The Dating Game
Firouzeh Afsharnia

Born and raised in Iran, I never really related to the quintessential American ritual called "Dating"—a curious phenomenon commanding a sprawling industry of books, articles, and self-help recipes, not to mention the endless army of therapy professionals, of spiritual and astral counseling gurus ready to channel insight on the subject and to decipher the inner workings of that mysterious topic called the male species.

Look, I'd say, the term "Dating" doesn't even exist in any other language. A relationship is just the organic evolution of a natural friendship. "Dating" is an American invention for the quick fix, out-of-the-package, fast-food culture wanting instant results and thinking that a concrete goal and following 12 steps will get you there.

In fact, in spite of one marriage and several long-term relationships, I made it through the better part of my life relatively "date-free"—unless you want to count the long-haired musician who looked like a golden retriever and who, on our first date, arrived at the restaurant one hour late and said he was sorry but that he had also forgotten his wallet. Fine, I said. I paid. Then I took off my clothes for him.

That liaison crashed and burned in no time when it was clear we had nothing in common except for the attraction of opposites: He, the tall, blond, and handsome specimen from the land of the Nordic gods; I, the short and furry creature from the cradle of, well––short and hairy people.

The experience left me so empty that I promptly threw myself into the arms of my best friend, a chain-smoking, neurotic Frenchman with an overactive imagination and an endless appetite for existential banter that routinely dragged on into the wee hours of the morning. We got married and mind-wrestled for a good nine years before I finally came up for air.

That was a while ago. Since then, I have only managed two short-lived relationships. So when two of my friends found themselves in happy relationships on dating sites, I signed up!

I carefully selected a picture that showed off what I hoped was an affable smile for lack of one with low-cut cleavage. I added one with an African child, another with a T-shirt painted with the African continent, and yet a third with African clothes. OK, so I love traveling! That means if you don't own a passport, don't contact me.

I spent a good deal of time crafting a profile. Something thoughtful, meaningful, authentic, profound, and "completely ridiculous if you want a guy to read it," my girlfriends were quick to point out. "What's with this 'central motif of my life' nonsense? Just reading it gives one a headache. Stick to light and lively. Something like: I'm a happy person who loves to socialize, meet friends, and travel. Guys want to know exactly what you are looking for. Is it sex or marriage? And if it is the latter, do they need to worry about a ticking clock?"

Days went by and not a bite. The home page showed hundreds of views, but no one was contacting me. Unless you count the 300-pound Samoan who winked, and the 26-year-old, full body tattooed, unemployed ex-gang member looking for a sugar mommy. Oh yes, there was that one compatriot of mine, a fluffy haired pip-squeak dressed in an oversized suit with the huge shoulder pads, code named Varzeshkar123—that's Persian for Athlete123. Yeah! On Munchkinland. Maybe. I promptly edited my profile to exclude anyone from my neck of the woods.

After 1,389 views and no prospects, I mustered up enough courage and sent out a few emails of my own. Still nothing. I seemed to be as uninteresting to most as they were to me.

Then, suddenly, a hit. He seemed promising—Mr. One-foot-firmly-in-business-one-foot-in-the-arts guy. An avid traveler, he said. Cute picture! Fluent in Francais and Italiano. Perfecto! To keep with the motif, I suggested a French bar on Venice Beach.

My first thought when we met: Is that just bad bridgework or are those false teeth? And that profile picture? From the '90s no doubt! So…a glassware salesman; really? Fascinating… and two whole trips to Italy sent as a buyer by your firm? How nice for you. Yes, yes, the Coliseum is amazing. Very big. And very round. As for the fluent French: He ordered some olives. Except that he confused them with olive oil, then argued with me when I pointed it out. I said, "Fine. I'll let you and the waiter fight it out."

Clearly, it was time for drastic measures. I signed up for speed dating.

Dressing up for the event was a mission unto itself. Something casual, smart, yet comfortable. Skirt? Too awkward. Smells of desperation. Heels? Too conspicuous. In flats I am just short enough to blend in. Besides, what if I suddenly capsized as I shimmied across the room, drink in hand? I have been known to be a bit of a klutz when undergoing an anxiety attack. Open neckline? God no. No cleavage. What am I, a piece of meat? Clothes say a lot about a person. The subtext should read: smart, sexy, but it's the personality, stupid! Right, like I was going to lure the caveman out with my view on the Middle East conflict!

