Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • I met J on a four-day train journey across this sprawling country. He was the one that stayed up late, telling dirty jokes to whoever would listen in the lounge car, his deep belly voice carrying far over the rumble of the train's motion. We ate all our meals together at the same assigned table. And after two days, a strange kind of intimacy had formed, the rare kind of condensed friendship that occurs between strangers temporarily forced to share confined spaces. He was often in a jovial mood at lunch, then sullen by dinner time, and those of us who were privy to his story knew that he was inwardly being whipped this way and that in a storm, even as the idyllic prairie landscape rolled past outside the windows.

    J was on his way to work, the start of a three-month shift on the oil rigs in Alberta. And already he missed his young wife terribly. N used to be the girl behind the counter of the 7-11 where J got his smokes. He joked that even before he had ever seen her below the shoulders, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever glimpsed. He described the feeling of knowing, when you come face to face with “the one,” and his eyes lit up.

    Six months after their meeting, N quit her job at 7-11, and J bought her a diamond ring, a house, and a dog. J’s work was physically hard, and took him away from home for months at a time, but he made a good living, and he would give N anything as long as it made her happy. N’s parents disapproved, and accused J of robbing their daughter of her ambition to go to school, but he would have none of it. J’s buddies made fun of him for his new found domesticity, but he would have none of that either. They couldn’t understand, he said, because they don't know what it's like to have the real thing.

    The honeymoon period over, a change gradually took place. While N had always been particular, a debilitating phobia crept up on her like a cancer that slowly invaded their lives. In the beginning stages, she switched her soap and shampoo to all-natural, organic products, and asked that everything in the house be cleaned only with vinegar. Soon, her anxieties over chemical contamination became more and more extreme. Once, J had to throw away a week’s worth of groceries on their way back from the store because the cab driver had innocently put the shopping bags into the trunk where a bottle of windshield fluid was also stored. Another time, after J accidentally dropped a work shirt onto their bed, N could not be consoled until he bought a new mattress.

    While J worked longer and longer hours in order to pay for the increasing bills, N’s world shrank smaller and smaller. Spic and span as they were to the eye, she could no longer set foot into certain rooms of their house, or touch the counters in the kitchen, because they were “contaminated” in her mind. Her own home became a minefield. Finally, J had no choice but to sell their house and buy a new one.

    N’s condition was eroding all rationality from their lives, and J tried his best to keep pace with its ever-shifting rules. It got to a point where N could no longer touch J, unless it was immediately after he had scrubbed himself from head to toe in the shower, according to her exact requirements. J tried repeatedly to convince her to seek professional treatment, but she could not face up to it.

    Through all this, N’s only comfort was her dog, which had been her faithful companion. While she kept a careful distance from her husband, she spoiled the dog with affection. Watching them made J’s stomach turn. It’s hard to say how, N said. But the only way she could explain it was that her deep love for the dog helped her mind to overcome the paralyzing pangs of anxiety that she felt towards everything else.

    J realized that he was jealous of the dog. He was ashamed of how he felt, and knew that he could not bear to go on.

    When he boarded the train, he had decided he was not going back. Even so, he missed N terribly. Is this the right thing to do? What will happen to her now? He would ask us, people he had met mere days ago.

    J got off the train at Edmonton, where it was snowy, even in April. I wished him luck. That was the only thing there was to say. As the train pulled out of the station, I thought about how I didn’t even know his last name.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.