"Brad picked apart everything I ate! Apparently, salmon is as unhealthy for you as red meat. And did you know that a salad with dressing is as bad as a Big Mac?" I squeezed my mocha latte with both hands, glad that I'd remembered to bring my reusable cup for my refill on the way to work. Otherwise, I'd have easily crushed one of those brown paper ones."I'm so sorry, Sloan," Kay said. She had rolled her office chair into my cubicle for a little postmortem on last night's blind date. "That's so rude!""Then he suggested that, if I wanted to get a 'really good' workout, I should come to his gym, and he'd help me.""How did he say it? Maybe he wanted to get sweaty with you?" Kay asked, suggestively.I shook my head vigorously. "No, he clearly thought he was doing me a favor, because I so obviously need to tone up. Why can't anyone accept me the way I am?" Despite myself, my voice cracked a little, as I thought back to my middle-school days, when I was teased for being plump. Kay wheeled a little closer and put her arm around me. Her perfume — a fragrant blend of hibiscus and honey — was comforting. I continued, "His online profile looked so promising. He said he was into healthy living and working towards personal growth."Kay's almond-shaped brown eyes were warm with sympathy and just a hint of mirth. "That's just code for obsessed with fitness," she said. Suddenly feeling foolish, I took a big gulp of my mocha latte, which was comforting in its sweetness and warmth. I gave Kay a quick squeeze in return. "I really need to learn how to read people," I admitted. "Don't kick yourself over it," she said. "Learn from it and move on. Speaking of which, what are you going to wear for that Speed Date tonight at The Jungle?"Tugging at the hem of my blouse, which — like many of my shirts — was tight over the hips, I sighed. "I'm thinking about not going. I don't know if I can handle more disappointment.""But that's the beauty of speed dating," Kay enthused. "You only talk to them for a couple minutes, and then you get to move on. You don't ever have to talk to them again, unless you both want to." "Go with me?" I asked. "I could use the moral support.""Sorry, honey. I'm driving back home after I leave today. We're celebrating my parents' 30th wedding anniversary." She reached into her pocket and pulled something out. "But you should go anyway, and when you go, you can wear this. It will almost be like I'm with you." She opened her palm and revealed a pewter pendant with intertwined animals surrounding a full moon. It dangled from a delicate silver chain. "My mother wore this when she met my father. She said that my uncle, who was an Ojibwe shaman, blessed it."I took the necklace from her, hesitating for just a moment; after all, the minute I took it, I was committed to attending the Speed Date. I really wasn't sure I was up for it. After my first serious boyfriend — a high-school sweetheart who dumped me after going away to college — I'd been through a series of relationships that could charitably be described as lacking. In one way or another, I always ended up with the wrong guy: cheaters, manipulators, and boors. Clearly, my judgment could not be trusted, and I doubted that two minutes was long enough for me to figure out who might be a good match for me. But Kay's gaze was so earnest that I felt it would be rude not to play along. "So," I asked her, "why aren't you using this magic amulet to find your own Mr. Right?""Between you and me," she said, leaning in, as if she thought her mother might overhear her, even in this nondescript cattle-pen of an office, "I'm not sure I believe in it. I only accepted it because my mom is pressuring me to find someone."Fingering the pendant, I found it surprisingly warm to the touch. "Won't she be upset that you're handing it off to someone else?""Nah, I'm sure she won't mind me helping out a friend," Kay said. "You can give it back on Monday, when you tell me all about how the Speed Date went." She said the last words over her shoulder as she wheeled back to her cubicle.Not long after Kay's dark hair disappeared, another face popped into the gap that functioned as a door in my cubicle. It was Barry, the IT guy. A big, broad-shouldered man, he wore his typical work outfit of a solid-colored polo shirt with khaki pants that were somewhat the worse for wear, probably from crawling under desks as he fixed technical issues. "Hey," he said, which was his typical greeting. "Just came to see if your voicemail was working again. I know you were having problems with it yesterday."Annoyed at the sudden reminder of work, I replied, "I just got in, Barry. I haven't had a chance to check it yet."He nodded and smiled. "Too busy gossiping?" he asked."I wouldn't call it gossiping, exactly," I said, perhaps a little too defensively. "Just chatting with a friend before work."His face fell. