Desert Companion

The spirit of the season

StratosphereThere is no Christmas like a Vegas Christmas. Nearly the entire Strip is open on Christmas Day, which is the gift Vegas gives to all of us. As a teenager in a Florida suburb, I would go outside on Christmas morning, standing there for 10 minutes to get a breather from the family. Not a single car went by. It did not feel celebratory. It felt postapocalyptic. It seemed as if my parents and I were the only people remaining on Earth, which is not necessarily a teenager’s greatest fantasy. I’d opened the presents I’d greedily picked out for myself, we told a few jokes about what a great surprise it was, then we ate dinner and my parents folded and unfolded their newspapers and used toothpicks. I felt as though something inside me that was fundamental for generating hope had irrevocably broken.
     I did not know about Vegas. If I had, I probably would’ve shaken off my bleak outlook and joined my mother in her very non-ironic viewing of a Hallmark made-for-TV movie. Instead, I went upstairs, lay facedown on my pillow and attempted to pull consciousness out from under me like a throw rug.

I understand the season, and the religious and sociocultural reasons for it. I see the way it gladdens the spirits of others, and I don’t wish to deny this to anyone.

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But I will say that beginning in November, each time I enter a public space and hear a Mariah Carey holiday ballad or smell an oversized display of cinnamon/peppermint/evergreen foaming body wash/hand sanitizer/toenail poultice, I feel like a small rock gets placed upon my chest. A tiny one, barely the size of a decorative pebble in a goldfish tank. By Dec. 25 there are enough stones to pave a driveway, and their weight is suffocating. I don’t wake up on Christmas wanting to telephone loved ones or sing carols by a fire: I want to drink enormous, hyperbolic cocktails and make poor decisions of equal size.

I’ve been to Southern, Northern and Midwestern bars on Christmas. It’s not good. Everyone has a defensive body posture. We’re all waiting for someone to come in and accuse us of something. Of hiding out in a small-town liquor-hole on Christmas, perhaps. The bartender keeps running a cloth along the countertop, trying to wipe up a stain that won’t wipe up.

Christmas on the Strip, by contrast, is a lively swarm. People are everywhere, like usual. Everyone is drinking. A lot. Just like usual. There’s a festive feeling, but it’s open and oxygenated, not allowed to take on the stagnant, broth-infused odor of an awkward family gathering. On the Strip on Christmas morning, anyone you pass will be your family; just ask them. It’s a friendly place. We’re a friendly bunch — but not too friendly. If you want to be alone, we’ll let you be alone while still surrounded by others. And this makes me feel merry. It makes me feel bright.

I’ll always remember one Christmas night getting a pre-dinner drink at Fiamma Trattoria in the MGM. I looked up and saw an older, white-haired gentleman sitting near the fireplace, drinking what appeared to be an enormous glass of scotch. He didn’t have a beard or wire-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t wearing a red sweater. But his cheeks were quite rosy, either from the heat of the fire or the booze or both. I remember thinking, Yes — Las Vegas is where Santa would come to live out his alternate life, a place where “naughty” and “nice” aren’t opposing concepts forced to live separate lives. He caught me looking at him and I raised my glass and smiled, a midair toast across the room, then he winked and nodded. It seemed like an acknowledgment between the two of us that it was, secretly, Christmas, and that each of us hoped that the other was having a very pleasant evening. I knew that if we were greeting one another in a different part of the country we might feel obliged to mouth this holiday sentiment aloud. But we didn’t here, and this made my smile grow wider still. 
 

Alissa Nutting is the author of the story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and the novel Tampa.

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