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.
They got out of the subway in Brooklyn at four o’clock. The sun was blazing and the temperature was still hovering close to one hundred degrees. An early morning cool front had fooled Leigh into thinking that the weather would be bearable. She thought the same thing she always did: was it really this hot by this time last year? She could feel sweat on her inner thighs, rubbing together beneath her short skirt, and already the denim felt stiff and unyielding; it had been a bad choice for the weather. They made their way down Bedford Avenue, Lulu on her cell phone.
“Okay, yeah, we’ll stop and get some beer; do you need anything else? Oh, ha, ha. Yes, I’m sure you do have the sausages, cocktail size I imagine,” she rolled her eyes and smiled at Leigh, snapping her phone shut. She was wearing short shorts that showed off her long smooth legs and a blue and white striped tank top with gold buttons on the neckline. Her hair was pulled back as it always was in the summer. Leigh could tell she’d gone to an effort to look nice, in her subtle way. They were on their way to a rooftop barbeque being held by one of Lulu’s friends. Leigh for one was glad to have somewhere to be this Fourth of July. She had ended up spending the previous one alone.
They stopped in a deli on the corner by Stuart’s apartment to pick up a beer. Bachata music was blaring, and the short man behind the cash register was singing loudly and occasionally nimbly moving through a sequence of dance steps with an invisible partner.
They wound around the towering shelves of sundry items to the refrigerators. Lulu opened the door, releasing a pleasant burst of cool air onto their faces as they surveyed their options.
“Rolling Rock or Dos Equis?” Lulu asked.
“Dos Equis,” Leigh said.
“Agreed. One or two do you think?” she asked, perhaps only wanting to linger there in the cool air a little longer.
“I don’t know. How many people will be there?”
Lulu shrugged, “Ten. Maybe less? I don’t know actually but I guess it’s better to get two regardless.”
They each carried one six-pack in a plastic bag, Leigh clutching hers to her chest to enjoy the benefit of the coolness next to her skin. Stuart was a friend of Lulu’s ex-boyfriend Frank—one of the group of guys who seemed to have good-naturedly adopted her after the break-up. “I got shared custody in the divorce,” she liked to joke. It could have made for a strange dynamic, but Frank’s name seemed to come up very rarely, and whenever he actually came to visit his old buddies from Chicago, he and Lulu simply avoided one another.
For Leigh, it was fascinating to think that this group of people had known the former Lulu, Lulu the girlfriend, a Lulu who was without stories of liaisons with strangers, a Lulu who was considering marriage. She confessed once to Leigh that she had been worried that they would no longer be her friends after Frank left and that she had been almost as upset about that as about losing Frank. But they had continued to invite her to drink dollar beers at the happy hours on the Upper East Side where they convened, and to include her on day trips to Jones beach during the summer, and parties like the one they were on their way to now. At first, she said, she was convinced it was out of pity but she now seemed to appreciate that their efforts were sincere.
The rooftop of the apartment building was a vast, slightly uneven space, surfaced with tar that was hot to the touch but not sticky. There was a very low brick wall that bordered the roof, not much to deter one from throwing themselves off it should they be so inclined, Leigh thought. The building provided one of the most spectacular vantage points in Brooklyn, with a clear southeastern view of Manhattan, tantalizingly close, and separated only by the visible swath of the East River. Even though the water was filthy, it sparkled in the right kind of light. Leigh thought, looking down from her birds-eye-view, what an accurate metaphor that was for so many things in the city. They were the first guests to arrive, joining Stuart and his two roommates Nick and George. George was a girl like George Elliot, she explained, not short for Georgina. Leigh hadn’t met her before but gathered that Lulu had from the way that they greeted each other. Nick and Henry were prodding at pieces of charcoal in the bottom of their ancient aluminum grill and arguing in a half-hearted manner about how much lighter fluid they needed to put on the coals. Each of them had a beer in one hand and a cooking implement in the other. Leigh had only met Nick once before; he was a college friend of Stuart’s and, like Stuart, was working for a catering company while he tried to break into acting. George was sitting in a plastic lawn chair, already stripped down to her rainbow bikini with her legs stretched out in front of her, her face inscrutable behind her oversized sunglasses. Her dirty blonde hair was piled atop her head and kept in place by a red gingham scarf.
There was a whole area staked out for their picnic, with towels and old blankets laid down. Leigh and Lulu had soon deposited their shoes and were stretched out on the blankets like big, drowsy cats, only moving to occasionally comment on the heat or take a sip from the cold beer in their hands. Leigh knew it was a bad idea to drink in the heat but was lulled into submission by the intensity of the humidity and the relief of the cold liquid going down her throat.
