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 received the last correspondence from Asa that Thursday; it was on a postcard with a picture of the Sacre Coeur on the front. She was a little disappointed that he had only so much to say to her this time as could fit on a 3 by 5 card. She sat on the bottom steps by the mailboxes to read it, knowing that there was no point in waiting until she got to her room, no reason to shroud the moment in privacy.
The end of summer is almost here. As you may have suspected, the season was my designated time to mourn and to brood and to add up in two columns the happiness and sorrows of my life. Now I must make a decision. Do I stay here in Paris and forget about it all as best I can; get fat from brioche and sandwich de jambon? Or do I try to make amends with A and with C? And what of B? Shall I scour the world for B and confess to the torch I am carrying? In this age, are people ever lost to us forever? There must be a link somewhere, something that is traceable. Tell me what you think, what would your ending be?
He hadn’t used that before had he? She hurried up to the apartment and riffled through the desk drawer for his other letters. As she expected, all of them had signed off using yours, not love. Now, love. Yours, love. Your love.
And now he was asking her what she thought he should do? Come back, she thought. Come back to New York and be with me. Start over and forget the others. Even to articulate what she wanted in her mind felt bold.
The next day at work, she could think of nothing else but her next letter, which she surreptitiously began to write in her work notebook when she was safely certain that Tabitha was ensconced in her office.
There was something about his last letter, the brevity of it if nothing else, that made her feel that now was the time to tell him whatever it was she need to tell him.
Asa, she wrote. I feel like we’ve formed a real connection over these past few months. Gah. That was awful, she thought; she crossed it out. Asa, I feel as though I’ve come to know you through your letters. She began. Strangely, I feel I know you better than many of the people I see face to face every day. Better, she thought. I wonder sometimes if this isn’t the great dream of the Internet, that by communicating with only words before or outside of any other contact could make your connections with a person deeper, more substantial, and not so distracted by the superficial judgments that we cannot help but make when face to face with someone.
Her e-mail trilled several new messages. She glanced at her computer screen. One from the warehouse, a shipping confirmation. One from Tabitha, subject line: did you pull that file yet? She put her monitor on mute and went back to the task at hand.
I wonder what we might be to each other in the real world. I’d like to find out, and I wish you would come back to New York. It sounds as though you miss it and please know that you would have a friend here. She stopped and crossed that out: that you would have someone here if you did.
She stopped writing and pushed the notebook away with the tip of her finger. Better to let the idea marinate for a little while. She had a few days, she reasoned, before she really had to send a letter back.
Her mind was abuzz with possibilities and so the fresh humiliation left in Mehran’s wake faded ever so slightly. When Lulu emailed to ask her if she wanted to come see her in Harlem after she got off work that Friday, Leigh had all but forgotten her friend’s insensitivity and felt herself renewed and carefree as she told her that she would quite happily come to see her.
“I could do this,” she thought, “I could be the kind of woman who glides from one romantic entanglement to the next with barely a space in between.” This could be her; she could be remade this way. Mehran was an extraordinary footnote, but Asa could be a great love—someone with whom she had shared a slow, burning attraction that had then developed into a great passion.
All of those things he had not yet found in one person, those things he had spread out amongst his three loves could be possible with her. Let’s not call them loves, she thought, romantic preoccupations; those three other women in whom he had found bits and pieces of what he’d needed, she could replace them all. She could be those things for him. She knew already that he was what she needed, everything she needed, so long as he would make himself physically available. She had complete access to his soul but not his body. If she could have both to herself, she would need no one else. She felt an urgency to bring him to her. The memory which had sustained her, that of his skin, of the air around him while he slept, how he had seemed to be in all places in the room at once. She wanted to have it again and for all nights. Did she not have him already? Did he not tell her his secrets and let her into his life? Was this not the difficult part of conquering a man? Was not the sexual part the easy and obvious factor?
