Safari – Corey Lof

We lost our brakes in the morning, near the edge of Arizona, and weren’t able to come to a stop until later that afternoon in Vegas, circling out the last of our momentum in the parking lot behind the McDonald’s, near the MGM.
        A foreboding silence came over the van. Kara took her hands off the wheel to feel up the door and dash, make sure it was real. I watched her from the passenger seat, lighting one cigarette with the last.
        The road had been coming at us like a force for almost forty miles and now that we’d stopped, it and the city seemed to be pulling slowly away.
        “My fuck, ho-ly!” Kara said, “That happened.” It was the exact brand of traumatic exhilaration we’d been chasing.
        In the end, a few lights were run but no one was hit. A call for celebration.
        I woke Teo who’d been sleeping in the back.
        “We moving?” he asked.
        “Not anymore.”
        “Who’s driving?”
        “Kara was.”
        “Where we going?”
        “Look out the goddamn window, man. We’re here.”
        My only point of reference for Vegas were the movies: the glittering sex and regret, the ripped, shirtless magicians and big cats, the ravaged faces of lifetime losers juxtaposed in ecstatic light… of course I wanted it all—everything I’d been raised to fear—to be broken, changed, made brilliant.
        When I opened the van door, the city smelt like piss, but I won’t lie, I was pretty excited.

        At a street corner just off the strip we were each handed what looked like playing cards but instead of a jack or a queen there was a photo of a naked woman and a phone number. The man handing them out seemed tired, like the day had already gone on weeks too long.
        “Can I grab a couple more?” Teo compared his cards to mine and Kara’s.
        The man looked past us with a resigned calm in his eyes and handed us each another handful.
        “What are these?” Teo asked.
        “Bro, it’s a job.”
        “You make them?”
        “I hand ‘em out.”
        “Are the women real?”
        “Bro, you want some, you call the number, that’s it.” His voice was sharp. He’d grown up in the heart of it and you could tell he knew first-hand we all had the power to damage each other irrevocably.
        It was nothing to be jealous of. But there I was.

        We bought some Four Loko from a 7-Eleven and some bunk-looking M off a guy hanging out at the slot machines near the cash register. His jaw was going and he was smiling all cheeky, but I wasn’t hunting for red flags, the whole world being a bowl of candy…
        When the M didn’t hit, we doubled down on Four Loko, loading our pockets with cans, and explored the strip until we were approached by a sad faced man in an all-black suit. He found us just as Teo was pouring what looked like toxic waste from a can into a stolen martini glass. We were in the Lobby Bar at the Cosmopolitan, under a chandelier like nothing I’d ever seen.
        “Name’s Brook,” he said, without offering up a hand. “And what’s this?” He crinkled his nose and nodded at the drink.
        “Sex on the Beach,” Teo said and I gave him the laugh he was looking for.
        “No. The story, give me the story.”
        “No story, playboy. Be chill.” Teo looked at me for another response, but I turned away, afraid he might raise his hand for a high-five.
        Playboy. It was sad. But I could already see it was going to be a good night. The insecure Teo was down for anything, he never complained, and was completely without the faculty to judge.
        “That a uniform?” Kara asked. He was wearing a black shirt under his all-black suit. His collar was tight and pooling with sweat in a way that made it look like a burst rubber seal leaking under the pressure of whatever he was throwing through his bloated face.
        “Never not working, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He thumbed his lapels.
        Just looking at him I could feel the scratchy stubble of a not-so-recently shaved chest catching on the fabric of his sweat soaked shirt. I imagined the horror he must have felt, itchy and conscious of his own perspiration—how it rolls down over your body under a suit and gathers, where? In his crotch? His pits? I got the urge to keep him there until a puddle formed but Kara had a different idea.
        “Let’s go,” she said, turning around to leave. It was like she foresaw the whole night in the ledge of sweat rimming Brook’s choked out head. Maybe she did. Maybe it was there for us all to see and she just happened to be looking.
        “Wait, wait,” Brook said. He’d grabbed Teo’s drink from his hand and was smiling. “I just want your story. Why you’re here, drinking this, looking like this.” Teo and I were wearing our fancy shirts, pulled from the bottom of our bags, wrinkled and smelling like beach salt. Kara was wearing a dress, looking and smelling the same. “I don’t work here, but I still can’t let you drink this.”
        Teo made a move for the can but Brook pulled it out of reach. So he looked to me. Teo was always looking to me and I was also leading him astray.
        “I want you to tell me everything,” Brook said, framing us out with his thumb and index, “I already love it—but first, this has to stop.”
        He set the can down and Teo grabbed it.
        “Come on darling,” Brook said. “We’ll get you a real drink, trust me. They sell them here.” He held up a tumbler with something dark inside. “Bartenders make them.”
        “I’ll toss it when a new one’s in my hand.”
        “Come come come,” Brook said, and waddled toward the bar. I followed him, doing what I could not to imitate his walk.

