At Loose Ends in Las Vegas

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After dropping my dad off at the airport for a flight back east, I find myself with seven empty hours to spare in Las Vegas. Only May, but already hot–101 degrees. And with the dry wind blowing down from the mountains, it’s even hotter.

I could hole up in an air-conditioned coffee shop and work, catch up on emails, check my bank statement, that kind of thing, but I feel far too lazy for anything that requires using my brain or sitting upright in a chair. Plus, I’m hungry.

My dad and I have just driven across the country, eating at greasy spoons the whole way, so I know that I want something the exact opposite of the massive grilled (American) cheese and fries I ate in Rock Springs, Wyoming, off I-80. I jump on the 215 towards the Las Vegas Whole Foods.

There are a number of Whole Foods in Las Vegas, but I am partial to the Whole Foods on Green Valley Boulevard. It’s not technically in Las Vegas–Henderson, Nevada to be exact–but I like it best, in part because it’s located in a fancy shopping center, home to ballet barre fitness studios, gourmet pizzerias, and expensive clothing boutiques.  The well-tended blandness of it soothes me–so different from the rest of town. Plus it’s on a hill. A really big hill. From my perch in the parking lot, I like to look out on Las Vegas below me in a haze–the Space Needle, the MGM Grand, the fake Eiffel Tower, the mountains beyond. I appreciate it most from afar.

This Whole Foods is known for it’s showgirls.

I’m not exactly sure why I’m interested in showgirls and I fear it doesn’t say anything good about me. Perhaps I like to look at them because when I was a kid I used to watch my dad look at them. One summer, my dad and I flew to Vegas (the starting point for a desert camping trip) and stopped by a Safeway to stock up on provisions (Gatorade, cheese). The store was mostly deserted except for two or three tall, glittering women in pink sweatpants buying bottles of water, peanut butter, and vitamins. Slender, they perched on high-heeled sandals like herons, toenails painted orange or turquoise and often bedazzled with pink diamonds.

Like Las Vegas, part of the beauty of these women comes from their obvious artificiality: collagen-plumped lips, fake breasts, hair extensions. Almost real, not quite.

My dad was amazed to see these usually-adorned women makeup-free in the Safeway, pushing their shopping carts through air-conditioned hush. A secret.

At the Whole Foods on Green Valley Boulevard, I stare at the showgirls too–shameful. I don’t want to contribute to any more objectification of women’s bodies. I look down, stare again, look down. My outfit–a T-shirt with holes, old flip flops, and a skirt that keeps riding up. This is not glamorous. I am not glamorous. But these women? Glamorous even in the cereal aisle.

I make my way to the salad bar, which, like all Whole Foods salad bars, is overwhelming. I load up on spinach, which I fork into my mouth medicinally.

I can’t leave Las Vegas yet. I’m supposed to meet my boyfriend near Death Valley, but he won’t be there for hours yet. And I have no desire to arrive before him to sit in the desert by myself. My friend Maria suggests via text that I go to the Mandalay Bay aquarium. It’s only fifteen dollars, she tells me, but somehow the idea of navigating the Strip and dealing with the jangling hype of a casino seems too daunting.

So I stay in Henderson. There are some things I need to do, anyway–Trader Joe’s, the Verizon store. But errands will only take up 45 minutes at the very most. I decide that a matinee is the perfect way to swallow a few empty hours and will also keep me safely ensconced in the dark, away from the demanding light of the desert. I discover that there’s a theater close by called Sunset Station Cinema, which is playing Neighbors, a silly comedy, at 3:20. I have a plan.

To my chagrin, after driving through seemingly-endless strip malls and suburbs (Siri in her Thorazine-voice, leading the way: Turn left at Desert Blossom Avenue, Right on Dead Horse Pass), I discover that Sunset Station Cinema is actually a massive casino with a Kansas-sized parking lot.

I know immediately that I don’t want to go inside this casino.