George was telling a story, but Leigh tuned it out when she gathered it wasn’t for her benefit; there were two many names she didn’t know and back stories she wasn’t aware of.
Leigh heard sounds of greetings and turned to see that two more guys had joined Stuart and Nick at the barbeque and were now also weighing in on the question of lighter fluid. For the time being, they said nothing to the three girls, and Leigh felt a little annoyed.
For a while, the party was mostly men and then, suddenly, a pack of five girls came. They looked like teenagers.
Lulu propped herself up on her elbows when their shrill, little girl voices alerted her to their presence; her pale, taut stomach creased as her torso became concave. Leigh couldn’t see her eyes through her dark glasses, but she could see her lips were pursed as she watched the girls go to the cooler and each pluck out one of the beers they had bought earlier at the deli. It appeared they hadn’t thought to bring anything with them, or perhaps they were too young to actually buy anything.
Rather than come over to where they were, the girls gathered around the barbeque with the guys. “Are those friends of yours?” George asked, almost accusingly.
“Oh, please. What do you think?” Lulu said and George laughed.
“Nick said he was inviting his intern. I had hoped he was kidding.” George said, “Looks like she brought her pledge class with her.”
All three of them laughed a little unkindly. One of the younger girls who was standing off to the side with her hands jammed nervously in her pockets glanced their way, and Leigh felt a little guilty. Somehow, she suspected the girl knew they were laughing at them.
After a while, the girls did make their way over to where the towels were laid down. They introduced themselves but kept their distance and spoke only to each other. Once she had shaken the last girls hand, Leigh realized that she had instantly forgotten each of the names she had just been told. She settled back onto her towel, stretching out face down, resting her cheek on her crossed arms. Lulu and George were talking about Indie bands—something they both had an infinite interest in—an interest she didn’t share. Leigh listened in instead to the conversations of the young girls. She gleaned that they were all interns and that they knew each other from school. They were excitedly comparing the details of their lives in New York, talking about their apartments, about nightclubs and brunch plans with the enthusiasm of those new to the city. Leigh felt an unexpected pang of envy; what they described was nothing like what her own life had been when she’d first come to the city, when she had been about the same age as these girls. She wished for all the world that she could have had what they had and wanted to tell them so, if only to try to make them appreciate it.
“Leigh,” Lulu said suddenly, “you’re the life of the party over here, are you taking a nap?”
Leigh turned on her side to face them, steadying herself with the palm of her hand. “I was eavesdropping,” she whispered, certain that the girls were far enough away and fully absorbed in their own conversation to not hear her.
“I’m sure it’s riveting,” George said, taking a pull of her beer. She had not moved an inch since they’d arrived. Though they had barely said two words to each other, Leigh felt she was bound to dislike her; her indifference was too perfectly affected.
“I was just thinking how they’re probably having the best summer of their lives,” Leigh said. “I’m kind of envious,” she added, a little surprised at her own honesty.
Lulu snorted, “Oh God, do you remember what it’s like to be that age?”
“Like it was ages ago,” George laughed.
“Wasn’t it kind of though? I mean really think about when you were twenty. My mom always told me we could never get married before we were twenty-five because you change so much in your early twenties.”
“Well, if your mom says so,” George said.
“I think she was right,” Lulu continued, ignoring her. “I mean I look back and I barely recognize myself. That’s about the age I was when I thought marrying Frank would be a good idea. And after Frank, when I was single, I was even more of a disaster with men than I am now. Among other things.”
“You’re right about that,” George said.
“You two are telling me that no small part of you wishes you were back there?”
“I do kind of miss how open-minded I was about everything. I mean obviously cynicism suits me, but still.”
Leigh glanced over at the girls to determine if there was any chance that they were listening in; from what she could see, they were blissfully unaware.
“Oh, to go back to being ignorant about New York men again,” George said. They all, as though on cue, snuck a sideways glance at the now five men congregated around the barbeque. Only Stuart was actually tending to the meat it seemed, the others leaned to assess it once in a while or just stood nearby drinking. One of them, Leigh noticed in a very detached kind of way, was extremely cute.
“New York men always think there’s someone younger and hotter that they might be missing out on,” she said. “That’s why they wait until it’s late at night to call, or let’s be honest, text you. The other options have run dry then it’s all ‘what are you up to?’ at two o’clock in the morning. Sickening.”
The girls all nodded; sadly, this sort of behavior had become universal.
“It’s so sad when you meet a guy and he seems cool, you give him your number, and the only thing that ever materializes from him is the booty-call text,” Leigh said, recalling the many seemingly promising meetings over the years that had come to nothing.
