We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when my lower back started to ache. I complained, and Paul replied, “I know how to fix that.” At least, I think that’s what he said. He was smiling. I didn’t ask him what he meant. Instead, I stared out the window at miles of nothing as he concentrated on piloting his mammoth Silver 2012 Chevy Suburban LTE down Highway 15.
My lumbar region was throbbing because, the previous day, I had bent over to chase a runaway potato chip. That was all it took.
I was almost forty and this was our getaway weekend. Just Paul and me. The plan was to drive from L.A. to Sin City for the weekend and relax, two sober bros on the cusp of middle age. I was a little nervous because the last time I had been to Vegas, I passed out drunk in the bathroom stall of some strip club.
Paul assured me there was more to Vegas than boozing and gambling. I trusted him.
I had moved to L.A. a year prior for a social media job, and I was lucky Paul, a public high school teacher, was nearby. Well, relatively nearby. Burbank and Long Beach aren’t close, but he would drive to the valley every few weeks to check in on me. Los Angeles is beautiful but lonely. He knew I needed cheering up.
I met Paul in college. He was louder and angrier at the time, but he wanted to be my friend. I never understood why he wanted to be my friend; I didn’t. Once, during a particularly awful LSD trip, I had convinced myself Paul was just a hallucination. He was not.
Paul quit drinking long before I did. He patiently waited for me to call him for years, and one night, I did. I needed help, I told him, my eyes wet and mouth dry. I wanted what he had. And what did he have? A family. A job. A life. A giant truck. Self-respect. He accepted the consequences of his actions. He was happy, and when he wasn’t, that was okay, too.
We parked in the garage of a casino and checked in. It was gigantic, like a starship. Every casino in Vegas is exciting and disgusting. They all smell like stale cigarette smoke and body odor and sound like loose change falling on linoleum.
Later, he took me to the spa. I scoffed at first. Massages? Perfumed lotions? Big fluffy robes? I told him I didn’t need to be pampered. I was bred to clench, seethe, and grit my teeth. He smiled. He was always a step ahead.
I had been struggling in L.A. I knew it, and Paul knew it. I spent all my time working, hunched over a computer, eating boxes of Trader Joe’s frozen mac & cheese alone in a small bungalow. I had fled from my problems in New York, but my bad back and alcoholism had followed. I didn’t want to drink, but there were nights I would talk to myself in my cramped one-bedroom, and the answer to most of my questions was: “Walk to that windowless Tiki bar down the street.”
I always thought what would drive me back to the bottle would be dramatic, some traumatic event, loud and violent and heartbreaking. But, no, it was going to be the quiet. Then Paul interceded.
I told him that I did not need to be pampered. But, as it turns out, I did. As it turns out, I’m a man who loves to stop and also a man who loves to smell like flowers.
That afternoon, my massage therapist casually untied the knots at the base of my spine like sneaker laces. I exhaled for what seemed to be five minutes. As she was leaving, she suggested I buy some bath bombs for later. I grunted and passed out, and when I woke up, the search began. I scanned The Strip for undetonated munitions of indulgences.
I found them. You can find anything in Las Vegas: liquor, pills, sex. I found fancy-ass tension-dissolving multi-colored soap grenades scented with essential oils and magnesium sulfates. I dropped some of those in my room’s giant bathtub and let the little bubbles do what they wanted with me.
Paul and I hit the buffet, slept soundly, and returned to the spa. Later, blissed out on wholesomeness and calm, we wandered the casino floor, impervious to the spectacle. I was surrounded by cheerful degenerates. I was zen. I had long known, intellectually, that life is best lived one day at a time, but only after hours of high-end mollycoddling was I able to do anything with that knowledge.
The experience stuck. It was a conversion. My back had hummed a happy tune on the long ride through the desert and I had babbled the whole way like an evangelical after a 1-on-1 with God. Only I hadn’t interacted with the divine. Instead, I learned that life is better when you treat yourself.
When I got back from Vegas, I tried to recreate the spa experience. I was giddy about it all. Intoxicated, but in a good way.
Before that trip, I had believed in cold showers and swallowing pain and discomfort without a chaser. After, I steamed myself like a pork bun. I soaked. I set aside some money to invest in further ablutions.
After buying some disappointing scrubs and Epsom salts online, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the retail experience. I needed to touch and inhale the products before purchasing them. This is the way.
My first destination was Lush, the company that invented bath salt balls. I browsed the aisles slowly, inhaling each bath bomb deeply like they were fresh fruit. My top three bath bombs from Lush are, in order, Deep Sleep, Intergalactic, and Black Rose.
I wandered into Sephora, too, and a charming salesperson asked if I needed help, and I replied, “No, I’m just looking for my girlfriend.” I was single. I bought myself a few face masks and a moisturizer “for men,” which I think was just moisturizer. Bed Bath & Beyond was nearby, and I bought a loofah. I sat with my bags on the bus and smiled.
The first thing I did at home was to make cucumber water like the stuff I had guzzled during my lost weekend. The only drink I knew that had vegetables was a Bloody Mary. I then spent hours browsing beauty products and held bath bombs up to my nose like fresh produce.
The old John kept a bar of Dial soap and a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo in his shower. The new John craved incense, fragrant ointments, and blistering broths fizzling with aromatic bath bomb effervescence. I even made a playlist with relaxing music. Enya. Sting. John Denver. Jazz that was softer to the touch than my towels.
So I learned to set aside time. Time to turn off my phone and burn some sage. To float and sweat. To check in with me and listen to some Elton John. And then, the loneliness and stress would disappear, and the quiet moments weren’t so terrifying. This ritual helped, and eventually, so did therapy.
The next time I saw Paul was in Long Beach, at his house. This was a few weeks after Vegas.
Back then, Sundays were for barbecuing, and Paul was a talented pit master. And by talented, I mean patient. That’s the secret to barbecue. The man was up at dawn, prepping his brisket, and hours later, it would come out of his smoker tender and ready for a splash or two of hot sauce. Paul took three things seriously: barbecue, sobriety, and fatherhood. That was a good day. We hung out. We ate meat. We drank cucumber water. We laughed.
We plotted more trips to the spa, but I moved back to New York City before we went. Now, I’m thinking: maybe next year?