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.

@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 fianc 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.

@body:"The people who come in our front doors are not desperate," says Stephanie Sosa of Great Expectations, a video dating service. She and her staff try hard to weed out the weirdos, the 70-year-old men who want to meet 20-year-old women. The people who are left are normal, generally attractive, gainfully employed. But still, the women are more driven, more goal-oriented than the men, definitely a cut above. The expectations, however, may be unrealistic, especially of the twentysomething crowd. "They're looking for a time-efficient way to find who they're looking for with complete control," says Sosa. "They want everything perfect: never married, no smoking, no children, financially secure, goal-oriented, have to like what they do. They've got their professional lives right where they want them and now they're looking to take care of their personal lives. But no one wants to make the first move--that's why business is booming with this group." She sighs with exasperation.

Some can't take the responsibility even of looking through the directories or watching the videos and picking their own dates. Joan Frazer of Contacts and Connections unabashedly says, "I'm a matchmaker." Frazer interviews her prospective clients and matches them with members of the opposite sex--which minimizes the rejection. If things don't work out, it's her fault and not theirs. Marriage is on everyone's mind. Even the Great Exectations promotional video ends with a soft focus on a bride and groom at the altar with a cheesy voice-over crooning about a happy ending.

"People are discussing permanence after the second or third date," says Lynda Johncock. "What if we get married? Where would we live? How would we combine our two incomes? Our work schedules? And it happens early in the conversation--not early in the relationship, early in the conversation!"
Forget about building relationships. This is life in the instant society, where everything is a business transaction. Has it really gotten that much harder to meet a life mate? We have brought it on ourselves. Curtis Pesmen, author of What She Wants, says, "If the 1970s were the Me Decade, and the 80s the I Decade, the 90s are the Can It Really Be We? Decade. And the answer is, no, not if we've spent the last 15 years developing the I."

@body:Caitlin is another of Lynda Johncock's clients; she's 29, fun to talk to, an all-American brunette you'd like to take on a sleigh ride. Special bonus: She's got a hefty income from her own business.

As she makes her entrance to the ball, her chain belt comes undone and falls from her waist. There's a small group of men watching, well-dressed and well-coifed fellows. As she bends to pick the belt up, one of them comments deliberately loud enough for her to hear, "Now that's what I like in a woman: She's getting undressed as soon as she walks in the room."

Caitlin pretends to ignore the remark. "What was he thinking?" she says later. "That I'm going to invite him home to meet my mother? I don't need to come here for that. I can find that kind of riffraff on my own.

"I don't think guys know how to court women anymore," she goes on. "They think courting is meeting at the same bar for six weeks." Now this is no Barbie-doll Southern belle, by any means, and yet she fantasizes in reactionary fashion about perfect dates where the man calls ahead of time, pays for everything, opens doors, makes compliments, and expects no more than a good-night kiss at the front door.

She spots an attractive man across the dance floor. There's a woman in a too-short skirt hanging all over him--A bimbo," she sniffs--and she dismisses the man as a libido-driven cretin. A moment later, he disengages himself from the wanton embrace, notices Caitlin, and strikes up a conversation.

Half embarrassed, he explains that the woman was drunk and asked him for a ride home. He was taken aback by her forwardness, he says earnestly, rather flattered in the process, but she "wasn't his type."

Caitlin softens, but doesn't completely let go of her suspicions. "They tell you that so you'll think that you are their type," she says, but she accepts a date from him. The fear of rejection is so paralyzing that it goes beyond suspicion to outright blowing it, and the men are not the only transgressors. As Caitlin dances off in the waltz of apprehension, a heavyset, bespectacled woman approaches.

"What do you say to start a conversation with someone you want to meet?" she says. Well, not that. She's pleasant and amusing, actually, bored to death with the night's prospects for romance. One of the women she came with totes over a fellow she just met. He's so brimming with excitement that he might wet himself. "My name's Matt, man!" he says as he thrusts out a handshake. His body convulses with each bad joke he cracks. The heavyset woman smiles politely, but when he's out of earshot, she whispers, "I think he's about ready to go bungee jumping over the balcony--without a bungee cord."
The crowd swallows them up. A stunning blonde in an elegant, shimmering dress pushes through. A tall man awkwardly steps into her path. "That's a lovely dress," he stammers. She starts with surprise, he blushes at his bad timing and delivery, and his friend, sensing the embarrassment, decides to turn it into a joke.

"Yes, may I wear it tomorrow?" the second man quips. She's clearly rattled by the unprovoked taunt, but says nothing and pushes on, past three women in a circle. One of them is holding two handfuls of cotton, and when it catches the notice of an innocent passing male, she looks him dead in the eye and says, "This is what we used before silicon." He's caught off guard; she continues to pull wads of the cotton apart. "When I'm done with this, you're going to wear it," she says angrily. He asks what she's holding, then flushes when he realizes it's a sanitary napkin. The world can be a very uncool place.

@body:Houlihan's on Friday night. The predators, male and female, line the bar, half-hidden in the smoke and the shamanistic throbbing of bass lines and dance beats. You couldn't really meet someone if your life depended on it. "Any place you go now if you're female, every male in the place stops to look," a 22-year-old woman confides. "No one ever starts a conversation, because they don't know if you're a psychopath. You get a lot of invitations to one-night stands." Perhaps there are no good pickup lines anymore because no one wants to get picked up.

