I awoke into the gray dawn. My head throbbed for the second day in a row. I looked at Calvin asleep on his side of the bed. He really was fully dressed. He was above the covers, on the smallest sliver that he could fit on. You’d think that after nine years of friendship, through baseball cards and cartoons, crushes, steady girlfriends, and now sexual perversion, Calvin would’ve had a hold on his masculinity. He didn’t need to inconvenience himself that much to sleep. I wanted to laugh at him, to take my old friend and his silly homophobia for what they were, but I didn’t have much of a sense of humor at that moment. I checked my cell phone. No Amanda. No nothing. So I quickly dressed and headed out to get breakfast, and walk around and see the ocean.
The hotel room was empty when I returned. Beds had been made, and the heavy blinds had been drawn. A fresh stack of those cellophane-wrapped plastic cups were on the empty dresser. I opened one to give myself a makeshift ashtray. Then I sat on the bed with my pack of smokes. I turned on the television, and thought more as Donald Trump expounded on how great life was. I thought maybe I’d write a poem or something, but I had no poetry in me lately. It had gone with the arrival of Amanda Evarts. All my emotion went into her. Why hadn’t she called me? After a while I got tired of trying to figure things out. My eyes grew heavy and I fell asleep.
“Javorski! Where have you been?” Steve’s voice boomed in my head.
“I went out,” I said groggily, waking. “I got breakfast and then I came back.”
“You got breakfast?”
“Is that a crime?”
“We had a comp breakfast waiting for us at 10:30.”
“Damn right! Missing comp meals makes my parents look bad, dude. The reservation was for five people. We had four.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I said. I rose out of bed and lit a cigarette.
“I did. Everything is complimentary, I said! All meals taken care of! That includes breakfast!” Steve stomped around the room until he settled at the window. He peered outside at the whole of Atlantic City. “What’s been going on with you lately, Javorski?”
“What in the hell does that mean?” I said, climbing off of the bed. “What kind of crap has Calvin been feeding into your head?”
“Calvin?” Steve walked over toward the bathroom. “Who’s talking about Calvin? Screw Calvin! I was talking about you not being around lately, dude!” Then he lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Truthfully, I didn’t think you should come with us on this trip to A.C. It's not because I doesn’t like you, but because you’ve been a flake lately, and because you don’t gamble at all. Javorski, you’re a financial liability in a place like Atlantic City. But then I felt bad for you. You seem lost, dude, hanging out with freaks and blowing off your friends. Now, I wonder why I felt anything at all.”
“Gee, Steve, I didn’t realize you cared so much.”
“Go to hell.”
“Look, if it’ll make you feel better I'll lose some money on the slots to make up for missing that goddamned breakfast this morning.”
“Dude, I couldn’t care less at this point. Go drown yourself in the Atlantic if you want!” Steve held up two fingers. “I’m requiring only two things from you. The comp dinner is tonight at 5:00, so you better be there! Then I got us guys into an exclusive club for drinks later on. If you miss either of those, you walk home!”
That afternoon, I walked around the casino with a plastic bucket full of twenty-dollars in quarters. Occasionally I plunked one in a random slot machine, taking my losses as if I were somehow keeping the Scanlon’s steadfast in the lifestyle they’d become so accustomed to. I spent six-dollars of the change on watered down drinks. Then I called Amanda again. No answer. So I left another sad, pathetic message. I was at low ebb for sure. I was angry with Steve for chewing me out, and I was angry with Amanda for being out doing God knows what. I was even pissed at Calvin for becoming such a sad shell of himself. Everything was getting my goat. By late afternoon I’d had enough. I found myself a lowly bar on the boardwalk, and drank my share of vodka and sodas until it was time to meet up with everyone.
Dinner was held in a second floor buffet restaurant. The place had sterile-looking white hospital walls, and long ceramic islands full of metal vats containing pasty, sneezed-on food. My drunken belly craved the smoking morsels of dead meat and soggy vegetables. I ate like a heathen, as all my so-called friends acted like pricks. They were getting on me for this and that, and really riding my last nerves. Steve kept asking me how the gambling was going. He made me uncomfortable, so I ate more to compensate for being nervous. The food made me sick.
Calvin avoided me. He made no eye contact. He didn’t speak. There wasn't a stitch of humor on the boy’s face when I made a fool of myself by tipping over two successive glasses of soda. I felt like a leper when I saw myself through Calvin's eyes. I had no real friends in Atlantic City, and maybe no one who cared at home now. I wondered if anyone knew about Amanda and I, if anyone knew about Calvin’s six-hundred-dollar score. Did any of the guys know anything about what happened at Jezebel’s? Or did they even care at all beyond their diminished wallets? Eventually, I just lowered my head and sulked. They all talked on.
