Without a reliable dating ritual, Ben Proshek says he tends to wing things before a night out. He’s a “wing-er.” Which is a little funny because Ben is an entomologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The 36-year-old traces his love of bugs back to his parents, who encouraged him “to play in the dirt and take grasshoppers and toss them into spiderwebs, and watch the spiders catch them.”

Sort of the way his friend tossed him into Date Lab. Ben was told that if he didn’t apply, this friend would apply for him and put a lot of fake details in the application. So, he filled it out himself. Ben likened the Date Lab experience to fame. “It’s like being a celebrity for a little bit,” said the Toledo native. “You make The Washington Post, that’s a pretty big deal. Plus, I’ve never been on a blind date.”

We set him up with Maryam Khatami, a school social worker. The 36-year-old was born in Tehran and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 2. Maryam moved to D.C. from Pittsburgh three years ago to live near her sister with the hope of being a super auntie to future nieces and nephews (her nephew is now a year old). In fact, it was her sister who encouraged Maryam to apply. Maryam admits she was hesitant at first, but then figured, what was there to lose? “It gets very discouraging being on [dating] apps after a while. I’ve had moments of getting off them then getting back on,” she said. “But I’m just going to keep putting myself out there.”

Maryam was nervous when she showed up at Pantry Thai Bistro & Sushi in Petworth for the date. “I’m a pretty anxious person when it comes to dating,” she explained. “So, leading up to the date is a lot of deep breathing. I’ve really got to work on calming myself.” Ben, who was pretty nervous himself, was waiting at the restaurant when Maryam arrived and picked up on her anxiousness. “Curiously, that made me feel more at ease,” he said. “Being anxious together, that’s great. We’re in the same boat, together.”

After taking Date Lab photos they settled in, ordered food — seaweed and salted edamame for appetizers, duck for his entree, green curry for hers — and started learning about each other.

Maryam had never met an entomologist before and was intrigued. “I was like, wow, I hate bugs, I hate insects, so this is cool,” she said with a laugh. When she shared that she strongly dislikes mosquitoes, Ben offered to teach her more about them. “I just feel like they don’t have a purpose, and he was like every bug and insect has a purpose,” Maryam said.

Despite being bugged by bugs, Maryam loves hiking and being outside, which is how Ben spends much of his free time. They also are both close to their families and love spending time with their nieces and nephews. “I really liked that she intentionally lives near her sister so that she could be that cool auntie who takes her sister’s child out on outings and is there to spoil him,” Ben said.

When he moved to D.C. nine years ago, Ben initially lived with his sister, who had two children at the time. They have since moved away, and he misses “taking the kids out and teaching them about bugs and plants.”

The two discovered that although they were raised practicing different religions — Islam for Maryam, Catholicism for Ben — they had a lot in common there, as well. “Growing up, dating was just not anything that was modeled for me,” Ben explained. “None of my friends dated, I never really considered it as something that I could do, and even through my college years. I went to a rather conservative religious-leaning college and there was not a big dating scene, certainly not casual dating.”

He was in his 20s when he started dating, and Maryam, who wasn’t allowed to date in high school, was in her mid-20s when she started having romantic relationships. “It’s very hard to meet people I can relate to in that,” said Maryam, who is culturally Muslim these days. “Growing up in a strict household religiously and now you’re trying to find your own way. You take some aspects of it with you and you’re trying to make it your own.”

The two talked until the restaurant closed — Ben even sang Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song” for Maryam at one point — then exchanged numbers and a goodbye hug. The next day they swapped photos of Ben’s new kittens and Maryam’s nephew.

Rate the date

Maryam:  5 [out of 5]. “It’s been one of the better dates that I’ve been on,” she said. “I think The Washington Post did a good job.”

Ben: 5. “I don’t know how we could have had any more fun than we did.”


Ben and Maryam have been on two more dates and continue talking and texting.

Tanya Ballard Brown is a stand-up comedian and an editor at NPR.

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