Every month nine thousand unmarried couples arrive in Las Vegas and depart married-happily, one presumes. They come to Las Vegas to do what they could easily do at home, but chose to do in Sin City instead, a metropolis that manages to combine lust and insensibility, danger and boredom, allure and graceless reality, all in one package, like love itself. The duly intended hurry toward their fates from cities as far away as Kyoto and Hamburg and Sydney, and from places closer to home--towns like Birmingham and Orlando and Minneapolis, to get the deed done. A good third of them drive in from the Coast, crossing the scorching Mojave Desert at seventy-five miles per hour in untrustworthy cars with oxidized paint jobs. Like 30 million other visitors to Las Vegas each year, these men and women come to test their luck, and it is love-or what we call love-that tempts them to lay down their wagers.
From wherever they come, the betrothed arrive in an uneasy mood, inflamed by passion perhaps but also by deep apprehension, for they cannot know the outcome of what they are about to bind themselves to, and it is no less than their hearts with which they are gambling. Once docked, they remain an average of 3.3 nights, bed down in their choice of 110,000 hotel rooms, and celebrate their vows surrounded by vertiginous neon and the ceaseless chiming of slot machines. "Love is the cheapest of religions," wrote the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. Everyone arrives in Las Vegas a believer.
After their eyes have adjusted to the saturated light of the desert sun, which covers everything with a pale gloss, the first stop is the Clark County Courthouse. There, they stand two-by-two in a line that slowly snakes toward the clerks' cages, in a small windowless room stirring with bureaucratic purpose. When their turn arrives, each couple steps forward to speak to the next available deputy county clerk through a small glass window, with a slot beneath where papers are pushed back and forth. The courthouse is open almost without pause, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and the work of issuing marriage licenses gets fairly hectic. Still, the clerks manage to smile, and to address each couple with little personal inquiries and cooing reassurances that concede both the gravity and the peculiar banality of the transaction. The bride and groom, dressed in the casual apparel that is ubiquitous in Las Vegas day or night, are asked to state a few simple facts and to sign a few documents. If they are eighteen or older, reasonably sober, and of opposite sexes (a restriction Nevada clings to, but why here of all places?), they pay the cashier thirty-five dollars, and are bid good wishes and issued a license to wed.
The Las Vegas Strip is laid out along a roughly north-south axis and lined with mammoth palaces named after ancient civilizations and international ports of commerce. Las Vegas Boulevard, which balloons to eight lanes in places, is jammed after dark with cars cruising up and down, gleaming under the huge signs. Strollers on the ample sidewalks meander along affably from one mind-altering bromide to the next, curiously merry at being divested of their funds.
Sometimes among the revelers a bride and her party will pass. She is still wearing her big poofy dress, and giddy with relief and terror, is on her way back to the hotel to change into something more casual. When she passes, all eyes turn, indulging for a moment in the promise of happily ever-after that she embodies in her white finery. All that we pour into the cipher called "love" can be deposited there-affection, lust, need, delight, selflessness-whatever names we assign to the imponderable feelings and responses that cause us to cast reason aside and link our life with another, for better or for worse. Everything still seems deliciously and dreamily possible as she stands on the boulevard with her groom, waiting for the light to change, and the crowd gazing her way. This is a suspended moment before the love boat has crashed against the everyday-before the murky, half-understood bargains have been struck upon which domestic relationships are secured. "I didn't know for sure until just then, when we stood up there, that I really loved him," she confides to a listener, "but now I know I do."
Couples can marry in the swanky, aseptic casino chapels, and some do, but many still prefer the lack of pretension and the budget prices of the older establishments. Most of the little chapels that have earned Vegas its wedding clientele over the years are located north of the glittering Strip, in a dusty and less prosperous part of town, nestled in among the nude-dancing joints and XXX video stores and on-spec attorneys' offices. Here, the town's distinctly Western blood hasn't been bled out. The cactuses along the meridians are reminders of the desert just beyond, and the beautiful red-rock hills can be glimpsed in the distance.
With an average American-style wedding running about $16,000, the few hundred bucks for a wedding in one of these chapels seems like pure sanity. (If you drive up in your car and don't get out for the ceremony, you can get by for as little as $39.95.) Brides and grooms bring their costumes with them or can rent them on the spot, and many do. Flowers, fake or fresh, can be arranged as it pleases, and even Elvis will show-up-for a price.
affianced sometimes come to Vegas alone together, but more often they come
with others in tow: tearful parents, jubilant friends, newborn babes in
arms. One family arrives from Japan at an establishment called The Little
White Wedding Chapel, with seventeen in the party. A brother-in-law lives
in LA, and drives fast cars. For his sister's wedding, he has persuaded
the entire tribe to cross the Pacific. The bride chose a wedding dress
in Japan and one exactly like it, perfectly fitted, awaited her upon her
arrival, thanks to the efficiency of the Japanese travel agent who made
the arrangements. The bride and groom do not speak English but say, "I
do," when prompted by the best man, no more or less aware than any other
couple of what they are agreeing to. After the ceremony and all the pictures
have been snapped, the entire party decamps to the NASCAR races, where
the wedding's instigator is slated to race.
This day and its promises will fade. If
the newlyweds are lucky, the excitement of the day will be replaced with
something tender and yielding and tenacious by turns that will sustain
them in the face of hardships and the tedium of each other's imperfections.
They may discover that they really know very little about the human heart-their
own or anyone else's-and still press blindly on. There is this fact of
existence: that one day, we will be nothing. Perhaps love and eroticism
ease the knowledge of our nothingness, for touch reminds us that we are
alive and real and still able to be wounded and perhaps, even, to survive
our wounds, through love. "What/was it that my distracted/heart most wanted?"
Sappho wondered over two millennia ago, as she tore the petals from a wildflower.
One bright day on a beach in Greece, even Sappho, Love's most cunning realist,
could not name her heart's desire.
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