Her Toyota Camry had been parked at her friend's house for nine months before we took it and packed it with things from her Hollywood storage space, some essentials she'd need to make New York more homey: a 46" TV, some DVDs, a box of fridge magnets, Victoria Secret bags, and a suitcase of belly dancing costumes. When I told her we should take the handheld Moroccan mirror and the empty bebe sunglasses case out of an otherwise vacant Louis Vuitton box and leave the box behind, she dismissed the idea. But after a few minutes of trying to Tetris it into the trunk, she made the difficult decision to agree with me.
I met Emilie last August through Craigslist. I was looking for extras for an episode of my web series and when she responded to my ad with her 'mean brunette' headshot, my baser instincts wouldn't let me ignore her. I embraced the Sleaze and asked her out after the shoot. The rest is lifestyle-altering history. I went from sleeping in a Bushwick basement that doubles as a noise-punk band's practice space, to sleeping at Emilie's flavor-of-the-month apartment, rented with Airbnb. In the relatively short time we've been together, we've stayed all over Brooklyn, gone on a road trip to Salem, Massachusetts, and visited her hometown, Nice, France.
If her compulsion to move around constantly is some maladaptive quality rooted in a fear of being anchored down, then I've enabled it. I've documented our travels on a selfie-stick-mounted iPhone, using the footage to feed the beast- Social Media. In this way, Emilie has enabled my compulsion, proliferating content, a fixation that has become increasingly autistic since I quit drinking and told myself I wouldn't try reintegrating booze into my life until I was either successful or 30. So far I'm neither.
The first and most important stop on our road trip back to New York was Las Vegas. I'd never been before so the idea was to make a straight-edge gonzo piece about my first impressions of Sin City uninfluenced by drugs or alcohol, a sacrilegiously sterile homage to that beautiful man, Hunter S. Thompson, who I had the time, resources, and spirit to emulate in my late teens, early twenties. Now, a comparatively reserved 28-year-old in the year 2016, wearing a Hawaiian shirt I bought at a CVS in Hollywood and holding a copy of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas I bought from the Barnes & Noble at The Grove, I was ready to experience a new town with it's own CVSs and Barnes & Nobles. When I wasn't reading out loud to Emilie on the road, chucking nuance after nuance under her second-language radar, she was blasting the Magic Mike XXL soundtrack. No bat hallucinations, no ether, just oppressively sultry music and the occasional lurch of the car as she looked up from Instagram to see she had drifted into the other lane.
I associate Vegas with friends piecing last night together, destroying hotel rooms, hiding dead prostitutes, robbing casinos, etc. It isn't a place for couples in my mind, where the image of a shivering Nicolas Cage is having sad, verge-of-death sex with Elisabeth Shue. Seeded by a lifetime of movies, I walked through The Strip, holding Emilie's hand, a little too preoccupied with semantics Wikipedia just dropped on me: The Strip is situated OUTSIDE city limits in the neighboring towns of Paradise and Winchester. I reminded myself that my Sober & Bothered in Las Vegas angle wasn't fixed. I couldn't let it dictate my experience, so, as we walked, I made a concerted effort to forget my trivial hang-up about not being in Vegas proper and to appreciate the lush interior design and themed architecture around me. Booze and drugs would have been perfect. They'd have made the place more godly; I'd have been able to lose sight of the strings. I'd have been able to forget that I used to work at a cocktail lounge on the top floor of a luxury hotel where the dish pit in the kitchen looked identical to the dish pit at the pizza place I worked at in college. Sober, it was plain to me that the 'no loitering' signs, the retractable belt stanchions, and the outside escalators were crowd-control implements there to keep you moving and guide you to the next sexy distraction.
