisa alerts me to a speed-dating event at the Fox & Hound in Mayfield Heights. In the course of an hour or so, you talk with 10 different guys for eight minutes each.
It's like 10 mini-dates crammed into one night, she says. Think of the opportunities. Think of the men!
I fantasize about ER-type doctors with five o'clock shadows and strong jaws, who are funny and hot, but just haven't found that right woman (i.e., me).
But before the event, she bails to see a play.
"They were $10 tickets," she says. "How could I refuse?"
So my friend Jared agrees to go -- on the condition that we get very drunk beforehand, his standing condition for attending any public event.
At the Fox & Hound, we make a beeline for the bar. After downing two sugar-free Red Bulls and vodka -- all the buzz with half the calories! -- we pay our $35 entrance fee, get our name tags, and make our way to the back room.
We introduce ourselves to the other singles, most of whom are well dressed and relatively good-looking, with full sets of teeth and well-paying jobs. I eye my competition and assure myself that I'm much cuter.
I'm wearing Seven jeans that cost me a paycheck and took three hours to zip, but make my ass look positively J-Lo-esque; ridiculously expensive lip gloss that makes my lips look "hot and sultry," as an M.A.C. makeup artist assures me; and a designer-knock-off turtleneck from TJ Maxx.
I'm confident. I'm desirable. I'm . . .
Then I see her: a petite, curvaceous beauty in hip-hugging jeans. She's got a pert Jennifer Garner nose, perfectly manicured brows, and great aerodynamically straight brown hair. Could she be cuter than me? I glance at her name tag: Becky 312.
Mine reads Becky 313.
I'm convinced that people are mixing us up. I spend the first minute of all my dates writing my name and number out slowly and carefully --Beck-y three-thir-teen.
Later, someone tells me that I sounded like a foreigner learning how to count in English.
The first person I talk to is a doctor who just moved here from India. American customs are still foreign to him. One of his first questions: How much money do you make?
I meet a med student who's easy to talk to, but doesn't drink. After downing my third Red Bull and vodka, I decide that this is a deal-breaker.
There's also a cute Italian consultant with an engaging smile. But he tells me he's been to three of these events. I decide he's desperate.
During the break, I run into a shy, affable guy named Matt.
Matt's cute in an outdoorsy, Lands' End sort of way, with a grizzly beard, big callused hands, and a wide smile. I feel my pulse quicken, but blame it on the Red Bull.
Talking with Matt is easy. He's intelligent, without sounding show-offy. He's a tax consultant, but insists he's ambivalent about math. He's 29, an Illinois native, and a Case grad. He's also GD -- geographically desirable. He lives less than a mile from my apartment.
At the end of the night, Matt seeks me out to say goodbye. His drink on the rocks contains only rocks, but he seems hesitant to leave. I think he wants to ask for my phone number, but that's totally against the 8minuteDating rules. Instead, he sticks his hands in his pockets, says he really enjoyed meeting me, and leaves.
On the way back, Jared and I assure each other that we were the hottest people there. Everyone needs honest friends like that.
The next day I write Matt down as a match, Matt writes me down as a match, and 8minuteDating writes each of us to let us know we have a connection.
I bask in the glow of my wantedness.
We meet at La Cave du Vin, a cozy wine bar on Coventry. Matt instantly wins my affection by professing his love for overly sweet beverages. He tells the waiter he wants the wine that tastes the least like wine. I believe I've met my soul mate.
We talk for three hours about life, love, and the fact that my supercute suede boots will now be permanently ruined by the snowstorm raging outside. He empathizes. I worry: Is he gay?
Then he makes a random comment about bar mitzvahs. My ears perk up. He's Jewish yet!
Houston, we have liftoff.
My newly engaged friend Meredith insists that the days of match.com are so over and that Yahoo! Personals are the future. Her friend met five dates online, and they were all great!
If they were all so great, I wonder fleetingly, why'd she need five of them? But I decide to trust her.
One problem: Going online means writing about yourself, which I should enjoy, being a narcissist and all. But translating vanity is much harder than you think. I thought. Does mentioning how great my hair is make me sound stuck-up? Is being a Pilates addict a good thing or a bad thing? How many c's are in cappuccino?
