A brief diary of my LA trip
It was my last day in Vegas. Nicole and I wake up around 9, dress and have breakfast at a local favorite eatery: The Cracked Egg. I nearly forget it's the last Friday in Lent as I order my bacon and pancakes, and quickly tell the waitress to change my order to hashed browns.
"I also can't drink tonight," I say sullenly to Nicole. "Or snack."
After a quick shower, and a change, we arrive at The Strip. The weather has finally warmed up to a nice 75 degrees. Nicole has a plan for a tour of The Strip part two: The Wynn, The Venetian, The Bellagio Fountains, then dinner and meeting up with her friends at The Gold Spike, and lastly, seeing Freemont Street and The Life Cube.
We park at The Wynn's sister hotel, The Encore. Nicole points to one of many "Day clubs" in Las Vegas, where partiers drink and swim and waitresses rake in thousands in tips. There are some revelers leaving day clubs drunk in their bikini's, and a threesome of bro's flip-flopping across a street.
"Ew," says Nicole, "that guys' shirt says 'Party Like Bill Cosby.'"
"That's disgusting," I say.
"I want to let you see a day club, I'm taking you to one the next time you visit," says Nicole. We walk into the Encore lobby and find the entrance. We approach the door but are stopped by a gigantic "dress code" warning sign.
NO PANTS ALLOWED.
I look down at my jeans, which have been such an impediment the whole trip.
"Only in Vegas are no pants allowed!" I say laughing. Why are we surprised?
We walk to The Wynn and admire the lobby decor, namely a hot-air balloon fashioned out of fresh flowers. We make a pit stop for coffee, and go to The Venetian to see the "canals." Inside The Venetian shopping center runs a canal just like the one in Venice, replete with gondoliers. It's beautiful, puzzling, shocking American commercialism at it's best. I wonder: what do the Italians think?
We walk to some of the old casino's just to play a few in the machines. A casino representative cajoles me into getting a "Player's Card" with my name engraved on it. I do it, imagining that a Players Club Card from the Casino Royale is a great souvenir and when noted to the right person could make me look attractive or repulsive or dangerous or frivolous. Instant street-cred. It'll be like when I tell people I swam chin-deep in the murkey waters of Coney Island beach. Most people say, "Wow you're disgusting," or "Wow, you're brave." Now I can add to that, "I'm also a Players Club member at the Casino Royale. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
I play $10 in and win $30 (on a penny machine) and applaud myself. A pair of tourists from India stop to admire my win and laugh.
"You did very well!" they say. I forget my mantra ("Win and leave") and lose it all.
"You'd think I'd be immune to these sorts of pleasures," I want to say to someone. But the row of stools on my left and right are empty.
Leaving a casino in the daytime is like waking up from a nap. It's dark and smokey indoors, and outside the sun is baking and reflecting off the sidewalks. I even start to sweat. There are more people than there were before. On one of the sidewalks, melts a homeless woman. She's got two large breed dogs, and Nicole wants to pet them. She's kind to us and opens her wrists when she talks, revealing two Grateful Dead tattoos.
"I like those," Nicole says.
"Now and forever," she says.
We see a woman handing out calling cards for the brothels, Nicole grabs them and holds them out.
"Look!" she says. There's a woman with a poodle perm and metallic pasties smiling at me. Nicole tosses the cards in the air and they flutter to the sidewalk, where there are already hundreds of them littering the ground. "Everyone does that. The ground is covered in them."
We go into the Flamingo, which feels like an era of Vegas that has long since passed. There's a restaurant outside with a sign, "The last and only $3 Shrimp Cocktail in Vegas." The aesthetics of The Flamingo seemed prime for a clientele from the late 70s and early 80s who ate shrimp cocktails, wore patterned silk shirts and talked into gigantic cellular phones. There's a garden full of exotic birds and large koi.
We keep walking and land ourselves at The Bellagio, again, to catch their water show, then grab a cab at Caesars Palace back to our car at The Encore.
"Where are you from?" asks the driver.
"She's visiting me from New York. I live here," says Nicole.
"New York!" the driver says. He looks at us through the rear view mirror. "I love New York. I used to live there."
"Hells Kitchen for eight years," he says proudly. "You know all those annoying bike taxi's?"
"The rickshaws?" I ask.
"Yes. I owned a few of them, and ran a tour company. As soon as I settle some business in Vegas I'm moving back. The day I sign the divorce papers I'm going back to New York and I'm not looking back. I hate this place."
"I like Vegas," I say.
"My tour company could tell you all the secrets of New York," says the driver. "I can tell you where the oldest bar in New York is, things like that."
"You mean McSorley's?" I ask.
"Yep," he says.
"Isn't there some dispute whether it's Pete's Tavern or McSorley's?" I ask. He explains the dispute. I turn to Nicole. "McSorley's is great. No women allowed until the 1970s. The only food they have is a sleeve of saltine crackers served with onions, cheddar cheese and mustard made with beer. And the lights are on and there's no music. It's amazing."
"What area do you live in now?" asks Nicole. He says the neighborhood, but I wouldn't know it.
Nicole nods. "I want to move out there, but I don't want to be in an HOA."
"Damn HOA's," mutters the taxi driver.
"They told me I couldn't park my bike on my porch, it was 'an eyesore,'" says Nicole.
"There was a marine, a vet who tried to hang an American flag and they wrote him a nasty letter," says the driver. "So he painted his whole house red, white and blue, and they evicted him. Took the house out from under him."
"Why didn't they report about this on Fox News!?" I exclaim.
"They did!" says the driver.
The taxi rolls into the drop off area at The Encore. It's time for Japanese dinner. A little ways from The Strip is the Las Vegas version of Chinatown. We share a table with a father and daughter from Reno. The father finds out that I live in New York and the daughter is impressed that I work for the magazine I work for. I order a tofu soup, a miso cod, and a mini-chirashi sushi. The cod is so rich my stomach starts to turn. Nicole's bok-choi soup comes with a slug floating in it. (We get a new one, of course.)
By 10 o'clock, we're late meeting Nicole's "Burner friends" on Freemont Street (and by "burners" I mean, the friends she met at Burning Man).
"It's all the poly people," she says. I make the mistake of confusing polyamory with being a swinger and Nicole has to teach me the difference. I'm always thinking I'm far more worldly than I actually am.
Freemont Street is the old Las Vegas, surrounded by bars and high rises where the hipster-slash-bearded contingent live. According to everyone I've met, it's where the Las Vegas residents go when they want to go out. We walk to The Gold Spike, and a group of about ten drunk men approach us on a street corner.
"Where are you from?" the drunkest, a blonde bro in a polo shirt, asks.
"Alabama," says Nicole.
"Did you go to Alabama?" he asks, referencing biggest school in the state. Nicole went to their rival school, and jokingly offended, laughs.
"Hell no!" she says. "War Eagle."
The drunk is miffed.
"Where are you from?" we ask.
"Oklahoma," he says. I smirk, having always imagined that small town boys can hold their liquor because there's nothing else to do but drink and build up an early tolerance to it. He's completely glazed over, looking past us, about two hours and two drinks away from a blackout.
I approach the bouncer and I am cut off by a line-jumper who was smoking a cigarette.
"You go, you go," he says waving me forward. "I was kidding."
"It's my line," asserts the bouncer. "I say the lady goes first."
"I was kidding," snaps the smoker. The Oklahoma-drunk can't stand waiting any longer.
"Hey!" he slurs. I dash inside.
"We lost the Oklahoma-drunk in a fight," I say to Nicole, who laughs. In a quick, almost deceptive transition, we've made it out of a pitch-black bar and outside again, to a huge courtyard lit with spotlights. There are various arrangements of picnic tables, a bar in the center, a life-sized Chess board, corn hole, shuffleboard and the like. There's a large group of Nicole's friends at the Chess board. She turns to the first girl, who has purple and black braids cascading down the right side of her face, a large locket adorning her neck. I'm introduced. I put out my hand, but her friend opens her arms.
