Gambling With Marriage.
Las Vegas, Nevada. 2 September, 2006
We were late for a movie, so we decided to gamble and get married instead. But not in that order. I dont think I believe in coincidence, anymore. All of the most important things in life start with tiny details we overlook more easily than we forget. It is as if there is no scale in life, no measure. Importance has neither size nor speed nor color, nor any sign of what it truly intends to do with you. We can never see nor measure the important signs of life. The first little cough that leads to death, the first tiny drop of rain that leads to a flood, the lucky penny you pick up that keeps you from getting hit by that bus, the sacred stranger you meet hitch-hiking, the simple movie you're late for. Fate, like a storm of mortal raindrops, has it in for us. We have little say in what becomes of us or even in the direction it blows us. It is not our job. Our job is to simply stand up straight and keep the chin in the high winds of life.
The whole thing started in December of 2001, when I was hitch-hiking in Corsica and two crazy French chicks pulled over to give me a lift. They were, like all crazy French chicks, fast-talking smokers and drinkers who moved with a delightful grace and simplicity, like a leaf in a breeze, if watched closely. They have roots that go deep, but they don't care because they like high winds.
Frankly, I didn't think too much of Amélie when I first met her. A journalist that talked fast she seemed curt and boyish. Despite a sharp sense of humor she was in some kind of strange pain. I was lucky enough to take a picture of her the day I met her, but didn't think about her too much for the six months that followed. There were many women I met that year and they were all lovely in their own way, and Amélie was one that I forgot as easily as I forgot something that I cannot think of now.
Six months later I was living in the basement of an art gallery I'd opened in Paris, in the 18th, near Place des Abbesses. Like a good American in Paris I was busy drinking lots of wine, and painting portraits of saints, and having lots of sex. I was quite busy and not making much money but having a grand time and one day, while in the market (it was the market where the movie "Amélie" was filmed), I ran into Amélie. She looked less harsh. She seemed quite lovely this time, and she had built her own pinhole camera that she was using to take pictures out in front of the market. So I invited her over for a glass of wine. After all, at that point, it seemed only natural. In the coming months we learned many details about one another.
Strange things that are unmentionable have happened to me in Paris. Things that are so subjective and queer that they are incomprehensible. Before I had turned 20 (and long before I'd moved to Paris) two psychics, on different instances, each told me that in a past life I was a woman and that I had died in a fire in Paris in the 1920s. I don't remember that, myself, but while in that gray city I have stopped in the middle of the street - thrice - and broke into tears for no reason, causing no small consternation with my companion, unlucky enough to accompany me on such rare and strange walks. It has never happened to me elsewhere. In Paris I have felt buildings or street corners to be old friends - buildings or street corners I've never seen. I've walked throuh gardens and had to stop, for no reason. Paris has her hooks in me. Paris is like the mother that put me up for adoption and when I get close to her she smells familiar, like my own shirt. I know Paris as well as any city. I've explored under her streets and over her rooves, and I know that I will live in Paris again. Perhaps I will die there again. So coincidence stops making sense as an explanation after a while. More reasonable possibilities that reason must be employed for me to understand my relationship with Paris.
But I thought none of this the second time I met Amélie. Instead we drank wine in my gallery and she showed me her photos and I showed her my paintings and it was all very sweet and I was happy to see her and I have happy memories of those days. In the months that followed she came to some openings I had, and we became friends, and then lovers, and things got hot, and then one day I put all of my things in storage, and left Paris, and traveled again and didn't talk with her for a long while.
During the four years that followed the two of us, separately, visited every continent on the planet. She traveled more than I (and I traveled enough to make a flock of migrating geese seem lazy) but Paris was our meeting place each year. I would fly through town, and drop by Amélie's apartment for a visit. She'd been taking photos. I'd been painting. She'd been writing books. I'd been writing articles. She'd been doing capoeira. I'd been doing karate. It went on like that during our visits, and we would start to fall in love again, rolling in our stories and after a full ashtray and a couple of empty bottles we would make love, fall asleep, shower, and then I would take the plane to some other country. This happened every six months or so, for four years. We both grew tired of this distance and so, eventually, something had to be done.
