by Anastasia Selby
Featured image: Edvard Munch. The Girl by the Window, 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s Vegas and I’m sixteen years old. I’ve been playing in the arcade for hours; I’m leaning on the console of Mortal Combat, pushing the quarters my stepdad has given me into the slot one after another, wearing the tips of my thumbs down with their ridged edges. I’m bored as hell and my parents have abandoned me in this wasteland, I can practically see the tumbleweeds and hear western music as I walk across the patterned carpet. I pass all the men and women with their heads almost touching the bright lights of the slot machines, their hands like lobster claws around the levers, as if they’re waiting for the secrets of life to come pouring out when they hit the right combination. The secrets must be what they see on billboards, what they see in magazines. The arcade smells like the sweat of children and sounds like broken glass.
Starting at the Excalibur, a gaudy Disney imitation that should have been torn down years ago, I walk from casino to casino, reveling in the transition from air-conditioning to the surreal heat that cloaks everyone who ventures outside in a thin layer of plastic wrap. I stare back at the men who gawk at me on the sidewalk as I walk past them, men who are over twice my age and probably have daughters half my age. They must give their daughters baths and put them in their pajamas at night, patting their heads as they tuck them into bed. I can’t remember one time my father actually tucked me into bed. He left when I was two.
I’m wearing the outfit my mother got me from Nordstrom. I don’t know what sane mother would buy this outfit for her child, but I’ve been throwing up my food for three years so I could fit into something like this. My mom knows why I go to the bathroom after every meal. I told her a year ago while we were watching Indecent Proposal. She looked over at me and said, I used to starve myself when I was a teenager. That takes more willpower. Then she turned back to the movie. Demi Moore was rolling on a bed covered with money, laughing. I picture my calf muscles as I take each step in my high heels; I look down at my own cleavage and smile.
I am lost in thinking of what my mother and stepdad must be doing right now when a man stops me on the sidewalk. He has combed his straggly hair over his large bald spot, just like my grandpa used to do. His glasses look like the ones my stepdad wears; the frames are thick and they match the color of his eyes, a flat dark brown. He is bent over a little bit and I notice a small hunch under his striped business shirt, which is stained with sweat. He reminds me of a turtle as he reaches a hand out and puts it on my shoulder. He blinks up at me. Are you working tonight? he says. I feel my face get hot and I hear myself giggle. No, I say, I’m not working. Sorry. The man pulls his hand from my shoulder and lowers his eyes. He vanishes into a flock of people passing by. I stand there for a second and then continue walking. I want to run after him and tell him yes, I am working. I wonder if he has more money than it looks like, if he is a wealthy CEO who would fall in love with me and ask me to marry him. I would move into his big house with windows facing the hills in L.A. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to my mom and stepdad yell at each other every night when they’ve had too much to drink. I wouldn’t have to call my stepdad Dad anymore, or hear either of them bitch about how bad my grades are and how it’s no surprise that I don’t have any friends.
I start walking back to the hotel. Why did my parents even bring me to Vegas with them? We go to breakfast together in the morning. They hand me money every day and tell me to have fun, but there is nothing to do here but walk around and flirt with the guys at the arcade. They should have just left me at home. They can’t do that, though. The last time they left me at home was when they were in Hawaii on their honeymoon. I was thirteen and ran away when I got bored with television. I left them a note with my favorite teddy bear. That was the last time I saw my real dad. He picked me up at the homeless shelter and drove me back home. The only reason he came was because a social worker called him. My last name is still the same as his.
When my mom married Bill, everything changed. She had always had boyfriends; a gaggle of boyfriends who would come over after she thought I had gone to sleep, but it was me she loved most, even if she yelled at me and pushed me away most of the time. I had never met Bill when she announced we were moving into a house with him, and I would be changing schools. When you fall in love, she says, the things that mattered don’t seem to matter anymore. I think that includes me and I never want to fall in love.
I walk into the rush of cool air and inhale the smell of cigarettes, burned steak and cheap margaritas. I feel as if I’m floating, my skin is made of glass. I’m in a movie, watching myself press the button on the elevator, standing in the elevator by myself as it takes me to my floor, opening the heavy door and sitting on the bed.
