“We should be an ad for Starbucks,” he shouted from the pool where he stood knee deep.
“We are an ad for Starbucks,” she said, perched on a cabana chair.
Tight shot focused on each of their hands holding holiday Starbucks cups, healthy nail beds resting on recycled cardboard sleeves. Close-up on his lips sipping his tea. Slow pan out that lifts over the aqua-neon pool to reveal a high rise tower owned by Sahara Hotel Group, one side in LED screens featuring an ad for Starbucks.
Something here about Baudrillard’s simulacra, Coca-Cola, Learning from Las Vegas, etc. Whatever hyperreality stood for; she never felt like she understood most of the art theory she studied in school but she liked it for the poetics.
A new spot: Hotel Sahara. Silvery, clean, luxurious. Blocked in by construction work on the main road next to the twinkling lights of a creepy clown-themed casino named Circus Circus. A neon spiral lollipop twirled in the empty black sky above Vegas, clutched by a John Wayne Gacy clown. They were staying mid-Strip now, closer to the newer stuff. The malls were empty, the streets were quiet.
Most patent risky activity had been moved indoors or underground, but the cheugy allure of Vegas was the permissibility of drinking in the street and otherwise acting out under the assurance of a very tight and mob-established social contract built on confidentiality and bacchanalia. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Now the only people left in sight were locals and die-hard (literally) regulars.
Pandemic-Vegas felt extra abandoned and winter nights felt longer; the heights of hotel towers only pointed out how big and wide the dome of the desert sky was. Whatever stays in Vegas, happens in Vegas. Saturated darkness seeps into thick-carpeted casinos, sacred bunkers of glitz. Above the city: a circuit of halos and hectic auras, buffet-style.
The walls of their room were lined in mirrors that glowed like those hazy millennial workout mirrors that make a person look like they’re lifting weights with a mauve-tinted ghost. “Very sexy,” they both said, surveying the room. Good lighting. A clean bed and clean shower with a glass door and expensive looking shampoo and body products. Above the bed, a view into a vast parking lot and the mountains to the east from the 21st floor. Spotless towels. No TCM, no bathtub. An oddly installed desk. Nearly perfect per their criteria. The desk was also made of mirrors for some reason. She hated seeing the palms of her hands below her in the reflection.
“Doesn’t this offend you?” she asked, pointing to another poorly rendered stock image of a camel next to white woman in flowing robes splashed across sand dunes.
“Why? Because I’m Persian?” he drew out his vowels and feigned offense, an incredible and quick actor. She rolled her eyes. “No, I love it!” he said. “They didn’t get anything wrong,” he said, comparing it to Dubai hotels. He was just as familiar with placelessness as she. Walking to and from the elevator he pointed to all the camels to make sure she saw. He liked to gnaw on the bone of her white guilt.
They often lost hotel cards or mistook old ones for newer ones. He developed a slapstick routine each time he headed for the door. He stopped to pat his pockets, nod his head yes, leave then return minutes later, knocking. “I have the wrong key,” he said, muffled through the door. She started marking their cards with a sharpie pen and hiding the old ones in books. “You’re not a cleun,” she said, quoting Baskets (2016) their favorite show and smearing drugstore lipstick across her mouth for her Zoom panel.
He started going on runs. Las Vegas looked bleached and grimy every morning, totally empty but wafting with the scents of weird colognes and booze. The hotel was so clean and their room so high in the air in contrast. He doesn’t like heights. She stared out the window and watched ant-sized cars in the parking lot below. She loves it here, she thinks. She can see the mountains.
Together they wonder how a casino works while they stumble through the arcade of slot machines binging in the dark. “Just one game,” he says.
“I might be an addict, I shouldn’t gamble,” she said. “Plus, I don’t even know how.”
“I won!” he said later, bursting through the door. She looked at him slowly like a cat, disinterested but curious still. The joke flopped.
“Did you really gamble?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t want to touch the handles,” he said, blaming Covid. “You won’t let me play,” he adds, blaming her.
“Did you know when you turn eighteen in this country you become an adult and you can gamble all you want?” she said. He looks at his hands. He just wanted her to do it for him and with him so he could observe without consequence, but she couldn’t budge. “It’s unwise,” she said, thinking of the movie, Indecent Proposal. Morality tales worked on her.
