17 September 2011

University of Ottawa

A version of this story placed 3rd in the 2011 ArtsRolla Writing Competition.

The faded red Honda skidded through a rolling right turn.
In the passenger seat, Sara Brookings squeezed tighter on the upholstery.
She would usually get on her Dad's case about coasting through a stop sign.  Today, though, she was grateful to have a reckless driving father.
Dave Brookings flicked his eyes between the road, the clock, and his daughter Sara in the rearview mirror, as he navigated the slick streets of Ottawa.  He wiped the perspiration from his forehead, grooved from years of fluorescent light, computer monitor glare, and frustrating government accounting.
He hate, hate, hated to be late.  And to make someone else late due to his own poor planning, that was unacceptable.  But make that someone his daughter, on one of the most important days of her life, it was...well, it was unforgivable!
He tried to reassure the two of them.
"We've still got fifteen minutes, Sara.  Plus whatever buffer time your dorm mates need."
Sara asked, "What are we going to do about the groceries?  I might not have time to unload them."

Plastic bags full of fresh supplies from the west side Sobeys rattled in the backseat.
Dave and Sara had driven in the day before from their town near the Michigan-Ontario border.  They stayed the night in a motel west of town.  Dave was unusually chatty at the motel, going on about his daughter to the front desk manager.  On move-in day, they both unpacked Sara's luggage and accessories into her new room in uOttawa's Residential Complex.  Sara had brought a few boxes of essential nonperishables, but Dave, wanting to postpone the goodbye, proposed to completely stock her mini-fridge.  And Sara, taking a second look at her meager rations, quickly accepted the offer.
She reminded him that she had to be back by 5:00 for new resident orientation.  Not that the orientation itself was important - she could figure out where the laundry room was on her own - but the first orientation led to the first dinner led to the first night out.  These crucial opening encounters would determine a young lady's social life for the next four years, and perhaps even post-university.  Making headway into an already established clique was nearly impossible.  She had already experienced this uphill battle in secondary school when her Dad moved them for a job relocation.  She had laboriously cobbled together a patchwork of disparate friends at her new school but was eager for today's fresh start.
They had found the Sobeys easy enough.  Dave rarely lost his way.  But now he found himself dealing with a not-quite-familiar city grid, misty weather, and Friday afternoon traffic.

"I'll take whatever needs to be cold back to the motel fridge.  I can bring it all back later tonight or - "
Sara cringed at the thought of her Dad showing up at her dorm on a Friday night.  Dave noticed her facial rebuff.  He stifled a laugh and continued:
" - or tomorrow morning I was going to say."
"Yeah, can we do tomorrow instead?"
"That's fine."
"Thank you!  I can call when I get time."
Dave knew his daughter.  And he knew what university life was like.  She'll call when she has time?  That meant he'd be taking the food back home with him
He suddenly spotted a familiar landmark.
"Ah!  Rideau Canal!  We're getting close."
They turned right onto Queen Elizabeth Street, paralleling the canal.  A curved glass building revealed itself.  Dave read the chiseled nameplate aloud:
"'Ottawa Convention Centre and Opera House'.  Ooh la la."
The street narrowed into two lanes of gravel and potholes.  A construction worker covered in reflectors waved cars through.  Dave slowed to a crawl but the Honda still bottomed out against the ground.
"Gah!  What is this?  Off-roading in Ottawa?"
They passed underneath a highway bridge.
"Dad, turn around up onto this bridge.  We can get to the other side that way."
"I can get us closer.  Remember that footbridge?  I'll drop you off, you scurry across, meet your buddies."
The road smoothed out.  Dave saw university buildings.
"See, we made it.  You know I'm so proud of you, Sara."
"I know, Dad.  You've already said that.  A few times."
"Good, that means it's sunk in."
"There's my dorm."
Sara pointed up to a ten story brick tower.  Not one bit of architectural flair, but it did the job.
"Whoa, hold on now," said Dave as he hit the brakes.  A long line of cars sat in front of them.
And sat.
And sat.
"What is going on?" asked Dave to no one in particular.
Sara saw blue blinking lights ahead.  She offered, "There are police up there."
She groaned and hit the sides of her head with her palms.  She pulled at her chestnut highlights in frustration.
Dave asked, "So you're fine without these groceries tonight?"
"Yes.  I'm fine without the groceries."
"Then just run to the footbridge.  Who knows how long we'll be sitting here."
Sara agreed.  "Okay."  She opened the door and ran around the driver side.
Dave got out and hugged her.
He said, "Love you."
"Love you too!"  Sara ran off.
Dave got back in the car.  He didn't like protracted goodbyes, but that one seemed short even for him.
Traffic at a standstill, he looked across the canal.  There was a flurry of young women streaming out of his daughter's dorm.  He peered off to the right, waiting to Sara emerge from campus and join her mates.  He kept an eye out for her sandy hair, black blouse, and blue jeans.
She finally appeared.
Back in front of him.
Sara was frantic now.  She had noticed the other students gathering too.  Dave rolled down the window to listen.
She said, "The bridge is blocked!  A car fell in the canal and there's a big fire truck-crane-looking thing pulling it out.  But it's parked in front of the bridge and the police won't let me through and my dorm is about to leave me behind and they will all form their groups without me and I'll have to transfer schools..."
"Calm down, Sara.  You won't have to transfer schools.  You say there's a car in the canal?"
"It didn't sink?"
"The water was up to the windows, about."
Dave thought.  The canal is barely a meter deep.  Could he carry he across?  No, he couldn't abandon the car - traffic was inching forward now.
"I got an idea.  Get back in the car."
"Back in the car?"
"Yeah, come on."
She maneuvered herself back into the front seat.  Dave unbuttoned his polo shirt and pulled it off through his gray trenchcoat.
"Dad...what are you doing?"
"Like you said, the canal is shallow.  You can walk across it in my clothes.  Throw yours into one of those grocery bags.  Carry it over your head so you've got dry clothes to change into at dinner."
"Wear your clothes?  Dad, no.  Can't I just...uh..."  She didn't have any other ideas.
Dave flipped off his shoes.  "I can drive back to the motel in my coat.  You need to get to your buddies over there."
The crowd across the water was slowly walking away from the dorm.  Sara watched with a pained expression.
"Okay.  But don't look!"
"I'm not going to look.  But I need one eye to drive."  Dave shut his right eye and kept his left eye on the road.  He struggled to tug down his jeans.
Sara reached back to grab a grocery bag.  Cans of soup fell onto the floor.
"Oh!  Sorry!"
"Don't worry about that."
Sara unbuttoned her top as quickly as she could.  A twelve-year-old boy in the car to the right stared, slack-jawed.
Sara saw him.  She slapped the car window and hissed at him.  He turned away, sitting bolt upright.
"What are you doing?" asked Dave.
"Some kid is giving me the bug eyes."
"I'll beat him up for ya," said Dave, with exaggerated mock anger.
"Not necessary," reprimanded Sara, in her best British headmistress accent.
Dave took a mental snapshot of this shared moment.
Sara pulled on her new outfit and put up her hair.
She said, "Okay, you can open your eye."  She got out of the car and rounded to the driver side again.  The shirt and pants sagged on her small frame.  She kissed her Dad on the cheek through the open window.
"Thanks, Dad.  Wish me luck!"
"Good luck, punkin."
She waddled over to the granite edge.  She climbed down the side of the wall, one hand holding the bag of clothes up.
The water came up to her chest.  She thought, it's cold but just keep walking.  Momentary embarrassment is better than four years of isolation.
She had to use her free hand to hold the pants up.
As she waded across Rideau Canal, Dave said to himself, "Only I would send my daughter into an urban waterway."  He sat silent for a moment.  He laughed when he realized aloud, "And only my daughter would agree to it."
Other drivers pointed in concern at the strange girl in the river.

