Are we drifting toward marriage or farther away?

imrsI’ve been thinking about maybe getting married. I’ve been with my boyfriend for eight years, and I figured: Hey, may as well round that up to forever, right?

When I suggested this to my boyfriend, Steve, he shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

This romantic exchange happened while we were driving to West Virginia to go tubing. If you’ve never heard of it before, tubing is a low-impact outdoor activity that primarily entails drifting slowly down a stream in an inflatable tube. More advanced tubers may attempt this while drinking alcoholic beverages, even after being briefed on the dangers of doing so.

Steve is not as advanced a tuber as I am. Spooked by the safety video, he suggested we jettison our beer. He also felt we should wear life jackets, even though: a) No one else was wearing them; and b) they were mildly uncomfortable.

Most important, we needed those life jackets in order to link our tubes so we could float down the river together. I ignored Steve’s protests as I threaded the life jacket ties through the handles of our inner tubes and clasped them together. We hopped into our respective tubes and began to drift downstream.

Is there anything more peaceful than gazing up at the blue sky on a summer’s day while trying to ignore your boyfriend’s increasingly urgent appeal for help paddling away from the rocks? We’d only been on the river for about five minutes before it became apparent that Steve and I have rather incompatible tubing styles. I like to lie back and go wherever the current takes me. Yes, sometimes I might hit a low-hanging branch and pick up a few spiders, or bounce off a rock or two, but that’s just part of the ride.

Steve, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop paddling us around obstacles, real and imagined. It wasn’t easy, what with me dragging along behind him.

“Can you give me a hand here?” he asked, panting.

“Will you stop paddling and chill out?” I replied.

My argument was undermined, somewhat, when we ran aground on a large rock.

“I think we’d be more maneuverable if we weren’t attached,” Steve said.

“If that’s what you want, fine!” I shouted, while furiously untying our tubes.

I was pissed. From the beginning, Steve hadn’t wanted to be attached. He wanted to wear his life jacket. Why am I always the one keeping us together? As far as Steve is concerned, I’m just dragging him down.

As I shoved Steve’s tube away from me, he started to realize that this argument was no longer just about tubing.

“Wait …” he said.

I kicked away and pulled down my visor to hide my tears. I’d be fine, I thought, floating down the river alone. At least I had the spiders to keep me company.

A few minutes later, I peeked back to see how Steve was doing.

He was doing great! In fact, he had somehow gotten attached to a whole family. They were having a fantastic time together, laughing, sharing beer.

Isn’t that perfect, I thought. How quickly a 30-something woman becomes an old maid, while a 30-something guy gets snapped up immediately.

It wasn’t so bad, being alone. But I missed Steve, even with his annoying habit of paddling around imaginary obstacles. Too bad he doesn’t miss me, I thought bitterly as I drifted off to sleep.

Before long, I was awakened with a jolt. Another tube had hit me from behind, and its owner reached out to grab my hand. It was Steve! He had paddled to catch up with me! He did care.

And he had come up with a solution.

It was so simple, yet so ingenious. By holding hands, we could float down the river together, but separate briefly if we needed to maneuver around a rock or some other obstacle. It’s just like a good relationship, I thought. You want a bond that’s strong but flexible. If you get separated, it doesn’t have to be forever. You can just paddle to catch up.

“I’m so dumb,” I said. “I was thinking this whole tubing fight was, like, a metaphor for our entire relationship.”

“Maybe it is,” he said.

This story originally ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.

Let me introduce you to my imaginary children

Me posing with my friend's kids .
Me with two of my friends’ kids in an IHOP parking lot.

I have three musically gifted children. At least, that’s what I told the lady sitting behind me at an orchestra performance I recently attended. I went with my friend and her 3-year-old, and we were bopping along to the music in our seats. After a series of pointed huffs and sighs, a stern-looking woman tapped me on my shoulder. “Is that any way to teach a child how to behave at the symphony?” she said.

“It’s a family concert,” I replied.

“Well I have two children …” she started to lecture.

“I have three, and they all play the cello,” I countered.

That shut her up.

As it turns out, I don’t have any kids at all. I used to explain my reasons. “I like children,” I’d say, “but I like sleeping in more.” Now I just lie. In certain situations, being a 36-year-old women with kids is a lot easier for some people to comprehend than my actual life.