Rob is 36, divorced for ten years. He's tall, dark and handsome with a black mustache and an easy smile, and he can rattle off a list of bad lines laid on him in bars: "Haven't I met you in a different life?" "My biological clock is running and you've got the genes I'm looking for." Rob's had experiences decoding the false information that passes in barrooms, of people trying to sell each other as something they're not, or lying outright to close the deal, assuming that if the relationship clicks, they'll be able to explain later.

He met a lovely lady at Jetz in Scottsdale, but her vagueness about what she did for a living troubled him. She said she was a professional woman, that she made good money and worked hard for it. The next night he was at Tiffany's Cabaret with some business associates and saw her dancing topless two tables over.

"She wouldn't talk to me, because being a moral person, she knew I wouldn't go out with her," he says. It comes out a bit more double-standardish than he intends. Lenny Bruce used to joke that men expected their wives to be a cross between a Catholic nun and a hundred-dollar-a-night hooker. But obviously, this was not the girl he's been looking for.

Rob's been a member of Great Expectations for four years, and though he's made friends with a lot of women through it, he hasn't met the one he wants to marry. He's got his own idealistic image of whom he wants. His past relationships have been with workaholic and fabulously successful career women with six-figure salaries. But Rob thinks he wants a housewife. Still, the thought of commitment throws him. "That C word makes me sweat," he says, and, for emphasis, he loosens his tie.

Then, almost as a sigh, he lets out a hopeful affirmation: "If Miss Right walked along today, I'd forget all about it."

Which is not to imply anything easy about picking Ms. or Mr. Right out of the narcissism and defensiveness and salesmanship in the directories and videos.

"They say you want a mirror of yourself," says a smiling face on the TV screen. He's a young lawyer with a good suit and haircut, and a handsome, Julio Iglesias sort of smile. "I have a very good housekeeper," he tosses off a bit too smugly. "She's taken care of very well in her paycheck." Then he extols his athletic accomplishments--the triathlons he's run, his personal trainer, his skiing--until you realize that the "mirror" of himself is someone who is not only as perfect as he is, but who appreciates just how perfect he is.

The women stress their drive and purpose. In her bio, one female executive lists what she wants in a man: Commitment and financial security are first and second on the list; friendship is down at number six, sense of humor comes ninth and last.

The men package themselves in Hallmark greeting card messages about quiet walks on rainy days to show their sensitivity. One warm, smiling face pops out of the directory, a ray of hope--until you reach the second sentence of his bio: "I look great in all types of attire, especially bicycle shorts," it says. One woman in the same dating service who had been called by him practically screamed, "What kind of man says that? It would be like me saying I look great in a spandex dress halfway up my butt." She would look great, actually, but that's not her point.

@body:More tales from the unexpectedly dateless: Jeanette is a model and a rocket scientist. No kidding. She's 25, a former beauty queen with classic California good looks and, needless to say, just a bit intimidating. She likes men who will walk up to her unafraid and strike up a real conversation. She'd love to ditch her high-powered career to have children, but her last boyfriend pushed her aside for his own career. She joined Great Expectations to meet other men and forget him.

Kim is a corporate VP who, at age 31, earns more than $50,000. She works a 50-hour week, works out two evenings with her personal trainer and then spends the weekends dealing with dry cleaning and grocery shopping. She is tall and dignified, with big green eyes and a businesslike spiked hairdo, like Melanie Griffith wore in Working Girl, but what she wants to be is in love.

She tried a matchmaking service--until it sent her a recovering drug addict just out of a halfway house who bragged that his apartment was furnished with boxes, and that he could fit all his worldly belongings into his Plymouth Duster. It was not a match.

She joined Great Expectations to meet someone blond, six feet tall, who will respect her and listen to her, "Someone who would call in sick to work just to come out to play with me."

"I don't think I'll find someone to meet all my criteria," she says, discouraged. In fact, she tends to find guys who have more important things to do. "Women are the disposable parts of their lives," she says philosophically. "Business is the important part to them." Just like Jeanette, she'd like to blow business off altogether and have children, which is not what high-powered executives are taught in business school.

"Men," she says. "I don't think they place women in their top five concerns. They don't have a clue."
And maybe she doesn't, either. And maybe men and women are different species from different planets.

Or maybe there is hope.
@body:Amy is 22, tall and lanky, with Julia Roberts looks beneath lots of strawberry-blond hair. She holds her arms tightly in front of her, and the body language is crystal clear. She's talking about the horrors of dating. She works in a small office with older married folks, and wondered where she'd ever meet anyone. She took a classified ad in the paper, got 50 responses and was afraid to answer any of them. Then she came across the Most Eligible Singles Directory while flipping through the phone book, signed up, and then immediately regretted it.

One afternoon she got a phone call from an embarrassed fellow that Lynda Johncock had prodded into calling. The only thing they had in common was how stupid they felt for joining a dating service, but they talked about that for hours. Phil called again, more than once. "We didn't expect anything to happen, so we developed a friendship," Amy says.

The first thing she realized when they met face to face was how little he resembled the ideal mate she had dreamed about. This was someone she never would have talked to if they met in a bar. "I would have thought he was a meathead," she says, "a big football-player type who thought he was God's gift to the world."

The marriage is set for October.

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Michael Kiefer