        Lights hung like stars in raised sections of the ceiling, while other sections were all mirror—red and gold carpet, our three dirty heads moving around atop shoulders and feet.
        All the other men in the bar wore suits under hair as shiny and hard as precious stone. The women wore dresses so tight they seemed to dictate the shapes of their bodies—their faces were more like projections than faces. And all of them, strangers as far as I could tell, interacted with an ease that suggested their being there was enough to cross off a long list of prerequisites in the eyes of one another. I hoped the same would apply for me.
        I joined a group of suited coeds standing around a table, leaned in, lit a cigarette, took a puff, and dropped it into one of their empty glasses. “The City of Sin,” I said, “where pleasure can finally fuck its own face in the open street, am I right?” But they knew the truth. I was born uninteresting.
        “Not here, bud—” the spokesman of the group had teeth like a Spartan army “—but thanks anyways,” he said and dumped some of his drink over my still smoking cigarette.
        Vegas is a weird place full of people melting and other people on fire. We must’ve looked pretty innocent in the middle of it all, glowing like the green Four Loko in our glasses.

        Brook clapped his hands twice in front of my face. “We’re here,” he said, turning to spread ten fingers over the bar. “We’d like drinks.”
        The bartender smiled. He’d been through this before.
        “Pick a cocktail,” Brook said. “Daddy’s got it.”
        We each told him something different but he ordered a round of rum and cokes anyways. No one complained. We drank the first round back and he ordered another which we sipped on while he pressed us for our story.
        There really wasn’t much to tell, we were living in a truck, now we were living in a van, checking some things out.
        “This is amazing, you’re amazing,” he said. I was starting to like the guy.
        “What do you know about the big cats?” I asked.
        “I am the lion.”
        “Don’t fuck with me on this one, man.”
        “I think there’s a tiger here.”
        “You want to see the tiger?”
        “I have to.”
        “Because it exists.”
        “You’re so fucked. I love it.” He asked about the van, where it was parked.
        “No, no, no. That won’t do,” he said, “When was your last shower?”
        “Not since the coast,” Teo said, while I pretended not to remember.
        Brook closed his lips real tight and held a straight face but I could see his mind racing. “Mhmm,” he said, then turned the pudgy red back-fat of his neck toward us, nodded to the bartender and opened his mouth, “We’ll need doubles for this next round.”

        An hour later we were hammered. I couldn’t get over how everything shone, the leather, the rivets, the legs of every stool. The roof was held up by whole columns that seemed to be made of light. The casino floor was a hall of mirrors filled with fireworks. I chased my sight line in and out of the bar a few times, starting to understand how one could disappear here. People were mere blurs amongst it all, us included.
        By the bar there was a woman in red pants who seemed to be reading people by codes that hovered somewhere just above their heads. She wouldn’t look me in the eye, not even when I stood right in front of her. “So, you’re the one who wears the pants around here,” I said.
        I wasn’t sure if she’d heard me but something above my head made her smile.
        “You want a drink?” I asked.
        When she finally looked at me, it was like I was the center of a joke she was trying to get out of.
        “What are you thinking honey?” she asked. “What are you trying here?”
        “I’m trying to seduce you.”
        “How much money you got?”
        “None,” I said, “but he’s got a ton.”
        I pointed blankly across the bar. Brook and Kara had hit it off. Every time I looked over, he was closer to burying himself in her ear.
        “You’re just a baby,” the woman said. “Better watch you don’t get eaten.”
        “Harsh flirt but I’ll take it.”
        “We’ll start with the drink.”
        “Rum and coke, coming up,” I said. “For the lady in the pants the color of the lips I want to kiss!” But by the time I got back she was gone. Disappeared. You can’t hide red pants like that, not in a bar like this. Unanswerable questions boiled up in my brain then dropped like hot solder down my back. I felt an ethereal pain. It was delicious.

