Matthew was the first person to tell me I would love Las Vegas. He said it the summer after I met him at college in 2002; I was a freshman, and he was graduating. He took me to Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore that day, even though the sky was gray and blustery and pregnant with rain. “Come Sail Away” by Styx came on the radio during the ride from Delaware, where we were staying with his mom for the weekend. I’d never been to the East Coast before then. Now whenever I hear the piano twinkle that opens that grandiose song, the pencil-thin mint-green arches of the Delaware Memorial Bridge prick the horizon before me.
We stepped out of the car into the sultry, salty Atlantic air, across the street from a Putt-Putt course. Its plume of red, yellow, and blue plywood surfboards and its open-mouthed shark tunnel looked rugged and ephemeral, like they could be carried away by the next big storm, despite having survived there for decades.
“You want to play,” he said. I’d loved mini golf since I was young, competing fiercely against my family during vacations to Florida.
I had met Matthew in our college’s Humanities Club and was visiting under the pretext that we would tour the summer exhibitions at the big East Coast art museums in New York and Baltimore and Philadelphia. But that day, we ended up taking a detour that I already was thinking of ways to explain to my boyfriend—a laid-back midwestern steeplechase runner I’d held on to from high school—who trusted me enough not to question this trip, or who at least was too nice to say anything if he didn’t.
“You’re sure this is the one? There’s another course farther up that has caves and waterfalls.”
I knew what he meant—the pirate-themed kind, with holes on artfully weathered ships. By contrast, this place was low-lying and flat behind a cement lattice fence, maybe from the ’70s. I could hear my father declaring this course too junky to play. But here on this cloudy beachfront that was cluttered with saltwater taffy stands and run-down rides, I was lured by its hand-painted obstacles—a trumpeting elephant, a Dutch windmill, a fading tiki mask. And it seemed like Matthew’s kind of place, which made me want it to be my kind of place.
“This is it,” I said.
“Are you sure you can play with your hand like that?” he said. The day before, just after I’d arrived in Delaware, I sliced open the fleshy bit between my thumb and forefinger while cutting a bagel in his mother’s kitchen. The serrated knife severed my flesh, creating a perfect half-moon incision that turned white at first, hesitant to bleed. But then the red came on in full force, filling the void and spilling over, running down my arm in a long stream that wouldn’t stop, despite how much I fought it with Band-Aids and cotton balls and tape.
I looked down at the massive gauzy mitten now wrapped around the six stitches holding together my flesh.
“I can handle it.”
“You can have a handicap,” he said with a smirk.
After the game, we wandered down the boardwalk, where there was only one ride we wanted: the Tilt-A-Whirl. We ran toward one of its cherry-red half-domed cars and pulled the rusty U-shaped metal guard over our laps, sitting as close as we ever had.
“If you like this place, you need to go to Vegas,” Matthew said as we waited for the ride to start.
“Vegas? I don’t want to go there. I don’t even gamble,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“There are no clocks. Everything is perfectly faked, especially the art. It’s a total escape. You need to go there.”
I tried to imagine what he meant, what being in such a place would feel like. What he thought I needed to escape from. But then the rickety motor let out a gasp, and our car started creaking as it flung us together, back and forth, over and over again. Maybe we screamed a little, or maybe we said nothing at all, lost in the spinning circles of tilted weightlessness. Afterward, I took a photo of us leaning together, the blue and white stripes of my rugby T-shirt buzzing against the red car with the kind of ruthless energy that filled my chest.
After the beach, late into the night, we were sprawled out on his mom’s fraying plaid couch, beside juice glasses of whiskey and PBR cans. He reached for my unbroken hand and said something about his father I didn’t quite hear.
“It was for the best, for all of us.”
“Do you mean…he killed himself?”
“Yeah. Obviously it was sad, but my dad was a jerk. It was the best thing for everyone.” I remember the sound of his voice, its stark assuredness, its implication—that I would understand. I must have told him about my mother, though I can’t remember when. I didn’t tell many people, since I never really knew how to begin. Cancer, chemo, cardiac arrest. They were the kind of words that extinguished conversations, like suicide. Maybe he didn’t really know how to talk with people about these things, either, and it just felt like he knew what he was doing because I knew what he was doing.