I take a deep breath, lie on my back and look at the ceiling. My friends at home are partying tonight. I talked to Arianne earlier and they are going to Anthony’s house. The last time I saw Anthony we made out in the back of his truck, but he’ll probably meet some other girl tonight. None of them will be my friends much longer. When we first got to Vegas, Bill and my mom told me we’ll be moving an hour from home, they’re starting their own business. It’s my sophomore year, and I think this might be the tenth time I’ve moved in my life.
I start to cry on the bed but I don’t let myself get into it, I jump off the bed and grab the bottle of rum Bill and my mom have in a bag by the television. I take a chug of it and then put it back into the brown paper bag, making sure to crumple it back into the same shape. After I check my make-up in the mirror, I turn off the lights and leave the room and take the elevator down to the arcade. Now I feel ready to talk to the guys who work down there. They know me by now; I’ve been in Vegas for four nights already.
When I get down there, my favorite guy is working. He’s the only white guy that works there, but that’s not why he’s my favorite. I lost my virginity to a black guy when I was thirteen, so I’m not racist or anything. He’s my favorite because he listens to me. He sees me and tells me I look beautiful; he grabs my arm and I flex for him. This is our joke. I work out at home and my biceps are like little rocks, he squeezes one with his hand. How are you doing tonight? he says. I tell him I’m bored and tired of my parents leaving me to my own devices. He says, you have parents to be angry at. You’re lucky.
He tells me he’ll be off work in a half hour and would I like to go to his house with him and get high?
Yes, I would love to get high. Do you have good weed here? You know I’m from Seattle, right?
Our weed is just as good as Seattle’s weed, he laughs. I have a bottle of vodka, too.
I already drank some rum in the hotel room. I could do a few more shots.
I start to feel giddy as we stand around talking, trying to make the time go faster so that we can leave. His name is Chris, and Chris is the name of the second guy I ever had sex with. It’s my favorite name now. This Chris has blond hair and looks like a surfer. He’s twenty, and I can’t believe I’m just standing around talking to him. I can’t believe he wants me to go to his house and hang out with him. Mom and Bill would hate what I’m doing right now.
He finishes work and changes out of his black slacks and purple and teal cotton work shirt. He wears baggy pants that hang right beneath the curve of his ass, his boxers are black and he jumps over the guardrails as we walk out of the hotel. We get to his car, a purple Acura with tinted windows and one of those really loud mufflers. I climb inside and it smells like dirty feet; there are McDonald’s wrappers and empty pop cans all over the floor. He turns on his system and the bass rumbles throughout the parking garage, Notorious B.I.G. I feel the rumbling in my chest, and a small thread of dread is pulled up my spine and makes me shiver.
Hey, is it okay if we stop at the store for some beer and snacks? He smiles at me and it looks like he has secrets, but not the secrets the slot-machine players are looking for. I nod my head and smile nervously, annoyed by my own nervousness. I look down at my chest and notice that my tank top has slipped dangerously low. I pull it up, conscious of my breasts, which some women would pay good money for. I’ve thought about a breast reduction since I was thirteen.
We stop at a dirty 7-Eleven on what looks to be the bad side of the strip and grab some chips and a sixpack of cheap beer. When we reach the cash register Chris starts digging in his pockets, acting more and more frantic. He turns and tells me that he forgot to get cash. Can I pay for the stuff and he’ll pay me back? I look at him with surprise and feel the heat of my embarrassment move from my throat into my stomach, like something I’ve swallowed. Reluctantly I take the cash my parents have given me out of my pocket and hand him a twenty, aware that he is staring at the other twenty as I put it back into my pocket. I look around the store to see if anyone has seen what just happened, and yes, people have seen. I tuck my hair behind my ear and look at the floor. He pays for the beer and the chips and I am surprised that the clerk doesn’t ask for my ID, but then I realize I look older than I am, I look like I belong with this twenty-year-old guy.
We get to his house after turning down some side streets. First it seems as if we have opened the curtain into some lush vacationland, the stucco houses accented with red tile and well-kept lawns, but after a few more turns the houses shrink in size and start to look as if they have been crushed by the force of life itself. Their yellow yards are littered with children’s toys and trash. When we pull up to a driveway the sparkling lights of the strip have dimmed. Chris takes the key out of the ignition and the music clicks off, he doesn’t open the door for me as he had done at the hotel, but walks straight toward the house, expecting me to follow. A few houses down, a dog barks.
