I did a serious blogger thing and paid money for a pretty template, of which, according to the designer, there are only fifteen available. Let’s just say it was a Christmas gift to myself, and turned out to be much cheaper than eighty percent of the other things I was considering buying myself, and something I’d get more mileage out of. Plus, I get to share it with all of you.

I meant to write a fabulous upbeat post about looking ahead and sticking to my resolutions and unlimited optimism, but I sat at my desk for a few minutes this morning and wrote a few lines, then deleted them out of embarrassment; it all sounded so vague and half hearted. I had good intentions, I swear, and was building said post up in my heart, hoping it would emerge like a sparkling, laser cut diamond on New Year’s Day, words flying from my fingertips in the kind of uninterrupted flow you hear about in interviews of authors talking about their most recent bestsellers I haven’t experienced in quite a while, but it was more like a sputtering car engine, the earnest kind you see in Chevron commercials of cartoonish cars that just want so badly to take you where you want to go but just haven’t the right kind of fuel. That and I was suffering the after effects of Christmas Eve, Christmas (in Vegas!), then a best friend’s birthday party (also in Vegas!) and then…well, the days tumbled together like an invisible avalanche and while I didn’t drink much at all and have clear smiling pictures documenting everything, the whole time inside I felt slightly fuzzy and subdued. It’s a crazy way to feel, but not at all bad.

Charlene captured it quite perfectly one evening in Vegas, alone in our room. Grace, Amy and I were taking our sweet time at the Encore Spa (highly recommended by the way, if you’re curious to know what it was like to be a Turkish Queen – though without the slaves). I was concentrating hard on not thinking (actually immersed in both my robe and the latest issue of O Magazine), and she had come up first to get ready for our heavy, fancy French dinner at Mon Ami Gabi. Stepping into our otherwise darkened room, she saw the colors first, a bold burst of fiery yellow orange glowing at the edge of the desert and sky, so bright that it cut through lines made by the sheer draperies. For anyone who’s spent some time alone in a Vegas hotel room, you may know the feeling I’m about to describe – especially when you stand near the window at the edge of the afternoon, at the dreamy hour right before the city transforms into that thriving, throbbing neon, strobe light bacchanalian mecca we call America’s Playground, Sin City, Las Vegas.

Vegas at Dusk, 2012 by Charlene 

That feeling is an odd concoction of excitement, anticipation, and admittedly, because of my weak composition, some fatigue. But the emphasis here is on the former sensations. I don’t believe what others tell me or what they like to say about Vegas: that Vegas is not real life and that I’m not myself when I’m there. I don’t believe it because I’ve been there enough times with different people to know otherwise, and because I have proof. I can turn to either side of the vista and see the apartment buildings and the track homes of people who have made Vegas their lives and have learned in both hard and easy ways how to balance day and night, the glitter with the sand. And waiting for friends to come back in a half dark room all quiet except for the hum of the AC and perhaps the occasional slamming of a neighbor’s door or the laughs of some rowdy boys, you look out the window at the view, slightly undulating through the sheer black curtain and see something more.

The city is there behind the curtain, its shapes just sharpening against the setting sun. The curtain moves slightly, playing with the light. What faces are being lit, what eyes? The Sun has his time, but at dusk he blesses the city with one last kiss before letting her go off and do her thing. In the morning the sun will be there again, perhaps a little too bright, and, some will think, too harsh, but all he really wants the city to do is wake up and look forward to the night ahead, when the city is at her best.

I Had My First Kiss at a Las Vegas Club

Koi Tattoo Sketch by Shu Heffner

In 2011, I had my first kiss. I traded it for a tattoo, or more accurately, a glimpse of a tattoo, on the back of a boy I met in Las Vegas. I had just turned twenty-five, so it was about time. The tattoo was nothing original – a koi jumping out of a pond – something he’d found on the internet.

“Koi are supposed to be good luck,” he said, leaning against the bar. He was a twenty-something financial analyst from Chicago, in Vegas for a bachelor party with huge group of Asian frat brothers. He had just ordered me a vodka cranberry (with Ketel) and was waving a hundred dollar bill at the bartender, who had too many hundred dollar bills waved in his face to react in a timely manner.

“Good luck?” I smirked, my eyebrows raised in judgment. “So you think you’re a lucky guy?”

