‘Remember to forget,’ the signs in the Las Vegas airport yelled at me from every direction.
That was why I was here, to forget. Only I wanted to forget everything I had left at home.
‘But I chose you!’ Joseph’s words shouted through my head.
‘It was not your choice!’ Had been my last words to him before I had slammed the door.
The person who had the affair, the adulterer, was not the one who was able to choose whether the marriage carried on.
If he had told me at the time, if I had known then, maybe I would have chosen to stay. But two years afterwards…
He should have been honest then. It should have been my choice then.
Now it was my choice and I had chosen to walk out and fly to Las Vegas.
I was running away with my hands covering my eyes and ears. See no, hear no evil. But I didn’t care. I had lost me somewhere. I wanted her back. I was trying to find me again because the foundation I had worked so hard to build my current life on had been a lie for the last two and a half years. I thought I had been a respected woman at work and a loved wife. Instead, I had been cheated on and lied to, and nearly everyone around me knew.
I wanted to shout and scream for the sake of screaming—to let the anger tearing at me get to the outside. I hoped, in the noise of Las Vegas, my screaming would be drowned out.
Today I didn’t love Joseph anymore, and today I did not think I ever would again. He had stamped on my heart and crushed the love out of it. He did not deserve for me to care what he felt. But maybe tomorrow that would change. I did not understand how to respond when someone declared that they’d had an affair that had ended two years before but that they had stayed with you because they had realised how much they loved you. Two years ago!
This was my time to choose whether I loved him enough to forgive him for something that had happened in the past.
For now, though, I was going to forget about him and spend money. If I did sue for divorce he did not deserve to have any of the money I had been saving for four years. It was meant to be for my future. I would rather ruin that and waste it all than let him have half.
When I walked out of the airport’s air-conditioned hall, Las Vegas’s heat and humidity hit me; it had been a gloomy, showery April day in London.
I was here, in the USA. It was my first time. I was a Las Vegas and American virgin.
I smiled for the benefit of no one but myself.
This was me.
This was the me who stood up in front of bad people and helped deliver justice. This me was strong, and she had come here to prove to herself that she could be alone and not scared.
My fingers tightened their hold on the handle of the suitcase. A suitcase was the only thing I had left to hang on to. I had taken every lifeline away from myself by coming here. But I needed to prove to myself that I could do this.
The heels of my stilettos clicked on the tarmac as I walked towards the taxis.
I was here, and I was here to gamble and go wild. If I wanted to. I could do anything here. No one judged in Las Vegas. That was the saying that had brought me here to buy into it. I did not want to be judged; I just wanted to be and not have to think.
The taxi driver got out to take my case and put it in the car boot.
I slid into the back of the taxi without anything to hold on to.
‘Where to, ma’am?’ he said when he dropped into the driver’s seat.
I told him the name of the hotel.
The second thing I discovered about Las Vegas, other than that it was hot, was that the middle of it was much smaller than I had expected. My eyes looked left to right and back again as the taxi travelled. Everything was more spacious than London, the streets were wide and mountains stretched into the sky in the distance. There was no distance in London.
It took fifteen minutes to reach the hotel. I paid the driver. He collected the case from the boot. Then I was left on my own on the pavement holding on to my suitcase. The taxi had crossed the main street where everything exciting must happen but I was at the back of the hotel. Here, it was just queues of vehicles dropping people off or waiting to pick them up.
My tongue stuck to the dry roof of my mouth. I tried to swallow when I turned around and walked in.
How many people came to Las Vegas alone?
The man who booked me in at the reception desk honoured the Las Vegas escapists’ code and didn’t even raise an eyebrow at my aloneness. He smiled and asked if I would like to go on any tours while I was here, book a show or a table in the restaurant?
I refused everything. I wanted to explore and understand Las Vegas before I planned anything. I was cautious. It had taken me six months to accept Joseph’s invite to go on a date and he had flattered me constantly at work and bought me thoughtful gifts until I had finally believed he was real. Only to discover four years later that he was not real.
