November 25, 2014

Tessa's Story

by Zahra Barnes

I read the sign in front of me and turned to Marley, my eyes bulging.

“Really, Mar. Really?!”

She shrugged at me then looked away, trying to suppress a grin.

I glanced back at the sign, desperately hoping the words on its face had changed in the moments I’d been turned away.

They hadn’t. “Love at First Sight: Speed Dating Made Simple!” it advertised. Or threatened.

“You did not bring me to speed dating. You didn’t. We are not in some 90s sitcom about two kooky pals trying to meet men in The Big Apple, so you didn’t bring me to speed dating.”

“Listen, it’s been three weeks since we’ve actually done anything besides hang out in one of our apartments. In what I’m sure is just a coincidence,” she raised a skeptical eyebrow at me, “it’s also been three weeks since you and Grant broke up.”

She was right. In the weeks since Grant and I had decided we were over, I hadn’t been very emotional. I knew that even though Grant and I had shared an intense love story, it was right for it to end. The distance made me feel better about the fact that the only time we’d talked since then was when he’d emailed me a short “I miss you” and I’d responded in kind. I was doing more than okay, but that was in the solitude of one of our own places or at work. Going out hadn’t been a priority.

At the same time, speed dating was not exactly how I wanted to make my grand return. I’d thought Marley and I were just going to a regular bar where people didn’t play musical chairs to get each other into bed. The whole thing just seemed so cheesy, and not like a rich, melty gruyere. More like Velveeta.

“So you were going to hole yourself up forever until you felt 100 percent ready to do anything besides work and hang out with me at home?”

I watched the people streaming into the bar to check in with the Love at First Sight event coordinators. They all looked relatively normal, but then again, so had Ted Bundy.

“No,” I responded. “I just figured it would be more, I don’t know, organic. I’m not sure I’m ready yet.”

“Fuck organic. Yes, fuck it, even though I’m going to be a chef. What, you’re not ready to have a good night? That’s all I’m asking you to do. Not find your husband.” Marley grabbed my hand. “Remember when Beau dumped me? And what you did for me after?”
A year before, Marley’s boyfriend had broken up with her in favor of a mutual friend of theirs. I’d given her time to wallow, but after that, I’d clandestinely created a Tinder profile for her and convinced her to see what else was out there. She once told me that she would have stayed steeped in her sadness for much longer if I hadn’t known what was good for her and forced her out of her shell. “I trust you more than I trust myself,” she’d told me back then.

“Trust me more than you trust yourself,” she said now before pulling me toward the hostesses. Even though I’d been thrown at first, I was starting to see the beauty of the idea. Mar was right. I was signing up for speed dating, not speed arranged marriage. There didn’t have to be any pressure, especially not any that I’d put on myself. Wasn’t this the type of thing that would eventually make a good story that I could reminisce about at age 90, thinking back fondly to the best days of my life?

“Hiiii thereeee!” A toothy brunette behind the sign-in table beamed at me and Marley as though we’d made her day just by showing up. “I’m Jenny. We’re so glad to have you! Names, please?”

Marley had already paid for us online, so Jenny handed our name tags over. We gamely slapped them on and headed inside.

“Wait!” she called out after us. “I have your table assignments. You have some time to get a drink before we start.”

Pretty much everyone had the same idea we did, so the bar was packed. There was this weird “should we even be acknowledging each other?” vibe, since we all knew we were about to be formally introduced in this orchestrated meet-cute. Marley and I stuck to talking to each other, and it seemed like most people who came with someone else did the same.

I swirled my rum and coke around in its glass and sneakily surveyed the scene. There were people from all walks of life and every color of the rainbow. I saw some banker bros standing next to the definition of a hipster, who in turn was leaning near two women who stood with the perfect posture of people whose parents hadn’t let them quit ballet in first grade like mine did.

The more I peeked around, the more my excited nerves fizzed to the top like I was a loaded bottle of champagne. What would Grant think if he saw you now? I wondered. I pushed the thought away and focused on Marley.

“How did you even find this thing?”

“Before I tell you, you have to answer this: are you mad?”

“You know me better than that! I get that you’re trying to help. I was just surprised. Thankfully I knew we were going somewhere, so at least I put on makeup.” And had worn my newest leather-adjacent leggings, too.

“Okay, good.” She took a sip of the gin and tonic I’d gotten her as a thank you for buying my ticket beforehand. “I found out about it on one of those listservs I get.”

As soon as she got to New York, Marley had signed up for every possible event listerv she could find. They often featured out-there things like kissing parties or improvisational pranks, so this didn't surprise me.

“Oh god” she blurted out. “I thought that was Nick for a second.” She jerked her chin over in the direction of a tall guy who looked a lot like the one she’d taken home from Wilfie and Nell.
“Speaking of that night,” she continued. “When are you going to email that model guy?”

“Who, Jack?” I hadn’t thought about him since Grant and I fought over my story of our run-in. “Um, I’m not. I think that window of opportunity has closed.”

