New York: Part 1

Exercises in Time

Memories are important.

When I was 23, a man approached me while I stood behind the blackjack game I was dealing on. Well, sort of dealing on. I had no players on my table, so sometimes people just want to talk to somebody, so they come up and say whatever is or is not happening in their life at that moment. That’s the business I assumed this guy was about to engage me with.

“Hey Eric!” he says to me.

“How are you today, sir? I respond. Pretty generic.

“How have you been? I was telling my best friend we needed to come back here to play at your table again. So that’s what we’re doing. What is this… blackjack?”

I played along with it, pretended like I had any recollection whatsoever of his face, searched for context clues to help me place what he was saying. I didn’t remember who this guy was or what was so exciting or meaningful about the last time he played at my table. I’m solid with faces, better than the average dealer or person; I would have remembered if this guy had tipped me before. I don’t forget the people who tip.

Still, nothing.

But his best friend came over, picked up right along with him saying I was the friendliest dealer they played against the last time they were there. All righty then. There’s a strange sense of satisfaction you feel when someone knows your name, or remembers you, and you have no clue who they are.

It’s in that moment I knew: It doesn’t matter whether people tip or not, or whether I like them or not, I’m pretty much going to be the same person either way. My natural state is being nice.

When asked to talk about an experience I’ve had, good or bad, with a guest (gambler), that’s the story I told in the pre-interview before I got hired at the casino I’m at now. I probably fluffed it up a bit, or as well as I could have with the nerves kicking in during my audition for the job, but it worked.

* * * * *

My life was most interesting starting in the summer of 2009… I imagine it lasted until some point in 2012 when the magic inevitably wore off and life was life, for the most part. But it was in that window where my brain chemistry was either changing, becoming cemented, or some combination thereof.

For the first and only time, during that three-year stretch I was relatively social. I went to parties, was always kind of seeing someone, was doing drugs and drinking and all that other fun stuff. I had stories, man. All my vices didn’t seem harmful at the time, because I needed so many things to get myself to feel normal. I was chasing normalcy.

Meanwhile, as it was happening I thought I was doing the opposite: It felt like I was acting contrary to my typical, normal behavior. I figured living out of character inherently made me different, or special or interesting or what have you, when in reality all it did was reinforce that I was not that person.

Starting in the summer of 2009 and lasting for about a year and a half, my best friend Trey and I were going through our version of “beef” and no longer hanging out. So in some way, being without a best friend sort of made everybody in my life, and every thing I could abuse, my best friend. It’s a blessing and a curse to be so all-or-nothing across the board.

And while they inevitably fell short of the void that remained in my life’s pie chart, it never stopped me from giving them, or it, the old college try.

* * * * *

I knew M_ briefly in high school. She was a year younger than me, but we were in the same place at the same time on a handful of occasions. She was much more social than I am.

I started seeing her more frequently after I returned home from Virginia Tech, in late-2009 and the 2010 year. Most of the time it was by chance rather than choice, at least right up until the very end. She lived liked 40 minutes away, so she wasn’t in town very often. But every few weeks she’d drive out and we’d be at the same party or whatever. She moved to New York in 2010.

M_ was shorter, maybe 5’3″ or so, and had long dark hair and colorful eyes. They might have been blue, but they weren’t a normal kind of blue; and they might have been green, but they weren’t a normal kind of green. Everything about her was different. She had a way about expressing herself.

As time went on, M_ and I developed something of a rapport. We mainly just drank together, occasionally got high. A few times we went to a party after the party. Probably just because I like myself so much, but I never got the impression she was out of my league. I just felt like she wasn’t interested.

And that was fine with me. Because she was one of the few girls I could spend time with and not feel the pressure, whether from M_ or myself, of an expectation to sleep with each other. I consciously moved past that point in my head, so we shared something of a stable exchange.

One night we were drinking at my friend John’s house, then when everybody left the three of us went to a nearby apartment to smoke or whatever. Over there it was like one never-ending function. Through little more than exposure, and the proximity of being there three or four times a week, I befriended the two guys who lived there. But there were always like ten people in that apartment at a time; no matter what point of the day I arrived someone was rolling a blunt, makeshift cocktails were getting poured, and people were out on the balcony smoking cigarettes.

M_ didn’t know any of the people since it was her first time being there. It was really late, maybe 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. It was a deadbeat crowd; at whatever time we got there everyone was, for the most part, already leaned out on promethazine and/or high from smoking. So M_ and I sat at the kitchen table, kind of removed from everyone.

There was a white guy there, sitting on the couch in the nearby living room. His name was Colton. From looking at him and hearing him talk, he kind of gave off the persona of a wannabe Machine Gun Kelly. That could just be my conception of every skinny white guy who wished he were black, though.

