Casino Night – A Short Story
Every boy comes to a point in life when he tells his mom to wait in the car. For me it was during freshman year in high school as I visited Men’s Wearhouse to pick out a tuxedo for my first semi-formal. Before my mom even had the chance to unbuckle her seatbelt, I shot out of the car and told her I got this. My outer assuredness, however, belied my inner feelings. I had no idea how to pick out a tux for a semiformal. Hell, I had no idea what a semiformal really was.
“Semiformal” –even the word itself was foreign to me. Since childhood I associated “formal” with Sunday School and death grip ties and panic because what the hell shade crayon do I use for frankincense in my coloring book? My feelings were more split about “semi,” though. Semi-trucks were pretty cool, but semicolons, those were for dorky English teachers. Semisweet chocolate chip cookies and seminude people –both great without nuts. Semicircles were cool; they were like half a pie. I was an optimist. Also kind of pudgy.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked my mom. But my freshman year something had changed about her. She used to know me better than anyone; she had laid out my clothes for fourteen consecutive years. But for whatever reason she just didn’t get me anymore. I don’t know why –my adolescent mind was like, full of stuff and things. She couldn’t even generalize me correctly. One night I overheard her intimate to my dad that she was worried about me because I was such a “shy boy.” I wasn’t shy; I was pensive. And I wasn’t a boy –I was a freshman. Admittedly, that wasn’t much. Entering high school, I was only one of the terms in that cruelly contradictory compound word. But I certainly was no boy.
My mom wanted to pick out my tuxedo with me, but no thanks, I’m good. She meant well, I guess, but I had an epic night approaching –a potential game changer –and I’d be damned if it climaxed with my date fumbling with a pair of pants my mommy had picked out for me. So my mom waited in an SUV that smelled of stale hockey equipment while I boldly entered the Wearhouse for the first time.
“Spread your legs. Extend your arms. How does that feel? Fit good?”
“Yes. Feels great. I’ll take it!”
“That was quick. Okay, the total comes to $79.99.”
“Do you take American Express?”
“Here you go.”
When we got home I tried on the tux again and showed it to my parents. My mom told me I looked dignified. Not exactly the “sexual hurricane” look I was going for, but I took it. I tried on the tux every night for the next five days leading up to the big night.
My date for the semiformal was the hottest girl in school. Yeah, I’m aware of the irony. But, believe it or not, she was the one who asked me. It happened in the dining hall of my prep school, in between tacos #4 and 5. I was sitting, as I often did, in a seat that fell victim to a piercing angle of eye-level sunbeam. Typically these seats were the least desirable in the dining hall, but I sought them out because they gave me the illusion of feeling special, like I was anointed. Suddenly, though, a shadow fell across my face. I looked up to see that my golden sun had been replaced by a head of blond hair that shimmered majestically above me. Kelly beamed at me with a flash of flawless teeth, her soft face completely void of asymmetry, blemish, or taco meat. The blocked sun left a dark outline around an immaculate body that utterly dominated whatever clung to it, including the narrow green sweater so perfectly curved it could make an atheist believe in God.
At this point it was entirely unclear what prompted Kelly’s inquisition. Maybe she was impressed with the way I demolished ground beef. Maybe she heard I was getting an A- in algebra. Or maybe she needed more community service on her college application. I wasn’t concerned with motive at this point. All I knew was that super hot, fully developed Kelly approached me and my friends, who I swear had just left a second ago, and asked me to be her date. She was kind of giggling when she asked me. I was kind of shitting my pants.
The next day at school Kelly talked to me, which was the second time she had ever talked to me. She told me that we should obviously coordinate our outfits for the big night.
Obviously, I said.
She then told me her dress was red, but if I really wanted to match with the majority of her “look,” I’d get something the color of her skin.
We shared a giggle and I gave a wry smile, “I know what you mean…”
Much later that night, when I figured out what she meant, I shot out of bed, paced around my room, and performed pushups until I collapsed from exhaustion. This was how I passed my weeklong insomnia. A couple of days later my mom, somehow convinced that my life was her business, asked me if I was sleeping okay. She chose not to inquire about the mild grunts that slipped underneath my door each night.
When I wasn’t busy trying to out my hibernating pecs, I spent the nights leading up to the semiformal laying awake and thinking about Kelly. I played out the upcoming date dozens of times, my imagination saturated with a sensorial overload of best-case scenarios: the feeling of Kelly’s fingers interlocked with mine, the saccharine taste of her pink lip gloss, the straps of that red dress clinging to her shoulders, one of the red straps now slipping, slipping…
Of course, at 15 years old my lack of experience resulted in extended ellipses of imagination that proved infinitely more tantalizing than any concrete prognostication could ever be. It was almost too much for my mind and body to handle, and when I thought of Kelly I became fantastically aware of my autonomic functions. The maddening lack of synchronization between my palpitating heart and spasmodic breath was cruelly mocked by the confident procession of a bedside clock that ticked to three, four in the morning. When I thought of Kelly at night, I always closed my eyes. The rocking horses plastered on my wallpaper were judgmental assholes.