"I'm a hugger," she says. So I hug back, suddenly remembering that I'm with the poly-crowd tonight. Love is their thing.
I make puppy-dog eyes at the bar, wishing through some Catholic-loophole I could have a cocktail because I'm with strangers and my nerves are high. Oh the sound of the rack-rack-rack-a of a cocktail shaker! I'm sure there's a combination of indulgences I can use after-the-fact, I say to myself, but there isn't so I don't drink.
Nicole tosses a bean bag across the AstroTurf and it lands, and slides up, falling into a hole soundlessly.
"You do, it you do it!" she says pointing to the corn hole game set up.
"I've never played!" I say.
"You have not been on a frat house lawn then," she says.
We rejoin the group, and Nicole is congratulating the first girl I met on the large locket on her neck. A man comes up and starts telling us how he made it, and when the two of them walk off, Nicole leans into me.
"That's her collar," she says. "Her dom gave it to her, meaning that she's his main sub. He made it himself. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was, and I wanted to ask her about it." She points to the man, who is now standing with another woman. "That's his wife over there."
It immediately strikes me that they are so normal looking. Not just normal, hell, conservative. The man is in navy khakis and a blue button down polo shirt. I'm fascinated by the wives' security, she looks as though this doesn't phase her.
We all gather to walk to The Life Cube, a big public art structure in a parking lot right off Freemont Street. It was built by the Burning Man community (Nicole and her friends) with the intention of being lit on fire the following weekend. It had become a big gathering spot for Burners, and it was the next stop for us.
On a street corner , everyone points to a gigantic metal sculpture of a preying mantis, it's the size of a semi.
"What is that?" I start to ask, when all of a sudden two flames shoot out of the mantis' antennae.
"I'm a little pyrophobic," I admit, now sliding over closer to the group, fighting the urge to turn around and run.
The mantis emits two more large blasts of fire.
"How are we still friends!" laughs Nicole, seeing the irony in that her favorite day of the year is the day when they light an effigy on fire at Burning Man.
"A man is in there, controlling the flames," says Nicole. There's a crowd taking pictures. "That's Container Park a whole park made out of containers."
"You have to take her," gush her friends. "There's a playground but at night adults are allowed on it."
Nicole and I split from the group and approach the mantis.
"I don't want it to... you know," I say. Nicole laughs. We give a guy our ID and enter the park. It's really cool, like a piazza with stores and restaurants. We go to the playground, and climb up a ladder to the second floor in the dark.
"This is cool!" I say. There is a slide that leads to a dark abyss.
Nicole, without warning, dives down it screaming.
"You can't do that!" I shout at her. "You don't know what's down there."
Then I hear her voice laughing several floors below me.
"Come on down it's so much fun!" she yells. I look at the dark hole. I stick my head in, but I can't see to the bottom. I put a foot in, then withdraw it. I put my hands on my hips: there's a metaphor in this, I think to myself. Then a young couple approaches, and they jump in fearlessly and I hear them laughing at the bottom. Hunter S. Thompson would have jumped.
I climb back down the safe way and Nicole is laughing at my carefulness. We have to catch up to the group, and continue toward The Life Cube. But first, a pit stop at The Atomic Lounge, a bar where we'll be making drink run. Or rather, she'll be making a drink run.
"The scientists who developed the atomic bomb used to sit on the roof here and watch the tests from far away," says Nicole.
"Just like, 'Dr. Atomic,'" I whisper, and my eyes follow from the roof east, further and further, imagining the great big cloud rolling over the desert. God, the moral conflict! My chest feels heavy on behalf of all the people who developed the atomic bomb. How did they sleep? How did they eat? Hipsters are spilling out of the front door and onto the courtyard. I climb on a bar stool and fake like I'm choking an imaginary neck.
"I just need a drink," I say, and the bartender hops up on cue, smelling my desperation.
"Oh no," laughs Nicole, "she's my DD." She orders a spicy-summery pink mescal concoction that I'm jealous of, and puts it in a plastic cup.
The Life Cube is just across the street -- and its glowing. There's a sizable crowd around it and inside of it. People are interpretive dancing, there's a drummer and a guitarist banging tunes. A few people are out on lawn chairs, and some are doing yoga poses and headstands.
We climb inside the cube. It's two stories with a locked staircase leading to a second story, which is off limits to the public. Each wall was painted by an artist, but now it's overlapped with notes and other drawings from visitors. There's a box for people to write their wishes for the world, which will also go up in flames when the whole thing is lit on fire next weekend.
The idea that something so beautiful and unique is being destroyed makes my stomach lurch. I'm such a nostalgia loving memorist who's wallet is filled with receipts from foreign countries and restaurant business cards that I can't bear to throw away. My house is the stuff of Marie Kondo's nightmares. I have a Willy Wonka chocolate bar wrapper from 1999, just because I do.
Nicole's friends are gathered and tossing around those glow balls on a string.
"Where did you learn to do that?" I ask a girl who's skillfully throwing her glow balls around her head and waist.
"Drugs," she says.
The creator of The Life Cube appears and is introduced. He's a man in his early 40's (I'd guess). He's in a sleeveless top and linen pants, and sandals.
"Where are you from?" he asks.
"New York," I say.
"Ah, then you can be back next weekend when we light this thing on fire. They're are all kind of flight deals to New York from Las Vegas."
I laugh. "I wish I could come back here."
We're interrupted by a woman trying to do a headstand against The Cube, and another woman from the far regions from the parking lot, runs toward her.
"Yes! Yes! YES!" she screams. She crouches on the ground next to the girl, coaching her, keeping her up on her head. "You got this!"
The clock strikes 11 pm. I'm clinging desperately to Las Vegas and I do not want to leave.
"I'll show you Freemont Street," Nicole she says. "then we'll go home." Freemont is the pillar of Old Las Vegas, The Strip before The Strip existed.
"As you can see," Nicole says. "This is way more weird than The Strip." We're passing all sorts of characters, there's a man dressed up as "Pinhead" and his wife is dressed up as a superhero. Lots of drifters. A pregnant woman in a lace, see-through pink, booty-cutting jumpsuit with a plunging neckline trots around. I see so many resurrected Elvis' and penis necklaces. A live cover song band is rocking the center of the street, and a crowd dances. I like the spirit of it.
11:30 pm and I'm dragging my feet behind Nicole to the parking garage, to the car that would take us back to Summerville, the threshold that would lead us to an unmade bed, a sleep that would bring me to a departing flight.
It's a terrible feeling to know that the party's over, and a horrible sight to behold fresh confetti on the ground. Half of me wants to go all-in, all night and recover on the flight, but Nicole's got work in the morning and I've got an 8 am flight I just can't miss.
It was sad to say goodbye to Nicole knowing that my next Las Vegas trip is now far away and her next trip to New York potentially farther. I give her a big hug the next morning at McCarren airport and thank her for everything.
Walking through the airport I know -- as the week's scenes play like a flip book and get filed in their order -- that I love Las Vegas. I'm no Anthony Bourdain or Hunter S. Thompson. I'm not a strung out journalist on a trip at the Mint 400. I'm a wallflower -- that's the irony in this. I'm not living Thompson's truth. I'm living my own version of a life on the fringe, unmasking in a slow dissolve. To anyone else: insignificant. To me: gigantic. It's a feeling that hasn't come around since 2011 over two famous cappuccinos in a Marylebone cafe.
So often I leave cities feeling like a vampiress, having sucked them dry for the sake of a story. I worry that I've relied to much on the stereotypes, or saw too little, or am getting it all wrong about "X City". I feel bad for the strangers who are going to get their conversations recorded verbatim, or the wrong element of their look played up, or their restaurant, or street or neighborhood ripped to shreds or elevated to the heavens by my pen going crazy 10,000 feet in the sky.
