September 29, 2011
Eyes closed and ascending, she comes to the city. Ascending and awake and alone and coming higher, comes higher through the storm and through the desert and the car and comes higher past where the skyline dies in the sun and where life chokes out the street and where the ceiling explodes in flowers red purple yellow orange green blue, awake and alone and in motion and in her head. Here, where instead the world moves for her, the fatigue pulls at her and heat tears at her and the sweat sticks to her and when the doors open she steps out of the elevator and into the hallway with all of her baggage dragging behind. Twenty three oh one two, which is exactly her age except for the oh one two part and what are the chances of that. Is that significant or is it just like when the name of a racehorse includes the name Jack and someone at that race knows a Jack so they say oh that’s not a coincidence: I was born to bet on that horse. There should be a racehorse called Emily Isabella Emma Ava Madison Sophia Olivia Abigail Hannah Elizabeth Jacob Michael Ethan Joshua Daniel Christopher Anthony William Matthew Andrew.
In dust and cotton in a wall mirror in a path cut by white walls and mood lighting bringing her still alone to twenty three oh one two. White plastic slides easily in and out of the gold lock and back into her bare dry hand she gets the green light and the other hand curls around and turns the door handle and Vanessa Delahaye entered Room 23012 of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada 89109 at 2:44 p.m. on Friday, September 19 2008. The Deluxe had been the cheapest and smallest room available to her at the time of booking, at $209 a night, but it was still a room in one of the largest hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and overly capacious for her purposes (sleeping in it).
The gold and black marble threshold met the dirty soles of Vanessa’s navy Chuck Taylor All Stars and invited her deeper into the room where the marble was replaced by generic carpet substitute. The plush, beige king-size bed could contain all five feet and two inches of Vanessa Delahaye about six times over, and she wondered how she would ever, in her one night stay, make proper use of the two armchairs and the wall-to-wall closet space. The adjoining bathroom made space for not only a bath and walk-in shower, but a wall-mounted telephone directly above the toilet, and Vanessa didn’t want to picture the circumstances under which she would need to use that. A minibar was nestled between the closet and a small writing desk. At check-in, the hotel staff had warned Vanessa that the minibar had already been provided with the details of her MasterCard that ended in 5816, and that it would trigger a charge at the slightest touch. The lack of trust inherent in that arrangement irritated Vanessa, as did the room’s incongruously old CRT television: not even a flat-panel or widescreen, in 2008.
She turned on the lights, which brightened the room very little. Safely abstract paintings comprised of pale red and green and yellow shapes hung on the walls and reminded Vanessa of nothing. A clock radio stared at her from the desk. The time was 00:00. Somewhere in a closed drawer laid a copy of the Holy Bible.
Vanessa stood at the foot of the bed still holding a pre-owned black leather handbag with gold buckles and a scratched blue suitcase in either hand. She was twenty-three years old, and wore glasses with black, thick-rimmed frames, a brown-checkered plaid flannel blouse and faded jeans. Her tangled brown hair stopped before it reached her shoulders. No part of the ensemble now looked as hip or attractive as originally envisioned, having since weathered a non-stop 21 hour drive through 80 degree heat.
Vanessa shrugged off the open handbag, whose contents spilled out over the tightly-tucked bed: tissues (used), bottled water since refilled with tap water and emptied again, Chapstick, a plastic tube of acne concealer, one blue and two black ballpoint pens, CoverGirl Continuous Color Lipstick Shimmer Natural Frost 020 and nineteen business cards collected in Austin and advertising, variously, level designers, environment artists, gameplay programmers, database programmers, software engineers, creative directors, project managers, game designers, community managers, animators and producers. In Berkeley, Vanessa shared an apartment with Maggie Wright (27, policy analyst) and Erica Moore (23, student). As that apartment belonged to the three of them, she observed, this room belonged to nobody. Briefly, she thought of her position in the history of this room and saw herself as nothing more than another anonymous tenant indistinguishable from the hundreds of thousands who had come before her and would, beginning tomorrow, succeed her. But her possession of the business cards left no room for ambiguity as to her identity: Vanessa Delahaye, for the last seven months, a staff writer of video game reviews and previews for a gaming website and magazine based in San Francisco. She welcomed the reminder.
She settled in the armchair closest to the window, her muscles still tense at the length of her drive from Austin. The Bellagio stretched out in a thin, wide arc before a majestic fountain that ejaculated regularly towards the heavens in time with a playlist focus-tested for its inoffensiveness. With the room located in the rear of the Bellagio, the window looked out not over the fountains, but on a vista of industrial buildings with rooftops covered in sandpaper and weatherproof sheeting, and blocks of residential housing fading into clear sky. Craning her neck right and closer to the glass, Vanessa looked down to the hotel pool on the ground below. Outside, men and women walked through the water.
“…where Joe Pesci is narrating and they’re driving him out into the desert for that meeting? And obviously they’re going to kill him but he hasn’t that figured that out, and then when they get out of the car, Phil Leotardo whacks him in the legs, and Joe Pesci says – in the narration – ‘aahh!’”
“That might be the only thing from that movie that I remember.”
“I have literally seen that movie one hundred times. I love everything about Las Vegas.”
Vanessa Delahaye curled up on the bed, her ear flat against the receiver of the hotel telephone, the phone resting on her arm and her arm resting on the pillow. She struggled to hear the call over the poor reception. The video game industry business cards and the other former contents of her handbag lay around her, undisturbed.
“What’s your favorite part about Vegas,” Vanessa mumbled with her eyes closed.
“I don’t know, I’ve never been there. I can’t wait, though. It’s part of a fantasy bachelor party thing I have – you don’t want to know! Okay, I’ll tell you. When I get married, I’m gonna have my bachelor party in Vegas. And it is going to be insane – I am going to wear a tuxedo, and hang out on the casino floor, and I’m going to cash in like two hundred dollars, and I’m going to order so many martinis. And I am going to play roulette, and blackjack… doesn’t that sound wild?”
Vanessa began to wrap the phone cord around her right index finger.
“So, listen,” she said, “I haven’t written up anything about GDC yet. It took so long to drive here and I think maybe I haven’t even really processed it all yet.” GDC was the Game Developers Conference, whereat game developers conferred. It was held annually in San Francisco and – with less regularity and less prestige – at other spots around the globe.
“That’s fine, nothing ever happens at the Austin one. I told you that you didn’t have to go. You were insane to want to drive all the way there.”
“I wanted to. I wasn’t here for the one in February.”
“Oh, that one was amazing.”
Vanessa nodded sleepily in lieu of coming up with anything to say.
“Anyway,” the voice on the phone continued, “I was just saying that I love Vegas.”
“You know what, I was talking to some other journalists at Austin,” said Vanessa, rolling onto her back, “about how people keep trying to legitimize games through looking for something that we can say is ‘our Citizen Kane’? Someone said that in 1940 or whatever, people didn’t watch Citizen Kane and think it was the greatest ever, and it didn’t even win the Oscar that year. So why do we always think that the Citizen Kane of video games is, like, perpetually coming out next year? Maybe it happened already. Maybe it happened ten years ago. You know? I kind of think I’d like to write a story about that.”
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, I’m just – someone here’s doing something pretty funny, I don’t know, you’d have to be here.”
“Okay, but do you think that’s a good idea for a story? It isn’t really about GDC, so it probably – you’d want more of a wrap-up first, I think. I could start on that. There were some sessions there that were interesting.”
“No, come on, you’re in Vegas. What time is it there?”
“It’s the same as where you are.”
“Then go hang out! Forget about being a games journalist. There is so much to do in that city. You should do as much as you can. You’re in Vegas, it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“Okay,” she said flatly.
“Weren’t you so excited about this? You – yeah, here, okay, I am going to read to you from the email that you sent out. This is you: ‘Hey everyone, I will be out of the office covering the Austin GDC until September 22. The day before I get back, I will be in Vegas’ – which is in capitals – ‘at the Bellagio hotel and casino’ – and then you have an exclamation point in parentheses – ‘and it is going to be off the chain! Things I will do in Vegas likely include: wearing sunglasses inside the casino and getting a crowd of people in evening wear to stand behind me at the craps table and having them all blow on the dice. I will also play poker and challenge someone to a duel. It’ll be ridiculous. Everyone take care!’ Then there’s two line breaks, and then three exclamation points in a row. So what happened to that?”
