You leave Palm Springs and head down the freeway in your Suzuki Grand Vitara. It is likely that you will sit in the same position and travel at the same steady speed for the next two hundred miles. At the beginning of the journey you see trucks gliding next to you filled with onions that look like little bags of money, and apples so red that they look like jewels. As you drive a little further towards your destination, you stop seeing these trucks. The solid reality of onions and apples aren’t desired in the place you are going to this weekend. An apple you can hold in your hand and feel its roundness and waxy skin. An apple you can bite into to taste that sweet liquor as it sprays across your tongue. This weekend, the only apple you will taste will come from an artificial apple flavored ‘Slurpie’ laced with vodka and consumed from an old plastic container shaped like a cowboy boot. You will re-visit this taste maybe once or twice again when you throw up bright-green puke into some plastic flowerpot of some plastic shrub in some hotel somewhere. You have an itch on your foot. You can lean down and scratch it but please keep at least half your attention on the road. Maybe wind down the window a bit, breathe in the desert air. You should know that where you’re going isn’t like the films: there’s no glamorous approach, no sudden transition from golden sand to flashing neon signs. It’s about a hundred miles since you saw that last truck filled with apples. Is it a sign that you will not win on the fruit machines or is it a sign that you will? Either way, it doesn’t matter too much, I can tell you that your winning and losing will eventually cancel each other out until you’re back where you started. Be sure to arrive with enough gas in the tank to get you back to reality, you don’t want your money to run out before you’re able to run away. You drive from quiet towns to a screeching city of sin and bright lights. You should know… Las Vegas isn’t like the films. It doesn’t just appear on the horizon, it seeps into the surrounding desert like fresh blood on a white tissue. The buildings grow up and out, stacking left and right like a giant game of Tetris and you’ve got three lives. Watch that tumbleweed bounce scratchily across the road in front of you, you’re starting to feel like you’re in a video game now. You are travelling with three others; female friends that you’ve known for years. One of them puts the zip code of your hotel into the navigation system and chooses a novelty voice labelled ‘Sling-Blade Bob.’ The accent is one of a raspy, male, American: you think you remember downloading the voice from the Internet. You follow his directions down the busy roads, and begin to feel smaller and smaller in the shadows of tall buildings cast by artificial lights. You can see the name of your hotel to the right, however the navigation system does not tell you to exit the freeway. Perhaps the road systems are different here and you have to go around to get in. You didn’t see the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign when you arrived, so that seems to make sense. Perhaps you have come from the wrong direction. The road you travel along seems to be taking you further away from where you are trying to go but you have faith that the machine will correct itself. One mile until your supposed destination and you begin to feel unsafe. There are very few cars on the road, it is getting dark and you think about those two men who got shot in that suburb of Florida a few months ago. They had gotten lost whilst trying to find an English pub. Bob says, “ahh you have reached your destination uhm-hhum, make sure you di’n’t kill anyone, uhhm-hm” You glance to the left and notice the road you are on is named ‘Wild Bob Road’ and you wonder how reality sometimes feels so unrealistic, you feel a bit too much like you’ve been dropped into the beginning of a horror film. There are now no other cars on the road so you make a quick u-turn and speed back the way you came.
What are you doing?
This isn’t right, we’ve come the wrong way.
Shall I put the address in again?
Twenty-five minutes later you arrive at the hotel and park the car in a massive multi-storey car park. You wait with one friend whilst the other two go and check in at the desk. They paid for a room for two so you’ll have to sneak in unnoticed. From the car park you take the elevator down to the ground floor and realise that ‘sneaking’ will not be necessary. Standing in a room being constantly pumped with oxygen, you look around at all the zombies watching pixelated fruit swirl around to the constant drone of slot machines and the occasional fake sound of money tinkering on metal; these machines spit out tokens instead of coins. The air makes you light headed, you look down and your patterned shirt blurs into the garish pattern of the carpet. You did well with your comedy “Vegas shirt.”
