NUMBER NINE boasts a near-perfect waist-to-hip ratio, but he has a smattering of acne across the bottom of his jaw. Too bad. Today we’re being paid to judge the books solely by their covers. Six almost looks cute in the silver spandex singlets we’re all wearing. It stretches from the crown of his head to the tops of his ankles, covering his hair and ears. His eyes are too wide, though, broadcasting his naiveté.
All of us here in the Vanderbilt University gym are standing in two lines facing each other, ten men and ten women. Dr. Benjamin (pronounced “Bin-ha-meen” he’s corrected more than once) stands at the room’s edge. “For today’s study, I want you to assess the physical attractiveness of each person in the opposite line,” he says. “When you see a participant you find physically attractive, hold out your hand to that person. If they accept and a match is made, walk to where I’m standing now. If they don’t accept, move to someone else. Please refrain from talking or making any physical gestures to each other. It’s that simple. Now off you go.”
We do, ten sperms and ten eggs vying for a spot in creation. Nine accepts a hand to my right. Two steps in front of me and extends his hand. His face is a little too round. Nice eyes, though. Pass. Now Seven, that’s a real man. I’ve never seen a jaw so chiseled. His abs damn near poke through his singlet. I walk over, hold out my hand. He looks me up and down, shakes his head. Shit. Four holds out his hand to me. Broad shoulders, clear skin. I take it. We share a smile and step out of the mating zone.
As the floor thins out, people get desperate. Nobody wants to be the last match. We have this obsession with free will, the perception that we’re acting on our right to choose. I’m the worst of the lot. Dr. Benjamin may be world-renowned for his studies in evolution and reproduction, but I’m far from clueless. I’m a graduate student in evolutionary psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It’s far enough away from Nashville that I can blend in with the locals and forget about the endless cups of coffees and shitty movies and unwelcome kiss attempts. I’m tired of bars, of ring-less men letting it slip that they’re married after half an hour of flirting. I don’t think it’s too dishonest to let Vanderbilt compile a group of eligible bachelors. I know what it means to have the 1:1 waist-to-hip ratio, the square jaw. In short, I know what I’m looking for. Some scholars theorize the modern human brain evolved as little more than an intricate mating tool. If that’s true, I’m just exercising my right to use it intentionally.
I smile at Four. He assumes that look raccoons get when they see something shiny. “How are you?” he mouths.
“Fine,” I say wordlessly. I point to him. You?
He nods. Good.
While Dr. Benjamin talks, Four shoots me sequential glances. Now comes the hard part, where he mans up and asks for my number. You’d be surprised how many guys walk into the bar, smile from across the room – only to leave you sitting alone, half-empty glass in hand.
“Thanks for participating,” Dr. Benjamin says to us all. He’s scribbling something on a clipboard. “You’re free to go.”
“What an interesting way to meet people, huh?” I say to Four.
He chuckles. “Yeah.”
Come on, now. I’ve given you plenty of ammo. Pull the trigger.
“Guess we should get changed,” he says.
The room’s thinning out. “Looks like it.”
“It was nice meeting you.”
He vanishes into the hallway.
Pussy. You’d already beaten out 90% of the room (if you don’t count Seven, which I don’t). When did men start expecting women to take all of the risk? I’m wagering an egg, a pregnancy, and at least eighteen child-raising years on this transaction. The least you can do is ask for my number. Worst-case scenario, I say “No.” You’ll live.
IT’S ALMOST five. I walk away from the campus, back in my jeans and a hoodie. I need a cup of coffee, a few minutes to relax, and I’ll be good to go.
I step into a café that used to be a house. In the back corner there’s an undergrad on his MacBook. Judging by the side-swept bangs and ironic Beatles tee, I’m guessing he’s misunderstood. The woman behind the counter has a red faux-hawk. Her nostril is pierced from end-to-end. “What’ll you have?” she asks.
I order a caramel latte, take a seat, and lean my head against the wall. Why do we put so much pressure on this find-a-mate thing anyway? What about overpopulation? Plenty of people are making babies. Even people who shouldn’t be.
Maybe it’s time to give online dating a shot.
This guy steps into the cafe. Nice shoes, dark jeans, slim build. He has short, dirty blonde hair. Eye color is indiscernible from here. He orders an iced tea and sits at one of the nearby tables. He looks vaguely familiar. When he sees me, he subtly tilts his head as if trying to place me.
“Have we met before?” he says.
“I don’t think so, but I was just thinking you look familiar. You’re not from Birmingham, are you?”
He stands and walks over to my table. “Mind if I join you? At least until we get to the bottom of this.”
“Go ahead.” This is kind of fun.
He sits and drapes his right arm over the back of another chair. “How long you been in town?” he asks.
“Drove up yesterday.”
“What are you here for?”
“Academic project. I’m in grad school.”
“Has your work taken you to Vandy? I just came from there.”
Hold up. I look more closely. Roundish face, eyes that smile even if his mouth isn’t. “You’re Two,” I say.
I can see the wheels turning in his head.
“Recognize me?” I ask.
“Oh my God.” He raises his hands in surrender and laughs. “You’re Eight.”
“This is insane.” I laugh with him. “Who did you end up with?”
“Six. You nearly destroyed my ego.”
“Sorry about that. I had my eye on Seven.”
“Fucking Seven. That’s the guy no dude wants in the bar. He’s like a curve breaker.”
“If it’s any consolation, I thought you were cute.”
“You know? I could tell.” He arranges his hands in two “L” shapes, forming a frame around my face. “Hm. That’s what I was afraid of.” He lowers them.
“It’s nothing.” He drinks his tea.
He leans forward and motions for me to do the same. “You looked better in the jumpsuit,” he whispers.
“Hey!” I throw a straw at him.
“Who’d you end up with?”
“Sorry about Seven.”
“That’s alright. It’s just our day to get shot down.”
“Here’s to that.” He raises his clear plastic glass, I meet it with my cardboard cup.
“You know, a friend is throwing a party in west Nashville tonight,” he says. “You should come.”
“That sounds great, but I’m staying with a friend. I’d feel bad, leaving her.”
“Bring her. I actually have to run, but we should exchange numbers.” He holds out his phone. “I’ll text you directions.”
I dial in my number and hand it back.
“It was cool hanging with you, Eight. Do you have a real name?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” He smiles. “See you tonight, Eight.”
So he doesn’t have the squarest jaw. Mystery is sexy.