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.
You have no idea how relieved I am to have gotten your last letter and know that you do not think I am the horrible creature that I most likely am. You are a compassionate woman, and I think, also a complicated one.
I’m aware that I have a tendency toward the melancholic and that I am absolutely the person who doesn’t want something half as badly when I have as when I’ve lost it. Maybe what I had with B has become something in my heart and memory that it never was in life. Maybe too many days together would have beaten that idealized love to death with the pettiness that is not only the natural but the inevitable result of domestic life. When we think of staying with someone we love, we envision days on end of small miracles of endearing passion, but really the days will just be days, full of all the same things days were full of before: meals and laundry and work and noisy neighbors. Maybe the only great loves are lost loves, and we are in a state most pure when we are filled with longing.
The only cure for this suffering I felt over B was the thrill of ricocheting in between A and C. And it was thrilling. You never anticipate how much of your time will be taken up with all of the logistics of a clandestine love affair. I really had very little time suddenly to think of B, and when I did, it seemed more of a relief than anything, an escape to a simpler time from my increasingly complicated life. B became more perfect in my mind because I had been a more perfect version of myself when I was with B.
Remarkably, the situation with A and C went on for some time. New York is made up of various interconnected circles, and it is always amazing when a secret inside this web actually stays a secret. To this day, C is a secret of mine; in fact, you are the only one I have ever told. If there had been whispers, I am sure I would have heard them as I kept company in those days with some of the city’s most vigilant and fearless gossips, people who could not keep a secret even from the person who was the subject. Perhaps in the wake of my leaving, the cat has been let out of the bag, but sometimes I think a secret that is kept for a certain amount of time will always be a secret, like it has learnt how to be a secret and now could never be anything else. But even if everyone in New York knows about C by now, I’m not even sure I care. In fact, it would give me an excellent reason to never go back.
C however, knew about A. C never actually seemed to mind, although this may have been a show. C was young, but we both knew the impossibility of a real relationship; C knew the inevitability of A. The truth is, for me and all the men I’ve grown up with, there may be B’s and C’s along the way, dreams of abandoning the life you know, fantasizing that you are not really stuck there, but in the end there is always an A. I know myriad other A’s waiting patiently for their men to come around. It is their right, they believe, to have their men come back around to them. So, annoyed though they may be by the B’s and C’s of the world, I’m guessing that they are not losing much collective sleep over them.
To say that this situation couldn’t last would be the understatement of the century, but as it so happened, it didn’t end the way I thought or feared or perhaps even hoped it might. I always thought it would just implode one day: someone would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the constant whisper of suspicion would suddenly develop into a roar, and it would all just end. The thought that I would end up with neither one of them started to seem like the most likely outcome. In some ways, it would have been a relief, so much so that some nights, always at parties at friends’ apartments or intimate dinner parties in the back rooms at restaurant, I would be almost overcome by the desire to scream out the truth. I felt my duplicity and shame throbbing under my skin like a wound tight beneath its scab. I couldn’t have ended either relationship on my own, though; I was addicted to both the comfort of A and the hyper-real intoxicating feeling of being with C. I had moments with both where I would feel detached from myself as though I were watching myself through a window. With A, it would be while she was getting ready for a big evening out, putting the finishing touches on her makeup, blinking and squinting at herself in the mirror, turning her head from one side to the other. She was this dark-haired, perfectly polished New York dream girl; thoroughbred beauties like her are part of the reason people come to that city. I would think to myself, how can I possibly be this man sitting on the sidelines without feeling like I am unbelievably lucky? We had known each other for such a long time and through so many momentous changes, we had earned the right to have what we had with all its complications.
With C, it was always the opposite of A in that it was the disrobing that I lived for—the gradual shedding of each individual piece of the artifice. I would think, I am so lucky to see this person as so few have or ever will, but at the end of the day, C was a hobby. Whatever it was C might have needed from me beyond lust, beyond admiration, I was not prepared to give.
You expect these feelings to boil over eventually, but it is surprising how long they can be kept in. And I kept them in until other events interceded.
I will speak of these in my next letter because at the moment it is me sitting here with my thoughts, and I am growing increasingly aware of the foreignness of the apartment I am living in. Not foreignness meaning of a different nation, but rather utter lack of hominess. My surroundings are estranged from me and I from them. I know consciously that these words will make their way to you, and that you will read them with your full attention, but as my pen hits the page, I see only the drivel of my own psyche reflected back at me, and not the empathetic recipient of the letters. If only you were here beside me in this room. I’ll revise that, I wish we were crouched over a table in a café here, maybe even the Chat Gris for old time’s sake, then we could be like conspirators. Until then, please write.