You look around the casino trying to find the elevator to the hotel rooms and see an old lady being helped out of her wheelchair into a seat by a slot machine. Her cigarette hovers between her wrinkled lips and a square of ash falls into her lap. You see the lift and weave in and out of machines and people to get to it. Floor 23, room 2325. Your other two friends are there, they are excited about going out and exploring. You are unsure, and tired from the drive. You make an excuse and go to sleep.
After a good night’s sleep you feel much better. There is a lollipop shaped like a die on the bed-side table next to your head. You hear about the night that your friends had. They saw Paris and Venice, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher — all fake versions of, of course. For some reason you don’t feel like you have missed out on anything.
During the day people keep stopping you and your three friends to ask where you are going out tonight. At the moment you don’t have a plan. The people claim you can get into various clubs for free and have free drinks for an hour or so. You feel wary that there must be a catch but they convince you that they are only trying to fill the clubs to capacity and prefer that “good-looking people attend the venue they are working for instead of ugly people.” At this point the free drinks seem like a good enough reason to go and you can always leave and go somewhere else if you don’t have fun. Besides, if you pretend you are gambling in the casinos they bring you drink after drink for free anyway: they know you’re more likely to bet if you’re drunk.
It’s about ten thirty and you are dressed and ready to make the most of the hour of free drinks. The club is inside the newest hotel in Vegas called ‘The Wynn’. You give the woman standing by a long queue of people your name and she stamps your hand and walks you to the very front of the line. You and your friends each order two vodka-tonics and go and sit at an outside table under some heated lamps. It’s really windy and the palm trees are swaying and your hair keeps blowing into your eyes. You get one or two more drinks before it reaches midnight and the drinks go from being free to being seventeen dollars. You feel like you’ve been pretty lucky, like you’ve saved a lot of money. You will learn later that this is exactly Vegas’ plan: to make you feel like you’ve saved so you then think it is okay to spend. At about twelve fifteen you stand in the corner of the club dancing to bad music. A group of forty-something year old men keep looking over and smiling at you, you turn your back to them and carry on dancing. A man holding a clipboard and wearing a Bluetooth earpiece approaches you and your friends.
Hi, are you ladies having a fun night?
Er, yeah thanks.
Do you know Jabberwocky?
The dance group?
They are performing here tonight, come and sit at this table, think these guys wanted to buy you a few drinks and have a chat.
What? What do they have to do with Jabberwocky?
They like Jabberwocky too. Just come and relax, they are in Vegas on a business trip and wanted to talk to some interesting ladies.
Wait… that is why you let us in for free and gave us free drinks, so you could make more money out of other people buying us drinks!?
You’re a clever girl aren’t you.
You are by no means happy about being used in this way but decide that so long as you are aware of what is going on, you can stay in control of the situation. You decide you will talk to them for five minutes, get a drink and leave.
You start speaking to one man; he notices that you don’t have an American accent.
Where are you from?
They flew you over all the way from there?
Who is ‘they’?
The man pretends not to hear.
Who is ‘they’!?
He hands you a drink and walks away. Another man taps you on the shoulder, you’re beginning to understand what is going on more fully now. You make a few dry, sarcastic comments to the other man and tell him you are about to graduate from college. He leans in and says:
I’m surprised at how intelligent you are.
A bit of spit escapes from the ‘t’ at the end of his sentence. You wipe your face. He clearly thinks you and your friends are hookers and the man who works in the club is clearly attempting to pimp you out. He must be hoping you’d be too stupid to catch on. You look around at your other three friends and from the looks on their faces they all seem to be coming to the same realization as you. As you put your drink down on the table you look at the stamp on the back of your hand to see that it is the shape of a bone.
We left first thing the next day and I did the first half of the drive back to Los Angeles. The weather was still gray and windy as we drove away from Vegas but I could see a panel of sunshine further ahead down the arid road. As soon as the sun came out I put on my sunglasses and saw a road sign that said: ‘You Are Now Leaving Nevada. California Welcomes You.’