It’s the night before the night before Christmas Eve. In the corner of the casino, smoke lingers at eye level. After drinking cheap beer all day and all night, I barely notice. Vegas during the holidays is both festive and depressing. Garlands drape over directional signs. Christmas music leaks out from speakers tucked away in corners, invisible to the eye. The song changes: Paul
McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime.”
I’m sitting at a bank of slot machines, far from the bustling center of the casino floor where people camp out next to roulette wheels or high-five over craps tables. It’s me and him. He’s as drunk as I am. A cigarette that’s mostly ash balances between his fingers. It’s been awhile since he’s touched me with those fingers. Just two exes, not quite knowing what to talk about even though our eyeballs are as glazed as holiday hams. From the outside, he’s the same. Same navy blue canvas jacket. Same rate of tearing through cigarette packs like broken hearts. I’m the same too, beneath my breakup bangs and lipstick the color of desperation. I’m 21 years old and reckless with my body and my heart.
I’m not sure who leans in first. Perhaps it’s because I make myself so close that not much of a lean is needed. I’m always there, ready for that subtle shift. I make it so easy for him. It’s only us and Paul McCartney and the random drunks and gamblers in this dumpy little corner of a divey casino the night before the night before Christmas Eve.
As I wait for his mouth, the familiar taste of beer breath and cigarettes, I think about what’s going to happen next. I’m hesitant, but hungry. I wait for the feeling of his hands roaming over me, his lips on my face, my neck, my skin. His long fingers reading my body like a holiday carol in a hymnal, his sharp notes, his pauses. I wallow in this nanosecond of a moment, as much as
I can with my beer-soaked consciousness and broken heart in this crumbling hotel which could be demolished any year now, because this is a city that doesn’t give a shit about preserving history. So here we go for old time’s sake in a place that doesn’t respect time. I promise myself that this is the last time. I need for it to be the last time. My heart feels as trampled as the worn carpet beneath my sneakers. Something draws me away from him, right before that gnashing crash of his mouth on mine, my heart catching in his teeth.
The casino is a big rectangle but it’s somehow still possible to get lost if you’ve been drinking foamy beers since noon. Over his shoulder, glowing like a beacon, is the neon food court sign, still open at 3 a.m. I see the Taco Bell logo. It’s the most comfortingly consistent thing in the entire casino. And I know then that I want three crunchy tacos more than I want him. No supreme–nothing fancy for me. I crave the simplicity of those key ingredients–the seasoned beef, the sharp tang of cheddar, the complementary coolness of lettuce and tomato, topped with hot sauce because I want something between mild and fire. I sit upright against the smoke-stained backrest of my seat, catching my breath.
“What is it?” he asks me, his voice low and gravelly, rough with smoke. His bedroom voice.
“I want Taco Bell,” I reply.
He laughs, then sees I am not joking.
In the food court, half of the tables are wiped down, chairs overturned on the laminated tops. A few scattered drunks sit at the remaining open booths. He and I go straight to the cashier and place our orders in the harsh fluorescent lighting. We carry our trays to a two-seater, and I tear into my meal. He doesn’t touch his Taco Grande Burrito. Instead, he sits and watches me tear the wrapping off my first taco and apply a liberal amount of hot sauce. He sees that I am famished. I take a giant bite, and the crispy shell breaks against my teeth.
Kim Nelson (she/her) is a writer/voracious reader/outdoor cat who lives in Chicago, Illinois. She finds inspiration in music, pop culture, ghost stories, road trips, comic book superheroes, ancient mythology, woodland creatures, and karaoke bars. For more, please visit kimberlymilanelson.com.