Erik Russell Olson is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. He teaches engineering classes and tutors writing for students of all ages. He has won the James Phelan awards for two critical essays, one on TS Eliot and the other on Joyce and Hemingway. His fiction has been published in the Orchard Valley Review.
Nikki Eberhart was just starting to get bored on the Strip, which was not necessarily an indication that it was time to leave. She had taken a room at the Mandalay Bay and was sunning herself on the “beach” as the unseen wave machine sent peaks of water lapping against her feet. She was used to the faces, except for a young man, perhaps just out of college, with black hair, a pale complexion, and an elaborate tattoo of a dove on his upper arm. She saw him there several times over the course of two days, always alone and always at the simulated shoreline.
Nikki was just over forty, bronzed and proud of the way her body had kept up despite having carried two children. The stretch marks and cellulite were slight, and easy enough to hide with regular tanning, but what she flaunted was a natural, pleasant D cup. Men watched her, and she knew it, and though she never would have told anyone as much, she enjoyed it.
Yet even before marriage, she had always possessed a certain contempt for men, whose predictability inevitably disappointed her and caused her to think of them as generally weak. Since her husband traded bonds for a prominent investment firm, and she also had her own career as a health insurance auditor, she enjoyed a rather comfortable lifestyle. Her husband was not an odious man, merely tepid in all his pursuits; in public, full of the backslapping gregariousness common to business-minded men his age; in private, reclusive, withdrawn. His obesity was a kind of asset in his public life, disarming and unexpected, and he wore it as some men wore fine wool suits. He spent his Saturdays smoking cigars and making gassy exclamations (“Get in the hole!”) with the rest of his foursome. When he wanted something from Nikki, such as dinner, he would call her “Nicole,” as if she were a wayward daughter who needed correcting. Nikki was attractive enough to suit the image he had conceived of a successful life. Most nights he snored, sprawled on his back in all directions, while she was happy to stretch out on their guest bed. And so she cultivated her solitude and sought the attention of other men, and knew what they wanted and how to maintain that want, even as she despised them for it.
But even if Nikki did not like men, women were worse, with their petty jealousies and catty comments. Their innuendoes and melodrama bored her. She suspected that females felt threatened by her cool, effortless sexuality, so she tended to avoid them and instead enjoyed a series of brief romances—set to expire within two months, since she often reflected that the beginning of a relationship was always the most adventurous and appealing—with men who took her interest. Such a man invariably proved good in conversation, good in bed, able to appreciate the tangible, immediate pleasures that circumstance offered for the taking. And the right man also bore no objections when it was time to move on.
Presently she saw the black-haired young man take a seat at the Orchid Lounge not ten feet away from her. It was an airy, open bar inside the hotel, cordoned by synthetic tropical plants and situated near the elevators and a wide swath of slot machines. The young man looked distantly into the mixed drink on the table before him. His crisp white T-shirt scarcely hid the varsity football physique beneath, and his aura of contained power provoked in Nikki's mind a series of images suggesting escape: a cruise to the southern Pacific, a warm cabin tucked in snowdrifts in the Sierras, a train snaking along the country, its passengers free to enjoy each other in private compartments, surrounded by the rocking, rhythmic din of trucks on rails.
This moment was what Nikki lived for, when possibilities lay just around the corner, when a smile over a drink could mean more than one thing, and people were compelled to lie a little and tell the truth a lot.
“That's beautiful,” she said, nodding at the tattoo.
“Oh, this?” he replied. “I got it about a year ago. Thought I would advertise for peace.”
“How does that line of work pay?”
He smiled. “It doesn't. Not with money, anyway.”
They ordered dinner and ate at their separate tables, and left the building together on a relaxing walk north toward Mandalay Bay Road. They watched the turning traffic lights and the sparkle of the Luxor and the Excalibur, and the more distant beacons of jets flashing in their descent toward McCarran Airport. Nikki told the young man of her life on the San Francisco Bay peninsula, at loose ends with children old enough not to need her so much and a career that required frequent travel, sometimes tied to conventions. The young man, meanwhile, described an almost predetermined life in a small town north of Bakersfield called McFarland, with a nice girl he had married because it made their families happy, and a firm belief in God that perhaps was just starting to slip. The only solace he could find now was in the conflicted writings of Augustine and Aquinas. He described his church as a sad, flat building that never made him think of the Almighty. Nikki learned that his name was Christopher Vaughan, and that he initially had been staying at the Tropicana.
“How is it there?” she asked.
“A little strange, especially since I'm out here alone. There were mirrors on the ceiling and behind the bed.”
“That's kind of tacky, even for Las Vegas.” He laughed. “Yeah, I suppose it is,” he said. “But what good are faith and faithfulness, if they go untested?”