By the time I was dressed, half my closet was on the bed until I finally picked what I thought looked like something I just happened to throw together: tight black pants, ankle boots, little black top, and a long silver chain that got knotted in my curls and jangled every time I moved. It could be a good thing. Attention. Or was it a bad thing? Reminiscent of cattle? What was it I said about a piece of meat? Anyway, it was too late to change, and I was already in my car halfway downtown.

Should I have taken a girlfriend? No. Be brave.

The event was at a bar in a hotel. Dim lights, cordoned off room, just in case an un-paying patron would think of waltzing in and crashing the party to run off with one of the over-forty damsels in heat.

"Table number 14." A thirty-something pretty girl checked me in as if I needed to be reminded of the infinite pool of younger, and sexier, single women out here in Los Angeles. Thanks Match!

I surfed the room quickly. The crowd was very…um…early '80s suburban Orange County. Suburban in that timeless limbo fashion of flared out hairdos, flower topped patent leather peep toes, and ice cream-colored shirts sporting a comatose baby alligator that is supposed to match with tasseled loafers, except that Orange County didn't get the memo. Thirty middle-aged hopefuls with pudgy midriffs sat ho-hum in a halfhearted slouch, probably accountants, dentists; assorted desk-slash-office types.

A guy with red pants and spiky hair piqued my interest, but I quickly ruled him out after his opening line: "So…how do you make your money?" I glared at him and said it wasn't any of his business. He stared back for a moment, then we waited in hostile silence until a very small man took his spot. He was a tiny little thing, dressed in what I am confident were clothes he had borrowed from several people. Blazer two sizes too big, mismatched dress pants, nondescript $10 polyester tie, and a golf cap, which told me two things: a.) too cheap; b.) too bald!

A chunky, cylindrical figure in a buttoned-up, faded plaid shirt moved about a few tables down. I noticed him because he maintained a surly scowl under a massive tuft of gray hair. He let the women do all the work as he went table to table, impassive and silent, looking directly ahead. So when the sixty-some-year-old, polo-necked doctor paid me a compliment by paying himself a compliment—"You interest ME"—I said, "Fine, fine," brushed him aside and wondered what the story was with the grumpy fellow coming my way.

"Hi," he mumbled and sat down without a single glance. He was practically exploding out of his clothes, like a little boy trapped in the body of a grown man yet having no clue that time had passed. His plaid shirt, a faded flannel of the five-and-dime store variety, was buttoned shut all the way to his double chin. Clearly, I thought, that's why the man is silent: the air pipes are choked off. His brown, washed-out pants hung down to his ankles. His whole attire was like something his grandmother might have bought years ago, and he simply ballooned into it. I wondered if she was the one who dropped him off at the event—"Go meet some nice girls, Henry!"—or maybe he spent most of his time locked up in the attic with Granny, like in one of those Hitchcock movies. Sweat tricked down the deep grooves in his face, cheeks flushed bright red. He looked simply petrified.

"Are you all right?" I leaned over and touched him ever so lightly.

"What?" He almost convulsed out of his chair. "Fine. Why?"

"You look pained," I said gently. He threw me a scared, hostile look and recomposed his scowl.

"Are you from Los Angeles?" I glanced at the cheat sheet given to us by the usher.

"No!" he grunted. "Orange County." Silence again.

"What sort of things do you like to read?" I insisted, knowing full well he wished for me to just shut up and be gone.

"Books. Magazines," he managed, clearly ruling out back panels of milk cartons and warning labels on cigarette boxes.

"Interesting. What kind of music do you like?"

"All kinds," he barked. "Rock. '80s rock. All kinds. '80s rock."

"Greeaaat! Have you been married before?"

This time he practically jumped out of his chair as if he'd come into contact with a deadly disease.

"No! No! No!" He repeated the obvious in alarm.

"It's OK!" I said. "Don't worry. It's all right! You know, statistics have shown that if you are past fifty and never married, chances are, you never will be." I smiled and leaned back. He looked transfixed; for the first time, he looked at me and he saw me. And there it was—an unmistakable look of relief on his face.

I was done. It was time to leave. Just as a man with a Hawaiian shirt and what I am certain was a hairpiece made his way toward me, I got up, took my bag, and slipped out.

I wonder how many matches were made that night. But one thing I know for sure. At the very least, Henry went home happy.

Firouzeh Afsharnia was born in Iran and immigrated to the U.S. She holds a Master's in International Service from American University and an MBA from University of Southern California. She is a former United Nations Officer, Development Consultant, and Elections Officer for The Carter Center. She is a freelance writer and blogger on issues of conflict surrounding the Middle East and Africa. Her articles have appeared among others in the Daily Beast and Aslan Media.