Troy got Chrissy a room at the Showboat Casino for her twenty-second birthday. Though not her first choice, it was at least more promising than the previous year when he’d brought home a bottle of Jack Daniels and a small unfrosted yellow cake from Sam’s Club. There was still a six pack of Stellas in the fridge, so why would he buy her a bottle of wine? But he could’ve at least gotten something they both liked, not his favorite drink that she couldn’t stomach, even with Coke, and a drink that habitually made him angry over stupid shit, but he did get her a goddamn yellow cake, which she claimed to love, claimed was her favorite cake and some boyfriends out there didn’t even remember their girls’ birthdays at all. They both got good and drunk that night, so it didn’t really matter, but Chrissy added the incident to a long list she kept in her head of Troy’s fuck-ups.
She asked if they could stay next door at that new casino Revel instead — that’s where young people went, plus it had that new burlesque club that gave lessons! she said. Imagine that. And all the rooms at Revel faced the ocean! Imagine waking up and looking out at the Atlantic, big and blue. Plus, there were no good nightclubs in Showboat. Chrissy wanted to dance on her birthday.
Troy sucked in his bottom lip and scratched the chapped spots with his teeth.
“Troy, baby, thank you,” Chrissy said quickly. “I’m sorry.” She went across the living room to him and put her hand on his shoulder and ran it down his arm. She hugged around his slack arms, pressing her bra-less chest into his.
“It’s cause your friends go to Revel? That’s why you wanna go?”
“Troy, I’m sorry,” she said.
“What, you met a boyfriend when you went there?”
“Baby, I said I’m sorry. Showboat! That’s the Mardi Gras one, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. He looked away.
“I love Mardi Gras!”
“You’ve never been to Mardi Gras.”
“Yeah, but I watch TV. Ooh!” she said, “Maybe I can get some beads from an old guy.” She moved into his eyesight and lifted her big t-shirt up, exposing her hard nipples. “Mardi Gras!” she said. “Woo!”
“Yeah?” he said. “I dare you.”
She flashed him again and again until she got him to chase her around their small living room. He grabbed her waist on both sides and pushed her down onto the loveseat. She had no pants on, so he just had to shift her underwear a little bit out of his way.
As he entered her, she smiled up at him. Offered the ‘oh yeah baby’ he needed. She was so charming sometimes, she almost believed herself.
“Today,” Troy said, pulling into the Showboat parking lot, “My girl gets whatever she wants.”
Chrissy put more lipstick on and smiled in the side mirror of his little rusted Toyota. She opened wide to make sure she’d gotten none of the red on her teeth.
Showboat. It wasn’t Revel, of course, but gambling was gambling anywhere you did it, and maybe she’d hit the jackpot and could start looking seriously for a new place. She needed to leave behind the weathered Craigslist couches and stained carpet, and the TV that had fallen off the back of a truck and now wouldn’t come off closed caption. And of course, yes, she needed to leave Troy.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love him; she loved him like a mother loves a rotten kid. She’d cradle his head when he was sweet and wonder how she could bottle up the tenderness. If she could learn to stay in the house, keep him happy, keep him from hiding his cell phone, she would have no reason to move. But he couldn’t be tamed. So she developed an exit strategy: be kind, keep the peace, get some money and get the hell out.
The money was hard to come by. She made decent tips as a server at the Applebee’s in town, but Troy made more as a debt collector, and reminded Chrissy of this frequently. She kept some of her tips hidden in an old eyeglass case in the closet. It made her feel dirty and powerful, even though she wasn’t even halfway near her $5,000 goal.
But kindness and peace; those she’d mastered. And Troy hadn’t even picked a fight the whole way down the Parkway.
He parked in the corner of the Showboat deck facing the Atlantic. Chrissy walked to the wall and inhaled salted air. She hugged herself and rubbed her bare arms. Those September nights were cooler than she remembered, breezy once the sun went down. She wished she’d packed a jacket.
“Come on,” Troy said. “We got a birthday to celebrate.” He put his arm around Chrissy’s thin shoulders and moved with her toward the entrance.
