Kat Meads is the author of The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, Sleep, Born Southern and Restless, Not Waving and other books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, American Letters and Commentary, Natural Bridge, Prick of the Spindle, Blood Lotus and Vibrant Gray. She received the Editors' Choice Award in Nonfiction in Drunken Boat's Panliterary Award competition for "On Fighting the Temptation to Fictionalize Marina Oswald."
Relativism: The Size of the Tsar in Vegas
First light, Wednesday, December 17, we load up and get underway.
On California State Highway 78, we cross the Algodones sand dunes and skirt the Colorado River. At vista-range, we pass the Chocolate, Palo Verdes and Mule mountains, all of which the man beside me inspects with a climber's eye and a boulderer's longing. On U.S. Highway 95, near Vidal Junction, we pass, within spitting distance, the famous "shoe tree," a tamarisk dangling hundreds of pairs of well-worn sneakers.
For the marriage-phobic, any manner of thing can reconfigure as dire portent.
"Feeling a little … queasy," I mew into the palm of my hand in the land of cacti and sand infinitum.
"Try not to throw up in the car," my groom-to-be suggests — a genuine plea. Also an attempt to make me laugh.
Success on goal number one, wash out on number two.
Because we left so inordinately, paranoically, early, we arrive early, too early to check into the hotel. Down time, fritter time, is not, in my current mind state a helpful or healthful condition. Continuous movement and/or distraction must be maintained — otherwise chances are excellent I will, in sequence: barf, faint and break out in a welt-y rash.
Fortunately, my thrice-wed brother anticipated that his sister would, on her second wedding day, go freaky for real or imagined cause and provided a list of sightseeing palliatives. To wit:
"You get to Vegas, need to forget for a little while why you came, head over to East Tropicana. The Liberace Museum's a stitch."
Also apt. Prior to campy Vegas nuptials, pay tribute to the master of camp, Mr. Showmanship.
Eighteen pianos. A Rolls Royce covered in mirror tiles further etched with galloping horses. Another "roadster" covered in Austrian rhinestones. A piano-shaped wristwatch. A candelabra-shaped ring. Diamonds, rubies, feathers and fur-none of it easy lifting. The "world famous" radiantly pink King Neptune costume, a suit/cape combo Liberace donned for a 1984 World's Fair performance in New Orleans, fuses pearls, seashells and bugle beads. The get-up, according to the placard alongside, weighs in at more than 200 pounds. Strenuous work, bedazzling the masses. Impressively strenuous.
The recreated master bedroom from Liberace's Palm Springs manse contains a lighted display of Moser crystal, arresting in and of itself. But the boudoir's piéce de résistance is the bronze ormolu desk, an example of spectacle furnishing at its finest. If desks could speak, this one would continuously scream. I can't fathom trying to sleep in its vicinity. Then again I'm a plebe. A plebe with insomnia.
There's a photo of Liberace seated at the bronze ormolu desk, outfitted in a complementary bronze-hued dressing gown. Make no mistake: Wisconsin native Walter Valentino Liberace looks perfectly in sync with the bronze ormolu desk. Very likely original owner Louis XV also looked perfectly in sync. It is interim owner Tsar Nicholas II whom I can't quite picture pulling up a chair. But I try, I do try, to place him there (at the desk, not in Vegas).
The Russian twist.
It will recur.
In Vegas, December can be startlingly gray, particularly in the mid-afternoon pocket between two and three. It can also pack a sharp and nasty wind. Gray and windy are the outer atmospheric conditions in effect as we exit the parking garage to traverse the last two blocks to the Marriage License Bureau on foot.
My shivering could be caused by wind.
It's not absolutely certain I'm not shivering because of wind.
Let's leave it at that.
Although marrying in Vegas is notoriously easy, there remain a few un-shirk-able requirements. If applying for an in-town marriage license, both "parties" must present themselves at the Marriage License Bureau, first floor, 200 South Third Street. Both must be at least 18 (and prove it). The couple eager to wed must not be "nearer of kin than second cousins or cousins of half blood." And, by the by, there must not be the complication/encumbrance of "a husband or wife living." Ignore that rule and prepare for some nasty litigation.
Identity claims must be backed up by a driver's license, birth certificate (original or certified copy), military ID or resident alien card. A U.S. citizen must disclose his or her social security number. No blood tests required — a relief. Blood tests turn me light-headed and, has been made clear, this day my baseline light-headedness already poses a challenge to the keeping on. After a license is issued, there's no need to dally and risk the onset of misgivings. As far as the State of Nevada is concerned, any couple finished with the paperwork can run, drive or be limo-ed to any of 46 nearby wedding chapels and quick-sign the wedding registry as Mr./Mrs.
