I’ve never played blackjack in real life before, but suddenly I’m winning $250.
In the Las Vegas of my pre-trip fantasy, my teeth are glinting back at the dealer dressed in a lavish suit and tie as she slides my money over the table. There’s a crowd behind me, in disbelief and slightly curious about if I cheated my way here. But $250 is so inconsequential to some of the hot shots watching me that I’m able to slip away and buy my friends a round of espresso martinis.
But in the reality of my Las Vegas, I’m drunk and alone at an outdated, electronic blackjack machine that reminds me of old games I’d play on my dad’s Blackberry. I press “hold” and “hit” so delicately I could be touching wet pottery. My friends are somewhere to the left, and I cash out to go find them. The computer game spits out a paper winnings voucher like a frog lazily sticking out its tongue to catch a fly.
It’s the last day of the trip. I hear my mother’s advice to cash out at your first win. My boyfriend, Will, trained my gambling skills in Red Dead Redemption 2. My yoga instructor’s voice dangles in my ear canal: take what is available to you here and now. A man down the street downs another rum and coke, his sweaty skin sloughing off of him. He ferociously decides to live in the moment.
He has a flight in 4 hours. So do I.
We have to talk about fear.
There’s a concept called the “protective frame” that allows people to watch horror movies and enjoy themselves. The protective frame is a mixture of knowing you’re not involved in the scary event, knowing that you’re physically safe in your bed or movie theater chair. You’re confident you can control and manage the scary things that actually do happen to you.
You frolic around the haunted corn maze because your hand is being held by someone you love the whole time. And you paid $25 to get in. And if you cried and asked someone to stop, they would.
You can run for your life through a crowded hallway of corn and know there is a way out.
One of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen is Paranormal Activity 4. At the end, the main character runs through the hallway and faces Katie, who fans know the entire time is being possessed by a demon. But for the first time in any of the films, Katie’s face actually transmogrifies into her true demon form. Angular cheekbones, eye sockets darkening and rising up to the tip of her forehead. She hunches over and sprints to Alex, and in that split second, the audience gets a visual confirmation that the demon they constructed in their head is real and in front of them.
My favorite type of fear is surreal fear. The fear that sits like a ball of white clay in the back of your head and can be molded into whatever will make your situation the scariest. My sister, when we were little, was terrified of people breaking into our house. Once, when we were home alone together, an electrician came over. Abby grabbed my hand and we raced out the back door, running down our driveway, convinced an evil person had come into our home to kill us.
We run and the fear transforms into whatever it can to follow us. A lizard on your porch becomes the snake around your ankle. The drive your mom takes home from work becomes her absolute vehicular death. It’s all so certain when it’s in your head.
The best part of the next day is that I still have my $250 the moment I wake up. Our 3am alarm does nothing, because neither of us fell asleep in the first place. My friend, Leeden, and I commiserate that both of our hearts are racing. Four days in Vegas isn’t good for anyone’s cardiovascular health.
Leeden is a brilliant law student whose head is screwed firmly into the space between her shoulders. We lived together all four years of undergrad and skipped through our belligerent partying and social gymnastics as a distinctive duo: she the pragmatic and philosophical one, me always falling in love and crying in unpredictable locations.
We share an Uber and hardly speak. She’s anxious to get to her gate on time. We have a chaotic farewell in the baggage check area when she realizes she’s in the completely wrong terminal. I watch her leave and it feels like she’s just going to leap through a portal and be home.
I don’t remember what I was thinking about before it happened.
I know Cinnabon was involved. I did research on what was near my gate, and decided that a warm cinnamon bun at 4am will soothe the beer-drenched towel that was my stomach.
The security line zig zags around Terminal D like a haunted corn maze. Two loops behind me, a drunk man doesn’t want to get home. He wants to take what is available to him here and now. He sits in his hotel room in his underwear and watches videos on 4chan about how to acquire automatic weapons. He’s fairly depressed but only uses his suicidal thoughts as punchlines at parties to make people feel uncomfortably bad for him. He’s active on subreddits about living a work-free life and how to establish himself as a nomad. He watches videos of 9/11 found footage on Youtube and wonders how to recreate the beautiful swarm of bodies sprinting away in unison.
He’s 3 feet behind me and is faking the sound of gunshots with his mouth.
Fear may take a moment to attach to you, but once it does, your body has a pretty good idea on what to do. My first thought, neck craned behind me like an owl: drunk person is getting into a fight with someone. Reality: everyone believes they are now a part of a mass shooting.
The white clay of fear in my brain slicks itself into the sound of gunshots behind me. This fear is solid, hardened, when bodies are pushing past me and breaking down the ropes keeping the security line in place. The beautiful swarm is coming towards me, a tsunami of bodies. My legs think before my brain does, and then I’m blurring through security, and breaking federal law. I hoist myself through the x-ray machine where we all, in normal situations, must put our hands up and let a machine see our bones and blood.
My phone falls out of my hand once I sprint through the machine, and I lean down to pick it up. As I crouch, I think for the first time in my life that I am going to get shot in the head, and I’ll never be able to talk to my mom again.
I’ll never get to open the door to my boyfriend’s car and kiss him three times. I’ll never hug my dad and tell him I like his haircut. Never visit my sisters and pet their small cats.
The essay of my life had a huge, sweaty period looming over it, and I realized, phone in hand, sprinting to nowhere, how badly I did not want to die.
I was wearing a shirt I got when seeing Lorde on tour, a bright purple XL smock with seashells on the front. This is what Leeden saw sprinting towards her. Somehow, she had stepped back into the portal and appeared in front of me, waiting for the terminal train to take her to her gate.
We sat, crouched under the seats of the train, calling our parents. Breathing was impossible, each inhale was a sharp, desperate opening of my mouth. Screaming around us, no one knowing what was going on. I told my mother, on the phone, that there were no dead bodies on the ground, and she said “thank god.”
Eventually, after endless minutes of knowing we were all about to die, a TSA officer silently beckons out from the train. I have to ask him what is going on.
False alarm. False alarm. The words slide out of my mouth and into my mother’s soul. Thank god. Thank god. The white clay of fear dampens, but still drips soil into my bowels and kidneys. When I finally squeeze onto a plane home, I use the bathroom four times over a three hour flight.
We need to talk about who doesn’t get false alarms. The children and teachers in Uvalde. The patrons of an Orlando nightclub. College students at Virginia Tech. The 60 people who were two miles away from the Las Vegas airport, at the Route 91 Harvest music festival. These lives are communicated to us as having ended over a push notification that we read in the middle of Zoom meetings or eating dinner in our car.
Their fear wasn’t allowed to expand and augment reality. The white clay in their heads became a real bullet. The protective frame is deleted forever for these people’s families and friends. There’s no going back to a world where we’re never not looking for the exit sign at restaurants, or seeing if someone is a bit too shifty with their hands in their pockets. No one gets to wear a large, down jacket without a second glance. None of our friends and family get to travel without a whisper of death breathing down their neck.
Thank god. Thank god. I got to sit in Will’s car and kiss him three times. Thank god thank god I got to sit on my living room floor, sobbing into my two intact hands, hyperventilating, but thank god thank god, the hyperventilating. The air into lungs. The delicate thread of life that a drunk man at the airport impersonating gunshots cannot cut.
Take what is available to you here and now. Touch the white clay of fear and breathe through the possibilities of what it can become. Walk the tightrope of what is real and what isn’t.
The Las Vegas of my reality is still there, the dusty casinos ready to spit out another $250. But I take my mother’s advice and step away once I’ve won.