What if he was not attracted to her? But he had kissed her, that brief, sweet kiss, and pulled her into bed beside him, and held her while they fell asleep. Surely, he must not be exactly repulsed by her. She felt a hope bloom inside her that had not dared to exist there before, perhaps ever. It was not cautious, equivocal optimism that she felt, hope’s sorry stepchild. No, this was the real thing. This, she thought, was love.
As the streets went up in numbers, the crowd on the subway changed. Parents with enormous luxury strollers got off and students and loud aggressive kids got on headed toward Harlem or Columbia.
When Frank left the city and left Lulu with both halves of the rent, she had had to move here. Leigh got the feeling that whatever sense of adventure Lulu had once had in transitioning to this neighborhood had long since worn off, and the drudgery of the long commute was starting to get to her. She lived in one of the only neighborhoods Leigh had ever seen in New York that had true hills, and when she was walking through it, she imagined for moment that she was in some other place. These small excursions of the mind became necessary when she was as stir crazy as she was right now, having not left the city in months.
When she got off the train, she felt the humid air hit her skin and felt as though her skin might melt off her bones and fuse with the cotton of her dress. There were three stages of New York heat. There was pleasant stage where you could stop wearing a coat and eat on the sidewalk, the still bearable stage when you had to stop wearing pants, and the flat-out hellish stage where you could only wear sleeveless dresses and certain fabrics.
The giant swatches of shade in the park were probably not as cool as they looked, Leigh thought as she briefly considered crawling into one for a few minutes of relief on the long walk from the 1 train to Amsterdam Avenue. People were camped out on the sidewalk, sitting in packs on stoops, drinking beer and eyeing chicken legs and hot dogs that were sizzling on little portable grills. Little kids were running around, indefatigable, squirting each other with water guns and pelting each other with water balloons. Reggaeton vibrated through the hot air, pulsing through every body in its radius. This was another New York of her dreams: the cheerful urban ethnic dream that was exploited for Dr Pepper commercials; yet another New York that wasn’t hers. One of the impromptu cookouts took up so much of the sidewalk that she had no choice but to walk through it. She was instantly aware of how much of her flesh was on display for either praise or derision, but no one said anything. They looked at her as though she was stray cat coming through, not exactly a nuisance but not exactly welcome either.
By the time she got to Lulu’s doorstep, she was sweaty and parched. Inside, the building was a cool haven of dingy iron and marble. She made her way up the five flights of stairs, taking care not to trip on any of the cracks that covered the uneven surface. Lulu’s apartment was small and railroad style. She lived with one roommate who was not there that day. The bathroom was cramped, with a crooked tile floor, and the cabinets in the kitchen were the source of epic grime, but the main room was spacious and high-ceilinged. They had decorated it with hand-me-down furniture and a series of black-and-white photographs that her roommate had taken. It would have been a nice, minimalist aesthetic if it had not showcased quite so much of the grubby walls underneath. They had considered painting the walls, but neither of them was sure enough that they wanted to stay in the apartment to put in the effort. When Lulu answered the door, she looked withered. Her hair was hanging around her shoulders, and it was lank and frizzy from the moisture in the air.
“You want something to drink?” Lulu asked, disappearing into the kitchen, “I made some lemonade.”
“You made lemonade?” Leigh asked.
“Well, Crystal Light.”
She came back out with two tall glasses that were sweating with condensation.
“Here,” she said, handing one to Leigh.
“Thanks,” she said, taking a long sip of what tasted like lightly flavored water. Lulu seemed unusually subdued. They sat all the way at one end of the room next to the sputtering air conditioner, which managed to moderately cool down a tiny radius of space.
“So, look,” Lulu said, tucking her legs underneath herself, “I’m sorry about the other day. I was being a bitch. You wanted to talk about Mehran and I totally shut you down. I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately. Work isn’t going well, and usually work is kind of the one thing in the plus column, you know?”
“It’s really okay,” Leigh said.
“No, it’s not. You’re my best friend, and I should have listened. Besides, that’s a weirdly intense situation you’ve gotten yourself into. I don’t know how I would even begin to sort it out.”
