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 had not yet had a chance to finish the letter by that Thursday. Summer was almost over and she could feel it in the air. The sun was going down a little earlier than it had been—a certain harbinger of the change of season. It was always around the time that it seemed a season would never end that it did, and abruptly. Still, she had felt no real urgency to send the letter; she had thought she had time.
When Asa’s name came up on the tiny screen of her cell phone she felt a happy panic spreading through her chest. She had just been walking out through the lobby of the Heighton House building to get some lunch and she’d stopped in her tracks, pivoted, and sat down on one of the long wooden benches that lined the entrance way. The fact that the call came exactly at that moment seemed in and of itself a small miracle because her phone didn’t get any reception anywhere else in the building. She would have sat in her sad cubicle all day and had to face the afternoon wrath of Tabitha without being buoyed by the fresh memory of Asa’s voice.
“Hello?” she said.
“Leigh? It’s Asa. How are you?”
“Asa! Hi, how are you?” she said as if this were the first moment she had known who was calling, she tried her best not to let all the words run together Asahihowareyouareyoucallingfromnewyork?
“Only here for a few days. I’m afraid. What are you up to tonight? I’d love to see you while I’m here.”
They arranged to meet in Union Square at 7:30 p.m. Leigh told him she had to work later than she did to allow herself time to go home to shower and change before she met him. She couldn’t imagine seeing him in an outfit she had thrown on for an ordinary day at the office.
In her apartment, his apartment, their apartment, she felt overtaken by the excitement. She zoomed from one end of the apartment to the other doing what cleaning she could. She wondered if she should be embarrassed that she had no more furniture now than when he’d left her but after all, she hadn’t really needed any. She imagined herself back there with him later that evening, but this time she would not be so passive, lying there with him waiting for the hand of fate, or any hand that was not her own, to make the first move.
As she came down the stairs into the warm but surprisingly sweet smelling air, she allowed another fantasy to envelope her. She imagined them walking out of the building together in the morning, not specifically the next morning but rather a nameless morning, the morning of everyday, the morning of habit, of living together. As she walked down 10th Street, the tree-lined and perpetually sparkling block that she had come to think of as her favorite, a mist of hope clouded her thoughts. Why couldn’t he come back? Nothing was keeping him in Paris. He could come back here as though to a new city—right where he had left the old one.
Leigh made her way up the west side of Union Square Park, falling in line with the slow-moving crowd of people who were strolling along or glancing down at the tables of cheap wood and silver jewelry, paintings and prints set up in rows with ambivalent looking hippies, and West Africans looming behind them. Leigh stopped in front of a tall painting of Don Quixote, done in deep reds and oranges that seemed to melt off the canvas before her eyes. It wasn’t the first time she had seen this painting, but she always forgot about it until she found herself in front of it again. She had even considered buying it but never so seriously as to have asked about the price. A man with dreadlocks stood to one side of the painting; he looked at Leigh with a half-smile but said nothing, allowed her to gaze at the canvas undisturbed. She knew she was stalling, afraid that she would arrive before Asa and that this would somehow put her at a disadvantage. Partly she was just savoring this last moment of anticipation. She took her time walking through the small section of the farmer’s market that stood between her and Coffee Shop, lingering in the bustling crowds, half of whom were dressed as though coming directly from a yoga class. She feigned interest in the sprawl of produce lined up on the folding tables, leaning over to look into crates of eggplants and honeydew melons as though considering them for a meal later. As she reached the outer corner of the park, she surreptitiously scanned the crowded patio of Coffee Shop. Her heart leapt when she saw him sitting at one of the small silver tables, leaning back in a chair; he had sunglasses on, but she recognized him instantly. It occurred to her that his black mop of hair looked even a little more unruly than the last time she had seen him. He was reading some magazine half-heartedly and looking around occasionally. Looking for her, she realized with a tiny surge of delight. She stayed on the corner for just another moment, relishing the vision of him waiting for her.
She made her way onto the patio, squeezing awkwardly through the tables and chairs, garnering a few annoyed glances. “Leigh!” Asa said when she approached. He stood up, causing the table to shake and nearly fall over; he looked down and steadied it with both hands quickly before stepping away to kiss Leigh once on each cheek. She felt nervous in a way she had not expected, in a way that was new and raw. He looked so much the same as when she had first seen him that it took her breath away because it was as though he had been transported onto the sidewalk directly from the dark corner of her memory where she had been keeping him. He even wore a similar outfit: jeans and a white linen shirt that was rumpled despite the humidity. Again, he had missed a button, maybe even the same button as the last time. He had a slim, black messenger bag at his side; a lightweight, hooded coat was draped over it. He took his glasses off for a moment to look her over, and it made her acutely aware of the fact that she had dressed up for the occasion; she wondered if he would be able to tell.
“You look good,” he said, carefully sitting back down and placing his aviator glasses gently on the tabletop instead of putting them back on. She appreciated this, as it somehow seemed a gesture for her benefit, thinking he must have done so in order to let her see his eyes as they spoke. She noticed that the pads that kept his glasses in place had left little red ovals on either side of his nose, and this was wonderful because it made him seem so real.
