Amber and Her Fish Gills - Julie Peng

            Electrophoresis. Three years ago, my ninth grade bio teacher informed me that Well, Lola, that’s something people in chalky white lab coats do on their quests to discover what is and what is not. As if electrophoresis was a tesseract allowing humanity to step a whole damn millimeter closer to divine, scientific omniscience. That the Capri Sun of STEM studies was busy packaging knowledge for the next generation of biology students, and would name electrophoresis as the key reason why our future can sip on science like six-year olds sip on sugary juice packets. Amber and I were in the same class back then; we were mobile like the particles in electrophoresis, and still in the race to success.

            Well Mrs. Miller, I never believed that science supremacy nonsense so I turned to reddit/r/Biochemistry for a refresher course on DNA sequencing. Apparently, when a scientist wants to determine the sequence of nucleotides in a protein, he places the macromolecule in a box of agarose gel and twists a knob. Fancy electric currents are then sent creeping through the substance; half an hour later, the deadbeat conducting the experiment leans in real close to inspect the whole ugly mishmash under a UV light that makes his glasses all crazy and purple looking. And that is not all! Because your B+ level sci-nerd will also make a point to peevishly inform you that electric currents and the disintegrated molecule pieces move in just one direction. This means that they will travel from the anode to the cathode, or vice versa, depending on the charge of the original macromolecule. You didn’t know this? Slowly, little fragments of DNA will be left behind. And they will settle where they belong: somewhere disappointing within the strata of the blue gel maze. Kind of like Amber. And me.

            You and I, we are expired ambition on the brink of boycotting the maze. We are seventeen and already useless. Today is one of those days where I can sense my miniscule self suspended in the blue jelly—it’s nice: it’s numb. The idea of being in blue jelly like the protein particles comes from a dumb theory my best friend dubbed the Agar Gel Theorem a long while ago. It’s been crawling into my mind lately. My best friend Amber Lu triumphantly birthed this idea the first day of sophomore year: shoved it into my mind, really. After reading a summer’s worth of philosopher saliva and scrolling through “intelligent” subreddit forums online, she became convinced that the funny-looking gel was a metaphor for life: high school, specifically. Amber spent the entire first semester absurdly equating agarose to “society’s filter.” She even contrived a theory that the distance between the biggest and smallest particles in gel was equatable to the grade point difference in Hayeong Kim and Shelley Stecky’s respective GPA’s. Amber would then quote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on class divisions and all that, but if you were slightly sharp, you could figure out pretty quick that she didn’t know The Communist Manifesto from the character Old Major in Animal Farm. And she wanted to be an English major. That pompous prick thought she was the next T.S. Eliot, but I knew she was just Holden Caulfield with a fetish for DNA sequencing.

            Anyway, Amber’s theorem hit me pretty hard today because I failed my first chemistry test. It made me think of Amber and her perfect self; her flawless, unbeatable straight-A grades, and socially attuned self. It reminded me of her absurdly passionate theatre performance as Antigone in the 8th grade school play: how jealous I was when she got a 97 on the Latin test, and I, a 95. It stirred up the memory of that time we liked the same guy, Momo from card game club: how he didn’t know my name but knew hers. But it also made me remember when I first saw in her Google search history: is it okay to not be okay? It made me remember contemplating why someone like Amber would ever look that up. It reminded me of how even though she didn’t have to awkwardly wear long sleeves in the summer to cover up wrist-scars, she was deathly afraid of pool parties because maybe she had slits around her pelvis like fish gills. But one can’t just assume things like that… right? It made think of when she and I watched Finding Nemo together at the local AMC and she sobbed like her heart was going to burst, as if all of her insides would implode. As if she was a Fukushima victim and her hands and feet were bleeding life water. It reminded me of the beginning of the end, of when she first started getting stuck in the agar gel of everything.

            Because it happened suddenly, unexpectedly, kind-of-but-not-really predictably. She was absent for three days and called in sick; Amber caught the fall flu and it wasn’t surprising since she was one of the blockheads who didn’t believe in getting a flu shot. We didn’t worry. We were used to her always bouncing back, and this was just a bad cold. On Monday of the second week, however, she was still not back. Well, I assumed she had not yet recovered; at least the girl could catch up easily... after all, she claimed to be the next Aristotle. But Amber stayed in bed, day after day, after day, and she said her throat was sore, her head was dizzy, her feet couldn’t feel. It was Fall and she was falling, hard and fast, and too quietly for anyone to hear.

And that was when I stopped seeing her altogether. She dropped out of school, flat. Moved away. Like a flame in the wind, she disappeared and stopped responding to my texts and everything. The only trace of her I had left was on Tumblr: reblog, reblog, reblog—a mechanical, miserable process. Where did she go, in the middle of Junior year? Where could you go, in this world where your transcript lighted the sketchy alley that adults told you would lead you to some future; where every day must have been theatre for her because pretending to be Cedric Diggory from Harry Potter must have been tiresome. The gills she cut for herself didn’t save her from drowning, didn’t stop the process of asphyxiation. Surely, it was embarrassing for a person who had never erred, to plunge into some hellhole so deeply, so badly-- with a thud. Maybe that’s why she wouldn’t respond to my calls; why she moved away and the people who moved in said, Yeah the family before us was very nice. Too bad their daughter had some problems. Amber’s feet must have really hurt, if she couldn’t feel and didn’t want to keep walking in this jelly maze with me.

            In electrophoresis, the larger, heavier particles cannot pass through the blue matrix of lab grown spiderwebs. Smaller, typically lighter, pieces go on even as the holes in the jelly net shrink into meter sizes I can’t pronounce, that start with nano and go to Ångström. They keep shriveling up, until even the tiny particles struggle desperately against gates to the next layer. They struggle so much that if they were people, I would imagine them to feel faint, and lightheaded—lost even, in the lonely journey where they have abandoned so many. They will wonder about when it is that they will finally arrive where they belong in the artificial blue jelly pudding thing, and if they, more than others, will be the closest to the cathode all the particles have been racing towards.

            These particles that have made it will think of all the larger particles that could not be squeezed small enough to make it, the ones that refused to compress themselves, or maybe were unable to do so. And they will think about their friend particles, perhaps one of which is named Amber: about the pretty Manet still-life painting it left for their mind’s eye, fruity and vibrant in color. Maybe also think, jarringly, about how the unbroken image it left behind was never tarnished; it left too early for that to happen. They will wonder if said particle, like its namesake, was really a trap of gooey golden substance that would preserve a life belonging to another world: Am-ber (noun) means a hard translucent fossilized resin produced by extinct coniferous trees of the Tertiary period, typically yellowish in color.

            And then finally they will wonder, keep wondering really, if the particle that was too big, too good to pass through, will eventually piece itself back together.

            Yahoo Answers>search>depression: User <Anonymous>: “@Amber it’s okay to not be okay.”