Old Alex would have embraced the illusion of choice on The Strip long enough to booze himself to dangerously low levels of inhibition. Then he'd have ventured off the grid to go make bad choices and worse friends. Maybe he'd have charmed his way out of being robbed or maybe not, but by the end of it all, he'd have a story less people would have been able or willing to tell. Current-day Alex stayed very much on the grid, watching the fountains of Bellagio dance to My Heart Will Go On. But as onlookers filmed the spectacle on their smartphones, today's Alex filmed the onlookers, fellow junkies unable to experience anything novel without trying to capture it and keep it on their camera rolls.
My place in it all - a casual observer with no vested interests. I watched a guy in a group of friends force a laugh for way too long, probably some mechanism triggered by his realization that he and his friends weren't having the Crazy Time they'd anticipated. I watched many an agitated dad, leading his tired pack and carrying the youngest child, looking around trying to catch a glimpse of the American dream. I saw an evangelist with a headset microphone preaching to the swarm. Clearly, I wasn't the only one doing Vegas wrong.
Our second day in town, Emilie and I checked off a couple customary items: we buffeted hard then we visited The Fremont Street Experience, a delightful stretch of overstimulation covered by an LED canopy. That night, we headed to the Rio Hotel to catch a Chippendale's show. I'd dropped a little more than $100 earlier in the day to secure the tickets, investing in the knowledge that as I watched my girlfriend fixate on Magic Mikes like some student in a gateway cuckolding course, I would at least be experiencing a part of Vegas not every man is willing to experience.
The show was pretty much what I expected - Herculean guys doing dance numbers, getting off stage every once in a while to gyrate on screaming bachelorettes, middle-aged divorcees, and the like; gentle terminators with kind eyes and bright smiles who steered clear of us, one of the only couples in the audience. Emilie held my arm the whole time as if to remind me I needed reassurance. I felt her grip tighten as some helmeted hero onstage snaked his torso into an unreal air-hump routine while revving a motorcycle. And before I knew it, it was all over, and I felt a wave of fulfillment. I had proven to myself that I still had the grit to invest self-esteem, money and two hours of my time on a joke.
In the Helldorado Days, I wouldn't have had to watch men strip to feel like I was breaking barriers. The federal government made efforts to stem people, notably Hoover Dam workers, from flooding into Vegas to indulge in seedy entertainment, but rebels found ways to get in and party. These days, it's not rebellious to visit; it's pretty much expected of you.
Las Vegas is the go-to mecca for people looking to cut loose in an epic way, a safe space for the average, level-headed Joe to go 'crazy' without any real risks other than marital friction or spending too much money. These days we publicize our increasingly similar life stories from the same flattering angles. You can put different filters on your Grand Canyon post, but your experience there was fundamentally the same as everyone else's unless you or your significant other was the one out of 770 visitors who died there.
I was one of those kids who was scared by the prospect of being typical. I'd streak through the suburbs and blow up aerosol cans, symbolic gestures meant to signify that I'd never be one of Them: the people governed by fear who go through the motions until they die. My mom, having read some mental health article, prayed for the day I turned 25, the magical age my prefrontal cortex would be fully developed and I'd transcend my Jackass phase. In some ways, the article wasn't far off. I quit drinking at 26, driven by a fear of falling asleep on a subway track or, worse, boozing myself into a state of irreversible loserdom. But whatever changes happened in my brain, I'm still an exhibitionist at heart. I'm writing a self-centered article as my bodacious French girlfriend drives us to Kansas City, where we'll stop for BBQ and take loud, unapologetic selfies.
If Old Alex saw me today, maybe he'd call me 'typical' or 'complacent' but whatever he'd say, I know I haven't stopped chasing my American Dream. I'm still privileged and presumptuous enough to believe I can have it all if I just keep my head above everybody else's standards and focus wholly on my own. What happened to me in Vegas, didn't stay there. It's in this article: I experienced the place sober. Nothing particularly exciting happened, but I still wrote about it. Why? Because the story is mine and that makes it interesting.
As Emilie suggests we get a mani pedi at the next civilized looking exit, I make the decision to agree with her.