The Visit: A Single Girl's Trip to Marriedville

Tired of the singles scene, pickup joints and Blockbuster nights for one? If you're looking for insight into the ways of the happily wed, take a peek at the real-life recap of the Dating Doyenne's experience on the other side: an afternoon with the wife and kids.

''So,'' I say, attempting to arrange myself comfortably on the plastic and toy covered sofa. ''This is where you live ... Marriedville, U.S.A.''

''Yup.'' Marsha's smile doesn't reach her eyes as she frantically pries her son's Beanie Baby out of Sugarcup's mouth. ''Bad dog. Bad, bad dog. There ... damn mutt. I wish he'd die.'' She clears her throat -- mumbles, ''Just kidding,'' and says brightly, ''Too bad you haven't visited before.''

''Yes, well I ... Things have been, uh ...'' There's really no excuse for not making this 250-mile trek years sooner -- after all, I was Marsha's bridesmaid.

Luckily, the phone rings. It's Ted, the Prince who rescued Marsha from our cramped, poster-filled college dorm and swept her off to this suburban castle. From Marsha's end of the conversation it seems the Prince has fallen off his throne. She ends the call with, ''Get home when you get home. We're only your family.''

Her smile is a brittle daub as she turns to me. ''Sorry.''

''For what? Everyone has words sometime. Even Donna Reed's life wasn't Donna Reed.''

''It's not always Married ... with Children either. I swear.''

In school, Marsha was the wild and crazy one, the classmate voted most likely to never marry and settle down. I was the one who read Harlequin romances and strove to catch the bouquet at weddings. ''So,'' I lean forward and ask, ''Are you happy?''

''Not blissfully, obviously. There are good days and bad ones.'' This time her smile's genuine. ''But my life is what I want, what I chose.

''When I'm sick, I have someone to spoon-feed me chicken soup. When something exciting happens, I have someone to celebrate with. I look at Ted sometimes and think, 'Who is this stranger?' It's so much work staying close to one another. It doesn't always seem worth the struggle, but I know that what I need on a bone-deep level is to feel anchored, to be integral to another human being's existence.''

This time her smile does reach her eyes. ''How about you? Are you happy?''

I tell her, ''Not blissfully. There are good days and bad days. But my life is what I want, what I chose.''

She really wants to know my truths, so I'm willing to share them. I think of my spacious two-bedroom apartment and my books, plants, paintings, music, un-plastic- and un-toy-covered couch, terrific friends and annoying but much loved family. I've got the freedom to put my needs first, to be spontaneous and catch a midnight movie, date three men in one week, take off for a weekend in the Caribbean or put 50 straight hours into a career-making writing opportunity. Is the price for that freedom worth it? For now, infinitely so. But for tomorrow?

I say, ''When I want to be alone, I can luxuriate in solitude. When I want to be among people, I call a friend. Because I'm single, I push myself not to live a stagnant lifestyle but to get out and have experiences that continue to shape who I am. But there are times when I feel panicky and lost, moments when I wish I knew exactly who I'll be with when the clock strikes midnight this December 31. I do want love in my life, but the truth is I look around at couples I know and don't see any I'd care to be a part of. I witness so much accommodation and sacrifice, and it mostly seems to be on the part of the wives. I do want to settle down eventually, but not if it means settling. You can be much lonelier as part of the wrong couple than on your own. Been there, done that, won't do it again.''

Marsha and I sigh but are otherwise silent. I think we each envy and pity the other. I understand her need for connection but disagree that the only way you can achieve a feeling of belonging is through marriage and motherhood. There are many different ways to carve out a life, and as long as they're legal, they're all valid.

The phone rings. It's Ted, apologizing for the earlier call. He loves her and he'll be home as soon as he can. I'm happy for Marsha, hopeful that her sudden radiant cheer won't be dampened by the news that I'm cutting my visit short.

It's good to visit my friend's life, but I can't wait to go home and reclaim my own.

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