During the spring and summer of 1986, I lived in a VW Microbus tricked out with a beer-soaked foam mattress, two acoustic guitars, a revolving gang of unwashed punks, and three cartons of Winston cigarettes bequeathed to me by my dead grandmother. The bus was orange, and the window treatments were red gingham; it looked like a traveling picnic basket.
For a while we kept a kitten called Satan locked in there, encased in the hot van like a rotisserie chicken, until one day some kind soul took pity on the mewling creature, broke into the van while we were scoring what turned out to be oregano in People’s Park, and either stole or liberated Satan, depending on your perspective.
By early summer, after a few months driving up and down the California coast, there were just two of us left: me and the owner of the van, Robert Kaye, a 25-year-old sexually confused rabbi’s son from central Texas. Robert hadn’t brought a change of clothes with him. He had one pair of jeans with holes in the knees, one faded-to-gray Hane’s pocket tee, one black cashmere sweater, one pair of tightie-whities, and a Jansport backpack full of books: Being and Nothingness, Being and Time, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment.
“’The Nausea seized me,’” Robert read Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea out loud to me as we drove east through the Mojave, away from California, his voice high-pitched and raspy. “’I dropped to a seat,” he continued. “’I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit.’”
Robert paused, placing his hand over his heart as if he were pledging allegiance.
“It’s existence itself,” I said. “That’s the disease.”
Outside the van, the sun was bright, bouncing off Zabriskie’s Point like a spotlight. Inside the van, our souls were black.
By the time we reached Las Vegas, giant Saguaro cacti made me nauseous. The immensity of the sky made me nauseous. The importance of the steering wheel to my survival made me nauseous. Food made me nauseous. But most of all, Robert Kaye made me nauseous.
The van reeked of cigarettes, B.O., despair, and death. I hadn’t washed my hair in over a month, because, I reasoned, if everything was nothing, why bother? Like Simone DeBeauvoir’s teeth, it would just get dirty again. But more importantly, my hair had twisted into dreads and looked really cool, proving, to me, that the bourgeois banality of bathing not only suppressed free will, but made us less beautiful.
It wasn’t just existential ennui that prompted our trek to Vegas, however. Robert had a plan. He had a blackjack system and his mother’s credit card. Robert had the power of unlimited cash advance.
In the parking lot of a Denny’s, while I chain-smoked, Robert covered spiral-bound notebook pages with esoteric numbers and letters. He was a kabbalistic blackjack mystic, his sacred text open on his lap, his skinny knees sticking out of his jeans, and his bare feet just beginning to be attacked by the fungus which would plague us for weeks.
“Robin,” he said, looking up from his work, “everything is stupid.”
“In its own way,” I agreed.
“You’ve got the birds and the bugs and the flowers and the trees.” He listed these natural but stupid wonders off on his fingers, then put his pen behind his ear. His hair, short and jet black, lay flat against his head as if he had slicked it back with motor oil.
“All those things do exist,” I said.
“And you know what?” He paused as he lit a cig. “They’re all gonna die.”
“Totally,” I nodded. “Roll the rock right back up that hill, Sisyphus.”
If I’d had any sense at that age, which I clearly didn’t, I would have headed for the nearest hotel gift shop to purchase us some berets.
In 1986, Las Vegas was seedier and smaller than today’s Vegas. It hadn’t been Disneyfied yet. There were no roller coasters, no Hard Rock Café, no street performers, and certainly no families or family-oriented fun. The tourists were divided into two camps: the retired and the disabled. One-armed men battled one-armed bandits; wheelchairs glided down the shimmering sidewalks; clutches of blue-haired ladies in pantsuits and pearls threw their children’s inheritance on the craps table.
Because I was 19, I was kicked out of most of the casinos we entered. At the sleazier ones I played the nickel slots and drank free screwdrivers while Robert worked his system at the blackjack tables until eventually someone would card me.
One day after being kicked out of no less than three casinos, I was hanging out, literally, on a street corner, sitting on a small patch of dried grass with my back against a building. I had on a black mini-skirt, Chinese slippers, and a wife beater yellow with age; I was reading The Stranger.
I noticed a man circling me as I read, like I was the sun and he was my planet. Eventually he approached, his steel-gray double-breasted suit a mirror in the desert sun, reflecting the waves of heat, reflecting the nothingness of the world, reflecting the emptiness of my teenage soul.
Here comes my Arab on the beach, I thought. Because Camus is right: the sun is blinding and the buildings are only cardboard cut-outs of buildings and there is only this moment and this rattle in my head, and the sharp grass scratching my thighs.
He stood above me and said hello.
“Hi,” I said, squinting up at him. I held the paperback up like a shield and he tipped his fedora, Jeri-curls glistening. He squatted beside me.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
I showed him the book cover.
“I hope you don’t think I’m a stranger,” he said, reaching out and touching one of my dreads, which was bleached blonde, stiff, and hanging to my shoulder. “Because I’m a friend.” He rubbed the dry chunk of hair between his fingers, and yes, it’s true, he was wearing a diamond pinky ring that twinkled in the sun.
“You have pretty hair,” he said, “but it could be prettier, if we cleaned it up. Are you hungry? Do you want to get some food? My treat.”
I said nothing.
“I’ve got a hotel room,” he continued. “First we’ll get you a hamburger and then you can take a shower and I’ll introduce you to a few girls your own age.”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“I’d like to see you all cleaned up. I bet you’d look real nice.” He smiled and his teeth were small and rough, like pebbles on the beach. “What’s your name?”
“Ramona,” I said. It was the sun that made me lie to him, although it was the same sun it’s always been, sun of The Stranger, of the Bible, throbbing on my forehead, illuminating the pyramids, beating on Ronald Reagan and the dinosaurs, and one day it would turn into a red giant, then a white dwarf.
“Don’t you want some company, Ramona?” he asked.
“I’m not alone,” I said and stood up, brushing the prickly grass off my skirt. “I’m here with someone. But thanks anyway.”
I walked away from him and toward the van. I wished I had a gun in my pocket so I could feel the trigger give. I wished I had a pocket with a plane ticket home in it.
The truth was I had lied twice to that pimp. I was alone. I opened the van door and lay down on the mattress. We’re all alone, I thought. Everyone’s already dead.