Tonight feels like being in paradise. I have this thing with Southern California…. a visit there, to me, is like drinking expensive wine… or like a 10 hour sleep where you go to bed early enough to wake up with the sun… Or the way I imagine runners feel after a good workout and a shower… It’s also like chocolate cake and cannolis and creme brûlée… But without any calories.
I’ve been only a handful of times. The February before COVID hit was the most recent… Turns out, the feeling is hereditary. My daughter, lucky girl, at 12 years old discovered that she too has southern California in her bones, the ocean, the warm air, the bright colors, the palm trees, even the lux and flash and fast paced freeway driving. And most of all, the overwhelming feeling of relaxation.
Even here, on a glorified parking lot, surrounded by ridiculously oversized RVs, unfriendly neighbors, strict pool guards and a miniature, waveless ocean, she and I both feel like the luckiest girls in the world. As we clean up and get ready for bed that evening, we see the resort staff drive by our fire pit with buckets of water and put out every fire along the beach. I’m appreciative… The wood we’d salvaged will hopefully make another family’s night. With the stars only slightly visible above us (thank you LA) and a little sand still between our toes, we head to bed.
The next morning I wake up early again… but not out of a sense of urgency, or feeling like I’m missing out. It’s simply that Miriam and I have hatched a plan to get ourselves some authentic southern California açaí bowls… and in order to do this and still get out of the campsite in time… I’ve arranged a Lyft to pick us up in the resort parking lot at 7am. I’ve selected a place in downtown Newport Beach, about a three and a half miles away, because of it’s reviews on google, but mostly because it’s the only place I found that opens before 9am (Newport beach does not wake up early). Together we creep out of the RV, careful not to disturb the boys who are all still asleep, and walk our flip-flopped feet down to the resort’s parking lot to meet our ride. In eight minutes we are at a small plaza, on a busy commercial thoroughfare, which I delightedly find is only two blocks from the actual beach.
Our destination is a small coffee shop run by an older asian couple. But the young white man who takes our order at the counter looks like a surfer. He is a little too focused on my thirteen year old daughter… but I take it to be west coast friendliness. I could interpret the easy welcome of native Californians as sleaziness… but that would be like thinking that everyone from the northeast is rude… We order two açaí bowls and a large coffee for me. That’s when I tell Miriam that we can walk to the beach from here and eat our favorite breakfast in paradise… and then come back and order for the boys. Once we pay and the barista hands me a large empty cup for my first morning coffee, we’re instructed to wait outside on the sidewalk for the bowls (the coffee shop is tiny and popular). We wait outside in the warm morning along with joggers and construction workers, the few who wake up this early. Everyone looks so… California. Once we get our açaí bowls we’re delighted that they are in cups (not actual bowls). This is how we first experienced them in Ventura, a month before the world shut down, and we’ve had to wait a year and a half to have a real one again.
With our delicious breakfast in hand I give my coffee cup to Miriam so I can pull out my phone and figure out how to get to the beach. At the end of the plaza we turn left down W Balboa Blvd and walk one block then cross to walk down 46th street for two blocks. The houses all have wrought iron gates at their front doors, multiple picture windows, and second floor decks that face the street. As we walk along there is a young woman running with her dog, her blond pig tail bobbing behind her. She smiles at us. I wonder how long it will be before that’s my daughter. At one corner lot the garage door opens as we pass and we see a woman in scrubs getting into her Mercedes. “She looks like nurse Ann” (a reference to our favorite show) I correct, “Oh, I doubt she’s a nurse…”
By then we’ve reached the end of the second block. The pavement turns into sand and I take off my flip flops, letting my heels sink into the sand and slow me down. I imagine how strong my calves would be if I walked like this every day. The sound of waves is like a gong that brings me to complete attention. We have truly arrived. Once we get close enough that the beach begins to slope down towards the water, we can see the gang of surfers enjoying the morning waves. The youngest looks about twelve. I can’t help but wonder what their life must be like. Miriam and I stand with our toes at the edge of the wet sand, waiting for the next wave to crawl up and meet us. We eat our delicious açaí, granola and fresh fruit. Mine is topped with almond butter, hers peanut butter. We are tasting, hearing, smelling, feeling and seeing the best of southern California. All in one perfect moment, together. Maybe no one else gets it… but we get it.
