Two young men are traveling through the American Southwest.
Their journey is a classic one. They will begin, on this squint-bright April morning, along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and as the day unfolds and the clouds scud overhead they will pass through panoramic landscapes that look like stills from old cowboy movies. They'll float past the saloons of Route 66, and they'll ease along the spiral of asphalt that crosses the colossus of the Hoover Dam, and then, at dusk, just as the towers on the horizon are starting to shine in the desert blackness, they'll roll into Las Vegas.
As with many an odyssey that leads to Clark County, Nevada, the purpose of this journey is also a classic one. The purpose is to score. Well, one of the men has no particular interest in scoring. His name is Bill McMullen. Bill is a 28-year-old Buddhist vegetarian who is devoted to Holly, his girlfriend back home in England. Handsome but modestly so—with no apparent sparks of narcissism—Bill doesn't seem to carry much with him other than a kind of otherworldly silence. He sits in the back seat and stares at the clouds.
Think of Bill as a guide, a consigliere, to his companion, who is wearing a black cowboy hat and sitting in the front passenger seat with his bare feet up on the dashboard and his fingers constantly cranking up the volume on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." This man, also from England, has long black sideburns, a soul patch, black eyeglasses, and a Noel Gallagher–style bowl cut. His name is Otto Baxter. He is 21, and he is a virgin.
It is not uncommon for young men to think relentlessly about sex, but in Otto Baxter's case that tendency is especially pronounced. Sometimes it is the only thing Otto wants to talk about, and when he does talk about it, his stream-of-consciousness effusions are surreal and explicit enough to make Henry Miller blush. Right now, in fact, while I chauffeur the duo through the desert, Otto is discussing his fondness for strippers.
"They pin me on the wall," he says. "They kiss me right on the neck. I unbutton my shirt. It feels very nice. I had a girl. She was on my willy. She jumped on my willy. It's wicked. It feels nice. I have a huge boner. Straight up. It feels lovely. Yep. I want to do it again. She also put her boobs in my face. One of the strippers grabbed my glasses and put them on her nipple. 'Are you naughty?' 'Oh, yes, I'm very naughty.' 'Come on, big boy! Let's take it down to your trousers! Unfasten your belt and let me pull it down and suck on it!'"
Bill listens to these soliloquies from the back seat and responds, now and then, with a gently corrective laugh or a barely perceptible sigh. "Otto, they didn't do that, did they?" he says finally. "Your imagination runs wild, doesn't it."
"Oh, yeah!" Otto says.
Tumbleweeds skitter across the road. Otto shows no signs of tapering off.
"I like their boobs," he continues. "Yeah. Lovely nipples. Perfect breasts. They're like chicken breasts."
"You've got a tendency to compare things to food, haven't you, Otto?" Bill says.
"Yeah," Otto says. "Burgers with boobs. Stick in an olive—it's like a nipple. And they have legs like bacon. And their bottom is like a steak. And they also have eyes like round biscuits. Actually, their whole body's like a biscuit. I'm hungry for a stripper."
This is Otto's first trip to America, where he is unknown, but back in the U.K. he is an object of public fascination. Drawn to the unusual circumstances of his life when he was a child, BBC TV crews have documented aspects of his upbringing, and a few weeks ago his mother, Lucy Baxter, touched off something of a media cyclone in England when she went public about a topic of great delicacy, telling reporters that she wanted her son to find a woman who would introduce him to the pleasures of sexual congress—and saying that she would go so far as to help him track one down. That would strike most of us as little more than a curiosity, a rather drastic case of helicopter parenting, were it not for one simple fact: Otto has Down syndrome.
When Lucy Baxter was a teenage art student, she volunteered with a program for disabled people who were housed in an institution down the road from her school. "I was expecting people who would all be the same and would just be 'vegetables,' which is the term that people use, but they weren't," she says. "They were all much more individual than the rest of us, who have all gone through a bit of a sausage machine."
It galled her that these people, some of whom had Down syndrome and many of whom she befriended, had been forced into limited lives and locked out of public view. "I felt very let down by society," she says. "There were people I got very, very fond of who were shut away 24 hours a day in this institution, and they haunt me. They were just so deprived—socially, culturally, materially. It's a bit like the Holocaust: I don't want that to happen again, and I will do anything I can do to stop it."
