In June 1995, we rescued Vanessa from Small Town America and brought her back to Southern California. Her family had moved a few years earlier.
The morning Operation Liberation began, our buddy Slim picked me up in his new silver F150 truck. It notably lacked A/C and power windows, and did not have much room—just a bench seat that held three, if the middle person didn’t mind the stick shift jamming into her leg.
We planned to drive through the desert heat of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah, for a total of four days there and back with no air conditioning. Only young people do that kind of stupid shit.
But, we were excited to have our trio complete again after three years of separation. Vanessa was elated to see us. Venturing out for an evening of dancing and cocktails when you haven’t seen your friends in a long time can be a recipe for disaster when you’re young, and the night we got into town was no exception. We said goodbye to her folks and her fourteen-year-old brother early and headed to Peppers, the local dance club.
It was classic rock Thursday night and a local guy was teaching the Pepper Shuffle to cowboys. The real name of this tubby, balding man was irrelevant because he looked exactly like Newman from Seinfeld. And he was dancing. With a headset. Like Britney Spears. High-larious.
The ladies on the wood floor had feathered eighties hair; the men wore ten-gallon hats and leather boots, and here we were, out-of-place So. Cal. kids following Newman’s steps with all the gusto of a Broadway act on opening night.
“One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Riiigghht. Lefffttt. Bump to the corner! Bump to the back!” we yelled along with Newman on his microphone.
Vanessa and I shook our booties, clapped our hands, and generally embarrassed our male companion completely. The waitress brought him free cokes and kept saying, “I’m so sorry” every time she walked by.
After about four or five whiskey sours, Vanessa decided it was a swell idea to start drinking martinis. Conversely, my internal drinking alarm went off. I stopped while my friend forged ahead, unfazed by our requests to “slow down.” She was impervious to alcohol because she was 21, damn it!
The mixed drinks swirled in her belly, creating a storm surge that was about to halt Newman’s dance lessons. At one point, she spun around, stumbled, and stopped. Her face got sweaty. The room began to swirl for her like the pink and orange clown vomit carpet at Circus Circus.
“Are you okay?” I asked, putting my arm around her. I didn’t even get the word “okay” out before Vanessa was sprinting for the bathroom. I looked over my shoulder at Slim, our sober designated driver, shaking his head. I then ran after her. Later, he said, “It was like the blind leading the blind.”
I burst into the bathroom and hung my hand on the only stall door that was shut tight, making sure I didn’t fall.
“Are you okay?” I asked again, swaying.
In between yakking sounds, Vanessa squeaked out, “Yeah…I’m fine…”
Once she got it out of her system, she came back to the dance floor rejuvenated and ready for round two. “I think I’ll have another drink!” she announced, reaching for her wallet to purchase a rum and coke. It was rally time!
“Um, no, it’s time to go,” Slim said. We said a reluctant goodbye to Newman and all the cowboys, and he dragged us to the truck.
As we slid into the snug front seat, Slim told Vanessa, “If you have to throw up, please tell me and I’ll pull over.”
“Okay,” she slurred. I was hesitant sitting next to her and thought, Please make it home. Please make it home. Please make it home.
Halfway to Vanessa’s house, the shoulder ended on the road, and we found ourselves on a one-lane highway with nowhere to pull over.
“Are you okay?” Slim repeated for the 50th time.
“Yes,” she responded again.
“Tell me if you need me to stop,” he instructed.
“Okay, pull over,” Vanessa insisted.
“What?” he asked.
“Pull over now,” she said.
As Slim halted his truck in the middle of the street with nowhere to park and no streetlights for miles, Vanessa manually rolled down his window at the breakneck speed of a snail.
She wasn’t fast enough. Vanessa barfed in the general direction of the street, but missed the open air almost completely. The window was only halfway down. What made matters worse was that the window was only halfway down. (Slim was cleaning up chunks of food that appeared every time he rolled up the window well into the late ‘90s.) In an instant, it was no longer a new car.
He drove slowly the rest of the ten-minute drive back to Vanessa’s house, while she apologized over and over. Slim and I leaned away from the smell, the air outside spinning my long brown hair like a funnel cloud.
We crept to her front door, whispering for her to give us the keys. Her parents’ window was wide open—and directly next to where we were standing. Not surprisingly, we woke them up, they told us later.
Grasping for Vanessa’s keys, I was denied access. She cried, “I got it! I got it!” and lunged the house key toward the lock, striking metal, completely missing the lock. She tried again, with no success. The clanking noise made me cringe, as Slim buried his face into his hands. “I got it! I got it!” she repeated resolutely. Finally, we were in.
(For years after that, “I got it! I got it!” was our mantra.)
The house Vanessa’s parents were renting at the time was temporary, and it only had one bathroom—for all six of us—and it was a weeknight.
I quickly peed and hid in my sleeping bag in the living room. Slim did the same. We hibernated and wouldn’t come out again until the rest of the household was safely off to work and school in just a couple hours.
Vanessa hugged the porcelain god for a few more minutes and then staggered off to bed. In the morning, I was awakened to more sounds of illness, while her family quietly dressed and had breakfast. I saw her brother’s feet and backpack pass by on the way out the door.
At noon, Vanessa was still sick.
When her brother came home from school, he sauntered up to her, and said, “Can’t hold your liquor, huh?”
Nothing gets past teenagers.
On the drive back to California, we drove through wavering mirages in the endless deserts of Utah and Nevada with the outside furnace blasting us. We passed around a spray bottle of water to stay cool. Our sweaty legs stuck together. Vanessa and I switched places every stop so that one of us wouldn’t have the dreaded middle hump.
When we neared Las Vegas, her eyes started to twinkle when she realized our proximity to casinos. She had never been to Vegas before. “Oh, I want to play slots!” she cheered.
Slim and I just wanted to get home, but we stopped at a gas station that had a slot machine on the fringe of Sin City so she could get her first fix. In a few minutes, she had turned a few quarters into twenty bucks. Her lucky streak started that day and never died.
That’s the day Vegas Vanessa was born.