When a simulacrum of Rome shines from across the street and compact, artificial Venice is next door, what persists from the reality I left behind a few days ago is given a renewed heft. If it can keep being heard over the sound of slot machines and background music and the excited hum of thousands of strangers, it must be real. It must be heard.
In Las Vegas, I look at the people around me and quickly account for how we are different. This isn’t much of a departure from my usual MO, but it’s heightened here.
They are happy. They are bro packs, intent and at least dimly malevolent, toothy predators in striped, collared shirts, sheep’s clothing. Bachelorette parties and sash-wearing birthday girls, three and five and nine and twelve of them, staggered and staggering across the sidewalk and the casino corridor. People who take the opportunity of being in Las Vegas as a chance to dress like they are somehow acquainted with sex work, or at least a distinctly 70s-flavored version of swinging, all cleavage and embroidered denim jackets with rhinestones and everything short or tight or lavishly embellished or all three. Families with small children, everyone drinking sweet, brightly colored slush of different proofs from strangely similar vessels. They are here to cut loose and see shows and run wild and let their hair down and have what happens here stay here. They want to quote The Hangover and eat a thick steak or a shrimp cocktail and let their woohooooooos echo down the street like thin, waving, fluorescent ribbons, dancing in the sky, evidence that they lived and lived it up and had fun with their boys/girls/various people in their lives.
I take pictures of intersecting architectural lines and contrasts that make me laugh, trying to capture what I noticed at even half the potency it had in person. I try to figure out the stories of the people walking by me. I take pictures of myself reflected in doors and windows, wondering if what’s inside of me is visible on my face. The set of my face is a little melancholy even on ordinary days, though, so I can’t tell if today is different.
It would be inaccurate to say that I have a love of over-the-top artifice, but it’s fair to say that I find it absolutely fascinating. I have seen enough marketing plans and mood boards to be able to get a sense of the feeling a hotel or restaurant is trying to give, the thesis or phrase that powered their plans visible in this lushly striped wallpaper or that ornately cast fake column. This is, of course, a state that makes actually experiencing what the creators intended impossible. But I am an observer, and I feel at least somewhat outside of things most of the time. In Las Vegas, it goes into overdrive; I feel like the child in the crowd in The Emperor’s New Clothes, except I’ve long since learned what happens to that child, telling truth to power. Her sticky remains get washed away with the next rainy day.
But, joyfully unavoidable: I also love lights and neon and glittering strands of crystal drops and unlikely spaces made with conscious opulence. Vegas is for me too, in that way.
These days, though, I walk through an intersection of real and intended. What was once meant to be, among other things, a trip to introduce my significant other to my family is instead a family trip where I have the luxury of a room to myself and the unparalleled sting of one fewer person to text before takeoff and after landing.* I had thoughts and loose plans around what it would be like to mix these two parts of my life that had never touched; instead, I’ve been largely content to go along with my family’s ideas, offering suggestions to bolster their plans more than my own specific ideas. I don’t have many specific ideas right now; I came here feeling almost startled after finding myself sitting on a plane somewhere over the desert, trying to count the steps that led me from my immersive school to seat 8C. For the last three months, I’ve been buried in semi-relocating and then learning and then trying to find a job, all processes that have been at least somewhat frantic, a constant race against a certain idea of self dissolution. I have been absorbed in computer science, heartbreak, and a growing likelihood of real relocation. As such, I had researched no restaurants or attractions. I made no loose itineraries. And, without the usual preamble of thinkery, anticipation, and research I usually go through before a trip, I felt dumped headlong into it.
Really, though, that’s how I feel about most of my life right now. A little startled, a little groggy, and another sprint to try to adjust just enough to get the most out of what I’m doing.
It’s a time of triage, of unpredictable levels of energy and feeling. And it happened that I ended up in one of the weirder places on earth just as I’ve started to feel like I might be happy again someday, with a life gathered in one place, me, my cats, and my stuff all under one roof with a good yearlong lease ahead of us. Sometimes, I can kind of see it.
In this trip, I’ve eaten speakeasy pizza. I bought art from a vending machine. I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil twice.** I’ve drank regrettable slush. I roamed, drunk and alone, through the back hallways of Circus Circus. I walked past a street full of different bands covering different decades of American pop music, all just a half block from each other. I’ve visited multiple make-believe versions of multiple great cities, gazed at gondolas and passed a Colosseum and strolled imaginary, indoor versions of New York streets. And the only money I lost to a machine was when I tried to buy stamps and only succeeded in losing eight quarters.
My regular life right now is about making large decisions. I think often of steering a large ship, something so big that there’s a pregnant pause between spinning the wheel and seeing the bow turn against the horizon. Where shall I be, and what shall I be, and who shall I be with, and what shall I do, and what shall things look like in three and six and twelve months?*** Switching to questions like “Do we want another buffet meal?” and “Do we see the show with the naked people or the acrobatics?” and “Do you think we can fit Hoover Dam and the Neon Museum in one day?”**** are a nice change.
Which I guess is what traveling is for: contrast of a most heightened kind, departure and a return that one hopes brings perspective. Now: to find out what that perspective will be.
*Nothing shows you the stark reality of your life like realizing how many or how few people you have to text from a runway. It’s a quick, sharp accounting like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Whenever it shifts, I end up breathless the first and second time.
**My second-biggest goal for this trip, despite the lack of planning. Seeing more Cirque du Soleil is always a goal of mine. The actual goal of this trip: hanging out with my family. It’s rare that I get to lure them west, that I get to make the easy trip, and it was even better than I thought it would be.
***Your guess may be as good as mine. Maybe it’s better, because maybe you have a better ability to be fanciful than I do right now.
****No. Or we didn’t, anyway, because we like to actually relax on our vacations.