The No. 1 question on a single woman’s hit list: “Why aren’t you married?”

Running close, in second place: “Why isn’t a woman like you married?” The latter moves to first place if any of the following adjectives modify woman: smart, cute, funny, accomplished or wonderful. What is meant to compliment only underscores the absurdity of the situation. Such a catch but still at sea.

Over the course of my extensive singlehood, I developed an arsenal of retorts to questions about my single status and such comments as “You must not want to be married or you would be.” Here’s a sample:

  • I haven’t met the right guy/I’m only meeting the wrong guy.
  • Because you haven’t introduced me to him yet.
  • Everyone has baggage and I’m looking for a matched set.
  • I haven’t found a man who makes me want to share my closets.

I could have responded with some of the reasons men have given for why we couldn’t go out anymore. I’ve heard: “You’re too independent.” “You aren’t vulnerable.” And my favorite, “Your ovaries are too old.” OK, the guy didn’t say that to me but he implied it to the manicurist who fixed us up. He actually said that he thought I was too old to have babies and he wanted to go out with someone younger. I was somewhere between 33 and 35 years old. Still plenty of time to have babies as far as I was concerned.

The author Eudora Welty once said: “I wasn’t brought up to answer or ask questions like that and I know you weren’t either.” That is a fantastic response to an unwanted probe into the personal. I never had the nerve to use it, partly because much of my career relied upon asking strangers personal questions about their attitudes and habits. However, I would never ask a woman, “Why aren’t you married?” Over a bottle of wine I might muse with a friend as to what fates were influencing our fates, as part of a larger discussion on life. But I never would ask That Question because behind That Question is an opinion that something is wrong or you would be married. And that something might just be inside of you.

I always assumed I would marry in my 20s – at 25 to be exact. That was the norm when and where I grew up and I didn’t have any particular urge to buck the zeitgeist. So, I thought I was right on track when I met Drew on the first day of graduate school. I was 22.

He wasn’t so much standing in the lobby of the school as he was swaggering without moving. His middle name was attitude. The ultimate bad boy in good boy clothing. He was tall, thin, so thin I told my roommate: “I can’t date him. His jeans are smaller than mine.”

Smitten, no gobsmacked, at first sight, I called home immediately, “Mom, I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”

Two years later, the hands on the clock in my parents’ kitchen slipped past midnight making it Dec. 26. He pulled me close and asked, “Will you marry me?” Or something like that. I really don’t remember if there was a preamble to the proposal. I replied, “Really, why yes, I will.”

I felt as if I were inside a fairy tale. Did someone really ask me to marry him and I said yes? Is this what it’s supposed to look and sound and feel like? I didn’t know much about marriage or weddings. I had been a flower girl when I was 9 years old and enjoyed wearing my hair in a bun encircled with flowers atop my head. I had also been the maid of honor for a sorority sister whose reception resembled a frat party with better food.

Unlike some of my cohorts, I never planned my wedding when I was little girl. I didn’t have a dream season or month to get married in. I didn’t know what color I wanted my bridesmaids to wear. Although, in 1979, there was a good chance that the dresses would have been dusty rose and made out of a highly flammable nylon fabric called Qiana.

I think I said yes because I believed I loved him and because it seemed like the logical conclusion. You dated. You fell in love. You got married. I think I said yes because I never thought of saying no.  Who ever heard of saying no to a marriage proposal? No actress in a romantic comedy ever says, “No, thanks, I’ll pass” on screen. Even Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet says yes to Mr. Darcy after saying no at first.

Subconsciously I must have believed that unmarried women were unmarried because no one asked them, not because they had decided against the option. I certainly didn’t want to be unmarried for the rest of my life. So I followed the script.  “Will you?” “I will.” “I do.” “I do.” But in the end I didn’t. I just didn’t know if he was the one. I expected to be able to know for sure but I didn’t.

I married at 48 years old, for the first time; to someone I had known, off and on, for 13 years. The most interesting question asked after my wedding was: “Why did you get married at this point in life?” My life was pretty great. I had a good job, traveled, entertained and enjoyed close friends.

Here’s what I could have answered:

  • No one bothered to ask before. (Not true.)
  • I finally found him/he finally found me.
  • I found a matched set to my baggage, got a bigger closet, etc.

Instead I said, “I married for love and adventure.”

