When I was a flight attendant, the airline’s company store sold t-shirts that said, “Marry Me, Fly Free.” The shirts were funny and humiliating and possibly desperate, but many new flight attendants wore them. The shirts got a lot of attention in hotel bars. Drunk people all over the world take t-shirt advertising seriously.
“This shirt’s better than a dating service,” my friend Carrie used to say. Carrie’s “Marry Me” t-shirt was tight and lime green. She wore it on layovers and never paid for drinks. “You’d be amazed what people will do for free plane tickets,” she’d say.
I’m amazed what people will do for love.
When I finally ask Danny to marry me, it comes almost out of nowhere. We’d gone out to eat at a restaurant called the Red Star. The Red Star is half restaurant, half train station. The décor is circus kitsch. Above the bar, there are two huge papier-mâché sculptures. The sculptures are two bulbous tightrope walkers, a man and a woman. The walkers are balanced overhead on chubby tiptoe, perched like fat birds on their tightrope, toddling there, against the odds of gravity, against any good sense.
“I have healthcare.” This is how I propose, over a plate of potato skins and some peel-and-eat shrimp. “I have flight benefits.”
Danny hates to fly, but he still says yes.
“That was the nicest thing anyone has ever asked me,” Danny says later.
“That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever asked,” I say.
We don’t tell my mother or our friends. We don’t call Danny’s kind and lovely parents. That weekend, we cash in the last of his savings bonds, buy two simple rings at The Clark Building in Pittsburgh, and fly to Las Vegas for free, first class.
How I know Danny loves me: he said yes, even though both of us had at one point sworn off marriage. And he’s not complaining about the flight, even though he’s gripping his armrests and sweating so much a flight attendant thinks he might be having a heart attack.
“We’re getting married,” I say.
“That explains things,” she says, and brings us a bottle of champagne and an extra airsickness bag, just in case.
“Close your eyes,” I say to Danny. “I’ll wake you when we get there.”
“There’s no way I’m sleeping like this,” he says.
As much as Danny’s miserable, I love it up here. After years of working flights like this one, I can sleep better on an airplane than I can at home. Some flight attendants I worked with used to take home recordings of jet engines and play them as white noise so they could sleep on the ground. Danny’s more like most people, who think, rightfully so, that flying isn’t natural. But I’m with the little old lady who, on a flight to Kansas City once, in the middle of a bad bout of turbulence, threw her arms up and yelled, “They should charge extra for this!”
The flight from Pittsburgh to Vegas, with a stop in Atlanta, takes about six and a half hours. When the plane finally starts to descend, I nudge Danny, who’s closed his eyes despite himself. I say, “Look. It’s beautiful. Trust me.”
It’s around midnight, Vegas time. Flying into Vegas at night is a magical thing. At first there’s only desert, one long stretch of black, and then there’s light. The signs that make up the Vegas skyline appear and the whole place looks like luck, something invented to sell on TV. On one end of the strip, there’s a sphinx and a pyramid. Farther down, there’s the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge, King Arthur’s castle and a pirate ship. Vegas looks like the world tossed in a Yahtzee cup. It looks like a jumbled Atlantis rising out of the sea. It looks like the inside of a madman’s snow globe.
“The whole damn place is a dream,” my father who loved and believed in Vegas used to say.
“I don’t need to go to Paris,” a passenger told me once. “I can visit the Eiffel Tower right here, where people speak English.”
“Everything’s fake,” another passenger said, “but it’s nicer than the real thing.”
I’d wanted to get married in Key West. Key West is literary and romantic. Hemingway had a house there. The descendants of his cats live there still. Tennessee Williams wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the La Concha Hotel. Key West has beautiful sunsets. People get married barefoot on the beach, with the sun breaking open like an egg.
Key West would have been a perfect place for Danny and me to get married. It also seemed more legitimate than Vegas. Vegas is the place where drunk celebrities get married and divorced in 48 hours or less. Vegas is, like my passenger said, fake, which meant getting married in Vegas might be fake, too.
