I’d never been there. I’d never been gambling. Honestly, I’d never put much thought into any of it. Sure, friends had regaled me with hyperbolic tales, but I’d always satiated my inner party animal with an occasional night out and lots of alcohol. But something stirred in me one day, after seeing one too many non-news stories on the news. It wasn’t that I wanted to gamble...I wanted an ambiance...I wanted a shitload of neon.
The bus was full of old people. It was around nine at night when we got there. We rounded a corner and the lights from the taller buildings started coming into view. The exaggerated outlines of the hotels and casinos took shape, and I started getting excited. I looked at the old lady sitting next to me, but she was half asleep. Most of the people on the bus were out cold, but my eyes were like saucers. I ran off the bus, got a room, and made for the biggest casino I’d seen on the way in.
After being blinded by the lights out front, I entered the cathedral of booze and slots. Everyone was smoking. I approached the penny slot machine and sat down, figuring out what all the buttons and stuff did. In went the money. I rested my hand on the lever and pulled it down fast. There were flashing lights and sounds, which I found annoying more than anything. Apparently I had won nothing.
I looked to my left. A boy about my age was mesmerized by the spinning symbols of the machine in front of him. As the blurs stopped in rigid sequence, his eyes darted around, looking for some esoteric geometry in the hieroglyphs of chance and cash.
I tried again. Nothing. I didn't have the slightest expectation of winning, but the racket coming out of the machine was quickly getting under my skin.
I turned and looked to my right. An older woman sat a few slots down in an old T-shirt with an old band on it I’d never heard of. She pulled on her lever mechanically, her stony face unchanged regardless of whether she won or lost. I was confused.
I emerged from the electric facade of the casino, trying to reconcile my plastic fantasy with the plastic reality of things. I considered trying my hand at a table game, but that had as little appeal as the slots now did. I thought of drinking under the neon lights, but I’m a social drinker who’d come alone. No, I’d had enough. Only an hour after entering the gambling capital of the east coast, I was gone.
As I looked back from the bus, passing through the marshlands, I could see the entirety of Absecon Island slowly sink into the ocean. The briny Atlantic Ocean pushed through the glass windows of the gift shops, stampeding through the great halls of the casinos. The muffled echoes of the bells and whistles and jingles rang through the turquoise water. A flock of seagulls circled the roof of the Borgata as it submerged into the depths of the New Jersey coastline. The bright lights became distorted by the currents of the ocean and the foam of the waves, and soon there was nothing left but the open sea.