After they went back to their rooms, Nikki thought about him as she lay on her king-sized bed, about his heavy-lidded blue eyes, his muscular physique, his two-day stubble, his soft but generous laughter. Undoubtedly he had sensed her interest, and she felt certain he would be looking for her on the man-made beach again. Yet although she desired him as she drifted off to sleep in her silk slip, she felt herself pitying him just a little bit more.
They met often over the next couple of days, and the wind gushed in swift torrents between the monolithic casinos. Tourists exited buses and taxis in the loading zones, and limousines idled in the covered drives. Retirees flooded the atria, older women with caked-on makeup and glittery shoes, boisterous and ready to win.Nikki and Christopher took the tram when possible and sat close enough to smell one another. This only delayed what both of them knew would happen. On the third evening the tram was empty but for the two of them, and Christopher looked out the window, trying to see past their reflection bouncing back at him. He mumbled something about the pinkness of the broad, featherlike clouds, and when he turned back to Nikki, she kissed him deeply and passionately, her hand gripping his thigh.
She also contrasted these honest, single-minded pursuits of carnal pleasure with the scarcely veiled purchases so many men made of attractive women, using flattery and precious stones and metals. These ceremonies, ostensibly representing the eternal nature of love signified by marriage, instead seemed to her a gaudy transaction between prostitute and john. She loathed advertisements for diamonds. An entire gender was commodified, bought by men who knew nothing about true feeling and everything about markets. With wealthy men, their greed became their most prominent feature. They lost any traces of handsomeness, and any remarkable facial features—a strong jaw line, an aquiline nose—became illustrations of avarice, of domination and entitlement, and the knitted weaves of their expensive silk neckties appeared to her as fibers in a rope.
But here, next to Christopher in the stickiness of the night, there was only the heavy air, pregnant with the unspoken. Along his strong body she read the traces of satiety, but beneath his bedraggled shape loomed a ghostliness, a soundless horror in the face and especially in the eyes, as if he were a marble sculpture she had seen in a museum.
At length he said, “It's not your fault.”
He sighed. “What we've done.”
This was unexpected, not because she hadn't noticed his religious bent—she had—but because he had been so willing at every advance. They had consented, she thought, so why all the hang-ups?
“I feel like I don't even know the woman I married, and that was just five months ago. She's a sweet girl, and anyone ought to be pleased with her, but here I am and the ring is on her finger. It's not just that I have damaged my marriage by cheating on her—it's more like I have been deluding myself all this time. I have prayed, I have read the Scripture carefully, and instead of becoming pure, I have become an adulterer. She is like straw to me now.”
Nikki was bored by his naiveté, by his guilt and self-absorption. She called room service for drinks and turned on the television.
“I don't get what you're saying,” she said.
“Just tell me I'm not a bad person for doing this.”
She covered her mouth with one hand, stifling a laugh. “You're not. You're still young, just trying to get things figured out.” Then she placed her hand under his chin. “Look at me, Christopher,” she said.
He did as he was told.
“You're a good man. You're going to be OK.”
The next morning they went out to breakfast, and swam in the bright blue pool. They kissed often, as breathless teenagers do, and took in the slow stillness of desert life on lawn chairs laid flat, draped with plush white towels provided by the hotel. The palms did not sway, the wind had left days earlier; and the sun heated all the sand and concrete of the pool area, where comfort was the only concern. When they were warm, they dipped their feet in the water; when that was too much, they lay flat under the bright sky and dried off. The water evaporated, and Nikki reflected that all life needed water, and was water; people were little more than accidents of nature, finite in duration and ability, and all anyone could ask to be was an honest person, trying to apprehend the world and wondering at its design.
“I have a pretty good tan now,” Christopher said. “Maybe I'm done with this place.”
“I think you might be right,” said Nikki.
That night they treated themselves to dinner away from the Strip at Pane Vino, with its curved, slanted windows and coiled pendant lighting. The sun declined, sinking behind the Amargosa Mountains, and then the spectral lights of the city created their own constellations. Nikki and Christopher sampled prosciutto and bruschettone before the main course of four-cheese ravioli and linguine with shrimp. She stole kisses between bites of tiramisu, and knew the other patrons watched. When the two of them were too stuffed to continue, Nikki called for a cab back to the hotel.As they approached the Mandalay Bay, Christopher spoke of the sickness he was already feeling at the thought of their separation.
“I hope you realize how much this has meant to me,” he said. “How much you have helped me to know myself.”
Nikki bought him souvenirs at the hotel, and rode with him to the airport in a taxicab she paid for.
“I won't forget you,” he said to her. “It's best this way.”