Anyway, M_ made some comment about him. Something about how he was harassing some blond girl who was there. I didn’t really have an opinion of the guy. I just knew he wasn’t my type of person.

“I’m sleeping with his girlfriend,” I told her. The words just came out, involuntarily.

No way,” M_ whispered. “Really?” she asked, with wide eyes and some kind of smile on her face. Based on her reaction it may have been the single most interesting thing I ever said to her.

Immediately after the words removed themselves from my body I regretted it. Not because it wasn’t a fact, but that I’m not really that kind of guy. I actually gave a shit about the way M_ perceived me, and that slip wasn’t really the image I wanted of myself in her head. I blame liquor.

The strange part was, after disclosing this new information, M_ and I actually got closer. Which makes a ton of sense given her almost immediate ascension into her new life in New York. In about a month she was leaving.

With about a week to spare she came over to my parents’ old house in San Bernardino. It was nighttime and she was in town for something, came over to see me before she made the drive back home.

It was warm that night, so it could have been May or it could have been November. I wore basketball shorts and a T-shirt and she was looking casual as well. Jeans and a shirt, probably.

Since it was so nice we went on a walk. It was a typical route I took: going uphill and hooking around a half-dozen streets, ending up on the other side of a large street, and walking back from there. It took about 45 minutes.

M_ and I did what we normally do, just talked and bullshitted. We spoke about various experiences as kids, things that happened in high school, etc. The longer you know someone the further back in time you go. Her childhood was a lot more compelling than mine, presumably because I had a good, “normal” childhood.

That night after she left I received a text from her that wasn’t meant for me. It said something like, “Yeah I like Eric, but I can’t consider that until I figure out what’s going on with [the guy she was seeing at the time].”

M_ was such a literal person that she texted me immediately after, said she sent it to the wrong person. Didn’t even attempt to spin it and throw a “lol” or “haha” in at the end, which is the natural inclination of most when revealing information to the person they are texting about.

A few days before she left for New York she came back and visited. We drove to McDonalds of all places and got delicious ice cream cones. Ate them in her jalopy and talked about what was to come in New York. I never had strong feelings for M_; I knew she liked me a certain amount, and I liked her, too, a certain amount. But timing is everything and, that it never felt like a realistic possibility between the two of us, I never allowed my imagination to get carried away regarding her.

So that was that. We drove back to my parents’ house, spoke for a bit about how I should come visit her in New York, and I obliged in saying I definitely would at some point — even if in the back of my mind I knew the idea was farfetched.

Then, as people do, we hugged and said goodbye.

* * * * *

Her and I kept in touch, texted every week or two, and talked on the phone a couple times. She wasn’t any sort of massive influence or driving force in my life; occasionally I thought about her. But it was more of a case where one day she was in my life, and the next she wasn’t.

I’ve washed my hands with friends like this since I was a little boy, as far back as memory serves. I had a different “best friend” in 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade. I could tell you all about them. Between 3rd grade and 7th grade I changed schools 4 times — two elementary schools and two middle schools — so the concept of moving around and readjusting never felt real foreign.

My life was pretty stable in 2010. I was still doing shit, but I was working and keeping occupied. Later in the year Trey and I began hanging out again, which likely helped further me from going through painkiller medication binges and drinking everyday.

2011 was more of the same, but I remember it being a good year. I turned 21 in March and got my tax return money back in June. This predates when Trey and I discovered the casino, so I didn’t have a shit-ton of things to spend (or waste) my money on.

M_ and I had spoken about New York a bunch by then, and she loved it. She was living in Manhattan and working at a Jewish restaurant. We still talked about the idea of me going out to visit her, especially as one friend of hers after the other made vague promises that they couldn’t keep.

Pride definitely factored in to my equation, as it generally always does. But it had also been a while since I went on any sort of vacation. In October of 2009 I flew back to Virginia to visit my friends from school, and a few weeks after that a few of my friends and I drove up to San Francisco after our flight to New York was cancelled.

I figured, what the hell. I had all this tax money and nothing to spend it on; I hadn’t gone on a real vacation in about a year and a half; and M_ was interested in showing New York off to one her friends. I decided to be that person, since no one else took her up on the offer.

I flew United to Atlanta, and from there up to La Guardia in New York City. When I made it out to smoke a cigarette while I waited for M_ to roll up in a cab, it was the same New York I’d seen on television. Cars were honking. Traffic guards were yelling at people to get a move on. It was hot and sticky outside.

This is a place I could picture myself living, I thought to myself, as I exhaled.

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