I don’t normally wear white linen – even if one day science manages to preserve me as a disembodied head in a vat, I’ll still find a way to drop my lunch down the front of my shirt – but it was a hot, humid day in South Beach, Miami, and the shop had air conditioning so I slipped in for a while.
It was cool and pleasant in there among the rows and rows of gleaming white Egyptian cotton, like being inside an iceberg, or a P. Diddy yacht party. The shop was staffed by its owner, a Frenchwoman of a certain age with glittering eyes, who smelt of expensive perfume. I must confess it: I do enjoy a female French accent.
‘How’s business?’ I asked.
She shrugged like a Parisian waiter when you send the soup back. Sales were good, she said, but it’s depressing to watch Americans trying on her clothing. They are not elegant. They are too … too … She puffed out her cheeks and made a gesture with her hands.
‘Fat?’ I ventured.
Her eyes lit up in relief.
‘Yes! Fat!’ she exclaimed.
She beamed and told me how good it was to speak to someone who isn’t American. Americans get upset if you use the word ‘fat’, she said. Their feelings are so sensitive. They are like children who cry when you criticise them.
I beamed back and assured her that South Africans are cosmopolites and sophisticates. We call people fat all the time. We beamed at each other with the sheer pleasure of finding a kindred fat-shaming spirit in a PC foreign land. Yes, I thought. This is great. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed Yanks circumlocuting the truth. I’m kind of French!
She suggested I try on a shirt. Because it was so cool and friendly in there, and because I wanted to please her, I agreed. It was a nice shirt, with buttons and a crisp white collar. In the mirror I saw a young John F. Kennedy taking out the schooner for a spin.
I emerged from the change room and she fixed me with a critical eye. ‘Hmmm,’ she said, and poked at my midriff with a perfumed finger.
‘What?’ I said defensively.
‘You are nearly fat,’ she said.
I swallowed hard. ‘How nearly?’
‘Two days, three days. It depends on what you have for lunch.’ She laughed as though this was a joke.
It wasn’t a lot of fun, standing there in a clothing store just off Collins Avenue under the cruel scrutiny of a sadistic Frenchwoman poking my soft bits. Pedestrians paused and looked in through the glass at us, and nudged their spouses.
‘Do you have a bigger size?’ I asked sheepishly. She shook her head contemptuously.
‘I’ll just go take this off,’ I said. ‘I’ll come back and get one when I’ve lost some weight.’
‘No!’ she declared imperiously. ‘When you are fat, you must wear tight clothing. Then whenever you look in the mirror you will know: Aha! I must not eat so much today. Yes, you must wear it!’
‘Um, I don’t think that I – ’
‘Yes! You must wear it! You must feel shame! No, why are you crying? Be a man! Here, here are more shirts!’
A week later, back home, my partner watched me unpack three new cotton shirts from my suitcase, with the tags still attached, tags that will probably never be removed.
‘What was it like over there?’ she asked.
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘And the Americans? Are they really all fat?’
I turned to her, ablaze with indignation. ‘We do not use language like that in this house,’ I hissed. ‘We are not French!’
Getaway, April 2017