To cheer him up one night, they watched Showgirls in the hotel room since neither of them had seen it and it was on theme. “Why is she doing that?” he asked. He was in the habit of asking her questions like she was Google, rather than a peer. The archetype American Blonde from the West. She barely knew the America he wanted to see, but she knows where to find the myth at least, not entirely by her own experience.
They’d been at the Sahara for a week.
Sometimes she was shocked she was technically, still on a date, and a very long one. Is this it? She asked herself. This is dating? Getting the men on dating apps to emerge from the screen and step into the world around her was a skill she was without. She was a charismatic blonde with no game whatsoever. An odd combination for the men she intimidated and suitable prey for fuck boys with penchants for mis-establishing a manic pixie dream girl in the wild. She wasn’t the one, babe and for her, being wooed was a state of anxious confusion. So she was thrilled to brush her teeth together on the second date, utterly floored to watch bad TV while coexisting so early on. She could turn off her brain and still be interesting. For now, this thing worked, they were a team and it felt wintry like wearing wool socks to bed and waking up with sweaty feet. Like snow in Arizona.
“Do you dream of the day Las Vegas becomes a ghost town?” he said while they drove the strip. “Think of all the signs we can find.” He liked pointing out neon signs to her because he knew she liked them but he didn’t understand their greater significance. Tumbleweeds of excess.
On their last day, she lay on the bed on her stomach and typed out a theatrical review of their stay:
The Sahara—Las Vegas, NV, December ★★★★★
Why did I ever leave the Sahara? I bought a pair of perfect sunglasses from the gift shop and never took them off. I didn’t even care that they were overpriced. I transformed at the Sahara. I fell in love at the Sahara without meaning to and I don’t know how to get the feeling back or make it go away. He never took 360 footage of our interiors with his funny camera so how can I relive it? We lived so carelessly at The Sahara we threw away our souvenirs though N bemoaned their loss all throughout the desert landscape on the 40 South. The Sahara cursed me and it felt like a tease. I took the same three highways in a loop while N slept and even though I became enraged, the landscape kept me peaceful, the sunlight drooped over dirty mountains in the most soothing of ways so who cares if I was lost. Tempting to say that Vegas in a pandemic and among [timely] and obtrusive construction on the main strip (the only sound for miles) is depressing but saying so simplifies Vegas itself. Pandemic Vegas is pressurized Vegas, Vegas underground, secrets kept openly like before but even more so. The streets of Vegas are usually so glittering, distracting that we never wonder about the penthouses or the secret clubs, the basement squatters, the bunkers. I see two loan [sic] show girls in glorious white plumes wearing masks and checking their smartphones while they cross the street to the Flamingo; I want to follow them and ask them how it’s been going and who is showing up to tip them. On my way to buy socks, I find I’m the only woman on the sidewalk who is dressed young: a pair of linen pants and a crop top. Men in Lincoln Continentals and penny-colored Buicks greet me with sweetness. “Hey Beautiful,” and “Good morning.” Utterly pleasant. Maybe I’m off-duty too. I watch a beautiful woman with perfectly pressed edges persuade a man into buying her a very expensive purse. She winks at me and I’m proud of her. I purchased extremely cheap jeans that fit too tight. They say you can learn a lot by a city’s refuse. That said, Vegas’s thrift stores are filled with lucite-heeled stilettos and wedges, the taller the better. Acrylic is easy to clean but it scratches. Lucite is heavy, but higher quality. Lucite sparkles under spotlights, you know?
☼ I dedicate this song to empty Las Vegas ☼☼ I wrote about apocalypse aesthetics and Sunset Lamp for DIRT ☼ and I’ve been tweeting daily (okay I’ve missed a few days, w/e!) each minute of Showgirls (1995) Know me? Nomi. ☼☼☼ More soon. ☼ ☼ ☼
All images by author except second from top: The Orientalist-named casino, The Aladdin, being demo’d in 1998 and second from last; a vintage postcard of the Old Sahara, before it was also demo’d. Bye bitch!