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!
When Leigh left work on Thursday, she was in a good mood for the first time in long time. She had a party to look forward to and was still on a bit of a high from the relief of being extricated from the madness of Max’s apartment. But mostly it was the weather. As she came out the glass doors of Heighton House she felt the sedative June breeze that was coming down Broadway. This was the sort of weather that made you believe that everything was going to work out in your favor. You thought “this is summer,” the weather was warm enough to put away your trench coat but it was not too humid and you just wanted to be at a sidewalk café or on a rooftop. The summer seemed full with the possibility of being outside, like when you have just gotten off the plane in a warm place during a bad winter.
This feeling lasted exactly as long as it took her to get to the subway where she was engulfed by the perpetual swampiness of the underground in the summer months. She found herself on the train platform watching cars thundering by. She knew she shouldn’t stand so close to the edge of the platform but found she was always drawn to it, not because of a latent death wish (she hoped) but because there was something incredible about feeling the wind from the passing cars, having it whoosh by you and lift your skirt, blow your hair off of your shoulders. The faces in the windows of the train were a blur overlaid by her own reflection, whirring by like numbers on a roulette wheel.
When she was in college, and taking many more philosophy classes than could ever be necessary, she became a little obsessed with the concept of determinism. At first, the general idea seemed too obvious to ever be useful; things that happen now will cause other things to happen later, and all things that happen are caused by other things happening earlier, and so on and so forth. What Leigh found both distressing and exciting was the thought that what she was doing on any given day was the outcome of a long, interwoven set of catalysts and one more step down a path to some unforeseen and inevitable end. That there could be so much meaning in even the most minuscule of actions—meaning that can only be seen in hindsight. Some days, she would randomly get stuck on a completely perfunctory task because she was mired in this kind of thinking; if she left for class early she might avoid a car that would otherwise veer out of control and hit her, should she be standing in precisely the spot she would be standing if she left for class at her usual time. Realizing after some time that this kind of thinking would eventually drive her bonkers, Leigh forced herself to stop considering the trajectory of her life’s destiny every time she had to decide between strawberry swirl or mocha flavor from the university’s frozen yogurt machine.
She had thought she’d grown out of this, but then again who knew she’d have so much time on her hands after college to think about things like this? She still found herself getting fixated on the idea. It wasn’t as if she thought of things as being ‘meant to be’ in the grand sweeping sense that runs rampant in B-list romantic comedies. Someone says ‘I stopped in a coffee shop on 59th street that I don’t habitually go to and there he was, the man of my dreams! It was fate that I stopped in the particular coffee shop on that particular day.” In reality, this person went into the coffee shop for the singularly uncosmic reason of wanting a cup of coffee. But the simple fact that if the person hadn’t wanted coffee right there on the corner of 59th street, they would have gone right on past said dream man—how amazing was that? That at any given time, you could be walking right on by someone or something that could change everything for you. It was something she often thought of when she first moved to New York city, watching the subway cars whiz by her one by one as the train slowed to a halt in front of her on the platform; each train full of people she would or would not encounter depending on which set of opening doors she found herself closest to when the train at last came to rest.
Accidents. Or incidents, maybe. The difference between these two words always bothered her. To say something was accidental meant it was without purpose, and to say incidental meant that whatever had happened did not matter in the grand scheme of things. When used as nouns standing alone both seemed to imply a certain degree of doom. The incident with the governor’s underage intern. Leigh’s fixation wasn’t completely a product of the vacuum of circular thinking college students find themselves in—that had just exacerbated the original problem. Accident was a word that had shaped and perhaps even defined her early life. The accident. No survivors. The world welcomes two orphans; but of course no one used that insensitive, ugly word when talking to her and her sister.
