May. Senior year of college. Panic struck 74.8 per cent of the female graduating class, which represented to a decimal point all those who were not then wearing a large diamond ring, otherwise known as a "rock," on the fourth finger of the right hand, and thus assured, it was then presumed, of a well-fed future.

Well, we all have our weepy stories about graduation day. This one happens to be about a few people who did not own a piece of the rock, otherwise known as bridesmaids, and one who did, otherwise known as a bride.

The bride was going to wear a long, cream-colored empire gown trimmed with Belgian lace. Her bridesmaids, all of whom happened to be seriously tall persons, were commanded to dress like gypsies.

("What do you MEAN -- gypsies???"

("You know -- gypsies," the bride replied calmly. "Peasant blouses and dirndl skirt, tambourines, and straw in your hair.")

One week before the great event, the bridesmaids all got the same good news. They would not have to wear straw in their hair. They would not have to beat tambourines. They would not have to do any of these things for one simple reason. The wedding was called off.

"I found out about his parents," the exbride to be said darkly. "It was terribly upsetting. I found out his parents have a subscription to Reader's Digest."

It was a measure of those times that no one found this a particularly irrational reason for canceling a wedding. But times change, as do brides and subscriptions, and within a year she married someone else. Within four years, she telephoned to report how very happy she was with that someone else. But there was something in her tone, something wistful, something that suggested that -- like all the rest of us -- she couldn't help wondering about the husband she canceled so precipitously.

"His parents read Reader's Digest," she was reminded.

"So what?" she replied shortly. "It has some very funny jokes in it." There was a long pause.

"I think I should call him. Just out of curiosity. Just to see how he is."

There was a longer pause. "But I don't know if I should tell my husband about this, do you? I mean it's just to see how he is because I almost married him once."

In less than an hour she called again.

"It was fine," she said, but there was something in her tone, something flat and dull that made you know that the one thing it wasn't was fine.

"It was fine," she repeated. "He was just the same as he always was. Kind of interesting. He's a businessman."

There was a pause. "And I guess he's doing well. He got on the phone . . ."

There was a longer pause. "And then his wife got on the phone."

"Do you realize," a friend gasps in awe, "do you realize the number of creeps we could have married -- we A L M O S T married -- when we were younger? I think about that all the time. I think -- well, you know people are always wondering why I only married at 29, they automatically assume nobody ever asked -- so I think, 'I could have been married at 20, just like you, if I'd wanted to. And divorced!"

Yes, one thinks back on them all, and if only they were all creeps one would feel a whole lot better about the thing. It is perfectly true that there are certain creeps who are born to propose marriage, and spend a lifetime doing precisely and only that; but it is just as true that -- it does happen sometimes -- a very decent person is turned down for no good reason, or for reasons that now seem unimportant. The Ne'er Repeated Offer

The man who proposed within the first half hour of acquaintance. And then never again repeated the offer . . . The hordes who broach the subject only when plastered . . . The lady who promised, "Don't worry honey. With my inheritance/salary/ alimony you'll never have to work again."

(All men have this story, and will relate it, generally quite early in the relationship, with absolutely no prodding at all. From this we may conclude that either the same rich lady is going around proposing a lifetime of well-paid lethargy to millions of men, or that millions of men have embraced the same fantasy.

(Only one thing is certain: Whenever this story is related, its finale --how he reluctantly but firmly turned her down to Save His Pride -- is accompanied by a small but audible sigh.)

Almost-marrieds are useful and provocative only in absentia. From those dimly lit recesses of our past they stray only with the most embarrassing results to our present. Impossible to invoke the memory of the gorgeous when they insist on turning up bald with nicotine stains. Futile to conclude anecdotes with the wistful but effective "I'm told she never got over me," when she shows up pregnant with her fourth.

It's useless to unlist your phone or move to Anchorage, almost-marrieds invariably turn up eventually, their dazzling intrusions perfectly timed to coincide with your most recent bout with severe depression, your marriage to someone else, your most recent bout with acne.

Not so long ago the former fiance of a successful lady arrived at her doorstep with a broken foot, an expanding bald spot, and a virulent case of insomnia, since he kept her up all night talking about his favorite subject, which was himself as the hero of the class struggle.

Now there probably aren't a lot of people reading this who had to learn the life and times of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin as a precondition of marriage, but she was one of them, and she reflected on this as he talked on through the night, gracefully avoiding their mutual memory of the day he had left her for an ideologically incompatible, but stacked, classmate.

The next morning she staggered wearily into an interview for a job she had long coveted, scarcely knowing and beyond caring what she was talking about.

It was only when the interviewer shook his head and regretfully but earnestly expressed the desire that she seek employment elsewhere, that she realized all had not gone well.