The hotel room was spacious. A queen-size bed, sofa, and desk furnished the bedroom, and a walk-through wardrobe, with one side of mirrors, lined the route to a bathroom. It had a sense of an apartment. Which was good because I had not booked a flight home. I might decide to stay for weeks or months if I chose not to go back to Joseph.
I put my case on the bed and unzipped it, hung up my evening dresses, put my T-shirts, skirts, shorts and underwear in the drawers, then put my makeup out on the vanity table in the dressing area. I took my toothbrush into the bathroom and then it all seemed final. That was the moment when I believed I had separated from Joseph.
And I was in Las Vegas!
My heartbeat pounded in my arteries, ringing in my ears.
I faced myself in the bathroom mirror.
‘You do not deserve me, Joseph.’
The scar on the left side of my throat caught my eye. I looked away from it, at the reflection of my face. A voice that Joseph had stirred up spoke of ugliness and uselessness.
I turned away from the mirror, from that insecure woman. I didn’t want to be her. I had cut off her hair years ago, when she had first run away, thrown out her clothes and become someone new.
‘The Las Vegas me,’ I said aloud to silence the voice, as I walked into the bedroom, ‘she is strong.’ I would fight this, and maybe I would make myself someone different again when I went home. Although I couldn’t cut my hair any shorter unless I shaved it off.
I picked out a black cocktail dress that was covered in sequins. I’d bought it for an office party three years ago. The Christmas before I had married Joseph.
The memory made me hang it back up.
I put on an electric blue dress that I had bought for my sister’s forty-fifth birthday party. The fabric had a satin texture with a tuck at one side of the waist. It had a flattering, but not flirtatious, pencil skirt and embraced me beneath and over my bosom. The short sleeves cupped the tops of my shoulders. I looked good in the mirror. The colour pulled out the blue in my eyes and the low V-neckline set off the way my blonde hair was styled to taper at my nape. It made my neck look longer. My gaze caught on the scar at the base of my throat. I looked into my eyes.
I didn’t want to look good for the benefit of anybody else, just for me.
At home I spent hours in gyms and beauty salons because those things helped pin me together.
But Joseph’s affair had sprinkled doubt in my head like a packet of cress seeds. The jumbled twisted roots of negative thoughts were growing through my mind in a tangle of confusion. I didn’t trust anything. If my past had been different perhaps I could forgive him—instead I had travelled halfway around the world to run from the pain. Not him. I had not run from him. I had run from me.
Put a face on. Hide the reality. I could cover up anything with makeup. I had done it for years.
I did it tastefully, with natural colours, setting a glow to my skin beneath the powder. I could be me.
I looked at my full-length image.
No, I can’t.
I sat down on the bed. My hands clasped the back of my head as I leaned over, cowed. My spirit was so knocked it wanted to drag me down on to the floor. Why had Joseph done it? I had believed he’d loved me. I had been tricked. How could I be who I had been two weeks ago?
Because I could not let this crush me.
I had to fight.
I straightened up, my hands falling, then stood. It was just about strength. I had to be strong.
Dutch courage would help.
I had bought a bottle of gin from the duty free on the plane. It was in the wardrobe to stop me from being tempted to drink it too early in the day. It was not early now and if I was going to walk downstairs my legs needed gin to start moving.
The screw cap was stiff but after a moment it twisted loose. I drank several mouthfuls from the bottle. The hit from the alcohol shivered through my blood. Then I screwed the lid back on and put the bottle away. Joseph had said sometimes I drank like an alcoholic. Sometimes I did but I think my life justified that, sometimes.
‘Just get out of this room and go to the casino, the noise will fill your head and you won’t feel trapped anymore.’ I said the words to the woman in the mirror. ‘You know if you stay here tonight you’ll never build up the courage to go out on your own.’ The determined voice slapped my bottom, making me move.
I walked over to put some shoes on and selected the highest heels. Then picked up my handbag and the room key from the vanity table in the dressing area by the door.
I clasped the door handle.
I opened the door and walked out before I lost courage.
The room was at the far end of a hall and it meant I had a long walk to the lifts. Courage and strength of mind was all I needed.
The two couples who shared the lift with me talked and laughed, expressing how excited they were to be in Las Vegas.