I was about to explain how I’d feel a little weird emailing him out of the blue so soon after Grant left, but a bell pinged from the front of the room.

“Hi, everyone!” It was Jenny. “Thank you so much for coming to Love at First Sight speed dating! I hope you’re as happy to be here as we are to have you. Tonight is all about making connections. Woohoo!”

She whooped and waved an arm in the air with the type of gusto that made me think she’d be a perfect Girl Scout Troop Leader. “Let me explain how this works. Ladies, you should each have a table assignment. You’ll hang out there all night while the gentlemen rotate. Guys, you start at the table number listed on your name tag. Every three minutes, you’ll hear the bell—“ she dinged it again, “—that tells you it’s time to move onto the next lovely woman who’s waiting for you. At the end of the night, you’ll each fill out a card that says who you’d like to see again, and we’ll email you with any matches.”

Crap. I wasn’t actually looking to date, but what if I matched with no one? Should I even fill the form out, knowing that I was nowhere near ready for something new?

“Get excited, everyone! You could meet the one toniiiiight!” She dragged out the last word in a show of enthusiasm.

I looked around to see how her speech had been received and saw more than a few dubious faces. Good. I didn’t think many of us were there to find the one as much as avoid spending so much time at home our skin fused with the fabric of our couches.

“Okay, ladies, head to your seats please!”

I was at table 17 and Marley was right next to me at 18. The entire bar was modeled after Gothic architecture, so we were both seated at a booth tucked into some overhanging, ornate arches. Even if the night was a bust, the place was gorgeous. Very Harry Potter-esque. After allowing a few minutes for the women to get settled, Jenny swiveled her head to make sure everyone was ready.

“May the love odds be ever in your favor!” she called out in a bastardization of the signature cry in The Hunger Games.

A very short man eased himself into the seat across from me. I glanced down at his name tag. Brad. Nice name.

“Tessa. Nice name,” he said.

“I was just thinking the same about you!” For the next three minutes, Brad and I had a natural, easy chat. While his shoulder-length hair and penchant for birdwatching in Central Park didn’t result in a spark for me, he seemed genuinely interested in my responses to his questions. He made me feel comfortable. If they’re all this normal, I can get through the night no problem, I reassured myself.

“Nice to meet you,” he said after the bell dinged. 

The next guy slid smoothly into the vacant chair. His hair was slicked back, Scott Disick-style. I couldn’t lie to myself and pretend my body didn’t tingle a bit. I usually bypassed douchebags with ease, but Disick had always drawn me in on the show. Now that a replica was sitting in front of me, well…

Disick’s Double wasn’t wearing a name tag. He was so the type who thought he was too cool for that. I was about to ask his name when he leaned forward. I mimicked his movement without thinking.

“So, what are you?” he asked with an expectant gleam in his eye.

I faltered, confused. “What am I?”

“Yeah. You look exotic. I’m into it.” He rotated the very shiny, very large watch on his wrist and studied me like I was some growth in a petri dish. “Like you’ve got some flava.” A smile spread across his face. He didn’t pronounce the “r,” so it sounded like he’d said Flava Flav’s name and gotten cut off mid-sentence by a punch to the face, which I could tell I’d want to give him by the end of the conversation. I had to choke back a laugh. Guys often thought talking about my ambiguous background would gain points, but they did it in such a weird way that they almost always lost them instead. I could handle it when they were curious. But when they were creepy, like Disick’s Double? I took it as an opportunity to drive them a little nuts.

“Pretty sure I’m a human, how about you?”

“No. I mean, like, what are you mixed with?”

“What do you think?” It was always more interesting to listen to guys’ guesses than tell them the truth, which seemed to disappoint them: regular black and white.

He spent the next two and a half minutes rattling off mixes of the most bizarrely specific fusions of ethnicities, like Icelandic and Dominican. As I responded to each one with some variation of “nah, you’re getting warmer, though,” his face became a bit more tinged with red and his breathing sped up a bit. I thought I was pissing him off, but the bell ushered him to the next table before I could tell for sure.

What a waste of hair gel.

A thin, pale man hovered in the seat across from me. He had the nervous energy of a hummingbird; I felt like he barely touched the chair. He started drumming on the table rapid-fire.

“Guess which song I’m playing,” he said.

It was a conversation starter I’d never heard before, I’d grant him that. But I couldn’t place the tune.

“Slipknot. ” he said, shrugging. “Pulse of the Maggots.”

We stared at each other for a few tense moments. Clearly this was not a match.

Still, something kept him going. “Wait, you’ve never heard of Slipknot?”

“I can’t say I have, no.”

“Ohhhh man, but they’re so good!” He clamped his eyes shut and pounded out a beat on the table. I sat there, mortified, as the noise interrupted the couples next to us. Finally, the bell came to my rescue.

When he opened his eyes, they were as big as saucers and his pupils were completely dilated. Going to a speed dating event while high on what seemed to be actual speed sounded like my own personal hell, but to each his own.

