That was how much Neil's alleged friend had set him back on registration for a speed dating event. The worst part? It wasn't even for Neil's benefit. But Neil was a good friend and good friends support others by playing wingman at awkward social events. He should have known better than to agree to go along with the farce. They had arrived a quarter till and hit the bar for a warm-up drink. Before Neil could finish thanking the bartender his friend whirled away to a group of guys at the other end of the bar and began flirting like he hadn't just gotten out of a messy break-up.
Any energy he had been able to drum up before he exited the car left him with the long-winded sigh over his overpriced cocktail. He tried to look at it as something different to break the monotony of his life. Early to rise, early to work, crunch some numbers for eight hours, go home and make some dinner, then hit the sack. Wash, rinse, repeat. Oh yeah, he was living the dream.
He dipped a stirring stick into his drink and drew it across his tongue in what he hoped was a very unflattering and completely non-sexual kind of way. He wasn't looking to get anything for himself out of the evening. No, that would be breaking too much out of the routine. Will did have a point though when he begged Neil to join him that it wouldn't hurt to at least make some new acquaintances. He was usually left out of weekend traipses through the city these days and maybe the event wouldn't be a complete waste of a Wednesday night and surrender unto him a movie buddy.
Provided the attendees of the event weren't stalkers, molesters, or riddled with disease.
A willowy blonde woman who was obviously straight chimed a bell and announced it was time for everyone participating in the event to huddle up. Neil scoffed under his breath and rolled his eyes as he made his way to the area she had indicated for them to gather like they were football players or something. Neil took a cautious sip of his drink and scanned the crowd waiting for instructions. Some of them weren't too bad looking. Will waved at him with an index finger and a sly grin while a muscled Asian spoke to him. Neil would bet anyone in the group one hundred dollars that Will went home with him. The willowy blonde, he decided to call Willow, finished her conversation with a few of the women in attendance and explained the rules.
Everyone would be assigned a number and given some paper to carry around with them as they sat for three minutes at a table with another person in the group. If you were interested in them you indicated as much on your paper and once the bell rang you moved on to the next person. Only one side of the tables would rotate around the room moving towards their right with the people at the end of the row making their way back to the tables along the starting wall. After everyone had met each other once a final bell would be rung signaling you were free to mingle and try to get to know the ones on your list a little better and see what sparks would fly!
Neil grimaced and shot Will a quick look of loathing. He owed him big time.
Willow indicated where the women would run through their rounds and the series of couple tables where the men would make theirs. Neil continued to sip his drink while she went around issuing numbers. Willow approached him and with an airy smile handed him a badge numbered 23. Neil gave her a timid smile, beginning to feel a little apprehensive about going through with the meetings and pinned the badge to his shirt. At least there weren't attempts to make the plastic badges more fashion friendly, he observed as the other men dutifully pinned theirs on. Once Willow had handed out the last badge she directed everyone to their first seats and rang the bell for the fun to begin.
Neil set his drink on his designated table, thankful to be on the side that didn't have to move around, and looked at number 7 seated across from him. He didn't think it was possible for anyone to look more nervous about this thing than he but number 7 definitely had him beat. They sat in awkward silence for a moment just looking at each other.
"So," Neil finally screwed up his courage and decided to take charge for once and break the ice, "what do you do for a living, number 7?"
"Paul," he said and fumbled with his badge a little, "I'm a clerk at Clarice's on Second Street."
Neil nodded and stirred his drink. "That hat boutique, right? The one with the really bright pink trim around its windows?"
Paul laughed and nodded. "Yeah, it's kind of boring most of the time with so few customers but when they do come in they throw down a lot of money for the things."
Neil smiled good-naturedly. "Elderly women and their overabundance of free time, hm?"
Paul nodded and rubbed his palms against his jeans. Neil studied him a little closer. He was kind of cute but bragging about his sales was a bit of a turn off. Neil could picture the kind of domestic scenario that would follow being with Paul. Neil coming home from his routine as usual while Paul either brags about the huge sale of berets he made to some 80 year old woman with an ailing hip or once again asking for 'a little help' because the store hadn't seen a customer for three days.
Willow rang the bell and Paul shot her a panicked look for a moment before smiling apologetically at Neil. "Sorry I didn't get to learn much about you."
He smiled back with less sincerity though his voice was loaded with it. "That's cool, I think everyone's a little tense right now."
