Rats in Disguise

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By Danila Botha,

I can still see myself standing there, the small, reused brown box in my open palm. My mom had to remind me that it was Aunt Felicia’s birthday, because I’d forgotten. I think all she wanted me to do was write her a card, but I did one better. I went into my jewellery collection and pulled out some of my favourite pieces. I was into making necklaces, nothing too complicated. I pulled out a piece of black leather cord, eighteen inches, and then I went through some of my favourite charms and beads.

I found a pewter squirrel. It reminded me of one of my first days in Toronto, back when I’d only seen a squirrel at the zoo. Aunt Felicia’s husband, Clive stood behind me as I stared out of their kitchen window.

“Wow, look at it flicking its tail,” I said, and he wrinkled his nose.

“It’s just a rat in disguise, man,” he said, his South African accent somehow heavier than mine, and walked away. I kept watching it, climbing and jumping around. I thought it was beautiful.

I moved the pewter squirrel to the middle of the cord. I thought about my Moroccan great grandmother, who believed so strongly in warding off the evil eye, she gave us all blue glass beads when we were born. I bought a bunch of similar ones, in turquoise and dark blue. I even bought more expensive blue stones like Sodalite and Lapis Lazuli, for good luck. I decided since it was her birthday, I’d use one of each, on each side of the squirrel. I grabbed the box and even found a piece of white tissue paper in my mom’s desk drawer. I didn’t tell my mom.

When we got there, my mom gave my aunt a caramel-coloured cashmere sweater. Felicia smiled with no teeth, the lines on the sides of her mouth deepening. “Thank you,” she said, and when she got up to go to her closet upstairs, to put everything away, I followed her. I handed her the box and she tore it open.

I could tell when she looked at me that I’d gotten it wrong and I instantly felt stupid.

“This is so nice,” she said, “but you know I’ll never wear it.” She leaned in close and I could smell her baby powder deodorant.  “I only wear real jewellery.” I knew what she meant. The women in my family wore precious stones and real gold. I thought about how many times she’d told my grandmother that my mom was the materialistic one, she was the sporty one, the down to earth one who didn’t care about these things.

She opened her underwear drawer. She put the box inside and closed it again. “I won’t wear it, but I’ll keep it in a special place, okay?”

She put it beside an undershirt of my sister’s that she’d left behind on one of her visits before we moved here. Lila must have been three.

A few years later she gave it back to me. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I stuffed it into the back of my desk drawer, where I forgot about it for years.

Aunt Felicia and Clive had twin boys, Jaron and Eitan, both born in Canada. Jaron was everything they ever wanted, tall, good looking, popular, attuned to everyone’s moods and feelings. He could watch golf or play basketball with his dad and have heart to hearts with his mom.

Eitan earned the nickname Satan because he never listened to any teacher or babysitter or authority figure. At best, his teachers said, he was “hyper- social,” and would talk to anyone. At worst, he refused to cooperate or do anything he didn’t want to do, which was most schoolwork. He was the kind of kid who refilled vodka bottles in the freezer with water, then got caught when his dad found the bottle frozen.  He mellowed out and became a vegan when he got older, and then people called him Seitan, even though he also went gluten free.

Jaron became the corporate Bay street lawyer everyone wanted him to be, and Eitan became an artist, like me.

Most of the walls in Felicia’s house were bare except for some muted Judaica paintings featuring the Western wall, a rabbi with a white candy floss beard, and downcast eyes and a Channukiah, and a small painting of St Martin in their kitchen, full of green hills and swirling ocean and some candy coloured houses. For her art was just decor, it could be uplifting and happy, or sombre and religious and that was it.

Clive had told me once that he’d been in a punk band when he was in high school, but he gave it up as soon as he got to university. It was as if they thought that making art was as inevitable and pointless as a toddler’s tantrums-the fantasy part of being a kid that you abandoned for common sense and financial stability as you got older.

I was a cautionary tale for most of the boys’ life. My grades were only average until the year I started purposely failing. I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ face when I got a seventeen percent in grade ten geography. When I stopped taking math altogether. When I somehow got into art school. At least they could tell people I was in university. I think they imagined me becoming an elementary school art teacher, or an illustrator of children’s books about animals or plants.

They didn’t picture me spraying graffiti murals under highways and in the tunnels trains pass through. They didn’t imagine me taking photos of the people under bridges, beautiful, interesting people turning tricks or shooting up or dropping rocks into blue glass pipes while they laughed and let go. They never imagined all this stuff I was doing would be worth money, that rich people would pay for my prints, that I’d have a whole book of my photos that they could buy in a bookstore.

I think they were a tiny bit proud, but they wouldn’t admit it. A black and white photo book about people escaping their lives and doing too much Fentanyl is not exactly something to brag about, in their opinion. When the newspaper ran one of my photos, on the front page, to highlight the opioid epidemic, my dad told me he wanted to show everyone he knew, but the subject gave him pause.

My parents made me wash my hands when I walked in their front door. My mom offered to rewash my clothes, and they came out slightly shrunk and reeking of Tide.

When I really got into trouble, I didn’t tell them. When I got raped I went to a Planned Parenthood alone, my hoodie pulled down so low you could only see my eyes. When I did drugs, and it got out of control I told my parents I kept falling asleep because I had an eating disorder, and they sent me to outpatient treatment which actually did help.

I always shielded them from the worst things, and my parents’ shame shielded me even more, so if Felicia says she knew about any of these things, , she was lying.

