My dad didn’t need to remind me that there was a real lion living on the lower level of the hotel to convince me—I had longed to go for years. I was pretty sure there wasn’t another hotel in the world that hosted a wild animal. I was twelve years old, and for the first time, my younger brother, Charlie, and I would be joining our parents on their annual trip to the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for a work convention. At the time, it seemed like a thrilling prospect.
Predictably, my mother was hesitant.
“Las Vegas isn’t a place for children, Peter. What will they do when we’re at all the client dinners?”
Schedules and routines were important to her. Dinner was at six. We had spaghetti every Sunday. We washed our hair on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It was a shock to learn that not everyone lived such a regimented life. At a sleepover at Nancy O’Conner’s, the light outside got progressively darker, but Nancy’s parents continued to putter away in unknown parts of the apartment while we played jacks. There was no sign that dinner would ever get made. Eventually, we ended up in the kitchen making a meal from what we could scavenge. The anarchy of it made me giddy.
In previous years when our parents went to Las Vegas without us, Charlie and I watched as our mother layered suitcases with dresses we had never seen and freshly pressed suits for my dad. She would write detailed notes for our neighbor Mrs. Hayes, who stayed with us while they were away. Despite the specific instructions taped to the kitchen cabinet, Mrs. Hayes oversalted the meals and the house no longer felt like it was ours.
At the end of these trips, our parents returned smelling stale and unfamiliar. Amidst the crumpled clothes in their suitcases would be small toys and candy for me and Charlie, which we devoured as if starved. One year, my dad returned with a mustache shading his upper lip, a bizarre disguise.
“You’ll get a real kick out of it, Alison. All the big names in show business have performed there. Frank Sinatra was at the opening of the Grand.” I was glad he could convince my mother to let us go, but it was both a mystery and deeply irritating that my dad thought these details would interest me. All I wanted was to stand close to the genuine MGM lion in his colossal hotel.
Approaching the hotel in our rented car in the late afternoon, I saw not the castle I had imagined but more of a fortification, a large, plain building in the shape of an L. The blue sky was deepening. I could see mountains in the distance, their natural, swooping forms dreary compared to the colored, flashing lights of the city. But if the outside of the hotel was bland, the lobby was a banquet of gold and bronze, plush couches, and glittering chandeliers. A bellboy arranged our luggage on a cart. I heard bells and a sudden outburst of clapping somewhere beyond the lobby.
“It’s gotta be that Vegas luck,” the bellboy said, smiling at me. I wondered if he thought I was older.
Charlie and I had an adjoining room to our parents’. Marble lined the bathroom, and the surfaces shone. Neat bars of wrapped soap were stacked next to white towels hanging over gleaming racks. We hadn’t been in the room for more than five minutes before Charlie used the bathroom, ripping open a bar of soap and splattering water on the mirror as he washed his hands. I rescued the remaining wrapped soaps, stashing them at the bottom of my suitcase.
“Can we see the lion today?” Charlie piped up, opening the door to our parents’ room that first morning. Our mother, dressed in a bathrobe, sat serenely, like a guest on The Love Boat. Our dad had already left for the convention somewhere in the hotel.
“Lion’s not here today. I called the front desk. Tomorrow. We can go to the pool once I’m dressed.” Charlie climbed up on their big hotel bed and started to jump. “Stop it, Charlie. Go get dressed,” our mother said testily, possibly still irritated that we had been allowed to join.
Although I was excited about the lion, I tried to appear less eager than Charlie. He was eight at the time with straight blond hair that fell like a curtain around his head and touched the tips of his pale eyelashes. Until not that long ago, we had played with the same toys and laughed at the same stupid jokes. But by the end of my sixth grade year, he started to seem dramatically younger. It was as if I had taken a detour and was now traveling on a different path from the one that we had been traveling together. Suddenly, I was an awkward giant fumbling with the tiny pieces of our Lite-Brite or Battleship game, my fingers getting stuck in the jagged holes of our Spirograph. When Charlie asked me to play—which he did often—I sneered. Even then, I recognized the sting of rejection in his eyes, but I couldn’t help it. While Charlie played by himself, I tried to write in a diary with my scented pens and stared in the bathroom mirror wondering if I was pretty.
My sandals made humiliating sucking sounds on our walk through the hotel to the pool. When we opened the door to the outside, the light was positively blinding. I could just barely make out the curved edge of the pool, quavering sapphire water, and a few palm trees capped by tufts of leaves. Charlie cannonballed right in. I took off my T-shirt and shorts, stripping down to my bathing suit. I felt my mother’s stare.
