rainy days (in chateau d'if)
Days between storms, the Ladies Association of Bright Colors holds parades. As they pass by the street outside they pop open their rainbow of parasols and shout curses at our house. They call us the Cat Thieves because of the way the neighborhood felines stage hostile takeovers of the apartment every time it rains. We've tried to explain that the pets aren't invited and we'd prefer it if they stayed away, but once you get a reputation as a Cat Thief, there's really no shedding it.
The cats don't like us, I've told the Ladies over and over, it's the apartment they want. The apartment, with its tall, curved windows and deep-stained mahogany that you can hear moaning in the winter, soft and languid, smooth. The ratty, sea-green couch Sal inherited from his dead uncle, its insides all spilling out where the cats have ripped through the velvet; the ruined silver tea tray, cat hair embedded in all its cracks; the names of former tenants etched behind the loose paneling in the bathroom, letters harsh and curveless. I wouldn't mind the cats so much if they didn't use the dark wood of the walls and railings as scratching posts. Sal says the whole place looks like a prison, like all our ghosts have tried to claw their way out.
My mother calls the apartment Chateau D'if. I'm not sure it can be a prison if all the occupants keep trying to get in, but Sal likes the name so much he made a sign for the door. APT 2D. CHATEAU D'IF FOR CATS.
I like to watch the parades. The Ladies make their own dresses, layers of sewn silk that are dyed deep and resonant with blues and greens and reds and yellows, colors mixing in the fabric like liquid, whispering around the Ladies' legs and making them as beautiful and precise as the careful stitching. They look best without the parasols, with the sun sticky against their pale skin, their dark skin, mixing flesh with fabric until its hard to tell what was born and what was made. That's when I like them best, but when they pass by through the Chateau D'if they push open the shade of their umbrellas and hiss, "Thieves! Thieves!"
"We're not thieves," I remind Sal from the balcony. He is eating a tuna sandwich. There is a soft drop of mayonnaise on the corner of his mouth. He shrugs. The Ladies Association of Bright Colors doesn't bother Sal, except that they making driving impossible on sunny days. We always have to take the bus--an ungainly, purple, bovine thing that rumbles down too-small cobbled alleys like a child's overloaded wagon, squealing and squawking every time the driver hits the breaks. The wheels have no tract whatsoever and we always slip when we hit puddles. It's not so bad in the dry season, but once the cats start showing up with regularity I know to get a window seat and brace myself with my knees.
"No," he agrees.
"We should just start closing the windows when it rains."
"Sure thing," he says, and takes another bite.
On sunny days like this, you would never guess about the cats. Sal is meticulous about vacuuming up the hair, about shoving the couch's insides back where they belong. If it weren't for the deep scars in the walls, even I might forget the way the cats wind around my ankles and barricade the door. When they come, they come in hordes, in legions; they don't lie on the couch, they lay siege to it. We cannot cook because the cats are sleeping in our pots and curled up in the microwave. There are always at least three in the dryer, no less than two in our pillowcases. We find diced mice on the cutting board as if someone expects us to serve it.
The purring might drive you crazy, if you didn't become used to it, if you didn't turn it into a lullaby. Sometimes I think that they are singing in harmony. Sometimes I think that they are whispering secrets to me, trapped safe in the place where languages meet and are incompatible. They watch us with their dark eyes, prowling in circles, shedding and coughing up hairballs, telling us all the things cats know, including that they know that we don't understand them.
"I think you're overthinking this," says Sal around a mouthful of tuna. "Just watch the parade."
"I am watching the parade," I tell him, and the Ladies' dresses fan out around them as they spin, whirring like pinwheels.
There is no official credo of the Ladies' Association of Bright Colors. I thought they might be animal activists, the way they go on about the cats, but Sal says he read somewhere that really what they're protesting is the rain.
"How can you protest the rain?" I ask as the sky darkens and the first hum of a cat folding itself into the space between the window and the frame slips into the living room.
"Asks the cats," says Sal, and laughs. I don't know why he thinks it's so funny. It's Sal that can't stand the hair everywhere, Sal that wakes up with cat bodies pressing him into the mattress, pinning his wrists. I sleep in the bathroom during the rain. The cats won't touch the porcelain tub, for reasons they'll only tell us in their untranslatable, rough tongues.
There are four or five cats now, slinking their way along the walls, circling. This is how it always goes: a spiral from the wall inward, until they have reached the center of the apartment. We tried placing furniture in that spot, but it doesn't deter them. The old wicker lampstand that we finally settled on is frayed and cracked, its paint chipping. It is held together as much by cat hair as by its woven strands.
The rain comes faster and so do the cats, knocking over bowls and wrapping their tails around the legs of the furniture. They pay Sal and I no mind.
When the rainy season ends, the Ladies' Association of Bright Colors hosts a parade that far outshines all the others. The street seems to light up beneath them, gathering their reflections. They say that black is made from colors mixing, and today that’s true. Today black isn't even black, just the reflecting of silk in sun-drunk pavement.
I call Sal from the bus station. We spent the morning locating the cats' owners and returning them. Now he is using Drain-O to dissolve hairballs and vacuuming under the couch. I can hear him munching on chips, probably sour cream & onion flavored because that's all he'll eat. The phone will have slick, grainy fingerprints on it when I get home, and I won't be able to scrub the oil off. We'll have to wait for the next rainstorm to come, because the cats lick off the grease residue with their tough, no-nonsense tongues and make everything sparkle.
"Chateau D'if for Cats," says Sal, laughing around a mouthful of crushed starch. "Nothing but open windows and unlocked doors, and still, no one can get out, not a single soul."
I hear him shove the vacuum under the always-bleeding couch, choking on lint and fur that has gathered on the rug. There are no cats left in the apartment but there are always the ghosts of cats, always the deep scars left in the wood where they have sharpened their claws.
"Next rainy season," he says easily, "let's try closing the windows."
"It's about time," I agree. "Next rainy season."
But that's the thing, you know; that's what makes Chateau D'if Chateau D'if: neither one of us will shut the window. I can't explain it to you, if you don't already understand. I am not a Cat Thief and I don't claw at the walls. I want to see the Ladies Association of Bright Colors without their parasols. But I can't close the windows when it rains.
It is a cat's house. We just live here.