THE YEAR OF THE CAT
It wasn't really the year of the catthat was just a stupid song on All Oldies All the Time Mom liked to go around singing, even though she didn't know any of the words except for that one line.
"The year of the cat!" she'd blurt out in a half-talking, half-singing voice, and you'd wait for her to connect it to somethinga thought or a reason or another piece of the songbut she'd just go back to what she was doing. She got Rona doing it, too, and sometimes the two of them would sing it to each other a hundred times a day, wiggling their eyebrows and hunching their shoulders, like two aliens telling each other a fascinating fact in the language of their planet.
Mom had gotten Rona a cat; that was why she'd originally started saying, "The year of the cat!" Every time the cat walked by, she'd bend down and look it in the eye and say it. Sometimes she'd make a claw in the air with her hand, and the cat would flinch and jump sideways. I felt sorry for the cat, because I could tell it was losing its mind, but Mom, of course, didn't seem to notice.
Mom's noticing was weird: Mom noticed everything, actually. She just noticed things in kind of an abnormal way.
"Did you see that woman's checkbook?" she might say in the grocery store. "It was made of very fine leather. She probably got it in Europe. She's probably from Europeher facial structure was very aristocratic."
"Did you notice Kristoffer Billings lit his cigarette with House of Tibet matches? I wonder if he's interested in Eastern culture and religion. His clothes smell like incenseI'll bet he's a very spiritual person."
As far as noticing things about me, Mom was going through a phase I particularly didn't like. It reminded me of when your teacher comes around to admire your art project and she picks it up totally upside down and says, "How fascinatinglook, everybody!"
"Oh, look!" Mom said to me one day in the bathroom, right in front of Rona. I was trying to give myself a French braid after my shower. "A hair!" She tickled me in the armpit. "Congratulations, Justine!"
"Is something the matter, Justine?" she'd ask if I came home from school down in the dumps. "Did something happen?"
Sometimes I wanted to answer her, but then before I could think of what the real answer was, she'd say, "Is it a boy?" She had started to ask me that all the time; she'd study my face and give me a weird, slanty smile I hated, and I started to think I knew how that cat felt: I wished I could jump onto the mantel and arch my back and look down on her from far away, too.
The cat was supposed to be a present to butter us up about movingthat was one of those things I figured out later, like a missing puzzle piece you find in a dusty corner behind the door a long time after you've given up without finishing and put the puzzle away.
"Don't you just love cats?" Mom asked one day, standing at the kitchen sink. She was doing dishes, looking out the window at the sky; I was reading a magazine, not about cats; and Rona was coloring, not a picture of cats. I looked all around the room, I checked the yard through the window, but I couldn't figure out where that thought had come from.
My new idea was that if I could figure out where an idea came from before it popped out of Mom's mouth like a magician's paper flower, I would be able to cut down on my stress. I personally didn't care about stress, but when Mom came home from parent-teacher conferences last time, she walked in the door and said, "Fifth-graders aren't supposed to have stress, Justine!" and burst into tears.
There's a long list of things that make Mom cry, and I try to keep them from happening. I actually used to have a page in my notebook for writing them down, but I quit making it when it started to get too weird to read: when besides the normal things like the toilet backed up again, or they called to say they were turning off the electricity, there were things like she lost the ticket stub from some hippie concert twenty years ago where she met the guy she should have married but never saw again, or the color of the dryer lint made her remember a sweater she once had when she was an exchange student in Belgium, back when she thought she would become an archaeologist when she grew up, but now she was only someone who worked in a deli and sometimes did catering and couldn't even say one sentence in Flemish anymore.
Excerpted from Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu by Stephanie Rosenfeld Copyright © 2003 by Stephanie Rosenfeld. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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