When I was in my mid-20s, I was involved with a guy named Bob. We were reporters who covered a small town in New Jersey for competing newspapers. Often, we would wind up at the same late-night crime scene or city council meeting that went till past 11. We'd rush back to our respective newsrooms, file our stories and then, in the vernacular of today, hook up.
Bob was smart, funny and attractive. But I can't say we ever fell in love with each other. There was no denying that we could spend hours together with ease; we shared a passion for journalism, for politics, for righting wrongs. We both wove in and out of other relationships, but what we had together was a constant -- even when it was pushed to the background by a new love interest. We were friends with benefits, really, really good friends. There was no jealousy, except maybe professional, and no commitments, beyond watering plants if one of us was away.
But I recall one day extracting a promise from him that is still being extracted from men and women today: If we both were still single by the time we were 35 (or was it 40?), we would marry one other. At the time of the promise, I remember completely meaning it. Bob, maybe not so much, but he cared enough about me to know I needed to hear him say it anyway.
He knew, even if I didn't back then, that my Mr. Right would come along eventually. But I slept better that night, knowing that with Bob's promise, I had bought myself insurance against growing old alone, of being childless, of waking up one day and finding "all the good ones" were gone. I had put my best last-ditch husband on reserve so that I wouldn't go hungry in the relationship aisle later on. It made perfect sense at the time. And we can debate until the sky crumbles and falls whether Bob and I ever would have acted on our marriage pact. It doesn't matter. It served its purpose. And I'm betting that more than a few of you will send this post to someone you know with a note saying, "How about it?"
Decades later, and having recently reconnected on Facebook with Bob -- who is married and lives 3,000 miles away -- I recall my 20s as a time of relationship uncertainty, if not outright turmoil. I bounced unsuccessfully around the serious boyfriend ring a number of times, and always had Bob standing in my corner ready to help me over the (many) disappointments.
After so many years, I forget who left our comfort zone first, but I think it was Bob. He fell in love and moved far away. Funny, I don't remember a tearful goodbye to the man I "almost" married -- more of a fading away through time and distance and the realization that my need for a marriage pact was something I outgrew right about the time I outgrew my affinity for bad boys.
Truth is, marriage pacts are things we do to get ourselves through the night. We know what we want, often don't see it right in front of us, and the prospect of living without it is too overwhelming, so we make an accommodation. Hardly an original pattern -- I suspect Adam and Eve had a marriage pact just in case nobody else came along. Marriage pacts were at the heart of the 1997 Julia Roberts' movie "My Best Friend's Wedding," and popped up as a subplot of "Friends." Back in 2003, Curtis Sittenfeld, writing in Salon, questioned whether they were the "coward's contingency plan" that said "I'm only moderately into you, but if it looks like I'm going to end up alone, you'll do."
Perhaps, but I do think they also say something else. They say I am wise enough in my 20s to know your value but my journey hasn't run its course yet and maybe I'm hoping you'll be around when it has. Because honestly, the lesson we all have to learn is that the best person to roll up the bedcovers with is your best friend.