Many happy returns.
The Marriage License Bureau is part of the Clark County Courthouse, which also houses the Las Vegas Justice Court whose docket includes felony, misdemeanor, traffic and small claims cases. The real estate share guarantees that, during periods of recess, the steps leading up to the Marriage Bureau entrance are thick with Vegas residents not in the best of moods. (You wouldn't, for example, want to ask any of them, as a favor, to serve as rice tossers.) Whereas the court folk dress in duds befitting reprimand, the marriage license procurers are free to dress á la Liberace or in any other get-up their wild hearts desire. Whereas the marriage license procurers smile and skip, the court folk slump and scowl. My fellow and I, limbs stiff, teeth clenched, seem to belong to the other team.
Because the two of us generally expect the worst and are seldom disabused, we expected a line at the Marriage License Bureau. The roped-off setup strongly suggests that long lines are the norm, very long lines, but only two couples stand between us and the processing clerks, a tux and gold lame duo and a pair dressed in matching track suits. The tux and lame couple are cooing in, yes, Russian.
Multiple wall posters warn that any error on the marriage license, however minor, invalidates the license to wed. Our turn at the counter, on our official form, we discover multiple errors. Groom's name: misspelled. My mother's name: misspelled. Our town of residence: misspelled (twice). Even for those capable of ignoring omens of a darker cast, such a conglomeration of error, I'd wager, is tough to overlook. A single typo, maybe. But four? One of us nervously licks her lips; both of us indulge in some low-pitched cursing.
But on we press, on we press.
By law, wedding chapel reps are prohibited from soliciting on courthouse property, assuring a congregation of that faction a bit farther down the block. When any party of two passes, they leap forward, fall in step and mutter, drug-dealer fashion: "Wanna get married?"
Unsettling, that dart and dive, but the query does cut to the chase.
Each year in Vegas more than 100,000 brides and grooms gamble (or gamble again) on matrimony. Not every wedding chapel offers a drive-through option, but several do. Our selection for marrying fast, cheap and without leaving the confines of our car is The Little White Chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard, a "marrying destination since 1946."
The Little White Chapel has a marquee. It has a fleet of stretch limos. It has something like a steeple and a built-in audience composed of idle fellows, leaning on the guardrails of the exterior balconies of the seedy hotel across the street. Beneath the porte-cochere, we wait, seat belts securely fastened, surrounded by various incarnations of hearts and cherubs and cherubs holding hearts.
Rita, window greeter and cashier, appears, shakes an admonitory finger at us and indulgently beams while chiding: "Darlings! This is a drive-through, not a drive-by event. Turn off the car."
My groom-to-be (reluctantly) obeys. I go so far as to release my seatbelt, but the sunglasses stay put. An armed militia could not separate me from my sunglasses.
After a credit card charge of $65 ($40 for the ceremony, plus Rita-suggested tip), Rita is replaced by the Reverend Iann Schonken. From (at least) the waist up, he's dressed in a tux. Poking through an opening that could pass as a burger and fries handoff, he inquires which type of ceremony we'd prefer: spiritual, religious, interfaith, ethnic, non-religious/nondenominational….
My almost-groom raises his hand long before that recital peters out.
"Just the basic basic," he says and I concur: "Bare minimum. No flourishes."
The Reverend Schonken no doubt senses that if pressed to spring for further upgrades, we'll promptly flee and cancel the credit card charge already incurred. If so, he senses correctly. Twenty minutes at the courthouse, ten minutes beneath the porte-cochere, and we're done, not a second too soon. Across the way, on the balcony, one of the uninvited guests has begun to remind me of the boatman on the River Styx.
I'm never in Vegas, to wed or otherwise, without thinking of the John Gregory Dunne opener: "In the summer of my nervous breakdown, I went to live in Las Vegas…. It had been a bad spring, it had been a bad winter, it had been a bad year." I have enormous respect, bordering on awe, for the nervous breakdown/Vegas pairing for this reason: Vegas exists to dick with reality. Once here, the visitor can slide in only one of two directions: a more profound break with reality than the crack one arrived with or relief imposed by perspective. Personal slippage compared to the collective break that is Vegas? Dwarfed. Hardly worth a mention.
Since my groom and I both miraculously manage to correct typos at the Marriage License Bureau and robotically respond to the prompts of half a reverend without wigging out completely, we are now entitled to celebrate the fact that in the event of pending or actual disaster, we qualify as each other's next of kin — our prime reason for going legal. And celebrate we do, as only the adrenaline-pumped, nerve-jangled can. Food, drink, an enormous tub and an even more enormous bed — we take full advantage of every amenity and then some. It's a splurge, the Bellagio package, but occasionally courage ought to be over-the-top rewarded, oughtn't it?
