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Slipstream

Weeks after the Slipstream appeared in a desolate ravine near the border of California and Nevada, my waipo snapped up the necessary land rights and installed high chain-link fences to shut it in, barbed wire coiled across the top like arm hair. It was an inky stretch of liquid with a beginning and an end, a quarter mile long, and looked and smelled unpleasant enough in the sunlight that it was mistaken for some strange oil slick.

A few local Washoe families asked her for the Slipstream, to gift back their rightful land. They brought her to court when she would not be reasoned with. Waipo understood the game the United States government was playing and how her money slotted in. It was the early ’90s, there was no Internet to broadcast this injustice, so she flashed her cash and held her claim.

Waipo repelled scientists, turned away inspectors with bribes and threats, with diamonds and gold and microchip money. If your family’s fortune is great enough, not even heaven will rule you, she told me every time she pressed a twenty note or red envelope into my adolescent palm. I learned a few years later that she had lost her trust in officials in 1947 Taipei, during the 228 Incident. She and her parents were well-known to be mainland Chinese, as her ba constantly lamented having to leave. During the worst of the Incident, when angry citizens were seeking vengeance on the Nationalist party by attacking mainlanders, she was afraid to return home. She begged shelter from the restaurant down the street, and they took pity on her.

At eleven, I was growing soft under a throw blanket and forgetting my algebra homework at school. She was hiding from certain death under a pile of dirty restaurant linens, the shape of her life crystallizing before her. The 228 Incident was when she decided there was no protection in being ruled, no peace of mind from higher powers. She would shield herself from harm and attach herself to fortune. She married a top microchip magnate and turned her attention to raising two unimpeachable daughters.

Her oldest, my da ayi, proved that the Slipstream was inert and remarkably self-contained, skirting away from the water table as if it were sentient. Requests to study the Slipstream tapered off. As far as the United States government was concerned, if some rich Chinese grandmother wanted a stretch of ugly liquid all to herself, then fine, she could have it.

 

My own introduction to the Slipstream was brief. I watched the news, and my older brother Jason did homework at the kitchen table, clutching a Spiderman figurine.

My mother was on the phone, frowning and silent as she unkinked the curly beige cord. I switched the television channel and shot a glance toward her. She didn’t like us watching Nickelodeon. When she didn’t chide me, I inched close to the screen, near enough that each pixel fizzed.

She hung up, and I quickly switched back to the news. She called out, Lao ba!

My dad’s head floated into the kitchen, his body obscured by a wall.

Tch, Ma’s gone crazy, my mother said. She’s really wasting Ba’s money on that bai gui dirty puddle.

Maybe she knows something you and your sisters don’t, my dad said. Besides, what do you care, he left plenty for everyone.

She sighed and patted her elbows before shuffling out of the room.

 

Jason and my parents were always at odds. They screamed at him for coming home with a girl’s number written on his neck, so he got a tattoo on his bicep. They threatened to stop paying for school when he pledged a fraternity, so he told Waipo, and she took over the payments.

He had many little hobbies, like building kites and computers with pulsing lights erratic enough to hurt my eyes, even in the daytime. On the side he ran a middling blog, reviewing gadgets, and half-heartedly growing his subscriber list so he could get the occasional free phone or keyboard. He graduated college a year early, with a job offer at a large hardware company, refining emergency shutoffs and heat sinks.

They dragged me to the Slipstream on spring break.

I resisted following in his footsteps, filling my undergrad schedule with English classes and shaping wet clay on the wheel. It was my own form of rebellion. The readings were too dense, and my pots sagged with misshapen walls, so I got a degree in electrical engineering like Jason after all. I was about to graduate when my mother told me she and Dad were moving to work at the Slipstream, and I would work there too. I intended to revolt, to move to the East Coast, to call only twice a month.

They dragged me to the Slipstream on spring break. While my peers were getting wasted on distant beaches, or basking in the nostalgia of their hometowns, I was sullen under a sunhat, heavily sunblocked and fanning myself with a crumpled map.

