Every Friday, The Gloss is publishing a chapter of Andrea Dunlop’s novel, The Summer of Small Accidents. Catch up with Chapter 1 and if you decide you simply can’t wait for next week’s installment, you can buy the ebook here or here.
Monday dragged on like only one after a long weekend can. There was a meeting in the morning during which even the Pamelas looked like they had some place better to be. There was something infinitely worse about being in the office during the summer than any other season. The workload slowed down a bit, which made it impossible for Leigh to make the day disappear by rushing around checking things off her to-do list. Instead, there were long stretches of time where she waited for someone to bring her more work. During these hours, she would read everything she could think of on the Internet, google people she used to know to see if they’d done anything impressive, and click through the online profiles of people she went to high school with. More often than not, this lifted her spirits a little. Mostly she found the lives of those she had known to be infinitely dull, and this made her feel like she was at least trying to make something happen, even if for now, it was only this dreadful job. In the fall when there were more jobs, perhaps she would make the move over to editorial, she told herself, trying to quell the persistent fear that she had somehow fallen behind in the race and that the damage was irreparable.
On the way up to her apartment that evening, Leigh checked her mailbox as she did every day. There was never anything important: the occasional AARP magazine, which struck her as bizarre; a catalog or two; mail addressed to “occupant.” She had hoped that something would come that was meant for Asa, something that would reveal more about him, but she reasoned that he had likely arranged for his mail to be sent to him in Paris. She didn’t really expect anything to come for her because she had been forwarding her mail from Max’s to her address at work and hadn’t bothered to change it yet.
Of course, what she was really hoping for was the letter he had promised to send, but given the weeks that had passed since then, she was losing hope. She was embarrassed that she had thought of him every day since then, but this feeling evaporated that evening in a moment when she realized that in amongst the junk mail, was the letter she’d been hoping for. It was strange to see an envelope with the address handwritten, and upon first glance, she wondered if it weren’t some marketing gimmick. She hurried up the stairs excitedly. As she opened the apartment door, she felt the memory of him return to her, as fresh as though it had all just happened. She sat on the bed, made a jagged tear in the envelope with her thumbnail and extracted what she was hoping to see—a letter, several pages long on delicate, elegant stationary.
How have you been? I have not written a letter in a very long time, so I have to implore you not judge my overall worth as a writer by this effort alone. You’re going to anyway, aren’t you? It’s okay, that’s what I would do; that’s why I even thought to ask you not to in the first place. Good Lord, a string of tangential sentences like that is really no way to begin a letter, is it? Maybe I should crumple this and start again; in fact, maybe these words are living in perpetuity in a Paris landfill (incidentally, I’m sure there are no landfills within miles of Paris). You know what? I’m going to carry on Jack Kerouac style, the first thought being the truest and therefore the one I’m going with. Besides, that took me, what, all of a paragraph to get out of my system? I’m sure you’re not as lazy as all that, that you can’t wait even that long for me to reach some sort of point.
I thought I saw you the other day walking by the Seine, but when I looked at the girl more closely, I realized that she didn’t look like you at all, that I had only imagined your face on a girl of a similar build because I had already been thinking about you to begin with.
I wanted to apologize for that evening. Actually, that’s such a lie; I don’t want to apologize, I just feel like I should. You have to understand that I was in the lowest of places when you knocked on my door. Then I open the door and there you are. How can I explain it? If I were the sort of person who used the word aura, I’d say it was your aura, but I don’t use that word; in fact, I’m a little against that word. It was your presence; it was calming. I know I probably didn’t seem calm, but if you had seen me a couple of hours before that, you would have been able to understand the difference you made.
I would tell you that I’m not usually like that, but I fear that I would be misleading you because I think I might be like that (like this, then) from now on. I haven’t really decided. Either way, I will let you know.
I can feel right now that I’m about to write something horrible right here like ‘it feels like I’ve known you all my life’ or something else for which I could never allow myself to be forgiven. And then, I would really be in a fix since I’ve already said I wasn’t going to re-write anything. Good thing I stopped myself; I’m very clever that way.
