On the side of my refrigerator right now, there are two quick-printed wedding invitations, both featuring quotations from Kahlil Gibran; the announcement of the birth of a baby named Maxine; three invitations to birthday parties (one of them a surprise, all three of them marked “no gifts, please”); a second reminder that I have not paid my pledge to the “Y”; a piece of an old envelope on which I have written, “Grocery store. Olives. Paper towels. Fiber”; a snapshot of myself as a 3-year-old; a faded invitation to the 1993 presidential inauguration, and a reminder that I have a doctor’s appointment two weeks from next Thursday, at which time I can expect to have three-and-a-half quarts of barium hosed up my rear end.
My entire life is displayed there, gripped to the pale almond wall of the refrigerator by magnets, most of which have come to me, unsolicited, from people who want to sell my condominium, shampoo my carpet, or remind me that God is love. One of the magnets is shaped like a green onion, one is a cutout of Carmen Miranda wearing a pile of fruit on her head and four-inch wedgies, and one is a Neighborhood Crime Watch phone alert, shaped like the American flag.
Sometimes, on a Thursday morning, when I am eating my bowl of raisin bran and waiting for the coffee to soak through the filter, I stand and stare at the wall of my refrigerator and realize that, even though Jason, my cleaning guy, is scheduled to arrive that very morning, there is still a notice from the health clinic stuck to the side of my refrigerator. It is held there by a smiley-face telling me that lube jobs will be only $17.95 during the month of October. At such moments I realize that I have absolutely no shame.
I have many friends who have much nicer magnets than mine. Their magnets come in matching setselegant black buttons purchased at a Crate & Barrel in Chicago and sets of nouns, verbs, and assorted modifiers that clever people can organize into Shakespearean sonnets, even after they have had a couple of Scotches. These are the sort of magnets that bespeak a beautiful lifea life engraved in gray-black ink on 100-percent cotton stock, a life where RSVPs are logically expected, a life in which it is somebody else’s business to buy the fiber at the grocery store, a life in which $17.95 lube jobs do not figure, a life in which gifts are sent on time and pledges are paid, a life in which, once a party is over and done, another is waiting in line to take its place. They would never think of keeping a five-year-old invitation to a presidential inaugurationan inauguration they did not even bother to attend.
These are people who can be sipping a cocktail on a Friday afternoon and gasp, in self-amazement, “My God, it’s barely the middle of April, and my refrigerator’s already full.” I understand, when they say such things, that they are not talking about the half-gallon of low-fat milk and the box of frozen Girl Scout Thin Mints I have in my refrigerator. They are talking about being wanted, being included, being in demand, being asked to go places where other people cannot go. They have a wall full of such opportunities awaiting them. They are people who honestly do need to be reminded that they will need to white tie on some coming Saturday, people who only go to doctors who make them look younger, people whose refrigerator walls are never, ever painted almond green.
But I also have seen the refrigerators of perfectly contented people who have never received a written invitation to anything. Most of their refrigerator magnets are shaped like football helmets or the caps of Budweiser bottles. They are the sort of refrigerator magnets that very seldom serve any purpose. They may grip a phone number scribbled on a wadded cocktail napkin or a broken shoelace from an athletic shoe or a wrinkled snapshot of a Labrador retriever named Bob. Such magnets are only there because, one Saturday morning, when somebody reached in the pocket of his jeans, searching for his car keys, he found this thing that would stick on the side of the refrigerator. Very likely, he did not remember how the little football helmet got there. He will, however, remember some point in the evening when it got turned sideways and made an awkward lump in the side of his crotch.
He will put the magnet on his refrigerator because he cannot think of anything else to do with it. Although he has no life to organize, he will find something to hang on his beer bottle caps and his miniature football helmets. He will never use the phone number on the cocktail napkin, and he will never replace the shoelace. From time to time, however, he will walk the dog named Bob. When he and Bob come home from their walk, they will both drink milk straight from the carton. More often than not, he will let Bob go first.
And, of course, I know plenty of grown men whose refrigerator magnets are amusing cut-outs of clunky women’s shoes from the 1940s. A black patent pump holds a recipe for sun-dried tomato brunch muffins, a rope-soled sandal grips an envelope of lemon basil seeds, a maribou-trimmed mule holds a swatch of fabric that just might be right for the throw pillows in the breakfast room. On such a refrigerator wall, there are no invitations to anything. Instead, there are lists of who is bringing which wine for dinner on Saturday evening. There is also a little taupe-colored check list of Things To Do. Everything on the list is checked off.
None of these refrigerators looks a bit like mine. When I get home on Thursday evenings, there is usually a note from Jason. Sometimes, it says, “Well, so Baby Maxine’s still waiting for her prezzie, huh?” Other times it says, “Saw Larry and Malvin’s magnets yesterday. See you’re bringing the red on Saturday. Do a cab. Malvin’s completely over merlot.”
Then there are the times when Jason’s note says, “After five years, don’t you think it’s time you threw this president thing away? After all, it’s not like you actually were there.” I have no desire, however, to clean off my refrigerator. I have no plans to throw away my 1993 invitation from the presidentor the birthday invitations, or Baby Maxine’s birth announcement, even after the present is bought. I have no desire for a refrigerator filled with invitations to parties I actually attended. I prefer, instead, a life full of unfinished business and unanswered questions, a life full of places where I might have been.