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.
When the next letter from Asa arrived the following week, she was not at all surprised to see it. It was a Thursday for one, which Leigh had always felt to be her most auspicious day of the week, and the Q train, which got her to work twice as fast as the others on the line, pulled into the station just as she was stepping down onto the platform. Leigh knew she put too much stock in the train’s arrival, but she couldn’t help her superstition. If the Q train, for instance, was closing its doors just as she came down the stairs in the morning, and the next train that came was the local W, and there were no seats at all, she knew the day would rarely get better from there. Nothing bad or humiliating had happened at work, and a woman her age had told her on the street that she liked her dress. Each one of these things was a good omen, so she was not surprised when she opened her mailbox and in amongst the Pizza Hut coupons and catalogs was a piece of the thin, lightly waxed, blue stationary that she recognized immediately as his.
You said you were surprised in your last correspondence that I am not given to habitual letter writing. I suppose this is for the same reason that I do not, and have never, kept a journal. I think I am afraid that I would use up all of the words I have to use in things like letters and journals and not have any left over for my work. Does that sound arrogant? I suppose this is the arrogance of writers, that they think their words, their every thought and commentary is worth something—is valuable as art. All day people throw words around at each other, tell stories, and wax philosophical; it is only writers who expected to be reimbursed (I almost said rewarded, here, but I think reimbursed is more accurate since that’s what it feels like—something has been given over and something is expected back). I didn’t mean to say that I’d be wasting words on you, but I have decided to make copies of all of my letters to you in case I wish to cannibalize them later for material. I hope you don’t mind this. I’m not presuming you’ll be flattered by this, but I hope you are anyway (at least a little), that something in me is energized and inspired by having met you and by beginning this correspondence with you.
I feel like writing to you is writing back to New York itself, an old friend with whom my relationship has crumbled. Did that ever happen to you? Did you ever have someone, a friend, or lover, but more likely a friend with whom you once shared everything, and then one day, there is an inexplicable gulf? It is so painful, you realize suddenly that you love them now more than ever because you are looking at what you had from the outside and can see it so much more clearly than when it was right beside you.
At some point, there is too much water under the bridge, which means that you have no choice but to abandon the bridge or be swept away by the current. You will see when you have lived in New York for longer, as the days and years and decades go by, the city will become full of people you have hurt (even though you never meant to) and people who have hurt you as well. Every corner you turn will reveal an old acquaintance, a former co-worker, an ex lover, and you will wonder daily why you chose to live in a place where people are stacked on top of one another, where no one has the option of distance, and so few people ever really leave for good.
I predict you will stay; I could see in your eyes that you belong there. I remember your eyes quite clearly for having only met you once; they are the sorts of eyes a man could pour all of his secrets into.
Paris is hot and full of tourists, it is not the Paris of my memory, but then, I suppose no place ever is.
She felt flattered to be his confidant. Here he had not said a word to anyone in his circle all summer, and he had chosen her as his sole connection to New York. It occurred to her the first time that maybe she hadn’t been alone in what she’d felt for him. After all, it was no small wonder that he hadn’t come on to her, considering what he had just been through with the death of his father and the break-up of his engagement. But given time, given a summer, if he came back to New York, if she had then earned his trust…
This time she sat down to write him back immediately. The sooner he received her letter, the sooner she might receive another from him.
I hope this doesn’t make me sound completely unsentimental, but I can’t think of someone I feel quite that way about. Is it strange that what you described actually makes me a little jealous? The truth is, I think I’ve been close to only a very few people in my life, friends, boyfriends or otherwise. With the ones I have drifted away from, it just seemed so natural that I’m afraid to say I barely miss them.
What you said about missing a place, I can relate to. Sometimes I see the smallest little reminders of home in New York, like a gray squirrel or the bank of the East River. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but there’s a patch of sand just over by the ConEdison plant where there is a large piece of driftwood and some eroding pilings—it always reminds me of the waterfront at home. That statement is definitely going to make the Northwest sound far less impressive than it is, but there is something about the hardness of that little section of beach. But the thing that always really gets me is headlights in the rain; it reminds me of driving through the woods at night in the rain as a kid. These moments always surprise me because I never expected to miss home in such a visceral way. I guess the nice thing about New York is that I know I’ll never be alone with this feeling. Everyone misses somewhere, even if they’re like me and don’t think they miss it at all.
