Through the cement and darkness, the half-empty subway car burrowed its way underground, the same kind of burrowing that was upsetting Jill’s stomach. Her legs were thick and numb; her feet may as well have been nailed to the floor of the human cargo carrier. Across the aisle from her sat a teenage girl with sharp black hair who looked to be the same age as her niece. The girl was dressed in mesh, her lips painted a dark lizard green. Another woman with tight curls was eating blueberries, picking them out of her purse one by one.
The crease in Jill’s forehead ached, and she rubbed it with her thumb. It was a humid August morning outside, but cool here in the air-conditioned train. Further ahead, a man was reading the Economist as if he was reclined in his own living room. He had salt and pepper hair and funky glasses; Jill imagined he probably owned a Lexus but on occasion took the subway to clear his conscience. Maybe he owned a dog too. A Filipino woman was fast asleep, her head knocking against the plastic divider. She was overweight and had two plastic shopping bags on the floor, between her legs, that contained several bottles of cola. Jill tried not to judge, but with one glance she had already assumed the woman was the author of her own demise. Maybe she was just trying to get home and relax after some awful all-night cleaning job she worked to send money back to her husband and kids on the other side of the world.
“Shame on you,” Jill thought to herself. What would her dear old mum have said? “Snap out of it,” she would have barked. “It was just a damn dog.” Any one of these people could be in the same position as Jill, or worse. Far worse. The Filipino woman, for example. And maybe goth girl was homeless. Maybe she was depressed because she was bullied or abused or addicted to drugs or sex or gambling. Who knew what was going on with people?
Jill had taken the day off from her job, reviewing movies for a morning radio talk show. She had planned ahead, knowing she wouldn’t be able to sit in front of the microphone, alternating between earnest critique and witty sarcasm on the latest blockbuster. She had no energy for her usual clever banter with the host, who followed up her segment with a list of events going on in the city that weekend—outdoor art shows, Shakespeare in High Park, another charity marathon and its associated road closures.
Earlier that morning, before she took Captain Stubing to the vet one last time, she sat on the kitchen floor, next to her loyal companion’s rug, eating stale mini–Kit Kats for breakfast. She’d found the chocolate bars in the crisper, left over from Halloween. When she dipped them in her coffee, they left splotchy puddles of oil floating on top. When Jill offered one to Stubey, he didn’t even look up. He just lay there indolent and languid, not his usual self. He knew what was happening. Animals know.
All those droopy heads and blank stares on the subway could very well be masking pain greater than Jill’s, heavier pain that was more important. Sluggish pain that hung from rafters and old pipes. Thick, oily pain that oozed from concrete walls, seeping through the city’s cracks. Maybe salt and pepper hair just lost his job and had to remortgage the house, sell his boat. It was all relative, right?
But her little Captain Stubing wasn’t just a damn dog.
The subway slowed down and pulled into Bloor station. Jill was headed westbound, Spirit of the West singing in her headphones about sadness growing. The music gave a semblance of comfort, coaxing her back home. At the station, a few teens—late summer zombies less than half her age—exited the car and filed their way through the grotty tunnel, slow-marching drones dragging their feet toward a staircase of light. Despite its flaws—delays, construction, overcrowding—the subway was a decent system. Enter, ride, exit. Life was a subway. Jill’s mother’s abrasive voice rang out: “Did you think the thing was going to live forever or what?”
Jill had thought the end would be more complicated. She remembered her grandmother’s pearly grey skin as she lay motionless in her casket. Freakish and skeletal, but not terribly different than she was when she was alive. Then Brenda, her cousin who died suddenly, at the age of twenty-nine, from a brain aneurysm. Cremated and given an open-air ceremony two years after her death, so relatives from overseas could attend the get-together, on the family property in the Annapolis Valley. But Stubey had shown Jill how straightforward death was. A slim silver needle slipped into the soft flesh of his backside. The whole thing was dignified and graceful and over in an instant.
A few passengers entered the train and a tallish blond man with a duffle bag made a beeline toward her. Jill inadvertently caught his eye, then turned her head to the window. She focused on a coffee spill on the platform floor. There were plenty of empty seats on the train, but he chose to sit right next to her. She kept her eyes on the platform. Cracked tiles and crumbs of debris lined the crease at the bottom of the wall. The city had gone to shit. The train started up again, slow at first, then accelerating to what felt uncomfortably fast. Maybe the driver was anxious, letting off steam, or in a hurry to get to the end of his shift. Jill was a regular rider and this train definitely was moving faster than normal. She turned to face forward and adjusted one of her ear buds. In her anguish there was a tiny part of her deep inside that lifted. In her periphery, she saw the fellow next to her staring at her legs. He had a nervous energy about him, a slight, constant shaking of his left knee. The subway squealed as it curved around a bend in the track.
“Do you eat a lot of protein?” the guy said, suddenly.
Jill shifted in her seat. She should have just turned her music up louder. The sooner she could get back to her apartment and lock the door behind her the better. She needed to be alone right now, not making small talk with twitchy strangers on public transit. She wanted to detach, unhook herself from anything that required effort. She wanted to be alone in the stillness, grieve in solitary confinement. She pictured her Siamese fighting fish, the only pet she had left now, violently pivoting from invisible predators in its bowl, flicking its luminous blue tail like a whip. Protein? How much was a lot? Tuna, peanut butter, beans—she’d given up chicken because of all the documentaries. What did it matter?
“Sure,” Jill said. “Enough, I guess.”
