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January 17, 2008

But Seriously, Will You Marry Me?

It's hard to surprise someone you've been shacking up with for four years. On bended knee, Rodger Cambria sets about staging the proposal of the century.

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We're a boring couple. That's how we roll.

While our single friends are down at the bar swilling happy-hour martinis and picking over a free buffet of mystery-meat tacos, we are making a beeline for home. By 8 p.m., when most of the urban pub-crawlers are just hitting their flirty midweek buzz, we're huddled on the couch under a blanket, eating macaroni and cheese and watching American Idol in our jammies. This has been our Tuesday-night ritual since Clay Aiken made us ponder, Is he or isn't he? back in 2003.

Our relationship is admittedly predictable, and over time, some of the initial romantic fireworks have faded to a cozy glow. This cooling effect is a by-product of open-ended cohabitation, a trend rampant among unmarried couples today. For better or worse, we'll never know the fizzy banter and meet-cute romantic intrigue typified by the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie romps of the 1950s and '60s. We've got our own version of pillow talk, and it's invariably about whether the cable bill was paid or whose turn it is to scoop the cat litter. So when I decided to pop the question after four years of living together, I was faced with the ultimate conundrum: How do I surprise her in the era of shacking up?

Whenever I imagined myself proposing marriage, it was always a grand romantic gesture, like something from a fairy tale or a Freddie Prinze Jr. movie. And frankly, when the most exciting event in your life is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, you know it's time to shake things up. So after buying a diamond engagement ring and tucking it safely away, I made a plan: I'd rent a medieval suit of armor and a white horse, ride to my girlfriend's office in downtown San Francisco, and ask for her hand in marriage. She would be the Guinevere to my Lancelot, the Demi to my Ashton. Unfortunately, I had never ridden a horse, and the thought of steering one through midday traffic was giving me palpitations. Also, the Renaissance Faire was in town, and there had been a run on medieval armor. So I was reduced to thumbing through racks of chain-mail vests and crotchless rubber pants at a fetish supply store — not exactly the look I was going for. Eventually I tried wrapping tinfoil around my body, which gave me the look of an enormous baked potato, waiting to be gutted and topped with chives.

To be fair, we weren't always boring. Before we lived together, we'd go boozing after work with our buddies and get freaky on every surface in our respective abodes. But now, we'd rather be at Pottery Barn shopping for duvets than sucking down daiquiris in a crowded bar. Having sex on our kitchen counter has become an exercise in cruelty that ends with a fistful of Advil. We'll stick to the bedroom, thank you.

Though everything certainly changes when you transition from dating to living together, shacking up is not without its advantages. For one thing, she no longer has to do the 2 a.m. walk of shame past my drunken roommate on the couch, and I don't have to worry about my car getting stolen in her old neighborhood. By combining resources, we were able to afford a killer apartment in an upscale community. With her designer furniture and my big-screen TV, we were living like rock stars. Hell yeah, we were.

Then reality set in.

When we were dating, if I knew she was coming over, I'd stash the dirty dishes in the oven and kick the skid-marked underpants into the closet. Now that we're living together, our Saturdays involve folding laundry, regrouting bathtub tile, and spending entire days at IKEA. "Cohabitation is fundamentally about working out the details of life that are totally unromantic and unsexy," says Dorian Solot, coauthor of Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple. "Do the water glasses get stored faceup or facedown? Who deals with the broken vacuum cleaner? It doesn't leave you in a romantic frame of mind at the end of the day." Determined to buck this trend, I began planning another proposal.

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