I am taking good care of the apartment.
She stopped writing for a moment; she was hoping to get him to address the mystery of the apartment but couldn’t bring herself to tell him how she’d found out. To bring other people inside their intimate conversation felt wrong. She wrote, It seems like the place has a good energy, so you must have had many good times in it. But that felt all wrong, disingenuous. She scratched out the words. She always wrote a first draft of her letters on a legal pad and then copied them as neatly as possible onto her stationary. Instead, she asked him a safer question, one that had been nagging at her.
Can I ask you something kind of silly? Why is it that you left so early that morning when you went to Paris? I just wish we’d been able to say goodbye to each other. Honestly, I was a little sad when I woke up and you were gone.
Hope things are working out in Paris; have you seen anyone that you know yet? Keep writing; I love your letters.
This last line felt bold: the brazen presence of the word love on the page. She sealed the letter and left it on the middle of the desk. She took it with her to work the next day, mailed it from there, and for days afterwards, felt a strange discomfort and anticipation whenever she thought of that small rectangle changing hands, being ferried from this bag to that bin until it reached him. Something she had touched with her hands, he would now touch with his, words that had been in her head would now echo in his ears in a remembered voice.
The next weekend, Leigh wandered the short distance from the apartment to Washington Square Park to read, which was what she always felt like she should do with uneventful Saturday afternoons. Here was another reason she fantasized about winter— no reason to go outside. She could have stayed inside, but it was worse inside than outside, and the heavy, dusty, summer sun coming through the window was suffocating her. In the few short blocks that it took her to get from her door to the park, she begin to regret the decision; the air was so humid that it felt like she was being layered with warm, wet gauze as she walked.
She settled into a bench a little way from the din that surrounded the fountain. There was an NYU student dressed a little too precisely like a homeless person playing a polished acoustic guitar. He was sitting just close enough to Leigh to irritate her, which is to say that she could hear him singing. She thought she could make out an older John Mayer tune; she wondered if he was being ironic. She couldn’t decide which would be worse.
A dappled dachshund sniffed at Leigh’s feet. She leaned down to stroke its head, and the dachshund wagged its funny, pin-straight tail enthusiastically.
“Sorry,” the pretty girl who was walking the dog said, “she just has to say hello to everyone.”
Leigh looked up and smiled at her; she had big, dark, heavily lashed eyes and a kind face. “It’s okay, what’s his name?”
“Oh, she’s a girl; Charley is her name, short for Charlotte.”
“Oh, well, she’s adorable,” Leigh said, pulling away.
“Thanks,” the girl said. “Okay Charley, ready to go to the dog run and see your friend, Dot?” the girl tugged on the leash. “Have a nice day,” she said to Leigh.
Leigh smiled and waved. She felt a sudden, heavy sadness descend on her. What if she never had a yard or a dog? Never had kids? She wanted children. Not right now, of course, but someday. She wasn’t quite sure when that had happened. All she knew was that she had once felt indifferent toward children and babies, and now when she looked directly at one, she felt something stir inside her, a shadow of longing. At first, she had been horrified by this, but she was getting used to it.
What if this was it? What if she never really stopped feeling the way she did now before she went to sleep at night? She felt herself besieged by the familiar feeling that all of her happy moments had been fleeing and would be fleeting. Every person she saw that day looked happier than she felt.
She pulled out the book she’d just bought. After a few pages of peering into the close-knit type, Leigh felt her eyelids drooping, the calming act of reading a book making her body and mind aware of how exhausted she was. She had been sleeping badly all that week, tossing and turning in the heat. She knew she should get an air conditioner, but there were barely six weeks left in the summer, and the thought of buying it and hauling it up all of those stairs exhausted her. Maybe she would do it the next time Lulu was around if she would be willing to help. She closed her eyes for a moment. The sun was warm but shrouded by cloud cover; a dull, blanketed glow covered the sky with no single point of light.