I have Poe-like nightmares on the flight (you know the ones, nothing but curious noises and your guilt fills in the blanks). I wake up anxious: "What if I'm writing it all wrong?" Then I reassure myself: "You'll do that chronological present-tense thing, and all will be well."
Besides, Vegas is already dry.
"Another says: Sign on Paradise Boulevard – 'Stopless and Topless.'"
-- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
“Is this your girlfriend?” a voice asked. I looked down, where a woman’s French-manicured hand was gliding up my forearm. The other hand was gliding down Christian’s arm.
“No, no, no,” I laugh nervously.
“I just wanted to say ‘hi,’” she says, and shakes Christians hand. She’s in the “uniform”: sky-high lucite heels and a lace push-up bra. She leaves the table and I look over Christian’s shoulder, where a blonde is sitting in a rapper-esque gentleman’s lap. She leans back, puts her legs in the air at a 90 degree angle, and opens them like a pair of scissors.
I’m in a strip club. Let’s backtrack a bit…
The evening began innocently enough: Nicole and I made it back to Las Vegas proper from our trip to Zion National Park, where we called Christian up and invited him out for thai. My friends in LA recommended Lotus of Siam, so that was the plan.
Nicole pulled off the highway into a little strip mall.
“It’s really weird over here,” she says, and points to some of the nondescript night clubs known for being swingers bars. “But, I think they are going to turn this into a hub for Thai restaurants.”
She points to the little corner where more than one thai place now operates.
We put our name down at the restaurant, and since they are texting us when the table is ready, we decide to hit the pool hall a few doors down. It’s a massive spot, and the bar area isn’t crowded. Nicole and I slide onto stools at the bar. We each order a glass of wine, and the bartender gives us a look like, “Wine, in this place?” Two glasses of cabernet sauvignon materialize. We each put $5 in the slot machines. I lose fast.
Christian arrives and wants to play a round of pool.
“I just had a glass of wine without dinner, I’m too buzzed to play,” I say, but they insist. Christian tells me how to perfect my form — chin to the pole, bend the knees, look where you want to hit and get a grip on the table.
“OK, here we go,” I knock the ball and it hops off the table.
Nicole dies laughing.
“My father owned a pool hall, you’d think I could do better than this.”
Our table at Siam is ready by the time we are finished with the second game. We down our drinks and plunk down at a table. After the dim lights of the pool hall, Lotus of Siam feels like being awakened from a deep sleep. It’s bright.
Somehow, the conversation turns to my innocence. Christian sighs.
“I want to corrupt you,” he says.
“Join the club,” I want to say, but end up saying something much more polite like, “Everyone says that.”
“She’s never been to a strip club!” says Nicole. Christian’s eyes widen.
“No,” I say. “I don’t want to. Just like I haven’t seen ‘Titanic’ or smoked weed, I’m just not interested in it.”
I continue. “I’m one of those people that has always known that if I just did one or two bad thingsor dipped my toe in the pool I’d be really bad all the time. I feel like I’m inherently bad, so I just act extremely good to keep myself in check.”
Christian and Nicole both rear back a bit.
“This is interesting,” says Christian.
“She was a volunteer for the Pope and stuff,” says Nicole. I smile proudly.
We wrap dinner and Christian wants to go get a drink. We climb in the car and he starts driving us toward downtown Las Vegas.
“How about we go to a bar, get a drink?” he says.
“That would be fine,” I say. I look into the backseat, and Nicole is laughing maniacally.
“What’s so funny?” I ask. “We aren’t going to a bar at all, are we?”
Nicole and Christian continue to laugh.
“We’re going to The OG,” says Christian.
“The OG?” I say. “Is that a—?”
Nicole is still laughing in the backseat. She doesn’t even have to answer. I know we’re driving to a strip club.
“We’ll just go to the bar in front, we won’t even go where the girls are,” lies Christian. I’m naive enough to believe that there is a bar, a normal bar, in the place.
“Fine, whatever,” I say. We pull into the parking lot, and I’m kicking and screaming on the walk to the front door.
“What if I want to run for public office? I can’t be seen walking in here. I’m a Papal Volunteer for gods sake,” I say. “A PA-PAL VOL-un-TEER!” Anything sexual in this world repulses me. I don’t even like to look at myself naked in the mirror after a shower and I replace the word “sexy” in conversation with “vulgar.”
“We’ll go for five minutes and leave,” Nicole assures me.
We hand our IDs to a bouncer in a suit, who keeps listening to instructions on his earpiece.
“What do you do for a living?” he asks Christian.
“Does it matter?” Christian asks back.
“I just wanted to know if you were in the industry,” he says, he waves his hand to Nicole and I, asking if we’re strippers.
“Oh no,” we all laugh.
“Let me see if I can get you a discount?” the bouncer says. Apparently, there’s a cover charge. He narrows his eyes, someone is talking through the earpiece. Then he waves us in, no charge. “You’re good, go through on the left,” he says.
We walk in through a bright red hallway, and already I can see the strippers. A group of three women in lingerie and heels are crowding the front door.
“Okay, five minutes starting now,” I say to Christian and Nicole. “I’m serious. We got to get out of here.”
Christian nods toward the bar so we follow him in the darkness. There’s a stage in the center of the room with a silver, mirrored floor and three poles. There are chairs that pull right up to the stage, and little groupings of tables behind it, with three or four leather covered armchairs.
Christian pulls up to one of the little tables and we all take a seat. A waitress runs over.
“Drinks?” she asks.
“We’re waiting on a friend,” Christian says. She leaves, and we take a lay of the land. The aforementioned stripper comes over to offer Christian a lap dance, but he declines.
“These girls are way better than some of the other strip clubs,” says Nicole. “The women at those other places have c-section scars and saggy boobs.”
“These aren’t so bad, The OG is good,” says Christian. I look around. There are mostly men at each table, save for a group of women in cocktail dresses sitting right up at the stage. Looks like a bachelorette party.
“Do you like any of them?” Nicole asks, just to gauge Christian’s “type.” He points to the stage where a stripper has climbed up to start dancing.
“I like her,” he says.
The DJ gets on the mike.
“Everybody give it up for Ariel!” he says sing-songy, and the audience applauds. Nicole and Christian both whip around and look at me with a shocked face.
“Of course, of course the stripper’s name is Ariel,” I say shaking my head. Another Ariel, the second one on the trip.
She’s has long red hair that falls in ringlets to the small of her back, and a pale blue bow at the top of her hair.
“That’s probably her stage name, because she has red hair,” I note. Nicole nods.
She dances around a bit, and removes her bra and climbs to the top of her pole. Then she bike pedals all the way down it slowly, much to the audiences approval. At the end of her dance, Nicole calls her over to our table.
We introduce ourselves.
“Ohmigosh,” she says with a thick southern accent when they introduce me as Ariel.
“She’s my friend visiting from Alabama,” says Nicole.
“I’m from Tennessee!” she says.
I’m shocked at how warm she is, how delightfully nice. She keeps looking my way during the conversation but I keep my eyes on the ceiling, on the people moving around me. I’m barely paying her attention, arms crossed, ignoring her. Saying, “I’m better than you,” with my body language.
Then it hits me: Ariel Davis, you’re being a snob.
I begin to have a revelation, and time starts to slow down.
Ariel look at what you have become, I say to myself. You have built yourself a mountain of morals, and good deeds, and “all the things I haven’t done” and climb higher and higher only to look down on everyone else as “below you.” Look at what a hypocrite you have become, all your life saying that everyone is equal no matter what they do, and who they are, and then when confronted with a stripper, look how quickly your actions betray you. This was supposed to be your core, this is supposed to be your backbone. It folded and died and now you are ashamed. No, no, this isn’t you at all.
The other Ariel was teaching me a lesson that only meeting her could teach me. Time to fix this.
