They said I’d be fine. They said I was doing all right and they added that it was only going to become easier. And that they had every reason to believe that I’d be my old, cheerful self again, and soon at that. Yes, I said, I think you’re right to believe so. They said, why don’t you take a course, we offer courses, in cooperation with the city council, one of them might interest you, and then, who knows, maybe you’ll find a new passion, or a new occupation, both are important, don’t you think? What is life without passion, they asked, and I said, yes, yes, I might do that. Just give it a try, they said, what’s the harm in trying? And I said, all right.
So here I am, on the metro, this clanky can taking the suburban sardines to the city. The train is fairly empty now, but on the way back I’ll be standing all the way, and I don’t mind, it’s only fourteen days, fourteen train trips on an empty train one way and fourteen full of people the other.
You can take the car, he says, but I experiment with forming something resembling a smile and I say that I prefer it that way, there are people from the course on the train (a lie), and I prefer to be around people (a big, fat lie), so he doesn’t mention it again. (Car is a heavy killing machine, doesn’t he know how many people die in road accidents every year? Clearly, not enough, if he wants me on the road, but that’s a mean, crazy thing to say, so I don’t say it.)
The course is all right. There are twelve, sometimes thirteen of us. We sit in front of our computers and do the tasks the instructor gives us. I sit at the back, with the blank wall behind me and other participants’ heads in front of me. Two balding guys, one wearing a baseball cap at all times, the rest of us are women. I come at the very last minute and I leave as soon as the instructor says, that’s all for today. I imagine they all get into their cars, because I don’t see them on the metro. Suits me well.
Three trips on the metro, and I start recognizing some people who travel at the same time every day. That’s a bit of an exaggeration: I recognize their shoes. There’s the woman whose one shoe lost its thread around the heel. There’s a boy in flashy sneakers. And there’s a woman wearing beige flats, and a girl with her, wearing beige ballerinas. Funny, hundreds of people and these four I recognize by their shoes. If somebody asked me what they look like, what their faces are, I wouldn’t know how to answer. They’re reducible to their shoes. What am I reducible to?
I checked the statistics on road deaths, and as always, they terrify me. I used to like driving: the road unwinding before me and the mechanical beast of several hundred kilograms obeying my command, of course it’s pleasurable. But when you start thinking of the responsibility the beast exerts on you, of a fraction of a second that might change the course of your life and innumerable lives of others, then you have to think whether it’s worth it. You reach for a cup of coffee, it proves too hot, your hand slips, the hot liquid spills, and you shake it off your hand involuntarily, by instinct, but with the movement of your hand the killing machine moves as well, and swerves into the other lane, metal grinds against metal, heavy pieces fly into the air, you don’t have time to think, you don’t think, and all is gone. The fragile sac that keeps the inner organs intact breaks, spills its contents onto the steering wheel and the seat. The bones, seemingly so sturdy and hard, suddenly prove no better protection for the brain as an eggshell for the yolk. All the secrets revealed in a violent motion: blood and bones on the road, all that remains is a steaming pile of rubber and folded metal. I take the metro to the course and back.
The metro always smells the same: stale, the mechanical smell of the train, the station and the pumps that force the air into the tube. On top of that, people’s smells, their perfume, their skin, their food, their breaths. I prefer the impersonal.
Flashy Sneakers is not interesting. He taps his foot, one or the other, and jingles something in his pocket. He either looks at his phone, or closes his eyes and nods his head to the music he’s always listening to. With one of his hands he makes the pistol gesture and shakes this imaginary pistol at an imaginary enemy. It looks silly, juvenile. He is silly and juvenile. I can watch him with impudence, because to him I’m invisible. Part of the old people mass. I’m closer in age to his parents than to him. He’s somebody’s son, an angry, confused teenager. I’m glad he’s someone else’s problem.
