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.
By the following Tuesday, her lonely weekend felt very far behind her, and so it was without hesitation that she agreed to meet up with Shaun and some of her friends for drinks. She always found it hard to be angry with her for very long. She had been her first real friend in New York and her transgressions, however frequent or egregious, still always seemed to pale in comparison to that immutable fact.
Shaun’s friends were mostly people she’d known from her years at the School of Professional Children, a ludicrously named academy that was for aspiring child stars of all stripes. There were a handful of young celebrities whom the school counted as alumni, and it seemed to Leigh that the chief purpose of their get-togethers was to discuss the goings on of their more famous one-time schoolmates. They seemed to relish Leigh’s occasional presence as a new audience with whom to rehash old gossip from their younger days. Most of them still fancied themselves artists while others had defected to finance, and there were, of course, a few women like Shaun who had simply graduated to professional husband-hunters.
Leigh could never tell if Shaun actually liked any of them or if, like so many people do, they had simply become habit.
They met early that evening on the roof deck of 60 Thompson and congregated around a table at the end of the patio. Shaun introduced Leigh to the few of them she had never met and they settled in.
A girl named Sarah, who barely looked old enough to even be in college, was in the middle of telling everyone in the group about the novel she was working on when they sat down.
“I mean, it gets lonely,” she said. “It isn’t the life I would choose, being a writer. But it just, you know, chooses you,” she said emphatically. Everyone nodded in earnest.
“I mean, you know Fabian always says you eventually get used to the actual solitude of writing, but it’s the metaphysical solitude that is so hard to cope with,” a flamboyant young filmmaker named Regan said, dropping the name of celebrated young novelist Fabian Trope. He had graduated in their class and just gotten a rave from the toughest critic in the New York Times Book Review not a month before for the dystopic coming of age saga that he had penned while still in college. Shaun and Leigh exchanged a look.
“Leigh, isn’t the guy you’re renting the apartment from a writer? I mean, like, he does it for a living?” Shaun interjected.
“He is, yeah,” she answered, trying to conceal a grin.
“Leigh works in publishing,” Shaun said, sharpening the point uselessly on the clueless Sarah who simply smiled back dumbly. Frauds never see that they’re frauds, Leigh thought.
“Asa Assner is his name. He went to Paris to work on his novel. Not a bad way to spend the summer if you ask me,” Leigh said.
“Wait, I know that guy,” said a man named Gregory who Leigh had met once or twice; he seemed to have been tuned out of the conversation until that point. “We went to Brown together. I haven’t heard from him in a while now. How is he?”
“Doing well,” Leigh said leaning forward to take a slip of her mojito, “I just heard from him this week.”
“I’m glad to hear that. After all the shit he’s been through,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean the thing with his dad and his fiancé and that whole mess…”
Leigh felt a fog rapidly spreading over her mind. Fiancé? There was a fiancé? She said nothing, gave Gregory a look of utter incomprehension. “Didn’t he tell you?” he asked.
“Asa was engaged to this girl Michelle Simon,” he began.
“Oh! I know her,” Regan said, “she’s with ABC.”
“Yes,” Gregory said, sounding annoyed at the interruption, “anyway, she’s a beautiful girl, and they were this great couple, like disgustingly perfect and happy. One minute everything is fine and then literally in one day, Asa’s dad dies suddenly and he breaks it off with Michelle and leaves for Paris like two days later. Totally bizarre. I actually don’t know which happened first, his dad or Michelle, but it was definitely one right after the other. I’m surprised he didn’t mention any of it,” he said, looking at Leigh.
A girl named Kristen who had been nodding emphatically throughout the story leaned forward on the hand that was planted next to Gregory on the white canvas, physically insinuating herself further into the conversation, “I ran into Michelle last week, and she said no one’s heard from him. Except for you, I guess,” she said looking at Leigh with some suspicion. Leigh could tell the girl was uncomfortable in her skirt by the way that she kept tugging at the hem.
“I miss their parties,” Reagan said wistfully. “Michelle is a fabulous cook; they used to have these dinner parties at least once a month and she would cook everything.”
“She made the best coq au vin ever. Her mother is French,” Gregory said as an aside to Leigh. “He’s crazy for leaving her if you ask me. They don’t make women like that anymore. She’s just so elegant.”