Nikki kissed him one last time, and he disappeared behind the sliding glass doors of the lower concourse, leaving only the reflection of the green and white taxicab. As the cab made its way out of the airport, she took in the sounds: the spitting radio, the humming engine, the rhythmic clicking of a turn signal. Nikki felt another discrete encounter coming to an end. Yet something was slightly different this time, and she compared his earnestness with the deception she knew every man engaged in for the gains of the moment. Christopher had been effusive toward the end of their time together, told her she had been a beautiful woman unlike any he had known, that she had been more than kind to him. And she began to feel that that woman had been someone else altogether.
When she got back to the hotel, she told the attendant at the desk she would be checking out the following day.
The Bay Area cooled as autumn took hold. The trees were bare and would need cutting back soon, and brief fits of rain resumed after the dryness of summer. The triangular Redwoods and twisting trunks of the Eucalyptus were familiar and reassuring, more pleasant than the parched and artificial landscapes of the desert. Though she enjoyed the sun, Nikki was at heart very fond of the Northern California lifestyle. When the days shortened and she went back to drinking hot coffee and hauled the sweaters out of the closet, she could not suppress a slight smile.
Nikki distracted herself with work, diving into audits and reports. Business luncheons and meetings she once would have ignored now seemed fascinating, and she attacked all things professional with a renewed vigor.
As autumn progressed, Nikki expected that her memories of Christopher would fade and become, as other men had, a set of sensory experiences to recall on a lonely night. The holidays came and went, and there was even a frosty spell after the New Year. But a chilly stroll along the Crystal Springs reservoir prompted her to think of the first walk she shared with Christopher Vaughan. She spotted a jogger with a build like his, only to see up close a face that was not. Advertisements bearing images of birds—eagles, hawks, songbirds—evoked in her mind the dove inked on his arm.
His name passed her lips at puzzling moments: in the presence of her husband at dinner, on Caltrain in an empty cabin, or when a coworker told her of poor service at a hotel. She slept fitfully and ate little. Memories of Christopher became difficult to suppress. He would not take his place with other men she had known. She would see his heavy-lidded blue eyes, and this led her to think of the ghostliness of his marble face, and then she knew she must be visibly distracted. She would draw a bath and lie in the ensconcing water, ears covered, and in the silent noise of the faintly bubbling liquid she could hear his breathing, sleeping body.Eventually his presence became so powerful that she wished to talk to someone, anyone, about what had happened. Her husband, though available, spent his evenings hiding mutely behind a newspaper or staring at their blaring television with a glass of bourbon. After clearing plates one night, Nikki blurted, “How wonderful it is to be in love.”
A moment passed, and then her husband's querulous ball of a face looked at her from behind the crinkling pages of The Wall Street Journal.
For a fleeting moment Nikki was about to say everything, explain it all in detail, lay the facts of her newfound feelings bare for consideration under the candelabras of the dining room. But her husband's manifest puzzlement stifled this urge, and she replied not with the truth that clawed at her breast for an escape, but with the empty smile she used so often to convey nameless sympathy and defuse uncomfortable situations
.“What do you want?” he asked. “Do you need some money, sweetheart? My billfold's in the organizer.” He went back to his zigzagging charts of hedge fund performance.
She finally resorted to the company of women, settling on a brief shopping excursion with her only female friend, Isabel. When asked how a pair of sandals looked, Nikki remarked snappishly, “What does it matter?” In the next breath, Nikki heard herself say, “I've fallen for a beautiful young man I met in Las Vegas.” Her friend looked at her with a puzzled expression and said, “It matters because I am going to a wedding soon, and I need some cute shoes to go with my dress.”
Ignored, Nikki noticed how completely consumed people were with their own desires. The needless expense of time and money, planning all a woman's vanities far in advance, and prattling talk of what was in fashion. Lingerie, perfume, skirts and dresses, low-rise denim, hoodies and halters, overpriced sheepskin-lined boots purchased not in one color but at least three: all nonsense. What insanity it was to do this, always the same fixation on appearances, and no thought to anything deeper. Hours could be passed this way without a meaningful word shared between two women, and Nikki suddenly wanted to punch a hole through the tinted skylight at the Hillsdale mall and escape its cloying, interwoven demands of conformity and consumerism.Her vision spotted; within hours she was in the full throes of a migraine. She tried to sleep, but instead lay wide awake in the darkness of the guest bedroom. At six o'clock early the next morning, on a Friday, she found herself packing a duffel bag. She did not know why. She merely left a note for her husband and called in sick to work.
When Nikki got to Bakersfield she looked up a motel in McFarland. She drove the twenty miles north and checked in to a dim, smoky room, slumping on the paisley bedspread, face in hands, as the agricultural eighteen-wheelers yawned by on Highway 99. She slept until late evening.
