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Week #14
Blind Date Café (Part 1)

“I have a riddle that I bet you can’t solve?” Mathias leaned over the partition and announced in a carrying voice.

 

It was the version of Chicken, in our office full of nerds. I had to take on the challenge even if I had hated riddles. Otherwise, I had to wear the rooster hat, with the big red comb on top, for a week. But I didn't hate riddles and I had 6 leadership meetings this week. I wasn’t going to walk into them in a chicken hat. I’d rather pay up whatever Mathias wanted to bet on if I lost.

“What are we betting on Mathias?”

 

“If you lose, you have to go out with us this weekend to the Blind Date café and take part in the Carousel.”

 

“That sounds like two things. You know you can only bet one thing per challenge. I’ll agree to go to the Café but no promises on participating in the Carousel, whatever that is.” I was hoping to get out of the unknown danger using a technicality.

 

“Let me rephrase… If you lose, you have to participate in the Carousel at the Blind Date café this Friday. Does that meet the technical requirements?” Mathias was obviously no fool.

 

“Fine Mathias. But if I win, no one can do another riddle challenge in the office for a year. Deal?”

“Deal”

 

The response was frustratingly fast. It didn’t bode well that Mathias had that much confidence. He's probably found some obscure science fact and turned it into a riddle that I'm never going to get.

Resigned to my fate I sighed and asked, “So, what’s your riddle?”

“What comes less than once in a century and every person in this office today has lived through?”

“Uhhhhh… some comet or meteor shower? or a 100 year flood? It has to be a weather thing or an astronomy thing. Those are the only ones that happen once in a hundred years.” I thought out loud.

 

Mathias just kept smiling. The glint in his eyes were just unsettling. “That’s two guesses. You have one more.”

 

“If I get half the answer, then I still get to decide how much of the bet I have to do and you have to do half of mine.”

 

“If you get half right, we can negotiate.” His calm confidence was unnerving.

“So, you are saying it’s not weather or astronomy related… hmm…” I took a deep breath and blocked Mathias’ smirking face from my mind. I had to think it through and I was sure it would come. “Right, a pandemic. Everyone here today lived through COVID and the last pandemic was the Spanish flu in 1918-19. There, I got it.”

 

“That’s 3 guesses and no, you didn’t get it. The answer is TODAY. Can you guess why? Think of the date”

 

“Huh? What’s so special about today? It’s Friday, May 21st. We get a Friday once a week, a 21st every month and a May 21st every year. How is any of this once a century?”

 

“Keep going… or do you want me to just tell you?”

 

“Hush… let me think.” It was one thing to not get a riddle but to not get the meaning of the answer when you have the answer was not acceptable. I just needed a moment. “Oh… I see. It’s the 21st day in the 21st week in the 21st year in the 21st century… so, yeah, last time that would’ve happened is in 14th century… nice. Good one Mathias.” I had to admit.

 

“Thank you! I knew you’d get there quickly.”

 

“Right, the way you were smirking really said you thought I’ll get it. Totally believe you.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I figured it was 90-10 odds that you won’t get the answer. Because every time we do a riddle you expect it to be a word game or a science quiz. You never expect it to be a math problem because you know you are the best in the office for that and so automatically assume we’d never ask you a math riddle. You know what that means? The best way to get you is to ask a math problem… no, no, what I meant when I said I knew you’d get it quickly is that once I told you the answer, you’d know the explanation for the answer quickly. Your freaky brain would calculate it in a heartbeat.”

“You are so flattering Mathias… since I got the explanation without your help, I'd say we should call this a draw, don’t you think?” I had to try to get out of this blind date nonsense.

“No chance sunshine. You didn’t get the answer. So, you lost the bet and you have to do as agreed or wear the chicken hat for 2 weeks.”

