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.
Leigh was conscious of two things that day: that it had been two weeks since she’d seen Mehran and that there were only two Tuesdays left before the end of the summer. Whether consciously or not, she had always known that when the summer was over, so was her involvement with him. But really, it was already over and she knew this too. She had felt him slip away that morning. He had reached the depths of his own exploration, and she knew he was finished with her.
He had not called and because he had not called, she had not called. She could sense that he didn’t think about her anymore, and she was surprised to discover how much this hurt her. For a while, it had felt as though he needed her and she had acknowledged now how nice it felt to be needed and to feel that when they left each other’s company, she had helped him in some way.
It was hot but not humid and had been a nice day for August. Of all the days to have been truly uneventful, why this one? There had been nothing to distract her. Lulu even had to work through lunch and so she had eaten at her desk.
After work, she went to a movie at the Angelika. She found movies to be one of the least depressing activities that could be done alone, particularly on a weekday. She’d like to think that even if she had an endless stream of available friends with whom to go see movies, or a steady boyfriend with identical taste in film, that she would still once in a while go to the movies by herself just as a mark of her independence. She didn’t often dream about being married but when she did, she had a particular fantasy where she would wake up really early on a Sunday morning and crawl out of bed, kiss her still sleeping husband’s forehead, and go down to the café to eat a solitary breakfast with The New York Times. In her dream, she was at a café close to their apartment so the wait staff would recognize her and know she was married—that this was not a woman who was alone but one who chose to steal a couple of hours by herself. She imagined herself as one of the people she always saw at Café Deville, the ones who left before the raucous brunch crowd arrived.
As she walked home to the apartment, her thoughts alternated between this and other thoughts of an imaginary adulthood with children and gourmet cheeses in New York. She saw those slender moms with their yoga mats and their expensive strollers that resembled all-terrain vehicles. Could she ever be like that? But who on earth would she marry? For all the men she’d met in that city, who could ever emerge as a potential husband? It seemed impossible, wondrous.
She thought about the French film she’d just seen, in which an older woman is emotionally divided in her devotions to three different men. That frankly sounded exhausting. She picked up a bottle of wine at the liquor store near her where all the clerks looked like teenagers.
When she got to the apartment, it was 10:30 p.m. What was Mehran doing right now? Was he getting ready yet? What did he do with all of the hours when she did not see him? What did he do during all of the hours when it was not night? She supposed he was working; he had told her that he occasionally picked up shifts at a restaurant where his friend was the manager to earn a little extra cash. The thought of this had relieved her. His life had seemed so impractical before he’d told her that. As glamorous as they seemed, except for the small handful at the top of the industry, models were essentially the working poor.
She had intended to drink one glass of wine and put the rest of it away, but before she knew it, most of the bottle had disappeared.
She could go, she thought. She could just show up there alone like she had done before if she wanted to see him so badly. What would it matter how it went? She could walk away and never see a single one of those people ever again. That was freedom, she told herself, and she should relish it. She should seize the moment. She thought of calling Lulu, but somehow she knew she wouldn’t approve and the idea of taking Shaun somehow did not appeal to her either. I have to go alone, she thought.
She put on a bright blue tank dress and stared at herself in the mirror. What eye makeup she’d been wearing seemed to have melted away throughout the course of the day, so she reapplied a coat of eyeliner. She pulled her fingers through her hair, trying to access whether or not there was anything she could do about it. It had gotten longer over the summer, and some of it fell straight while the shorter pieces still had a wave to them. She pulled it back and wrapped it in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. That was better—still not good, but better.
She left the apartment at a quarter to midnight. When she arrived at The Valley, she went straight to the upper bar where she got a drink and leaned against the railing to watch the dance floor filling up. She felt pleasantly inconspicuous; there were other people who appeared to be alone. Granted, these people were men, and she wagered that most of them would not be leaving alone, as she most likely would be.
