Welcome to the Slipstream
Twenty thousand feet above McCarran International, our plane looped in a holding pattern of repeating ovals. Mom had locked herself inside the onboard bathroom.
“Mrs. Lowell?” The flight attendant banged on the door. “We need all passengers seated immediately.” She turned to me and gave me one of those can’t-you-do-something looks.
“Mom?” I called. I moved until my shoulder touched the befuddled flight attendant’s and tried knocking myself. The lavatory door rattled, and inside, something else made a grating, metallic sound. I knocked again, not sure if Mom could hear me over the clamor.
From her seat by the gold-rimmed, hard candy–shaped window, Ida stared at the woman and me like we were the ones delaying the plane’s landing. Ida had been taking care of me since I was nine. She made sure that I could do long division, that I had clothes that fit, and taught me how to play guitar. She even showed me, under our twin grimaces, how to use a tampon.
I didn’t really need a babysitter anymore, but I still needed Ida around. What I mean is, we all needed each other, Mom, Ida, and me. We were a frail, spare ecosystem, and I didn’t want to think about what would happen if one of us disappeared. After I turned seventeen and could drive and nearly vote, I was positive Mom was going to let Ida go. When Mom told me that
Ida would be moving with us to Las Vegas, well, I was massively, perfectly relieved.
I was feeling less relieved by the second, though. With every bang on the narrow bathroom door, I looked over at the flight attendant, her brow bisected by a deep crease.
“Can we just kick it down or something?” I asked.
“I’m sorry?” The crease on her forehead multiplied into a neat row of lines, distinct as an empty staff on a piece of sheet music.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Ida said as she heaved herself from her plush, leather upholstered seat.
“Mom!” I shouted as loud as I could.
“Van?” Mom’s voice bled through the door. It sounded thin and wrong.
“Yeah, it’s me. What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. I’m fine,” Mom shouted.
“If she’s having digestive issues,” the flight attendant lowered her voice and raised her eyebrows, “I do have some medication in the first-aid kit.”
“Mom!” I shouted. “Are you having any digestive issues?”
“What?” Her voice trickled back through the mottled gray plastic door. “Of course not! I’m just taking apart this sink.”
All sympathy vanished from the flight attendant’s face, and she reached for the phone built into the vestibule wall.
“Mom, we’re landing in a minute—you need to come out!” My hands shook as I knocked again.
Mom mimicked my banging and struck the other side of the door. I tugged on the little recessed handle and tried to force it open. The flight attendant cleared her throat beside me, her sleek head bent over the phone.
The door slid open and revealed Mom, clutching part of the tiny sink’s faucet in her fist. The little blue and red water
taps jangled back and forth against one another. Her smile was triumphantly wide.
The flight attendant looked up, her mouth still open from speaking into the handset.
“My goodness,” Mom said, offering the faucet to the furious flight attendant. “Your water pressure was terribly low. I removed and cleaned your aerator, so it’s much better. Although,” and here, Mom chuckled a bit, “I couldn’t quite get the faucet back on—it wasn’t installed correctly to begin with. Just popped right off.” Mom brushed off the woman’s sleeve. Her uniform was not one of the mass-produced polyester affairs on the attendants working our Uzbekistan Airways flight the night before. It looked like a dress the single young lawyer in a romantic comedy would wear on a date to a fancy restaurant. “You’ll need to apply a touch of adhesive to it. Otherwise, good as new.”
“Ma’am, I’m still not clear on your activity aboard our aircraft.” The woman’s voice had been trained to sound calm and even, but her expression—that was another cold, hard story. “I’m going to confer with our team on the ground.”
“What’s going on, ladies?” Ida asked. She’d been making her way up the aisle for a while. Ida moved slowly—arthritis in the knees.
“Mrs. Lowell just handed me this.” The flight attendant brandished the petite faucet at us. “And I must inform you that tampering with the aircraft is a criminal offense.”
“Since when is a loose plumbing fixture a criminal offense?” Ida looked between Mom and the flight attendant.
“And really, it just popped off,” Mom said, wandering off down her own neural pathways. When her face got that closed-door look, I had no idea what she was thinking about, or who or what was minding the store back there behind her eyes.
“Please take your seats, ladies. We can attend to this matter once we land.”
What would happen then? Surely Mom wouldn’t be arrested—it was such a small thing. An arrest was the last thing Mom needed.