“I think… now that I’m here…” Vanessa admitted that she had been delirious about the idea of staying in Vegas for her first and likely only time. She thought it was an absurd place; unsubtle and lavish to an extreme and hubristic degree, like first class plane seats made of chocolate. Presented with the option of driving all the way from San Francisco to Austin and back, Vegas – such a hilarious and perfectly realized juvenile conception of elegance where she could only stay for one night anyway – was right there in between them, and given that, why would she ever not go?
“I don’t like the room,” she said. “The window doesn’t open, so it’s really damp and stale in here, and the prices for Wi-Fi are absurd. And if I want to plug in my laptop, I have to rent an ethernet cable from the hotel, so basically I don’t have internet access at all. There’s a lot about this that is actually pretty lame.”
“That’s too bad.” Vanessa heard keystrokes over the phone. “So what else do you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know.”
“How was Austin?”
“It was sad.”
“Alright, I gotta go. You can officially take the day off. Don’t write anything! No games journalism; I don’t even want you to think about it. Okay? Go have fun.”
By the time Vanessa opened her eyes she was lying on her left side, creasing her clothes even further. Her glasses skewed diagonally from right temple to left cheek. She gingerly lifted herself off the bed and drew the curtains across the window, through which the afternoon light still shone clearly. Vanessa picked up the debris coating the wrinkled bed sheet, and scooped all of the business cards into her left hand. She turned towards the trashcan by the nightstand, hesitated, and then put the cards back in her handbag.
Pulling at her clothes, stuck to her skin with sweat, Vanessa stripped down to her underwear. Her blouse, jeans and shoes she left in a pile on the floor. She unzipped her suitcase and unfolded the only thing she considered classy enough to mix appropriately with the high rolling casino and nightclub folk downstairs: a white, pleated summer dress that she hadn’t worn in Austin or ever. She had bought it online for $195 and planned to wear it at a GDC party that was ultimately cancelled after the hurricane, and the dress had remained unattended to ever since. She stepped into the dress, fastened the two buttons at the chest and walked into the bathroom to examine herself in the mirror. The neckline adhered closely to her collarbone, and further down the dress tapered in at the waist and flared out slightly where it ended halfway down her thighs. She didn’t have any shoes that would work with this; only the navy Chuck Taylors that had accompanied her for the entire trip. Putting them back on, she thought that the ensemble didn’t look terrible, exactly, and it would work well enough at a party back home, but it wasn’t quite cover-of-Vogue material.
Vanessa came out of the bathroom, and extended her hand slightly to the front door. She turned back, climbed onto the bed and lay flat on her back. Vanessa had never gambled in her life, and the whole idea of throwing money away did not seem fun or enticing to her at all. Given the choice, she’d take a night in her Berkeley apartment trying to persuade Maggie Wright and Erica Moore into a game of Rock Band. Her fingers knotted across her stomach and fidgeted with one another, as she stared at the plain ceiling.
In the white dress, Vanessa leaned over the bathroom sink, built as a large porcelain cavity in a marbled olive countertop, and leveraged her empty water bottle underneath the faucet. Once it had filled, she closed the faucet and took a cautious sip. It tasted about how she expected bathroom water would. She retrieved a white cotton bathrobe from the wardrobe and returned to the bathroom mirror where she tried it on over the summer dress and Chuck Taylors. This took her even further from Vogue territory; more like the centerfold for a weekly magazine about bad decisions. She wrapped the bathrobe tight around her chest, then threw it back and with her hands pinned it behind her waist.
Vanessa sat at the desk by the window, twisting her neck toward the mirror to catch a glance of the rash that had emerged across the nape. The skin was swollen and hot to the touch. She pushed it around with her thumb for the light burst of pain she received whenever she pressed in a little harder.
The bathrobe still lamely hanging off her, Vanessa sat cross-legged on the bed eating from a small bag of salted peanuts she had carried with her from Austin. The salt stuck to her fingers. Every thirty minutes, the Bellagio fountains came to life in a bass eruption. This afternoon, they were joined by the Faith Hill song This Kiss. Vanessa felt she might die of boredom, if she hadn’t already.
Descending, in a return to the hall in which the elevators begin and where sits a heavy-set sentry in a sharp suit whose role is to confirm that the people going up to the rooms actually belong there. To the casino floors from the hidden rooms, clean-cut waiters and pretty old waitresses deliver drink orders in exchange for new ones. Standing rigid and impeccably dressed in shirts perfectly ironed, the dealers command the course of small felt tables hosting poker games. Croupiers unflappable call out numbers without passion. Blackjack players hunched over and tense at the tables eyes dead on the cards don’t talk and speak only when spoken to. A poker player, one with a baseball cap, backwards even, measures his chips into tidy piles. Waitress waits with drink in hand for a tourist in shorts who hurls forward dice to a craps table from a sweaty hand. Second shorts man calmly collected at a roulette table waiting for the wheel to be spun for him by a uniformed geriatric. Slot machine users sit steady spilling over the stool feeding coins and pulling levers with unemotional focus borne of routine. New guests stream in from the golden lobby and disperse towards their games. In the lobby and underneath the ceiling of multicolored crystal flowers two tourists with cameras and craned necks capture the light through their lenses and beside them stands a gold horse. A hotel porter pushes the baggage cart past a family waiting to check in at the front desk with three small children whose small hands hold backpacks in place. Behind the desk the female clerk with too much makeup answers the phone. Concierge points to an open brochure as he speaks to visor-clad visitor. Piano player too pleased with himself gently gentrifying his surroundings with old standard. On cue, the waters sing. Dice spill and clatter onto green felt tables. Stocky machines trill like electronic birds. Roulette wheels spin the whirr of a hundred barrels down a rocky waterfall. Cards are dealt, snapped, as a razor slices through paper. Regular but slight applause and murmurs from all corners.
Stopped short on the carpet that cuts a swath down the hall as in a chapel where the pews are roulette tables: the young writer video games journalist twenty-three year old Berkeley hipster video game die-hard with the major in classics and minor in creative writing. Nobody who lives in a casino would understand what any of that is. Nobody here who she could talk to. Nobody who knows her. The wrong place for her. Why did she even come here, let alone alone. She is even over-dressed for the casino at the matinee hour. All around, dramatically fewer tuxedos and ballroom dresses than expected. A lot of polo shirts. A lot.
It’s a thoroughfare and she knows she can’t really just stand still in the middle of it but unlike the clockwork ghosts switching from one game to another she doesn’t know where to begin or even why she should. Has to move one way or another though, like these others moving around her and checking her out. Look at them look at her making the scene in the worst way. This is absurd don’t you think, thinks she who has never been to a place like this before. Not the gambling kind. Giving away money, this is what dumb people do, so why is she here, what is she here for, why stay here, not for money. But then you’re not meant to play games to win or to lose, but for the experience. Try and feel what they feel, even with great reluctance. That is what she is buying, she reasons. Make new experiences. I am the brave one.
And she is at the window that belongs to the central teller and she counts it out ten thirty forty ninety, one hundred dollars, taken and exchanged with mechanical proficiency into five blue chips one red chip two orange chips one yellow chip two green chips. Nothing said. The staff wears red. Red suits on black shirts. Red waistcoats on white shirts.
Whatever seems the easiest, she settles upon the masses of slot machine players. Each of them pulls the lever or presses the buttons with practiced rhythm and in total silence, and she concludes that this game surely must be the least demanding of them all. Assured, she takes the stool at one of the free machines. To begin with, she looks for the place on the machine in which to insert her newly cashed chips, one of the blue ones clasped between her fingertips, and… actually does it only take coins? So what was the point of cashing ugh that is so irritating. Fine, take a coin, then, still have those after all and it disappears down the cascade, sounds right at least and. Then. Sound the click is registered the light show is arrested. Three wheels splayed at the meridian frozen from the last fall. On counters vivid red numerals inflate and collapse in chaotic movements. Next is to depress one of these buttons or this lever or what to select a line what’s a line. She explores around the machine, check other side and then the other side and then the other side and then the other side and there are no instructions anywhere. Think. Her impressions of the assemblage: this is a tall and dark machine a luminous array of buttons and detailing chromatically lurid installed in the centermost of the enfilade reaching out forever. Choose a button to press and nothing happened. Think harder. Press all the buttons and nothing happened, come onnnnn, the worst ever. Do the second row and correct okay the noise and now the lever down all the way then it retracts. Reels roll a semiotic kaleidoscope concours à gogo. What is she supposed to be hoping for? Think about the likely result. It probably uses a pseudorandom number generator, but theoretically there are only three reels in play, so, what could, think about it how many potential stops per reel machine des équations cubiques. Les chances doivent certainement être basculé en faveur de la maison. Yeux sont collés à la ligne de paiement de paiement répéter éternellement si nécessaire. Le train de marchandises s'immobilise et cet alignement de symboles that she loses, without even understanding why. The upshot is that she is down one dollar.
