Late one night, I was giving my friend Ethan a detailed play-by-play of my date when he made a frightening observation: "You don't have many close female friends in town anymore, do you?"
Ethan was right. Most of my college friends returned East, my medical school pals stayed North, and even my closest childhood chums left the city (was it something I said?). I have married friends with babies who claim to reside in Los Angeles, but they actually live in a foreign land where nobody goes out past 6 p.m.
So my best friends in town seemed to be guys -- ex-boyfriends, platonic guy friends, ambiguous guy friends. I had plenty of women acquaintances, but in terms of those I could analyze voice mail messages with at 1 a.m., they'd scattered to different area codes. I needed some local female gal pals, and Ethan volunteered to play yenta.
The next day, Ethan sent me an e-mail listing his favorite women friends who lived within 10 miles, followed by short descriptions. It was like having a personal shopper on Friendster. I choose someone who sounded like me: a quirky, neurotic Jewish writer. He said he'd contact her right away.
"Did you hear back from Erica?" I asked Ethan later that week at dinner.
He looked down at his pasta.
"Um," he began, and I knew bad news was about to follow. Nobody ever says anything positive after "Um." (Um, I love you? Um, I think you're beautiful?) "Um," Ethan repeated. "It's just that, um, Erica said she doesn't have enough time for her already-existing friends, but she went to your Web site and wants to know if she can invite you to parties so you can meet her cute, single male friends."
Ugh. When I complained about this to another guy friend, Matt, he offered to set me up with his women friends. In fact, he seemed eager. I figured he either had fantasies about what these "dates" might morph into or, like Ethan, he simply got tired of hearing about my latest shoe purchase.
Matt took a different approach. Instead of presenting me with candidates, he told me to write down what I was looking for, and he'd provide the match. I wanted to meet a hipster-geeky chick like me. Then I thought: Wait. Don't opposites attract? Wouldn't I be better off meeting a blonde shiksa? Or a tall introvert? Or a carefree party girl with a nose ring? Maybe my mistake, in friend dating as in regular dating, is that I'm seeking my doppelganger. And as my shrink knows, I haven't exactly fallen in love with myself. Maybe I'd fall in love with someone not like me. It all seemed too confusing, so I sent Matt my JDate profile with the note, "Just change the gender -- and I don't care if she's 'hot.'"
Soon I met Matt's gym friend, his work friend, his neighbor friend, and his ex-girlfriend's friend. We met for coffee, lunch, drinks and hiking. I went on second, even third dates. But when it came to the fourth, I just didn't want to "go all the way."
Even when Matt got a better sense of my type -- Tina Fey meets Janeane Garofolo -- meeting all these women felt like a full-time job. If I really wanted to be close friends with them, I'd have to learn their entire biographies: not just where they grew up and how many siblings they have, but how their mothers shattered their self-esteem and whether they're vegans or just vegetarians. I'd have to remember the names of their co-workers, exes and pets. It's exhausting enough with potential boyfriends -- who has time to do that with a gaggle of new women friends? Given the effort, I didn't want just any new friend -- I wanted the female version of a soulmate: a kindred spirit.
The last straw was Amy, an attractive 31-year-old lawyer who writes witty short stories. On paper, we seemed like a good match. But when we met for coffee, even a triple espresso couldn't keep my eyes from falling shut.
"Let's do this again!" Amy said as we hugged goodbye.
"Yeah," I said. "I'll call you." Suddenly I understood why guys say they'll call when they have zero intention of doing so. But when Amy phoned the next week and asked me to lunch, I opted for honesty.
"Listen," I said. "You seem really cool, but I just want to be friends."
"Of course!" Amy laughed. "I mean, I have a boyfriend. I just want to be friends, too."
I didn't know what to say. When you don't have chemistry in the dating world, you tell the guy, "I just want to be friends." But what do you tell a woman? What's the chick code for, "I don't want to be friends"?
If Matt wanted to get me off his back by hooking me up with his female friends, his plan had backfired. Now, instead of me calling Matt with rants about romance late at night, these women were calling Matt to ask why I'd disappeared. One even complained that she saw me having coffee with another woman after I said I was going out of town. Apparently I'd become a cad.
That's when I called off the matchmaking. So what if my best women friends lived thousands of miles away? I hung up with Matt and dialed my college friend Carolyn in Chicago. We spent a full two hours laughing about all my bad "friend dates," and it was worth every long-distance dollar.
Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the memoir "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com