“Fine… what’s the Carousel anyway? What do I have to do?” I sighed. But how bad could one night be anyway…

 

“It’s the main event at the Café. It’s a modern interpretation of the old speed dating concept. Women walk from booth to booth and men have to stay in their respective booths. You get 2 minutes to introduce yourself but it has to be in the form of an answer to a specific question the host has written for the night. End of the two minutes you can get up and move to another booth but If you want to continue talking after 2 minutes you can stay only if the booth owner doesn’t ring you out. Then you get a second question from the host you and the booth owner have to answer about yourselves. This time you get 4 minutes to talk. That's essentially the pattern. Your question comes in intervals that double every time you stay.”

“Ah… so 2 minutes first, 4 next, 8 next, 16 next… ok, so the concept is the longer you stay the more you talk and get to know the other person. So, how many booths are there?”

 

“Six”

 

“Ok, so I can be done in 12 minutes with the Carousel. What time does it start?”

 

“Eight, but you can register for the night by seven and the line to register forms around Six. So, we have to get there by 5:55”

 

“What? I have to spend 2 ½ hours on this nonsense just to participate in 12 mins of meeting idiots. Are you kidding me? A Friday night of all things? C’mon Mathias. Can’t you pick something else? How about I do your next scenario analysis that’s due next week?”

 

“Sorry bud but you can’t swap work favors for this one. You made the bet. It has to be the Carousel. Plus, it’s not like you are doing anything fun Friday nights, are you?”

 

“Of course, I’m doing fun stuff. I have a new book and I was thinking of doing a hike this weekend so I was going to drive to the mountains on Friday. Now I won’t be able to leave till 9 at the earliest. Ugh…”

 

“It’s your choice. Do the Carousel or wear the chicken hat. You can always explain why you are the proud owner of the hat in your management presentations and client meetings. It’ll be an entertaining intro... Now, they may not trust someone who can’t keep their half of a bet but who knows…. Maybe they’ll understand.”

“Ugh… you are just evil. I will figure out how to get you for this. Just wait and see Mathias.”

 

Friday morning I packed a change of clothes for the night out along with my normal gym clothes. My plan was to go to the gym last thing in the day and change into the casual clothes for going out. It was just a denim and an easy shirt. I refused to get dressed up for my walk of shame. I had agreed to meet Mathias and Jojo at the parking lot by 5:30 to driver over to the Café. I was there 5 minutes late.

 

“Thought you chickened out.” Mathias smirked.

 

“I keep my word dude.” I grumbled as we all got in my car. “Jojo, have you done this before?”

“Yes, once. It’s actually really hard to get in. I’ve tried a whole bunch of times. I’m hoping we can make it today.”

 

“Mathias, if I don’t get in today the bet is off. It’s not my fault if they fill up.” Maybe luck will be on my side and I could get out of this after all.

 

“Fine.” Mathias said absently as he furiously typed. He didn’t sound nearly worried enough for my comfort.

When we walked up to the Café after parking, my hopes rose. There were enough people milling around in front of the entrance already. Definitely more than 12 people. But Mathias didn’t stop. He walked straight in and showed his phone to the host at the front desk who ushered us in.

 

“What did you do Mathias?” Jojo asked, excited.

 

“I paid the VIP entrance fee so we get early access.” One more smirk.

 

I decided I hate Mathias though I had to admire the lengths he went to cover his bets.

“If your pronouns are she/her please take the left path. If your pronouns are he/him please take the right. If your pronouns are they/them and would like to be a walker take the left or would like to be in a booth please take the right.” The host pointed to two covered paths.

 

“What’s the deal with the cave entrance?” I whispered to Jojo who was walking in front of me. Mathias had taken the right path.

 

“Oh… so when you are playing in the Carousel you don’t get to see the other person until you’ve passed the 5th question.”

“You have to talk to them for 30 minutes before you see their face? I’m not sure I want to date anyone without seeing their face. It’s the first thing that attracts you to someone.”

 

“Exactly. We tend to judge people based on their looks and physical characteristics so much that we never get to actually know the person before deciding. So the idea  here is you first have to get to know them and earn the right to see them and hear them.”

 

“Oh… that’s the whole ‘blind’ part in the Blind Date Café. This might actually be an interesting social experiment for a change. So, is it only the ugly ones that participate then?” I might be willing to spend 4 minutes each instead of 2, I decided.

