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 called Lulu but there was no answer. She didn’t leave a message but instead hung up and immediately dialed Shaun who agreed to meet her for a drink in an hour and a half.
By the time Leigh got to the bar, it was packed. She had never been there on a Thursday night and was surprised to see it this way since she was so used to having the place to herself. She weaved in between the sea of elbows and slid onto one of the only empty stools at the end of the bar to wait for Shaun, who would be late, of course. She ordered a glass of wine and pulled her phone out of her purse, depositing it on the bar. The crowd consisted mostly of striped shirts and several clutches of girls in tight, revealing tops and heels—the usual mix of people trying to make something happen. No one looked as though they belonged there somehow. When Leigh was somewhere near the bottom of her glass of wine, her phone buzzed with a message. She picked it up off the sticky countertop and flipped it open.
Hi sweetie, had to stay in with Brian, long story call you later xxx
Leigh felt a sigh come up almost involuntarily from the pit of her stomach. She hauled herself off the stool and prepared to ask for her check but when she glanced out the door, she saw that it had begun to pour rain. In the several feet of sidewalk she could see from the subterranean entrance, she saw feet scurrying back and forth, running for cover. She was never ready for rain in the summer—it never crossed her mind that it would happen. She had gotten stuck in a rainstorm the previous summer in a white linen dress and had had to endure a humiliating walk home, and she was in no mood to inflict the same fate on the dress she was wearing now. Anyway, she was already here, what was the point in going home? As she settled back onto her stool, she could feel how unaware the people around her were of her presence. Maybe they figured she wanted to be alone for a reason or was waiting for someone. Neither of these things was true; both of these things were true. Perhaps she was just naturally inconspicuous; it was not the first time it had occurred to her. All the more reason to have another glass of wine and another after that, she thought.
She could feel her face drooping in muted despair. She dared someone to try to talk to her now. She stared blankly at the people interacting all around her, guys bending down to talk into girls’ ears, the girls nodding and giggling in return; they were all so interchangeable it made her feel sick. At least I am not that, she thought, at least that’s one thing.
Suddenly a recognizable face broke the continuity of the anonymous blur. Mehran’s unmistakable features weaved quickly in and out of sight as he made his way hurriedly through the crowd from the back of the bar. Leigh stared down at her drink, her cheeks burning. She was afraid that by some chance he would look up and see her even though he was staring straight ahead and appeared upset. She glanced out of the corner of her eye and watched him make for the door; he was in such a rush that he almost tripped on the doorframe and for an awkward second fell against the huge, burly bouncer standing next to it. As Mehran steadied himself, Leigh saw to her surprise that the bouncer’s face was fraught with sympathy instead of irritation.
As the door slapped shut, Leigh saw for the first time that someone had been following him. A tall slender man with a hood pulled over his head hurried after Mehran, taking the stairs that lead back up to the street two at a time. Leigh followed, so much as if by instinct that she did not hear the protests of those she shoved by as she went. The rain was still pouring outside. There was almost no one on the street. Leigh looked to her right and halfway down the block, she saw Mehran standing in the rain with no umbrella, shaking his head furiously; denouncing, she imagined, the explanations of the person he was talking to, the person who had followed him out of the bar. She shrank back onto the steps to watch from an obscured vantage point nearer to the bottom of the stairs. She could not be caught watching him like this, it would be too awful, and yet she could not tear herself away from the scene. Who was he talking to?
The sound of the rain hitting the roofs and garbage cans and bicycles made so much noise that Leigh had no hope of hearing what the two were actually saying to each other. Abruptly Mehran started to walk away, turning back only to say one final thing after the other began to follow him. The hooded man stood for moment and together, he and Leigh watched Mehran walk away. The man turned back around and started heading in the direction of the bar; his head was hunched to his shoulders as though this might somehow keep him a little dryer. Leigh retreated a little further down the steps so that she only saw a glimpse of the man’s face as he half-walked, half-ran past the entrance of the bar and down the street. But it was enough. It was Asa.
She walked back out into the street and looked on helplessly as he walked away the opposite direction from the one Mehran had taken. Leigh felt a nearly irrepressible urge to scream. She realized that what she wanted more than anything at the moment, standing there feeling the rain soak through her dress, catch even on her eyelashes, was to scream and have him hear her, have him turn around and see her and know that she knew the truth.