He shrugged, the hundred dollar bill poised in mid-air, “Well, you’re here aren’t you?”

Looking back, it was very well rehearsed.

The bartender finally took the bill, gave the Tattooed man his change, and presented me with the strongest vodka cranberry I’d ever tasted. I choked a little bit, wondering if the bartender and the Tattooed man were friends. It was still early and he had not impressed me so much yet, but I wanted to be flirtatious.

“Show me the fish,” I said, batting my eyelashes.

“Maybe I will, later.”

We danced for a bit, talked about nothing, and when later came, I reminded him about the tattoo. My drink was still full and I handed it to a friend, fueling a later incident in which she would almost throw up in my car.

“Ah,” he said, as though he’d forgotten all about it, “That’s right. Okay, I’ll show you. Follow me.” He led me to some tree-lined walkway near the side of the club. It was actually the walkway that led to the bathroom, but it was quieter there. Or maybe things just get quiet when you’re focused on someone. The image of someone. An image on someone. He sat me down on the edge of a planter.

“You want to see my tattoo?”

I nodded. How exciting.

He started to unbutton his shirt, then paused to deliver a line. Looking back, it was very well-rehearsed.

“I’m not just going to show you for free,” he said.

Oh shit.

“You gotta kiss me.”

Oh shit.

Let me be straightforward about things.

Prior to that night, I could count the number of guys I’d kissed with the number zero. I didn’t want to tell him because pop culture and empirical evidence tells me men (and women, to some degree) are uncomfortable with information like this. It reeks of liability. You open yourself up and voila, I am somehow responsible for your organs. And could I blame him for wanting a kiss?

I reviewed my actions leading up to that moment: I had batted my eyelashes furiously. Danced suggestively. Was wearing a short dress from Forever 21 when in fact, I had just turned 25, and which I  had spent the better part of the night pulling downwards, hopefully suggesting the opposite of what the dress suggested. This was not part of my feminine mystique but a common feminine mistake. You want the attention and sure, you can dress the part, but can you remember and deliver the lines? More often than not the attention comes in a tidal wave and suddenly you are drowning because you spent too much time playing badminton and reading during the years when most other people were exploring relationships with the opposite sex.

I blanched for a minute. Maybe longer, but not long enough for the tattooed man to think, “Hey, this girl just zoned out on me…” I thought of how thin my lips were and how dry my mouth was and how horribly tired I must look up close. Was my mascara running? Probably. My hair was flat. I smelled like smoke.

But then one giant question: how do I do this? Where was a Judy Blume novel -open with key passages highlighted – when you needed one?

It was a nice evening though, and I was having a good time. I smiled at him, Oh, what the hell.

Okay, I said, hoping the awkwardness I felt was only a feeling and not a look. I leaned in.

We kissed. I felt his five o’clock shadow scrape against my upper lip and on the corner of my mouth. I thought of a Saint Ives Apricot scrub I used to use but stopped because it was too abrasive. This felt slightly different. He pulled back, looking thoughtful.

The moment had passed and I was amused again. Was he judging my kiss? It must have sucked, but I wasn’t going to admit anything. I remembered my lines. I smiled expectantly. Kiss for tat.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll show you.”

His skin was paler than I expected, and I laughed at him for it. “We don’t get much sun in Chi-town,” he said. The shirt came off and there it was, the image of a wan-looking fish I had paid a kiss to see. A first kiss. A fish out of water. A night club in Vegas. Called XS, but could now be rechristened Club Cliche. I looked at the fish, nodded and said all the requisite things, “Wow. Did it hurt. How long did it take. Was it expensive.”

It didn’t hurt so much and yeah, it was expensive, but he wanted to get another one. I hoped he wouldn’t.

Later, we kissed again and then again. At three AM he put his skinny black tie around my neck and told me to keep it.

“Maybe I’ll visit LA sometime and get my tie back.”

At four AM he and his friends walked me and my friends to our hotel room. We kissed one last time and I thought, “Hey, am I good at this or what,” though I knew that my lips were probably chapped beyond recognition.


