Hands down, Excalibur had the better mashed potatoes. The frustrating thing was, Circus Circus had the perfect gravy. The two hotels were at opposite ends of the Strip, however, and it wasn't like I could take Excalibur's mashed potatoes to go, then rush over to Circus Circus for gravy. Buffets don't allow you to leave with leftover food.
When you are 13 and it's Christmas Eve and you've spent the better part of the day alone at several different Las Vegas hotel buffets doing what you call "the Mashed Potatoes Test," this annoying buffet-geography challenge is only one example of the many stories you will casually tell people later when you are older, and they ask about your "childhood." And when you tell them how truly happy you were, how normal it was, and how you were loved--really loved--they'll shake their heads and say, "But it was Christmas Eve!"
But all of that comes much later. What I knew that day was that I didn't have to go to school for another whole week, I was getting the right kind of jeans for Christmas, and I had $32 in quarters. I had, more or less, total freedom--as long as I called the front desk every few hours and left a message for my father, who would then check his messages from whichever casino he was "working" in. (This was the code word from when I was too young and it was too complicated for my father to explain why he chose to quit his job, leave my mother, and dedicate two years of his life to pai gow poker and craps.) Plus, Dad had seen me put on lip gloss earlier, and didn't say anything. All day I glanced in any reflective surface I could find, proud of my shiny, grown-up lips. I felt terribly smug as I pictured my friends: stuck at home with heavily perfumed relatives, stupid presents, a dinner with the exact same food as last year. They had no idea how exciting my Christmases could be, with makeup and cab rides alone and late-night prime rib with my father at the Stardust.
I decided to go with the gravy and stay at Circus Circus. I called the hotel to check on my dad, and was told that he was "extremely upset" that I was out so late; I was to "return to the room immediately." He was, by the way, unexpectedly "held up" and "couldn't get away."
I grinned, knowing he'd be in a good mood later. My father only got "extremely upset" when he was doing well, his nerves dancing with anxiety. I pictured him at Binion's Horseshoe over on Fremont: privately agitated, sitting somewhere with a light, inevitable crowd behind him as he nursed his Johnny Walker Black, muttering in Chinese and tapping his fingers against green felt, the skin on his knuckles cracked from the dry Nevada air.