As the early morning feeling begins to wane, we know it’s time to head back to the coffee shop, order three more açaí bowls (and more coffee), and wait for our return Lyft. The driver’s calming music (I finally ask him just before drop off, and he tells me it’s the sound of Quran being read out loud, enchanting and medicinal) is the perfect transport soundtrack to take us from paradise back to reality… where we will need to work extra fast to get our showers in (my last shower was three desert days ago) and everything cleaned and ready to go. I give Ian my credit card (a lazy mistake) and send him off to rent an hour of jumping on the blow up “water-park” (a rip off) he’s been eyeing since we arrived. He ends up spending most of his time in the water (life vests make that a lot more fun) because a group of four rowdy, slightly older boys bring out Ian’s shy side when they claim ownership of the bounciest parts. Once he finishes playing we have cleaned ourselves, our junk from the campsite and enough of the interior of the RV to quickly unhook from the water, sewer and electric, fill the on-board water tank and take off.
As we pull out of the resort, I insist we drive along highway 1, even if just for a glimpse of the ocean before we head back east for good. The tall buildings along the busy Newport Beach highway make it hard to see anything, but as we turn east on to CA-55 the slight rise of the on-ramp gives me a glimpse and I exclaim… “Say goodbye to the Pacific!” Ian and Max, both engrossed in their phones, look up and just miss it as Michael speeds up, eager to get settled in Las Vegas before the rush hour traffic.
We begin to look forward to this evening. We’ve splurged on tickets for a Cirque du Soleil show, sort of a grand finale to the trip before the mad dash back home. Michael and I decide to treat the family and take everyone out for dinner. Since everything will be absurdly expensive here anyway, we indulge ourselves by choosing a bucket list restaurant, David Chang’s Momofuku Las Vegas, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. That’s when I discover my credit card is still being held by the guys at the water sports reservation shack where Ian had handed it to them. He’d turned in his life vest to no one and didn’t think to wait around and get my card back. Luckily they still had it and promised to mail it to me (which they did!) I borrow Michael’s card and get the only reservation available for five people, 5:30pm. That will give us about twenty minutes after our scheduled arrival at the RV park to register, park, hook up, get the dogs walked and fed and all be in the Lyft by 5pm for the 25 minute drive to the strip. I pre-order the car to pick us up in exactly four hours, and settle in for the drive.
Within the first hour we enter a forest fire area, around Lytle Creek in the Angeles National Forest. The fire is big enough to have alerts on google and several news headlines already today. But all we can see are the helicopters bringing in buckets and the (familiar by now) haze in the sky. From what I can figoogle we will be driving within two miles of the fire. To my amazement, the highway stays open. We don’t see much else out our windows. Death Valley is about a hundred and fifty miles north of us, the Grand Canyon is three hundred miles due east, and Joshua Tree National Park is just a little over a hundred miles to our south. But we are driving straight though nothing memorable.
We’ve gotten tired of looking out the window. If there is beauty surrounding us, we’re missing it. The short trips make us more impatient than the long ones. When a drive is ten hours, it does something to your brain, it forces you to settle in, surrender to the boredom. You stop looking for reasons to be entertained, and just simply enjoy the sitting. After a while, you find yourself able to look out the window for hours on end and marvel at the changing scenery. During the longer drives, we are a part of the road and we take an interest in its changing terrain. For a four hour drive, you can ignore the fact that you are driving, get lost in a book, watch a movie or play a game on your phone, or do some writing; and you’ll stay occupied for the whole trip. There’s no need to settle for boredom, no need to negotiate with it. On this drive to Vegas, we somehow feel more in control, just a [insert activity] away from our destination.
