"Holly, what happened to you?" she slurs. "You used to go to nightclubs half naked, stay up all night dancing. You used to be so wild."
"Cher," I sigh, "I used to shit in my diapers, too, and I don't do that anymore, either."
Las Vegas holds fond memories for us. My mother was a "junket" junkie, and she'd take us out of school to accompany her on eight-hour bus rides to Binion's Horseshoe along with 50 or so other booze-addled revelers, each with a fist full of coupons and endless buckets of nickels dancing in their dreams.
Cheryl, in particular, loves the way it was back then. Back when she and I were best friends because we moved so much we were unable to get to know anyone else. In grade school we played "Puff the Magic Dragon" so many times that our father's portable stereo practically imploded under the strain. We thought we knew the words, too. "Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the Ottomiss ... " we sang.
Later we realized Puff actually frolicked in the "autumn mist," but by then the "Ottomiss" had morphed in our minds into an actual place like the Emerald City or Cinderella's palace. To us, the Ottomiss was where big luminous castles beckoned along a landscape that looked like a giant unearthed chest of treasure with sparkling jewels spilling over the side, and where you could bound through fields of marigolds as soft as the eyelashes of a million angels with your friend by your side. It was a place where big dreams came true.
But then I figured out what the song was really saying, especially that whole crappy part where Jackie Paper grows up and dumps poor Puff, who then spends eternity in an empty paradise wailing for his lifelong friend. I hate that part. I mean, how hard is it for Jackie to go back? Just for a visit, just to press his head against Puff's sweet scaly brow and, for a day, frolic in the Ottomiss again? How hard is that? But Jackie never goes back, and Puff remains trapped in a land that no longer exists.
"Fuck this," I said, and never played the song again.
Sometime after that Cheryl and I grew apart. Lately I realized it occurred when my parents separated. Cheryl was 18 and took that as an opportunity to move in with her boyfriend. My younger sister and I were minors, and for awhile we lived by ourselves in a beachside apartment that both parents had temporarily vacated, not that they didn't check in on us occasionally. This kind of left us all feeling like we had little to rely on.
Cheryl especially. She still talks about her beloved cat, Casey, who for years used to meet her at her car door when she parked across the street after returning home late at night. Back then she was known for her beaming beauty coupled with her penchant for hard partying. I think she still talks about Casey because, though she couldn't rely on much -- like she couldn't rely on me not to move across the country, she couldn't rely on her parents not to die young, she couldn't rely on her boyfriends not to abuse her, she couldn't even rely on herself, really, not to keep making bad decisions in her life -- at least she could rely on her cat to meet her at her car door when she parked across the street. But Casey got old, and one night he was killed by a car right there on the street as he came across it to meet her.
I wish I could say Cheryl has never been the same since, but she has been exactly the same; the same crazy behavior, the same wild nights, the same fantasy of eternal youth. I know she's simply grasping for some purpose to her passing years, and I know we're alike. I just hide my panic better than she does is all.
"Can't you come visit?" she asks, pausing to puff on her cigarette, "just for a day?"
I say I'll come because, all around her, even at that early hour, I know the skyline is awash in flashing lights, and the strip is laid out like a magic miniature golf park for massive giants, and there are bright marquises depicting buckets of riches and the promise of dreams granted, and in the middle of it all is my sister, and I don't want her to be trapped in a land that no longer exists.
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