But Vegas it is, because we’re broke. Vegas is cheap and uncomplicated. “It doesn’t matter where we go,” Danny says. “We’re not the kind of people who care about those things.”
And I think: we. Even though I was the one to suggest all this, I feel fear bubble up. Marriage, and all the possible disasters that can come with it, still seems terrifying. I can’t name one couple who calls themselves we that liked, let alone loved, each other. Nearly every married couple I know is on their way to divorce or permanent misery. Most we couples talk to each other like Day Planners. “It’s Tuesday. Don’t forget to take out the trash.” “The dry cleaners closes at 8.” “You didn’t forget to buy milk, did you?” “I penciled you in for sex a week from Friday.”
“You’re right,” I say to Danny, and I put the pictures of sunset weddings and my copy of The Sun Also Rises away. We’re not those people. “Isn’t it pretty to think so,” Hemingway’s Lady Brett echoes back.
In Vegas, we get a room for $30 a night at Circus/Circus. The hotel is one giant Big Top. The Red Star’s papier-mâché trapeze artists feel like foreshadowing. Here there are real trapeze artists. There are mimes and clowns. The concierge is dressed like a circus barker. Being inside Circus/Circus is like being trapped inside a Fellini film. It’s like being stuck in a giant pinball machine.
When the writers Tess Gallagher and Ray Carver got married in Nevada’s Heart of Reno Chapel, Carver called it a “high tack affair.” After the ceremony, Tess went on a three-day winning streak at roulette.
“It’s perfect,” I say to Danny as we stand in line to check in.
“What?” he says. The bells from the slot machines, the circus music, the crowds – everything except the mimes – drowns everything out.
Upstairs in our room, the mattress sags. There are cigarette burns in one pillowcase. A Styrofoam take-out container is moldering under the bed.
“It’s not the honeymoon suite,” I say.
“Shut up and kiss me,” Danny says, and runs at me full on, knocking me onto the bed that creaks and bows and threatens to snap under our weight.
Later, we hire a cab driver to take us for a tour of wedding chapels. The cabbie, a middle-aged woman in a bedazzled tank top, says she’ll look out for us. “A nice couple like you,” she says. “I’ll get you a big discount.”
We drive down the Strip. Howie Mandel is playing the Tropicana. Sinbad is at the MGM. The cabbie seems nice at first. Then she starts talking.
“You picked the perfect place to get married. Vegas is the most romantic place on earth,” she says. “Just look at that.” She points to a blonde man and woman on the sidewalk. They are both very tan and dressed in matching white polo shirts. They’re holding hands. They look like an ad for a timeshare.
“Now there’s a nice couple,” she says.
She says, “Not like all these white girls with the black men.”
She says, “And those Mexicans. They’re everywhere. They’re taking over. Just look around.”
She says, “We should shoot them all.”
I feel sick. We get out of the cab at the next chapel and walk what seems miles back to the hotel. The heat is unbelievable, well over a hundred degrees. Danny’s sweating, dry heat or not. I feel my tongue swelling. I feel dizzy.
“Fucking psychotic,” Danny says about the cab driver.
“I think I might throw up,” I say.
But it’s more than the cabbie, more than the heat. The whole place seems off, wrong, an illusion. In the hotel lobby, a mime is stuck in an invisible box. A woman dressed in flammable Lycra is eating fire. Blindfolded trapeze artists swing overhead and throw themselves at each other. Trust is one thing. The huge net under the high wires is another. Families with children are everywhere. None of them look happy. Most of the children are crying.
I am having a child. I am getting married. All of this is making me sick.
Just off to our right, a couple and their young son are checking in. The son has his own suitcase, a Thomas the Train roller-board. He’s whacking it back and forth against a marble pillar. His mother’s saying, loud enough for me to hear it over the big-top noise, “Stop it, Tommy.”
I think Tommy, Thomas. Cute.