Somehow, that meant we were kissing. We were ambling down the hallway, one of my hands pushing back his hair, the other awkwardly trailing behind at my side. I can still see the blinds in the bedroom casting blue-tinted shadows over our bodies as if a neon sign were there, buzzing its particular blend of melancholy and brightness, even though that could never have been true in the Delaware suburbs.
I thought of my too-nice boyfriend as the sand from the beach that lingered on our suncreened bodies ground through the sheets and grated against my spine. What am I doing? I worried about the grains getting stuck in my hair as I felt them working their way across my scalp, until the assuredness behind Matthew’s lips overtook me, the firm, unflinching path they followed from my face, down my neck, and back up, around the ring of my ear. But focus started to creep back in—the whispers of what he wanted to do, and the easy, uncomplicated way my midwestern boyfriend looked at me.
“I can’t,” I said quietly.
“Why?” He pulled back, only slightly.
I couldn’t bring myself to say it, though I knew in that moment how small my other relationship had suddenly become. We lay there beside one another, barely touching, half-alone and half-together, sleeping and not sleeping, until the sickly, brilliant yellow broke through the blinds.
“I need a shower,” I said.
“Wait.” He slid out of bed and left the room, coming back with a plastic bag and a roll of tape. “Give me your hand.”
After I went home, I told my boyfriend something had happened that didn’t mean anything. I went so far as to say the same to Matthew, in a long, drawn-out letter that I hope he didn’t save. I recall the way I regretted sending it almost immediately; my face still flushes at the thought of what I must have written, although I willfully forgot most of it. All I remember now is asking about the rugby shirt I was sure I’d left somewhere the night I stayed in his room.
I’m surprised Matthew responded at all. I remember the stark white envelope that appeared in a pile of mail on my father’s counter a few weeks later. I remember the ripped-out review from Artforum magazine he sent that panned one of the exhibitions we’d seen. I remember the half page of small, polite script in which he told me he hadn’t found anything left behind. It was gone, like the mini-golf pencil, the taffy wrappers, and the stray grains of sand that eventually disappeared from my belongings and my body.
I remembered that weekend the next time I saw Matthew, in 2017, fifteen years later, when I was visiting Washington, DC, for a conference. I knew he lived there, so I emailed him, asking if he wanted to meet me. He wrote back almost immediately.
“We’re getting the cinnamon roll, yes?” he said as we looked over the brunch menu of a restaurant near the convention center.
“Definitely,” I said while running my finger along the scar on my other hand, the skin still thick, slightly painful to squeeze.
Once the cinnamon roll arrived, Matthew reached over with a slim pair of utensils and sliced it through the center. Its unruly layers were mashed into a lush squarish mass covered in a rich overabundance of cream-cheese frosting. As soon as he heaved it onto a plate in front of me, its homey, yeasty, buttery aroma illuminated a long-neglected desire from within; I never ate things like this. I had to devour it immediately.
The first bite hit my mouth with a sandy, sticky layer of spiced sugar that left its buttery sheen on the back of my throat as I swallowed. Watching him consume his own tidy slices, I remembered the way Matthew never used to let anyone eat from his plate, how laughably strange I’d thought it was at the time. Now it sounded more like he didn’t share things with others, or just couldn’t. I thought of his wife, whom he never wrote about, even when I asked in the occasional email over the years. I wondered what he shared with her. I wondered if I shared enough with the people in my own life. When I mentioned this brunch to my husband, I described Matthew as some guy from college I’d fallen out of touch with.
“This is pretty great,” Matthew said.
“No regrets,” I said.
As we talked about jobs and travels and art, I didn’t say anything about the weekend at Long Beach Island. I didn’t ask if he had been back to the boardwalk lately. I didn’t say how I’d been to Vegas now, more than twenty times, even. I didn’t tell him how the first time, I took an expensive cab ride for miles, just to stand in the shadows of the old part of town. How I stood mesmerized beside the only blue casino, watching its gas-filled tubes light up the black sky like daylight, pulsing their turquoise heartbeats, up and down, around the corner, over and over. I didn’t tell him how being there made me more aware of time, rather than less—not the time of day but the time and the people that had passed. I didn’t ask if he thought the whole notion of escape was a false one. I didn’t ask if he’d known that all along.