Lost Thread is older, and resigned. Her feet are always tired: she hunts an empty seat and sits down with visible relief. Why would she wear those uncomfortable heels? As soon as she sits down she lifts her feet slightly and moves them up and down, to return them to the original angle they are supposed to have. Lost Thread leaves the train at the very last moment, when everybody else is already at the door, and takes the escalator up, never the stairs. She slides to the top of the escalator and into her immobile life. She probably has an immobile husband, frozen in front of a TV, and some loud, nervous children who make up for her immobility with their chaotic movements.
Beige Flats walks decisively, like she always knew exactly where she was going. Beige Ballerinas trots beside her, a violin case bobbing between them. What would it be like to hold such a small hand in mine? I wouldn’t tug at it the way Beige Flats does. I would carry the violin case and her bulky backpack. I would tie ribbons in her hair and I would call her Milagros. I close my fists as tight as I can. I take a deep breath and then exhale. I let the thought pass in my mind and disappear, I don’t hold on to it, just like they taught me in the meditation class. But as it passes, it makes a screeching noise, like chalk on board sometimes does. The train brakes with the same sound as it comes close to a station and I leave it, I sit on a bench to wait for the next one. They’re only six minutes apart. These noises give me a headache.
When I get back home, he asks me, have you been crying? And I say, no, I just have a bad headache. Why don’t you lie down, he says, and I do as he tells me. He strokes my back and touches my breast tentatively. No, I say, and I turn away. He closes the bedroom door behind him. I take a sleeping pill and everything disappears.
I sleep till morning. This chemical sleep is usually dreamless, but when I fall asleep again after breakfast, I dream of the metro, buried deep underground, muffling all noises, and dimming all lights. In my dream, there are no tunnels: people and trains move noiselessly through thick soil in complete darkness. When I wake up, it’s time to go to the course center. I put on the clothes from the day before and tie my hair in a knot. It doesn’t matter. I’m invisible anyway.
Just out of curiosity, I check the statistics on metro accidents in this city. There was a big terrorist attack some years back, but apart from that, it’s safe. And yet, I can’t help but notice how careless people are. Holding children’s hands, they pay more attention to their phones. They step boldly on, without realizing that where they expect to find secure footing, there might be nothing, nothing at all. I don’t say anything, who am I to tell them what to do? But the general sloppiness of people disgusts me. Yes, it disgusts me.
On the way back from the course, I don’t find a place to sit, because the train is full, as it always is at this time of the day. Tired people coming back home from their boring jobs. Not as fresh as they were in the morning, not as forgiving. There’s a man in a grey shirt and a navy blue vest, holding the railing with one hand. In the other he holds his electronic device. His eyes are unexpectedly blue, given his dark hair. We leave the train at the same station. He steps on the heel of my shoe and pushes past me, in the crowd of people.
The wave of hatred I feel is unexpected. I am shivering with rage. He stepped on my shoe, and didn’t even notice. He disgusts me so much I wish him dead. I would push him under the train if I could. I just clench my fists in a silent fury. My bulky purse bumps against people and they are giving me looks. If somebody says something, I’m going to scream.
Sometimes I imagine talking to her. I’m not crazy, I know she doesn’t exist, but I also know she never will, so I like to imagine what it would be like to talk to her, hold her hand and listen to her voice. Sometimes I imagine she’s five, sometimes twelve. She always speaks with my voice: that’s how I know she was never real. They said I could get pregnant again. Ah, never mind.
We used to fight. He would say, “It wasn’t a baby,” and I’d say, “I know it wasn’t a baby,” and he’d say, “Then what are you grieving?” and I never had a good answer to that. I know it was just a bundle of cells. But it was also my hope. My dream. My future, encapsulated in this cell clump. Between the moment I held the positive pregnancy test in my hands, still sitting on the toilet, in awe of what had just happened, and the moment I felt the sticky warmth of blood between my legs and I knew it was all over, there was a whole eternity of hoping and loving. If he doesn’t understand that, then I have nothing to say to him. Now I’m just waiting for my soul to go numb.
