I was somEwhere above Death Valley, far over the California desert, when the Valium began to take hold.
Somewhere in my luggage were eight pairs of men’s tightie whities sewn up as goodie bags, two bottles of mid-market wine, 16 bendy straws with silicone penises wrapped around, 10 tubes of cheap red lipstick, two pairs of G-strings (for the bride), a pair of pink fur-lined handcuffs (probably for the bride) and about 50 milligrams of prescription muscle relaxants. Not that we needed all of this for the bachelorette party, but when the first of your close friends is about to commit, the tendency is to over pack.
And why not, in a nod to Hunter S. Thompson and his Drs. Duke and Gonzo, welcome the bride-to-be into a half-flooded suite at the Luxor, where I greet her in my finest pair of waders, while her maid-of-honor / sister Kali wields a razor and holds down the fort behind the TV?
I fire up the iPod to check whether I can honor Lauren’s sole request for that evening (aside from the “no stripper” stipulation). I’m relieved to find a trio of early ’60s soul songstresses in good form on my “Lauren” playlist.
Did the Dixie Cups always sound this half-assed about going to the Chapel of Love?
Listening to it, I’m reminded of a dream I had the year before, of standing in my parents’ Italian garden-backyard, where my mother and a brood of female relatives — sari-clad Indian women gathered ’round my Scando-Anglo-German self — tugged at my flowing white gown while I grasped a cordless telephone so hard my knuckles turned white. For all the formality of the backyard prep session, my intended and I were pretty casual about actually setting a time: Whoever was ready first would call the other, and we’d pile into our respective SUVs and meet at some government building. From my out-of-body view I realized, of course, that it was a bad idea; the guy was just a friend. I called him up, giving him every imaginable out.
“Naw, it’s cool,” he said. “We can still do it.” I was out of ideas. I suddenly became optimistic about having myself a wedding, lukewarm feelings or no. It could be nice, couldn’t it, on such a sunny day? I pressed redial, and when the groom answered, I said, “So, shouldn’t we, like, talk about parenting styles?”
There was silence, and then a dial tone.
That’s how Chapel of Love sounded to me on four hours of sleep.
I had run into the bride’s family at security and as we mulled around Gate 36, cursing United (or “Ted” as my discount ticket reads) for its delays, I was forced to reclassify having a formal wedding, as opposed to the shotgun variety, in Vegas as “a novelty.” There were more sequined tank tops reading “Bridesmaid” or “Bride” than I could count, and at least one tiara with veil attached. As a sporty woman boarded the flight with her David’s Bridal garment bag in hand, a large, jovial boarding attendant — quite possibly a surviving member of the Dixie Cups — belted out, “Goin’ to the chapel, and you’re/ Gonna get ma-a-arried!”
As we reach the Luxor, I expect myself to be swept into the mystically dark, cool bosom of a futuristic pyramid. (It’s always struck me as more Stargate than Giza.) My last time here, my mother and I oohed and aahed our way through what I remember to have been a fairly empty pyramid floor, where I bought a numinous shot glass in cobalt blue.
That Luxor, if it ever was, is no more. The line to check-in is at least 150 guests deep. We haven’t reached registration when our friend Douglas, a towering, effortlessly handsome last-minute addition to the guest list, swoops down to greet us as though he’d been hovering in a nearby corner of the pyramid. He’s been here since seven in the morning and, in addition to a trip to the sauna, has allegedly spent the better part of his day making out with a member of Elton John’s entourage and lounging around in the man’s suite.
By the time we meet up for lunch, I have achieved a small personal victory: I have taken an elevator for the first time in over a year, battling a demon better discussed on another day. Suffice it to say, I absolutely hate the idea of being closed into a moving, mechanized box that might freeze up and trap me at any time.
But I climbed into a fast glass lift and went down one floor. As the oft-cited Bill Murray quote from What About Bob? goes: baby steps.
Carrot Top is everywhere. His face is plastered inside the elevator, over main entrances to the casino. This does not bode well.
