He’s driving his rent-a-car somewhere on the highway out of town and I can’t remember his name. Fuck. This man is driving me away and I don’t know his first name. He looks over at me then faces the road. I stick my hand out of the window embracing the final coolness the early morning dusk has left behind, and close my eyes.
Las Vegas was hot in the summer; it reached 105 degrees at 12 am in July when we’d be walking into some ritzy club and sweating off our fake eyelashes. My girls and I were always looking for a way to get out of the heat in a city where it followed you everywhere. Or maybe we were looking for more.
Looking to make more.
We followed strange men into casinos, hotel bars, their bedrooms and fell victim to those desires inside of our souls that told us nothing was never enough. That’s why people came from all over, each day; that’s why everyone was in Vegas.
I caught on quickly as a preteen when I would catch Mami’s current tease of the month sneaking a peek at my slim thighs in my sheer cotton skirts.
“That’s right,” my eyes seemed to say, as I gave them a knowing glance. “You can’t ignore this.”
I wanted to follow in Mami’s footsteps since I was five and had started watching her put on her nude-colored stockings and purple eye shadow each night before I went to bed. Looking in wonder, as if being a cocktail waitress was akin to being a movie star. And I’d watch her in the mornings, too, just as the sun rose at 6 am, returning home from her night shift with high heels in hand and the fatigue of the night spreading across her face. She’d hand me my homework, kiss me on my forehead, and send me off to catch the bus, still dressed in last night’s uniform.
“Our kind of smarts is learned on the streets, Magdalena,” Ma would say. “That’s the only thing you need to get by.”
My girls and I walked across the stage of our high school auditorium with diplomas in hand, fake smiles plastered across our faces.
“If only you knew how much blow we did in the women’s bathroom the past four years,” we thought, shaking the hand of the principal, seeing him for the last and final time.
There was no thought of college, no thought of getting out of the city, no thought of being the revolutionaries in our families to break all expectations and get a degree. We had graduated from the gazes of Mami’s boyfriends to blowjobs in high school locker rooms, to the dive bars where we would wave around our fake I.D.’s for free drinks, to one night stands in bedrooms at the nicest hotels money could buy.
We weren’t prostitutes. I had too much dignity to turn to the streets and make a living out of it, having seen classmates sell themselves for a lot less than what I was giving up. It wasn’t my speed.
We just wanted more. And they gave it to us.
Las Vegas was home and the desert was all that I knew; dry and desperate, fast and merciless. Ma had come here for the dream: for the fast money and the way that everyone transformed into a new character every night; every new persona mirroring the ones that were endlessly clamoring out of her life since she was young. She had been a cocktail waitress since I was born, dad a card dealer. They had escaped their dull, nameless hometown in the Midwest at 18, both in search of something. Dad took a little more liberty in the searching than Mom had in mind.
There was no thought of college and no thought of getting out of the city. Being a cocktail waitress at the Aria, one of the nicest and most notorious hotels in Vegas, had its perks.
Most customers were looking for a good time, an escape. To be away from their wives and children, their bosses, their iPhones, and their agendas. They’d watch us working while they sat at the bar, their eyes following our trays and then our thighs. The nicer we were, the bigger tip we got. The compliments came subtly at first, a wink here and there, maybe a flirtatious comment. Then came the cell phone numbers written on their receipts, then the room keys. There were the ones who ordered drinks and waited patiently until our shifts were over at 3 am. By the end of the night, it was up to us to choose which one to go home with.
“That 43 year old executive from Ohio seemed nice.”
“Yeah, but he definitely had a wedding ring on, you sure you want to play with that again?”
“No sis, the 30 year old associate seemed more your speed. He kept looking at you all night like you were a steak.”
Our goal was simple: sex. Then get out of there before they catch you. No time for stories about your childhood, your hopes and dreams. Most of those men were just looking for someone to talk to anyway, and they needed someone to listen.
“There aren’t people like you back at home. Everyone is so caught up in the stock market and making money and I just want to live. I just want to be alive. Why do we have to work and make something out of ourselves? Why can’t we just be? You know, you’re such a good listener, Magdalena, has anyone ever told you that before?”
I’d smile, then follow them up to their hotel rooms in the early hours of the morning, maybe after a night of dancing at some ritzy club catered to tourists or drinks at the bar in their hotel lobby. It came naturally. Nothing was ever forced. I never put myself in a situation where I didn’t want to be, didn’t force myself into just any guy’s bed.
There was an appeal with the anonymous. My lifestyle was too fast to be tied down to just one man, always working from hotel to hotel, constantly at one place or another. Apartments were for sleeping during the daytime; the nighttime was for living.
The boys born and raised in Vegas were too slow, too dirty. I had been ignoring their catcalls since the playground. But I never said no to a second date with the men from out of town. Some waited months to return, some took a year or so but it never seemed long. We would slip back into our usual roles. Them talking, me listening, a formal dinner, a present, their hotel rooms, a goodbye kiss, and a taxi cab back to the airport and their normal lives.
“You sure you know where you’re going?” he asks, looking to me for directions. His left hand rests on the steering wheel, his right hand on my left thigh. “How do I know you’re not part of some scheme where a pretty girl seduces me, drags me out of town, robs me for everything I’m worth, and then leaves my dead body for the buzzards?”