Leigh got the letter in the evening. There was a postcard from Barbara who had taken her children to a dude ranch in Eastern Washington, an electric bill, and this: one of the thin, waxy envelopes that had become so familiar to her. She savored the feeling of it between her fingertips for a moment before opening it. She sat in her usual place on the desk by the window to read it. As she read the last lines, she looked out the window and happened to see the dancer who was hurrying from in and out of the bathroom and smiling broadly. She looked like she was getting ready to go out. A. She looked like A. Somehow his description of A seemed to fit the girl perfectly. What if it was actually her? Of course it couldn’t be. Well, it could but it wouldn’t be. She lingered on the thought for a moment and found her voyeuristic interest in her neighbor reignited. But then she knew it was only a function of her wanting to feel closer to him.
I can empathize with what you said about feeling estranged from your surroundings. I have always felt that way in New York. Sometimes it’s a thrill, but other times it just feels like homesickness.
I was in the apartment I lived in before I met you for three years. It was never my apartment, my name was never even on the lease, but it had started to feel like home. It was the place I’d lived in the longest since the house I grew up in. The person who lived there with me was someone I considered a good friend at the time, but now I’m not sure he cared any more than the couch cared when I left.
The truth is that I have not made very many good friends since I’ve lived here. Somehow, I thought I would have so much in common with people here that I would make friends instantly and that they would be very long-lasting friendships. Neither one of those theories proved to be very solid. I don’t mean to say that I don’t have any close friends because I do, but I sort of imagined myself with this big interconnected social circle here. Life is not a sorority. That’s what my sister Barbara told me; can you believe the nerve of her? She lives with her husband, son, and black lab in a spilt-level in North Bend, Washington, by the way. She and I are still close in a sense. I mean, when you grow up in our situation you’re sort of forced to be, I guess. I miss how we were when we were kids, actually. Back then we were partners in crime: Leigh and Barbara contre mundo. Secretly, I know she’s mad at me for moving here.
I also imagined myself having all these interesting romantic entanglements but so far there haven’t been many— mostly just the most ordinary kinds of disappointments imaginable.
I wish we could speak in person too. You are such a good listener; I remember that about you. It’s very sad how rare that is these days. I don’t know about you, but I take it as a sure sign of the apocalypse when someone pulls out a blackberry during dinner. But maybe I can’t blame the device; maybe being a good listener was always rare.
Tuesday was the last day of July, and Leigh decided she would go to the Valley that night. She wore a tight black dress that hadn’t looked right when she’d tried it on a few weeks ago but somehow felt better now. As she looked at herself in the mirror, she wondered if she had actually somehow lost a bit of weight that summer. It seemed unlikely with all of the drinking she’d been doing, but she couldn’t help but think that she looked slimmer, and it put spring in her step. The night was hot but dry, and the waves in her hair looked less unruly than usual.
She text messaged back and forth with Mehran to see when he would be there and made sure to show up when he had already arrived so that she could go alone. She needed to see him again, and it needed to be without the buffer of her friends. His friends, of course, she could do nothing about, but she went that night prepared to face them. When the cab deposited her on the sidewalk, she stood and hesitated for a moment. She felt different than the other times. She wouldn’t have said she felt as though she belonged exactly, but there was a certain familiarity now. She went to the back of the small line, which moved quickly, and before she knew it, she was on the other side in the dense, bright crowd that seemed to swarm in certain spots. She took her time finding Mehran. She felt delightfully inconspicuous.
The group was on the top floor in the corner, assembled on the animal print couches.
When Mehran saw her, he got up from where he was sitting and kissed her hello. It was a small kiss; the kind couples exchange out of habit. Leigh didn’t mind admitting to herself how good it felt to be kissed like that by him. He was wearing white pants that she could have sworn she’d seen before, although whether they had been on him or over the back of a piece of furniture in his bedroom, she couldn’t recall. He had a transformative effect on clothes; whatever he wore was both an adornment and backdrop to his physical beauty but no matter how outrageous the garment, never in danger of overwhelming it.
He kept his arm close around her and she shared his drink. Michael, his best friend, and Raquel, the little pixie girl in lingerie, flanked them on either side. They both looked quite bored, as though it were not even worth the effort to scowl at Leigh. Perhaps the heat was getting to them as well.
