Experiences that profoundly affect your life don’t always feel very profound at the time. Mine began in the spring of my junior year of college, sitting in a hotel in a low-cut little black dance dress, nursing a glass of champagne and slowly but steadily losing money at blackjack.
I was supposed to be there with Allan. He was the guy I had dated since the fall. A week before, he got into his first-choice law school, and I took him out for a fancy dinner. I also told him I had bought us tickets to Casino Night, a dress-up charity fundraiser run by a campus group and held at a hotel just off campus. Two days later, he dumped me. “I’ll be going to school next year 500 miles away,” he said. “That just won’t work. We should start seeing other people.” (About 18 hours later, he started seeing someone named Carole.)
That was the first time I’d ever been dumped. I was upset. Not so much because of him; I had sensed for a while that things weren’t going well. But my vanity was very wounded. I felt unattractive and undesirable.
My roommate Nina stayed up late talking with me. I thanked her and offered her the casino tickets, saying I couldn’t go. “Nope, Tara,” she said. “You and I are gonna go to Casino Night together. We’ll dress to the nines, drink, dance and and flirt with every guy there. You’ll feel better in no time.”
Well, it seemed like a good plan. We dressed our sexiest and spent forever doing our hair and makeup. Unfortunately, Nina immediately found a guy and went off dancing, and I was left alone. It turned out Casino Night was mostly a couples affair, so there weren’t many single guys to flirt with or even talk to. The only upside was that I was finally old enough to drink legally, so I repeatedly took advantage of this fact.
Toward the end of the night I wandered into the poker room. “Hey, Tara!” I heard a voice call. It was Brian, my ex-boyfriend. He was taking a shift as a dealer. At his table were his two roommates and their dates. “Join us!” he said.
I did. I had been feeling even more depressed than before Nina came up with her great plan to get me feeling better in no time. I was desperate for some company, some affirmation of my existence. Brian’s roommates weren’t much – they were future Wall Street types, cocky and obnoxious – but they were all I had. Oh, and their dates: can you say “bimbo”?
So I played poker. I won a few hands, although I was suspicious that Brian was cheating in my favor. Regardless, I felt better. At least I’d break even for the night. Brian got me another drink, and I started to laugh. It was better than wandering around aimlessly watching the happy couples dance.
I should have wondered why Brian was so nice to me. I should, perhaps, have suspected a trap. But how was I to know what would be at stake before the night was over?
Brian’s shift ended, and he proposed that we all go back to the guys’ suite. I agreed. I didn’t want to stay at the “casino,” and I didn’t want to go home. Going home early would be admitting defeat; I’d feel even worse than I already did.
I had met Brian toward the end of my freshman year, when he was a sophomore. He was, I’m told, a great poker player and probably funded much of his tuition from his winnings. I do know he loved all kinds of games. He was funny, too, and always upbeat. He made me laugh. One night we danced at a party and went back to his frat. We talked about poker. He humorously dared me to play strip poker. I told him I would, but only if he was the only one who had to strip. To my surprise, he agreed. Well, I couldn’t say no to that, right? Gradually I undressed him, wondering how far he’d go. By the time he was down to his shorts, I was having a lot of fun, and wondering where the game would lead. A couple hands later, it led into bed.
During our brief relationship, we played strip poker quite a few times. It became a regular thing after a date, to the point where I planned my outfit accordingly. Sometimes I won; sometimes I lost; sometimes there was a small dare attached. He always made it fun. It wasn’t just an excuse to undress; he really seemed to care about the game, and wanted me to care about it and enjoy it. It was always carefree and amusing.
On the other hand, we didn’t have much of a relationship otherwise. He was funny but hard to have a serious conversation with. We didn’t have many common interests; he liked poker and math and economics and talked about game theory. He did teach me a little about jazz, his other love. But most of the time I didn’t really feel like we were “involved.” At the end of the year he traveled and then went on junior year abroad. We never really broke up; we just drifted apart. I guess I wanted some sort of closure or explanation, but it never happened.
The guys’ suite had a big common room and four separate bedrooms. (There was a fourth roommate, but he was away.) Brian asked if I wanted a drink, and I was amused to see that he had a pretty well-stocked bar. I had a vodka tonic, which he made strong. Brian put on some jazz and we sat in the common room, the lights low. I was feeling happy just to be around people and not walking home alone. I guess I was also feeling happy from the drinks; I’d lost count at that point.
Not surprisingly, a poker game broke out. The six of us sat in a circle on the floor and began playing with Brian’s chips. Again, I did well. At some point another large vodka tonic appeared. I remember sitting back and closing my eyes and feeling at one with the music. I was starting to feel at peace over Allan and better about myself.
My reverie was broken by one of the roommates saying, “Of course, I’d play, but what about the girls?” (I don’t remember the roommates’ names. I think of them as the blond one and the dark one.)
“We’d beat the pants off you,” one of the bimbos replied.
“What about Tara?” asked the blond one.
Brian laughed. “Oh, Tara is an EXPERT strip poker player,” he said. “She’ll sandbag you all.”
The dark one laughed. So you’re in, Tara?” he asked.
Jeez. They wanted to play STRIP poker? My head swam and I tried to focus.
No, of course I didn’t want to play with them. Brian’s games were one thing, but his roommates were obnoxious.
But it was hard to say no. Everyone else was eager to play. They were going to play, no matter what. If I said no, they’d make fun of me. They’d make me leave and go home. I could tell. “You can’t stay if you don’t play, Tara.” And if I went home, I’d be a loser all over again. It would be another awful night.
It was warm and pleasant in the suite, the music was great, and I was tipsy. Quite tipsy. It would be so easy just to say yes, not to have to confront everyone and have them ridicule me and kick me out.
I began to rationalize. The games with Brian were fun and harmless. This would be too. Maybe the game would end with no one actually undressing. Maybe I’d win – how great would it be to make the Wall Street wizards take it all off?
I hesitated. “Well, Tara?” the dark one asked.
Then I thought of Brian. I always had this sense that he drifted away because he thought I wasn’t enough of a game-player. I didn’t take chances. I was cautious about dares. I felt at that moment that if I refused to play, then I was admitting that I was the reason we drifted apart. I wasn’t fun enough. I wasn’t daring enough. I wasn’t good enough for Brian, just like I wasn’t good enough for Allan. I had dressed to the nines and made myself up tonight to prove that I was good enough, and here I was blowing it, and being the loser in yet another relationship.
Hell, I thought, no way. I had worked hard to look good. I had sensed all night that Brian liked the way I looked. I wasn’t going to let him win that easily. I’d play. I’d surprise him. I’d be the girl he wanted. I’d show him that drifting away from me was his loss, not mine.
“I’m in,” I said. I looked at Brian, but his face was inscrutable. Damn poker face! The rest of the group began discussing the rules. I took a big sip of my drink. The room seemed a little unsteady. “It’ll be fun, like it always was with Brian,” I told myself.
But somehow I didn’t quite believe myself.