by Melissa Yi
Art by Eli Bischof
It’s a rite of passage, right? Pass your exams, party in Vegas.
Only as an impoverished Asian-Canadian university sophomore, that meant Vegas with my mom, dad, and grandmother. Which meant they were paying for it, and I Must Be Grateful.
And I was. Serious gratitude as I shouldered my backpack and wheeled both Grandma’s suitcase and my own into the Ibis Hotel, besieged by bright-screened, tootling slot machines that I was too young to play.
We navigated past a few card and roulette tables whose dealers were, I was surprised to note, mostly middle-aged Asian women like my mom, although I spotted a Black man. I hadn’t realized Vegas would be multicultural and also house a considerable number of senior citizens.
The entrance smelled like cigarets, even though Grandma had specifically asked for a smoke-free hotel. She winced and glanced at the football game broadcast with sound on the wide-screen TV mounted to our right. It switched to a commercial with a toddler, and I felt a pang for my two-year-old brother, Kevin, who was staying with our other grandparents, “like a big boy,” missing the Sze family vacation in Vegas.
“Hope, I think we took the wrong entrance,” Dad told me. He wheeled a full-sized suitcase in each hand, over the black-and-white carpet decorated with long-legged, long-beaked birds that looked like flamingos without their famous pink feathers. Dad glanced up at the signs overhead. The HOTEL LOBBY one kept pointing us north, through the carnage.
“Who cares!” said Mom, who wore a backpack and fanny pack and had wandered in front of all of us. She’d kept her sunglasses and visor on indoors, and had put on a few pounds after Kevin, all of which made her look like a total tourist. “It’s Vegas!”
“Um, Mom, you’re not going to gamble everything, right?” I had to yell over the fake sound of coins clinking and the mechanical music from the nearest slot machine, where a delighted young woman clapped her hands. Grandma flinched.
“No, if we join the Players Club, we each get five or ten dollars free! Well, the grown-ups. Not you. You’re not even twenty-one!”
“Great.” A headache tapped my temples. Grandma lagged behind me. A security guard and three fortyish women wearing red-white-and-blue-sequined dresses clogged up the aisle. This place was built for maximum gambling per square inch, not group walking.
Dad turned right to try the next aisle.
“Watch it, Grandpa,” said a tall, white frat-boy type with black hair, heavy eyebrows, a blank expression, and a green WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS T-shirt.
He shoved past my dad, who was trying to tuck the second suitcase behind him before two matching frat dudes, sporting the same dumb T-shirt, mowed it down.
The last frat guy, the one with a square brown hairline that reminded me of Frankenstein, knocked into one of my suitcases. He stank of body spray.
“Hey!” I righted the suitcase before I spun around to defend Grandma.
Luckily, she was more narrow and nimble than our luggage. She’d already pressed herself against the closest empty slot machine. She shook her head and mouthed, “Bad boy.”
“Hey!” I yelled after them.
None of them paused or even bothered giving me the finger.
“Let it go, Hope,” murmured my dad, who’d started after Mom. She’d carried on, oblivious.
Those guys were older than me, and whiter than me, and richer than me. My dad supported all of us, and I wanted to go to medical school after my undergraduate degree at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
I glowered and searched for the security guard. She’d moseyed toward this barred enclosure on our left marked “Cashier,” with her back swiveled toward us. Ten to one, she’d missed the entire thing.
“Never mind. We’re on vacation,” said Dad.
Even Grandma had cut out ahead of me. I gritted my teeth and wheeled suitcases anew. The end was nigh. Twenty more feet and the migraine-inducing bird carpet ended, along with the slot machines. We’d almost reached the sunny, mirrored hotel lobby.
“I know about the Players Club because Mrs. Wu told me,” Mom called over her shoulder.
“Mrs.—Wu?” I glanced at Grandma’s back.
Grandma smiled over her shoulder at me, even though I wasn’t sure she could hear Mom from the front of the line.
“You mean like, Ryan Wu’s mom?” I called, trying to ignore my stomach flips. “She gave you tips on the Ibis Hotel?”
