I think it was tequila that night. Shithead had a silver flask that we’d been sipping from ever since we pulled out of Barstow so I was pretty buzzed by the time we got to Vegas. We arrived in the dead of night and got one of those moldy rooms just off the Strip. We fought; I cried. I left him at a roulette table in an old casino with low, smoky ceilings, but not before I got in some swift kicks to his shins. It must have been tequila. That’s the only liquor that gives me the confidence to be mean.
For months now I had wanted to look him in the eye and tell him what an asshole he was, but I couldn’t even look him in the eye to tell him a joke. I was the little dog in the pack who can’t look at the alpha. I wanted to hire someone to tell him he was an asshole. A singing telegram who’d show up at his job and sing to him in front of everybody. A guy dressed like a bellhop, one with a full head of hair and a handful of balloons who would tap dance and work the words into a little jingle: “You’re such an asshole—Your name should be Shithead. La, la, la.” And then, by the time Shithead got home, I’d be gone. Packed and vanished. I’d leave a single helium balloon floating in the bedroom as if I’ve run off with the bellhop.
Once I cracked the code, I could weather the fights. When Shithead paced or rapped his knuckles, he was paranoid. When he rubbed his nose, he was lying. When he thought I was hiding something—a stash of money or pot that I didn’t want to share, or the phone number of someone else (someone nice)—he’d yell and wave his arms. But if he yelled with his arms crossed, he was the one keeping secrets. (Shithead never had his own stash of money or pot. His secret was always another woman.)
There wasn’t anything I could do when he’d wave his arms and pace. I just had to wait for him to tire. But if his arms were crossed, I could mutter something mean as I slammed the door behind me and when I’d come back, he’d bite his lip, hands in his pockets: the apology. He’d offer me his hand and lead me outside. We’d leave the helmets at home and ride up the mountain on his motorcycle. He’d bring something to swig or smoke once we got there, just in case the ride wasn’t enough of a high. One day he took his hand out of his pocket and offered me a ring.
I had wanted to be an April bride—off-white chiffon dress with a crown of flowers in my hair. I wanted a procession of bridesmaids in puffy peach dresses. A jazz quartet and a three-tiered cake. But Shithead was a cheapskate so we drove to Vegas instead.
Out on the Strip I was just another drunk woman in a tight red dress. I looked like a strung-out Amy Winehouse. Waterproof mascara is never really waterproof. If it had been daytime, I could have covered up with sunglasses. If I had a key I could have gone back to the motel. Although I’d probably never find it. I couldn’t even remember the name of it. Somewhere behind me Shithead was shouting at a roulette wheel, shins stinging, tequila burning in his belly.
I stumbled toward some bright blinking lights that turned out to be a hotel. There was a bellhop with a whistle directing people into cabs. I wandered toward him. He looked like the helpful type. He seemed to know things.
Some guy in a suit grabbed me by the elbow.
“There you are,” he growled, grumbling something under his breath.
I was so startled that I almost peed. He led me into the lobby and down a corridor, smiling at the gamblers we met along the way but keeping a firm grip on my arm. He opened a door and a camera flashed.
The room was small with no windows. The poker table in the center was big and round. Five men sat in front of piles of chips. There was a dealer and one empty spot. Four men in dark glasses and dark suits lined the back wall, standing like the secret service. The grumbling man who had escorted me into the room pulled out the empty chair and motioned for me to sit down.
“Miss Leigh,” he boomed to room. That was not my name.
He looked into a security camera and held up two fingers. A few seconds later two drinks arrived by cocktail waitress. The drinks were small and clear, bubbly with a wedge of lime and a little red straw. One was for me.
A friend of mine was a dealer at the Bellagio and she told me about these high-stakes poker games that were played behind closed doors. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would be won or lost on a single hand. The guys in these poker games were princes or Arab sheiks or Japanese businessmen, guys who were rich enough to have their own islands. The games were so selective, not even the movie stars could get a place at the table. They weren’t rich enough. The high rollers would stay in these huge penthouse villas with a cook on site 24/7 and a special attendant whose only job was to draw the bathwater. Everything was comped by the hotel.
When the high rollers went on a winning streak, the hotel would slip in a distraction, someone like me. A woman in a sequined red dress who would break up the lucky streaks just by her presence. Someone whose winnings would go back to the hotel.