Being part of a married couple was one of life’s great adventures that I had never experienced. Not even pretend experienced. I had never lived with a man before I married. I’m not even sure a man ever stored a toothbrush at my apartment or stashed a razor on the ledge of the bathtub before I married. Not that I’m against cohabitation before or instead of marriage but merging without a contractual commitment never made sense to me, especially as I got older and bought and decorated and redecorated my space in my way. I liked my space. I liked the way I cluttered my space. Control is my friend. Why would I give it up without a license?

Paul, my husband, and I took a long path to the altar. We met on a blind date in the summer of 1991. I was 36 and he was 48. We dated maybe five times over the course of the summer and the relationship faded as summer did. His impression lingered though. In my end-of-the year journal entry I wrote: “Paul – handsome, intelligent and a good cook.” He was also an energetic divorced man with a college-aged child. He could recite Shakespeare and windsurf, maybe at the same time.

Fast forward to 1999 when we reconnected over an art auction table at a charity event. Paul was on a date. I was with a girlfriend. I bought a piece of art I didn’t even like, just to spend time talking to him at the auction table. I told my girlfriend that Paul was the only man whom I had dated – if five dates constitutes dating – and in your late 30s it just might –to whom I wished I had given more of a chance.

“But he was such a man,” I said, “and I was used to boys.”

Finally, in 2001 we started dating after both shedding long-distance relationships.

My need for control tested our relationship early on. I insisted on my own small, no-butter popcorn on movie dates. He was perplexed and mildly put off.  It was as if I had committed Dating Crime No. 1. If I couldn’t share something as inconsequential as popcorn could I share  The New York Times Magazine? The last squeeze of toothpaste? Deep dark secrets of a wild past?

In my defense, I was used to buying my own movie ticket, my own diet soda and especially my own popcorn. I eat popcorn very slowly, kernel by kernel. I like to ration my popcorn so it lasts through the first half hour of the movie. Most people I know finish their popcorn before the seventh preview.

On one typical movie date night, after we found seats in the front row behind the break in seats, he went to the refreshment stand.

“A small, no-butter popcorn and medium Diet Coke for me, please,” I ordered.

He returned with two popcorns, as I had hoped.  One child’s size, no butter for him and the jumbo tub of popcorn, no butter for me. Jumbo, as in big enough to feed the rest of the audience, please take some as you walk by. Jumbo, as in see how ridiculous it is to insist on your own popcorn when you’re in an intimate relationship with someone.

So, on the next movie outing, in a spirit of compromise and in an effort to see if I could live outside my control zone, I agreed to share a medium, no-butter popcorn. Sharing that first bag of popcorn was as stressful as I had imagined. His big hand, which never seemed big before, opened and closed like one of those claws in the arcade game that tries to grab a stuffed animal or plastic encased prize but never does.

He ate the popcorn, his fist moving from bag to mouth, bag to mouth.  I watched him eat and slowly put one, two, maybe three kernels in my mouth hoping that he would see this as behavior he should model. Bits of popcorn decorated his sweater, staring at me, daring me to not pick them off. Popcorn shrapnel trailed from the box to my jeans to his sweater. I cleaned up after him, off of him and off of me.

If we were going to make it as a couple I needed to take control in a non-controlling way. I spread a napkin over my lap and tried to create a little bowl-like shape. I poured a large amount of popcorn out of the bag into my makeshift receptacle and handed the box to him. I proceeded to eat by the ones, twos and threes.  He didn’t drop as much popcorn on our laps and I got my fair share. I turned to him and said, “This could work.”

A couple of years and a few more adjustments to coupledom passed before Paul and I married.

I wore a long white dress with red shoes – my favorite color and a nod to our Valentine’s Day nuptials. The bridesmaids, my nieces and goddaughters, wore red dresses and tiaras in their hair. All were under the age of 16. Not one adult woman, other than myself, would be forced to walk down an aisle in a dress she would never wear again. My husband’s daughter read a Rumi poem during the ceremony.

My midlife adventure called marriage has been thrilling and uncertain. Precarious and embracing. Bold and not for the faint of heart. The signs of marriage are all there. The rings on my left ring finger. The estate plan for a husband and wife. Shared closet space. The mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. even though my name didn’t change.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Paul says. “My first wife won’t give up my name, and my second wife won’t take it.”

To me, it’s a sign of my desire to hold on to my identity. After all, only so many changes can be accommodated in my middle-age marriage.