It comes down to this: if it hadn’t been for some unlikely and absurd circumstances, I would never have even run into the woman heading west on Highway 1 in Calgary on a bright April day. And then, two months later, I wouldn’t be waking up at three o’clock every morning, cold and damp despite the summer heat, craving a drink and settling for a blank screen with a blinking cursor.
I had been driving to the Calgary airport when I met her. That was the first of the unlikely and absurd circumstances: home is downtown Vancouver, where buses are frequent, parking is scarce, and drivers are downright feral. In the front passenger seat was Roger, the Vice President of Sales at the firm where I plied my trade as a database developer, and that was the second: I’d worked in IT for over six years without dealing with sales departments or feeling like I was missing anything. I was an unlikely candidate for chauffeur, but Roger either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and I’d have put money on the former. “How about you drive while we’re in Calgary,” he’d proposed earlier in the week, which was my cue to deliver the next line: Sure, I’d be happy to. May I ask why?
But I hadn’t asked; asking would only have prolonged the conversation, and I wasn’t interested in listening to Roger. Roger, however, was interested in talking. “I’ve hated driving in Calgary ever since I got that speeding ticket,” he said. He paused, and waited for a prompt. I didn’t provide one; he continued anyway. “Kathleen, did I tell you about the time I got stopped for speeding?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“The speed limit changed and I didn’t even see the sign!” he exclaimed, undeterred. I was beginning to wonder why he needed me for this conversation at all. I idly considered walking away, but there was nowhere for me to go. “There isn’t traffic on the highways the way there is in Vancouver, so it’s easy to break the speed limit without noticing. And then they put the speed traps where the sun is right in your eyes, so you can’t see them. That’s how they got me. I got a hundred and fifty dollar fine!”
“Did you fight it?” I asked, curious in spite of myself. I didn’t wait for an answer, because he never did, and I’d learned at the seminar on communication and relationship building that matching the mannerisms and demeanour of one’s partner is a good way to build their trust. That was the third of the unlikely and absurd circumstances: I’d spent six and a half happy and productive years developing databases, where the only relationships I had to deal with were inside SQL statements, and Roger was the only person who seemed to think this was a problem. But matching Roger’s mannerisms and demeanour tended to consist of babbling nonstop, ignoring all manner of verbal and nonverbal cues, and in general being an insufferable twit, and it was nice to have this kind of behaviour encouraged for a change. “Because you can often get around paying tickets if you have a good reason for driving recklessly, like, ’officer, I couldn’t see anything.’”
Roger nodded. “Mmmm,” he said. He seemed to be thinking about this.
So I’d pocketed the keys and kept them for three days. But I’d barely driven: the retreat had started at seven thirty every morning, and had run until two, and then it was off to meet with the client, the manager of a seed co-op that was opening a second branch in Vancouver and had outgrown its sales system. At the start of the week I’d briefly entertained the possibility of escaping to a nearby pub for a few hours at the end of the day, but by five o’clock on Monday, it was already clear that the sort of unwinding demanded by the endless PowerPoint presentations and role-play at the seminar would leave me in no state to even walk to the car, let alone drive back to the hotel.
Now, on the way to the airport, Roger was rehashing the highlights of the seminar, which had consisted of equal parts self-evident banalities (“It’s important to know what motivates your client so you can determine what they want to get out of their relationship with you”), contrived taxonomy deployed to enable easy application of same (“There are seven personality types - let’s find yours!“), and cringe-making role-play (“Kathleen, you are a client who wants frequent updates and influence over the project. Roger, you find Kathleen’s demands to be impractical to implement, but you do not want to lose her business”).
“Plenty to think about,” he mused as I changed lanes. The turn was coming up soon – on the left, I thought, but I wasn’t sure, and I’d learned a few days earlier that Roger was useless at navigating – so I made vague noises of agreement as I kept an eye open for the signs. We were on Highway 1, which didn’t resemble a highway so much as a showcase for Alberta’s construction industry. I glanced at the speedometer – 30km/h in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Our flight was scheduled to leave in just over an hour. I was considerably less worried about being stopped for speeding than I was about missing our flight.
“We need to fill up with gas before we return the car,” said Roger.
“Mmm,” I agreed.
“Turn at the next light,” he directed.
I appraised the light in question: nothing on the right of the intersection, and a Petro Canada barely visible on the left, two lanes over, with a half dozen construction workers moving slabs of concrete around the partition. Christ. “There’s a gas station closer to the airport,” I said. “It’ll be easier to get to.”
“Gas,” Roger proclaimed, “is always more expensive closer to the airport. Because they know you have no choice but to buy it there. And with our recent budget...”