Troy slipped the woman at check-in a twenty and got them upgraded to a suite. Chrissy opened her arms wide to the space. Growing up, she’d thought she’d live like this, with a large living room and whole walls made of windows. She wanted the fresh couches and the flat screen, the paintings she didn’t understand on the walls. She couldn’t fathom what kind of money this took. Thousands? Hundreds of? She should’ve been a doctor; she had liked biology in tenth grade. Or maybe a lawyer; she could fight. But she was only twenty two! Martha Stewart didn’t get famous until her thirties. She still had her whole life ahead of her.
Pulling aside the curtain, she could see the lights of Revel down the block.
“Babe, there’s Revel,” she said, and realized that Troy was in the bathroom, out of earshot. The suites at Revel weren’t this tacky purple, green, and gold. At Revel, there was probably Ciroq in the suites. The high rollers were probably sipping it on ice right now.
She’d been to Revel once before, but had spent the whole time in the hotel room.
It was her coworker Josie’s twenty-first birthday, and the girls all chipped in for a junior suite. Troy protested; he didn’t understand why boyfriends weren’t allowed on the trip. Girls’ night, to him, just sounded like a cheating party. She’d considered staying home and sulking in an effort to make him feel bad: sulking could be like a warm blanket. But the night before the party, they had a huge blow-out. She threatened to move back in with her mom, packed a bag, and went to Applebee’s.
Josie was bartending. She knew all about how Troy and Chrissy fought, and when she saw Chrissy come in, she shook her head.
“That fuckin dog,” she said. Chrissy shrugged and sat at the bar. Josie treated her to her first two gin and tonics, and she paid for the other two herself.
She stayed at Josie’s that night, and while she vented, Josie packed a bowl for them to smoke. Josie stroked Chrissy’s hair and Chrissy rested her head in her lap. Josie was so pretty and tender. Her hands weren’t calloused like Troy’s, and she listened and told Chrissy assuredly that everything was going to be okay. Once they were sufficiently stoned, the venting morphed into giggling and singing, and Chrissy felt much better.
She drifted off beside Josie on her memory foam mattress, imagining the bright lights that Atlantic City would shine on her the next day, and dancing in her smallest dress on a table at club HQ in Revel with all these pretty girls, getting guys to buy rounds of drinks. She slept better that night than she had in a while, with Josie’s thin arm over her in big spoon, and her light snores something like music.
But once they got to Revel, Chrissy took too many shots of Bacardi Razz in the hotel room, passed out in her bra and panties (when had she taken her dress off?), and woke to a headache and thirty-six missed calls from Troy.
The girls told her about the cabanas at HQ, and the shots that the men in tailored suits had lined up for them. They told her about the Jacuzzi in the presidential suite, about the molly and the stripper poles. The glamour. The red carpet, the short dresses, the one-night stands. The one-night stands. Using fake names and giving fake numbers on your way out. A fun, they said, they had never seen before. A fun Chrissy knew she deserved.
She had to get there. If she could get away from Troy, maybe someone would whisk her away and make her his sugar baby. By the time Troy would start looking for her, she’d be in Fiji drinking Pina Coladas, only stopping back in Perth Amboy to pick up her high school yearbook, the best of her clothes, her collection of US quarters. Knowing Troy, if she wasn’t around, he’d probably pop the quarters out to buy a slice of pizza.
He came out of the bathroom. “So, I wanna put in an hour or two at the poker table. You wanna come watch me win? Or you could take a bubble bath while I play, then we can hit the bar for some dinner.”
“A bubble bath?”
“Yo, check out the tub!” He walked back to the bathroom and Chrissy followed. It was a pretty nice tub.
“Troy, it’s my birthday. Can I make some decisions for once?”
“Oh, now I’m starting?”
Troy bit the chapped parts of his lips with his teeth. Then, strangely, a deep breath. “Let’s not do this on your birthday,” he said. “What do you want to do?”
She paused. “I want to play poker.”
