The most romantic moment at the Hamlets Singles Club's happy hour on the last Friday night in September was the moment when Lisa Peterfreund kissed Ryan Block. Or maybe Ryan kissed Lisa. It was hard to tell.
Anyway, it was a hell of a kiss. Lisa sidled up to Ryan, a tall and muscular young man with curly black hair and raffish mustache, and slipped a hand into the back pocket of his jeans. Ryan looked at Lisa and smiled. Lisa looked at Ryan and smiled. Ryan turned toward Lisa; their eyes met; their mouths met, wetly. They smiled some more. They seemed to be the kind of effortlessly erotic couple who can, through their actions and through what they hint will come later, lend glamor to the lives of everyone at a party.
In that way the kiss was a fortunate event, because to tell the truth, the happy hour had so far been nice, but a little dull. September is free-admission month at the Hamlets Singles Club, a time for attracting new members, so there was a pretty good crowd, perhaps 50 people. Being new members, however, they were a little shy. Most of them stood in knots with members of their own sex, nervously clutching their beers. A few guys who had come alone prowled the periphery of the room, surveying the scene in a way that was meant to look cool but really looked the way it felt: nervous.
Some of the old crowd was there, of course. Steve Marshall, the club's president, tall and thin with blond Prince Valiant haircut, was busy tending bar. Bill Anderson, a short man with a brushy blond mustache who was the treasurer and usually the life of the party, was there too, but he was talking to Steve. Richard Benjamin, a podiatrist known behind his back as Doctor Dick, was there in his finest singles regalia, a chest-exposing white knit shirt and a gold necklace. He was circulating well, but it rang false to the people in the old crowd, who knew about (and disapproved of) Dr. Dick's new lifestyle, which included a condo and a fiancee.
Ruth Williams was there, but the great days with Rutie -- the days when she would bring four or five single girls, known as Ruthie's Raiders, to any party -- had ended. She seemed to be settling down too. There was a new girl there named Linda Fraser. A pretty redhead, she was a friend of Lisa's, but nobody else knew her. Wasn't it funny how Lisa seemed to know everybody?
John Gioeli only stayed for a while, and he was getting married too. Doctor Dick's brother Wayne didn't even show up. It was an all right party, just as it had been an all right summer, but somehow it seemed to everybody that there weren't as many parties now as there used to be.
The happy hour was held in the community center of the Hamlets, which is a sprawling apartment complex in Alexandria -- 6,000 people live there, in about 50 three-story buildings. Many of them are married, have families and lead lives right out of Donna Reed show, but the average resident is young and single. Most people who live there love the Hamlets. They think that it is the best of all the complexes in Condo Canyon, as the vally between Shirlington and Landmark Mall along Shirley Highways is known. For one thing, a lot of the other places have gone condo, which means money, mortgages, property taxes -- commitment, in other words. Mark Winkler, the Hamlet's owner, wants it to remain a rental complex.
At the other extreme of life in Condo Canyon there is a place like Oakwood, right behind Landmark Mall, which has the most swinging-singles reputation among the complexes. But Oakwood is more expensive than the Hamlets, and unlike the Hamlets it has a no-lease policy. People come and go and you don't know who they are. At the Hamlets, people say with pride, the renters stay a good year or two at the least. You can really get to know them. You can relax. They are professionals -- in other words, nice, reasonably affluent people.
In fact, many people in the Hamlets are typical of the fastest growing group of people in the Washington area. From 1970 to 12977, the area's population of adults from 25 to 34 grew by 26 percent; the population of never-married adults grew by 28 percent; the population of divorced adults, by 51 percent; the population of single-person households, by 43 percent.
In 1977, there were 440,000 households in the Washington area headed by unmarried people, most of them fairly well-off. Many people in the Hamlets were typical in their youth, typical in their work -- mostly government or government-service -- and typical in their place of birth, which was almost always somewhere else.And they were, perhaps, typical of what Washington is becoming in another way, too: they were well-educated, they were pleasant, they enjoyed life, and they felt a passionate attachment to no person, no place, no job, no idea -- nothing at all.