“Miss,” she heard the bouncer’s voice from behind her, the tone anxious and elevated as though this were the third or forth time he had called out to her. The bouncer was standing there next to the bartender who had come outside because she’d thought Leigh was trying to leave them with the bill. Despite herself, she laughed first quietly then almost hysterically as she opened her wallet to discover that it was full of cash for once. She put two twenties in the bartender’s hand and walked away.
Leigh walked home. There were, as always in sudden rainstorms, no available cabs in sight. The walk was not long but long enough so that she was soaked right down to her undergarments by the time her building came into sight. The rain lightened to a drizzle just as she was turning the key in the lock. Of course, she thought.
Part of her almost expected one or the other of them to be waiting at the door; come from the painful emotional scene to the girl they’d chosen to comfort them, the girl who had nothing better to do than worry about their hearts and what shape they were in. Asa had deceived her. And Mehran, well, she supposed he was just confused.
As she made her way up the stairs, various scenes from the whole sorry affair played through her mind like a movie reel with the frames out of order. She flashed back to the night she first met Asa; how long ago it seemed, that warm June night at the sidewalk café. She stopped dead in her tracks. That was the night she’d seen Mehran for the first time; she’d thought he hadn’t seen her, but he had. He’d seen her with Asa. He knew that they knew each other. It must have looked like they were together. She grasped onto the handrail, reeling. She had to get into the apartment, had to get out of these clothes and wrap herself up in something warm and comforting.
The hallway outside her door was empty. They weren’t coming back for her: not now, not ever.
She got into the shower and rested her forearms on the warm tile, letting the steamy water wash over her. Was it revenge? Was that why? No, she thought. Whatever she thought of Mehran, he wasn’t devious. He was poor, cuckolded C from Asa’s story, she realized. Asa had used him as a distraction and then destroyed him. He could be forgiven for whatever he’d done in the aftermath. She tried to think of herself as a bystander. She returned in her mind to the moment she had first seen Mehran, the moment that, more importantly, he had first seen her. It would have been mere days since his world had come crashing down, since his friend had gone behind his back with the man he loved, and then suddenly there he was in the café with this girl.
She turned the water off slowly; for a moment, the steam stayed put in a soothing cloud around her. How had he found out, she suddenly wondered. Had Mehran caught them together? Or had he been spared that image? She felt a renewed sympathy for him but then again a flash of anger. What had he wanted with her? If it was to get information, wouldn’t he have pried a little more, and would he have stuck around so long? Gone so far as to sleep with her?
She put on a robe and sat on the bed with her knees curled up to her chest. Outside the rain had stopped entirely, but there were still drops falling from the branches of the trees outside her window, vivid in the light from the streetlamps. Suddenly her phone started buzzing widely from her purse where she had left it on the edge of the bed. The caller id said ‘unknown.’ Leigh’s heart pounded, could it be one of them?
“Hello?” she said.
“Leigh? Darling, it’s Aunt Chloe,” her voice was quiet but clear, as though she were speaking to her from the bottom of a well.
Leigh lay back with relief from the sound of her aunt’s voice. She struggled to remember where she was but couldn’t. The last time she’d spoken to her, she’d been in Brazil, but that was in March. In her last voicemail, she’d neglected to reveal her location.
“Where are you?” Leigh asked.
“In Majorca; only for a few more days though then back to Madrid. Listen, I want you to come visit; I’m going to have Raffa send you a plane ticket for late September. Do you think you can get off of work?”
“I think so,” Leigh said. Who was this generous Raffa? He was undoubtedly the antidote to the Brazilian. The idea of him sending her a ticket to Madrid might’ve sounded a little far-fetched, but if there was one thing Leigh knew about Chloe, it was that she never issued an invitation that she didn’t mean to be taken up on. “It would be great to see you,” Leigh said. “It’s been so long.”
“I know,” Chloe said, “I’m so sorry I have been a little out of touch. I had to pull myself back together after that whole mess with Juan, but we don’t need to talk about that mean old bastard. How are you my darling? How is New York?”
“It’s okay. I…” Leigh suddenly felt herself choking up. She realized in that moment how much she’s missed her kind, nonjudgmental aunt with her wild, sprawling worldview and her ability to transform a situation by offering a look at it through her eyes. Chloe had periods when she would disappear, it was true, when no one would hear from her for months. She knew she was selfish this way, she had always known, she said and this was why she’d never have children. But she loved Leigh more than anyone.
“My love, what’s wrong? What’s happened?” she asked.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Leigh said, the thought of recounting all of the details was exhausting.
“Let’s first try the beginning, when you met him.”