Leigh smiled to herself. Did people even say “best friend” anymore? She knew she was glad someone considered her theirs, and now that she thought about it, she supposed that Lulu was hers. She certainly couldn’t say it about anyone else in her life.
“Well, thanks for the apology,” Leigh said, acknowledging silently to herself that she might have been holding it against her just a little.
“So, the party’s really over, huh?”
“Oh, it’s over,” she said. “Whatever it was. I mean, something like that can’t last. What am I going to do, fly him home and introduce him to Barbara, bring him to the Heighton House Holiday party?” They both laughed at the thought of this exotic creature at the yearly bash that was held in the private dining area next to the cafeteria. Leigh knew from the Pamelas that they used to hold it in the ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, back when publishing was a little more high-flying. Now there were half-hearted cheese plates and bad wine brought around on trays from the people who worked the cash registers in the cafeteria. And surprisingly, being mere feet away from their offices failed to keep most people from getting completely bombed.
“God,” Lulu said, getting up off the couch to mess with the knobs on the air conditioner. “Things are always so needlessly complicated in this city. It can never just be, you know: ‘I like you, you like me, let’s date and see if we can make each other happy.’ There’s always some ulterior motive, and they’re either modelizers, crazies, losers, or gay, apparently.”
Leigh chuckled, “And according to them, we’re all just gold-diggers, whores, or lunatics.”
“Ha, ha, right.” Lulu said, leaning against the windowsill. Her face looked tired and suddenly older than its twenty-seven years. She had changed even since Leigh had known her. She had always been brassy, but it seemed that the feelings underlying it were different a couple of years ago, that there was then a persistent hope and excitement about life here that used to shine through the cracks in her armor. She hadn’t given it much thought, wrapped up in her own dramas as she had been, but even in the last few months, the light in Lulu had started to dim a little. Perhaps it was just a phase, or perhaps it was something that would eventually reveal itself as real bitterness. Leigh hoped it was the former.
“I think,” Leigh said, stretching her legs out in front of her to air the clammy undersides of her legs, “that it’s always hard to tell what is what in this city. Maybe it’s just as hard for men.”
“I know that there must be some truth to that, but I find it so hard to believe. I mean, if they were really looking for good women, why would you and I still be single? And the city is full of girls like us, which, granted, doesn’t help either.”
Leigh noticed a crack that shot across the ceiling and at the end of it, a spot where the plaster had been damaged by water. It reminded her of her old apartment with Max. What an absurd thing to make her feel nostalgic, she thought.
“It’s like those guys you see walking down the street who are all tall and athletic and really good looking but not in a modely way. The ones who have messenger bags and read books on the subway and you think, that looks like a guy I could date, but you only ever see guys like that on the street, or on public transportation, or at Whole Foods, places you can’t really talk to them. I’m convinced they import them from somewhere in New Jersey or Connecticut just to mess with us.”
“You could talk to a guy at Whole Foods. You’re always hearing those stories, you know, I found true love in the frozen foods section.”
“Yeah, that’s people in the real world, not Manhattan. Besides, there’s something cougary about that tactic, so I should probably save it for after my next birthday.”
“Oh, stop,” Leigh said, catching Lulu smile as she looked away, “You are not going to be a cougar at twenty-eight.”
“Being a cougar is state of mind and ugh, don’t even say that number out loud, please. Seriously though, when did everyone get so much younger than us?”
“I don’t know,” Leigh said, thinking about Mehran. “We’re not in the most recent wave of transplants anymore. But those twenty-two year olds won’t be twenty-two forever either. That’s how it goes.”
“I can’t stand them though,” Lulu said, without warning pulling her cotton dress over her head and stretching out on the beat-up white leather couch in her underwear and tank top. “I think it’s because they remind me of myself too much, especially the ones at work with all of their big words and their liberal arts school philosophizing. Why do colleges allow everyone one of their students to go out into the world laboring under the illusion that they’re so unique and valuable?”
“Because their parents paid them a hundred grand to make their kid feel special?”