Every time we pass through the lobby, the in-pyramid jumbotron is hawking Mamma Mia! as the must-see musical on the Strip. We hear the same three lines of “Dancing Queen” on repeat. It occurs to me that this advertisement is less for ABBA-spawned theater, more for the margaritas by the yard sold upstairs.
Out by the pool I sip a $14 daiquiri and sporadically call Lauren to see if she needs me upstairs. I ought to be upstairs, I think, stuffing Jordan almonds into lacy satchels or addressing thank-you cards or comforting Lauren and offering to massage her cold feet (which might actually be necessary had she not lived with the groom for three years, but by now they’ve got their TiVo lineup agreed on, they know which coffee to buy, their DVD collection is exhaustive and they’ve traveled so much they’ve touched down in every major airport in the continental United States).
Lauren hinted that she was wrapping pretty things for the bridesmaids and I tell myself this is true, but really, I know it’s the 15-floor trip up the elevator to see her that’s anchoring me poolside in 106-degree heat.
Emily is not a member of the cornflower blue-clad bridesmaids’ brood but she intrepidly held my hand as we addressed the issue of the hen night and made late-night trips to Target and Salzer’s. She is an ally in addressing all things traditional and girly, even though she’s only met the bride a handful of times.
She’s also one of my few in-town female friends, and somewhere in the frantic two week lead-up to the Vegas trip I had to thank her man for convincing her to settle in Ventura with him. They complement each other; in the ten years I’ve known Morgan he’s proven himself the perfect companion to any Kevin Smith movie, but is absolutely useless when it comes to shopping for a tiara.
Luckily, Em and I remembered everything: I remembered to go to the gym for three months before the wedding, so my bare décolletage could do justice to Lauren’s photo album; Emily remembered to pack my bridesmaid gown in the trunk of her car and to supply a corkscrew for the night’s festivities.
But no AC adapter, which leads me to query, out loud, how one might go about making portable speakers work without a power source. I voice my questions loudly and pepper them with expletives, waking up a napping Douglas who is wrapped in sheets and a comforter in the middle of the hotel suite which I want to be pristine and unwrinkled. He claims he’s there for moral support but makes no movement to get the speakers in working order. I make no attempt to contain my rage, fueled by sleep deprivation.
Emily has stacked the plastic wine glasses so skillfully that we could probably pull off an impressive champagne fountain. The night’s mascot — Bridal Lauren Barbie — is set at an angle against the wall. The brunette fashion icon is sporting an Emily original satin gown and bears an uncanny resemblance to Lauren … because we’ve cut the bride’s face out of a photo and sewed it into the rubbery plastic of the doll’s head.
There are now five of us in the luxurious but less-than-spacious room which maintains, by my guess, a consistent 65-degree temperature. Only Kali and I are madly dashing to get ready for the rehearsal dinner since, by custom, only members of the wedding party are supposed to attend. But the chapel is booked solid and there will be no rehearsal. We’re told to wing it the next day.
I’ve seen Kali many times in passing since she was ten years old, but it’s only starting to register that she’s a full-fledged adult; somehow I didn’t recognize this fact at her boyfriend’s Halloween party, or the dozen times she’s served me coffee, but goddamn the girl is striking. She’s wearing something pink, off-the-shoulder and tasteful; I’ve opted for a black cocktail dress in a style that’s very ’50s prom-gown throwback. Word comes through at the last minute that everyone else is invited to come to dinner.
It’s no big deal that our friends are wearing T-shirts and jeans and, in one case, a wife-beater and shorts, to accompany our teetering, short-skirted selves across the casino and next door into the Mandalay Bay, but when Douglas asks, “Why are you guys so dressed up?” I snap at him and launch into a tirade about rehearsal dinner etiquette. I’m still bitter that I had to search around his nearly lifeless body to find my other shoe.
We’re a little late to the buffet, and my sheer exhaustion, a poolside strawberry daiquiri and the pain of walking a quarter-mile in stilettos are getting to me. When we see Lauren, she’s about half a step ahead of me, crying. There’s a chance that her grandfather may not make it to the wedding.