“Babe, I’ll be right back,” Mehran said, standing up suddenly. Leigh nodded mutely, afraid to complain or offer to join him even though she’d have preferred not to have been abandoned with his friends. Part of her suspected that they might turn on her, smiling like a pack of hungry hyenas the minute he was out of sight. As it was, they went on ignoring her and stared at the drag queen in the cage who was gyrating feverishly in the tiniest pair of denim short and a rhinestone halter top. Leigh concentrated on looking bored as well and watched the drag queen. Suddenly, Michael lurched over Leigh’s lap and clutched Raquel’s knee in surprise. Leigh felt herself draw her elbows into her sides instinctively. One of the products Michael used in his hair had a strong smell to it, and Leigh recoiled infinitesimally as he leaned over her.
“Oooh girl, look, it’s Aaron!” he said, nodding his head over toward the top of the stairs. A tall, slender boy with close-cropped, jet-black hair had just materialized there. He looked to be about twenty. He was a different kind of good looking gay guy, Leigh thought, one who has no appeal for women, who somehow looks more like a eunuch than an androgynous beauty.
“Get out!” Raquel said, now also leaning across Leigh’s lap to get a better look. “Do you think Mehran saw him?” Leigh felt alarmed by the girl’s proximity.
“I hope not, or there is gonna be some shit! I knew it was just a matter of time before he came out from under his rock.”
“That bitch has some nerve after what he did!” Raquel exclaimed, leaning in further, now hissing in a loud whisper. Leigh’s eyes volleyed back and forth between the two of them. Who was this person? She didn’t have to wait long to find out; apparently, the thrill of dishing such a choice piece of gossip to a new audience was too good to make any difference who they were telling it to. Michael turned to Leigh and started to explain.
“He slept with Mehran’s boyfriend, that’s why they broke up,” he said.
“Well, that’s not the whole reason,” Raquel jumped in, “more like the last straw. Mehran and Aaron used to be roommates, they were like best friends too,” she said.
“You know that’s why he did it,” Michael said. “I think Aaron was, is in love with Mehran. He couldn’t have him, so he ruined his relationship instead.” Michael said this in a practiced way, it was obviously the much-dissected consensus of the group, and he was repeating it like a mantra.
“That’s terrible; what a horrible person,” Leigh said, shaking her head in earnest. She relished the moment; for once, they were all on the same side. They didn’t like Leigh but after all, they probably didn’t really hate her either.
“He went way too far. I mean who isn’t in love with Mehran? Nobody else goes and pulls some business like that,” Michael said, leaning back and shaking his head. Aaron had disappeared into the crowd that was pressing against the bar.
“Mehran’s too trusting,” Raquel said. “I worry about him.” Leigh ignored the pointed look she gave her when she said this last thing. None of them saw Mehran walk up.
“Hey guys,” he said. The three were caught unaware and looked up at him with surprise and even a little bit of shame.
“Okay,” he said, registering their collective look, “what’s going on?”
Michael stood and put his hand on his shoulder, leaning forward to whisper in his ear, “M, Aaron’s here; we just saw him.”
Mehran’s face drained of color. “What? No. Just…no.”
Michael shook his head and shrugged his shoulders helplessly. Mehran sat down next to Leigh and put his head in his hands. She wrapped an arm protectively around his waist. She wasn’t prepared for how excruciating it was to see him in pain.
“I cannot see him, I cannot,” he said, his voice muffled. Raquel leaned over and put her hand on his knee. They were all now bent over him as though over a grieving person.
“Darling, he knows where we are; he won’t come over here.”
“Why?” Mehran asked, pulling his hands away from his face, “why wouldn’t he come over here? You’re his friends too, remember?”
“Not anymore, we’re not,” she said emphatically, her thin eyebrows knitting with concern. Michael gave an “uh-huh” in agreement. Leigh admired their solidarity. They were clearly good friends to Mehran, and she was glad he had them. On some level, she knew that when she was gone, and she would be gone eventually, they would still be here.
Leigh was the first to see him approaching and grabbed Michael’s elbow to alert him. Aaron had a slither to his walk and a smirk on his handsome, angular face. Michael positioned himself protectively between him and Mehran.
“Michael!” he said, “how are you, gorgeous?” He spoke as if Mehran and the others were not there, as though he had just run into Michael by accident.
“Fine,” he said curtly. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I know, it’s been way too long!” Unbelievably, he sat down next to Michael. He continued to ignore Mehran.
