This is the first chapter in a short story series I wrote: The Beautiful People: New Orleans
In The Beautiful People: New Orleans, the first short story in a new series, Cheril N. Clarke introduces us to four intriguing characters who will propel the reader into a provocative world filled with sophisticated naughtiness. Nontraditional in its presentation, The Beautiful People follows a close group of friends who love to travel, meeting up in a different city every other month for a weekend of exploration, partying, and a much-needed break from the daily grind of their careers. From the city of New Orleans, this installment acquaints us with a high-end tailor with a disdain for the common man, a fashion photographer riding a narcotic seesaw, an accountant with a penchant for flirting and flings, and a haute entrepreneur who is struggling with secret desires of her own. The Beautiful People subtly pushes moral boundaries and challenges preconceived notions of perfection.
Colin knew it was going to be an interesting reunion the moment his taxi slowed to a stop and he saw the clean-cut bellman with enigmatic eyes the color of perfectly aged whiskey.
"Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Le Pavillon Hotel," he declared immediately after opening Colin's door. "My name is Aaron."
A southern belle! Colin thought, as he took in Aaron’s rustic accent and smoked-oak complexion. He tipped his scraggly old cab driver and refocused his attention on the man who looked just as finely sculpted as the architecture that surrounded them. "Good afternoon and thank you." With a subtle swagger and sly grin, Colin pulled off his gray and black cashmere beanie.
"My pleasure.” Aaron took a step closer. “Will you need assistance with your bags?"
"If you don't mind, actually, I will." How could he miss an opportunity to have Aaron escort him to his room?" I think I overpacked for this trip."
"It's no problem at all, sir. We all do that sometimes.” Aaron grabbed the handle of Colin's wheeled upright luggage and asked, “Is this your first visit to New Orleans?”
“It is...” Colin’s voice trailed off as they stepped into the antique-filled lobby of the hundred-year-old hotel. With one look at the enormous crystal chandeliers and ornate paintings, he could tell that it was Vanessa who had made the hotel selection for this month’s meet-up. Ms. Extra! She was one of his favorite people, and he couldn’t wait to see drama queen extraordinaire in the flesh.
“I’ll wait here while you check in,” Aaron said, stepping off to the side as Colin approached the hotel’s front desk.
Moments later, Aaron showed Colin to his room—a quaint space with thick burgundy and gold draperies, rich brocade bedspreads, and mahogany furniture.
“Thank you.” Colin reached in his pocket for a gratuity as Aaron carefully placed the luggage against a wall.
“It’s my pleasure, sir. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask. You’ll find all of the hotel phone numbers on your nightstand.”
“Great. Thanks again.”
“My pleasure. Enjoy your stay in New Orleans.” Aaron smiled and opened the door to leave.
“I’m sure I will!”
Colin had amused himself with his interaction with Aaron. There was no indication that the bellman was reciprocating any of his mischievous connotations, but Colin enjoyed dishing out flirtatious smiles and glances just the same. It was a fun game he played every time he traveled and happened upon a man or woman who was as stunningly attractive as Aaron. Colin loved beautiful people.
After slipping out of his wool coat and neatly unpacking his clothes, Colin took time to tour the hotel and, despite the chill in the air, made his way to the rooftop where he had a clear view of city. Yen Chu is going to love this! he thought of his friend, a photographer who would be flying down with Donovan, another of their buddies. The early-morning air was cool and invigorating, quite a change from Colin’s hometown of Miami. With a smile growing across his face, he welcomed the elements.
The thud of the overcrowded jet hitting the runway was the sweetest sound Vanessa had heard all morning. Finally. She celebrated quietly and secured her black pebbled leather bag on her shoulder. She was anxious to exit the plane, and to get away from Starquasia, a willowy young woman with colorfully designed fingernails who had been bumped up to first class because of an airline error.