        I joined Teo who was leaning on a table, looking across the bar and bobbing his head.
        “You recognize that guy?” He pointed toward someone at the entrance—stocky enough, a fuck-off smile, looking everywhere and nowhere all at once. “He’s a fighter.”
        “Since when are you into fighters?” I asked.
        “I’m not. I’m into faces. That’s the face of a famous fighter. For real. Guy is on TV and shit.”
        “He’s small for a fighter. Feel like he’d slip right through the fence.”
        “That reminds me,” Teo said, “I never told you about this vision I had.” Teo had been having visions. “We were in the van doing circles around the desert.”
        “Was this earlier today?”
        “But no one was driving. All three of us were in the back. And it wasn’t a desert, it was more like a dry lakebed full of cracks and the cracks were getting bigger, like big enough to lose the van in, and at the same time this wind was picking up throwing sand in the air, making it impossible to see. It was wild, but no one seemed to care, we were just chilling as if it was nothing, making fun of whoever or whatever was driving.”
        “This was earlier today. Kara was driving.”
        “No, she was in the back with us.”
        “Where’d we end up? In this vision.”
        “I don’t remember.”
        I tried to look him in the eyes and he tried to look back at mine but neither of us could pull it off without closing one, so I looked back over the bar.
        “What do you think of this?” I asked. Brook was rolling his forehead back and forth on Kara’s shoulder, both his arms around her waist.
        “Great guy, huh?”
        “You think he’s trying to fuck Kara?”
        “Kara wouldn’t.”
        “Not by choice. I’m going to have a talk with him.”
        “Go for it. I’m going to see if this guy’ll wrestle me.” Teo undid the top button on his shirt and cracked his neck. “That’s him for sure,” he said. “He’s small but I bet he’s strong as all fuck.”
        Brook saw me coming and let Kara go. “Double fisting, are we?” he said, but I wasn’t about to be hijacked by compliments.
        “Hey man,” I said when I had him on his own, “I can see what you’re up to, getting us drunk, but you’re crazy if you think you’re fucking my friend Kara tonight.”
        “What?” he said and made like a shotgun blasted him in the chest. “I’m gay.”
        “You’re gay?”
        “Haven’t I told you about Phillip?”
        The way he said Phillip—it was like he’d torn open his ribs and his heart was a beaten animal.
        “Maybe I forgot about Phillip?”
        “It’s easy to, he’s never around.”
        I wanted to crawl inside him right then, share his loneliness—or was it Phillip I wanted, to be chewed up, clawed at?
With regards to Kara though, I couldn’t help but feel relief. I threw back one of my two drinks, made a cheer with the remaining one, then threw it back too.
        I suppose this is as good a time as any to say the drugs and the booze were never the cause, just something I used at the time, knowing later it’d make the story easier to tell.
        “Man, you’re gay,” I said. I couldn’t stop saying it. “That makes me so happy.”
        “Yes. You don’t have to worry about your friend Kara.”
        “I was never really that worried.”
        “Good. In fact,” he said, throwing his arm around me, “you don’t have to worry about anything, because here’s what I’m thinking—” Now he was trying to climb into my ear.
        It must have been his thing.
        “You guys need to clean up,” he said, and made a show of sniffing my shoulder. I got the urge to pull away but I liked how sturdy he was, so I leaned in and heard him out. He had some great ideas about us taking advantage of his shower, “…the top floor suite…” he said, “…the fucking Cosmopolitan…”
        I’d be lying to say I’m sure he wasn’t carrying me at this point.
        “Goddamn, you’re like a big gay angel, aren’t you?” I said. His face was a part of the ceiling. A golden mane grew from his black suit. I knew when I went to meet his eyes, they wouldn’t be there, but I can’t help but picture them now like growing cracks in the floor of a dry lakebed.
        “You tell the others,” he said. “And I’m going to make this tab disappear.”

