In her car, that evening, we drove in silence. I didn’t know what to say to Sanja and she seemed unwilling to share anything unbidden. I was tempted to ask some simple, innocuous question about our host, but thought that if I did I might slip and say something far too revealing. I kept my silence instead.
In truth I didn’t know what to say anyway. I hadn’t come to grips with my own feelings, uncertain and unreal as they were, about him. I didn’t understand myself, so how could I hope to understand what any of this meant. I looked at her once, directly at her in profile as she drove through the darkening landscape of desert and mesa. She looked pretty. She must have felt my gaze, for she turned once and looked directly at me and she smiled. I returned her smile and looked away. I couldn’t be unhappy about her pleasure; she meant that much to me. I watched the road for the rest of the trip back to her place.
That night we slept together and I knew it would be the final time for us. I did what I could to be the best I could be at the act which I had only performed with her and with my wife. It was work, though, and not pleasure, and I believe she understood that. The next morning I called a taxi and moved to a hotel. I called her from my room, explained - as best I could - my need for a separation from everything and everyone. She said she empathized. She offered to buy me dinner. I declined the offer, thanked her for her friendship and then, Sanja put behind me, I started to gamble.
I say "started" when the reality was I had been gambling from the moment Delly Delaney said his first kinds words to me. I had been gambling with my soul and my spirit. I was spending a lifetime of saved-up emotions, spending them quickly and furtively, hoping for some sort of return on the most foolish form of investment. I was throwing good after bad and coming up with solid losses. I was a loser on all counts.
It took me three days of playing in the casino to finally exit the place, fifty bucks in my shirt pocket, a heart I couldn’t find and a mind set on the end of life. The very same problem I had confronted before flying to Las Vegas loomed up in front of me in the airport terminal. Faces danced and names avoided me. Recognition was gut-alone, mind was missing. I felt very old suddenly. Very, very old and mostly incapable of emotion. I couldn’t tell if this was from my own reticence to express anything or just from the loss of more levels of humanity than I had realized were still a part of my life. I only knew that there was less of me waiting for the return flights than there had been on the way west.
Losing sight of your life, of its history and its importance relative to your relations with the world, is not as painful as you might think. Once a memory is gone, lost forever, you are unaware of its previous existence and so you don’t miss it. Not until something occurs to bring back a portion of it, leaving you desparate for more, for the completion of that memory. Being with Sanja for a short time had brought up things I had forgotten, feelings and needs both for her and for Judith. There had been a moment, I’m not sure when exactly, when I remembered a night in Costa Rica when Phil, Judith’s brother, and I went out catting and ended up alone together in bed. We were drunk, I remembered that well, and we had held on to one another as though we were sailors on a ship drowning in an Atlantic storm. I remembered our kisses. They had seemed innocent then and now, in memory, they became something else again. I didn’t know what I had felt for him that night. I don’t know what, if anything beyond the kissing, ever happened. I only remembered that I felt safe in the storm, unafraid of dying, anything but alone. And alone was certainly the signature tune of the day, as I sat in the waiting room at the Las Vegas airport, listening for my flight number, holding on to the little bottle with the shredded buck.
One night, I thought, only one night, nearly fifty years ago. Was that the moment I should have paid attention to in formulating my life? Questions again. Questions I wouldn’t answer, certainly never utter aloud. I tried to remember his voice and his lips and his hands, but only his face danced there before my eyes. And as I looked at it, it changed and I wasn’t sure if this was Phil or someone else. I wasn’t sure.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder, bringing me out of this reverie. I looked up into the eyes of a man whose face was familiar.
"Yes?" I said.
"I wanted to say goodbye," he said.
"Is that your job here in Las Vegas?" I asked him. "Are you the official who sends the losers home with a smile?"
"It’s Delly," he said.
I blushed. Of course it was him, Sanja’s lover, the man who touched me deeply without meaning to do so.
"It’s very kind of you to come out here just to see me off," I said. "You don’t even know me."
"You’re Sanja’s best friend," he replied. "She means a great deal to me. So you do also."
I stood up and took his hand and, without realizing it, pressed my small glass bottle with the Las Vegas buck enclosed in it into his hand. I squeezed his fingers and I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
"I know you came out here hoping to find an old love renewed," he said, "and I was already in your place. I’m sorry about that. You’re a nice man, Mitch. I would have liked the opportunity for us to be friends."
"Thanks, Phil," I said. It hit me later that I had called him Phil, not Delly, but he never said a word about it.
"Will you come back and visit us again some time?" He was smiling warmly, and I knew he meant well, but I couldn’t tell him how impossible this would be. I had no words available, just then, to tell him how deeply his sweet nature had affected me, how much I wanted to be a part of his life for the rest of mine.
"I’ll see," is what I said. "I’ll think about it."
"What’s this?" he asked as we let loose our grip on each other’s hands. He was looking at the bottle. "Oh," and he laughed, "a Las Vegas buck bottle."
"Keep it," I said. "A keepsake, a memory of me."
"No, no. It’s yours, Mitch. It’s what most folks go home with and you should also. A memory made solid. I only hope it’s not the last buck you ever go home with."
My plane was called and I smiled at Delly, thanked him for coming out to the airport and turned to go to my gate. He caught up with me instantly and took me by the arm, walking me down the lane between the rows of slot machines that furnish the place. At the gate he stopped me and turned me toward him.
"You’re a good man," he said. "We’ll miss you." And he kissed me on the cheek.
I boarded the plane, not looking back, not knowing if he was still there. I had the bottle in my fist and my heart in my cheek.
My gambling days, such as they were, I put behind me right then and there. I had gambled and lost, but I had won something I had never anticipated. I had a memory now of something I had never remembered before. I could recognize my own face as it danced before me, could feel the strength of a kiss, the depth of a love that had never been mine before. I couldn’t blame any failures, any losses, on anyone but myself and there was no guilt attached to that failure. There was regret, yes, but no guilt and I suppose at age 72 , facing the past or what was left of the past, without guilt wasn’t such a bad thing. "Perhaps," I said aloud, "a loss can be a win."
"First time in Vegas?" asked the man sitting next to me.
"Yes," I said. And I smiled. "Here’s my souvenir." I held up my bottle.
He smiled back at me. It was a pleasant smile, cheery and warm in a face already dancing as the plane began to taxi down the runway. Then he held up his own souvenir buck in a bottle. "My name is Harry," he said, and I felt myself forgetting his name almost immediately. "Where are you headed now?"
### END ###
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