“Tommy, I mean it,” the mother is saying. Her voice is flat as cardboard. She’s wearing sunglasses, celebrity-style frames, black plastic with rhinestone lion heads at the temples.
The husband is dragging another suitcase. This one’s huge, big enough to store a body in. The check-in line’s moving, an old movie reel, but the husband stops for a second because the bag’s toppled over. He’s struggling to right it. He doesn’t see the girl at the desk who motions him down. He doesn’t hear her say, “next.”
The wife hears.
The wife’s wearing boots, high heels, black, shiny, sturdy.
She kicks once, hard, to get him moving.
The husband barely flinches. He drags the suitcase up to the desk. Tommy drags his Thomas bag too. Tommy’s crying. The girl behind the desk gives him a sucker. “Stop it, Tommy,” the mother says, and Tommy goes on crying.
People get married and have children and do unbelievable, hideous things to each other.
Danny’s red-faced, his shirt soaked. He’s flopped into a chair. I bring him a bottle of water I buy from the front desk cooler for five dollars. I say, “Maybe we should go home.” He gulps the water down in one long chug. I watch his Adam’s apple move up and down beneath the soft skin of his throat. “We came all this way,” he says when he finally comes up for air.
That night, when Danny falls asleep, I flip through channels. I watch reruns of “The X Files,” where the poster in Fox Mulder’s office never changes. It’s a picture of a flying saucer coming in for a landing in some suburb. There are trees and well-groomed lawns and pretty little houses with families inside. The poster says, “I Want to Believe.”
We get married the next night at The Special Memory Wedding Chapel on the Strip. It’s an all-white building with a gazebo and a bell tower and a flashing neon sign that advertises drive-through wedding service. We opt for the regular walk down the aisle. If we had the money, we could be married by an impersonator called Elvis the Pelvis Himselvis. Grandpa Munster could give me away. We could get commemorative t-shirts with our faces and the words “Making Special Memories Together” on them.
As it is, Danny wears his own plain white t-shirt. He pins a rose on the pocket. I wear a lilac dress I ordered from the Spiegel catalogue. I carry the tiny bouquet that comes with our Bargain Memory package. We are married by a tall Unitarian minister who looks like he plays a Unitarian minister on TV. He talks about love being patient and kind. He talks about how some marriages work and some don’t. He shrugs, then talks about honesty and trust. His $50 suggested tip is mandatory and included on our bill.
On the wedding video, I blink a lot. I blink when I’m nervous. I look like someone squirted vinegar in my eyes. Danny’s face is shiny. His cheeks are red. He smiles and beams. The only time I stop blinking and he stops beaming is when we kiss. In that moment, preserved forever on tape in case we ever doubt it, we both look calm and certain, sure of the world and our place in it.
In his poem “Late Fragment,” Ray Carver asked and answered the two biggest questions of his life. Did he get what he wanted? Yes, he said. And what was it he wanted?
“To call myself beloved. / To feel myself beloved on this earth.”
The poem was dedicated, as all his late poems were, to his second wife Tess, the poet, the woman he married in Nevada in that high-tack affair.
“You have to remember what matters,” Danny says. “We matter. This,” and he gestures at the air between us, connecting us, like it’s an artery, a lifeline.
In our Special Memory Chapel video, when we turn to leave, our one witness, the chapel receptionist, is clapping. She’s bored. She’s probably done this all day. She claps, slow and polite. She claps like an audience that’s happy the show’s finally over. The clapping bounces off the walls of the empty chapel. The neon drive-through sign flashes overhead. Off to the right, there’s a gift shop with t-shirts and postcards and Special Memory refrigerator magnets shaped like doves.
Right before the camera pans out, Danny does a cheer. He kicks his left leg. He hoots and punches the air. The camera zooms in and it’s just the two of us. I lean into him and we walk off together like that. It looks perfect. It looks like forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006), and three poetry chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection–Spot the Terrorist!–is forthcoming from Word Tech. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, KGB BarLit, and elsewhere.