I hope that all is well with the apartment; I hope it is treating you well (vice-versa, but I know you are holding up your end of the bargain; I know this because of above-described cliché that will remain unsaid.)
Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Another awful cliché I wanted to address. I have always wondered, why the sleeve? I’m sure there is an answer to that but I’m not really interested in the explanation, I just think involving the sleeve at all is silly to begin with. Why not the pant leg, then, or the belt loop? Logically it should have more to do with the eyes. Sometimes you meet someone and you see their soul burning behind their eyes, flashing in them. This is how you are. This is why I know you like I do, which is not at all and yet completely.
The only reason in the world I wouldn’t get a letter back from you is because this one never reached you for one of the unfathomable reasons that things get lost in the mail, and you are sitting there on that lonely continent thinking I have forgotten you. I know this about you, Leigh.
Leigh read it and then read it again out loud very quietly just to hear all the words once more, letting her own voice substitute for a vaguely remembered one.
She walked to the desk and put the thin sheets of stationary in a drawer—forcing herself not read it again and again. She glanced out her window across to her neighbor’s. There was no activity in the dancer’s apartment, but the lights were on as though someone had left in a hurry and forgotten to switch them off.
Leigh added this letter to her shimmering recollections of the night they’d met and was left with a pleasing amalgamation. Men were mysterious creatures to her, and though she had grown up listening to first her aunts and then Barbara and her friends conducting exhaustive dissections of them and their intentions, her first-hand experience with them had been minimal. From what she gleaned as a young girl, men were a foreign army against whom there was a constant need to strategize, to determine their timetables for invading and withdrawing troops. Chloe in particular was always in a state of some duress, as she always seemed to be madly in love or heartbroken and plotting revenge. Mary would listen sympathetically to these tirades and Louise would chastise Chloe for her impulsivity, which would only encourage her. Louise had one ex-husband about whom she had nothing good to say. Mary had five children to whom she was exceptionally devoted but overwhelmed by and two ex-husbands, the latter of which she openly pined for; a dashing man who was conspicuous in his absence.
Leigh had always felt she had had no real template, no standard against which to measure men. Sex had been so appealing at first, in part because suddenly she felt as though she knew exactly what was needed from her. Of course, it wasn’t necessarily that she wanted to give it, but for a time, the pleasure of being certain of what was expected of you was enough. She saw now that there had been a certain innocence in this attitude, one that had since been lost. It made her chuckle to think that at her high school, she had been considered a girl who’d known about men because she had slept with a number of them.
She reheated the malai koftas that were left over from the night before. She sat by the window to eat, the plate feeling pleasantly warm on her knees. She watched the people moving slowly down on the sidewalk. It was a nice evening but it was getting warmer every day. She wondered if she would need to put an air conditioner in this window soon. It seemed like such a shame to block the only window, but if it got much hotter, she would have to.
She thought of what to write back to Asa but nothing came to her. Instead, she decided she would leave it for a few days and savor the feeling of the proverbial ball being in her court. For now, to have this letter in her hand, this tactile proof that he was thinking of her, was more than enough.
As the week wore on, she became more and more agitated by the heat and boredom of the summer. She was sick of the season, tired of all of her summer clothes, and especially tired of listening to Shaun talking about the Hamptons and saying, “You have to come next time,” but never going so far as to extend an actual invitation. Leigh felt like a girl with her nose against the glass.
But as a mater of fact, Shaun had planned to be in town that coming weekend. She had called Leigh mid-week.
Oh my God, I miss you! I feel like we haven’t talked in forever! Let’s definitely do dinner this weekend. I’ll take you to Babo. It will be so much fun; you can tell me all about everything that’s been going on. Can we do it? Yay, so excited!
Leigh relaxed a little after the call. In truth, she feared having too much time alone more than anything else.
Right after work that Friday, Leigh went to Bloomingdale’s and bought a new dress, plucking it out from the rows of vibrant summer hues and floral prints with relish. It was an airy royal blue crepe, and before she even had it on her body, she was imagining herself walking along the north side of Washington Square Park in the warm night air, her heels tapping quietly along the pavement. She disregarded the price tag and tuned out the bored-looking Czech woman at the register when she read the total.
