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.
She squeezed into the seat next to Mehran, and he rested the tips of his long fingers on her bare knee in a pleasingly proprietary way while he gossiped with Michael who was plenty talkative. In the way that some people slur their words when they’re drunk, Michael enunciated his, emphasizing each syllable. “I will CUT a bitch, Mehran, I am tell-IN-G you thiSSS.” Leigh had no idea who the assertion of violence was meant to be for, but it didn’t seem serious since Mehran just laughed, and as long as she wasn’t the aforementioned bitch, she didn’t mind. This was the trick with angry people, keep their venom spewing in other directions, and they will forget about you.
As they came across the bridge, Leigh felt as though she were in a dream. She turned to watch Manhattan speeding away from them out of the back window.
After what felt like ages of driving, the cab pulled up outside a row house on a dark corner. It was Leigh’s first time in Queens, and it was more of a contrast with Manhattan than she had expected. It looked like a different city. She had imagined Mehran living in the city not far from her, perhaps the Lower East Side somewhere. It was strange to think that he came back and forth all of these nights. She realized then that she still had no idea what he actually did for a living or really anything about him other than that he was beautiful and remote.
Michael hung on Mehran’s shoulder while he turned the key in the lock. The three were greeted by a scruffy, enthusiastic terrier at the door. Michael nearly tripped on it as he scrambled around their ankles.
“Damnit, Muffin!” Michael yelled down at the dog, doing a little pirouette away form him and nearly losing his balance in the process, “MONGREL!”
“Aw, Muffin, come here, baby,” Mehran leaned down and scooped the dog up in his arms. Michael teetered down the hallway and launched himself in the open door of what Leigh assumed was his bedroom. Mehran followed with Muffin in his arms and peeked into the bedroom where Michael has just disappeared. He laughed silently and looked at Leigh, shaking his head.
“Is it just the two of you here?” she whispered, following him to the threshold of the door where she spied Michael: fully clothed and facedown, seemingly already fast asleep.
“Actually, it’s just me and Muffin. I had a roommate for a while, but we had a falling out and he left,” he said.
“That sucks,” she said, “nothing worse than roommate drama.” He looked at her a little warily as though she’d been implying something else by her comment. She cleared her throat nervously.
“I’m going to have to get another roommate soon though,” he continued “maybe even two, I can’t afford it anymore.”
“Did they raise the rent?”
“No,” he said motioning for her to follow him through the living room where there was a strange, prim looking Edwardian sofa and matching chair—both were a little beat-up looking, “my boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, used to help me out with the rent. Sorry, I shouldn’t have told you that, it makes me sound pathetic. It wasn’t like he was my sugar daddy or anything.”
“Not at all,” she said, nearly adding that she herself lived mostly off an inheritance but deciding against it; that would lead to other explanations of other things that she was not prepared to drag out into the night. She was a little taken aback by hearing him say so many words together at one time. He’d seemed almost stoic before.
“You’re being nice. He insisted, said he spent so much time here it was only fair that he chipped in. It’s okay now because I’m getting lots of work, but I don’t want to get too old and not have anything saved. Come out and see the Koi Pond.”
She realized with alarm that he might be some kind of prostitute; this thought made her stomach drop. She found prostitutes unsettling in the deepest way. Aunt Chloe had had a friend for many years that Barbara had later told her was a prostitute, or rather, an escort. Leigh had liked the friend. Suzanna was her name, and she was subdued, serious, and very empathetic. It was the very fact that she seemed so normal, so unlike a person who would be capable of selling her body, that had unnerved Leigh so much.
Behind Mehran’s ground floor apartment, there was a small patch of grass and a stone walkway that lead to a vegetable garden and the Koi pond. She looked over into the dark water and could see the shapes of the long, brightly colored fish undulating just beneath the surface. It was a beautiful night, and it didn’t seem as warm as in the city. An infinitesimally waning moon hung clear and bright in the sky, allowing her to see everything in the garden despite the lack of any artificial light aside from what poured out from the kitchen.
“This is amazing,” she said, walking further into the garden. There were tomato vines on stakes at the edge. Leigh could smell the tomatoes and wondered if they were actually more pungent at night or if her lack of sight increased her olfactory sensitivity.
When she looked back at Mehran, he seemed to be staring somewhere over the top of the high fence that separated his yard from the neighbor’s. She couldn’t be sure, but his eyes seemed watery. He seemed to have forgotten that she was there, and it made her suddenly embarrassed, as though she was unwittingly intruding on what had suddenly become a private moment for him. The periphery of the narrow yard was lined with deep shadows where the moonlight didn’t hit; she wanted to inch into them and disappear before he noticed. She was suddenly seized by the fear that he would turn to her and ask her what she was doing there. But simultaneously, she knew that they had crossed over into that hour of night when it was useless and impossible for people to leave each other.
When he did finally turn back toward her, he only smiled, and it seemed like he’d been there in that moment with her all along. He walked over to where she was and leaned down to kiss her. He was quite a bit taller than she was so that when he was right next to her, she had the feeling that everything was as it should be.