The air was noticeably cooler by the time she came out of the subway at Astor Place. She took her time making her way to Shaun’s apartment allowing herself to become momentarily mesmerized by each little vignette that was playing out on the sidewalk, a mother trying to corral two toddler girls dressed in matching jumpers, a man dancing down the street to unheard music, Japanese teenagers giggling in a tight cluster in the courtyard of the Starbucks. It was just after Memorial Day so New York was not yet a ghost town. Shaun’s apartment was near NYC, an area that was peaceful during the summer after all the college kids left, headed back to the small towns from whence they came. There was a noticeable lack of their sartorial assaults mixed in with the otherwise sleek residents of Greenwich Village: no one schlepping around in pajama pants and sweats as shamelessly as if downtown were an actual college campus instead of just a part of the city where there happened to be a school. Leigh bristled every time she saw them; their resistance to the city—their desire to be in it but refusal to be of it got under her skin. She’d never admit it, but she felt a little jealous too. She didn’t miss being in school, exactly, but she did miss the way that the people around her had all their big ideas and their hopes. No one was truly cynical; no one was a fatalist unless they’d decided it might be a cool thing to be after reading too much Nietzsche.
As she circled around Astor place, her attention was diverted by a group of screeching teenagers turning the giant cube that was the centerpiece of the little square. They were trying to get the cube to spin as fast as possible, and it reminded Leigh of little children spinning a merry-go-round and that image seemed both absurd and fitting. What a mystery—the idea of living out one’s childhood in this city. It was difficult enough as a fully formed adult, but to have New York in you the way everyone else carries around their small towns, the way she carried around Oakdale—always there despite your unawareness of it, like the instinct to breathe. To have New York be a thing one has never had to learn, what must that be like? A mixed blessing, she imagined, like being really beautiful when you’re fourteen.
Leigh turned her borrowed key in the door; the apartment was full of the humid freshness of someone showering. She sat down on the couch, and for a moment just relished the feeling of not being on her feet. Shaun’s apartment was an awkwardly converted two bedroom with an obtrusive plaster wall coming in at an odd angle to cordon off the smaller of the two. No one lived in the other bedroom so it was full of Shaun’s things, mostly clothes and shoes that she never wore but still didn’t want to get rid of. The main bedroom was big and had beautiful and the windows had tall, old-fashioned panes. Then there was the tiny living room with a couch and old television that was never watched, and a long kitchen with a full set of implements that had, to Leigh’s knowledge, never been used. Like so many apartments in New York, this one was more of a stopover for changing clothes and occasionally sleeping than anything else.
“Oh hi Sweetie!” Shaun chimed, emerging a moment later from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. Shaun’s extraordinary long red hair clung in wet clumps to her pale, sparsely freckled shoulders. Without warning she pulled the towel off her body and wrapped it around her head. Shaun wasn’t shy about being naked, but who would be with her body? Her body was all breasts and long limbs; it was no wonder she unsheathed the thing like a weapon, it was a weapon.
“I was about to have a cigarette, come sit by the window with me while I smoke.” Shaun plucked a small cloth robe from the top of her laundry pile and wrapped it loosely around herself. The whole apartment had just a faint hint of stale cigarettes which meant that she smoked in every corner of every room though she only ever smoked by the window when she had visitors. Leigh thought it would be exhausting to care so much about what everyone thought that you would take the trouble to hide something like that. Then again, the things Shaun did and didn’t hide never made sense. Here was a woman you would never hear burp but would describe the latter half of a Brazilian wax to you in uncomfortable detail. Once she called Leigh late at night when she was in bed and from the sound of her breathing Leigh knew she was smoking; it had left an impression on her for some reason, the idea that Shaun would smoke in bed alone.