Just as she was walking through the apartment door, ready to hurry into the shower in order to be ready for dinner by eight, Leigh heard her phone trill its text message tone. She laid the dress on the bed and opened her phone. Message from Shaun. Hey Sweetie, have to cancel 2night. Brian got an invite to Fashon’s white party in Hamptons, v last minute. Make it up to u soon xoxoxo.
She called Shaun. No answer, even though the message had just been sent, which would indicate that Shaun had her phone close at hand. Who the hell was Fashon? Someone everyone else knew about. She was sure that this was a party so fabulous that Leigh was expected to understand, no questions asked—as in, sorry to cancel our lunch date, but I’ve been asked to have tea with the queen, I’m sure you understand. But Leigh had planned her whole night around this dinner. Shaun was probably already on the road, already in the passenger side of the Porsche Brian kept in the garage underneath his building. She’d probably known for hours that she wasn’t coming. She’d probably known, Leigh thought with rising anger, as she’d been handing the saleswoman her credit card and spending the rest of the month’s disposable income on her new dress. Lulu was home with her family in Chicago, so there was no chance of seeing her. So there she was.
Leigh ordered dinner from the Moroccan restaurant on the corner and took the cork out of a half-full bottle of white wine, drinking straight from the bottle like she did sometimes when she was angry. She sat on the desk to eat her food. The dancer’s windows were dark. Of course, Leigh thought, it’s the weekend. She had somewhere better to be than in the smelly, broiling city. She didn’t see her as a Hamptons’ girl; she was probably with some perfect boyfriend in a country house in the Berkshires that had been in one of their families for generations. The dancer’s boyfriend, she decided, probably had a roman numeral after his name. She had met these men; New York was crawling with them. On the surface their manners were polished, but in her experience, they were the most likely to have contempt for any woman who did not fit into some perfect, lean, groomed package like her lovely neighbor. She hated them both, hypothetical though they were.
What was left of the bottle didn’t last her long. There was activity on the street, and it made her feel lonely and left out. The sound of laughter echoed up the side of the building into her window and dislodged something deep inside her. Was there anything worse than the sound of other people laughing? The optimism that had settled on her was gone without a trace. This was her life, drinking alone on a Saturday night. She felt a desperate urge to talk to someone. She thought of calling Barbara but calculated that she would be just sitting down to dinner and knew that she couldn’t handle listening to Barbara’s distracted voice, the squeals of the baby, and the clink of dinner dishes in the background—the quotidian symphony of a family life that would never include her.
She suddenly knew she had to get out of her apartment. She confronted the dress hanging in its garment bag like the wedding dress of a jilted bride. She could decide the next day whether or not to take it back, but she definitely couldn’t wear it tonight. She threw on a grey T-shirt dress that she’d had for years. She went to a bar less than a block away from the apartment; this way, she reasoned, it hardly even counted as going out by herself. It was more like going down to the bar at a hotel where you are staying, and of course, there wouldn’t be any shame in that.
The bar was crowded but she managed somehow to get a stool for which she was immeasurably grateful. She wouldn’t have lasted long if she’d had to handle standing in the dense crush of people that surrounded the bar and endure the elbows of unconcerned strangers all night long. That was the kind of thing that could make you burst into tears if you were in the wrong state of mind. The bartender was shaggy-haired and craggy-faced with a giant weathered nose that looked as though it had borne the initial impact of all of its owner’s miseries.
Leigh ordered a Lychee Martini, a drink that she was sure made the bartender cringe, a drink that would make her seem like exactly what was wrong with the neighborhood these days. She was normally a little self-conscious about this sort of thing, but this evening she wanted the quickest path to oblivion and knew this would do the trick, and at least it wasn’t a cosmopolitan. She contemplated the shape of the martini glass, how it was not at all conducive for pacing oneself; one flip of wrist and down your throat it went. People crammed in and leaned over her to order drinks from the bartender who gave them a look of neutral disdain if they were polite and simply ignored them if they were rude. Leigh watched them from the mirrored wall that she faced. The crowd was young, and most looked like they were from across the river, the weekend citizens who took over New York, shoving wads of money at bouncers and waitresses. Bridge and Tunnel, the absolute worst thing you could be or be likened to in this city. Leigh thought she knew the real reason for the disdain; it was not that everyone who lived on the island was so different, it was that these outsiders so openly reflected the desperation to be a part of things that everyone secretly felt but worked so hard not to show. They did it so unabashedly, one almost had to respect them for it.