I don’t look up until we’ve crossed out of California and into Nevada. We’re less than half an hour outside Vegas and that’s when the billboards begin. After eight days and nights in dusty campsites, surrounded by trees, canyons and endless sky, we are headed to the the Neon Capital of the World. Soon there are entire exits of casinos, miniature Las Vegas traps, enough to keep a gambler busy for a week. There is nothing but empty desert surrounding these outposts, but the lights and the flash are enough to make you feel like you are somewhere. Then the road zips by and dumps you into more desert.
Aware suddenly of the time, and our lack of it, I tell the kids to head back to our bedroom one by one to get changed into their fancy clothing. That’s when we discover Ian’s idea of packing a fancy outfit is a clean t-shirt and jeans. That’s what I get for teaching my kids to be self sufficient, and not double checking… (again out of laziness, or just being distracted… the credit card debacle was not an isolated incident). After trying every one of my shirts on him, one of Michael’s (size XXL) and a few of Miriam’s, we settle on the Sedona t-shirt he’s bought himself, a pair of grey jeans and his Adidas sneakers. (He’s lucky he’s cute). At last I change into my tight striped halter dress that makes me feel fabulous and do my hair and makeup the best I can while driving 70 miles an hour down the road.
The RV park is just two minutes off the highway. Our route is to stay on I-15 straight into the city, then take exit 33, just before downtown. We pull in through grand white sandstone arches that say in bright blue letters “Oasis” on one and “Las Vegas” on the second. We’re anxious now so it’s assuring to know for sure we’re at the right spot. We have to stop immediately at the guard booth to confirm our name and reservation. The guard instructs us to pull forward into one of 10 huge lanes, all lined with palm trees, and wait while one of us goes inside the main building to register. The whole establishment looks like a movie set. There are exotic trees and flowers and at the top of a grand white staircase., there are huge glass doors. I put on sunglasses, flip flops and a mask, and head make my way up the stairs.
The inside lobby has thirty foot ceilings and a check-in desk that belongs in an airport. I realize immediately that everything is supersized in Vegas, and I decide to close my jaw and focus on rushing. When registering I upgrade our reservation to a pull through lot. We’re tired of backing this rig into tight campsites and it’s worth the extra $20 if it means we’ll make our dinner reservation on time. When I get back to the RV, I instruct Max and Miriam to get out and wait for our Lyft (we have 7 minutes) and beg the driver to wait for the rest of us. I’m changing out of flip flops and into my dress shoes when Michael pulls out and immediately turns left in front of the main building. He’s gone the wrong direction. The only way to turn around is to head back to the guard station and make a U-turn there. Panicking will only make us later so I keep my opinions silent. While turning (back towards the correct direction) an RV that’s leaving rolls down their window and motions towards our driver side back tires…
“You have a flat!”
“Thank you for letting us know sir.”
Michael and I look at each other. He decides the tire must be good enough to drive 50 yards to our site. (We haven’t felt anything, which means the inner tire is still in tact). We’ll deal with it in the morning.
It’s 4:56 pm. We have four minutes. I dash around to get the RV plugged in. We don’t need water or sewer, just electricity for the AC. It’s 104º and will still be in the high 80s at sundown. I open all the windows, knowing that the fuse is likely to blow like it has every time we’ve left the AC running during the day. Michael gets dressed and Ian takes the dogs out to pee. We wait a little longer for the dogs to drink some water before kissing them and locking up the RV. We dash (as fast as I can in heels) to meet Miriam and Max who have panicked faces because our driver is about to give up on us. We pile inside and breathe… and begin smiling.
When we arrive at the Boulevard Tower, home of the Cosmopolitan resort, we are in a parking garage surrounded by limos, pedestrians and hundreds of other cars. We follow the crowd into the hotel and begin looking for signs for the restaurant. Michael is walking fast and the rest of us fall behind like ducklings as we navigate through gilded hallways, on plush carpet, amongst throngs of people in short sparkling dresses and Italian suits. I hear a commotion behind me and turn around just in time to see Miriam address a group of three handsome men gathered around her. She’s gesticulating and pleading “You have to wear masks!” Then I hear a flurry of French as I put my arm around her and pull her away, watching the men take off in the opposite direction. She explains she had tried the only French words she could think of… but she couldn’t understand what they wanted. (I know what they wanted!) We’ve been out of the car for less than thirty seconds and Miriam has already attracted a fan club of grown (French!) men.