I walk through the door Chris has opened into the living room where there are two black guys on the couch playing a video game. He doesn’t in- troduce me and walks into the kitchen. The oven is hanging open and there is something the size of a loaf of bread wrapped in aluminum foil on one of the cooking racks. The sink holds a small mountain of dishes, some of which have tumbled onto the counter. It looks like they’ve been there for weeks. There are empty liquor bottles scattered on the counters, windowsills and floor. Chris hands me a beer and pulls a bottle of vodka out of the freezer. He smiles and asks me if I would like to go into his room and I nod, although now what I really want is to turn around and go back to my parents’ hotel room and take a bath, get under the covers that smell of bleach and read the book I brought with me. I open my beer and take a sip.
We walk through the cavernous hallway to his room, which is in the very back of the house. The only piece of furniture is the bed; the fitted sheet is halfway off the mattress and the comforter is in a pile in a corner of the room. He sits on the mattress and pats the rumpled blankets next to him, gesturing for me to sit. There is a huge bong right next to the bed and he hands me the bottle of vodka, telling me to drink. I tilt the bottle toward the ceiling and put my mouth around it, watching him pull an eighth from his pocket and load a chunk of it into the bong. He lights it and inhales deeply, holding it in for a long time until he exhales and the smoke rumbles out from his body. I can hear the phlegm trembling in his chest. He leans over and turns his television onto BET and hands me the bong and the lighter, then turns to watch me take a hit. I light the little nugget and watch it turn bright orange as I inhale as much smoke as I can. I want Chris to know that I’ve done this many times before. I am the cool girl.
I exhale a gigantic cloud of smoke and Chris laughs at me. Pretty good shit, right? He nods and I nod back, feeling the familiar self-consciousness of the high set in. I take another drink from the bottle of vodka to relax myself and laugh. Yeah, it’s pretty good shit.
Chris takes the bong and sets it onto the carpet by his mattress. So, he says, how could your life be so bad that you’d want to leave the casino and come to the ghetto to hang out with me?
My life isn’t bad, I guess. I shrug my shoulders and it feels like it takes a minute for them to move up and down, and by the time they’re finished moving the entire movement seems ridiculous. I mean, my parents just don’t give a shit about me. Or, they only give a shit if I do something really bad. I’m an afterthought to them. And I hate my stepdad. He’s a complete asshole. He gets all sarcastic when we fight and treats me like I’m a stupid little kid. My mom just handed over all of her parental responsibility when she married him because she was tired of me, she was tired of being a single mom. Maybe that’s why she married him in the first place.
Chris nods sympathetically. At least you have money, though. You should try to do well in school and get into college. You seem smart.
Really? Not many people call me smart. I’m failing all of my classes right now, but that’s okay, because we’re moving again in a month, so I’ll just start over.
You should, he says, and then he leans across the bed and kisses me. His lips are soft but he’s not as good a kisser as I thought he would be, his tongue seems too soft, but I kiss him anyway, and I lean back on the bed when he pushes me there softly with his body and I put my arms around him, put my hand on his face, which is sharp with blond stubble. We kiss for what feels like a long time, maybe extended by the bong hit, which seems to have slowed things down. Then I realize that while he kisses me he is taking my tank top off and suddenly I am naked from the waist up. He grabs each of my breasts and shakes them both at the same time, with his hands. No one has ever done this before and I wonder what he is getting out of it, but then he latches onto my nipple and begins sucking, like a baby, for almost a minute. I have to pull his head back up to my lips to get him to stop, and by now I am feeling too high and too uncomfortable. I want to go back to the hotel. His hand moves down to my pants, the pants that my mother bought me, and he starts working at the zipper. I pull my head away from his. I don’t think I want to take my pants off, I say. He nods and takes his hand away, continuing to kiss me, but after about thirty seconds, his hand moves back to my zipper.
I don’t want to take my pants off, I say. He stops kissing me and pulls back, almost sitting up on his bed.
You’re not going to take off your pants at all? he says.
No. And it’s getting late, I think I want to go home. I start to reach for my tank top, which is on the bed beside me, but he grabs it.
No, I’m not going to take you back to the hotel yet. You can go back in a little bit. I know what you came here for, and so do you. You don’t just go to some guy’s house in Vegas wearing what you’re wearing and acting how you’re acting and just kiss him.
I can do whatever I want! I want to go back to the casino, you need to take me back to the casino. I’m almost yelling, and he puts his face close to mine and whispers, you don’t need to yell. I’m not taking you back to your hotel.