Leigh woke up with a start, aware only that she’d fallen asleep. Her book had fallen off her lap into the wide lip of her handbag, which was open but amazingly appeared unmolested. She was gripped with panic; the terror of realizing that she’d been exposed by being asleep and utterly unaware of her surrounding for those few minutes. Falling asleep in a park in New York was like falling asleep at the wheel of a car.
It felt too warm to take a nap, but she knew that was what she should do, so she collected herself resignedly and headed back to the apartment.
The walk up the stairs made her sweat; she knew the apartment would be even warmer. The heat wave had arrived in New York like a conquering army, and people in the streets had the glazed eyes of captives. She dug in her purse for her keys. Damn it, she thought, had she left them inside? She hadn’t yet considered what on earth she would do in case of such an eventuality.
Leigh was suddenly aware of another person on the landing. There was an older woman in a yellow cardigan standing in the corridor, she had keys in her hand and was looking at Leigh. There was only one other apartment on the floor and so far, Leigh hadn’t noticed any activity, had thought that maybe whomever had lived there had gone for the summer. The woman’s eyebrows were drawn in with brown pencil.
“Hi,” she said when the woman said nothing but simply continued to stare.
“Hello,” she said. “Are you the new tenant?” Her voice wary.
“Yes. Um, well, no not really, I mean I’m living here. I’m Asa’s cousin”; this was what they had agreed she would say if anyone asked since he wasn’t technically allowed to sublet. It had seemed like a very minor detail at the time; Leigh was certain no one would ask.
The woman’s face softened noticeably. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said.
“Yes, it was very sad,” she said, assuming she was talking about Asa’s father. She blanched at her own wooden tone of voice, realizing she did not sound at all like someone who was grieving. “We weren’t really that close,” she added, immediately wishing she hadn’t, knowing it only made things worse. The woman nodded. She still had made no move toward her door. Leigh still had her hand in her purse and continued to dig for her keys as subtly as she could.
“He was a very good neighbor,” the woman said. She was avoiding eye contact with her now, looking off in the direction of the stairwell. “My Stan used to play checkers with him from time to time. He always seemed a little lonely. That’s why they go first, because it’s harder for them without us.”
Leigh nodded in earnest though she hadn’t the slightest idea what the woman was talking about. She could only assume that she wasn’t talking about Asa but his father, her supposed uncle.
At last, Leigh felt the jagged edge of her keys against her fingertips. She extracted her key ring from her purse.
“It was nice to meet you,” Leigh said, trying to look as though she were suddenly in a hurry.
“Yes,” the woman said, turning to her own door and disappearing from the hallway. When Leigh was on the other side of the door, she felt her pulse slow down. Had she been acting suspiciously? What if the neighbor said something to someone? She knew she was being paranoid and also that she had wasted an opportunity to find out something more about him. If only she had been able to calmly linger in the hallway for a few more minutes, what might she have told her?
On Monday she met Lulu, who had just returned from a hastily planned trip home to Chicago, at a bar on Thompson Street called The Dove. It was a good place for drinking early in the week; on the weekend, it was like everywhere else, full of people with agendas, but on weekdays, it was a good place to talk or gaze into the bottom of your drink in solitude, if that was what you had in mind. The bar was partially underground and remained dark and cool even on unbearably hot days like this one had been. She sat on a stool waiting, trying not to stare at the bartender’s enormous tattoo, which started at her collarbone and disappeared somewhere below the neckline of her black tube top. On some more jolly and drunken occasion at this bar, Lulu and Leigh had asked the bartender her name and had, at least in their minds, befriended her. Leigh couldn’t remember what her name was now, so when she saw her, she simply greeted the busty redhead with an ambiguous familiarity. There were not many other people there, she was practically alone, so every time the door opened and someone came down from the street, she looked up to see if it was Lulu; each time a shaft of light shot into the darkness of the bar, an unwelcome reminder that it was still early evening. Four times in a row, someone who was not Lulu came through the door; then finally it was her. She had her hair pulled back and her cheeks were pink from the sun. Despite the heat, she was in jeans with a tank top that was a bit ill-fitting, as though it had been tugged on and stretched out; Leigh was surprised to see her looking so disheveled. Usually she came back from family visits looking totally refreshed and with a few choice pieces of clothing from a shopping excursion with her mother. She had met Lulu’s parents once the previous fall when they had come into town for a visit. They had taken her and Lulu out to Il Cantinori. Lulu’s mother had been delightful, pretty, and just a little bit fat in a way that looks good on older women. She’d chastised herself light heartedly for ordering pasta and dessert. Her father was tall and strapping and told slightly racy jokes that you could tell he considered very scandalous.