We sit, and for the second time that day, a waiter almost passes me over for a drink order. I bite my lip. When we stand with plates in hand and float past the rolling, bucolic layouts of seafood and salads and pastas and any meat you could possibly want sliced off a bone, everything is OK again. I touch Lauren’s elbow and she whispers that even though we’ve all agreed not to get her tanked at her bachelorette party that night — she wants to be lucid when she walks down the aisle — she really, really wouldn’t mind a couple of glasses of something. I don’t yet tell her about the bottle of mid-market riesling waiting back in our room. She had introduced me to the stuff six months earlier.
Any tension that is left, pre-wedding, has been swept away by the fountains of white and dark chocolate, by the awe-inspiring expanse of cannoli and mousse in a dessert oasis. And when we return to our table, Lauren’s grandfather has in fact made it to dinner.
Having asked my more tech-savvy friends about the efficacy of wiring an iPod through TV speakers, or maybe crafting a power source from a coconut à la Gilligan’s Island or, at the very least, if there’s a Radio Shack nearby, for the love of God! — Cathy, the beautiful and gracious mother of the groom, stops by our table and offers us the use of her laptop if we promise to be careful and have it back before we hit the Strip.
Sprawled in our hotel room, Morgan tries to lure my MP3s out of their iPod encasement, urging them to make an appearance on Cathy’s laptop.
Emily and I have left AMC on.
“I like George C. Scott as Mr. Rochester,” I muse. “Don’t get me wrong; Orson Welles had the perfect dark intensity to balance Joan Fontaine’s Jane Eyre, but there’s just something about George.”
“Doesn’t he go blind?” asks Emily.
“Yeah, but he gets his sight back at the end. Well, in the book. But in the 1996 film adaptation — the one with William Hurt …”
The three of us look at each other. We remember that there’s a poker tournament going on downstairs and make a mad dash for the door.
Family and friends are gathered around the chartered poker table in the casino. It is $32 dollars down to play — I’ll take my two margaritas by the yard instead, thank you — and by the time Morgan, Emily and I arrive, only three are left standing: notably, Kali and her future brother-in-law.
Kali draws quick comparisons to the Black Widow, the Korean-American billiards impresario who I imagine must have approached the pool table very unassumingly that first time. Or, put another way: Kali looks hot and she wins close to $200.
For the impending bachelorette party, we recruit two female cousins from the groom’s side and one of the groomsmen’s girlfriends by promising that none of them will be asked to stick her tongue down a stranger’s throat, gyrate suggestively on a dance floor or have her ass temporarily tattooed in permanent marker by someone off the street.
Douglas uncorks the riesling and passes it around. Off-brand cookies are offered. Lauren is crowned with a Barbie-brand tiara.
“It’s weird,” she says, feeling the tulle fabric hanging from the rim of the silver plastic crown, “this looks a lot like my real veil!”
“Yeah,” I say, “it’s amazing how easy it was to just hot-glue that on!”
I worry that our guests don’t know the bride well enough to enjoy the true/false Lauren Facts quiz, but the riesling convinces me to step back and appreciate it for what it is: educational.
Plus, we’ve sprinkled enough Chuck Norris facts in there (courtesy of www.chucknorrisfacts.com) to keep it lively. Example: “Lauren doesn’t read books. She stares them down until they give her the information she needs.”
We set down a small coffin lined in burgundy satin and Lauren lays her maiden name to rest. We pass the minicasket around and wax nostalgic about all she’s accomplished as a Woods.
Girls exchange stilettos for flip flops. Teams are assembled, alliances made. We hand out instructions for the scavenger hunt.
There are two basic categories: “acquire” (a PC term for “rip off”) and “photograph,” which calls for visual representation of people and situations that should be hard to find.
We agree to meet back in the lobby in an hour, cross to Mandalay Bay and compare notes in a wine lounge.
Three of us hoof it to New York, New York. Both my teammates sob at a craps table, Morgan sips a bottle of water through the Penis Straw; Clare asks a man to scrawl his philosophy of marriage and phone number on a cocktail napkin; I grab an empty cocktail glass; we are given a condom by the first person we ask.