Just looking at it makes me nervous. A bodily kind of nervousness. It’s not that I’m afraid I’m going to go in and lose all my money at roulette or the sports betting rooms. That’s not going to happen. Nor am I afraid that I’ll drink myself silly at the bar of the Asian fusion casino restaurant. I’m nervous because, to me, casinos are cosmically dark places, cathedrals to nothingness. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Most casino patrons are old and look as if they’re fighting off some terrible wasting disease. And they just sit there, depositing coins, sipping Bud Lights, pulling levers, staring into screens, flicking ash.

Yeah, yeah. I know we’re All One and I know if I was to talk to any one of the gamblers I’d find that they they’re no so different from me: money troubles, man troubles, family troubles, regret troubles, the whole gamut. I know all this, and yet–that absent look in their eyes. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.

But this is where the movie is and it’s about to start. I put on my game face and walk in.

Signs for CINEMA are misleading, so I end up in the sports betting room, where a couple of deeply tanned men turn my way briefly, before returning to the multiple TV screens broadcasting baseball, cricket, and golf. A cocktail waitress walks by in a short brown dress, her platter full of beers. She’s my age, approximately, and I wonder how much she makes here, to make it worth it. I walk by a Subway, a Panda Express, a family with two small kids (is this their vacation?). I eventually find my way to the cinema, tucked in a back corner of the cavernous hall.

As soon as I find my seat in the theater, a boy, not more than thirteen, taps mys shoulder.

“Uh huh?” I say, turning towards him.

“We snuck in,” he whispers gravely.

“Okay.”

“If any of the movie theater people come in here, could you do us a favor? Could you pretend to be our mom?”

“Your mom?”

“Just pretend that we all came together. As a big family. You know?”

I look behind him to a row of three other kids–one boy, two girls.

“I could do that,” I say.

“Thank you, thank you,” he says. I look back to the screen blaring trailers, trailers with big men blowing up other big men. Stupid jokes, racist jokes, misogynist jokes. And the kids behind me, smiling at each other, laughing at everything, throwing handfuls of popcorn into their mouth.

And at once, I feel angry. I don’t want to pretend to be these kids’ mom. (What have they done for me, anyway?) I mean, I’m all for youth culture and sticking it to the man, but I don’t want to lie. I hate lying. I chew my buttery popcorn sullenly. Why do I have to agree so quickly, nod yes and smile?

The movie is not so good. A couple of cheap laughs–maybe. Mostly you have to be under the age of nineteen to think it’s remotely funny. At one point, a movie theater attendant does come in, stands by the screen, and looks at us. Then she walks away. After she leaves, I breathe a sigh of relief and smile conspiratorially at the teens who smile back at me.

After the movie, I exit the casino and wander across the parking lot to my car, a black dot.

The stakes are really low in Las Vegas, I think to myself as I let my feet be massaged at the Nail Connection ($19.99 for a Spa Pedicure) located across the street from Sunset Station. Losing big is normal here: losing your mind, losing your money, losing your wife, your sense of self-control. That’s what this town is all about. Bad decisions late a night. Getting married to the wrong man at the 24-hour Forever and Ever Chapel. Carpe diem, etc.

So, even though that mentality makes me uncomfortable–cold hands, cold feet uncomfortable–there’s also a part of me that is completely at home here. The stakes, like I’ve said, are low. I find something alluring about that. (The nail technician covers my feet in a warm, white towel.)

I don’t need to do much in this town to make myself feel good about myself. I use my blinker. I refrain from texting while driving. I’m kind to the lady at Verizon. I give big tips. My goodness is what comes into high relief.  My goody-goodynesss, my squeamishness, my disapproval of Las Vegas’s obsession with showgirls. At least I know I’m not supposed to objectify women. At least I feel shame when I catch myself looking too long.

The nail technician looks at my newly painted toes. “So pretty!” she exclaims, clapping her hands together.

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