We arrive as the sun is setting. Reno is empty and hopeless, but I’ve always liked it. There’s something beautiful about how big the sky is and the way the colors change when the sun sets, the bright lights that promise you things that aren’t true and the people who believe them. Reno’s a horrible mirage at the edge of a desert where people who have failed come to die.
It was hit hard by a combination of the recession and the meth epidemic. There is no one anywhere, and when there is, you wonder how he got here and what went wrong. All hotels give the option of nightly, weekly, or monthly. They boast color TV’s with empty pools and liquor stores attached. Most cost thirty bucks a night. We stay at a smoking room in the Swann Inn. I jump back and forth between the two beds. When the sheets get rustled from the edges there are what looks like knife slits in the mattress. Cartoons move on the television. I feel uneasy.
We sit at the ashtray table drinking lemonade four loko from plastic cups and looking out the window as the lights slowly appear on the strip. The Lucky Fitzgerald Casino Resort that provides the backdrop for the famous “Biggest Little City” sign is closed now but the lights stay on at night. I imagine it would just be too depressing if they were to turn them off for good. Its marquee reads “CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS,” but I doubt that’s true.
“Everybody looks like zombies.” Gina says, exhaling smoke and leaning back in her chair.
“Yeah, they really do.” I say, watching a man with a vacant face and acid washed jeans stagger down the sidewalk. Everyone here seems to be at the final stages of alcoholism or some other horrible preventable disease. I think about the guy I saw in the room next to ours while I was bringing the stuff up from the car. He was sitting alone in the dark with the shades drawn back and the uneven light of the television illuminating the room. The table in the window was covered in prescription bottles. He stood looking out at the Friday night smoking a cigarette in thin white boxers and a wife beater. His presence made my stomach drop and my heart seize. Every time I walked by his room I hid my face in my hair. I knew he was there, I could feel it.
We get drunk in the room and go to the casinos. While Gina takes pictures of the “Biggest Little City” sign, I walk up to the locked door of The Lucky Fitzgerald. There is a piece of paper taped inside the glass door. It reads, “We’re closed now, Good Luck.”
At Harrahs Casino I immediately lose four dollars. These electronic slot machines are confusing, and I’ve never been much of a gambler; risk isn’t my preferred method of intoxication. I wait, sitting between a full ashtray and a woman wearing a tee shirt with a mountain on it made entirely of rhinestones, as Gina talks to a man with a pocked face and a pony tail. They disappear into a bathroom together. A sickness returns in my stomach that I’ve been battling since we left California.
Parts of the ceiling are mirrored. I watch people’s heads walk around and try to guess what drinks are in their cups. The purple carpet is patterned with the three-dimensional cubes people draw in middle school, and the wallpaper is a blue background with floating shapes that look close or far away. Stairs, handrails and edges of walls are outlined in brass that has been painted to look gold. There are aisles and aisles of blinking colored lights that taper off into tables where the ceiling is no longer a mirror and unhappy people give drunk people patriotic looking chips or take them from them. I don’t know how to play poker.
To the right is an elevated karaoke bar where a small Asian woman is singing a questionable rendition of Mambo Number Five. Everybody walks around with baggy eyes and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. It makes me want to quit smoking.
I’m thankful when Gina returns and isn’t obviously on speed. She runs up to me laughing and pulls out a giant bag of mushrooms.
“Jesus Gina.” I push them back into her purse, hoping people with walkie-talkies aren’t closing in.
“Dude that guy is a fucking Indian, I mean Native American, whatever, it’s chill. He gets them legally.” She pinches some into her mouth stuffs a few into my hand. The taste is familiar, like moldy dirt.
“They’re real strong.”
I say “great,” realizing I’m in the middle of doing something I don’t really want to. “Ooo, Karaoke!” Gina squeals.
Everything in the karaoke enclave is blue. The light, the chairs, the floor, the walls, the ceiling: blue. There are only seven people sitting in here, with two facing the bar. The middle-aged host with blue-white teeth and helmet hair runs on stage as the little Asian woman scurries off to her friends cheering behind us. I imagine he’d hoped for this life in Vegas.
“C’mon party people! Get on up here!” he says, enthusiastically. “Any takers?” Gina marches towards the stage and up the few steps on the side. “Alright!” says the over-manicured man.
“I want that song ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna,” she says seriously. I can tell she is about to assume a persona that Salem had cultivated last summer. She was in a particularly crazy period then; her doctor had been over-prescribing her Xanax in the hopes of quelling her bipolar tendencies. Salem told her that since she was already crazy, that she should just become a crazy performer, because then it wouldn’t matter if she was crazy because people would just think she was cool: good advice. She listened and got a giant tattoo on her shoulder that said “BOWIE” with a lightening bolt going through it, among others. Then she started a band called Ledhead where she dressed in latex and screamed explicitly about sex for one to two minute intervals while spraying beer all over the crowd. Amazing.
The music starts. She begins with a frown, shifting her weight from side to side without moving her feet. Her vinyl black pants are sticking to her in odd ways and her shirt, which she bought on the way here, says Las Vegas 2006. Madonna’s voice comes in and she looks down for a moment, then raises her head with a scary face and starts screaming: “THE DEVIL IS MY BEST FRIEND, THE DEVIL IS MY ONLY FRIEND, THE DEVIL IS MY BEST FRIEND, THE DEVIL IS MY ONLY FRIEND.” Then she pauses, “HE FUCKING LOVES ME.” She pauses again and then growls, “HE LOVES TO FUCK ME.”