I gave myself a mental reprimand, then I look at her and smile.
“We just left Zion Canyon,” says Nicole.
“It was beautiful,” I say to Ariel, now committed to offering her my full attention, and now being humbled within those brief few seconds. I almost wanted to bow to her, to thank her.
I start to see value in her, and realize the value in everyone. I see my little hill shrinking in size; my feet closer to the ground. I can’t describe the feeling if I tried.
“I went camping there on Christmas Eve with my friends, with all the snow!” she says. Nicole and I both sigh at the thought.
“That’s so nice,” I say to her. She stands, puts her bra on, then leans back down to both of us to shake our hands.
“It was so nice meeting you both, you’re both awesome,” she says. Then she disappears.
A line of strippers then begins at our table.
“They saw how nice we were to her,” says Nicole, “and that we were cool with Christian talking to her. Now they’ll all want to line up and offer him a lap dance.”
They shake and wave at us, but we’re done downstairs.
Christian wants to go upstairs, apparently there’s male strippers upstairs. It’s a far cry from the first floor. The men are walking around in gym shorts, and the crowd is slim. A guy on stage is breakdancing.
“Why aren’t they naked like the girls downstairs? This is sexist,” says Nicole.
“Really cheesy,” I say. We don’t even sit down, and decide to leave.
We go to the parking lot and Nicole sighs.
“Now I feel bad for making you come,” she says.
“It’s OK, it wasn’t really that bad,” I say. “I thought it was going to be like ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ I didn’t like seeing other guys get lap dances though, it’s too intimate. I have to figure out how I’m going to write about this on the blog. I can’t leave it out.”
I climb into bed that night, and consider something the son of a viscount once told me, when we were discussing my life. It was the conversation only he and I could ever have. He’s a self-proclaimed hedonist who likes to share his sexual exploits just to shock me. He doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body, whereas I was a moralist-snot-prude, keen on being good to be above everyone else.
“Everything everyone else does doesn’t make sense to me,” I told him.
“You’re standing on a mountain top watching the ants, and not understanding what they do,” he said. “You just think your only goal is to stay on top.”
“I don’t get it?” I said.
It took five years for that conversation to become relevant, all because of a night in Vegas. I lay staring in the darkness, wondering how the hell I was going to write everything? There would be flowers sent to the viscount, that was for certain.
I fell asleep. The next day would be my last full day in Vegas. It would prove bittersweet.
"Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset up ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind. Ah yes. This is what it's all about."
-- Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
This post is part of a series, for part one click here.
The short version of it goes like this: I spent the first three months of my life in Pensacola, Florida, before I moved to Leigh Acres, Florida, a tiny retirement community just outside of Fort Myers. Around seven, my father's work transfered him to Mobile, Alabama, another Gulf Coast town just three hours east of New Orleans, one hour west of Pensacola, and 45 minutes from the casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Now for the relevant parts: As a tween and teen, my summers and spring breaks were spent either at Perdido Beach Resort or the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi. The Beau (as they called it) was brand new, every inch of it gleamed. The banisters were gold, the potted plants in real marble vases. I can still see the floral wallpapers that hung in the public lav. The family often stayed for a few days at a time and in the evenings, my mother would lean over the edge of our tented cabana and call to me in the pool. I was always swimming. I never stopped swimming.
"Don't you want to see Cirque du Soleil?" she would ask.
"No, I'd rather keep swimming," I'd say. After supper, my sister and I would go up to the room and dance to N'sync while our parents gambled 20 floors below us. That was the first time we'd ever been left alone, our first taste of freedom. During Katrina a 30 foot storm surge obliterated The Beau and the other waterfront casinos. It was rebuilt, and my parents went back.
"It's not the same," they said. Of course it wasn't.
I considered all of this while I lay in bed in Las Vegas Wednesday morning. No wonder the casinos and the slot machines felt like more than what they were, and walking through The Bellagio lobby felt so good. It was owned by the same developers who built The Beau and even modeled after it architecturally. It was pure nostalgia. It was like reliving that time through wiser, adult eyes with deeper pockets, more freedom, more everything.
We are everything we were before now.
I turned over in bed to check the time: 9:30 am. The next few days lay scheduled before me. Even before eating, my first, initial craving was put money in a machine and push the button. Thank god I didn't live in this town, I'd never leave The Strip.
Nicole and I had two plans for Wednesday: visiting her office and the Hoover Dam. We skip breakfast but make up for it with gigantic sandwiches from Capriotti's. I shook hands with her friendly fellow-vets at the office. There was a moment when I noticed Nicole's monogrammed lab coat, her name in full with "Dr." as the prefix. My eyes watered at the reminder that we were both adults and that she had achieved her dream. I'm a sap.
After the office we hit the highway again. There's no drive in Las Vegas that isn't scenic, it seems. Beauty surrounds us on all sides as we get close to the state line.
"My mom is going to kill me," I say to Nicole. My mom has had nightmares about The Hoover Dam since I was in high school and warned me against going there for years. "I'm just not going to tell her till we're done."
"After this trip your mom is going to want to kill me," says Nicole. She puts on a voice like my mother's. "'What are you making Ariel do?'"
The car starts going up higher and higher hills. The streets are now one-laned, curving around mountains and rock formations. This is definitely the landscape that "Roadrunner" ran across when he escaped from "Wiley E. Coyote."
Nicole points to Lake Mead, which flows right up to the Hoover Dam. She can't stop talking about the water levels in Nevada, and how alarmingly low they've gotten over the years.
"See that white rock? The water used to be up to there, now look at it!" she says over and over. "I can't stay in Vegas forever, this place is going to dry up."
Traffic gets thicker as a cop waves us up another set of hills, and we park the car in a garage. We've made it to the dam. So far, I'm still alive.
We start walking the dam and admiring the view of the river all surrounded by rocks. Many of the same plaques first put on the dam still exist, the dedications on them are written in a gold, art deco font. It's cute. We cross the border into Arizona, which surprises me.
"I had no idea I'd get to go to a new state!" I exclaim.
We get a photo of me straddling the border between Nevada and Arizona. I look around at all the flags and plaques and monuments and speakers playing trumpet music -- this place feels more American than Washington D.C.
There's a road that will take you to a bridge to view the Dam from up high. We make the ascent and note that it's even more beautiful from up above and boy, what a drop to the bottom. I'm usually not afraid of heights, but my mothers dream keeps popping up in my head. We head back to the city and so far, I'm still alive.
Back at the apartment we relax. We're tired from the night out before and the early morning. We want to go out to The Strip but decide against it, we have to get up at 6 am to go to Zion National Park.
I sleep deeply and the next morning, and an hour off schedule, we're headed east toward Utah. Nicole puts on Phish.
"With views like these, we should be listening to Aaron Copland," I say. "We're in the heartland!"
("My heart feels like an alligator!")
We whirl through the Virgin River Gorge, a weaving road between rock formations. We make a pit stop in a tiny little Utah town for In and Out burgers on a street named after Brigham Young.
"Nicole I just realized I'm wearing leggings. We can't get out of the car," I say. She bursts out laughing.
"They won't do anything!"
"Do you know how many blog posts I've seen about how unholy it is for women to wear leggings? I'm hiking but I should have brought jeans. I don't want to disrespect their community..." I say quickly.
The prudish side of me, the side that likes to conform with the ideals of the religious world, comes out. It hadn't made an appearance since I landed in Las Vegas. I love protocol, I love showing people that I respect them (through my actions, my dress, etc.) even if I don't always agree with them. I just didn't know that Zion Canyon was in Utah.
"No ones going to care!" says Nicole.
"We're in Mormon country!" I say. "Oh my gosh I'm wearing an Obama sweatshirt, too."
"Don't worry, we're going through the drive through. Just don't laugh at my order," Nicole says. She rattles off a list of secret-menu items and asks for "stickers, and a hat too." We tear into our burgers the rest of the drive, following the signs to Zion. After passing through several sleepy towns, we meet the park, and it is impressive.
