I’ve never wanted to go to Las Vegas, never had the slightest inclination to gamble, see a magic show involving tigers or gawk at the vast array of humanity that throngs its streets on any given night. And, yet, I went.
Sandra and I met each other at church camp. She says we were 8; I thought it was the summer we were 10. It doesn’t matter. We spent one week every summer up until we were 16 going to Bible study in the morning and church services at night, doing crafts and playing tetherball in the afternoon and ordering from the canteen a strange concoction we called, in those unenlightened days, a suicide. We spent one week every summer whispering in the dark, laughing at jokes we didn’t understand, pretending to ignore the boys who thought they were flirting. We went from Keds to Dr. Scholl’s to platform sandals. For one week every summer leaned into each other. The other 51 weeks of the year, we wrote letters.
We both agree that it was the letters — written on Hallmark stationery and Current fold-over notes, addressed in loopy cursive and sent with 5-cent stamps — that kept us close, that fed an unlikely friendship between the blonde city girl whose favorite activity was shopping and the brunette country girl who loved nothing better than reading, the friendship that has now lasted nearly 60 years.
Sandra was at my law school graduation; I was the maid of honor at her wedding. I still have the key hook she gave me when I bought my first home 37 years ago and every time I open my desk drawer I see the brass letter opener that was a Christmas gift so many years ago that the engraved initials have nearly worn completely away. She is with me, in one way or another, every single day, despite the fact that we’ve never lived in the same place, not even the same area code.
Thus, when the younger of Sandra’s two daughters Lindsey texted me a photo of her engagement ring, a joyous surprise that was followed shortly thereafter by the request that I officiate at her wedding, I ended up flying across the country to a city I’d never wanted to go to.
You do that for the people you love.
And, now, finally home after a delay in the last leg of the journey — we were told that the hold-up in our flight from Atlanta to Savannah was caused by the Chinese spy balloon and the closing of air space in Jamaica — I am not, as I thought I would be, falling asleep immediately. I am, instead, staring at the thin strips of pale moonlight filtering through the blinds, images of the past four days unreeling through my mind like the digital billboards lining Las Vegas Boulevard: the endless queues of limousines at the entrances to the casinos, the low mountains edging the valley surrounding the city, the high-end shops tended by disinterested skinny girls staring at their phones.
Those images, though, die quickly as my breath slows and my body relaxes. In their place rises the brightness of the sun angling through the winter sky and falling on the bride and groom as they repeat their vows. In their place appear the radiant smiles, the tight hugs, the spontaneous laughter of sincere congratulations baptizing the moment. In their place emerges the settled knowing that the artificial can exist only because of the reality of the genuine, only in comparison to what is sincere, only in the context of what is true.
The day after the wedding — after all the photographs had been taken, after the fancy dresses were put away and after Elvis appeared at the reception and led us all in a rousing version of “Viva Las Vegas” — Sandra and I sat on a bench with our heads, both of them now gray, bent toward each other, reflecting on the little girls we used to be, the women we have become. We laughed, we cried, we questioned.
Right there in the middle of the city where fake is celebrated, where pretend is applauded, where glitzy and gaudy are standard fare, we linked our arms and held each other tight before, once again, saying goodbye. What happened in Vegas, at least this time, won’t stay in Vegas. And I will be grateful every day of my life.