“Don’t talk to anyone.” I warn her and we speed off after our boys. We make it to the main lobby and take the escalator up, following signs for “Restaurants” On the second floor we have to cross another long hallway before we arrive in a plaza full of designer boutiques. Finally, at exactly 5:29, at the opposite end of the circular plaza, we spy the sign for Momofuku. The hostess takes us through a maze of tables. The bar along the inner wall is covered in mirrors. As we get close I can see racks of wine stacked to the ceiling. A hip waiter is seated at the bar and serenades us with “Welcome to Momofuku” as we pass. I half expect him to finish with “Mr. Bond.” The restaurant curves around like walls in a giant pool. We follow the hostess to the back of the restaurant and up a short ramp. Then she opens up her hands and says “You’re lucky… this is one of the best tables in the house.”
We sit down at the round table that is not just next to the window, but as the walls of the building are angled, our table is nearly over the window. We can look up, down and side to side and see an eiffel tower, a giant circus hot air balloon, a dozen billboards, and several mega screens, all the glory that is: “The Strip.”
At the center of the table is a large Lazy Susan where our meals will be placed for sharing. Michael and I order expensive Sake (a first for us) and an appetizer of pork buns (Max’s favorite). Then we each decide on our perfect Ramen and wait excitedly. Before the food comes Miriam and I wind our way back to the front of the house to find the restrooms. On the way there I remind her of the group of men that had swarmed her. I tell her, “In the future, when I warn you about ‘how men are’ and you are tempted to roll your eyes and ignore me… I want you to remember this experience, and know that I’m not making it up.” She nods in total agreement. I add, “And you look stunning.”
When I’ve finished enough of my food, and the rest are still eating, I decide it’s a good time to leave and go back to the RV to check on the dogs. The thought of the AC failing in this heat, when we won’t be back until after midnight, brings scary images. Michael doesn’t want me to leave yet, but I’m anxious to see the dogs and make it back in time to explore the city before our 9pm show. Ian agrees to go with me. Once we make it down to the street and order the Lyft, we look up and wave. The windows are one way mirrors, but we call Michael and tell him to look down for us..
It takes some time to find our ride because of the multiple entrances to the building. It seems drivers don’t ever use the front door… But on the ride we enjoy a chat with the driver about what it’s like raising a family in Vegas. As we exit the highway I see the panorama of red rocks surrounding us in the distance. “Can you see that from your house?” When she answers “Yes” I begin to understand why one might decide to live here. She also tells us that the locals like to go out to Fremont St., what’s called “Old Vegas.” It’s is a noir strip of older casinos and restaurants that still feels like it’s in the 40s. A reason to maybe stop back some day.
Being a dog owner, she gladly waits in the car while we pop out and check on the dogs. The AC is off as we expected, so I turn the fuse back on while Ian takes them out for a short walk. I’m amazed that not one tissue (our Chihuahua Libby’s favorite) has been chewed and there are no signs of pee or poo anywhere. This is the first time we’ve left the dogs out of the crate, alone in the RV. They are probably soaking up the stationary silence. We leave them again as evening begins to set into the skyline, and head back downtown.
So far Michael, Max and Miriam have only walked one block from the Cosmopolitan to the Bellagio, and spent the time figuring out where the theatre is for tonight’s show. Then they sat on a bench outside the hotel, people watching, and waited for us to return. Once we arrive we all go inside the Bellagio together. The lobby is a gilded garden. Everything is trimmed in gold. The ceiling is a grand carpet of glass flowers. There are fountains and lights and an entire black-lit conservatory with larger than life sculptures inside a botanical garden that looks like the make-believe world of Avatar. After we’ve asked the concierge for a bandaid for Miriam’s feet, each used the fancy bathrooms, lost track of Max and found him again, we decide to leave the hotel and explore outside.
