I was 3 the first time I left home. I’d woken up early to a silent house. Mom was at work. Dad was asleep somewhere after a late shift. I was functionally alone, and I began to pack my things.
First, a blanket. Blue with white ducks, it was a little scratchy but good for impromptu naps and quick shelter if the weather turned. Next, for company, Jojo the stuffed monkey whose arms could be crossed to give him a look of disdain. The dog – a shepherd mix called Roxy – watched the scene unfold and darted out the screen door before it slammed behind me.
We lived on a cul-de-sac in a flyover town known regionally for its ketchup factory. Some days the air would carry the sour stink of vinegar, but this morning was calm except for the cawing of distant crows as I crossed the road and joined the sidewalk, headed with great intention for the sandbox three houses up.
Weeks earlier, my aunt and live-in babysitter had moved out suddenly. I’d woken up to find a light patch of asphalt on the street, where her red coupe had been when the early morning sprinklers sputtered across the lawn.
I knew she was leaving for a new life in some new town, but I let devastation sink in anyway, and spent that day in a basket of toys in the closet, comfortably crying in the soft confines of their fluffy ears and glassy, unblinking eyes. Dinner that night was served with the standard accompaniment of generously buttered white bread, stacked and sliced in two equal rectangles.
I had just settled in to the cool sand and begun to assess the resident child’s inventory of pastel pails and scoops when the shadow of my father materialized from the distance, through the waves of summer heat beginning to rise from the pavement. As he jogged toward me, I felt dismayed at this sudden intervention in the flawless toddler plan. What does this guy want?
A neighbor had seen me and called the house, waking him from a post-third-shift snooze.
This story is delivered jovially at dinner parties now, decades later, wrapped in a bow of oh thank heavens; an ode to the comfort of bygone childhoods and good samaritans. Shudder to think! the story’s audience will exclaim, alluding to the unthinkable sliding van doors, stranger danger and minnie mouse night shirts found crumpled and stained in a storm drain.
The more subtle horror of a youth in solitude is not acknowledged.