“Hi,” Leigh said, sliding down off her stool and feeling the backs of her thighs come unglued from the leather.
“Hey,” Lulu said, hands her pockets, and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.
“How was your trip?”
“Good,” she said. From her tone, Leigh knew it hadn’t been. Lulu’s entire frame was slumped over.
“What can I getcha?” the bartender asked, leaning forward over the bar and revealing several more millimeters of the tattoo. Lulu showed no sign of recognizing the bartender from the time before.
“Pinot Grigio. Actually no, sorry. Jack on the rocks.”
“Wow,” Leigh said.
“Yeah, well…” Lulu let the thought trail off.
“Everything okay?” she asked softly. Lulu was staring into the mirror behind the bar, as though keeping an eye on something that was taking place behind her.
“Not really.” She said, taking a sip of the drink that the bartender had already put down in front of her—perhaps knowing the look of someone who needed a drink when she saw one.
“This is the first time,” Lulu continued, “I’ve ever come back to New York and wished I hadn’t.”
“That sounds serious,” Leigh said. “What does that mean exactly?”
She didn’t answer for a long moment. Freckles had sprouted all across the bridge of her nose; her skin was a luminous contrast to her eyes, which looked lifeless and glazed.
“My sister is engaged.”
“Is that bad news?”
“My little sister.”
Lulu was the middle child of three sisters. From what Leigh could gather, both Lulu’s sisters were the kind of athletic, boisterous young women who one couldn’t help but to envy. The older one called often, and Leigh got the feeling she kept close tabs on Lulu, maybe on the youngest as well. Lulu would speak to her while Leigh was there sometimes, answering her question in an affectionately exasperated tone. Leigh was surprised by how upset she seemed. Lulu wasn’t the kind of girl who found news of another girl’s engagement depressing. Baffling, maybe, but not depressing. Leigh told her as much.
“It’s not that I’m not happy for her, but she’s twenty-four! The point is that’s normal in Chicago. If I were in Chicago, I’d probably be married by now.”
“Would you want to be married right now?” Leigh moved her wine glass in circles almost unconsciously, expanding the ring of condensation that had formed around the base. They normally spoke of marriage as a far-off destination, a place that had nothing to do with their current course; but not something to be actively sought out.
Lulu finished her drink and stared the bartender down until she produced a second.
“That’s not the point. Everyone acts like it’s so normal here to be single forever. We convince ourselves that people in other places are backward and that they only get married because they’re bored and not fabulous enough to maintain a constant stream of dates. But it’s just not true, and it’s made love impossible here.”
“Now you’re being melodramatic,” Leigh said with a small, uncomfortable laugh. Normally she could get into this sort of theory wholeheartedly, but she wanted to be allowed to think that something was possible with Asa, even maybe with Mehran. She knew the latter was especially unlikely, but she wanted the thrill of possibility, she had not felt it for so long. The bartender was off to one side, polishing a glass absentmindedly, and appeared not to be listening to their conversation. Leigh was self-conscious that she might overhear them even though she knew this was silly.
“Am I? Tell me one person you know who’s in love. And don’t you dare say your weird friend, Shaun; I’m not in the mood.”
