Over a year ago, on a weekend trip to Vegas, two black women sat across the indoor fire pit from me and my two friends. At the time, my two friends and I were hardly life-long buddies. We’d met just that year at our daughter’s gymnastics class. We were stay-at-home moms in need of a break from the daily chore of childcare and house cleaning. One of these friends was Filipino, and the other, white, just like me.
It was our last night in Vegas. We decided to go to a dive called Fireside Lounge in the back of a 24 hour restaurant called The Peppermill. It was across the street from our cheesy, deep-disounted hotel, Circus Circus. We decided we’d just sit and talk for a while, then decide what to do. Here we were, privileged, suburban, stay-at-home moms, exhausted from the previous late nights and debauchery, now lamenting our return to reality the next day. The conversation turned more serious. We talked about our marriages, our unhappiness, our dreams for something better. We had a few drinks.
As the alcohol and the generous portion of nachos lifted us out of our worries, I decided I was going to talk to those two other women across this unusual fire pit centerpiece of gas flames surrounded by iridescent, blue bubbling water.
One woman had glasses and shoulder-length, black, curly hair. She was wearing a black t-shirt with a colored photograph of another black woman emblazoned across the front. There were birth and death dates. The other woman had long, impossibly bright, red hair pulled back into a chignon. Her top was a tight, black midriff. Her jeans were mint green and painted onto her curvy body. She had long, painted fingernails. Her makeup was beautifully done, her large, dangling earrings grazed her shoulders, and her fake eyelashes touched her eyebrows. She sat with her legs crossed tight holding a giant, frozen drink with a tiny umbrella and two long straws.
I approached them for a reason, but the reason’s not important now. Basically, I wanted some advice about what to do on our last night in Vegas.
As I started to get up my two friends pulled me back. Told me no. “We don’t know them,” they said. I don’t care, I said. Because by this time I was a little tipsy, and when I get tipsy, I get friendly, and fearless, and I wasn’t going to let the fact that I didn’t know these two ladies deter me from a mission.
I sat down close to the woman with glasses. I explained to her that we were a few moms from out-of-town and I needed to ask a question. At first she looked at me like I was insane, then her eyes brightened and she said, “Girl, you asked the right black woman the wrong question.” We laughed ourselves silly. Then we spent ten minutes asking each other the basics; names, hometown, reason for being in Sin City.
The woman with glasses was Shelby. She’s a mom of three, two boys, one girl, two in college. When I asked the other woman with the bright red hair her name I didn’t quite hear it. She said “Dana” but what I was expecting was something more exotic and ethnic, like Donnella, or LaDanya. I repeated one of these versions asking again. She leaned back a little and gave me the biggest side eye and yelled, “Dana… A, B, C, D… DANA!”
I immediately recognized my assumption and began laughing hysterically. We all did. It became the running joke for the evening.
Ten minutes later the five of us were headed out to the parking lot to Dana’s large SUV. On the way, my friend elbowed me. “What have you gotten us into!? This is crazy!”
Trust me, I said. I didn’t know if they could trust me. But I felt like everything was going to be okay. I felt like I needed to let go in this moment, and go with the plan. Sure, we didn’t know these two women for more than 10 minutes, but sometimes you never know what amazing things are in store if you can’t trust yourself and let go of your doubt and fear.
Dana and Shelby sat in front and me and my two friends sat in back, me in the middle. And when the five of us women got in the car, five semi-strangers, one Asian, two black, and two white — something amazing happened. After five minute more of chatting and laughing, talking about men and other hilarious things, we were just five women sitting in a car in a parking lot. We ended up walking back to the lounge arm in arm, tripping over ourselves laughing and having to take breaks to squat and breathe.
Back inside the Fireside Lounge, around this water and flames fire pit, the laughter continued. We got more comfortable. I learned Dana had a son and was a cosmetologist. I asked about her hair. I asked if it was real and she said, “Don’t act like you can’t see my roots!” And I said, “Well NOW I can!” We laughed and bumped shoulders.
We talked about our kids. We got out our phones and showed our pictures. There was as much pride in Dana’s face when she talked about her star football-playing son, as I had in mine when I told her of my baby boy. We congratulated each other on being good moms.
They told us why they were there. They lived in Vegas and came there to commemorate the anniversary of the death of their good friend, Talisha, who died of breast cancer the previous year. Shelby’s shirt held her image. Fireside Lounge was her favorite place. And now it was sacred.
Over the next few hours the five of us caused quite a scene. We were raucous and loud. At one point I laughed so hard I had to get up and walk away because I thought I was going to hyperventalate. One of my friends kept saying we should be quiet, that people were staring, but I was having none of that nonsense. There was a vibe in the air, and I was going to ride it all the way to the end.
At some point an older, white woman with short, white hair came up to us. She said she couldn’t help noticing how much fun we were having and she said she would LOVE to join us. We waved her into our little circle but she declined because she said she was with her husband and “we’d eat him alive.”
We laughed so hard we cried. We made fun of each other some more.
A few moments later a young, black woman came up. She said the same thing. We waved her to come join us but she was with her mama and she had to take her home.
Toward the end of our night Shelby and Dana got into a heated discussion over which was better, fire or water. They debated the qualities of these two elements. Shelby said water is what makes things grow. Dana said fire is what keeps us warm, cooks our food. Shelby said we wouldn’t have food if it wasn’t for water.
In an instant, that conversation crystalized everything that happened that night. I interrupted them, “NO, NO, NO! It’s both. We need both to make this beautiful.” And then we laughed and hugged and became Facebook friends.
Then one of those roaming, Vegas photographers came by to take our picture. Dana primped and pulled forward her red bangs. I fluffed my hair. We all straightened up, adjusted our shirts and asked the other if we had something in our teeth. We held up our drinks — except Shelby because she didn’t have one — she held up the nuts. We laughed some more. We scooched together.
I don’t know about the others, but I entered that night heavy, full of self-pity and worry about my future. I walked away light as air, dancing on laughter, and love, and feeling a part of a whole. I see Dana and Shelby now on my Facebook feed. They are unique in my list of friends and yet, to me, they are the symbol of this amazing night in Vegas. They remind me of what happens when you’re not afraid to be human, and more importantly, not afraid to see another person’s humanity.
Magic happens when you let down your guard, let go, and stop holding on so tight to the belief that one way is better than the other; when you finally accept that you need both elements, ALL the elements to make something beautiful; a favorite, sacred, magical place. You need fire, AND water. You need black AND white, AND every color in between. It’s not either/ or… it’s AND/ BOTH.
This picture hangs on my mirror in my bedroom. Each time I tell this story and pull out this picture, I say that the orb on Dana’s glass was Talisha. She was the missing third. She brought us there so we could laugh at ourselves, see how silly our assumptions about each other can be, and remind us that if we can get past our fears and prejudices… there’s a lot of love in the world. Enough to lift us all up and ride it to the end.