When my best friend Charlotte and I first bought the Funky Monkey more than ten years ago, I argued for keeping the store’s original name as well as most of its inventory, cataloging much of what we couldn’t sell. I didn’t like change. Like most Southerners, I was superstitious of anything new or novel. Then she insisted that we sell vinyl records and custom DJ bags to attract men as well as women, and I reluctantly agreed. When Charlotte insisted we also add other specialties—the Mardi Gras costumes, the wigs and formal wear, for people who really wanted to stand out—I balked. But I had to admit those were all good ideas, the sales of which got us through the leaner times. So I let her run the merchandising while I remained in the background, an area of life to which I had always been partial. Luckily, I had a talent for making other people shine, and now, with this store, I had a treasure trove to work with.
My ex-boyfriend, Luke, was from New Orleans proper, born and raised in the Garden District. He told me the building that housed the Funky Monkey had been a shoe store, a paint store, before that a bike repair shop, then an on-site dry cleaner’s. What dawned on me while watching Elizabeth slide into the empty window box, now holding a basket of pastel-colored bras (Okay, I see where you’re going with this), was that while this building had continued to recreate itself, I hadn’t. Change—that was Charlotte’s forte. That’s what made her a great business partner. Until, all in a day, one selfish action led her to destroy the business and our friendship.
But it was Luke’s betrayal I couldn’t recover from.
I met him in music class in college, and he had asked me out at the end of our junior year. I was studying Fine Arts, majoring in Design and minoring in Jazz Theory. I never played an instrument or sang. Never wanted to. But I loved to listen and learn about it, all of it—jazz, classical, alternative, you name it. Luke was tepid on music, only taking the course for easy credit. His passion was literature. When as a sophomore he precociously published his first novel, a coming-of-age story about growing up in New Orleans, I was so proud of him. He started to attract literary groupies, but they were of the earnest and respectful variety, so I rarely felt threatened. Naive of me, I realized looking back. But when he began receiving invitations to book events and festivals, that’s when the rift began. I’d go with him to readings and appearances provided they were local, but I couldn’t get on a plane. When I was eight, I had an uncle who died when his plane crashed into the ocean. We weren’t terribly close, but I was young and it was a formative time for me; at age eight you develop intricate theories to keep nightmares at bay. After that dramatic intrusion on my childhood, my terror of flying extended to anything I couldn’t understand and couldn’t control. I tried to keep fear from affecting the rest of my life, but it didn’t always work. I preferred sleeping in pajamas in case of emergencies, and having sex with the lights off in case someone walked in. This last habit had nothing to do with shame about the weight I’d gained in college or with the time my mother called me zaftig, a word I had to look up in private.
“You called me fat?” I screamed to her.
She protested dramatically. “No, honey! It means curvaceous. Why, it’s a lovely thing to be.”
Don’t get me wrong, Luke constantly told me how beautiful I was, how desirable, and I believed him. I wasn’t afraid of my curves. I wasn’t prim. I was adventurous. I liked sex. I just preferred it on my terms, my way, in flattering positions, in the dark, and showering directly after.
After graduation, Luke, Charlotte and I shared the second-floor, two-bedroom apartment on Philip near Coliseum, which is where I still live, one of those old clapboard Victorians painted yellow with white trim. The apartment had original windows and faced the street corner. Luke set up his desk and began to write what he called his “Southern Opus.” Our bedroom was drafty in the winter, but I didn’t mind because Luke kept me warm most nights and paid his share of the rent when he could hold down a part-time job. I hired him for a brief stint in the store, but I blanched when he tried to make suggestions to improve the business, or moved stock around on the floor so it would sell faster. “Be careful,” my mother warned. “Men don’t like criticism or self-sufficiency in women. They need to feel needed.” Dad disagreed. “Men just want to be wanted,” he said.
And the way Charlotte teased Luke or threw an arm around him, I always assumed was sisterly and benign. Luke was a nerdy writer, insular like me. Charlotte just wasn’t his type. He once called her flaky, whereas I was solid, layered. Charlotte was “Rocky Road” to my “Vanilla,” not an insult he explained, since I was his favorite flavor.