As children they had, for a brief period of time, been cousins. Shaun’s mother Marilyn had been married to Leigh’s Uncle Joe who had before that been married to her Aunt Sarah and was the father of two of her cousins. The poorly suited couple had met during a two year sojourn Marilyn had decided to take from her hometown of New York, to which she would afterwards return and raise Shaun. No blood was shared between the two girls but it seemed like a spectacular coincidence that they’d ended up in the same place after first knowing each other in that far-flung Washington suburb. The last time Shaun and Leigh had been together before New York it had been amongst numerous Barbies, their interactions governed by dictates particular to nine year old girls: whether or not each deemed the other’s Barbie collection acceptable and compatible to her own. There was a picture of them together in such a scenario, Leigh plump and dark eyed, Shaun as delicate and fair as dandelion fluff; both girls seated on the porch of Leigh’s childhood home, smiling wanly at the intruding adult who was wielding the camera and interrupting their game. Looking at the photo, they were certain they had been friends though neither of them actually remembered the other. Shaun had kept the picture for all those years and it was now framed and hung above her sofa. When Leigh asked why, she had answered that it was to remind herself that there had been some happiness in her childhood, that it hadn’t all been as she remembered it. Whenever Leigh looked closely at the photograph, which she had stopped doing since she’d moved in, she was struck by how little she herself had changed. She had the same pale, serious face, the same wide dark, almond-shaped eyes. Only her dark hair had really changed in form, loosening from the tight curls of her girlhood into long uneven waves. Even her body, though it had obviously grown and matured, had a certain squareness then that it would always retain. Leigh was as pretty in childhood as she would ever be later on, which was to say passably so, whereas Shaun’s hair had turned a pleasing pale shade of red and her body had continuously elongated, particularly from hip to thigh.
Shaun had found Leigh on a social networking website where both had profiles. Leigh had been living in the city for about six months at the time. In those days, she spent her time in between job interviews with office temp work where she could usually be found sitting in front of a computer with nothing to do but surf the internet. One day while perusing the site, a message popped up in her in-box alongside a thumbnail photo of a pale, pretty girl of about her age, with strikingly round blue eyes. The message said “Aren’t we cousins?” Shaun had attached a scan of the photo. The girls had met up for a drink, which became many drinks, which became a friendship. Shaun told her that the picture said on the back simply, Shaun and Leigh Spencer 1986. A name was all it took to find someone now, no matter where in the world they’d ended up.
“By the way,” Leigh said, stretching out on her stomach on Shaun’s enormous bed and adjusting for a better vantage point of the street below, “is Brian coming tonight?”
“Of course,” Shaun said, “actually we need to stop by and pick him up on the way there.”
Brian was Shaun’s older on again off again boyfriend whom she was always either ready to run off and marry or trying to pawn off on one of her friends. Leigh found the whole situation alternately amusing and depressing. She guessed Brian’s feelings on the situation were similar but she couldn’t say she knew the man well and he tended towards the stoic.
Shaun ashed her cigarette on the windowsill. She had never bothered to hang any curtains but because the place had a temporary feel to it in all respects, this decision made a strange kind of aesthetic sense.
“How is everything going with him?” Leigh asked.
“Very well,” she replied and then added after a pause “he wants to go ring shopping next week.”
Leigh sat up and looked at Shaun with surprise; she continued to look down at the street disinterestedly. Was this not Big News with a capital B? Leigh wondered.
“Uh, ring shopping like you’re getting engaged?” she asked when Shaun said nothing more.
She nodded, smiling serenely, turning slowly, cat-like to meet Leigh’s eyes.
“So…are you engaged?’
“Sort of. We’ll get married. Maybe. I’m not sure if I believe in marriage. You know, like as an institution,” she said exhaling and following it up with an extremely delicate little cough.
It was so like Shaun to follow the news of a possible engagement with a comment like that. Only someone as urbane as Shaun could ever get away with being so nonchalant. Leigh envied this about her, perhaps more than all of the things she envied.
The day after Leigh had received the original message from Shaun through the social networking site, she had called her sister Barbara to tell her about it.
“Do you remember Marilyn who was our aunt for a while?” Leigh asked.
“The slutty one who was married to Uncle Joe for like a minute? I never really thought of her as our aunt exactly.”
Leigh understood her transgression. Of course aunt meant something different in their lexicon; it was a sacred word meaning caretaker and provider, in place of mother and father. She shouldn’t have used the word. There would only ever be three aunts and Uncle Joe was merely a father to one set of cousins and otherwise an asshole, someone with whom they shared no blood, no bond.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” she said. She didn’t remember Marilyn being slutty, but maybe she was. Barbara always had the upper hand with childhood recollections, having the advantage of those four extra years of age and lucidity of memory. Leigh had the faintest memory of Marilyn; a slender, towering figure who smelled of something sharp and sweet, clove cigarettes maybe.