Grandma gave me the thumbs-up sign, even though I’d been asking my mom, who answered, “Of course! There she is! Hiiiiiiiiii!”
I swept my gaze over the last of the slot machines, where the Wu family stood, the father somehow looking cool even though he was a dad in shorts, the mom elegant with her hair swept back into a bun—no extra pounds or fanny pack for her—and the tiny grandmother tugging on the shirtsleeve of la pièce de résistance, Ryan Wu.
Ryan Wu. Hot, dark eyes that fixed right on me and didn’t look away, even when he swept his bangs out of his eyes. Hair rock-and-roll long in the back but short enough not to scare his engineering classmates at Ottawa U. Carved cheekbones that weakened my knees. Straight nose that somehow made him look both intelligent and trustworthy. And those lips.
Probably better if I didn’t dwell too long on his lips while both our families watched us. I made sure I didn’t dwell too far south on his lanky runner’s body. Personally, I hate running, but it looked fantastic on him. Quads, calves, and all.
Grandma practically elbowed me in the ribs. She and Grandmother Wu had tried to set us up for ages, but “very nice boy at church” didn’t sound too enticing—until she’d finally shown me a picture of him on the plane.
I flushed and wished I could hide behind our luggage. He looked tall, dark, and smokin’, while I had my fleece jacket tied around my waist for the freezing airplane, and I’d smeared sunscreen on my face without checking in a mirror, which usually meant extra globs of white on my temples and in my hair.
“So nice to see you!” Mom rushed at Mrs. Wu, who accepted her hug and patted her on the back. Our grandmothers began chatting in Cantonese, beaming at each other, their heads bent together. For whatever reason, Grandmother Wu pulled out a pack of player cards to show my grandma, who laughed and pointed at them.
Our dads shook hands. “Hot out there,” said Mr. Wu.
“Supposed to get up to one hundred degrees. That’s thirty-eight Celsius,” said Dad.
If we didn’t want to melt of boredom, kind of like the Wicked Witch of the West, only less green, Ryan and I had to talk.
“Hi,” I said, pushing down the handle of Grandma’s suitcase so I had something to do with my hands. The plastic resisted me. Took me a second to get it retracted. Very cool.
“Hi.” He had a terrific smile. Not only the white teeth and the illegal lips and movie-star face, but his eyes crinkled—you know it’s a real smile when they use their eyes—and he had a seriously good vibe.
Like, a this is the one vibe.
Although I’m only twenty, what do I know.
My parents got married when they were twenty-one, though. Different times.
Why was I thinking of my parents? Boner killer. Not that I had one, but . . .
“Hi.” I realized I’d said that already, and turned even redder. Great. Sunscreen dolloped everywhere, dressed for arctic airplane temperatures in the desert, and poor conversationalist. Ryan could take his pick of any girl on the strip. And believe me, I got an eyeful of bikini tops and bum cleavage when our shuttle pulled up to the Ibis. He’d have nooooooo trouble moving on from his grandma recs.
“I’m Ryan Wu. My grandmother told me a lot about you.”
Kill me now. “Yeah? Like what?”
“Top of your high-school class.”
“Not quite.” One guy edged me out on overall average, and the intellectual jock got named class valedictorian. Otherwise, I held my own, including Dean’s Honor List so far at McMaster. School is one of my superpowers. I shrugged and gestured for him to try again.
His eyes crinkled again. “You don’t like church.”
“Do you?” It boggled my mind that anyone would submit themselves to sermons voluntarily. Any time I wanted a lecture about crossing my legs, my mom could (and did) tsk at me for free.
“Yeah.” He thought about it, glancing up at the lights. The nearest sconce lit up a picture of those black-and-white flamingos, and they had silver flamingo carvings mounted every five feet, on the walls.
His dark eyes met mine again. Direct. No hesitation. “And she said you were pretty.”
I almost choked. She said. According to Grandma, but not Mr. Hottie.
I ripped the suitcase handles back into position. No hesitation this time. “Okay, well, we’ve got to check in, so—”
Dad continued his fascinating conversation. “Who knew it would get this hot in June?”