“I ain’t never rode first class before!” Starquasia had whispered loudly when she first sat down. “But that’s the least they could do after giving me the runaround! You know what I’m saying, girl?” she asked, leaning closer to Vanessa. “They always think they can treat us any kind of way! And then they have the nerve to serve you half a can of soda and some peanuts! Giirrrrl, I don’t play that,” she quipped and pulled out a plastic container of fried chicken.
Vanessa shrunk so far into her seat she thought she might dissolve from embarrassment. She hadn’t known which of her fears were greater: that people might think she and Starquasia were traveling together or that Starquasia might pull more food out of her carry-on bag.
The instant Vanessa could leave the aircraft, she slid on her super-sized, square-framed sunglasses and power-walked to baggage claim, bypassing the ladies room for her usual ritual of retouching her make-up after a flight. Vanessa wanted seclusion and she wanted it now. The first sign of relief came when she rounded a corner and spotted SWAIN printed in big black letters on a white board held by a stocky gentleman. Her car service was here. She acknowledged her driver and gave him a quiet look-over noticing that his jacket was a little wrinkled about the shoulders with a few specks of dandruff atop the left side. She sighed, thinking he could have at least steamed his uniform, but was grateful that he was on time and greeted her with a radiant smile. He cheerfully introduced himself and gathered her luggage. Soon after, they were en route to the hotel. Thank goodness!
Yen Chu saw inspiration at every turn as she viewed New Orleans for the first time from the back seat of a city cab. Donovan, who was sitting next to her, was unusually quiet. In between chatter with their driver, who gave them nuggets of history on the city, she couldn’t help but notice the long drainage pipes along the highway that were curious and eerie. Being so close to them snatched her from the present and dropped her back in front of her television where, just five years earlier, she’d watched news reports of Hurricane Katrina ravaging the area. Recollection of the chaos, the half-clothed and hungry, the desperation, and the frustration flooded her mind as the cabbie took the exit toward the Superdome.
Donovan, too, found himself flashing back to photos of the helpless locals stranded on their roofs. He hadn’t been to New Orleans since before the tempest had descended upon it, and as he rode along, he unwittingly remembered footage of the dead drifting down sewage-filled streets. Images of people pitched atop their homes, women clutching their babies, and men holding fast to elders while frantically waving at helicopters for help as the waters continued to rise rippled through his mind, the memory falling over him like a putrid cloak.
“There it is, right there, The Dome.” The driver’s baritone voice cut through their thoughts like thunder as he pointed to the iconic symbol coming into view. “Y’all sure picked a hell of a weekend to visit. Saints fans are going crazy! If we win tonight, we’re going to the Super Bowl!”
“Well, even though I’m more of a baseball man, I have to say that no other team deserves a win more than yours.”
Donovan pulled out his cell phone and leaned closer to Yen Chu. “I’m gonna text Colin and Vanessa to let them know we’re almost there.”
“Okay.” Her head just barely peeked out from the scarlet pashmina that enveloped her face. “It’s crazy isn’t it? Seeing the city after the storm?”
“Yeah, it is...”
A fleeting silence passed through the car before static-filled babble from the driver’s radio filled the gap. Donovan took a sip of bottled water.
Yen Chu peered at him as he adjusted his silk pocket square. “Anyway, have you calmed down now?”
“Your attitude was typically rotten at the airport with that kid.”
“Oh, yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry. It’s just...you know I hate dealing with incompetence, and that guy was an idiot if I’ve ever seen one!”
“He was just trying to do his job, Donovan.”
“He was stupid. He couldn’t even get my order right after I repeated myself three times!”
“Look at what you ordered!”
“What?” Donovan was incapable of seeing how difficult he could be.
“A medium cappuccino in a large cup, with enough room for hazelnut, a splash of half-and-half, organic whipped cream, and just a few sprinkles of sugar!” Yen Chu giggled at the memory of his laundry-list order. “Who asks for that?”
“When they put it all in a medium cup, it’s too much. It runs over! And you forgot the hazelnut is ground round,” he joked.
