Every Friday, The Gloss is publishing a chapter of Andrea Dunlop’s novel, The Summer of Small Accidents. Catch up begining with Chapter 1 here.
There were no blinds on the window and though the apartment didn’t get direct morning sunlight, when Leigh awoke the room was bright. She blinked, feeling hung over and confused. A little jump of momentary panic went through her as she collected her thoughts and remembered where she was. And how she’d come to be there. And with whom. She was alone in the bed, and since she could see every corner of the room from her vantage point she knew she was alone in the apartment as well. As her level of consciousness waxed, she realized that Asa was gone and had taken his suitcase with him. Leigh laid her head back down on the pillow for a moment: her head was pounding and her mouth was dry. She remembered some muffled movements in the weak light of the very early morning. She remembered him already being on his feet and dressed. She remembered looking at him with bleary-eyed confusion. He had leaned down and kissed her forehead; told her to go back to sleep. Evidently she had been too out of it to question the situation further and had done as she was told. She had thought it was a dream anyway. Why had he left so early in the morning? Leigh got out of bed and grappled for her cell phone in her purse which she had left slumped next to the bed. 8 am. He wouldn’t have needed to leave any earlier than that, even for an international flight. She felt a little disappointed. If she’d had the chance she probably would have fantasized about them having brunch together, drinking a couple of mimosas and generally picking up where they’d left off the previous evening, taking advantage of every last moment he had in New York, every last moment he had with her.
Leigh walked to the window. Asa was gone without a trace. At length she noticed a sheet of scrap paper upon which he’d left a set of keys. And a note.
Leigh- thanks for last night. I’ll write.
She stared at the paper. On the one hand, he had thanked her for last night; acknowledging that something had happened the previous night that was worth thanking her for. But what a strange note; who promises to write? Being so far away, he obviously wouldn’t call her but wouldn’t e-mail be a more reasonable means of communication? She hadn’t given him her e-mail, though.
Her bladder ached so she went to relieve herself. Fortunately there were a few last sheets of toilet paper clinging to the roll in the otherwise barren bathroom. She looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t look good. Her curly hair had a way of knotting itself thoroughly during sleep. She drew back her lips like a horse and noticed the embarrassing dinginess of her teeth. The dry skin of her lips had absorbed and was stained with the red wine she had drunk the previous evening.
Leigh felt strange about being in the apartment alone suddenly and decided to go back to Shaun’s, which was empty since Shaun was in the Hamptons. Leigh turned the key and opened the door to an abandoned apartment. The morning light always came into Shaun’s apartment at a strange uneven angle, illuminating patches of dust that were unseen at other times of the day. The apartment felt like it had been empty for longer than a day, more like an entire season.
For lack of anything else that seemed to need urgent attention, Leigh wandered around downtown. As the hours of the day went by and stretched on into an idle Sunday afternoon, the previous evening with Asa felt more and more surreal. She milled around Washington Square Park for a while, watching a gaggle of somewhat unsightly, chubby toddlers scampering around in the fountain. She bought a pretzel and then realized as soon as soon it was close enough to her mouth to smell it, that she didn’t really want it. She ate it anyway, feeling that it would somehow be worse to throw away something she’d just purchased than to just eat the thing. She chewed on it resignedly and decided the park was too chaotic for her current state of mind.
As she walked down into SoHo, the sun grew hotter and hotter on her back. The neighborhood was relatively deserted with the exception of Broadway which was always choked with a throng of people no matter what the conditions. Leigh walked in the marginally cooler shadows of the towering storefronts that lined the narrow cavern of Mercer Street. How well could you know someone in an evening? She asked herself. Was it a matter of how much personal information they divulged, the hours you spent with them or was it simply a matter of the intensity of your own feelings in their presence?
Maybe too much weight was given to the idea that getting to know someone was a prerequisite for falling in love with them. After all, isn’t it only through the blurry lens of love that we are able to see someone’s flaws with affection? If no one ever fell in love after just meeting would they ever bother to really get to know each other at all?
None of Leigh’s friends were around that afternoon, leaving her cursedly alone to obsess over her feelings for this person; someone who did not exist in her life before the previous day and for all practical purposes no longer did as of that morning. Leigh felt that the effect the encounter was having on her was embarrassingly disproportionate to the actual circumstances. Maybe it was only that she was always wanting something like that to happen and now it had, but had been so brief. She had the sensation of having seen something incredible out of the corner of her eye only to have it vanish as soon as she turned her head to look at it. Suddenly she longed to be back in the apartment with or without him.
She had the urge to call Barbara just to have someone to tell but it was exactly the kind of thing that Barbara would put a damper on by saying something sensible, pointing out perhaps that people do funny things when they’ve been drinking and they’re leaving the country the next day.
She went back to Shaun’s and packed what amounted to an overnight bag. She would recruit Shaun later to help move the rest of her stuff. It felt strange that she could just go back to his place like that, that she had keys and could let herself in. As she came up the stairs she was struck by the very recent memory of coming up the stairs only hours before, of watching him walk up in front of her, of the anticipation she had felt. She opened the door tentatively and without realizing she was doing it, looked in the kitchen and bathroom as though checking to see if the apartment was really empty, even though she knew it must be.
