You're 26. Female. An attorney for the Department of Labor. Fresh out of a boyfriend.

You're a professor of history at the University of Maryland whose 6-year marriage broke up last summer.

By day you are an efficient project manager at a Northern Virginia research and development firm. But by night? By night you are climbing the walls.

You shudder at the prospect of entering a singles bar. You wince at the mental picture of a writhing disco floor. But you're still young, and you have so much to give. You need companionship. You need comfort. You need cuddling. But where can you go to meet someone new?

For an increasing number of single professional Washingtonians, the answer is "Connections." It has a somewhat intellectual atmosphere (recent speakers have included a futurist and holistic medicine expert). The small-group discussion format allows people to talk about themselves and the whole process of being single. And it's in a Unitarian church. What could be safer?

The woodsy, sloping parking lot of the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda fills up early every other Friday night. "Connections" participants gather in the redwood and flagstone Fireside Room.

Long lines of men and women file past the bespectacled man in shirtsleeves at the sign-in table. "$2.50, please." "What is your first name?" "Is this your first time at Connections?"

Your mumble answers, get your first-name-only name tag, and begin the pre-group mingle. The atmosphere of the room is expectant, laced with the subdued desperation of the classic mixer.

9:30: Toting folding chairs into the Sunday-school rooms, the singles ready themselves for small-group discussion. Topic for the evening: "Do you share the expenses of dating and why not?"

("Connections has these awful discussion questions," groans a well-groomed thirtyish woman. "Always something to do with sex. And the women usually don't say much . . . The men dominate the discussion.")

Discussion begins, a mixture of confession and circumspection. The night's topic proves somewhat sex-divisive. While several of the women demure, all but one of the men feel that sharing dating expenses is an idea whose time has come.

In an attempt to compromise on the question of expense, a slight woman in blue knit remarks on the many outdoor concerts, fine walks, and other free dating activities available in the Washington area.

A middle-aged man, white shirt beginning to billow out between the bulging lapels of his suit, coat, grows restless and starts to speak up at every comment. An older man with thick glasses and a gentlemanly, resigned air says he's liked it that the woman talked more than usual tonight.

The topic plays out. The discussion leader brightly introduces a new question: "How do men in the group feel about being asked out by women?" A round of the circle reveals that they all appreciate it very much.

10:30: The small groups crowd back together into the Fireside Room. It's noisy, and the level of sexual tension had increased perceptibly.

You nibble free veggies with chip dip. You sip a diet drink. Someone buys you a paper cupful of beer. Through the confusion you attempt to check out the more attractive people in your discussion group.

You exchange a phone number or two. You fend off a blatant pass. You meet an engineer, a free-lance writer, and a GS-13.

"Well," sighs the thirtyish woman from your discussion group, "it's better than trying to meet people in a singles bar."

And, some enchanted alternate Friday evening, you may spy a well-bred stranger across Connections crowded room. Two pairs of sensitive eyes meeting in cultured sympathy . . . rather than boozy emptiness.