"And good luck with your banking career," Miss Luxemburg, the interviewer, called after her. The Anecdote Destroyed

So there is only one smart thing to do with Almosts: Never look them up. Why tempt fate? Why ruin what little point there already is to your self-serving anecdotes with their implicit comparisons to present choices? Better to let stories like this stand unmolested and uncontradicted:

"I was waitressing in Cape Cod the summer before my senior year of college, and this terribly rich guy invited me to come with him to New York. Well, I'd never been to New York, so I went, and when I arrived we went to his fabulous apartment with millions of bedrooms.

"In one week he gave me a Hasselblad camera, perfume, a monogrammed Cartier lighter that I eventually lost in psych class, and we went to La Grenouille. He told me to go out shopping and asked me if I had any money to shop with. So I said, yes. I had 40 bucks from my last night's tips. And he laughed. Then he threw some money on the dresser and told me to have a good time at Bloomingdale's.

"Well, I got up and looked, and it turned out he'd left $500 on the dresser. So I went to Bloomingdale's, but I came home with nothing.

"I guess I just couldn't imagine spreading that much money. So that night at dinner I gave it all back to him. I'm sure that's when he fell in love with me. ordered me clothes. On my last night in the city, right before I said to go back to college, he took out this huge diamond ring.At that time I wasn't into carats, but it came in a Tiffany's box, man.

"I said, MARRY out I don't even WANT to get married.'

"But he made me keep the ring, and I went back to campus and wore it with my jeans.

'At the end of the week, I sent it back to him with a note that said, 'Give this to a lady who really wants it.'

"He called for a month, and then he never called again. But from then on I knew I'd always want to be around wealthy men."

With this, the narrator emits a small but audible sigh. She Never Recovered

She was a rarity in present-day England. She was rich, or at least she came from a family that was rich and had managed, somehow, to hold onto it.

'One day -- I'm sure I don't know how it came up -- but she suggested we get married. One has to end the relationship, I'm afraid, at that point. Besides, she was rather heavily into drugs and that can get very boring.

"Still, it does give one pause."

:Pause)

"Her friends say she never quite got over me." The Creep Who Got Away

Boy, was he ever poor, and boy was he ever NOT an artist, although he SAID he was an artist.

'But he was the first guy who ever too beautiful. It works, you know. I mean nobody had ever told me I was beautiful before. I think I

As he often does after a loss, Driewould have married anybody who had.

A one-legged homosexual. Anybody.

"And what a creep! He was 6 feet 6 and weighted 140 lbs., to give you a fair idea.

"I mean he was the kind of guy --get THIS -- who took me to a party and LEFT ME THERE FOR THREE HOURS while he went off some place with this other girl. Then he came back and picked me up.

"But I was 20. What did I know? And he'd told me I was beautiful. So I said, yes, I'd marry him.

"My mother lit candles every day. Every day. She was praying I wouldn't marry him."

Finally her mother's prayers were answered. The young man went away and wrote his fiancee a letter in which he explained very concisely and right in time for Christmas, too, that he no longer loved her. She assumed, therefore, that the wedding was canceled. She assumed wrong. He reappeared after a few months with the same request. He was turned down politely, but firmly.

"Within a week -- I'm not kidding, either -- within a week, he's married someone else. Like three days after I turned him down he marries this topless go-go dancer.

"Do you realize how lucky I was I didn't marry at 20? I mean a lot of women get married at 20." Dishes as Inheritance

"And then there was the one who was five years younger than me, and his mother was horrified.

"We went to his grandfather's funeral, which was a lot of fun, let me tell you. And after that, we went home to his mother where I got introduced, and we had dinner.

"And just to have something to SAY, I said politely to the mother, "These are very lovely dishes you have . . .'

"And she draws herself up and says in this very nasty voice, 'When I die, these dishes go to my daughter and whomever she marries. Not to my son and whomever he marries. . ." Underworked Deity

It is a fact that all anecdotes about near-wedlock end with the simple but eloquent phrase, "Thank God we didn't get married." The implication here being, of course, that there exists a deity somewhere whose only purpose is to mess up disastrous unions before they occur. From this we may conclude only that the deity isn't working overtime.

It is also a fact that it isn't always clear why marriages to people who dispense monogrammed Cartier lighters and lifetimes of indolence are devoutly to be avoided.

And it is finally a fact that heirs and heiresses alike, just don't seem to be proposing these days with the abandon that once was their trademark, if we are to believe all the stories we hear. Perhaps they are tired of being discussed.

There exists a certain man who is, I should add with a sigh, very rich and who has evidently told a few people that I was a girl he could have married. Whenever people impart these words to me, they raise their eyebrows in what is clearly a facial translation of "You jerk."

This makes me very unhappy, naturally enough. It's one thing to counter disapprobation with a casual allusion to the effect of great wealth on selfesteem.

It's quite another to have to cough up the real reason for my distress which this, unfortunately, is:

He never asked.