“Okay, we’ll fill up here,” I surrendered, signaling left. I recited a lullaby to myself: A little more than an hour until the flight. Two hours until we’re back in Vancouver. Three, tops, until I no longer have to listen to Roger. Even 30 km/h was faster than it would take Roger to understand that buying the more expensive but more accessible gas would save us $10 at the most – far less than it would cost to reschedule the flights that we ran a considerable risk of missing. Moreover, I no longer had the energy to argue.
I pulled into the turning lane, and inched forward as the traffic lights rotated through three or four cycles before I was finally able to pull into the intersection. It was only when I was sitting in the intersection that I was able to fully appreciate the stupidity of Roger’s choice of cheap gas over accessible gas. The fourth of the unlikely and absurd circumstances, really. There was no left turn lane, and the piles of concrete and construction equipment on the partition all but blocked the view of westbound traffic – which, incidentally, was flowing quite nicely. Sixty five minutes to takeoff. Two hours to Vancouver. Three, tops, until I no longer have to listen to Roger. Unless we miss this flight.
When I put it that way, it seems clear what was going to happen next, and while I was well past expecting Roger to anticipate anything, I was downright angry at myself for setting the obvious course of events in motion. No point going into too much detail, which I don’t remember anyway, at least not as far as the moment itself is concerned. I remember a miscalculated risk – a quick turn during a break in oncoming traffic – and I remember the small, dark woman in the driver’s seat, mouth open in a tiny O as she pulled out of the gas station. I remember swerving right, or attempting to. And I remember Roger, ever helpful, saying, “You know, it’s not your fault. It’s so hard to see, what with the construction. There should really be signs...”
“Shut up,” I yelled.
Roger flinched, lowered his eyes – and for the first time in the six months I’d known him, didn’t reply. But there was no time to bask in the glory of that achievement; pulling out of the road took precedence. I opened the window and gestured toward the gas station. The other driver gave a shallow nod in understanding, and shifted into reverse.
She stepped out before I did. I tried the door, but it jammed after a few inches. “Open your door, Roger,” I directed. He did – it worked – and then turned to me for further instructions. “My door is jammed,” I explained. “You’ll need to get out, so I can.”
He did, and I crawled over to the passenger’s side to stumble into the parking lot. The other driver had managed a more graceful exit, and she was standing at the front of her car, coolly eyeing a broken headlight and a slightly dented hood – the extent of the damage, thank goodness, as far as I could tell. For the first time I took in the rest of the scene. The driver – short, barely over five feet; dark – Indian or Pakistani, I guessed; and with thick braided hair that fell, amazingly, to the tops of her thighs – didn’t turn to face us. Before I could say anything, she walked to the back seat of her car and leaned down and murmured something I couldn’t make out. And that’s when I saw what I’d missed before: a toddler in a car seat, and a boy maybe five or six years old, both as calm and silent as the woman.
I stood frozen, batting away the Thank God thats and A few inches closer ands before they had a chance to crystallize. Meanwhile, Roger had approached the driver and had extended his hand. I shook myself out of my reverie and trotted up to them. “Roger Corrigan,” my passenger was saying. She turned to face him, but left her right hand on the window of the car, leaving Roger to withdraw his and adjust his glasses. I bit back a smile. “And my colleague – well, I don’t know if you’d say we’re colleagues, we’re in different departments, but we’ve been working a lot more closely lately – Kathleen Kovalevsky. We’re terribly sorry about this. You know, when there’s this kind of construction, you’d really think –“
The woman had apparently lost interest already, and spoke for the first time in a lilting accent, her voice as controlled as her movements: “It was an accident,” she said. She spoke fluidly, but with the enunciation of someone whose speech had been learned from textbooks and a teacher. “The car is not very damaged. We can repair it ourselves.”
I blinked. Whatever I’d been expecting, it hadn’t been this. “Wow, thanks,” I said. “Roger, let’s go. We can report the accident to the rental company and deal with it at home, right?”
Roger didn’t even turn to face me. “Ma’am, that’s awfully understanding of you, but we’re going to need to exchange information for insurance purposes, especially as this car is a rental. Can we see your licence?” And to me: “Kathleen, you get yours too, and I’ll call National now to see what the protocol is for this sort of thing.”
Fifty-three minutes to boarding, but he was probably right, dammit. I opened my wallet and handed the woman my licence, but she made no motion to take it. For the first time I noticed her eyes: amber flecked with green, and the pupil of the left one bled outward in a thick black line that extended to the edge of the iris. “My colleague is probably right,” I said. She didn’t break eye contact, and she didn’t speak. Fifty-two and a half minutes. “Listen,” I ad-libbed, “we’re covered by corporate insurance, and if you’re worried about your premiums, we might be able to keep your name out of this. And if not – send us the bill for the difference, and will cover it.” I didn’t know if that was true – it almost certainly wasn’t – but I was willing to do almost anything to make sure we caught that flight. I was grateful that Roger was busy looking for the number for the rental company. “Take this,” I repeated, and prodded the woman’s hand with the licence.
