Not eight hours into a two-week stint in Las Vegas and I’m ordering a coffee in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel and two Chinese men who look like they could be my grandfathers stop me. I’m jetlagged and unfriendly but sufficiently female. “I’m married!” one exclaims, then adds, “but I’m not wearing my ring!” He leans on the counter between me and the metal milk canister. “How are you?”
The view from my hotel room is straight down the tunnel of the Fremont Experience. If by some miracle one of those zipliners who shoot Superman-style down the length of its curved covered wagon by night came flying off her wire tether and soared on, straight ahead and gently lifted by an updraft, she would come crashing through my window. On playground swingsets, I used to imagine that if I swung high and hard enough, I could fly.
I am in Vegas to work. Each day is much the same. The weather is consistent: sunny, hazy mornings, climbing to the eighties or nineties at noon. Mornings are emails and errands. In the afternoon, I fetch the fifteen-passenger shuttle from the hotel parking lot and drive actors and crew to the theater, where the valet parking staff will tease me because I look so funny driving it (the spoken reasons: I’m so small, appear so young; the unspoken: I am female, white, sans uniform, of a certain class). I install myself in the green room for lunch and more emails, check-writing, budget tracking, printing out surveys, putting out small fires. An hour before curtain I take a walkie-talkie and hang with the front of house staff, giving out comps and press tickets and making sure everything runs smoothly. The show starts; I don’t watch it. Instead, I stand in the lobby with Sean, the house manager, who looks like every boy I went to high school with who didn’t know I existed and with whom I flirt relentlessly now in an act of private revenge. Afterwards I thank the audience for coming and ask them to stay for the talkback. About one-fourth of them do. The talkback ends. I drive actors and crew home, then park the shuttle. As I’m walking back to the Plaza, I hear the same set of songs blasting from The Experience that I heard the night before. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is every night at 9:50, followed by “Time Warp.”
In my hotel room I unload my bag heavy with a day of work — laptop and checkbook, folders of papers to file away when I get back to New York, a thick book to read in the downtime I never have. I leave the hotel. Again I stand on the edge of The Experience.
A few blocks beyond where The Experience ends and Fremont becomes just a street again is Atomic Liquors, a bar where somehow we’re the only out-of-towners, where we’ve befriended a bartender with a sideswipe of hair dyed muted red who calls us her New Yorkers and tells us who to call to deliver a decent pizza to the bar. I meet my coworkers there. We sit outside. We smoke. We buy one another rounds with our per diem. We pass around sweaters and jackets, sharing warmth. We stay until our eyes won’t stay open, and then it’s back to the hotel, to reset.
To be here is to play on a loop. Slot machines spin through the same worn combinations of images. On the Strip, historic hotels run their flashy shows (water, fire) every hour. Room service comes down the hall knocking to reset bed, toiletries, curtains, and the temperature and scent of the room to their defaults, with an attention to detail worthy of Groundhog Day.
The smell of Las Vegas: sugary and floral and chemical, like a giant Glade plugin. Flowers on a corpse. Jews don’t fuck with that. We bury our dead right away.
The trick of the loop is to make it seem breakable. Without the loop there’s no Vegas, but you have to make it invisible or there’s no gambling. People have to gamble as if the system isn’t closed, forever eating its own tail of dollars. You can only hide it for so long, though; three, four days in Vegas at the most and even the happiest bachelor party will start to reel from the stink, blame it on hangovers and loosened belts and lightened pockets, don dark glasses to prolong the illusion, leave dogged by the sense of a recurring dream.
Repetition performs odd operations on our consciousness. Months after my stay in Vegas, I’m reminded of this sitting in the audience at a dance choreographed by Keely Garfield: it dawns on me that I’ve been watching the dancers repeat a short section of choreography over and over. The recognition isn’t immediate (they must have done at least four or five iterations before I think, “I’ve seen that before”) and it isn’t confident. I have to watch them go through the same cycle another two or three times before I’m pretty sure that they’re simply repeating, not building. I don’t have a dancer’s eye, but there is more to it than that. I read once about a performance made up of two long monologues, one following right after the other, spoken by two different characters but consisting of exactly the same words; after the show, the audience refused to believe that the content had been the same. I think, too, about repetition ad nauseum, a Family Guy favorite: a thing repeated until it is no longer funny, and still the repetition continues, until it becomes funny again — we are modulating it in our brains; the change is in us.
There is something in us that struggles not to recognize repetition, even as we find it satisfying, resonant. We think difference into it.
I try to break the loop. Wash my clothes in the shower with chalky hotel soap. Hang DO NOT DISTURB on my door. To act as if I am living feels very difficult here. To continue to make myself, impossible. I still have to leave the hotel and move through the day. Again I stand on the edge of The Experience. Whether I go left, right, or through depends only on the hour.
