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.
Thank you for your last letter. It’s nice to hear a little more about your family. I feel in our correspondence that I have talked about myself far too much, but of course, that is mostly your fault for having been such a perfect, caring audience. You, my dear, are a bit of a mystery, and I have a feeling that even if I saw you every day, you would remain so. I envy you this; I don’t suppose I’ve ever kept my mouth shut long enough to be mysterious. Even when I had made a habit of keeping dark secrets, I always felt like everyone knew what a fraud I was just by looking at me. But perhaps that’s just my rampant narcissism talking. So I wonder then if you’ve asked this fellow you mentioned directly what it is he wants. You never know, the answer could surprise you.
Just look at you and I, we have more in common than you would think to look at us, don’t we?
I do not know what it is like to have not known my parents, but I do know what it is like to be on this earth without them, though I have known it only for a very short time now. You see, the event that caused my world to collapse, or rather to shatter like a wine glass someone has caught with an errant elbow, was the death of my father. He died suddenly one night as though in a bad movie. It is difficult to talk about yet, but I had not been on good terms with him for some months, though I loved him deeply. It is hard to remember now why it was we had not been getting along; it’s so easy with family sometimes, a sideways glance, or an offhand comment, or just the simple fact that we see our own suspicion that we are inadequate reflected back to us in their eyes can cause a rift, and it’s easy to believe we have all the time in the world to repair the damage. Of course, this is the biggest fallacy of all.
A strange thing happened when I was leaving the hospital on that awful night. I knew I should call A; that was the protocol. But I found myself yearning for C in a way I had not yearned before. Perhaps it was only that C’s company was so uncomplicated, and I knew I could be held and soothed and comforted without being asked questions. Maybe I am unfair for thinking so, but I had an awful feeling that A would become instantly officious when she heard the news, would start asking me about arrangements and wracking her brain for the proper things to do—considering tasteful embossing options for funeral invitations, eloquent wording for an obituary. This quality in A, her organization and her attention to details, should not be derided; in fact, such people are often invaluable in a crisis because they bring order to the chaos. But it was not what I needed in that raw and terrible moment. I felt numb and scared, and somehow, these things embarrassed me, and I knew with C, I would not feel judged. I called C again and again, and when there was no answer, I went to C’s apartment and knocked pathetically at the door. C was nowhere to be found, but C’s roommate took me in to wait for C’s return. I did a horrible thing that night, a thing that made me a person I no longer recognized. I took refuge in the arms of C’s roommate, who casually seduced me simply by being present in my weakest moment.
So now, you know why it is I left New York.
I can hardly put into words how disgusted I was, and still am, by my actions. Not just because of the fact that I did something so terribly hurtful to C, a person who never deserved even an ounce of such cruelty, but because I have now seen the darkest corners of myself. I have witnessed my own depravity. That I craved what I craved at that moment and indulged it with the nearest possible source is an action I will never be able to erase.
All this time I had been living with all my various deceptions, but I was never caught; the sickening thing is, I was never ashamed of what I was doing. I felt entitled to have both A and C in my life for as long as the situation could be maintained. But to go completely outside of this doomed trinity for comfort, and comfort of the basest kind, was something I could not forgive myself for.
Leigh hadn’t seen Shaun in a couple of weeks when she called to say she would be staying in town for the weekend because her mother was planning a trip into the city. Shaun didn’t talk about her mother very often, but when she did, it was with a strange mix of disdain and something like reverence. She had been divorced several times and lived in what sounded, from Shaun’s description, like a vast sprawling house in affluent suburb near Morristown, New Jersey. She imagined her as a faded and regal older version of Shaun herself but had no evidence to support this; what she remembered of her from childhood had long since receded deep into her memory.
“Can you meet us for brunch on Sunday?” Shaun had asked. “I know she would love to see you; I can’t believe we’ve never all gotten together since you moved here. Let’s go to Pastis, I’m craving their egg white omelet.”
That Sunday there was a brief rain shower in the morning, and by noon when Leigh set off walking to meet Shaun, the air was perfect and clean despite the intense heat of the midday. Leigh was wearing a gauzy cotton dress that she loved and which really only felt appropriate to wear in the dead of summer. It was August now, and each day was as hot as the last, and the city was comforted only by the fact that the weeks of summer left on the calendar were numbered—though everyone knew the heat could easily last well into September.