I should be excited too. I should think about that. As I rode down, standing in the corner because the couples filled up the rest of the space, I held my handbag in front of me like a shield. The bag tapped against my stomach with the tremble in my hands.
The lift doors opened and the noise of the casino swept in, music, loud voices and the tunes of the electronic gaming machines.
My heart jumped, joining the rhythm of the background music. I forced my legs to walk me out of the lift on to the gaudy brown and gold patterned carpet.
There were a few empty tables in the room but most of the tables had groups of people around them. One craps table was surrounded by about twenty men watching a woman throw the dice. A couple of the roulette tables had crowds watching too.
‘Before you lose your nerve, get some chips,’ I whispered the words at myself, trying to keep my legs moving and my lungs breathing. I did not want to panic here.
A woman who had come out of the lift ahead of me looked back.
The strange single woman was now talking to herself.
I smiled. She smiled back.
It was Las Vegas. I had come here because if I could not be weird here, then where?
At the cashier window, I was going to hand over a hundred dollars, but—why hold back? I used my bank card and changed a thousand. Once I had the chips in my hand I turned around, looking at all the tables. The only game I knew anything about was blackjack, and the blackjack tables were the quietest.
There was a blackjack table with no players in a corner right at the back on the far side of the room. If I went there, less people would be likely to cross the room and join the game. My heart pounded again as I wove through the tables with a slow, high-heeled enforced sashay.
A finish line sign dropped from the ceiling above the table and I was running, in slow motion, to reach a ribbon I could tear through. Just a few more meters without anyone else noticing I was alone and out of place.
My eyes focused on one of the high, long-legged chairs. I had to climb on to that chair in a pencil skirt. My new concern was not reaching the table but getting on the chair without falling or tearing my dress.
When I reached it, I put my bag on the table and navigated the ascent with as much class as I could.
I was on it, and I was here, doing this.
I looked at the croupier.
The young man smiled.
I had seen it was a man from the other side of the room but from behind he had just been a man in the casino’s gold waistcoat and cream shirt uniform. Facing him… He was a gorgeous specimen.
The gin in my blood and brain gushed over his looks.
‘Good evening, ma’am, nice to have you join me. I was bored over here in the corner.’ His smile tilted sideways with a cheeky hint of flirtation. Then his hand lifted and swept back his fringe. My gaze followed the movement.
His mid-brown hair was millimetres long at his neck, like mine, but it became longer around his ears. The fringe was about five centimetres long and parted to one side on an angle. He also had neatly trimmed fashionable facial hair.
‘Are you going to play?’ he prompted me, his eyebrows lifting, highlighting how magnetic his dark blue eyes were. ‘Shall I deal?’
‘Yes. Sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Apart from losing my mind in a strange place.
‘Neither do I half the time.’ He smiled again to make sure I understood it was a joke. ‘I can tell you how to play if you’d like me to?’
‘Isn’t that against the rules?’
‘No. The house want you to play. They would prefer me to tell you how than let you walk away.’
‘Then please tell me?’
A deep-pitched sound of amusement slipped from his throat that sounded— ‘Are you British?’
‘I sure am, ma’am.’ He opened four different packs of cards. ‘Are you good at card counting?’
I looked up from the cards. ‘No.’
‘Well, if you are, we make it hard. We play with four packs to reduce your odds of winning.’ He shuffled the cards as he spoke.
‘Isn’t that cheating?’
The next smile he sent me parted his lips. It no longer seemed flirtatious just him laughing at me. ‘No. That’s the casino way. We have lots of laws to abide by but we are still allowed to work the odds in our favour. It is a business. Here, you can cut the packs by putting this coloured card into them somewhere.’
‘What are you telling me? Don’t play?’
I took the coloured card he held out as his other hand embraced the packs and did as he’d said. Then he separated the packs, put the front section at the back and put the cards in some sort of contraption to deal them. ‘No. I’m doing my job, ma’am, and making sure you know the playing field. You can still win. If you want me to deal you some cards you need to decide what you are going to bet and put it on the table.’
I took two ten-dollar chips off the top of my pile and put them down.
