If I tell Tricia that blonde doesn’t look good on her, she’ll be annoyed. She’ll think I’m harping on again about being old. Well, we’re both getting old—are old. Why is it that helping friends always gets you into trouble?
Not that Tricia’s exactly diplomatic herself. I wish she’d stop telling me I’m stupid. I know she thinks she’s being funny, as in cute, but I also know underneath she means it. I wasn’t being stupid when I mixed up the dates for our trip to the museum and our plan to see that movie—what was it called?
Why did I open the refrigerator door? It’s making me cold.
Dad used to call me woolly-headed. I didn’t mind that. He’d say it while ruffling my hair. I had a fine head of dark brown hair. Of course, I was a child then. Parents can say all sorts of things to you that you don’t mind.
Then again, they say all sorts of things you do mind. The way Dad jumped down my throat when he caught me biting my nails. And then Mom would back him up, saying I was supposed to be a lady. But at the time I wasn’t a lady. I was a girl.
The cheddar and lettuce sandwich I made yesterday. That’s it. Now, where did I put it? Somewhere here in the refrigerator. Let’s see. Top shelf—some leftover rice, a jug of juice, a couple of condiment bottles, more jars of stuff. No wrapped sandwich there.
I’m so glad Mom wrote down her recipes. Like spaghetti sauce. No one made spaghetti sauce the way she did. Even when I follow her recipe to the letter, it isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to make me think sometimes she’s sitting right next to me at the table.
She’s gentler now. In memory. Death does that, doesn’t it? Death is a blunter. The dead lose their sharp edges, the comments on our appearance, our clothes, our sour expressions. What stays is the person’s essence—what was good about them. My mother was a good person, despite her flaws. If she hadn’t been, well, then all we’d remember would be the bad. That’s all we remember about Hitler, right?
What am I doing with my head in the refrigerator? It’s cold in here.
Hitler. Forget him. I never met him. How about Pete, my worthless husband? He isn’t dead yet, not last time I heard. But I can’t recall a single good thing about him. There must have been. After all, I married him, right? Was it just that he was handsome, that wonderful broad smile? My best girlfriend at the time didn’t agree. She didn’t say it in so many words, but I could tell. It annoyed me. What right did she have to pass judgment on the man I loved? But each time his name came up, she’d screw her face into that mask of disapproval. Except a mask is something you put on to pretend you’re something or someone you’re not. That face she put on was her real self. It really aggravated me. I’m glad she’s gone.
Okay, if I can’t remember why my head is in the refrigerator, I’d best move it out and close the door. I’m freezing.
I was never so cold as that time in Amsterdam. They always show happy Dutch people cycling all around in the sun. What sun? When Pete and I were there that summer, it was like being in Alaska. I’m amazed it didn’t snow. Pete saw me shivering, took off his coat and put it over me, even though I was already wearing one. What a gentleman.
Sometimes I miss Pete. He did things like that. Chivalrous things. He’d give up his seat on the bus when someone got on who was frail and there was no other free seat. It meant I got to sit next to some really strange people, I tell you. There was the guy with the tick. It was so distracting. I couldn’t think for looking at him, waiting for the next jump on his face, like jerky footage in those really early movies. And there was that smelly homeless woman.
But I felt for her. There but for fortune… Where could she be going if she had no home to go to? Yeah, the welfare office, or whatever. But at day’s end? After all that busing and walking, what was her destination? What is life without a destination?
I like being here inside my head, remembering things. Thinking about things. The bad times don’t threaten anymore. They’re something to think about, to mull over, like a movie. I like to consider what I might have done differently. I like to remember when I did something right.
It’s lunchtime. I know I had something planned. What was it? Oh, yes, the cheddar and lettuce sandwich. So that’s what I was doing with my head buried in the refrigerator.
I’m so lucky to have a home of my own. I’m glad we bought this place after both boys had gone to college. The old house would have been too big for me. This one was meant for a couple, me and Pete, but it works for me without him, too. Better, really. I used to call him the moving mound because he didn’t do anything and yet was always getting in the way.
I don’t want them to take my home away from me. I don’t want to die in a nursing home, never mind a hospital.
I’m crying. Here, here’s a tissue in my pocket. Don’t be silly.
Why was I crying?
I’m checking the refrigerator door. See, I did write a note. “Dr. Frank, Wednesday, 2:45.” What time is it? Going on one. I’d better hurry.
Did I have my lunch yet? If I didn’t, it’s on the middle shelf. I remember telling myself that the way to ensure I eat right, like Dr. Frank told me, is to put that day’s lunch on the middle shelf. So if it’s gone, I know I’ve done right and they won’t take me away.
Well, there it is, on the middle shelf, just like I thought. But I don’t have time anymore.
Don’t forget to close the refrigerator door. I give it the slightest push and it closes. I love that quiet thud, like a gentle confirmation. Everything should be so gentle.
I dawdle so much. I used to be so efficient, like a rat in a maze, scurrying around, bashing my shoulder against doorjambs, whacking my shins against table legs. It’s a wonder I wasn’t one big bruise.
Pete used to tell me to slow down. “Don’t worry about the dishes,” he’d say, “come and sit next to me so we can watch TV together.” I’d do what he said, but the whole time I’d be fidgeting, wanting to get all the day’s work behind me.
