Essay by Dheepa Chari.Views expressed are the opinions of the author.
He told the matchmaker he wanted an exotic woman.
I had been set up by a matchmaker years earlier, and it led to nothing lasting. I tried to meet people on dating apps and found it equally fruitless. So when the matchmaker called me one afternoon, out of the blue, I agreed to be set up.
I’m an Indian American woman.
I was also feeling unsettled by my own sense of desperation. Being single at 40 is not easy. I consider myself independent. I’m blessed with two careers in which I feel fulfilled: a corporate team leader by day and a singer-songwriter by night. I am surrounded by family and friends who are unfailingly reliable. But of the few relationships I’ve experienced, none have lasted. For most of my adult life, I have fallen asleep alone.
I arrived for our date a few minutes early. He had suggested meeting at what turned out to be a members-only restaurant in the West Village that had a functional gun range in the basement. I didn’t know either existed in New York.
As soon as I walked in, I felt out of place. Male privilege hung in the air like stuffed game on a wall.
It was undoubtedly a boys’ club. Italian servers glided around with effortless efficiency. At nearly every table sat a man, middle-aged or older, with a much younger woman. Mine was the only brown skin in the place.
I sat at the bar to wait. I could feel a roomful of eyes directed at me and wondered how they saw me.
Then my date walked in. A bald white man in his mid-50s in a designer suit, he smiled and shook hands with the numerous staff who greeted him. He worked the room like a politician, confident and radiating charisma.
He approached me and smiled, seemingly pleased that the matchmaker had delivered. I was heartened by his kind demeanor — he was warm and gentlemanly — and I was determined to make the best of the evening. Yet I couldn’t ignore a vague sense of being a commodity.
We were led to a reserved table in the center of the room. He immediately ordered a bottle of wine, and a server left to get it from my date’s personal collection in the cellar.
He started the conversation by telling me how he had become a member of the restaurant. He seemed proud to have negotiated that particular deal.
After the wine arrived, the conversation shifted to his recent divorce. Twenty-five years together. It had cost him $10 million in alimony, he told me. “She was addicted to pain killers,” he said. “I gave her everything I could to make sure she was set for life.”
The way he emphasized that phrase — set for life — seemed to suggest just what he was bringing to the table. I didn’t say anything.
Before dinner was served, we went down to the gun rangein the basement. “You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s addictive.” Even though I grew up in gun-steeped Texas, this was my first time firing one.
He offered to photograph me holding the gun. A sign clearly said photos were prohibited. The man working in the range, who instructed me how to shoot, pretended not to notice. To my surprise, I shot close to the target. Both men were thrilled by my performance. At that moment, I realized the power and privilege that lay with the hunter — and how entitlement can make rules irrelevant.
Afterward, we sat for an elaborate seven-course Italian meal. Each dish was personalized. As the waiter refilled our glasses, I listened and smiled as we continued to talk about, well, him.
He had unique intuition when it came to reading people, he said — a necessity for any successful entrepreneur. He talked about growing his own business and becoming a multimillionaire, bragging: “I’ve even done business with Donald Trump.” I shifted in my seat, unsure how to respond. I stayed silent.
I found myself choosing silence much more than during other dates I had been on. I’m disappointed to admit that the power he projected made me feel less empowered. Even as a comfortably self-sufficient woman rarely lacking for an opinion, I was decidedly not his equal.
Eventually, we got to his bottom line.
“All I’m looking for now is a special lady to spoil for the rest of my life,” he said. He stared into my eyes and grinned. I took a big gulp of wine.
Then I caught myself thinking something even harder to admit: Maybe this is my opportunity? I could be ever-protected from the treacherous dating jungle I’d grown so tired of. Someone else could take care of me for a change.
Over dessert, my date leaned in for a kiss. I turned my head. Nothing about the evening had suggested a connection worthy of a kiss. And yet he seemed to think it was his for the taking.
In that moment, the fantasy burst. I saw a truer future. Me in a cage, his exotic find, occasionally liberated and guided like a gazelle through a crowd that would always adore him more. He held money and privilege, after all. He had the power.
We finished eating in awkward silence. After a polite goodbye hug outside the restaurant, we parted ways.
The next day, the matchmaker called to check in. “He had a great time,” she said. She asked for my thoughts. “I don’t think he’s my type,” I said.
In my singing career, I’m used to being on stage, entertaining others. This date was a performance as well, but I was acting in a way that didn’t feel true to myself — as an “exotic” woman at a stranger’s side.