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.