When I was 18, I closed out my second semester of college and went back home to New Orleans to live with my mom and dad for the summer. Within the first six days of being home, I’d fallen asleep in the bathtub at 1:30 in the afternoon twice, eaten four bags of Sweet & Spicy Chili Doritos, and snapped a plank of wood inside the loveseat from habitually throwing my body onto it.
My parents were equal parts pissed and confused. To them, I'd shown so much growth and maturity while I was away at college and then seamlessly reverted to a human slug under their roof. And when my dad told me to get a summer job, I let my shoulders and knees go limp, and I collapsed onto the floor. This was my childhood reflex to being told to do something I didn’t want to do; a reflex perfected over years of being woken up and ordered to cut the grass. Every Saturday morning, my dad would call up the stairs for me to “Come see,” and when I’d arrive on the landing, he’d remind me what day it was. Then, overwhelmed by the idea of having to put on dirty old sneakers and push a lawnmower around in the South Louisiana heat, I would release a feminine moan and implode from the inside — causing my body to flop like one of those push puppets that’s kept under tension until a button is pressed. Everyone in my family picked on me for doing this, but they still found it kind of cute in a frustrated-gay-adolescent-quirk kind of way. But at 18, with a year of dorm living under my belt, that shit was not cute anymore, and it caused my dad to come unglued. Between whining, “Finals were really hard! I need to rest,” and “But I just started reading He’s Just Not That Into You!” he swatted at me and called ma “lazy bitch.” So I got up, snatched the keys to my 1996 Ford Explorer off of the bar, and ran out the door.
Halfway down the street, I realized I was still wearing the same clothes I’d been lounging on the couch in: drawstring cut-off shorts, flip-flops, a ball cap with a flaming cayenne pepper embroidered on it, and an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt that read “Life Of The Party.” This wasn’t exactly job interview attire, but I certainly wasn’t going back home where my father would definitely slap me with my gently used copy of He’s Just Not That Into You, so I kept driving.
I stopped at a tanning salon half a mile from my subdivision and asked the tall blond behind the counter for an application. She eyed me from cap to flip-flop and handed over a piece of paper and a pen. Once finished, I asked if I could speak to the manager. The blond wordlessly retreated to a back room and shortly returned with a woman who looked like she’d be about as tall as a barstool if it weren’t for her black denim 6-inch strappy platforms and the haphazardly yanked-together bun on top of her head. Her mascara was clumped together like black birds on a wire and her jaw dropped and rose with every smack of gum. “Hey, I’m Misty,” she said, her voice sounding like a shrill kazoo that was manufactured in some swamp town trailer park on the outskirts of New Orleans. The tall blond slinked away to the back room and Misty gestured for me to take a seat. She kept my job application facedown in her lap and asked me questions about sunless tanning. “Oh, I’ve never used a tanning bed before,” I said. “Gingers tend to burn real easy. I can’t even get too close to the TV.” She snort-laughed and used her long, French-manicured nails to fan her eyes to keep from crying — which is a weird reaction I will never understand.
I could tell she liked me already, and I liked her too. Mostly because she looked like a pocket-sized drag queen. I imaged her on stage in a miniature tutu, next to an Amazonian version of herself, voguing in-sync to “When I Grow Up” by The Pussycat Dolls, which distracted me for the duration of the interview until she put her hand on my knee and said, “Do you have a problem acting a little, well, gayer?” I took a moment to collect my response. Finally, I nodded and said, “What now?” She straightened up. “We’ve never hired a boy before, and I just want to make sure our clients feel comfortable with you,” she said. “Women get naked behind those doors, and if they need something, they might feel super awkward around a masculine guy.” I was stunned. “I’m pretty gay as it is,” I said. “You want me to like bat my eyes a lot or something? Or, I don’t know, act like a black lady?” She looked confused. “Act like a black lady?” I shrugged. “I’ve noticed that really flaming gay guys are just imitating black ladies.” She looked astonished. “You’re so right!” she yelped. “Ugh, all the neck-rolling and finger-waving. It all makes sense now! Yeah, do that. Can you start Monday?”
Working at the salon was a breeze, and I liked hanging out with Misty. She was my boss, but she never really asserted herself like a boss. Then one day, she burst through the door, threw herself onto the carpet, and began sobbing. It was the mid-morning and at least three patrons in the shop were within listening distance, and also nude behind closed doors. I ran over and picked her up by the wrists, before dragging her to the back room. “Miss girl, are you okay?!” I said, forgetting that I didn’t have to keep up the gay-gay act around Misty. She’d gotten into a fight with her boyfriend and he’d threatened to throw her out of the house; a hovel in Westwego I imaged to be sloppy with cast-off bras and stinking of Hamburger Helper. She recovered fairly quickly, but a few hours later, I discovered her facedown and bottomless on a tanning bed, crying into her balled-up booty shorts.
At the time, I was involved in my first real same sex relationship with a boy I met on Bourbon Street named Chadwick. Being that we were both 18 and equally lacking the emotional wherewithal to be in a gay, committed, long-distance relationship, we fought all the time. So I’d come to work frustrated and then Misty would roll in like a goddamn hurricane of weave and runny eyeliner, and we’d both listen to “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and sulk like two miserable old bitches; Misty being the oldest and most miserable. Over time, I began to notice that Misty really didn’t have any boundaries or filter. She would smoke cigarettes inside and provoke screaming matches on the phone right in front of the store. She would often overshare about her rocky sex life or her boyfriend’s personal shortcomings, which made me whatever the opposite of horny is. And then one time, when I was wiping down beds, I overheard her fighting on the phone with her boyfriend and she called him a “stupid faggot.” I stopped what I was doing and walked out into the waiting area where Misty had her phone wedged between her shoulder and cheek while her free hands tied her flannel shirt into a knot just under her boobs. “I need to go home,” I said in a stage whisper. She waved me away with her long French tips and I never came back.
I didn’t leave because she said “stupid faggot.” I didn’t leave because I’d had it with her outbursts. I left because I was scared. Misty was a grown woman in a managerial position who routinely behaved like she was unhinged. And it frightened me that someone like her could be given the keys to the building and the autonomy to hire and oversee other employees. Later in life, I would understand that this happens quite often, but at the time, I was mortified by her rampant unprofessionalism and the idea that there might be other bosses like Misty.
On the way home, I stopped at the Applebee’s near my neighborhood and filled out an application because I didn’t want a lapse in my resume or a sidekick to the dick from my father. Misty called me again and again and left a bunch of angry voicemails; none of which I returned. Then, on a Tuesday, I started work at Applebee’s, where the chicken finger baskets are consistent and no one ever asks you to act gayer than you already are.