It’s almost too easy.
Our condom supplier lies down on the pavement, swigging from her Corona bottle, vying for the title of “drunkest person in my camera.” As we walk into the Excalibur together, she tells us we’re eloquent, classy people.
We give the penis straw to her friend, who kind of looks like Lindsay Lohan when she slouches and lets her eyes glaze over.
Cross “celebrity doppelganger” off the list.
I am invigorated. I am refreshed. The rest of the party in the lobby is fading fast, and there is no wine lounge in our future.
We realize that we all ended up with the same kind of cocktail glass, but no one else was able to find a condom.
Saturday 12:15 p.m.
Clare, who is representing England in our bridal entourage, and I opt out of a breakfast buffet at the Excalibur and instead enjoy the cool, out-of-the-way charm of La Salsa Cantina in the pseudo-Egyptian marketplace upstairs, far from Carrot Top’s lecherous grin.
We go downstairs to buy Tylenol and Advil. As we wait outside our suite for the maid to finish cleaning, I think about the 15-floor ride up to Lauren’s and pop a Valium.
In a casino salon, Lauren’s hair is being curled to within an inch of its life. The TV glows as Richard Gere slaps Olivier Martinez upside the head with a snow globe. Clare and I paint our nails. Four hours ’till go time. We feel utterly useless.
We join the bride’s parents as they lay out seating assignments in the ballroom downstairs. Douglas and Kali accent the tables with over 50 wind-up groomsmen lions and bridal monkeys. I scatter thousands of origami stars on the tables. Far from being of the ninja-flinging variety, the little paper jewels have the pleasing plumpness of a Lucky Charms nugget. Lauren and Clare made every single one.
I’m reminded of stringing popcorn with Lauren, Christmas circa ’96. We were watching Gone with the Wind and by the time we were done it was 3 a.m. and we could completely circle the house with our popcorn chain.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
Lauren’s mother tells us to stop by the room at 4 p.m., by which time Lauren will have had time to get ready in peace. I panic a little as I think back to every episode of Wedding Story I’ve ever seen: The bridal party is always gathered around the bride. We’re supposed to adjust the veil! We’re supposed to lace the woman up!
I call Lauren, who tells me to come upstairs in 20 minutes.
Oh, that fucking elevator — not even an elevator but an inclinator because it travels sideways due to some novel architectural design. Price you pay for staying in a pyramid. And it isn’t enough that I have to travel 15 floors at an angle; there’s a slide key/button ritual that has to be carried out to the letter or the inclinator won’t run. Or maybe it will run partway, then stick between the 16th and 17th floors. Out of spite.
It takes only one or two tries, a trip up a couple of floors, and a transfer from one inclinator to another, before we get through it.
My ideal of fresher-than-springtime bridesmaids holding court around a beatific bride is challenged. Lauren is sharing a room the size of ours with her overburdened mother and a father who realizes the tux rental service got his measurements wrong and that he has to ditch the vest.
Lauren pulls me into the bathroom and hands me a hot curling iron; a couple of wisps from her $200 hairdo have failed to take on the ringlet form. Oh, I can wield a curling iron; I can wield a curling iron and hair straightener, should the occasion call for it. While doing a backbend. On the phone.
Lauren’s hair is half up, half down; the rest of us, her bridal back-up singers, have categorically refused to wear our hair swept back. It feels too business-formal; it makes us look matronly.
Lauren is wearing a lacy merry widow from Frederick’s of Hollywood, and due to our extensive dialogue about lingerie support systems — a series of voicemails, e-mailed links and worried chats — we are, for all intents and purposes, corset twins. She has her petticoat on and, hell, she looks ready to me.
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a penny in her shoe,” recites Lauren.
“I’ve never heard the penny bit before,” I say, shocked. I look at Kali, and we feign surprise, as if to say, “So that’s why none of our marriages have worked!”
