Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 8: One night in Vegas
My second, pre-detox booked trip arrived two weeks after New Orleans - a night of boxing in Las Vegas for the fourth fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. I was out of the southern frying pan into the Nevada fire.
I became a student of ‘the sweet science,’ as boxing is known, as a child and studied old VHS tapes, read magazines, learned fight techniques and watched every big scrap on TV that wasn’t on late. These fights were now accessible to me living in the U.S., and I rarely missed an opportunity to watch the action in the flesh. When I was admitted to rehab, I checked a calendar, worried I’d be kept in long enough to miss the Saints football and boxing. Thankfully, I prioritized my concerns and events fell into place.
Once again, eyebrows were raised when I told my counselors in outpatient treatment that I was leaving town, this time for Vegas. People, Places and Things may trigger relapse and reignite my alcohol addiction. But still, regardless of whether its seller was a local supermarket or Caesar’s Palace, as long as it contained a suitable percentage of alcohol, the backdrop was immaterial.
I arrived in Sin City not as nervous as New Orleans but still aware of the temptation. People, Places and Things struck me in Louisiana, much more than I imagined. In the taxi from McCarron airport, I spotted plenty of reminders from nights out confined to memory. I was happy for the experience and happy for them to stay there.
However, I love the adrenalin and pace of Vegas. At the hotel I dropped my bags off, showered and freshened up. Downstairs for a scan of the tables and then off to the MGM to mingle with the boxing fraternity. One day and night to enjoy it all. No Royal Street for a gentle stroll and casual shop hopping here.
The MGM was buzzing, a Rodeo weekend adding to the excitement in town. I met familiar journalists at the Studio 54 bar. I was called a pussy when I ordered a Sprite. Predictable, but slightly amusing. Then I met some familiar ring-girl friends in the lobby of the casino and we exchanged hugs and hellos. It was getting crowded at Studio 54 so I took an exit to the Tropicana side. A masterstroke as I left the MGM with zero fuss, walked a couple of blocks from The Strip and hailed a cab to my next destination.
Ah, the Crown and Anchor UK bar. Oh, a pint of Blackthorn cider was tempting but let’s not. Beth was working. I visit this pub not only for the food and ale of home, but Beth’s tell- -it-like-it-is charm.
“Blackthorn, stranger?” she asked, barely looking up from pouring a separate pint but acknowledging my presence with a smile.
“A Sprite, please, Beth. Lovely to see you.”
Rewind to Paul in New Orleans for a look of surprise. I must have been predictable.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick? One too many last night?” asked with her back turned to me as she poured another pint.
“I’m fine, thanks. I’m off it for good,” I replied and looked around at the familiar surroundings, taking a seat at the bar. Beth served her customers at the other side of the bar and brought me a Sprite.
“You’re off it? For good?”
“I decided to knock it on the head, Beth. It was getting too much you know? Feels like a good time to stop, get healthy and keep the head clear. I need it.”
Don’t say ‘I’m an alcoholic,’ some things stay sacred.
“My boyfriend and I tried that once. Got bored the first night.”
I nodded, looked at her and smiled. Beth, I hope you don’t wake up in the morning craving more to get your day started. Beth, I hope it doesn’t turn you into a nervous wreck, barely able to travel from one train stop to the next without turning to jelly. Beth, I hope you can get changed for work without being sick at least once.
The Sprite was accompanied by bangers and mash, the UK equivalent of sausage and mashed potatoes. Having caught up with Beth and with food in my belly, I was ready for some people watching on The Strip. My taxi arrived and I felt a strange sensation exiting the bar. Opening the thick wooden door I looked into the sunshine. Nothing. Usually at this point after chugging several ciders, I recoiled, aghast, at the sight of the sun. Slouched at the bar for the previous few hours I probably looked like a vampire fighting off sunlight. My quick visit brought no such horror.
Arriving back on Las Vegas Boulevard I met a couple from Scotland at The Bellagio casino as I cashed chips. They were honeymooning and enjoying marital bliss aided by afternoon cocktails. Good on them. I really enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Then the subject veered towards my drinking habit, or non-drinking habit.
“Are you sure you don’t want a drink? Just one?”
Initially it seemed like a genuine question, but it was soon to be repeated with the regularity of their vodka shot orders. It wore on me a little so I decided to say my goodbyes, good lucks and move on.
“Have a drink later on, you faggot, remember you’re Scottish,” the now inebriated, recently-wed groom whispered in my ear as we exchanged handshakes. Charming. Good job I’m thick skinned. I was born in London and proud of my English roots but that was splitting hairs. I headed back to the hotel to get changed.
Suited and ready for the short walk to the fight, it didn’t take long for the goose bumps, not alcohol pangs, to kick in. Soon I was inside the cavernous venue, enjoying the sights and sounds of the MGM Grand Garden Arena from the pretty ring-girls to the noisy Marquez fans waving their Mexican flags to players and wannabes.
The fight was a memorable one, ending in the last second of the sixth round. An exclamation mark of a right hand from Marquez leaving bookmakers’ favorite Pacquiao unconscious on the canvas. The Philippine’s lifeless body a stark contrast to Marquez who climbed on top of the ropes to salute his army of followers. Beer was thrown by his fans in their giddiness and it became boisterous. When Manny awoke from his enforced slumber and the crowds spilled to the exits to continue their party, I sat alone in my section, pondering the fight’s brutal conclusion.
