We creep along the highway in the rain. The Garden State is a wasteland. Three hours later we roll into A.C., a low, dingy town peppered with behemoth casino hotels. Every block has a pawn shop, a liquor store, a Cash for Gold, a deli, now and then a church announcing AA meetings, a tattoo parlor, a motel, and thrown in among them are Caesar’s, the Borgata, the Tropicana with their faux-marble elephants and faux-Grecian columns.
The bus lets us out at the Showboat, where we get $20 of our bus fare back in credit at the slot machines. The lobby’s full of drunks and elderly black ladies in Mardi Gras beads. The sound of the slots is deafening, bewildering, a thousand bings and bloops and dings and bells and in it or under it or all of it collectively is a deep roar like the tide raking rocks back on the beach. We sit four in a row at the machines, unsure how to work them. Whenever we are running low we win a little. It must be someone’s job, says Rich, to figure out how often you have to let someone win to keep them playing. Somehow we feel relief when we run out of our $20s.
We go to our hotel, a boutique-y place at the far end of the Boardwalk. We eat fries and drink Bloody Marys in the diner downstairs. The waitresses wear short, egg-yolk colored uniforms. After we eat Elise and I walk out to see the Boardwalk in the rain. We lean against the wall and smoke and talk about her wedding.
Upstairs in the room we shower and change. I pour myself into my vulgar dress, a cleavage-y short purple thing in clingy poly-blend, and 8-inch heels. I’d been hoping to make a spectacle of myself but when we go out I’m dressed like everyone else. We meet the boys in a bar behind a motel called the Flamingo. It’s empty, dark, a long wood-paneled pool hall with mirrored booths. A round costs $5. On the way out we see a sign that reads, “NO GANG COLORS! NO KIDDING!”
We head out to the Boardwalk. It’s stopped raining, muggy, the sky streaked with lavender. A.C. is a city of mysterious signs: “HOOTERS-TO GO!”; “Loosest Overall Slots!”; the mass schedule for Our Lady Star of the Sea. The Boardwalk is wet, almost empty. There’s a long row of men hawking rickshaw rides, and gaggles of girls in bachelorette paraphernalia. Some have day-glo engagement rings, some tiaras or antennae topped with tiny, waggling willies. One wears a beauty queen’s sash announcing she is, “SICK FOR DICK."
We go into a shopping complex called the Pier. It has an immaculate, beatific plastic beach in the foyer. We eat somewhere that looks like a nightclub in a Bacardi ad, Kobe beef sliders and tuna tartar on potato skins. We drink gin martinis and start to feel lucky.
We head across the street to Caesar’s, all white and gilt. We cruise the tables. My friends look sharp, Rich tall and angular, Max in a tailored jacket handsome as Paul Newman, Elise in a black Comme Des Garcons cocktail dress. I feel like the native guide, displaying the gaudy treasures of my homeland. But I’m a stranger here too; the craps table is incomprehensible. I sit at roulette, change cash for chips, bet red. The croupier releases the small white ball; it turns like a mystery, inexorable, a wheel within a wheel. I hear nothing. I win. I leave. I can feel all the blood in my body.
We’re heady now. We rush to the bar where two scrawny girls are dancing in pink mini-dresses on the counter. I buy a round. We smoke. We watch the crowd. The difference between men and women here is so stark they might as well be different species. The men are fat or over-muscled, the women all tits and legs, orange, with plucked eyebrows and flat-ironed hair. Everything smells like cigars. I start to think of the things I will buy with my fabulous winnings.
We go upstairs to play blackjack. I sit between a girl with a mullet and a boy with a scum of mustache. I put down my chips. The dealer’s name is Elba. She gives, collects, says nothing. I see nothing but her hands. I lose my sense of time. For a while I stay steady, then I start to lose. Max is beside me now. He’s up. I borrow some of his chips and lose them. All I’ve left is two $2.50 tokens. I give one to Elba and stand up in a panic. Elise buys me a drink and gives me some of her chips. I go back to the table and lose those too. Then Max loses, then Rich, then Elise. It’s like we’ve been scooped up and rattled and dropped down somewhere else.
We decide to take a cab to the Borgata and go dancing. The Borgata is purple, marble, and palatial. The line for the club is a farce. We wander into the high rollers room, sit at the bar watching a table of beefy Israelis play blackjack with tall stacks of black chips. The leggy cigarette girl comes and gets a $100 chip tip on a pack of Parliaments; the busty waitress gets one too. It gets late. We get drunk, get lost among the slot machines. The slots have names like Dirty Harry, Cleopatra, Lucky Lemming. We find an empty food court. We sit at a high formica table and eat greasy grilled cheeses. My friends say how much they like American food. Rich is also getting married this summer. His fiancé is Russian Orthodox and he’s converted for her. We talk about God, the way we might have 10 years ago in college after a late night when we were first becoming friends.
We creep back to the hotel tired; Max falls asleep in the cab with his head on my shoulder. Around 5am I wake up to bachelors banging and grunting at the door of the bachelorettes in the next room. In the morning we crawl down to the diner, eat pancakes and bacon and bottomless coffee. Across the street the Flamingo Motel looks like a crime scene. A man on the corner takes out his cock, pisses in a potted plant, zips back up with difficulty and totters away. A bride-to-be walks by with an inflatable male sex doll perched on her shoulders.
We walk down to the beach. It’s raw and grey, the sea roiling like concrete in a mixer. But the sea is still the sea, even in New Jersey, and it heals our hangovers. Men in ball caps sit in the beach grass drinking out of paper bags. Two brown eight-year-olds in Y fronts dash into the water and flip around like seals. A man scrawls in the sand for his girlfriend, “I LUV U TAMMY I [HEART] U 2 DEF.”
Back on the Boardwalk I duck into the storefront of a $1 psychic. A hard-faced girl in hoop earrings reads my face. She tells me I like to gamble. She doesn’t have change for a $10. I go next door to a place selling tchotkes. The woman won’t break my bill, “You’re next door with those Gypsies!” I offer to buy a postcard, she accuses me again of being in league with those gypsies. Her husband intervenes, they get into a fight. He sells me a postcard of the city and I give the gypsy a tip. Walking back to the bus on the Boardwalk, past the little wooden walkways trailing down through the grass to the beach, I smell fried dough. I think how much I would have liked this place when I was 12, how glamorous and dangerous and grown-up it would have seemed. On the bus I write my little sister a postcard. I think about what my father always says to us, that love is stronger than death, and what the Boss says about Atlantic City, that everything that dies someday comes back. And I hope that it’s true.