He dealt me two cards face up and himself one card face up, jack of hearts, and one face down. ‘Look at your cards and decide if you want to bet more than you’ve already put down. You’re betting on getting a higher number than me. But remember your cards can’t equal more than the magic twenty-one.’
I had the seven of spades and an eight of diamonds on the table in front of me.
‘If you’re not sure, while we are playing I can tell you all the odds and what’s best to do?’
‘Yes, you only need to ask. If you don’t hear it from me you can Google it or buy a card with the odds on it in the shops on the Strip. You might as well hear it from me. I cannot tell you what to bet, though, and remember I am just telling you the odds you might be lucky.’
I smiled, my nerves easing for the first time since I had walked on to the plane at Heathrow. ‘OK.’
‘What do you want to do? Would you like another card?’
‘Yes. Hit me.’
A low sound like a grown or a growl slipped out of his mouth. ‘I hate ladies using that phrase. Touch the table when you want a card.’
He laid the card, a seven.
‘Hit—I mean another card, please.’ I touched the table.
‘Sure about that?’ he said, without taking a card from the deck.
‘Yes.’ He laid a ten and I was out. My twenty dollars was swept away as he cleared the table and his incomplete hand of cards too.
‘Would you like to play again?’
‘Yes.’ I was here to waste money and have fun doing it. I put another twenty dollars on the table.
He dealt the cards and turned over mine, a four and a three.
I touched the table and he dealt a card, a two. I tapped the table. ‘Another one.’ A six. ‘Another.’ A five. His eyes were truly mesmerizing, through a gin-tinted perspective. ‘Should I stop?’
‘I would. But it is up to you.’
‘So, you’re saying I would, means I should, if I do not want to dive into awful odds?’
‘I will stick then.’
He dealt on his hand, a four. He had long fingers and well-kept fingernails. He dealt himself a nine. ‘Twenty-one. Sorry you lose again.’
I looked from my hand of cards to his face. ‘This is annoying me. I want to win now.’
‘Didn’t you want to win when you sat down?’
‘No, I wanted to lose.’
‘You’re the first person I ever heard say they wanted to lose. Why would you want to lose? I take it you are playing again?’ His eyebrows lifted as his hand hovered over the dealing machine.
‘Yes.’ I put more chips down. ‘I wanted to lose because I need to dispose of my money.’
‘I have to tell the police if you’re laundering money.’ He smiled at me. It was a joke. He did not think I was.
A smile pulled at the muscles in my cheeks. He was making this easy to do on my own.
‘I’m not money laundering. I am getting rid of my divorce estate.’
‘Shooting the man by spending his cash before he closes the bank account.’
My gaze snapped up from his hands to his face. ‘No. Why do people always presume that the man has the money? I have money I don’t want him to take it if we divorce because he has been a disgusting cheat.’
‘When. Oh. I don’t know. I am confused.’
‘So am I. Do you want another card?’
I had the queen of hearts and the two of spades on the table. Perfect. ‘Twist.’ A two. ‘Twist.’ A three. ‘Stick.’
‘So anyway,’ he said as he turned over his card that had been face down, a five. ‘You have the money. Are you here with him?’
‘No. I ran away. It’s too hard to think about anything when he is in the apartment.’
‘You are here alone, then,’ he dealt a card to himself as he spoke, ‘spending money so your husband cannot get his hands on it.’ He looked at me when his cards reached a total of seventeen too. ‘I would stick here but as you’re on seventeen I am going to take another card.’ He did, and dealt a two, then took my card and another twenty dollars’ worth of chips. ‘Would you like to play again?’
‘Yes. Keep going until I say I am finished for the night.’ I put more chips down.
There was that British pitch of amusement as he dealt the cards.
‘Do you ever make a bad decision on your hand?’
‘I told you there are recommended odds. I have to abide by them. There is a camera on me and the cards and if I don’t play by the best odds then I am out of a job. But sometimes luck goes against the house and turns to the player.’
‘Give me some of that luck then.’
‘Sadly it comes when it wants to not when you order it.’
‘That is so true.’ I had been dealt an eight and seven. ‘What should I do?’
‘The odds say go for it.’
I tapped the table and ended up with another seven.