Frustrated, the fairest daughter abandons the slot machine halls. In her wake she leaves behind a man undeterred by his mounting losses who pulls the lever again and again. It must be that he is like the others here who have found something that they enjoy. All she wants is to find what’s hers.
There is an arrangement of semi-circular blackjack tables across the way and she chooses one of the inclusive tables that welcome the underprivileged with a ten dollar minimum bet. Two couples at the table, they look like those pictures in magazines of couples who look like one another, or do those even exist, is she actually thinking of those pictures of dogs who look like their owners, do you think dogs who are in love with one another start to look like one another, what are some famous dogs in love, there’s that picture of dogs playing poker, hey which is what she is doing right now. No wait this is blackjack. She joins the couples sitting before the dealer who stands with them in silence except to call the value on the cards being dealt. Try this now. She rests her chips on the edge of the table as the others appear to have done and she is rebuked immediately by the dealer because that is not where you put your chips. Chuckle from the couples. She is dealt the king of diamonds. Hit me she says. This is wrong. What she should have done is tap her knuckles on the table; this is demonstrated to her coldly by the dealer. Isn’t this supposed to be fun. New bet new stake. Ten. Seven. I fold she says. This is also wrong. Stay, you say, and with your hand pass over the cards as if you are waving closed a dead man’s eyes. Could he smile at her at least she is not a child. They are looking at her and trying to hide it, why would they do that. The husband seated to her left wearing the red polo shirt whoops it up when he beats the dealer. Red hot face with the admonishment as she loses another hand and loses it the wrong way. Couples exchange knowing glances as if she wouldn’t notice. Polo shirt is up. Not literally. Fine, she thinks, be that way, and she goes in again, hotter and higher this time. Hit me again if that’s how this works, hit me again. Whatever. All right, then, I’ll go to hell. Hit me she says. Hit me she says. Hit me she says. Hit me she says. Hit me she says. I’ll stay she says. Hit me she says. I’ll stay she says. I’ll stay she says. I’ll stay she says hit me she says hit me she says hit me she says hit me she says hit me she says hit me she says and it’s
Over, and she can’t take her eyes from the one chip she has left on the table because if there’s really one chip left on the table then it slowly follows that she has lost ninety dollars. Ninety dollars. That can’t be real. Face on fire with the shame of it. Take it back. She should not have done that. She cannot afford to have done that. That was really dumb. Undo that. If that was the experience she bought, then return it. She knows they are watching her try to think of how to react and find a casual exit strategy. Look at them look at her making a scene in the worst way. Get out.
Coolly, she retrieves her single ten dollar chip ignoring the stern dealer’s glancing judgments and the whispered mocking of the dog-faced lovers. She withdraws from the table and without her the table resumes the natural order of things.
Out of sight and ninety dollars and gasps a little with her back turned. Hot coals under her skin and that rash on the back of her neck driving her fucking crazy. That is a lot of money they took from her and she didn’t even get anything for it. That was an experience, what a dumb fucking experience, the worst. Breathe. in. once. She doesn’t even want to be here anymore. It’s okay it’s okay. Look around so why not leave. Could do it why not. Walk out of here that at least is your decision. Yeah she thinks yeah. Breathe in control, so it’s okay. Don’t cry about it. Composure. Composition, composing, composed, composer, compose, compose yourself focus and retrace steps to the exit. Yeah. Yes. Good. Not even looking back, why should she. Yeah. Composition: so she walks to the room, she walks to return and view the cheerful skies, in this the task and mighty labor lies. Girt in sanguine gown, by night and day, observant of the souls that pass the downward way. What length of lands, what oceans have you pass'd; what storms sustain'd, and on what shores been cast probably shit whatever don’t think care even no like what her almost okay just looks I guess said and she reels from the impact, a clueless laughing tourist in her path having bumped her shoulder harshly and he continues loudly by. She stumbles and her hand in her dress pocket holding her chip trembles and lets it go. Everything in the world is behind that curtain now. Across the carpet guy at the card table wearing baseball shirt and majestic shades takes vodka from a roaming waitress and pounds it and talks at her nice very nice oh you look great. Picks it up and she is moving again but she is moving too quickly this place is the worst.
Briskly she carries on down the aisle thinking what if all their eyes are on her, hate hate hate hate. And she is back in the hall of elevators, made it, and the sentry rises from his post and holds out his palm excuse me ma’am can I see your key please and she thinks what. Dice clatter wheel spins laughing. What she says seriously I was just here a second ago. No reaction. This is fucking ridiculous get out of here and her neck becomes hot again and she thinks of the tourists with the cameras. Don’t you remember she says heated. I’m Vanessa Delahaye. I am Vanessa Delahaye.
Underneath the mirror on the hotel room desk near the minibar laid the last of Vanessa’s chips; the ten dollar token decorated in charcoal and fluorescent orange concentric circles, with ‘BELLAGIO Las Vegas, Nevada $10 POKER Ten DOLLARS’ printed in white Trajan Pro Bold. Vanessa sat up on the bed holding her MacBook Pro above her lap, its power cord stretching down to the outlet located under the bedside table. For the better part of the last hour, she had been reviewing her notes on the Game Developers Conference that she had compiled at the Austin Convention Center during lunch breaks.
Prior to Vanessa’s arrival in Texas, much of the state had been subjected to the category four Hurricane Ike, active from the first of September to the fourteenth. The storm had cut power, flooded homes and injured and even killed residents across the state. Austin was left more or less untouched, but closed its airports as a precautionary measure, thereby cancelling Vanessa’s return flight from San Francisco to Austin. Vanessa’s trip to the Game Developers Conference was already booked and paid for, and upon learning of the cancellations, she made a briefly-considered decision to drive the 1,791 miles and 30 hours from San Francisco in a rented Chevrolet Tahoe 4WD.
Vanessa’s handwritten notes began underneath a staircase at the convention center on 500 East Cesar Chavez Street. In this august setting, groups of independent game developers demonstrated their games, often works in progress, to interested parties. Vanessa had conducted an interview with one of the developers, the lanky, blond and soul patched author of an abstract action game based on liquid physics. As official conference attendees both he and Vanessa wore army green lanyards coupled to sky blue straps. As the interview progressed, the designer drifted away from the particulars of his game and engaged Vanessa in a broader discussion of game design theory that she had found wonderfully interesting and later enthusiastically paraphrased in her notes.
He spoke about the way that roulette worked, which was, as he explained it, basically a set of gameplay rules derived solely from the capabilities of a random number generator. It will come up with a number between one and thirty six that will be either red or black. All the player can do is guess what number or color it will be or whether it will be an odd or even number. That’s the kind of game, he said, that is created when you give a child a calculator for Christmas. He had told Vanessa that the two of them could play roulette right there with a deck of cards: he would turn the cards over one by one and she would try to guess whether the next would be red or black. For all intents and purposes, that is roulette, he said, proving that what makes roulette fun and more interesting than the hypothetical and boring card game is not the rules, but the presentation. Roulette is a game about having in hand a tumbler of whisky stick to a wet napkin, about a croupier in a tuxedo, about the green felt and the wood finish of the table, about a room lit in neon light and about attracting an audience. Those are all superficial elements in theory but that’s game design: translating base mechanics, routines and random numbers into an experience.
As a consequence of the hurricane, the Austin Convention Center was partially repurposed as a temporary ward for displaced residents to shelter, sleep, eat and collect clothing and supplies. This was isolated from the ongoing Game Developers Conference by nothing more than a thick curtain. Here Vanessa’s notes deteriorated as she recalled noticing that a disheveled, middle-aged man in a gray t-shirt and khaki shorts had made his way beyond the curtain and into the independent games section. Even after seeing him she kept asking the developer questions but her unease at the man’s presence and vacant expression had made her a self-conscious and clumsy interviewer. She remembered hoping that the homeless man from the other side of the building would not come over and talk to her; wouldn’t embarrass her in front of this guy who was speaking intelligently on a subject really interesting to her. Instead, to her immediate relief, the man was drawn to one of the stations showing off one of the games. The game’s designer helpfully inquired if the man wanted to play, to which the man appeared deeply confused. Interpreting his silence as perhaps naiveté or shyness, the designer began explaining to him at a fundamental level how one played the game.