In 2006, while in Los Angeles, we went to see a movie (Little Miss Sunshine) and we were, as I said, about fifteen minutes late and this was one of the most important moments of my life. This was one of those penny-bus moments and, as usual, I didn't recognize it at the time, but it made me think a bit about time itself, and it made me think about missing important things because time moves so damn fast, and it was simply because I am always on time - and because I hate being late for movies - that I looked at Amélie, sitting to my right in the car, and she seemed to have a halo or smoke rising from her head, and her eyes were on fire, and her hair seemed full of wings and wind and she shuddered for a moment, like that leaf, and smiled at me again.
We were sitting in some hatchback shit-brown rental car on Santa Monica boulevard. There was a chainlink fence outside the car and some homeless guy pushed a cart along. The sun had set hours ago and we were casting about for an adventure, and quite unhappy at the prospect of her going back to France and I asked her to marry me, in French, and I'm sure I worded it poorly. It simply left my mouth. As it did so I realized that I should have been on one knee or had a ring or talked with her parents about this in advance or at least had the courtesy to take her to Hawaii, first. But I didn't, I just said it, and the bullet flew from my throat and moved across the space in the car, and hit her, and she looked at me for a second and I grew cold with fear, because words, cannot be taken back once fired. All I knew was that I needed to give her a very good reason not to return to France, at least not without me, so I said it. Her lower eyelids lifted up a bit, then she smiled, and climbed on my lap, and put her hands on my face, and all of the coldness of life went away and something inside of me cracked and flowed. I felt my heart pound against the bars of this jail cell, and I felt him want to spring out and set the city on fire, and in that one beat, in that space of a second, my emotions changed my entire world.
At all costs life should be conducted impulsively. Planning and scheduling and organizing drains the spirit from life. The secret of life is to be brave.
Anyway, we agreed to got ice cream to think about this a bit. We had one hour, we agreed, to really think this thing over. But I told Amélie that after that hour we needed to act, and go all the way, and no longer think about it. You decide, and then no matter how grisly it becomes, you complete the act. It's like killing an animal; if you start it you have to finish it. So we ate our ice cream as calmly as possible, looking at each other, and smiling, but really feeling quite unsettled as strangers moved around us and we watched our lives switch tracks, suddenly, to a direction neither of us had imagined. We were both happy, young, healthy, sexy, single people eating ice cream on Santa Monica Boulevard in the fall. It was a fine hour. Perhaps, one might argue, the finest hour of my life; all was potential and none of it was yet ruined by reality.
Why, really, would I ruin it? Let's face it; marriage is stupid. Promising to stay in love is like promising to be happy all the time. Staying with one person is directly opposed to the evolutionary prerogatives of spreadin' the seeds and makin' the young'ns. I've never been a good monogamist. I have never been a settled man. I have never had even the inclination to marry. And anyway, chances were against us: something like 80% of all westerners get divorced. And neither Amélie nor I even liked weddings. The hard fact is that I have, for my entire life, preferred attending funerals to weddings. I exaggerate not a whit. The last four weddings I went to, I sat in the back of the ceremony and drank and drank and drank until I could no longer articulate the derisions and doubts I had of the entire procession. At funerals, however, I feel the splendor of life; I am sober and sharp and sensations become focused and I am aware of the importance of each breath; I leave and step out into the open wind and hear my heel hit the street and move into the sun with a light heart and a feeling of appreciation for the beauty that is constantly blowing across my skin. But weddings simply dull the senses and numb the mind and cast one into a dull world of expected surprises. They are full of horrible little white nightmares, that include veils, lacey invitations, and wedding cakes. Wedding cakes are the most disgusting things in the world. I would, really, rather snake intestines live worms than such a fake, frosty, arrangement of air and saccharine as a wedding cake. Little plastic figures on the top and champagne and little rings and all the people standing in a circle clapping and smiling and trying to make the new Mrs feel like a little princess? No, thank you.
