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“I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I thought we could discuss this—”
“Sure, sure. Let’s discuss it. So what are you planning to do instead with your degree in premed biology? Teach high school? Work in some mind-numbing lab for the rest of your life? Oh, wait—I know.” He sat back, mouth settling into a hostile smile. “Slink back to your sheltered small-town existence, away from the big bad world, and collect shells or diagnose fish allergies or whatever the hell you did last summer. Is that your brilliant plan?”
Indignant, I sat back and crossed my arms, refusing to answer. I hated when he ridiculed my hometown—a habit that had worsened instead of improving after he’d visited for a week the previous summer. Though he’d seemed impressed with my parents’ bayfront property and had spent as much time discussing his surgical aspirations and opinions about the medical profession with my stepdad as he spent with me, he still insisted my homesickness was juvenile. Something to be outgrown.
He dipped his face into my field of vision and peered at me. “Oh Jesus—seriously? Have you lost your mind, Pearl? You must be certifiable, because no sensible person would sacrifice the chance to attend one of the top medical schools in the world to work with fish.”
We’d almost broken up that night, but once back in my room, he convinced me that he was only concerned I was acting rashly.
He begged me to reconsider. “You just have cold feet,” he said. “You’ll see.”
So I agreed to continue the med-school interviews, consider the offers of admission, and even accept one of them: Vanderbilt, in Tennessee—one of two that had also accepted him.
Meanwhile, I took the GRE and applied—on the final date to submit an application—to one graduate program in marine biology, located, as Mitchell predicted, in my hometown. I told myself that if I didn’t get in, I would go to medical school like everyone expected me to and no one would ever know I’d applied.
In December, I got the acceptance e-mail. Fellowships had been allocated months before, but I was offered a small stipend—just enough to cover tuition, fees, and equipment—in exchange for working in the lab or collecting marine samples in the gulf. I was welcome to begin in summer, but the student apartments—weatherworn but beachfront—were full. Unlike other students, however, my parents owned a four-thousand-square-foot home minutes from campus. I wouldn’t need housing.
There’d be no high-paid position awaiting me when I earned my degree, and most people would never quite understand what I did for a living or why. A lifetime spent studying the ocean and the life in it wasn’t something people did for money or social prestige. It was something they were drawn to, like people are drawn to the sea itself. I would discover my research niche in grad school—something environmental in scope—and spend my career building a body of work to support it.
Instead of going to medical school and becoming the surgeon I’d always planned to be.
I’d stared at that screen while rational arguments for bowing out, alternating between the voices of my boyfriend and my mother, played on a loop through my mind. But the mounting elation in the pit of my soul obliterated them. Growing up on the coast, I’d been witness to the devastation, aquatic and human, caused by oil leaks and spills. But there was more to it than seagulls slicked with oil and globs of tar polluting the beach, and marine scientists were the ones who explored those far-reaching consequences. I wanted to be part of that research.
It had taken me a month to tell Mitchell. The first weekend back after winter break, we were watching a movie in my room—rather, he was watching while I was being consumed by guilt for letting him believe we would be going to Tennessee together in six months.
Finally, I sat forward and knotted my fingers in my lap. Say it, say it, say it. “So, about Vanderbilt…”
“I had an idea,” he interrupted, hitting the Mute button. “Let’s go to Nashville over spring break and look for an apartment. If we find something, we can put down a deposit and know we have a place waiting for us in July.”
“Mitchell, I’m not going to Vanderbilt.” The words rang in the silence following them.
A dark storm brewed in his eyes, but he made no reply at all—just stared at me. While I couldn’t blame him for being stunned, his unrelenting muteness unnerved me.
“I’m not breaking up with you,” I continued. “I’m just choosing a different graduate studies route. We can make this work—lots of couples maintain long-distance relationships successfully. We should both be able to choose to do what we want with our lives and careers, you at Vanderbilt and me—”
“This is all or nothing.” The words seemed to come from some unseen source. The muscles in his face had hardened into a mask of anger. His lips hadn’t moved. “All or nothing, Pearl.”
I’d expected frustration—resentment even, that I was canceling our plans, but I hadn’t anticipated an ultimatum. His threat made no sense. Success in medical school required a solid commitment. We both knew this. And I knew I didn’t feel it. “Then I guess it’s nothing,” I said, throat clogged with unshed tears.
“You bitch!”
I flinched, mouth falling open, certain everyone in the sorority house had heard him—and bonus, since it was one a.m., nearly everyone was home.
He jumped up, roaring, “You selfish bitch!”
I wanted to yell back, to tell him to get out, get out now, but I was immobilized except for the tremors hurtling down my arms and legs. I’d never been genuinely afraid of Mitchell before. Right then, I was terrified.
He twisted, lurching a step back.
Foolishly, I thought he was leaving and recognized his intention too late. “Mitchell, no!” I cried as he grabbed my foot-long lightning whelk shell and slammed it against my bedroom wall, cracking it at the base of the spire.
He was reaching for the pieces as my sorority president and her boyfriend burst into the room. D.J., wearing nothing but boxers, wrenched Mitchell’s arms up behind his back and escorted him out of the house forcibly, repeating, “Chill the fuck out, Upstone, or I’ll do it for you.”
As my sisters gathered in the hallway, wide-eyed and murmuring, Katie handed me the shell halves. “You okay?”
I nodded, fitting the two halves together like puzzle pieces. I’d brought that whelk to school in tenth grade, during a marine-science unit in biology. While classmates admired the treasure in my hands, stretching fingers to trace the pale stripes on its surface as I walked around the room with it, Mr. Quinn told us that its previous sea snail inhabitant must have lived at least twenty years to grow a home that size. Longer than I’d been alive.