At 10, the appointed time for happy hours to end, people started drifting away in groups, bound for the bars or for parties. Most people were going to go to the Pawn Shop, which is in Skyline Mall at Bailey's Crossroads. The Pawn Shop opened in September 1979, and most of the people in the Hamlets Singles Club latched on to it immediately. Going all the way into D.C., to places like elan and Deja Vu and The Plum and the whole M Street scene, got old fast, what with the prices and the parking problems. Then there were the places in Alexandria, the Cellar Club in the Hamlets, the Rafters near Landmark, Nicky's on Van Dorn, the Epicurean in Shirlington, the Holiday Inn, and all the places in Old Town, but everybody had gotten tired of them. The Pawn Shop was nearby and it was brand new, with good music -- no disco -- and good food.
It worked out that Ryan and Lisa went to the Pawn Shop with Steve, the president of the singles club, and Linda, Lisa's new friend. They took Steve's car. Ryan, truth to tell, had certain plans regarding himself and Lisa for later in the evening, but those could be worked out later. When they got there, the place was so packed that it took 10 minutes to get from the front door to the dance floor in back. The music was so loud you had to hold your conversation to three- or four-word bursts, which, of course, was the way most of the clientele liked it. You didn't go to singles bars to have long talks with strangers; you went to dance, drink, meet people and have a good time.
About two-thirds of the people there were men. Most of them had soft, fluffy haircuts, mustaches, open-necked shirts and gold necklaces. The women, most of whom wore tight designer jeans and clinging blouses, tended to gather in groups for mutual protection against the predators. Only when they were dancing did people seem truly happy.
Ryan and Lisa and Steve and Linda got a table in the sunken dining area off to the side of the room. They ordered stuffed mushrooms, fried potato skins with cheddar cheese and a bottle of Gallo champagne. Steve danced with Lisa, to "Bad Girls" by Donna Summer. Then Ryan danced with Lisa to "Jimmy Mack" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Then Steve danced with Linda to "Emotional Rescue" by the Rolling Stones.
When they came back everyone was a little sweaty and giddy from the dancing and the champagne. Ryan put his arm around Lisa, grinned at her, and fed her a stuffed mushroom, which she chewed slowly and playfully, her eyes locked into a secret communication with his.Then they kissed for a long time. When they were done, Lisa looked across the table at Linda, who seemed a little embarrassed by their display of passion. "It's okay," she said. "We know each other from the pool." She put her hand in Ryan's lap.
"My Sharona" by The Knack came on. Steve smiled a sentimental smile. "Summer of '79, remember?" he said, savoring the associations. Ryan reached for the champagne bottle and poured everybody a fresh glass. He raised his in the air to make a toast, but he couldn't immediately think of one.
His glass hung in mid-air for a minute. "To uh . . . friends," he said. Everybody laughed and raised glasses.
"Friends," said Lisa, gazing deeply into Ryan's eyes.
The people in the Hamlets Singles Club are, by and large, not lonely, contrary to myth. Contrary to another myth, they are not strikingly narcissistic, either, in the sense of constantly preening or of talking and thinking about themselves obsessively. They make friends easily and have many interests.
What they are is unconnected -- unconnected from their homes or families, or spouses, or from abiding beliefs. Many stay, mostly as a matter of choice, on the surface of life, knowing full well, and not wanting, what lies in the depths. They have good reasons for living that way. Most of them are college graduates with jobs in the broad middle category between clerical and managerial. They work for large bureaucracies. The economy encourages them to develop easily transferable skills, and pays them well enough to live comfortably but not so well as to foster in them company loyalty or thoughts of the long-range future. To buy homes or to marry and have children, they feel, would be a financial strain for them. They are, then, of a class that was small before World War II and has become huge only since 1960.