After Leigh had finished her second martini, the bartender replaced it with a third without asking. “On me,” he said without a smile or any change in his expression, but with perhaps the tiniest hint of compassion in his voice.
Much later, someone came to talk to her, and she let him buy her another drink though she didn’t need it, and though she already knew she would be sick the next day. She’d said something that made him laugh and then he’d made her laugh. Finally, she’d pushed back off her stool and left the bar, and for awhile, he’d walked with her. He’d kissed her when they’d arrived at her door. At first, this had been okay, and she knew she could take him upstairs and that he would have been, not a man with a discernable identity, but simply skin and hands and lips. She knew that with the slipperiness of alcohol as an aid, she could surrender to the collected sensations as she had when she was younger. But despite the cloudiness of her mind, there were certain things she knew she could not contend with: in a few hours the question of sleep, in a few more, the question of the morning. So, she sent him away.
When she woke in the morning, she felt wretched and couldn’t remember the name of a single person she had met the night before, much less the one who had followed her home. She was furious at herself for not having a television and for not having food in the house. She ordered breakfast and suffered the indignity of the takeout containers piled conspicuously in her kitchen. She curled around her laptop and watched an old DVD of a television series on her bed, wishing that going back to sleep was an option. In fact, she wished she could go to bed and stay there until the summer was over.
Leigh felt nothing but blank, barren days stretching out before her. This is not what summer was supposed to be. Winter in my heart, she thought.
She should go through her closet and weed it out. She should write Asa a letter, though the prospect made her feel exhausted and she wasn’t even out of bed yet. She knew what she would do; she would obsess over every word until it sounded like something censored by boarding school nuns, “Hello Asa—How are you? I am fine. Things are well in New York; they feed us well and look after us. Weather lovely, if a little on the warmer side. Write soon. Regards, Leigh.” What would she say if she’d let herself? Asa—Hotter than shit here. Wish I was with you because I miss you even though I don’t know you, and I think about you late at night and wish I had you, wish we had a chance because I feel like I could…she wouldn’t let herself get to the next thought, of what she could feel for him if he were here. Fuck that word “if”; fuck that whole idea, she thought.
Leigh got up and walked over to the sturdy oak desk and sat on it, curling her knees up to her chest and staring out the window. What had she done with that letter? Did she put it in one of the drawers?
She opened the couple she had already looked in. The long top drawer stuck; she hadn’t ever opened it, so she knew it wasn’t in there. She was suddenly intrigued by the drawer. Whatever was in there could be interesting. She pulled at it; it budged but wasn’t looking like it was going to slide open for anything. She went into the kitchen and grabbed her paring knife; it wasn’t as though she was going to need it for something other than opening a takeout container anyway. She worked the knife into the space between the drawer and the desk. She felt a rising panic and frustration. The knife slipped and she cut her hand, not too deeply but enough to bleed.
“Shit!” She ran to the kitchen and ran her fingers under the cold water. It rushed over the wound so that when she looked down at her hand, it looked clean and white beneath the water. She grabbed some paper towels to clean off the spot where her blood had gotten on the desk, but when she got back, she saw that it was too late and some had already soaked into the wood. You wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t known it was there but what an awful thing, she thought, to leave a bloodstain on something that didn’t belong to you. She remembered that she had some large size band-aids in her purse from the other day when she’d worn a new pair of shoes and destroyed the delicate skin on the backs of her heels. She fished one out from the mélange of pens, scraps of paper, business cards, and fliers and put it beneath her thumb where she had cut herself. She looked again at the desk and tried to imagine seeing it without knowing what had just happened, tried to decide if she would notice the stain.
She felt her stomach turn over with hunger. She didn’t have the patience to wait for delivery. On her way to the deli, she thought about the kinds of things people kept in desks and figured that this one must have, at some point, contained a multitude of things both deeply personal: letters, cards, journals; and those of no consequence: maintenance notices, credit card applications, and unused gift certificates.