I was naïve when I was 15, though mature enough to understand when I needed advice for the semiformal. My mom, ever ready to answer questions I hadn’t even asked, was eager to offer terrible advice: “Be a gentleman. Be yourself.”
Fortunately, there were guys at my school who had better counsel.
“Don’t stare at her tits.” This from Ryan, the senior captain of my hockey team. He was old (19, having repeated a year), and therefore wise. His guidance was the type of practical advice I needed: a concrete objective. I had been myself for 15 years –clearly that wasn’t working.
Despite my nightly exercises in visualization, I was not mentally prepared for Kelly’s dress. When I picked her up for our date I failed Objective #1 promptly and prolifically, an embarrassing lapse that was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. In fact, it was permanently documented by several candid photos taken throughout the night: Kelly and I standing there an infinite two feet apart, somehow the most notable bulging orbs the ones popping out of my eye sockets.
Despite my problems with Objective #1, I still had a shot with Objective #2, which, again, was the brainchild of Ryan, who was a regular patron of Mac Two’s Strip Club, and therefore an expert in feminine desires.
Unfortunately this objective, too, had gone horribly awry.
Ryan had explained that I needed to be bold, to stick out from every other guy, who were, as he put it, “way, way less awkward.” I was willing to try anything, especially if it made perfect sense, so I planned to make my mark of distinction by growing a beard. Hundreds of bristly follicles smattered across my rugged jowl, each packed with a healthy dose of audacity and masculinity. Yeah, that would be hot…
…In theory. What sprouted instead was a faint wisp of mustache, the kind that’s only ever seen in mug shots of sex criminals. Gillette quickly removed the molester out of my Kester, but now I needed to find a new source of daring individuality. That’s where my tux came into play.
Kelly had suggested a red vest and bowtie, but that was “playing it too safe,” according to Ryan, who drove his Honda Accord without a seatbelt and was therefore a certified pusher of envelopes. So I went with a purple sequin vest and matching bowtie.
It had looked good in Men’s Wearhouse, I swear. But now that Kelly and I were at the semiformal, something seemed amiss. The problem was the lighting. You see, when placed under the scrutiny of a bright light, my vest would explode in an indigo luminescence that made me look more bedazzled than bedignified. To make matters worse, friends armed with digital cameras would shoot flashes in my direction, only to have that beam of light multiplied and reflected back toward the room, scorching unsuspecting retinas with a violet sear. My patchwork, semi-metallic vest shimmered in a kaleidoscopic spectrum, not unlike a disco ball. Or the slimy scales of a trout, as Kelly aptly noted.
How did this go so terribly wrong? The tux was perfect when I tried it on at the Wearhouse. It made my shoulders look broad, and it came so highly recommended from Jean Paul, the peppy young tailor who assured me that it looked “positively fabulous.” Instead, I looked positively retarded, a sentiment that Ryan, who was the definition of trendy in his traditional black tux, made quite clear.
The theme of the semiformal was “Casino Night.” You got some fake cash and walked around with a clip-on bowtie and acted like you knew how to shoot craps while your date pretended to give a shit. Supposedly there was a prize for the couple who accumulated the most “money,” but I, frazzled from my tuxedo and still three weeks away from the probability unit in math class, lost our ration within 20 minutes. But wait…
Kelly reached into her cleavage, pulled out a folded stack of bills and handed it to me. We may not have covered probability in math yet, but we had learned the transitive property, and as I held the still warm roll of bills in my hand, I realized I had essentially just reached second base with Kelly. I then promply blew my wad on a hand of blackjack. Not content sitting on 15, I pushed my luck and hit, only to get busted by a queen.
There’s not much to do at a fake casino when you have no more fake money. So, against my better judgment, I tried making small talk with Kelly. Back then I had trouble talking to girls, as my skills were better honed for other pursuits, like drinking hot chocolate or imagining talking to girls. Somehow, though, I was doing alright. Kelly didn’t say much herself, but she was giggling a lot. In case you didn’t know, girls giggle when they are nervous. And they are nervous when they have a crush on you. I read that once in an esteemed medical journal.
Still, I had no clue just how well I was small talking until Kelly dropped the bomb:
“So, do you like, wanna get out of here?”
“Out of where?”
“Here…like this building.”
“No, I’m having a good time with you.”
Kelly giggled. “I meant with me, silly.”
Next thing I knew, Kelly had me by the wrist as she led me out of Casino Night, into the real night, and toward the empty, dark schoolhouse.
