Despite growing up only four hours away, I was seventeen the first time I went to Vegas, the summer after I graduated from high school, in a rented boat of an American car (Cadillac? Lincoln?) with my dad and stepmom and big brother and his then-girlfriend. We got in for a late buffet dinner and after a few minutes of desultory gambling the parents headed back to the motel, giving us kids twenty bucks each as a down payment on the rest of our night.
Back then the MGM Grand casino floor was dressed up like Oz (years later, I returned and wandered around looking for the strange trees and flying monkeys and was eventually told it had all been taken down because kids liked it too much).
An hour into a college-prep drinking game (Q: You meet a senior who invites you back to his dorm room to talk about Nietzsche. What do you say? A: Fuck off! Q: Correct! Here's a drink!), the whole gaudy Strip was Oz, a neon-bright adults-only world to which I had been granted a temporary pass. I had worn slacks and a silk blouse and put my long hair up in a bun, which always made me look older. It was enough to fool the bartender at Caesar's Palace, which I took as a minor coup.
The then-girlfriend gave me specious advice on getting drunk ("Try not to pee for as long as possible") as we wandered north, slowly losing money at nickel slots. We got to Imperial Palace before the sun came up and broke the spell. In the morning light, it was just an ugly city street. We stumbled back to the motel suite. Bad traffic on the way back to LA, the three of us hungover in the back seat of the boat. The parents tried a shortcut that wasn't.
If there was a single thing that made me feel like I wasn't a kid anymore, it was either that night or the first time I went grocery shopping by myself. Vegas was more fun than the supermarket, though.
After I moved back to LA in my twenties, I'd go for a weekend every year or so, with my then-boyfriend or with friends, once by myself. It's still my favorite place to drink. I like how it tries to be everyplace else, like a kid playing dress-up. I was a kid who liked to play dress-up.
My Vegas is lemon cake and pear brandy, brunch at an indoor plaza under a false blue sky at 2 a.m., gondolas in the basement and playing roulette while pretending to be a secret agent (I sent my friend a lock-pick kit for her birthday and she wrote a thank you note in Morse code), photos with Elvis and Joshua trees under a burning hot sky. Deep fried Twinkies are better but deep fried Oreos are worse. During the day there's sleep or Red Rock Canyon. At night there are yard-long daiquiris to be consumed, all the lights and all the people mugging for the camera, all the fun all the time, all you can eat for $9.99, and all the skirts are short and all the bartenders pour generously.
Once I had a really good hand in video poker but I panicked and pressed the wrong button and threw it all away.
Underneath my Vegas there's another city, where people live and work and raise their kids. But even there, there's a slot machine in every convenience store, and the summer sun still pours down heat until it melts you into something new.
The heat is different here in New Orleans. It's the humidity. Instead of a purifying crucible, I think of festering, of virulent growth. On a bad day, the air hangs still and heavy. Smells linger. I wish people picked up after their dogs more. I wish for an ocean wind, or for the desert, the thin clarity of Nevada air through an open car window on the I-15, with a friend and the radio cranked up and Vegas ahead, over the horizon, not waiting for us but already happening, all the time, ready.