The host scrambles from the right of the stage and pries the mic from her hands. Gina lets go, raises her arms, “Fuck that. That song was sick.” She walks off the stage. No one claps or anything.
Outside everyone looks like a sad monster and I can’t relate to anything Gina is saying. A dog walks by and she goes to pet it. It lets her so she talks to it, not its owner, about how much she relates to animals, how much they like her, and all I can think about is her creepy hairless dog and that everybody thinks they’re great with animals. I am uncomfortable and sick and I can’t stop shaking. We walk the small pathetic strip a couple times before going back towards the room. All these people are dangerous. I buy a bottle of Nyquil in the booze store attached to our motel. From the parking lot I look to see if the scary neighbor is outside his room but in the dark I can’t make sense of things. We climb the two open-air flights of stairs. I keep my eyes open wide and grip the railing with both hands.
He’s there, standing silently outside his doorway in the balcony with a tube in his nose. Gina walks up to him as the hallway surrounding her moves to the right and the left, colors come off the walls. He doesn’t turn as she approaches him. My heart stops when she raises her hand to him like a high five or something and in a thick California accent drawls, “What’s up dude?”
He turns to look at us. I see every blue vein in his thin skin face and his eyes are filmy. I fumble with the lock to the door, not knowing which way to put the key in. He leans in slow towards Gina’s face as I feel the lock click open and in a curdling scream goes: “OINK OINK OINK you fat pig bitch! Get away!”
I wake up with Gina’s arm on my face and a rough tongue. My stomach is hot from the dry sun flooding the room, and when recalling the late night conversations we shared I am embarrassed for us both. I hate talking about reincarnation, the Universe, energy, ghosts, eating disorders, and sex. All of those topics were discussed.
I hate that shit that people who’ve never left California spout at six in the morning: “I don’t believe in God, but I seriously believe in the Universe. I feel like the Universe brought us right here together right now and our energy will never die.” They fail to see that they’re just replacing “God” with “universe” while adhering to the same ideologies. You can read into coincidence any way you want. Life is cause and effect. I find the concept of fate in any sense slightly annoying. Gina took the fat pig bitch incident as some sort of indicator of her mortality, and I let her go on because I was too worn out to defend the obvious. Arguing beliefs is endless.
I drank Nyquil last night but it just made things worse. When your mind won’t sleep that shit makes your head swimmy and the outlines of things jumbled. Before I knew it I had drunk half the bottle and was nauseous but still not tired. I tried to cure myself by letting half a Valium dissolve under my tongue. When I closed my eyes, worries sprung them open. This was a mistake. I’m stranded in the desert with a crazy person. We have so far to go, the distance is utterly unfathomable. I ate the other half and fell asleep in my small bed uncomfortably close to Gina talking about how much she “liked humans,” while the other bed I had assumed was hers remained empty across the room.
It’s funny, the way things change. In high school Gina was a tramp that hung out with guys that drove lifted trucks; obviously I wanted nothing to do with her. As my generation of Ojai whittled down to those that stayed, she became a mutual friend and then an actual one. But I’m rarely in Ojai. Though I like her spontaneity, I don’t know her that well. The stories I hear of her color her more than the ones I’ve experienced.
We leave Reno in the afternoon. The sun casts no shadows. The sunset we arrived with that made this place less dismal is long gone, as are the optimistic feelings I had when the strip’s lights were flickering on. Everything is made of cement. None of these building have gutters. The filth creeping up them is black. There is no water in sight, or trees. The sky is as big as before, but now that seems daunting. The hangover I feel seems to have translated into an entire city. Today it’s my turn to drive. Off the freeway on-ramp there are people holding cardboard plea signs. I can’t imagine they make much money when everyone is moving so fast.
These are lonely roads. The speed limit is too high. Giant trucks pass so close the car wobbles and I get very anxious thinking cops are around. The desert looks like forever. There are signs to remind you to stay awake and other signs that tell you there’s nothing for a hundred miles. It’s so empty the clouds have shadows. I focus on the hills in the distance but every time I reach one the other side brings the same nothingness.
Gina puts on my favorite Spiritualized song and it makes my heart hurt because it is so beautiful and sad.
“I love this song,” she says, softly following the lyrics, sometimes if I may say myself I’m not bad at life, I’m not good as well, and though life goes on, I can plainly see, just what is it for, if it’s not for me, she pauses, looking out the window, “I wish I could think so clearly.”
“He just understands everything but can’t handle it,” I say, as the song continues, sometimes though it’s a big surprise, I may compromise the thing I most desire, I can say with pride, hold my head up high, that I had a great idea but never mind, the song builds. I say, “I just wouldn’t want to be so sad my whole life. His art is pure emotion, it’d be so taxing.”
As we move over a rocky mountain, a pure white desert stretches before us like a sheet of blank paper. The song climaxes, Nowhere, I’m going nowhere, nowhere is where I wanna be.
We enter the salt flats, just outside of Salt Lake City. The ground is coated in mounds of white dust, then shallow and cracked like ice. It’s flat for as far as you can see. The sun is bright and low, beaming through clouds in thick columns of light, while a translucent moon hangs above the dark distant mountains. I pull off the highway, and drive out into the white desert, away from the road. We get out. I do cartwheels, running around this weird beautiful place. Shards of green and brown glass bottles stick out of the ground, glittering in the sunlight. The wind seems to come from far away. It smells good. Gina licks the ground and saves the salt in a vial. The whole earth used to be covered with the ocean, I think. Nothing can live here now, but everything must end sometime.