“It’s a complicated game. I can’t teach you how to play and win at the same time.”
“I’ll teach you at home. Just watch the game. You’re not gonna be able to pick it up.”
“Fine, I’ll play roulette.”
“Well, one, you don’t know how to play roulette. Two, that’s a huge waste of my money. Just come with me to the poker table, then once I win us some money, we’ll have a nice dinner.”
“But if I just play a round or two of roulette, I’ll have my own money and can do whatever I want.”
“The chances of you winning roulette are pretty low. There’s no skill. It’s just a guessing game. I’m not wasting my money on you flipping a coin.”
“Fuck it, I’ll just take a bubble bath. Whatever you say.”
“What the fuck Chrissy! I’m trying to be nice to you here and you’re being fucking difficult. I’m going downstairs. Do whatever you want,” Troy said. “I swear you do this shit on purpose.” He grabbed his wallet and threw a room key down on the dresser. “Join me if you feel like it. I’ll be winning our rent. Happy birthday.” He let the hotel door slam.
That was his thing, though, slamming doors. Chrissy often held her middle finger up at it once he left, just in case he came back into the room to apologize. He would see her there, hurting, and he would say sorry. He would say she deserved better. He would say anger-management, love, beautiful. But he never turned back.
Instead, when the door to their apartment slammed, he’d go down the street to the bar and drink until last call. Then he’d stumble in around three in the morning and feel on her thighs, and she’d let him take it as far as he could stay awake for, which was usually not more than a few rough gropes. Sometimes while he slept deep and passed out, enough that she knew he wouldn’t wake up until morning, she’d prop him up and put his arm around her and look at them together in the mirror. She’d try different poses. She’d grab him by his mouth and move his lips, make them say You deserve better, Chrissy. Let’s be nice to each other. She hoped he’d wake up and touch her back or ask what she was doing and pick a fight. Just that he’d wake up. But he always slept through it, and she just had his limp limbs to deal with.
Sometimes she’d pretend to punch him. Not like girls punched guys in movies when they wailed and banged their fists on the guy’s chest, but like how men punch each other. Then she’d curl up next to him and put his arm around her. She’d snuggle close for heat.
While he was gone, though, and Chrissy was alone, she’d sometimes stand in the window and imagine someone was watching her dance like she was in a rap video. Like those girls on Worldstar who blew smoke at the camera or fingered their names into steamed mirrors. Where had she gone wrong? She could have been one of those girls. Back in high school, she was the first to date a boy from out-of-town, and second to have sex. She had a better body than most of the girls, curved back and big chest. She and her crew of girlfriends had shared dreams of VIP sections and being too cool to dance on a table, but drinking so much that they’d do it anyway.
Then Troy came around. He’d started as her weed dealer when she began smoking heavily senior year with the rest of the servers at Applebee’s. With the amount she was smoking, she ended up giving huge chunks of her pay to his business. She wasn’t initially attracted to him, with his crowded teeth and crooked hairline, but she made a connection between cost and action. The more she hung around him, the more he smoked her out for free. And eventually, it became a kiss, which became sex in the daytime, which became sleeping together in the nighttime. And you could fall in love with anybody if you hung around them enough.
It became four years, and she wouldn’t have imagined, back then, that they’d be sharing a suite in Atlantic City. She sat on the edge of the tub. It was a beautiful tub. It could be her taste of luxury. She could fill it with bubbles lay back in the warm of it and find some center in herself. Get better at Chrissy. Relax.
Or she could get the birthday she wanted.
She changed into her favorite black bodycon dress and re-reddened her lips and darkened her eyes. She fluffed her hair up into something bigger. She double checked herself in the mirror. In her highest heels, she marched out of the room.
Even the hallway carpet seemed to dance, zig-zags and dashes, pink and green and gold. She followed the curves while she walked so that her hips moved to the jazzy trumpets in the air. She glanced behind her to ensure no one was looking, and made a dance of it. What a happy birthday. Maybe one day, she’d check out Mardi Gras. Maybe next year she’d be dancing in the street.