He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was sitting with four women; four women who were evidently not “made like that.” Jerk, Leigh thought and exchanged a sideways look with Shaun that confirmed she was thinking the same. This perfect Michelle must have had quite an apartment to be able to have lavish dinner parties since they clearly hadn’t been taking place in Asa’s tiny East Village studio. Not that it wasn’t an amusing thought, these haughty people sitting on floor pillows eating foie gras.
“Anyway, how is the apartment working out for you, Leigh? That’s such a great neighborhood isn’t it?” he continued.
“Yes,” Leigh said, feeling so suddenly and wholly morose that she wanted to be alone or at least to be able to sit there and be invisible, which was not usually asking too much.
“Yeah, everyone is always hating on the Upper East Side, but I love it up there; I just don’t really think you can go wrong for residential up there.”
“Upper East Side?” Shaun asked.
She felt like she was in the midst of one of those dreams where everything appears like normal, until suddenly things take a sharp turn and you realize that your circumstances are missing the vital binding glue of logic. Leigh once had a dream that she was sitting in a familiar park with her long-dead grandmother when the old lady had calmly turned to her and told her matter-of-factly that she had arranged for her to be sold as a slave girl to the Sultan of Brunei and that she had better go home and pack and not to forget her alligator jumpsuit, the one with the orange stripes. This felt just like that.
“Yeah. Asa has this amazing place on the Upper East, in the family, I think. It had this huge terrace with an office right off it; I think that’s where Asa worked during the day. I’m surprised you didn’t know them, Shaun,” he said. Shaun shrugged.
Leigh didn’t say anything and gave Shaun a surreptitious look of warning not to either.
“That is a great neighborhood,” Shaun said instead, mercifully deflecting the attention from Leigh, “I mean, it’s a little extra cab fare to get to a decent bar, but what does that matter at the end of the day? I think I may look for a place there when my lease is up.” The conversation morphed into a conversation of neighborhoods, a subject on which New Yorkers have no shortage of opinions.
Leigh didn’t know why there was such confusion over the location of the apartment, but she knew she didn’t want any more secrets placed on the table in front of this dubious company.
The subject remained closed until Leigh and Shaun were alone again on the street outside the hotel.
“What the eff was that all about?” Shaun asked, fishing a cigarette out of her handbag and parking herself underneath one of the misters that was stationed just outside the hotel doors to cool off the patrons on the outdoor patio of the restaurant.
“I don’t have any idea…” Leigh said, feeling the glaze of her confusion thicken in the stifling heat. “Jesus, how can it still be this hot?” she said.
“I know, it’s inhuman,” she said cupping her hand over her lighter against the non-existent wind. “So he didn’t mention any of this?”
Leigh shook her head. “I mean, in retrospect I knew he was definitely going through something, but all that? And the thing with the apartment? So bizarre.”
Shaun gently flicked the ash off her cigarette and stared contemplatively at the sidewalk. “Maybe Greg has the wrong person. I mean all this stuff you didn’t know and then the apartment is in a different place?”
“Maybe,” Leigh said incredulously, “but then no, it can’t be. The other details are too similar and they have the exact same name? It has to be the same person.” Maybe he just had two apartments, but that seemed unlikely too. Maybe he had moved into Michelle’s apartment once they were engaged? But no, they said it was in his family. Something didn’t add up.
“I suppose you’re right,” Shaun said. “The plot thickens.” She finished her cigarette and ground it into the pavement with the toe of her sandal. “Let’s go to Brian’s and have a drink on the patio,” she said and pulled out her phone to send him a text message.
Not long after, they were ensconced in the cushy deckchairs on the patio of Brian’s Chelsea penthouse. Brain kept out of their way for the most part. He was making international calls to somewhere where people were still doing business; he emerged only a few times to refresh their supply of champagne and marijuana, lumbering in and out like a lurching, ogre-like valet.
Leigh smoked only a tiny amount of weed knowing it wouldn’t take much with the champagne; she allowed herself to lapse into a comfortable stupor. Shaun’s company was undemanding when she was like this, when she was in her comfort zone, when she was on downers instead of uppers. On the roof, there was a pleasant breeze and Leigh could imagine staying there until she fell asleep.
“We should go to that club,” Shaun said out of nowhere. They had both been staring up at the few stars that you could see from the patio, neither one had spoken for what seemed like a long time.
“Huh?” Leigh said, lolling her head to the side so that she could see her. Shaun’s eyes were glittering; she stared into the sky not focusing.
