We owe so much money all around. It’s just terrifying to think about it. There are the banks, the credit card companies. There’s a long list of unpaid taxes. Each month there are payday loans at ridiculous interest rates and unpaid utility bills. My dad used to call my sister or me to hide the mail so my mom wouldn’t find out how bad it was. That happened almost every day. Water, gas, electricity and phone have all been turned off. Both sets of grandparents have been bailing us out for years, so there’s all that money that’s owed to them. There was a second mortgage on the house and with all that going on I wondered how long we’d be able to keep it, until just recently when my dad did a short sale. We’re renting now.
It started small. They came up to Vegas from Kingman, Arizona. My mom had jobs there, but she didn’t get one for a while in Vegas. Maybe that made her depressed. Maybe she felt useless. I don’t really know because I was a baby. I just know that she started drinking. My dad used to go to this little bar around the corner to get away from her. He’d say he was just going for a couple of beers, for a break. Like all those places in Vegas they had these video poker machines built into the bar and he started playing them. He won a few thousand dollars at first, then he started losing. He’d just lie then, he’d say he was going for groceries or to pay some bill and he’d be gone for six hours. I didn’t understand. I felt lonely.
I think they feed off each other. The one is the other’s enabler. Sometimes she made me go to the bar and get him and then if he came back she’d yell at him or be nice to him to get him to give up, but eventually she’d just get drunk. That really bothered him at first, but I think, now, that it’s an escape for him. He can do what he wants, he has an excuse. She drinks beer and wine, but sometimes hard liquor. We got into a fight once when she was drunk on Captain Morgan and ordered my boyfriend out of the house. Once she was drinking Bacardi Citron and smelled like Lemon Pledge for days. She quit work and said to my dad, “Why should I work when you just take all my money?” She’s kind of a full-time drunk now. We make her go to the garage because she chain smokes. She has a camping chair in there and a TV. She doesn’t eat. She’s tiny, her eyes are sunken in. Her hair is short and dishevelled and she wears my dad’s T-shirts. There are wine stains around her mouth. She drank five litres of wine once over a weekend. She has a nurse friend who had to come over with an IV to rehydrate her. She looks psychotic. She more or less lives in the garage and I think she likes it because she doesn’t have to see anybody.
The money just goes, evaporates, like it’s been sucked into some hole in the sky or earth. My dad’s paycheques go from debts and what he gambles and then he gets these payday loans. It’s constantly a desperate situation. He’s pawned his guitar, sold our car. He’s taken money from my sister. He’s had my graduation money, my savings, my student loans. Once I phoned him to check my account and when he had my log-in details he transferred money from my account to his. He’s taken money from my pockets. I still had $60 after being on vacation with a friend’s family and when I looked later it was gone. That was him. He used my social security number to get a credit card when I was in Reno one time and ran up a thousand dollars on that. I work full-time and go to school. I have to pay all that off. I love him very much, he’s a wonderful man, but it’s…frustrating.
One of the stranger things about them is that even as they trash themselves like that they still seem to worry about what the neighbours think. I keep a hookah in my room and they tell me I should keep the blinds closed.
The last time I remember being happy as a family was when we went to Disneyland. I was seven. I remember my dad driving, him doing up my hair in our hotel room. I had these white overalls. We had ice cream. I think I didn’t know for a while how bad things were. My sister was older than me and she protected me when I was little. She was almost like my mom then. But I lost her too. As soon as she became a teenager she seemed to be around the worst people she could find in the city. She got terrible grades, she was angry and wild and defiant. She was already taking cocaine in eighth grade, I think. She drank, took speed, mushrooms. She loved to go to the Strip and party. She got into fights. She had various boyfriends who sold drugs. One of them was particularly terrifying. She even had friends whose parents were dealers and who gave their own kids drugs. She could go into these rages. There was this one time when I was in sixth grade and my dad came in and she demanded to know where he’d been. He said, “Nowhere,” and that just set her off, she started screaming at him that he was a liar, that he’d been gambling, that’s all he ever did. She was punching him, hitting him. I got in the middle to stop them, which was stupid because I’m so tiny, and she pushed me so hard I went over the dishwasher. Then she kicked me. My mom tried to stop it too but she was drunk and fell over. I had a bloody nose and a black eye. There was so much screaming that the neighbours called the cops. She sulked for days.
She’s a lot calmer now. She has a nice stable boyfriend who really looks after her. We’re friends. She told me she was sorry for all that happened in those times.
My parents didn’t have time to pay attention to us. They were too absorbed in their addictions. I used to have to get my mom up when she worked and she’d still be drunk. When I went to my first high school dance she was in bed. She didn’t help me get ready, check how I looked. We ate cereal a lot. I was a cheerleader in high school and in the student council and gave speeches. They never came to see anything. With my mom, it’s like she’s just not there at all. She could be very aggressive, violent, like my sister. I could get into a physical fight with her and it was easier to hit her because I thought, That’s not my mom, that’s some crazy woman.