But then my cell phone rang.
“I gotta take this!” I shouted, rising. Then I went out into this busy hallway. “Hello?”
“So what’s the emergency?” Amanda asked. She sounded real casual. It sort of burned me up.
“Where in the hell have you been?”
“Gee, dad, I didn’t realize I had to check in with you.”
“Don’t be like that,” I said. “You know what I mean. I kept calling and calling, and you never picked up your phone.”
“Being possessive is really unattractive to a girl.”
“I’m not being possessive. I’m being worried and concerned.”
“Because I haven’t seen you since....” And then I stopped myself. Since when? Since you told me you were only sixteen?
“I was out with friends,” she said, calmly. “I’m not the only one who has been out of the loop. I haven’t seen them in almost two weeks.”
“Oh.” Christ, now I felt stupid. “That’s cool. What did you guys do?”
“We went to the Cage.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “How’d you get in?”
The sound of his name stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know why. At first I really wanted Amanda and Noah to get along, probably more so than I wanted things cleared between me, her, and Calvin. But after that night at the club, after seeing Noah holding Amanda’s hand as they came toward me through the crowd, I wasn’t so sure I wanted the two of them spending so much time together. I wasn’t sure I wanted Amanda spending any time with any other guys. And if that made me possessive, so be it.
“I’m still here,” I answered. “So why’d you go to the Cage?”
“Why do you go to the Cage? Because it’s cool, right? Because you can get in.”
I can get in. Me. “I can’t believe Noah let you in, especially with other people.”
“It was one person,” Amanda added. “My friend, Bill.”
“Bill?” Please be short for, Wilhelmina. “So, Noah, let you and, Bill, in the Cage?”
“Yeah. He was cool about it too. Noah bought us a couple of rounds.” Amanda was quiet a moment. “Noah’s pretty awesome.”
“Yeah, he’s all right,” I said, sullenly. “Anyway I’m glad you’re okay.”
“I was in good hands. But I’m missing you,” she said. “So what’s going on in Atlantic City?”
“Nothing. I don’t belong here and I kind of want to go home. Steve is giving me a hard time, and Calvin is being strange.”
“He says he doesn’t want to hear about us.”
“So don’t tell him anything.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?” I said, sarcastically.
Amanda sighed. “Enough Calvin talk. What else is going on?”
“Strip clubs and such.”
“You went to a strip club?”
“I went with Calvin.”
“Maybe I should be the one asking questions.”
“Very funny. The strip clubs here are depressing.”
“They’re depressing everywhere,” Amanda said.
“Right. Do you have time to talk? It’s just been really strange here. All I’ve wanted to do is stand here and listen to your voice for a little while.”
“That’s really sweet, but I don’t have the time right now,” she said. “I wanted to check-in, I guess. You take care and get through this, and when you get back I’ll make it all better...if you know what I mean.”
I did. “Wait! What’re you doing tonight?”
“Noah invited Bill and I down to see his show at the 31st Street Pub.”
Amanda laughed. “Don’t be a jealous, possessive guy. I’ll be thinking about you all night.” Then she blew a kiss into the phone. “Sweet dreams, Big Al.”
I stood there in the hallway a moment, watching as people filed into a club. Noah. Bill. Amanda Evarts sandwiched in between them in hot, sweaty Pittsburgh bars. The thought was enough to make me go mad. Why couldn’t Amanda have female friends? Why couldn’t she leave my friend alone? I guess it wasn’t such a hard stretch to understand that’s the kind of girl she was, whatever that kind of girl was to begin with? I mean Amanda had never talked about female friends and, hell, before we hooked up I’d only known her through my guy friends. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. Then again, I didn’t really subscribe to the male/female friendship scenario. But many people did. Of course, I never really had any female friends to test the idea out on. My thought was if you liked a girl enough to be around her, why only be friends?
Steve Scanlon’s exclusive club was on the thirty-fifth floor of the Trump. The thick double doors could only be opened if you had the appropriate key. Steve had jacked a key from his father’s private lock box. The club was a large. It was an empty, well-lit room that resembled those vast dinner clubs of the 1930’s. On the right hand side was a long rectangular window. It revealed the Atlantic City skyline in all its glory. Scattered throughout the joint were round tables covered with thick, white cloths. They were adorned with flowers and candles. The piano stand in front of the window was void of its player. An empty tip jar sat by itself atop the black, glossy behemoth. The bar was black zinc and U-shaped. It pressed up against the wall with a mountain of bottles stacked behind it. It was sparsely packed with defeated old gamblers sipping on tan-colored drinks. They were smoking and staring at nothing. Truthfully, it didn’t seem so exclusive.
