I didn't know what to do about stress, though. I stole a booklet from the health center when we went for Rona's skin corrosion, but the suggestions were idiotic: Sit down when you eat your meals; stop and smell the roses; enroll in a yoga class. The only thing I could think of was to try to smile more, which didn't work, because then Mom would say, "What are you smiling about?" and jiggle her eyebrows and look at me as if we were about to have a big, juicy mother-daughter moment.
"Don't you just love cats?" she said again. She'd finished the dishes, and she wasn't looking out the window anymore; she had turned around and was looking at me and Rona like someone was supposed to answer her. Then she said, "Do you remember Marie and Bill? Remember the pictures Marie sent, of their kids, and their farm in Massachusetts? Justine? Remember?"
I tried not to answer questions with the names of people or places in them, because they always led to other questions that I really didn't want to answer.
"Remember the time we visited Arizona?" she might saysomething that sounded like a perfectly normal question. "The sun, the mountains, wasn't it beautiful there, Justine? You liked Arizona, didn't you?"
Then if I said, "Yeah, I guess," she'd say, "So, would you like to move to Arizona?"
Or, "I met someone named Kristoffer with a K today. Isn't that an interesting way to spell it?" She'd just keep asking till I answered.
"Yeah, I guess."
"That's what I thought, too! Well, would you like to meet him?"
Rona didn't understand the trick yet, though.
"Oh!" she was saying. "I love cats!"
"If you had a cat," Mom asked her, "would you be a happy little girl?"
The cat came in a Ryder box. I should have figured it out right then, but I didn't.
Mom came home from work one afternoon, a few days after she'd brought up the cat question, carrying the cardboard box, and when I saw the look on her face, I knew what was in it.
"Ta-da!" she sang, and she handed the box to Rona.
"Oh!" breathed Rona. Rona gave me the box so she could reach inside and take out the cat.
"I don't want that," Mom said when I tried to hand her the box. "Take it outside."
"His name's going to be Blackie," Rona said when I came back in.
"You can't just name everything after the color it is," I told her. We had already had two fish named Greenie and Whitey and a snake named Tanny.
"Justine," Mom said to me, "is something the matter?"
"I don't want a cat," I told her.
"Can it be mine?" Rona asked Mom.
"Yes, it can, sweetheart," Mom answered, putting her hand on Rona's head and smiling down at her.
"Who's going to take care of it?" I wanted to know. I had had to take care of the fish and the snake all by myself, and they'd all died, one by one, even though I hadn't done anything wrong.
"I will!" said Rona.
"Well, what about when she doesn't?"
"Then I will," Mom said in a tone of voice like the answer was obvious, and like it wasn't very important anyway. Then she gave that cat a look as if it were lucky to have ended up in a life with us.
"Today is the first day of the rest of your life," she told it, which was a deep thought she liked to say sometimes. And which, I have to admit, I liked a lot until I realized it was only a deep thought if you didn't say it all the time.
Mom never actually said the words, "We're moving." One day I came home from school and there were all these Ryder boxes in the living room.
"What are these for?" I asked.
"Just to put a few things into," Mom said. When I asked why, she said, "Oh, just in case." When I asked, "Just in case of what?" she pretended to lose her train of thought.
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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