At a co-ed boarding school where members of the opposite sex are not allowed in each other’s rooms, couples must resort to other venues for their studies of human anatomy. I had never been in the schoolhouse after hours before, but I was well aware what types of things went down at night. There was often evidence at my first period classes, before janitors had the chance to clean up the discarded remnants of the teenage dream. You know when your mom would know you snuck in some late night candy because she found plastic wrappers on the floor the next morning? It was kind of like that, only way grosser and awesomer.
My heart was pumping at a surprisingly leisurely tempo, mostly because I was having an out-of-body experience. It sounds cool, but if my interpretation of what was about to happen was correct, I definitely wanted to get back in my body ASAP. I could almost see myself in the third person as we wandered the dark halls, the glow of occasional EXIT signs giving Kelly just enough light to guide me deeper through the halls, bringing me to her “special spot.” We were wary of a skulking security guard, so Kelly spoke in tense whispers while I responded with muted hyperventilation. Finally, Kelly stopped and, using the lapels of my coat as grips to help lift her up on tiptoes, she brought her lips next to my face. Sensation came rushing back to my body through an electrifying tingle that shot from ear to toes as Kelly leaned in close and breathed in my ear, “Let’s go in there.”
I turned my wide eyes to face the sign adorning the door in front of me.
Kelly’s soft blond hair fell loosely as she tipped her head down and scanned for ankles. There were none. The stalls were empty. We were alone.
“We should probably do this in the stall,” Kelly whispered.
A vague “this.” If I had made this grammar error in an essay, my English teacher would have taken off half a point. I had considered such syntactical scrutiny to be fastidiously picayune, or, as I more elegantly phrased it at the time, “fucking annoying.” A vague “this”? What was the big deal?
Now I understood.
There were two stalls in the bathroom: a handicapped and a regular. The handicap stall was about twice as spacious as the regular. It also had a railing, but let’s not get ahead ourselves. Surprisingly, Kelly pulled me into the regular stall. I was confused, but also mildly proud. Clearly, Kelly saw me as able-bodied.
While Kelly slid the metal latch through its keyhole, I hastily shifted my body to conceal a piece of graffiti that every boy in the school had seen dozens of times during their quiet moments of reflection on the toilet:
GARRET IS KELLY’S BITCH!
The declaration had been permanently etched into the stall partition –the communal Facebook wall for the school’s male population –and though I didn’t know this Garret dude (he graduated the previous spring), I had spent the year being insanely jealous of him.
I leaned against the wall and stared at my shoes. Now Kelly turned to face me. Now she took a step closer. Now her chest pressed tightly against mine. Firm, yet also remarkably soft and pliant, it yielded to my chest and made me feel powerful, sturdy, the mattress beneath the pillow. A feeling of profound, almost primal vigor swelled and pulsated through me. Kelly flicked back her hair, exposing her neck, bare and white, and even though Twilight was still just a time of day back then, my newfound courage almost compelled me to bring my lips to her neck. Almost.
Suddenly, a knock.
Kelly unlatched the door, swung it open. There stood Alicia, Kelly’s friend, high-heeled and smiling. No words were exchanged. She came in the stall with us. OhGodOhGodOhGod.
I had a hard time seeing what was going on –we were so cramped and Alicia had her back turned to me -but I could hear Alicia rummaging through her clutch. Then, against the uneasy hum of fluorescent lights, the distinct sound of plastic tearing.
“Thank god you brought this,” Kelly said to her. “You’re a life-saver.”
In response I should’ve said something like, “Actually, she’s technically a life-preventer!” but that would have required me to be witty and cool and not freaking the fuck out. Instead, I ran my left hand through my cow licked bangs, as if this cosmetic maintenance was the road less taken and would make all the difference. With my right hand I compulsively reached into my pants pocket and felt for a small felt bag. Earlier that night my mom had snuck me my dad’s special cufflinks, and she’d be pissed if I lost something so special in a bathroom stall.
Kelly looked at me with intense amber eyes and then broke from her whisper, startling me with the sudden directness of both her tone and words:
“You ready for this?”
“Yes,” I said.
Okay, Eric. Relax…you’re prepared. Remember those monkeys at the zoo last summer? They figured it out, and you’re like, definitely smarter than they are, right? Right?
Despite this rousing pep talk from my inner conscience, anxieties stampeded through my brain. The primary concern at the moment was logistics. Yeah, I had seen movies and knew what pieces fit where, but there were three of us in a confined space. How was I going to make this physically work? Geometry wasn’t until next semester!
Alicia turned toward me and out of the corner of my eye I saw her toss a small piece of synthetic trash from her hand. A plastic seal fluttered clumsily to the ground like a wounded a butterfly, then settled peacefully in a pool of toilet water. An upside down “Absolute,” stamped in gold on the small round seal, sat in the center of concentric ripples.