It took a few seconds, but at last she did, and retrieved a pen and scrap piece of paper from her purse. I stood, shivering, and turned to her car again. It was already April, but it had snowed just a day earlier and the residual chill of winter hung in the air. The children remained in the back seat, alert, silently observing the scene. Even the toddler was remarkably still, as though understanding that a tantrum would only prolong things. I wondered what the woman had said to them.
Behind me, Roger was negotiating with the rental company, and I caught, “...nearest place to file a police report?”
I spun around. “Police report?” I said. “What’s this about? What are you telling them? Did you tell them it’s an accident, no one’s hurt, there’s no crime –”
Roger blinked and shook his head. Covering the mouthpiece, he explained, “The province of Alberta requires a police report to be filed for every vehicle accident with damages totaling over one thousand dollars.”
Goddammit. “Can we do that over the phone or over email? We have a flight to catch, and – oh, hell, give me that.” I grabbed the phone, and said to Roger, “You get her licence and copy down the info. Also the licence plate.” And to the phone, “Hello, this is Kathleen Kovalevsky speaking. I don’t know if my colleague explained to you, we’re from out of town and we have a flight to catch in less than an hour. I understand we need to fill out a police report. Could you arrange for us to do this over email, or fax?”
“Good afternoon, Miss Kovalevsky,” said the phone. Fifty minutes. “We’re afraid the police report has to be filled out in person, but it’s a very short process and we’ll do everything we can to make sure you catch your flight.”
Forty-nine and a half minutes. I closed my eyes and took a few breaths before opening them again. Resistance would almost certainly be counterproductive. “We’re on Highway 1 and” – I squinted toward the intersection – “ Sixth Street Northeast. Where’s the nearest police station between here and the airport?”
“You can actually report the accident at the airport itself,” continued the phone. A string of instructions followed, and I scribbled them down on the inside of my arm. We might make this flight after all. Beside me, Roger was transcribing the woman’s driver’s licence onto a sheet of paper. It occurred to me that Roger might insist that we take the next few minutes to fill the tank with gas; I was hoping he’d forgotten, but I doubted it. This time, I’d fight it: the only way we stood a chance of getting back to Vancouver on schedule was if we ate the cost of the near-empty tank.
I repeated the directions back to the phone to verify I’d gotten them right, and then thanked the agent, hung up, and wandered over to Roger, who was still copying the driver’s licence. I peered over his shoulder to see what was taking him so long, and rolled my eyes when I saw. With an attention to detail that must heretofore have lain dormant in this age of scanners and photocopiers and smartphones, Roger was replicating the entire document – not only the licence number and the woman’s name and address, but all of the irrelevant details as well: the class of the licence, the woman’s date of birth, hair colour, eye colour, height, and weight. For the love of God. At least he was almost done.
“Roger, did you get” – a glance at his page; Name: Harsha Gill – “Ms. Gill’s phone number?”
He stared blankly at me. Of course he hadn’t. Forty-four minutes. I walked over to the woman, who was already getting back into the car. “Ms. Gill,” I called. She didn’t look up. I closed my eyes again. My earlier relief at having collided with a woman who took the event so calmly was quickly giving way to confusion – and frustration. Something was just plain off about this woman. She wasn’t taking the car accident in stride; it seemed more accurate to say that she wasn’t taking it, period. It was as though the accident had caught her in its wake, and she was doing what she needed to do to prevent it from altering the historical record. I sighed, and placed myself directly in her line of vision. “Ms. Gill,” I said again, more firmly. This time she lifted her chin, the smallest of movements. “I need your phone number.”
She nodded, and wordlessly removed a scrap of paper and pen from her purse, scribbled out a string of characters, and handed me the page. “Thanks,” I said awkwardly. And then: “You’ll need to fill out a police report for the accident. I have to fill one out too. You don’t have to do it now, but it needs to be done in the next twenty-four hours.”
She was shaking her head before I even finished. “There is no need for the police. The car is fine. It will not be expensive to fix.”
I blinked. “Ms. Gill, I’m not an expert, but I’m told that you have to fill out a report. All parties involved in an accident with damages totaling more than a thousand dollars have to fill this out, it’s procedure.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There is no need,” she repeated, and I understood. I recognized that tone; I had heard it myself, any number of times over the past several weeks, in my own voice, in conversation with Roger, who saw misunderstanding and room for negotiation where I saw resolve and disagreement. Uneasy, I relented, and she closed the door.
Behind me, Roger said, “I guess you gave her your number?”
I pivoted, but it was too late. A few feet away, a car with a dented hood and a broken headlight slid out of the gas station’s lot and folded itself into the westbound traffic.