Both Vanessa and her interviewee watched this unfold without comment, their discussion fully derailed. The developer leaned in toward her and in a low voice asked if she could imagine her entire life being behind that curtain. Vanessa examined the lanyard-less evacuee listening to what video games were and she said no.
Vanessa settled the back of her head into the overly firm hotel pillow and thought about how to distill a single piece of reportage from the myriad talks and roundtables of the Game Developers Conference, and how she might connect her coverage up with things like her experience with the soul-patched developer and the refugee into the overall picture. For the moment, she disregarded the general message or theme of the Conference and focused on formulating the opening sentence of her eventual piece: The Austin Game Developers Conference was… Beneath the staircase at the Austin Convention Center… The highlight of this year’s Austin Game Developers Conference… When you think of the Austin Game Developers Conference, you’d think of a lot of talks about massively multiplayer online games, and most years you’d be right, but… The theme of this year’s Austin Game Developers Conference was, without a doubt…
The Fountains of Bellagio began another song: Time To Say Goodbye. Vanessa’s train of thought disappeared.
Stares the girl in white at the fountains. Observing from a distance, not like the tour groups up close. She can’t be one of them she knows; she doesn’t have a camera or a friend. Tonight the fountain plays an instrumental, but she has heard this song with lyrics somewhere before and cannot place it now, fingernails scream down the chalkboard walls of her brain trying to place it. In separate rows the jets expel from right to left and left to right and in circles clockwise and counterclockwise, leaping majestically into the sky and writhing orgiastically. It would be cool if this fountain played heavy metal at three in the morning or maybe just alarm clock noises. The water show is almost like elevator music except that she is not going anywhere.
Restless in light. The strip ablaze in neon fire and dry heat. Nevada has a skyline strewn with incandescent buildings yellow and green and purple white silver and the Eiffel Tower is in there as well, what that is about Vanessa doesn’t know. Posted outside her hotel, Vanessa cannot help stealing glimpses at the woman standing nearby and nearer to the hotel entrance, because if she is being honest that is the best-looking woman she has ever seen in her life. Alone the woman waits in a strapless white dress; the pale-skinned woman with the angelic face, dark rolling hair and a black bracelet on each wrist. Even cleansed by hot white fullbright floodlight her skin looks perfect. How, wonders Vanessa, could God be so cruel as to make other people that beautiful? She doesn’t believe in any god, so doesn’t ask it literally. The pale woman shifts her weight from foot to foot. Now an unkempt and unattractive guy comes striding out of the hotel and touches her from behind, she turns with a start and he kisses her full on the mouth probably with tongue. Pale woman more like a dead woman the way she doesn’t react at all, but soon she relaxes into his grasp he takes control and she likes it like that and he takes her hand and he takes her inside the hotel. Vanessa put your confused face on. What is going on in this place don’t answer, and she begins walking south down the strip away from the hotel away from the fountains away from the tourists away from the pale one and away from the setting sun.
Not going anywhere really but anyway the girl walks by dressed in her summer clothes down the strip from one hotel/casino to another. Shoes are untied but she doesn’t care about that. Down this road there are palm trees bound in light and a different piece of soft rock bleating out from every shitty hearth. Advertising signs for dancers, musicians and cologne cut the street on a picture of dark where life goes on all around her. There stands the false lady liberty whose flame is the free lightning that burns for the miserable wicked fashioned after the great pyramids with a shaft of blue light beaming into the heavens where people come to sleep was built like a tomb and in a car running on a track that loops through the sky people cheer they like it like that. What, does this place actually never stop.
The thrum of traffic and thoroughfare turns transversely. Soon down the path Vanessa edges past a double date in motion where one of the ladies in high heels and leopard-print tights, arms wavering up and about, trembles with one foot on the curb and her boyfriend holds her hand to steady her. The flow of couples continues in and out of the buildings on opposing sides of the street, they are dressed up and wasted and laughing and falling over one another and holding on with linked arms against the pull of the pavement. Drunk patrons outside the casinos. Fresh vomit at the foot of the palms. Two girls sitting on the ground who don’t look like they are going to be able to get up on their own power. Every third person clicking a camera. Crossing the bridge over the street are the husband with the head of a lion and his wife with the head of a wolf, so beautiful the mystics. As she watches she is startled by a blast of blunt noise from behind her and she steps out of the path of an SUV that is a mobile bachelorette party.
The sidewalk is so thick with the customers that are its lifeblood that Vanessa can’t stop moving because then everything stops moving. Here is a wheel that spins itself. How easy it is for them to know how to spend their money and where to drink and when to cross the street even wearing an animal mask and where to throw up and when to take your girlfriend’s hand so she doesn’t get hit by a car and in the middle of all the motion Vanessa thinks about the beautiful pale woman in the white dress standing so still and doing nothing. That doesn’t add up at all. How can someone that perfect not do better than that guy. A passing man with a video camera for a face makes her thoughts immortal. Vanessa blinks and when her eyes open she is still in the Bellagio with the drunks and the shades and the people out there who are the same people in here. The strip is not separate from her hotel or any of the others; they are all rooms of the same party. Vanessa steps over a cluster of matches lying broken on the pavement in a pool of waste and shinier things.
Unremarkable so man a for unenthusiastically so and long so waited who dress white the in woman pale beautiful the of mystery the to again returns she returns again to the mystery of the beautiful pale woman in the white dress who waited so long and so unenthusiastically for a man so unremarkable. Then of course, it occurs to Vanessa pleasingly, obviously, it’s not his girlfriend at all, it’s a hooker, and they act like strangers because they are strangers. That is allowed here after all, so why wouldn’t that be what’s going on. It was silly of her not to think of it before. So smart right now. Vanessa comes to the city on the Western edge of the Earth, by the stream of Colorado, where there is no snow nor heavy storm nor rain but golden fields and crystal waters. Her desire and her will turn like the wheel that spins by itself, all at an equal speed, by the love which moves the sun and the other stars.
She trips on a loose white shoelace and tumbles forward through the crowd. Instantly she throws her hands forward to break her fall and collides roughly with the concrete. Her hands clap sharply. She cries out a little on the inside and also on the outside. Both her palms are grazed and stinging, and she must have hurt her right knee as well because the skin is raw and breaking out in specks of blood. A stranger amidst the onlookers helps Vanessa to her shaking feet with a warm hand wrapped around her bare elbow.
Thanks she says and detaches herself from the masses and the road, feeling faint. She retreats off the strip underneath the kitschy awning of a life support bar where she brushes away the grit burning on her hands and her legs. Heart still pounding as she inspects her glasses. Cars drive by, horns honking like a flock of big dumb ducks, whipping up the stale desert air behind them. Vanessa, thinking of the time, was certain that the fountain this minute was about to begin a new song, and it did. I know it she thought, one hand clenched in the other. I know it. I know it. I know it. Even when she was grounded she felt closer to the stars.
Vanessa Delahaye let the door to 23012 slam shut behind her. She turned on the lights and haphazardly launched her handbag at a corner of the bed. Her MacBook Pro was still on the bed where she had left it and she carried it over to the desk, yanking out the power cord from the laptop, letting it fall over the pile of old clothes. Sitting down at the desk chair she opened a Microsoft Word for Mac window, hunched forward and began to type.
Last Friday I had the day off. Where was I (is what you are all asking in my mind)? Well, I spent a full day and night at the Bellagio casino and hotel in Las Vegas, kicking it on the Strip and getting in some major downtime on the casino floor itself. What does any of this have to do with video games, you ask? Well, at heart, Las Vegas is just a big video game.
Let’s pretend for a second that the VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION of ‘what is the point of a video game’ isn’t something that everybody constantly argues about, and just agree that it’s this: to keep you playing. A Vegas casino is no different, and pulls all kinds of tricks to keep you on a stool throwing chips at a dealer while feeling like it’s all your idea.