We packed up the Sirdaryo house, but left everything there. Things had not gone well. Mom had told her employers at the Uzbek Hospitality Group about her suspicions that the Russian government was intercepting and confiscating her e-mails. We had just the single day to leave. The only bags we brought were stored in a little closet-type space at the mouth of the plane. We had our clothes, Ida’s special face creams, Mom’s computer, and Ida’s—well, mostly mine now—guitar. I didn’t really care what got left behind, as long as Ida’s guitar didn’t. Playing guitar was the one thing I could do anywhere we went. It didn’t matter what time zone we were in or what the word for Tuesday was—an E major barre chord was always the same.
“Mom,” I whispered, while Ida murmured to the flight attendant.
“What were you doing? Getting sent to prison is not the way to start a new job.”
“Prison?” Mom waved her hand in aristocratic dismissal. “Don’t be dramatic, Van. I was just thinking about water pressure, you know, the things they have to do to control liquid flow in limited environments. And really, that aerator was filthy. I should bill them.”
“Mom, I’m serious! After last time—you just—you need to settle down.”
“Last time? It was nothing to do with me—in a government conspiracy like that I didn’t have a chance. What is it the Americans like to say? With the eggs and the omelet? I was the eggs.”
“Oh my God.” I shivered as I watched Ida press a fold of cash into the flight attendant’s hand, Mom’s purse open in her lap.
Sometimes I wanted to say, Why are you like this? I hate that you’re like this. But you can’t say things like that to someone you used to dig apple peels out of the garbage with when you both got really, really hungry. Sometimes I did hate her, though. Not just in the usual teenage daughter way. I hated her because she was the one I’d had to come out of. There was no other option. I was stuck with everything because I started out in her uterus.
Back in my seat, I pulled my legs up against my chest and rested my face on my knees. I smelled the bony-smooth lumps of my kneecaps. The familiar, chalky seashell scent of my skin flooded the front of my face. Ida reached over and smoothed my shoulder, her head turned toward an oval slice of vibrant sunset over the desert. I lowered the shade.
A woman waited for us in the glowing square of window overlooking the runway. The sky had darkened to a dull navy by the time our small plane taxied to the gate. The narrow-eyed-but-placated flight attendant ushered me down the steel staircase pushed up against the plane.
“Oh good,” Mom said, pulling her sunglasses from where they caught the lace of her shirt at the base of her throat. “Chantal is here.”
Whenever we arrived at another one of Mom’s consulting jobs, there was a Chantal waiting, although usually it was a Roderigo or Jonathan—women were rarely assigned to shepherd us through the far-flung places we travelled. Already, Las Vegas was different. Already, it felt wrong.
Ida passed the handle of her rolling suitcase to me and we filed into the airport.
Chantal met us at the gate. I’d never seen an older person stand so straight. She was almost as old as Ida, but Ida was always hunched over. She groaned and creaked any time she changed positions. Chantal appeared to be in perfect health. I wondered
if she used to be an athlete. Her skin was a smooth and poreless light brown, and you could only see her age in the creases around her eyes and mouth. She held a green and white coffee cup in her hand and didn’t smile.
“Mrs. Lowell, it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you in person.” Chantal juggled her coffee cup and a large envelope to get a hand free to offer Mom.
“Oh, Chantal, it’s my pleasure,” Mom said as they shook hands. “Please, call me Sofia. This is my daughter, Van, and our good friend Ida.” We all shook hands, and Chantal finally put her paper cup on the floor.
“I know you ladies are probably tired after the long trip, so we’ll just go straight to your apartment. Alex can handle your things.”
Alex was a kid Chantal had brought along. He’d been lurking behind a framed luxury watch advertisement during the meet and greet. When Chantal called out to him, he ran over to us and started to pile our bags on top of one another. He was tall and had an eerily symmetrical face. A line of dark, straight hair kept falling into his evenly spaced eyes. Ida looked at him with a wide smile, and then looked at me. Ida was always doing this kind of thing.
“Thank you, young man. Boy, aren’t you handsome,” she said, poking me in the ribs. “Just like that Antonio Banderas.”
Alex blushed, and looked slightly less handsome for it. “Thanks, ma’am.”
I rolled my eyes at Ida.
“Alex is my intern,” Chantal said. “He’s a student at UNLV.”
“Oh, an intern, my, my. A college boy.” Ida tried to poke me in the ribs again, but I swatted her away. “What’s your major?”