She stood by the bed and smoothed the sheets with her hand. She wondered if she should get rid of them. Normally she would have done so without question but she had already slept in them and they looked brand new. Perhaps she was the only person who had ever slept in them besides Asa. But then perhaps there had been other women who had slept there, perhaps he’d made love to someone else there. Maybe the thing to do would be to take them into the laundromat tomorrow and try not to think about it ever again. For now she lay on the bed; she did not smell him in the sheets though she wished she could have. It was like he had never been there at all. She lay on her back and examined the bare walls around her.
She had never been good at decorating living spaces. Not that she’d had much opportunity to do so in her life. Her childhood room in Aunt Mary’s house had been decorated for her, she’d added the odd Leonardo DiCaprio poster and collage of photos but mostly she’d just never been that interested. The other rooms she’d lived in had never really been hers; she was well accustomed to and she sometimes thought most comfortable with the anonymity of guest rooms.
Barbara had helped move her into college where they’d furnished her half of the room with what was available from the local K-Mart. Leigh was satisfied when the room looked slightly less like a mental institution to leave well enough alone. It was something that she felt she was supposed to be able to do innately as a woman—to nest.
Other college girls’ rooms were universes of picture frames with cheerful words on the borders (Friends Forever!), feather boas, Greek letters and other smatterings of sorority paraphernalia, birthday cards and the small note-cards that came with bouquets of flowers. Leigh could see a similar tendency in older women with their work spaces, their offices were crammed with bric-a-brac; ceramic figurines of big-eyed children and cartoons with cats abounded.
Max’s apartment had been too full of stuff already for her to have made any real mark on it décor-wise and she sadly reflected that the half of that apartment that Max rented was really only for a person in transition, someone who he could count on to leave him behind sooner or later without leaving so much as a pinhole in the wall.
She had a small box of things she had lugged around with her since college, some worn postcards, and a couple photos that had multiple tiny holes in them from being hung with tacks on different bulletin boards. She would ship some of the huge number of books she kept in her office and these she could put on the small bookshelf and when she inevitably ran out of space, line them up on the desk between two sterling silver books ends she’d bought in a dusty antique shop in the East Village. And when she ran out of space there, she’d begin to pile them in neat, even stacks next to the desk. Books could always make her feel at home; to her they were the very difference between living somewhere and just visiting.
She knew she would fall asleep if she stayed like that so she got up and looked out the window. She had never in her life had such a good window to look out of; in addition to the scenery, she could people watch and that seemed like kind of an extraordinary thing. She could see the people who congregated in the square outside the church and back into the rectory and the garden. She tried to remember whether or not someone lived there now, what had she last read about the place. Two artists who had committed suicide had lived there before; it wasn’t so difficult to imagine: the small leafy garden cottage with its stone path housing two tortured ghosts. There was always something a little eerie about the little gardens tucked away in Manhattan, they tended to evoke graveyards.
From her prime position, she could also see into the windows of her neighbors across the street. She stared blankly into the open window wondering if anyone lived there during the summer or if it was, like many of the buildings on that block, an NYU building.
It wasn’t until later that night that she saw the lights in the windows while she was pacing the apartment, the way she always did while brushing her teeth. On went the light in the living room and then in a smaller room which she surmised was the bathroom. She could see the girl very clearly through the bathroom window where she appeared to be staring into a mirror. She was extremely slender and had very pale skin and severely angled eyebrows. Her hair was pulled into tight bun that sat right at the top of her head and shellacked into place. Leigh wondered if she was one of those dancers that she saw sometimes on the subways whose hair was always pulled back so tightly that it made their eyes bulge. Even in street clothes they always looked somehow ready to for an arabesque at a moment’s notice maybe because of the way they walked around with their toes turned out all the time. They seemed as tightly coiled as springs, like they might suddenly snap and leap off through the subway car.
As she watched her, the girl pulled pins out of her hair, her head jerked back and forth so violently that Leigh suddenly was convinced that the girl had seen her. Leigh leapt away from the window, clenching her toothbrush between her teeth to keep it from falling out of her mouth. When she peered cautiously around the window sill again a moment later, the girl was still fixated on her own image. Leigh watched, mesmerized as the girl finally unwounded her long light brown hair. After this, she disappeared from sight and a moment later the window filled with steam. Leigh was left to wonder about something no city girl should ever think too much about: how many people had watched her though windows in the years that she’d lived in New York? She had never caught anyone doing it but that meant nothing. It could have been many at some very bad moments or perhaps it had been none at all and she had lived her entire New York life in relative privacy, not a single soul having ever seen her though a window and wondering about her. She couldn’t decide which was worse.
“That is so bizarre,” Shaun said, unwinding the cord from around Leigh’s alarm clock. “You would think he would have made a move.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I know I would have,” Shaun said putting on her bedroom voice. Leigh laughed uneasily, she was never sure what Shaun was and was not kidding about. Everything was a joke to her until someone called her bluff and then sometimes it wasn’t a joke and never had been.