The evidence of her mission can be found all over her house in Steventon, a picturesque village not far from Oxford. There she lives with four adopted sons, each with Down syndrome: James, 27; Otto, 21; Titus, 13; and Raphael, 5. People often say that such a family must make for a crazy household (for a while the boys were joined by their 85-year-old grandmother, who was struggling with dementia), but Baxter says that "ordinary people are much more difficult." She wants each of her sons to flourish in the way that's right for him, and she wants all of them to be exposed as much as possible to mainstream life.
Of the four, Otto stands out as Mr. Popularity. Although his face and his voice bear the obvious signs of Down syndrome, he can read and write, he can be fluid and witty in conversation, and he's wired like a frat boy, with a passion for Jackass, video games, fast food, classic rock, and beer. "He's always been incredibly outgoing," Lucy says. "He loves other people, and he wants to be in the middle of things. And that's been the thing—to try and keep him in the middle of things when the world is trying to put him off to one side. I brought Otto up to have no limits."
This limitlessness does not exclude sexuality, and that's exactly what seems to make people nervous. "The old myth is still alive and well that people with Down syndrome are 'eternal children'—they never really grow up," says Karin Melberg Schwier, the coauthor of Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters With Intellectual Disabilities and the mother of an adult son with Down syndrome. "I still bristle every time I see the media referring to a 'child in an adult body.'"
Lucy Baxter's point is that her sons are free to make their own decisions; she says she has no intention of becoming Otto's sexual procurer. "I think it would be fairly sordid to go to a brothel," she says. "I wouldn't be all that happy about it. But if that's what Otto wanted to do, I would certainly not stop him. There is a big difference between what I would like and what Otto would like and what I believe Otto has the right to have. I've been speaking about the rights of disabled people—the fact that he has the right to choose—and I won't stop him in what he decides."
What she really wants for Otto, she says, is what any mother would want for her child—a refuge from loneliness, a person to share moments with, a partner. "I would love for him to have a girlfriend and a wife," she says. "And sex, as well, within that relationship. Just an ordinary fairy-tale relationship. It would make me happy because that's what would make him happy."
"Hey, Bill," Otto says.
"Hmmm," Bill murmurs from the back seat of the car, where he's staring at rock formations.
"Do you think that all the girls from all the strip clubs will scream for me on the telly?" Otto has an ongoing love affair with the camera. Besides his TV appearances, he scored a leading role in the indie film Love and Kisses, a 10-minute excerpt of which screened at the 2008 Raindance film festival in London. He is smitten with the idea of becoming a movie star.
"They might," Bill says, "if they see you on TV."
This triggers an avalanche of imagined dialogue. "'Ahhhhh! There's Otto! I want to have sex! Come on, girls, let's find him! Ahhhh! We want to take his clothes off! Let's shag him! You take his shoes off! You take his socks off! You take his trousers! Girls, unbutton his shirt! Take everything off! Let's put his glasses on the table. Let's snog him, touch him, lick him . . . '"
"Otto," Bill intervenes, "don't you want to keep this inside your head? I don't want to hear all those things."
There is something about Otto and Bill's Route 66 bull sessions that calls to mind a running dialogue between the id and the super-ego, or maybe between the Marquis de Sade and Mister Rogers. Bill is a model of serenity and restraint, uttering barely a peep for miles. Otto is a one-man circus of burps, farts, howls, grunts, pranks, convoluted expressions of lust, snippets of rock anthems, scraps of action-movie dialogue, and hilarious but thoroughly inappropriate queries along the lines of "Are you gay?" and "Do you fancy Michael Jackson?" and "Does your wife have big boobies?" He has no filter. You might say he represents what a sizable majority of 21-year-old men would sound like if they had no filter.
"How long have you had sex with Holly?" Otto asks.
"How long have you had sex with Holly?"
"Do you mean how long does it last, or how long have we been doing it?"
"How long have you been doing it?" Otto clarifies.
"I'm not sure I want to answer that, Otto," Bill says. "You've been asking a lot of very personal questions."
Bill is by no means the only target of Otto's Tourettic play-by-play. Somewhere near the border between Arizona and Nevada we pull into a roadside diner called Rosie's. Within seconds of securing a stool at the counter, Otto has taken a fancy to a redhead who's dashing here and there in the kitchen.
"Hottie, hottie! I'm gonna pay her to strip!" Otto says, well within hearing range of everyone in the greasy spoon. He wolf-whistles. He actually howls. "Aaaaaoooooowww!"
"You understand that not everyone's there for you to shout comments at," Bill says.
"It's cool," Otto says. "I like it."