He gestured for her to sit and she did. Her seat was only half covered by the shade from the awning and the left side of her body was already boiling in the hot sun.
“It’s so funny to be here,” he said. She asked a passing waiter for a diet coke, deciding on something non-alcoholic since Asa was drinking only sparkling water. Maybe later they would have something stronger she thought, hoped.
“So,” she said as though she had just this moment thought of it, “it turns out we know some of the same people in New York. I randomly mentioned your name to Gregory Stanton and some of his friends and they were all wondering about why you’d gone to Paris.” She grimaced inwardly, wondering if this opener had sounded canned, she realized she was talking very fast.
Asa’s face darkened, it seemed like the circles under his eyes got deeper. “How do you know Gregory Stanton?”
She couldn’t discern the tone of his voice; she tried to cover up her own indignation. Why wouldn’t she know him? Was she so far removed from the world of Gregory Stanton?
“Um, oh, through my friend Shaun,” she said.
“You know her?”
“Not exactly, but it’s fair to say we run in the same circles. I hate that expression by the way, but I can’t think of another at the moment. Anyway not to sound too cliquish, but she’s been awful to some of my good friends. The upshot, I guess, is that I don’t need to know her. You didn’t talk to them about me, did you?”
“No! I mean I mentioned I was subletting from you, that’s all.”
He nodded. Leigh was stunned to so suddenly be on the defensive. She should have known better than to assume this would be a welcome connection. You could tell Shaun was the kind of girl who had some enemies just by looking at her.
“How’d you ever get to know her anyway?”
His tone indicated something between disgust and boredom.
She considered the question. Normally, the story of how she and Shaun came back into contact with each other was one she relished telling, a story that made people shake their heads, isn’t life funny. Now she felt knocked off balance and feared that going into too much detail would lead to more unwelcome revelations.
“Through family friends,” she said finally. He said nothing but his face softened a little.
“She was sort of my first friend in New York,” she said. “Anyway, what a strange coincidence.”
He laughed for some unknown reason. She looked at him with confusion but he wasn’t paying attention, instead he was looking out at the bustling park. This was a problem with New York, Leigh thought, it was so difficult to sustain eye contact.
“Eh,” he said, “I have been thinking a lot lately about coincidences. People read too much into them, you know? You start convincing yourself that everything is a sign, an indication toward your destiny. But coincidences aren’t signs.” He sounded a little agitated for the first time in the conversation, and she knew he was no longer talking about Shaun.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way though. Coincidence becomes destiny for people who are passive enough to let their lives be dictated by chance.”
He continued for a while on this train of thought, along the way dropping in names of some philosophers she was too proud to admit she hadn’t heard of.
As the waiter cleared their drinks, to Leigh’s dismay, Asa looked at his watch and replaced his sunglasses on his face. “I still have some time,” he said to her relief, “let’s just walk for awhile. I miss days like this in New York, even though it’s so bloody hot.”
Asa and Leigh made a slow lap around the park, stopping to watch a group of lithe young men and women performing Capoeira, that mysterious Brazilian martial art that fused dancing and fighting. She mused that she had wished for this exact scenario when she’d seen couples in the park. She wished she could tell Asa this.
“I don’t know, the truth is I’ve had too much time to think this summer,” he said, digging his hands into his pockets. Leigh stood to the side of him and glanced over, trying to read his expression from behind his glasses.
“About everything. I get so depressed sometimes thinking about the world. Sometimes I think we’re living in this gilded age of tolerance and abundance, I mean in the Western world, obviously. That if we happen to make it to old age, we’ll look back and wonder why we didn’t enjoy it while it lasted, that we’ll know we had this paradise,” he gestured vaguely to the surrounding trees, “and destroyed it. Out of boredom.”
“And other times?”
“Other times, I think the world is already wretched and that we’re already too deep in the process of destroying everything that matters to reverse it. It gets to me, being a writer. I think, who will even care about books soon? Who cares about prose; doesn’t it take too long to get a point across? Or words even? Sort of ineffectual compared with images, aren’t they?”
She smiled, “It isn’t all that bad, now is it?”
He laughed, a little ruefully. “We just aren’t into complicated beauty anymore. Even you, you’re a beauty for a different time. People don’t appreciate looks like yours the way they would have fifty years ago”
She felt the rising panic of being unsure whether she had been insulted or complimented. “What are you saying exactly?”
“I didn’t mean that quite how it sounded. It’s just that it seems like the world doesn’t appreciate beauty that isn’t implanted and lipo-suctioned and bleached and waxed. Natural beauty is perceived of as being in need of an overhaul. Everyone is supposed to look like your friend Shaun.”
She suddenly found herself on the verge of tears. She craned her neck back like she was stretching it and closed her eyes. She blinked as though from the sun and felt the beginnings of teardrops melt back into her lids.