The Bellagio hotel/casino/resort is the third of Steve Wynn's mega ventures in mega Vegas. First came the Mirage in 1989. Next the Treasure Island hotel and casino (1993) and, in 1998, the $1.5 (or $1.6, depending on the source) billion Bellagio, named for an Italian town on Lake Como and fronted by an 8.5 acre Wynn-made lake. Our room doesn't face the lake and lavish fountains because my climber/groom is a Red Rocks fan. He prefers a view of Jurassic-Era rock over a fake lake created in 1998. I agree with that vista choice not because I'm a climber or a nature for nature's sake zealot. I agree because red sandstone in a desert town is less reality warping than spurting water.
Celebrations of the body involving champagne, sex and bubblebaths, however leisurely, can only last for so long, even in Vegas. During the afterglow, we prop on monstrous pillows and commence to channel surf. At some point during that flip-about, my groom dozes off.
Insomnia has no respect for wedding nights — first, second or (I'm guessing) eighth. Eventually I stop worrying the remote and settle in to watch a two-hour documentary on Charlie Manson and his girl chorus. It's wholly enthralling, that saga of dementia, but it too runs its course. I keep watching, though, through the impossible to read credits. The squinting reminds me that I brought along a book — I always bring a book — but in packing I didn't quite grasp how the tart and twisty Muriel Spark would read in a gigantor bed in a gigantor hotel room. In my opinion (and mine is the only opinion that counts at 2:18 a.m.), Dame Muriel is better suited to and appreciated in an environment that offers up greater surface traction. The other reading material immediately at hand is the hefty room service menu.Twenty-two pages of food possibilities, seven of drink. Single-malt scotch offerings range from $110 to $500 per bottle; blended scotch, $65 to $525. Cordials cost much less, if I wanted to go the cordials route. The dilemma: if I drink more now, I'm guaranteed to be awake and drinking while others, rested, freshly bathed and attired, are digging into their breakfast omelets. I could, I suppose, shove a plush chair over toward the window and, with or without drink in hand, wait for the dawn view. But I lack the calm and serenity that kind of transfixed immobility demands. It's been a fraught day, an overly indulgent night. I'm feeling way too buggy for a sit-still and stare. Way too.
Back in my bridal outfit of boots, jeans and wrinkled tee, I scribble a note on the hotel's embossed notepad and leave it within vicinity of a toss and turn. I'm fairly sure, fairly, that the sleeping one will continue to sleep blissfully through till morning as is his custom, but I wouldn't like for him to wake, discover my absence and assume I'd bolted less than 24 hours into the contract — a conclusion I would absolutely draw if I woke to his absence. Absolutely. We're very well-suited that way. No, I merely intend to roam the hotel, not flee Vegas and Nevada under cloak of darkness.
Surely an insomniac can roam incognito in Vegas?
Surely to be an insomniac in Vegas is to be in no way distinguishable from the night throngs?
The elevator already holds six when it stops at my floor. As I step in, one of that number is declaring: "We like to go on vacations and come back mentally alert and physically exhausted."
Eavesdropping — a vice utterly reliant on timing. I so wish my snooping had begun two floors above.
All six riders disembark at casino level and I follow, trailing along behind six, then four, then two. The Caribbean Stud poker table is full to capacity, as is every blackjack table. Fewer customers are playing craps but that's not to imply the craps area is deserted. It just doesn't come in first or second in the crowd-o-meter ranking. Legions of cocktail waitresses are delivering legions of glasses of booze. Here and there tourists are doing what tourists do at any and every hour: taking photographs of the walls and each other. As advertised, Café Bellagio is open and serving. I could still be seated but wouldn't have much choice regarding where. Eight desk clerks remain on duty and God knows how many cleaners, polishing high and low expanses of marble and glass, buffing perspiration smudges off handrails, tabletops and bar stools, vacuuming carpets, dumping ashtrays. An hour into the roaming, I'm still hoping the blurred vision of methodical cleaning and frenzied gambling will induce fatigue in the observer. By 3:26 a.m., I accept that stronger measures are called for, widen my circuit, and tack toward the "pool promenade."
New fondest hope?
That still water in a still pool will prove soporific.
I get there — or almost there — before meandering off-course. Outside or inside in Vegas, anything non-lit draws the eye. Across from the pool, I notice a patch of darkness that exceeds the casino's mood-lighting dimness and tack in its direction. In 24/7 land, The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is a rarity: closed, shut up until 9 a.m.
