LOVE AS A CONTRACT SPORTWHEN BUSINESS AND ROMANCE MERGE, CUPID PULLS A CORPORATE TAKEOVER

You can smell the pheromones, palpably sense the rut vibes, feel the radioactive burn of eye contact. One thousand single people, male and female, circle the fountains at Concord Place for Lynda Johncock's Singles Networking Party, a pre-Valentine's Day bash.

Lynda is president of Arizona's Most Eligible Singles Directory, a dating service--she cringes at the word "matchmaker." She looks smashing in her red-leather ensemble, her blond hair piled glamorously on top of her head, as she graciously navigates a writhing sea of bad opening lines and nervous first encounters, earnest pretenders, married men with Band-Aids over the tan lines on their ring fingers, Glenn Close look-alikes.

The point of the dance is to sidestep all that; it's called a "Networking Party," and the idea is to lessen the threat of rejection by handing business cards to hot prospects. Then if they're not interested in getting to know you, you can pretend it was a business proposition. "You may not be attracted to me socially, but you may be attracted to me professionally," Johncock explains. "So I will not be shut down."

Of course, nothing is foolproof. You can only hope your card won't be used to dislodge bits of hors d'oeuvres from between someone's teeth. In the men's room, as you take care of other business, your eye travels to a woman doctor's business card left atop the urinal. The symbolism is unintentional, most likely, unthinking, but strikingly cold.

Though the male-to-female ratio is about even on the dance floor, the women clearly outrank the men. Perhaps it's the lighting, but the women seem more sophisticated, more purposeful, more elegant, more . . . adult. With few exceptions, despite their business suits and suspenders, their steroid-induced shoulders, there's a Peter Pan bewilderment etched on the faces of the men. The hale and confident exceptions are probably married guys on the prowl.

But all of the revelers are upscale and well-scrubbed. Some are professional singles who cruise the myriad events of the singles industry, others are hard-core lonely hearts, but many are subscribers to Johncock's directory--for which one pays $650 to have a photo and bio and a telephone number printed so that like-minded subscribers of the opposite sex can call for a date.

There are a dozen such services in the Yellow Pages--matchmakers, video dating, Jewish and Christian dating networks. Ten years ago, none of these organizations could get display ads unless they were listed as "escort services." Now they each boast thousands of members, and probably have hundreds. Ten years ago, the newspapers would not print classified ads with scandalous adjectives like "single" or "divorced," let alone "Rubenesque brunette desires S/DWM who is financially and emotionally ready for fun, romance and great communication. No rebounders, west siders, or stuffed shirts please."

It's a symptom of a greater malaise. Forty-one percent of the U.S. population is single, after all, and though some of them may want to stay that way, the vast majority are desperately seeking to meet someone significant or at least amusing. You can harp about AIDS all you want, but that's really only one tiny step of the dance of courting--which has footwork more detailed than the Achy Breaky Line Dance. Some of the dancers are clumsier than others, some just a bit too light on their feet. All of them are confused.

@rule:
@body:Elizabeth is pale and petite. Her photograph stares sadly out from the first page of Johncock's dating directory. One might question why she's even in there--so pretty, so bright, so young at 22. But she's been burned badly. Her former fiancā left her with an infant son, so she forgot about college and took a job as a secretary in an office where everyone is married and older. By the time she gets home from work and puts her son to bed, the last thing she wants to do is fight off the men she meets in the bars.

Now she dances with a young fellow who looks normal enough, and in his small talk, he asks what she does for a living. She answers and returns the question. "What do I do for a living?" he starts with his most affectedly debonair rhetoric. "I meet beautiful women at dances, take them home and make passionate love to them." The boy's clearly taking sitcom dialogue too much to heart.

"You're out of business tonight," Elizabeth says as she turns on her heel and escapes to a gaggle of women huddled beneath a heat lamp. The girl talk begins. One of them points out a man across the patio and mentions that she'd like to dance with him, but is too shy to ask herself. Elizabeth screws up her courage to do a good deed. She walks over and tells the man that her friend would like to dance.

"How come you're asking instead of her?" he answers. The air is fraught with possibility, but instead of accepting the invitation to talk to four attractive women, he gets testy. "If she wants to dance, she can ask me herself." Chilled anew, Elizabeth retreats to the artificial warmth of the heat lamp.

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