I would put in everything now and go until something broke.
– Ernest Hemingway
Eighth-grade biology class was painful because it focused on sex and reproduction, and I was not one of Burns Junior High’s finer hominid specimens. While the other small-town Florida girls flirted and applied fragrant lotions, I took solace in things like the Dendrobaena rubida (red wiggler earthworm), which could self-impregnate and did not need its fellow worms to find it attractive. But the mayfly—which literally does nothing but copulate—made me worry about what I was missing out on. Adult mayflies have a lifespan of 30 minutes to 24 hours; their sole purpose is to violently fornicate then die. I’d often imagine how intense that single encounter must be: to know that in that moment they are exhausting everything they have, and when it is gone there will be nothing more. I’d think of a glass house filled with a buzzing orgy of mayflies spinning inside like particles. How this whirling cloud of dust would take just an hour to quiet and clear. One day after the frenzy I could open the door to a quiet room whose floor was crunchy with the light husks of thousands of corpses.
Cut to a decade and a half later, when an (outwardly) less awkward me first came to Vegas. Most arrive here aware of the city’s dangers. Expecting to lose it all, they do just that and then boldly perform public acts of grief: They sob into cheeseburgers at the 24-hour McDonald’s. They amble away from poker tables while removing their toupees in deference to the city’s higher power, like one would shed a hat inside a church. They expose midriffs and groin-bits and shed their pride discarded-straw-wrapper style.
I arrived thinking I could hold my own party-wise, but the city hazed me my first week here. The dirty kind of hazing. Fraternal feed-you-a-fifth-of-Bacardi-then-put-you-in-the-trunk-and-sail-overtop-speedbumps dirty. However, I am a hard worker and a perfectionist. After I got knocked down, I immediately refueled off the hallucinogenic nectar of the Strip’s lights and decided to go earn my hedonism badge the proper way.
Like Alice in Wonderland, I drank things that made me feel very small, then very big. I quenched my desert thirst with a four-foot-tall grain alcohol strawberry Slurpee and downed it in 30 minutes. The next morning I got sick while facing the large box fan in my room, and the red splatter that flung across my white walls and carpets resembled something out of MGM’s CSI exhibit. I somersaulted across a ship-themed dance floor and nearly went over the side into the water, saved only because a friend deftly grabbed me by the panties. Afterward, my not-so-pleased husband led a Frankenversion of me through Caesars Palace. My arms were protectively extended in front of me, much as the living dead would walk, and my head—with its closed eyes and ghastly open-shut-open catfish mouth—was bobbing around like that of an epileptic Stevie Wonder. Somewhere along the way I lost a shoe; I know Vegas had its hold on me by then because I was more worried about that forfeiture than which fountain drain my dignity had circled down.
But the city’s energy and the escapism were addictive. The Strip’s blinking lights unzipped me from a cocoon I hadn’t realized I was in. During these weeks I did a lot of crawling, mainly to the bathroom: This was my humble party infancy. Soon I began teetering down Fremont, an eager toddler on unsure stiletto feet. I cut my milk teeth on deep-fried Twinkies and shrimp cocktails. Finally, thinking I could take on Vegas at full-throttle, I bought an ironic ticket to see Criss Angel Believe. But less than five minutes into the show, I realized I was about to be fatally punished for my hubris. I sat white-knuckled in my velvet seat as sweat poured off my body, Angel swinging from the ceiling wearing so much eyeliner and diamonds that he looked like a bad Elizabeth Taylor piñata, and I screamed on the inside until I finally came to an epiphany: This city can kick anyone’s ass.
Ultimately, Vegas did to me what it does to everyone: It made me wiser at a high price. I learned my place (and my drink limit) the hard way, and now I keep a respectful distance from the city’s indulgent spectacles. But it’s fun to think back to those times—my brief mayfly days—when I was almost doing it, almost fitting in with the wildest in the world. Like a kid learning to ride a bike, I had a few seconds of wonder when my spotter let go of the seat and it seemed like I was holding everything up on my own.
Then I crashed.