“Well, you know I’ve been out in LA working with Jeremy Moon,” he said, addressing Michael’s look of incomprehension. “She hired me as her stylist; you know those furry boots that she was wearing all over Sundance that said CUNT on them? I totally made her wear those.”
Michael and Raquel looked unsteadily at Mehran, who was stoic as he stood up. He looked pointedly at Leigh, and she got to her feet. She smiled at his friends, who looked up helplessly, and she followed Mehran out of the strange mis-en-scene.
“What do you want to do?” she asked, scurrying a little to keep up with his long strides. He was pulling her along with him as though pulling a wagon, and she feared she’d trip and fall if she couldn’t make her steps keep up.
“Let’s go to your place.”
Back at her apartment, Leigh flicked on the light and sat down in the armchair to pry her boots off her aching feet. It felt oddly natural to have him in her apartment again. He sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward so that his head was almost between his knees.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” he said.
Leigh climbed onto the bed behind him, and with her legs encircling him, put her arms around his waist and leaned into his back.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I hate to see you so upset.”
“Do you ever just think that maybe if you want enough for someone to disappear that they will?” His voice was muffled, “I convinced myself that once he moved out, I might never have to see him again. God, how stupid.”
She pulled him tighter, as though if she got close enough to him, she might absorb some of his pain. She kissed the back of his neck.
He swiveled on the bed, his torso twisting to face her.
“I could love you,” he said.
“Oh Mehran…” she said, unable to continue looking him in the eye. You’re just upset, she wanted to say, but didn’t want to risk making everything worse by being condescending. There was something almost frightening about him in that moment, not because she feared he would lash out, but because of what she saw when she looked at him: a person who was on the edge of disintegrating. She had seen this sadness in him since she’d met him, but it had never been so exposed, so raw. She wondered if he wasn’t looking for a way out by being with her, a chance to change directions entirely.
“Do you want to talk about it? About what happened, I mean,” she asked, brushing his hair out of his face.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” he said emphatically. “What do you want me to say?” he asked, as though he had been accused of something and pulled back from her slightly. “That person we saw tonight, he ruined my life. I know you probably think I’m being dramatic about it, but he did.”
“Hey,” she said, lying down fully on the bed and pulling him down next to her, “I don’t think that. I think you handled it better that most people would have.”
He awkwardly pried his shoes off with his feet and let out a deep sigh. She was frustrated that she had nothing to offer him besides platitudes, but he had told her so little about his current circumstances that she found herself unable to offer much insight. She felt that she simultaneously knew him better than those around him and that she knew nothing about him at all.
“Let’s stop talking about this,” he said. For a moment, they both stared at the ceiling. She was holding his hand but otherwise they were barely touching. She could have stayed just like that with him. Let the world float away; fall asleep chastely, side-by-side like siblings. She climbed over him and switched off the light, double-checking that the door was locked, that they were safe.
When the light was off, he let out a deep sigh and pulled himself off the bed. Her eyes had not adjusted to the darkness of the room yet, and she could only barely make out his limbs as he pulled his clothes off. Little by little, his long, thin figure came into focus. He stood by the bed, hands at his sides; she could hear him breathing and see the miniscule rising and falling of his bare, narrow chest. She moved a little closer to the side of the bed where he had been lying a moment before; there was still an echo of warmth from his body heat. She swung her legs gingerly off the side of the bed and reached behind herself to pull back the covers. Suddenly he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet. She stumbled a little and let out a quiet gasp. He took her by the shoulders and turned her so that she was facing away from him. He pushed her hair over her shoulder and for a moment, held her by the back of the neck firmly with his long fingers, forcing her to tip her head forward slightly. After what felt like a long moment, her released his grip and unhooked the eye at the top of the zipper of her dress. With both hands, he unzipped her dress and pulled it away from her body; it felt heavy as he did so, like a carapace. As he lowered the dress to the floor, he moved with it until he was on his knees behind her. He pressed his cheek into the small of her back and she could feel his breath on the back of her hip. She felt a weakness in her legs and reached forward to steady herself on the bed inadvertently bending over as she did so.
We are not really going to do this, she thought.
He put his fingers inside her. “I want to know what it feels like,” he said.
He stood up and pressed her forward onto the bed so that his chest was against her back.
“You want to know…” she said unable to finish the sentence.
“Inside you, I want to know what it feels like.” She felt the tip of his erection prodding between her legs. In the dark, he had become someone else.
“Wait,” she said, “just wait.”