Finally, a drop dead gorgeous man lowered himself into the seat across from me very slowly, like he was settling into a wall sit. His dark skin and perfect features made me think of a male Lupita Nyong’o. Not that they even looked the same, but he just had one of those flawless faces that was impossible to avoid looking at. Every move he made, from reaching out to shake my hand to lifting the rim of his glass to his lips, was so graceful it sent visions of pumas and jaguars racing through my mind. Holy crap, I thought to myself. Maybe Marley was onto something.

“So nice to meet you, Tessa,” he said as he finished shaking my hand.

“Nice to meet you, too, Andre.”

“My soul is so overjoyed to recognize the spirit that lies inside of you,” he said, smiling radiantly.

Of course.

“Er. Thanks?” I said.

“So, Tessa, what is it that you do?”

I explained a bit about Grey & Boehm, then returned the question.

“I’ve actually recently opened my practice in Brooklyn. I’m a sexual healer.”

I continued sipping my drink as calmly as if he had told me he were a high school English teacher. “Really? What exactly does being a sexual healer entail?” How could I not be curious?

“People come to me when they cannot fully transcend to the ultimate plane via orgasm. I help them unblock their energies and connect both physically and spiritually.”

He was starting to sound like Willow and Jaden Smith. I didn’t want to be rude, but I was dying to know. “Don’t answer this if you don’t want to, but do you talk them through it? Or show them?”

His smile spread. “Experience is the best teacher,” he said simply.

And so the night went. All in all, I spoke to 10 men who were either nice and forgettable or way too eccentric for me. I didn’t fill out one of the final forms because no one had grabbed my eye, but of course Mar had a ranked list of who she was into. It was like her own version of Speed Dating Fantasy Football. I consulted with her while she made up her mind about the “maybe” guys she’d met, then headed home.

When I walked up to our apartment door, I saw that it was slightly ajar, but the place was dark. I froze and my heart started to race. Was Brian back? Did I misjudge something sinister for good intentions and stupid drunkenness? I listened hard to see if I could hear anyone moving around inside, but there was nothing. I nudged the door open with my toe and fumbled for the light switch.

The place came into view. I scanned the room and my eyes skipped over the couch like an old record. My heart seized at the sight of Celine draped on top of it, looking dead to the world. Forgetting about the possibility of someone being in the apartment, I rushed over to her and shook her hard. She didn’t have any blood or marks on her, but her head lolled about like a rag doll’s.

“Celine?! Celine! Wake up!” My mind raced through all the episodes of Grey’s Anatomy I’d seen, so I knew I had to find her pulse. I pressed my fingers on her neck, which was still warm. The blood pushed through her system and tapped back at me. At least she was alive.

I frantically dug through my purse to find my phone so I could call 911. Celine had a pulse, but what about alcohol poisoning? I was talking to the operator when Celine opened her eyes.

“Tessa,” she said dreamily. She raised her arms and threw them around my shoulders, then buried her head in my neck. “I’m so glad you’re home.” I smelled alcohol, and lots of it.
“I think everything’s okay, but I might call you back,” I explained to the operator apologetically. “So sorry.”

I turned to Celine. “Celine, what the hell. You really scared me. Are you okay?”

“I think I drank too much.” Her boozy breath washed over me again.

“Did you leave the door open?”

She hiccuped, then giggled drunkenly. “It was a mistake,” she murmured. “Like last time.” Like last time? My roommate dozed off, her head in my lap, and I wondered how safe I really was. Had she seriously left the door unlocked and let some guy stand over me while I slept, making me feel like I’d been living in an actual nightmare? When she sobered up, Celine had some serious explaining to do.


  1. Celine needs to get her act together fast.

  2. Chris - @nylonlover69 on Twitter/IGNovember 25, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    We're all a bit off, right? But why don't the people that are like, REALLY off know it before they show up at a speed dating event?

    Um, Celine? You blew up a great opportunity for Tessa to land an artist at the museum event and now have left your door open a couple of times. What's up?

  3. Gahhh Celine, what the hell. I'm curious to know more about her, even though I don't like her very much. You're a great writer, Zahra.

    Also I can't help but feel like something is going to happen in regards to the breakup. Like, Tessa thinks she's pretty much done and processed things now, maybe, but it seems like a short amount of time. Then again, maybe she was done with things before they were actually over?

  4. Oh, girl, you had me laughing. mum

  5. Hmmm...maybe Celine hooked up with Brian that one night and they were both probably drunk, and that's how he got into Tessa's room. Celine is super sketchy.

  6. Celine definitely drinks too much and she clearly has no regard for consequences: it could just be her upbringing and culture, but the signs are pointing to alcoholism. I hope she gets help, but I also hope Tessa realizes she can't live in these conditions!

    Great post. Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Great story, nicely written. Are you actually writing this in a book or are you just checking the reactions of your readers about what you write?

  8. Loving Tessa's story so far, and so happy she's moving on from Grant (not sure I could have forgiven him). Sounds like a fair few of my experiences from online dating - so many strange people out there!

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