I breathed a sigh of relief when he took his drink from me and started walking away.
The man called out from behind us. “You’re lucky you came when you did. I was just about to ask her to blow on my dice.”
Elec flipped back around and charged toward the man, but I ran in front of him blocking his aim. In the process, he bumped into me, and both drinks spilled all over my dress.
“Elec, no! We can’t get kicked out of here. Please. I’m begging you.”
Despite the maniacal look in his eyes, by some miracle, Elec backed down. I think he knew if he took another step forward, it would have meant the end of our night. I was glad he realized that the guy wasn’t worth it.
“You can thank her that you still have a face,” Elec said before following me out of the room.
We walked in silence toward the exit until he took one look at my dress when we reentered the bright lighting.
“Shit, Greta. You’re a mess.”
“A hot mess.” I laughed.
“Let’s go. I’m buying you a new outfit.”
“It’s fine. I’m just a little wet.”
Good God, Greta. Choose words wisely.
“No, it’s not fine. That was my fault.”
“It’ll dry. Tell you what, if you win something tonight, you can spend it all on a new outfit for me at one of these expensive shops. That’s the only way I’m letting you spend any money on me.”
“I better get to work then, because you smell like a bar dumpster.”
“Why, thank you.”
“First, let’s get you another adult beverage. Come on.”
I stuck with Elec while he ordered our drinks at a different bar. “You want to come watch me play poker, or do you prefer playing your old lady slots?”
“I’d love to watch you play.”
He looked over at the poker tables to survey the scene. “On second thought, I won’t be able to concentrate. It’s all men over there right now. Those guys are gonna be all over you, and I really don’t feel like getting into another fight tonight. Why don’t we split up for a little bit. You go play your pennies, and I’ll come find you once I’ve played a couple of rounds.”
I pointed to the slots diagonally across the room. “I’ll be over there, then.”
As I walked away, I thought about how I should have asked him why it bothered him so much if guys hit on me. I was the single one after all. Didn’t he say it wasn’t my place to care about him? So, why did he care about that if he’s with Chelsea? I had to endure watching his girlfriend all over him right in front of me, so why shouldn’t he have to endure some guy flirting with me?
I wanted to text him that question but wasn’t sure if he had the same phone number from seven years ago. I decided I’d text the old number in my phone anyway to get it off my chest, and if it was no longer his number, then so be it.
Why does it matter to you anymore if other guys hit on me? You’re not supposed to care.
After a few minutes, there was no reply. It wasn’t his number anymore. Well, it still felt good to type those words out.
I chose a Lucky Sevens machine and situated myself next to an old woman whose hair was pretty much blue because it had so much rinse in it.
She smiled over at me. Her lipstick was the brightest florescent pink, and she had a smear of it on her front teeth.
I pulled the lever repeatedly not even paying attention to whether or not I was winning anything.
Her voice startled me. “You look like you have something on your mind.”
“Who is he, and what did he do?”
I’d never see this woman again after today. Maybe I should just let it all out.
“You want the long version or the short version?”
“I’m ninety, and the dinner buffet opens in five minutes. Give me the short version.”
“Okay. I’m here with my stepbrother. Seven years ago, we slept together right before he moved away.”
“Taboo…I like it. Go on.”
I laughed. “Okay…well, he was the first and last guy I ever really cared about. I never thought I’d see him again. His father died this week, and he came back for the funeral. He wasn’t alone. He brought a girl he supposedly loves. I know she loves him. She’s a good person. She had to go back to California early. Somehow, I ended up at this casino with him. He leaves tomorrow.”
A single teardrop fell down my face.
“It looks to me like you still care about him.”
“Well, then you have twenty-four hours.”
“No, I don’t plan to screw things up for him.”
“Is he married?”
“Then, you have twenty-four hours.” She looked at her watch and leaned on her walker to stand herself up. She gave me her hand. “I’m Evelyn.”
“Hi, Evelyn. I’m Greta.”
“Greta…fate gave you an opportunity. Don’t f**k it up,” she said before she scooted away on the walker.
Over the next several minutes, I kept thinking about what she said while mindlessly pulling the lever on the penny slot machine. Even if Elec weren’t with Chelsea, the fact remained that he never felt we could be together because of Pilar. I didn’t know if things had changed in that regard now.
My phone buzzed. It was Elec.
I know I’m not supposed to care. But when it comes to you, what I’m supposed to be feeling has never seemed to matter.
In that moment, I’d made a decision. I wasn’t going to be the one to initiate anything between Elec and me, but I would keep an open mind. I wouldn’t rule anything out. I would have hope. Because before I knew it, I’d be 90 and waiting for the dinner buffet. When that time came, I didn’t want to have any regrets.
The lights started flashing on my machine, and it was dinging like crazy. A bunch of number sevens were lined up in a nice neat row. The number of credits displayed kept going and going.
I looked around to find all eyes in the nearby vicinity were on me.
People started clapping.
My heart was racing.
Holy crap. I won.
What did I win?
I still didn’t know. I couldn’t figure the machine out. It gave the number of credits but no dollar amount. When everything finally stopped, I ejected my ticket and took it to the cashier’s booth. “I think I won, but I couldn’t figure out how much?”
“Do you want to cash out?”
The person seemed less than enthused to assist me.
“How much did I win?”
“No, one-thousand dollars.”
I covered my mouth and spoke into my palm. “Oh my God!”