“Something was going on with him, I mean he seemed to be leaving the country fairly abruptly,” she said, unwrapping the brand new sheet set from Bed, Bath and Beyond. It was stunning how little she had actually owned, certainly no furniture but almost nothing else either. Max had lived in his apartment for so long that he accumulated plenty of towels and bedding, so it hadn’t made sense for her to buy any of those things. He had scores of other things in every drawer—screwdrivers, half empty boxes of Christmas cards, miniature bottles of liquor. Leigh remembered the bedroom as it was when she had first moved in, the bedspread was ugly and brown but he’d lit a scented candle in the corner; she had never found any room more welcoming than that one.
“Maybe he’s a terrorist! Didn’t you say he was from Israel?”
“He lived there when he was a kid and anyway why would that make him a terrorist?”
“You know,” Shaun said, “aren’t there a lot of them over there?”
“Shaun, he’s not a terrorist. He’s lived here forever and besides we’re kind of on Israel’s side for the most part.”
“It’s all fun and games until someone issues a fatwa, I say.”
Leigh rolled her eyes and smiled, as she knew she was being lead down the garden path of Shaun logic.
“Do you actually know what a fatwa is?”
“Yeah, I’m not stupid. It’s like a jihad but for just one person. Salman Rushdie has one of those because of that book or whatever. Or maybe because he dates women who are too hot for him, can you get a fatwa on you for that?”
“Not sure,” Leigh said, “anyway. I have no idea why he left New York all of sudden. It can’t be good.”
“Darling, there’s never a good reason to leave New York.” Shaun was taking items out of a box labeled “misc.” It was all Leigh had, clothes and miscellany. Shaun was putting them on the floor, turning them around and generally not being the most productive helper in the unpacking effort. Leigh was just glad she was there; it would have been too depressing otherwise. Moving into a new space always was. She suspected that for most people it was the opposite, that they were melancholy when they were packing up things to move away and hopeful when they were moving into a new spot. Leigh had always felt a surge of excitement when she’d pack her things to leave somewhere. Maybe this was because she’d never really been anywhere that she hadn’t been happy to leave.
“That happened to me one time though,” Shaun said.
“What happened to you?”
“A guy didn’t want to sleep with me.”
Leigh snorted, “Just the one time huh?”
“We were like fourteen but I still think he was a fag.”
To Shaun, the idea that someone would just simply not be attracted to her was remote if not impossible, while to Leigh it was ever-present, especially in New York where there were women like, well, like Shaun to compete with for the hearts and hormones of the men.
Leigh opened one of the boxes with her clothes in it and Shaun’s interest in unpacking was renewed. The two girls pulled out various garments from the box and laid them on the bed.
“I can’t believe this is how you packed everything, you’re going to have to take all of this to get steamed. She laid a striped blue and white t-shirt dress out on the bed and smoothed it with her hand, “big fan of H & M are we?” she said.
“Yeah, of course.”
“I don’t know honey, your wardrobe is kind of high-low without the high concept.” Then she gasped, “what is this?” she uncovered one of the only dresses that had been zipped in a garment bag, a black satin corseted dress with a bustier top. “This is sexy, what is this? D & G, oh I love! Why don’t you ever wear this?”
“I do,” Leigh said, feeling irritated. She was lying; she’d bought it a year ago at Henry Bendel and had never worn it. At least she’d taken the tags off on one of the many occasions she’d meant to wear it so Shaun couldn’t know that. It was a dress for a life she’d somehow seen herself having when she’d been standing in the pleasing light of that luscious department store. Of all the department stores in the city, Leigh found Bendel’s the most intoxicating, laid out like an endless closet in a fairytale mansion that just went on and on with its racks and racks of perfect clothes and accessories, unfathomably expensive handbags and shoes. Something about the whole place hinted that you could be the perfect New York girl if you’d only give in and purchase something. Leigh had never gone back to return the dress. In fact, she had never gone back at all.
“This dress would get you laid, and don’t tell me you don’t need to get laid. I can smell it on you,” she said with a serpentine smile.
“I don’t even want to know what you mean by that,” Leigh said folding a couple of pairs of jeans and stacking them neatly on the foot of the bed; she pushed a couple of stray hairs off of her slightly sweaty forehead.
Shaun rolled her eyes, “Well not literally smell it but are you going to tell me that’s not the case?”
Leigh looked at her sheepishly.
“How long?” she asked, “three months? Longer? Six months? Not a whole year?”
“Um, are you trying to regrow your hymen for someone sweetheart? Do you have some nice Muslim boyfriend I don’t know about?”
“Okay now you’re just being a bitch, and also kind of a racist.”
Shaun smiled and laughed her deceptively pure sounding bell-like laugh.
“I am so not a racist, my social circle is very diverse. I even dated a guy from Haiti once; didn’t I tell you about that? Most beautiful penis ever. I’m sorry if I’m being mean, tough love and everything. We need to focus is all; damn it, you should’ve boned that Asa character. He sounds sexy and nothing is better than a one-nighter with someone who’s leaving town the next day! Anyway, don’t worry, I’ll help we’ll find you a guy, and…” she said, holding up a hoodie from the Gap with mild disgust, “some new clothes I think.”