In the rush of my mid to late 20s, finishing up a master's degree, establishing what I hoped would become a career and, in general, creating an adult life for myself, I had two relationships I thought might end in marriage. Neither did. And now, having recently turned 30, it seems as if the buzz of marriage-related talk has increased to a persistent pulse—background noise I can't escape, like the clanging of the loose pipe in the ceiling directly above my bed.
A recent Pew Research Center Study, done in conjunction with Time magazine, found that "nearly four-in-ten survey respondents (39%)" believed that marriage was becoming obsolete. So how to explain the incredulity from well meaning family members and friends in regards to my singlehood?
Perhaps I had these dualities in mind—being told that marriage is pressing, being told that marriage is obsolete—when, on a recent trip to the drugstore, the cover of People magazine stood out to me. The headline read: "Kim Kardashian at 30—I Thought I'd Be Married By Now". The tilt of Kardashian's lovely face, the touch of sadness in her perfectly mascara'd eyes, all seemed to suggest that not being married was the great failure of her life. I grabbed the magazine from the rack and swiped my debit card. Was it possible, I wondered, that the murmurs I work so actively to dismiss might have some validity? Should I be perched somewhere in fantastic soft light, clad in a white cashmere sweater wondering how my love life had gone so impossibly wrong?
The article led me to Kardashian's new book, an oversized pink volume co-authored with her sisters, Kourtney and Khloe, and titled (appropriately enough) Kardashian Konfidential. The press materials promised "fun facts about their childhoods ...their beauty and style secrets, the wisdom they learned from their beloved father, and the street smarts they got from their mother." Opening the book with anticipatory glee and flipping through its heavily illustrated interior, I began to realize there was a subtle undercurrent of darkness in these pages that belied its glittery cover.
Packed in among the makeup tips and glamorous photos are descriptions of the Kardashians' childhoods and teenage mistakes. There is a young Kim applying hot washcloths to her breasts, praying they would not grow any larger, a 14 year-old Khloe being coerced into losing her virginity by an older man, and a surprisingly unflinching description of their father's death from esophageal cancer.
While the sisters certainly lived a privileged childhood—peacocks running through the yard, gifts from neighbors like Madonna—it was not necessarily a childhood filled with domestic bliss. And, as it turns out, in spite of the People headline, Kim Kardashian actually has, in fact, already been married and divorced--her four-year marriage to record producer Damon Thomas ended in 2004. This incident is glossed over in the following transcribed conversation between Kim and her younger sister, Khloe:
Khloe: She was dating this music producer, really flashy. I'm sure it was very exciting for Kim. He was ten years older than you, right?
Kim: Something like that.
The implication seems to be that this first marriage was nothing more than childish indiscretion, a mistake easily undone and even more easily forgotten. The public, and indeed Kardashian herself is waiting, it seems, for the real wedding—the one with the white dress, sparkling engagement ring, and enormous bouquet of pale pink peonies. The view of marriage here is an idealized one: younger sister Khloe, we learn, married her husband after only a month of courtship but firmly believes that the marriage was fated. Describing Stevie Wonder's performance at her lavish wedding, she explains, "Blind people have extra senses, you know, and he said he could feel this aura of love and happiness around us."
In reading about the Kardashian sisters' take on love, I recalled a conversation I had with a good friend who was then engaged. I had been describing to her a passage from The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's nuanced portrait of her own marriage, written after the death of her husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. I described how, as the couple walked down the aisle, tears spilling from Didion's famously weak eyes, they promised one another, "we could get out of this next week and not wait until death do us part". My friend stared at me, horrified, a stack of bridal magazines between us on the kitchen table, as I explained how romantic this seemed to me.
Months later, this same friend, now married, asked if I remembered the anecdote I'd shared from The Year of Magical Thinking.
"I get it now," she said, taking a big swallow of Sancerre.
Where Kardashian Konfidential is illustrated with lipstick kisses and hearts, Didion's spare portrayal of the life she spent in partnership with her late husband recalls their many mistakes and misunderstandings, the sodden gardenias in the pool filter and credit card bills that made up their marriage. Her picture of marriage is one that doesn't strike out of the blue, as the Kardashians so breathlessly affirm that love will for them (and for their readers). Rather, love is something to be worked at throughout a marriage. As Didion says of her relationship, "We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know."
To me, beyond the white dress and pink peonies, it is this message that seems the most romantic. But how to convey this to the concerned great aunt who wonders over Thanksgiving dinner when I might get married?
None of this means that I, like Kim Kardashian, haven't had moments where I thought I should or would be married by now. But I question the media representation of marriage and tremble a bit for those who believe its secrets can be found in a big pink book. And then I remember that, at 30 years old, I still have time to figure out these things, despite what the murmurs and great aunts might say. So I close Kardashian Konfidential, shut off the light, and try to fall asleep beneath the sound of that clanging pipe in the ceiling. Maybe someday I'll get it fixed.