My coworkers and I are all going through breakups. The bad sort. The kind that gives you license to act unhinged. When one of us sits at the far end of the table wordlessly staring into a glass of whiskey, or insists on staying out when everyone else is going home, or disappears for an entire night, nobody asks any questions. Two years, four years, seven and a half years; mine was three almost to the day. We’re baffled but searching. Mercury is in retrograde, we have all been saying. I am not sure where we got this from, who among us said it first, but it has now become a guiding principle for our club of lonely hearts. Astrology has done this much for us, skeptics and stargazers alike.
Saturn is doing more for me than Mercury, though, ever since an older friend said to me knowingly, “It’s your Saturn return.” He said he remembers his Saturn return: marriage, moving, starting a company. It’s something like this: Saturn is on a twenty-eight year cycle, and when it reaches the same position it was in when you were born, that’s a big deal, total rebirth with the requisite pain and renewal. I discuss this with other friends eight, ten years my senior. They all remember theirs. The decision to try for pregnancy. Parental illness and infidelity. Divorce. First major undertakings creatively, professionally. I am reminded how important it is to have friends of all ages. I am reminded that there is no first or last time for anything. When I am fifty-six maybe I’ll have to pick up the pieces all over again.
Meanwhile, every day is much the same. I am not doing well. The loop is in my body and my head.
After my first bad sort of breakup, I remember standing on the porch of my summer sublet in Pittsburgh, tired, tired of crying, tired of not being able to eat, tired of replaying the whole fucking thing over and over in my head, tired of checking Facebook to reconfirm what it had already told me pretty unequivocally (they were back together; he was on a roadtrip with her; he had left me for her; she was skinnier and blonder and more confident and wholer than I was; he was happy and relieved to find she still wanted him, and he was so in love). I could feel the tiredness broaden like a landscape darkening and for the first time I was tired of Pittsburgh and college and my friends and my life. I was twenty. My roommate James came out to smoke. The house was on one of those Pittsburgh hillsides best scaled by foot up a steep, ill-maintained concrete staircase, and we looked down together over Oakland, bumpy and familiar.
I wanted to break the loop.
“I feel like leaving,” I said.
“Going where?” said James.
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Just driving, just picking up and leaving.”
“By yourself?” I nodded. He looked at me, was quiet for a bit, smoking, then said, “You’re not ready for that.”
At the time I felt angry, defensive. But he was right. Which is something I can say only now that I know what it means to pick up and leave.
Something I will never forget: a night that same summer when we drank and drank and at one o’clock waited in the Wendy’s drive-thru line, idling cars overflowing into Centre Ave., and we took the steaming white paper bags home with us and put on an episode of Lost, and then I couldn’t, and I went upstairs and got into the bed where I’d had sex with my ex three weeks before for what I didn’t know at the time was the last time (and turned out later not to be the last time after all), and I had the spins and I cried, and James — generally cold, sarcastic James — was suddenly there and got into bed with me and held me. And he sang to me. “Cory ate a cheeseburger, someone broke her heart. Cory ate a cheeseburger, someone broke her heart.” It was so stupid. It meant so much.
If I had to pick from among all my friends the world over someone with whom to visit Vegas, James is the one I would choose. He has a particular brand of doubled consciousness that makes him acutely aware of fakeness but, also, able to genuinely enjoy the fake thing. He is adept at bringing the people around him into that state of consciousness too. I’d like to ride the moving walkway across the fake Bridge of Sighs with James. I’d like to watch the extravagant fake volcano show at Caesar’s. I bet we would have ziplined down The Experience if he were here. But James isn’t here with me now, and I can only see the fake, not the fun. I’m back to being that asshole I was at eight, calling out the magician for having slipped the red ball into her shirtsleeve instead of putting it under one of the cups on the table. I have been to living cities and I have been to dead cities. Living cities can seem cold and difficult. People who live in living cities are more likely to tell a visitor, “There’s not much to see here,” and if you are like me, you don’t start to enjoy the city until you release control and let yourself wander. Hamburg, New Orleans, Phnom Penh, Belgrade. The living city is making itself daily. It’s too busy making itself to worry about presenting itself. A dead city is all presentation. If you don’t stick to the flashing lights you’re missing the entire point. It wants to look the same to every tourist; it wants to make you think you are choosing your path while leaving you no real choice.
I break the loop. At Atomic, a filmmaker and I buy shots for one another. He’s forty-two with a face a decade younger, and the mole on his upper lip is mesmerizing at first, then disappears as he becomes a lesser degree of stranger. I talk to him about Lucinda Williams, sadness and artmaking. I no longer remember much of what he talked about. His two-story apartment is a minefield of coiled cables, screens, and loose and binder-clipped script pages, but all I see is its size — culture shock for someone who’s been living in Brooklyn for a few years, remembering that there are places in the country that have space. We stumble in, groping each other, and he leaves me lying on the couch so he can search out a song in iTunes, one I don’t know, but I remember scattered lyrics, something about blue.
