A hip 90’s couple elopes and honeymoons in Vegas, sets the course of their lives over six strange days.
On Good Friday, we were still in Vegas, drinking at an outside bar at Treasure Island. These places were new then, the theme park casinos with roller coasters and characters, making whoredom and gambling part of the American family vacation. I’d been to Las Vegas as a kid, too, in the early 1980s, before it had become friendly. I remembered driving in, the city rising up out of the desert with no warning, sudden lights and glitter. We got milkshakes at a place called the Pink Pony, and my brother and I had been escorted out of Caesar’s Palace with my mom.
Now I was back, in 1996, to get married.
We arrived at the bar early and sat waiting for the showdown between the pirates and the British Navy, for the real blasts of fire, for the British crew, who would dive wig first off the deck of their ship, into shallow Buccaneer Bay, and for the captain to ceremoniously go down with the ship. They did it about ten times a day. The same show, the same fire, the same ships. I didn’t know if the actors were the same.
We eloped. We’d been engaged and had half-heartedly planned an outdoor wedding that my parents didn’t really want to host. I was the youngest and my parents were old. No one was very interested in the fanfare of a church ceremony, a reception or the bill. Neither of us had traditional parents. Mine were in a second marriage, had married at a courthouse on a Tuesday. My new husband’s parents had a traditionally failed marriage, and divorced while he’d still been a baby. Geoff’s mom had boyfriends and another child who was half-black. Eloping made sense to us. It spared us from forcing normative expectations on our parents, them from having to drum up excitement for traditions they’d outgrown.
And it was cool. In the mid-90s, we were inundated with über-cool indie films and music. We were in love with the irony and cheek of Pulp Fiction and Swingers. We were Pinkerton and Mellow Gold. When I had met him, Geoff looked like the Brad Pitt character in True Romance, bong and all. When we married, he wore Doc Martens.
I made the plans in January; we realized spring break from my master’s program included April Fool’s Day. We flew from a dinky airport in Binghamton, NY that had a huge mural of Rod Serling. There were about seven other people waiting for the same plane. We got married on Monday, April 1st 1996 at four in the afternoon. Our marriage certificate is stamped March 32nd, 1996. The whole thing, ceremony, limo, flowers, pictures, video, cost $200.
We spent the first two nights at The Excalibur, and the rest of the week at the motel part of The Stardust. Not even in the semi-hi-rise section but in the back: a two-story motel where you could park your car outside the door. I remember the room as brown. The walls, the carpet, the bed. It was a pattern for our whole life. We spent all we could at the beginning and coasted the rest of the way. We still do it. Every month.
Good Friday was our last day there. I wasn’t ready. I was still tangled up in feelings about Easter. I wanted it to mean something, the holiday, the wedding, the trip. And then we talked about an old girlfriend, whose virginity my husband had taken. It had left blood, he said, on his mother’s bed. That’s how she found out that he’d slept with her while she was out of town.
I roiled with nausea, seasick beside a fake sea. I didn’t want to know. In the midst of our cool irony, on our aloof, simulacra honeymoon, I didn’t want to hear about an old girlfriend, one still remembered, one for whom he’d been the first.
Of course we were cooler than that. Of course talking about it didn’t matter.
I excused myself and went into the casino,a blast of air conditioning and dark ceilings. Flashing lights, a ring of coins in a metal tray. At the bar, a lounge duo sang Baby Got Back, the slicked back husband sitting behind a Casio keyboard, his hot wife in red sequins. It was so unreal I stared for a bit. It took me a minute to even recognize the song. The wife slunk her body around like an S. She liked big butts. She couldn’t lie. I thought maybe Vegas was getting to me. She looked like a mirage. A sparkled, sexy mirage.
In the ladies room, the stalls all had pictures on the wall above the toilet, and mirrors alongside so you could watch yourself pee. I slumped and sat instead of hovering. I felt like crying but couldn’t. When I finally went back out to the seaside patio, I thought I’d find one of three things: one, he’d be unmoved from where I left him. Two, he’d be flirting with the cocktail waitress. Three, he’d be gone. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with number three. Or number two for that matter. Whatever cool irony I might have had disappeared quickly and I imagined throwing that waitress to the pirates.
He was sitting with a guy.
My husband made a face he still does sometimes when someone or something interrupts us. It’s a kind of inverted smile with raised eyebrows. It says, Dunno. It’s a pattern for our life. We have a hard time saying no.
Another man sat down directly across from me at our very small round cocktail table. Not facing the water. Not facing the pirate ship behind him. Facing me. About eight inches away. I made a face similar to Geoff’s. And then his younger friend dragged over another wrought iron chair, the legs a loud rattle on the planks, and spoke to the man in German. They hailed the waitress, ordered drinks, laughed. Ignored us.
The older German was maybe fifty. His friend was in his twenties, maybe a son or a nephew, blonde with a square and red German face. They drank bourbon with ice. They passed a pamphlet between them.
We’d seen these pamphlets. In Vegas, Mexicans line the sidewalks and hand you ads for escort services, strip clubs and bordellos. (They had tried hard to pass them to Geoff but mostly ignored me. The day before, I had dared a whole row of them, men wearing jeans and baseball caps, each one handing magazines to men that walked by. I’d made eye contact, thinking, Go ahead. Give it to me. How do you know I don’t want it? The guy on the end sort of waved one but pulled his hand down. He looked away.)
The younger German went through page by page, holding up some pictures. The cover, a skinny hipped blonde with her pelvic bones jutting out of a little skirt. Her heels six inches high. He began to read aloud in broken English: College Girls. Live, Nude, and In Your Room. They roared and leaned together to see the pictures.
I imagined what they saw. Her adolescent arms and legs. Her baby face. Her inflated tits. And me. I was just twenty-three. Married and still in school. I had long hair and short shorts. Tattoos. The easy but inaccessible American girl. I didn’t matter enough to leave them feeling uncomfortable ogling me. Marriage hadn’t made me more visible or more of a lady. I was just a girl with a ring that cost $49 at Service Merchandise.
When the pirate show started, the older German stood up so I couldn’t see anything but his dark outline and the flames around his head. We left.
I didn’t want to talk about the girlfriend. Or the Germans. Or even Vegas. We walked down The Strip, under marquees of lights, through the sounds and air exiting through open doors. There were Mexicans on every corner. Guys getting in and out of taxis. Limousines with parties of women, or business men with girls that looked like hookers. At the Stardust, our room was on the second floor in the back. The balcony a cement slab with rounded out plastic chairs. In the ink blue sky it was hard to see the stars. The wind in Vegas is constant. It blew up bits of trash, news papers, flyers for strip joints and buffet dinners. Prime rib for 99 cents. There were two pools at the Stardust then, but for the expensive rooms. All we got was a parking lot of Datsun pick up trucks with California plates, and a white Dodge Shadow covered in dust. Behind the hotel, the desert trees were dim, dry and scrubby, their outlines like bent and prickly people against the sky.
In six days we had set the course of our lives. It was half-planned and fully cool. It happened on a day that was for practical jokes, and the date was one that didn’t exist. Even cheap, it was more than we could afford. Within a year I would leave my graduate program and we would move in with my parents, jobless but looking, with a baby on the way. Planned. And more than we bargained for.
I looked out at the parking lot. “They should have a pool back here for us,” I said to Geoff.
“They just turn on the fire hydrants,” he said. We looked out at the sky away from the city. It was lit from behind us, the light of a billion bulbs, making bright what was only a copy of something real. A fake halo visible even from space.