Nicole describes all the different hiking trails we can go on. She points to the tallest formation at the place, Angels Landing, the hardest trail.
"I did that one. There were so many switchbacks. Its really dangerous. Some of the trails have a chain up for you to hold on to, and if you make a wrong step, you could die. But the view is worth it," she says. "When I was doing that trail I saw this little eight-year-old girl doing the trail by herself. I told her it was too dangerous to do alone, her mother was waiting for her at the bottom. I told her I would do the trail with her. We have all of these photos together and I told her I would send them, but she gave me the wrong email address. I'll never know who she was."
"You saved her life," I said. "Seriously."
The hike to Angel's Landing intrigues me, but we stick to the easy trails. We start with a short drive, then park and take a tram to the Emerald Pools. The trail takes us around a rock and through it, where small waterfalls graze the sides of the path. We share the trail with families, couples and hard-core outdoors-y types with expensive looking gear. But we have moments of solitude where I forget that I'm at a National Park and I realize that I'm in the most naturally majestic place I've ever been. The rocks are unreal.
We do a second easy trail, The Riverside Walk. The temperature drops and the path is too crowded by selfie sticks, but the views are worth it.
We decide we're tired and hop on a tram back to the car. Tourists from everywhere spit-off Italian and German and Midwestern-American-English on our ride, I try to catch bits of conversations for my notebook . An Italian man closes the bus porthole window without permission, then looks about himself sheepishly.
"We can do this because...AMERICA!" he grunts.
A little before sundown we leave the park. I'm sad to see the rocks disappearing behind us. We exit back through the tiny towns of Utah making a pit stop at River Rock Roasters. I order the cold brew. The barista is confident that I'll like it, and after I take a sip, exclaim, "This is the best cold brew I've ever had!" He seems proud that a "New Yorker" likes it. This throws me.
When you travel as a New Yorker, people assume you're used to the best of the best. It's an odd feeling to live in a place that has become "the standard" when New Yorkers walk around all day thinking that everywhere else is far more normal, far more civilized than the hype machine. Sure, in New York you can get it, but is it the real thing? Is it the corporate, high-priced, pretentious it? Is it still it if it's the trained in Lyon, sabbatical in Thailand, gourmet version of it? Is it still it if it's new spin on it that's organic and gluten free, or "inspired by?" Don't they know that New Yorkers travel outside the city to get it the real it, to talk about it and it Insta-Tweet it and eventually blog about it when "oh my gosh they're opening one up in East Village." So often in Alabama do waiters hand me a meal with an apology, "I'm sure it's not as good as anything you have in New York," and I want to tell them, "Its probably better."
Believe me, the best cold brew is in Utah.
We have to go meet Christian for dinner at a thai restaurant. I'm about to have an evening that teaches me the biggest lesson I would learn this year, but I don't know it yet. The sun starts to set, leaving its glow at the tops of the rocks and the peaks making the journey home even more beautiful.
I sigh between bites of elk jerky. "Daaahhhmmmnnn Utah. At it again with the canyons."
This series is dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson, for providing posthumous permission and an excuse to go all in.
"What's it look like?" my father asks over the phone. It's a perfect day in Las Vegas, except for the wind. I stood huddled under a portico at McCarren Airport, waiting for Nicole to come pick me up. I was rehashing Los Angeles for him quickly, because I knew I was descending into a bevy of casino's and canyons and wouldn't have a free second alone.
"It's OK. The Strip is right here," I said. "you can see it from the airport. It's huge."
"What are you going to do next?"
"We might go to Red Rock Canyon," I said. I had talked to Nicole before I flew out and she excitedly set the plan for day one. I was glad we were doing something, anything and as early as possible. I'd come to visit her, yeah, but this wallflower also came to drink a little, to maybe smoke a cigarette, to see the Grand Canyon. I'm never reckless but this seemed like The Place for recklessness.
I hung up and sat on the nearest concrete bench and rubbed my hands together. Was I the only one cold? The other newly arrived people were in shorts, capri pants and sandals. On the West coast, even if its chilly, you dress with a little optimism. That cold would persist the following days.
While I waited, I tried to lay out what Los Angeles had been without much luck. I'd just written the semblance of a "bottom line" when Nicole's SUV came rolling down through the pick up lane. The adventure starts now.
Nicole apologizes for being late, which is no matter to me. Then we discuss the future trip to the Grand Canyon. She says it'll be a long drive, too long for one day and even longer pulling her trailer behind her. So we decide to do her favorite canyon in Utah instead: Zion National Park. But, that would all be later in the week. More importantly, we'd spend that night having dinner and out on The Strip. I was desperate for a drink and to play a few rounds of the slot machine. I was feeling like my father, he can't pass a slot without putting $20 dollars in.
We run a brief errand to pick up her dogs from the groomer. She's got a tiny dog named Houston, a ball of fluff and a sweet pit bull named Freebird.
"They're suckers for being petted," she says. We drop them at the house (an apartment in Summerville), and start toward Red Rock. As soon as we hit the highway, it's like the whole of Las Vegas develops below us. All the major points within sight, like the markers on a board game -- or better yet, a pinball machine. I marvel at the surrounding mountains and canyons that envelope Las Vegas, the ones you never see on TV. The biggest rocks are getting closer and closer, and we're seeing less houses and shopping centers. It looks like every car commercial set in the west.
"Where is Roswell?" I ask Nicole. This would be a good place to get picked up by a UFO.
"You can't even get near it without getting shot," she says. We pull into a driveway that leads to the Canyons. My mouth drops open.
"This is amazing! This is so foreign to me, I've never been in the dessert. I've never seen a real mountain like this one!" We start driving the 15 mile loop past all the famous rock formations. At the first, we park the car and start descending down into them. A succession of steep slopes lead us to the center of a big formation, we're the only ones around. Everything is a beautiful shade of orange-y pink. The ground is so dry at some places it cracks.
"Just wait till you see Zion," says Nicole when she sees the awe on my face.
We leave right before sundown and following dinner go directly to The Strip. I had a Margarita with my meal that was slowly peeling away my nerves and inhibitions. Nicole parks the car at The Bellagio. First stop of the evening.
She wants me to see the famous Bellagio gardens, which change depending on the season and holiday. Pink flowered trees, trellis', fountains filled with koi and little birds were being heavily photographed by all the tourists. She shows me the famous chocolate fountain, and then we decide that our buzz needs a refresher. I sit down at a bar and order a Negroni from a middle-aged bartender from Davis, CA. It says so on his name tag.
"What's a Negroni?" Nicole asks. The bartender is tossing in a shot of Bombay Sapphire, my favorite gin. He and I exchange a glance and say nearly simultaneously, "a lot of alcohol."
I lean into Nicole. "Straight alcohol. I wanted to serve it at my birthday party but everyone would have passed out."
The bartender hands us another set of straws, I offer the glass to Nicole. She sips it, and puckers her face up, then leans back like it'll knock her off her stool.
"This is so strong!"
"It's my drink of choice."
I love the feeling of having one drink behind me and another in my hands. I'm not a lush, but when I'm depressed and anxious and melancholy, alcohol reminds me whats on the other side of all that. What I'm staying alive for.
"I want to play the slots," I say to Nicole. I take about $60 out and plan on spending it all. I've been gambling for over a decade. I grew up in a dry household, so 21st birthdays mean nothing but 18th birthdays are everything. My father drove me over to Biloxi to play at the casinos when I turned 18, and a man on the slot machine next to me left with $860,000. It's my favorite gambling story to tell.
"I win and leave. Win and leave," I say over and over to Nicole as my mantra. We park at "Wheel of Fortune" and I quickly turn $20 into $80 and cash out. I instruct Nicole to do the same the second she's 1/3 ahead. She does, so we fan our winning tickets in the air, cash out and march to The Cosmopolitan hotel next door. I'm having a hell of a time.