Why ruin it? After all, in the years before I had seen great beauty. There was the beautiful Indian attorney who was out to save the world, there was the English multimedia producer with the gap in her teeth, there was the Polish woman who grew up by the lake on her horses, there was the Swiss Miss whom I had loved for years, there was the girl I met on the corner in Singapore, the LA Woman, the Dutch girl who walked around naked in her boots as she made coffee. And all of these women, this bouquet I had been somehow collecting as I traveled, each of these beautiful people had shared themselves with me, each of them handsome, dynamic, feminine, intelligent beautiful people. Why leave all that behind?
Why ruin it?
Because, simply, I felt like it. One travels and then, eventually, one must go home. At the age of nearly 40 I decided I'd seen all I needed to see. All of these private and beautiful worlds were magnificent, but in the end, they were merely travels. They were merely short visits. I felt like trying something that would last for decades. The real function of love is to see the world through another's eyes, and by doing so you split the weight of the world in two, and you double its beauty. But without time... love has no roots, and grows weak, and cannot take high winds.
And so, a few hours later, on the 15 East, we were approaching the Nevada border. It would be sunrise soon and we needed to take some rest, so we pulled off the highway, banged down a little dirt road, pulled the parking break, and the world seemed small, tucked within the scope of the car's headlights. We pulled out some blankets and towels, and fell asleep, warm and nested in the back of that shit-brown rental car.
I woke up twice during the night, and Amélie's face was close and moonshadows floated everywhere. As she exhaled I smelled her breath and it smelled sweet, like peas fresh sprung from their shell. She smelled soft as spring sun. Her long black hair was spilled across my arm and I noticed tiny details of highlights and molecular specks of dust on her eyelashes - dust from the desert - and this thin blue light from the moon illuminated the windows. The windows were humid and foggy, and they seemed to have little waves and weather patterns all their own, each window looking like oceans that floated above the two of us, in our nest of blankets, godly, and alone and together. I fell back asleep, smelling my fiancee, and happy.
Over near the nevada state line there's a crap little truckstop of a burg named Primm. We stopped in, got gas, coffee, and a couple of bagels. Going in and out of the restroom we saw round, fat baby-like adults with misshapen faces and goatees. They looked like the infant offspring of ogres. "Balour" is the french word for them. It was horrid. Balour-fear gave us wings more than marriage-ambition, and we fled the town with its strange gas stations and gambling offers and railroad tracks, fled into what once was sin city, but has now become more of an amusement park for the family.
Las Vegas is most certainly not what it used to be. It is now more the nerve-damaged cousin of Disneyland that got a job in a fast-food restaurant than it is Al Capone's den of iniquities with Elvis going wild. The Strip is a collection of incredible advertisements, and the horizontal spill of the city merely obscures what makes all beautiful cities beautiful; their contrast. The blur of the Las Vegas sprawl is so big as to be, now, a new Los Angeles of automated manufacturing and thoughtless pursuit of ownership. I love Las Vegas for the same reason I love Jerusalem; it is a holy city, a battlefield, a tourist destination, and a manufactured dream, all wrapped up in one unholy squirm.
Anyway, we drove around a bit and found a couple of rickety Get-Married-Now chapels, most of which were closed since it was a Sunday. They all had cracking paint and you could see the dream was geriatric. We found one that was open. A marriage there would cost about $2000. But you could pick a theme, as if it were your own movie you could direct, star, and produce. Another that was open was at Bellagio's, and they were a bit expensive, but I'd stashed up a little money in the bank and figured that it was a good thing to blow it on. After an hour or so we checked into the Luxor, that big black pyramid (I was also, I understand, a page to the pharoahs in a past life), showered, and went to talk with the woman that ran the chapel there; you could just go down to the lobby to get married, we learned. Las Vegas is as convenient as it is horrific.