Kali, Clare, Lauren’s mother and aunt, her young cousin Nikai and I flee the parents’ suite with the bride and I realize that we are the Indian women from my dream, rushing the bride along while watching her hem, straightening her veil, picking up the pennies that fall out of her shoe.
I feel that tell-tale welling that pulls on my diaphragm and yanks at my tear ducts. A good hard cry is in order, but whether it’s for Lauren or the inclinator is anyone’s guess.
When we step into the tiny mirrored compartment, I take Lauren’s hand and regale everyone with the wondrous story of how Lauren and I came to have our breasts supported, at that very moment, by the same model of bustier. I don’t know if I’m stringing together coherent sentences, but the bride seems amused and I make it downstairs.
We pass through the lobby and sweaty tourists waiting in an hour-long line turn to admire a July bride.
“Listen!” I cry. “They’re not playing ‘Dancing Queen’ — now it’s actually ‘Mamma Mia!’ This is a good omen.”
In the chapel, I think, My God, Lauren looks beautiful leaning against a counter next to a cash register.
We gather for photos and I do for Lauren something I would never do for anyone else: I abandon my demure half-smile and I grin, baring my teeth for Lauren’s grandchildren to see.
I have a dead stage career in my past — at least 100 dramatic arts units from an accredited university — and I like to prepare before I hit any kind of stage.
“So wait,” I ask, “do I have to do step, together, step?”
“No!” is the unanimous response. “Just walk.”
The minister is very distinguished, considering he officiates at a casino wedding chapel. With a director’s skill, he gives Lauren’s father his line and stage directions.
The minister notes that Lauren would rather have no mention of God in her service.
”I won’t make it religious, but I like to keep it spiritual,” he says. “I might say ‘Lord’ …”
“No ‘Lord,’ ” Lauren says firmly.
That we are in Las Vegas seems immediately appropriate.
Kali, Clare and I agree to cry during the service. We make the pact in the same way we might swear to get our astrological signs tattooed on the small of our backs later that evening.
Nobody trips down the aisle, although the minister’s request that the groomsmen step forward is met with blank stares. The service is pleasantly brief and none of us musters up any tears.
It is a beautiful ceremony. The “L” word makes it in but once, and the unusual way we gather — backs to the guests, looking forward toward the minister — makes me feel that we’re in league with the bride and groom, rather than just looking on.
It might be bad acoustics, but it sounds to me as if both Lauren and Robert say “I do!” well before the minister has finished telling them what they’re agreeing to, like they’re eagerly signing on — “sickness, health, yeah, I know, I do!”
I might be imagining it, but I hope it’s so.
The service proceeds with absolutely no reference to spousal obedience or propagation of the species. Thank God. They’ve both got their master’s degrees to complete.
Downtime with the guests, on the escalator, in the food court. Before we bustle outside to sweat in our Sunday best in front of a photographer, groomsman Luke tells us about the bachelor party: it went on until about 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. — depending on who you ask — but it didn’t need to. The guys spent nearly three hours aimlessly walking the Strip.
I don’t manage to slip in my “how I met Lauren” story, the tale of how I was dropped off, first day of the most hellish school year in adolescent development, friendless and with hopeless bangs and the wrong shade of lip liner, when Lauren — then poised to shatter the Crystal Gale record for hair length — turned and smiled, and how, at the time, I thought maybe she was rescuing me from pre-teen isolationist misery but now, in hindsight, I realize we both kept each other from eating disorders, self-imposed bathroom exile, drug addiction and early alcoholism.
And we managed to stay close even after seventh grade. Hear, hear.
First dances, a Mexican buffet, an open bar, well-wishing and an intimate party of fewer than 70 people. Lauren tells me she’s having a wonderful time, and I agree, as though my complicity might allow the reception to go on for another four hours.
“Yes,” says Lauren, “but I don’t have another $500 to give to the DJ.”
A trip up to the hospitality suite is sounding more appealing.
As we wait for everyone to go upstairs, four of us have struck up a conversation with the bartender, a woman in her late 20s who seemed stern until I asked her where she herself got married.
