018 ☼ Motel Chronicles
Vegas baby! Part 1
“Look,” she said, “Paris!” He rolled up her window while she yanked her arm in. People everywhere, lots of maskless weirdos. “I miss Europe,” he sighed. She shook her head.
She played “Heaven or Las Vegas” by Cocteau Twins on the highway into Las Vegas but she knows the significance is lost on him. Certain cultural touchstones become completely devoid of their power around him, he was like a warping magnet and she was a hard disk who couldn’t wait to be erased. Explaining things was her favorite thing to do and he was an endless stream of questions. She went too far and explained what she liked to do with pits from fleshy dates. “I know how to eat dates,” he said. She liked being different; he didn’t.
His ex was Italian, a fact he took many opportunities to mention until she brought it up continuously, so many times that he made her stop and she never heard about the Italian ex again. He joke-brags about the women he’s slept with and somehow it endears him to her rather than makes her jealous. It’s somehow so tender it makes her want to hold him tightly in her arms and pet his hair. She pictures him with crushes on girls in other cities, what would he say and how would they take it? What did he say to them? Would he say it to her?
They park and walk to Caesar’s Forum where she leads him into the nave of the underground mall. She’s sure Italy is beautiful but at least now he’s seen Caesar’s Forum on the Las Vegas strip with its power outlets carved into falling columns-turned-benches and the hyperreal blue ceiling painted with gauzy clouds. She gave him the simulated version of Europe, the glitchier version of where he wanted to be, a place she over-explained through French postmodern theory to make it seem cooler than it was. She thought it was a pretty good substitute. She loved sad ugly places. She loved explaining why they were sad. “This place is so depressing,” he said, looking around visibly unmoored. “I know,” she said. They fled for the exits. “Well,” she said, looking back in the breezeway, “We’ll always have Caesar’s Forum.”
Stumbling back into the sun, they wondered behind which pulsing facade held a safe breakfast. They considered drive-thru fast food. Instead they became mesmerized by enormous screens with IMAX level surround sound. Just playing at full volume outside with only them to listen. A handful of people walked by in souvenir shirts, masks, and neon party yard cups with crinkly straws in plastic. Hedonism continued, even in a pandemic.
By the time they got to Old Vegas they hadn’t properly dealt with the Food Bag so they ordered $50 worth of Persian food and ate it on the hotel bed. They ate in silence, a Persian thing she didn’t realize until the second to last day of the trip. “Wait, I’m talking about dessert, does that count?” she said. It didn’t count as she was talking about food or imminent food. “Nothing makes me feel more American than when you look at me like I’m the most vulgar thing you’ve ever seen,” she said, during lunch. He just looked at her as he swallowed his rice.
They had fumbled the food bag. The Food Bag, oh the Food Bag. A lavender ripstop Baggu filled with four pieces of bread and three avocados. “These are your snacks?!” he had asked back in Tucson, holding up the bag. Incredulous! He was in the habit of eating a lot and eating often, so much so that she planned the day around meals so she could avoid him when he was hungry and without food.
And now a montage—the Food Bag in the backseat of the car, on the floor of the hotel, on the nightstand of the hotel, on mini fridges, swinging by the hand on a hike or through an underground parking lot, the bag stretching, shrinking, and swelling again with snacks: Tootsie pops, Swedish fish, Sour Rips, Icebreakers, Trident gum, Sour Patch kids, Haribo peaches, Tiger Milk bars, David’s pumpkin seeds, bottles of Coke, bottles of Topo Chico, gallons of Crystal Geyser purified water, satsumas, mandarins, microwaveable popcorn, Free pop tarts from hotels, styrofoam bowls of corn flakes saran wrapped across the top, chocolate milk (his, disgusting), Pedialyte, Coconut water, aloe vera juice, chili mango, wasabi seaweed snack, an enormous box of dates that she sweet-talked the grocer into selling her, mushy apples, and the four slices of bread in a ziplock that made it all the way to Desert Hot Springs before being thrown out. Each day generated a prolific amount of plastic to a disconcerting degree. Tap water wasn’t drinkable in the area they were in. Both were addicted to sugar. He cheered when she ordered a Diet Coke with lunch once.
She loved taking the elevator down into the smokey casino and stalking through the tacky glittering cave interior of the billiards section like she was a card sharp learning the floor. The chirping coin sounds, the mechanical bells, the cigarette smoke hanging in the air, the nasty 1980s Top 40 music played by live saxophone. It was weird, gross, and somehow through it all, arousing. She made a point to walk through the casino as often as she could. The blue lights of the horse betting room with its double giant flat screens showing the pumping legs of horses while men with white hair and villainous eyebrows leaned forward to watch. They sat in rows not unlike a sanctuary choir or a telethon set. Men everywhere cascading from background to foreground, placed like chess pieces, glancing at her with suspicion. She’s misplaced. Not a regular, not a drifter.
At times it occurred to her that she needed to walk with purpose so as not to make casino workers suspicious. She took to walking through hotel lobbies with utter confidence. A delusional confidence that she used to propel herself across an uncomfortable situation like an ink squid in deep ocean. The carpet was thick and leopard-printed with tropical banana leaves and red hibiscus. She wanted a room carpeted in this, floor to wall. The gold reflective ceiling got her high. Vegas worked for her. Intoxicated by its bunker aesthetics. She wanted to wear sunglasses inside like an asshole and smoke a cigarette while betting on horses, boots kicked up on the betting table. It was the perfect atmosphere to wake up and descend into. Black mirrored glass with coffee. Blue-lit race horses on a grid of screens while typing in a betting chair. Drinks are free! All the sin around her and none of it appealed to her; a perfect place to write.
Moving on, she spotted a girl her age in a sea of senior discounts. Where did she work? Where was she going? What’s in her bag? She became obsessed with the girls she saw on their way to and from work in Vegas. Walking with purpose and bare faces, in grey hoodies and dirty sneakers, feathers and bobby pins falling from their hair.
Fremont street was filled with blue light. Sometimes pink. The Golden Nugget looked halogen and sickly with its looping barrel shaped facade and saloon girl aesthetics. She stood under a giant big bulb sign that read “CASINO”. The bulbs flashed up the length of the letters and back down like liquor filling a glass. “Dollar Days” from David Bowie’s last album was echoing through the parkway. It reminded her of the time her boyfriend’s dad picked them up late one night on the strip blasting “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen while he drove the length of Old Vegas with the windows down. She had laid on a different boyfriend’s floor and wept with “Starman” on loop when David Bowie died. When she came to, he was watching men do pull up challenges with a karaoke machine. She noticed how similar his silhouette was to her Vegas ex. A mirage.
At the El Cortez, the clientele was old and the staff was young. Anemic as Bingo with quarters, the slot must be pulled, the cards must be dealt. The old woman with her hair in a french clip smoking at the bar with her mask at her chin. The struggling concierges with their long nails and cabernet-colored skirt suits. The security guards who wave soundlessly in front of sun-stretched faces to put their masks on properly. Everything in pandemic-era Vegas happened inside and in private; the rest was the Wild West littered with trash and bleached by power washing fluid and sunshine.
And love, love will tear us apart, again.
☼ Essay: Reyner Banham Loves the Mojave by Kim Stringfellow. I too love the Mojave and Reyner Banham and with Kim Stringfellow tying it together: chef’s kiss! If you’re into land use, soda lakes, the desert, old men who love talking about art and land and how we navigate through spaces, and precise historic detail you will like this essay.
☼☼ This Slim Whitman Song with an unfortunate title but with that mans cowboy yodels.
☼ ☼ ☼ That’s it.