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. Happy reading!
They pulled up outside Brian’s building and asked the cab driver to wait. A few minutes later Brian came charging out of the door in what Leigh imagined was meant to be a youthful jog but made him look like a paunchy valet hustling to fetch some more important person’s vehicle. As he slid into the back seat on the other side of Shaun, Leigh caught a strong tang of sweat mixed with cologne.
“Hey baby,” he said kissing Shaun on the cheek, a gesture she accepted with a tight smile. He was wearing a shirt of almost transparent cotton with the outline of a red bird coming down the side of one breast. He had paired this atrocity with trendy distressed jeans that were the sort of the thing that no man his age, a mysterious number that was somewhere between 37 and 50, should be wearing unless he was on his way from doing some sort of hard labor which had legitimately distressed his pants.
The party they were going to was at an apartment, though to say it was an apartment was really a bit of a misnomer. It was more of a mansion that happened to be affixed to the top of a building. Inevitably, one of the favorite topics of discussion that circulated every party ever held there was the market price of such an apartment. Guests would first be taken up in a service elevator and then continue past the ground floor up a long, narrow flight of stairs, they would then come upon the main indoor floor and the first of three roof decks, this one a garden, the next a swimming pool and the last a full outdoor grill and plenty of seating. The party was being thrown by Melanie and her boyfriend William. Melanie was a friend of Shaun’s; they had shared an agency back when Shaun was modeling.
Leigh could hear Melanie’s voice echoing down the staircase as she and Shaun made their way up the first flight of steps, Brian lumbering up behind them. Melanie had the kind of voice that could be heard through a crowd; it was high and sweet and though it was not at all jarring somehow always pulled itself up out of the general din, existing as though in its own register.
Leigh liked Melanie, and had wished secretly and disloyally that she had met her before she’d met Shaun.
“Hi girls,” Melanie said warmly. Melanie looked beautiful and in her element in her long silk jersey dress. There were a couple of well placed, fancy tiki torches lining the patio edge where the stone met the grass of the garden; the effect of the light was soft and flattering.
“You look,” Shaun said pausing and taking a little gasp for effect, “so gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” Melanie said, “Let me get you guys a drink. Champagne?”
“Always,” Shaun said, smiling so brightly it seemed as though her face might crack.
“She looks really great,” Leigh said as the flash of her dress disappeared into the throng and she was out of earshot. Admiring, not for the first time, the way Melanie moved through a crowd, sifting through its cracks like mist.
“Yeah, she really does. It’s good that she put on a couple of pounds; it definitely makes her look less gaunt. I mean, I was starting to get really worried about her. I think William is good for her,” Shaun said, referring to Melanie’s boyfriend of a year. “The guys she went out with before him were just…” Shaun grimaced and shook her head. “I mean, we all go through that period where we like think its okay to date the bartender-slash-musician or the guy who went to CUNY but it’s just, you know, so not okay.” Her voice downgraded to a whisper as Melanie came back into view.
“Here you are,” Melanie said handing the drinks off, oblivious to the fact that they had just been talking about her. She stayed with them for a few minutes; they talked about the luck of the nice weather for the evening, who had made it to the party so far and who else was on their way until someone lightly touched Melanie’s shoulder and pulled her away from them.
Shaun went to the corner to discreetly enjoy a cigarette and sent Brian to the bar to fetch another round of drinks. He returned quickly with two martini glasses full of something pink.
“What is this?” Shaun asked, her mouth giving a minute twitch of disgust.
“It’s the signature cocktail, a flirtini or crantini or something,” he said, handing off the drinks and looking distractedly back into the crowd.
“Ugh, why does everyone find any excuse to serve pink drinks?” she looked at the syrupy liquid accusingly, sniffed it, scowled and then delicately tipped it down her throat in one swig.
She took another drag off of her half-finished cigarette and ground it into the side of a large potted plant nearby. “I’m going to the bar,” she announced. Leigh followed.
The main bar was located underneath a set of intersecting staircases and in front of it was a well lit dance floor where groups of people stood talking in threes and fours. No one was dancing yet but a few people occasionally shook their hips or bopped their heads to a couple of notes before stopping again, suddenly self-conscious. They drank a few rounds while people Shaun knew came by to greet her. Leigh stood off to the side drinking quietly. She thought how amazingly predictable the crowd was, how much a forgone conclusion. All of the girls were in new party dresses. Leigh could tell looking at the frocks go by that none of them had been worn before tonight. They were not being worn like beloved items of clothing but like items somehow separate from the wearer, in half the instances the dresses were wearing the girls, partially because of the insubstantial size of the later. Party dress girls came in two varieties: a younger version (teenagers easily), bony models with wide eyes and sad sunken faces. She always wondered what happened to those girls after they grew up. There were always new ones coming into the city, evidenced by how shockingly young some of them appeared to be. The older party girls were more intimidating. They tended to come in packs and were all unusually attractive and worked in smart sounding jobs in glamorous industries like fashion and magazine publishing. It was as though they’d all been cast in the television roles of their own lives.