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong," he said, sweeping one hand through the air in a sharp movement, as if trying to bat away what he'd just said. Resettling himself, he told me, "Go ahead and check your voicemail. I left you a test message." He squeezed into the cubicle with me, nearly knocking my Sierra Club calendar off the wall, then fumbled to set it right.With a sigh, I swiveled in my chair to my desk phone. Seeing there was a light blinking, indicating a message awaiting retrieval, I picked up the receiver, held it to my ear, and pressed play. The robotic voice announced that I had one new message, followed by the message itself: "Hey, Sloan, it's Barry, your friendly neighborhood IT guy." Awkward laughter. "If you're not too busy, and if your voicemail is working and you're listening to this, I was wondering if you'd like to grab some coffee with me after work today. Well, you know how to reach me." There was a pregnant pause before the machine announced it was the end of my new messages.Without spinning my chair back around, I quickly replied, "Sorry, Barry, I'm busy tonight. Maybe another time." Barry was a nice guy, but I was wary of office romances. Besides, there was something about him that made me feel like I'd known him my whole life: like he was a brother or a relative."Oh, well, okay, no problem. What's happening tonight?"I sighed and found myself opening up. "I'm going to this Speed Date event at The Jungle," I said, "and honestly, I'm kind of dreading it."With a nervous laugh, Barry suggested, "Well, you could just skip it and go out with me." But then, apparently thinking better of his remark, he added quickly, "I'm sure you'll impress them just by being yourself." I nodded silently, and Barry took this as his cue to leave, saying as he did, "Walking towards your cubicle, I heard a little bit of what you were saying earlier. That guy you went out with sounds like a jerk, and an idiot besides. What kind of guy wouldn't see that you're beautiful?"The unexpected compliment brightened my mood, but as I turned around to thank Barry, I realized he'd already beat a retreat. ***The crowd at The Jungle that night was full of eager singles in their 20s and 30s when I arrived. As I signed in, I glanced around and saw a lot of women who looked like they were straight out of college. I wasn't thrilled to realize that I was at the upper limit of the age range; that could seriously limit my options. This was my first time in The Jungle, and I found the decor amusing: palm trees and tropical lighting with a retro '80s feel that, if it hadn't been deliberate, would have made the club seem terribly dated. Instead, it was funky and amusing.Speaking of palms, mine were starting to feel a little sweaty, so I searched out the ladies' room. It was indicated by a picture of a palm tree with two coconuts a third of the way down the trunk. The men's room, by contrast, was a palm tree with the coconuts just below halfway, or waist level. Tacky, but funny.In the unforgiving neon light, I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror, festively adorned with plastic vines. I'd chosen to wear my black wrap dress, along with red high heels. They pinched my feet a little, but I figured I could survive the night. My hairdresser had touched up my highlights the week before, restoring my dark honey-brown hair to something resembling blonde. My eyes were reddening from the contacts I so rarely wore, so I reluctantly removed them and put on the tortoiseshell glasses from my clutch. I told myself it shouldn't matter if I wore my glasses when first meeting someone; they should see me the way I really am, right? But then again, if that's the case, maybe I should have also showed up in sweatpants with my hair pulled up in a ponytail.Conscious of the family history attached to it, I'd been nervous about losing Kay's necklace, bringing it with me in my bag instead. But my severe outfit was desperately in need of accessorizing, so I pulled the necklace out and put it on. The pendant was exactly what I needed, providing a little bit of sparkle. I noticed right away that the silver was a great contrast to my coloring, bringing out the hint of gray in my blue eyes. Feeling more confident, I reentered the main room.Ordering a cranberry juice — getting drunk here was not an option — I made an effort to mingle, moving slowly between the groups of people who were chatting. I couldn't think of anything to say. Mercifully, the coordinator rang a bell to get everyone's attention and let us know the dates were starting. A petite blonde woman, she rapidly ran through the rules. The women would sit at the tables, and the men would rotate every two minutes, moving to the next table every time she rang a bell. Each of the participants was wearing a tag with a number and had a card for noting the numbers of the people they were interested in. Only if both participants requested the other's number were they given the contact information, which would be e-mailed to us the next day. It was sort of like a silent auction for potential partners; clever.As I sat down at a table, I began to feel a little tingly, probably from anticipation. My first "date" sat down across from me — a short, sharp-nosed guy who fidgeted with his watch the entire time. He said he was a systems analyst who liked crossword puzzles and chess, but he reminded me of an obsessive-compulsive raccoon, washing his hands repeatedly, and I had to stifle a giggle.Next up was a hard-bodied guy with caramel skin and luscious dark hair. He said he was a ski pro, but to me he looked like a gazelle. I imagined him cavorting through a forest glade, and the image was so captivating that I lost most of what he said.The bell rang, and the gazelle danced away, replaced by a sinewy Wall Street type who blew through the two minutes talking about his myriad career goals. The more he talked, the more I heard a hissing sound in his sibilant "S's," and