by Yael van der Wouden
One time I told mom’s story at a dinner party and someone said: you can’t start a story with the weather. So I said, well then my mom’s in bad luck ‘cause all she ever does is tell stories and talk about the weather.
Which might just be the truest thing anyone’s ever said about my mother. When we were kids she’d turn on the tv for the news at 8 and set it to mute, go outside and smoke two cigarettes. She’d come back in at 8:15 exactly, just to watch the weather report. She’d tut if it was hot, and it was always too hot. She’d tut at the reporter, too. “I don’t like this one,” she’d say.
It was high summer the way she told the story. Air rippled off concrete, off car tops and garage doors and flat-roofed kiosks on corner ends. The cicadas were louder than the traffic, she’d say. The sky looked like foil pulled tight and no one went outside unless it was by mistake. She was nine years old in the story and an only child. It was long before she came to this country. Her parents lived in a small apartment she’d lovingly call disgusting. The walls would sweat, she’d say. The chairs would sweat, the windows would sweat. In the summer months you couldn’t pick up a glass without it slipping from your hold. Couldn’t take a seat at the piano without gliding right off. My mother hated it, hated the clammy wet, the mildew of it all. And so she’d spend the days standing in the middle of the cooler hallway: legs wide, arms away from her body. Trying not to touch herself, or let anything else touch her.
This worried her parents. They both worked at home that season – my grandma repairing clothes, grandpa counting numbers – and they’d divided themselves between the kitchen and the dining room. Whenever either looked up they’d see my mother in the hallway, unmoving.
“Manoush,” they’d say, “haven’t you anything better to do?”
“No,” she’d say, keeping her lips from touching.
The way the story goes, my grandma got her the cat. She found the thing on the street, on the way back from the shop. A young kitten, dirty with its tail all stiff and puffed behind it. To keep the girl occupied, was my grandma’s reasoning as she scooped it up, carried it home like a purse. She made my mother promise to always take care of it, and my mother swore she would, spit three times between the V of her fingers. Tfu, tfu, tfu.
My mother loved the cat. She cradled it, coo’d at it, washed it and slept with it, too, despite the heat. The cat would try to get away, would put its nails to my mother’s back in her sleep and she’d only hold it closer, hold it tighter. She named it Gigi, walked around the house kissing its little nose and singing songs about it.
“Gigi you’re my sister,” she chanted. “See we even look the same!” She’d flop her hair over the cat’s head. They were both, the story went, the same exact shade of brown.
The cat had been with the family for two weeks when it happened. My mother woke up and instead of a cat a girl was lying in bed next to her. It was a grey-hot day, the way she told it. A smoggy day with the sun a pinprick hole in the sky. The girl was awake, humming to herself. She’d dressed in one of mother’s dresses.
“I borrowed this,” she whispered. “You don’t mind, do you?” Her breath, mother always said, smelled like fish and milk. Her corner teeth were crooked. She looked like a cousin, like family.
My mother jumped out of bed and began shouting, throwing things around. She’d have these fits, my mother. When we were kids we’d call ‘em shows, like – who broke this, did mom have a show? But back when she was a kid herself, no one called them anything and everyone just waited for them to pass. They usually did.
That day my mother came out of her room in her nightgown and said that Gigi got stuck on top of the closet, and also that Gigi had turned into a girl. My grandmother put down her sewing but not her cigarette and followed my mother to her bedroom. Gigi, scared by mother’s fit, had jumped on top of the wardrobe and had pressed herself against the wall.
“Come now sweetie,” my grandmother said to girl, helping her down with soft hands. She put her on the ground, took a step back. Smoked. “She wears your dress well, Manoush,” she said, then pinched the fabric at the back. “Maybe take in a little here. But good. Good.”
“No,” my mother said, “We have to take her back.”
My grandmother laughed, wanted to know, “Where is ‘back’?” and my mother’s answer was:
“Well we can’t keep her, she’s not a cat anymore.”
“True,” said my grandmother, thinking it over. “But neither are you.”
My mother, fuming, said nothing. My grandmother gave both girls a tobacco smelling kiss and went back to her sewing. The way my mother tells the story she had to take Gigi with her to school after the summer. Gigi was an excellent student.
“No one asked why I now have a sister,” mother would say. “They all invited Gigi to the birthday parties and she had to ask, Can Manoush come too?”
She’d pause, usually. Shake her head. “Can you imagine? Can you?”
My sisters and me would say nothing, here. We’d all been born, had been babies, had grown up. None of us had come into form on a hot summer’s day. Though one sister’s teeth grew crooked, another had hair that stiffened and puffed when she got frightened. And I, when held too tightly, would put my nails into my lover’s back in their sleep.
We asked mother about this, once or twice. She never answered, pretended as though we hadn’t asked anything at all. Would say instead: “It better not get hot this week. It always gets too hot.”
We asked auntie Gigi once, too, when she visited in a flurry of perfume and presents. “Oh, your mother and her stories!” Then, she spit three times between the V of her fingers. Tfu, tfu, tfu.
Yael van der Wouden is a writer, editor, and mixed-bag-diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She recently remembered that at 8 she tried (and failed) to get onto a national talent show by tap-dancing. How did she forget that? She doesn't know. Her words can be found all over the place, though most recently over at Cheap Pop Literature and Split Lip Magazine. She's currently working on a collection of short stories about monsters. Find her at yaelvanderwouden.com or on twitter @yaelwouden