It was two a.m. They'd been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he'd had an inkling of this plan.
The whole idea was in response to Sherri's casual remark that she liked men who were impulsive. They had been lying under the covers when she said it so she might have meant spontaneous in bed, because he could admit that he had been using the same moves since high school, but he took it to mean spontaneous in life.
So here they were. It all had unfolded just as he'd intended: whisk her away to Las Vegas, wow her with a suite in the Bellagio, propose to her at the lake while the fountains dance to the music, and end up at the Little White Wedding Chapel. But now, back at the lake, things had come to a screeching halt.
A misty fog settled on the surface of the water. Brian immediately recognized the beginning notes of "Simple Gifts," the single clarinet restrained on tight octaves. He was compelled to say something. "Aaron Copland wrote this as a ballet for Martha Graham. It's spelled C-o-p-l-a-n-d. No 'e.' Most people add the 'e.'" He inched closer to his new wife. She still made him nervous, so he carried on silly conversations like the one they were having right now.
Brian wondered how long it would take to feel completely at ease around her. He took this as a good sign; he loved her so much that he never stopped trying to win her over. He hoped she found it endearing. His girlfriend before her didn't, neither did the one before that, or the one before that, all the way back to the beginning.
Sherri looked at him and shrugged. A few locks of her hair shifted across one shoulder, ending below her perky breast. Lady Godiva on her horse flashed through his mind. He was curious if his wife had ever ridden a horse. He had a lot of questions like this and wanted to know everything about her. Her favorite ice cream flavor, favorite bands. The irrational fears she kept to herself. Her biggest regret. What left her speechless. Would he feel differently about her if he knew the answers? But that wasn't what stopped him from asking in a rush like the fountains in front of them. It was the realization that she probably wanted to know the same things about him.
"The music. It's Aaron Copland."
She offered an expression that pretended she cared, probably because she knew it was important to him, and returned to the water. Her hands rested lightly on the railing, so he reached over to cover her left hand with his, the way he'd seen done in his sister's wedding photos. Their shiny gold rings reflected the lights circling the lake. Rings they'd bought from a guy in drag across the street from the chapel. Their fingers would probably turn green by morning. It was all either incredibly romantic or depressing, Brian wasn't sure which.
They would only have one photo of their wedding, taken by the receptionist / bridesmaid / organist right after they were pronounced husband and wife. He wondered if this bothered his bride. Or if it would bother her years from now. Would she look at that photo and recognize the point at which her entire life had gone downhill? Would they have a conversation that started with, Promise you won't get mad? He decided to get one of those silver frames engraved with their names to put on his dresser as soon as they got home. Their dresser, he assumed it was now.
As he was having these thoughts, the surface of the lake came alive with a loud whoosh and a puff. The series of fountains sent columns of water high into the night. They rose to the crescendo of the clarinet and fell to the adagio. The air felt fresher, more alive. A cool breeze rippled across the water along with the spray. He took off his jacket and held it for her to put on. He was proud that he thought to do something so chivalrous. Normally the idea never crossed his mind.
Sherri's former boss had called last week. He had invited her to lunch to "catch up," which made Brian suspicious. (But, to be fair, Brian was always suspicious.) No one really wanted to catch up. The company layoffs had come as a surprise and her boss probably felt guilty, so Sherri accepted, though she'd confided to Brian that she really didn't want to go. He had a fleeting feeling of contentment: things were so easy and sure. She wanted to stay snuggled with him on the sofa under the blanket that his grandmother had knitted for him when he was a boy. He flushed with excitement that she preferred him over anyone else, but as she unwrapped herself from his arms and legs and went into the bathroom to get ready, she told him, "It's just an obligation." She didn't want to disappoint the man, and besides maybe he could help her find a new job. She would be back as soon as possible. Maybe she didn't want to disappoint Brian either. He had this nagging feeling that somewhere deep inside she could take him or leave him at any moment, but it was only her deep sense of social graces that kept her from leaving on a whim.