“Right? Talk about a disservice to the community. And don’t even get me started on the kids who are in college now, they’re even worse. Our intern this year is killing me. He’s from Yale, so he thinks the sun shines out his ass and he wants to, and I quote, ‘implement a new system’ with every menial fucking task I give him. I mean, it’s alphabetizing, A through Z, no new system necessary—that one’s been working the same way pretty much since they came up with the letters and decided what order they should go in. I’m just waiting for him to put something offensive on his Facebook page so I can get him fired.”
“Can you even get interns fired?”
“You can try.”
Leigh laughed, “You’re a hard woman, Lulu.”
“No, it’s true,” she replied, laughing also but with something sad suddenly having settled on her face. “It’s true. Think of yourself when you first moved here—how different are you now? I knew I would change,” she said lying back flat out and staring at the ceiling, “I just didn’t know that it would happen so fast.”
“And remember when people who’d been living here longer would try to tell you that. You know that whole Just wait and see when you’ve been a while routine?”
“Yeah,” Lulu smiled. And now here they were, just waiting with baited breath for that light to go out in someone else’s eyes.
The girls lolled around eating slices of the cantaloupe that Lulu had picked up from the fruit stand and trying to move as little as possible to stay cool for the rest of the afternoon. They put on a cable channel that was playing a bad romantic comedy and kept the sound low.
“Do you want to get married?” Lulu asked after the inevitable proposal scene.
Leigh laughed, “Um, to whom?”
“No, you know, like in general. Like can you see yourself all white dress, big cake, love, honor, and cherish?”
Leigh shrugged and put another piece of cantaloupe in her mouth, even though she was completely full already, just to feel the taste of it on her tongue. “I don’t know if I would do all that. Plus, I think all that fanfare would be kind of sad and would kind of highlight the lack of parents.”
“Jeez, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, God,” Leigh said waving her hand dismissively, “please don’t do that, I hate it when people do that. It’s sad, but like, I’ve had a while to get used to it, you know? I just think it would almost be morbid in a way.”
“What about Barbara? What was her wedding like?” Lulu shook her hair out and put it in a bun on the top of her head, securing the few renegade strands with a bobby pin that had until then gone unseen.
“Oh, she would never let something hold her back from the big wedding. She’s real close to his dad, so he walked her down the aisle. It was sweet of him, and I know it meant a lot to her, but to be honest, it kind of pissed me off.” Leigh stopped for a moment and stared at the spot where the ceiling met the wall, she could swear the plaster was sweating in the heat. Leigh remembered with uncomfortable clarity the vision of her sister coming down the aisle on the arm of this man who was not, and would never be Leigh’s family but was now officially the family of her only sister. She remembered feeling disgusted with herself for the pure, cold resentment that had traveled up her spine at that moment and which had never really left her.
“It was just like, ‘okay, I guess she’s yours now.’ It was weird. I mean she’s happy now, so whatever. But things aren’t the same with us.”
“You know what I can’t handle, though?” Lulu said. “The idea of changing my name. I mean, I never really felt like I was so attached to Richards until my sister changed her name, and then I imagined actually being Lulu something else and it just made me kind of panic. What the fuck, you know? You have your name until some man comes along to replace it? So like, half your given name is just a placeholder until you get married? Boo.”
“Yeah, anyway, I like my last name,” Leigh said. “Also, I hadn’t really given it much thought, but my dad’s only brother never had any kids, so I’m the last Spencer.”
“Well then, you have to keep it,” Lulu said. “You want a beer?”
“That would be phenomenal,” Leigh said.
“The thing is, it should be the reverse when you think about it,” Lulu’s voice diminished as she disappeared into the kitchen; Leigh craned her neck over the couch to be able to hear her. She came back out with a beer in each hand.
“What should be?” Leigh asked, taking the beer and hurting the tender flesh of her hand trying to twist the cap off before Lulu leaned over and popped the top off with a bottle opener. “Thanks,” she said.
“Well, kids should be named after their mothers. I mean, first of all there are far more single mothers out there than single fathers; I’m sure I could get you some numbers on that if you need them,” she said in a faux serious voice.
“That won’t be necessary.”