Then there is sex. Many people who live in the Hamlets have been enormously affected by what is probably the most significant social change since the war, namely the sudden end of the idea that middle-class Americans -- especially women -- should be virgins at marriage. Certainly in the past many people, maybe most, were not in fact virgins when they married; but the rituals of maturation and courtship in many societies, including ours, were based on the idea that they were. To have active sex lives and not have to sneak around, people had to get married.
Now, for many people in the Hamlets, there is certainly not a taboo against sex before marriage. There is a slight taboo, easily gotten around, against having two or three or four lovers instead of one. One-night stands are considered all right, if tiresome in excess. Meeting and then going home with somebody in a bar like the Pawn Shop has a slight odor about it, but people do it. Sex is supposed intrinsically to create deep connections between people. Certainly linking sex to marriage often accomplishes that. In the Hamlets sex is good clean fun, and is in fact another reason to stay unconnected -- unless, of course, it leads to love.
Love is a strange thing. Love can hurt. For many people in the Hamlets, it has, and naturally that has produced a reaction. A century ago, Henry James suffered, to the eternal fascination of literary critics, what he called "an obscure hurt" that produced "a huge comprehensive ache." Whatever the hurt was, it made James withdraw from sex for the rest of his life. That was another age. Today the Hamlets and places like it are full of people who nurse obscure hurts, but they have reacted by plunging into sex, not running away from it. The hurt usually came from love. Sex, they have discovered, sometimes goes along with love, but it doesn't hvae to. It can even be a form of revenge against love.
Even as he was kissing Lisa in the boozy sweetness of the Pawn Shop, Ryan Block, who looked so happy, was angry. He wasn't angry at Lisa. He liked Lisa and planned to sleep with her a few hours later. He had even cleaned up his townhouse, which is in Alexandria just a short drive from the Hamlets, in anticipation. He was angry at Joanne (as we'll call her), who is 25, divorced, and for the last six months has been Ryan's girlfriend.
Joanne and Ryan have an understanding that they are allowed to date other people but not sleep with them; however, in the course of the summer Ryan acted according to what might generously, be called a liberal interpretation of the understanding. This caused tensions to arise between Joanne and him, and on the afternoon of the Hamlets Singles Club happy hour they had had a fight. The subject of the fight was that Ryan had promised to fix Joanne's car and hadn't; but what lay beneath it was much more than that.
In the wake of the fight, Ryan made a date with Lisa, whom he had met late in the spring at the Hamlets swimming pool, for Friday night, and a date with another girl for Saturday night. He was trying to get Joanne out of his mind. When he thought of her, he tried to think, Joanne: bad bad bad bad bad.
Ryan was in love once, with a girl from college. They dated for six months, and then she broke it off. For five years Ryan tried to rekindle the romance, to no avail. Finally, over the summer, he asked her if she ever wanted to see him again in, as he puts it, "any way, shape or form." She said no.
His long years of experience had made Ryan cynical. He didn't trust women at all any more. He thought women these days were concerned only about themselves. They were fickle.
Ryan was also in love once, in a different way, with the United States Marine Corps. He is an Air Force brat -- he went to six schools before college -- and while he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland he decided to follow his father into a military career. He joined the Marines after graduation. He did well in boot camp and finished it believing in the honor of military service. But as time passed, he decided the military was dedicated to discipline and self-protection, not honor and glory. After four years, in 1979, he quit.
He first got a job with a defense contractor in Reston, but the pay was too low and he soon switched to a research analyst position with another defense contractor whose office abuts the Hamlets.
"My career goal now," he says, "is money. Profit. I've lost a lot of my naive idealistic goals about doing something simply because it's a wonderful thing to do. Now the first thing is, what's the profit to myself? I don't have fanciful goals. I do a good job because I want a return."
Another thing that happened to Ryan in the Marines was that he had love affairs with three of his friends' wives, which only increased his bitterness. In all three cases he had thought the woman was succumbing to a sudden, uncontrollable passion; but all three later told him they had planned his seduction quite deliberately.
