The metro station hummed with activity. Weary-eyed commuters crowded the platform, awaiting their turn to stumble into crammed subway cars. Above ground blossomed an early spring morning, cool, yet bright; down below, in the fluorescent-lit brown and black of the station, the air was stale and uncomfortably warm. Bulky coats hung back from shoulders or awkwardly over forearms.

Jonathan stood among the crowd, stealing a sip of his coffee whenever the swarm of people around him sagged forward enough to create space. His breathing was slow in an effort to calm the claustrophobic nervousness that welled in his stomach—he had never been comfortable in crowds. The pocket of air in his jacket warmed steadily, adding to his apprehension. He cursed himself for wearing his heavy coat.

A metro car arrived and slowed to a squealing stop. Jonathan stumbled forward with the crowd and was about two feet from the doors when he realized he was on the wrong side of the station; he should be headed north, not downtown. Again he cursed himself, turning to excuse his way through the tide of tired students and workers.

The Montmorency side of the station was a complete contrast, with only a few dozen people scattered along the platform. Jonathan walked three-quarters of the way down and stopped, staring gleefully—and gloating internally—at the throng of travelers he had left behind on the opposite side.

A minute later his train rumbled into the station. He downed the rest of his coffee and tossed the cup into the recycling bin before boarding. A bounty of empty seats awaited him; smiling, he took one and pulled from his bag a notebook. A quick glance at his watch told him he had twenty-five minutes until his French lesson. Plenty of time to review some material.

Excusez-moi, est-ce que vous avez l’heure? he read. Again he looked at his watch, this time with a flourish. Oui, j’ai l’heure, he mouthed. Excusez-moi, Madame, je suis désolé, read another line. Excusez-moi, Madame, je suis désolé, he repeated silently.

The train had left the station and was shaking its way up the tracks when the sensation hit him: a rumble in his lower abdomen that spread rapidly through the middle section of his body. He stopped reading and shifted in his seat.

Jonathan had been careful to go to the bathroom before he left his apartment—twice, in fact, as his morning regimen dictated. Then he realized it: that second coffee. The night before, he had stayed up beyond his routine bedtime and so the morning in turn found him more exhausted than usual. The additional coffee he had bought to fight that fatigue. Again he cursed himself under his breath.

A complaint uttered up from his bowels and he wiped his forehead. Take it easy, he told himself. He recalled a relaxation method he had learned in a yoga class, some years before: inhale slowly through the nostrils using the diaphragm, hold the breath, and then exhale through the mouth at an equally slow pace. Jonathan began the routine, counting from one to four on each section of the cycle. A few moments later, his intestines again shuddered, more vigorously now. This caused him to lose track; he inhaled when he should have exhaled. He coughed and cursed under his breath, shaking his head. Another painful contraction speared his intestines and he abandoned the attempt at relaxation.

What he had to do was obvious; the question was, where. The car stopped at the Sherbrooke metro station and he clenched his entire body to prevent from bolting up and out of the train. Unfamiliar with the area, he saw no point in leaving if there was no place to go.

The doors closed, the train moved on. He gripped the railing, rubbing with his free hand the front of his pant leg. Each movement of the car, every bump and swing in the tracks, motioned through him, shaking up through his feet and legs and magnifying in his insides. Again he wiped his wet palm on his pants while staring out the window at the rushing darkness of the underground. I need a plan, he thought, an exit strategy. He knew that he could hang on until his destination, which was three stops away, but he would need a toilet as soon as he got out. He closed his eyes and pictured in his mind the area around the station; he could think of no cafes or restaurants in the vicinity.

An obvious answer was the house of his French tutor, which was situated some five minutes from the subway on foot. He shook the thought from his head; he would not feel comfortable solving this problem in the home of a practical stranger—particularly in an apartment as small and as thinly walled as hers. Out of the question.

Back and forth he pushed the mental map of the neighbourhood in his mind, finding nothing. Another cramp electrified his lower torso and his knuckles went white against the railing as he waited for it to pass. Why were there not public washrooms in every metro station? he wondered. This to him seemed and oversight of epic proportions. His bowels convulsed once more and he abandoned the mental mapping and moaning, prioritizing the more pressing task: Do not shit your pants, he told himself.