He reached down and plucked a flower from one of the beds as they passed by it, he tucked it behind her ear, “The flowers are blooming with the exultation of your spirit,” he whispered. “I could get arrested for that.”
“What did you just say?” she asked.
“I said I could get arrested for picking that flower for you; it’s contraband that you have behind your ear,” he smiled broadly.
“Ah, Rumi…one of my favorites. I love his stuff—all burning hearts and gardens of love, by Allah! My ex was really into yoga, always had books of it lying around.”
“That’s what I thought it was. God, that’s weird.”
She laughed, “No reason.” She couldn’t possibly tell him about Mehran, even now that it was over. It just wasn’t the kind of story you shared with men about whom she felt what she felt for Asa; among other things, she felt that it made her look foolish.
They wandered the park for another half hour or so. As they strolled the walkways lined with benches where people sat eating, reading or people watching, she imagined how they looked together. Perhaps they looked like a couple but even if not, then at very least, they were somehow leveled as equals in the eyes of the passerby. There was the similarity in age and obvious, if not romantic, involvement. She could see how much it looked like everything she thought she wanted. He was unattainable, though; she knew that now. He seemed suited for her, and yet she couldn’t have him; she had been able to convince herself in the months since she had seen him last that there was something between them, that it was only a matter of time until he came around to the idea of coming back to New York and making a fresh start with her. Now that they were walking together, the possibility of him seemed remote; you simply would not go from a woman like this Michelle person to a woman like her, she thought.
Asa talked about new writers he had discovered over the summer and his progress on his novel. He was reading Madame Bovary for the first time in French and digressed for a moment to discuss his admiration for Flaubert.
“Oh, my gosh, I completely forgot that I brought this for you,” He handed her a copy of a literary magazine called Mantel. “It’s not so obscure that you couldn’t find it in New York, but my agent sent me a bunch of copies, so I thought I’d just give you one.”
She nodded and took it from his hand. This exchange felt like the closing of the act. She knew that if there was anything she wanted to say or do, it would have to be now.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Of course,” he said, pulling a toothpick out of his pocket, removing the cellophane, and taking it in his teeth.
“The apartment,” she began, “it isn’t yours, is it?”
“What do you mean?” he said, stopping. “Of course it is.”
“What I mean is that you never lived there, did you? It was your father’s.”
He sighed a long sigh and put his hands in his pockets, chomping furiously at the toothpick.
“I didn’t want to freak you out or anything. It had just happened, and I was afraid that if we talked about it, I would cry in front of you and then where would we be?”
I would have put my arms around you, she wanted to say, I would have held you and comforted you. That’s what would have happened. I would have felt honored that you had trusted me with your grief.
Instead, she shrugged.
“I’m sorry if I mislead you.”
“No,” she said, “no, no, it’s okay. I just wanted to know. I’m sorry about your father,” she added.
“It’s okay,” he said, relaxing his shoulders, “I mean, it’s not okay but it is, you know?” He didn’t say anything else for a moment and they started walking again.
“It actually has a very interesting history, that apartment. You would appreciate this. Remember what I told you, about why I was going to Paris? Because my father always told me to return to the last place I was happy if I felt lost? He really believed that places…that things,” he had pulled his hands out of his pockets to gesture in the air for emphasis, “have a memory. The apartment was the first he rented with my mother when they moved to America. I know, can you imagine? It’s been refurbished and everything, probably a couple of times. Anyway, after she died, he became obsessed with buying the place, overpaid for the damn thing, but I always think he was more at peace once he was back there.”
Leigh smiled. To know that those four walls had contained the sadness and great loves that belonged to Asa’s past made her even more nostalgic for that first night. It made her sad to be standing there with him like that in a park; it made her lonely for him.
“Well, I had better get going. I’m going to just hop on the 6. Where are you off to?”
“Oh, um,” she said, hesitantly unable to face the banality of riding the train with him, surrounded by other people jostling them every which way, followed by a hurried goodbye when whichever one of them who reached their stop first got off the train, “it’s a nice afternoon and I’m in no hurry. I think I’ll stay, maybe sit and read for awhile.”
“D’accord cherie.” He kissed her once on each cheek. There was a levity in the way he said goodbye, a lightness in his tone and in his step as he walked away that made it feel as though he was saying good bye for only the afternoon and not an indefinite period. She stood in place and watched him walk away, receding in tiny increments until he reached the edge of the park and crossed the melee that took up the pavilion. Only then did she feel the urge to yell out after him.
It occurred to her that he seemed changed; the sadness she had seen in him when she first met him was still very much present, but it seemed to coexist now with a sort of energetic apathy as though he had been freed from expecting to be happy. And she felt nothing of the sort. A light had gone out. The possibility of him had charged her from the moment she met him; now somehow, with a few deft strokes, a casual kiss on the cheek, he had snuffed it out. She had taken his visit as a sign that he was coming for her, so how had it happened that she had released him?
She sat down on one of the only empty benches and stared at her feet, feeling overwhelmed by the sudden appearance and subsequent disappearance of Asa from her life in such a short space of time.