‘Lady Luck isn’t with you. Sorry. But then you said you wanted to lose. Perhaps you need to tell her you changed your mind louder.’
I laughed and looked up at the ceiling, ‘I changed my mind!’
When I looked down he was smiling at me. ‘Do you want a drink? I can call one of these pretty women over for you and they’ll get you one, no need to even get up. Look at them all walking around, looking for work, you should feel sorry for them.’
‘I don’t feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for me. But I will have a drink.’
‘Good, because if you want to waste your money you might as well enjoy yourself while you’re doing it; choose a cocktail.’ He had looked over his shoulder as he was talking and signalled a woman.
She wore a gold bikini made of little more than string, to show of her fabulous figure, a feathered headdress and beyond her heels nothing else. Her empty gold tray was balanced on one hand in front of her as she came over. ‘Hi, can I get you a drink, ma’am?’
‘What would you like?’
‘A margarita please.’
‘With crushed ice?’
‘Any salt on the glass?’
‘That’ll be eighteen dollars.’
‘Can you put it on my room?’
I gave her my room number and off she went.
‘OK, ready to play again?’ The croupier had a nice aura. Or maybe that was my gin coloured view again—I was useless at judging men. I must remember that. Do not trust anyone.
I ended up with two sixes. ‘You can split them if you want to,’ he said, as my margarita arrived on the gold tray. I signed for it as the woman put it down beside me. She hovered.
‘Tip,’ the croupier whispered out of the side of his mouth.
‘Oh.’ I delved into my bag and pulled out a dollar bill.
‘Thank you, ma’am.’
She walked away.
‘Are you splitting?’ The croupier chased.
‘Touch the table with both hands so the camera can see your call.’
‘Why do I need to do that?’
‘Because if there’s any argument over what you said it is all on film. Gamblers can get angry.’
‘How long have you been doing this?’ I took a long sip of the sweet and sour alcohol. It tasted intoxicating.
‘You’ll need to match your bet on the second card, and I have been doing this for nine months.’
I put two more chips down, then he dealt an additional card beside each of my sixes. A five and a two on the other.
‘How long have you been in the states?’ I sipped more of the margarita.
‘Three years. That’s why I can do a good mix of British and American.’
I kept tapping the table for cards. The first hand lost. Then I played the second.
Nineteen. ‘Stick. Where are you from in the UK?’
‘London, the East End.’ He was dealing his own hand.
‘I am from London as well, but not the East End. Ah. You burned. I win.’
‘Yes, you win.’ He leaned over and added a matching number of chips to mine.
‘Why did you come here?’
He dealt again. ‘To Las Vegas or the USA?’
‘Because I thought it would be a cool place.’
‘And you wanted this job. Oh, an ace. Is that high or low?’
‘Either. Up to you.’
A king accompanied it. ‘Did I win again?’
‘Yes, you did.’
I drank a gulp of my margarita as he gave me more chips. I left them on the table as a bet for the next game, with my previous winnings.
‘I wanted any job, so no sarcasm. I have been travelling around. This is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere. I like Las Vegas. It is weird and wonderful.’
I kept tapping the table as we talked, signalling him to deal the cards.
‘Why did you come to America, then? Are you a citizen of the world type?’ Now I understood the rules of playing it was becoming easier to play and talk. He could take every request from a hand gesture.
The last card he dealt knocked me out with a total of twenty-seven. He took back everything I had won.
I put more chips on the table and he dealt again.
‘I don’t know about citizen of the world, I think that is you taking the Michael out of me again, but I wanted to get away from the UK and I went far away.’
‘Where did you go first?’
‘Are you a singer?’ I won a hand again.
‘No.’ He put my winnings on top of my stake. ‘But I play guitar sometimes and the person who gave me the guitar used to talk about Nashville.’
‘Do you play the guitar well?’
‘I play for myself, to relax.’
‘Should I learn to play, to stop me from murdering Joseph?’
‘Joseph?’ His eyes looked up for a second as he posed the question.
His lips quirked at one side. ‘It might help. Or stay in Las Vegas and spend, spend, spend; that might work for you too.’
I laughed at him with a drunken edge. ‘I like you. What is your name?’