Pete should have helped more. Wasn’t that reason enough for me to give up on him? But it wasn’t me who left the marriage, was it? I kept my vows. Till death us do part, like the priest said. Something like that.
It was Pete who took off with that woman. It wasn’t even like she was younger than me. That would have been hard enough, but we women know that men go for the young ones. It was when he said she was “more compatible.” After thirty-two years, he suddenly discovers we weren’t compatible? After all I…
And our sons. At least he waited until they’d gone into the big world and gotten jobs.
I wish parenting weren’t one-sided.
No, I don’t. They need to be independent. I need them to be independent. It’s just that Seattle and Baltimore are so far away. I haven’t seen either of them in—how long is it?
We gave them such ordinary names, Bob and John. But they grew into them. Or should I say out of them? There’s no Bob like my Bob, no John. I miss them.
Here in the bedroom are their photographs—Bob the serious-looking, older one with the dark hair like mine used to be. Nerdy. A mother’s allowed to say that, isn’t she? So long as she loves him, which I do with all my heart. And here’s John, grinning away like he just got away with something, which he probably had. Sometimes I pretended to let him get away with things, when they weren’t really bad and I didn’t want to get Pete all worked up. Like the time John took the car for a spin when I was here in this bedroom and he thought I was knocked out by one of my migraines. I waited to get up till I heard him come back in the garage. But it was a lovely spring day with a breeze blowing through the open windows, and even when the migraine eased, I felt like luxuriating. Luckily, he came back before I had to make dinner. In this photo he’s next to that Congressman he works for, still looking like the handsome rogue he was as a teenager. I’m betting one day he’ll take that congressman’s seat.
How long has it been since I saw them? I marked the dates on the calendar next to the refrigerator.
It’s weird how we emerge from someone else, how my boys were once inside me. Then when they emerge, we’re always dissatisfied with them. I could never do right by my mom, and then I think how the boys sometimes acted scared around me, and I am ashamed. But that’s a cost of parenting, isn’t it. You make yourself look bad so they can turn out good.
Why am I thinking about the birthing process? Such a private thing. Something a mother and her children never talk about. How fortunate they forget the actual event. Both boys screamed with rage when they came into the world. And then I calmed them down. When that happened with Bob, my first, I knew I’d always love him and any other child I had.
The connection can never be broken. The snapping of the umbilical cord is one of nature’s lies. For the mother it is. Not the child. For the child, it’s the truth. One day they leave. If they think about their mothers, it’s while looking at them in the rearview mirror. Out of a sense of what? Duty? Love?
I’m a nuisance to them, a long trip they must make from time to time even though it completely disrupts their lives. But I have seen affection in their faces. When I do, life has meaning. Maybe not my single life, but the running stream that is life.
Nature was right to stop us from remembering until we’re four. That’s how long ago my first memory goes back. Some people say they remember something from when they were three. The first thing I remember is unwrapping the velvet cat I took to bed with me for years. Mom told me they gave it to me on my fourth birthday. So I was only just four. Really, more three than four.
I like being inside my head. It’s warm in here.
It would be good to see Bob and John again. If I weren’t so woolly-headed, I’d fly out to spend a week at Bob’s place, then fly to John’s to spend a week there. One day soon they’ll come to see me. I know they will.
An appointment. I have an appointment. I wrote it down… yes, here on the refrigerator door. Oh my God, I’m never going to make it.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Frank said the last time. “It’s just a test.”
But take a test, and right away you’re launched into the next stage. Do well on your SATs and you go to college, right? Unless you can’t afford to. Pass that stupid civil service test and you turn into a government official. That’s what I did. Maybe that’s why Pete and I were incompatible, he an engineer for a big firm. I was a middle manager in the Finance Department, sandwiched like pressed turkey between layers of bureaucracy, and he a bigwig with a corner office. He must be retired by now. I think he told me. I know he was alive that last time we spoke on the phone. When was that?
Of course he was alive when I spoke to him. Even Pete won’t have a phone line from heaven, which I’m certain is where he’ll go. If there were such a thing, what would the area code be? Not 666, I bet.
I don’t want to know if I’m batty. Dr. Frank thinks I am—I can tell. He’s a kind man, but it isn’t a nice thing to think about someone. Why make me take the test if he’s already made up his mind? For my benefit? I don’t think so. Why would I want to know if I’m batty—certifiably past it? I know I’m batty. But that’s between me, myself and I. He already knows things about me I wish no one knew. What power a doctor has over his patients.
I manage. I remember to do the things I want to do. That’s what matters.
I’m in front of the mirror. It must be makeup time. Does makeup really do anything for a wrinkled old crag? But I see signs of my younger self there, my essential self, passed down through the genes. I wish I’d liked that younger face more than I did back then, my vision blurred by insecurity.
But they say you end up with the face you deserve. If true, it means nature lies when she makes us look good when we’re young. I don’t like nature. Except for those animal shows on TV. Could watch them all day long. Sometimes I do.
Why am I standing in front of the mirror? I must be getting ready. I must be going out.
I’ll check the refrigerator door. That much I remember to do, so I don’t forget. Oh my, I missed the appointment.
Well, Dr. Frank will just have to wait for another day, won’t he!
Good. I can have that sandwich now. It’s on the middle shelf. I’m hungry.