“Not here,” she says. “We did it drive-through!”
She tells us about the bartender and cocktail waitresses’ union in Vegas, which casinos are connected, and how the MGM Grand just bought the Luxor and plans to make it less of a family-oriented place. The idea of a no-children-allowed, pseudo-Egyptian casino with night clubs mimicking all the odd rituals of an ancient and permissive culture is oddly tantalizing.
I suddenly remember that the hospitality suite is on the 21st floor and, baby, one of my best friends just got married, my belly is full of chocolate cake — who but Lauren insists on an all-chocolate wedding cake? I love this woman! — every moment worth remembering is indelibly seared onto my camera’s memory card, and here we are, bright young things who, by some strange cosmic alignment and my savvy investment in a new Canon, look nothing short of gorgeous in every shot. Some of my closest friends are but a few feet away, and it’s only 11.
I want to try me one of those vodka tonics I’ve heard so much about.
I float as we wend our way to the inclinator banks. All in, I take a deep breath while Morgan, perfectly on cue, launches into a joke that has no punch line.
Emily snaps a shot of me coming out of the elevator, victorious, silver stilettos in one hand, vodka tonic held aloft in the other. I want a printout to take to the therapist I’ve been working with to overcome my claustrophobia. Would he be proud, I wonder? He once talked about a talisman, like a St. Christopher medallion or even my cell phone, a lucky charm to get me through my fear. Does self-medication count?
I have a photo of both me and Douglas in profile, staring into each other’s eyes and pondering beautiful, deep thoughts, like, “Is there a theater in Vegas that shows Strangers with Candy past midnight?” It’s a heartbreaking tableau, because in a moment, my world will be shattered.
As I turn my head to look back at the bride and groom, I feel a wave of nausea and realize that vodka tonic and I weren’t meant to be, ought to have parted ways before things got too serious. I am dizzy.
How can this be? I’m a healthy woman in her late-early 20s, I’ve tended bar, I’ve got grog-slamming Viking blood in me. On top of it all, I only had four drinks spread out over six hours. On a full stomach.
I manage to wish the bride and groom a good night as they fly off to their suite, and then my eyes sweep the room for a wingman, a compadre. I find one in both Morgan and Emily.
I hear the best man’s pleas to go out as I sweep past him. This isn’t the fated groomsman / bridesmaid hookup, mind you: the boy wants company out on the Strip. He asks everyone, he tells us it’s our duty. And it is! And I fail him.
We are nearing my elevator when I realize I don’t have my key. Morgan runs back up to the hospitality suite to find one of my roomies as Emily escorts me to the restroom. When I step out of the stall and dab at my eyes and running mascara, a woman passing the sinks says to me and Emily, “You girls look gorgeous!”
“Only in Vegas,” I say to Emily, “can you step out of a stall after vomiting and be told you look great.”
I look like a jilted bride, the one who was stood up at the altar and forced to grab a bottle of Korbel, slink off to her Jacuzzi suite alone and ultimately kneel beside the pristine toilet, dressed in bridal lingerie and praying that everything turns out OK.
This is more or less how Clare finds me when she pushes our bathroom door open. “Just feeling sick in my bustier,” I rasp cheerily.
Well, someone should see me in my merry widow (so called, I’m guessing, because if you wear a tight corset while grieving, you have no choice but to be merry — any sharp intake of breath, any sob, any stretch of the lungs might cause shock to the system).
I’m not one to imagine my own wedding, but I do have one detail pegged down: We’re gonna have to use the “L” word in the service. A lot. I call Him up a lot that evening in quick prayers for my own health and in the hopes that I don’t look like a total ass and to throw in a quick word for Lebanon and Israel — someone’s left CNN on in the other room.
Dress back on, I curl up on a bed with five of my lovely friends close by. Someone squeezes my hand. Up the pyramid a few levels, there’s a couple whose fledgling marriage I would bet the ranch on. They’re busy not filling up their in-suite Jacuzzi; they are asleep by this time. So they claim at brunch the next morning.