Miriam’s complaints about blisters have turned into full blown whining. Normally I would tell her to deal with a little blister, but I’ve been in her shoes, quite literally, and I know that blisters from new shoes can ruin a girl’s night. We see a Rite Aid on our phones is just a few blocks away… across the street, so I tell her to suck it up for now, and we start walking. We pass through a crowd gathered by the Bellagio’s reflecting pool. We stop and watch as a hundred synchronized fountains begin a choreographed dance to the music of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Not one of us enjoys the song. Not one of us can take our eyes off the fountains… Especially when they all stop at once and then shoot straight in the air, hundreds of feet high, at the song’s creciendo. We pull ourselves away from the fountains and almost run into two sets of boobs, covered only by pasties. One of the women says, “We do family pictures!” We walk on swiftly. We meet countless more pairs of showgirls during our walk, but none as shocking as these two. I say something like, “Well that’s something Ian’s never seen…” which prompts Max to quip, “Oh… I’m sure he has.” That’s more information then I want to think about right now. Besides, I don’t believe my son has yet seen big boobies (mine are small) up close in real life… “Wait, he saw what?” Max must have still been watching the fountains… I begin to wonder why any self respecting family would bring their children to Vegas… what were we thinking?! But before long we encounter another crowd and I see several parents holding the hands of toddlers, and even a couple baby carriages. At least our children are old enough to form their own opinions!
When we reach the edge of the block, there is a barrier, and no crosswalk for pedestrians. That’s when we look up and notice for the first time that there are pedestrian bridges at every intersection. It takes us a minute or two to find the stairs to get up there. We have to cross three of these bridges to get to the block with the Rite Aid. Miriam is leaning on me so heavily, I’m half carrying her. I’m starting to sicken from the crowds of tourists. But in the middle of the second bridge, we catch a glimpse that resembles beauty…
…and a perfect spot for my obligatory family selfie.
When we reach the Rite-Aid I begin stocking up on Blister pads… until Michael offers Miriam the idea of flip flops. She is now the owner of the only Vegas mementoes we brought home with us, a pair of drugstore flip flops with dice on them. I put all but one (thinking of tomorrow) of the overpriced blister care packages back on the shelf and steer everyone to the cooler to get bottled waters. Then we wait at the back of a winding line that is 4 isles long, one of the only places in Vegas where Covid is even recognized as a risk. Once we’ve paid, Miriam and I huddle in a corner by the ATM while she changes her shoes. I don’t realize it at the time, but I leave my water bottle sitting on top of the ATM and walk out. (It’s a pattern with me). We walk back quickly, and pain free, to the hotel to get ready for the show.
Past the Bellagio Hotel’s grand lobby, and the Hermés, Guerlain, and Valentino boutiques, we enter the first casino floor. Even though I’ve left my water behind, I’ve drunk enough of Miriam and Ian’s and have to use the bathroom again. The sights are so overwhelming that when Miriam and I come out of the bathroom, we walk the entire length of slot machines, twice, before we see Michael and Ian where they’ve been sitting the entire time, straight across from the bathrooms. Together again we five pass through the slots to the black jack tables (a game I’ve discovered during our longest car rides, that Ian is quite good at) and then roulette. That’s when Miriam, whose mood has improved ever since the shoe switch, exclaims,
“I don’t like Vegas, it stinks.”
Smoking is still allowed indoors here, and intertwined with the perfumes, the flowing alcohol and the round the clock serving of fancy food, there is an inescapable undercurrent of stench. We get to the far end of the casino and discover that the doors to the theater are still closed. We waste the remainder of our time in the Cirque Du Soleil gift shop where Miriam buys herself a t-shirt that says, “Fail. Fix ponytail. Try again,” referencing a dancer’s life. Finally it’s 8:30 and we can enter the theater. We walk down the carpeted aisles and stairs of the opera house style theater, all the way to the front, and take our seats in row two. These tickets were slightly cheaper as they are in what’s considered, “The Splash Zone.” Michael had thought that sounded fun and bought them. We take a few selfies that are tinged with red because of the giant red velvet curtain in front of us, the red plush seats, the red and gold walls and blood red carpeting that surrounds us. After about fifteen minutes, two clowns enter through doors on our left, only about ten feet away, and walk in front of the curtain to the center of the stage. It turns out that this is the second place in Vegas where Covid is recognized, because part of the clown’s act, in addition to selecting an audience member for participation, is to ask us to protect the performers and audience members by keeping our masks on for the entirety of the show.