If The Bellagio, with it's corporate flourishes, gilded banisters and every-man appeal is your distinguished, middle-aged parents, than The Cosmopolitan is their 25-year-old children, hip, dark, edgy. The crowd there is younger. Nicole wants to walk me through The Chandelier Bar, a three story spiraling bar that surrounds a three-story chandelier. At each of the couches and tables are groups of fabulous people, and at one of those tables, a familiar face for Nicole.
"What are you doing here?!" Nicole's friend, Anna, asks. She invites us to join her for a drink. She's also got a friend visiting from Louisiana, named Stephanie. They are all veterinarians except me.
The Negroni is still holding my brain captive, so I forgo a third drink. I really enjoy it there in the lounge, it's hip but not snobby. In New York, sometimes you don't get one without the other. Anna's boyfriend is coming to meet us, but Stephanie is hungry. Nicole knows about a secret pizza joint on the fourth floor. Ten minutes later we're all scarfing down greasy slices in a bright, crowded, little place.
"This is really good!" I say, and everyone smiles.
"She's from New York, so it must be good."
They are going to another attraction and Nicole and I have plans to hit The Double Down for ass-juice. We head back to the car through the casino. On the walk it is announced that someone in the group needs a cigarette, and three boys from Whistler oblige. We stop in the middle of the gambling floor. Introductions all around.
The very handsome man to my left extends his hand.
Of all the names in Vegas. I don't know if my face crumples or brightens or swells with surprise.
"Ariel," I say.
"Where are you from?"
"She's visiting me from New York," Nicole says proudly.
"Where are you from?" I ask.
"Whistler, Canada," says Beau.
"Canada. Where everyone's going when Trump is elected," I quip.
"Are you voting for Hilary or Bernie?" Beau asks. "Is that too deep too soon?"
"No, it's a good question. It's perfect. I like this kind of conversation. I actually don't know. I took a quiz online and it told me I should vote for Hilary but that I agreed with both of them," I say.
We all start to walk and talk a bit. Two of the boys are drinking Red Stripe's out of paper bags. (I think in Vegas, the paper bags are unnecessary.) I learn that they are all professional snowboarders. They are 24-years-old.
"Babies," I say. "I'm 31!"
"Where are we going next?" one of them asks. "Let's take you to a night club."
"They're all fancy," says Nicole.
The boys look down at our jeans. "Can you change?"
"No," says Nicole. "We're going to The Double Down. It's a dirty dive bar. You can get ass-juice and a Slim Jim for $3. Ass-juice is the stuff that's leftover in the bartenders glasses when they mix drinks. They pour it all in this big thing."
"Anthony Bourdain drinks it," I say in it's defense.
The boys don't like that idea, so we do what Millennial's do -- we promise to friend each other on Facebook. Party together later, go snowboarding in Whistler, whatever. I memorize their names.
"Beau's profile picture is fucking amazing. It looks like an Oakley ad," says Simon as a way of direction.
We all hug and leave. Nicole is ecstatic.
"I want to be your wing woman, those guys were hot!"
"One guy's name was Beau, did you hear that?"
"We should call them," says Nicole.
"They were babies!"
"I want to be your wing woman," Nicole says again.
"I'm not dating for another ten years. It'll take forever for me to get over Bo."
"Well, you know what they say, the way to get over someone is to get under..."
By 1:30 am we pull up to The Double Down, which I only know from Anthony Bourdain's "Las Vegas" episode. I'm a big fan of Bourdain and the whole slew of rakes I keep around because they consistently challenge me. I'm a God-fearing square who does everything 10 years later than the general population, the person who leaves the party the second weed comes out (or if I'm feeling extra cocky, request that they put it away). My wild friends keep the doors to my brain wide open. Without them, they'd snap shut.
Music is blasting out the front of The Double Down. The awning reads, "The Happiest Place on Earth." Nice. An improvisational jam band is playing. Nicole tells me that they never record, they just do what comes to them in the moment.
"They're really good, but they are too loud," she yells. I look behind me, the seats at the bar in the back are taken by death heads, metal heads, and gawkers. I'm carrying a freaking Cole Haan bag for goodness sakes, I feel like a sore thumb. I sit at a table, maybe I can hide out. I notice there's graffiti everywhere, and behind the band the phrase, "Shut Up and Drink" is written on the walls. On stage there's a man with wild gray hair front and center glidding his hands up and down and electric guitar with a lot of precision. There's a middle-aged man in a button down and dress pants on the keys, another of his kind on the bass, a kid in a lumberjack shirt is drumming and a man is on the trumpet, wailing into a mike.
My stomach growls angrily at everything I ate: the Korean hot dogs, the steak tacos, the Margarita, the Negroni, the pizza. It was too much. I can't have ass-juice. It would lead me to Ulcer City in the morning.
Nicole doesn't have any either. We decide we'll leave after her friend Ari arrives.
"His name is Ariel," she says.
"Another Ariel!" I exclaim. An hour later and Ari is walking through the door. He's got a black basketball jersey on, for a team I don't know, and a matching red and black baseball cap. He has a jet black beard stopping right at his his clavicle, and arms covered in bracelets and rings. Thick, black rimmed glasses.
"Another Ariel!" he says.
"Where does that name come from?" asks Nicole.
"It's Hebrew," I say. Ari nods, but narrows his eyes, as if he's wondering if I'm Jewish too. He walks off to say hi to the rest of the band. He comes back and whispers something to Nicole, but she shakes her head.
"No, she's really innocent," she says. The second set is about to start, so we go outside to talk. There are people on the porch smoking weed (I don't partake because it doesn't interest me). A man in his late 50s walks up to them, I imagine he's about to bust them, but he raises an eyebrow.
"Seems like you guys got something over here?"
I was wrong. He wants a hit.
I'm introduced to a famous rock band photographer that Nicole saw shooting at some of her favorite shows in California. We talk until my eyes close from the jet lag. The rock photographer hugs me goodbye. Everyone hugs in Vegas.
I go home but I can't sleep. I'm too excited by all the conversations and the feeling of limitless from just one night. I could write all night about every face and every nuance and every conversation. It pains me that I have to condense it to a post, but there's enough to fill years and years. I write that on my Facebook wall. Around 3 am I fall asleep. I can hear Houston the dog breathing underneath my doorframe.
Valentine's Day weekend I walked into the kind of "Same time, same place, never in a million years" coincidence that I couldn't even begin to write about. I know, I know, it's all probability but things have felt a little topsy-turvy and foreboding since. I have the same job, the same apartment but its the minor changes and new projects -- my evenings are now for business calls to Mohali and Dallas and Pilates or barre classes. My muscles are either hurting, or growing, or reminding me of their new presence. I started eating hard boiled eggs. I still pull my hairbrush past the short ends of my hair, forgetting that it's now just past my chin. I fidget in the steam room. I cancel plans constantly because I'm always short on funds, it cripples my ego in a way I'm not accustomed.
For this reason, my brain is constantly grasping for the familiar.
Monday night I rode the 1 train home and for the first time I tried to remember Bo's smell and I couldn't. I began to cry. My breath became short, I knew I was panicking. I'd left my sunglasses at home, which I normally wear on the train if I'm crying. I'd have to calm myself down so no one would notice.
"I know what I'll do," I said to myself. "I'll get his blue shirt out of the closet and I'll smell it." He'd left a blue checked button down in New York, along with a Chinese tea set, a backpack, a variety of scarves, paperback books, a few items of memorabilia from a German Papal event, a deep fat fryer, a pasta machine, a broken espresso machine, a dozen or so unused gift cards, rice wine, Japanese miso, an undated human skull and a repurposed plastic juice bottle filled with ink pens and mechanical pencils. When I got home I pulled his shirt from the back of my closet, and ran my nose around the collar, but his smell was gone. My safety net failed.
