Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published on the website of Ben Feibleman. Some of the names in this story have been changed.
The road trip had been 1,500 miles of driving through a torrential downpour. Las Vegas was no different, and none of the masonry was done in a way to facilitate runoff. One look at the outdoor escalators and you know that this city was not designed for rain. We had parked on the fourth floor of the Bellagio parking garage, and as I walked ahead of Matt and Emily to the elevators, I hopscotched over the puddles and around a car towards the railing, telling them not to worry.
“You don’t have to be sober to know that my feet are made of velvet,” I said.
Actually, I should probably back up, as that statement needs some context. You see, by this point, the mushrooms were just starting to kick in.
Here in Vegas, I was dressed to play: Velvet tuxedo by J. Crew and a Hugo Boss shirt with the buttons hidden beneath a white placket (that means none of that “cufflinks on your stomach” bullshit). The feet in question were Del Toro slippers, more black velvet with a red stripe on the heel and large skull and crossbones embroidered on each toe. I call them my death slippers. If tonight was going to be a party, I wasn’t going to start it by marching two velvet sponges through rain puddles.
Matt and Emily seemed worried I couldn’t be trusted with heights, but as far as safety was concerned, me thinking I’m a bird and trying to fly was low on my list of worries. Matt was the designated driver, and I had a girlfriend who was still learning to drive stick, so she’d keep me from getting arrested, at the very least to avoid being stranded. I had only one request: Don’t let me near anything sharp. (I’m not going to end up like that rapper who cut off his penis.)
When I saw myself in the mirror of the elevator, I took inventory: On top of the tuxedo (and for no reason at all), I had my Marine Corps medals, some aviators, and a bright pink sash emblazoned with the words “BIRTHDAY GIRL.”
We didn’t know we were going to Vegas until that morning. And we didn’t know we’d be trying mushrooms until the night before when we stopped by an old friend’s place in Portland for a drink. Being an ever-gracious host, he gave us a bag of shrooms he’d picked in his front yard. Drugs are so pervasive in Oregon that you can get stoned by licking the underside of a lawnmower.
Matt, upon learning all this, insisted on guiding us around. He was a lawyer who had spent the last 14 years as security at one of Vegas’s largest casinos, so should the worst happen, he could probably keep us from getting arrested.
Down on the street, I would bound ahead, sliding on the wet cement like an ice skater. Emily had eaten some as well, but reported that she didn’t feel anything. Meanwhile, I experienced the psychological equivalent of a Hitchcockian dolly zoom every time a truck drove by.
I’m 31, and this was our first time with mushrooms, so we started small: Enough to feel it, but not so much that you freak out if things don’t go your way. My advice for anyone trying a new drug for the first time is to follow the airport rule: Could you make it past the TSA without having a meltdown? Ask someone who knows, and if his answer isn’t a definitive “Yes!” then you should probably dial it down a notch.
The thing about mushrooms, however, is that they are notoriously difficult to dose. If they were legal, then standardization of potency and dosage would be common place, but for now, I followed the advice of my friend, taking three small caps and a tiny stem. (Unlike marijuana, stems are quite potent.)
Emily and I took the same amount, but it seems they were hit and miss, with her getting all the miss. I, on the other hand, had just moonwalked into a trashcan while beatboxing “Billie Jean.” Matt suggested I use what few precious minutes of quasi-sobriety that remained to gamble. This is Vegas, after all, and before long, I was standing in front of half a dozen roulette tables womanned by female croupiers, each with a massive pair of breasts that threatened to spill out onto the felt. Luckily I was wearing aviators, though my gaping mouth likely gave me away.
“Happy birthday!” said one, giving me a start. With my brain on overdrive, I had been so deep in thought trying to reconcile fifth wave feminism with the existence of dealer-strippers, that I forgot myself.
“What?!” I blurted out.
Emily quietly reminded me of my birthday girl sash.
“Oh… Right!” I exclaimed, remembering my role. “That’s me!” (Cue the broad smile.) “Twenty-one!” I made a “Tadah!” motion with my hands, and we approached the table.
As Matt changed $20 to play the numbers, I suddenly remembered what I had come there to do. I reached into my pockets, searching for money, but could only find a few stray dollars. It felt like everyone was waiting for me, and the pressure was building fast and becoming too much to take. I emptied my pockets. Chapstick, keys, and a dozen hooker trading cards spilled out onto the table. Finally, I found what I was looking for: two crisp $100 bills, ATM fresh.
Presented with my new stack of chips, a wave of sobriety seemed to crash over me. My theory is that simple rules trigger a response that sometimes bypasses the haze of intoxication. Survival instinct. It’s that part of your brain that summons all the necessary resources to pay your taxi fare and get the right key in the door, only to have you unravel into a puddle of drunken incompetence once it closes behind you. Roulette was such a challenge, and in this brief moment of clarity, I won four spins in a row, just like that.
Back out on the street, a musician started playing me the Jon Lajoie version of “Happy Birthday.” It starts innocent enough, but then goes above and beyond, as far as birthday songs go. In short: So many years ago, your dad took your mom on a date, they got drunk and forgot a condom. It goes on to describe the detailed sex acts of your parents and ends in divorce.
That’s when the giggles started.