So I ask my friend Joe to write my profile. Joe is funny. Joe is witty. His profile elicits 90 responses. (Joe is also single, ladies. Call Joe at 216-802-7210.)
After paying my $24.95 fee, I eagerly click on the first response.
"I love your profile," writes Steve.
"You're so funny," writes Mike.
An unanticipated problem arises. These people aren't attracted to me; they're attracted to Joe.
"You're so witty," writes Jon, an engaging engineer from Medina. "How long did it take you to write your profile?"
Biting my M.A.C.-chintz-covered lips, I ponder how to respond. Do I a) confess, and risk rejection for being exposed as the unfunny person I am, or b) take the slimy way out?
"It took me no time at all to write," I type in my next e-mail, which is slimy, yet technically true.
Jon and I exchange e-mails for a week, confessing everything about our lives. I learn about his ex-fiancée and his affection for no-interest financing. I tell him that I once got kicked out of a high school soccer game because my nails were too long -- which was actually good, because I was late for my manicurist appointment.
All this communicating is strictly against internet-dating etiquette. You're supposed to e-mail twice, then agree to meet for drinks, my friends lecture.
But I don't care. How could I not like a guy who, at the end of his profile, asks everyone to write back with feedback, since he's "trying to narrow down the reasons why I am single (mainly so I have an answer for my mom/sisters/friends when they ask)"? We agree to meet for dinner in Tremont.
I try on six different outfits, only to decide I hate them all. Tomorrow, I'm going to lose those five pounds, I vow. Then I down half a pint of Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt to soothe my nerves.
I arrive at Parallax at 7:25, finding no one matching Jon's online picture. I hadn't realized there were so many well-dressed single men in Cleveland. As each comes in, I glance up nervously. At 7:31, I start reliving all the horror stories my ever-supportive friends told me about meeting online crushes.
One was old. Another was fat. A third was married. And one -- gasp! -- even made them pay for dinner.
I suddenly panic. He's going to be ugly, isn't he? I can get around that, can't I? I convince myself that I'm not as shallow as I am.
At 7:33, Jon shows up, apologizing for being late. He looks just like his picture: handsome in a 1950s sort of way, with gelled black hair swept into a wave, twinkling hazel eyes, and puffy cheeks that he calls a family curse but that soften the angles of his face. He's also 6 foot 4. My head reaches his chest.
I start to worry about whether my insurance will cover neck strains. I decide to call HR tomorrow.
Jon smiles down at me.
"You know, you're much prettier than your picture," he says.
"Thanks," I say, already visualizing how I'm going to replace my current photo with a much cuter one.
There's a 40-minute wait for dinner, so we go to Lolita for pre-dinner drinks. "Do you know how to get there?" Jon asks.
I pull Mapquest directions from my suede Ralph Lauren factory-outlet purse. "Lolita is approximately 0.21 miles from Parallax," I say, then walk confidently in the wrong direction.
At 8 p.m., we walk to dinner and order sushi and wine.
Conversation flows easily. We discover that we're both Big Ten graduates, huge Steelers fans, and exercise fanatics. He forgives me for lying about my profile. He has excellent teeth.
Midway through dinner, something starts to buzz. It's my, um, head. I'm drunk.
Shit. Maybe he won't notice?
"Becky, are you OK?" Jon asks. "You look a little drunk."
"I'm fine," I lie, thinking about which one of my friends I'll call to pick me up this time. Jon drives me to Cleveland Heights, then turns around and drives 40 minutes to Medina.
The next day, he calls to thank me for the date and to tell me he looked up my articles online.
"Oh, which ones did you read?" I ask innocently, but too eager to hide my vanity.
Jon pauses for a second.
"All of them," he says.
But I also have a problem. There are two boys I'm interested in. Most people wouldn't consider this a "problem." But I can't juggle multiple schedules. In fact, I can't juggle at all.
