by Peng Ong

It all started when my boyfriend received an offer from a relative in Reno to purchase his white Lexus. Considering the long drive from San Francisco, Ricky proposed, why not spend two days in Reno?

Soon, Ricky’s sister Anna and his father wanted to go too. I felt relieved; it would be my first vacation with Ricky and, though I wanted to be with him, I wasn’t sure what to expect if we went alone. I had one and a half more months left with him before I was to go back to Malaysia and I wanted to spend as much time together as possible.

And so we began our journey. I rode in Ricky’s car while Anna and her father followed behind us in another. The foggy sky cleared into a deep blue and we passed trees colored yellow by fall. I videotaped Ricky as he drove, singing along to his favorite karaoke songs. Three hours later, we hit a rest stop to have breakfast. Ricky and Anna’s eyes widened towards the Starbucks emblem. Even McDonald’s tasted better in the mountains.

Finally, we arrived in Reno. As we walked toward the Golden Phoenix (formerly the Flamingo) I couldn’t help but notice the sound of my luggage wheels echoing against the empty streets. Shops, restaurants, hotels—many closed for good. Even the casinos had relocated to places like Carson City. The place was so different from the last time I visited, when I was twelve. Once the brightest biggest little city in the world, Reno now felt vacuumed out. We checked into the Phoenix and met up with Ricky’s uncle for a lunch of pho (Vietnamese soup noodles) at Kim Bo.

As the evening wore on, we hit Circus Circus. Colorful, soft toys hung from above: Snubbies with large sad puppy eyes stared back at us, begging to be taken home. Ricky, Anna, and I played a game of Six Balls for fifty cents. Ricky let the rubber ball hit a corner and it fell into the one hole. Six holes later, a red light went up. We won a large gray dog.

Unlike the hard stuffed animals I used to win, this toy was soft—even its black nose was soft. Ricky tried to win Anna a dog, too, but was unsuccessful. We moved on to the Snubbies. Watching others throw the ball into the hoop, Ricky’s eyes became sharp and contemplative. To get the ball to stay in the basket, he said, you had to throw the ball lightly, without moving your wrist. It worked. His face brightened and I met his eyes. I looked at my boyfriend and felt a warm happiness.

Every half hour, we stopped playing to enjoy a circus show. Chinese acrobats bent their bodies into incredible positions. Girls twirled hula-hoops and spinning plates. Life bloomed. The crowd filled in.

At Margaritaville, we bought a souvenir cup of strawberry margarita, with two shots of tequila. Ten dollars for the first cup and four for refills. We drank until we got brain freeze, played carnival games, and kept going back for more. By then the bartender was giving us three to four shots of tequila. We tried lime and even Red Bull margaritas. The best was strawberry.

On Sunday we visited the new Atlantis casino. We stepped into a lobby filled with waterfalls, tide pools, and a statue of a jungle lion. The slot machines had undersea themes, like mermaids, seashells, and foam. We climbed onto the second floor to a straw-thatched hut and palm trees. Everything was blue and green; a jungle soundtrack played in the background. I felt like I had stepped into Atlantis. Ricky posed for pictures of himself eating the hay and kissing the lion. He made everything funny and lively. I didn’t have to worry about vacationing alone with him. On the other side of the hotel we crossed an overpass leading to the Atlantis Seafood Steakhouse for shrimp cocktails.

Our last stop was the lobster buffet at Boomtown. It was four thirty in the afternoon, but already a long line had formed. Two lobster mascots (one male, one female) passed out free red lobster necklaces. With a player card, you can eat all the lobsters you want for $19.95. Plates in hand, I got in line, where I was given a steaming lobster fresh from the pot. I broke the shell off the head and found green juice and red eggs—very rare, and so delicious. Ricky held a lobster in each hand, posing for more funny photos. I ate three lobsters that day; some had as many as seven.

At the end of the day, Ricky sold his car. And then we were on the road home.

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Golden Phoenix Casino

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