The bartender refilled Leigh’s glass without her having to ask for another. She knew where Lulu was coming from. She had gone on her share of dates, and her collected experiences had done nothing so much as reinforce the fact that the world was full of forgettable men and mediocre tiramisu. She had wondered before if there weren’t certain conditions that had precluded the existence of true love in New York, but Leigh suspected something deeper and more widespread was going on. She had her theories about the factors that had brought it on, not least the proliferation of devices that had made it so easy and so instantaneous for people to get in touch, that they had lost all aptitude for real communication, had lost the ability to speak to one another without the buffer of electronics. Perhaps love was a thing of the past, tied to antiquated notions of order, of family and property, and as with everything New York, was just ahead of the curve. But Asa had come and blown a hole in all of this. If men like him could still exist, then maybe she’d been wrong about all of it. She sensed that now was not the time to share this theory with Lulu, and the thought of taking their conversation to this place exhausted her.
“We’re not going to get anywhere with this conversation,” she said finally.
“You know I have a point,” Lulu said, arching her back and tugging at the waistband of her jeans as though to readjust them.
‘Maybe, but what can we do about it?”
“You don’t mean that,” Leigh said shaking her head, not even wanting to acknowledge the comment. What would she do here without Lulu? “You love New York.”
“I do,” Lulu said nodding sadly, “New York has everything I want. I’m just not sure it’s ever going to give it to me.”
Leigh sighed and looked down at the bar. She couldn’t really disagree with that.
“God, let’s stop talking about it. What’s been up with you? I feel like I was gone forever; you must have some good stories.”
“I saw that boy again, from the club.”
“Yes, the gay. Who says that by the way?”
“My grandmother—which is better than my grandfather who calls them fruits. Anyway, tell me!”
“We went home together.”
Lulu reached out and clutched her arm. “What? You slept with him?”
“No, not really,” Leigh could feel color coming to her cheeks.
“What do you mean not really?” she said, settling back onto her stool.
“I spent the night there but no sex. It was a strange night. I mean, why me? I just don’t get it,” Leigh said, turning her legs to face Lulu. She lowered her voice and leaned in a little as though telling a secret, and she could feel herself smiling as she talked.
“Oh I do,” Lulu said earnestly. “It’s like totally postmodern.”
Leigh gave her a withering look.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, postmodern like…”
“I know what postmodern means, or rather that it means nothing, even less so in this context. What I meant was what are you talking about?”
“All right, maybe not postmodern, maybe more like surrealist. Don’t give me that look!”
Lulu had the bright, somewhat childlike expression on her face that she got when she was about to explain something.
“The surrealists, their whole aesthetic was like, take something out of context and it becomes beautiful. ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’ Andre Breton. That’s what this is like.”
“Not sure I follow you here…” Leigh said. She was more than willing to egg her friend on and was happy to see that her mood had brightened with the change in topic. Four people Leigh had not previously noticed in the bar left quietly; she watched them out of the corner of her eye.
“Stay with me. It’s like, say you went to a rose garden, and there’s this really beautiful rose, big fucking deal, right? Like, you’re in a rose garden. But say that same rose sprouts up next to a dumpster on Delancy Street, or even a really ordinary rose, suddenly it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”
Leigh let out a beleaguered sigh. “I’m the ordinary rose next to the dumpster?”
“Yes!” Lulu said, “I mean no. Leigh, it’s a metaphor! I’m just saying that I get it: he’s attracted to you because you’re out of his usual context, and it’s shocking, even, for him to be with you. That has to be part of the appeal, you know?”
“I guess,” Leigh said, shaking her head.
“Anyway, that’s one theory, but really why try to figure it out? That’ll just kill it.”
“Nothing to kill,” she said, staring into her wine glass and running her finger along the rim.
“Is everything okay?” Lulu asked.
“It’s just been such a strange summer. To tell you the truth, I keep thinking about Asa. I’ve been getting these letters from him.”
“Letters like snail mail? Like on stationary and shit, with a wax seal?”
She laughed, “No wax seal, but you get the idea. It is strange, but he’s a little strange I think. In the good way, but still.”