"It's not cool," Bill says. This leads to a brief debate about whether such overt, Austin Powers–ish methods of hubba-hubba courtship are, in the end, effective. "Well, have you pulled any girls yet?" Bill asks. "Have you? Have you got laid yet?"
Whatever. Otto's attention has already shifted. There's a large, sun-crisped maintenance guy a couple of stools away. He's been listening to the conversation—it's impossible not to—and by now Otto has introduced himself.
"I like the girls," Otto says.
"So are you goin' to Vegas to get laid?"
"Niiiice, Cheers, buddy."
Otto and the maintenance guy fist-bump. "There's a delicious girl in there," Otto says, nodding toward the kitchen. "Ginger biscuit!"
The maintenance guy smiles. "Hey, Red!" he shouts. The redhead walks over to the counter.
"What can I get for you, baby?" she asks.
The guy motions toward Otto. "He likes you," he says.
"I think he's cute!" the redhead says. "I like your hat. Where are you from, England? You like it here?"
"I do," Otto says. "I like the girls like you."
"Well, I won't be off till 10, sweetheart. And I have dishpan hands—as long as you don't mind that, we should be all right."
The counter bursts into a chorus of laughs. She gives Otto a wink and heads back into the kitchen.
"She's my ginger biscuit," Otto says.
"Hey, Bill, I'm going to smash this rock to bits!"
Otto stands on a perch overlooking the gaping maw of the Grand Canyon. With both hands he has hoisted above his head a heavy, tangerine-colored chunk of geologic history. There are tourists winding downward on the paths below.
"I wouldn't throw it, Otto," Bill advises him.
"Look!" Otto says with heroic bravado. "It's Super Otto!"
Bill just smiles and waits. Eventually Otto puts the rock back where it belongs and tries to take in some of the scenery. But he can gaze at the epic bowl of limestone and shale for only a few seconds before his eyes start to drift toward other sights that inspire his awe.
"What's your name, you beauty?" Otto says to a young Swiss tourist in red Crocs and tight jeans.
"Daniella," she says.
"Oh my God," Otto says. "You're something else!"
Anyone watching Otto in action might be surprised by the degree to which he is allowed to do what he wants to do, even if that means occasionally flustering a bystander or making a mistake. People might also be surprised to learn that Bill is Otto's paid personal assistant.
The British government provides a generous stipend to families whose children have learning disabilities. In Lucy Baxter's case, she has used that money to bestow upon her son a privilege usually associated with CEOs and box-office stars: an aide-de-camp. This is Bill. He specializes in social work with the disabled. Bill's responsibilities run from helping Otto tidy up his room in the morning to providing counsel on matters of love and personal conduct. Past assistants, Otto's mother says, "have wanted to please me. And the job is not about that. It's about meeting Otto's needs and supporting him, and that's exactly what Bill does. Bill has it absolutely right. He'll guide Otto. He'll sit down and talk to him about issues. But he'll very much leave it for Otto to decide what he wants to do."
Bill has ventured beyond the call of duty, going so far as to serve as Otto's chaperone to the realm of adventure. For several weeks in 2008, he took Otto backpacking through India and Japan. "My job," Bill says, "is to help Otto live his life how he wants to live it." Sometimes Bill even acts as a kind of protective shield. Before the two of them made their voyage to the United States, Otto was contacted by "The Howard Stern Show," and a British magazine called Zoo offered to put up the money to send Otto to a brothel in Amsterdam. In both cases Otto declined, and it is clear that Bill's input—and his desire to keep Otto out of situations in which he'd be exploited or mocked—played a part in that. "It's not like I have to be nice to Otto all the time," Bill says. "We confront issues. We talk about things."
Cultivating Otto's independence remains a top priority—a mission, really—and that leads to scenarios that can feel like Rain Man in reverse: It's Otto who blasts into a room like a perpetually amped-up Tom Cruise character—high-fiving and whooping and eager to score. After his meal at the diner, Otto dashes into the adjoining souvenir shop and comes out clutching a black T-shirt. The shirt's decorated with a leering pirate skull and the words no guts, no glory.
"This is cool," Otto says as he climbs into the car to resume the westward journey. "I've got to put this on now!" Right now, he means—he's already unbuttoning his dress shirt, flinging it to the wrapper-and-cup-cluttered floor, and stretching the pirate skull down over his belly. "The ladies' man is comin' to Vegas!" he bellows. "Come on, baby! Make my day!"