Dating two guys isn't working, I tell my mother. Tonight, I have another date with Matt. I'm thinking of a series of Elimidate challenges that will get rid of one. Maybe some kind of shirtless competition? Perhaps a poetry slam? But an hour before we're supposed to leave, I get sick.
Maybe this is a good thing, I think, holding my stomach. Maybe he won't believe that I'm really sick and he'll stop talking to me, and I won't have to make a decision.
"Or maybe," my friend Stacy suggests, "you're not really sick. Maybe this is a psychosomatic reaction to your struggle."
I ponder this for a second before I throw up all over her Jimmy Choos.
I call Matt and cancel our date, pleading illness. Matt doesn't sound pleased -- or convinced.
Later that night, Jon calls, and we talk for an hour while I lie on the couch sipping diet ginger ale. Maybe the decision's been made. Perhaps fate's intervened.
That Friday, Matt shows up at a bar I'm at, orders an overly sweet drink, and apologizes for seeming like an ass on the phone. Damn it! I forgot how good-looking he was.
He leaves, and I'm supposed to arrange our next date.
I totally feel like Trista from The Bachelorette.
Maybe the problem is that I don't like these two guys enough, I decide in yoga class while standing in the tree pose. Maybe there's someone out there who's 10 times cuter than either of them. Maybe dating is just like exercising: To get the best results, you have to mix up your workouts.
I ask my boss to arrange a date with one of the nice West Side Catholic boys he's always bragging up.
He consults his vast database of available men -- i.e., his hockey team -- and finds Mark, a 28-year-old owner of a security-door company. My boss tells me not to take him to any "fruity" places or restaurants with one-syllable names. I should also shut up about being a vegetarian. Midwestern men don't like that, he tells me.
But three days before the scheduled meeting, Mark cancels.
"Um, sorry," he says nervously. "I'm kind of seeing this girl, and I don't think she'd be happy if I went out with someone else right now."
I've never been rejected before a first date. It's an exciting change of pace.
No problem, says my boss. There are tons of nice, available Irish men on his hockey team. He replaces Mark with a 30-year-old guy named Mike who works for the cable company. We end up at the Sunset Lounge, a new upscale bar on West Ninth, where they serve cucumber with their water.
Mike is nice and polite and a perfect match . . . for my boss. Though there is a seven-page drink menu, he orders a Heineken -- one of the few beers on the menu.
"You can never go wrong with Heineken," he says. How can one argue with that?
Mike is nice, but he's also shy. Trying to pry info from him makes me feel like a detective. Age! Date of birth! High school!
He does reveal that he loves television so much, he became a cable rep.
At the end of the date, Mike picks up the tab, then walks me to my car. There's a reason my boss calls him a "good Catholic boy."
I hug Mike and tell him I'll try to make it to one of their hockey games. I ask him for dirt on my boss. He can't think of anything. Bastard.
On the way back home, I call Jon, whom I've been thinking about more and more lately. We talk about our days and the fact that they have no fat-free salad dressing at work.
A few weeks later, he goes on vacation to Miami. He finds a sports bar so we can commiserate over the phone about my alma mater, Northwestern, and its impending loss in the Sun Bowl.
My friends think he's genuine and sweet. Joe thinks he has good taste, but that's just because Jon complimented Joe on his writing. When I go out with Jon on a date to the V Lounge, we run into my cousin. Jon survives a flame-broiled grilling.
This is a guy I could bring home for Seders, I think.
I end things with Matt. It's not you, I say. I doubt that he believes the line. No one ever does. So why does everyone keep using it?
After New Year's, I pick Jon up at the airport. In the baggage terminal, he hands me a bouquet of ugly fake flowers. "I'm sorry," he says, "I searched all over the airport and couldn't find any real ones."
How sweet, I think.
A month later, Jon and I are still dating. I continue to worry about losing five pounds. He continues to tell me I look very thin. Clearly, he's a liar -- a very attractive liar.
I recently received an e-mail from eHarmony. The site has finally found me a "highly compatible" match. His name's Jason.
"We believe you two will have a lot to talk about and may even find true love together," the site administrator writes.
I scroll down to the bottom of the e-mail. My one compatible match lives in Honolulu.