I no longer go to the course, because it doesn’t really interest me. I go to the public library, and browse the internet. Road accident statistics, gun control, acts of terror. It’s better to know than not to know. If one uses the public transport, as I do, one should know what threats one faces, on a daily basis. Turns out, anything can trigger a violent attack: the surviving perpetrators say after committing their horrible acts that somebody looked at them the wrong way, or made a mocking gesture, or stepped on their foot… and they went on to buy explosives, put them in their backpack, unload them on a train, and detonate them when the train was full of those looking the wrong way and stepping on others’ toes. Full of those who tell others they are going to be just fine.
Just out of curiosity, how difficult is it to construct something? I sit in the corner, with my back against the wall, the screen before me. I can shut down my computer with a swift gesture, if anybody were to stand beside me and look, but nobody will. I don’t want them to think that just because I hate them, I’d do something to hurt them. I go to university websites. There are institutes of chemistry all over the world, like the one where my mother used to work. The one that probably gave her cancer. There are innocuous chemistry enthusiasts everywhere. I can be one of them, no need to explain that. The first afternoon brings me no results, but I know that if I am persistent enough, I will find what I’m looking for. Even though it’s easy to find recipes for what terrorists and anarchists cook, there are deliberate mistakes to mislead violent, sick people. But I am not one of them. I was born in an era without photocopiers or computers. I remember checking paper dictionaries and handbooks. I am patient, and I have time to kill.
The second afternoon I come across a chemistry ring. One webpage takes you to the next, and the next, and the next. It is like a cosmic snake eating its own tail. But in its entrails there is wisdom, I know it. I dig deeper and deeper.
I don’t think about it often. When I do, sometimes it’s a girl. She’s sitting at a table, in her frilly dress, and she’s watching tiny organisms wriggling under the microscope, just like I used to. When mother had to take me to work with her, she’d place a drop of water on the glass and she’d sit me by one of the microscopes in the lab. I’d be silent for a long time, not disturbing her. So I see the girl do the same, and she calls me this name nobody has ever called me and – now that I’ve decided – nobody ever will. Look, mom, she says.
I realize I want this world to end. Not just me, I don’t care about myself. I don’t matter anyway. I want it all to vanish. I want the earth to be a scorched shell, all the organic matter buried under. Him, the guy who stepped on my shoe, Lost Thread, Beige Flats. Especially Beige Flats. So I keep searching for the recipes online. The chemistry ring has all the answers. He says, you have nothing to mourn. There has never been anything. He’s right. I know about nothing, and I’m going to show them.
The police show up even before I read about it in the news. Now when I think about it, I can’t help but be surprised at how efficient in their inefficiency they were. They didn’t manage to stop her, but they knew it was her and they searched for me before all hell broke loose and all the TV channels showed her face. “A suburban woman,” they called her. You can almost sense their disappointment that they couldn’t have called her a suburban mom.
The picture that they all used in those first minutes after the event was from a security camera at the metro station. She looks around, and she seems lost, but then she looks up, like she expected the ceiling to come down on her head. This is the last picture of her: my wife that I didn’t entirely know, whose capacity for anger I didn’t even suspect. This is how the world will remember her: a black-and-white blur. But it’s the world of fake news, so it won’t hold her in its memory for long. In fact, she’s already forgotten.
Nov 2, 20–. The Metropolitan News online, 16:20.
Over sixty people died and hundreds were injured earlier this afternoon in what the police suspects was a terrorist attack on the Madrid metro. An as yet unidentified perpetrator walked into one of the metro stations during the afternoon rush hour and detonated what appears to be a homemade bomb. The police are investigating possible links to radical Islamic organizations.
Nov 3, 20–. The Metropolitan News online, 17:55.
The police have identified a woman who was the attacker in yesterday’s bomb explosion in the Madrid metro. The attack claimed two hundred fifty five victims, of which sixty nine died and forty seven were severely injured. People are gathering in front of Spanish embassies all over the world to show their support in what appears to be a senseless tragedy.
The Memorial Hospital, treatment summary.
The patient, age 41, underwent hormonal treatment under the IVF GnRH Antagonist protocol. Orgalutran 0,25, Menopur 1200.
– Kate Novak