When I left the arena and reached The Strip, it was party time. Groups of people, happy couples, walking, drinking, dancing, staggering, cursing, staggering and cursing. A whole lot of drinking went on, which didn’t bother me. I was happy for them but at no point did I want what they had at that moment. There would be no going back if I started. Been there, done that and went to rehab, I reminded myself. I enjoyed being in control of my senses which was a new experience and a pleasurable one at that. I wasn’t ready for my night to end though. My Vegas nights usually ended on the bus home to California the next morning.
Being exposed to so much barely-veiled skin I needed a not so cheap thrill. Half an hour later, Sprite in hand, I was at the strip club. Sober. This was a first for me, a solo visit, but anything goes in Vegas, right? As expected, on a busy Saturday night, the place was crowded. I was tempted by beer but had plenty to see to take my mind off that particular desire.
I secured a private dance with a young, very attractive brunette who introduced herself as Marie. Before performing in the private booth, she took a sip from what smelled like a Bacardi Spritzer and asked if I wished to order a drink. Distracted by her semi-naked body, I asked for a Sprite and once again received ‘The New Orleans Paul’ look in return.
“Alcohol?” Marie asked in surprise at my initial response.
“Uhm, no. I have an allergy,” I said, using a code word known by alcoholics while nervously looking down at the floor.
“Ah. I’m impressed. What’s your sobriety date?”
You are kidding me. I paused, and looked up to see her removing her bra. This was the first time I’d been asked this in public. I hadn’t even mentioned the ‘A’ word and she had clicked. Of all the places to be asked.
The silence lingered and bordered on uncomfortable. Marie sensed it too and was just opening her mouth to speak when I said, “November 13.”
Phew. Relief swept through me. I’d been taking part in something devious, been caught and finally fessed up for my sins. Wait a second. That was it. Marie looked happier at the passing of my temporary embarrassment and straddled my knees.
“Have you been to rehab?”
“Yeah, big shock. I’m, I’m making a go of it now.” My line of sight was blocked by the upper half of her body which sat directly in front of my face.
“Good for you,” she replied, continuing her routine, thrusting her pelvis around on my lap and groaning in my right ear.
“How are you coping?” She moved away from me, opening her perfectly shaped legs and giving me a view of the lower half of her body, placing her right hand down her thong for emphasis.
Feeling my temperature rise, I nodded.
“Yeah, yeah, so far, uhm, so, so good, thanks, thanks for asking. One day at a time and all that.”
I could hear the nerves in my voice but I was enjoying the surreal anonymity and intimacy of the moment. After some verbal foreplay, Marie got right back on topic.
“My mom’s in recovery. Two and a half years now.”
Facing away from me, she gave me an exhibition in flexibility. Her pert derriere circulated directly over my groin. I barely caught the ‘two and a half years’ partly because of her body position and also because my mind was distracted by said derriere.
More thrusting continued with soft groans and continued recovery dialogue. Bringing the dance to an end she kissed my right ear. Or was it left? It was one of them.
Just before pulling away from me, Marie whispered in my ear, “Don’t drink tonight Simon, and if you are tempted, think of me.”
I thought it was a sweet thing to say and appreciated the sentiment. But I’d be lying through my teeth if I said that if I thought about her it would be about the sweet thing she said and my appreciation of her sentiment.
Upright, and clad as can be, she opened her purse and looked through it while I stole another glance at her Coca-Cola bottle curves. I was ready to leave but she asked me to wait a minute. Gathering my mind and body together to function as one, I disguised a shake of my head at what had just transpired. She hugged me and wished me a pleasant evening. I thought it was strange to walk away then return to hug me but shrugged it off as the cherry on top of a surreal cake. Lap dance counseling. Only in Vegas.
In the taxi ride from the club to The Strip, I looked into the Nevada sky and pondered what I learned in the City of Sin from my New Orleans sojourn?
The People, Places and Things warning was still no joke. However, the pangs for a sip were nowhere near as frequent and difficult to suppress. They were certainly there but I felt better equipped to handle them. That attitude led to a greater comfort level in being alone. At the Saints match I was surrounded by friends at the game so I was provided with a level of shelter. For the most part during this trip I was alone. The same Simon who viewed being alone with a bottle as utopia.
The two trips were very different with Vegas being a more compact experience. That led to the beginning of a realization which triggered greater self-awareness and a drive to educate myself more on my addiction.
My problem wasn’t alcohol. It was my mind.
When I found myself travelling to or walking around New Orleans, the desire for a drink was very much to the forefront of my thoughts. To a certain extent it walked with me. When I was in Nevada for a short space of time I hopped from one place to the next and in Vegas style, everything moved faster. So were my thought processes and I was busy absorbing various encounters. I was focused on the experience. I was there for the boxing. I wasn’t there to drink. I was there to say hello to familiar faces. I wasn’t there to drink. That was my modus operandi and in two weeks I subconsciously developed the beginnings of a shift from abstaining to recovering.
I was still confused by what was happening, confused by my progression and confused about what was next. But I knew that I had taken more baby steps and that was good enough.
I returned to my room, removed my suit jacket, kicked off my shoes and processed the day. Looking into the Vegas night, my vision scanned The Strip and beyond, getting lost in a gazillion lights. I felt content standing there. As I looked away and emptied my pants pockets of loose change, I pulled out a receipt. It was blank and I was going to discard it when I noticed a scribble.
“Please text me when you are back at the hotel and okay. 702-. XO Megan.”
I picked up my cell.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.