Be Gay!

Gail Seneca

When we arrived on the last day of February, Dad was planning his monthly fling to Atlantic City. The next morning, he’d cash his Social Security check and board the bus with a hundred neighbors. He invited us to go. “Money will get your mind off your crazy project,” he said.

Neither of us frequented casinos, but we’d grown accustomed to gambling. We agreed.

In Atlantic City, our entire busload of seniors headed for the “ALL YOU CAN EAT” buffet at Harrah’s. “You girls won’t believe this,” Dad said, his eyes shining. “ALL, I mean ALL, you can eat. Bet you don’t have this in New York. $1.99, by the way. I’ll pick up the tab.” His face reddened as he hustled through the casino to the long line snaking out of the restaurant. “Hang on to me,” he said, grabbing my arm. “Like I can’t walk and you have to hold me up. Then we get to the head of the line.” I tightened my jaw and obeyed.

Mounds of potato salad, spaghetti, and chicken cutlets later, Dad tossed his napkin on the table. “Enough,” he said. “Our fortune awaits.”

We followed him to the casino floor, where bells clanged and lights pulsed. Frank Sinatra competed with Elton John and grey haired men and blue haired women hovered over slot machines. We passed idle blackjack dealers, empty craps tables and marched, my dad’s loyal lieutenants, toward his chosen row of slots. “This is it,” he said, his pink polo shirted chest swelling with pride. “Last bunch of nickel slots in the joint.” He spun around as bells from a winning machine clanged behind him. A woman with thick pancake makeup and red lipstick smeared beyond her lips leapt up from her stool and applauded the nickels crashing into the metal tray. “I told you,” Dad said. “These babies are hot.”

He dug into his pocket and displayed two tiny magnets in his palm. “My little helpers,” he said, and affixed them to the backs of two machines.

“How do they help?” I asked.

“Watch.” He sat down and draped his jacket across the stool next to him. “I use two,” he said. “Most people can only handle one at a time.” He set a paper bucket on the vacant stool. “For my winnings,” he said. “You’re not gonna believe this.”

He operated his two slot machines simultaneously, one with his right hand and the other with his left, pulling and releasing, never stopping the motion, his gaze darting between the whirling cherries, apples and watermelons. At the occasional sight of a “Jackpot” banner on the machine, he exclaimed, “Yeah, baby.”

We stood behind him, mesmerized.

“Don’t hang over me,” he said, “you’re bringing me bad luck. Get outta here.” He dug into his pocket and passed me a $20 bill. “Go somewhere else,” he said. “Have fun.”

I took the money. “We’ll save it,” Karen whispered.

We walked out into the grey afternoon. The boardwalk rides and games were mostly shuttered. An occasional food vendor shouted to us, “Hot dogs, french fries, ain’t you hungry, girls?” At the far end of the boardwalk, amidst neon signs beaming salt water taffy and souvenirs, a sandwich board teetered. Discover Your Future. $5. We looked at each other. Irresistible.

In the dimly lit storefront, strains of salsa music leak out from a curtained off back room. “Un momento,” calls a female voice from behind the curtain. The lights come up. The room is bathed in magenta, the exact shade Karen chose for the baby room rug. A white Christmas tree blinks magenta colored light. The worn shag carpet blushes magenta, the walls shine magenta, the velveteen love seat sags magenta. On the wall, a velvet weaving of Martin Luther King, Jr., wreathed in a brilliant rose sunrise, smiles down on us.

“Hola.” A big-breasted woman with brassy hoop earrings, a bandana over thick, frizzy hair and a long flowered skirt flounces toward us. “Soy Mariluz Consuelo Matamoros,” she says, hands on her wide hips. “How do I help you? Sit.” She indicates beach chairs at a round table with a yellowed lace tablecloth and a crystal ball in the center.

We gather around the table and Mariluz Consuelo Matamoros asks, “What is your problema, mis hijitas?”

I peer into the crystal ball and realize it is merely smoky glass. “We can’t get pregnant.” My voice trails downward, laden with the weight of the past year.

Mariluz Consuelo Matamoros spreads her hands on the table and stares at us, with a confused expression that resolves into exasperation. She crosses herself in the way Catholics do. She sighs. “You’re… gay? No?”

I slam my palms on the table. “That doesn’t matter,” I say.

“Dios Mio!” Mariluz Consuelo Matamoros, paces toward the door, sighs, turns back to us and sinks her heavy body into her creaky plastic beach chair. She shoots her gaze up to the heavens. “ Miren,” she says, “ mis hijitas, this is your future.” Karen clamps my knee under the table. “You will estop this. Right now. Immediatamente. You will estop.”

Karen turns to me, mouth open in a startled oval, and wails. “Why? Why should we stop?”

Mariluz Consuelo Matamoros sits up straighter in her chair and stares us down. “I tell you why. Eschuchenme,” she says. She leans into us. “All day I sit here, and I hear the problemas they bring me. They come from the beach, from the buses, from Brooklyn.” She flings her bangled arm toward the boardwalk. “All the same problema.” She pauses, lights a Camel and sucks in the smoke. As she exhales, she speaks in a low, conspiratorial tone. “You know the problema? They kids. They kids are sick, they kids don’t go to school, they kids do drugs, they kids don’t work, they kids don’t love them! All day I hear this. And your problema is you don’t have kids? Dios Mio!” She crosses herself again. “You will estop! You will have no kids. You will have fun. You will be gay.” She turns up her palm and slides it across the table. “Five dollars.”

Outside, the sun breaks through the overcast sky. We sample salt water taffy. Biting into it, Karen says, “Should we estop?” We burst into laughter, suck on the taffy and head back to the casino. Some boardwalk games have opened and we pause to marvel over an enormous stuffed whale, the grand prize for knocking down a row of bottles. A teenager pitches softballs at the bottles as his girlfriend cheers him on. They kiss as he passes her the turquoise whale. On the beach, two gamine young women jog, the sun glinting off the barrettes in their glossy hair. A boy fishes from the pier. I gulp the crisp sea air and think of swimming. When I dug through the basement last night for our suitcases, I uncovered our snorkel masks, abandoned since the baby project overwhelmed us. I visualize them there, patient, ready for our return.

An older couple in quilted coats toddle toward us, hand in hand. The man doffs his hat. “Bright day, ladies,” he says. “The ocean’s sparkling.”

We stop and gaze at the glittering water. Karen hums a bouncy melody from Carmen and I join in, happy to be back in synch with her. “Do you remember that cove in Hawaii?” she says. “Let’s go there again. We can use the baby money.”

Back at Harrah’s, Dad commandeers his machines, both arms pumping, the bands of fruit in perpetual motion. “You girls having fun?” he asks, without turning around.

I look at Karen for the answer. Even under the freakish neons of the casino, I see pale, gentle light in her eyes, the hint of sunrise. She nods. “We are,” I tell Dad. “We’re just beginning to have fun.”

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