She was so tired, but he was right there, so close, crowding her. He was wound up, tight, fidgety. The subway sped along and she stared out the window, her eyes snagging on imaginary objects in the dark. Flashes appeared then vanished.
“You have great muscle tone,” he said. He was speaking loudly, but no one seemed to notice. So many worlds in such a small space. “Your calves are nice. Calves are hard.”
Jill recalled the documentary she had seen about Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who went through life perpetually anxious, which led her to the discovery that she had more in common with animals than people, cows in particular. Jill tugged at the bottom of her T-shirt, waved it a little for airflow. Less than an hour earlier Jill had held Stubey’s furry white head in her hand as he faded away. She had leaned over him while her beloved Westie licked her cheek one last time, his breath sour and warm and reeking like bad milk.
“Are you a Scorpio?”
Captain Stubing had been fourteen years old. Jill had been twenty-six when she got him. She hadn’t even meant to get a dog, but when she attended the S.P.C.A. adopt-a-thon with her friend Charlene, there he was. Things weren’t good with Ryan back then, and when she walked up to Stubey’s cage, he was sitting there behind bars, little white ears perked straight up, dark eyes bursting with optimism. Jill fell hard. She named him after the character on The Love Boat because of his white coat and happy-go-lucky attitude. Stubey had outlasted Ryan. Later, he also outlasted Pete. He was probably the closest thing Jill would ever have to a child.
“Leo,” she said, taking her headphones out and cradling them in her hands.
“A Leo gave me this bracelet,” the man nodded as he spoke, jutting his wrist forward, showing off a twisted black leather band. Maybe he was autistic. Or an idiot savant. Or just a plain idiot.
“I dated a bodybuilder once,” he said, “She ate so many carrots her skin turned orange.”
At Spadina station, goth girl got off the train, clutching an oversized canvas bag, head down, no eye contact with anyone. Jill wanted to get up and leave with her head down. Other passengers entered the car while the Filipino woman remained fast asleep. When the train started to move again it didn’t speed up like before. In fact, it was moving much slower now, creeping through the underground like a sick worm.
“Do you wear a lot of animal print?”
She should have taken a cab. Jill shook her head with a motion that was barely noticeable.
“No? A lot of basic black then,” he said. She was wearing black shorts, his leg still bouncing up and down next to hers. “You guys are on the cutting edge of fashion.”
When Jill took Stubey to the off-leash area at the dog park, he looked like a pot-bellied pig rushing around the other, bigger dogs. On those nights he slept soundly in his dog bed, beside hers, ears flopped forward, spent. When Jill had insomnia she would roll over and watch his breathing to calm her own, and sometimes his ears would flutter, roused from his peaceful sleep. She would stroke the top of his head and he would sigh, then fall back into a deep canine slumber.
Jill dropped her headphones in her lap and clasped her hands, intertwining them backward like the people-in-the-church game she used to play when she was a kid. It was painful to have her fingers linked so tightly but she liked feeling the pressure of her tendons, taut and strained. It was a contained action, something she could control. She squeezed her joints as tight as she could and hoped she might pull a muscle, break a knuckle. She clenched her hands more forcefully and fought the urge to scream. She wanted to say, “Stop! My dog is gone! Stop talking to me!” Instead, she sucked in the sides of her cheeks so hard she thought she might pull out a molar.
The zipper on the duffle bag that sat on the man’s lap was wide open and she could see the contents: a paperback copy of Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, and a small plastic baggie full of turquoise stones. He picked up the bag of rocks and passed it back and forth from one hand to the other. The stones sounded like marbles rattling, colliding with each other in their contained space. They rode in awkward silence, the train leisurely stopping and starting twice more, like it had all the time in the world. Jill closed her eyes, willed her seatmate not to speak again.
“I’m Mike, by the by. And you?”
She took a deep breath. The train was slowing down again. It wasn’t her stop but Jill stood up.
“Name withheld by request, right?”
At Ossington Jill balanced herself with the back of her hand against one of the metal bars.
“I’m just—,” she stopped herself. “I’m not good company today.”
“How far are you going?”
“It’s a beautiful day outside.”
She picked at a thread sticking out on the corner of her leather purse. The seam was coming apart, the stitching working its way out one thread at a time. The doors opened and closed and she forgot to exit.
“Have you ever seen swans fly?”
Jill shrugged, gave him a forced smile. She shifted her weight from one sandal to the other.
“If you leave a wisteria seed pod out to dry, it’ll pop open. And it’s loud,” he said, his voice raised even louder, but there was still no reaction from the other riders. He stopped shaking the bag of stones and removed one. “The seeds fly out and can land anywhere.”
When the train pulled into Dufferin station, he held out a blue gemstone in the palm of his hand and offered it to her. She declined with a small wave and shook her head.
“This is me,” Jill said, four stops from home.
He lowered his head and looked away from her eyes. She took the rock.
“Goodbye and good fortune,” he said, bowing deeply, leaning forward in his seat.
A few cars up, a woman with a golden retriever exited at the same time as Jill. Jill picked up her pace, tried to catch them, but they were too far ahead. She squeezed the rock in her hand. The swoopy blond tail of the dog disappeared around the corner and Jill slowed down. As the subway car pulled away, “Mike By the By” held a bright blue stone the size of a walnut up close to the window. His face was soft like a puppy, and his eyes were fixed on Jill, wide-eyed and hopeful. Then the train accelerated, and he was gone.