The elevator opened on a girl who looked about eighteen with long, straight hair to her waist. Tiny tight dress like Chrissy’s, bright pink lips. Should Chrissy have done pink? She smiled at the girl, but the girl looked down at her phone.
How strange to be a girl in a little black dress alone on an elevator. What girl is alone in a casino with a tight dress? She knew that Atlantic City was rampant with prostitutes, but this girl was too pretty for that. She was probably meeting her girlfriends in a different room. Or maybe she was running from a Troy of her own. Chrissy watched her scroll through texts messages. When the doors split apart, revealing the casino floor — gold instrumental art hanging from the ceiling, the colorful masks and beads along the walls, a large plastic crawfish — the girl rushed out, high heels tapping away on the linoleum. Chrissy followed, as close as she dared, afraid the sound of her own steps might give her away, but the girl never turned around. Only walked and looked at her phone, until she hit the carpet. The video poker games squealed like every play was a jackpot. An old woman in a motorized chair scooted in front of Chrissy with a plastic cup full of change. Actually, she realized, several people were in motorized chairs. Besides the girl, whom Chrissy had just lost sight of, everyone seemed at least twice her age.
She strolled the carpet and looked at the players; sloppy, desperate, addicted. At a corner she found herself at the poker tables. And there was Troy, with his hands near his mouth and a stack of chips in front of him.
She tried to turn so he wouldn’t see her, but he did, so she put a good face on and walked over to the table. Two older serious men were sitting on either side of him.
“What the fuck are you wearing?” Troy asked her, as she came to stand behind him.
“Excuse me?” she said, though she’d expected that reaction if she got caught. He liked when she dressed sexy for him, with him. But on a casino floor by herself, he’d imagine the worst.
“You look like a prostitute,” he said.
“This your girlfriend?” the guy on the right of Troy asked.
“I’m definitely not yours,” Chrissy snapped at the guy.
He put his hands up in defense and turned his attention back to the game.
“Why are you wearing that?” he said. “Don’t you have a jacket or something?”
“I came down here to see you, but you know what, I’ll just go upstairs to the bathtub where I belong.”
“Chrissy —” Troy reached for her, but it was too late. She was already storming away towards the elevator. No footsteps following her. When she was far enough away, she looked for exit signs.
At the main entrance, she found that the night looked like it had bittered more. But what was a little cold for the time of your life? She knew she’d have to strut to keep warm, but she’d survive.
Right outside the front doors of Showboat near the valet booth, two twentysomething men in button-ups passed around a cigarette. Chrissy only smoked at work, from secret packs she kept in the break room with a small bottle of body spray. She had none on her, but it was her birthday, and fuck Troy. She stopped in front of the guys.
She didn’t know anyone who looked like them. They looked like TV frat boys, college boys with two parents at home. They had money. They weren’t the most attractive, but money went a long way.
“Hey,” she said. “Can I bum a cigarette off you guys?”
The one closest to her held out his pack of Newports and she pulled one out. She put it between her lips, and he held a lighter to the tip of it.
“Thanks,” she said. She took a deep inhale and turned away from them to blow it out. “So what brings you guys to AC?”
The one who held the Newports grabbed his friend by the shoulder and shook him. “This chump’s getting married!” He laughed.
Chrissy smiled. “Congratulations, Chump. What’s her name?”
“We’re referring to her as ‘That Bitch,’” the other man said. “It’s ‘That Bitch’ for tonight’s purposes.”
The groom’s eyes were red and small, like he was high. “What about you?” he asked. “What are you doing out here on this lovely evening?”
“Oh you know,” she said. “Money. Party. And it’s my birthday, so.” Chrissy took another long drag and let the smoke out slow. “I’m actually about to head over to Revel.”
“Boo,” the friend said, shaking a thumb at the ground. “Why are you going to Revel? It’s overrated and crowded. If you wanna party, come party upstairs. We got a suite. Our friends are on the way down from West Orange. It’s about to get nuts.”
“Really? I don’t know. I was looking to try and win some money. I wanted to try my hand at some roulette.”