Before the break up, I told Bo that my biggest worry about being long distance was that I was afraid of not knowing him as well as I did when he was in New York. Despite now being broken up, I spend a lot of time trying not to forget Bo. I know what happens in time: the details fall from your brain. The important things, like the sound of his laugh, become fuzzier and fuzzier. Now facets of my own life are different, frighteningly different, it seems to only make it harder all around.
I put Bo's shirt back. I wondered if I should cut the nonsense and mail it to him.
"When do I get to make progress?" I asked myself. "When do I get to 'feel better?'"
I still cry when I have to tell my co-workers. The word "Tinder" makes me recoil. I still find excuses to message him any silly thing that connects to any shred of something he would like: articles about Italy, video's of otter babies, "so-and-so says hi" sort of things. This doesn't include all the times I wrote to him and deleted the message, only to sulk at my weakness. Everyone asks me how I've been doing, and I tell them "Okay," but there's a blue shirt in my closet, and it says, "not true."
Sometimes I can be a real horror. Those moments are equally as important to write about as my good days. Therefore, I'm penning a series on how awful I can be. This essay is the first.
There are two scenes that I will always remember from my 2012 trip to Paris: biking at Versailles and the first time I saw Henri. It was Easter Sunday, a gloomy, cold, rainy day in Paris. I'd only been there two days so far, and had managed to sleep off jet lag, eat a quiche in a cafe and walk to Notre Dame for mass. I was staying in an enviable spot, an apartment I had rented on the Ile Saint Louis that had once belonged to a string of famous French writers. After returning to my apartment from mass, I opened the two windows and looked out and to my right. Henri was bouncing down my block, a tall brunette man in a long trench coat and smart shoes. I saw him stop at my door, stand in the middle of the one-way street, and look up.
I felt like "Juliet" on her balcony. I waved.
"Salut Henri! I'm coming down!"
In hindsight: that tiny greeting led to a trans-Atlantic and New York romance that would last at least two years. But who ever imagines these things as they begin?
On a fifteen minute walk from my island to the Bastille we had the general, "Oh my gosh, we met on the internet" fodder. It was good to break down the story from his point of view: a New York girl was caught looking at his OkCupid profile (me), then he responded and was curious only because she "was attractive."
We wrote for weeks, and then decided to meet while I was there on vacation. It was less awkward than I imagined. Henri was easy to talk to, eager and hardly nervous. We landed at a restaurant so "local" that the waitress didn't speak English like the ones in the touristy areas. We had steak and wine.
I learned more about him over our meal. He lived in a suburb of Paris. He worked for an institution that made him distrust privacy (according to him, there was no such thing) and for that reason was without a Facebook and an Instagram. HIs English was exceptional. I preferred to practice my French, but he enjoyed to practice his English. But when I did speak French, he smirked. "I like the accent." Sometimes American women imagine French men to be like "Pepe Le Peu," but Henri was skilled at being gentlemanly in an un-cheesy, genuine way.
In his emails and our chats, he'd raved about a Belgian beer spot close to the restaurant, Le Troll Cafe. We decided to walk there next. It began to drizzle, and being that it was now 21:00 on Easter, most of Paris was indoors. Even Le Troll Cafe, was nearly empty.
Henri was a regular, he greeted the bartender and seemed proud to be there with me. We got two beers and opted for the front room of the restaurant away from the small crowd near the bar. We laughed through one beer, and Henri offered a second.
"I can only have one," I said.
"Why can you only have one?" he asked.
"I'm on an anti-depressant. Its strong," I said. I darted my eyes to the open bar door. The spring breeze was coming in.
"Why are you depressed?" he asked.
"I've had a lot of horrible things happen to me," I said. (I gave him a little more detail than I'm writing here.) I was worried that I'd said too much too soon, but then suddenly admired myself of being so honest with him. "I'm sorry I--"
"It makes me want to protect you," he interrupted. I remember my heart falling to my feet in admiration for him. He didn't brush it off, he didn't change the subject, he didn't tell me to "come on, be happy, life is wonderful, that was just a few times" like everyone else I knew.
He took my hand across the table.
"Come here," he said. He rose in his seat a little, cupping my face with his hand, looking very deeply into my eyes. Then he leaned in and kissed me delicately. We laughed as he took his seat again. He was smiling like a child. We said goodbye to the bartender on our way out, and he winked at Henri and said, en Francais, "Don't have too much fun."
Henri wanted to show me the Pont des Arts, which is normally full of students and people playing music. It was 23:00. The walk there was beautiful. We peered into the Place de Vosges, and all the lit up shops, and were virtually the only couple on every street. We held hands, we kissed under awnings. Henri even paused to remind me that we could kiss as little or as much as I liked, "You set all the boundaries and I will follow them" he said, which made me respect him even more for the importance he placed on consent, even for kissing.
It was still Easter Sunday so the Pont des Arts was empty. We stood there talking and admiring the Seine. I looked up at the Eiffel Tower as it struck midnight and glittered from top to bottom.
"Look Henri, look!" I exclaimed.
"It is midnight in Paris," he whispered, pulling me in and kissing my ear. In the life of Ariel Davis, it doesn't get much more cinematic than that.
The next morning we met for brunch at Eggs and Co. in the St. Germain. Storms were hitting Paris, so as we cancelled our tour of Jardin des Luxemburg and to the streets, arm in arm. Henri made it a point to kiss me at every pont and crosswalk. We went to a Marché aux fleurs (or flower market) and crossed room to room among lush hydrangea and roses and lilies. I paused once to sniff one, and Henri came up behind me to kiss my neck and without word, glided away into the next room. I watched his rain coat, his dress pants and fancy shoes leaving me.
I felt like I was living in a painting or a dream. Imagine Henri crossing room of magenta, golden, blush and orange flowers in a gray colored coat, and then turning, the blue of his eyes, and above him, the clear ceiling tent, and gray clouds, somewhere in the Fourth.
I remember thinking, "French men! What is in the water that teaches them to be good at romance?"
The day began to close, and Henri would have to go back to work. I would be spending the next day at Versailles. "You'll stop in Issy-les Moulineaux to see me?" he asked. It was one of the train stops on the way to Versailles.
"I don't know," I said.
"Please come," he pleaded. "Think about it."
I walked him to his train, and at the metro entrance we hugged in the rain. The next day I had the best day of my life in Versailles. My train stopped at Issy, and I kept on going. I didn't want to say goodbye but I did not go to Issy. I was afraid.
After my trip I returned to New York and back to my normal life: a pile of papers on my desk, psychoanalyst appointments on Tuesday nights, 80 mg of Prozac a day. Paris didn't help much to assuage the depression I wanted it to cure.
Henri and I emailed fervently post-trip.
"I have a friend who just moved to New York that I want you to meet," he wrote. "But I am worried. I think you will be to his liking."
To his liking?! I remember thinking as I read. I suddenly imagined Henri and I in Regency Era costumes in a drawing room. "I believe Lady Davis, that Master Dax will be to your liking..."
"Just watch out for his French side," he wrote. I scoffed at this. As if women weren't immune to the wiles of the French man? I rolled my eyes and emailed his friend, we planned for drinks at Vin Sur Vingt. I thought it was French enough.
Dax was waiting at the bar for me that evening, we shook hands, ordered a bottle of wine. Dax was much more quiet than Henri. He called himself a "geek" often, being that he worked as a web developer for a household-name tech company. They'd transferred him to the city and he didn't know a soul. He'd managed to get an apartment in The Village, but seemed annoyed at the rules of New York (already). I told him, with a coveted apartment in West Village things were looking good for him.
We practiced my French, then we decided that the waiter was "fake French." We talked about Henri, but I left out the gushy romantic parts. It seemed that there was a small rivalry between Dax and Henri that Dax let on to, something once involving a girl.