“Fuck me, that actually sounds really cool…to be getting letters from some gorgeous guy in a faraway land. The last time I got a letter, it was from my Korean pen pal in eighth grade. God, it was such a thing back then to talk to someone in another country. Kids now just Gchat with kids in India for help with their math homework. The world must seem so much smaller to them. Did you ever have a pen-pal?”
Leigh shook her head. “This is first time I’ve really had a written correspondence with someone.”
“Hot. Very Love in the Time of Cholera.”
“They’re not love letters.”
“Every letter is a love letter.”
“How so?” Leigh could feel her bun coming loose, so she took out her hair band, shook out her hair, and wound it neatly back into a knot at the nape of her neck.
“Well, maybe not business correspondence, although those aren’t so much handwritten most of the time. For someone to take the time and sit alone and think of what they would say to you if you were there with them? It almost has to come from the heart. I mean think about it: e-mail is nearly obsolete; everyone is all ‘text’ this and ‘message’ that. Everyone ‘chats.’ I’m just saying that this is a special thing you’ve got going on here. You’ll be able to tell your grandkids, or laser-telepath it to your grandkids, or whatever the fuck people are using to communicate by then. I’m saying, keep those letters. Besides, maybe it’s the beginning of a great love affair. You never know…”
“Careful,” Leigh said, “you’re starting to sound almost optimistic.”
There was a couple by the window cuddling with each other, and the girl suddenly let out a peal of laughter. The whole tableau seemed somehow like a direct affront to the two of them.
“Ha,” Lulu said aloud and not very quietly, “as beautiful as the chance meeting of two drunk NYU students on a Monday evening.”
Leigh gave an appreciative laugh. They both savored the feeling of being able to mock happy people.
“Do you ever think about Frank?”
Lulu groaned and put her forehead in her hands.
“He has a new girlfriend.”
Leigh cringed. “Oh, no.”
“No, I mean, I don’t wish him ill. I’m glad he’s happy, it’s just that I wish I didn’t have to know that he still exists, you know?”
“I can understand that.”
“That time I spent here with him is still dear to me. I’d gotten to the point where I could walk by our old brunch place and smile a little. Now I have to think about him with someone else. So, you know, he wins.”
“It’s not a competition, and if it was, don’t you win? After all, you broke things off.”
“Not in the strictest sense. I just refused to do what he wanted me to do, and he left without me.”
She nodded. She couldn’t really fathom Lulu’s former boyfriend. She had always imagined that the kind of man who could be with her friend would have to be smart, patient, and strong willed. Frank, from what Lulu had said of him, seemed to have been none of these things. He sounded stubborn, self-centered, and aimless, the exact opposite of the kind of man she could see Lulu with.
“Would you still be with him if he’d stayed?”
Lulu smiled, “I don’t know. I suspect not, but who can say? It’s sort of a trick question; if he’d stayed, it would have been because he was either the kind of man who would want to live in New York or the kind of man who would stay somewhere he didn’t want to be because the woman he loved was there. Instead, he moved and found a girl who was where he wanted to be because that’s the kind of man he is. There is no one person for men like that, they just go along, and whoever fits best with the rest of their plans, is the one they choose. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish it were the same for me, at least a little.”
On the way back from the bar, they walked through the park. A group of musicians had congregated by the fountain, and several people were out walking their dogs. Walking along the north side, they could see fireflies zipping in and out of the bushes.
On her way back to her apartment, after she and Lulu had parted ways, Leigh stopped at the deli to order a sandwich. As she waited for it to be made, she stared at the packets of gum and candy bars behind the plastic partition. Next to the counter was a kiosk with postcards of the city. She thumbed through them aimlessly. There were the usual landmarks: the Wall Street bull, the Empire State building, the twin towers with the motto “never forget” in swirly cursive in the bottom. She pulled out a postcard of Radio City Music Hall to have a closer look and noticed that behind it was one that seemed to have been put there by mistake. It was of St. Mark’s Church and the rectory behind it, almost the exact view from her window. She bought it.