She saw him come in, and for a while, she watched him as she had the first time and tried to remember what it had felt like to see him as a stranger on the sidewalk. She wondered as she watched him how she could possibly feel the same vulnerability to this man as to any other man she had slept with, the situation being what it was. At the same time, she wondered how she could have possibly thought that she wouldn’t feel vulnerable. She knew in that instant where she had gone wrong. She had thought she couldn’t be hurt by someone she’d never really thought she could have. Impossible circumstances do not protect the heart; if anything they inflame it, and this had always been so.
He was dressed in tiny shorts and red sequined halter-top; he had forgone the eyeliner for a touch bright red lipstick. She had never seen him in something that resembled actual drag before, and it was unsettling. He didn’t exactly look feminine in these clothes, or at least not more feminine than he usually did, but rather like a gawky teenage boy dressed up for Halloween. She walked across the dance floor aiming right for him but appearing to be unaware of him, and when she collided with him, she feigned surprise.
“Mehran, I didn’t see you,” she said, feeling ridiculous even as the words came out of her mouth.
“Hi,” he said, leaning down to kiss her briefly, too briefly, on the lips.
Since they were on the dance floor, they started dancing, which felt unbearably awkward. After a few minutes, Leigh knew she had to get out of there and that if she had come here to say something, she had better just say it.
“Can we go outside for a minute?” she asked.
“What?” he said, his voice with a definite, excruciating note of annoyance in it.
“I’m leaving,” she said, “will you walk me out?”
“Sure,” he said and to her surprise, he took her hand. She did not see his friends but she was making an effort not to look too closely at the expressions of those around them, afraid she would see not contempt but triumph, as though it might be obvious to them that she had failed at whatever she had been trying to do.
“How have you been?” he asked distractedly, leaning against the brick wall outside the club.
“Good, busy. I’ll be really busy soon because fall is always better, for work you know?”
“Sure, sure,” she couldn’t seem to find a way to stand that didn’t feel awkward. She crossed her arms over her chest protectively.
“You look good,” he said. It wasn’t true; her hair was frizzing in the humidity and she could feel sheen of sweat developing on her forehead. There was a long silence that grew heavier by the second. He looked uncomfortable, and she realized that this was the first time he had seemed this way; he had often seemed detached, but now it seemed as though he was painfully aware of his circumstances and was wishing he was elsewhere.
“Why was it me?” she blurted out.
“What do you mean?” he asked, looking cornered and now for the first time, making full eye contact with her.
“I can’t stop thinking about you…I mean you and me or what happened with us…”
What she really wanted to ask him was if she had hurt him in some way, if she had in some way taken advantage of him. If she hadn’t, then why had he cut her out so abruptly?
He laced his fingers together over his head and stretched his long limbs; he sighed and looked out into the street. Raquel and another girl she didn’t recognize came tumbling out of the door, fumbling with a lighter and two cigarettes for several minutes before giggling and imploring the bouncer to help them light them. Raquel finally noticed Mehran and shrieked his name and said something she couldn’t understand, the girls collapsing into paroxysms of laughter. They were too far down the street to hear what they were saying.
“God, I really hate all of these people sometimes,” Mehran said.
“They’re your friends.”
“It would never have worked out,” he said with a sigh, his voice much softer now, “us.”
“I know that, I know,” she said too quickly. “It’s not that. I knew it couldn’t. I just, I guess I want to know. Well, what even happened? Why was it me?”
“I’ve told you,” he said, sounding weary, “I don’t know why. I just felt it. But I am gay, you have to understand. Look, I’ve been through a lot like with my ex and everything, I guess I just…I don’t really know where my head’s been at this summer.”
She pinched her eyes shut with frustration. He thought she was trying to talk him out of ending it. How had she ever become so hapless at communicating with people?
“Could we be friends?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, “yes.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it knowing that no friendship was possible or at least not very likely.
The other girl down the street called out his name again. He ignored them, but Leigh took it as a cue. She leaned in, craned her neck up to kiss him on the cheek.
She walked away down the street; there were no cabs in sight, and she walked for several minutes before one finally pulled around the corner and picked her up to deliver her home.
