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.
In the spring of 2006, we were heading off to Mexico and Belize for an exotic, sun-drenched vacation. Near the end of the trip, we planned to visit the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, famous for its towering pyramid. The proposal would go something like this: We'd hike to the top of the 1500-year-old temple, and there, in this mystical place high above the jungle canopy, I would present her with the ring and ask her to marry me. In the movies, it would have culminated with a parade in our honor and a blessing from a village shaman. Instead, when we arrived, we found that the base of the grand pyramid had been roped off because of a recent fatality. My plan suffered a final, devastating blow when I contracted a nasty case of the turistas, which had me sprinting to the commode at regular intervals. I spent the last three days of the trip locked in a hotel bathroom.
There's a lot about sharing a home and a life that keeps romance at bay. She discovered my borderline-creepy obsession with the Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis and my inability to hit the toilet bowl when taking a late-night leak. In turn, I found that she leaves more hair in the bathtub than a yeti, and her bubbly laugh was beginning to sound like a witch's cackle. In the TMI department, she's seen me eat pudding skin out of the kitchen garbage, while I've learned that she takes Metamucil for irregularity.
Over the next six months, I bumbled my way through a number of elaborate engagement scenarios, each one flaming out more spectacularly than the one before. There was the skywriter, the hot-air-balloon ride, the high-school marching band... The gestures felt contrived — not us, like so many of the timeworn rituals of courtship and marriage. Was she really expected to wear a white wedding dress when we've been sharing a bed for five years? Was it necessary to ask her father's permission to get married, even though we were already legal domestic partners? Would I get a dowry — two goats and a rucksack of cornmeal? Even the terminology smacks of another era. When I hear the word fiancée, I think of William Holden sipping brandy and smoking a pipe in the study. Certain aspects of romance and marriage are no longer relevant, like the comedy of Joan Rivers or the 2nd Amendment. It was time to take marriage back and make it our own.
So, late last Christmas, after everyone had gone to bed, we reheated some Chinese takeout and settled in front of the tree to open the last of our gifts. "I think you forgot one," I said nervously as I handed her the small ring box. I'd had plenty of time to work on my proposal, but I still fumbled through it like a jittery teenager. Her eyes welled with tears, and she replied, "Of course I'll marry you." Alas, the perfect romantic moment didn't take place over breakfast at Tiffany's or along the rim of an active volcano, but rather, right here at home, in our pajamas, over lo mein. If I'd known this a year ago, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.