It’s always too soon to go home.
Las Vegas has a story, just like any other city. Most people know some part of it from watching documentaries or dark, alluring dramas; Bugsy Segal, played by Warren Beatty, bending down to grab a pile of sand; Nicolas Cage, drinking himself to death in the arms of his neurotic stripper paramour, Elisabeth Shue. In between the geologic shift from ocean bed to desert, and the current economic slump, there was also industriousness—the indigenous Indians charging traveling settlers exorbitantly for access to the local water supply—and of course glamour—crooning Blue Eyes and Dean Martin and sad Marilyn Monroe. All the while, the city built and built, growing at a rate—over eighty per cent during the 1990s—that eventually made it the fastest growing city in the country. An industry town based almost exclusively on gambling; who would think that such a city could exist? But then of course it could in the superficially Puritan, spiritually libertarian, and materially deeply frivolous U.S.A. How we all love Las Vegas’s story. It is our fulcrum. Rags to riches; sand to beaming lights so strong they can be seen from outer space.
My family’s humble story was far removed from Las Vegas’s story until it wasn’t—back in 1987, when my brother came in 5th in the World Series of Poker. We had come from the cold of New Hampshire, where we lived on the large campus of a storied WASPy boarding school. Many years later I would write a full-length memoir about it, trying to make money so that I could be a writer, a poet (in the game of writing, poetry is always the short stack). But until then, it was neither here nor there, this story of a family living socially uncomfortably at a boarding school in the east. Some moderately interesting specifics: mother unusually intelligent and excellent at crosswords, artistically stifled, alcoholic; father Jewish, teaching English to the WASPs, warm and garrulous, but emotionally out of touch; older siblings, good at games—sister jealous of the youngest, brother out of it on pot and keen on chess.
I think we knew we’d have to leave. And in the end it was this leaving (to arrive in Las Vegas almost always means to have left some other place) that would make our story interesting to others. First my brother to New York, where he went to study chess, but ended up playing poker and betting on sports; then my sister for college, but she would also play poker; and then, finally, my mother, who, with her new actor boyfriend, would work for my brother in his sports-betting business. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. There was pain in the beginning. There was pain, too, at the end. The intersection of my family’s boring story and Las Vegas’s exciting and glamorous story was the middle. That was painful, too.
Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Life is what happens when the Brooklyn D.A. decides to bust your brother’s sports betting operation in New York, and he relocates to Las Vegas with your mother. Life is what happens when your sister decides to drop out of graduate school and move with her new husband and small children to Las Vegas and play poker. Life is what happens when your father—who, like you, is left, remaindered—remarries and moves with his new wife to San Diego. Now you have no home. You become truly an American—a settler, rootless, wandering, alone. The indigenous people will charge you an arm and a leg for a small sip of water. Life is that decadent part of the story, the part that is material and terribly expensive. I try to leave Las Vegas—I have tried to for most of my adult life—but I cannot seem to get away.
I went there after college, a thousand dollars in my pocket, and a vacant house to stay in that my brother’s friend had lent me for the year. That Las Vegas was the first place that I moved to was unusual. Las Vegas is more usually the last place people live, the last resort. I told myself I was running toward my poetry—toward space and time to write—but really I was running toward my family, toward my mother. I was running fast, already lit. Nothing bad ever happens to a writer, as the cliché would have it. A kind of alchemy, the bad can be transformed into the good—into writing.
The first night that I spent there, reading The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky, marking the book up like a student in a study hall, gazing out the window, thinking: now I am a writer and this story is material. I was playing against type: young, college-educated female playing poker in Las Vegas, melancholic poet playing poker in Las Vegas, in-pain and burning daughter playing poker in Las Vegas. Who was my audience? My mother?
My days then were luxurious. I would wake up in the morning, sip a coffee and drive around in my brother’s BMW, listening to the radio. I would drive the winding loop from his new house through Red Rock Canyon, past the gypsum plant and cactus store, and finally through the dully-lit, exhausted and hung-over Strip. I was waiting to clock in and play—I had decided to treat my voluntary apprenticeship as if I would be graded—usually at exactly 4pm. I would shower, dry my hair; I would prepare just like a schoolgirl who is packing a bagged lunch and sharpened pencil for the day. Sometimes, I would visit her—my mother—grab some lunch and chat. Or sit out on the shady porch behind her Tudor house and listen to the whirring of cicadas.