The aging woman that worked behind the counter at the Luxor chapel was a stern-faced German frau that glowered out at us with small piggish eyes set deep under her bushy blonde eyebrows. It was hard to tell where her neck stopped and her shoulders began. She was as tall as me. We asked her about the wedding services, telling her we wanted to know a little about process and price and such things. By way of response she got real quiet for a second and slowly put her thick hams on the counter. "Do you realize that a marriage is FOREVER? Do you realize the gravity of what you are about to do? Do you know how solemn and sacred this oath is?" and behind her were glass cases full of white wedding dresses and boutonnieres, and pictures of couples snuggled up and smiling and it all seemed dead and protestant and Amélie and I looked at each other. I felt bad. I told the woman that we needed to think about "things." Hand in hand, Amélie and I ran out of there.
On the 900 block of 3rd street, over near the courthouse where you go to get your wedding license, there's a little chapel named Heavenly Bliss. It was run by a woman named Emily. She was Phillipino and wore purple eyeshadow, and purple nail polish, and had a nice light purple smartypants skirt to go with it all. Her hair was a bit abused from haircare products and she ended sentences with the word, "Know?" as if she were cholo. But I think it was just that she had lived in Las Vegas for a long time. She was short. She laughed alot and was full of love and energy and we liked her more than the Luxor frau, so we talked for a while and this seemed good. We wanted a Blue Hawaii theme, just to keep it trite. We had four hours to wait. I negotiated a price for my own wedding. In retrospect, this was part of why I went to Las Vegas to begin with; to ambush my own reality.
A few hours later we woke up in the Luxor with the late afternoon sun streaming in through our large weird window that, because it was inside a pyramid, was more ceiling than wall. The bed was huge - large enough for the three couples that I hoped it had occasionally held, and the room smelled a bit like clorox and whiskey. There was a dim hum, a vague vibration, that made the bed quiver. I decided it was from the Casino. As I lay there looking at the oddly angled window, and the mustard colored sky outside, my bride quietly reminded me she needed a ring. I looked at the clock. Then jumped out of the bed, rinsed myself down, and flew from the room in a flurry of matrimonial feathers. It was five o'clock. We were supposed to be married in an hour. As I spun out of the parking lot I called Amélie on my cellphone and asked her to iron a shirt for me. I'd pick her up in 30 minutes.
Once I was moving I calmed down because after all, the American West is really one big pawn shop; it's a sustained ecosystem of swapped kitsch, and Las Vegas, at the center of it all, has always been in sharp need of fast cash. What else could feed all those one-armed bandits, after all? What other means than ATMs and pawn shops would feed the appetite of that great gambling mecca? As I turned one random corner after another, west of the strip, I began to visualize engagement rings nestled into a stained glass case underneath some old guitars, I turned down one street, then another, and a next, each seeming a solid candidate, but none of these streets holding anything other than the name of a franchise I already knew. Las Vegas, too, was being paved under.
But pawn shops don't franchise and time waits for no one, so I went in a direction perpendicular to my expectations and soon stepped into a pawn shop that was sorted by color. Purple was on one wall, Yellow was on the other, and within these chromatic categories I found sashes and hats and shoes and finally a case with rings.
Some things are far too important to take seriously. Wedding rings are one of them and so fortunately not one of the rings I was staring at looked anything like a wedding ring.
As I looked I also knew that my bride would have no standard goopey to wear on her ringer. She'd need something solid and simple. Something we could laugh at later. I had 20 minutes and about a dozen rings to choose from. All of them were crap; the Minnesota Eagles fraternity ring that was more of a bracelet than a ring. The chipped and lustreless loops that looked cut from old tin foil, a piece of wire that was some kind of concept jewelry art. As I began to give up hope I found, at the end, a silver and black ring that was thick enough that it had writing around it. Precisely, it said "XXXIXIIVVIVIIVIIII" (62, I suppose, but it's not really a real number), and a well-polished silvery look. And it seemed, when I held it, to be the right size. It seemed, when I held it, to be warm. It seemed Right.