The not-open-for business detail — that's what draws me first. But what induces me to tarry before the closed Gallery of Fine Art is the exhibition title: Fabergé — Treasures from the Kremlin. Specifically, pendants, clocks, figurines, picture frames, cigarette cases and Easter eggs, crafted by Peter Carl Fabergé, St. Petersburg native, and his team of artisans for Russia's Imperial Family.
And thus again: a Russia/Russian encounter in Vegas.
How I long to enter and entertain my sleepless self with an instantaneous Gallery of Fine Art stroll! But that's not going to happen, no matter how pitifully I claw and moon at the door. Other alternatives: remain gazing at the exhibition poster until I drop or continue on to the pool.
I continue on to the pool.
My overly tired, suggestible brain has taken up the prompt.
My body is stretched on a striped chaise, poolside Vegas, but my mind is zipping through its storehouse of Imperial Russia factoids. Such as: the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra slept four to the room in the Alexander Palace on camp beds. Such as: Nicholas called Alexandra "wifey" and she called him "hubby." Such as: Rasputin smelled like a goat. Such as: a special device on the tsar's imperial train prevented His Imperial Majesty's bathwater from spilling. Such as: the Soviets' joke about posthumously awarding Nicholas II the Order of the Red Banner in recognition of his outstanding contributions to hastening the revolution.
Those kinds of such as-es.
My groom has nothing against Russia, the country or its history, but prefers a Red Rocks hike to a decorative arts stare. Accordingly, below a lobby vase taller than the both of us combined, we part company for the morning, Honeymoon Day One.
Far fewer people are out and about at nine than at 3:26 a.m. No ticket line has formed or is forming to view the trinkets of Russia's last tsar and tsarina. The Gallery of Fine Art accountant may be disappointed by such a poor turnout, but I'm delighted, more than, because I despise, utterly despise, fighting for air and body space in a museum. A month or so ago, at the Diane Arbus retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, anyone wishing to see Arbus's notebooks and letters displayed in a ring-around-the-room glass case, including a print exchange between the photographer and her brother, poet Howard Nemerov, my particular goal, had to be vicious, simply vicious, in planting herself and giving no quarter.
Quite possibly the emptiness of the gallery heightens the discrepancy, but I find I need a moment, then a moment more, to adjust to a significant change in scale. In the lobby, I was craning my neck to see the top of a flower arrangement, and here, in the gallery, I am the giantess, peering through glass at miniature Fabergé eggs containing smaller "surprise" miniatures inside. The Alexander Palace Egg, commemorating the Imperial Family's favorite palace in Tsarskoe Selo, isn't quite five inches tall and still manages to work in gold, silver, diamonds, rubies and miniature watercolor portraits of all five Romanov children. The dimensions of the "surprise" palace inside: a bit shy of 2" x 3." The Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, commissioned by Nicholas II in 1900 as an Easter gift for Alexandra, contains, on the outside, a silver-engraved map of the railway's route, St. Petersburg to Vladivostock, each station designated by one or another precious stone. There's a three-headed eagle in gold. There are three Romanov griffins. There's a replica of the Imperial Crown. And all that but prelude. Inside the egg, the three-section replica of the Trans-Siberian Express (platinum and gold engine and tender, five gold coaches) will, if assembled, actually run.
The tradition of commissioning Fabergé Easter eggs to give as gifts, tsar to tsarina, began in 1885 with Nicholas II's father, Alexander III. As with most of his father's preferences and practices, Nicholas followed suit, keeping up the tradition until 1917, when the revolution rendered Easter eggs and their exchange passé. Of note: Comrade Lenin recognized the value of the eggs and ordered them stored with other baubles confiscated from the Romanov palaces in the Kremlin Armoury. His successor, Stalin, either more ignorant of their value, more desperate for cash or both, sold part of the cache to Westerners, some of the eggs going for less than $500 each. Armand Hammer bought several. Later, Malcolm Forbes owned a few. It's a shame Liberace didn't invest. A Fabergé Easter egg atop the bronze ormolu desk.
Or would that count as overkill?
The "costume" section of the exhibit offers compelling evidence that, at least in the case of Nicholas II, Fabergé and team worked very small for a very small patron. On display: the 1896 coronation uniform worn by the human being who inherited the title Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, represented the embodiment of God on earth and was thereby, in theory, unaffected by the laws of man or bureaucracy and too far above the petty scheming maneuvers of petty scheming Bolsheviks to be required to give a fig. Before the coronation fashion artifact, I linger and loll for quite some time. Few grown men could fit into the garment, much less fit in a way that flatters. I keep trying to come up with a realistic comparison, a grown man of my acquaintance who might not burst every seam in the try-on. Can't do it. In the flesh, God's main Russian conduit was a tiny thing.
