Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lady Luck

The best night I ever spent in Las Vegas entailed hanging out with a married woman at a porn shop.

This was in late February 2005. My friend Jamie was twenty years old at the time. She had always been a girl who erred on the side of spontaneity. Thus, the recent marriage. And the cashier gig at the porn shop. And the unusual tattoos and piercings.

I last saw Jamie in April 2004. I was in Vegas on business for two weeks at The Venetian. The first time we met in person, she had long hair dyed bright red, a piercing on the bridge on her nose and not a trace of ink anywhere on her body. She was also single. When I strolled into Fantasy World – a porn shop so brightly lit that it could probably be spotted from space – eight months later, I was completely shocked by the new look: short black hair, three lip rings on the bottom lip, a bullring in her nose and tattoos on her arms made to look like autopsy stitches. (I was quickly informed that there were five other tattoos that remained to be seen.) Simply, What the hell happened?

As I quickly discovered, nothing much. This was Jamie – wild, boisterous and impulsive. Even if she looked completely different from the girl I first met over sushi, it was still her. No matter how she presented herself, that killer smile, sweet laugh and those wide, attentive eyes would give her away every time. Fifteen minutes into our conversation, all reservations, hesitations and condemnations had been vanquished.

I spent the next four hours with Jamie at the cash register. In between ringing up purchases, we caught each other up on our recent trials and tribulations. I told her that I had broken up with my girlfriend yet was certain that we would wind up getting back together somewhere down the road. She told me about how she had gotten married on a whim one random night when she was at home with her boyfriend. Our conversation stretched on to two hours, then three, and finally I decided to rent a hotel room nearby so we could stay out as late as we wanted once her shift ended. Also, I could still get a good night’s rest and be prepared for the long trip back to Chicago. She was free to leave at midnight, so we hopped into my car and went off in search of accommodations.

It turned out that every room in Vegas was booked that night. No joke. We must have stopped at twenty casinos with the hope of finding a room. We were turned away every time. Upscale, moderate, seedy – nothing, nada, zip. At one point I bluntly asked a desk clerk, "What the hell is going on this weekend?" Her best guess was a convention, but she didn't know what it was for. 4-H? Promise Keepers? Swingers? Tropicana Girls, Celine Dion Fan Club Reunion, Wayne Newton Effigy . . . no one had the slightest clue as to why Vegas was filled to capacity that night.

If that wasn't bizarre enough, I also ran out of gas on Boulder Highway. I'd clocked thousands upon thousands of miles on the road these past few years, and this was a first. Fortunately, there’s a gas station every twenty feet in Las Vegas, so it wasn't difficult to solve this problem. Jamie got behind the wheel while I got out and pushed my 1997 Nissan Altima through a vast intersection on a four-lane highway in Sin City. I had trouble breathing and pushing the car through the ridiculously wide left hand turn lane because I was laughing so hard.

I was able to give the car enough momentum for Jamie to steer it into an empty parking lot directly across from a 7-Eleven. She put it in park, and we strolled over to the convenience store. I purchased a gas can and used it to fill up the empty tank. When I finished, I put the cap on the gas can and threw it in the trunk. (It didn’t cross my mind to refill it just in case I ran into this problem again say, oh, twenty miles east of Amarillo, Texas thirty-six hours later. Not kidding.) I turned around to find Jamie standing right in front of me, just inches away. We were both smiling. At the situation, at each other.

I reached out and took her hands in mine. I leaned down and kissed her firmly on the mouth. It felt like the right thing to do. She leaned into me to confirm it.

The Nissan idling in the background, we shared a deep, passionate kiss that seemed to last an eternity in this empty parking lot across from the 7-Eleven. When we finished, we stared at each other again. We were still wearing those devious smiles, but now there was a hint of anxiety keeping them frozen in place.

“I've wanted to do that since April," I told her.

"Me, too," she replied.

"It's probably for the best that I can't find a hotel room."

"Yeah, it is."

"I don't want to ruin anything for you, Jamie."

"I know. You're not."


We got back into the car and drove around for the next few hours. South to Boulder City then north to Mt. Charles. We found sanctuary in the long stretch of empty freeway that guided us through the sprawling neon oasis cursed by high hopes and terminal insomnia. As long as we kept moving, we were relatively safe. We drove and chatted comfortably about the chemistry and attraction we shared. We spoke of our desires and worries and how much they seemed to be intertwined tonight.

We held hands the entire time.

At sunrise I dropped her back off at work so she could pick up her car. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and told her that I wished I didn’t have to go so soon. Or that she could come with me on the road. She studied me with those wide, wonderful eyes and smiled sweetly in return.

I watched her drive away. I thought about her heading home to love. I thought about how home and love were likely one and the same to her. It was a happy thought, one that seemed to lift my spirits.

I headed south again on Boulder Highway. After staying awake all night, I was exhausted. I pulled into a casino parking lot and curled up in the backseat. I fell asleep thinking of Jamie and all the strange possibilities that stemmed from this one peculiar night in the middle of the desert. No images accompanied the music in my dreams. In the darkness I could only hear Powderfinger's "(Baby, I've Got You) On My Mind" repeating over and over again.

I awoke three hours later in a sweat. Because I didn’t crack the windows, the sun was broiling me in the backseat. I opened the door and savored the soft breeze that greeted me. Reveling in the coolness of the shady asphalt on my bare feet, I sat hunched over in the backseat and wondered if last night was all just a dream. Did the events of the past twelve hours really happen? It almost didn't seem possible at 10:30 a.m. on this warm and sunny day in late February.

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what do you do when what happens is so fantastic that you're not sure it really happened at all? In this city of one-armed bandits and suicide kings, it was probably best to forget the odds and trust your gut. That way, even if you lost the hand, you could still walk away knowing that you played your cards right.

No, it wasn't a dream. That was obvious – I had a gas can to prove it. Nor was it magic. It was just another hand on the table of life. Even if I couldn't tip the odds completely in my favor this time around, I was still lucky enough to walk away with a little bit more than I had started out with. I had a memory, this incredible moment in time that now belonged to me.

Now I just needed to get out of town before the House could take it all back.


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