“The club, that place, the one…you know…” her hand trailed off through the air.
Leigh let out a laugh. Shaun sighed and began again, sounding like she was making a concerted effort at lucidity; she pronounced each word decisively.
“Oh that club,” Leigh said, laughing even harder, feeling an uncontrollable bout of giggles coming on. “The Valley.”
“It is Tuesday,” Shaun said, “luckily.”
Leigh found this statement hilarious. When she’d finally recovered, she said, “When?”
“Today,” she said, looking at her in earnest. “It’s Tuesday today.”
“No,” Leigh said lurching forward, barely able to breath from how hard she was laughing, “when should we go tonight?” It had been three weeks since she’d seen Mehran; it felt like a lifetime ago. She’d taken it for granted that she wouldn’t go back.
“Now. I’ll tell Brian. Actually, no, I don’t think I will. We’ll just sneak out. That’d be funnier.”
They clamored out of their chairs noisily and into the passageway, shushing one another with loud hisses, and giggling all the way to the elevator, and generally making an awful lot of noise for two people who were trying to sneak out of somewhere.
Leigh’s buzz made it easier to pass from one world into the other; there was no sense of the journey, it was like falling asleep, and the next thing you know, you’re dreaming. This particular dream began by the coat check at The Valley.
“Where is he?” Shaun asked, “I want to see him!” She suddenly gasped and flung her arm around a tiny gay boy with purple hair who happened to be standing nearby, “Oh my God! You are the cutest little thing I’ve EVER seen. I want to put you in my pocket and take you everywhere I go.”
The boy smiled gamely and buried his head momentarily in between her breasts before flitting off.
“God, gay men love tits. I never knew until I got these,” she said, groping herself unabashedly. “Why do you think that is?”
“They’re a subject of fascination,” Leigh said. She now felt no longer high, only drunk and getting more and more sober by the minute. “They aren’t involved with breasts on either side of the equation.”
“Exactly,” said Shaun, not sounding at all like she was sobering up, “so why?”
“What we’re supposed to want, what everyone says we should want, but we can’t imagine wanting, that’s why.” Leigh felt the anxiety of knowing that it was late enough and he would be here; she needed to dive back into the stupor and quickly. Shaun just stared at her as they were being jostled now by the stream of partygoers who came streaming in just after midnight.
“You’re crazy,” Shaun said, smiling.
“We should start drinking immediately,” Leigh said, clutching Shaun’s arm as she walked by her toward the bar.
“Ha-ha-ha, I love you, Leigh, I do. We’re like sisters.”
Leigh got a martini, sucked it down fast, and ordered a gin and tonic to linger with. The girls stayed by the bar for a while, anchored to the safe space. Leigh felt her system quickly settle back into a comfortable, hazy buzz.
“This place…is weird,” Shaun said.
Leigh observed the same crowd as last time—the same tattooed go-go boy and some sort of drag queen or other male/female mélange who was dancing in the cage that hung high above the dance floor. He or she had nails that were inches long and either had long black hair or wore a very convincing wig. Even through the many layers of makeup, one could see that the face beneath was incredibly delicate and feminine, making the fact that it was attached to a lithe bare-chested and clearly male body startling, like some sort of trompe l’oeil of gender. A tall, thin man whose tight shirt had a high, lacey Victorian collar glided by, a miniature red felt top hat affixed with a thin strap to his bald head. He was someone important, because people parted as he walked through. He wordlessly kissed the bartender and whispered something into his ear; the bartender strained forward to close the space between them.
“It’s like…the circus. Oh my God, when was the last time you went to the circus?”
“Years,” Leigh said; she was distracted, looking for Mehran and his crew but trying to make it seem like she wasn’t looking for them, wasn’t worried about anything. Though for whom she was affecting this nonchalance, she had no idea, certainly not the oblivious Shaun.
“Should we do a lap?” Shaun suggested.
They made their way through the dance floor where people, mostly boys and some girls, were dancing more and more frantically as the DJ revved up the crowd. Leigh hadn’t noticed last time, but the DJ was inside a giant disco ball so high above the dance floor it might as well have been Mount Olympus.
They went upstairs and by the time they had gotten to the top, Leigh could see that none of them were there—no tall, beautiful black boy or girl with hairy armpits and Frieda Kahlo eyebrows. She felt the depth of her disappointment and wanted to laugh out loud at herself for having expectations in a situation like this. She looked at Shaun, who looked wasted. They should probably leave soon.