And here, a run of stories, some are banal, some more interesting: me sitting at the $2-$4 table at the Mirage, playing “like a rock” as the expression goes, which means that I was playing “tight,” playing conservatively. I was trying to learn poker in a systematic way—not in the typical way, in fits and starts, fueled by a burgeoning addiction or boredom or a childlike fascination with the mixture that is skill and luck and lying in the game. Or: me at the volcano at the front of the Mirage—the first time, the volcano spewing beautifully the fakest most natural fire in the world. “It costs them forty-thousand dollars a pop,” my brother remarking. “Every couple of hours.” The sums were disorienting, the scale of the place monumental, like Olympus or like hell. Delectable steak dinners, sometimes noodles, crab legs, fries galore; we would get a free voucher to eat at the buffet if we had been playing at our tables long enough, which is something I made sure to do. I would buttonhole my brother, make him sit with me and teach me what he could about the game.
At one of those dinners: the memory of my brother, sitting across a small table for two with a deck in his hands. “How many cards are in a deck?” He asked me. I didn’t even know. “How many?” Pause. “There are fifty-two cards in a deck. Now, how many in each suit?” He was trying to get me to think quantitatively. This single interaction would change the way I thought about pretty much everything in my life and the world after that. “Thirteen,” he said. He laid the cards out. Fifty-two cards in a deck, 13 of each suit, each number and face card progressively trumping the lesser one that came before. It is a mathematical problem, but limited. Unlike the most high profile mathematical problems of the day—statistical arbitrage, the national debt, or the chemical mechanics of global warming—this one had what you would call a limited downside. Poker, I saw then—intuitively, I did not yet have the vocabulary to describe it in this way—was a zero-sum game. You either have something—cards, a stack, a chance—or you don’t.
In October, 2001, after five years away, I would find myself vertiginously back where I started: in Las Vegas at the New York—New York, the Hotel and Casino. My sister-in-law had suggested we go. We were standing and watching “Two Dueling Pianos” from the back of a very large, very drunk crowd. That autumn: still warm, but I wore a thick sweater, and I pounded one screwdriver after another. My sister-in-law liked to drink. My sister-in-law liked to throw up her arms, close her eyes, and yell out to the dueling pianos. The Twin Towers had fallen. I had lost my apartment. I was broke and my brother had taken me in. I remember looking up at the façade of the New York—New York. The skyline was cast in a series of colorful blocks—blue and green and salmon pink—but the Towers were missing; they had always been missing. I would later find out that the designers of the building had decided the Towers would throw off the proportions of the skyline if included. The designers had been prescient in that way—they had been practical. The frightened people of Las Vegas had laid flowers—heaps and heaps of them—and teddy bears and photos of the missing and the dead, a kind of penance, at the gates of the New York—New York Hotel and Casino.
And so this is a penance, laid at the proverbial grave of my mother, who is now stories and ashes. A miniature urn of her sits on the mantel in my bedroom in Park Slope, New York, and I think of the times that I spent in Las Vegas, haunting her. And now she is haunting me. My mother in the yard, sitting—face wide open, like an owl’s; we were discussing the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Whir and hum of A/C, house lights shining on our faces like the two of us were acting on a stage and nothing happening but talking. It is one of my favorite memories. Another: in the kitchen. She is sitting in her nightgown, running numbers for my brother. The savory smell of cooking food: lasagna, probably Lean Cuisine. My mother.
But I hardly saw her that long year I spent there after 9/11. Was I avoiding her? Or was it she who was avoiding me? I was working on the memoir that I hoped would get me out of a debt—working, working everyday, or at least very strenuously fretting. I try to craft a story, but in fact the recollections from that year bunch up into a ball I want to light on fire. I am always stuck in traffic, always going to the gym, where I would exercise until my head was empty. I am always on my way to the Bellagio Casino, where the big games had been moved three years before, and very anxious. I didn’t have money to play, but I was hungry, so I went there to beg for food and red wine from my brother. He would wave the waiter over as if swatting at a fly. Later, I would end up at my brother’s house, passed out on the long couch, a kind of loneliness that maybe someone’s mother could have cured, but not my mother.
She was mad at me. I had shown everyone my memoir: my brother, so he could verify the details of his New York years; my sister, who insisted that she hadn’t in fact stolen from my mother’s purse when we were small; and my father, who complained that I portrayed him as “a giant dork.” My mother, on the other hand, I did not show the memoir to. I was not ashamed of what I said and I had tried to be fair, but I had wanted her to read the final draft, the perfect draft: a kind of offering. (I guess she was my audience.) I FedExed the clean manuscript to her the day before I finally took a plane back to New York: “You made up a beautiful childhood for yourself,” she said as I rode in the cab back to Brooklyn.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” as the advertising slogan goes. The same is tacitly expected of a family or a childhood: what happens in a family should by all rights stay there—unarticulated, private. I broke the rule.