The speakers in the ceiling chimed and crackled: Prochaine station, Rosemont. His stop. As the motion of the train slowed, he gripped his notebook, stood and swayed toward the doors. He pressed through them as soon as his body could fit and began an undignified, running walk to the escalator and exit, to fresh air and freedom—and, he hoped, relief. He cut around a hand-in-hand elderly couple, breezed by a beggar extending a brown paper cup, and made for the doors.

And then, finally: outside. He stood still for a moment, blinking in the bright light and taking his bearings. His lungs drank in the cool, clear air, which, combined with his now-vertical posture, brought him a measure of respite.

This did not last. His intestines readjusted, settling into the standing position, and renewed their complaints. Another sharp twinge ricocheted up into his chest. I have a few minutes at most, he thought, his head spinning from side to side. He walked at a rapid clip toward the railroad tracks behind the metro station. There stood before him a chain-link fence and, in it, a large gap where the metal had been snipped and snapped and stripped back. Glancing over both shoulders, he strode through the opening.

He stopped and looked down at the railway ties at his feet and then up and down the tracks. Not a soul in sight, he noticed, and no sign of a train, either. Another paralyzing cramp punched up into his stomach and he leapt across the tracks to the opposite side of the railway bed, skidding on the gravel underfoot. On the other side, tall brush ran along the fence, offering him some cover. He surveyed the scene one final time.

Now, moaned his body. He tossed the notebook and bag to the side, yanked off his coat and hung it from a branch. His hands fumbled at his belt buckle as he skipped from one foot to the other. When he had liberated his pants, he pulled them down to his knees and squatted among the bushes—and not a moment too soon.

What had waited inside him with agitated impatience now exited with explosive fury. The cacophonic brevity of it caught him by surprise; in a mere moment he felt empty, as if everything within him—organs, viscera, musculature—had escaped, had been compacted and pressurized and pushed out onto the stones below and behind him. It was over as quickly as it began.

He remained in a squatting position, swaying slightly. Relief is merely a word, he thought; six simple letters that failed stupendously to describe the feeling that glowed within him, filling the space previously occupied by panic. At last, he was free. The spring day came into sharp focus as his senses adjusted, shifting their concentration outward to take in all the details: the delicate breeze that brushed the perspiration from his forehead; the traffic clamouring cheerfully in the city streets; the sunlight blooming on the buildings and trees; the chalky blue skyscape above.

He would have to clean himself, he realized, scanning the ground—avoiding, obviously, the area below and behind him. On the ground to his left lay a newspaper, one of the free dailies handed out by the hundreds at metro stations every morning. Somehow, it had bounced and skidded and winged its way here earlier to stop, improbably, at his side. 

Jonathan leaned over, his pants and belt bunched in one hand, and snagged the paper, pulling from the stack of pages a full sheet. This he repeatedly crunched into a tight ball and opened so as to soften the material. Satisfied, he wiped himself as best he could and tossed the paper behind him.

His knees cracked as he stood. He tugged up his underwear and pants, settled  into them, and fastened his belt. Inhaling deeply, he stretched his arms outwards and upwards, feeling a smile creep onto his face. Again the six letters scrolled their way across his mind like an electronic marquee: RELIEF.

He pulled down his coat from the branch and slid it over his arms and shoulders, electing to leave the front open. A glorious day awaited him, he thought: the lesson with his French tutor and after that, well, nothing. He could do with the day what he wished. 

Bending at the waist and humming with joy, Jonathan scooped up his notebook and bag. He stood upright and was about to take a step forward when he heard it: a low, careful clearing of the throat behind him.

His body froze and then he turned, slowly. There, on the other side of the fence and the gap in the brush, stood two elderly women. One glared at him in consternation; the other appeared fixated on the ground below, where he had made his mark in such spectacular, splattering fashion. 

Jonathan’s face felt suddenly cool as the blood drained from it. He stared at them both and then opened his mouth, grasping at the only words he could find in that instant: Excusez-moi, Madame, je suis désolé.

This he punctuated with a quick turn on his heels. He stepped forward, skipping back across the tracks, over the gravel, through the gap in the chain-link fence and out into the day.