To have an adventure is to go somewhere you’ve never gone before. Historically, this was taken in a literal sense – foreign climes were where all the exciting stuff was kept – but the notion no longer applies. With travel as achievable as it has ever been, going abroad isn’t enough: by its very definition, a holiday isn’t an adventure. To really have an adventure, then, isn’t about exploring the new, but risking something of yourself to do so.
Deciding this, admittedly, was rather convenient, given that my passport has expired and it’s reasonable to assume I’d fare poorly against a gang of river snakes. I stand by my belief regardless. On being asked to conceive of an adventure I could undertake, I thought about what scares me. Aside from my undying terror of giant squid, my fears – like most people’s – are mundane: social awkwardness, romantic rejection, embarrassment, strangers with nametags. As I pondered what could possibly combine these perils, I understood with an immediate, sinking clarity what I needed to do.
“Oh Comely only wants me to go speed dating,” I’d tell anyone who’d listen. “Doesn’t that sound excruciating?” Not for the first time in my life, I was lying to the universe. Despite my protestations, I was quietly curious about organised singles events. While speed dating has always seemed like a very particular type of horrible, it had started to hold an allure beyond morbid fascination. At a certain point, without me even noticing, being single had become a defining part of me. It’s not that I didn’t meet lovely people, but I hadn’t found the thing that worked yet. In my lowest moments I felt like Ioan Gruffudd searching for survivors at the end of Titanic, yelling “Is there anyone alive out there?” into the black Atlantic. It’s a lot of pressure to put on an evening below a pub in east London.
Once I’d chosen to make the leap and book a speed dating ticket, it seemed fitting that I was overwhelmed by options. Should I go to the night where you each bring a favourite book? The one where you use 18th-century fans to flirt? The one where you play Lego? The one where you don’t speak and just spend two minutes looking in your date’s eyes? Each sounded more terrifying than the last. After concluding that the world doesn’t contain enough alcohol to equip me for intimate karaoke duets with strangers, I opted for Last Night a Speed Date Changed My Life, which promised, mercifully, to “not rewrite the speed date rule book.” I spent the following week beset with the low-level anxiety of a cat, convinced that death lurks in every unexpected rustle.
The thing they don’t tell you about speed dating is that most people don’t actually go alone. The clue, perhaps, is in the discounts that encourage dual bookings, but I was disheartened to enter a room already whirring with conversation. Unsure of whether it was appropriate to approach other attendees, I composed imaginary text messages, followed by real ones to my friend Hannah – “They all think you’re a cop!” she kindly suggested. The silt of nervousness had barely settled before I was commandeered by the host, who showed me around in a courteously intended gesture which certainly didn’t make me look conspicuous.
Once everyone had bought a drink and hurriedly gulped a percentage of it, we took seats and the rules were explained. Each date would last three and a half minutes, after which the 24 women would remain seated as the 24 men rotated. A soft trilling announced that we’d started, instantly followed by the cacophony of 24 simultaneous conversations.
This was the moment I’d been excitedly dreading. Two dozen strangers with slips of paper on which to write their thoughts about me, who had paid actual money to evaluate my potential as a possible romantic partner. It was really happening, and it was… absolutely fine. Of course it was. People are people: some are dull, some are cold, one or two are splendid, and everyone else is nice enough. My fear that speed dating would be fundamentally awkward was accurate, but it was also a reassuring collective endeavour. It was clear that if we didn’t throw ourselves into proceedings the experience would be harrowing, and so everyone made a tangible effort to act friendly and engaged. For three and a half minute sittings, we were trying to be our best selves. My best self, unfortunately, is much like my average self, in that he is incapable of retaining pens. Half a dozen dates in, I was already forgetting people, and my notepaper was unhelpfully blank. Which one was the nervous teacher? Who liked climbing? Who spent the date talking about how much she liked the previous date’s glasses? The presence of groups further complicated things, as I made my way through lawyers, film production friends, and the members of a triathlon club.
I was still questioning if this fogging memory signified something when I shook hands with Olga.
She did not say hello, or ask me how I was doing, or how my weekend had been. Instead:
“When do you remember first rebelling against your parents?”
Oh boy. She’d brought questions.
I obliged, and she reciprocated. Her story was funny, sweet, disarming, and two minutes long. We changed subjects. I was telling her about Welsh folklore when we heard a familiar trilling. She looked mortified. “I’ve wasted all our time!” she said, and asked if she could buy me a drink during the break. I attempted to appear like someone for whom this question is completely typical, and said yes. I do not remember the dates that followed.
Olga led me to the bar and we spent ten minutes making each other laugh. She was direct and confident. She was a pleasure to talk to. I wondered, momentarily, whether I should be circulating. It wasn’t an option. At some point a thought crept into my mind, one which said this is the thing that works, and I ignored it in the hope that it wouldn’t go away.
The most apt comparison to speed dating is the Eurovision Song Contest, where the Hi-NRG dance numbers all bleed together by the end. I still put in effort during the second half, but found myself repeating answers I’d given an hour or two before, as early witticisms ossified into rote material. Perhaps this would have happened anyway: how many new people do you usually talk to everyday? Eventually there was one more date – Muni, who planned to go on a race with her dog, and is surely my best friend in another universe – and the night was over.
As a social experiment it was fascinating to take part in something with an explicit romantic purpose. With just one acknowledged goal, our senses were quickly honed, and we soon became ruthless. While many attend gigs, clubs and historical walking tours with the idea of meeting someone at least partially on their mind, here the pretext of a separate activity was stripped away. This suggests the exact structure of such an event is ultimately trivial, a high-concept distraction to sell tickets. What speed dating offers is a concentrated version of life: a single person meets other single people, hoping one will stand out from the crowd. This rarely happens, but its rareness is what makes it meaningful.
I visited the clothes rack and retrieved my jacket. Some people were still sitting at their last tables, or had returned to earlier ones. There was a tap on my shoulder. Olga. She pursed her lips in a mock frown.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” she asked, and we both knew what my answer would be.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.