Ryan had been brought up to think that women should keep the brakes on sexually, that it was their responsibility, not men's. His affairs taught him that if he ever married, his wife might have an affair. He began to have a series of short relationships with women. After a couple of months would come the first fight and he would leave. That way it ended on his terms. In fact, he was beginning to enjoy single life; you had no obligations.
Then he met Joanne, and to his great surprise their first fight came and went and he still wanted to stay together. It worried him a little, getting involved, because he so strongly associated involvement with pain, but the fact was that Joanne was on his mind -- even after they had fought, even while he was kissing Lisa.
Lisa, truth to tell, had other things than Ryan on her mind too -- her own hurts, obscure and not. Lisa grew up rich in White Plains, N.Y., a lawyer's daughter. Just as she was entering adolescence her parents began not to get along, and when she was 13 there was a messy divorce. Her mother left and took Lisa with her, but soon they began not to get along either, a condition that persists to this day. Lisa left her mother for her father, and in the end, as a compromise, was sent away to boarding school.
She went to college at the University of Wisconsin, came home after graduation, and met a guy who was a student at Georgetown Law School. She soon fell in love with him, and when she was offered a job in Washington at a non-profit organization called the America the Beautiful Fund, she accepted with alacrity.
Things began to go badly.Lisa, unlike most of her acquaintances, has had since childhood a passionate desire to do a particular thing, namely work with wildlife; her boyfriend didn't take it, or her, very seriously. After a year in Washington, Lisa went to the Yale School of Forestry to get her master's; in her absense, he began to see other women. At about the time Lisa finished forestry school, he moved to Seattle.
Lisa spent the summer of 1979 traveling around the country, and in Wisconsin she met and sort of fell in love with a guy there. They lived together for two months and then she left and moved back to Washington, where she hot a series of temporary jobs followed by a summer job at the U.S. Forest Service, and found an apartment in the Hamlets. She began meeting and dating different guys.
In January of this year Lisa got involved with a guy we'll call Ralph, a scientist who works for a private research firm. She and Ralph hit it off -- she found in him the kind of respect anbd encouragement she found lacking in her law-student boyfriend -- but on the other hand she was, like Ryan, getting to like the single life and to be wary of involvement. So when Ralph began to pressure her to make their relationship a monogamous one, she had reasons (one of which was Ryan) for resisting. But finally, as the summer began, she agreed to give faithfulness a try.
Then Ralph was assigned to work on a major contract that began to eat up all his time. He was working 60- and 80-hour weeks, and when he had time to see Lisa he was too tired to go out and have fun.
So Lisa began to get restless, and she and Ralph began to quarrel. Her summer job with the Forest Service ended, and her being unemployed while Ralph was overemployed only made matters worse. They needed to have a serious talk about their relationship. In the meantime, when Ryan called and suggested that they go out, Lisa was so frustrated that she quickly agreed. But she was still, despite herself, despite the champagne and the music and despite even Ryan, thinking about Ralph.
Steve Marshall and Linda Fraser, sitting across the table from Ryan and Lisa, didn't have nearly so much on their minds. After all, they had only just met, and neither one was involved in anything serious at the moment. Steve had lived with a girl for a while a couple of years ago, but she wanted to settle down and he didn't, and it ended up that she moved to Colorado. Linda had once dated a guy for eight months, but he didn't want any commitments so it fell apart.
Linda lives in the Hamlets in the next building over from Lisa's. She had been feeling all summer like she wasn't meeting new people, so when she heard about the Singles Club's happy hour she asked Lisa to go with her. Lisa said that would be fine. Linda was glad she went. She was having a good time.
Steve, of course, being the Singles Club's president, had to be at the happy hour, and he always went to the Pawn Shop after happy hour. But when Lisa introduced him to Linda, he was only too happy to spend the evening with her rather than his other friends who were there.