Then the curtain goes up and the clowns, along with their volunteer, climb onto a boat and sail across the entirely water-filled stage.. The house lights go down and from the ceiling, designed to look like a shell’s spiral, straight above the center of the audience, a trapeze artist is lowered down on a hanging sphere, twirling and spinning, and transporting us immediately to the land of the uncanny. More characters in spandex and wild masks begin pouring out of the doors on either side of the stage, as women dressed as fish dive from the back of the stage and begin swimming towards us. As they get closer their bodies emerge effortlessly from the water, until they are dancing at the front in just a puddle of water. Characters of all different shapes come from all directions. There are some who look like 18th century royalty and their servants, others who’s costumes resemble jungle or marine animals, and some that are simply exotic and alluring in their wild imaginativeness. Only a minute later one of the fish dives sideways, and the rest follow her successively. The stage has somehow transformed back into a pool.
That’s when I realize… the floor moves.
For the rest of the show, we can’t predict or make sense of what the dancers, the stage, or the 1.5 million gallons of water will do. Sometimes a slice of the stage is a pool deep enough for divers to descend from the highest rafters above the stage, while the other parts are just a wading pool for the clowns to have a splashing fight. Then a moment later the stage is completely dry and all manner of characters and props can march and roll across it… including a grand piano. There are divers, trapeze, clowns, swimmers, soloists and ballroom dancers. There are flying horses, a flying rig of metal pipes that somehow resembles a pirate ship (at least to me), there are hoops, swooping sheets, ropes and hooks all carrying performers across the arial landscape above the watery stage. There are drums, floating mattresses, a chariot and blazing fire. For the next two hours we are completely entranced by the world they are creating and inviting us to experience along with them. It’s unlike anything anything I’ve seen on stage, or tv, or even in the wildest sci-fi movie. The creativity is unbridled and each scene moves almost simultaneously into another, spectacle begetting spectacle. There is as much beauty as there is quirkiness. There is no possible to way to catch all of it. The watcher has to choose constantly where to focus before something new steals your attention. The boundlessness explains completely why the title of the show is simply, “O.”
When the show ends, we are only slightly disappointed at our completely dry clothes. Actually, we were only splashed one time, when one of the comical dancers turned towards our row and kicked a cascade of water at us. Most of it evaporated or landed before reaching this far. I think the man next to Ian might have felt a drop on his cheek. We discuss how the volunteer was clearly a plant, and that we weren’t completely sure… until he’d been pushed off the divers platform and landed perfectly in the four square feet of deep pool below him. Michael’s favorite part was the clowns, who had been the only characters to bring a follow-able storyline to the performance. The rest of us were torn between the fire dancers with the loud drumming and the acrobatic hoop dancers. There is so much we’ve taken in that we’re in no rush to leave the theater. We wait while the rows around us clear and then walk slowly up and out of the grand red theater. We mosey though the lobby lazily, eyeing the statues of the show’s characters which are on display for us to appreciate the artist’s concepts up close.
Back in the night air we keep walking and finally decide on ice cream from a Ben & Jerry’s stand. There are crowds waiting to dine at the top of the fake eiffel tower, the one we could see from our dinner table. There is an odd crowd assembled near the Rite Aid for some reason. We wander until we reach an open plaza of mostly closed stores where we can sit and finish our ice cream. We’ve celebrated in style, over-run our senses with spectacle and walked at least five miles up and down the Strip. We’ve done a family style Vegas… and not one of us feels the need to ever come back.
emails from the writer…
Join my community. You’ll get reflections on writing and my process and be first to know when I’ve published something new.