My Filthy Rich Ex-Best Friend and What “Saltburn Got Right”

There’s no need to feel like an imposter

YJ Jun
Human Parts

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Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

I used to have a friend I admired too much. She was pretty, she was sweet, and she was filthy rich. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the clothes she wore, or her doughy face. It was only after she dropped $10,000 on a Thanksgiving/Black Friday trip to New York that we realized the real reason why none of her comfy clothes had designer logos (she found it tacky to flaunt wealth). Her skin was flawless, not doughy, we realized, because she invested in skin products only people our mothers’ or grandmothers’ age could afford — when they were from wealthy households.

To me, she was Felix Catton, and I Ollie, a moth drawn to light. Just like in “Saltburn,” a major red flag in our friendship revolved around Harry Potter.

And I had my redemption — without murdering her, of course.

In Saltburn, the wealthy Cattons have a library stocked with Shakespeare’s folio, among other works. But the one book we see any of them reading is Harry Potter. Given the train on the cover, we know it’s not just any Harry Potter book, but the first one (The Philosopher’s Stone, a.k.a. The Sorceror’s Stone in the U.S.). What’s more, the Catton kids rotate the book amongst themselves. We see it in Venetia’s hands when they sunbathe naked in the field, then in Felix’s when he confronts Ollie about shagging his sister.

This seemingly small detail hints at the vapidness of high society.

Female Felix and I met in college. In our senior year, I admired Female Felix so much that I followed her to London. Our other friends were going to Jamaica. They’d been planning to go for months, me included, but when Female Felix said, “Why would we go to Jamaica? Let’s go to London instead,” my brain understood this as a joint idea. This was our trip, exclusive to us. Nevermind the others girls had been my closest friends since freshman year, while Female Felix straggled into our friend group somewhere in sophomore year. (I’m sure you don’t need reminders, but in college, one year might as well be a decade when it comes to relationships of any kind.)

Flying to London with Female Felix was, in an odd way, like leaving my wife for a mistress I barely knew.

There were two reasons I did this. One is that I wanted what Female Felix had: an air of elegance, quiet wealth, enigma no one could broach. I had seen this even before the Thanksgiving/Black Friday trip. After word spread about her spending, suddenly she was invited left and right to hang out with the Korean international students who more obviously flaunted their wealth. But I had hung out with the odd kids during my years at an international school in Seoul, and from that experience I knew that oftentimes it was the quietest, humblest kids who shouldn’t be underestimated.

Female Felix has since lost about thirty pounds, swapped out sweats and hoodies for turtlenecks and athleisure. She didn’t stop wearing designer clothes or accessories without the logos. They just actually look designer now. Without exaggeration, she looks like a model, albeit a short one.

To me, she’s always looked this way. The outside caught up to the inside. That’s not to say brag about how I found a diamond in the rough. I’m trying to relay the degree of allure that caused my delusions.

The second reason I followed her to London was because I am gigantic Potterhead. To this day, I (half-)joke that while I understand the U.K. is a place that Harry Potter was based off of, my reptilian brain is convinced that the wizarding world of Harry Potter is the real place, and the U.K. an immersive museum. I couldn’t wait to see double decker buses that transported magical creatures and red telephone booths that led to the Ministry of Magic.

But it turned out, my two reasons for visiting London were at diabolical odds.

What I love about Harry Potter to this day is how it disguises important life lessons as adventures in the fantastical. To boot, there was beautiful, whimsical prose throughout, and truly memorable scenes, whether laugh-out-loud funny or heartrending.

But ultimately, Harry Potter is for kids, particularly the first book. That’s not to say young adult literature is any less important than “real” literature, but context is important.

(The Real) Felix and Venetia have a portrait-worthy library at their disposal, full of classics and historic wisdom. They’re also in (or near) their twenties and have probably already read the first Harry Potter (since it was released in 1997, and the movie takes place in 2006). Felix and Farleigh are even Oxford students.

Clearly, the Catton kids are reading beneath their level.

Nothing’s wrong with summer reading; it’s natural to want something light or nostalgic, but again, context is important. This is one of many hints that the high-flying Cattons aren’t are elite as they present themselves to be. Consider the fact that Farleigh got the life stories of two different poets mixed up, or that Elspeth so easily fell for Ollie’s obvious lies.

This is exactly what Saltburn got right about the filthy rich: they’re not all that they’re cracked up to be — certainly not all that they portray themselves to be.

By the end of my London trip with Female Felix, I had a mountain of evidence that she was just as vapid as the Cattons, with all the snarky judgmentalness of Farleigh.

At the Louvre, Female Felix enthusiastically dragged me to the Arte Nouveau section, so I assumed she liked the genre — until we got there and both realized she had no idea what Arte Nouveau was. She was cultured enough to know “art nouveau” translated to “new art,” but not enough to realize that that was literally the name of an entire movement.

After we watched The Dark Knight Rises, the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I asked her to remind me what piece by Maurice Ravel was used in the movie. When she was confused, I clarified: that song that was playing when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway playing The Cat, more commonly known as Catwoman) was dancing with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale playing Batman) at the fancy ball. She tutted. Clearly, I was talking about Debussy. She even looked up the soundtrack to prove her point. I can’t even find whatever website she was looking at, but it listed one of Debussy’s works, and none of Ravel’s. Smug, she closed her browser and ended the conversation.