My mom wanted them to be closer than they were.

“I only have one sister,” she kept telling anyone who would listen.

“But she doesn’t like us,” Lila and I would take turns saying in response, and eventually, she stopped trying so hard.

When we visited her back when I was nine, Felicia and I ran around making up songs, dancing and laughing. I hardly knew her, but I felt so comfortable. She kept telling me how much she loved me, how sad she was that she missed out on so much of my little kid life. I can only remember her coming home to visit us twice.

Once, she took me swimming, and I tore open my hand trying to impress her by climbing the pool fence soaking wet. She said the gate was stuck, and she said she bet that I couldn’t climb over the fence. I bet her I could. I got four stitches between my thumb and my first finger and Felicia didn’t act like it was a big deal, so I didn’t know it was until I saw my parents. The doctor said the stiches would dissolve on their own, but they didn’t, so I pulled them out myself. I have a noticeable scar even today.

The other thing I remember about that day was my navy-blue full piece bathing suit. It was a speedo with a Criss Cross back, and I liked it. Felicia told me to look around, that she’d take me shopping for a bikini like some of the other girls were wearing. I looked down at my pooch of a stomach and shook my head. She looked back at me, her eyes glinting with another challenge.

The other time, she was at our house, after school, helping Lila and I with our homework. I was painting a scene from Pearl S Buck’s the Good Earth on the envelope I was handing my paper in. I used real rice from our pantry for the rice fields. Felicia wrinkled her nose when she saw the mess I was making.

She praised Lila for filling in her math sheets really quickly.

“I wish I could paint,” Lila said.

“I mean, if anyone could choose between being good at math, or being good at the arts, they’d choose math, Lila. It’s so practical.”

When my parents said we were moving to Toronto, I was so happy. Felicia made me want to be braver even if I knew she didn’t care about what happened to me.

It was different once we actually got here. When we temporarily moved in with them. When we heard Felicia and Clive fighting at night, Clive asking when we were going to leave.

Aunt Felicia was suddenly always working. When she wasn’t working, she was working out, and when she wasn’t working out, she was doing whatever Uncle Clive wanted.

“You know, sometimes divorce is a good thing,” I remember my grandmother yelling at her one day.

Everyone hated Clive, because he was cold and indifferent to our family, because he was lazy and she out earned him, but most of all, because everyone knew he didn’t love her. There were times when I sat on her car, listening to him yelling at her over her Bluetooth. At the end of the call, she’d always say “I love you,” and he’d snap “me too” or say nothing at all.

I didn’t see Aunt Felicia or Uncle Clive much after they had the twins. Clive starting making more money and they moved into a McMansion. Their house was always chaotic. They had a full-time nanny, and a girl who lived a few houses down babysat so they could go on dates.

They never wanted me to be around their kids, but occasionally Clive would want to take me to disturbing indie movie that Felicia would never want to see, or go see a band in a dive bar she’d never set foot in. It wasn’t like having an uncle, or even a friend. It was like having hope that one day, we’d all feel like family, like one day I’d meet people who wouldn’t think I was a total weirdo.

Felicia always tried to teach me about men. “Even if you have a guy’s kids, it’s important that he always sees you as a woman.” I nodded, even though I didn’t know what she meant.

She was always doing squats while she talked, teaching me all her diet tricks including avoiding oils and dressings on salads, always drinking tons of water and pouring vinegar on her food so she wouldn’t want to actually eat it.

When Clive inevitably left her for Ashley, his business partner’s wife, who they’d double dated with and vacationed with multiple times, she started spending more time with my family. One night over dinner, I told her she was prettier that Ashley, and Lila pointed out how much Ashley looked like Steven Tyler. For a while, it seemed like our relationship would change, and it did, until she met the next guy. Then the guy after him.

Jaron became a huge success, and Eitan drifted all the way into a unit in my apartment building.

At first I was weary of him, having never been close growing up, but after a while it felt kind of nice to be so close to someone in my family.

He’d always loved tattoos. At first, when his parents asked, he blamed me for being a bad example and having them first, but now he admitted that he’d just told them what he knew they’d wanted to hear.

He had full sleeves, and designs on his back and legs. It didn’t take long for him to apprentice at a tattoo parlour, and soon he had a huge clientele, even a few local celebrities.

He came over one night with his tattoo pen, needles and ink.

“I can’t believe I haven’t done you yet. What do you want?”

I had one a camera on my left wrist, and fluorescent beautiful graffiti that I designed myself across my shoulders.  Then I thought about squirrels, their bushy tails, their curious eyes, always planning ahead for winter. I thought about the nests they slept in outside my window, the way they piled on top of each other, all breathing in unison. I thought about the daredevil types I saw in the dead of winter, heavier than normal, leaping off telephone wires and onto tree branches, but somehow, still making it.

I found the squirrel charm at the back of my drawer. “Give me one like this,” I said, and pointed to the fleshy spot on the inside of my right arm. I told him the story about his dad and I, looking out the window. He showed me a sketch, where he added a tiny top hat and a diamond necklace. He drew one for himself, with a bowtie. When he was finished we’d officially match, two  squirrels who had wondered far from the nest, but who’d somehow made it to a better place.


Danila Botha is the author of three short story collections, Got No Secrets, and For All the Men… which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness will be published in 2024 by Guernica Editions. She is also the author of the award winning novel Too Much on the Inside, which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us will be published by Guernica in 2025. Danila holds an MFA from University of Guelph in Creative Writing. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto SCS and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers.

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