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I’m in a long black trench coat in the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas completely sober shooting a water pistol through a clown’s mouth trying to win a Hello Kitty doll for my girlfriend. I lose.

Down below, on the first level, slot machines ding and flash. On the second floor is a midway of carnival games. There are lots of large Mexican families roaming around. Many with young children in strollers. Cigarette smoke hangs everywhere. The carpet is psychedelic swirls of red and yellow. Outside is black and cold. They’re predicting snow. First time in thirty years.

It’s 1 am and the teenage hula hoop girl is about to start under the big top. A grandstand and trapeze are in the middle of the casino. The seats are packed.

A big drum roll.

Please give a warm Vegas welcome to Katerina!

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A tiny girl in a rhinestone leotard bounces on stage. She hides any tiredness or unhappiness behind her performer’s smile. The same forced smile of a flight attendant or stripper.

She knows her routine flawlessly, performs under the tightrope walker’s net. Her musical accompaniment is a fat man with a white soul patch playing synth, and a bald dummer. The lights go wild with each toss of the hula hoops in the air. She catches them mid stride. The drummer crashes his cymbal with each flip and handstand.

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She has hula hoops spinning on her arms and legs and waist and neck. She spins them down around her feet and adds more hoops. Maybe 25. She becomes a swirling mass. A human tornado. The music crescendos. The audience, all families, looks bored.

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In Vegas you can go everywhere and nowhere. There is casino of New York, Paris, Venice, Egypt and Rome. But everyone is in the same world. Casino psychology. No clocks. No windows. Free booze. Free rooms. Just keep spending money. The house always wins.

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Katerina spins without the hoops. Just dancing. She once had dreams of being a true ballerina maybe, but she couldn’t hack it. And here we are, me and her, sober at godawful hours of the morning in some city in the desert built by mobsters. Or was hula hooping in Vegas her dream come true?

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My girlfriend wins a life-sized Ninja Turtle playing darts. I’m flat out of money but take a sip of my watered down free martini.

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The music dies. Katerina takes a bow. The slot machines are ringing downstairs. No one applauds.

Photos by Kelsey Bennett