Ron sits across from her at the elevated table at the Tokyo Grill, a Western-themed sushi bar near the corner of Jones and Flamingo. He gulps his white wine as if it was water, and punctuates every other sentence by twisting his torso as if trying to screw himself into a tight space. But it is the smile that unnerves her, long white teeth coming together in a tight point beneath his square nose. He grins as if they were on a boat that would sink if his mouth went slack for more time than it took her to swallow a spicy shrimp roll.
“Try the soft shell.” He uses chopsticks to break off the tempura-fried legs stretching out of his seaweed cone. “The best soft shell in Vegas.”
She had only agreed to meet with Ron after repeated entreaties on his part via the Internet date site she had been on for less than a month. She was put off by their age difference, (56, though in net dating parlance that could mean anywhere from 48 to 69), the fact that he was recently divorced, and his 8-year old son, referred to as the “CENTER OF MY LIFE!!!” in bold caps. But while the two other forty-something men she had been corresponding with stopped returning her e-mails, Ron persisted, even after she’d sent the site’s preprogrammed reply, “SMILE. I don’t think we’re right for each other.”
Now that she is actually sitting across from him, and not scanning his profile or pondering his three sport fishing photos, she categorizes their experience within the first five minutes: free dinner.
“I was married for nine years.” His spiky gray bangs spill over his desert-bronzed forehead, and he can talk with his mouth full without seeming rude. “My wife had an affair with the accountant who worked at her office. He’s an ugly little man. They just got married in June. What really gets me is when they come over and Dustin is calling him Daddy. I tell him, that’s not Daddy, I’m Daddy. Howard is stepdaddy. The only person you can call Daddy is me. He says, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy.’” He laughs. “You want to have kids?”
“You gotta.” He takes an emphatic bite of maki roll. “You gotta have kids. My wife couldn’t have kids naturally. I didn’t know that when we got married. We adopted Dustin. You can always adopt.”
She has to bend forward over the table to hear him. The restaurant, crowded and clamorous, combines Asian-Pacific and Country Western influences that would appear incongruous anywhere except Vegas. Beneath flags of Texas and Japan, servers in satin kimonos and black slippers tiptoe past bartenders in cowboy hats. Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, and other twangy crooners she has only heard in her car blend with the din of knives meeting cutting boards.
“What is it you do?” he asks.
“I teach high school.”
“Oh, yeah?” He feigns a curious grin. “That’s right, you mentioned that on your profile.”
In fact, she had purposefully left her “occupation” box vague. She finally settled on the open-ended moniker “education,” suspecting there was no greater turn-off for any male than a single above-thirty schoolteacher—it smacked too much of institutionalized spinsterhood.
“You know, teachers,” he says, pointing his index finger and nodding his head, “are underrated and underpaid. If it were up to me, schoolteachers would be the lawyers and doctors of this world and the lawyers and the accountants would all be the scum.”
“Thank you, Ron.”
“I’m serious. I feel very passionate about this. Dustin goes to private school. I won’t let him near those places.” He bites on a crab leg and chews.
“How long have you been using the service?” she asks, changing the subject.
He nods, chewing purposefully. “As long as I can remember. You’re my nineteenth.”
“I’ve had some doozies. There was this little blonde number, couldn’t have been more than what, twenty-two years old? Tells me we need to meet at this particular restaurant right next to this chapel. Tries to get me all liquored up, then says, come on, let’s get married. I had to push her off me with both hands. I met another lady, Donna. She’s divorced, three kids. She likes to go bowling. She’s a good friend of mine now. Not my type, but we have a good friendship.”
“Then there was this other lady. Trixie. Hot, hot number. She sends me naked—I kid you not, naked photos of herself. I mean this lady looks like, I don’t know, Morgan Fairchild. She invites me to dinner. I go to the place and this lady taps me on the shoulder and I turn around and she says, “Are you Ron?” and I say, “Yeah,” and she says, “I’m Trixie.” I kid you not, this lady was four feet ten and must have weighed three-hundred pounds.”
“What did you do?”