“Not exactly. Looks split in the middle really. What you do get here is people who have moved on from the one-night stands and are looking for something longer term.’

 

“What in the world made Mathias think I wanted a long-term commitment?” I thought I was good at keeping my personal life out of work life but I was no longer certain.

“Well, you know Mathias has a thing for you, right? But you are the ice queen and no one knows anything about your preferences. So, this is Mathias’ way of trying. Now he at least knows you are straight and date guys”

“What? Why would Mathias have a thing for me? I don’t do any of the normal things women do to attract men at work?”

 

“You know a mystery and a challenge is more attractive than an open book. To most…”

 

“Oh… So, if I want to be left alone I should make it obvious there’s no mystery here. That’s insightful Jojo.”

 

I expected the next hour to be a drag once I understood the 6 ‘walkers’ would stay in a partitioned section by ourselves. But to my surprise, it turned out to be nice. There was food and alcohol served and the setting was just personal and cozy enough to talk.

There was Rebecca, a gorgeous yoga instructor that could make the normal us look pudgy and out of shape. She spoke of how her outer appearance scares away nice guys.

 

There was Anya, a 6 foot banker that was the model of sophistication. She spoke of how her accent and lifestyle only attracted egotistic deviants. She was particularly excited about the voice distortion aspect of the experiment.

 

There was Mayan, a data scientist who had changed their pronoun at some point in the last year. They seemed to be rebelling against tradition and wanted to find someone before their parents did.

 

There was Irene, the bartender at Blind Date Café on most nights but today had decided to try her luck at the Carousel. She didn’t speak much but when she did she was bubbling with enthusiasm. The way she was smiling to herself when she thought no one was looking almost made me think of someone already in love. The puppy dog, life is a miracle and every rose is worth smelling type of love. I couldn’t figure out why she would take part in the Carousel if her heart was singing for someone already. Unless that someone was here, I suppose.

Then there was Jojo and I. That made the 6 walkers.

 

When the host came to announce the Carousel was about to open, I realized I was a tad nervous.

 

I’ve had my share of the thrill of falling in love only to find out the world is no fairytale and there is no happily ever after. I had chosen to accept that life was too short to be spent looking for a legendary love and too valuable to be spent in compromise. Instead, I lived vicariously through stories whether they be books, movies or comic strips. I had my choice of prince charming with one character’s physical attributes, another’s mental acuity and yet another’s temperament. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster my collage of prince charming was perfect. As a result, I knew no real person will ever measure up. I had lived in the safety of this knowledge a long time, deflecting all overtures of intimacy beyond friendship.

The experiment the host was inviting me to now invaded that fragile safety and I hesitated.

“It’s this or the Chicken hat.” Jojo pointed out reasonably. “It’s just 12 minutes. You can survive this.”

 

Right. I can survive 12 minutes.

 

The host handed each of us a stack of 6 colored cards as she explained the rules.

 

“It’s simple ladies. You start with the booth that match the color on the top of your card stack. When you move from a booth you toss the card in one of the discard bins. After the first, if your next color booth is occupied then you move on to the next and the next. Sometimes you have to wait a bit for one to open and sometimes none open after the first. You are welcome to wait as long as you like for a booth to open as long as there is an occupant in the booth. Now here’s how it works once you sit down. There’s an opaque screen dividing the booth in half. When you sit a question will appear on the screen and a timer at the bottom. The 1st question comes with a 2 minute timer. You and the booth owner have to answer the question in the 2 minutes. At the end of the 2 minutes the screen goes blank. If you want to continue the conversation then you have to touch the screen. If you and the booth owner on the other side both touch the screen then the next question will come up with a timer for 4 minutes. This routine repeats with time doubling with every question. If the booth owner doesn't touch the screen you have to move on, even if you don't want to. We appreciate maintaining decorum. As you all know, you will not be able to see the booth owner until the 5th question. So you would’ve had to spend ½ hr talking to a person before you can see them. Sometimes, there are some bonuses you can choose but only if you and the booth owner choose it together. You’ll find them as you play. Just one reminder, please respect the others participating in the Carousel. This means being civil, no threats or slurs, no intimidation and no waterworks. The host has the right to evict you from the premises and ban you for life if your conduct is deemed inappropriate. Are we clear?” The host locked eyes with each participant to ensure the message was clearly received before moving on and opening the door for us to exit.

