Finally, it’s here, we’re here. Today is my eighteenth birthday. Two years of waiting and planning and soon we’ll be married. I hope.
I hope he won’t turn the car around. I hope I’m not making a mistake. I hope I don’t do anything to make him mad.
I am eighteen.
I will soon be married in Reno.
We rumble along the highway in his blue ‘66 Bug. The car crests the final hill and we emerge from the forest to a panoramic view. In the distance I see the lights of downtown Reno against the red and gold sunset. A few bright stars emerge in the darkest part of the sky overhead and I remember the last star I saw this morning as my dad drove me to school, as it was overtaken by the rising sun. I take a deep breath and hold it an extra beat, or two.
“See that row of little ticky-tack houses on the left?” Randy points to a line of uneven street lights. “That goes east to Sparks and the whorehouses. And if you go the other way, west, far enough, you’ll hit the California beaches.”
“Ah,” I say.
My eyes follow one row of the eerie orange street lights west until the line disappears in the haze of distance and night. I look back at the approaching city and the lights begin to take on shapes and variation of color.
Even at this distance, the main drag is bright. The casinos tower above the single level homes and stores. The casinos and their accompanying hotels become more distinct in their rows of colored lights as we near. One building has an illuminated cowboy raising his hat and winking, another has a Pepto-Bismol-pink elephant waving its trunk.
Randy squeezes my hand and I look at him. He glances away from the road, at me, smiles, winks, returns his hand to the steering wheel. I return the smile and he turns away, eyes to the road.
I am eighteen.
I watch the city as we approach its borders. As the pink elephant and animated cowboy grow larger. As butterfly wings flap faster and faster over the knot of excitement mixed with my mother’s anger hovering just over my stomach.
I will soon be married.
Once on the main street I hear music blasting from all directions. Some of the casinos have speakers on the sidewalk outside their doors. Sounds of honky-tonk pianos mixed with Engelbert Humperdinck imitators and Elvis Presley lookalikes make their way through the car’s closed windows.
Groups of people laugh and tease, going in and out the open doors. Women and men hang on each other and kiss, carrying bottles of wine and cans of beer as they go from casino to casino, whooping and singing. There are some women in full-length wedding dresses, some wearing veils over jeans and t-shirts.
Randy had told me about The Strip. But now, here among the people and the lights and everything in motion, I teeter between excitement and overload. Everything glows with life and sex. Shops with dildos, sexy teddies, whips, handcuffs, and bongs in the windows, are shoved in between the casinos. Bright billboards are everywhere I look: some with large red arrows pointing the way to Highway 80, to Sparks, with pictures of women dressed in outfits smaller than bikinis. These signs list the virtues of the particular business: clean, inspected, card-carrying legal whores, reasonable prices.
I roll my window down all the way and inhale the cold December night. The electricity and bodies and the taxis with drunk people climbing in and out mix and overlap and raise the temperature. The air smells of gasoline and heat and sex.
Flower sellers wander the streets with white buckets of flowers, mostly red roses. Some of them stop in front of casinos, offering flowers to couples who appear happy, in love – with each other or with this place.
I am eighteen.
Casino doors open, letting the cigarette and cigar smoke roll out in waves. Fresh smoke, stale smoke, smoke from over the years. And alcohol – juniper gin and hardcore whiskey, sugary mixers and spicy Bloody Marys. And there’s a new sound of metal wheels, the clack of a ball on a roulette table, the whir of cards being shuffled, the hawkers and dealers calling players to tables.
I am eighteen.
I will soon be married.
Happy birthday to me.
* * *
Randy turned the Bug off the blazing casino strip and drove two blocks to Reno’s other major attraction. The sounds of jackpot bells and the flirtatious laughter of women and men trying to act cool gave way to The Captain and Tennille, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow. The mellow, sugar-coated songs of falling in love and happily ever after drifted out of branded wedding chapels like a sign saying, “choose me.”
The Original Angels Wedding Chapel was first in the row beckoning lovers to “tie the knot” or “seal the kiss” or “make it last forever.” It looked like a 1940s ranch house frosted in a rough sea of white stucco with its permanently erected points sprinkled with something which sparkled like sugar crystals. The white sign over the porch was outlined with lacy white hearts and a string of red Christmas bulbs, along with fake red roses. Probably twelve roses to signify love, I thought, though I didn’t count.
Next to that was a dumpster dividing the Original Angels from the driveway of the “Love Potion Chapel.” The Love Potion Chapel was the size of a state park one-room cabin and I wondered if it was even possible to hold a wedding inside, though the parked cars and couples going in and out seemed to confirm it served its purpose.