Leigh was surprised to find that she felt a little nervous to meet Shaun’s mother. She so rarely saw people she had known at any other point in her life, and she felt a strange pressure to make a good impression, feeling that she would be judged on what her life had become. What it had become was something that could be made to look good from the outside. When she added things up in her head, it wasn’t all so bad. She had a job in one of the best companies in her chosen industry, and an apartment in the East Village, and she was on her way to meet one of her best friends for brunch at Pastis. Never mind that the job was awful, the apartment wasn’t hers, and Shaun was not exactly the most reliable of friends. Wouldn’t most people’s lives deflate a little if you started poking those kinds of holes in them? Things could be much worse, they had been much worse.
There weren’t many people out on the streets yet in the Meatpacking District. Devoid of the usual crowds, Leigh could appreciate the austere beauty of the place with its black steel doors and cobblestones and the wide, uneven streets that met each other at bizarre angles. Even the most devoted drunks and partygoers had made their way home hours ago, and people were not yet out for brunch in full force. There was mild activity in Pastis, mostly European tourists, a couple of whom were laughably over-dressed for the time of day. A handful of older people were sitting on the patio, alone with coffee and The New York Times Sunday edition. With its high ceiling and formally dressed wait staff, Pastis always felt a little too much like a movie set. It was New York being very aware of being New York. Shaun was sitting at a table by the window, blowing primly on a cappuccino. When she stood up to say hello, Leigh admired her sundress, thinking that she should always wear green. Shaun looked very pretty even when she went to no trouble at all, but Leigh could tell she had made an effort today. Her hair was curled and a fresh coat of lipstick had left remnants on her coffee cup. Leigh slid into the rattan chair opposite from Shaun’s.
“She’s not here yet,” Shaun said. “I just tried to call her but it didn’t go through, so I figure that she must be in the tunnel, in which case she’ll be here soon anyway. How are you?”
“I’m fine. It’s good to see you,” she said, catching eyes with the passing waiter and signaling that she would also like a cappuccino.
“I know. Truthfully, it’s really nice to be spending a weekend in the city for once. It gets to be kind of a drag going out East every weekend. All the people I hate are there too, which means I am guaranteed not to see any of them if I abstain. It’s really very refreshing.” Shaun was speaking rapidly; in Leigh’s experience, it wasn’t like her to be so alert in the morning.
“Did Brian stay too?” Leigh asked, regretting it when she saw the look on Shaun’s face twist into a scowl.
“No,” she said, “he insisted on going out there anyway. He has some clients he wanted to take to Polo or something. He said he would try to make it back to the city by early evening so that he could meet my mom. How do you like that? Try.”
“I’m sorry,” Leigh said, “I’m sure he’ll make it.”
The waiter reappeared with Leigh’s cappuccino. “Are you ready to order?”
“No,” Shaun said, “we’re waiting for a third.”
The waiter smiled through pursed lips and disappeared. The restaurant was filling up little by little, as people came in blinking from the sun-drenched street.
“You don’t mind do you?” Shaun asked.
“Waiting for your mom?” Leigh said. “Not at all, I’ve got nowhere to be.” Nowhere indeed. She dreaded being alone on Sunday. Sunday was a day in New York that was reserved for one’s closest company. It was not a day to go outside of your comfort zone, and lonely New Yorkers suffered from a unique condition Leigh liked to refer to as brunch-envy, because it is the feeling you have when you’re walking down the street past all the cafés and it seems like everyone else in the world is digging into brunch and mimosas. Brunch envy can strike even if you’ve just come from brunch. It’s an amorphous feeling of being left out, and city people know it best.
Shaun’s blackberry, which Leigh hadn’t noticed was sitting out on the table until then, buzzed. Shaun looked at it hurriedly.
“She’s going to be a few minutes late; she says order her a mimosa.”
They ordered three.
They drank theirs quickly and decided to go ahead and order some french fries and another round. The third place setting on the table was like an indictment with its lonely mimosa.
Shaun kept saying she was so sorry for her mother’s tardiness, which was strange coming from her, who was herself frequently and unapologetically late. How easy it is to identify even our own faults when we see them in someone else. She did seem to have relaxed a little by the time she got to the bottom of her second mimosa.
“Brian took someone else to the Hamptons,” she said, apropos of nothing. There was no detectable anger in her voice, only something else that sounded almost like boredom.
