Here’s what I expect when I spend a weekend in Vegas: Several nights of debauchery (some of those buffets stay open late, yo), a visit to the spa, at least an hour spent trying to turn $20 into a minor fortune via the magic of blackjack and the Britney Spears slot machine, and at least one meal at a restaurant that’s so expensive I’ll start off all anecdotes about what I ate with a sincere apology for my excess and a reminder that “I don’t usually splurge like this but…”
I expect a drunken stroll through a casino, a conversation with an aesthetician that starts with how much better my skin could look if I just washed my face more vigorously and ends with a discussion of all the celebrities they’ve worked on — this trip: Kelly Ripa, Lady Gaga — and, as a grand finale, the sighting of at least two bachelorette parties, both alike in dignity but diametrically opposed in their aesthetic, colliding into each other by chance and giving off that kind of mildly uncomfortable vibe which suggests the accidental meeting could turn into a Sharks/Jets showdown at a second’s notice. (This trip’s edition: A group of 30 women clad in flowing dresses, speaking in hushed tones vs. a mixed-gender posse of possible southerners sporting homemade booty shorts, cheap plastic visors and screaming “whoop whoop, you happy fuckers!”)
What I don’t expect is an education in digestion from a celebrity mixologist, but that’s precisely what I get: In the backroom of Montecristo at Caesar’s palace, Rob Floyd offers a masterclass on Pepsi’s role in the digestion process — who knew? — while mixing together ingredients in a smoking metal bowl (I want to call it a cauldron but recognize that “exploding with smoke” is only one of a cauldron’s defining features). The result, which is equal parts sweet and bitter, will need to be eaten with a spoon. When Floyd announces this, the room, full of people who would be considered a little overdressed for a Saturday afternoon anywhere but vegas, erupts into warm applause. Samples are passed out. Soon, American Idol alum Pia Toscano will take the stage. And then there will be dinner, followed by a night of dancing at Omnia (which I insist on referring to as The Omnia Nightclub and Discotheque to the delight and revulsion of others).
With all the activities going on, it may be a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I’d been flown to Vegas with my husband, so I’ll be real: We were there to taste Pepsi. But not just any Pepsi — no, you can get that down at your local corner store. We were there to taste the new varietals of Pepsi’s 1893 — Citrus Cola and Black Currant Cola. These, too, can be purchased at your local corner store, but they deserve some fanfare as they’re billed as all-natural, fair trade, and sweetened with real sugar.
It’s Pepsi’s way of getting into the craft cola market and the soda’s selling point — aside from a reminder that it’s is a heightened version of creator Caleb Bradham’s original 1893 recipe, hence the name — is that it goes down well on its own but even better with alcohol. That’s why a huge bottle of WhistlePig Rye Whiskey welcomed us in our hotel room. And while I don’t drink whiskey, I can tell you that the cola’s good.
Actually, my husband may have been a better judge of 1893: He downed the stuff, excitedly fizzing about citrus and ginger as we walked from Montecristo back to the elevators that would take us to our suite. “Maybe we’ve been Pepsi drinkers all along,” he suggested. Maybe. I don’t know. Although the drinks were certainly good.
What I do know is this: Vegas is fucking amazing. It’s my favorite city in the world. And that weekend I fell in love with it all over again — mainly because I could see it for the first time.
That’s a twist, huh? And if this were a comedy meant for the teen/young adult set, this would be the moment where the video would freeze and I’d greet you with a sassy voice-over acknowledging that you probably wanted to know how I got here. Here it is: I was born with cataracts, was legally blind for 33 years, and, in June, finally mustered up the courage to go under the knife, have my faulty lens cut out of my eye — I was awake for this #AMA — and have a new one injected via a complicated method that I still can’t bring myself to watch on YouTube.
The result is that I went from being someone who qualified for a guide dog to someone who could possibly, if in a situation where a serial killer was chasing me and my rag-tag group of friends, be trusted to drive a getaway vehicle as a last resort.
Up until the weekend when I was invited to test fancy colas in Vegas, I’d mostly been staying inside my comfort zone (read: the living room), oohing and aahing over all the new colors I could see, marveling at how much better getting high was, and watching the TV from across the room instead of right up next to it. My new favorite activity is reading license plates (because I couldn’t before). I like to do it aloud and while everyone was impressed for the first few days, it’s a party trick that I realize will only carry me so far. Recently, as I was reading three license plates in a row to a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, a stranger stopped and wondered whether I might be suffering a stroke. You’ll agree: I need to get out more.