“Do you want it in fifties or hundreds?”
She handed me a wad of cash, and I smelled it before running off to find Elec.
As I made my way through the bright lights and chaos with the money burning a hole in my purse, I finally located him at one of the poker tables. He was deep in thought, scratching his chin and didn’t know I was watching him. His shirt was loosened even further, and his sleeves were rolled up. His hair looked like he’d been running his hands through it in frustration. His tongue slid back and forth across the lip ring as he concentrated. There was something so painfully sexy about the contrast between his new bespectacled look and the tattoos all over his arms.
Finally, he smacked his cards down and mouthed, “Fuck.” He checked his phone and got up from the table. He walked toward me and finally noticed me smiling at him from the corner.
“I lost my shirt—200 dollars. I was up for a while then that last game f**ked me over. How did you make out?”
I stuck my hand in my bag and lifted out the cash. “Oh—you know—the lame penny machine.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“A thousand dollars!” I said, waving it in his face and jumping up and down.
“Shit, Greta! Congratulations!”
When he pulled me into a quick but firm hug, I quickly closed my eyes because it felt so good to be in his arms again. Every nerve in my body came alive in that brief moment.
I kept hearing Evelyn’s voice in my head.
You have twenty-four hours.
It was less than that now. A funny visual of Evelyn with a gun to my head entered my mind.
I put the money back in my purse. “Let’s go out to dinner to celebrate.”
As we walked the corridors looking for a restaurant, his phone rang. We stopped in our tracks.
“Hey, baby.” He quickly glanced over at me when he’d said it, and I instinctively turned away.
With my heart in my mouth, I walked a few feet away, still listening to every word.
“I’m glad you made it okay.”
“I had a little bit of a freak out at the burial, actually. Greta drove me around for a while until I calmed down. We ended up at a casino in Connecticut. That’s where we are.”
“Have fun. Tell everyone I said ‘hi.’”
“Love you, too.”
Love you, too.
Well, that was a reality check. And why was I upset that he told her the truth as if this trip were supposed to be some secret rendezvous? In that moment, I realized I was delusional. Sure, his feelings after seeing me may have been a little conflicted, but he loved her, not me. Plain and simple. His heart was in a different place than mine was, and I needed to accept that.
He walked over to me. “Hey.”
“That was Chelsea. She says hello and to thank you for helping me out today.”
I flashed a fake smile. “Hello and you’re welcome.”
“Have you figured out what you’re in the mood for?”
Admitting the true answer to that question would have put me back at square one.
Seeing as though the rum and Coke I’d had earlier had gone right through me, I said, “I’m heading to the bathroom. You decide what you feel like.”
I took the opportunity to freshen up even though I still smelled like the alcohol that spilled on my dress earlier. I guess I could have afforded to buy myself a new dress now.
When I emerged from the bathroom, Elec was looking down at his phone. When he looked up, his face appeared pale.
“Are you alright?”
His hand was trembling, and he wouldn’t answer me.
“I just got this text. It’s from an unknown number.”
He handed me the phone.
I was confused. “22?”
“Look what time it says the message came in.”
“2:22. That’s weird, but why does it bother you?”
“Randy’s birthday is February 22nd.”
Chills ran through me. “You think the message is from Randy?”
His eyes stayed fixed on the phone. “I don’t know what to think.”
“It might just be a coincidence. Why would he just send you the number 22?”
“I don’t normally believe in that shit. I have no idea. It just weirded me out.”
“I can understand why.”
Elec was preoccupied all throughout our meal at the steakhouse. I knew he was obsessing over the text. To be honest, it really freaked me out as well.
Reentering the bright lights of the casino after dinner did nothing to lighten Elec’s mood. At one point, I’d gone to get us a couple of drinks.
When I returned to where he was sitting, my heart felt like it fell to my stomach. He was wiping tears from his eyes. It shocked me to see my hardened stepbrother crying out in the open.
It was proof that we can’t always choose the moment the reality of a loss hits us. Sometimes, it’s predictable, and other times, it happens in the place you’d least expect. He hadn’t cried at the wake or the burial but had chosen this moment here in this crowded casino to let go.
“Don’t look at me, Greta.”
Ignoring his plea for privacy, I put the drinks down and slid my seat closer to his. I pulled him toward me and held him into my chest. He didn’t resist. The moisture from his tears seeped through the top of my dress. His fingernails dug into my back as if he were holding onto me for dear life. The harder he cried, the more I wanted to comfort him and the tighter I held onto him.
No one seemed to notice us in our corner of the room, although it wouldn’t have mattered to me if they had.
His shaking seemed to calm down, and eventually, he was just breathing onto my chest.
“I hate this,” he said. “I shouldn’t be crying for him. Why am I crying for him?”
“Because you loved him.”
His voice was trembling again. “He hated me.”
“He hated whatever he saw in you that reminded him of himself. He didn’t hate you. He couldn’t have. He just didn’t know how to be a father.”
“There’s a lot I haven’t told you. The screwed up thing is, after all the shit we went through, I still wanted to make him proud of me someday, wanted him to love me.”
“I know you did.”
He continued to lean on me. At one point, he looked up, and his gray eyes were laced with red. “Where would I be tonight without you?”
“I’m glad I got to be the one with you tonight.”
“I’ve never cried in front of anyone before. Not once.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“There’s a bad joke in there somewhere. You know that, right?”