“I ate dinner with her. Then afterwards, I said, “You know, you don’t look anything like your photos.” She says, “I know.” I said, “I don’t think I can have a relationship that’s not built on honesty.” I felt bad about it, but then I thought, hey lady, you did it to yourself.” He clamps a slice of pickled ginger between his chopsticks. “What about you?”
He says this lightly but she feels herself blush. The fact of her singleness would have been fine had it been a choice, as it was for so many of her freewheeling friends. But the fact was, she had dreamed of a husband, three kids, and a farm in the country since she was five. She didn’t quite know how it had happened that those things she wanted had never materialized and those things that she didn’t did. But she knew from casually chatting with people—in stores, in the post office, in bars, and in gas stations—that this was the punch line of life; that so many people became who they didn’t want to and didn’t become who they did.
“You’re my first date from the service.”
“Be careful. It’s different for women. You gotta watch out for the weirdoes.”
“You used to fly planes for the Air Force?” Men’s dating profiles tended to go into great detail with their professional history. His listed only his field, his rank, and several sports distinctions he’d won back in college.
“Yep. I work out at Nellis now. Special ops.”
“You hang out a lot in Iraq?”
She is joking, but his smile doesn’t waver as he swallows another half-glass of wine. “Three times in the past eight months.”
He tosses the comment off with embarassed modesty as if admitting he had been both valedictorian and star quarterback in high school. It is his conscious attempt to hide his apparent bravado that pokes at her. She looks at his thick fingers smashing roe between seaweed flaps and imagines his hands must be skilled with both planes and guns.
“What do you do over there?” She is surprised that she is not more appalled by his answer. She has sent emails to Congress protesting the war, and in the box on the dating profile where users described their political persuasion, had marked “Very liberal.” Now she finds herself looking at Ron with inquisitive eyes, a polite smile softening her face.
He waves his right hand in dismissal. “I can’t talk about what I do.”
She reaches for a salmon roll. “That must be hard.”
“Not really.” He scoops up wasabi with his open seaweed cone. “Not for the money they pay us.” He forces the entire roll into his mouth and after a moment of chewing, closes his eyes and covers his nose with his palm. She watches him fan his face and raise his eyebrows. “Oh, man,” he says when the disturbance has passed. “That stuff gets you.”
After dinner, Ron invites her outside to look at the sky. On their way through the back of the restaurant they pass a giant aquarium that separates the kitchen from the dining room. The fish, unattractive and large, were apparently chosen not for their beauty, but for their ability to suggest an exotic dinner. A gray one hides behind a fake tunnel, a red one darts in frenetic circles, and two yellow fish swim right towards her, faces pressed to the glass.
She follows Ron through the saloon to the side of the restaurant in front of a dumpster where, above them, the pockmarked moon was nearly full. “So what’s an attractive woman like you doing on an Internet date site?”
She knew he didn’t really expect her to tell him the story. How there was Bobby for five years in Tulsa, Evan for eight months in Tucson, and no one in Phoenix. How there were promises, fantasies, hopes and lies, and in between was the highway. And how, after four boyfriends and six jobs, two degrees, one abortion and one bankruptcy, she found herself 36, in Las Vegas, surfing the Internet date sites. And everything she had promised herself she would never be, at 22, at 24, and again, at 28, she had become, or rather, had become her and now she didn’t know where her revulsion ended and real life began.
“It’s a long story,” she says, but he has already moved on.
“That’s a desert moon,” he says proudly, as if showing her something he’d made. “In Iraq, it doesn’t really look like that. It looks more waxy. It has this sick yellow glow. But the sky, the night sky in the desert, it’s always perfectly clear, whether it’s Vegas or Basra.”
“It’s beautiful,” she says. In the distance the casinos illuminate the ruddy mountains surrounding the city. The laser beam from the Luxor shoots up towards the stars, the lights from the Mirage wax and wane, the Paris’ Eiffel Tower twinkles. She never thought she’d like Las Vegas, the flat of the desert, the glittering lights, but she has been jarred by its beauty, the chiaroscuro of neon and glitz against rust-colored mountains.