“Well, I’m only a sophomore, so I have some time to decide. But I’m leaning toward hospitality and hotel management,
which is why I’m here.” He smiled a little and hefted one of our suitcases at the same time.
I was alarmed by how young he looked, and then I wondered if I could possibly look that young, too.
Ida caught me staring and beamed her maximally lewd smile. And then I was the blushing one.
“That’s a very good program. The third best in the world for hospitality management, I believe. Chantal,” Mom said, once she was done checking her phone for messages. “What time is our first meeting tomorrow?”
“Early, at seven. Good thing you have the time change. It’ll feel like you’re sleeping in.”
“Hmm,” Mom said, in that little half-humming, half-chuckling sound she favored.
“Vanessa, I’m especially glad to meet you,” Chantal said.
“It’s just Van,” Ida said.
“Excuse me, Van,” Chantal continued, a little startled at the interruption. “I’m the one who selected your tutor. I hope you’ll be happy.”
“I’m sure it’ll be great. I’ve been to a lot of weird school things, so I can pretty much get used to anything.” I’d been to a learning center in Iceland located in a lady’s basement, and a progressive school in Texas that was entirely outdoors. Mostly, though, I’d had tutors.
“Van, will you be needing a ride to class tomorrow? I bet college boy has a motorcycle.”
I slung Ida a murderous look under the fluorescent lights.
“No ma’am,” the stricken Alex said, in a very faint Southern accent.
“Don’t worry, Van, we’ve got you covered,” Chantal said. “You too, Ida,” she added ominously.
• • •
There wasn’t much talking in the car. The dark sky swamped around clusters of lighted advertisements: on billboards, on taxis, clinging to the sides of buildings. The blurred glow of the strip swam up out of the darkness like a living thing. The road we drove on circled the galaxy of neon lights at a distance, and the colors—electric pinks and golds and blues—all bled into one another as we sped by. Bright turrets and the blinking eye at a pyramid’s peak climbed out of the darkness like giant beanstalks. And around all of this light, nothing, just an expanse of complete darkness. We drove out for a while, and I could feel the chill of the cooling desert through the window glass. The strip receded.
“Sofia, honey,” Ida spoke softly, but her voice still punctured the car’s thick silence. “Do you think maybe we should stop at a pharmacy on the way?”
Ida always knew when Mom was out of medication. I always knew, too. Mom had obviously been out of medication for a couple of weeks. I could see it in the way she kept opening and closing the cardboard flaps of boxes while we packed.
“No, I don’t think there’s time. I’m anxious to get there.” Mom spoke quickly, but still not too fast, which was good. “I’m sure Van’s tired.”
“Alex can run errands for you,” Chantal said.
“Fabulous, thank you,” Ida answered. Only I could hear the forced lightness in her voice.
Every other move had started out this way, with a ride from the airport. Mom’s last husband, William, had owned a consulting firm that fixed failing businesses all over the world. When William died, he left Mom the company. Mom had a way
of looking at spaces, at getting them to make the most sense—she made them beautiful and useful, but she also made them special. Her unusual creative solutions led to frequent opportunities in the hospitality industry, but her unusual and creative qualities were what got her fired a lot, too. She’d never worked at a casino before—most of her experience had been in far-flung, emerging hospitality markets. I just hoped Mom would fix whatever needed fixing so we could get out of there. It already alarmed me, all of the light and the swarms of cars shuttling toward the thick, bright strip.
When we pulled into the circular drive of the Silver Saddle Casino, it was like arriving at a mirage. The building and the wide awning that stretched over the entryway were painted silver. Light splashed up the sides of the walls, illuminating the pocks and imperfections in the paint.
Alex pulled up to the door and a couple of bellmen packed our meager bags onto a rolling luggage cart. Two frosty S’s twined around each other in the center of each glass door. Chantal led us through the casino’s gaming floor, a floor regrettably carpeted in skin-lesion peach. The machines around us thrummed incessantly. The people who sagged in front of the machines were older, and had definitely seen better days. A nearly bald woman seated closest to the entrance had a plastic cannula threaded through her nostrils.
It was so different from the silence of Sirdaryo. Our life there was loud only when a storm roared through, or when animals congregated behind the house. The noise inside of the casino physically hurt, like it was jolting something loose in my head. The lights blinked and flickered when Chantal pressed the button to call the elevator. She turned to us with a cheerless, flat face. “Welcome home,” she said.
