It was early 2002 and I’d flown to Las Vegas for Toxic Best Friend’s birthday. I couldn’t afford it, but TBF needs so much special attention, not showing up would have cost me more than a 45 minute Southwest Airlines flight.
Picture “Stassi” from “Vanderpump Rules.” Now add about 50 IQ points and subtract any glimmer of self-awareness.
I enjoyed the flight more than the 24 hours I was about to spend at my destination. People on a Saturday morning commuter flight to Las Vegas in early spring are a happy group of people. And there were peanuts.
The plan was for me to fly in Saturday morning then get a ride back with TBF and Mona on Sunday, who used to be her roommate. I had heard endless shit-talking about Mona and was curious to meet this freak-of-nature who was so impossible to live with that TBF had moved out before the lease was up and left Mona with the rent. She HAD to, you see. Mona was CRAZY. Yet somehow, she was along for the birthday bash. The parallels to Vanderpump’s Stassi are striking. Nobody seems to like this woman, but they all cater to her because it’s easier than dealing with her wrathful vengeance if you don’t.
The Casino was full of Chinese men celebrating the New Year and the energy was contagious. I was about nine months “sober” in a 12-step food addiction program, so I was at my lowest adult weight. Twenty-nine years-old, feeling and looking terrific, I took a shuttle from the airport to The Bellagio. I’d booked a room at a cheap casino off the strip, but had to pay homage to Her Birthday-ness before checking into my smokey coffin with a window that opened an inch.
Toxic Best Friend was sitting on the king-sized bed in her suite. The friends sharing her room were in various stages of putting on full faces of make-up and flat-ironing their hair extentions. I felt self-consciously dumpy in my jeans and ubiquitous black t-shirt. Her Majesty was sitting cross-legged, talking on her bejeweled pink Blackberry, scowling and arguing.
“All I know is the world fucking ENDS when it’s your birthday,” she told the caller.
I tried to make small talk with the people I was already acquainted with in the room and be introduced to the ones I wasn’t, but my co-dependence was laser-focused on Toxic Best Friend being disappointed by someone. The other women were not meeting mine or each other’s eyes.
A counselor at TBF’s high school once told me that they couldn’t enforce the dress code at the school because of the way TBF dressed: sparkly, rhinestone bra straps showing, cleavage bared, taught, tanned belly exposed, jeans so tight you could bounce a quarter off her ass. She had on a tube top and a denim skirt so short I could see the crotch of her panties when she sat. She wore a gold chain around her midriff. She had a full face of make-up, including false eye-lashes, her hair wrapped in a towel turban-style.
It was the same skirt that had once inspired a drunken bar patron to get down on his knees in front of her bar stool, and hold two flaming cigarette lighters up to her ass. That kind of thing happened at least twice every time we went out.
“When I get back from Vegas, we are fucking done. You are dead to me. I hope that someday you realize how amazing I was to you and how you FUCKED ME OVER!” with that, she beeped her sparkly phone off, tossed it into the lush nest of bedcovers and gave me an ironic smile. “Welcome!”
“Happy birthday,” I said cautiously, giving her a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Who were you talking to?”
“One of my T.A.s,” she curled her lips in disgust, “One of my FORMER T.A.s.”
Here, I made my first of several blunders.
“That was a STUDENT of yours?” I was aghast. She looked at me squarely, and something in her face closed off.
“Last month, for his birthday, I spent five HUNDRED dollars renting out a private room at his favorite restaurant. You know what he got me?”
Blunder number two. Are you ready? Here it comes.
“Why on earth would you spend $500 on a student’s birthday party?” I think I heard the other women in the room cringe. It was like the scene in “The Color Purple” when Rae Dawn Chong is all, “Harpo, who dis woman?” then calls Oprah a heifer and all the musicians start packing up their instruments and taking off, because they know a bitch is about to go crazy.
Toxic Best Friend was genuinely hurt by the slight of this boy, so I made to comfort her. I chomped down just a bit more on the foot I’d already stuffed into my maw.
“Teenagers are so self-centered and immature. You can’t take the thoughtlessness of a teenager personally.”
TBF fixed me with a classic TBF look. It’s a tight-mouthed, no-teeth smile with dead eyes. “That’s no excuse.”
Despite a nice sushi dinner at a restaurant so expensive I should have been allowed to live there for the rest of the month, things went downhill from there. It was my first time gambling in Las Vegas, and that beginner’s luck thing is no shit. We situated ourselves at a craps table and when my turn came, my dice were on fire. I didn’t know the rules of the game, but I could roll dice. Everytime I rolled, the Chinese men roared with excitement and the croupier pushed stack after stack of chips to them. A huge crowd gathered. I was the center of attention. Men I’d never met started putting ten dollar chips on MY “Pass Line.” I won $800 during that turn and some of the other gamblers won thousands.
TBF won too, of course. Everyone at the table did. But it was her birthday, and me being the star of the show was not what she’d had in mind for her Vegas celebration.
My heart pounded. My cheeks were red with booze, excitement, and self-consciousness. When my streak ended, the table went cold and everyone gradually wandered away. Our group ended up at a Blackjack table. This was a completely different experience. I couldn’t add in my head fast enough. I didn’t know how to bet, when to hit, or when to stay. I didn’t signal correctly for any of those things. The dealer seemed irritated by me, which Toxic Best Friend liked. I have a nervous tic where I twiddle my lower lip. A person is not allowed to have her hand on or near her face while playing Blackjack. I do it completely unconsciously, so the dealer kept correcting me and correcting me and correcting me. I got more flustered each time. As exciting and validating as the craps table had been was how stressful and demoralizing this Blackjack table was.
TBF, on the other hand, was in her element. Perched on the tall stool, sipping her vodka drink, white crotch of her panties peeking out between skinny, tanned, crossed legs, she owned the table and knew it.
She was losing, however, and it was bothering her.
I don’t know if it was the stress, sensory overload, or I was too hungry. What I do know is that when TBF barked at me, “If you can’t fucking handle this game, then you shouldn’t fucking BE here,” I fell apart. Sniffling and blinking back tears of humiliation, I stuffed my chips into my purse and walked away from the table. I found a seat at a bar where you could play video poker and get free booze, ordered a vodka cranberry and cried my eyes out. No one even looks twice at a woman sobbing over her cocktail in Vegas.
I looked at my watch. It was just a bit after 11 p.m.
To be continued…