“What do you mean? How do you know?” Leigh asked, becoming momentarily distracted by a group of rowdy Italians in mirrored sunglasses who had just come crashing through the door.
“I just know,” she stared fixedly into the bottom of her empty champagne glass, at the orange juice pulp that had collected there. Shaun phone suddenly buzzed and shook on the table, startling them both.
Shaun’s face hardened into the cold righteous mask of someone who has just been let down in exactly the way they knew they would be. “She’s not coming. She said she called the restaurant and paid for our brunch. She is sorry. X.O.X.O,” she drew out the letters of her sign off in a long drawl.
Shaun stared past Leigh in the direction of the noisy Italians.
Leigh cleared her throat. “That’s too bad. I was really looking forward to meeting her. It was very nice of her to buy us brunch though.” Shaun said nothing but continued to look over Leigh’s shoulder as though she had not even spoken.
“Sorry, excuse me quickly,” Leigh went to the ladies room. When she came back, their food had arrived, and a few minutes later, so did a bottle of Dom Perignon Belle Époque champagne. Leigh felt her eyebrows rise involuntarily but said nothing as Shaun tasted and approved the champagne. She suddenly seemed preternaturally calm as though nothing at all out of the ordinary had just happened.
“Cheers,” she said, “to my mother.”
Leigh smiled a little tensely.
“Anyway, as I was saying. Brian is cheating on me,” Shaun said in a completely neutral tone of voice.
“Are you sure? With whom?” Leigh asked, setting her glass down and almost tipping it over simultaneously. Shaun nodded.
“There is this girl who does his suits at Zegna, stupid tiny little thing, really, like fucking miniscule,” Shaun made a gesture with her hands as though to demonstrate the girth of girls waist. “Now suddenly she’s hanging around all the time, and he says they’re friends. I mean come on!”
Leigh nodded, not knowing what to say since Shaun was probably right on the money, but this wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to acknowledge, especially since she had a feeling that Shaun would ultimately choose to ignore the indiscretion if there was one.
“Men’s high-end retail, classic gold digger day job, what other reason would a woman take a job like that?”
Leigh shrugged, “She appreciates the structural complexity of a good three-button jacket?” she said, trying to make light.
“My mother used to work in the men’s department at Bergdorf’s. She would never admit it, but she did.”
Shaun’s face twisted into an expression of consternation as she watched the waiter tip the last few drops into her glass. For a moment after the waiter walked away, Shaun stared down at her plate, joylessly pushing the avocado in her salad from one side of her plate to the other. Leigh suddenly wondered if she might be about to burst into tears and was overcome by the fear that if that happened, she would not know the first thing about how to comfort Shaun.
“My mom often reminded me that there would always be someone younger and prettier around the corner, which is a really weird thing to tell a fourteen year old when you think about it. She must have been bitter about having had a daughter, you know? Not that I was ever prettier than my mother, just younger.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked after a moment, “about Brian, I mean.”
Shaun shrugged and shook her head. “Probably nothing. I do love him. I know you think I don’t.”
“What? Shaun, I never said that.” It was true, however many times she’d thought it. She suddenly looked around at the tables closest to them, feeling as though she were somehow being set up.
“I know you didn’t. I guess I just feel like you think so, because he has money. But you know, he’s rich, but he’s not like rich rich.”
“Shaun,” Leigh said quietly, leaning in almost unconsciously, “I don’t judge you, whatever you do.”
“I know you don’t,” Shaun said and smiled sadly, “because you’re a good person. But it’s just that it makes it so much easier when they have some money. It’s scary to be without money. It just keeps the world a little away from you, you know?”
“That’s fair, Shaun. What’s that they say,” Leigh said, trying to lighten the mood, “it’s as easy to love a rich man as it is to love a poor man?”
“But that’s what I’m saying. It’s impossible to love a poor man once you’ve been with both.”
The waiter appeared at their table with two glasses of champagne, and they watched silently as he put them down on the table, waiting for an explanation.
He told them flatly that they were courtesy of the gentlemen in the corner. Leigh and Shaun craned their necks to see where he was looking. Leigh noticed that it had started to rain again, if only very lightly.
“Sir, there are many gentlemen in that corner,” Shaun said.
