by Melissa Breazile
I’m making small talk with a group of new acquaintances when the problem of spousal socks comes up. He leaves his dirty socks everywhere, says one woman. The group, mostly made up of married women, has her back. We nod in understanding, all of us innocent of leaving socks lying about. The lone man in the group sticks up for his gender. I’m the one who picks up her socks, he says. We cut men a little slack then, but there is a widespread agreement that crosses gender lines. Stray socks: always the other person’s fault.
When I moved out of the house my husband and I shared, a few of his socks traveled with me to my new apartment. Some pairs I outright stole, like some of his sporty white ankle socks, soft and a touch too big. They were like sweatshirts for my feet. I loved slipping them on during cold weather, and there was a lot of cold. It was February when I moved. I had signed the lease on my birthday: January 27.
Other socks, his socks, were mateless. I held on to them awhile, just in case of reunification, and then, months or a year later, I threw them away.
Linus, formerly our cat and now only mine, found a stray white ankle sock early after the move. I can’t say when exactly, but at some point he started carrying it around like a dead bird. Sometimes he dropped it on the floor and forgot about it. Other times he batted it between his paws, flipping somersaults around it in an imagined struggle to kill this thing that had never lived.
Then he began draping the sock over the edge of his water bowl. By that point, some months after the move, the white sock had turned brown. The fabric was pilled. Each morning and night when I checked the food and water dishes, I removed the sock and put it on the floor.
Silly cat, I thought.
The sock didn’t appear each time I checked the bowls. I wasn’t sure where it went but assumed Linus had dragged it off somewhere after killing it yet again. Then the sock began appearing not over the edge of the bowl, but in the water itself.
I wasn’t pleased with this development. I didn’t like sticking my fingers in the dish to pull out a dripping brown sock. But it kept appearing there, and I kept fishing it out.
One day, I decided that if Linus wanted the sock in the water so damned bad, I wasn’t going to stand in his way any longer. I did a Google search. I was surprised that a matching suggestion presented itself before I was done typing. “Why does my cat put …” Other people, it appeared, wondered why their own cats were putting things in water bowls.
Divining meaning from animal behavior, of course, is not clear-cut, but at least three out of four top Google hits agreed: House cats do this when they have treasured items they want to protect. Food and water dishes are “safe” zones. Cats consider their dishes their own special territory, so any items that go into the dishes are special by association.
I considered this object, so sacred to my cat. My ex-husband’s sock. My cat’s … daddy’s sock?
It occurred to me that the sock, at least before all its dunkings, smelled of Andrew. Did Linus really miss him, or was I anthromorphosizing? Did my cat have abandonment issues? Should I arrange visitation?
Later, I tell my friends — the ones who were acquaintances a year ago — that my husband’s socks are still plaguing me, even though he’s not my husband anymore, and even though he doesn’t know his socks are on my floor. I tell them, it’s my cat. It’s my cat keeping that dead sock around, treasuring it, keeping it safe.
The absurdity of the situation gets the laughs it deserves. My friends want to know why I don’t just throw the sock out. After all this time, it’s become truly disgusting. Each time it goes into the water dish, I have to change the water because of all the flotsam the sock produces. I hate touching the thing. Even worse is stepping on it, limp and sodden, in my own stockinged feet. I have lost sympathy for my friends who have only dry socks littering the floor.
The thing is, I can’t bring myself to evict the sock. Out of all the small items Linus knocks around the apartment, the sock is the one thing he’s attached to. He doesn’t care about my pens or hairbands or stray strings enough to keep track of them, let alone store them in his special water-bowl territory. The sock is — oh, this is ridiculous to say! — the one thing he has from the old house. The one thing he has from his kitty daddy.
I just wonder which one of us will let go of it first.