The smile played with his lips as if he thought I was funny. ‘Zac.’
‘My name’s Alison. Alison Osborn. Ali to everyone who knows me.’
‘Zac Day. Pleased to meet you, Ali.’
I held out my hand. The room did a little sway. I had finished my margarita.
He shook his head, with that laughing look, as he dealt another hand. ‘I can’t shake your hand it would look odd on the CCTV.’
‘Oh sorry. I thought I was getting the hang of this.’
He dealt me two threes.
‘I’d say you are getting the hang of it. Do you want another drink?’
He beckoned a woman over.
‘What will you do while you’re in Las Vegas? How long are you here for?’
‘I have no idea. I haven’t booked a flight back. What am I doing? I have no idea about that either.’
‘It’s a busy city. Las Vegas can eat a naïve woman alive and spit her out on the other side. Have you looked at any shows to go to?’
‘Not yet. I just wanted to get out of my room before I reached a point I couldn’t get out of it.’
His eyebrows lifted but he did not comment on my strange answer. I tapped the table and he dealt on my second hand.
My first hand I had stuck at twenty. This hand I stuck at nineteen.
‘What about Fremont St, have you heard about that? That’s a place you must go while you are here, especially if you are not limited for time.’
‘Did I win on both hands?’
He had tried to beat me and failed.
‘Yes. You did.’ He topped off both my piles of chips. It was a good feeling when I won.
My second drink arrived. I tipped the woman then sipped a little of it. Zac’s dark blue eyes were laughing at me.
‘What is Fremont St?’
‘Where it all began. Old Las Vegas. It is the street the filmmakers use. It’s like Blackpool on acid. The Strip, in comparison, is more Disney.’
‘For adults who gamble and drink.’ I lifted my glass in a toast. ‘To forgetting in Las Vegas.’
‘Yeah.’ He nodded as he dealt another hand. ‘Why didn’t you bring a friend with you to help you forget your Joseph and spend money?’
‘Because all our friends are joint friends. He and I work together and we also work with the woman he slept with. Most of our friends know her. They betrayed me as much as he has. Why would I want them here?’
‘Sorry I asked.’ He said it as though my annoyance had insulted him but his eyes said something different to his voice, he was teasing me.
I laughed, shivering in a dramatic pretend way, enjoying the to and fro of the conversation. I sipped from the glass as I won another hand. ‘I’m a junior barrister. I have saved money for years to buy into the partnership in the firm I work for. It’s pointless now. I don’t want to work there.’
‘What does he do?’
‘He is a lawyer too. But he’s a solicitor. He doesn’t aspire to be a barrister or a partner. We met when I joined the company. He had the affair with one of the administration team.’
‘And she’s still there?’
‘Yes, although they might have fired her now.’
‘Well, you have my sympathy. I would not have faced Monday morning either. Good idea to disappear to Las Vegas.’
‘Thank you. That’s what I thought.’ I was drunk. I lost the hand then had another long sip of my drink. I did not care if I was drunk. I didn’t have to go to work. I had no responsibility here.
He dealt again.
‘No one at home agrees. My sister has sent me angry texts and she’s the only one I trust. So now I have annoyed her too, which probably was not wise, and Joseph thinks I should be able to forget what he did because it happened two years ago.’
‘In my experience forgetting is not easy.’
I glanced up into those lovely honest-looking eyes. ‘I know. I can’t see how I can. I hate the thought of him doing that. It might have been two years ago but he has only just admitted it.’ I lost another hand. ‘Sorry, I am using you as an agony uncle.’
‘It’s alright. I hear a lot of things.’ His eyebrows arched higher. ‘I hear it all.’ His eyebrows fell. ‘But I still don’t think being alone will help you.’
‘You are probably right. But that was my choice.’
With perfect timing four women sat at the table, filling up the spaces either side of me. It was as though they popped a bubble that had wrapped around the card table. I had been oblivious of anything beyond the game and the croupier.
The noise in the casino had risen while I’d played. There were a lot more people at the tables and watching the games, and there were women dancing on small stands between the tables. The place had a different atmosphere.
I played another hand.