The Stray by Jamie Nazario Black
On the best most special kind of Friday afternoons
I’d sit in the velvety backseat of my father’s Buick,
a tangled bundle of excitement,
because it was time for a weekend at the house—
“Aunt” Joanie’s house, where the cabinets were stocked
with sour apple Blow-Pops, and my Lite Brite waited for me upstairs.
Joanie’s house, with its tiny blue bathroom tiles, several missing
like my baby-toothed smile. Its wood-paneled walls
matched the puppy fur cushioning
its floors. I’d sprinted through the week, outran
the bad guys, and could finally tag base;
I’d made it to Joanie’s house. I was safe.
From the front yard I’d watch the Buick get smaller and smaller
until it disappeared. I loved that yard, the few feet of cracked concrete
only steps from the curved bars that kept kidnappers
from crawling through the windows. It was the yard where I stood
the day we spotted a stray dog wandering the highway—
I was three, and had just learned animals that week,
so when I noticed his floppy ears I yelled,
“Look, it’s a rabbit!” And then Rabbit
came to live with us. We’d rest our feet on him
as he napped beneath the small burgundy couch,
the one with sticky patches from my pink lemonade.
I aged backwards in that house, a Benjamin Button
eating pancakes for every meal. The year I lived
there as a toddler, I imprinted on the house
the way a newborn chick imprints
on the closest warm body.
That metal screen door opened, and every part of me
felt it was time to rest. Those weekends
my cortisol and adrenaline packed a bag,
went away together; then Sunday would come,
the stomachache of a detention slip,
the “recess is over” bell.
I’d watch the Buick, blurry,
grow bigger and bigger.
I was never ready to leave.
Last year my family’s car got rear-ended, only yards
from the exit that used to take me to Joan’s.
In my panic I bolted, tried to head toward
the house—now painted an ugly mustard yellow, and peeling,
But my dad held me back, trying to calm me:
“We’re safe. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
I couldn’t explain that I just wanted to go home.
How it felt getting tagged
when I’d gotten so close.
Joan died a couple of years ago and I’ve been dreaming
about the house ever since. Each time, I find some sneaky
way to return. I peer through the window, I plead
with the neighbors; sometimes, I even break in.
Each time, I find a version of it that’s not quite the same.
The sink is in the wrong place, the walls are smooth and white.
The bedrooms are empty. No Lite Brite upstairs, no Bisquick
in the fridge. Everything is wrong.
I call for Rabbit. But he never comes.