• • •
Our new place was about as different from our old home as anything can be. The house in Sirdaryo had been a six-bedroom, Soviet construction of the thirties. Mom said that, originally, several families had probably lived there. The windows were crap at insulating, so in the summer we were always hot. We hadn’t stayed long enough to see what happened in winter. The house was so secluded that you couldn’t walk to the next neighbor if you needed something, but, that wasn’t really an issue since Ida and I didn’t speak Uzbek or Russian, and very few people that far out in the province spoke English.
On the way up to the top floor, Chantal and Alex smiled these tight smiles at each other and at us in the mirrored elevator, so it was like all you could see for miles were these halfhearted smiles. They left us at the penthouse door. Alex actually came in to put the bags in the foyer, but Chantal waited just outside.
“I’ll let you ladies get settled. If you need anything, you know who to call. Van,” she said, turning toward me. “I’ll send someone for you in the morning, about eight, all right?”
“Yeah, that’s great, thank you,” I told her.
When the door closed and we were alone again, Ida, Mom, and I fell into our normal domestic rhythm. We claimed our bedrooms. Mom’s, of course, was the nicest, and Ida and I fought it out over the remaining two. The smaller rooms were equally lavish—we just liked to give each other a hard time.
The casino penthouse was much more well appointed than any place Mom or I had ever lived. The projects Mom worked on were almost always in progress, so we were lucky if our accommodations had indoor plumbing. It was thrilling to know there would always be enough towels.
Mom walked into my room and rubbed her hands across her face. “Is this okay, honey?” she asked.
“Very funny, Mom.”
She smiled. “Yeah, well. Don’t get too used to it. Who knows how this is going to go?”
I know, I wanted to say.
“I’m going to lie down, I think.”
I didn’t know how long she’d been up, but I hoped she would sleep through the night. It took a lot for Mom to look tired. Even on two nights without sleep she looked great. But that was because she was good-looking to begin with. Her skin was ridiculously perfect—no wrinkles, no pimples, just this golden honey color that looked its best in the sunshine. Even in the unflattering artificial light inside of the Silver Saddle, Mom glowed.
It didn’t always bother me that Mom was so pretty. In fact, when I was younger, I loved having a pretty mom. People treated me differently, better, because of it. Everyone we met, clerks at the Federal Express, cab drivers, gas station attendants, and ticket agents, all of them were extra kind to me when I was with Mom. But it wasn’t just her prettiness that did it. It was the money, too. The way Mom looked, you could tell she had money to spend. When the money started to come, she let it wash over her. As I got older, I watched people size her up. Their thoughts were painfully easy to read. They had no idea that Mom and I used to go through other people’s garbage looking for shoes.
Mom got this smile every time someone underestimated her like that, thinking she was just an accessory for some anonymous old rich man. She told me once that when someone underestimated you, it was a gift. She told me it was like getting a head start in a race. People thought that Mom had always been rich, that she was born to it, and Mom let them think that. I have no idea who
my dad was, but I was fairly sure I’d inherited what were mostly his looks—a sharp nose in an otherwise rounded face, medium brown hair, the same color as my eyebrows, medium brown eyes, and a thoroughly medium body. The only thing Mom ever told me about my dad was that he loved Van Morrison, and that’s why she called me Van. In those moments when I thought about him, I imagined that he would be most impressed by how well I played guitar. Anyway, it’s not like anything was wrong with me. I just wasn’t like Mom. I wasn’t like Mom in most ways, though.
I was generally grateful that the vortex of mysteries that worked inside of Mom hadn’t yet appeared in me. But sometimes, I felt a stab of envy—what would it be like to be a genius, to be lifted away like that? Every day I wondered if that wildness was gathering strength inside of me.
I unpacked my bag and heard Ida shuffling around in the next room. I noticed Mom’s door was cracked open, and I crept inside to check on her. I could tell she was in a deep sleep, which was good. She’d probably taken one of Ida’s pills. Mom slept like a silent film actress, with her hair flowing all around her face and one hand up at her forehead. I closed the door with a little squeak and headed back to my room.
Ida called to me from her room in a whisper-shout.
“Van,” she said, “is this really happening?”
“I think so,” I answered, but in my normal voice. I knew Ida was excited to be around more people, and that made me nervous. We were used to open spaces and emptiness, where there was nothing but the special chemistry of our three minds. I didn’t know if we would work correctly in Las Vegas. There were too many people already inside of the building, with different frequencies and snags to catch onto. I knew that we would have to change to survive here. I just wasn’t sure how.