It’s been years since I’ve been single, years since I’ve gone home with a stranger, and the launch back into it hits me with motion sickness, I’m dizzy, nauseated, unless it’s the four shots of Fireball we each had at the bar, but that can’t be it entirely, I realize when after a few minutes of fucking I burst into tears that refuse to stop until we do. That has never happened before, though I have felt degrees of this sadness. I have never been here before and somehow still have been here many times.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I notice is that the song he selected so carefully is still playing, faint as it floats upstairs. Blue words. It’s been on repeat all night.
Six a.m., I gather my clothes, myself. Again I stand at the edge of The Experience. Dirty and daylit as I walk through towards the Plaza, it looks like a cheap film set.
At night, The Experience reminds me of a covered wagon that stretches for blocks. Maybe this is a function of growing up in eastern foliage and seasons, so that my first association with the American desert still comes from the hours I spent as a kid playing Oregon Trail. The Experience’s enclosure is a horizontal cylindrical segment spasming with a light show in which, this October, bleary-eyed bats and broom-perched witches circle the heads of blonde buxom corseted beer-hoisting women in celebration of an ill-advised compound holiday: October Fright Fest. There is a Grimm’s fairytale menace if you’re walking through on your way to somewhere else; you sense dark creatures lurking behind the trees. The trees are slot machines and 800-calorie cheeseburgers and 99-cent margaritas in tall plastic cups the size and shape of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story without the shade. The dark creatures are bare-breasted nuns, flabby superheroes, bejeweled female escorts in nine-inch heels, the worst street performers you’ve ever encountered. And other visitors, of course — packs of men in cargo shorts gazing slackjawed at the woman who dances halfheartedly on an outdoor bar; dazed, grinning couples with guidebooks and fannypacks and intense sunglasses tans; the dude who, as I walk past, pokes me in the crotch several times in quick succession with a long pink balloon, the kind used to make balloon animals, but this one’s twisted into what it seems is meant to be a dick, with balls.
I break the loop. I follow my friend into the desert. We leave Vegas at sunrise and drive hours across heat pressed flat and made dirt, stopping for lunch in a resort town we can’t figure why anyone would resort to: one massive hotel-casino, an Applebee’s, a Wal-Mart. We try to Yelp our way to a decent sandwich and end up eating country fried steak in a dark corner of a diner that advertises itself as a casino, which means that half its tables and the entire bar are studded with video gambling consoles. Vegas struck the state like celestial debris slamming into earth and the cracks reach far. We strain to outrun them, heading for Utah.
The best part of playing Oregon Trail was hunting. It provided excellent distraction from all the dysentery deaths. Without hunting, Oregon Trail was essentially a game of chance; the game visited tragedy on the player’s computerized pioneer family according to some invisible algorithm, and you sat and watched it unfold, only occasionally taking the pace down from “grueling” to “moderate.” Stopping to hunt offered an illusion of control over your fate. When you got to the desert, though, game was scarce, and no one could ever shoot those fucking squirrels.
My friend honks his horn as we whip past a Welcome to Utah sign.
In Oregon Trail, you knew you were in the desert when the graphics turned brown. When you stopped to hunt, the game generated a backdrop with skulls and tumbleweeds in place of trees. The message was scarcity, desiccation, death, and it is stuck somewhere in me deep, so real American desert can still shock me: you’d have to be crazy or colorblind to see nothing but brown in it. Hiking into Zion backcountry, we follow a wash through a sunset of rocks, red and purple and pink. Cracked peanut brittle sand. A cluster of black skycracking skeletal trees. Mud sucks at our boots where the wash isn’t dry.
Desert national parks leave you to your own devices. Trails are marked sporadically or not at all, and in the desert, everything starts to look like a trail. Backs damp under our packs and hands swollen from swinging jugs of water, we commit to a direction. I remember what it is like to choose my own way. We sleep early and when our cell phones sing their alarms at what’s meant to be dawn, we still see nothing but stars. We’d forgotten we are in a canyon. We can’t pack out in this dark. My friend says he’ll sleep a while longer. I sit on a boulder and I smoke and I look up as long as I can and I think a herd of buffalo, a murder of crows, a disbelief of stars. I open a note on my phone and write out all of the things that have gotten stuck in my head on repeat since you broke up with me: words that wouldn’t penetrate you even if I said them to you, I know that, I have felt degrees of this sadness. I have never been here before and somehow still have been here many times.
I want to stay forever in the desert. Back in Vegas, a desert with the desert held at bay, I try to hold it with me, but I can’t make it stay. Again I stand at the edge of The Experience. I feel like leaving. Just driving, just picking up and leaving. I have been to living cities and I have been to dead cities. I am reminded that there is no first or last time for anything. The loop is in my body and my head. I am not doing well. But I’ll make another break for it soon enough. On playground swingsets, I used to imagine that if I swung high and hard enough, I could fly.