The first thing I tried at the Bellagio was a slot machine and I have to admit that I STILL don’t really know how that thing works. You’ve got a choice of about two dozen buttons to press (and a lever) and spinning wheels with symbols on them, and you’d THINK the idea is that you try to get three in a row to line up, but it’s way more complicated than that. There aren’t any instructions or directions around to tell you what to do or what button you’re supposed to press. I’m sounding like how my grandmother does when I watch her try to play a video game. But, you know? I bet that’s the whole point. It’s supposed to confuse somebody like me, who’s never been to a casino before, so that I keep at it for a while trying to figure it out and doing different things to see what works, and because each ‘round’ goes by so quickly, it makes it really easy to get hooked into pressing the button to make it spin over and over, so you’re getting constant and rapid feedback. And each try, obviously, costs me a little more money. And, yep, I fell for it. Epic fail.
Down on the casino floor the lights are on the whole time, and there aren’t any windows or clocks on the walls. I’ve heard rumors about how they pump extra oxygen into the air to keep you alert and playing, and between that and the basically free access to drinks, it’s pretty clear that they’re doing all they can to keep you at the tables without you realizing that you’ve already been there for hours.
Also? Let’s talk about the hotel rooms. Personally, I found my expensive room in this FIVE STAR hotel to be seriously lame, with dim lights, windows that don’t open even a little, outrageous prices for internet access and a minibar that you can’t even TOUCH without your credit card being maxed out, so it feels a lot more like you have a time bomb in your room than a snack emporium. If it’s starting to sound like the hotel would rather you stay in, oh, say, the casino, than in the rooms, that’s probably not a coincidence. The capper is that there’s a big security guard outside the elevators in the foyer who makes sure to check EVERY SINGLE TIME you go up to the rooms that you are a hotel guest. So not only are the rooms themselves not enticing, they make it a major inconvenience to get to them at all. It’s really the worst.
I can’t help but think that this is a lot like the way that a video game works. Video games are basically always about funneling the player along a certain kind of narrow experience, and games make very specific decisions about difficulty, interactions, lighting, music, feedback, control, camera angles, etc, to keep you happy and engaged and encouraged, and most importantly, playing along. What’s a casino? Basically a larger and more expensive version of that. Oh, not to mention that video games used to LITERALLY be that – trying their hardest to keep you in the arcade and inserting quarters.
That’s what I learned on my trip to Vegas. And what am I trying to say with all of this? Well, this kind of says something about how the world works as a whole, don’t you think? It makes you think about everything that you see in the world and how you react to it. Because it can’t be only Vegas that is like a video game, when you really think about it.
I’m pretty sure that I’m rambling now.
Actually, maybe the takeaway is just the opposite: it’s that looking around at the world and places like Las Vegas can actually help you to better understand how a video game works, and that life is about making new experiences because they really shape your point of view and who you are as a person. For instance, having spent all this time in Vegas, I’m almost
Vanessa scratched at the back of her neck and ran her right hand down her face. After idling for a minute on how to end the sentence, she flushed with annoyance and deleted the document entirely.
At the rear of the Bellagio, Vanessa Delahaye’s hotel room faced away from the brilliant narrows of the Las Vegas Strip, and did not enjoy the nighttime illumination of incandescent casinos and replica landmarks. Instead, even with the blinds drawn back, 23012 settled into quiet darkness until at 11:31 p.m. the door kicked open and shot the room through with hallway light.
“I’m going to prove it to you,” said Vanessa Delahaye, surging backwards over the marble threshold with a graceless pirouette and she pointed at Will Sommer in his black pinstripe suit. “I can’t show you on Facebook because I don’t have an internet connection in here, but I still have the photo on my hard drive. It’s a real, it’s a real picture.”
Vanessa leaned over the desk searching through the photo folder on her MacBook Pro, steadying herself on the desk’s edge with her left hand. Will Sommer closed the door and missed the light switch on his way in. The thirty year old sat down in the armchair in the corner of the room and reached for the lamp on the adjacent table.
“I’m going to turn on this light, okay?” he said.
“Yeah. Good,” said Vanessa without looking. She picked up and carted the MacBook over to Will and placed it down on the newly-lit table.
“You look amazing in that dress.”
“Thanks, what’s your favorite part?”
“Um, the buttons, I think. On the chest.”
Crouching, Vanessa turned the screen to face him and waved her finger vaguely at the image on display, feeling a rush as she spoke. “There. See? ‘By Vanessa Delahaye.’ This is a review I wrote in April of a game that came out earlier this year, and it’s the first thing I ever got published like this. This is in a magazine, an actual print magazine. And that’s the first time that anybody ever saw that: ‘By Vanessa Delahaye.’ Oh. I’m getting chills.”
Vanessa studied Will’s face for his reaction and for any signal of approval in particular.
“That is cool,” he said agreeably. Vanessa nodded enthusiastically, pride testifying through the inebriation. She stood up and smoothed down her dress for the third time in the last hour.
“I wrote something in that review that my boss said was very interesting. I talked about how like there’s this great moment in some games where the player and the character that they’re playing are just… unified. That when, like, someone is shooting at your character in the game, you don’t think, oh I’d better press B and the right trigger. You think: someone is shooting at me. I need to take cover. The reactions are the same, as if you’re really there and you’re that person and it’s this great moment of…” Vanessa stifled a burp on its way up and made it appear to be a languid sigh. “…interception. Did you want another drink?”
“Yeah,” Will said, loosening his black polyester tie from around the collar of his pressed white cotton shirt. “Do you drink scotch? I’ve got some with me.”
“I guess I would get you something from the minibar,” Vanessa continued, “but if I even touch it my credit card starts getting maxed out so it’s more like having a time bomb in my room.”
“Yeah,” he said, producing from his inside jacket pocket a miniature bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, the length of which fit between his thumb and forefinger. He set it down on the table to Vanessa’s disbelief.
“That’s what you have?!” she said with a laugh.
“I bought it outside.”
“How many ounces is that?”
“I think one. A little more than one.”
“I should get us some glasses for that,” she teased him, and knelt down by the cabinet near the minibar and pretended to search through its drawers.
“We’ll just share the bottle, okay?”
“Yeah. Give it to me.” Vanessa got back to her feet and saw Will had taken his iPhone out again and was checking his messages or something like that. “You are still checking your phone?” she exclaimed with semi-sincere amazement. “You are totally Mr. Corporate. I love it.”
“I’m turning it off now,” said Will quickly, and indeed returned it to his inside jacket pocket. Vanessa relaxed into the other armchair gladly, closed her eyes and felt the world slow down around her. She looked at Will through the warm glow of the one active lamp in the room and realized that she had started smiling again. Will unscrewed the cap from the miniature bottle of scotch and offered her the first drink. She accepted it gratefully and took a sip, the liquid biting at the lining of her mouth, though not unpleasantly so. She shook her head free of the aftertaste and passed the bottle back to Will, who readily imbibed.
“What do you keep checking on your phone?” she asked softly, resting her head not entirely comfortably against the wall on her left.
“Uh, stock prices,” said Will, after another drink.
“Oh. For what?”
“The company that I work for.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Morgan Stanley,” Will said, passing the bottle back to Vanessa.
“Morgan Stanley, that’s a bank, right?” She took another, smaller, sip. She really didn’t like it that much.
“Yes. For the moment.”
“That’s cool,” she said, and racked her brains to think of a question that was more on point. “What do you do?”
“I’m an associate. Equity capital markets. Investment banking.”
She didn’t know what that meant. “Wow,” she laughed, “you are so Wall Street.”
Will shrugged. “Well, we are in Manhattan.”
“Manhattan,” Vanessa said dreamily and laid her bare arms across the table. “I would love to live in Manhattan.”
“You should come and visit me,” Will said.
Vanessa made a look that she had seen other people do when they wanted to appear coy and interesting. “I may have to take you up on that,” she said.
“Great,” said Will and held up the bottle to the light to gauge how many drinks remained. It didn’t look like very many.
“Is that what your friends do as well?” she asked. “Investment banking?”
“Yeah. Do you want another drink?”
“I’m alright. What did you guys come down here for? It’s a bachelor party, I bet, right? Wait, are you getting married?”
“No,” said Will to her immediate relief. “It’s not a bachelor party either, a couple of us just felt like going to Vegas for the weekend, blowing off some steam.”
“That’s cool,” she said. “So like a vacation?”
“I guess so,” Will slurred, rubbing at his already bleary eyes. “We were just thinking, like, come here and have a party and drink and gamble or whatever for a while, because… I mean, why not? I just didn’t want to be at work.”
Vanessa nodded. “I have days like that too.”
Will raised an eyebrow without picking up his gaze from the carpet. “I really don’t think that is true.”