So we flew to Vegas, where I had what could best be described as a series of spiritual experiences. I had one at the Bacchanal buffet, where I could easily read all the menu titles on the sneezeguards; I had another at the Qua spa, where I marveled at the fiber-optic constellations on the ceiling of the cold room; and I had a third at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, where the company and food were excellent — Pesto mashed potatoes! Beet tamales! Corn-crusted chile rellenos! — but the real draw was an illuminated mosaic, the lights between pieces of wood and stone spilling out like liquid gold. Dessert was great — The toasted coconut cake is a must even if you don’t like coconut (but have an open mind) — but as we walked out of Mesa, past the bustling open kitchen and back into the swell of the casino, all I could think about was that patchwork of light and rock, and how only a month ago, I would have dismissed it as only a bright blur in my peripheral vision.
A short nap later — I don’t know about you, but at 33 I need a bit of rest between dinner and the cluurb — and we were standing in front of Omnia, a three-floor 75,000 square foot entertainment space which features two clubs (The Heart of Omnia plays primarily hip-hop and is often less crowded than the main floor) and a terrace complete with romantic verandas and a panoramic view of the strip, where you can spring for bottle service (water costs extra in vegas! Never forget!) and sip handcrafted cocktails as you gaze out over the lights, coming face-to-face with The High Roller (Las Vegas’ answer to The London Eye) and the ever-smiling faces of Donny and Marie, which are plastered, Hulk-size, all over the Flamingo. Everyone who works at Omnia is a performer — from the barbacks who’ll create a flash for your perfect photos with a glass and a penlight, to the hostesses in skin tight dresses who produce pens and corkscrews from thin air. (They wear earplugs, though, so you may have to shout.)
Inside the main club is where I had my last revelation. Maybe it wasn’t on par with a vision that would compel me to lead the French army to victory before being burned alive at the stake as gratitude, but on the spectrum of “religious experiences that could possibly change your life if they were part of an increasing series of miracles you weren’t expecting and will probably make people rethink your friendship,” it was pretty up there. Drinking luxury Pepsi at a private event? Fun. A visit to the spa? Awesome. Dinner at Mesa? Delightful! But it all paled in comparison to Omnia’s chandelier.
Let me be real with you: You’re not going to dance at Omnia. Zedd was playing the night we were there and by the time he took the stage, the dance floor was so packed that doing anything but staring up at the DJ as he strutted around was something out of a fantasy. Going to the bathroom meant losing your spot on the floor (the bouncers were armed with people counters) and no matter where you were standing in the club, you were crushed by people on all sides. And despite this, everyone seemed absolutely overjoyed.
It could have been Zedd (very good). It could have been the flying acrobats who contorted above the ground in glittering balls. But it was most likely the chandelier, which took up the club’s entire ceiling and — along with Omnia’s motion-sensing screens — was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’s probably what I’ll see right before I die. Not grandparents or my childhood pets or a tunnel of white light. Nah, when I’m ready to shuffle off this mortal coil, the ceiling of the room I’m in will transform into Omnia’s chandelier and sing me to my rest with the pulsating oontz of heavy electronic beats.
I was transfixed. The chandelier moved up, then down, it separated, tilted, unleashed a sea of glittering tendrils, changed colors, shot lasers, collapsed into itself, and, finally, blew smoke at everyone fortunate enough to be in its vicinity. All in time with the music. It was the show. After years of not understanding why people dress up, wait in line, and pay hundreds of dollars to get into a room in which they’ll stand too close to another person and pay out the nose for overpriced beers, it suddenly made sense. It was magic. For a second I thought I might cry. Then a man who had climbed onto a viewing platform fell and I didn’t feel like it would be appropriate to steal his thunder by weeping in the club ala Camilla Bello. I looked up instead and tried not to blink as the chandelier bathed me in pulsating pink light.
On the flight home, the turbulence was awful. A woman who’d spent four days in Vegas doing, according to her, “every fucking thing idiots with money do, you know?” took a Xanax and then threw it up. And then she did it all over again as the plane pitched up and down like an aluminum can in the sky (which, to be fair, is what an airplane is). Usually, seeing others panic triggers me to have a sympathetic anxiety attack of my own. This time, though, I could only think about the things that I’d seen. Things I could, if the plane made it home, see again one day. And so I turned my head, wished for a second that I could have a soda, and stared out the window, looking past the wing and out over the desert, truly seeing it for the first time.