The waiter looked annoyed that he had to actually be so vulgar as to point, but he nonetheless gestured to a table of three very young looking men, one blond, one dark- haired, and one with dreadlocks. The blonde waved enthusiastically and his companions nearly collapsed in laughter and knocked him on the shoulder. Shaun blew them a kiss and a wave and turned back around.
“Thank you,” she said wryly, dismissing the waiter. Over the next few minutes, Leigh could see the boys conferring with each other and looking in their direction, until finally they dislodged themselves from their table and made their way over.
“Ladies,” said the dark-haired one, in a clear British accent, “We would hate to impose, but we were wondering if we might join you.”
Shaun nodded, “Of course,” she said sweetly, her voice raising a subtle octave.
“Brilliant,” the blonde said as he and the dark-haired one squeezed to the other side of the table, “I’m Sebastian,” he said. Leigh shook his hand; he has a boyish, almost pretty face with a slightly crooked smile. “That’s Alex and Lucien,” he said, gesturing to the beautiful black man who stood next to him. “We call him Lucy for short,” he said, laughing.
“It makes them feel better about themselves to make me sound like a pouf,” said Lucy, gracefully sliding in next to Shaun.
The boys were wealthy university students who had been friends since childhood. They were traveling around the world for the summer. They played off each other like a practiced comedy troupe, and Leigh luxuriated in the feeling of being preformed for. It was that simplest of pleasures for young women, watching young men try to impress them. She stole a cautious glace at Shaun and hoped she was similarly distracted by them. Outwardly, she seemed to have relaxed a little, but her eyes were still blazing in a way that made Leigh a little nervous for her.
Leigh found herself unable to take her eyes off Sebastian. He leaned forward on the table with both elbows and jiggled his knees as though he were ready to sprint away from the table at any moment. Alex was telling a story about him, and he was smiling and shrugging, shaking his head at the appropriate intervals.
“So this tosser is literally running down the street without his clothes on, that’s how badly he wanted to get away from this girl when they switched the lights on,” he said. Alex was very slender, even puny, and he seemed the most nervous, the most desperate to please.
“Alex,” Sebastian said, “what a perfectly horrible story to tell in front of these young ladies.”
“Quite right,” Lucy said.
“My apologies,” he said, placing his hand on Shaun’s arm and leaning in as though addressing only her, “if I have offended.”
“Oh please,” said Shaun, “if you men only heard the things we talked about when you’re not around. It would give you nightmares.”
They all laughed and begged her to tell them what she meant, but she demurred.
They continued on telling stories about Indonesia, France, Spain, and Brazil. It occurred to Leigh that they were the worst kind of travelers, the kind who visit a country to see what cheap amusement and exoticisms it can offer up, not to have their perspectives shifted, not even to, heaven forbid, learn anything about the countries themselves. Leigh suddenly felt very detached from the scene as though she were just an observer. This wasn’t far from the truth, as she was no longer participating very much in the conversation. It wasn’t as though the boys cared much. They seemed more interested in Shaun whether for the usual reasons or because she was the one choosing to engage with them. Leigh didn’t know and, for once, didn’t care. If they were making Shaun feel better, that was all that mattered. In being so circumspect about things, she managed to miss the tension between Shaun and Lucy.
The first time she really noticed anything was when Shaun got up from the table silently and went to the bathroom without looking back over her shoulder. Lucien didn’t say anything to her as she went but looked distinctly agitated for several minutes after she’d gone. Then he got up, and probably not as nonchalantly as Shaun would have liked, went in the same direction.
Leigh felt her cheeks burning with the implication. No, she thought, she wouldn’t. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. She felt an urge to say something to her two companions who, if they had noticed what had just happened, were being too discreet to say anything about it. She felt obliged not to bring attention to it for the sake of her friend’s honor. So Leigh went back to listening to Alex’s story about getting lost one morning after a night of clubbing in Ibiza. It seemed like a very long time until Shaun came out. She emerged first and alone, though it was a useless precaution at that point. Lucien came out a few minutes later and reentered the conversation as seamlessly as if he had never left it. Leigh’s head spun. The waiter set down a round of martinis, which they had switched to without Leigh’s noticing. Shaun’s glass was overly full and as she leaned down to sip a little off of the top, her hair fell forward off of her shoulder and revealed a small red welt on her neck, fresh with the tiny indentations where teeth had recently been.