The gates to the compound slid open for our sedan, inch by inch, rattling across the dirt. When my parents first said Nevada, I had imagined desert, blazing sun. It was unseasonably hot, but the Slipstream had appeared in a cool alpine canyon near Tahoe, surrounded by pines and birdsong.

My cousin Tiffany, twenty-three at the time, welcomed us in with a smile.

The Slipstream threw off a consistent wave of energy, a green line that bisected a circular screen, oscillating up and down. Tiffany sat alone in a glassed-in laboratory next door, using a dropper to apply different clear liquids to a petri dish of Slipstream material. She looked up and waved at us, the wrists of her latex gloves wrinkled with sweat.

While my parents gossiped with my aunties and shared orange slices, I called Jason.

He’d seen the monitoring room during a short-lived ceasefire with my parents on the eve of his own graduation four years ago. He told me that working for my parents would be nothing special, a boring dead-end job that would end my career before it even started. I only half-listened and stared at the inert Slipstream, trying to figure out what it could be used for. He said I’d be better off coming to New York, he could probably get me an internship, if not at his company, then somewhere else.

He had to go, so I hung up and wandered out into the heat.

I sat by the Slipstream’s banks and felt a calm wash over me. None of my family came to stop me, to warn or lecture me, so I dangled my fingers into the dark, wet glitter of it. Up close it was more beautiful than I’d been led to believe, sheening and iridescent, like a spilled bottle of nail polish. It whorled with some mysterious current but went nowhere, and was icy in the heat, leaving no trace on my skin save for a welcome coolness. I imagined what the Slipstream might look like in winter, a black gash against untrodden snow, like a streak painted on a photograph.

It was hard to imagine Jason had seen the Slipstream and shrugged it off in favor of 3 p. m. brunch, melting street trash, and constant honking. He seemed to me suddenly like an abandoner, the one who had left my parents, left me.

I knew then that I would work for my grandmother, even if it meant turning dials and recording data.

 

We moved into one of the compound’s small houses on a hillside. When Waipo bought the land, we could have boasted about the location, just one ski run away from one of the more popular resorts. Without grooming and traffic, the forests ate up the ski runs during the summers and further isolated our compound from the teeming winter crowds.

My parents weren’t interested in decorating, they hung up a few bland watercolors of roses and chrysanthemums and painted our living room a lemon yellow that looked sickly during inclement weather. Our house remained sparse and bilious while other family members cycled in and out of the other homes. I often sat in our front window and watched them carry gallons of paints inside, couches wrapped in plastic, house plants with shivering leaves.

The Slipstream sat unchanging, swirling on itself and sparkling. It still thrilled me, but I spent most of my free time throwing pennies into slot machines and flirting with the muscular men who came to ski.

I texted Jason every few days about nothing and emailed him funny links, to which he replied with his own Internet finds. By twenty-six, he already led a small team at work. He often complained about managing his reports and the weather in New York.

Waipo paid me well enough, but I felt childish, halted in time and space in the same way the Slipstream sat suspended in its cozy ravine. Tiffany kept herself busy, ordering beakers and cute bowls for our communal break room, which my mother lectured her about but took great joy in using. Together they discovered the Slipstream’s material was mildly conductive, but conductive materials were already cheap and common, so they scrapped the whole experiment.

No one besides her seemed to have the same ardor for the Slipstream as me.

Among my large extended family—twelve aunties and uncles, twenty-two cousins—only me, my parents, and Tiffany stayed year-round. Other cousins came for the summer or on breaks, migratory birds glued to Game Boys and MP3 players. Waipo would visit from time to time, shooting out of her hired black car to tailor the entire place to her liking, hovering over the books with fingers heavy with rings, calling the decorations in our house tacky and insisting on cooking. The only thing she left alone was the Slipstream, which she would examine in a satisfied manner and never seek to change.

