(From the draft archives.)
The last time I went to Las Vegas it was in January of 2009, just after my twenty second birthday and my first tattoo, and about four months before I graduated from college, at the end of a long winter break home in Los Angeles, when it seemed funny or striking or something to take advantage of the bleak desert winter and country’s fiscal collapse to get a $40/night hotel room in the City of Sin and see what there was to be seen out there.
I drove out with a carful of friends, two other girls and three guys, five hours of flat flat beige land and low, slate grey skies. We parked in one of the hotel’s vast lots, plodding across a solid half-mile of asphalt before we made it in the side door, greeted not by Vegas’ signature pomp, circumstance and kitsch but by stale air and slot machines and their pinging theme music, the occasional crash of coins cascading for the win. We skulked around there while Alex and Eric checked in, since the plan was to sleep six to the four person room, gauge a little more money out of this place. It seemed important at the time.
We went upstairs, where the girls jumped on the beds while the boys changed into suits and ties; then we put on dresses and tights and heels and lipstick. I had a feather in my hair. We took pictures waiting for the elevator;
It was bitterly, shockingly cold out; Vegas is basically a moonscape, lunarly empty and frigid, sharp air broken up by sharper winds whipping around its enormous structures, bulky tourist groups. I was coming up on a cold myself; I remember trailing after my friends as they searched out free drinks, free slots, stopped to smoke cigarettes in the lobbies of every hotel, marveling at the freedom. We wandered through the Venetian around 3am, its midday blue sky-ceiling and bright, even daylight more unnerving than the neon-spiked darkness outside. It was silent and empty, not just the backlots we’d grown up on, which at least were open to the elements, but a self-contained world, an entire country shrunk down into this building and trapped in perpetual cheerful day.
I also had the disadvantage of having grown up driving through Vegas, a reasonable midpoint on family roadtrips to see my aunt in Salt Lake City. I had stayed in horrifyingly cheap motels on the outskirts, sometimes even the RV parks, which are as barren and horrifying as can be imagined in the civilized world; I had also spent three or four nights at the MGM Grand when it was brand new and I was seven years old and entranced by a hotel with a McDonald’s inside of it. I was immune to Vegas’ horror-cheap tack and trash and its seductive, lush thrills; I fed quarters and dollars into slots and drank weak free drinks and hoped that everyone else would get tired soon, too.
On the way home we drove through the Mojave, that same brown landscape now littered with Joshua Trees, which are stark, crazy looking things, even more otherworldly than the emptiness that surrounds them. We played some Radiohead and everyone in the backseat got high while the driver and I sat sober up front. I broke a personal rule and sent a text to the boy I was trying not to see anymore: I wanted him there with me, finally warm and sleepy and comfortably settled, heading home. The whole story is stupid, really, offensive in its premise, these well-heeled college kids going to spend the night walking through the ugliest part of America, the beating heart of financial excess and waste and lust; of course it ends with everyone stoned and listening to Radiohead on the drive.