“Anyway, why?” Barbara had asked, sounding, as always, as though anything Leigh could be calling to tell her about would be trivial and amusing at best compared to her very serious life as Wife and Mother.
“Remember she had a daughter? She found me on-line last week. We’re going to meet up next week. Isn’t that wild?”
“Completely. Be carefully though, if she’s anything like mommy dearest she’ll be trouble. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and…Trenton! Get down from there, what are you doing, what do you need? Use your words Trenton. Stop! What did mommy say about that? Leigh, I have to call you back, Trenton is trying to stick his head in the Cuisinart again.”
The line had abruptly gone dead. Leigh wondered about what Barbara had said. Was that true? Was everyone only one tenuous step ahead of their past?
“Oh shit, the time,” Leigh said, catching a glance at the computer screen.
‘I have to shower.’
When Leigh got out, Shaun had her towel wrapped around her waist and was drying her hair. Shaun had gotten implants right around the time she and Leigh had reconnected and it seemed she chose to go topless whenever possible. Showing them off was her favorite party trick; invariably the more drinks that went down her throat, the more likely her top was to come off, though she would usually take the lucky person into another room for the viewing. Leigh had only been around Shaun a couple of times when she hadn’t had them. With clothes on they looked natural enough but uncovered, the shape of the implant could be seen through the skin and they sat up a little too pertly, not moving quite in tandem with the rest of her body, as if they had entirely their own agenda. When her bandages came off, Shaun insisted that Leigh (and everyone else she knew) feel them and give a full report.
“Hey, did you find a new place yet?” Shaun asked over the roar of the hairdryer.
“No,” Leigh said leaning into the mirror to apply her eyeliner. “I responded to a bunch of posts on Craigslist but nothing so far.”
“Something great will come up. What’s that they say? In New York,
You’re always looking for a job, a boyfriend, or an apartment.”
“What is that? Gospel according to Sex and the City?”
Shaun rolled her eyes and smiled through her curtain of hair, “Fuck, I hate when I get a random piece of pop culture stuck in my brain and I confuse it with some great quotation. It’s kind of true though…”
“At least I have a job at the moment,” Leigh said, referring to her position of a half a year or so working as a production assistant at a publishing house, “not that I wouldn’t love to have a new one of those as well.”
Shaun flipped her head over to dry the underside of her hair.
“I might be able to help with the third thing,” Shaun said, flipping her head back over and switching off the hairdryer.
“Huh? What third thing?” Leigh asked, turning to look at her and accidentally getting mascara in her eyebrow in the process.
“The boyfriend part…”
“Is that so?”
“You remember Marat?”
“Um…” Leigh picked at a clump of makeup that had lodged itself in the corner of her eye.
“The brain surgeon guy whose friends with my Uncle Mark? We went out to dinner that one time and went back to Christine’s for drinks and he came with us…”
“Oh right. He was very nice.” She had compounded the eye makeup situation by smearing the excess across her cheek. Annoyed with herself, she went to the bathroom to get eye makeup remover. Shaun was staring at her.
“You’re joking. Shaun, he’s old enough to be my father.”
“You need to be more open-minded, Leigh. He’s going to be really famous for his work, and he’s got tons of money. He thinks you’re so beautiful, he told me he stuck around at Christine’s just to spend more time with you…”
“Well, I’m very flattered but not interested.” Leigh recoiled at the thought. Marat was at least fifty. She could never imagine how other women did it, the thought of that skin and hair so much older than her own, how this could add up to some kind of an illicit thrill she would never understand.
Shaun gave her a sheepish look.
“I kinda told him you were into it.”
“Sorry! But I thought you should give it a chance!”
Leigh shook her head, laughed and shut the bathroom door. “Not going to happen,” she said through the closed door.