“There’s roulette in this casino, you know,” the friend said.
“Yeah, but —”
“You don’t even have a jacket,” the groom said, slurring. “You want my jacket?” He blinked slow. Chrissy noticed how dark it had gotten. She noticed their gold wristwatches. She shivered.
Back in their suite, the friend made Chrissy a Grey Goose and cran with ice. She drank it so fast she got brain freeze.
“So what are your names?” she asked. “I’m Chrissy.”
“Chrissy,” the friend said. “Nice to meet you. I’m Mark. That asshole over there is Andrew.”
Andrew stood across the room, leaning on the back of a chair.
“Where are you guys from?” she asked.
“Is this an interview?” Mark said. “What, we playing twenty questions?” He poured vodka into two shot glasses and handed one to Chrissy.
“What about him?”
He shook his head. “He’s fucked. Good thing he’s getting married. He can’t hang.” Mark sat on the edge of the bed next to Chrissy.
“You’re a good friend,” she said.
Mark laughed. “I guess.”
He clinked his shot glass on hers, and together, they threw them back. He got back up and pulled a rolled blunt from the top dresser drawer.
“You smoke?” he asked.
She smiled. “Oh yeah.”
He sat back on the edge of the bed and lit the blunt for her. It tasted crisp and quality, a far cry from the stuff Troy used to sell and whatever she could get her hands on at work.
“Good stuff,” she said.
“Only the best.” Maybe this was the kind of guy Chrissy could be with. Good weed, expensive vodka, a nice smile, straight teeth. The mirror was to their left, and she tried to see them together without him noticing. They passed the blunt back and forth, and when she held it toward Andrew, Mark shook is head. “He’s good,” Andrew told her. They drank and smoked in silence. Once they smoked it to the bottom, he said “So you’re trying to make some money, huh?”
“I mean, I’ve never played roulette before,” she said. “But I figure when in Rome.”
“There are other ways to make money out here, you know. More guaranteed ways.”
“Like, let’s say for example, you ended up in a hotel room with a guy who had a lot of money. And say he has a friend who’s getting married and could use one last hurrah before he throws his life away. And let’s say you’re so fuckin cute.” He reached a hand out to touch Chrissy’s chin. She backed up.
“Fuck you,” she snapped and stood up from the bed. “I’m not a prostitute.”
“Calm down,” he said. He put his hands up in defense. “No offense, I’m sorry.”
“Well, fuck you, and I’m not a prostitute,” she said.
“I get that you’re not a prostitute. Of course you’re not a prostitute, nobody’s saying you’re a prostitute,” he said. “But, hypothetically, like if you were, what would you say is your price?”
He patted the bed next to her. “Sit down. Let’s talk.”
“I’m not interested,” Chrissy said. She looked toward the door.
“I mean, you seemed pretty interested in smoking my weed and drinking my liquor,” he said.
“I kind of got the impression you were gonna do it for free. I’m just trying to make everybody happy.” He smiled. “I’m a good friend, remember.”
Chrissy forced herself to smile back. “Well, thank you for all those things, and I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”
“But you’re still in here,” he said, standing.
“Well, excuse me,” she said. “I’m gonna see myself out.” As she started to back away, he grabbed her wrist. It was a hard grip, but she probably could’ve broken free. And then what? Run?
“Let’s just all calm down here,” he said. “Everyone’s getting riled up, and I just want to have a conversation.” He still had his grip on her wrist. “I just want to talk business. Please sit down.”
She could pull away, and run towards the door, break free, down to the casino and throw her arms around Troy. She could pull away, run toward the door, and he could grab her by her heel and pull her to the ground. He could drag her to the bedroom, to the elevator, to the balcony. He could keep his hand on her wrist forever. Or, she could sit. She took a deep breath and sat.
“Two thousand? I have cash.”
She feared his boldness. She was tired of saying no. She wondered if he noticed she was shaking. If he liked that. If he just thought she was just cold.
