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Only a Number


by Tara Laskowski


She was too old for the boys at the end who helped her down from the bar. “It's only a number, though,” she thought and sat down next to the one that smelled like cedar and tobacco, his hair curling up at the collar, exposing that baby skin. She told them it was her birthday, and when she revealed her age, they didn't believe her. No one ever believed her. It was what got her through the really bad days, when the ex called from some new state—Colorado, New Jersey, California—his voice like caramel, finding her once again so that she wished she was someone else.

“You looked good up there,” one of them said, even if most of the whistles in the bar had been for the two blondes singing “Funkytown” on the karaoke machine. But it was Vegas, and it was all about attitude and no regrets.

The boys bought her drinks, sugary pretty pinks and yellows, like drinking cotton candy. They called her Blackjack, and she called them Ace and Deuce. Ace rested his palm on the skin at the small of her back where her shirt pulled up a little. He told her his two weaknesses were Russians and roulette. She told them she hated vodka and didn't gamble. It was her friends who wanted to gamble, who slowly drifted away in a smog of bad Toby Keith renditions. She'd just come for the party.

She couldn't remember how many she'd had. The boys laughed. “It's only a number, who's counting?” they told her, and she took another shot and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. Numbers, so many numbers. Phone numbers, ATM pin codes, her social security card, her child's birthday. Her ex had been what, her ninth? Tenth? And since then a blur, a trail really, with her stumbling down it deliberately to put the distance between them.

Two boys minus one equaled Ace, and he was the one who helped her up, pushed her past the pack at the door into the humid neon night air, brighter than noon back in Wyoming. He was staying at the same hotel, a tropical paradise squatting between the Wild West and Paris. They stopped at a row of slot machines in the lobby. He made her pick one of them, and he put a five-dollar token in and lost. “Did you really think you'd win?” she asked.

He shrugged. “You know the song. Even the losers....” She noticed his Ivy League ring, shiny and gold, way too big for any of her fingers.

In the elevator, his teeth clacked against hers, drawing blood on her bottom lip. She closed her eyes and could almost picture the sky back in Wyoming, stars dotting the black like a code you might one day crack. She and Ace lit up the elevator buttons with their backs, stopping along each floor, counting upwards until it didn't matter anymore, while somewhere below them someone else had just hit the jackpot.
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