How tiny? Some historians say 5' 6''; others give him the benefit of the doubt and add another inch. Among the non-numeric descriptions: "slight," "wiry," "feminine in stature." Nicholas II was, if the history books can be trusted, a short fellow with short legs. He presented best on horseback. Not slight, not remotely feminine in appearance, his father, Alexander III — a physical contrast that surely complicated father/son dynamics. Another complication: Alexander III considered his son a dunce. What did the "dunce" excel at? Riding, shooting and the social courtesies. He had impeccable manners. He took a keen interest in military fashions and, according to Orlando Figes in A People's Tragedy, regularly made "fussy alterations … an extra button there, another tassel there" to the uniforms of his favorite military units. As tsarevich and tsar, Nicholas kept a diary, scrupulously kept it, and in it scrupulously recorded the weather. On coronation day, on the day Alix of Hesse accepted his marriage proposal, while imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, on the eve of his and his family's murder by same: meticulous weather reports.
The coronation outfit.
An intriguing exhibition choice.
One almost, almost, suspects Kremlin irony.
Mere days after Nicholas II wore the uniform now displayed at Steve Wynn's Vegas hotel, 1,400 Russians were crushed to death, another 600 wounded, in a mad grab for gifts dispensed on the streets in the name of the father/tsar. The father/tsar himself, in a major (and early) political blunder, kept to the schedule of events and that evening attended a ball hosted by the French ambassador and there danced the night away with his new bride.
The new bride.
Queen Victoria's granddaughter, soon to be known in court circles as "that German woman," future mother of a tsarevich whose hemophilia derived from her bloodline, the woman who advised her milquetoast husband to emulate Ivan the Terrible but was herself the pawn of mystics. When Rasputin's predecessor, a French mystic, declared her pregnant with an heir, her mind and body sought to make good on that prediction with an hysterical pregnancy. Alexander III wasn't a fan of Alix of Hesse, renamed Alexandra Fedorovna after her (required) conversion to the Orthodox faith. He preferred a daughter-in-law who hailed from French or Prussian noble stock, but in this one instance, the milquetoast Nicholas stood firm: he wanted Alix of Hesse.
They didn't marry at Vegas drive-through speed, but for royalty they married quickly and with some urgency, following the unexpected death of Alexander III, age 47. The wedding took place a week after the funeral. Like the former tsar, the Russian people in general didn't cotton to Alexandra. Too haughty. Too severe. And those were judgments rendered before Rasputin began to stink up the Winter Palace. However imperious, however ridiculously influenced by a foul-smelling starets, you have to feel some pity — don't you? — for a bride who describes her wedding day to her sister thus: "Our marriage seemed … a mere continuation of the masses for the dead with this difference, that now I wore a white dress instead of black."
Dire portents indeed.
Closing in on hour twenty of marriage number two, I'm still standing in a gallery off a massive corridor of a vast Vegas hotel, gawking at the elfin uniform of the last tsar whose real estate holdings would make Steve Wynn's batch look about as large as a wheel on the train inside a miniature Fabergé egg when my viewing space is abruptly invaded by another gallery visitor. This visitor, this my-space invader, is, no question, after my prime viewing spot and intends to have it. No amount of glaring and grunting puts him off. From the onset, he's crowding my shoulder and feet, and now his elbows begin to rise like wings.
For a while, I defend my turf. I've not finished taking in the coronation finery of Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, and I was here first. But it gets old, fighting off insurgents in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Old and (maddeningly, ironically) tiring. So, as did the last tsar, I give in to the inevitable, give up my primacy, withdraw from the fray and relinquish my claim in the face of relentless, hostile forces.
Cloudy with intermittent patches of sun.
Only one task on our dread list remains and my groom and I agree: better to call the relatives with the nuptial news while still within Vegas city limits. Since we warned no one beforehand, we steel ourselves to be grilled, rebuked and perhaps, once the initial shock wears off, minimally congratulated.
Neither side is shocked. Neither side asks how or when or why, pray tell, now??? We're half a country away, out of sight, out of mind, and far less enthralling than the projects at hand. My groom's parents are in the midst of extensive kitchen renovations and prefer to discuss countertops. My turn on the horn, I interrupt my mother cooking dinner for a slew of cousins. "What's that?" she asks (twice). "Okay," she says, rattling frying pans. "Uh-huh," she says to someone other than me, then: "Hon, can we talk later? My gravy's about to burn."