Paul nodded his head then waved a little before getting up from his seat and heading down to the next table. Neil let out as subtle of a sigh as he possibly could and wondered what fresh hell was up next.
Number 12 was a sweaty, slightly musky smelling early 20-something working as a waiter. Original.
Number 18 had been such a surprise. He was an actor working with the local art house on productions no one has ever heard of and produced by college kids from the nearby community college. Neil had never heard that one before.
He spent the entire three minutes glowering at Will, who happened to pick up badge number 5. Neil was sure he had traded.
He watched Number 3 march away and wished desperately he hadn't just heard three minutes of how amazing his life was as an accountant.
He had been hoping they were allowed a small five minute break so he could head back to the bar for something a little stronger when Number 9 slid into the seat across from him.
"Hi," he said with a slightly bemused expression on his face, "no offense, but this is hell."
Neil blinked at him twice before bursting out laughing. Number 9's smile widened.
"I take it you're having as wonderful a time as I am?"
"Oh absolutely," Neil grinned. "I just heard the most fascinating story about what kind of fancy tie clips and matching office accessories accountants buy."
Number 9 grimaced through a laugh. "At least you didn't have to sit through three minutes of the Importance of Color Coding in Bed, Bath and Beyond's kitchen department."
Neil laughed. "Where did these people come from?"
Number 9 shrugged his shoulder. "Mars? Venus? Some cornfield in Nebraska?"
Neil laughed again and pushed his drink away a little. "They wish they were from Mars."
Number 9 smiled at him. "Actually, I wish they were from Venus because that would mean they wouldn't be here because they'd be dead from the noxious air on that planet."
Neil's smiled faded a little as he tilted his head to the side slightly. "Did you just segue into the Discovery Channel on me?"
Number 9 laughed and scratched the back of his neck in a sign of discomfort. "Sorry, it's just my luck making fun of other people's jobs I'd work mine in. I work at the planetarium. Kind of nerdy, I know."
Neil blinked and shook his head. "No, that's… actually kind of cool. Sure as hell beats data entry for a bank's regional headquarters." He smiled reassuringly at Number 9.
"That's… depressingly realistic," Number 9 winced in sympathy.
Neil laughed and caught himself. He sure was laughing a lot.
Number 9 leaned forward on his elbows. "I know it sounds super cliché but I never thought in a million years that I would attend one of these things."
Neil smiled and nodded in agreement. "I'm here for support for a friend." He nodded in Will's direction as he shamelessly flirted with Number 30. "I'm certainly not desperately seeking, no offence."
Number 9 shook his head with a grin and took it in stride. "I'm more of a hesitantly seeking, myself. I understand most people come away from these things as fuck buddies and little more."
Neil felt himself flush and laughed at 9's abruptness. "Then what are you looking for?"
Number 9 looked past Neil's shoulder and shrugged a little. "Companionship? That's elderly. Someone who can carry a conversation that isn't about glitter, Bravo's fashion themed shows, or Lady Gaga."
Neil leaned back in his chair and regarded Number 9 thoughtfully. Aside from his lovely dark brown eyes this guy wasn't too much to look at but Neil couldn't deny there was something he liked there. Number 9 must have noticed the shift in his thoughts and licked his lips nervously.
"So… Number 23, do you have a name?"
Neil winced over his transparency but found he was charmed in spite of the whole thing. "Neil."
"I'm Samuel," he cocked his head to the side and reached across the table to shake hands. Neil's lips twisted ruefully into a smile and he took Samuel's hand.
"Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," Samuel shot him a smile that reached all the way to his eyes. Neil opened his mouth to say something else when the bell rang. He blinked and suddenly realized he didn't want their conversation to end.
"Well, Neil," Samuel had an unreadable expression on his face as he stood up and rested his weight against the back of the chair he had just occupied. "I hope you won't think me trite if I asked if we could continue this later? When the merry-go-round stops, that is."
Neil surveyed him for a moment and realized he actually was nervous about Neil turning him down. It was endearing. He smiled and nodded.
"I suppose I could make an exception for you."
"Great," Samuel gave him a lopsided grin and took a lingering step back. "Don't put anyone else's name down, then." He continued eye contact until the next person approached Neil's table then headed down the row. Neil continued to watch his retreating back, lifted his drink to his lips and smiled.
Maybe he owed Will one instead.