On the other side, one of the upperclassman dorm advisers had noticed Sara walking in the canal.  She took two other girls to go back and help get Sara out.
They all hauled her up the stone wall.
The adviser asked, "What are you doing in the canal?  That's dangerous!"
Sara shuddered from the air on her Dad's wet clothes.
"I had to get to orientation.  I'm a little late."
"Oh, you live in this dorm?  Yes, we just finished.  What's your name?"
"Sara.  Sara Brookings."
"Hi Sara, I'm Tina, why don't you get dried off?  We're about to head to dinner."
"Sounds great!  I've got my dry clothes right here."
As the group walked off, Sara turned to wave to her Dad.

Dave had been watching intently.
Yes, Sara had decided on wading through the canal, but actually getting across was something else.  Fortunately he saw three other girls come to her aid on the other side.  He exhaled.  When he saw her struggling to keep his wet jeans around her waist, he let out a gentle laugh.  She looked like the Sara from years ago playing dress-up.
When she waved back, his heart jumped into his throat.  This took him by surprise.
He distracted himself by turning up the heat.  He buttoned up his trenchcoat to the collar, now his only article of clothing besides his boxers and shoes.
Though traffic was moving, it was still stop-and-go.
The car in front of him stopped.  Dave squeezed his brakes.  The brake pedal did not depress.  He tried again.  It was stuck.  By the time he realized a soup can had rolled underneath the brake pedal, it was to late.  His front bumper crunched against the car ahead of him.
The rest of the groceries joined the soup cans on the floor.
Dave spit out a profanity.
A police officer had head the accident and had wandered back to investigate.
Dave started, "Sorry, officer.  There was a can of soup that rolled under my brake pedal."
The cop looked at the man in the full body trenchcoat.  A can of soup?  What's going on here?
"May I see your license, registration, and proof of insurance, sir?"
"Certainly, certainly...um..."
Dave patted his sides.  Of course.  No pants, no wallet.
"Actually my daughter has my wallet."
It's always something, thought the cop.
"I'm going to need to ask you to step out of the car, sir."
Dave swallowed.  "Do you need to pat me down or something?"  He gurgled out a nervous laugh.
"No, we don't do that anymore."
Dave relaxed.  He opened the car door.
The officer continued, "But I will at least need you to remove your jacket."

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