That was why he'd suggested the trip to Las Vegas in the first place—to rush forward and plug the gap so she couldn't change her mind. One day ago, they boarded the plane as two single people. Five weeks ago, she was leaving her toothbrush in his bathroom cup holder. Two months ago, she was the pretty girl he sometimes saw in the elevator at his office building. A year ago he was enduring the plaintive stares of friends and family after Barbara left him at the altar. He chalked up the shell-shocked look that seemed to have settled permanently on Sherri's face to the whirlwind and assumed he looked the same way.
Starting at the far end of the lake, the fountains shot water high into the air one after the other like Rockettes' legs down the line and back again.
"Listen to that. It sounds like playing cards being shuffled," Sherri said.
They waited for the plumes to return, concentrating for the sound, but the fountains had moved on to another sequence and the sound she'd heard didn't return.
"Clever subliminal message from the casino," he said.
"Putting in the sound of shuffling cards in the fountain."
"I think it's just the sound they make."
"Right," he chuckled awkwardly. "I'm kidding."
"Hey. Got a light?"
On Brian's left stood a white-jumpsuited Elvis holding a cigarette.
"We don't smoke," Sherri said.
But Brian was jonesing for one. Had been since before they boarded the plane, and the feeling had only gotten more intense now that they were standing here trying to figure out what came next. He'd have to suppress the urge until he could slip a stick of gum into his mouth. He was trying to quit because he knew she didn't like it. Actually, "deal breaker" was the term she used.
"Doesn't mean you don't have a light." Elvis had placed the cigarette between his lips in anticipation.
Brian, hoping to change the subject: "Are you part of an act?"
"I was in the Viva Las Vegas concert. The one over on Flamingo? Those were the days. The demand for the King isn't what it used to be."
"We've seen plenty of ads for impersonator shows and..."
"Tribute artists, man. We're tribute artists."
"Let me guess. Newlyweds, right?"
"I can always tell. You just ooze potential."
Brian hadn't heard that word in a long time. His music professor had told the class to harness the potential of their instruments just before an allegro movement, so he would take a deep breath and close his eyes before digging in with his bow. The burst of energy from his hands always surprised him as if they had a mind of their own. His potential grew—first chair, then soloist—until it didn't. It wasn't limitless, he'd realized. It topped out like the plumes on the fountain and then plunged back to earth. At any point there were choices, options, mistakes waiting to be made. ("You're just not reaching high enough, Brian. I'm sorry," his professor told him.) Was it because he skipped practice one night and went to that party with his buddies? Or could it be traced back to the beginning? Maybe he would have had better success with a clarinet. In the end he was replaced by someone with more potential before the big holiday concert. Music had always been reliable (the most reliable thing in his life), but then it wasn't and he ended up nearly drowning in speculation.
Elvis looked at Brian and then at Sherri and raised his eyebrows before tucking the cigarette into the pocket of his jumpsuit. Brian had become all too familiar with this response. The one that wordlessly asked, How did she end up with him? He knew he'd hit the jackpot. He didn't need to be reminded.
"Been trying to run a freelance business. I had good luck for a while. Weddings, bachelorette parties, corporate bonding shit. Oh, hey. Here's my card. But even that's gone way down."
"Maybe you'll have a revival, the way Elvis had a comeback tour," Sherri said.
Elvis scratched his sideburns and looked heavenward. "From your lips to his ears."
Whether he meant God or Elvis, Brian didn't know. He looked out at the lake, which was supposed to be Lake Como—an Italian oasis in the desert. The streams of water snaked in the spotlights, crossing and uncrossing to the tune that Copland had taken from a Shaker hymn. 'Tis the gift to be simple. He stretched his gaze across the Strip to the Eiffel Tower in front of the Paris casino. All the neon flattened the world around him. He put his arm around Sherri's shoulders and she looked up at him with those eyes, and he wanted her to look at him like this always, when he was still perfect to her. He hoped he could let the unappealing, crazy, sad bits of himself out a little at a time like a belay for a rock climber. Meter out the details so she could get used to each thing before hearing more.