“The booty text.”
“Right,” she laughed, “you know those recordings you can get for your phone for solicitors that tell them to add this number to their do-not-call list; I want one of those for men.”
“The number you have reached does not accept calls from men who treat me like a prostitute. If this is a booty call, please hang up now and add this number to your do-not-call list,” Lulu said in her best mechanical voice.
“Maybe I’ll just add a disclaimer when I give out my number,” Leigh said, “Here is my number, and it’s to be used for dating purposes only. I’m not the one to call in the night when you’re wasted, so don’t even think about it.”
“The fucked up thing,” George said, sitting up and leaning in as though she were about to tell them something confidential, “is that they’re right about it. Having so many options, I mean. They can get away with it. At least that’s one thing the Babysitters Club over there has going for them right now. There isn’t anyone younger, not anyone who is legal anyway.”
This time they all laughed loudly.
“Remember how sex used to be?” Lulu said after a moment, when those not in their conversation had again been diverted. For the longest time, I was so afraid of that moment right after sex because it feels like you’re so vulnerable to the person. I used to sort of act nonchalant about it. Then one day I realized that I actually was nonchalant about it. It’s like now, you have sex and then right after, there is this void of a moment where you just think, I could walk away right now. I could get out of this bed, and get a cab back to my apartment, and wake up in my own bed, and the world would not collapse. Then at some point, you realize that that is what you would actually prefer to do. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the end.”
“No, that’s a good thing,” George said with a sneer. She had still not taken off her sunglasses even though the sun had nearly gone down. This made Leigh more suspicious of her than she already was. “I mean, when I think about how I used to be with guys, God it makes me sick. Now I’m like a guy, you know, wham bam thank you ma’am. Sir, whatever.”
Lulu laughed and Leigh managed a cursory smile though her inclination was to roll her eyes. The conversation, which had started out buoyed by the camaraderie of shared experience, was beginning to depress her.
“There are good ones out there,” Leigh said, not caring if she sounded optimistic and therefore, in this particular conversation, idiotic. Lulu and George looked at her with predictable incredulity. “Like your dad, Lulu, for one.”
“Different generation,” George said, unswayed.
“Things don’t change that much,” Leigh said, refusing to back down but also avoiding looking straight at George. She was beginning to dislike her and to tire of this conversation; hating men was a fertile common ground for women their age but it made for strange bedfellows, and this wasn’t an alliance she was interested in. “There have always been good ones and there have always been assholes.”
“No, Leigh’s right,” Lulu said quietly. Whether this was because she was genuinely mollified or because Leigh had played the trump card of her wonderful father, she wasn’t sure.
Mercifully, the guys called them over to the barbeque and soon they were all seated together eating their burgers and hotdogs, quietly flirting with each other. They were unhindered by the presence of the younger girls in the end; once the guys were sitting with them, none of them said much of anything save for one chatty one who had gotten drunk and was laughing loudly at everything and having to be retold the details of a story several times.
Just before the sun set, a man on an adjacent rooftop appeared with a white T-shirt at the end of long stick. They couldn’t see the man clearly, couldn’t tell whether he was young or old. He swirled the stick above his head, and as all of them watched a dense funnel of birds formed around, circling together in a perfect conical form. They all admired the eerie but beautiful spectacle and not long after, the sky had gone dark and the fireworks began. Leigh had never before watched them properly, and she was awed by how spectacular they were. Every burst was captured and reflected in the river below, and the water was perfectly calm.
Their conversation about men stewed in Leigh’s mind as she made her way home that night. Why was it so difficult? With all the millions of people in this city, why was it so hard to bring two together in any real way? She thought about Asa, about the strange old-world quality he had; he would never call in the middle of the night, she thought.
Leigh was not anxious, like some girls she knew, to be married or even to be coupled up, but she did know she didn’t want to be an afterthought. It was both comforting and distressing to know it wasn’t only her, that somehow along the way every woman had been treated like a last resort. She knew that the answer was to not dignify this bad behavior with a response, but that was harder than it seemed. After all, loneliness is a formidable foe for pride.
Despite all of this, she found herself feeling strangely optimistic about her circumstances. She had to admit to herself that the encounter with Mehran had made her feel special in a way she wasn’t used to, in a way that was the antithesis of what the men who called late at night made her feel. If Mehran was to be believed about his proclivities, then he had gone outside of them for her. Something like that would almost surely never happen to her again, but still she clung to the memory and the feeling it gave her, the tiny flood of adrenaline that shot up from her stomach as her senses remembered him. She clung to it, knowing it couldn’t last.