“Do you work in the city?” she asked, preparing herself for the answer. In her head, there was already the outline of some shadowy benefactor.
“Mostly,” he said looking at the ground. “Depends on who’s booking; sometimes I go to really random locations, warehouses in Staten Island and things like that.”
Warehouses? She thought for a moment. “You’re a model,” she said. He nodded.
Of course he was a model, she thought with relief. It made sense; he seemed to always be posing, poised and camera-ready every moment. She laughed at herself inside her head, and it manifested itself outwardly as a broad smile that instantly took hold of her entire face.
“You probably think it’s lame. I really don’t like being a model; it’s just something to pay the bills. It got me out of San Bernardino, but I’m getting really sick of it.” He looked agitated, and she wanted to change the subject, but it seemed he couldn’t think of anything to say. You’re paid to be beautiful, she thought, you’re paid to exist and permit others to capture your image.
“I don’t want to talk about my work,” he said finally. “What do you do?”
I carry piles of paper from one inbox to another; I tap sequences of numbers and letters into boxes on a screen with a blinking cursor and concentrate on not watching the minutes of my life tick away. She thought of the Pamelas. What would they think if they saw her now? “Book publishing,” she said.
“Oh, that’s really cool,” he said with enthusiasm. “I bet you read a lot, just like my ex. That was his thing too. I’m really into music, so I can appreciate just being in the arts, you know? I really want to do music, actually.”
Leigh nodded and walked closer to the pond.
“What does that mean, do music?” she asked with a smile. “Like be a rock star?”
He shrugged, “why not? My mom used to sing; she probably would’ve been famous except for she had my sister, plus she doesn’t say so, but I think my dad didn’t like it.”
“What does he do, your dad?”
Mehran shrugged, “Don’t know really. He left us a long time ago. He went back to Iran. He married some other woman, some obedient Muslim girl about my age.”
Leigh winced. Being half Persian would explain those giant, heavily lashed eyes, she thought, and the olive skin. She envied people of mixed race; they got the best of everything while she was just a boring mix of unexceptional Anglo-Saxon bits and pieces.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “about your dad.” He shrugged. She knew that shrug, she thought, she’d shrugged that same shrug many times herself.
He somehow did not sound how she expected him to sound or act how she expected him to act; it was a bit like meeting a television actor and being surprised that they’re not actually their character. Why did it seem strange that he should be a real person with a past? The thing he had, whatever it was, was not a normal trait like being witty or funny, or even simply beautiful. He must know, she thought, he must have some idea what he does to a room when he walks into it, mustn’t he? He must see that every eye turns toward him, that everyone longs to be where I am, alone with him in a garden. She resolved then and there to never try to tell him what was special about him, to put it into words. To articulate it might be to inhibit him and therefore make his specialness disappear, the way a dream ends suddenly the minute you become aware that you’re dreaming. Maybe he knows; maybe it makes him lonely. All that artifice, she thought. He was hiding from something.
“Let’s go inside,” he said. Leigh took one last look at the fish and followed him out of the garden. Without discussion, they went through the living room and into his bedroom.
It was tiny. The floor and the large armchair in the corner were covered with items of clothing. Like a girl’s room, she thought. The clothes, upon closer inspection, were mostly very strange odds and ends of fabric, sequins, and strings of beads; bandannas and scarves; shirts and pants that had been shredded and cropped at strange angles. It reminded her of the contents of a chest that she and her sister had had in the attic of their Aunt Mary’s house, odds and ends culled by the five children from over the years to use for games of dress-up.
He sat on the bed and waited for her to join him. She put her purse down on the chair; until then, she had been clutching it with the tenacity of someone who knows that they might be leaving at any moment. He had taken off his clothes and was in only a pair of boxer briefs. It seemed strange to her that his underwear should be so normal, but he looked nice without his clothes on.
She sat down next to him tentatively. They were facing each other in a way that made things feel oddly ceremonial. He reached up and pushed her hair away from her shoulder. He stroked her head and trailed his fingers lightly down the length of her body. He didn’t look her in the eyes or speak for several minutes. She felt each touch as a pure and individually pleasurable sensation; it was completely distinct from the earnest kissing and groping that she was used to. He pulled her dress over her head. She giggled a little out of nervousness and pulled her arms instinctively around her torso, feeling immediately self-conscious about the small rolls that her stomach made when she sat. He pulled her arms away, but she pulled them back and tried to kiss him to distract him. He kissed her but pulled her arms away from her stomach again, this time very slowly prying them away from her.
“Relax,” he said, laying back and pulling her toward him. “I just want to see you.”
She nodded. She reached around and unhooked her bra; he pulled it off her, removing it as though pulling something away from a sleeping person gently enough to not wake them.
“Your skin feels so nice,” he said when they were laying side by side, their views of each other’s bodies unobscured by the pulled-back sheets. He ran his fingertips along the length of her, and she felt her body respond to those fingers as they swept along the curve of her abdomen and the fleshy insides of her thighs, awaking each nerve without seeking to penetrate. He ran his finger underneath the waistband of her underwear. After what seemed like a very long time, he pulled those off her as well. She put her hand to the band of his almost instinctively, and he hurriedly removed them as well. For a moment, they just stayed like that.