I slammed the car door. The tire skidded as I backed up. The corner was turned. The light took forever. Amélie on the cellphone. The parking garage ramp. The left hand turn. Amélie in the car. She and handed me my shirt and my boots. We nearly sideswiped a white cadillac. Then we got lost. Then the man with the baseball hat gave us directions. We parked in front of Heavenly Bliss. And yes, I must confess, I was late to my own wedding.
We signed some papers and put on some plastic leis, and we walked into the Blue Hawaiian room, and a tape-deck cassette was played with some luau music, and the video recorder was set to rolling and the photographer clacked her tripod into place and pastor Emily jumped once, like a champion prize-fighter, just before a match, and then she turned and told me to stand in front of the big Hawaiian beach poster and she turned to Amélie. The Bride would be prepared.
Thence we were married by pastor Emily. In that rather uncomfortable moment she said things about God and Jesus and Forever and Oath and I have to admit that Pastor Emily got a little heavy-handed at times, heavier than I would have expected her to. I mean, we were wearing fake plastic leis and listening to a cassette of Don Ho's backup bandmates. But while she said these (finally) important things, and I found myself surprised, I reminded myself that things always get a little heavier than you expect them to, and never when you expect, and I looked at Amélie, and her face was placid and I could see her parsing the words that she heard, not all of them comprehensible to her French ear. But she knew what was going on. I will never forget her face as she said the vow that she decided, on that spot, to say. And I will never forget the feeling of having drunk so much coffee that I'd wished I'd worn an adult diaper.
Thus we were married under the watchful eye of Pastor Emily's camera woman, and under the watchful eye of the god that Emily had summoned, and the state of Nevada, and when it was over and done, and when we had exchanged our vows, that single person clapped, and Emily told me that there were three things most important in marriage; Love, Patience, and Humility.
That would make a fine tattoo: "Love, Patience, Humility." Getting married is like a tattoo. Getting married should be done only once. After a person has gone through a divorce they are used goods; no longer worth marrying. You do it once and either it works and you die with it, and you live as happily as ever after as possible, and you've kept your promise, or it does not. It is that simple. If the promise is made once, then broken, the word is no longer any good. You end up like Pamela Anderson, in which a wedding becomes little more than a complicated first date. I will never marry a second time. Marriage is, ultimately, about family, and about planting roots, and about determining there is more to your relationship with the world than you. And that has to do with doing what you say you'll do. People have told me, "Never say never." But that is horse-shit. Not only will I say never, I'll write it. Never.
Marriage is a stupid gamble in this way, and that alone makes it worth doing.
When we got back to the Luxor Amélie said the sexiest thing I have ever heard in my life. We made love, took a shower, and went gambling.
In the Luxor you can buy food, buy drinks, buy clothes, go dancing, see movies, take rides and generally entertain yourself as if you were in any other little city. All in the tidy package of a modern pyramid. But gambling is the point to it all. Gambling is the reason for Las Vegas, and that was what we ourselves went for. I have heard (from a friend of mine that was an American military engineer) that in Eastern Europe, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian army used to have a rather curious method of stress-testing military bridges; to find out of the bridge was strong enough to hold trucks and cars they would simply drive their trucks and cars out onto the bridge and sit there. If the bridge broke, it wasn't strong enough. I can only think of the fear that this would have bred among engineers, and the care that the paranoia would have given birth to. In a similar spirit we went out to go gambling.
Marriage is a gamble. And so we went gambling, and in a sense we stress-tested. And I'm quite happy to report that we left with a 25% win. It wasn't much, really ($80). I'm not counting the six or seven whiskeys I dumped down my throat, which probably means we netted over $100. But win we did, and as I wandered back to the room with my lovely new bride, this all seemed to me a good omen. We threw more whiskey down, made love, smoked cigarettes, and then drove like hell through the desert to Joshua Tree the next morning to celebrate her 30th birthday.
So we met the first time while I was hitch-hiking in Corsica, we met again by chance in Paris, and a series of small coincidences created by spur-of-the-moment decisions led us to Nevada where we got hitched and are now, three years later, happily married. I see no end in sight.
Now all these coincidences makes sense.
After all, perhaps "coincidence" is just a synonym for "destiny."