No one besides her seemed to have the same ardor for the Slipstream as me. Everyone else walked past it while scrolling feeds, munching bags of shrimp chips and Cooler Ranch, commenting on the seasonality around the Slipstream rather than the Slipstream itself.

 

My mother called Jason on Chinese New Year. She complained the entire morning that he didn’t call her first thing upon waking, just as he never called first on birthdays or Christmas. I was in the bathroom and only heard her muffled voice go loud and pitch upward: You never call, you think yourself so important. Your pride is too big for your meager talents. If you want me to chase you, I won’t—and I won’t miss my ungrateful son. I rushed washing my hands and threw open the door to eavesdrop further, but she had already hung up.

Soon after, Jason stopped calling completely, and my parents pretended he didn’t exist. His messages with me became infrequent and terse, as if I were a spy, a tattler. I sent him essay-length texts asking him about the apartment he’d just bought, and he replied, It’s fine.

The company he worked for went public, and I watched a recording of their celebration on Wall Street. Green confetti rained down on their small huddle of employees, some of whom cheered and pumped fists. I spotted Jason near the back, in new black glasses he kept pushing up his nose.

 

I bought a second-hand camera off eBay, scratches spattering its formerly sleek black surface. I had enough money to buy a nicer camera, the best bodies and glass, but film felt more romantic. I shot monochrome photos of the Slipstream, and the grainy results nearly captured the elusive glory of it. I would post the photos when they were good enough, I thought, and receive accolades: interviews in important magazines or photoshoots with unlimited budgets, in fancy locales like Paris or Maui.

My mother saw me flouncing around with my vintage camera and bought me a small point-and-shoot digital camera for my birthday, which stayed in its box, opened only once, until she took it from my room and sent it to my cousin Jenny.

I thought nothing of it until Jenny visited the Slipstream. I’d last seen her nearly a decade ago, at some Christmas dinner Waipo hosted at a seafood restaurant. She’d had braces with pink rubber bands, and ’90s-era Coke bottle glasses nearly thick enough to rival my own.

Jenny wore contacts now, a hazel green pair that lent her eyes a supernatural glow, and had a black ribbon tied around her neck. Her hair was meticulously curled, her eyes lined sharp and black, and she was nearly a foot taller than when I’d seen her last.

I go by Jen, actually, she said.

My mother rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue, and Jenny’s—Jen’s mother frowned. My mother pulled Jen’s mother aside, likely to gossip about Jen’s bad manners and heavy makeup.

I might have been likewise put out, but Jen had my camera on a burgundy leather strap, slung coolly over her shoulder like a messenger bag, rather than swinging off the neck like mine.

Jen hated everything we spoke of: her job, her roommate, the weather in Seattle, the popular new indie album that every radio station played on repeat. I tried not to hum along with it as she and I lined up shots of the Slipstream in our viewfinders. I aimed the lens around her, sometimes just short of the tips of her high-tops. At least if we enjoyed nothing else together, she seemed to admire and respect the Slipstream as much as I did.

Jen emailed me regularly over the next few months, mostly articles about cameras or the rule of thirds, along with her amateur photos. A stiff self-portrait in a bathroom mirror, the long shadow of a car on asphalt. I cringed when I saw them, and mostly responded with a single :). I eventually stopped opening her emails, marking them read on arrival. She got the hint within weeks and stopped emailing me.

She visited again a year later. Before even taking her shoes off, she asked me if I would go to the Slipstream with her, to take photos again. She had graduated from my offcast camera, cradling an expensive Nikon, toting a beat-up tripod and light meter.

You go ahead, I said.

I caught her photographing various members of the family throughout the trip, including me when I went out to the Slipstream to take a detailed reading. We were annoyed she didn’t ask first. Everyone else was upset they weren’t given the chance to pose, but I kept thinking of her bathroom self-portrait. I didn’t want to be captured so naïvely.

 

Eight months later, my mother breezed into the kitchen, her pastel blue robe tied tight. She dumped a pile of bills into a tray on the counter, then put a postcard on the table.