An hour or so after arriving in Sin City, Otto is making a beeline for the bar. He and Bill are staying at the Hooters Casino Hotel, where the drinks counter and even a few of the gambling tables are presided over by women in white owl-emblazoned tank tops and tight orange shorts.
"Lots of hot babes in here!" Otto says.
The waitstaff is undoubtedly bodacious, yes, but the paradox of the Hooters brand is that it attracts hordes of men in baseball caps and cargo shorts who have come to rub elbows with beautiful women but wind up rubbing elbows with hordes of men in baseball caps and cargo shorts.
"Strip clubs," Otto says. "That's what I want to do."
"You've got to win more money before we can do that," Bill says.
"Let's do it!"
Otto slurps down a vodka shot and makes his way to a roulette table. Right away he grabs a five-dollar chip and places it on the number 35. It's a straight-up bet: He's going with a single number instead of improving his odds with a split. The dealer spins the roulette wheel, drops the ball into the vortex, waits for it to stop, and makes an announcement: "35!"
"Are you serious?" Bill says.
"That was something," the dealer says, nodding.
In the span of about 30 seconds Otto has collected $175. He gives Bill a high five and pumps his fists. Bill looks stunned.
This is not the last time that Otto will aim high. The episode at the roulette table serves as a fitting metaphor for his modus operandi, which might be best summed up as Otto always goes for it.
Pretty soon Otto has determined that he wants to patrol for hotties, so he and Bill head for Dixie's Dam Bar, a nightclub in the Hooters hotel, where women in glute-hugging pleather pants wiggle and reel on top of the counter while a jukebox hammers out Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Jane's Addiction, and countless iterations of "I Kissed a Girl."
Otto acts as though he has died and gone to Sigma Chi heaven. Within seconds he is doing the bump on the dance floor with a curly-haired blonde. He vogues. He spins. He drops to his knees and weaves ribbons of air guitar. The jukebox advances to the Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" and a bartender shouts above the din, "I love this song!"
"So do I!" Otto shouts back.
It doesn't take long for Otto to own the room. He becomes, within minutes, a magnetic catalyst of debauchery. "He's always like that," Bill observes on the sidelines. "He always starts the party wherever he goes." Women are unfailingly sweet to him, conveying not a trace of pity or ridicule. They orbit Otto with such hands-in-the-air abandon that the emcee, Elissa, can't help but notice. "I've got a professional dancer in the house tonight!" she belts into the mike. "Work it out, baby! This is how you attract ladies, by the way!" Otto's enthusiasm does not go unrewarded. Elissa calls him over to the bar and pours some kind of ice-cold pineapple-and-whiskey concoction straight into his gullet, which propels him back into the boogying scrum. "Make some noise for Otto, who's break-dancing right now!" Elissa says. "Go Otto! Go Otto!" She watches in amazement and then observes, off the mike, "Obviously he has Down syndrome, but he's got such great spirit—he's fucking awesome! We need that kind of energy in here."
Otto flirts the same way he gambles, which is to say that he aims Himalayan-high. "For most guys, the hottest girl is intimidating," Bill muses from an empty booth, "so they don't get approached that often. But Otto is not intimidated. He goes right for the jackpot."
The jackpot this evening appears to be Kristin, a blond Edie Sedgwick doppelgãnger in an oversize Edie Sedgwick T-shirt and black tights. She just got off work go-go dancing at a club in another part of town. Otto spies Kristin lounging in a nearby booth and—"Let's join them!"—pings right to her side without a moment of hesitation or doubt. Bill stays put and nurses his beer.
Soon Otto is wrapping an arm around Kristin's shoulder and kissing the back of her hand as if he is some kind of French viscount at a 19th-century masquerade ball.
"Ahhh!" she tells him sweetly. "Do you want me to be your girlfriend? Well, I have a boyfriend, but if I didn't . . . "
"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" Otto says. "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."
It's the morning after the throwdown at Dixie's. Otto has inhaled a breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, bacon, pastries, a glass of Coke, and a bottle of Sierra Mist, and now, here in a booth at Dan Marino's restaurant, he is, yes, quoting portions of Romeo and Juliet from memory. Not long ago he played Romeo in a British theater troupe's movie version of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy, and he still remembers a few lines. Juliet was played by a young woman named Hannah Evans. She, too, has Down syndrome.
"That is who he'd really love to get together with," Bill says, watching Otto from across the table, "but she doesn't want to be partners with him. Unfortunately, she just wants to be friends."