His sudden decline in mood caused Vanessa both concern and irritation. “I’m sure it’s okay,” she said tentatively, cautious of stepping into a whole drama. “Sometimes at work I think that things are worse than they are actually are.”
Will finished off the scotch and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Morgan Stanley’s stock price is down 42 percent. This is after Lehman went bankrupt literally this Monday. Those two things by themselves would be disastrous but this is all on top of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bear and AIG imploding. There’s no floor to this,” he insisted, holding his palm out level to demonstrate what a floor looked like. “One thing happens and you think that it’s the worst thing that could ever reasonably happen, but literally the next day something worse has happened. This should be impossible.”
Vanessa enclosed his outstretched hand in hers to calm him down. “Hey. Look at me. It’s alright.”
Will laughed apparently despite himself. “It is by far the furthest thing from being alright. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in, what, the last couple of weeks? And there’s no end in sight. The stock market is falling apart. The economy is just going to collapse entirely. A month from now there could literally be no economy. That means that your house won’t be worth anything anymore, but you still can’t pay your mortgage, or get insurance or student loans. Our state budget is decimated so that means no public spending on anything for, I don’t know, the next forever. Everyone’s going to lose their jobs. I will, for sure. And for… nothing, for no reason. There’s literally no rational reason why this should be happening.”
Vanessa let his hand slip away. She was confused by what he had said but overtaken by a strange urgency. “You’re bullshitting me, right?” she said, needing to hear him confirm it. “That’s not real.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because I would know about it.”
Will merely looked at Vanessa as if waiting for her to talk herself into it.
“How did that happen?” she muttered, thinking that he wouldn’t expand unprompted.
“You tell me.”
“No, you tell me.”
Will Sommer poked at the empty bottle of scotch with his index finger as though to wish it full. “Okay, so there’s a thing called a subprime mortgage, and essentially that is a complicated and shitty deal with unfavorable terms sold to people who don’t have very good credit and can’t get a regular mortgage. They sign up for it because the initial terms aren’t bad and they think that when the rates are increased, that they’ll be in a position to pay them. Banks sell mortgages to these people because they, because banks, can make money off of it. All these mortgages get bundled up by the bank and sold and resold on to different parties all across the world many different times, which they do because that’s another way banks can make money.
“That’s part of it. Now, though, recently, the housing bubble bursts and these houses aren’t worth anything anymore, and then you start to see mounting defaults, at a catastrophic level, on these mortgages. Banks have been selling on these securities that are based on real estate pricing and now those are worthless too, and the banks begin to lose billions on shitty assets and bad loans. Now you, as a regular person, are going to have a hard time getting credit because the banks are in a tough situation.
“This is about liquidity. Banks trade more money than the world actually makes. Because it doesn’t all exist yet, we don’t always, you know, have it, definitely not all sitting there in a pile of cash. That’s been okay for us, though, because nobody ever actually needs all the investments they have in their hands at once. Unless something happens like every single customer en masse wanting to withdraw all of their cash at once, which would only happen if there was a total lack of confidence in the banks and the banking system. Which has happened. That is happening right now. You probably think right now that maybe you should close your account and put all your money under your mattress.
“The market is not a science. It’s about how you feel. That’s seriously true. The economy runs entirely on belief. You invest in things that you feel are going to do well and take your money out of investments that you think will fail. You believe that the economy is improving, and that belief is measured and it matters. But people don’t always act rationally, you know? Hardly ever. And if you hear, over and over, that a bank is in trouble and it could go bankrupt – no matter where you heard it – you want to get your money out of there. But that’s what’s making it insolvent. It doesn’t have assets anymore, and can’t borrow money anymore because nobody thinks it’s a good bet. And the stock prices plummet, which makes the Dow fall and that creates a panic and now if you had stock in anything you are left with nothing. Once it starts bleeding it can’t stop, and all of it bleeds. Lehman bled out trillions and nobody stepped in to help, not to stabilize it or to buy it outright, because it was a shitty investment.
“This is unprecedented, by the way. All this begins with banks making deals that are based on risk, and even with what’s considered a serious risk, the investor is confident that at the absolute worst, they’ll lose half of their investment. But now you’re seeing situations, everywhere, where they are losing everything. This is not supposed to happen.
“What you’re seeing now is a run on the entire world financial system. You’re seeing destructive speculation from the media about how the banks are toast, and you can’t believe that. You have to believe that things are okay, because otherwise the situation snowballs into this death spiral. Once people start to think that things are this disastrous, it would take, I don’t know, it would really take a lot to convince them otherwise.
“America is worth less than it used to be. Individual wealth is down. It’s harder to get credit for anything. People are getting laid off. Because this is a market that is controlled by fear and rumors. And instead of everyone pitching in and trying to fix it, there are people who will make money off the fact that it’s tanking at all. In our case we have short sellers actively, intentionally, driving our stock down because they are making bets that it will go down. This is like if your neighbor’s house is on fire and you don’t help because you bet someone a hundred bucks that the fire will kill them. You want people to do the right thing. But they don’t.”
Vanessa did not understand everything that Will had said to her, but his clear sincerity wrapped her stomach in tight knots. “You’re not shitting me,” she said carefully, and sunk into the back of her chair.
“It’s serious,” was all Will said.
“Holy shit,” Vanessa said suddenly. “I work in the video game industry. I’m never going to have a house.”
“I don’t know what will happen,” Will offered, in what Vanessa interpreted to be a gesture of real kindness. She found it funny in its complete inefficacy and lowered her face to hide a wry smile.
“Okay,” she said, watching herself spread out her hands over the table. “So what’s your guys’ plan?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are you doing about it?”
Will looked at her vacantly. “This is what I’m doing.”
Vanessa shut her eyes and ran her hands back and forth through her hair until they became caught in the dry, tangled strands. She broke them free and exhaled deeply and roughly into her palms, still embedded with gravel. She felt as though she imagined a doctor would feel when called in to perform emergency surgery during a night of heavy drinking.
“I need to stand up,” she said curtly, and smoothed down her dress. She walked in a doggedly straight line back from the chair and to the window overlooking the rear of the hotel. At night, without the benefit of the Strip’s light, she thought, it really looked like absolutely nothing. Feeling hot, she gently pushed her right hand against the cold glass.
“Why don’t these windows open,” she mumbled to herself.
“It’s so you can’t kill yourself.”
Vanessa pulled back from the window. “You’re a huge downer, man,” she said, “do you know that?”
“Do you know how it says ‘In God We Trust’ on dollar bills?” Will asked. “You know why it says that? It’s a warning. It’s warning you that when it comes to money, you can’t trust anybody else.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Vanessa said.
Vanessa centered her hands on her hips and looked squarely at Will. “All right, then,” she said, nodding, and squatted down beside the minibar and wrenched it open for the first time, the sudden light of the refrigerator and the hiss of the air escaping becoming a beacon in the dim room. Vanessa scanned the minibar’s contents from right to left – Pringles, Sprite, Diet Coke, Red Bull, Coke, Heineken, Absolut, Snickers, a Kodak FunSaver disposable camera, Jim Beam – and pulled out two more miniature bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label.
“On me,” she said, passing one by the neck to Will. She flopped back into the chair, wrenched the cap off the bottle and took an ambitious gulp that left behind an involuntary cough and a burning sensation in her mouth.
“Oh,” she said, realizing they both had a bottle this time, “cheers.” With mock solemnity, Vanessa clinked bottles with Will, delighting in the pitiable scene the two of them made together. She drank again and cleaned the residual liquid off of her lips with her tongue. Leaning back in the chair and swinging the near-depleted bottle between her thumb and forefinger, she studied Will’s face and its emerging dark stubble.
“Do you think I’m…” she said, eyes fixed on him and waiting for his blue eyes to fix on hers. When they did, she shook her head and emptied the bottle. She slammed it down on the table as though she had won a contest.
Vanessa stepped up off the chair, making sure to balance herself on her heels. She picked up Will’s hand in hers and helped him to his feet. “Take this off,” she murmured, putting her arms over the shoulders of his jacket. Will removed it and let it drop to the floor. She looked at him seriously, squeezed his hand, turned and lay supine on the king-size bed with the sheets still tucked in. From above he kissed her, his breath hot, and the smell of scotch from his wet lips mixed with hers.