The men at these parties were a mystery to Leigh. It occurred to her that they didn’t have men like this in the Northwest where she grew up, not in her small town certainly but not even in Seattle or Portland. There was a certain good natured ruggedness to the men in those cities that she’d only realized after living for a while in New York, she had taken completely for granted. Here all the men were shorter and wealthier and likelier to be able to spot a fake handbag if they saw one.
After her third round, Leigh wandered away from the dance floor muttering that she would be right back. She made her way carefully up the iron staircase, holding down the borrowed dress with both hands, hoping what she was wearing underneath wasn’t being showcased to the crowd below. She made her way to the highest roof deck where the food was being served and a great wave of smoke washed over her from the grill; she coughed and hurried out of range of the immense outdoor ovens. Once she had made it to a quieter corner, away from the food and most of the people, the air had the sweet scent of late spring. This was air to be cherished; soon they would descend into the swampy heat of summer. She leaned her palms against the railing and tried her best to take in both the air and the view, knowing both were fleeting. You could see the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges from the roof, and the lights were twinkling in the darkness.
Leigh took a sip of the strange pink cocktail that she had grabbed off of a tray on her way up. She was drunk and starting to feel morose.
She stared out into the night and realized that this was the first time that day that she’d been both alone and stationary. The solitude was relaxing but she was a little afraid of what the inside of her head would look like once the dust had a chance to settle. She had no home in New York. She had lost a close friend and she hated her job. Things were not good. She looked across the street, down into an uncurtained floor to ceiling window of someone’s apartment. She could see the slippered feet of someone who was curled up on an enormous white bed. Leigh felt a fleeting but strong urge to be there instead of here, and then wondered why she had felt it. She thought to herself that if the person in the room could see into the party, they might wish to be here instead of there. It was likely. Who wouldn’t want to be here? She reminded herself that she did want to be here, that she actually was having a good time. On one of her first nights in New York, she’d taken the long way back to her hostel from wherever she had been, walking through the flatiron district. She was really alone then; she hadn’t even met Max yet. She was looking up into the windows of the building as she passed, the way you do without even realizing it on an empty street, looking for the comfort of a stranger’s face to let you know that you are not the last person on earth. In one window there were many faces moving and positioning themselves in the rhythm of a party. A girl about Leigh’s age was leaning against the sill of the open window; she had a drink in her hand and was looking up at the tall boy who was standing next to her, laughing at something he was saying. Leigh realized that at no point in her life before this had she ever felt so truly lonely. The memory of loneliness sticks with you the way the memory of love does, once you’ve felt it; it’s never all the way out of your system. Even now, at Melanie’s party, though things were different, she still felt it creep up on her. Back then, her loneliness had felt bottomless and now it still it felt ever present, looming waiting to swallow her again. The awareness of it would come over her, spilling swiftly across her mind like a shadow in waning sunlight at the most unexpected of times—like tonight.
What she wanted was not as simple as being here or not being here. She wished she could be here as an earlier self, the self who first moved to the city and was so desperate to be shown what was behind the curtain. No one who was at these parties ever appreciated them, no one openly marveled at the size of the prawns being served or the fact that there was a full open bar or even the spectacular view. Why were these dressy girls so bored all the time?
“Hey, what are you doing over here?” asked Melanie, touching her elbow. Leigh felt herself coming towards the surface again, the brief dark moment scurrying out of sight.
“Oh, hey sweetie. I’m just taking a breather. How is your night going?”
Melanie rolled her eyes with a smile. “Sort of stressful; I wish I could just relax and have some fun, I feel like I’m on duty here.”
“Playing the gracious hostess,” Leigh said, “the party is great anyway.”
“Are you having fun?”
“Yeah, it’s really helping get my mind off things. I’ve been pretty stressed out these last few weeks.”
“I know honey, I’m so sorry about everything. Do you think you’ll be able to be friends with him again?”
“Hard to say,” Leigh told her. They both stared off into the distance, there was a breeze blowing but the night air was still heavy with humidity. As she said it, Leigh felt the truth sink in. The answer, the thing that was too hard to say out loud quite yet, was no. They wouldn’t ever be friends again. The chance for reconciliation was disappearing more rapidly with each passing day.
“Do you need another drink?” Melanie asked, after a moment of pause.
“Yes,” Leigh said.
Leigh followed her to the bar and got only another second with her before William came over and politely squired her away. Leigh waved off his apologies with the hand that wasn’t holding her vodka and smiled at them. She reflected that she really felt very happy for Melanie that she had found William. He was so perfect that it was hard to think sometimes that he must not be hiding something sinister; he was handsome and smart and from a good family. Leigh would never have thought that people still said things like “he’s from a good family” before she moved East, the idea had seemed like such an anachronism. But they said it here and meant it. As she understood it, William was the sort of mythical beast only someone like Melanie could ever have.
“All alone?” the bartender asked, his voice dripping with innuendo. Leigh looked at him; he was very handsome in a generic way: nice eyes, square jaw, good hair. He was most certainly an actor who like most actors in New York spent most of his paid hours perfecting the role of cater waiter. Leigh gave him a wry smile and pulled herself away from the bar and turned to walk back out to the pool.
