Bear market

“Are you wearing purple on purpose?” Kirstin asks, interrupting my conversation.

I take a sip of wine, blink, and turn my attention away from Dave. I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about. “Uh, well I knew I would be wearing purple when I put on this shirt,” I snark.

Kirstin is the “organizer” (loosely defined) of the evening’s event — a mercifully untelevised, middle-class version of The Millionaire Matchmaker. The men have paid $100 and the women $25 to be matched by Kirstin with other single professionals. The name of the “service” (loosely defined) is Invest in Love.

So far about ten people have filtered in to the event, held in the salmon-and-grey multi-purpose function room of a high-end apartment complex near MIT. The ambiance suggests urban luxury…of the bland sort favored by real estate developers. I imagine the tenants above us, all financiers and VPs of sales & marketing, who wear suits and khakis and talk bigger than they really are.

Down here on the ground floor, we singles mingle. Our ages range from mid-20’s to mid-50’s. Our attire ranges from tight minidress, to navy suit, to jeans the color of dishwater; both they and the person filling them look like they’ve been salvaged from a Dumpster. “Dress code is whatever makes you feel good,” the invitation had said. I’m wearing ink-black cords, mary janes with a 3-inch heel, and makeup hastily bought from Walgreens the day before. And a purple top.

“Oh, don’t you know?” Kirstin prattles on. “Today it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride day. You show your support by wearing purple.”

Is she asking me if I’m a lesbian? After interrupting a conversation with a man she purportedly “love-matched” to me? Is she insane?

Kirstin, as it turns out, is spectacularly incompetent. She has all the frenetic energy but none of the outrageous personality of Patti, the ridiculous yet oddly compelling title character of Millionaire Matchmaker. Patti gets results. She is the Judge Judy of matchmaking: whiny and demanding and opinionated and self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. She is shiny, collagen-enhanced lips; flat-ironed, glossy hair; 6-inch platform heels; d├ęcolletage. Perfect sick-day TV.

Kirstin, on the other hand, is a flowered wrap dress and sensible heels – the event planner, say, for a bar mitzvah. Her wavy, mouse-brown hair is inelegantly tousled. Morning mascara still clings to her lashes, though her peach lipstick is fresh.

It’s 15 minutes into the event and most of the guests have yet to arrive. Kirsten, a furious cloud of manic anxiety, periodically interrupts her guests’ halting attempts at sociability to announce a text or call from an attendee-to-be. “Jane says she’s stuck in traffic,” she shouts over the awkward flirting. The harsh panel lighting illuminates the sweat on her brow. “But she’ll be here in 10 minutes!” None of us knows, or cares, who Jane is.

When she’s not blockading the very reason we’ve all paid her to be here, Kirsten hurries around looking for her phone, perpetually misplaced on the microwave or among the bottles of $20-or-less wine each guest was asked to bring. To ease her anxiety, her customers ask if we can help — find glasses for the wine, perhaps. As we wait, sipping from plastic faux wine glasses, she implores us to eat from the trough of Pad Thai in the kitchen.

In the end, about 25 people show up. Among the men, there’s a lot of greased-down curly hair — nerd-extras escaped from the set of Porky’s IV, perhaps. There’s also Amelie, a bubbly Red Sox fan, and Yvette, an intriguing Japanese/Korean/Mongolian/Polish woman from in Ulan Ude, Russia (“You know it?” she cries, amazed that I have marveled in person at the disembodied concrete Lenin’s head that sits in the town square). Rounding out the group there’s Hair Club For Men guy trying soooo hard to be charming, a frizzy-haired Russian woman wearing a muumuu, and a young Ugandan man who won’t look me in the eye.

And then there’s Mr. Senator – old white guy, greying hair, dark blue suit. Kirstin makes a point of introducing us. “You two have a lot in common,” she says. He smells like talcum powder and aftershave.

“I just flew in from New York,” he starts, by way of explaining the suit. “IBM just bought us.” I sip my wine. Soon we’re talking New York real estate. “Two bedroom, two bath apartment on West 57th Street,” he says. “Guess how much?” (Translation: “What’s the rent in the least interesting part of Manhattan?”)

It’s common knowledge among New Yorkers that all conversations eventually turn to sports, sex or real estate. I’m genuinely distressed to find that the disease has spread north to Boston.

I finish my wine and look around for a refill. “How far west?” I hedge. The stem falls off my “wine glass,” leaving me holding just the bowl. The good news is that I need neither stem nor base; I’m not planning to put the glass down anytime soon.

“Eighth Ave.,” he says.

I throw out a random number, cupping my wine bowl like Shackleton would a hot cup of tea.

“$6800 a month!” he cries. “Do you know what I can get for that in Cambridge?”

The first bright spot of the evening comes when this conversation is interrupted, by Kirstin. Based on a questionnaire we’ve all filled out, she has arranged us into cliques of 4-6 men and women. Over the course of the evening, each clique will spend about 15 minutes talking, aided by party-game conversation starters (Scruples, Two Truths and a Lie, etc.). Then everyone will rotate to another clique, then another. One of the men in one of the groups should spark my interest. In theory.

First session: A Harvard researcher of psychotropic drugs. Cool! Except then he launches into a monologue about how he and his best bud Paul Simon (yes, that one) stole Sting’s limo once. Somehow this story morphs into a lecture on Asian dishes that involve bugs. When I butt in with my own story about sharing a bag of wok-fried bugs with a young Cambodian on a bus to Siem Reap, his eyes dart back and forth in panic. Apparently he’s just realized there’s someone else in the room. To ease his troubles, I let him interrupt and impress me with his Japanese language skills.

Second session: Fifty-ish guy in a comically stereotypical cheap suit, the shininess of which is offset by the matte brown of his hair and goatee, freshly Just-for-Men’d. He wants to hear about my writing, about the places I’ve traveled. But grim, frizzy-haired Russian woman isn’t having it. She keeps interrupting to argue. “My cousin who traveled to Mongolia and wrote about his experience had his story picked up by the Wall Street Journal,” she sniffs. You’re right. I think. I’m wrong. It’s actually really easy to be a travel writer. I change the subject.

Third session: Dave, a film producer/director (in his mind) and real estate agent (in reality), is talking about his favorite subject: himself. Kirstin interrupts to ask if I’m a lesbian. It’s a relief, to be honest. Soon Dave is engrossed in conversation with Amelie. They’re talking about real estate.

The structured part of the evening is over. I fall into conversation with Chris, one of the evening’s “expert” speakers, who also happened to be in both my second and third sessions. He’s the only man here who is relaxed and smiling. He cracks a joke. His eyes sparkle. He’s engaged and confident. Conversation is flowing. I’m interested.

And then he says, “……my wife…..”