She looked back over the railing and saw the impressive blond mane floating through a few inches above the crowd. She felt the muscles in her chest go tight. She wanted to run back down to the dance floor and shout out his name. She realized only then that right up until that moment, she had believed she would never see him again.
“Honey,” Shaun said, and Leigh turned to face her. Her features had a wilted look and her eyes were unnaturally glossy; had she sneaked off and done something else when Leigh wasn’t looking? Not implausible., “I think I need to go. Do you hate me? I’m sorry…”
“No, no. It’s fine.”
“I know we didn’t see your boy yet…:”
“Actually,” Leigh said, but then looked at the dance floor and could no longer see him there. She must have imagined it. “It’s fine, I’m getting tired. Let’s go.”
When they reached the door, Leigh noticed a neon sign that pointed down another set of stairs that she hadn’t noticed the first time she’d been there.
Just as they were standing between the other staircase and the door, that song that would become the anthem for the summer came on. I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind…
“Actually,” Leigh said, “maybe I’m gonna stay for a few minutes. I just don’t feel like going home yet, I’ve got buzz to burn.” There was no harm, she reasoned. It wouldn’t make sense to share a cab with Shaun anyway. If he really wasn’t there, she would just leave.
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space.
“Okay,” Shaun kissed her cheek messily and was gone.
Leigh felt the weight of her aloneness and tried to look past people in the manner of someone looking for friends.
She went downstairs and immediately felt like she was somewhere else altogether. The room was extremely dark with a very low ceiling. It was packed, more so than upstairs, but it also seemed like it could have been the optical illusion of the low ceiling that made everything seem closer together.
She squeezed through the dance floor, trying not to step on any of the high-heeled feet (none female) or get caught up in any stray parts of the elaborate outfits that some of those around her were wearing. She had an embarrassing collision with the edge of someone’s wide, feathered Elizabethan collar before making it to the other edge of the dance floor successfully. In the back area, there were coves with low tables, and as soon as she had made it out of the crush of people, she was shocked to find herself standing in front of Mehran. He was perched on the edge of the red leather couch, leaning in to listen to what Amelia La Rouche was saying. What would her voice sound like? It was impossible to imagine the pitch of the noise that came from in between those cartoonish lips. Whatever it sounded like, it wasn’t loud and Mehran was straining to hear, his eyes intensely focused. Behind him, some waif-like boy with a smooth anonymous kind of face was half leaning up against his back and running the tips of his fingers through Mehran’s hair, which Leigh could now see looked a little brittle and over processed at the ends. This somehow didn’t make it any less appealing, and she envied the boy who was touching it. Tonight Mehran was wearing artfully destroyed white jeans and white tuxedo vest with nothing underneath. The boy was attached to him like some sort of animal. Seated around the table was the entourage that Leigh had last seen him with: the beautiful black boy who had rolled his eyes at her (what had his has name been? Matthew? Michael?), the tiny neon-colored lingerie girl who’s hair was now pink, and the one with the Frieda Kahlo eyebrows.
None of them saw her, of course—they were all focused on Amelia. What could she do? She could walk away, but then she would know that they were there, that he was there. She had the urge to leave. There was a sense of trespass to what she was doing, of intrusion. More than wanting to walk away, she wanted to stand where she couldn’t be seen, to observe them for a while. Before she could decide what to do, Amelia finished her exposition—definitively sitting back and bringing her drink to her lips. Mehran leaned back as well and as he did, he saw Leigh. She saw his eyes nearly pass over her, stop with a start, then come back to her.
Once she had locked eyes with him, there was no making excuses; she was alone and couldn’t pretend that she was searching the room for friends, that she was the sort of person who could have friends in this particular room.
He smiled at her as though with casual acceptance of their circumstances, like he’d been waiting for her to show up, like it wasn’t strange at all to look up and see her standing there.
“Hey,” he said to her. The rest of the table all snapped their heads in her direction with the exception of Amelia, who looked dazedly back into her drink after quickly flickering her eyes up to ascertain the newcomer.
“Come and sit with us,” he said. She nodded and then stood there wondering what to do. She briefly considered refusing the invitation but how could she? She smiled and carefully picked her way to his seat where he was quietly urging the boy next to him to scoot over and make room for her. Leigh stepped on the boy’s foot, not hard, but he scowled at her nonetheless as though she had kicked him in the shin and spat on him. “Sorry,” she said. Mehran held his hand out to her and she squeezed in next to him.
