It was a typical Saturday morning. I was reading on the couch drinking coffee when my phone lit up. The screen said, “Biig Joe,” above a picture of my brother flexing atop a car trunk like a conqueror. It was a picture I took of him in the AT&T Stadium parking lot after Ohio State defeated Oregon in the 2015 National Football Championship. Joe is my older brother; he lives in the California Central Valley. And we’ve been known to adventure together.
I squinted, wondering why he was calling so early and what he had to tell me that couldn’t be put in a text.
“Hey Joe, what’s up?” I said after sliding my finger across the screen.
“Do you have your iPad with you? Go to booking.com. Destination: Las Vegas; check-in: 7/8; check out: 7/10.”
I did as commanded, blindly agreeing to go to Las Vegas the following weekend. Spontaneity is something chronic illness has taken from me over the years, but I try. I agreed to go on this trip knowing I had two others scheduled this month – San Francisco and Fort Bragg.
In the days following our conversation, social unrest boiled over in our country. I watched Alton Sterling be shot and killed at point-blank range by Louisiana police. The video was horrifying.
The next day, somebody texted me the disturbing live stream of Philando Castile bleeding to death in a car. A Minnesota police officer had shot him through his unrolled window. His girlfriend was narrating from the driver’s seat, and a baby was crying in the back. Then, later that night, just before I went to bed, I saw Breaking News. A sniper was opening fire on police in Dallas.
In the morning, the first thing I heard was, Joe. He arrived after I had gone to sleep.
“They blew that dude up!” he said with a little too much excitement in his voice. “The police sent a robot into a parking garage and blew him up!” he continued referring to the sniper.
It felt strange going to Las Vegas, a place synonymous with fun, while our country seemed to be moving from crisis to crisis. But the sad fact is that life moves on whether you like it or not, and the further removed you are from the crisis the easier it is.
The Mojave Desert doesn’t seem like much until you examine it, and when you do, it becomes beautiful. As we drove, I absorbed the west. I watched sun-bleached land turn to a bold orange-red clay. Joshua trees stuck out of the hard ground like antlers.
The San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains were to the south behind us, and there were more mountains in front of us. As we got deeper into the desert, it felt as though we were driving along a seafloor. I can’t imagine how animals survive the harshness, but they do, and it amazes me. Life always finds a way.
At the Carnegie Deli, we ordered half sandwiches because we already knew they serve ‘em big. I got a turkey sandwich, Joe got the pastrami, and we shared fries. When we finished, we walked through the casino unsure what to do. By now it was nearing eleven o’clock, but neither of us wanted to go to bed. So, we played a little blackjack and then found ourselves at a casino war table. I felt like a child playing War at a casino, but it was fun.
“No funny business,” the pretty ticket collector told us, feigning authority, as we stepped onto the platform. She smiled wide and flipped her hair as she spoke. “There are cameras.”
We hung out at the Rio for a long while. Our friend was doing well, but we didn’t have the best vantage point to see much. When we got bored, we left to meet some other friends at the Venetian pool. The pool was a success: the appetizers were amazing, and we only had one phone end up in the water.
After the pool, Joe and I walked across the street to our hotel to relax a bit and clean up before dinner. We had dinner reservations that night at Delmonico Steakhouse, back at the Venetian. It’s a fancy restaurant owned and operated by the celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse.
Walking back to the Venetian, Joe was texting while I was people watching – picking up various foreign languages, avoiding street hustlers, reading panhandler’s signs.
At the streetlight, Joe looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Marquee tonight, you down? My boy can get us in.”
“Knock the rust off,” he said sarcastically, interrupting my awkward silence. This is the line he’s been using on me for two years now, since my kidney transplant. He wants the old me to return, for things to go back to normal, but I am not sure he realizes that’s not possible.
Delmonico was even fancier than I thought, elegant as hell on the inside. I am no foodie, but I must say the filet medallions and piece of pecan pie was delicious. During dinner, Joe invited everybody to the club, but only one spoke up. Nick, a few years our junior said, “I wanna go.” His eyes went wild.
So, Joe, Nick, and I ended up at Marquee at the Cosmopolitan. We sauntered into the club with our heads high after getting in without waiting in line or paying a cover. Trying to act normal, I bought the first round of drinks even though I don’t drink. I even had another when Nick bought a round.
My senses were peaking the entire time, my social anxiety was screaming. I tried to remember the old me, the me that went to clubs and had fun but couldn’t. The new me is uncomfortable in large crowds, especially wild ones, and forces more smiles than he cares to admit. The new me has no business at a club like this.
It was after two in the morning when we left. As we did, I couldn’t stop a wave of nostalgia. I thought about how things were in my late teens and early twenties – roaming The Strip in the early a.m., shooting craps, talking too loud with a smile from ear to ear.
In the morning, Joe and I got up, showered, packed our bags, ate at the buffet, and walked to the valet to retrieve the car. And it was all over.
In typical fashion, it took us about six-and-a-half hours to get home. Why didn’t we fly? I thought the whole way. The In-N’-Out at Barstow never tasted so good – two cheeseburgers (light spread and grilled onions), fries, and lemonade.
By the way: our friend ended up making it to the money rounds in the tournament, but I never heard how much he walked away with.