Las Vegas: city of billboards, debauchery, and celebrity second chances; a desert oasis of burning lights and alcohol-fueled gambling binges. It’s a city with an identity crisis: a metropolis among sand dunes, a tourist haven founded on poor imitations of the world’s tourist havens. Casinos have no clocks or windows, as if the rules of time and space are inapplicable. The city’s hotel carpets and gaudy stage productions flow so richly with hedonism that it invented a tagline to assert its lack of consequences for whatever occurs within its boundaries. It also invented the Drive-Thru wedding chapel. And it was the site of my first and last family vacation.
I was eight—the youngest, trailing behind by at least five years. It was my first plane ride, my first time in a hotel, my first excursion outside the vast borders of Montana. At the time, the Bozeman airport had only two gates—Delta and United—and the only nonstop flights went to Salt Lake City and Denver—hubs of Delta and United. We transferred in Salt Lake for what would have been a two-hour nonstop flight to Vegas. My brother Martin told me planes didn’t crash much, except for the small two-row planes like the one we were boarding. Had my executive functioning skills been more developed, I might have quipped that if I died, he would, too. Instead I turned to my mother for reassurance.
My parents told me I’d been on planes before, but was too young to remember. We’d gone to Disney World when I was three. I assume I loved it, but, not being able to know myself then, I can’t say for sure. I enjoyed it when I was twelve and finally surpassed the yellow bar to ride roller coasters, but I was in Florida with only my mother. It was her mother’s 70th birthday. I’ve never ridden a roller coaster with my siblings.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in the desert. There were two rows of slot machines in the lobby of the Excalibur hotel, which is what my parents deemed the most “family friendly” of the behemoths on the Las Vegas strip. I knew gambling was illegal at my age, which I assumed meant I could not be in the presence of gambling. While I waited for my parents, I glared at the machine, red cherries and green clovers and gold coins glaring back at me. I noticed a security guard, clad in non-threatening UPS brown with a badge and gadget belt.
He made no effort to move.
I stared longer, a four-foot rebel testing the boundaries in a city where women adorn the sidewalks in rhinestone bikinis. The guard did nothing.
Then my parents herded us to the room and I trudged along, satisfied with my new status as a law-breaker.
The Excalibur Hotel and Casino: an expansive tower of sleep/sex rooms capped with cartoon turrets—an almost-adequate replica of Cinderella’s castle, but a castle nonetheless. I remember the carpets: Hotel Carpet. I’d never stayed in a hotel before, but I recognized them instinctively. That beaten-down gaudiness; that imitation filigree stamped on dull primary colors; that overbearing effort to be distinctive.
Like every hotel on the Vegas Strip, the Excalibur came with its own C-list tourist experience and tacky restaurant. At the Excalibur, the two were folded into a single package: a medieval-themed dinner show. As much as I enjoyed fake kings making arbitrary decrees and watching horses run around inside, I was embarrassed to bang my fists on the table with the others in the amphitheater. I was embarrassed to eat with my hands. I didn’t know how to bend such rules. Sure, I’d pulled a fast one on the casino guard, but this was dinner.
We visited all the major hotels on the Strip—except New York, New York, which was under construction. My glimpse of the half-built fake Statue of Liberty ignited something in me. I was disappointed to miss even the imitation of the city I would one day live in. But the hotels we did visit? They all had Hotel Carpet.
The Luxor was a hulking green glass pyramid with a basement museum of Egyptian things and Walkman audio tours. The Mirage was a bedazzled waterfall from the outside; inside, a bedazzled Siegfried and Roy made tigers disappear. We went to the restaurant. We didn’t see the magicians with the tigers on our family vacation. Instead, I remember the tiny sharks in the lobby aquariums. I asked my brother if they were real sharks. Martin assured me they were. I didn’t believe him, but it seemed equally unlikely that they were anything else. The Flamingo brought the Florida tropics to the Nevada desert. It was decorated like I imagined Ricky Ricardo’s club would look in color. We ate at the restaurant there, too.
We drove past the Bellagio fountains and Greco-Roman gimmicks of Caesar’s Palace. We toured the Hoover Dam and its drab industrial guts. We evaded poker tables everywhere, not speaking about the elephant and its circus in each room we wandered through, ignoring it like the velvet curtain that used to hang in Dad’s video store. All their winding pathways of hotel carpet and cigarette smoke were like a maze keeping guests from too easily finding their way into the daylight. Each hotel was distinctively tacky and yet without any real identity. They began to swirl together into a sphere of lights. Everywhere, there were lights. I remember the lights. They were always on, blinking like defective stars: navigation guides for the drunk.
I liked the lights. But I was eight.
We visited Circus Circus, a pink circle in the sky containing an amusement park I was too small to enjoy. My brothers rode a roller coaster while I watched smaller children jolting back and forth on a plastic school bus. I was separated from the other children by a metal bar and from my family members by my age. My father came by and I asked him if I could ride the school bus. It wasn’t the roller coaster I wanted, but it was something.
My dad stood behind the metal bar and watched my dangling feet move up and down. It seemed slower there than it did from below. Looking down at my dad, it was lonely. But it was the closest I had to an adventure. While I drifted on a fake yellow school bus, my family wandered around a circle in the sky, as far from each other as we were from the ground below.
At the end of the week, we walked through a carnival on our way to some 3D film at the MGM Grand. There were bumper boats, child-sized and brightly colored. My forehead surpassed the yellow bar to ride them. I asked my parents if I could try, but there was no time. No time for my adventures.
That week in Las Vegas was our last family vacation, although we watched the film Vegas Vacation annually. My parents would go back once a year, staying just off the Strip at a cheaper hotel with a nice buffet breakfast. They liked it there. They almost moved to Las Vegas in retirement, but Arizona was less expensive with the same booze-slathered atmosphere.
Like the shellac that coated Nevada’s den of debauchery, our family’s exterior hid our darker insides. After that trip, illness—diagnosed and undiagnosed—piled up in the passing years, like the Bellagio’s stacks of poker chips. We hid beneath cartoon turrets and endless lights, suspended in windowless dissolution, distracting ourselves from the addictions and impulses harbored within our artificial borders. But what I remember is the lights, blinking like defective stars. There was nothing real there. It was so easy to get lost.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Crack the Spine.
Maryann Aita (sounds like ATE-uh) is a writer and performer in New York City. Little Astronaut, her debut essay collection, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in spring 2022. Maryann’s work has appeared in PANK Magazine, which earned a 2020 Best of the Net Nomination, Porter House Review, Exposition Review, and perhappened, among other journals. She is the nonfiction editor of Press Pause Press—a journal with zero social media—where her fiction and nonfiction were previously published. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and three cats.