I began to wonder if he'd ever blink. A snake, I decided, and probably in more ways than one.Sipping my cranberry juice, I told myself that I ought to start taking this event more seriously. No doubt the suggestive setting had put the idea of animals into my head. It was time to stop playing mental games and really listen.After the snake slithered away, a new date filled the chair. An actor, he told me proudly, as he plucked some fuzz off his cashmere sweater. Then he found another piece, and another (though they were invisible to me). Once he finished preening himself, he turned his attention to what I was saying, bobbing his head up and down in jerky movements to indicate he was listening. "Do you like pigeons?" I asked him, on a hunch. Looking surprised, as if I'd viewed his deepest secrets, he told me that he liked to stop by the park on the weekends to feed them. He told me he found it relaxing, while waiting to hear about callbacks. "Do you like pigeons, too?" he asked."Not particularly," I said, more frankly than I probably should have. Unintentionally, I'd all but shut our conversation down, but our two minutes were up anyway.After that, I came up with a new way to amuse myself. Once I'd ascertained which animal somebody reminded me of, I'd drop that animal into the conversation to see their reaction. The happy-go-lucky elementary-school teacher with floppy hair grew even more enthusiastic when I mentioned dogs. The keen-eyed art-gallery owner with slicked back hair and a barrel chest readily agreed with me that the American eagle was the most majestic bird and added that it was also the most intelligent. The darkly handsome acquisitions editor who had crept up to the table without making a sound agreed with me that panthers were superior to all other big cats, and posited they were superior to most other animals, as well.For the next few dates, I tried prompting people with open-ended questions, but asking them for their favorite animal produced unpredictable results. In some cases, their responses matched up with the animal I associated with them. In other cases, they mentioned an animal that would be their prey. For example, the feline obstetrician was an avid bird watcher and, upon prompted, spent the rest of our time detailing his recent sightings. And the long-nosed, long-legged outdoorsman who reminded me of a water fowl only wanted to talk about fishing.By the end of the evening, I had further met a monkey, a lizard, a porcupine, a longhorn sheep, a giraffe, and even a hamster, none of whom had interested me enough to make me mark my card. Interestingly enough, those whom I involved in conversations about their animals were interested in talking further with me. Even though the event organizer told me that she'd allow me to add any of them to my card if I wanted, I politely declined. She looked disappointed, and I noticed for the first time that she resembled a German Shepherd, which seemed to explain her desire to herd us all towards mates.Far from being disappointed, I was still amused by my internal joke. I stopped in the bathroom to freshen up before leaving, running the night's events through my head. Pausing at the mirror, I saw myself with fresh eyes. My solid frame was graceful and strong, I decided. And my hair's natural honeyed brown fit my coloring perfectly, shining through the blonde highlights. With a realization akin to enlightenment, I said aloud, "I'm a bear." No wonder none of the night's prospects had appealed to me. It might not be the result that Kay would want to hear, but at least I'd learned something about what I didn't want. ***Throughout the rest of the weekend, I kept the necklace on. Rightly or wrongly, I credited it with my new perception. It was entertaining and informative to discover that the downstairs neighbor was a parrot, and my yoga instructor was a tree sloth. I was surprised — but then again not surprised — to learn that my mother was a ferret, when I met her for Sunday brunch. It certainly did explain why we'd always clashed over our worldviews.When Monday came, I was so accustomed to wearing the necklace that I rued returning it to Kay. Driving to work, I contemplated telling her that I'd lost it, but I didn't want to get her in trouble with her family. I also didn't want to admit that the necklace hadn't produced the miracle match-up I knew she'd hoped for me.As I stood just inside the office doorway, deciding what to tell Kay, a friendly voice boomed behind me: "Hey, Sloan, how'd the speed dating go?""Terrible," I said. "Nobody there was my type." I turned -- and nearly dropped my coffee. Barry was kneeling down, screwdriver in hand, delicately taking apart a computer. He was dressed the same as always, but instead of just seeming big and bumbling, I saw how strong his shoulders were, how delicately he tended to his work. He ran a hand over his shaggy brown hair, trying to smooth it down, and I suddenly realized why he'd always seemed so... familiar."That's too bad," he said. "Better luck next time, right? I mean, if you're planning to go again. And why not, if you want to?" His voice trailed off, as he toyed with his screwdriver and chuckled nervously."Actually, how about that coffee tonight?" I said. "Or maybe, if you prefer, we could make it dinner and a movie." Looked like I had some good news to report to Kay after all.
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