“You’ve never been married?” The question was posed to me twice last week — by two different men on two separate occasions.

It felt like: “You’re still a virgin?’’

And while I’d like to believe they were wondering how a woman as brilliant, beautiful and talented as I could possibly have gotten this far in life without getting snatched off the shelf, I knew that wasn’t it.

Their next question — “Ever been asked?’’ — confirmed it.

Exactly why never having been married at the age of 32 requires an explanation, I’m not sure. I had the feeling they didn’t quite trust me, as if my having never ventured down the aisle at all made me more suspect than if I at least had been desired and dumped. Where was I hiding my manufacturer’s defect tag?

If mere marriage were my goal, I could have traded in my can-you-spell-that-for-me? last name years ago. I like to think I just haven’t met the right guy.

Not that I think there’s one Mr. Right. I don’t, although I used to think so when I was a girl. (OK, until I was 20.) It was so much more romantic to believe there was one man in the universe meant just for me — that someday we’d reach for the same carton of milk in the dairy case — than to believe that Mr. Half-Gallon would be just one in a succession of aisles I’d have to wander down.

I’m older now. Now I believe there are any number of people I could share a bathroom with for longer than it takes to squeeze through a tube of Crest.

The question is, can I really be expected to pick one man from a stadium of thousands and kiss only him ’til death do us part? Isn’t marriage an unnatural institution? People change, after all. Isn’t that what makes life interesting?

What are we doing, anyway, trying to stay with one person forever?

Maybe we should lease our mates instead. Promise to love, honor and cherish each other for five years, after which we’ll renegotiate based on current market conditions. Isn’t that the reality of divorce? Wouldn’t leasing be more honest?

The problem is, I like the idea of forever. I adore it, actually. Forever feels safe and warm and unhurried, like the way I feel when I wake up early on a Saturday morning and lie in bed with my eyes closed, my comforter wrapped around me, and know there’s nowhere on Earth I need to be but there.

I don’t want to marry the wrong guy. I came close once. Not that he actually asked me (details, details), but when I started thinking about what I’d say if he did ask, I realized I wasn’t sure. I was so focused on securing the offer — tangible proof of my desirability — that I hadn’t thought through whether to accept it. What I really wanted was the option.

I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I feel a sliver of satisfaction when I hear of someone my age getting divorced. I’m not being cruel. I’ve been through break-ups. I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone. It’s just that their divorce is the antidote to my having never been married. It makes me glad I waited.

I always ask, “Why are they splitting up?’’ Unrealistic expectations? Infidelity? Simply growing apart? Eager for insight, I want to have as clear-eyed a view of marriage as possible. And I think I do.

Self-pity is possible

But I did grow up on the Brady Bunch.

And while occasionally I let myself feel the teensiest bit smug at staying single, it’s only because there’s another part of me that feels a little lacking. Why haven’t I ever been married? Why haven’t I ever been asked? There’s nothing like being single for a good, hearty wallow in self-pity.

The thing I forget is this: Once I do get married, I won’t be able to date anymore. And while I say I despise dating, I must admit it’s exciting not knowing who I’ll be taking to holiday parties this December.

I think that’s why my married friends and family grill me for all the titillating details of my single life. They say it’s fun to live vicariously through me. (I see no reason to point out that my 4-year-old niece Katy stays up later than I do most nights.)

Never been married? So what? It doesn’t mean I’m defective, afraid of commitment, or gay (the explanation hierarchy I sometimes use in a true double-standard spirit to analyze never-been-married men over the age of 40).

As far as I can tell, all it means is that I’m doing my best to get married once, to a guy it feels right to be married to.

There’s always the chance I’ll have to sneak “ex-husband’’ into my vocabulary one day. I’m not naive enough to think I’m immune.

Family stability

But my parents have been married for 38 years, and Zana and Lisa — my two older sisters — have each been married for 10. Happily married? Certainly not every day or every week. But overall? Definitely.

With solid, unBrady role models like these, forever doesn’t seem like such an impossible dream.

published monday, july 22, 1996, in the san jose mercury news
copyright 1996 jessa vartanian . all rights reserved
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