The man clearly knew his drugs, and followed it up with a song he said was especially for me. If you haven’t heard “Jesus Ranch” before, just read the lyric, “I fell in love with a baked potato,” and you get the point. My smile was so wide by the end of the song that I had a cramp in the back of my head.
Below is a video of that beautiful moment:
By now, the mushrooms in my system had peaked. When I wasn’t giggling seemingly at nothing and everything at the same time, I was singing Ariana Grande’s and The Weekend’s “Love Me Harder” in falsetto and playing air guitar while dancing down the street. Las Vegas had provided ample entertainment for the evening and we were up 40 bucks, but I decided to take one last run at the tables before heading home.
We stepped into the Aria and found a blackjack table with four people and an open chair waiting to be filled. It’s here that the night takes a decidedly unfunny turn.
I sit down and make nice. “How y’all doin’ tonight?”
Only the woman responds, her voice as cold as ice. “Bad.”
This was a buzzkill, for sure, but I’m in a good mood and try to save some civility.
I try again. “So what brings you all here?”
“Meeting.” she grumbles.
Wow. Tough crowd.
The dealer was finishing the hand and stole only the slightest of glances in my direction as if to say, “Welcome to my own personal hell.” The man next to me asked me what was written on my sash, and I was grateful for some thawed conversation.
“It says Birthday Girl.” I said, making a show of the reveal.
“Birthday Girl?” He said. “More like Birthday Bitch!”
My whole body whipped around to face him and we locked eyes. (If sobering up is a super power, I need a tailor to make me a cape.) All my supercharged neurons that were previously delighting in the pretty lights now stood at attention. Everyone at the table puckered up; even the dealer, and somewhere, in another time, a saloon keeper quietly reached for the shotgun he hides under the bar.
I held his stare during the awkward silence, and finally spoke.
“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
The woman across the table broke the silence, only to sneer at me. “You better know what you’re doing.” I didn’t flinch, but held eye contact with the man until he broke away. I turned to her and placed a $100 chip on the table in an exaggerated motion to show that yes, I was indeed serious. I actually didn’t know what I was doing, but a gauntlet had been thrown, and this was no longer about money.
By now the dealer is shuffling her decks, and no one is comfortable. The man next to me finds his second wind and chuckles, mocking me. “Hey, I’m manly! I have tattoos!” he said, over acting as he undid the top two buttons of his shirt, pulling it down to bare his chest like Popeye.
What the fuck is going on here?
With my eyes so busy trying to burn holes through his head, I was unaware that Emily and Matt had sensed trouble and come to the table. “What’s he doing?” Emily asked, baffled.
“He’s showing us how he doesn’t have any chest hair.” I said as we stared each other down. It was true, and I could almost hear the smack of the words hitting the ears of his friends. And his ego. The imaginary barkeep delicately cocks the shotgun under the bar.
At last, the dealer began to deal, which seemed to bring the oxygen back into the room. She dealt me a queen.
The man gestured to my medals, his tone hinting at a peace offering. “Where’d you get those?”
Returning to a friendly, but cautious disposition, I said, “They’re mine.”
“No they’re not.” He challenged.
“Excuse me?” I remained calm, but seethed underneath. For a moment, I thought that if I was ever going to get arrested, this was what I wanted to be wearing when I did it.
He pointed at one of the medals and said, “That one’s French. A French…” He bungled through an attempt at the word “fourragère,” grasping for some trivia he found in his grandfather’s steamer trunk. The fourragère is actually a chord, not a medal, but if you want to start a fight with a Marine, don’t call him names or get political, just tell him he’s not a Marine. I finally snapped.
“OH, MY MISTAKE!” I barked. “I thought it was a Good Conduct Medal — National Defense Medal — Iraq Campaign Medal — Global War on Terrorism Medal — and Korean Defense Service Medal — but hey! FUCK ME, right?!” Birthday Bitch was ready to go. I was on my feet. I assume every table has a panic button, and wherever it was, it was getting pressed.
He demurred, looking at his cards mumbling, “That’s not Iraq.” Then a barely audible, “I went to Iraq.” Though it didn’t sound like he believed his own words.
“Oh, well thank you for your service!” I shot back. His friends remained noticeably silent.
This had all taken place in a single hand. This asshole was sitting on 18, me a pair of queens, and the dealer, 14. If I lost, and he said something, I was going to have the coolest mugshot I could ever hope for. Everyone held their breath as the dealer turned over the last card.
It was a five, making me the sole winner. The color drained from his face, and my heart resumed pumping blood. The dealer unceremoniously cleared all their chips off the table and stacked a shiny $100 on top of mine, failing to suppress a smile as she did so. She may as well have high-fived me right in front of everyone. I picked up my winnings and made a show of examining the chips in the light, like a jeweler. I turned to the table.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure.”
Looking back, I should have left it for the dealer, but I was riding high on schadenfreude. As I turned to leave, I gave a hearty “Semper Fi,” and walked off with Emily and Matt.
We had only gone a few steps, when he said, “That’s the Marines.”
I spun around, arms wide in full “Come at me, bro,” screaming, “Why do you think I said it? Huh?”
Matt and Emily dragged me to the door as fast as they could. There was nothing left for us after that. Fight Mode had purged my system in a hurry and all three of us were decidedly sober. Besides, how do you top that? The best drug in the world may very well be watching someone else get their comeuppance.
Second to mushrooms, of course.