Athena keeps biting my feet. I don’t wear socks around the house. My feet are bare. Targets.
Athena’s our cat, our crazy tuxedo cat, a complete maniac who shot through my legs one afternoon causing me to lose balance and fall to the floor and dislocate my right shoulder.
We first saw Athena in a flyer an animal shelter on the outskirts of town sends out to people on their mailing list. We weren’t looking for a cat. We’d just lost a cat, a solid friend for fourteen years named Toby.
I spent nearly all my waking hours with Toby. We were inseparable. Toby was part Siamese and had been born in a rural area. He was a kitten when we first got him, and infested with fleas. He would sleep by my head and in the morning I’d find a scattering of little pink flea eggs on the pillow and in the bedsheets. The fleas were defeated, and as Toby matured who chose to sleep lower down on the bed, but always pressed against my leg. I think he found that more dignified. I became so accustomed to that warmth and pressure that I found it hard to sleep when - if we happened to go out of town for a few days - it wasn’t there.
This was our routine for fourteen years. And then he got sick. He found it hard to eat. He grew thin and haggard. Eventually, he was diagnosed with cancer. A vet - a warm middle-aged woman who reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac’s ex-wife and author Joyce Johnson - came to our apartment and put Toby to sleep while he was curled up on my lap. Almost two years have gone by and I still miss him.
That’s why I both wanted and did not want another cat. I wanted a cat to fill the gaping hole Toby had left, his missing toys and litter box, his constant presence now a constant irrevocable absence. But, of course, you can’t fill that void with another furry pal. It makes it worse. A new cat will have a different character and personality and his or her presence will emphasize the loss of your former friend in ways that absence alone cannot do. The greater the similarities, the greater the pain. The wise thing, the course of action any deity worth her salt in the wisdom department would recommend, is to wait for one’s grief to subside before considering the possibility of another pet. But prudence and life rarely occur together.
There had been a Siamese cat at the shelter, an older being who reminded me a little of Toby. His named was Giuseppe, like the Italian shoe designer. Giuseppe was perched high in a cage much larger than Athena’s. He looked down at me with a wary eye. He did remind me of Toby. And I did wonder for a minute if we could have a change of mind and bring that guy home. I’m so glad I didn’t give in to that impulse. Sagacity held sway.
Every cat is different. They all have personalities. They have mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. That’s cats. That’s how they are. Tricks and singularities. Another cat would not be Toby, even if close in resemblance, blue eyes and cream colored fur with touches of black. Another cat would be another cat. You could not clone another Toby. He was completely and emphatically a unique, intelligent, unduplicatable being.
We didn’t name Athena. Her first owner named her Athena. She was brought to the shelter because of hardship, we were told. I often wonder about Athena’s first owner. I imagine a woman of maturing age, well-educated, independent, a little eccentric. I picture her in a small house in a wooded area, Top Ramen cooking on a hot plate, Plato and Aristotle on a book shelf, a cracked mirror in the bathroom, mismatched chairs around a wobbly table in a tiny kitchenette. The woman must’ve received a bill from the veterinarian which had the sobering effect of making her come to that hard decision of seeing a better life for her companion with someone better equipped to pay bills and buy cat food. It must’ve been hard taking her to the shelter.
Or had it been an injury, something medical, an incapacitating disease, the onset of Parkinson’s, maybe, or just the plain bone-creaking liver-spotting ravages of time and old age?
Or was she a student? Maybe she’d been accepted at some college and had to move and exposing a cat to all that instability and impermanence would be overly stressful for a cat.
Who was she? Who came up with the name Athena for Athena?
Does it matter? No. It’s just an intrigue. Something sad and forever unconsummated that occupies my imagination, gives it a nice stirring from time to time.
Athena had been adopted briefly by another family, a couple with a toddler. They also had a dog. This did not go well. The couple returned Athena to the shelter because she’d bit the toddler. I find this inconceivable. Athena’s the gentlest cat I’ve ever been around. I’ve also seen toddlers around animals. They can be rough. They think animals are toys. They don’t understand that animals are living beings, highly sensitive creatures. Why would they? The whole world is a blur at that age. For some people it stays a blur.
We were also cautioned that Athena was terrified of dogs. This is true. If a dog can be heard barking, she tenses immediately. Whatever went down with the family, and the family dog, led to another span of time in the shelter. Athena had been there several months or more by the time we got in the car and crossed Lake Washington in heavy November traffic to get a look at this monster.
The face we'd fallen in love with on the flyer was that of a bright, pixieish, impish spirit. She had bright green-gold eyes beaming out of a small black head with disproportionately large black ears. Her whiskers were also unusually long. She looked quirky and full of frolic. The energy of her personality was palpable. There was no hesitation. We made a commitment to adopt her immediately.
Toby liked to bite my feet, too. He bit hard. My feet were sometimes constellated with little puncture wounds. Toby didn’t bite out of a meanness. He was a male cat and could be pretty aggressive, even in play. Athena’s bites are barely felt. She never punctures the skin.
Athena’s main attraction is licking. She loves to lick. She goes at it instantly. Pet her on the head and if she’s been sleeping she’ll yawn and go to work on your hand immediately, a small, sandpapery tongue moving up and down. And play? She’s crazy about play. It’s like living with a free electron bouncing off the walls. It’s what goddesses do: hide behind a magazine rack and pounce on your feet.