We crawled along at the 20 MPH speed limit and I saw it, the giant heart drive-through. I’d thought Randy was making it up when he said we could do the quick and dirty drive-through wedding routine. I’d laughed and said no way, thinking the place was all in his imagination, anyway. But there it was with instructions, like a car wash. Please pull forward, don’t honk your horn ‘cuz we’ll be right with you, and more.
“How ‘bout it, Dot?” Randy asked when he saw me looking. “Over in minutes.”
“Randy. We agreed, no chapel.”
“Just testing. Thought maybe you changed your mind.”
I wondered how long it would take to get married in the drive-through, not that we were in a hurry. We’d stopped at a pay phone in Tulelake on the drive down from Salem. It was the first city over the California border and we wanted to call my parents. Randy was convinced that my parents could come after us and charge him with statutory rape since he was three years older than me and we’d had sex. Unless we were married. So I’d lied.
“Oh my God, Randy,” I said, pointing to a western themed chapel called The Hitchin’ Post. The two-story wood house had swinging saloon style doors and wagon wheels framing in the porch. “And no, before you even ask. No. But, look at that list!”
Randy slowed the car and the guy behind us honked. Randy pulled the car to the curb so we could read the wedding menu. The “Blissful Barn Wedding” came with a home-style meal. The “Two Step Polka” was billed as the “fastest legal marriage in Reno,” with “just the basics: 2 Witnesses, 1 Collar, 1 License.” And there was the “Roll in the Hay,” which included one night at the Catless House upstairs and a farm style breakfast in your room at any time of the night or day.
We laughed and Randy eased us back into the traffic of gawkers. I wondered how many of them were also getting married tonight, how many couples would share our anniversary. The street angled to the left and a few cars took off to the right, toward the bright lights of The Strip.
The wind kicked up and blew the cold air deeper into the car. I rolled up my window as we headed into a backup of traffic, which flowed toward a flood of white light up ahead.
“Last chance,” Randy said.
I turned to look at him. His dimple was showing and even though it was night, I could see the glint in his eyes and I knew it must be the Elvis Wedding Chapel causing the backup.
“You’re not serious.”
Randy shrugged. “I will if you will.” He tilted his head toward the small chapel with the giant steeple, which was now just feet from the car.
“No,” I said. “Let’s just drive to the hotel so I can change, like we planned. Please.”
“OK, if you insist.” Randy smiled and patted my knee. He tried to sound disappointed, but I didn’t buy it. Neither of us were Elvis fans, so there would be no regrets about not being married by an Elvis impersonator.
“Oh, shit,” Randy said, looking at his watch. “The courthouse closes in 45 minutes. We can’t check in first.”
“But I have to change,” I said.
I wanted to wear something special when we got married, not the clothes I’d put on for school that morning and had been wearing all day. I’d made a cream-colored muslin pantsuit, which my mom knew about, but she didn’t know why I’d made it. She didn’t know about the embroidery work I’d done, because I’d kept it out of sight as I added stitches of blue and purple and a touch of kelly green.
“Dot, it’s no big deal. You can change at the courthouse.”
“But I wanted to shower.” I closed my eyes. “Wait – isn’t your dad meeting us at the hotel and we’re going to the courthouse together?”
“Sorry; I forgot to tell you. Dad called this morning before I left Portland. He’s closing a big motor home sale today. He can’t make it to the wedding.” Randy sped up the car, turned the corner, the wedding chapels disappeared. “He’ll meet us afterwards for dinner and drinks.”
“But our witnesses?”
Our plans were falling apart one by one. Yes, we’d made it to Reno, but it was looking like we wouldn’t be getting married after all. At least not tonight.
“Dad said the courthouse will provide ‘em. Relax.”
“How? Pull two strangers off the street?”
I’d never dreamed of a white frilly dress and tuxedo wedding, complete with seven-course dinner and a money tree. I didn’t want it and it had never been within the realm of possibility of what my parents could afford. Growing up I often heard the phrase, “we can’t afford it.” I heard it when I wanted a new bike instead of a used one. I heard it when I wanted a modern Barbie – which I later got by exchanging my outdated 1959 Barbie for the new model with bendable knees under their special trade-up program. I heard it when I asked for the real colored saddle shoes instead of my mom’s hand-colored version; I’d accepted that I had to wear the shoes because I was pigeon-toed, but at least they could look good.
I wanted my wedding to be real. I wanted it to be one thing I could look back on at our 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries and smile. I did not want one of these drunken strangers to rock like a Weeble as we hurried through our “I do’s.”
