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"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.

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Michael Kiefer