“How are you?” he asked. He had turned and was addressing only her, as though they were sitting alone or with strangers.
“Just fine,” she said.
“You didn’t come last week,’ he said.
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You look good.”
“Thanks,” she said. She tried to think of a comment she could make about his outfit that would feel right but couldn’t. “So do you,” she finally said.
He smiled. She admired anew his flawless skin. He wore makeup: one perfect, well-defined line around his ersatz blue eyes. Perhaps he wore something else as well, but it was all Leigh could tell he had on, and it suited him.
Suddenly, people were moving around them, wriggling to their feet. They had, it seemed, decided to go upstairs.
“Come on,” Mehran said, taking her hand. Leigh followed, feeling unsure of herself. She could feel the weight of the general disapproval surrounding her in that no one even deigned to look directly at her. They were in a tangled mass going up the stairs when someone very deliberately separated her hand from Mehran’s. Leigh had been looking down at the stairs, and she snapped her head up to see several of them, including the little neon pixie girl, flashing nasty smiles at each other and snickering.
When Mehran got to the top of the stairs, he paused to wait for her, oblivious to what had happened. Why were they being so mean? It didn’t seem to fit with the general mood of the night, of the place, of them. She took his hand again and tried to pretend it had not happened.
She couldn’t tell whether or not Mehran was drunk, though he seemed a little glazed over. As they reached the top of the stairs, the music changed and someone came over the loudspeaker to announce that the burlesque performance was beginning. Leigh turned and looked over the rail, down at the stage where a short woman with jet-black hair and comically buoyant breasts was gyrating to the joy of the crowd below. Mehran stood behind her and put his arms around her, either unknowingly or knowingly sheltering her from the crowd, his crowd. She looked up into his face but his eyes were closed; when he opened them, he looked away, and she noticed for the first time how sad he seemed. She had the funny thought that this was how the boys used to stand behind their girlfriends at high school assemblies and football games. They stayed like that for the duration of the show, and Leigh she felt happily possessed by him—something she had not felt in a long time. She had the feeling that he was taking comfort in this as well; not for the same reason as she was, but for some other reason that he seemed likely to keep to himself. She saw something in him that she had felt many times herself, that feeling of being alone in a room full of people, alone even in someone’s arms.
“Mehran,” his friend with the afro yelled unnecessarily since he was only inches away. He smiled at Leigh innocently and fell onto Mehran’s shoulder, slurring some words she couldn’t make out into his ear.
“Yeah, okay buddy, hold on a sec.” He turned to her, “Babe, Michael is so done. I need to take him home.”
“I’ll walk out with you,” she said. She’d had enough anyway, she told herself it would be a relief to go home.
Out on the street, Mehran helped Michael into the backseat of a waiting cab, folding his long limbs in with care. When Michael was ensconced in the backseat, he peered back out to watch them, his neck sliding forward away from his shoulders like a big cat eyeing a gazelle.
“I’m gonna take him home,” Mehran said. She nodded. She stood close to him but her arms were crossed over her chest and she looked down at the sidewalk, the light from the streetlamps was shining in such a way that it sparkled. She’d always wondered why some streets in New York looked like that; was it the tiny slivers of broken glass that had been ground into the sidewalk over the years or something that was in the concrete to begin with? In this case, it could have been actual glitter that littered the sidewalks, she supposed, considering the clientele.
“My place is really great,” he said after a moment. “We even have a backyard with a Koi Pond in it. You should come out some time.”
“I’d like that,” she said, once more unable to imagine that she would see him again. Off you go, she thought, off to your Koi pond. She almost wanted to laugh, he could have said he was going back to the marshmallow castle at the end of the rainbow he shared with Michael, and she wouldn’t have believed it any less. She reflected again that they didn’t live on the same plane.
She wondered in that moment how her life would be different if all of the invitations made to her late at night were sincere, if all the declarations and sentiments true. He made no movement toward her. His hands were in his pockets and he too looked at the ground.
“You could come with us now,” he said suddenly; she looked at him and realized that that was what he’d been getting at all along. She paused and looked down the street as though trying to gauge something but really only stalling. When would such an invitation ever come again? she asked herself.