"Oh my god! It's Elvis! Let's get a picture!" Four women rushed forward nearly pushing Brian over the railing. One wore a white veil clipped to a tiara. Stretched tight across her chest was a black t-shirt that read "Future Mrs. Sullivan."
"It's showtime," Elvis whispered to Brian. When he turned around, gone were the slumped shoulders and protruding gut. Seemingly gone too were the deep crevasses etched into his forehead and around his mouth. The Elvis that faced the women was confident and brash—a superstar.
"Ladies, ladies. No need to fight. There's plenty of this hunka hunka burnin' love to go around."
The women squealed. They jockeyed for position around Elvis, who opened his arms wide to gather them all close to him. A shepherd protecting his flock. Brian hoped Sherri didn't notice that he couldn't stop staring. They had sparkly stuff around their eyes and down their cleavage. One of the women had cut a notch down the center of her shirt to expose the pink bow on her bra. Yet they looked like the kind of suburban women he had dated before Sherri, despite their efforts to turn into CBGB vamps for the weekend.
"Would you take our picture?" the one with "Team Bride: Maid of Honor" on her t-shirt asked Sherri.
Sherri stepped off a few paces to get them all in the frame. She held the camera phone in her outstretched hands. Sherri was kind, generous, respectful. The opposite of me, Brian thought. Exactly the kind of girl he would take to meet his parents. But he hadn't. They weren't on good terms since he'd left the music program and took up the nine-to-five in cubicle nation some months ago. ("All those lessons. All that sacrifice. You're killing your mother," his father had said.) Sherri fiddled with the settings and gestured for them to squeeze closer together. A few beats passed. Brian mistook the flush of her cheeks and the twitch of her eye as relief that she wouldn't have one of these weekends, and felt a surge of relief that things were as they were meant to be. Sherri recovered quickly and, with a grand smile plastered across her face, counted to three before snapping the photo.
The maid of honor pulled a square of paper from her back pocket. "Up next: Cosmos at Chandelier Bar."
One of the bridesmaids collected the phone from Sherri. "She's been planning this weekend for months. Maybe years."
"Looks like fun," Sherri said. "I love cosmos."
It's Vegas, baby!"
The bachelorettes scampered off to find a cab, just as the music began the staccato finale of "Simple Gifts" with water launching hundreds of feet into the air.
"Elvis! Aren't you coming?" the Future Mrs. Sullivan asked.
Without taking his eyes off the women, Elvis said, "Duty calls, kids. Don't do anything that I wouldn't do." He curled one side of his mouth and laughed at his own joke.
And the newlyweds were alone again. The fountains had quieted and the last ripples pushed to the edges of the lake like wrinkles in bedsheets that refused to be smoothed out. Brian had read that someplace, but couldn't remember for the life of him where. He wondered how many little details like this would escape him, all the concertos and combos that he'd committed to memory for more than twenty years, if they would trickle from his mind slowly, slowly like these ripples on the lake until there were none left. Now that the show was over, people went back into the casino for another chance at a brighter future. All Brian had to do was be a man, as his father would have said, and show his wife that this was the best decision she'd ever made by taking her by the hand, leading her under the colored glass stalactites in the lobby, then up to their room to begin their life together. Instead he stared nervously at the lake in anticipation of something more.
"I think I'd like to play roulette," Sherri said. "What do you think?" She was still at the stage where she checked in with him to make sure they were on the same page. That wouldn't always be so. Years from now, or maybe just months, she would expect him to read her mind, but not yet.
Disappointed, he asked, "Are you feeling lucky?"
She brushed away the strands of hair that always fell haphazardly across his forehead. She'd suggested that he cut it short so he wouldn't look like a boy band reject. They laughed when she made the joke, but he never did go to the barber. "Of course I am. I married you, didn't I?"
Brian almost hadn't been able to gather the nerve to ask her on a date. He spent a few lunch hours in front of their office building watching her from a distance in her short skirts, in the company of a group of women or a man. Never the same man, he'd noticed. How could he strike up a conversation if she was never by herself?
Finally at the sales team's monthly pep talk, there she was, alone, searching for her name among the sea of badges.
"They're alphabetical by department," he said.
