Niqa longed for home more frequently and with greater intensity than she desired anything else. She didn’t understand her longing, either, for even when she was within the walls of her house, curled in her bed, she found herself pining for home.
It came as an ache in her chest, a tired, hollow feeling that gave her the impression her heart had been scooped out and secreted away where she couldn’t find it. The ache spread through her limbs until she felt nothing but a weakening, consuming yearning for home.
She didn’t know why she felt it, even in the depths of her house, but she did know when: she felt it on her dark days, when nothing seemed to be going right, when something bad had happened or when her thoughts descended into the damp grey mist that was self-doubt.
Was her house insufficient? It gave her what she needed: shelter, and a place to call her own. She called it home, casually: “I’m headed home,” she would say, after a long day. Yet it didn’t have the feel of home, not like her parents’ house had when she was a little girl and her mom tucked her safely into bed.
It wasn’t her parents’ house that she yearned for, though, when she felt that craving for home. It wasn’t anywhere. No matter where she thought of going, it did nothing to satiate her need. She craved home like she might crave a food, and yet no food sounded sufficient to the task of satisfying her desire.
Niqa’s longing wasn’t for a place, perhaps, but a feeling, and every place in her life had lost that feeling somewhen along the way. She couldn’t even say when it had happened. Perhaps in college; but no, then she had distinctly felt that her parents’ house was still home, even though she’d lived in the same apartment for three years with her best friend.
Her boyfriend didn’t understand. To him, when they’d move into their new house, it had become his home immediately. They had decorated together, they had repainted all of the rooms, and they spent countless hours there, sleeping and watching programs and reading and simply existing.
Still, something had yet to click within Niqa. She had a house, on paper, but it had yet to adopt the feeling of a home for her. It was just a space in which her life passed by. She had a house but she felt homeless, in desperate, aching way.
The closest she felt to being home was at night, curled up in bed, with her boyfriend’s arms wrapped around her. The space didn’t feel like home, the bed didn’t feel like home, but the warmth of his body almost did, and the touch of his lips on the top of his head as he kissed her goodnight.
She didn’t talk about it much, because Brian didn’t understand. He did know, though, because she had asked him a few times if he ever felt that way. He didn’t, and she could see that it pained him that he couldn’t understand. He always wanted to understand her and what she was going through, so that he could help her defeat it.
Somehow, even though he didn’t know her pain, even though he couldn’t even figure out how to empathize with it, he found a way.
On Christmas day, Niqa woke to discover that she was alone in bed. Brian had a way of slipping out from her grip in the mornings on his way to work, so as not to disturb her, but on days they had off they normally stayed together in bed for a time. Especially on Christmas. They were supposed to rise together, to make coffee and breakfast, and then exchange gifts before relaxing until her parents’ Christmas dinner.
That morning, Niqa woke alone. She felt oddly fearful, as though something had gone wrong, or as though it wasn’t truly Christmas day and she had somehow lost her memory of the time that had passed.
“Brian?” she called, easing open the bedroom door. “Where are you?
The bathroom door was open, and the room itself was dark except for the dim glow of the morning sun. That had been her only guess as to where he might be. Unless he had gone to the kitchen to surprise her with breakfast, but that didn’t make sense. They liked to make breakfast together, because on his own, Brian was a terrible cook.
“I’m downstairs,” he called. “By the tree.”
Niqa padded down the stairs, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s Christmas,” he said, smiling broadly. “I got you a present.”
He sat on the floor in front of the tree. In front of him was a ridiculously large box wrapped in bright blue-and-white striped paper. He held onto it as though he was afraid it might tip if he let go, though the base was sufficiently wide.
“What is that?” Niqa asked, yawning. Her mind still felt slow from sleep and from the disorientation of waking up with her expectations for the morning thwarted.
“You have to come open it,” Brian said. He patted the lid, the presence of which made Niqa curious. Brian took an odd joy in making his gifts as difficult as possible to open, and for this one it appeared he had made it as easily as possible.
“Alright,” Niqa said. “I’m coming. This is weird, though, Brian. You hate doing things out of order.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes it’s the right way.” The smile hadn’t left Brian’s face. He wasn’t an unhappy fellow, but Niqa hadn’t seen him smile this much in ages.
The box shifted as Niqa reached for the lid. Her heart fluttered. “Did you do that?”
“No!” Brian was practically bouncing where he sat. He bit his lip and raised his eyebrows.
Niqa opened the box, and what she saw inside brought her hands to her heart. “Brian! Oh, oh, oh my goodness.” She reached in.
A small golden puppy, with fur as fluffy as the fresh-fallen snow and a tail wagging even faster than the beating of Niqa’s heart, wiggled inside the box. It met her eyes as she reached it, and pushed up against her hands as she picked it up. She struggled to hold it through its excited wiggles.
“I got you a puppy!” Brian exclaimed. He stood, kicking the box aside, so that he, too, could join in on petting the puppy. It licked Niqa’s face, and then Brian’s, then Niqa’s again and on and on, back and forth.
“When did you get it?” she asked. “Brian, you didn’t even tell me. You’re terrible at secrets.”
“Your parents watched him for a couple of days,” he said.
“So that’s why mom cancelled our lunch plans the other day.”
“Ah, probably,” Brian said, laughing. “He’s a handful, I’m sure.”
“You had better send them a thank you note.”
“I will, don’t worry.” He kissed the puppy on the head. “But look! Puppy!”
“Puppy.” Niqa smiled. The puppy looked directly into her eyes, and she knew, instantly, that she loved him.
It took time. At first, between training and cleaning up messes and feeding him and walking him, Niqa simply forgot to feel sad. Not that everything was perfect, of course. She still hated her job, she still got tired or sad or frustrated at Puppy when he did something like pooping in the bed.
Then, one night, she realized as Brian laid behind her with his arm around her and Puppy laid pressed up against her pillow that, with her face pressed up against Puppy’s back and her nose inhaling his sweet puppy scent and Brian’s breath against her neck, she finally felt home.