Those drinks turned into several more dinners that week. He was friendly in a quiet way, but started to open up more slowly and cautiously. I enjoyed his strict pragmatism, the way he narrowed his eyes and shrugged and let his hair grow obnoxiously long and crazy because haircuts were expensive, wore the same jacket because it was cheap. But I couldn't read him. Was he normally friendly, or perhaps just lonely? Henri wrote that he was jealous of Dax being in New York.
On the day he officially moved to his New York space, I met Dax at the apartment for a glass of wine before our dinner reservation. We talked and laughed and watched ridiculous YouTube videos. Nothing out of the ordinary.
It grew close to our reservation, so I stood to put on my coat.
"It's time for dinner," I said.
Dax was standing on the other side of the living room, glaring at me.
"What?" I asked as I tied my coat.
He marched across the room with a strange determination, and kissed me. We didn't move from that spot for at least ten minutes.
"Are you happy?" he whispered.
"I'm surprised. And happy," I said.
We went to dinner at Smorgas Chef, and when our steaks came, didn't even dig into them. Due to the shock, of course.
"I can't believe we kissed," I said, realizing that after the glow wore off, I would need to tell Henri. I felt an ulcer warming in my stomach.
"Why?" asked Dax. "Why are you surprised, we have gotten along quite well."
"Famously," I said. "But there's Henri..."
"He would be happy," he said.
"But you see, Henri and I..."
"Were you involved?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
My steak was getting cold.
"He cannot be mad," Dax's voice rose, and his accent became more sharp. "It is ridiculous, I don't want to discuss it, or I will get really mad."
So we didn't discuss it. Henri cancelled the trip he wanted to make to visit me. Even though he blessed the relationship, writing "Live your life, I am far away," I felt caught between the personalities and the locations and the ideas of two very different French men.
A month went by. Dax and I dated very happily until he faded away for a few months, reappearing, with a new girlfriend.
I spent several months heart broken and confused. Henri emailed me and chatted with me and assuaged my fears. Then somehow, Dax and I got to a place where we could speak to each other. One late night we met at his famous, sprawling tech office and played ping-pong, rode scooters, ate ice cream, visited all the picturesque terraces all alone. We had so many starts and stops that year, and all the while Henri emailed reminding me of how much fun we'd had in Paris.
And then sometime, I realized what a villain I had become. I lacked loyalty and right judgement. I should have never kissed Dax. In my long list of romantic foibles, this was the biggest. I learned quickly that "All's Fair in Love and War" was for the perpetrators and fools.
A few more years and nearly a peep heard from Dax. From Henri, we email once a month or so.
In my mind, it goes like this: I'm standing at a cocktail party. I feel comfortable, I'm drinking my favorite drink. I'm wearing my favorite dress. Then suddenly the host says, "Oh my friend X is arriving, he just texted that he's down the block." I imagine them walking down the street, rising in an elevator, ringing the door bell. I get nervous. Then I see them crossing the party to greet me, and I fear that when they do I might not live after they shake my hand.
This is what depression feels like for me. I've been diagnosed so many times that I know what it looks like from far away. I can anticipate it coming through progressive shifts in my attitude. Something as small as how many times I leave the house on the weekends, the amount of sleep I get, how much I start to neglect my hygiene.
In my younger years this felt like quicksand. After some acclimation and age, it feels like an old frenemy.
With everything that has happened the past two months, its been the kind of time where a simple task like, talking to customer service about my New York Times subscription, can leave me in tears. I don't leave home on the weekends. I sleep the days away, burrow on the sofa under a pile of mail, dirty socks, tissues, five-day old water glasses and under-the-door menus and watch Korean Dramas until I fall asleep.
But this isn't about depression at all, but the small things that make it better. This is a love letter to my consolations. Specifically, Travis (and Fran Healy).
Sometime in December I went to the audiologist per referral from my ENT. My last visits to my ENT had not been positive. I sat down once and he said the most alarming things: that I could lose my hearing, soon. We did some tests that were OK, but he needed to know more. He needed a specialist.
I got to the audiologist early and she sat me in a white booth and attached a bunch of plugs and things inside my ears. The booth had a clear glass window, where the audiologist would sit and at a bunch of futuristic computers give me sound prompts. Easy stuff, like, "raise your hand if you hear this word."
I was nervous. We began. It was the most horrible feeling in the world to look through the glass window and see her saying things that I couldn't hear. My knee jerk reaction was to panic, cry, and suddenly say the name "Fran Healy". The human voice that I believe, personally, is the most beautiful singing voice in the world. What if I couldn't hear that voice?
My results were fine.
"There are some low tones you can't hear," she said. We would retest in a year, to be certain that it wasn't getting worse. I left her office, wandered north up Madison Avenue back to work. I ran through the list of things in my life made better with Tchaikovsky and Travis and Fran Healy. It was a long list. It was the first time I'd realized how strongly I relied on them in times of pain.
When I write about Tchaikovsky (which is often) I write about how I have been listening to him since I was as young as seven years old. I write about what it feels like to get taller, to advance to the next grade, to graduate, to move to New York and always have Tchaikovsky as the constant accompaniment. The most magical thing is that pieces I heard and loved at 10 years old, I can revisit at 31 and feel like 10-years-old was yesterday. It's a strange and beautiful phenomenon. Like having a lifelong friend.
The band Travis has an equally important relationship, but a shorter one. I was introduced to them through MTV when I was a teenager. This heightened my interest in all the music coming out of the UK at the time. I added Starsailor, Coldplay and Oasis and other Brit-Pop to my Napster playlist. Then suddenly (this was pre-Google, mind you) I was using my library card to check out books about Scotland and England, and by junior year, was ready to go to university there. To the optimistic melody and sad lyrics of "Ring Out the Bell" I daydreamed about being somewhere else. A very beautiful, imaginary world came to be though those songs on their "The Invisible Band" album. An album I still listen to once a week. Its like a safety net or a bowl of ice cream. Always pleasant, always enjoyable.
Even then, at 17, when I received horrible news and my world felt stationery, large and unreachable, the same was true. Things felt better just by listening on repeat. (This was much to my sister's chagrin, who was subjected to it every morning when I wasn't praying the rosary. "This is so boring. This is mall music," she would say. I felt very vindicated a few years ago, while on a date with an Irish polo player [!!], he said, "I love Travis, a lot of people don't know this, but they paved the way for Coldplay and Keane.")
In 2012 things were dire for me. Dire enough for daily doses of Prozac. In response, designed a trip to Paris just from listening to Travis' "Somewhere Else." The song has the sort of sparkle and twang of all their other songs and ignited my imagination. I used to imagine walking the steep streets around the Sacre Coeur even though I'd only ever done it on Google maps. I started taking French lessons that year when I thought a trip could save me from depression. Read: it doesn't and it won't.
Fast forward to now: 31-years-old with a raw break-up wound and a $180 "accidental" trim turned haircut. This is the time where I crave feeling like Ariel. Instead, I feel like I'm wearing a costume. Every night I go home, climb in bed and listen to Travis' "Afterglow" until I can't stand it anymore. At the end of the song, Fran Healy's voice ascends higher and higher and the melody repeats itself enough that in a relaxing way, you're being lifted.
In June of last year, I was at Sing Sing Chinatown for my sisters birthday. It's a basement karaoke joint.
"You should sing something?" One of her friends said. He caught me flipping through the big book of songs. I've never sang karaoke before.
"I sing karaoke at home by myself, but I only sing Travis songs."
"You could do that one, what's the one? 'Why Does it Always Rain on Me?'" he said.
"Yeah, I could," I said.
"His voice is so..." he said. I didn't hear the rest of his sentence, but I knew he must have said something highly complimentary, like "ethereal" or "magical" or "unadultered". I closed the song book. I decided I was too chicken to sing.
One of my sisters friends stepped down off the stage and pointed at me.
"Get up there! You're lame."
She was drunk but accurate.