“I’m a waitress, you think I’m capable of that kind of shit?” I say, half joking. The temptation to steal a watch or a hundred dollars from their wallets while they had been sleeping had always existed, but I could never live with the guilt.
“Besides, there aren’t any buzzards in this desert. The vultures will get to you first.” He smirks and retreats, placing his hand back onto the steering wheel. I rack my brain for the things I’ve learned about him over the past 6 hours. Still no name.
“You’re smart, you know that?”
“You’ve already said that tonight.”
The clock on the dashboard changes to 5:30 and the midnight blue of the sky begins to soften behind us as we drive further away from the city and head East towards the mountains and the sun.
“You’re the one who wanted to go somewhere,” I say. “Just trust me on this, keep going straight.”
His face relaxes and he returns his hand back to my thigh.
“I don’t normally do this.”
“Meet someone, spend the whole night with them, go somewhere. I have a plane to catch in six hours.”
His white pressed cotton oxford is now wrinkled from the past hours we’ve spent together and damp with sweat, despite the window being open. He carries an air of New Yorker tension in his shoulders as he grips the steering wheel, yet seems so relaxed and at ease. He’s younger, a lot younger than the guys typically interested in me, and can’t be more than 28 years old.
“I don’t normally do this either.”
“Nope. I typically just have sex with guys two hours after I meet them.”
“Damn you’re good.”
I finally had a much deserved night off.
“You work too much,” Ma would say. And “didn’t get enough time to relax.”
But work never seemed like work, although it did get tedious having to be on top of my game every night. It was all about the bigger tips, the bigger rush, and never any time to just be.
So we went out. Our nights off were never really nights off anyway. My girls and I always had to be moving, getting dressed up for each other, checking out new spots and visiting old favorites. When we had each other, we didn’t need to spend our nights apart.
I was four drinks in when I finally approached him. I couldn’t help it, my girls had encouraged it, even. He was sitting at the bar by himself, occasionally looking over to where we were sitting and he just looked so lonely. Why couldn’t I pick up a guy for once in my life? Why did I have to let them come to me?
“I’m Magdalena. Want to dance?”
He knew how to move. Our bodies moved in together, sweating alongside the bodies on the packed dance floor.
“What are you in town for?”
“Work convention this past week. Tonight’s my last night.”
“Where are you from?”
“New York, you?”
“Vegas. Born and raised,” I said, shouting over the music and into his ear.
“Sounds like a story.”
“You have no idea.” I lose my balance dancing and stumble into him. I grip his arm for stability. “Want to go talk somewhere?”
Four hours later, we’re still talking, this time in a corner of the hotel lobby bar. We’re close, my feet sit in his lap. He’s no longer drinking, but the cocktails have gone to my head. It’s quieter, the music still is audible, and the whirring of the slot machines is dulled.
“Have you ever wanted to get away?”
“How could I? Everything is so beautiful here. The lights. The mountains. The people. How could I want to?”
“Isn’t this town dirty? Suffocating? Do you ever want to escape?”
I’d heard this line many times before. Coming from a 50-year-old’s mouth it sounded forced and uncomfortable. Like when you’re in the lobby and some scam artist pervert tells you they want to make you a star. Call it cliché, but I bought everything coming from him.
“You’d love New York.”
“I don’t think you’ve known me long enough to assume that.”
“Do you have a car? Come with me.”
Vegas isn’t known for its mountains, but it should be. When people describe the city, they forget to tell you that the city is surrounded by the mountains and that there is a 360 degree view wherever you go. They’ll tell you about the hotels, the peep show fliers handed to them on The Strip. They’ll mention how dirty it was, how much they can’t remember, how much they can’t tell you. But they won’t tell you about the red rocks, the structures that have existed before the money and the gangsters and the casinos.
We’re deep in the mountains now, just outside of the city. He parks the car on the side of the road and we begin to climb the established paths created by hikers and frisky teenagers before. The sun begins to peek out overhead in the East. He lags behind me at a much considerable distance, despite the fact I’m wearing a dress and carrying my shoes in my hands.
“Come on, we have to find the best spot before its too late.”
You could see the grid of the city laid out in front of us. My old high school, the neighborhoods mixed in with the shopping centers we loitered around in high school, then our first bars, then the highway, running diagonally and separating the Las Vegas I knew and the Las Vegas they thought they knew. There were the rows of hotels at the edge of town with their reflective windows, glittering in the rising sun.
“Holy shit, this view. You were right about an escape.”
I looked towards the city. Towards my past and present. Towards my future of more men, trays of cocktails, ears ringing from the bells of slot machines. Ma was never happy, never satisfied, always returning home with sore arms and smeared makeup.
Maybe I didn’t want the lifestyle anymore. The heat of the town was going to wear off eventually. The sparks would die down, they always did. There would be no more excitement left in giving people watered down drinks. I would slowly become discouraged like Ma did, craving the stability of a normal job. There was nothing glamorous about turning 40 and applying the same caked on makeup every night.
Maybe I did need to get away and experience life somewhere else before the desert sucked me dry of my youth, my health, and what little dignity I had left.
The sun began to rise over our heads and the lights from the buildings washed out with the skyline. The rest of the town was just waking up. Maybe it was time for me to.
“You coming, Mag?” “Yeah.”