“I want to show you something,” Ron says, putting his hand on the back of his pants and pulling a handgun from a holster under his jacket. He does it so quickly she doesn’t have time to be taken aback, and the smile on his face doesn’t waver. “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded. See?” He slides the barrel out to show her, and spends several minutes explaining its parts—the barrel, the bullets, how fast they travel, the impact upon what they hit. “Have you ever fired a gun?”
She shakes her head.
“You should. Everyone needs to know how to shoot. Especially a woman. Here in Vegas you can go to any shooting range on any corner and tell them you just want to practice. Then you can get a permit and get your own gun.”
“Why would I want to?”
“Once you start carrying a gun, you realize how many other people are carrying too. I was in the men’s room at Caesar’s this one time with these rich businessmen, corporate executives, fancy lawyers, bankers. We were all packing. Every one of us. It was like you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” He chuckled. “Sometimes when I’m walking down the street I’ll play this little game. He’s packing. He’s not. She’s definitely packing. She’s not. I’m telling you, it’s a whole other world.”
“I don’t like violence.”
“How do you know?” A smile curls his lips as if he has just told a joke. “Hold it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Hold it.” He grabs her arm and places the gun firmly in her palm. “Don’t aim it at me.”
The weight of the gun is solid and cold in her palm. Her three fingers coil. She bends her index finger and presses the arc of her thumb towards the trigger. She shudders and hands it back.
“You ought to think about it. For your own protection.” He returns the gun to its holster.
They go back into the restaurant where she gathers her purse. He gulps down the rest of the wine in his glass. “I’ll walk you to your car and then I’ll take care of the bill.”
As they leave the saloon he slides his arm around her, his palm warm on the small of her back. She pictures the cool sheets of his bed, the comfort of waking up in his big house. The thought occurs to her that for a home, a warm hand, a car that was paid for, perhaps, down the line, her own baby, she might even be willing to clean a few guns.
“See, I wasn’t so bad. Now you know what it’s about.” He gives her a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. “You’ll always remember your first.”
“Thanks for a great dinner, Ron.”
He smiles his smile that could mean anything: I love you, I’m bored, that was great sushi, I’ve killed a few times.
“Take care, sweetie.” He hands her the box of leftover salmon rolls.
She gets in her car and watches him turn and walk through the night, one hand in his pocket; thick fingers pressed towards his hips.
She drives to the end of the parking lot and then stops, her cold fingers opening and closing around her steering wheel. Her one-bedroom apartment waited for her, in a gated subdivision of buildings so similar that she often found herself driving in circles before finding her door. She still had grading to do, which she would enter into her spreadsheet in the soft glow of the monitor.
She wondered how hard it was to get a gun permit in Las Vegas. Probably even easier than getting married. She could go to The Trigger, a twenty-four hour gun store and video poker club at the end of her block.
She drove towards the highway. In addition to the gun (did they come in a box or a case?) there would be ammo to buy, bullets, and maybe a holster. There would be paperwork to study and new terms to learn, just like getting a new car or pet.
She had known plenty of people who had changed, it seemed, over night. There was Evan’s sister who’d found Jesus after years spent strung out on meth. Her friend Avery, a freewheeling socialist in college who now ran a campaign for a leading Republican Congresswoman. Then there was her Aunt Sally who had worked for decades as a librarian in Indiana, then went back to school to become a nurse in Sierra Leone.
As she drove excitement coursed through her right foot. She rolled her window down slightly, welcoming in the night air. She imagined the curve of the barrel, the ridge of the bullet, the solid weight in her palm. She wondered if, holding her gun, she’d no longer feel naked, no longer feel so stripped down.
And then when that lump seared her insides—at school with the moms and their kids, in her room with the hope chest under the bed, alone on the Internet date site—she would just finger the trigger.
What are you looking at? I’m just like you. I got what I never wanted and didn’t get what I did.
Leah Griesmann‘s stories have recently appeared in Union Station, The Cortland Review, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, The Weekly Rumpus, and PEN Center USA’s The Rattling Wall. A 2010-2011 Steinbeck Fellow in Fiction, she is the recipient of a 2013 DAAD grant in fiction and a 2014 MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is currently at work on a collection of stories.