Lewis and I both came from what were known in our childhoods as “broken homes”. My parents had split when I was nine, and Lewis’ when he was 11. As adults, neither of us had aspired to marriage. Patently it was neither a guarantee of stability, nor the crucial element that held a relationship together.
We were spending a romantic weekend in a bed and breakfast with a stunning view of Kapiti Island. It was a couple of years into our relationship and several months before my baby lust epiphany. We had become engrossed in a where-is-this-relationship-going talk. And, after what felt like four solid hours of talking, we concluded that we wanted to make some kind of tangible commitment to each other. Right then we weren’t ready to have children, nor were we at a point where we could own property together. There was this other thing, it slowly dawned on us, that people did.
“We could always get married,” said Lewis.
I lay across from him on the frilled floral bedspread, my body flooded with adrenalin. I considered his words for five seconds, ten seconds, then my answer became clear and resonating through my bones.
“Okay,” I said.
In general, I was scathing about weddings. I choked at the thought of tiaras and veils and bridesmaids — all the accoutrements of being a bride. I’d rather spend the money on an overseas holiday. Lewis, an emphatic introvert, disliked parties on principle and couldn’t stomach the thought of all of his family being in the same room for the first time in 30 years. It seemed like there was only one way for us to do it: Las Vegas, baby.
Since the beginning of 2007, about the same time as starting the quest to get pregnant, we had been saving our money and planning our elopement. From my home computer, I had selected and booked the standard wedding package at the Cupid’s Chapel — the Little Chapel with the Big Heart — for $349USD. We would get a red rose each, seven photos, a DVD and live internet streaming of the ceremony. The Elvis impersonator would be $99USD extra.
I fantasised about sporting a bulging belly at the ceremony. I would regularly pass Baby Star — a high-end maternity store on Adelaide Road — and gaze at the mannequins in the window. They were often decked out in maternity evening dresses, and I would assess each one for its potential as a bridal gown.
Not wanting to argue about or defend our decision, we kept the elopement secret and planned to post our immediate family cards from Auckland airport, inviting them to watch the wedding on live stream. Our ostensible reason for travelling to the United States for three weeks was to visit a friend who had moved to Oakland, California, and to drive the Arizona and New Mexico segment of Route 66. There would also be three days in Las Vegas sandwiched between.
“Have a good time,” said my acupuncturist in my last treatment before we left for the States. “Have a lot of sex,” she suddenly looked stricken, “for fertility reasons, I mean.”
A week after my 35th birthday, Lewis and I set off on our trans-Pacific flight. In New Zealand, it was the end of winter. In North America, the worst heat of the West Coast summer had passed. After a week with my friend in San Francisco, we touched down again at Las Vegas. We were staying in an old glamour hotel in downtown Vegas called the Golden Nugget. It had an enclosed water slide that went through a shark tank, and a cabinet in the casino displaying the titular nugget: a gold nugget bigger than a child’s head and reputed to weigh over 27 kilograms.
When we stepped out of the air-conditioned hotel, it was immediately evident that we were in the desert. It was after 8 p.m., and the large digital screens hanging over the pedestrian mall showed the temperature was 40oC. Colossal neon signs screamed at us from the side streets billing the neighbouring casinos: 4 Queens, Golden Gate, Glitter Gulch. We limped through the heat for a few minutes to the Clark County Marriage License Bureau — open 8 a.m. to midnight — and stood in a queue of couples waiting to buy a marriage licence. All of the other couples were wearing full wedding regalia, obviously heading straight off to be married once they had their licence in hand.
Our schedule was clearly more leisurely than was traditional for a Vegas wedding. It wasn't until the next day that Lewis and I, awkward in our wedding clothes, caught a taxi to the Cupid’s Chapel. I was dressed in a slightly-too-small fifties dress with a halter top and tea-length skirt, while Lewis wore a rented tux with jacket sleeves that hung down to the end of his first knuckle. We were disgorged at an address on the downtown end of the Strip, an area populated by single-storey buildings — in contrast to the parade of monolithic casinos a few kilometres to the south. A red heart sign, perched like a lollipop on a stick, pronounced the boxy building behind it to be the Cupid’s Wedding Chapel. We were right on time for our 30-minute slot. Venturing inside, we found ourselves in a small reception area. From there we could see the chapel interior decorated with vases of plastic flowers and plaster cupid statuettes.