Once he broke off the kiss and moved his mouth down to the side of her neck, she pulled off her glasses, which were getting in the way, and flung them vaguely at the nearby nightstand. Uncoordinated, their legs intermingled uncomfortably until they negotiated an agreement where he inserted his right leg in between both of hers. Will’s black tie swung down into her face and her eyes, forcing her to swat it away in irritation. He sat up and she helped him to undo and carelessly discard it.
Her fingers pressed into the back of his neck and she kept him in place for a moment.
“Do you have a condom?” she asked.
Will lowered himself again and kissed the side of her face. Vanessa lowered her right hand to the hem of her dress and hitched it up to her stomach at the same time that Will decided to pull one of the straps down over her shoulder. It annoyed Vanessa that there was confusion over whether the dress was coming up or going down. She tried to use one shoe to kick off the other but didn’t have the clearance to do so. Will, with his hands on Vanessa’s bare shoulders, shifted up her body, pulling his knee up into her.
Vanessa shot her head backwards into the pillow as a shiver ran up her spine, and she closed her eyes thinking that if she let go she might lose the world forever.
In a dream, Vanessa Delahaye sat barefoot at the empty table in her Bellagio hotel room. At six, the church bells rang. In the corner of the room by the large and untidy stove, Maria Sergeyevna made herself busy scrubbing Vanessa’s Chuck Taylors clean with a horsehair brush. The lamp began to flicker dangerously in the breeze and Maria Sergeyevna picked herself up from the wooden stool to fetch kerosene.
“I have to go,” Vanessa announced.
“Be sensible, little one,” Maria Sergeyevna said, and set the samovar.
“I’m giving a speech at the Austin Game Developers Conference. I can’t stay in this hut with you all day.”
“Don’t be silly. It isn’t safe for a young girl to go out by herself at this time of night.”
“I’ve already made it to Austin by myself! I drove all the way from San Francisco.”
Maria Sergeyevna put a plate of bread and butter in front of Vanessa. A moment later she returned with a glass of vodka. “You must eat. You’re wasting away to nothing.”
“I’m not hungry, Masha.”
“If this is how you carry on,” snapped Maria Sergeyevna, “it’s no wonder that you haven’t found a husband. When you reach thirty-five, you know, that’ll be the end of you. It’s not right that you end up an old maid like me.”
“I’ve written a great speech about video games,” Vanessa said, ignoring her.
“You are a spoiled child,” she wailed. “Every night I pray for your rotten soul! Why has God made you my cross to bear?”
“Shut up, Masha,” said Vanessa. “My speech is about how game developers can improve synergy between players of video games and the characters that they play. What I mean is, if the character in the game is under fire, the player shouldn’t think, ‘ah, now I press B and pull the right trigger’, she should think ‘I’m under fire. I have to take cover.’”
Maria Sergeyevna cupped her wrinkled hand around her ear. “I can’t hear you, child. I am an old woman.”
“I can’t deal with you now, Masha,” Vanessa said, getting up from the wooden table. “People are waiting for me to give this presentation. I made it in PowerPoint.” She gathered her things in a temper and made for the door. Maria Sergeyevna seized Vanessa’s wrist, stopping her in the hallway.
“Don’t be scared,” said Maria Sergeyevna. “This is going well.”
“Did you know that there’s going to be an economic collapse?” said Vanessa, leaning back in the black leather desk chair and toying with both of ends of a ballpoint pen.
“No, there isn’t,” said Joshua, reading a magazine at the other end of the conference table.
“Yes there is,” said Vanessa. “Look.” She pointed to a paper cup of water on the table and tipped it over the edge with her finger. Joshua and Prescott observed the growing puddle on the ground.
“I have an idea for a story about video games,” said Vanessa eagerly.
“Vanessa,” said Prescott, leaning over the table. “I have great news. We have hired a great new writer for the magazine. I am not kidding: it is the greatest writer that there is.”
Joshua threw a copy of the latest issue at her. Vanessa caught it and looked at the cover, which in large letters announced the magazine’s newest staff writer as Anton Chekhov.
“Hello,” said Anton Chekhov.
“He’s a wonderful writer,” said Joshua.
“I have an idea for a feature on video games,” said Anton Chekhov. “I think we should do a top ten list for the best sidekick characters in all of video game history. We would include our own commentary about what made each character a memorable sidekick.”
“What did I tell you, Vanessa?” said Joshua.
“That’s bullshit!” she said angrily. “I’m so much of a better writer than he is!”
The men enjoyed a hearty chortle.
“Here’s a tip, Vanessa,” said Prescott, wiping away a tear, “write what you know.”
Vanessa flushed red at the humiliation and paced furiously up and down the wings at the Austin Convention Center auditorium. “Create one of dark,” she said. “Create one of dark.” At the sound of the red velvet curtains being hoisted back, she entered nervously from stage right, the wooden boards creaking under her feet. A white-hot spotlight circled the microphone stand in the middle of the stage. Vanessa stood before the microphone and squinted at the crowd, and without her glasses was unable to make out a single face.
“Um,” she said, clearing her throat, “this presentation is about creating synergy between characters and players. Please remember to turn all of your cellphones off and to fill in your feedback cards at the end and hand them to one of the volunteers.
“Cut the highway on a picture of dark. I will now be attended: shortlisted for the city. No luck to live, I guess that is having sex with bad luck. Looking out loud for lovers and I like to be judged with the lights off. Saints with bad memories closing away all your problems. This is a shame that already exists.” Vanessa tapped a remote and the PowerPoint slides changed over.
“I will be a coin come up today,” she continued. “I throw up heads ten times. Imagine a mirror and roll my conscience brilliantly. It’s okay to finish a turn of spades, because I’m going all the time ever.”
The house lights came on and the crowd of game developers launched into rapturous applause. Blushing, Vanessa descended the steps from the stage, the appreciative audience graduating to a standing ovation. Vanessa proffered her hand to receive kisses upon it. In the front row, a delighted Prescott clutched her non-ceremonial hand in both of his and shook it gregariously.
“They drink too much to give me a serious question,” laughed Vanessa, tilting her head at the crowd.
Will Sommer stood beside Prescott and clapped Vanessa on the shoulder.
“Best part is when you cry and I have died,” said Will.
“What is dying?” asked Vanessa.
“It brings bad luck to say,” Prescott confided.
“I would die,” said Vanessa. “I’m bleeding.”
She worked her way down the receiving line to the rear of the empty auditorium and sat down patiently in the empty row.
“Vanessa,” said Maggie Wright, turning around to address her from the chairs in front. “I have great news. I’m moving out.”
Maggie inspected her makeup in a compact mirror, painting her lips with the bare tip of her finger. She offered the compact to Vanessa, who refused it.
“What about Erica,” Vanessa pressed.
“You’ll never be with me for very long.” Maggie looked over her shoulder to where the staircase began. “Well, you have to go now.”
“What about my presentation?”
Framed in the decrepit wooden doorway, Vanessa Delahaye peered up into the gloomy staircase. The harder that she tried to discern its end, the longer and cloudier it became. “What’s up there?” she asked. “I’m really not into this at all.”
“Are you ready?” asked the soldier standing behind her.
Vanessa twitched involuntarily. “I look through your eyes and I think I’m worried.”
“Don’t be scared,” said the soldier, unwrapping a red blindfold around his gloved fist. “I’ve done this a hundred times.”
“Why do you have a gun?”
“I’m a soldier.”
Vanessa extended her hands and let the blindfold drape over them. “You don’t have any clue about how girls think,” she cursed at him.
“Do you want a cigarette? You’re going to want a cigarette,” he said, and lit the one loosely secured between her lips. “Now get ready.” Delicately, he withdrew a M9 semi-automatic pistol from his holster and held it up for Vanessa to examine.
“I’ve only put one bullet in the chamber,” he told her, “because if it’s done right, that’s all it will take. One bullet. Here.” The soldier touched her forehead and dragged his finger south until stopping on her left temple.
He offered her the pistol. “Here you go.”
“Are you crazy?” said Vanessa angrily. “I’m not going to do that.” She slapped the gun out of his hand. “I’ll just take the blindfold.”
The soldier took Vanessa’s glasses from her and helped wrap the blindfold over her eyes. “Whatever happens,” he said, tying the knot firmly against the back of her head, “do not take this off. Don’t even look back at me.”