"I love her more," Otto says. He means that he loves Hannah more than Matthew does; Matthew is her boyfriend.
"But they're not together anymore?" Bill wonders aloud.
"Yesssss!" Otto shouts. His fists go skyward. "Matthew can fuck off."
Otto's wearing a T-shirt that he bought on one of his journeys with Bill; on it are the Tibetan symbols for the most beloved of Buddhist mantras, om mani padme hum. Otto picks up a Heinz ketchup bottle and holds it as though it were a puppet.
"Hello, Mr. Ketchup!" he says.
"Hello!" the ketchup squeaks back.
Bill gently steers the conversation back to the topic at hand.
"Who are the girlfriends that you've had?" he asks.
"Sarah," Otto says. "We had a great romance together. I'd take her out to the theater." I ask Otto whether Sarah has Down syndrome.
"I don't know," he says.
"You should know," Bill says. A delicate nudge.
"Yes, she does," Otto says. There were also a few evenings out with a woman named Vicky, whom Otto met through Mates Dates, a matchmaking agency for people with learning disabilities, but that led nowhere.
"What happened with both of those two?" Bill asks.
"They had carers," Otto says.
"And what did the carers say?" asks Bill.
"'No, you can't have a boyfriend,'" Otto remembers. "Disappointing." He hangs his head. He puts the ketchup aside.
"Yeah, it's a very difficult subject, that," Bill says. "We've had some very emotional conversations about it." The parents and caretakers of women with Down syndrome often cut off a relationship because they're afraid of where it might lead.
"It's hard," Otto says. "It hurts right in my heart." He presses his fist against his chest.
"It's one of the big things you have to deal with, Otto, isn't it?" Bill continues. "A part of his life that is very difficult to accept."
There is a long pause. Otto silently bobs his head back and forth for a while. Then he looks around, his eyes taking in the restaurant and the casino and the four women at the next table.
"This is good," he says.
"It is good, isn't it?" says Bill. "We'd better go absolutely mental tonight to make the most of it."
Otto grabs the ketchup bottle again and drapes an open napkin over it. "It's a magic show!" he says. With his free hand he reaches up, snatches away the bottle, and hides it under the table.
"Quick as a flash," Bill tells him. "I didn't even see it."
Otto and Bill make the most of their last night in Las Vegas, even though, no, after all of the dancing and flirting and drinking and erotic speechifying, Otto never gets anywhere close to losing his virginity. The highlight for him is attending a show at the Mirage by the singing ventriloquist Terry Fator, who ushers out a series of puppets that do note-perfect musical impersonations of acts like Roy Orbison, James Blunt, and Brooks Dunn. The Terry Fator show leaves a tremendous imprint on Otto, and later that night, when he and Bill find themselves in the foyer of a weirdly empty karaoke joint, Otto gets an idea. Decked out in his cowboy hat and a tuxedo, he shuffles to an open space in the center of the room and, while pretending to hold a microphone, announces that he would like to call a dummy up to the stage.
"He's quite shy!" Otto says. "He likes his girlfriend's body! Will you welcome, please, my very own dummy . . . my friend Bill!"
People who know Otto Baxter will tell you that the kid is bound to surprise you—that there are moments when Otto will say or do something that seems unexpectedly moving, even profound. This is one of those moments. Bill gamely walks up to the front of the room. Otto places his hand on Bill's back and Bill simply stands there, as unblinking and motionless as a ventriloquist's wooden sidekick. "So take it away, Mr. Bill," Otto says, and then Otto begins to sing. Or rather they begin to sing, both of them, deftly in sync, with Bill moving his mouth up and down while Otto croons the lyrics in a stilted but passionate monotone.
*I see trees of green, red roses, too.
I see them bloom for me and you.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.*
Otto finishes the song and the two of them stand side by side.
"A very good reproduction, Otto," Bill says.
"You like that?"
"Yes," Bill says. "Now that's entertainment."
But Otto, as we've come to expect, has very little patience for empty karaoke joints and moments of sentimental rumination. There are still a few hours left before he and Bill have to catch a flight back to England. There's still time to score, or at least time for Otto to drop to his kneecaps on the dance floor. He dashes outside, hoping to hail a taxi back to wherever the action is. Bill tags along. As he and Otto stand on the curb together, shivering in the cold desert air, Otto glances back at the karaoke joint and then looks right at Bill. "That place," Otto says, smiling broadly, "was a shithole."