Alicia took a swig from the seal’s progenitor, then handed the small vodka bottle to Kelly.
“I’m sorry, Eric,” Kelly said with heartbreaking earnestness. “You’re a really nice boy. But you’re just such an awkward date.”
She gripped the neck of the bottle and brought it to her lips with the authority of someone who’s done this before. She took a swig, swallowed, then made a face not unlike the one she wore when she first saw the purple bonanza that was my tuxedo.
Kelly lowered the bottle and, gently sliding her feet and hips forward while arching her slender shoulders back, leaned against the stall partition opposite to me. She stayed in that posture and looked at me entreatingly. “Do you want some of this?”
I almost laughed out loud. Just a few minutes earlier I was a panting, tail-wagging puppy, hopping in the trunk to go to an unknown, but assuredly awesome, location. Instead I was brought to the vet to get neutered.
I told her no, I wasn’t much of a vodka guy, as if I was a whiskey or gin guy instead.
No problem, she said. She and Alicia will have some more, then we can all head back to Casino Night. It’ll be fun. Yay.
I remember exactly how many shots of vodka Kelly took. The math, in my mind, was pretty simple. Since alcohol was a sterilizer, she needed seven shots to fully sanitize the wounds that I had inflicted through my awkwardness:
She needed two shots to get over my outfit. And maybe some future therapy.
A shot for each time our conversation fell to an uncomfortable silence, and I filled the still air by looking at the ceiling and quietly humming the chorus of Livin’ La Vida Loca. That happened on three occasions.
Another shot was required to forget our walk to the formal when I first picked Kelly at her dorm. Like a gentleman, I had stuck out my elbow at a 90-degree angle for Kelly to hold onto as I escorted her. When she didn’t grab it, instead of acknowledging the rejection and retreating my arm to my side, I kept walking with it protruding out, as if this was just my typical walking posture, as if looking like a teacup was cool as shit.
One shot was definitely needed to get over our formal Casino Night picture. I was not confident enough to put my arm around Kelly, so I posed for the picture with my arm hovering above her back, my limp hand resting lightly on her shoulder like a dead tarantula, if tarantulas had only five legs and sweated when they were nervous.
Finally, one last shot for Kelly to get over how hard I had been trying to sound impressive, using similes to describe every situation, like a desperate poet who uses similes like, all the time.
Seven swigs of raspberry vodka, all taken in the span of ten minutes. Thank god Kelly didn’t take a shot for every time she caught me awkwardly breaking Objective #1. This story would be a freaking obituary.
Kelly was a svelte girl, and 10 ounces of liquor coupled with an icy path made for a treacherous journey from the schoolhouse back to Casino Night. When we reentered the makeshift “Casino” together, a notable hush fell over the room. Within seconds a cluster of curious friends surrounded me.
“How’d it go?”
“What was she like?”
“How’d you do?”
I shrugged. “I dunno,” I said coyly. “You tell me.” I pointed to Kelly as she staggered over to the snack table. She could barely walk.
Every face was washed over with astonishment and reverence.
“Oh. My. God.”
“You’re an animal!”
“You’re a legend!”
“You,” said one buddy, proudly placing his hand on my shoulder, “are the man.”
For a fleeting moment, that’s how I felt. I soaked up the attention, allowing it to fill up the very core of my being and drown a sadness that dwelled in the pit of my stomach. I could just feel people looking at me, respecting me, looking at me like I was a new person. So this was what it’s like, I thought. Freshmen, even sophomores, crowded around me. They couldn’t get close enough; it was almost like they wanted to reach out and touch me. After all, they were aware of the transitive property too.
But sadness didn’t wait until the end of the movie to come back from the dead and grab the protagonist by the throat. After a couple of minutes reveling in my faux popularity, I excused myself from my throng of admirers to find my date. I located her immediately by her flash of golden hair as she playfully flicked it to one side. She was walking out the door, holding the angled arm of Ryan, who drank NitroTech protein shakes and therefore had a good arm to hold on to. Ryan, who (I learned later) had a sophisticated sense of humor and thought it would be funny to get the hottest, most popular girl in school to ask her antithesis to Casino Night.
There’s not much to do in a fake casino with no fake money and no date and no happiness. There was only one thing I could do. My mom must have been pretty tired when she picked up the phone, because she didn’t even ask why I wanted to be picked up early.
I didn’t live far from school, so I only waited outside a few minutes before my mom pulled up. She didn’t say anything at first; she just put her hand on my shoulder. We began to pull away in an SUV that smelled of stale hockey equipment mixed with steam rising from the mug of hot chocolate in my cup holder. As we drove toward the exit, we passed two shadowy figures, arm in arm, making their way to the empty school chapel. The girl was in a tiny red dress, and her breath turned to smoky vapor in the February air.
“That girl is going to catch a cold,” my mom said.