 

“Well, I hope you all have fun and find that special person tonight. Good luck. Find your booth. Timers start in 1 minute.”

 

The main floor that opened up below was a spectacular night club the size of half a football field. A fully stocked bar was in the middle with the dance floor surrounding the bar. The edges of the dance floor were scattered with tables for two. The booths were set on the far edges of the floor tucked into the walls. We could see people entering them from the side but the dim lighting in the club made it hard to see faces.

My top card was yellow. The corresponding booth was across from where we entered the floor. I walked over as Jojo wished me luck. I could see Irene running to the purple booth a couple of feet over from the yellow one. I still couldn’t figure out what that girl was doing or why she was all excited. With a sigh I stepped into the yellow booth and took the seat in front of the screen that said, ‘Welcome to the Carousel. We will begin in 12 seconds.’ The countdown continued till it hit 0 and then the screen changed.

 

What do you do? Answer without naming a profession. Answer by explaining the impact of what you do.’

“Hello, are you there?”

 

The voice came from speakers set on the side walls of the booth and the table top. It was an ingenious design that muted the outside noises but didn’t project the inside conversation out. It created the illusion that you were in a small space, having an intimate conversation as the world swirled around you.

 

But the voice itself had an alien-ness to it. It was clearly distorted to make it less human, less relatable.

 

“Hi… Yes, I’m here.”

“Good. Good. So, you want to go first?”

 

I immediately decided he lacks confidence. Can’t take control of the situation and tries too hard. Or he’s hedging because he doesn’t have a clear answer.

 

“Sure... I make sense out of chaos. I bring clarity to confusion and disorder through discipline. I make it easy to make decisions. That’s what I do. How about you?”

“Uhhhh… Wow, that was brilliant. Now I really want to get to know you more. Please stay for the next round.”

“You didn’t answer the question.” I waited a moment before reminding him. His begging made the likelihood of me sticking around that much lower. I watched the timer run down as he continued to stammer.

“Uhhh… Well, I guess I make the world go round. Because that’s what money does, right? And I make more money from money.”

“Right… sounds like you are a hedge fund manager.”

 

“Oh… Bravo, you got it. It’s like you can read my mind already.”

 

Soon as the bell chimed to show the timer had run off, I stood up. There was no way I was going to spend another minute with someone with so little imagination.

 

Anya walked over as I was walking away.

 

“No good?” Anya asked.

 

“Not the one for me.” I smiled. I wanted to add, probably not the one for you either but it wouldn’t be fair to the guy. “Good luck.”

I walked over to the purple booth, my next card. That’s when I saw Irene. She was banging on the screen in the middle while tears ran down her face.

 

“Please, please talk to me. Please put your hand on the screen. Please don’t give up. I know I’m the one.” Irene kept repeating.

 

“Irene, what are you doing? Why are you crying?” I spoke softly. I couldn’t help feeling sorry seeing how devastated Irene looked. How could anyone be like this after a 2-minute conversation? I didn’t understand.

 

“No, no you can’t come in here. We are not done.” Irene’s eyes begged. The light I had thought of as hope glistening in her eyes before looked like a sickness ravaging her from inside.

 

“I understand. No worries Irene.” I turned around and walked out but just as I exited, I saw the back door of the booth close and a tall figure clad in black walk away. The line of the shoulders and the gait was somehow familiar but he was disappearing in the crowd before I could place him. Shaking my head, I walked over to the green booth. I felt sorry for Irene standing there talking to an empty room but I appreciated that my 6 rounds might have dropped down to 5 thanks to her.

Blind Date Café - Part 2

   

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