"Found it! Thanks, Mike. You're in marketing? I bet that's a fun job." Sherri peeled off the paper backing and swept her hair back before sticking the name tag on her shirt.
He nearly turned around to see who she was talking to. "No, I'm in the quality control department."
"Oh." She pointed to his chest. "Well, that says marketing."
He looked down and saw that he'd taken Mike Mason's name tag. He would have just slinked away, except that he saw Mike coming toward them. He quickly ripped off the name tag and balled it up, plucking his from the pile.
"You don't know your name?"
"I do, I just..." He swiped at the back of his neck, about to walk away.
"Don't worry. I mix things up all the time." That wasn't true at all, Brian found out. Sherri was as meticulous as she was beautiful. "Once I gave a cab driver my old address." That wasn't true either.
Now, Brian put his hand on the small of Sherri's back to lead her toward the Bellagio's imposing wrought iron canopy which looked to be fit for a king. The next water show would have to go on without them. Sherri slipped off Brian's jacket and handed it to him on the tip of one finger.
"Roulette's a fool's game," came a woman's voice from behind them. "You want to play blackjack."
"We're not big gamblers," Brian said. He felt the need to emphasize the word "we."
"There are much better odds at blackjack." A woman wearing a dealer's uniform stepped in front of Sherri. She was on the near side of forty. It was quite possible she had been a model back in her day.
"We're not worried about odds."
She adjusted her bow tie. "Odds are everything in Vegas. Everything."
Sherri pointed to the dealer's name tag. "Your name is Sherri? I'm Sherri, too." She turned to Brian. "I think that's a sign. We should play blackjack."
"A sign? That's ridicu—" The look on Sherri's face stopped him. Soon he would learn that she'd been to a fortune teller who predicted she would meet a dark-haired, dark-skinned man whose name began with the letter 'M.' True, he had picked the wrong name tag when they met, which only reinforced her belief that he was The One, but Brian had blond hair and a fair complexion. He hoped that this would be where it would end, the extent to which his wife would believe in hocus pocus, but it wasn't. In the months to come there would be tarot cards and tea leaves and Ouija boards, and he would realize these superstitions brought her closer to her central truth than anything he'd ever achieved with his violin. "Fine. Let's play blackjack."
"She should play. She has the more innocent face," said Sherri the dealer.
"Do you work here?" Sherri pointed to the Bellagio.
"About seven years."
"Being a dealer would be so much fun. I want a job that's fun."
"In that case, let me give you some advice: A sure thing is no fun."
She touched Sherri the dealer on the arm. "How exciting to be here every day. My last job was really generic. I think I'd like to help kids. Or maybe take pastry classes. Or fashion. My friends say that I have a great sense of style. Something awesome will turn up."
"Yep, blackjack is the perfect game for you." Sherri the dealer raised her eyebrows in Brian's direction as if they had an inside joke and his wife was an ingénue. Then Brian had a terrible thought: maybe she was. She did seem guileless, as if everything would simply work itself out by magic. To his way of thinking, success required hard work—rising before the sun every day for years, long hours in the practice room until your fingers bled, working two part-time jobs to afford the best instructors. Even then there were no guarantees.
Sherri the dealer scanned Brian. "I'm going to have to keep my eye on you."
"Why is that?" He felt oddly flattered. She had a kind of allure that was unlike any woman he'd been with: edgy and confident. Two very different Sherris. Brian had a flash of bringing them both up to his room. He had to shake his head to dislodge the thought. This was his wedding night.
The three headed toward the casino, his wife in the lead. Sherri the dealer seemed to be reading his mind. She threaded her arm around his elbow. "You look like the kind of guy who needs to be cured of his daydreams."
A few high-pitched strains of strings signaled the start of the next show. Plumes of water waved suggestively. "They call you lady luck." A sharp blare of horns. The fountains shot stories high and plummeted back to earth. "But there is room for doubt. At times you have a very unladylike way of running out." Frank Sinatra's voice rang out as Sherri his wife looked over her shoulder and caught Brian's eye. She smiled, a half-octave less than usual, he thought.