Home > The Beau & the Belle

The Beau & the Belle
Author: R.S. Grey

I CAME TONIGHT with the intention of reconnecting with a ghost from my past, but the woman standing a few feet away from me is no ghost. She’s flesh and blood, rose-colored cheeks and golden blonde hair. It falls down her back, the same length it was a decade ago, except now the curls aren’t wild and free. Even with her mask, I know it’s her the second I spot her from across the room. The top of her dress is tight, fitted to her curves, but the skirt floats around her like a cloud. I see enough hints of her younger self to know my old friend is in there somewhere, but so much has changed. Her cheekbones seem imperceptibly higher; a face that used to be round and sweet is now heart-shaped and demure. My stomach squeezes tight when I see the sparkle in her eyes that seems to whisper, The rules have changed. Back then, her beauty was irrelevant, like a delicate work of art tucked safely behind museum glass. The thought never entered my mind to cross the velvet rope—she was too young, I was too old…

But now she’s too close, and she’s leaning closer.

I’VE STOOD HERE before.

It’s been quite a while, but the old colonial-style house looks the same as I remember. Broad fluted columns rise imposingly, like bars, as if to warn away those who don’t belong. The ancient wrought-iron fencing matches the ornate filigree that decorates the otherwise subdued exterior of the building. It belongs in the background of Gone with the Wind, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a southern debutante leaning out from a half-shuttered window, petticoat rustling, fan waving. Hi mister, are you here to see little ol’ me?

It’s one of the most famous homes in the New Orleans Garden District. Tourists dawdle in front of it during their self-guided audio tours, oohing and aahing as they learn about its history. I have it memorized. The home was built back in the 1840s after a number of plantations in the area were divided and sold off. Men made wealthy from cotton and sugar snatched up massive plots as a way to escape the stacked townhomes of the French Quarter. One of those men was my great-great-great-grandfather, who commissioned Henry Howard to bring his dream of a proud homestead to reality. After its construction, the mansion remained in the Fortier family up until the late 1960s.

It’s eerie to stand on the outside of a life you could have had, looking in like a ghost in a Dickens story. Every detail about this house has been drilled into my head thanks to my mom. She used to drag me here when I was a kid—she’s a sucker for strolling down memory lane. To her, it’s cathartic to play pretend for a few minutes, wondering what her life would have been like if my grandfather hadn’t been forced to sell the property when his debt collectors came knocking.

“Could you imagine living here?” she’d ask me.

Back then, I honestly couldn’t. I was a country boy who grew up in a double-wide trailer home. The fanciest place I’d ever been to was the state capitol in Baton Rouge on a grade-school field trip. I couldn’t picture myself playing tag on the expansive emerald lawns when most days my friends and I spent time kicking up dust on old dirt roads.

When old money falls, it falls hard.

She still wants this life—but then, I can’t really blame her. The Garden District holds an unmistakable allure. It’s drawn celebrities like Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z. They all come to town to film, get infected by the southern charm dripping from the mossy live oaks, and try to make themselves into New Orleanians, but even with money, breaking into Big Easy society isn’t half as easy as they’d like it to be. Just ask my mom. She named me Beauregard, as if to try to trick people into treating me with the awe and respect my ancestor commanded, but first names just don’t matter in a place where bloodlines run deep. Unless you’re a Robichaux, LeBlanc, or Delacroix, naming your kid Beauregard is like putting lipstick on a pig.

“Excuse me, sir, do you live here?”

I turn to my right and see a middle-aged Asian woman clutching a crinkled map. Behind her, there’s a cluster of curious tourists, eyes brimming with hope. One of them turns to another and whispers loudly, “I think he was in a movie. Yes! It’s him, I swear!”

I’ve never acted a day in my life.

“No, sorry ma’am.” I shake my head. “I’m just passing through.”

She smiles and points to my clothes. “Well you look like you could.”

I get it. Not many tourists walk around in a pressed suit—especially not in August in Louisiana—but I had to come straight from my mock trial at Tulane and I didn’t bring a change of clothes. It’s fine. I’m not planning on walking around for long. In fact, my destination is right across the street.

It’s a house owned by Mitchell and Kathleen LeBlanc, one of the oldest families in New Orleans. I’ve heard the name a million times. It’s carved on a few buildings downtown. Their home is a yellow two-story colonial with white columns and dark navy shutters. Compared to some of the other homes in the area, it’s not quite as grandiose, but the land alone is worth millions.

A large oak tree arches over the left side of the home, concealing the small apartment on the back of the property and the bright red FOR RENT sign hanging in the window—at least, I hope it’s still there. As of this morning, the apartment wasn’t occupied, but rental properties move fast in this area thanks to all the Tulane students looking to live off campus.

I tip an imaginary hat to the dejected tourists and cross the street, glad to find the front gate unlocked. Warm wind rustles the leaves, bringing with it the sweet scent of blooming gardenia and jasmine. My shiny dress shoes snap against the brick-lined walkway before I take the stairs two at a time. I knock and wait. There’s nothing but silence. I tip back on my heels and try again. This time I hear a faint voice calling through the door.

“Oh shoot—coming! I’m coming!”

The front door sweeps open and I’m taken aback by the woman waving me in.

“You must be Beau!” she says with a wide smile.

I’ve never seen a photo of Mrs. LeBlanc, and I had a fairly well-defined stereotype formed in my mind: stuffy and pretentious, with heavy pearls tugging her earlobes toward the ground. The imagined caricature dissolves in the face of the real version, which has bright laugh lines and an artist’s smock hastily tied around her waist. Two pencils skewer a messy bun sitting high atop her head. She has a smudge of paint across her cheek and her hands are so stained that when I offer to shake her hand, she smiles and extends her bent elbow instead. I can’t help but laugh as I confidently grasp the outside of her arm and shake it like a chicken wing.

“I’m sorry. Am I early?”

I feel compelled to ask although I know that’s not the case. I’m meticulous—I don’t have the luxury not to be.

“No! No.” She shakes her head and leads the way to the kitchen, holding her bent arms in front of her like a doctor scrubbing in for surgery. “You’re right on time, actually. I really thought I would wrap up work in my studio sooner, but the light was just perfect and I couldn’t pull myself away.” She laughs and then puffs out a little breath, trying to move the loose strand of blonde hair off her face. After two more tries, she finally succeeds, and then she turns her expressive hazel eyes back to me. “Now, can I offer you something cold to drink?”

I’m sweating in this suit. It wasn’t a long walk from the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue, but the temperature outside is hovering in the 100s and the humidity is stifling.

“That’d be great,” I say, removing my jacket.

“Wonderful!” Then she glances down at her stained hands. “Oh, right. Well, you’ll have to help me with that.” She laughs at her blunder and heads for the sink.

I jump into action. “I’m happy to. Where are the glasses?”

“In that cabinet right there. Grab three. There should be some lemonade in the fridge. I made it this morning.”

I do as she says and by the time I’ve filled the three glasses with ice-cold lemonade, a man’s voice sounds down the hallway.

“Still painting, Kath? Isn’t that student coming soon?”

“He’s here now, honey!” she calls back. “We’re in the kitchen!”

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