“What’s up there?” she asked in her newfound darkness, and waited for an answer to come back to her. She repositioned herself facing where she remembered the beginning of the stairs to be. Obligingly, she lifted her right leg and, after a long moment’s hesitation, let herself fall forward onto the sole, landing on the first wooden step. A dry, dusty heat choked the air around her. Cautiously, she imagined the distance to the next step, which creaked under her weight when she landed on it. The thought of a loose nail driving through the wood and into her bare foot sent her into shudders. As she climbed further, she cast out her arms for balance but could not find any kind of handrail or even reach the walls. She kept moving, but with increasing apprehension, reminding herself that this was only a staircase and she didn't have anything to be afraid of. Following this train of thought to its conclusion, she pictured herself slipping, tumbling back down the stairs and breaking her neck. The blindfold, which she was sure was tighter than it ought to be, did not help her general composure. As she continued up the stairs her mind stuck on the sting of the fabric against her closed eyes and flushed skin, and the heat in the staircase that exacerbated her naturally dry mouth. Soon she lost track of how many steps she had climbed and how long she had been at it. The blindfold was definitely far too tight and stung her eyes. She coughed and sweat broke out on her forehead. She really needed some water. Her lips were beginning to crack and her heartbeat quickened as the dangers of her present situation became unavoidably clear to her. She pulled herself up to the next step, her legs and outstretched arms trembling as her confidence diminished. If she tore this blindfold off now, she thought, what was the worst that could happen? What was she afraid of, she thought again, feeling angry this time, and thirsty. Wearing the blindfold was a stupid idea in the first place, she chastised herself, spots flashing in front of her eyes and perspiration smearing across her brow, and her fingers started to shake and she was starting to have trouble breathing, and she realized that if she didn't immediately get rid of the blindfold and into some fresh air she was going to pass out in the dark staircase that was spinning all around her, so get rid of it now she thought get rid of it get rid of it get out and with her hands clawed against the blindfold, scratching at it as she gasped for breath and wavered on the steps, wavering back and forth and in a panic digging her fingers deeper towards her eyes and gasping for breath, feeling faint and screaming and trembling on the steps and heartbeat racing scared of her heart exploding sweating and clawing her eyes at last and she tore the blindfold completely from her face and with her eyes open and ascending, she comes to the city. Ascending and awake and alone and coming higher, comes higher through the storm and through the desert and the car and comes higher past where the skyline dies in the sun and where life chokes out the street and where the ceiling explodes in flowers red purple yellow orange green blue, awake and alone and in motion and in her head. Here, where instead the world moves for her, the fatigue pulls at her and heat tears at her and the sweat sticks to her and when the doors open she steps out of the elevator and into the chapel with all of her train dragging behind. Lifting the veil over her head, she surveyed the pews on her left and spotted Maggie, Erica, her parents, her sisters, her brother, her grandparents, her great-grandparents and her great-great-grandparents who had travelled all the way from France and from death, all looking at her and smiling or crying or both. Nobody sat in the pews on her right, which Vanessa found curious, but this did not deter her and she continued down the aisle alone.
Vanessa met the priest at the altar and took her place opposite the groom, clad in black tuxedo and black bow tie and who was, she discovered upon close examination, a clean-shaven Will Sommer. They took each other’s hands; only physically, not in matrimony, which was yet to occur.
“I’m glad you came,” Will whispered to her.
“We are gathered here today,” intoned the priest, “to join together the hands of Vanessa Jane Delahaye and Will in holy matrimony, here before friends and family and under the eyes of God.”
“I don’t believe in God,” said Vanessa.
“You should Google Him,” said the priest.
She shook her head. “Googling it doesn’t matter, but I do.”
“Vanessa will now read her vows,” said the priest, “which she has prepared herself.”
Vanessa, who had done nothing of the sort, furrowed her brow. She felt the eyes of the crowd upon her, waiting for her to speak, but she drew a blank and her voice hitched on something low in her chest. She tried to remember if the vows might be folded away in her dress pocket, but she couldn’t pry her hands free from Will’s grasp to check, and the wedding dress didn’t have pockets anyway. A whisper from the front row embarrassed her and to avoid further critique she decided she would have to make something up.
“Will. I will. I will wish that we saw the better, but I’ll wash away my charm. It needs to be around you. You and I only. I locked myself in love with you. I deserve the day.” She glanced at the priest. “That’s it.”
The priest nodded approvingly. “Will, thirty second response.”
“You should never be very different,” said Will.
“Time’s up, I’m sorry.”
Vanessa squirmed and shifted uneasily her bare hands around in his clutches.
“Why aren’t you wearing your engagement ring,” the priest snapped at her.
“I don’t wear rings.”
“You have to.”
The veil tumbled back over Vanessa’s face.
“Epic veil,” said Will.
“Will,” said the priest, “do you take Vanessa to be your lawful wedded wife?” Vanessa’s heart pounded desperately against her chest.
“I do,” Will said.
“Will you be laid off with her?”
“Will you lose your health insurance with her?”
“Will you default on your mortgage with her?”
“Will you go to her father for money with her?”
“Will you sell everything that you own just to survive with her?”
“Will you grow sick with her?”
“Will you submit with her to a life filled with ugliness and fear?”
“Will you lie hand in hand on the filthy wooden floors of an empty house with her and wait for the rats to come?”
“Do you love this woman?”
Vanessa frowned. “No you don’t.”
Will looked at her absently.
“You don’t even know me,” she said. “I don’t know you. Why would I trust you?”
“Vanessa,” Will said quietly.
She shook her head violently. “I can’t even think, it’s too much.”
“It’s going to be alright,” he urged her.
Vanessa steeled herself and looked into his eyes. “I’ve seen it with you,” she said. “You say you can always count on him, but whatever. I don’t believe it with you.”
Vanessa tore her hands free, to the audible shock of the crowd. She picked up her wedding dress with every intention of retreating down the aisle, but nonetheless, as she turned to do so, she remained firmly in place. She released the hem of the dress and it tumbled back down around her ankles. The chapel lights died off one by one.
At 5:11 a.m. on Saturday, September 20 2008, Vanessa Delahaye stirred awake in Room 23012 of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. For the next five minutes she remained under the covers, naked and with her eyes closed, bracing against the cold hotel room air. Over that time she settled into a state of wakefulness and rolled over in the king-size bed to check on Will Sommer, who, as she discovered, was no longer there. Vanessa sat up in bed and through squinted eyes surveyed the room. From right to left: glasses on the nightstand, the armchairs by the table with the three empty miniature bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label, the window overlooking nothing spectacular, the compromised minibar, the television, and with growing embarrassment she attuned to the conspicuous absence of Will Sommer anywhere in the room.
Vanessa stepped out of the bed in the low light, goose bumps spreading across her cold bare skin. She folded her arms over her breasts and headed towards the bathroom, the only place left. She flicked on the lights which after spending hours in darkness immediately proved to be a mistake, and she screwed her eyes shut against the glare. She turned the lights off, because the bathroom was empty anyway.
Of course he’s gone, thought Vanessa, and of course it was all bullshit. Her cheeks burned red as she was so angry with herself for having believed any of it in the first place. She stormed back to the bed, smoldering from the shame of having been taken advantage of, and grabbed the brown checkered plaid flannel blouse from where it lay in a heap on the floor and pulled it on. She climbed back into bed and threw the covers over her head. Curling her body up against the cold, she shut her eyes tightly and willed herself to sleep as fast as possible.
At 9:55 a.m. on Saturday, September 20 2008, Vanessa Delahaye was on her hands and knees peering under the bed. Having showered, brushed her teeth, cleaned her glasses, used the toilet, packed her bag and changed into a maroon crewneck sweater, faded blue jeans and the same pair of Chuck Taylors, she had done everything that she needed to check prior to check out.
The only other thing, which was not itself required for her to leave the hotel, but more for her peace of mind, was to find her ten dollar casino chip, the one decorated in charcoal and orange. She swore that she had left it on the desk next to where she had at one point sat down her MacBook Pro, but the chip clearly wasn’t there now, nor was it under the desk, nor under the table by the armchairs, and so she ended up on all fours looking under the bed, where the chip wasn’t either.
Straightening up and plastering her hands on her hips, Vanessa allowed herself to wonder whether the guy from last night might actually have gone so far to have taken the chip with him when he snuck out from the room in the early hours of the morning. Letting the thought linger, she hitched her handbag over her shoulder and grabbed her suitcase by its retractable handle. Who knew if he really did take it, she thought, but you can’t let yourself believe in the worst of everything all of the time, right? Why would you? Vanessa Delahaye snatched the room key from the table and turned the lights off. She opened the door and walked out without giving the matter another thought.