Especially when I’m overseas, which is where this lie was born. I was in Indonesia, where asking about someone’s kids is standard small talk, like mentioning the weather. But if you say you don’t have any — well, one cabdriver acted like I’d just told him I had terminal cancer.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, his forehead creasing with concern.

“No, no it’s fine,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Look how much I get to travel.”

The next person to ask was a man in a market.

“I have a daughter,” I said. “She’s 8.”

“And you left her at home?”

He looked worried, and rightfully so. There I was, gallivanting around Asia while my little girl is a half a world away, scared and alone.

“She’s with her grandparents,” I said defensively. “She loves staying with them.”

Since even pretend moms face the judgement of random strangers, I decided that my daughter should be a bit older.

“I just dropped her off at Smith College,” I told another cabdriver, naming the school where I went because I couldn’t think of any others on the fly. “We’re so proud of her. She’s all grown up,” I added, tearing up a little.

“Just one daughter?” he said. “No sons?”

He was right. It was time to expand my family. For the rest of the trip, I had three kids, though their ages and genders varied. I borrowed names and details from my friends’ progeny. Emma, 7, loves to swim and thinks she is a mermaid. Ethan, 12, is having trouble paying attention in school.

“They want to put him on Ritalin, but I think he just has a lot of energy,” I said. “Kids need to get outside and play, you know?” The man checking us out of the hotel nodded in agreement.

My boyfriend, characteristically silent during these exchanges, finally attempted to rein me in.

“It’s time for you to settle down,” he said, as we drove to the airport. “Pick a family and stick with it.”

Back in America, I don’t get to trot out my pretend children as often. But when I find myself at an elementary school talent show, for instance, they come in handy.

“Brent is such a good school, don’t you think,” said the woman next to me.

“The teachers here are wonderful,” I added, as if I had any idea.

I understand why people mistake me for a mom. I’m the right age, often in the right places, and my clothes are frequently covered in food stains. It helps that, having been to many baby showers, I’ve picked up the language.

“Sleep training is so hard,” I told a new mother at a Christmas party last weekend.

“The baby Bjorn gives you more support, but the Ergo is so much easier to use,” I later advised an expectant mom.

You may think being a pretend parent is the easy way out, but let me tell you, it’s not. Between all the cello recitals and unicorn-riding lessons, I hardly know which way is up. Don’t get me wrong, though. I wouldn’t trade my imaginary children for anything in the world. Especially real ones.

This story first ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.

Is side-boob appropriate office attire?

shirt gapeIt’s embarrassing when your office manager asks you to please wear a bra to work. It’s even worse when that message is delivered to you via telephone — as in, the game “telephone,” where the manager tells your cubicle-mate who tells the receptionist, who gives the message to your best friend.

I know most women wear bras without complaint, but they have been brainwashed — forced to wear “training” bras before they even had bosoms. When I was in grade school, my mom tried to get me to wear those useless triangles of fabric, so I took them off at the bus stop and stuffed them deep into my book bag. Eventually, a male classmate discovered that dense clot of bras and hoisted them in the air like a prizewinning trout in front of a very appreciative pre-algebra class. My secret was out. I was the girl who didn’t wear bras.

This reputation followed me through high school, where boys regularly ran their fingers down my spine to confirm the rumors. (Sometimes to my secret enjoyment.) Then, I went to a women’s college where bra wearing was strictly optional, as was leg shaving and regular showering. We were serious scholars; we couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. Plus, there were no guys around to impress.

After graduating, I got a job at a feminist organization and I hoped the dress code would be similarly lax. It’s not that I felt oppressed by bras, depilation, makeup and the other trappings of femininity. They just took up far too much of my morning, time that, I felt, was better spent sleeping. When I did remember to shave before work, I did a bad job, usually missing the back of my leg opposite my knees. My knee-pits sprouted a healthy, glossy patch of hair — but I couldn’t see it, so I didn’t care.

I also didn’t notice that my new work shirts were a tad too tight, providing regular glimpses of side-boob between buttons. The office manager tried to intervene. But by the time I got the communique from my best friend, it was years later and we had both moved on to new jobs. She didn’t want to stress me out by passing along the message earlier, and I appreciated her sensitivity. Back then, in my twenties, I might have been shamed into strapping down my bosoms. But now that I’m safely into my thirties, I have discovered that you don’t have to choose between torturing yourself with uncomfortable brassieres or torturing your coworkers with side boob. There is a third option: sweaters.