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Introduction: The single-adult savannah

I go to a Mormon, or Latter-day Saint, singles event the way most people go to the dentist: rarely, and with great trepidation. You’ve gotta do it, there’s an ache you’d really like to get rid of, but it’s painful. A virtual stranger talks your ear off, there’s bad 90s music being piped in from somewhere and you’d rather be knocked out while the process takes care of itself. The difference is that with the dentist it’s all over in an hour and you walk out with better teeth.

This summer Friday night, reluctantly doing my duty, I am attending yet another religion class and activity at the chapel. There is a selection of special workshops on offer tonight. By now I’ve learned to avoid the session on dating and/or marriage (more or less one and the same in the minds of many Mormons). After years in the church singles program I’ve had about enough of that message, even if marriage is what I want more than anything else. Instead I choose an innocuous-looking workshop called “Living a Happy and Successful Life.” I take a seat inside and the room gradually fills with people. On the dot of eight, the presenters—a gregarious, plump couple in their early 50s—hustle to close the doors behind us and cry “Surprise! This is actually a workshop about marriage! But we knew if we called it that no one would come!”

Ignoring the panic-stricken faces around them, they launch into their carefully prepared message. “We want you to know that you guys are good people, even if you’re still single,” Brother Crouston says. Though it would be better if you were married. He doesn’t actually come out and say that, but it’s implicit in his next statement, a reminder of doctrine of which we are already keenly aware. “The most important thing any Latter-day Saint can ever do in this world is marry the right person. Nobody will reach their eternal potential without a companion.”

To that end, he and his wife spend the next fifty minutes discussing dating tips and strategies. They are well-meaning but hopelessly outdated. “Take a picnic dinner and go to the drive-in movie! Just remember: no necking allowed!” (Has anyone ever come up with a less appealing word to describe kissing?) They call on a few unlucky souls at the front to participate in some role-plays. “So, Jessica, when he asks you for a date, even if you’re not attracted to him, what do you say?” “Yes,” Jessica responds meekly. “That’s right,” Sister Crouston beams. “It’s important to go out with him at least once. That’s being kind, and hey—” she winks—“you never know!”

There’s an unnerving urgency about the whole thing, as if we don’t get out there and get dating right away, our lives—our eternal lives—could be ruined. At the end I stumble out into daylight (well, hall light), not actually feeling like a good person.

I follow the trickle of people heading into the “cultural hall” (gymnasium) for food. The room gradually fills. By the start of the get-to-know-you activities, there are about sixty people milling about — approximately forty-nine women and eleven men. As usual, the pickings are slim (well, some are not). I sigh.

As I move to the refreshment table and half-heartedly take a few carrot sticks, I glance up in time to see a new guy walk through the doors. He’s tall, slender, sandy-haired and about my age. Not only is he actually decent-looking, he has a confident air about him and he’s dressed like a functioning man — i.e. he has shoes that could be worn to an office. What is someone like that doing here? I wonder. And could he be the one? This next question runs through my head before I have a chance to stop it.

I’m not the only person who’s noticed him. About seven other women’s heads have turned. He sets down his bag and smiles at my friend Andy, who happens to be standing near him, and starts chatting. They seem unaware that conversations all around the gym have dropped to a whisper. Women are quietly but resolutely setting down their cups of cream soda and securing their purses across their chests, preparing for pursuit.

Denise, recently jilted, wastes no time. She’s already trying to catch his eye as she stealthily begins inching toward him. My good friend Amelia, whose missionary Dear Jane’d her and now desperately wants to get engaged before he does, is not far behind. I don’t know the other women on the approach, but they’re warily sizing each other up. A determined focus shines from each pair of eyes.

Andy and the guy are laughing and talking, unaware that members of the opposite sex are closing in from every direction. Suddenly I have become a spectator in a show eerily reminiscent of National Geographic. It’s like watching a pride of lionesses bearing down on an oblivious young gazelle, the dramatic soundtrack no more or less than biological clocks ticking like time bombs. All that’s missing is the David Attenborough voice-over — and the growling. Unlike in the animal kingdom, each queen of the single-adult savannah is in pursuit for herself, and the last thing she’ll do if she pounces is share the bounty.

Suddenly, the stranger seems to catch a whiff of something in the wind (Dior, maybe?). He stiffens. Judging by the fear that leaps into his eyes when he sees the salivating female horde surrounding him, he is wishing he’d paid more attention to his mother when she warned him about going off by himself where there are dangerous marriage-minded creatures about.

He’s frozen in place. Just as a young blonde thing lunges for his arm, the impossible happens. Andy shakes him from his trance, picks up his bag and leads him out of the fray, straight ahead to me…