“Relax. Dad said they have staff on hand. I know it’s not family – but what’s family, anyway? Right? C’mon.”
“Okay. I just -” I started to say, but stopped.
No family, no friends. Strangers promising to help keep us together or call us out if it’s a bad idea. Nameless witnesses who won’t know if there’s a reason for us not to get married, but it doesn’t matter because we’ll never see them again. Maybe it’s for the best and maybe it’s just another silly hoop, anyway.
“Just what?” Randy maneuvered us around a car of gawkers. “It’ll be okay. My dad’s never really been there for me, so why should now be any different?”
“I know. It’s okay. I just. I wish you’d told me earlier – but I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
“I was excited to get here and was worried your folks’d find out and send the cops after us,” Randy said. “And I wasn’t surprised he’s a no-show. This is so like him.”
Randy sniffed. I looked at his dry eyes. I wasn’t sure if it would be worse to have parents who abandoned you, like his birth mother and later, his adoptive father, or to have my unpredictable and domineering parents.
It didn’t matter now. I was eighteen, and it was my right to marry Randy and make our own life, with or without the blessing or consent of our parents. His mom would give us a blessing when we got back. She would’ve been totally cool about it if she knew. But we had to wait because she couldn’t be trusted in her drunken times not to leak the news to my parents.
“It’s OK. Really,” I said, rubbing Randy’s thigh. “Just as long as we get married and I have enough time to change before the vows.”
“Oh, it’ll happen. Even if they do have to pull someone off the street.”
“Just kidding. That won’t happen. I promise.”
There were two other weddings ahead of us at the courthouse and only one judge left on duty.
“But don’t you worry,” the secretary said, locking the front doors and smiling as she returned to the stacks of paper. “We’ll get you in, and you will be married before the courthouse closes tonight; I promise. But you’re the last.”
Randy and I signed the forms at the tall polished wood counter. I went to the bathroom and did what I could to stretch out the worst of the wrinkles in the muslin before changing while Randy filled in the blanks.
Our witnesses were the secretary and her husband, who had arrived early to pick her up from work. They looked like the locals Randy had described to me, who hang out in the casinos for cheap drinks and all you can eat buffets. I told myself to stop complaining and be grateful there was someone available, remembering the “No witnesses = No license,” sign over the front counter.
“Do you, Dorothy Suzanne, promise…?”
“And do you, Randall Horatio, promise…?”
I looked at Randy.
“I do,” he said and smiled, showing his dimple.
“By the powers vested in me….” the judge continued through the standard proclamations, which were only slightly different from the ones I’d seen on TV. Two minutes later and that was it.
We kissed. The two witnesses said “Congratulations” and walked out of the room. The judge signed the license, took off his robe and hung it on the coat tree behind him.
Randy grabbed my hand and the license and pulled me outside. We saw that someone had attached two empty cans with labels still on to the back bumper of the Bug with shoestrings: one SpaghettiOs and the other French cut green beans. They’d also written “Just Married” on a sheet of paper with what looked like lipstick, and slipped it under a windshield wiper.
We hugged and French-kissed before getting into the car, for longer than it had taken us to be married. I removed the note and placed it face up on the back seat, careful to not smear the words. There wouldn’t be many mementos from this wedding, but this was a sweet gesture from a stranger.
“How does it feel, Mrs. McNeill?” Randy asked as he opened the passenger side door for me and I climbed in.
“Great, Mr. McNeill!” I said when he climbed into the driver’s seat.
Randy put us into the flow of traffic headed back towards the casino strip’s bright lights. Our hotel was at the other end and we’d agreed to a quickie before calling his dad.
The Sundowner was more subdued than many of the other casinos. Except for the giant winking cowboy. I hadn’t realized when I saw it from the road that it was where we’d be spending our wedding night.
I took my large blue shoulder bag out of the car. I picked up the last two cans of warm Coke and the bottle of rum Randy had stuck under his seat and added them to my bag’s contents. Randy opened the trunk and took out the suitcase I’d stashed at his mom’s house the previous week, and he righted the mahogany Buddha he’d given me on my last birthday, leaving it in the trunk “to protect the car.”
We were filling out the registration card at the front desk when I heard a voice behind us.
“There are my two love birds!”
“Dad!” Randy said, turning around, still holding the credit card out toward the clerk.
I turned and saw a thin, short man walking toward us from a row of slot machines. He was mostly bald and his pale blue polyester suit hung from his frame like it was at least one size too big. His metallic gold- and navy-striped tie hung loosely, at an angle, from his neck.
Dave walked toward me with arms outstretched.
“She’s a beaut, for sure,” Dave said.