It was still cold from the mailbox.

Dark Phenomenon, a photography show featuring Jen Lin was printed atop a photo of the Slipstream glinting at golden hour. Jen had captured the vastness and mystery of the Slipstream in her cropping and angles, a feat I’d never managed in my hundreds of attempts.

My pulse exploded as the Slipstream gasped suddenly.

The scale of the Slipstream was obvious because she’d included a hunched figure in the corner. While I once shielded Jen from my camera’s eye, she captured me with no hesitation. My hand was stretched toward the tips of my hair, as if I’d lost control of it in the wind. My isolation had snuck up on me: the long T-shirt and flared yoga pants I wore looked two sizes too big for my body, my sneakers five years out of fashion.

I gritted my teeth. My mother peppered me with questions: Did I understand Jenny’s day job, had I thanked my auntie for the birthday money, wasn’t photography my hobby too, shouldn’t I ask Jenny for tips?

I asked my mother to sell my camera a few months later and never bought another.

 

I drenched my hand in the Slipstream’s inky waters and let its silken current cool my skin. My pulse exploded as the Slipstream gasped suddenly and bubbled, boiling heatlessly around my arm. I pulled my hand back too late and the Slipstream solidified around my wrist.

Tiffany ran to help, drawn by my screams, but she didn’t know what to do and stood horrified on the margins, approaching and then drawing back. After an agonizing eight minutes, the Slipstream had dried out completely, and I was able to dig my hand out of the packed black dust, breaking three nails in the process.

Shaking, I went inside the monitoring room and washed the dust from my hands. It clung to my skin but didn’t turn into mud. It swished down the drain as if I were washing off a fine film of glitter.

Though my hands looked clean, they felt sticky and weak. I sat down in a rickety office chair and rolled myself to the water cooler so I could have a drink.

I looked out the window and nearly spat my first sip.

Outside, my cousins were no longer useless and had their hands elbow-deep in the Slipstream. Tiffany exclaimed, and whatever she held was taken and passed around.

I finished my water and stood. I was dizzy, but the cold air had revived me, so I felt strong enough to go back outside. They saw me coming, and Tiffany hurried toward me with a handful of Slipstream dust, glittering black powder, a soft seat cocooning a giant rough diamond the size of an orange.

 

My family pulled fistfuls of treasure, a kaleidoscope of gems and ores. They unearthed glinting veins of gold that looked like petrified lightning that had been surprised into the black dust.

Waipo pursed her lips in victory as they showed her their finds, the tourmalines and sapphires and silver. All the other cousins stopped fiddling with dials or whatever tasks they were brought to do. Instead, they sieved dust, picking out rough stones to be cut into symmetrical and gleaming jewels.

I would not leave the monitoring room, even though there was no longer any seismic activity coming off the Slipstream. The more my family fawned over the stones, the more they repulsed me. I had been attentive to the Slipstream when it was still a slipstream. I didn’t want to participate in the shock and awe, in some worship of riches.

Waipo hosted another large seafood dinner, and everyone fought over the check. My mother wrested the fake leather bifold away from my youngest auntie and fled, triumphant, to the bored cashier.

Waipo laughed and glanced at me, before spooning my father another helping of soup, the ladle submerging a skin beneath the surface.

On the way out of the restaurant, she caught me by the wrist, and we paused under the awning.

She said, I’m counting on you, is that all you have to wear, don’t you want to look respectable? Popo will buy you some cashmere, be a smart girl, take care of the family, listen to your mother, take care of your health.

I replied as usual, I’d heard it all before. Hao. Hao. Hao a.

Only, this time she held tight and shook my arm as she spoke, as if thinking of the past she rarely spoke of—running from ghosts, from Japanese soldiers chasing her with bayonets, from Nationalist soldiers who mistook her for a dissident.

Her hands said what she could not: get what you can from that vein, take what you can and run, how can I make you understand, it can all be lost in a moment.