“Right. What’s next, cinnamon dust on top?”
“That’s not a bad idea, actually.”
“See! You’re a mess.” She smiled. “You have to learn how to relax.”
“Well...” Donovan grinned back as he began to send the text message. “I know you’re right, Yen.” He stopped and peered at her through indigo eyes. “There’s room for improvement. I’ll work on that.”
“Good.” She playfully patted his sinewy leg, her slender hand at ease in a black fingerless mohair-blended glove.
Their day of travel had been free of delays despite setting out from a wintry New York City. Everything had gone smoothly until Donovan had gotten impatient with a flamboyant male server at an airport café. Knowing how obsessed Donovan was with detail, Yen Chu was actually happy he had only gotten agitated with one person throughout their trip.
Though he didn’t appear imposing in stature, Donovan could be quite the intimidator with his attitude, always particular, always right, and always arrogant. He disdained being challenged or misunderstood by those he thought to be beneath him, often deeming them imbeciles without even giving them a chance to demonstrate their intellectual capacity in one way or another. When Donovan looked into a mirror, a paragon of acumen stared back. Save for rare moments with his closest friends, he unapologetically held others, particularly men, to his standards.
“Here we are,” their cab driver drawled as he maneuvered his vehicle to the driveway. The worn leather seats groaned under his weight as he hobbled out of the car to open the trunk for them.
Yen Chu and Donovan entered the lobby just as Colin stepped off the elevator to meet Vanessa for a drink at the foyer bar.
“Trouble has arrived!” Colin exclaimed when he saw Yen Chu and Donovan walk into the hotel.
Vanessa excitedly got up from her stool and greeted Yen Chu with a hug and kiss to both cheeks while Donovan and Colin tilted into one another for a two-second, more masculine embrace.
“Good to see you again, buddy!” Donovan firmly pat Colin’s back a few times.
“And you!” Vanessa pulled Donovan into a squeeze. “Congratulations on the Luxe Man magazine feature. I’m so happy for you!”
Donovan beamed. “Thanks. I’m still pinching myself to see if it’s real. I’m getting more new clients than I can handle!”
“I bet you are.” Colin gestured for everyone to move to a booth in the cocktail lounge. “I know that I better be at the top of the D.S. Chandler made-to-measure client list! I don’t want you handing my orders off to anyone else because you’re too busy posing for pictures and posturing. As a matter of fact, I want you to sew my suits yourself! You got that?” he joked.
“King Diva has spoken!” Vanessa took a sip of her mimosa.
Donovan chuckled. “Don’t worry, my top priority will always be making quality men’s clothing.”
“All right then, perfect. I want to look like a million bucks when I walk into my office.” Colin refocused his attention. “Hey, I want a photo shoot, Yen, so I’ll need you too.”
Vanessa sighed with exasperation. “I really wish you catered to women, Don. You don’t know how hard it is to find a perfectly fitting suit, let alone one of the best fabrics.”
“Well...” Donovan hesitated. “No offense, but it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth—at least as a business decision. You ladies often want seasonal trends over quality construction, if you even know what you want at all!”
“Hey!” Vanessa and Yen Chu feigned offense simultaneously.
“Generally speaking, I mean. It’s not your fault; you’re brainwashed by advertising from the ready-to-wear industry to follow fashion.” He spat out the last word as if it were sour milk. “You know I’m a traditionalist, a fan of classic style.”
Colin sat quietly, trying to decide if he should eclipse Donovan’s inevitable discourse on sartorial distinction or let him ramble on.
“Of course, I don’t mind tailoring some pieces for you gals.” Donovan added before turning his attention to a waitress who had attentively walked over. He greeted her with a smile. “Would you happen to have organic vodka and fresh fruit?”
A collective sigh of relief fluttered around the table when she happily confirmed that she could cater to his desire.