“Wait, when I met whom?” Leigh asked.
“Him! Whomever it is. Come on,” she said with an empathetic chuckle, “I of all people know what someone who is lovelorn sounds like. Come on, it’s on my dime, tell me everything.”
She took a deep breath and told Chloe about Asa, about their strange first night, about the letters, about his ex-lover in whose arms she ended up. Upon her aunt’s request, she went to get the letters from the drawer and read them aloud.
“Well, from the sound of those I don’t really blame you for getting the wrong idea, if it was in fact the wrong idea,” she said, sounding like Leigh’s story was the oldest in the book which perhaps it was.
“It was,” said Leigh. “Trust me.”
“Oh, sweetheart, don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that men’s motives are simpler than ours. Men and women are just so perfectly designed to make each other crazy, the one gender will always be mysterious to the other. Although from your story, perhaps men don’t have it any easier with each other, so I guess no one is safe.”
“I just feel like a fool,” Leigh said. She gazed across the street to the darkened windows of her beautiful neighbor. She realized she was longing for the light to come on, what a comfort it would be to see her, to see anyone at that moment.
“But darling, why? You did nothing to feel foolish about. You were misled. I wish I could tell you it will be the last time, but you will get past it, much faster than you realize.”
“Should I call him? Should I confront him? Asa, I mean. Should I tell him that I know about him and Mehran?”
Chloe let out a long sigh. “I can’t answer that for you, but I will tell you something I’ve learned about men over the years. Don’t ask them a question if you don’t think there is some chance you will get a straight answer, and definitely don’t ask them a question you know you don’t want to hear the answer to.”
Leigh thought about this for a long moment, so long that her aunt said her name to make sure she was still on the line.
“I’m here,” Leigh said. “Thank you, Aunt Chloe, for listening.”
“Any time at all,” Chloe said. “Look dove, I should get going, but I will call you next week. Find out if you can come to Madrid.”
“I will. Thanks for calling.”
“Ciao, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Leigh heard the other line click off and listened to the silence that ensued; it was like watching a brightly lit stage go dark.
She got slowly off the bed and changed into shorts and tank top. She began cleaning the apartment slowly and methodically and when everything was in its place, she sat down at the desk to write Asa a letter.
She crossed it out.
I feel compelled to tell you that I know about Mehran, that I know everything.
She stopped writing. Because? She thought. Why do I feel compelled? Because he needed to know that she knew, that he had not played her for a fool, that she was no one’s fool, neither his nor his former lovers. A surge of energy ran through her as a new and sparkling though went through her mind. She could pretend she had known all along, could pretend that she and Mehran had discovered it the first night they met. She could tell him that she read Mehran all of his letters and that they had mocked him for his grandeur and his self-importance.
But no, she realized, that’s not what would have happened at all. Mehran would have been heartbroken to read those letters—to have known how little he’d ever mattered to Asa.
She let the fanciful notion of revenge slip away as quickly as it had come. She pulled all of the letters out of the drawer and arranged them in a neat pile in the middle of the desk. Together they looked like something substantial; what a comfort it was, she thought, to have something like this at the end—something tangible and not simply words that had been said aloud, that were gone altogether except in the flimsy net of memory. She had a vision of burning them one by one in the sink, thought of how satisfying that might be to watch his words, these things he valued most of all, turn to ash before her eyes.
But no, she thought, and put them carefully back in the drawer.
The week before Labor Day, Shaun invited Leigh to come out to Bridgehampton with her and Brian for the long weekend. It was the invitation Leigh thought would never come and right up until the last moment, she was sure Shaun would cancel with a string of excuses and a flourish. But Shaun didn’t cancel, and early Friday morning Shaun came in Brian’s dark green Porsche to pick her up. Leigh felt pure glee as she jogged down her steps, taking the last two in a single stride. There was always a thrill in leaving the city; it felt a little like escaping a war zone, and to leave it in a car, this car, made it even better. Shaun was wearing a pristine pair of white shorts and a fitted black polo shirt; she had a pair of Chanel sunglasses that Leigh had not seen before; she looked every bit as if she belonged behind the wheel of this car.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said, extracting herself expertly from the front seat. She came around the front of the car and popped the trunk, helping Leigh to nestle her duffle bag inside it with her own pricey looking luggage. “I can’t believe Brian’s letting me take the car by myself. He’s been teaching me all summer, but still. Honestly I think he just didn’t want to drive it out himself.”