On Saturday she tore pages out of the motel phone book. There were only two churches listed in McFarland. She found his church—it was just as he had described it—and parked in its near-vacant lot. At the entrance a felt sign with plastic white letters read “SUNDAY SERVICE 10:00.” She sat in her car and contemplated what to do next. The structure really was quite sad, not tall or inspiring or uplifting in any way. It was a flat-roofed, white and gray building that could just as easily have been a doctor's office or a branch of the DMV. Nikki imagined him coming here every Sunday morning with his wife, meeting the same people in this dusty, bland stretch of land with its wide empty streets and tired little houses that could have been his or anyone else's.
With nothing to do, Nikki went back to her room and tried to eat. She thought about Christopher and how silly she had become, how unreasonable she had become. It crossed her mind that the whole encounter could have been an act of his, a ruse to get attractive women into bed. How common this would have been in Las Vegas. How many times had she done this with willing men? Why did it even bother her?
But these thoughts did not persist. She recalled his heavy-lidded blue eyes, and the ghostliness of his expression after they'd had sex. What would he stand to gain from that? After it was already done?
The next morning the parking lot brimmed over, with large American SUV's and pickups lining the neighboring streets. Nikki peered through the front doorway and scanned the pews for his face, trying not to seem conspicuous. An organist played near her, at the back of the room, his long fingers pressing keys automatically, a contented smile lurking beneath his bifocals and white hair. At length she saw Christopher, his wife by his side, a wholesomely attractive girl with blonde hair done like a poodle's. His wife gave him a peck on the cheek and left for the restroom. Nikki decided this was her only chance. She walked up the aisle along the side of the church, and knelt at the pew where he sat. She felt everyone's gaze, and then Christopher himself turned to look at her with a wide-eyed expression that turned from horror to a silent plea. He looked straight ahead to the altar and whispered, “Why did you come here?”
“I had to.”
“This is very dangerous. Please just go now.”
“I can't, Christopher. Come outside with me.”
He balked, looked up to the ceiling as if seeking an answer, and stood up to leave. When they were out of sight behind the building, he asked, “What are you doing here, Nikki?”
“I can't get you out of my head. I think about you constantly. I have never felt this way about anyone.”
“I love you, Christopher.”
She touched his arm. At this brief gesture his body slackened, the tightness coming out of his shoulders. He breathed slowly and closed his eyes, as if trying to envision something that receded slowly and irrevocably into the distance.
“Please,” he said. “I have been trying to rebuild my life.”
A little girl's eyes stared through window blinds pushed apart by small fingers.
“You have to go now. Do you understand, Nikki Eberhart? I am not a happy man, and the only happiness I find is when I think of you and the time we spent together. I will come find you. I will come to San Francisco to see you. But you have to go now. You have to go immediately.”
She kissed him deeply, forcefully. Then she turned and walked back to her car, a sleek German sedan lost in the rows of Chevy Suburbans.
Christopher did come to see Nikki, vaguely citing a fishing expedition with some guys he had known in college as an excuse for the trip. He stayed at the cheapest motel in San Mateo, a few miles from the Eberharts' Woodside home.
She placed the ingredients for a pot roast into her slow cooker, and set it for eight hours with a note stuck to the granite countertop. As she drove north to the motel she reflected that every woman must really be two women at once: on the one hand, a dutiful wife, perhaps a mother, but as her marriage grew more familiar and her children became more self-sufficient, she found that none of her family members needed her, and in truth she cared about them less and less. And on the other hand, every woman must also have another identity, hidden from the rest of the world. Nikki contemplated that on every occasion when she was out to dinner with her husband, she did not care what she ate, found the food bland and the company tedious. Her public, known identity was a mass of trivial, unimportant details: income, rank, job title, credit score. The more she thought about these things, the more she hated them and found them unreal. The more she thought about Christopher, the more he represented something true and real, and the more fiercely she guarded their relationship against the doubts and mores of others. And so she passed other cars on 101 and saw in them women driving cars and seeming to do all the things the world required of them, but she believed none of these surface appearances, and instead believed each of them too had a secret existence, full of the real and the important.
She knocked at his door and entered the room. They embraced tightly, almost furiously, and Christopher began to sob into her shoulder. She rubbed her hands gently along his back as he sniffled.
Nikki Eberhart called for a pizza and sodas and sat down on the sofa with Christopher Vaughan. They spoke of their love for each other, and what kind of future they might have together, and when Nikki caught her reflection by accident on the wide mirror meant to make the room seem larger, she saw a woman she did not recognize, with hair graying a little at the roots, and sagging breasts. And were those crow's feet creeping into her eyes? So far into her life already, and was this the first time she had fallen in love? Men had known her, had enjoyed her, and she thought she had enjoyed them as well—but what was this impulse that had stolen her from complacency, and infused her with a deep and abiding happiness?
Nikki and Christopher were as much in love as any wife and husband had ever been. She recalled now how she had thought he could be pushed out of her life with a call for a taxicab. But he was not pushed out, and he never would be. They would have to be together. They would have to find a way. The hardest work was yet to be done.