“No,” Leigh said, noting that he seemed to be made nervous by her eye contact, “not at all.”
By 1 am, Leigh was drunk and sitting on the edge of the pool. The last she had seen of Shaun, she had been standing on the upper roof deck, gesticulating grandly and telling some story to a rapt audience of men, none of whom were Brian. Even from that distance, Leigh could see from the wideness of her eyes what was rushing in her veins. That knowledge made Leigh need another drink, and after that another. Now Leigh had her feet in the water, almost up to her knees. It was all she could do not to jump in, the water in the tiny pool looked so inviting, the ripples seeming to catch every shaft of light and refract it. She was sitting with the long skirt of the dress she had borrowed hiked up to the tops of her thighs and thrown over her left elbow, contemplating the cost of dry cleaning it, or worse replacing it if it was unsalvageable. She had a feeling that white silk might more likely involve the latter so she stayed put.
Who was the person swimming around her feet, shark-like? She had only met him this evening- that much she knew. James? Jason? Jason, she thought, that sounded right. It must be; she wasn’t that drunk. Was she? Now that she was sitting down, she definitely did not feel as drunk as when she had been standing up. Jason (or the boy who Leigh thought was Jason)’s hair was sticking out at all angles and he was begging her to join him in the water but she was enjoying being coquettish, which she was never good at when she was sober. She had been talking to the boy for a long time; he was young and owned a website of some kind. He seemed smart; at least they’d had a lot to talk about, nothing Leigh would remember in the morning.
Leigh was dividing her attention between the pool and an entertaining group standing just outside the door. The girl was loud and foreign; she was telling the two men standing with her a story that required lots of wild gestures. She was a beautiful girl actually but a very specific bawdy kind; huge breasts, blonde hair, enormous eyes, obvious, universal sex appeal turned to maximum voltage. She was the girl who is at every party there has ever been, piss drunk by 7:30 and naked with one or more strangers before morning. The men were giving each other very unsubtle conspiratorial glances in between feigning interest in her story.
“Come on,” the boy in the pool suddenly said to Leigh. “You look so beautiful sitting there in your sexy white dress.” He drew himself closer to her and put a hand suggestively on her knee, “the only thing that would make it hotter is to see you all wet,” he said in a throaty whisper. Leigh gave a little mock gasp but felt her cheeks burning. She wasn’t sure what she wanted, only that she wanted to be wanted.
“You’re so bad,” she said, leaning down and hoping that he was not about to make the miscalculation that she was being coy and pull her down with him. Thankfully he did not.
Her dress got a little wet anyway because later he wrapped her in his towel with his still damp body and kissed her. It was almost romantic standing next to the pool like that. He kept saying she was beautiful, and it made her feel better, like salve to a wound. Why? What wound? But that’s how it felt. The boy whose name may have been Jason was sweet talking Leigh, because they were drinking and it was late. Leigh knew this but tried to be in the moment, the moment were she was standing on a moonlit roof-deck garden, a garden not everyone is allowed to go in, being kissed and told she was beautiful.
Unbeknownst to them, the party was shutting down around them and before long a security guard came out and asked them to leave. The boy pulled his clothes on over his wet boxers and they rode down in the elevator together giggling. Soon they were back out on the street, back on earth. Leigh felt sobriety and clarity surfacing slowly. Jason took Leigh’s hand in his and smiled at her, so sweetly that she thought she was about to be surprised by a moment of gentlemanliness at the end of a party; of course she was wrong. Drunk and wrong.
“So, where are you off to?”
Leigh shrugged. “Not sure. What about you?”
“Well, that really depends on you,” he said.
“Should we go somewhere else, a bar or…” This suggestion was met by a look of annoyance.
“Look,” he said, “either you’re trying to take me home or not.”
There it was, she thought.
“Then I’m not,” she said, snatching back her hands.
He shrugged. Not a disingenuous shrug that would imply that he was only trying to hide that fact that he did really care, but an honest shrug like it was all the same to her whether or not this girl went home with him took all her clothes off and allowed him to put himself inside her or not. Some other night some other girl would say yes, maybe tomorrow night or maybe even tonight if he went somewhere else, somewhere where the night was even later and the women even drunker. He was young and wealthy and this was New York. No, he decidedly did not care one iota if this particular girl, whose name he could not remember, wanted to sleep with him or not.
Leigh woke up a scant few hours later alone in Shaun’s bed, the sun beaming straight through the flimsy curtains and into her eyes. She felt exhausted but unable to stay asleep any longer. As the previous night came back to her she felt herself slipping into a familiar day-after despair. It was always like this; she’d get so exited for a big night out and it would end the same way, with nothing. Did it really matter, getting to go to a party like that if most of the people barely noticed you? Wherever she went, she would still be her. Leigh lay there hating herself with the ire that only a person drying out from a bad boozy night can. She felt the weight of regret from the previous evening. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be desired, of course, but she was so sick of that glazed over lascivious stare, sick of being the object of such cheapened lust. Was this really all men had to offer her? Any notion of romance was so dressed-down as to be a distant cousin of what she’d hoped for. She was longing for things to get complicated.