I peeked out the window of my upstairs office and thought, “Everything in Las Vegas looks better at night.”
The dusty, thirsty, lifeless terrain transforms into an Alice in Twinkleland, and the neon electrifies the Las Vegas Strip. The barren stretches of nothingness surrounding the valley of so-called normal life vanishes from view. But nothing is normal in a place where gambling is pervasive—it’s in the grocery stores, it’s in McDonald’s, it’s in every neighborhood corner where a neon sign flashes “gambling and cocktails.”
Leo the grocer startled me when he appeared at the front door of our Las Vegas house—the one we’d dreamed of when we were squished into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. But that house felt like a prison with its tomb-like shades covering the windows to prevent the harsh, desert sun from scorching the inside of the house.
When I ran downstairs to open the front door, he handed me a package of ice. Because this is how Vegas works—when you check out at the grocery store, the clerk asks if you need ice, and if you’re lucky, they’ll deliver it to you on short notice. It would be such a shame if you had the sudden urge to make a martini and be out of ice. Especially if you had a surprise guest like I did that hot August night.
I felt Jeff’s breath on my neck, the belt buckle he wore when he played Texas Hold ’Em pushing against me, and so I pulled away and asked, “What’s the ice for?”
“Drinks with Gabrielle,” he said.
“Yes, she’s over there.”
I looked in the direction he was pointing, as Leo drove off, and a woman in a black leather mini-skirt and tank-top stepped out of a taxi. Wearing stilettos, she posed in such a way that time stood still, portraying an air of confidence. Stunned that he knew the half-sister I had never met, I drank in the details of her appearance. She looked nothing like she did in the picture she’d sent me–brunette with medium-length hair. Now she had pure white spiked hair, the exact color Jeff described when he insisted I bleach my almost black hair.
She approached our front door and said, “You’ve lost weight.” I’ve lost weight? What did she know about me? I’d planned on sending her my photo, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
Jeff stepped forward, “Please, come in, make yourself at home.”
I fingered my wind-blown hair and glanced at my unkempt clothes. This was not how I’d imagined I’d be dressed when I met Gabrielle for the first time. My enormous closet in the master bathroom, part of an even larger master suite, was filled with clothes for every occasion—golf, tennis, or evening wear at some elegant function on the Strip. Because if there was one thing true about my husband was that he loved to impress others with a well-dressed wife.
Jeff led us into the living room, moved the cat off the couch and said, “Please, sit here” to Gabrielle but then turned to me, “Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?”
I didn’t wait around long enough to see if Gabrielle sat down or not, but I heard soft laughter and ice tinkling from the kitchen. Jeff must be making his special cocktail—what he called a French Martini, joking that he named it after me. Pineapple juice, vodka, Chambord, and Vermouth—“What’s so French about that?” I had asked. “Well, you are French, right?” he said, and then he threw his head back and laughed in a maniacal way, as if he knew a secret I did not know.
Uneasiness swept over me leaving Jeff and Gabrielle alone downstairs in my kitchen—the kitchen I took pride in. It was a luxury to finally own such a beautiful, brand-new home, and I considered that room to be my private haven. It was where I stood each morning when I gazed at the backyard, lit with the morning desert sun, recalling a similar backyard in my California childhood.
I hurriedly dressed in a pair of black slacks and my favorite black pumps I’d found on sale at the Outlet Mall on Las Vegas Boulevard. I rummaged through the dresser drawers searching for a particular red shirt—because from the way my husband was leering at Gabrielle, I knew it was important I dress my best.
Unable to find it, I put on a black one instead and grabbed a matching black purse. On my way downstairs I passed my office where I indulged myself in working on my latest manuscript. The words often failed me then, but when I awoke in the middle of the night to an empty bedroom, I could sit in my office and the lights of South Point Casino calmed me, reassured me. I then wrote until the sun began to peek over the mountains of Henderson in the east in that special hour where the daylight meets the neon. I jumped into bed before Jeff returned from an all-night poker game.
When I’d made my way to the living room, Jeff handed me a drink and the three of us sat down—Jeff in his leather recliner and Gabrielle in the chair next to him—the one I considered my own. I moved our cat, Sam, the name Jeff had insisted on even though he was not a cat lover. I sat down on the couch closest to Jeff as if I was competing with Gabrielle for his attention.
After a quick drink and a brief chat, Jeff suggested we all go to the Blue Diamond Saloon. “They have the best buffet,” Jeff said.
No, it wasn’t the fanciest place, like those casinos on the Strip, but it was a local hangout like so many in Vegas that served food, drinks, and of course, the ubiquitous gambling. Actually, it was a bit of a dive, but it was within walking distance from our home, and Jeff particularly enjoyed the poker games there.
Jeff said, “You two go on—I’ll catch up,” so Gabrielle and I started walking toward The Blue Diamond Saloon.