“YOU HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE SAD,” the twelve-foot billboard along the left side of Route 93 shouted at me in tall neon letters as our car went roaring past.
Of course, it didn’t say exactly that. It was probably a sign for a cluster of fast-food restaurants at the next rest stop, or an advertisement for a spa package in Palm Springs. Something along those lines. But I was thirteen and going through an overindulgent moody phase, and so I sat with my arms crossed in the backseat for the entire six-hour drive from Phoenix and imagined every sign along that long stretch of the interstate calling out its sympathy—sorry for your boredom, kid! Sorry you had to tag along with your parents on this business trip. Sorry you’re an only child. Sorry every vacation inevitably sucks.
When we crossed the state border into Nevada, nothing looked all that different from my hometown in Arizona. As far as I could tell, the entire American Southwest was an endless stretch of rocks and sand. The same suffocating heat and never-ending desert had followed us from home. The air simmered with all-too-familiar heat mirages.
I must have fallen asleep with my head against the car door for a while, because I woke up with uncomfortable warmth spanning the right side of my face. Outside the window, flat desert had suddenly sprouted a line of squat buildings, palm trees, and a tangled mess of neon lights that wound itself tighter and brighter as we drove. There was still dirt everywhere, but caking it was a new layer of color. And then, very suddenly, the four-mile stretch of South Las Vegas Boulevard that’s home to the glitziest hotels and casinos of the entire city rolled itself out before us like a rug—solid, wide, heavy.
Spotlights from every building burned up into the early evening sky. We parked the car, dropped our bags off at one of the interchangeable high-rise hotels, and my parents headed off to the first event of their conference with just one instruction for me:
“Don’t go running off alone.”
I really did try to listen.
But the hotel was boring beyond belief, and I resented that they’d brought me here only to tell me exactly what to do. I ventured down into the casino area for a while, though I didn’t dare pull a slot or walk up to a card table. The boutique shops in the lobby were too expensive. There was an indoor pool on the first floor but I hadn’t brought a swimsuit. I tried to watch something on the room TV, but it only offered two news channels unless you wanted to pay $10.99 for a movie. And so I left—feeling a rush of bravery—wearing one of my mother’s jackets, hoping that the smooth sleeves and mature, muted color of the fabric would make me seem, to any hotel attendants I passed, like I was old enough to be on my own. And I wandered.
Maybe it goes without saying that Vegas is no place for a thirteen-year-old. Every other person I walked past was what my parents would have immediately labeled dangerous, stay away: men in dark sunglasses puffing cigarettes, women crashing around in near-lingerie and six-inch heels. Tourists swinging huge cameras flooded the widest intersections. A couple guys at every street corner doled out pictures of topless women on cards, directions to underground strip clubs. Drunk college kids yelled in the streets how much they loved Sin City while policemen sat at cafés and watched with lifeless eyes.
The Strip, the most tourist-jammed part of the city, was a carefully curated show of extravagance: neat lawns and faux-marble statues lined the front entrances of the richest places, with long curving driveways for limos and tinted town cars. There were the bigger hotels—Bally’s, Flamingo, MGM—and then a few blocks down there were tinier, less-lit establishments boasting dollar-a-bet blackjack and back rooms with pricing upon request. Some of them had stained-glass ceilings and fountains at the reception, and others didn’t bother to try. I walked into a few of the hotel lobbies and was immediately hit with plumes of cigarette smoke and never-ceasing casino noise. The dark, checkered carpets in these places did nothing to hide all the grime stomped into them over the years.
Somehow, I ended up walking too far: getting lost on a back street, failing to remember which direction I needed to go in order to find my way back. Everything on the street fed off the darkness. The sky went black, and the lights spun brighter and brighter.
And here’s the part—just like in every overdone movie plot—where the overconfident kid loses her cool and starts to panic.
Not wanting to call my parents, I decided to just keep walking, hoping I would somehow stumble my way onto the right street. The problem was that the heart of Las Vegas isn’t just a single street—it’s a main street with a thousand off-shoots, and these other rows are just as shiny and exuberant as any of the others. Had I already seen that large glassy pyramid? And where’d that needle-like building come from? Why did Fremont Street shine the same in all directions? I was trying to hide my fear and I slid into one of the casinos to ask someone how to get back, but then I realized I couldn’t remember the name of our hotel. I caved and called my parents a few times. Still at the conference, they didn’t pick up.