“So there’s that factor, and then I mean biologically speaking, you have the whole issue of mitochondrial DNA, which can only be traced through the mother’s blood line. That is a clear marker that God meant for us to be named after our mothers.”
“Ah, there’s a flaw in your logic there. You don’t believe in God,” Leigh said, straight-faced.
“I was speaking metaphorically. Anyway, there you go: two very strong arguments, one social and one biological, for naming children after their mothers. And what say the opposition?”
“How am I the opposition?”
“For argument’s sake. Give me a con.”
“Can’t think of a one. But people wouldn’t like it.”
“Jihad, that’s a valid reason. I say let’s start small. Girl children will be named after their mothers and boy children shall be named after their fathers. Trust me, one of my authors organizes all his different realms this way, and it works out nicely. He’s very progressive actually. And we don’t even have the issue of warlocks to contend with.”
“You’ve made an excellent case. I simply must concede. But back to the point.”
“Yes,” Lulu said, flopping down on the couch and sloshing some of her beer out of the bottle and onto her thigh in the process. “What was the point?”
“Do you ever want to get married?”
“I don’t know,” said Lulu thoughtfully. “I mean, my parents are really happy. Like, really happy. Not annoyingly happy, and it sounds cheesy, but they just have this great friendship underneath it all, you know? They’ve been married for thirty years now. So I look at that and I’m like, who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want one person who you just totally trust? One person who is your partner. But I wonder if that’s possible for me.”
“Oh, come on,” Leigh said.
“No, I mean it. I wonder if marriage isn’t kind of going out of style, you know on like a societal level. People are waiting longer and longer and then, once they do make this ‘holy vow,’ they break it off like they’re rescheduling a lunch date. It’s an awful lot of trouble to go to for all that, don’t you think?
“We’re taking this conversation to a bad place,” Leigh laughed.
“But it’s fascinating to think about. I mean, people can barely be bothered to properly date anymore. This idea we have of ‘marrying for love’ has been around like a hundred years if that. Before then, it was about property. Now that women can work, what’s the point? We’re the first generation of liberated women, maybe it ends with us.”
“Yikes. It’s just all about the patriarchy, huh?”
“I’m just saying, maybe your friend Shaun has the right idea.”
“Which idea would that be?”
“Marry for money. What other reason is there anymore? I’m kind of starting to respect that.”
“We,” Leigh said, chaffing at the introduction of Shaun into the conversation, “should just be mean old ladies together in Florida.”
“Oh God, can we?” Lulu said reaching out to clink the top of her beer bottle with Leigh’s. “We can just hire a bunch of hot boys to be our staff, since we will so obviously be filthy rich by that point.”
“From all those years in book publishing.”
“Exactly. And our staff will be chosen on looks alone since we’ll have each other to talk to. It will be payback for a lifetime of objectification.”
“Men will be the new women by then anyway,” said Leigh.
“Right,” Lulu laughed, “Wait, that’s offensive.”
When the sun had finally started to go down and the street was blanketed with shade, Leigh took off for home.
She had forgotten her iPod at home and so had only her own thoughts to echo in her head as she made the long walk back to the number 1 train. It was strange how opposite her two friends in New York were. And these were her only two friends in New York—there weren’t really any others. She had acquaintances, but acquaintances were meaningless, faces that you acknowledged because you saw them again and again, and it was more comfortable to acknowledge their presence than to ignore it. She remembered how extraordinary it had seemed when she’d first moved to New York that she could ever run into the same people over and over again, but she came to realize that it was a small city in the sense that people tended to go to the same places. They didn’t run around all over town going to a different restaurant or bar every night like permanent tourists; they found their groove and lived in it, walked certain blocks on certain days. Even people who were obsessed with the new and the now traveled in packs so they would go to a “new” place only to see the same faces.
She was conscious of having not told Lulu what she had been thinking about Asa. It was a pitfall of female friendship that there was a pressure to voice every feeling about every thing. This was her secret with herself as far as she was concerned; she wanted to savor it until it became something safe to take out into the world.