“Mike!” Steve yelled. He hurried over to a silver-haired bartender with a thick moustache and a diamond earring in each ear. Mike was dressed in a pair of black pants, a white oxford, a black vest, and a black bowtie. Steve shook his hand vigorously, and then straddled the stool before him. The rest of us filed in like thoughtless drones. “How have you been, buddy!”
“Good,” Mike answered, looking at Steve as if he really wasn’t sure who he was. He probably wasn’t. Then Mike gave the row of us a sidelong glance. “I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
“I haven’t been to A.C. lately.” Steve laughed. He was trying to carry himself like some world-class gambler, but it wasn’t working. Steve only knew about this club because it was where his father came to booze while Steve’s mother gambled their Monopoly money away down in the casino below.
“What are you all drinking?” Mike asked.
“Do you still make that killer Long Island Iced Tea?” Steve asked. He turned to me. “This dude makes the strongest Long Island Iced Tea you’ve ever had, Javorski. You think you’re some world-class drunk now (I didn’t), but I guarantee that you get loaded off of the first one.”
“Long Island Iced Tea it is,” I said to Mike, thinking Bill, Noah, and how much I could use a good drink. Mike fiddled around with glasses, until he pulled out a wide pint glass and began concocting his drink.
“My treat,” Steve said, slapping my back.
Mike set the drink before me with a cheap grin on his face. I took a long pull on the sweet tasting booze. Everyone else sucked on bottles of beer. I shot down the first drink quickly and then asked for another. Mike was in the middle of some tale concerning his seventeen years at the casino, but he stopped, smiled, and went right to work on fixing the drink.
Midway through my second Long Island Iced Tea the booze started to hit me. It mixed with the vodka and soda already in my stomach, and my eyes blurred and I felt my mouth curl into a grin I couldn’t remove no matter how many tragic thoughts I conjured up in my quickly numbing mind. My body felt loose. My soul felt a grave honesty pass through it. Mike was in the middle of another drag of a story, but he stopped again. He looked at me with triumphant eyes.
“Only took one and a half to get him!” He laughed.
Steve slapped my slumping back. “Not so world-class now are you, Javorski?”
“I never claimed to be anything,” I said. I never claimed to be a world-class drinker, or a possessive boyfriend, or a cheat, or a good friend, or a great writer. I never laid claim to a single title.
“Can I ask you fellows something?" Mike began. “What are five young guys doing in an old man bar while in this sin city?”
“It's part of the comp deal,” Steve said.
“Comp, shmomp!” Mike laughed. “I’m serious here. Is there something wrong with you guys? Are you all a women repellent or something?” He backed away in jest. “Because if you are, don’t get any of it on me!”
Steve laughed. “This is a chick-free weekend. Right fellas?” he looked back and forth at us for some confirmation.
“Sure it’s chick-free,” Mike continued. “I’ll bet you all planned it like that, right?”
“Exactly!” Steve answered.
I finished off the Long Island Iced Tea. Mike continued to harass us about women, and our so-called inadequacies where the female species was concerned. It was all in good jest, but it pissed me off, all things considered. Mike was a douche bag. He was some kind of idiot ringleader. He had the whole row going in a loud debate about women. This was probably more animation then this sad club had seen in years. Even Tom McDannen got into it, and I’d never seen Tom with a girl in his entire life. Everyone was voicing their opinions and their own macho expertise except Calvin and I. I was too engrossed in the way the room had begun to spin. I was too engrossed in sick thoughts of what Amanda Evarts was doing at the 31st Street Pub. Calvin sulked sadly into his beer; the sight of him harboring his sadness made me bitter. He didn’t have a clue what Amanda Evarts was like.
“You boys wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Mike said. He waved off my yapping bunch of pals.
“Do with what?” I finally asked, loudly.
Mike smiled. He leaned in so I could smell his cheap cologne. “Pussy.”
“Bullshit!” I shouted. “We all know what to do with it! Why Calvin just came in his pants over it last night at Jezebel’s."
Poor Calvin turned scarlet as the whole bar laughed.
“That's playground stuff. All you rich little boys go and come in your pants at Jezebel’s. I’m talking about real life here fellows. You got to know how to go down on a woman to really get her steaming. You got to do it like you’re ringing a bell.”
“Like hell,” I continued. “You have to go slow. You have to caress it. It’s not the damn Liberty Bell!”