These names, these places and buildings—though painstakingly different in their themes and designs, they all exude the same kind of desperate spirit, and maybe that’s why I don’t remember the name of the last casino I wandered into that night, either. I do, however, remember the way it smelled. Like a combination of stale fruit and wood chips that you burn at night when you go camping. It smelled like it had never smelled any other way. Still feeling unparalleled terror, I sat down at one of the slot machines just to be anchored somewhere and here—perhaps because it was one of the seedier places—no one seemed to care.
I felt a familiar kind of bitterness about it. That’s the thing about being the only child of two full-time working parents: even though people might be around, might come visit the house for dinner or have a barbeque or stay over in the guest room for a few days, ultimately your default state of existence is a kind of forever-lingering loneliness. You live in your own head because there isn’t anyone else’s to get inside. People generally leave you alone because you never know how to ask them otherwise.
But a strange sight pulled me out of the mounting self-pity.
At the end of the row of slot machines, there was a man who sat with his nose less than an inch away from his screen. He was gray-haired and badly dressed in a tweed jacket with the kind of elbow patches that were made for function, not fashion. His hair was thinning badly. He kept mumbling at the machine, and then after a while he’d get up and move to the next one over and mumble at that one, too. His eyes were narrowed with so much intent that you’d think he was concentrating on some critical science experiment; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of thing. Every few minutes he’d press a button and the machine would spit out a few dimes, except for when he pressed it and it didn’t spit out anything at all.
I don’t know how long I sat watching him. Maybe a few minutes, maybe more than three hours; eventually my mom called me back and, after yelling at me for leaving the hotel without her permission, told me to meet her back at the center of the Strip, around Caesar’s Palace.
But for the longest time, I just sat in racing panic and watched this man keep feeding dollar bills into the slot, and sometimes it would ding and he’d get a row of matching icons on the screen, and he’d crack a smile so wide it seemed to split the entire city. He had a look on his face like he’d beat the system, any system, all systems. Like he’d managed to find wild fortune in the one place in the world that everyone knows will cheat you out of it.
He kept smiling, and the sounds of the room—the conversations and machines and poker chips clicking onto tables—kept echoing around the room. And in those moments there, watching him and seeing the way he moved around, I suddenly was not sad anymore.
Today I’m twenty-one and I am constantly missing the way the sun streaks down in Vegas. It brings down the temperature, but it lets everything else bubble up—as if there’s a wealth of undiscovered life hidden in the cracks of sidewalks, the alleyways, that cautiously pokes its head out in the moonlight. I miss the music, the impressive height of the imitation Eiffel Tower and the flaming faux-lava at the Mirage. The magicians, the white tigers. The trapeze swingers. The way nothing ever seems to fade or chip or peel. I miss the peace that comes, sudden and surprising, whenever I stand in the middle of a hotly packed crowd on the bridge to Treasure Island, where tourists jostle each other for aerial photos of the pirate show below. Vegas, in a way that no other place in the world does, somehow gives you the impression that it’s going to be the same forever. Neon gives way to neon. Palm trees keep on swaying in a soft, steady wind.
Eventually, that night, I found my parents after stumbling around in the dark for another hour. They were watching the water in front of The Bellagio while they waited for me.
The water show is arguably the most gimmicky attraction out there on the Strip. Every half an hour, music starts up from speakers in the bushes by the hotel, and little engines under the surface of the water shoot up jets of liquid in tune with the beat, making the entire wide pool in front of the hotel dance with a sort of furious might. This particular show was set to some foreign opera, the water crashing again and again to every high trill. Chilly night air was whipping across my face for what felt like far too long as I watched the show. The entire crowd stood there, not touching, not speaking. Their heads were tilted upwards and all the lights from the pool were flashed back into their eyes, and the water spouted upward and fell down again, and it kept going, on and on like that, quivering with a kind of alien, artificial grace.
Though she was born in Beijing, Amy Wang grew up in the endless, warm expanse of the American Southwest. Ask her how she’s coping with her seasonal affective disorder in New Haven at firstname.lastname@example.org.