She takes the crisp twenty, leaning in to reach it. He moves his hand up, almost a caress, and inquires when her shift ends. He smells like greasy hair and the sum of the bad decisions that led him to this Blackjack table — up, but not for long. She can see in his wide, gray eyes that he doesn’t have the spine or stomach or soul for this town. Vegas’ll take from him. Whatever he came to find, he won’t.
“Shift just started. Sorry, handsome,” she slides away from his hand, which has now hit the stretchy fabric of her miniskirt. Dangerous territory: that’s what the other women call these microminis, they’re so short.
She knows the man will stare at her ass, barely concealed in black, as she glides to the bar for his shot.
The bartender turns away from her as she walks up.
“Hey,” she says to him, looking at the mirror. Their eyes meet, frigid blue on warm brown. Hers say I’m sorry and his I don’t care.
“Go away,” he says.
It isn’t the response she expects, and he turns to her with rage in his eyes. Still frigid blue, still beautiful, still not enough.
“There are a dozen bars in this building. Go to one of the other eleven.”
“But this is closest — ”
“Figure it out.”
By the time she returns with the shot, the greasy man has multiplied into three more, a hydra of middle-aged douchebaggery.
Her shift lasts another eight hours. There is nothing special about it.
She narrowly avoids all three of the customers who got so shit-faced they puked on the slot machines.
A group of bachelorettes in silk rompers and pink sashes, red-rimmed lips gnawing at the air in search of their plastic phallus straws, call her a slut when she slips into the restroom to readjust her bra straps.
She loses count at the number of hands on her ass, the number of arms that just graze some part of her breasts.
Consent is keeping that goddamned coquettish smile plastered on her face.
She is grateful for the genuine moments, when her eyes grow bright and kind and her smile slips from flirty to friendly. It doesn’t take much.
The other bartender who makes her drinks before everyone else’s, knowing she’s got to hoof it back to her section. The men who say “please” instead of “gorgeous,” “honey,” or “darlin’.” The woman who warned her her shirt was caught on the Roulette table, sparing her a loud, painful rip of separation. When anyone says “thank you” and looks her in the eyes without judgment.
When her shift ends, she walks outside, the cold bite of wind wrapping her in an icy hug. She thinks of the frigid blue eyes, the permafrost that was once her best friend.
This isn’t the life they wanted. Or maybe it is for him. Maybe he wants her away from everyone else, dependent and sullen and broken.
He said he wanted to be a Blackjack dealer, but he was too handsome, too distracting. She didn’t understand, wouldn’t that be better? He had sighed, said she didn’t get it. She shrugged her shoulders and didn’t push. He liked being a bartender. Better hours, better tips. She could try being a cocktail waitress. Wouldn’t it be fun? Wouldn’t it? She refused to sink to that, kept pursuing a dream onstage, illuminated by the house lights.
Dance auditions were brutal, harder than she anticipated. No callbacks. At the last one, her bank account nearly depleted, her teeth clenched so hard her jaw ached, her feet bleeding in her own shoes, she pulled no punches.
“Why not me?”
The men looked at her.
“I know I’m not getting this. You’ll call in a day or week or not at all and I won’t get the job. I just want to know why not.”
“You want it too much. There’s nothing effortless about you. You are weighed down by hopes and dreams and expectations. It shows, and it is distracting.”
After that last audition, one of them approached her with a time and an address. A job that might help her. A strip club. Come in for an audition, you might be good at it. You might be great.
She got as far as the club’s front door, tried to justify it. On stage. House lights. Dancing. A sliver of her dream, just the inedible rind. She turned away. She swore the bouncer out front had given her a nod, permission to say no.
Back in their tiny shared apartment, she looked her best friend in the eye and asked if he thought the cocktail waitress thing could still work out for her, because the dancer thing never would.
She shivers but doesn’t head to the bus stop. The bright gold glimmer beckons her like so many others.
When she walks the Strip, she is not a failed performer, an almost exotic dancer, a cocktail waitress. She is like all of them, seeking something and out to take it. She can be a tourist, living in a vacation from her own life.
But tonight, the illusion doesn’t take. The last part of her is gone, her best friend cleaved from her after he pulled her to him despite the rigid protest of her hands against his chest. His breath, hot and heavy against her shoulder, her neck, her ear. His words, alcohol drowsy but sharp: I want you. Let’s do this, it will be fun.
She shoved him, a hard push. Her eyes, furious. Her words, unforgivable to him: Never. You are not enough for me.
She tilts her head up, an act eclipsing prayer. She will meet her god’s gaze in the heavens and demand an answer.
The casino lights flicker and it is there: bright neon lights that say “Go.”
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Jen Stevens