Leigh clumsily deposited herself in the front seat and they took off, roaring and jerking down the short streets. “Driving stick in the city sucks,” Shaun said. Leigh nodded as if she knew.
“So we might go to this Hamptons Magazine party tomorrow, but I’m not sure if Brian will want to so we’ll see. I’m taking a spin class in the morning that I can see if I can get you into, but I don’t know because they fill up really fast. The only thing I need to do today is get my Brazilian; do you need anything done?”
Leigh shook her head. She wasn’t the type to get bikini waxes, especially the extreme versions that Shaun went in for. Maybe this was just part of the bargain for girls like Shaun. Did men like Brian really expect this? They must, she guessed, or why would women be so vigilant about waxing every inch of their bodies that had the audacity to sprout a hair?
When they got as far as exit 70 on the Long Island Expressway, they pulled over at a gas station to get bottles of water and take the top down. They blared the stereo and sang along to songs they knew. The rest of the drive was enjoyable as only a drive in a convertible can be, even when they reached the bottleneck of traffic on highway 27.
They were picking up Brian at the East Hampton airport; he was taking a helicopter in from 34th Street Heliport. They were early so they parked the car and waited outside. The sky was a hazy gray, the air was warm, but there was a pleasant breeze blowing across the tarmac. Shaun and Leigh leaned over the short fence that separated the parking lot from the small airfield and watched men in sunglasses and headsets bustling in between the tiny seaplanes and magnificent Gulf Streams. For a moment, Leigh felt like they were children and felt a sudden pang for Barbara, for the sense of complicity one can only feel with a sibling.
“Got to go, darling. Wheels up in ten!” A woman in a long, colorful, flowing dress and flat, gold sandals brushed by them, a uniformed crew member following at her heels lugging pieces of that monogrammed luggage that looked so incredibly elegant in a set.
Shaun’s face lost its look of tranquility and set in a pinched glare. Leigh could literally see her face change shades from envy and she had to repress a smile. She could see that Shaun felt toward this woman what Leigh often felt toward Shaun; an amorphous envy, a bafflement at the lines that existed and who landed on either side and why. It made her wonder what the woman now boarding the private jet dreamed of. Maybe at some point aspiration turned back around on itself. Maybe she dreamed of subletting in the East Village. Maybe to her that seemed romantic, maybe she fantasized about being poor the way only the rich can imagine it. Or maybe she sat smugly in her jet and dreamed only of the cocktail that would be in her hand shortly after takeoff.
They hadn’t had to wait too long for the helicopter. Brian looked disheveled as he came across the tarmac; he was still in his suit, having come straight from the office. He said a brisk hello to them and Shaun handed over the keys. Leigh wedged herself in the tiny back seat.
“Glad you didn’t manage to fuck up the car, Shaun. Leigh be honest, did she stall every two miles on the way out here?”
“Nope,” Leigh said, “she was a total pro.”
“Told you,” said Shaun with a smug smile.
Leigh thought the beach house in Bridgehampton was beautiful, a shingled cottage tucked away amongst the luxurious behemoths of the South Fork. Off the main road, they went down a windy dirt driveway that twisted through a patch of bramble and delivered them in front of house as if by sheer luck.
The minute they arrived, Shaun launched into her litany of dislikes, certainly more for Brian’s benefit than for Leigh’s, perhaps in order to warn him to do better next summer.
“It would just be so much better if the pool were on the other side of the house, by the ocean. It just looks like an accident having it in the back like this.”
“The place is gorgeous,” Leigh said when they were out of the car and Shaun had gone on ahead with only her purse in tow. “It’s so nice of you to have me out.” Brian wasn’t listening; he was pulling the bags out of the trunk. Leigh shook her head and smiled, it didn’t matter, she told herself, he didn’t really matter.
Leigh was assigned a little room off the kitchen, overlooking the pool. She put her suitcase on the bed and started putting clothes away in drawers, even though they would be there for only a couple of days, she felt an urge to settle in. She opened the windows and took a deep breath of the fresh air. She felt the muscles in her shoulder blades slightly separate and relax. She quickly changed into her bikini.
The day was idyllic. The weather was a perfect 80 degrees, and the ocean water was warm enough to swim in. Brian watched her and Shaun as they laughed and dove into oncoming waves for almost an hour. When they returned to the house feeling salty and alive, Brian made the girls lunch, and they had beers and listened to Shaun’s relatively good-natured gossip about all of the people who had said they would drop by that day. Some came and left, but most stuck around and by six o’clock, the house was full of people and booze. Everyone conversed easily; people coming in from the city and complaining about never really being able to get away from New York, people discussing the events that night and their relative merits, most getting too drunk to drive and deciding to stay awhile. Leigh was happily included in these conversations; the subjects of which she feigned familiarity, even by those who she noted sourly had patently ignored her on more than one occasion in New York. She let it roll off her back for once and enjoyed herself.