I didn’t consider the fact that she did this to all of us cousins, it seemed natural that she would single me out, just as that inky black stretch had.

 

Isn’t this Jason, Tiffany asked, showing me a video. I recognized the logo immediately, a sleeker version of the one Jason had slapped onto his channel in high school.

The video was titled, “ZOMG, Twelve Years on YouTube! Twelve of my favorite tech moments through the years!”

He’s a bit old to be making little videos, isn’t he? I asked her.

What do you mean?

My mom is looking for you, I said, and went outside to sit in a sun-bleached plastic chair by the Vein, formerly the Slipstream, not looking at it directly.

Later, my mother asked me to sort a large Tupperware container of rough. She usually asked Tiffany, who had the long fingers of a pianist and a perennially cheerful expression, but Tiffany was visiting our other auntie in Columbus. I could see in my mother’s eyes that I was her last choice, and she’d do it herself if she hadn’t trained all those years to become an electrical engineer, if she could bring herself to stoop to menial labor.

I asked my mother what type of gemstone it was, and she rolled her eyes and said, Don’t ask questions you won’t understand the answer to.

I pushed the Tupperware aside and went to my computer. I sat in front of the empty search box, a tight frustration flowing from my belly to my neck. Gem identification, I finally tried, and opened a few of the results.

I paged through pictures of mineral inclusions, pockets of geometries inside of diamonds, aqueous bubbles that appeared inside sapphires after they were heated. There was an ad that kept appearing in the sidebar: Become a certified gemologist online, from the comfort of your own home.

I spent three months glued to my screen, watching videos and taking careful notes into the green binder that used to house my middle school algebra homework. My father thought I was binge-watching television and would click his tongue every time he walked by, and suddenly my mother had a multitude of chores she needed me to do. I didn’t tell them I was getting certified, I wanted them to gasp and clap when they recognized my initiative.

Miss you. Why don’t you come visit?

With my printed diploma in hand, grainy from our cheap black-and-white printer, I announced over dinner some Thursday that I’d completed my training in record time, and the box my mother had asked me to sort was a pile of amethysts. I’d found a single large specimen of ametrine inside, a hybrid amethyst and citrine that was relatively common, but still quite striking. Perhaps one of the cousins could cut it in a fancy style, and we could start catering to a more upscale market.

I handed my mother the ametrine, and she glanced at it. She dropped it back into the container and said, I gave you this box months ago. You couldn’t even bother to use your eyes, to sort a bunch of rocks into little, big, medium.

 

I was waiting for a text from a handsome snowboarder I’d met last week, who hadn’t yet decided if he was going to stay the season. My phone chimed and I grabbed it off the table.

It was from Jason.

Long time. I was thinking about the old house in San Mateo. Miss you. Why don’t you come visit?

I told my parents I was going to see a friend from school and bought tickets, a middle seat near the back of the plane. As I was shutting my phone down for takeoff, I saw a message from the snowboarder saying he was on his way back to Orange County, that he’d had fun, and that he hoped I’d get everything I wanted out of life.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, gripping the arm rests during turbulence and accidentally grasping my seat neighbor’s clammy wrist.

It was already dark when I arrived. I navigated out of the airport and texted Jason. He replied, You have Uber, don’t you? I’ll Venmo you half—so I took the subway. An hour and a half later, I buzzed his doorbell and he let me inside.

We watched The Neverending Story and ordered takeout. His apartment was dark and decorated sparsely just like my parents’ house in Tahoe. Spotlit by the living room floor lamp, the only strong light in the apartment, we talked about our old high school teachers, about the restaurants our parents used to take us to.

He set me up on the couch with a fluffy tan quilt and a thin pillow. I lay awake listening to traffic and people laughing on the street, waking up once when a truck shattered the quiet with metallic clanging at 4 a. m.

In the morning, his apartment looked a bit cheerier. There were more visible hints of a personality, novelty magnets on the fridge and a shelf of colorful mugs.