Once at home, she sat on the desk looking out the window. She cried, first almost silently and then at full throttle. She prayed that her kindly old neighbors wouldn’t hear her and then alternately wished they would come and comfort her, that anyone would. Suddenly she saw the light in the apartment across the street go on. The dancer never got home this late. She could see her through the living room window, bending over as though to straighten something. Her movements were quick and jerky like she was irritated by the mess someone else had left, although as far as Leigh knew, she lived alone. A moment later, she disappeared from sight only to reappear in the window of the bathroom. She had her hair down and it hung loosely around her shoulders; she was wearing a low-cut, black patterned top; it was the first time Leigh could recall seeing her in those kind of clothes. She stood motionless in front of the mirror looking into it intently. The bathroom window was directly in Leigh’s line of sight and if she happened to look over at the moment, she would have seen her. She knew this and it made her nervous but for some reason she also found herself hopeful that she might. Leigh didn’t know what she thought the dancer might do. Smile and wave her over, then hurry to put the teakettle on while she made her way over to the other side of the street? Without turning away from the mirror, the girl dragged a cotton ball across her eye and her heavy eye makeup was smeared down across her protruding cheekbone. She repeated this with the other eye and then washed her face slowly and thoroughly. Leigh had happened to look over before when she was washing her face and it looked much different than this, it was normally all one series of ordered, energetic motions. Tonight it seemed she was peeling off layers, as though perhaps she’d been wearing stage makeup. By the time she turned off the lights in her apartment, Leigh was ready to go to bed and no longer felt like crying.
The next day she had a slight hangover, not the truly satisfying kind that drapes a veil over one’s senses, making itself a distraction and requiring constant care. No, she simply had a headache and the feeling of having slept poorly along with the lingering shame of having done something foolish the night before—often the most potent part of any hangover. She looked forward to her lunchtime catharsis with Lulu.
She got a hamburger and fries for lunch. She was always starving when she was upset, which seemed very unfair because then she would inevitably be feeling overly full and still upset, which was a terrible combination. She wished she were one of those people who couldn’t touch food when she was sad. Lulu was like that. Actually, all kinds of things could make Lulu loose her appetite: stress, grief, being hungover, being in love (or so she claimed; Leigh had never seen her in anything resembling such a state). Only a virus, and even then only the right kind of virus, could make Leigh lose her will to eat.
Leigh set her tray down at their usual table next to Lulu who was distractedly trying to spear garbanzo beans with the tines of her plastic fork and generally doing more rearranging of her salad than eating it. She’d had it in her head for the last few days that the editor she worked for was planning to fire her. Thusly, she had barely eaten a thing and actually looked visibly thinner after only those few days.
“So tell me,” Lulu said, already knowing there was a story forthcoming from the emails the girls had exchanged that morning.
Leigh told her the story, leaving out the part where she’d cried alone in her apartment at the end. Lulu eventually abandoned her food altogether and leaned back with her arms crossed over her chest. Even though she had asked her for the distraction of the details of the previous evening, her attention had waned steadily through the retelling so that Leigh had become self-conscious half-way through and started summarizing.
“I’m more upset than I thought I’d be. It sounds weird, but I think I will miss him,” Leigh said. “I shouldn’t be upset, right?” she said with a desperate little laugh. “But it was really, truly awful,” she added.
“I do think you’re taking it a little hard,” Lulu said, not looking her in the eye.
Leigh stared at her until she looked up from her plate.
“I’m sorry, but Leigh, come on, you were messing around with a gay guy. Not just a gay guy but like the gayest of all gay guys! You couldn’t possibly have had any expectations—I thought that was the whole point!”
Now she felt foolish. “I didn’t have expectations,” she said meekly, “I guess it just got to me a little is all. I was caught off guard.”
“Look, I’m sorry you’re upset, but I just think you have to take it for what it was. He was experimenting.”
Where now were her lovely surrealist metaphors and her clever abstractions? I’m sorry you’re upset. Could there be a worse phrase with which to comfort someone?