Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
Due to my seemingly unending bad luck on the job hunt, I hired a career coach to work with on a weekly basis that my friend Stacy had recommended to me. Although I felt like a failure in seeking work, during one of our first phone calls, I was shocked at how she was talking about me — like how smart I was, talented, capable and strong.
“It’s so weird,” I said quietly. “You’re talking about me like I’m special.”
“But you are special,” she said without skipping a beat. Her tone sounded as if she was telling me something obvious, like the world was round. I immediately began to cry, because if there was one thing that I didn’t feel like, that I wasn’t, it was special. Extraordinary. One of a kind.
At one point, I told this story to my friend Deborah, and I could even sense the shaking of her head through the phone.
“That’s insane,” she said. “You’re one of the most talented people I know. You’re gifted, you’re smart, and I don’t know anyone else who can rock a sexy outfit the way you can. People love you. How can you, of anyone, not think you’re special?”
For every Kanye West out there proclaiming their greatness there’s someone like me, who is the biggest self-doubter and her own worst enemy. It was strange to think of myself as anything but a loser, particularly while sitting alone at my computer, which had accumulated possibly thousands of job rejection letters as all my friends and family members were happily getting work. Most of my time was spent cheering for them, helping them, pushing for their achievements and comforts while putting mine on a back burner; after all, I didn’t want to be selfish. When she said that I was special, I couldn’t even think straight. This phrasing of me was a foreign language to my ears while everyone else in the world seemed to think of it as a “duh” statement.
For a whole group of generation Y and millennials who have been told throughout their lives that they’re special, I’m the weirdo. I never expected anything to be handed to me. Growing up, I was a written artist and misfit in a sea of cookie-cutter preppies being groomed for the WASPy elite. There I was, the crybaby who would sob every time she skinned her knee and was told to stop crying in front of others, who in turn learned to hide her disappointment when she didn’t get elected to student council, and then in turn got punished for being groped in the hallways of junior high because she didn’t know how to phrase what had happened. Yet throughout my existence I was taught independence, that I was no better than anyone else, and if I wanted something I had to find my own way.
My hobbies in high school included sitting in the back of the class and writing poetry and surprising people with my talents because I was just that strange girl. There were no college applications shoved down my throat and no AP classes that I was forced to take, even though I did end up in college and getting my degree. But even throughout all my youthful accomplishments, I never really felt special: Guys would never date me but only use me for sex because they didn’t want to be seen with me. My GPA was solid, but on job interviews I would be asked why I didn’t go to UCLA. Going into workplaces left me being dismissed for being too punk and outspoken and not “girly” enough.
After my college graduation, unlike my friends who had their parents paying for their apartments, I commuted back and forth and worked hard at two part-time jobs for very little money. Every job I went to, no matter how hard I worked, I was told constantly that I wasn’t special, that someone could easily replace me. One of the highlights was my first full-time job as a reporter, where one of editors made it a habit to tell me every day that I was one of the worst writers he had ever seen, and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have my job.
Not feeling special was the reason I made some of my life choices, such as settling into a relationship with the first person who wanted me to be their girlfriend and eventually wife, because no one else asked me out or pursued me. He knew this and took advantage of the laden insecurity lying in my very blood. I felt ugly and began gaining weight. I stopped writing for a while because all I could hear was the mistakes that my primary influencers were telling me I was making, and if it wasn’t going to be great and would be rejected anyway, why even try at all?
Yet I still strove to break the surface of the water to show the world I could do something with my life, all the while feeling the hands pulling me back down again into the depths. All I could hear was the “nos,” the “impossibles,” the “you can’ts.” There were the words dismissing me as a child who was no good unless she was doing what the world told her to do in aching detail, and even then still not succeeding. Those phrases echoed in my ears, drove me to the edge where I was grasping at blankets like driftwood to stay afloat.
In the darkness of those years underneath the water, there was one light I distinctly remember. It was a bright December day, sitting in a rustic café in Old Town Orange where I was supposed to meet him after not having seen him for six months. His brothers and dad were there, but left shortly after I arrived, his father hugging me tightly before he slipped away. I pulled out my laptop and showed him what I had created: A time-twisting, unusually true story that was still being finished. We were the main characters; it was our story.
He didn’t have to tell me that I was special; his face told me. There was a phony smile that was for everyone else, but he had a genuine smile that belonged to me that told me that I was perfect just the way I was, that in his demented way he loved me. It was real yet heartbreakingly beautiful, strangely vulnerable for someone who appeared so strong, coming with a bright golden light that somehow broke through my dark, dark surface. He is gone now for so many reasons, where we both have the blame, but one of which was because I never felt worthy of that light he gave me. Yet that moment was a spotlight on my life, and when I finally broke through about a year later and ended up on dry land, I could hardly breathe.
It took me four years, lots of struggle, and hundreds of conversations, with friends, family, therapists and other sundry humans to figure out what took my career coach about five seconds: That I have never felt special, possibly throughout my existence on this planet, no matter how many times of being told I was made of stardust and love. Instead, I would focus on the world and tell everyone else how great they were, because I never felt it about me.
When I told my coach this, she acknowledged it with that slight noise that signals that she hears me loud and clear — the one that my best friend uses whenever I’m mid-rant and upset to let me know she’s there.
“Tell me, would you talk to a child this way? Your child?” she asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said in a heartbeat, feeling my eyes tear up again.
“What would you tell your child?”
I paused, thinking. “I would tell her…” I started, with memories flooding towards me of my past, of the choices made and the people lost. The world was hitting me hard, yet I knew what I would say. What I had to say, because I had made one of the biggest sacrifices in my life for that imaginary child that doesn’t exist yet.
“I would tell her that she’s strong and beautiful, and so, so smart,” I said. “And I would tell her that she can do it, no matter what. And that’s she worth it.”
“Why wouldn’t you tell that to yourself?” she asked.
My mouth tried to form the words to reject that notion, and the problem was I couldn’t. Even though I didn’t feel this way, I couldn’t blast my coach either.
“We talk to ourselves sometimes in a way that, if we talked to our children that way, we would be arrested,” she said. “We can’t. Think of your inner self as a child.”
Somewhere in me, maybe I still was that sensitive child who would cry every time she skinned her knee, who was eternally curious, striving for the impossible while always having her nose stuck in a book. Who was creative and clever, full of songs, hugs and confidence. She’s here, but at the same time she’s not and has to come back to me.
“We create ourselves by telling ourselves what we are and what we’re not,” she continued. “Don’t tell yourself you don’t have self-confidence; instead, tell yourself that you’re powerful. Don’t tell yourself you’re not special, because you are. And that’s what we’re here to discover. We’re here to discover that special you.”
And as we continued our conversation I struggled, never having another person investing in me the way that this woman had, spending so much time working on myself without talking about other people, pushing for their happiness and comfort while reneging on mine. It was because I couldn’t find my specialness with anyone else but myself. Others could recognize my gifts, but I had to as well. It’s going to be a struggle, but it’s my struggle; all I hope is I’m ready for the challenge.