A brusque man in a blue polyester suit posed us in front of the pink and green floral stained-glass window for a rapid string of photographs. Then it was time to crack on. Elvis offered to walk me down the aisle but, with a vague idea of rejecting patriarchal symbolism, I declined. He looked offended and, as my legs wobbled, I regretted my independence. It was clear to me why there is a tradition of brides having a companion to walk them in: to hold them upright and stop them from stumbling in terror and self-consciousness. After a series of stiff but — I hoped — gliding steps, I arrived by the faux-altar where Lewis was waiting. Elvis kicked off with his first number: It’s Now or Never.
The minister, a lean, middle-aged African American intent on impressing us with the seriousness of our undertaking, took over the proceedings.
“It won’t always be like today,” he intoned. “You’ll have difficult times ahead.”
Frankly, I was finding his attitude a bit difficult. I was about to commit to spending my life with Lewis and would have appreciated a more upbeat perspective. Lewis had tears in his eyes as he said the vows. We slid rings on each other’s fingers and kissed. Elvis crooned two more songs: Love Me Tender followed by Viva Las Vegas. Then he dropped a red silk scarf around my neck, picked up his boom-box and left the building. We were married.
Our post-wedding festivities were at the Venetian Hotel and Casino, famous for its indoor replica of Venice city complete with canals. As we clambered aboard a gondola, the crowd of tourist-shoppers leered like paparazzi. The American gondolier serenaded us in Italian while rowing with a single oar. “In Venice the tradition is to kiss when you go under a bridge,” he said. We did, and there was a frenzy of camera flashes.
At the Canaletto restaurant we had a private room overlooking the Piazzo San Marco. Throughout the meal, we watched the light fade over the pristine cobblestones of the square and the sun set slowly behind the painted clouds. On our way to the taxi stand, we saw a volcano erupt outside the Mirage Hotel on other side of the strip: a mass of flame framed by neon and darkness.
The honeymoon was exhausting and there wasn’t as much opportunity for sex as one might have hoped — we had too much driving to do. Our plan was to drive on Route 66 for two weeks — all the way across Arizona and through to Santa Fe — then loop back around to Phoenix. We soon found that the scale of roads in Arizona was of a different order of magnitude from anything in New Zealand. Roads to tourist attractions that looked like small detours on the map could easily be a 40- or 50-mile round trip (almost the equivalent driving from one small city to another at home).
There were a lot of attractions to visit. The Arizona leg of the route was packed with geological riches with evocative names: the Grand Canyon, the Meteor Crater, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, the Petrified Forest. Throughout the trip, there were also traces of the old Mother Road for us to track down like gleeful treasure hunters: 100-yard stretches of asphalt buckled by tree roots and seeded with grasses; derelict gas stations with vintage pumps and cracked concrete forecourts; ruins of once-popular souvenir stores with dilapidated neon signs that would never again be lit.
Lewis didn’t have a full licence, so I was the sole driver of our rental car. He sat in the passenger seat, poring over the Rand McNally Road Atlas and doing his best to navigate. Often I would spend eight-hour days gunning down the Interstate at 80 miles per hour, boxed in by hulking trucks. By the time we reached Santa Fe, I’d made two insurance claims: I’d been run off the Interstate by a truck and lost a wing mirror by striking a bollard, and put a sizeable dent in the bumper by reversing into an SUV with a bull bar.
The last day of our road trip was spent exploring the Sonoran desert just outside of Tuscon. We wandered around in the searing heat through red dirt, rock, scrubby bushes and a host of Saguaro cacti resembling human figures with outspread arms. Signs at the ranger station had warned us to lookout for mountain lions and, if we saw them, not to approach. I kept imagining a sleek squat body appearing from behind every rise in the terrain, but the only mountain lion we saw was in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (a sort of zoo set in the desert habitat) later that afternoon.
As dusk was falling. I began to feel hot and nauseous. Back in our hotel I rushed to the bathroom and dry retched over the toilet. When I came out, Lewis grinned at me. “That’s new.” If I’d been feeling less sick, I would have high-fived him, but instead I scrabbled in my toiletry bag for an unused pregnancy test.
My pregnancy test showed a lonesome single line. The normal precautions for being out in the sun — a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen — were not enough for this desert. My mystery illness turned out to be sunstroke.