Steve was born in Ohio and grew up in Cambridge, Santa Monica, various places in Europe, and Annandale. When he was in junior high school his parents' marriage soured, and they were divorced when he was 14. Steve finished school and went to Colgate University, where he majored in peace studies. He graduated in 1975. He bummed around Europe for a few months. He came home to Annandale and worked for two years as the office manager of a Bicentennial organization called the Freedom Train. He moved into the Hamlets. He worked at the Fairfax Public Library for a year. He quit that and worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.He quit that and got a job as a security guard at the Hamlets. He quit that this summer, spent a couple of months at the beach, and then got a job as a bartender at a place near Dupont Circle called the Brickskeller.
Steve has never thought about getting married. He's having too good a time now, being single. "In college," he says, "I was kind of a radical, and I'm still on the board of the Washington Peace Center, but I've been inactive for the last year. I'm not turned off to politics. I've just become . . . let me see what the right word is . . . spoilded . When I was younger I thought my ideals were more important. Now I've come to apprreciate the so-called good things in life -- parties, sex. And I think I would have to give up a lot of that to pursue social change." Steve doesn't have any particular plans for the future, except to stay in the area. "I've kind of got roots here now," he says. "I'm president of the Singles Club."
Linda is the daughter of a Coast Guard officer and grew up all up and down the East Coast. She went to high school and college in Florida and then became a sixth-grade teacher. After a year she quit and joined the Navy. She went to school in Colorado for six months and then came to Washington for her first duty station, at a small Army base in Arlington. She is a computer programmer and a lieutenant j.g.
When she first came to Washington in 1978 Linda lived in the Hamlets with a friend from the military, but they didn't get along. After six months she moved to Manassas, where she stayed for three months in a friend's house. Then she moved into a complex in Falls Church, where she stayed for a year. In May of this year she moved back to the Hamlets. By next spring she'll be gone, off to her next duty station, and none too soon. "I'm already getting antsy to leave," she says. "I'd be bored to tears if I stayed I'm starting to spend most of my time thinking about what I could be doing instead of this. It's incredible to me that people could stay so long in one place."
Every Sunday Linda goes to church, mostly because, she says, "I'm still kind of searching for something. I guess everyone wants to belong to something." But so far as guys go, she says, "I think you're always looking, but right now I'm not really looking for anything real. I'm just kind of floating around, I guess." Steve is just kind of floating, too, as far as girls go.
At midnight, Ryan and Lisa and Steve and Linda left the Pawn Shop. They got in Steve's car -- Ryan and Lisa in back, Steve and Linda in front -- and headed for the Hamlets.
Ryan and Lisa started kissing in the back seat, but then -- well, it was weird. In his conscious mind Ryan was determined to go to bed with Lisa. But he kept thinking about Joanne. And Lisa, equally determined, kept thinking about Ralph. They stopped kissing and, after a little hushed conversation, they decided to call it a night. Steve dropped Ryan off at his car, and Ryan drove home and went right to sleep.
Steve and Linda and Lisa went to a party in the Hamlets and stayed until four in the morning. The next day, Saturday, Steve dropped by Linda's place in the evening, and while both of them are reticent on the subject, Lisa says she is confident that "things worked out." Monday night Steve took Linda out to hear some jazz, and he began to feel that he had stumbled onto something that might be really nice for a while.
Lisa had her serious talk with Ralph on Saturday night. They decided to continue seeing each other, but also to see other people. So if Lisa meets someone she likes, who knows? Perhaps they'll date.
Ryan had another date on Saturday night, and it was really strange but the exact same thing happened that had happened the night before with Lisa. He couldn't figure out what was going on. On Sunday he went to a friend's house to watch the Redskins game, and when he came home there was a note from Joanne saying she wanted to talk to him. As he walked in the door, she called. She said she had been looking everywhere for him, that she had been thinking about him all weekend. He said he had been thinking about her too.