The man to my left wore mirrored sunglasses. When he turned to me I could see my reflection in his lenses. My face looked surprisingly intact. I guess my makeup was waterproof after all. The man clenched his jaw so tightly his ears moved. He turned away.
My stomach growled. I had no idea what time it was but suddenly I was starving.
Maybe if I could have looked Shithead in the eye, I could have looked at the men at the table. But it was all I could do to hold my drink with its little red straw and look at my piles of chips that weren’t mine at all. The dealer looked at me and cocked his head. I think he was trying to place me. With quick flicks of his wrist he scattered the cards in little personal fans for each of us.
My hand was terrible. I folded my cards into a neat stack close to my chips.
I don’t play poker.
One by one the men flung a few chips to the middle of the table. I copied them. The man with the mirrored sunglasses tossed two cards toward the dealer. The dealer tossed two cards back. The man next to him did the same. I don’t remember what the next guy did; I was too focused on the way he played with his chips. He held a red chip between his thumb and forefinger and used it to push a white chip back and forth.
The guy next to him pressed his forefinger against his lips as if to say, “Shhhhh….” His chin rested on his thumb, holding his mouth shut. He was wearing an old cowboy hat. Maybe it was his lucky hat.
Someone was tapping his foot restlessly but I couldn’t tell who it was.
Sunglasses was stiff. His nose drifted toward me, as if he were trying to smell the air between us. I couldn’t see his eyes but I could feel his stare. His hand rested on the table. He clenched his fist and then relaxed it again. When Shithead made that gesture it meant that I’d already lost. Regardless of what I’d say or do, he’d slap me sideways to Kansas.
The man to my right held up one finger to the dealer.
“One card for Mr. Rory.”
Without looking up, I raised five fingers to get five new cards.
“The lady stands,” said the dealer, misinterpreting my hand signal. “The bet is to Mr. King,” he continued, motioning to Sunglasses.
Sunglasses raised his chin and flipped some chips toward the center of the table, moving his elbow slightly closer toward my chips as if to indicate ownership. I wondered if he and Miss Leigh worked in tandem for the casino and if I was supposed to bet a lot of chips for him to win.
The man playing with his chips raised the bet. The man in the cowboy hat folded. Sunglasses caressed the perimeter of a blue chip with his forefinger like he was stimulating a nipple. When the bet came to me, I picked up a blue chip in case Sunglasses was telling me to raise it again. He kissed his fist. I threw the chip with a too much force and it bounced past the kitty.
Then: a knock at the door. The Grumbler opened it and quickly jumped out of the room, closing the door behind him. We heard a woman’s voice, demanding. It must have been the real Miss Leigh because the cowboy, the only one with a good view of the door, darted his eyes back and forth between the voices behind the door and me. Then he gave the dealer a long, hard look.
The dealer didn’t match his gaze. The cowboy turned his stare to me, willing me to look at him. I didn’t. He put his palms on the table and leaned into them, ready to pounce.
“This is fucked up!” he shouted, pushing the table over as he stood up.
All the chips came crashing down toward me. I stood up quickly and saved my drink from the table. As I scooped up the glass, a white chip plopped to the bottom of my drink like Alka Seltzer. Two of the men in dark suits grabbed the cowboy. Another shut off the security camera with a remote control. There was kicking and yelling from all directions. The Grumbler pushed the real Miss Leigh into the room.
I acted instinctively, not intentionally. But now I had a $5000 chip in my gin and tonic. I cupped my hand around the base of the glass hoping no one would notice.
I looked Miss Leigh in the face. We wore the same red, but she and her dress were in a different league. She and the cowboy locked eyes. Then she crossed over to Sunglasses and put a hand on his shoulder. Each one thought the other guy was the chump.
The Grumbler grabbed me by the arm and pushed me out of the room.
“Get management down here,” he hissed into his palm. And then he slammed the door.
I was no longer needed. Whatever was going down didn’t involve me. I fished the chip out of my drink and headed straight for the cashier’s window. Five thousand dollars. I could start a new life with five thousand dollars.
Janine Kovac enjoys champagne, folded laundry, and moonlit walks on the beach thinking about champagne and folded laundry. She writes because God tells her to.
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