The Meadows

I like to tell people that I grew up in Las Vegas. This, of course, is far from the truth. Two or three weekends out of every year does not a childhood make, but that’s the impression the city leaves on a young mind, where a string of similar smoke and light filled weekends blend together to form a distinctive period. I grew up in Vegas the way some people “grow up” in boarding schools or summer camps or their own homes before their father started to drink – when they are older and look back on these halcyon days, they are bemused both by how far they have come and how little they have changed; by the strange, distant familiarity of the face peering back from their memory.

Las Vegas, more than any other city, is a static paradox. It is both an oasis and a mirage; it is a living, breathing, growing organism and yet, a place where time – youth, to be more precise – stands still. Visitors go to change overnight, but only to temporarily revert to some youthful, fresher, wilder version of themselves at the tender age of twenty-one. Some go to change, period.

Hard to imagine that it began as a rest stop. Las Vegas, like most cities in the United States, began as a discovery in 1829 by a Spaniard named Rafael Rivera who, admiring the abundant grasses supported by underground wells, called the land Las Vegas or “the meadows.” News of beautiful places spread quickly in those days (as was possible by word of mouth and telegrams) and Las Vegas was then visited by John C. Fremont whose descriptions of the area attracted more visitors. The Mormons followed with their Mormon Fort – a rest-stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City – and then came the railroad which sped things up for the Mormons and cemented Vegas as a perfect rest-stop. Had you told the folks back in the early 1900’s that less than a century later the name “Las Vegas” would conjure up images of everything from go-go dancers to more Louis Vuitton boutiques per square kilometer than Paris – conjure up everything except for, perhaps, meadows – they might have scratched their heads, spat in the dust, and gotten back on the train.

Now of course, there are no meadows, at least not in what most people know as Las Vegas. Aside from expansive man-made golf courses and the strangely jungle-like conservatories of various seven star resorts, nature is nowhere in sight. She has been razed or smothered, pushed to the edge of the city to make room for manicured lawns and imported flora. The only bodies of water (on the strip at least) are man made, worthy mirrors of their natural originals: Lake Como, the canals of Venice, Mandalay Bay… I say worthy not because one can see these reproductions and say, “Ah, now I need never to go abroad,” but because these bodies of water exist so effortlessly, it seems, in the middle of the desert. Do know that one must pass geographical graveyards such as Barstow (now the premier rest stop en route to Vegas) and Baker (home to the world’s tallest and most-often-defunct thermometer) on the way to Vegas. If you have never been and are going, you cannot imagine how the city will hit you. As a handsome Australian once said to me, one late, loud night at Tao, “You have to see it to believe it.”

The idea that it was lush nature that first attracted visitors to the area is almost comical. One never hears, “Certainly, those showgirls just paled in comparison to the natural scenery I saw in Vegas,” and only when your hotel room is facing the right way (and mine rarely does), do you say, “The view from our window was amazing.” But that is not to say the the view is not amazing – and this is the beauty of the place. It began as the meadows and is now, not even nearing its end as the city of sin, of light, of excess, of sex and drugs and alcohol. The view you see today is not only the meadows, but the evolution of the meadows into America’s Playground.

Anyone who has ever driven into Las Vegas at night from southern California on the I-15, knows this. Every time I go to Vegas, I drive and in nearly twenty-five years as a passenger of this drive, and several times in recent years as the driver, I have yet to grow tired of that opening view. Somewhere between Sloan and Arden, just before Paradise, the road takes a slight curve uphill through a low mountain range. It is around the time you and your carmates get restless, eager to get out, check in, stride across the ringing casino floor, unpack, start drinking, eating, dancing – in that order. The minutes are ticking away and half your party is already there, half in your car, another half on the way (in Vegas, no one does math). So the climb uphill. The last leg. Anticipation builds. It’s dark and despite your headlights, you strain your eyes as though you’re driving through dark, cosmic chaos.

Suddenly, the road dips and nature herself nudges you along. The mountains recede with their craggy arms outstretched, bowing wickedly to present to you the sprawling, sparkling spread that is Sin City. A sharp intake of breath. Glittering lights, geometric improbabilities – a pyramid! A Castle! A vortex of steel, concrete and glass! Paris! Venice! Imperial Japan! – all less impressive than their originals but no less startling when one encounters them in the desert. And always, without fail, as the car glides downward into the glittering mouth of the Sierras, I think with such pride as though humanity itself were my son, “Look at what man has done in this desert.”