But tastes change. Working in fashion, I ought to have known that.
It was my day off, so I wasn’t supposed to walk in on them in the office at the back of the store, Charlotte atop a pile of sturdy suitcases we were refurbishing, her white skinny thighs straddling Luke, his stupid black jeans bunched at his dumb ankles, his ass clenched, mid-thrust.
“My goodness, I am so sorry,” I mumbled, backing up and closing the door behind me. You know your Southern upbringing has grown twisted when your first instinct is to be polite when intruding upon your boyfriend fucking your best friend.
My back resting against the door jamb of a change room, I kept my hand over my mouth for the time it took for them to dress and assemble in front of me in a state of disarray and shame.
Luke, the writer, offered a bunch of words.
I’m so sorry …
We didn’t mean to …
It just kinda happened …
It wasn’t planned …
We tried to end it, but …
These words assembled themselves into the only answers that were pertinent. One: This had been going on for a while. Two: They were in love.
They moved out that night.
I bought Charlotte out of the business for enough money to move to New York, where Luke wanted to relocate before his second novel was published. Six months later, Big Red came out to more great fanfare. A “morbidly honest tale about the corrosive effects of the South on an overweight, sensitive young woman trying to break from the past.” When I read his description of his protagonist, Sandrine, a “tense, controlling redhead” with a “sylph” of a sister and a “ballsy” best friend, I was in a state of shock for days, weeks, months … years. When it hit the bestseller lists, young girls ducked into the store (in the book it was called “Fancy Pansty”) shyly inquiring as to whether it was true: was I really the model for the famously tragic Sandrine from Big Red?
Elizabeth used to get so mad at those girls. “Do you see a fat redhead in this store?” she’d yell. And here’s the worst part: I never thought I was fat until the book was published. I’d always rather liked my curves. I wore only well-made vintage dresses, the kind constructed before the “era of the super model,” after which clothing suddenly became unflattering sausage casings for all but the very thin. And I never doubted Luke’s attraction to me, until I read his descriptions of Sandrine’s thighs and the “white expanse of her upper arms,” which sent me spiraling into a near-decade of self-doubt and insecurity.
People told me to take a trip, get out of town, go somewhere. But I couldn’t, maddeningly mirroring Luke’s phobic Sandrine, who atrophied in one spot her whole life. I even stopped taking short drives to the beach, afraid now to be seen in a bathing suit. On my sister Bree’s advice, I took up yoga; on my mother’s, online dating. Both very bad ideas, it turned out. The only thing going for me was work, so I clung to it, making my store the center of my life and my chief excuse for staying put.
Then Bree would accidentally let it be known that Charlotte was pregnant again, or that Luke’s “cool indy” screenplay sold for “millions,” or that their Williamsburg loft was featured in Elle magazine, where Charlotte also worked as a freelance stylist. Information like that would send me reeling backwards in time, undoing progress made by a few tepid dates with some guy I’d half-heartedly had sex with. That my sister remained friends with Charlotte was the least surprising betrayal of all.
“Just ’cause y’all had a falling-out doesn’t mean I have to give her up, Dauphine. I was friends with her too, you know. That’s unjust.”
“Falling-out? She was my best friend. He was my boyfriend. They killed my whole world.”
“Eight years ago! Most of your major organs have completely replenished themselves in that time! When are you gonna move on? You need a man!”
What if you don’t need a man but you still want one? I wanted a man, just not all the mess—that murky pond of feelings the worst of them sometimes leave you sitting in.
Men, however, were about the only subject to which I always deferred to my mother. She was from Tennessee pageant stock and believed she knew a lot about men and their motives. She also believed she knew a lot about me. She disapproved of the way I dressed. Her face said it all one day when she and Dad came down from Baton Rouge to take me to my thirtieth birthday brunch, where I wore a gorgeous 1940s tea dress with a pillbox hat and little black veil.
“I understand there is probably a very moving story behind that hat, but you’re puttin’ out a message that says ‘Stay away from me, for I am peculiar, stuck in the past,’” she said. Peculiar was the worst thing you could say about a Southern woman of a certain age.