Later, she went into the kitchen to search out a wedge of lime for her Corona. Shaun, who was still in her bikini, was mixing a pitcher of margaritas. Brian hovered over her, leaning into her with one hand on the counter and a thin smile on his face. Shaun looked angry or at least pouty.
“How can you call me a narcissist?” she said indignantly, “I’m always interested in what other people are doing.”
He let out an acidic laugh, “that’s because you’re a narcissist and a gossip, darling.”
“Oh, fuck you,” she said, her face breaking into a grin. “Mean old man. Hi, Leigh sweetie. Are you having a good time?”
She nodded her head enthusiastically.
“Good, I thought you would, I’m so glad that we could bring you.”
In the background someone squealed Hiiii Michelle—how are you, sweetie?!
“I’ll be out on the deck,” Leigh said.
There was a small clutch of people on the patio, a very thin girl in a Missioni bikini that didn’t really suit her was draped across the lap of a dark-haired, stocky man; they took no notice of Leigh. Just as she was coming out the door, she noticed someone crossing the flagstones that led from the deck to the beach. She watched him disappear over the rise of the dune and down the stairs. She followed at a cautious distance.
By the time she had reached the middle step of the old staircase, he was down by the water. One of the few clouds in the sky had crossed over the moon and he was barely visible on the dark, deserted beach. She sat down on the third step from the bottom and pulled her knees into her chest. It couldn’t actually be him, she thought. Just for this moment though, given the height and the dark hair and the white linen shirt, it could almost be him.
She wanted to yell his name or run down the beach and grasp his shoulder. But more than that, she wanted to stay right there and watch him for a moment to pretend it was Asa, that he was near her, that he would ever be again.
There was a slight breeze coming off the shore and she wondered, looking past him to the water, if the Atlantic would always look so foreign, or if some day, it would be the Pacific that felt unfamiliar to her. Perhaps after many more summers on Long Island. Perhaps not until she was an old woman.
Maybe because of the direction in which wind was coming off the ocean, the air seemed to swallow the noise from the beach house. The moment felt suspended. She took her eyes off him, gazing off into the long stretch of grass that ran along the back of the beach. She took a deep breath and hoped that it wasn’t simply the feeling of being away from all of the concrete and shadows and smells of New York that was making her feel as though things were taking a turn for the better.
She didn’t know then that after that night, she would never see either of them again. Asa would come back to New York a couple of times, but they missed each other; one time, she was back on the West Coast for the funeral of a family friend, and another time, they made plans to have dinner and he cancelled on her at the last minute, telling her he would explain the whole long story later, which he never did. The last time he would come back, it was to take care of the paperwork for the sale of the apartment on Stuyvesant Street, which she would have by then long since moved out of. The sublet was over at the end of September, and she and Lulu would move into a two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg.
Leigh would hear from someone much later that Asa had moved to Berlin and then a conflicting report that he’d moved to Prague; eventually it would be revealed that he’d moved first to the one place for a short time and then permanently to the other.
It would surprise her more that she never, in all the many years the two of them continued to live in the same city, ran into Mehran. She would still see his name from time to time in the Village Voice and could not resist doing the occasional Google search, which revealed pictures of him with constantly changing hairstyles and a predictably weird succession of outfits. She’d check out his website every once in a while, first from nostalgia then just from pure curiosity. It included more pictures, some stream-of-consciousness blog posts, and some song samples from his fledgling music career. There’d be nights when she’d go to events expecting to see him and instead, only spot some of his old friends. In these instances, she’d often have the feeling she was entering a room moments after he had left.
“Leigh!” Shaun’s voice broke through the wind, “what are you doing? Come back up here. The fireworks are going to…”
Her voice was drowned out by a large boom as the first enormous firework was launched into the sky and bloomed overhead, followed quickly by several more in complementary colors.
The man on the beach who wasn’t Asa looked back at her and smiled, she could see the fiery tip of a joint between his fingers; he held it out toward her as though proffering it. She smiled and shook her head.
She climbed to her feet and took one last long look down the beach. Shaun was waiting to walk back with her to the house.