KITTY IS NOT ALONE, I discovered. Kitty is a 42-year-old lawyer who would very much like a husband. She has been looking everywhere for him. When we last tuned in to her life some weeks ago, she was beginning to think that maybe he died in Vietnam. Kitty is pretty, smart, successful and popular. She is the kind of person who is continually hearing, "I can't believe you're not married."
Tons of people describing themselves as Kittys wrote to commiserate.
"I am a 43-year-old gorgeous PhD with a wonderful career, stunning town house and a Jaguar," one woman wrote. "I too am looking for my missing husband."
"The image of the unmet husband quietly sits with me every day," wrote another. "Every day I miss him."
"We're not a bunch of pathetic losers," said one woman who listed herself and four of her friends as Kittys. "We can't explain our `unmarriedness.' It's actually quite irritating when people say, `How come you've never been married?' "
One woman listed her 25 favorite snappy comebacks to that annoying question. Among them: "It gives my mother something to live for"; "My fiance is awaiting parole"; "I'm still hoping for a shot at Miss America." Plus the ever-popular: "Why aren't you thin?"
Why are there so many Kittys out there? Plenty of people have theories. Interestingly, nearly all of the theories in my mailbox came from men. "Washington-area women do not have the time, energy and focus to cultivate a relationship," wrote one. "The feminist mantra has placed greater pressure on women to do it all, but at what cost?"
"Let's call Kitty's situation `collateral damage' from the progress of the '70s and '80s," wrote another. "If one spouse can walk out of a marriage for no reason other than they no longer care for their mate, why bother to go through the legal ritual at all? It's less of a hassle to just cohabitate."
A lot of men criticized Kitty's decision to "cohabitate" with several of her boyfriends. She'll never get a husband that way, they said. "Of course he'll keep her around until something better comes along," one wrote. "Because, after all, she's a pleaser, and we may be dumb but we are not stupid."
This brings to mind a letter from a woman who is on her third marriage: "Any woman can get married if she sets her standards LOW enough." Alone, she said, is better than being treated like dirt. And dogs make great companions.
A lot of people theorized that there aren't enough good men around. In fact, this was the most popular theory of all. One (married) man offered this solution: "I sometimes wonder whether some version of regulated polygamy may offer the only answer to all this unhappiness."
Maybe. But I am wondering something else. I am wondering why, of all the Kittys who wrote, the vast majority were men.
"Contrary to popular myth, not every single guy is a drunken, skirt-chasing slob who lives on Swanson dinners and ESPN," wrote one. "There are male equivalents of Kitty out here who merely desire to share what is already a secure and fantastic life with someone special."
"I am a 43-year-old bachelor, and if I had a nickel for every time I've been asked how come a handsome/stable/funny (or whatever) guy like me is still single, I could retire tomorrow," wrote another.
"Tell Kitty I didn't die in Vietnam," wrote one. "I made it out of there intact, thank you. I feel like the male version of her."
"My wife died from a 10-year fight with breast cancer," wrote another. "I was fortunate to find the `right one' once. Sometimes I wonder if I deserve two when others have never had anyone."
So maybe it isn't Kitty's fault, or society's fault, or a gender-distribution problem. Maybe it's just loneliness, the most fundamental human ache there is. "This is a story about any of us," wrote one correspondent, "from teens to seniors, male or female."
"I'm a single, gay male, 41 years old," wrote another. "If I could grasp any phrase in Kitty's story and hold it close, it would be, `She has a very full and happy life. She wants to share it with someone.' Exactly."
Maybe the biggest problem with loneliness is that we each walk around thinking we're the only ones suffering from it. And so we feel more alone.
"When I wake up alone and sick or stuck in a funk and everyone else seems to be leading their lives `together,' " wrote one man, "that is when I am really alone . . . I guess the question Kitty raised for me is whether relationships are about the good times, the bad times, or just time."
As for Kitty, she reports that she's doing well. She's feeling hopeful. She placed another ad on the Internet, got hundreds more responses. She met one of the men for a drink, a 38-year-old Navy officer in a white uniform. They talked until 2. They had dinner the next night, and the next, and the next. Kitty is starting to wonder, really wonder, if he may be the one. His ship sets sail in 20 months. Stay tuned.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.