It’s not fair for you to go this far with me and then just stop. I’ll give you a ride back if you let me take your pants off. Your choice, but it’s a pretty dangerous walk back to the strip from here, especially for a girl like you.
I’m sitting up by now, and I stay silent for a minute. Chris smiles at me. It’s not a big deal, he says. I know you’re not a virgin. He reaches over and grabs the bottle of vodka, handing it to me. I take a big drink off and almost gag but manage to swallow it. The warmth feels like shame. I set the bottle down and Chris moves back toward me and starts to kiss me again. His hand moves back to my zipper and this time I let him unzip it and he pulls my pants off, tossing them on the floor. He slips my shoes off.
Chris stands to take off his clothes, he seems disappointed that I haven’t made any effort to do so for him. After his clothes are off he pushes me down on the bed and grabs my hips, tugging my hips high up so that my ass is in the air. His fingers wrap under my hipbones and he shoves himself into me. I don’t object, but lie there listening to the deep beating of my heart, waiting for it to be over. He sweats and grunts on top of me, his voice getting high-pitched as he gains momentum and finally breaks the skin on my hips with his fingernails.
When he finally finishes he pulls out of me and gently pushes me aside. He throws me a dirty towel, followed by my pants and tank top. That wasn’t so bad, was it? I shake my head and start to put my clothes on, already imagining the shower I will take when I get back to the hotel. I ask him what time it is and he looks at his watch and says it’s nine-thirty, which gives me an hour and a half until I’m expected at the hotel room by my mom and stepdad. At least I won’t have to explain anything.
Chris puts his clothes on and leaves his room, and I follow. When I reach the living room he’s snickering with his roommates and, as if putting on a show, asks if I can give him twenty dollars for gas.
But I already paid for the beer and snacks that I didn’t eat, I say, and he says that he won’t be able to give me a ride without gas. I give him my last twenty. His roommates elbow each other and I study the dirty carpet. Hey man, one roommate says, can you give me a ride to Blank’s house? Chris says sure and the roommate lifts himself from the pleather couch as if it’s a big effort. The three of us walk out to the car and Chris opens the door for me, then slides the passenger seat forward. I look at him. I have to sit in the backseat? He nods and exchanges smiles with his roommate. Bro’s before ho’s, love, he says.
Our drive back to the casino is silent except for the music pulsating through the car. I’m still high, and I can feel the bass deep in my chest. Chris stops at the gas station to buy twenty dollars worth of gas. While he’s inside paying for the gas, the roommate turns around to face me.
How old are you? His hair is a fluffy afro with a yellow comb stuck in the back. His eyes are surprisingly earnest.
Sixteen. I can feel my lower lip sticking out in a pout. I want the word sixteen to cut like a knife. I push it at the roommate’s face, feeling the energy of it.
You shouldn’t be fuckin’ around by yourself in this city. Girls like you. Did you fuck Chris? I stare back at him and nod. I don’t know why that guy is always fuckin ‘round with little girls. Maybe because kids like you don’t know how to say no. But think of this. He pauses and reaches his finger under my chin, pulling my face up so I have to be looking directly at him. When you get to your hotel, just hop in the shower and wash it off. It’s already in the past.
The driver’s side door opens and Chris gets in. The roommate turns to the front of the car and I look out the window, wondering how insulted I feel about being called a little girl.
Chris pulls up a block from the casino, he tells me I can get out here, he knows the guy working the valet service and doesn’t want to get asked to work again. The roommate gets out, slides the seat forward and holds the car door for me. I stand and smooth my hair back, breathing in the warm night air. Chris has turned up the music and people are staring at us from the sidewalk. The roommate looks at me and gives my shoulder a squeeze.
Have a good life, he says.
I look at him for a second, then I’m stepping onto the sidewalk, into the crowd of casino customers. Some of the men are glancing at me. I move through them and study their clothes and their shoes like things in a museum. They know nothing about me.
I get to the hotel room well before my curfew. My mom and Bill are there, watching a Harrison Ford movie. They’re not drunk. Bill has farted and they’re laughing about it. The room smells like pot and the fluorescence of the TV is the only light, dimming and brightening. My mom asks me how my night was and I smile at her, it was good, I say. I got to the last level on Mortal Combat. She smiles back at me. That’s good, honey, she says, and then returns her attention to Harrison Ford. I go to the bathroom to take a shower.