“You tell him, Javorski!” Steve said, egging me on.
“What do you know?” Mike said to me. “You’re just a dumb, drunk kid blowing your daddy’s cash.”
That pissed me off. I was no rich kid and my dad didn’t give me shit. Hell, he wouldn’t even help me out with Noah’s apartment. “I know that the girl I’m dating now doesn’t seem too unsatisfied,” I answered. Mike needed to watch it. “Every time I go down on her, she moans so loud I have to stop so my parents don’t hear.”
“Your parents?” Mike laughed. “She’s probably moaning because you’re doing it wrong.”
Steve laughed. “Javorski, you're making this stuff up now. Game over. Admit it."
“I’m not making anything up,” I answered, defensively
“Sure you’re not.”
“Then who’re you going down on?” Steve looked me directly in the eye, and I knew I'd screwed up. “Javorski, are you back with Sarah or something?”
“No. It’s.... it’s Amanda.”
“Amanda Evarts?” Steve looked confused. Then he looked down the bar at a humiliated Calvin, and got all the confirmation he needed. He turned to face me. I couldn’t look at him. “Wow, that’s cold, dude. Forget what I said earlier about screwing me over. You obviously had bigger fish to fry.”
We stayed another half hour. Steve talked quietly with Mike about blackjack and baseball. Tom and George took Calvin to a far off table. I said nothing. There was no one to talk to anyway. Just like the car ride. I stared forward and nursed a beer. I was pretty drunk. I’d said plenty. I'd said enough to last me a lifetime and then some. Now I needed silence.
When it came time to leave, I made up an excuse about the drinks really getting to me. I went back to rest in the hotel room. No one cared. I think the guys were relieved to see me go. Before I left, Steve looked at me as if I might as well go ahead and drown myself in the Atlantic. I couldn’t begrudge his allegiance to Calvin. I'd been an asshole.
When I got back to the room, I called Amanda. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. The voice mail came on. Fuck it. Go ahead and screw Noah and Bill, and whomever you want. I got on the bed and fell asleep to Donald Trump’s biography coming through the TV again.
Sometime before dawn, Calvin returned. He reeked of booze and cigarette smoke. I awoke to feel him hit the bed like a knocked-out heavyweight. He rolled over and sighed. I stared into the black void between us.
“Cal,” I whispered.
“Are you okay?”
He was silent for a few seconds. “I’m all right,” he finally answered.
“I’m really sorry about tonight,” I said. “I was drunk.” I fished around on the nightstand until I found my pack of cigarettes. The makeshift ashtray almost collapsed when I brushed it. Calvin took a smoke from me. I lit us both. “And about Amanda,” I continued. “I just feel horrible saying that shit. I feel like an ass. I promised you that I wouldn’t mention her, but I did. I’m embarrassed. All I really wanted was for things to be cool between us.”
“We’re cool,” Calvin said, slowly. “But you’ve really hurt me a lot lately. I don’t know why you even mentioned Jezebel’s. That stuff never happened anyway, Alex. I did some thinking tonight. I guess I just need to grow up and forget about Amanda. There really isn’t anything I can do. I told you that I was fine with it, but in truth I’m not.” Calvin chuckled sadly to himself. “I actually hope that she dumps you.”
“Maybe she will,” I said. It really wasn’t so hard to imagine that scenario now.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” I asked.
Calvin sighed. “Alex, don’t tell anyone.”
“Don’t tell anyone, what?”
“Yeah, yeah, I promise. Don’t tell anyone what?”
“I lost it all,” he said.
“Lost what?” I asked, sitting up. “You’re not making any sense.”
“You lost the money? The stuff you won?”
“I lost everything. I lost it all playing blackjack.”
I took a couple of drags on my cigarette. I gave Calvin's predicament some thought. “So what?” I said. “It’s all a part of the game up here, isn't it? You win it and you lose it. At least you have the money that you came up here with.”
Calvin took a drag on his smoke and coughed lightly into the darkness of our room. “I lost every last dime I brought, though. About twenty-five hundred dollars in total.”
“It’s all my fault.” He said nothing. He didn’t have to. I knew Calvin's loss was my fault because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “I have money,” I said. I tossed my cigarette in the murky ashtray water. I handed the cup to Calvin then fell back on the bed. “Anything on the way home, I got it covered.”
“Thanks Alex,” he finally said. I had almost drifted off into sleep when I heard his voice. “You’re a good friend.”
That was good to hear. It was a lie, of course. I doubted that Calvin DeFlino and I counted as friends at all, anymore.