The desire that reverberated between them was so new and unusual that it felt like an uncharted valley in the completely monopolized and over-exposed kingdom of sex. He looked at her as though the curves of her body were a fish behind a wall of glass; his eyes traced over her skin as though it were moving; he put his lips on her as though determining whether or not she would be safe to eat. She reveled in his fascination, found she was endeared and relaxed by it. Being naked in front of his eyes was unlike being naked in front of anyone else. It was what she imagined it might be like to be naked in front of a sculptor who is trying to memorize your every curve and line. It made her feel free from her body as it was being appreciated seemingly without judgment.
And his body. His body was neither masculine nor feminine; it was both and at the same time, neither. It was a third thing altogether: the human form reimagined; every line and angle new and surprising. His skin was flawless from his head to his feet, which looked well taken care of. She knew that he would not be appealing to every woman—that many women would say he was too beautiful, too feminine. He was less like a human being than an artist’s rendering of a human being, and Leigh found herself in a constant state of exhilaration to be near something so rare and special.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew it must be very late, it felt as though the evening had been going on for a week so many different directions had it taken. Mehran’s lids were fluttering with tiredness. She felt the ebb and flow of desire and exhaustion pulling her between sleep and consciousness. She lamented all the hours she had spent that day at the office, with Shaun, even at the Valley when all the while she might have been here.
He pulled the covers over them.
“Do you want me to hold you?” he asked, and she nodded and let him turn her over and pull her in close. She noticed for the first time that he smelled very much the same as other men and this surprised her. She had expected something more foreign. She fell asleep there without her usual agonizing over whether or not she should stay.
When she woke up, she and Mehran had disengaged even though they had fallen asleep with their limbs still tangled up. She liked to sleep like that but knew that most men did not. Sleeping had always made her nervous. Sometimes she would not be able to fall asleep because she would immediately feel a sense of panic when she first felt her consciousness was slipping away. When her thoughts were normal one minute and then jumbled the next, with the imaginary images and sounds of impending dreams, she would think she was hallucinating and resurface with a start. Only when she had someone next to her did this go away; if she could feel herself anchored to the physical world by the skin of someone’s limbs, her panic would fade and she would sleep soundly. Most men seem to prefer to hold you for a little while and then retreat to their own side of the bed, as though sleep was a place they wanted to go alone. She had quietly decided years ago that for her, love would be the ability to ask someone to give her what she wanted without reluctance, which was to be held until she was asleep.
Mehran was sleeping soundly on his back, snoring quietly. Light was shooting through the decrepit Venetian blinds at wonky angles. She pulled the covers back gently and felt the chill of the cool, stale air on her bare skin. This was a different room than the one she fell asleep in, she thought, but then looking at him, not a different man, at least. She was relieved to see her dress sitting prominently atop the enormous heap of clothing on the couch next to his bed.
She walked around the bed as quietly as she could. As she pulled her dress over her head, she thought she saw movement in the corner. In the daylight, the chaos was even more evident. She longed to pick through the piles and piles of clothes and see what was there. She had a sudden, strange fantasy about the two of them playing dress-up together like she and Barbara had done, vamping around in his hallway like children with the music playing loudly. Muffin dislodged himself from the shirts he had been burrowing in and looked at her warily. She looked at him, silently imploring him to keep quiet; his tiny fury face was pinched into a look that was certainly the precursor to a bark or growl. She leaned down for her shoe and as she did so, he grabbed its mate and scuttled to the other side of the room.
“Muffin, give me that,” she whispered. Her throat felt choked and dry, and as she took a step toward the dog, an intense pain shot through her head from ear to ear; and as she leaned down toward him, she was besieged by a spell of dizziness so intense that she almost fell forward. She reached down to try to take the shoe from him, but he pulled back harder and emitted a high-pitched whimper.
“Muffin,” Mehran’s raspy voice came out from behind her. She looked at him; he was bleary-eyed but awake.
Muffin immediately relented and dropped the shoe. She bent down, patted his head, and picked up the heel. She sat on the edge of the bed and began to struggle with the straps. She wished he was not there to see her. She could feel the eye makeup that had congealed in the corners of her eyes; she wanted nothing more in the world than a shower and another night to sleep off the way she felt right now.
“Ugh, I’m so hungover,” Mehran said. She hurried with the straps and got to her feet. She had to leave immediately; the energy between them felt uncomfortable in the light of day, such as it was.
“Can I get a cab outside?” she asked.
“Yeah, just walk left when you go out and wait on that corner,” he said, draping his arm over his eyes.
She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek because it seemed like the thing to do. She felt like she should say something more because right at that moment, she was reckoning with the fact that this awkward morning exchange could be their last.
“I’ll call you later,” he said. She nodded, not believing him. What a laugh, she thought as she went out the door, not taking care to close it quietly. Do men know any other way to end a conversation with a woman than to say that they’ll call? He was gay and still the platitude was instinctual; perhaps that’s what men say to men they won’t call as well. She waited in the painful daylight in her cocktail dress for a cab for fifteen minutes.