“I checked the weather report!” Mom chimed in.
Forget about killing me. Throw me live into lava. That’d be so much better. I headed for the reception, ignoring the squeak of one of our suitcases’ wheels on the tile floor.
“My grandmother has good taste,” said Ryan, falling into step with me.
“Oh.” My voice was so quiet, it was barely a breath. He glanced down at my lips.
I blushed again. Still. Finally, I whispered, “So does mine.”
Behind us, a man shouted.
My spine stiffened. I caught my breath, checking Ryan’s reaction.
He took a few steps toward the casino floor and shook his head. “It’s the craps table.”
“Grandma, you should go check in,” I said, even as I wheeled our suitcases around to see what the ruckus was.
Three matching green shirts, lettered with STAYS IN VEGAS on the back, tipped me off that the frat trio had taken over the one table run by a younger Asian woman wearing a red dress with a low scoop neck. Even from a distance, she looked flustered as the black-haired one who’d snapped at my dad, the one who looked like a hit man, slammed his fist into the green felt.
I’d never played craps, but it looked like that game on TV with the giant oval table where a big-bosomed woman blew on dice and guys tossed the dice and yelled stuff like “Snake eyes!” I’d missed the table on my way in, distracted by the frat trio trying to run us over.
“Could you watch the suitcases?” I asked my dad, and I turned back for the casino. I had no idea what I was doing, but I couldn’t let them bully my people without a fight.
Ryan kept pace with me. “What are you doing?”
“Good question.” I kept my eyes on the Hit Man as I cut through the flashing slot machines. “I’m going to stop that guy.”
“They’ve got security for that.”
I didn’t break stride, though I had to turn left to avoid a woman in a wheelchair. “I can call the police.”
“You can do that from the hotel lobby.”
“Good point. You can if you want.”
“You kidding me? I’m not leaving you here.”
“What about your grandmother?”
I caught his grin out of the corner of my eye. Any other time, I would have angled myself toward it like a sunflower. He was that gorgeous. But I couldn’t stop now. I had to plow forward, into the ruckus.
Ten feet away, I paused. Hit Man had backed off the table because the female security guard had trundled toward him. Hit Man held his hands in the air, and he’d lowered his voice, but he was still plenty loud. “I want to keep this dealer. What’s wrong with that? She’s bringing me luck. I got more money so I could keep going with her. Let’s keep playing.”
“It’s the end of shift,” said the guard, her hand on her belt. “You understand, sir. Those are the rules.”
“Listen. I heard your rules. How much would it cost for her to keep dealing?”
The dealer blinked up at him through her fake eyelashes and heavy eyeliner. Underneath her makeup, she looked frail, and from the way her eyes kept shifting between Hit Man and the guard, I got the feeling that she didn’t speak English very well.
“Everyone has a price. How about it, honey?” He pulled a fat money clip out of his pocket—I’d never seen anyone use one of those in real life before, let alone a twenty-odd-year-old—and began counting greens. “A hundred? Two hundred? Three? Come on.”
The dealer crossed her thin arms over her chest and glanced at an older Black woman, who wore the same red dress, and then at a sixtyish white man in a suit who said, “This goes against Ibis policy.”
“Policy. Hey, man, you and I both know the deal. Policies are for suckers. Am I right?” Hit Man started to slap Suit Guy on the back.
Suit Guy drifted out of range, yet bowed his head and used a deferential tone. “We appreciate your business. I have Claire here to start her shift. She’s been working with us for two years. You’ll be very satisfied with Claire.”
“Aw, no offence, Claire, but I like a little eye candy to go along with my game, you know what I’m saying? Right, Kimchi?” He leered. There was no other word to describe the slant of his mouth. Closer to, he smelled like beer and marijuana and too-strong laundry soap.
“Pretty sure her name’s not Kimchi,” I muttered to Ryan.
Hit Man whipped toward me. “What was that?”
I caught my breath. Hit Man retained sharp hearing and fast reflexes, even under the influence. His eyes reminded me of a rattlesnake poised to strike. . . .
Copyright © 2021. Flamingo Flamenco by Melissa Yi