In the dark bedroom, the groom came at her all sloppy tongue and smoke breath. She hoped he would pass out in the bed and she could come out to Mark and pretend that all went well and he’d give her the money and she’d be on her way back to the suite, to her boyfriend. It wasn’t the cheating; she had stepped out of the relationship a few times, and enjoyed herself. Other men were more encouraging than Troy. They appreciated her light body, the deep curve of her back and the small stars she had tattooed on her hips. Troy always rushed it along, and once she had mentioned she wanted to be choked, he began to do it too often. She never told him she changed her mind. That she thought she might die.
But the groom flopped on top of her, fully clothed. Chrissy wished she’d had more to drink. He fumbled at the hem of her dress and then the buttons of his jeans.
“Do you have a condom?” she asked, trying, rubbing his soft back.
“We don’t need a condom.”
“Yes we do.”
“You got something?” he said. “I’m clean.”
“No, I don’t, I just, we just need to use a condom.” By then, he’d already worked her underwear down to her knees. “Please,” she said.
“I’m really good at pulling out.” He thrust hard in her once, and then again. She looked up to the beautiful ceiling, clean, with a nice chandelier. With two thousand dollars, maybe she could afford something like that. Where did they even sell chandeliers? Pier One? Target? Macy’s? Troy might like a chandelier. He might like those finer things. At home, their bedroom had a ceiling fan that she had to stand on a table to dust. Any day now, that table would break. With two thousand dollars, she could just buy a new one. Or she could just stand on a chair to clean the ceiling fan. Who even cares about dust? What’s so bad about a little dust? If things got dusty enough, maybe dust would overtake the apartment. They could lose to the dust if she just stopped cleaning. If she just gave up, they could lose.
“I’m coming,” the groom said, and he pulled out of her and came on the bottom of her dress.
“Damn,” he said. “I’ll get you some tissues.” He rolled over on his back and began to snore.
Chrissy threw her legs to the side of the bed and stood, holding the bottom of her dress out so that none of him dripped on her leg. She walked slowly into the bathroom and dabbed at the stain with a wash cloth. She didn’t look in the mirror.
Outside of the bedroom, Mark was sitting on the couch grinning. “How’d it go?” he said.
He stood up to meet her with a wad of cash in his hand. “You wanna count this before you go?”
“Okay, well, thanks. You knocked Andrew out?” he laughed.
“Hey,” Mark said with a softer voice. “It’s okay.” He reached out to touch her and she jerked away.
“I gotta go,” she said.
“Roulette?” he said. “Two thou ain’t enough for you?”
“Yeah.” She assumed her dress was rising, so she pulled it down as far as it could go.
She walked up the two flights of stairs to the suite. She tucked the wad of cash in a small compartment of her duffel bag and looked at the clock. It was only nine PM.
She ran hot water in the bathtub, pulled off her dress, and put it in the sink. Pulled down her underwear and threw it in the trash. Unhooked her bra and dropped it on the floor. She felt too naked and rubbed her arms in a hug.
After the bath, she would put on something different and meet Troy at the poker table downstairs. She’d cheer on his game and rest a head on his shoulder and ask him to come upstairs with her. She’d wear one of the hotel robes to bed.
Or maybe, after the bath, she’d call it a night.
When it was full, she climbed into the hot bathtub. If it was warmer out, she’d wade out into the Atlantic, as far as waves would carry her. If only she were a summer baby. For now, she put her head underwater, and imagined it salty and vast.
Chrissy opened one eye at the clock when Troy crawled into the bed next to her. 2:54. He had his hand on the inside of her thigh. It tickled and felt like a knife.
“Babe,” he whispered. “Guess how much I made.” She hoped he would think she was sleeping. “You still mad at me?” He used his other hand to shake her gently. “Six hundred bucks.” He kissed her on the cheek. She could smell his breath, full of whiskey. “You still mad at me?”
His fingers worked up her leg. “Hey. I got a deck of cards. I’ll teach you poker in the morning. We can play the tables all day. Me and my girl.” A finger slipped inside her. He lightly touched his other hand to her throat. “You into that?”