I try to find the moment when my mother started dying. I see myself, a little girl, still sitting in the yard back east: toys, the square, dark, mossy bricks. I stared in through the sliding door. I stared in at my mother. The way the screen was black and light, its wires so tightly interlaced. Could I see her? She was crying on the blue and green plaid couch. It was hard at that age to climb up without help, but I went to her. “What is wrong with you mommy?” I was up on her lap. I was stroking her hair and her face with my hands. “I’m so lonely,” she’d said. She’d been drinking for years. She’d been smoking for years (for “pack years” as the doctors would call them).
Or maybe it was later: she had moved with her new boyfriend to The Village in New York. They had met at the regional summer stock theater while my mother was still married to my father. (She would tell me much later that one of those summers I had talked to the boyfriend. How I’d said that they were using an “inordinate amount of paint” on the sets; how that phrasing from a little girl had charmed him.) She would always maintain she’d run away from my father, when really it seemed that she’d run from herself. Sad and privileged, bright and furious, she had wanted all her life to be an actress, but her mother had insisted that she study something practical like macroeconomics. After grad school, she had married, birthed three children, and—with an intransigent patience I have seen only in the very best gamblers and writers I’ve known—attempted a slow suicide.
When had she started? The day before her rehab when she drank herself near death on the brown love seat in the den? The day my father yelled, my sister left, the day the cat got hit by a car. The time I had gone to her apartment for the holiday; I had asked her out to dinner—just the two of us, no boyfriend, please. She balked and then began to cry. When we finally sat down at the table alone, the way that she casually averted her eyes. All the money she spent, decorating and redecorating, buying sweaters and jackets, and black slimming jeans. To follow a dream you won’t live is one way to not live, but to also not—technically—die.
I can see her, still sitting, her legs hanging down like a kid’s from a bench. The emphysema had worked on her face and her hands, but she had tried to look her best for me, angry daughter. Dark mascara, two brief strokes of blush. My boyfriend and I—we would later marry in Las Vegas, but by then my mother would be dead—had brought Thai from downtown. We had eaten it, with gusto, from old plates we had found in the kitchen. We had talked about the family, its diaspora—life, love, and death. It was the last time I would see her sitting upright, sitting in a house. Her breathing was labored, but the two of us were able to pretend there was no rift, that nothing happened. Love. I can’t describe it, but I know that I once felt it for my mother.
In the hospital later—it was maybe one month—someone had propped a black and white photo of her as a child up against the far wall. In the photo, which had once been in the living room of our old house and would later be hung in the nursery of my new one in Park Slope, she wears schoolgirl clothes, long brown braids, and a distant but contented expression. As I heard her breathing on the vent, I would stare at the picture and then back at her face. What would she have thought as a child of this death? Was this death the one she would have chosen for herself? What did I think? How was it my mother—a blue-blooded, New England girl—could be dying like this in Las Vegas? One version might say that she left us and moved west because of feminist trends that had peaked in the early 1970s; another would say that she was simply a free spirit—the life of the party—and that the party was in Vegas; and yet another that my mother was depressive and unstable. My version: she was beautiful, confusing—charismatic. She lined all her words with a rumble that signaled an irresistible excitement. Around her: an abiding thrall. Within her, all the energy of someone who was sure she had been duped in her one life and wanted badly at another. My mother may not have succeeded as an actress, but she succeeded as a character.
I go now to these literary parties in New York, where we shuffle around the bad wine and warm cheese, and we gossip about how someone horrible has won an important prize. Sometimes, during a lull in things or when a person has just come into the circle, it will be mentioned that I once lived in Vegas. People consider it a fun topic, a reliable conversation starter. They will say with a mischievously raised eyebrow that I play poker. I will say that I’m not very good, and the interlocutor will laugh, observing that this is exactly the sort of thing a hustler would say, and isn’t that funny? Lately, we might talk about Tony Hsieh and his plan to transform the downtown into a new cultural mecca. Previously, we would speak about white tigers or Celine Dion. A couple of years ago, there was an article in the New Yorker about the new City Center’s architecture. People would ask me about that for a while. I might tell a story about winning at craps or getting really drunk. Or I might try to talk about something more serious, like the immigrants who risked their lives building the Hoover Dam. But Las Vegas is the place my mother died.
Originally published in City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb (2015).