There was a row of instant camera photos pinned to the wall near the bathroom, the lot of them speckled with tiny stickers of cats and cartoon eyeballs. I bent to examine this cast of characters, the people Jason probably texted regularly, who knew about his life. There was a pretty girl in most of the photos, a little chubby, with a dimple on one cheek and a penchant for hot pink lipstick. Jason had never mentioned her, so I didn’t, either.

In the center, there was a photo of Jen and Jason laughing in a booth, half empty glasses of water on the table. There was a slice of cake between them, a “35” candle burning on top.

Are you hungry, Jason asked.

When I didn’t reply, he came over to see what I was looking at.

Oh, he said. That was my birthday, two years ago, wow. Jen had a show somewhere in the Meatpacking District. Did you see she shot that magazine cover last year? I think it was some charity issue, she helped raise like six-hundred grand.

See her often?

Not really. We only get together every few months since she moved here, she’s so busy.

My imagination filled in the other ends of the still photo, the fries they shared, Jen insisting on paying, their personal jokes about the weather, about our family: Guess what my mom said to me last night. God, mine says that, too. You got a promotion? Congrats. I am photographing Michelle Yeoh tomorrow, Harry Shum Jr. on Wednesday.

I have to go, I said.

Isn’t your flight tomorrow?

I have to go.

 

Sometimes I watch Jason’s product reviews when I can’t sleep. He has millions of subscribers, but it’s hard to attend to his words when all I can think of is how much he resembles Mom, now that he’s getting wrinkles, or how he moves his hands too much when he gets excited about an interface. He favors subdued glasses now, with transparent or wispy silver frames.

Sometimes his wife or eight-year-old pops on to say hello. I wonder what they are really like when the cameras are off.

On sour nights, he says a curve is beautiful. I dismiss it as awkward. He says a feature is life-changing. I find it unnecessary.

I pull the covers over my head and let his videos paint me in blue light, another anonymous viewer.

 

The Vein coughs out its last precious gifts. The ores are the first to go, and then the quartz, the tourmalines, the rubies and diamonds, all at once.

I take out my loupe and examine the inclusions.

My joints snap and creak when I stand up now. There was never demand for gemologists in this tiny Nevada town, and there is still nothing to monitor on the humming machines. I have nothing to do but stand up and sit down, creaking and snapping. I should retreat to the casinos and whittle away my pennies, but instead I sit in the window of the monitoring room. There, I can watch my younger cousins wander across the Vein with metal detectors and large headphones blasting trap music. They pick the remaining golden freckles from the earth and put them in small, steel pans.

Sometimes I dig the dust, making divots in the glittering expanse, even though the Slipstream doesn’t call to me like it used to. It feels good to submerge my hands into the cool dirt, and I often do this barefoot.

It is a cloudy Tuesday, around lunch, when my trowel hits something. I never dig too hard, but after scooping the sugary black dust, the metallic contact feels like violence. I unearth a large gemstone, and my hand is barely large enough to hold it.

Even in the rough, the gem sparkles violet and blue and blood red. I take out my loupe and examine the inclusions. The minerals have mixed just so, chromium and titanium, ruby and sapphire entwining in a single deposit. This type of corundum is exceedingly rare, I’ve only heard of it coming out of one region in Tanzania, an enthusiastic footnote in one of the lecture videos I watched so many years ago.

I am about to shout for my cousins, my aunties and parents, to show them what I have found. I want everyone to know that this Vein is still a Slipstream for me, that I am chosen, that I am special.

I know how it will feel. I will be a pair of legs, a backdrop as they admire the corundum and speculate how much it will bring at auction and argue who is most qualified to cut it. I will think that I should never have set eyes on this treacherous vein, that I should have moved to New York and designed emergency shutoffs and heat sinks with Jason. I should have been on that veranda on Wall Street, eyes awe-wide as confetti swirled down around me.

I put the ruby-sapphire back into the hole and cover it with dust. The forest that cups the Vein envelops me in its evergreen hush.