There was a hot breeze blowing dust and pollen up from the street into her eyes, and she cursed herself for having left her sunglasses behind. As she walked along, barely able to see, a strange memory came back to her of watching her aunts go through her parents’ things after they died. The girls had never gone back to the house after the day their parents had been killed. They’d been swiftly transported to the alternate universe of their Aunt Mary’s comfortable home where the presence of death was concealed like an unsightly stain.
She had grown up with many locked drawers. Because her parents had been young and photogenic but still average looking enough to represent the everyday family, they had made an ideal subject for a profile in PEOPLE magazine. When the reporter had called Aunt Mary after seeing a report of the accident in their local paper, he had made it sound like such a wonderful tribute to the young couple. It wasn’t until it was displayed on newsstands in all its horrifying glossy glory, had Mary realized how tasteless the whole thing was. She had made every effort to hide it from the girls and had done so successfully until one of Barbara’s friends found the back issue in the school library and shown it to her, who in turn showed it to Leigh. She had been thirteen at the time, her memories of her parents already vague, the accident having happened nearly a decade previous. She had sat at the kitchen table and carefully leafed through the pages while Barbara sat near her, watching her read it without uttering a word. Leigh recognized several of the photographs in the inset; there was one of them on a family vacation not long before the accident—it was the one Aunt Mary had hanging on the wall of their living room.
“Mom was so pretty wasn’t she?” Barbara had finally said. Leigh had looked up across the table to see that her sister’s eyes were glassy as though she had had tears in them but had blinked them away. Leigh couldn’t remember ever seeing her sister cry.
“Yeah, she was,” Leigh said. “You look like her.”
“I think we both do a little,” Barbara said gently. It was kind but not entirely true; Leigh looked much more like her father who had the same dark, wide-set eyes and square jawline.
Despite the heat, there was a strong breeze. Leigh had thrown on a loose-fitting tank dress and it fishtailed behind her in the wind. She wandered in the aisles trying to remember the things she needed: shampoo, paper towels, a light bulb to replace the one in the bathroom that had gone dark the day before.
She found herself obsessed with the locked drawer; it seemed to become the centerpiece of the apartment. Asa had left nothing behind except for some cleaning supplies that had been left underneath the kitchen sink. This seemed strange. Leigh thought about the many things she had probably left behind over the past few years. She had a left a few books behind at Max’s apartment that she had decided after some deliberation were not worth trying to retrieve. There were many small things that had disappeared over the years: earrings, T-shirts, chains that had lost their pendants, and pendants that had lost their chains. She reasoned that a good number of these things must have been left in the dusty corners of her former residences, but not one single thing had been left behind here.
Later, when she was feeling a little better, she sat down to write Asa a letter on the stationary that had been her Secret Santa gift from someone at the office the previous Christmas. She wrote a version in which she mentioned the fact that his apartment seemed oddly barren, but there seemed to be no way to say it casually, and every attempt she made came off as somehow intrusive. She also tried several times to think of a way to mention their night together and how much she thought about it, but she could not find the words for this either. In the end she came up with what was more of a simple note than an actual letter:
Thank you for your letter. It was so nice to receive some actual mail in the mail! It’s hard to imagine a time when all correspondence was conducted this way—all those scenes in old novels and movies where people are waiting breathlessly by the window for the postman.
Contrary to what you might think, I did not find your letter ridiculous or even unpolished. I hope this comment doesn’t irritate you, but it sounded like a letter written by a writer. My friend Lulu is an editor; she receives a lot of e-mail from authors, and she says it is sometimes her favorite part of the job because the material is so good. I think she even saves some of them. Anyway, I’m surprised that you don’t write letters all the time, as you seem very practiced.
I wanted to say that I’m sorry for whatever you’re going through, and if I helped in any way, I’m glad.
How is Paris so far?
It almost seemed like this was barely worth the postage to send it. If she’d had an e-mail address for him, she might have sent it that way, but for now all she had was the mailing address. Perhaps his next letter, if there was a next letter, would provide something more for her to go on.