He grabbed me around my waist and pulled me to him until our bodies mashed together. He held me a little too long.
“Dad,” Randy said.
“Mmm hmm, a keeper,” Dave said, letting me go.
My face flushed red.
“Your card, sir,” the clerk said, handing it back to Randy along with the key.
“Dad. I thought you were going to wait for us to call you.”
“The deal nearly fell through. But I pulled it off, and earlier than expected. So I came to play a few hands in celebration and to surprise you. Made sure to sit where I could see the front desk.”
Randy and I looked at each other. I raised my eyebrows. Randy shrugged. My cheeks flushed more.
“Oh!” Dave said. “You two want to – oh. Well, go ahead. I’ll meet you later at the bar.”
“No. It’s okay, Dad.” Randy put his arm around me. “We have the rest of our lives.”
I looked at Dave. “Sure. Need to stash our stuff and let’s go celebrate.”
“I’ll take it up. You and Dad go get us a seat for dinner.” Randy picked up the suitcases and my bag.
“If you’re sure,” Dave said as he took my elbow.
Randy headed to the elevators and Dave and I headed to the restaurant at the edge of the casino. Dave led me to the section proudly announcing Reno’s only 24-hour buffet.
We walked past steam tables of pans holding mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, crab legs swimming in a buttery broth, green beans. There were carvers in tall chefs’ hats standing by shaved chunks of beef, a giant ham, a splayed open pink fish, and a giant meatloaf which looked like it was bleeding from the overflowing ketchup sauce on top. Cocktail waitresses in milkmaid outfits roamed between tables and booths with various colored drinks in bowl-sized glasses.
Dave scooted into a booth and patted the seat beside him. But I slid in on the opposite bench, wanting to sit by my husband when he arrived.
* * *
I awoke and lifted my head from the pillow. The sun streaked through the opening in the curtain, falling on my face, the floaters of dust and dirt dancing in my field of vision. A nearby loud hum and the chemical cleanliness of the room were unfamiliar. I held myself still for a moment to remember where I was and why.
The only sounds I heard were outside of the room: the hum, voices which could be people or a television.
I grabbed the sheet and turned over. My legs ached, the sheets were crumpled and scratchy, and then – something wet. I remembered when my right buttcheek squished into the wet spot. I’d felt the wet spot before, but this one was special because it was legitimate. We were now legal and it had really happened.
I looked up at the ceiling and smiled, remembering my doubts on the ride down to Reno yesterday. I kept expecting Randy to turn the car around and take me back to Salem. He’d threatened to do that – twice in the last month and then again on the way down. Always following up his comment with “just kidding.” He hadn’t dumped me. I was there in the Sundowner Hotel & Casino in Reno. And I was married. I smiled.
I continued my rightward roll and let my left arm reach for Randy. It hit the crumpled sheet. No blanket; no Randy.
“Randy?” I yelled toward the bathroom door.
I squinted toward the bathroom door. Even without my glasses I’d be able to see light crawling out from the gap between the door and the carpet, but there was nothing. Just like there were no sounds other than the incidental noises of the hotel.
Maybe he went to get me breakfast, I thought. Or maybe he was buying that silly French maid outfit in the casino gift shop window. I hoped for the breakfast. I hated wearing costumes, though I’d been willing to play along with his fantasies a couple of times since we’d been together.
I could barely make out the red numbers on the alarm clock on the opposite bedside table. It was 7:30 AM. I’d be heading into orchestra class now if we hadn’t run away to get married.
I felt along the sheet where his body had been. It was cold.
We hadn’t gone to sleep until around 2:00 in the morning. The buffet food hadn’t been bad and the drinks were strong. After dinner, during which his dad lost $150 on Keno, the two of them played cards, leaving me at a slot machine with a roll of nickels. It took Randy two hours to come get me.
I grabbed Randy’s pillow and pulled it toward me. There was a resistance, so I let go of the pillow and reached to turn on the bedside light.
On top of Randy’s pillow sat my Buddha statue. I felt my stomach go sour and that familiar burn around the edges of the borderline ulcer I’d had when I was twelve. There was a note stuck to the Buddha’s belly, which I pulled off and brought close enough to read.
“My dear wife,
I have gone to The Mustang Ranch. I know you will understand why I had to go. This will probably be my last time. Thank you for being my wife. I love you. I may be out there a while, especially if Candy and Maggie are there. Remember? I told you about them. Maggie and her tongue; though you are nearly as good as she is, now.
I love you and I will see you soon.
I hope you sleep well and long and that Buddha watches over you for me.
I am eighteen.
I am married.
I am alone in Reno.