I had my own time of defiance. I could go out and come back at three or four in the morning. My dad could be on his way to work. They didn’t even ask where I was. You get the feeling it’s not relevant to them. A lot of parents here are like that. They ask their kids for money, they stay out all night. There were various times when a bunch of us would be at someone’s house and be fifteen years old and smashed at three in the morning and the parents would come in and just say, “Hey, catch you later,” and go to bed.
I know they feel bad. My mom cries. She talks about killing herself when she’s drunk. One time I was sitting at the computer and I looked up and saw her reflection in the mirror holding a butcher’s knife to her wrist. She didn’t do it. I don’t know if she ever would, but you live with the thought of it. As for my dad, I’ve talked with him about it many times. I’ve begged him to go to Gamblers Anonymous. I’ve told him I’ll go with him. We were sitting in the car once and I felt so desperate about it and I was pleading with him, “Don’t you care about us? Why don’t you stop? Can’t you see that you’re killing us? Don’t you love us?” He’d always say, “I’m sorry.” I’d see tears in his eyes. It just seems to own him. But I can’t not love him. I’m very close to him. We do “Star Wars” marathons, we read and talk about books, we play golf. When I was little he used to play the guitar and I’d dance with my teddy bear and repeat words like “toothbrush” or “banana” over and over in a nonsensical song that went along with the tune he was playing. He thought it was hilarious and I did too. When I got older he taught me to play. “Little Sister” by Elvis was an early favourite of mine. He’s really funny. We could go to the supermarket together and he’d run up and down the aisles acting like he’s mentally challenged, talking with a lisp. He’s a total dork, just like I am.
It makes me feel bad to live in a city based on something that takes so much from people. They look so sad, so lonely when they gamble. I wonder why they do it. When I drive I try to look at the mountains rather than the Strip. I’ve yet to meet anyone brought up here that hasn’t been pulled under by it in some way. It’s just this minimum wage place where everything bad for you is available 24/7, where everything is about what you can get right now and where no one connects. If you’re not getting groped at a bar you don’t have a social life. Men just come up to you and grind on you and think it’s all right. Already in high school people start to show some of the same symptoms as their parents, just falling into the traps Vegas sets. A lot of girls I know became strippers. One of them got a boob job as a graduation present to herself with money she got from stripping. It’s like they don’t feel they’re worth anything unless they’re naked and being looked at. If you don’t have that certain look the city asks of you, if you don’t have money or you’re not in the nightclub scene, you feel secluded, like you’re on the outside looking in at something. It’s all so sad, so wasteful. It’s obvious that these things people put so much time and money and belief into are not going to last, but they just go blindly on. They don’t want to think about what will happen when it ends or when there’s some kind of reckoning. It would be too bleak. You just kind of live with that here. It becomes some sort of normalcy, but a normalcy that’s full of tension. For a long time I had bad anxiety problems. My sister once put me in a cooler and sat on it. The feeling of living here is like that, of being trapped, overwhelmed. I’d have these night terrors where I’d sweat and lose my breath. I used to smoke weed to deal with it, but now I meditate.
I know I’m going to have to get out if I’m going to have any kind of life. It’s a “no tomorrow” place. Everything about it is telling you that. When I was in high school the science teacher used to play “Dead Puppies” in class. He’d talk about the weather, the news. I think he was on drugs. When I was out for two and a half weeks after a tonsil operation I asked him what I’d missed. “Nothing,” he said. There’s no real concern for education or the environment or art or any of the things that sustain you. I graduated, I think, fifth in my high school class. I had a 4.3 average. But it didn’t make me look forward to adult life. It’s hard to grow up here, or even want to, when your parents are falling apart. You know you have to grow up fast, but you don’t know what to grow up into. Your parents are supposed to be anchors, but they’re the ones that need guiding. I felt like I had to be the parent. The adult world just looked vile. Greedy, but also hopeless. I watched them, weak, passive, just accepting everything and endlessly repeating the same mistakes.
Kaitlin Reaves graduated from UNLV with a degree in English Literature in 2012. In March 2013 she moved out of the family home, where both parents continue to live. Her mother remains depressed and ill and still drinks. Her father finally attended Gamblers Anonymous. He is working with a financial advisor to set up a programme to deal with his debts, including those for federal tax. He no longer gambles. Her sister is a hairdresser and lives in Reno. Kaitlin intends to study Marriage and Family Therapy at graduate school. She hopes this will be somewhere outside Las Vegas. She works as a substitute teacher, writes poems, has a boyfriend who is in a band and attends spoken word poetry events in downtown Las Vegas.