“Thank God!” Colin quipped after the waitress walked away. “The last thing I want to hear right now is you belly-aching about high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors in drink mixers.”
Donovan was undeterred. “That stuff is no good for you.”
“Liquor is bad for you,” Yen Chu countered.
“Better to be bad in a good way! I’m with Don on this one,” Vanessa offered.
“Thanks, Vanessa.” Donovan winked at her.
“Ahem! I know you aren’t talking, Ms. I-love me-some pork wing wraps with raspberry barbecue sauce!” Colin peered at Vanessa. “Don’t think I forgot!”
“Shut up, Colin! How could I ever think you’ve forgotten when you insist on telling that story to everyone?”
“Mm hmm. You want to act all aristocratic now that we’re grown.” Colin leaned back, his eyes twinkling in delight as he poked fun at Vanessa.
“I do not!”
“I don’t think I’ve heard this one!” Donovan was curious.
Vanessa tossed her thick, layered, brown sugar hair aside as she prepared to stick up for herself. “Okay, this one time, back when we were in college, I had a craving. I mean, it was a long time ago!”
“At five o’clock in the morning!” Colin cut in.
“So it was late!” Vanessa smiled despite being embarrassed, her white teeth contrasting beautifully against her skin.
“Early! Let me tell it!” Colin swooped in dramatically. “Yes, so...it’s the end of a hot summer night, and we were on our way back from Atlanta. It was Vanessa, another friend named Yahira, and me...coming back from a rave party. Anyway, you know we’re from the country, right?” He took a quick gulp of his drink and continued. “Well, halfway back home, Vanessa starts complaining about being hungry and wanting to stop at a Giggly Piggly.”
“Giggly Piggly?” Donovan was confounded.
“Exactly!” Colin continued.
“A southern chain of convenience stores,” Vanessa defended herself.
“Finally,” Colin trumped. “I couldn’t take her drunk whining anymore and decided to pull off the highway to look for one—for twenty minutes with no luck! This girl had us driving all over Dumb-Fuck, Georgia, in the wee hours of the morning looking for a damn pork wing wrap from Giggly Piggly!”
“That we never found!” Vanessa tittered.
“I still want to know what kind of pork has wings?” Yen Chu laughed as if she’d never heard the story before.
Colin wrapped it up. “She settled for a high-cholesterol, artery-clogging buttery biscuit from a chicken joint with an unpaved parking lot.”
“Pork wings?” Donovan looked embarrassed for Vanessa.
“Leave me alone!”
“When pigs fly!” Colin snickered, a tear sliding from his eye as he reveled in the comical memory.
“Does anyone want another drink?” Vanessa pressed to change the subject.
“Well, that was then, right?” Donovan gifted her with an ivory smile while the others continued to chuckle. “And this is now. We’ve all come a long way.”
“Aw, you know I love you, Vanessa.” Colin finally composed himself. “I’m done. I promise.”
“Yes, we have.” Vanessa ignored him and adjusted her couture ring. “Anyway, are you guys ready to get out of here?”
“I know you aren’t going to act like you don’t hear me!” Colin protested.
“I heard you!” Vanessa relaxed, a smirk creeping onto her face. “And I love you too. Now, about getting out of this hotel, I’m ready to explore the city!”
“I’m ready for the night!” Colin jested.
Yen slid her chair back and stood up. “Yes, you and me both!”
“Well, let’s get out of here.” Donovan followed suit.
“I took the liberty of arranging a private tour,” Vanessa announced as they made their way to the elevator bank. “I don’t want to be around a bunch of random people and thought it would make everything more comfortable for us.”
“Great idea.” Donovan pushed the call button. “I can’t do another city cab right now.”
“Oh brother.” Yen huffed.
Vanessa smiled appreciatively. “So, our guide will be here on time at 1:30. Let’s meet back in the lobby then.”
“Sounds good,” Donovan added as they stepped into the elevator to retreat to their rooms.
-End of Chapter 1-