“You really are starting to have a young woman’s body,” she said. I rolled my eyes. “Alison, I just mean that you’re getting little breasts. It’s natural.” I retreated to a lounge chair clutching my towel while she dipped her toe into the water. “You coming in?”
My brother and I had always been able to stay in a pool for hours, suspended in water and time, pruning our fingertips into deep crevices. We’d pretend to be dolphins, wiggling our bodies through the water, arching our snouts toward the bottom. I was Esther Williams swan diving through a hoop Charlie made with his curved arms. My body felt sleek and agile. Back then, I could change my form with ease from girl to dolphin, from plain child to dazzling star. I was as protean as liquid. Now, under the relentless flaming sun, the thin plastic straps of the lounge chair digging tauntingly into my thighs, I felt as rigid and unchangeable as rock. “No,” I said firmly.
My mother shrugged and lowered herself down the shallow steps into the pool. A man did steady laps, flashing a crop of dark underarm hair at each stroke. On a nearby chair, a woman lay facedown, the skin on her shoulders the color of wet bubblegum. I squinted into the distance. The monochrome shape of the mountains loomed, a silhouette set to the stage that was the hotel and Las Vegas.
“The water really does feel great!” My mother hung on to the side of the pool near where I sat.
“What’s out there?” I asked.
I pointed beyond the hotel, in the direction of the mountains. She took a quick, dismissive glance. “Nothing really. Just desert.” She pushed off and breaststroked toward the opposite end of the pool.
I walked to the pool’s edge. Instead of diving in dolphin-like, I sat with my legs dangling, inhaling the chlorine and sweet orange blossom scent of Coppertone while my mother and brother submerged themselves below the surface of the water.
My mother made sure we had the earliest dinner reservation possible at the hotel restaurant. Charlie and I wore our stiff, fancy clothing, and my mother replaced her usual pale lipstick with something closer to maraschino cherry.
“You look like a movie star,” my dad said, kissing her cheek as we entered the restaurant.
After we ordered, I watched the flame of a candle at the center of our table quivering in a glass jar, daring myself to stick my finger into its shifting, hot center.
The lights in the restaurant dimmed, and brighter lights illuminated a stage I hadn’t noticed before. The low chatter and clinking silverware quieted, and a fast-paced, excited tune began to play. I sipped my Shirley Temple. Charlie pulled the dough out of his bread roll and squashed it between his fingers.
From behind a curtain, women began to appear on stage, one after the other. At first, I thought they were naked until I realized they were dressed in skin-toned leotards with sequins semi-covering their breasts and bikini areas. They lined up at the edge of the stage like a stack of PEZ, so close to our table I could see the glisten of sweat on their foreheads and the quick rise and fall of their chests. Some had breasts that hung like bells; others had small cones with pointy nipples. The variety was astonishing. They held their heads high while balancing impressive arrangements of white feathers, the strain evident despite their frantic grins. Charlie and I both turned to look at our mother like sailboats heading into the wind.
“I didn’t think they’d have a show this early.” She looked around the room. Loud beats punctuated the sideways thrusts the women made with their hips. Boom! Boom! People clapped. The women wiggled their butts, kicked their legs, and blew kisses into the air. “I think it’s better if the children have their dinner in the room,” my mother said, getting up from her chair.
“Why? It’s a dance show. You like dance, right Alison?” my father said.
“No, I don’t!” I snapped. I could not fathom how he could associate my dance classes at the YMCA with the spectacle we were witnessing. Waiters surrounded our table with plates of food, and my mother sunk grudgingly back into her chair.
“For the rest of the trip, they’re having room service,” she hissed at my father. She took the last sip of her wine in one swift gulp, and the waiter refilled her glass from a bottle fished out of a bucket. Throughout the meal, my eyes darted cagily between my breaded veal cutlet and the pageant of flesh on stage.
Later, I surveyed my reflection in the large bathroom mirror back in our room. My nipples were pale and flat, gentle mounds of flesh beneath, just barely rising, their ultimate shape inscrutable. I pulled my nightgown over my head. I didn’t want my mother looking at me differently. I didn’t want to be looked at, period.
• • •
TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 4
RACHEL TALBOT holds an MFA in creative writing from Stony Brook University. Prior to her focus on writing, she was a documentary filmmaker for many years, a profession in which a passion for stories and the lives of others is also essential. This is her first published fiction.