        It wasn’t until we were waiting for the elevator that Kara took me and Teo aside. She had doubts about how smart it was to go to a stranger’s hotel room.
        “Fuck it,” Teo said, “If I can hold my own with an MMA fighter, I can take this old turd.”
        “What went down?” I asked.
        “His friends told me to fuck off but then he told them to fuck off and let me have a go. Pinned me in about thirty seconds, but, I mean, he’s a pro.”
        It was agreed: were anything to happen, we could easily kill this guy.
        I had a lot of rum running through me and started thinking some crazy shit. Like maybe I could kill this guy. Like maybe that’s what people do in the real world when they feel their life is threatened. They kill the threat.
        I was clearly growing up, but it was still another few years before I’d learn the dangers waiting in a room could far exceed any of the dangers I’d bring to it.

        It’s the only hotel room I’ve ever been to without a hallway. The elevator opened straight to the suite. It was almost too clean. The furniture was so white I wanted to vomit on it. Again, all I could think of were movies, bursting with color and wealth, then blood and sex.
        “This is the kind of room where hookers get killed at the end of gangbangs,” I said.
        “Or where black-market organ-auctions take place.” Kara grabbed a bottle of champagne from a glass-doored mini-fridge near the entrance.
        Teo had himself plopped in front of one of the other four fridges I could see and was building a tower of liquor bottles on the glass surface above it.
        “Brook,” I said, “Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t got a briefcase full of coke in here.”
        “Whatever you want,” he said, but he wasn’t listening. He was kneeling between three glass walls on a podium in the center of the room.
        “Bubbly?” Kara asked. She was spilling all over the place.
        “Seems irresponsible to be here and not be wracking lines and doing shots of Goldslick,” I said.
        “Ok ok, come come come.” Brook stood up on the podium. “Time to get clean,” he said. His sleeves were rolled up and he was breathing heavy. “Your bath is running.”
        We joined him within the glass walls at the center of the room. The podium was a tub, built like God’s chalice, all heavenly white, with gold taps and shimmering jets.
        “Shit man,” I said, “You talked a pretty big shower game.”
        “This is better.” He knelt back down and put his hand under the running water. “This is perfect.”
        “We were talking, and if this gets weird, I’m going to throw you off the balcony.”
        “No no. It’s not going to be weird. This is for you. I’m not coming in. I just want to watch.”
        I looked over at Teo who was looking to me. I shrugged and he started taking off his shoes. Kara walked around the room collecting whatever suds she could find. “What do you think of this?” I asked her.
        She smiled with the ambivalence of someone halfway out on a tightrope. “What’d you expect?”
        “Right,” I said. “Well just letting you know Brook, if it gets weird—”
        “It’s not going to get weird.” Brook grabbed some snacks and arranged himself on a white chair. “It’s going to be nice,” he said, but his face was red like the end of times and he kept patting himself on the chest.

        “He’s running it cold.” Kara had her dress hiked up and was standing ankle deep in the still filling tub, arms full of salt and soaps.
        When I tried to correct the temperature, Brook sprang from his chair, gasping. “No!” he said. “This is the temperature. I know what I’m doing. This is what you want.”
        “You know dick about what I want.”
        “You have to get clean before you get comfy and comfy before you get fed.”
        “It’s a cold bath you twisted prick.”
        “You’ll have to work extra hard warming each other up.”
        “Oh, you creepy fuck.”
        “You don’t mean that,” he said, and he was right. You creepy fuck is what I said but here we go is what I meant.
        Teo had deconstructed his tower of liquor bottles and was rebuilding it on the edge of the tub. “This getting weird?” I asked him.
        “I mean, yeah.” he said.
        “It’s only weird because you’re making it weird,” Brook said. He was on his knees, hardly able to breathe, shielding the taps.
        “I’m not getting in a cold bath,” I said.
        “You’re such a difficult boy.”
        I hated that he thought I was difficult.
        “I’ll throw you off the fucking balcony you old pervert!” I said, then started getting naked. In my head it seemed a good way to illustrate that my objection wasn’t to the bath, but the fact that it was cold. I asked for a compromise, but my strings had been laid bare.
        “Difficult difficult difficult,” he said, conceding only to a small twist of the hot tap.