As a brief primer: Ravel was to Debussy what Beethoven was to Mozart. Ravel and Debussy were contemporary composers during the (French) Impressionist era, while Beethoven and Mozart were contemporaries centuries before, during the Classical era. All four are hallmarks of their respective movements. To simplify, Ravel and Beethoven were the tortured artists known for their anguished and sometimes off-kilter pieces, compared to their counterparts, Debussy and Mozart, who were golden boy geniuses known for their light, airy pieces. Think Christopher Nolan versus Steven Spielberg (mostly known for delightful wonders such as E.T. and Indiana Jones, with an odd Schindler’s List-type work).

This might seem like such first world problems, and it is. A cultured person would know the difference between the two composers. A cultured person, like Felix from the movie, or Female Felix in real life, should be able to hear a piece and deduce who the composer was, based on the era (roughly proxied by the progressiveness of a piece) and mood. Something dreamy and nice? Debussy. Something dreamy but melancholy? Ravel.

It turns out, I was right. The piece playing during that ballroom scene was “Pavane Pour Une Infente Defunte” by Maurice Ravel, a melody I recognized because I’d seen it performed by a symphony orchestra performance after tagging along with my classical pianist mom.

This is to not brag that about myself. Rather, it’s to point out that even the people we think are more “worthy” than us (because of some arbitrary measure like wealth, “taste,” or “cultured-ness”) often are not. It’s in the same vein of realizing there’s no need to feel imposter syndrome once you’ve been in a C-level suite: because you look around and realize these people might not be as smart as you think they are.

My own Saltburn manor was myself. I had to reclaim my sense of self, because I had let it get overrun by Felixes and Farleighs and Venetias, lorded over by Sir Jameses and Elspeths.

How fitting that I reclaimed my life with Harry Potter.

At an office lunch table years ago, I shared my love of Harry Potter. I thought it was safe. Not everyone’s a fan, but it was a worldwide phenomenon, like Star Wars, or whether hotdogs were sandwiches— things the men I sat with talked about all the time.

A coworker groaned and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t like Harry Potter,” he said, to the chuckles of the rest of the table. “I really don’t like Harry Potter.” The laughter quieted as his voice grew, clearly serious. He rattled off various plotholes and worldbuilding inconsistencies. He wrapped up his tirade with, “But whatever, it’s for kids.”

This was coming from a man who adorned his office with tens of superhero action figures. A man who discussed the intricacies of orc battle tactics in the few minutes we waited for the rest of our coworkers to file into a conference room.

I don’t know what it is about me and diehard Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans, but Female Felix was also a Harry Potter (HP)-hating LOTR-head, too. While she spent every winter break watching all three extended cuts of the LOTR trilogy, she frowned down her nose when I suggested we spend a few hours of our London trip at the Harry Potter Studios.

She resisted from before the trip, and up until our last day. The entire time, I suppose I had been equal parts waiting for her to come around, and just grateful to be going to Europe with a friend. We shared a Google Spreadsheet to jointly brainstorm, but in the end it was her who decided on the entirety of the itinerary — especially where we ate.

Female Felix was big on eating. She loved olives from Whole Foods, ramen from one or two “authentic” restaurants in New York, and desserts — lots of desserts from French-inspired patisseries. During our trip, she would regularly comment on the dishes I chose at the restaurants she chose. “You probably can’t taste anything,” she said once after we swapped desserts, “because yours is so sweet.” (For context, “It’s not too sweet” is the ultimate compliment for a dessert in Asian culture. The opposite, “too sweet,” is the ultimate insult. Saccharine-nesss hints at vulgarity and a lack of self control, for the consumer and for the baker.)

On our last morning in London, I realized she didn’t have any plans. I suggested, once again, the Harry Potter Studios. She scoffed. I realized that “our” plans had taken none of my preferences into consideration. In a spate of self-love — or pettiness — I bought a single ticket to the Studios and printed out directions to get there.

“Are you seriously going by yourself?” she whined as I walked out the door of our hostel. “But it’s our last day.”

Exactly, I thought.

What a red flag it was that the only time we fought was when I wanted something.

“My Filthy Rich Ex-Best Friend” is a catchy title, but in hindsight, we were barely friends, let alone best friends. Or, if that’s how she treats people she genuinely considers a friend, I’m glad I escaped that title.

During graduation, I saw her with her family at dinner. I was there, too, with my family. I waved. She didn’t. I called out, thinking she hadn’t heard me. She smiled, but it was pained. She was embarrassed. “Who’s that?” her mom asked. I didn’t hear whatever she said, but she didn’t get up to introduce herself. None of her family members did.

At the end of Saltburn, Ollie claims victory by dancing around naked in the manor he acquired by murdering everyone who used to live there.

I didn’t quite do that. But the journal I wrote the first draft of this article in is a Harry Potter journal, purchased from the Harry Potter Store in Manhattan, from when I took myself on a solo vacation.

My friend group is smaller, but packed with people who have different definitions of “cultured” or “knowing” or “deserving.” More importantly, they’re curious to learn others’ definitions, instead of looking down their noses. They might not know as much, but at least they know what they’re talking about.

Reclaiming my Saltburn meant kicking out the crazies. I no longer feel like I’m being graded in comparison, or an object of disdain. Like Ollie, I feel a sense of glorious, naked freedom. I just didn’t have to murder anybody to free myself.

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YJ Jun
Human Parts

Fiction writer. Dog mom. Book, movies, and film reviews. https://yj-jun.com/