I'm told that when one gets to a certain age -- say, early 30s -- they all start dropping like flies. One moment you're slinging back Cosmos, yammering on about a date here, a one-night stand there, and the next moment you're wedged between two women with frilly hats on a church pew, listening to your best friend exchange Kahlil Gibran platitudes and rose-gold bands with his or her significant other.
I have yet to witness this milestone of the 30s, this inevitable shuffle toward the altar. My friends are a rather profane collective who have a hard time shuffling to Safeway, much less an altar. The men and women have, up until now, seemed commitaphobic in equal degrees: careers, apartments, shopping, movies -- all of it needed much more attention than forging bonds and planting roots. Oh, I know it's happening out there -- I need only read my alumni magazine to see that my little group is hardly representative -- but I thought we'd be immune, at least for a little while longer.
By the time I was 30, two years ago, only two of my friends had succumbed. One was a childhood friend who'd grown up in Piedmont -- a lily-white, upper-middle-class suburb across the San Francisco Bay where, typically, a teen would receive a foreign-make car on his or her 16th birthday. No surprise there. The other was my oddball best friend from high school who was famous for his inability to conduct any relationship that didn't last at least two years.
I'd been lulled into a false sense of security. I thought I was safe. My mistake was thinking I would have some hint of what was to come. Instead of the 30-something stampede to the altar, I envisioned a collective creep, then maybe a toddle, progressing into a saunter before exploding, God forbid, into a downright sprint. I assumed the movement would probably begin with my women friends, for all the obvious reasons. But I hardly expected it to come from the women athletes I know -- normally such a serious, unfrivolous gaggle of gals.
"How much longer to the turnaround point?" I asked Nina, the triathlon coach. There were four of us on a 60-mile bicycle ride in dry, desolate and hilly Livermore Valley -- four arrogant, stupid and insane women. Somehow all four of us had managed not to catch the weather forecast for that day: 98 degrees by 10 a.m., 102 by early afternoon. Now it was 104 degrees, and I half expected to see bleached bones by the side of the road, or cow skulls crying out for us to turn back.
"We're nearly halfway to the halfway mark," said Nina brightly. Her voice rang out on the deserted highway -- we had yet to see a car or another human being. "Just think how easy this will be if it ever happens in race conditions. Now you'll have done it. You don't want to be unprepared for a race, do you?" Annoyingly cheerful, she was still pumping out of her saddle as we crawled up this hill single file -- a climb that had already gone on for a mile and still stretched out for at least another. I wondered if I could manage to get some cyanide in her Gatorade when and if we ever got to the turnaround point.
"In the likely event that I will stumble into a race in 100-plus weather, I will remember this day and thank you," said Jennifer.
"How's the dress coming along, Jen?" Nina said. She switched down to a lower gear -- chink-chunk -- and dropped behind me.
"OK," Jen called out peevishly, "the seamstress is having problems with the sleeves. That dress better be coming along. We're getting married in two months."
"God, you too?" said Meg, normally an athlete with a sunny disposition. She got out of the saddle in frustration and pumped ahead of us, calling behind, "That makes what? Six women of us in the tri club getting married."
"Six!" I exclaimed. I looked over at Nina, who was now sailing -- as much as one can sail up a searingly hot highway uphill -- beside me. "What about you?"
"Me? No." She glanced at me and frowned. I knew nothing about Nina's personal life, and like most good coaches, she was of the closed-down, unsentimental variety. We were all a little frightened of her.
But now she nodded toward Jen's Lycra-covered butt and offered, "Eight women this year getting married. Two just got engaged. They're all breaking down and doing it. Maybe something in the water."
"Eight!" That came out as a shriek from me, and Nina swerved suddenly to avoid a large rock the size of her fist. "I mean, I'm sure that's nice. For them. It's just ... odd."
"Tell me about it," said Nina under her breath.
"What's the deal about the dress?" I called up to Jen, out of sheer politeness. Suddenly I had a vision of the four of us inching our way up the mountain, sweat pouring off in rivers, talking about tulle and satin. It seemed, for better or worse, that women in groups would always come to this relationship question in some form or another, in a way that I suspected men in the same situation would not.
"My shoulders keep getting bigger," Jen said. "It's all the swimming. Four times she's had to re-measure it. She said, 'I don't know what it is, but I just can't seem to get the sleeves right.' I just didn't have the heart to tell her why."
"What about you?" Nina said suddenly to me. She was riding alongside me again.
"Me?" I almost fell off my bike. "Ahem. No. I'd sooner give birth to a litter of kittens than get married."
"What's wrong with getting married?" Jen wanted to know.
"Nothing," I said sincerely. A lizard shot across the road, followed quickly by a generic rodent-y creature. I slowed down even more than I thought humanly possible. Now we were at 4 miles per hour. I said, "My problem with marriage is that I don't want to be the last one left. I don't want to start getting the sympathetic glances from the married friends, them saying I'm married to my job or my cat or something."
"Anything else, long as we're on the subject?" Nina said, suddenly chatty on this hill ride. Another wily diversionary tactic just to keep us going.
"The father giving away the bride," I said at once. I reached for my water bottle and sucked down the last teaspoon left.
Jen squinted over at me. "What's wrong with my father giving me away at my wedding?"
"Nothing," I said, and before I could stop myself, added, "if you're a prize heifer."
"O-kay," Nina broke in cheerfully, "we're halfway to the halfway. No going back now. I'm going to get you all over this hill if I have to carry you on my back. Complain all you want, but now you're committed." As if on cue, we all chink-chunked into a higher gear as the crest of the hill came into view, and fell silently back into our single-file line.