He stood again and she pulled herself away from him up onto the bed. She was on her knees with her arms around her middle.
“I just don’t think…I mean, I just don’t know if…” She felt her blood crashing through her veins, desire devouring her thoughts.
He lay down next to where she sat; the whole, glorious length of him stretched out beside her. He propped himself up with on elbow and leaned forward to touch her face. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark, and she could see his face faintly now.
“Please,” he said.
“Please,” he said again and pulled gently on her arm. “Please,” he said one last time, this time he was pulling her toward him, his eyes closed.
She gently eased one leg over him so that she was sitting on his belly. She put her palms flat on his chest and hesitated for a moment. She could. She was mere inches from what she wanted, and up from the pit of stomach came a fierce desire to take it. This is what people have always done, what they did before these labels. She felt the relief of him slipping inside her, and she pushed her hips back onto him. She could see his eyes and the mix of desire and apprehension that filled them, and she moved on top of him. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands as they made love, moving them from her neck to her breasts to her hips as though grappling for a hold. She tried to move off him, to change the position of their bodies, but he grabbed her hips hard to prevent her from doing do. “Please, stay like that. It feels good like that.” Afraid to upset the delicate equilibrium of the situation, she did as he asked and increased the speed of her movements. She felt the satisfying slap of their bodies against each other, and the messy human sound it made excited her.
After not so very long in this position, his body tensed underneath her and he made a sound as though someone had punched him in the stomach; then it was over. She collapsed next to him and instantly felt a wave of exhaustion wash over her. She could see the bright red numbers of her alarm clock blazing their way through the darkness, almost 6 a.m.; not quite time to leave but not enough time to sleep. How was it suddenly so much lighter in the room?
He was so quiet and his arm around her felt limp.
“I feel like you took my virginity,” he said, words heavy with the weight of being the first uttered after the act. Further still, there was some undercurrent there, just beneath the evenness of his sweet, strange voice. Was it, could it be, accusation?
“But, you’ve been with someone else before,” she said cautiously, aware of the hoarseness of her voice. She felt herself descend into a familiar abyss that she always found herself in after sex, when all the decisions have been made, cannot be reversed, and she suddenly felt alone with the aftermath. If whomever she was with did not say the right things in this moment, regret could ravage her.
“Still,” he said, and then nothing more.
“I’m starving,” he said suddenly, pulling himself out of bed and turning the light on. Leigh pulled the sheets around herself and watched him get dressed in horror. People do not actually do this, she thought; leap out of bed right after sex to go on to the next activity. For her part, she felt too exhausted to move.
“Do you want to get breakfast?” he asked, fastening his absurd, sparkly belt, all the while looking down at her without ever really making eye contact.
She didn’t. She wanted him to get back in bed; she wanted him to have never gotten out. “Sure,” she said, summoning all of her energy to her limbs to carry her from her sheets. She wanted to stay, but the only thing worse than going with him would have been to stay in bed and contemplate the fact that he had just left in haste. Panic had besieged her, and the only way to quell it was to get up and start moving. “I have to go to work in a little while anyway.”
She got dressed for work: an aggressively corporate, casual ensemble of a long denim skirt, flats, and button-down shirt. There couldn’t have been a stranger looking pair than they two, sitting in the Moonstruck Diner, the only place that was open nearby. The conversation flowed easily enough, but too it was strange to be with him in the daytime, and she found herself absurdly self-conscious to be eating in front of him. He showed no signs of similar discomfort as he happily devoured a cheeseburger. She kept wanting to reach out for his hand or touch his foot with hers but found she could not; suddenly the space around him felt inviolable.
What had she done?
They walked together to Union Square where they said goodbye with a quick kiss as the morning crowds swarmed around them. Leigh made her way to work in a daze. She didn’t know how or what to feel; she was too exhausted to form a clear thought.
When she met up with Lulu at lunch, she told her the whole story. Lulu seemed amused, but Leigh sensed an undercurrent of derision and wondered what that could be about? Most likely, she was misreading her friend’s reaction in her fragile state.
“Sounds like fun,” Lulu said. “Quite a conquest.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Leigh said, and Lulu said nothing in reply, only smiled an incredulous smile that said, “Wasn’t it?”
“I don’t think I’ll hear from him again,” Leigh said.
Lulu shrugged. “Summer is almost over anyway. Wasn’t the whole point just to have some fun?
Leigh looked away from her friend. That had been the point, she thought. Hadn’t it?