        Kara was the first to get in, then Teo and I on either side of her. The water was warming up, but it was still cold enough to pull our skin tight. Kara gave me a nod. I leaned over and licked down the braille of her nipple as she took Teo and I in her hands. I reached across her and got a hand on Teo too, sliding my other between her legs. Teo had his hand in Kara’s hair, guiding her head back. He kissed my chest. I kissed Kara’s mouth—
        I watched Brook without him knowing. He grabbed himself discreetly, like he was afraid that if he enjoyed it, it might be ruined. I said, “Brook man, feel free to get it out. We’re already here.”
        It was like a toilet flushed in his head. “I love you guys,” he said, coughing, and pulled the pink little thing from his pants. I focused but still found it hard to decipher from his thumb.

        I swear from that tub I could see the beach. I could see through the glass walls off the balcony and over the entire desert to the sand and the sun and the never-ending day. I could feel the universe expanding and I could see it all. I would’ve laughed if you told me that all this ground we’d covered together, in our stupid van, our stupid truck, all this space, would one day exist between us, that the past would become a story so tarnished and taboo, we wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of it in each other’s—
        “I think he’s dying,” Kara said. There was a stutter to his breath. His eyes were closed and his face seemed to be slipping back off itself.
        I got out of the tub and walked up to him. I put my wet hand on his forehead and brought my face close to his. “That excitement or are you dying?”
        “I’m digesting.”
        All around the room marble slabs ran halfway up the walls with a pattern that was shaped like disintegrating strands of DNA.
        “You look nervous. What’s Philip going to say if he sees this?”
        “Fuck Phillip.”
        “Fuck Phillip?”
        “If Phillip cared what I did, he’d be here right now.”
        His head rolled off his shoulders and I smacked him in the face. “Hey, look at me. You don’t get to die.”
        “I’ve been nothing but nice to you.”
        “I know, I know,” I said, running my wet hand through his hair.
        “I just need to rest.”
        “I don’t believe you.” It was like he was coming off a manic bout of tears.
        “Should we maybe get out of here?” Kara asked.
        “He’s not going to die,” I said. I shook him until his eyes opened, then ran back to the tub. I grabbed Teo’s prick and started bringing it to life. I said, “Brook, look. This is what you wanted.” Kara took me back in her hands. “Brook,” I said. “Look! We’re keeping each other warm. Brook!”
        But his eyes were closed.
        We stopped moving and watched to see if there was a rise and fall in his chest. But there was nothing. For five silent minutes, until we couldn’t stand to watch anymore, there was nothing.
        “I’m turning on the hot water,” Kara said, shrugging herself loose.

        We took only what we could carry under our shirts without looking suspicious. Before we got in the elevator, I double checked to make sure I had my underwear on and Teo, his shoes. “I don’t want to leave anything behind,” I said.
        “Did he die?” Kara asked. She was wearing his blazer.
        “I don’t know, but just in case.” I couldn’t look at him. I’d come all this way and I couldn’t even look at him.
        When we got to the street, the sun was coming up and everything else seemed to pale; without the lights, the buildings were lifeless and bland.
        Near the van, I approached a group of buskers. They seemed to have been up all night and were in similar shape to us. “What do you guys know about the lion?” I asked.
        “There used to be a tiger here.”
        “The fucking tiger!”
        “Never saw it,” one said.
        Kara was sitting on the edge of a concrete cylinder around the base of a parking lot light, holding Teo like a baby. Her hair was a nest atop her head and the shadows were scribbling stories of loss across her face. “Food,” she said. “Then let’s get the fuck out of here.”

        Sad, vacant, Vegas mornings… I breathed in the heat and looked for signs that the world was new, but my mind kept running back to that top floor suite. Can you imagine how the sun was probably coming through the open balcony, the glare of it refracting off all the glass before finally settling, warm, in the white of an armrest or a rug?
        We left the city without fixing the brakes.
        On our way out, I rolled down the window and listened carefully. I had a feeling if Phillip was real, he was out there somewhere, roaring.