“Owwch” Lyla shrieked, lifting her left foot up into her hand to survey what she stepped on. Fortunately, it wasn’t something sharp, and she was able to pull off the piece of a shell remnant that stuck into her foot. We had been at the beach for over an hour on an increasingly humid day, and the sweat dripping down my forehead started dripping sunscreen into my eyes. I came with Lyla upon her insistence that the recent spate of storms would leave the shore filled with shells; but it seemed the opposite was true, that all the shells had washed out to sea. I had never seen so few on the sand; today there were only shell fragments and rotting clumps of seaweed that shielded little crabs, as white as the sand, from my view until I was right over them.
When Lyla started collecting shells earlier in the year, I wanted to support her while she found a temporary alternative to school. She had discernible talent at picking out the whole ones, and her finished products – mirrors, frames, baskets and a variety of decorative trinkets – were steadily crafted and charming in appearance. I thought it would be great for her to pursue for a year or so.
From what she told me, she was turning a profit on her business; not enough to support herself fully – she was still living off savings and money her parents gave her – but enough to survive. Lyla was never a spendthrift, and I suppose that helps, but a year later, I had the feeling that her interest in decorative knick-knacks might be more than fleeting. She seemed happy, but I knew her for over fifteen years, or at least I thought so. I would have sworn there was hollowness behind her jubilant facade, sheltering me, and especially her parents, from a forlorn quest to recover what she lost.
The dean had made clear the purpose for their meeting, delivering the message without equivocation,
“I’m sorry, but we have no other choice, you won’t be permitted back to school.” Their meeting lasted little more than five minutes, short considering the gravity of its outcome.
It had been an otherwise remarkable day in the first weeks of spring; the weather warmer, the atmosphere lighter, the smell of fresh growth in the ambient air. Lyla looked forward to the season after witnessing the transformation of campus in her two prior years there, never ceasing to let me know during our frequent phone chats. Grass filled in the squares and flowers brightened the planter boxes, overgrowing their faded red bricks that stood out in the barren winter. This year, Lyla’s anticipation was diluted for a month as the date of her scheduled meeting with the dean loomed; her predestined fate out of her hands, leaving her unable to plan for anything beyond it.
Lyla received notice of the date in an e-mail scheduling her meeting with the dean, during which she would be made aware of a decision on the course of action. Expulsion was a very real, and the most likely outcome given the perceived severity of what happened, which, by the time Lyla would meet with the dean, would have occurred nearly six weeks earlier. Her school’s administrative process was unduly extended, everyone had said it would be, though she had not experienced it firsthand until then.
She had a summer job lined up at an art gallery in town, though she assumed, rightfully, that it was contingent on her remaining enrolled in school. It was easy to foresee retraction of the opportunity if she were asked to leave. She had cried, in the most ugly way, her entire face reddening, eyes puffed, hair standing, when she came to realize that she could lose the position if the meeting with dean ended as expected.
“Do you really think that’ll happen!” she gasped out through short breaths, the tears falling off her chin onto her sweatshirt when she first gave it thought in my presence. I wanted to calm her, but was more convinced that offering false hope was the less optimal response. “It might” was all I said, as if leaving some, miniscule, hope.
Not having been there the night of, I can never know what truly occurred, but I received several consistent, vivid accounts of how it unfolded. Everything seemed to spiral beyond intended and thereafter completely beyond control. A small gathering at Lyla’s apartment in advance of a basketball game turned sour upon the unexpected arrival of several friends of a girl Lyla did not know well but had invited during a shared class. Alcohol played a heavy role, the gathering quadrupled in size and the goal of attending the game was long forgotten by anyone there.
When the school’s roving police force later found Lyla sleeping in the car with three others, there were several empty bottles and the very conspicuous presence of illicit substances. Lyla swore to me that she had not partaken in the latter, but, having observed her increasingly convivial habits in the months prior, I could not confirm whether her position was credible. She had transformed from a student with somewhat normal, albeit deleterious, patterns, to a point at which seeking help was advisable. Lyla had more than one encounter with the administration that semester, reaching its climax upon her discovery in the running vehicle. To her luck, the campus patrol located her before the police, saving her from external legal consequences.
There was little doubt that Lyla experienced an awakening that night. Several years of persistence studying, memorizing and practicing her craft, had suddenly seemed for naught. She kept her parents in the dark about what happened, including the possibility of expulsion. When the command to depart finally came, Lyla had no place to go, leaving no option but to return home unexpectedly and confess.
Away at different schools, she and I spoke on the phone several times each week; every day while she awaited the school’s decision. It was no surprise to me when it happened, though I had to act accordingly when I heard from my mother that Lyla returned home mid-April, well in advance of the close of the term.
We first saw each other when the semester ended weeks later. She was unable to hide her distress. Weight gain consumed the body once meticulously toned through fastidious commitment to exercise. She let up on her previously consistent, if not obsessed, coiffing of her hair. Her makeup was smeared – she bluffed that it was in joyous anticipation of my arrival; but her waterlogged face indicated otherwise, verifying that she had been crying for a month. Her mother let me in the house, escorting me down the long hallway covered in family photos, as if I was unsure of the way. Lyla sat on the edge of her bed, making it apparent she knew I was near.
“Oh…..” was all she could make out when I crossed from the tiled hallway onto the soft white carpet in her bedroom. I, too, began crying, shuffling over to her, sitting down on the bed next to her to wrap her in my embrace.
I consoled her, as a friend would do, refraining from the desire to chastise her for bringing about her own fate. The pain in her eyes seemed to me as if she had already come close to that realization without me having to remind her of it. I had a week in town before leaving for my own summer opportunity, spending hours each day with her, at first commiserating, but, to Lyla’s credit, eventually transforming into a search for a replacement.
By the time I returned for another week at the end of the summer, Lyla’s surroundings adopted a decidedly altered decor, adorned mostly everywhere in items interspersed with sea shells. She spent much of the summer on the sand, gathering and transforming them into art, and was in the processing of cataloging her creations for sale on a website she designed. I had always known her to be studious, if not entirely hard-wired for practicality, though she proved me wrong that summer. I could not help but notice her holding back tears when the subject of my impending departure, and return to school, arose.
“Emily…”, she paused for a moment while starting to tear, “thank you”, and recovered before relinquishing control over her emotions.
In my few spare moments, I visited Lyla’s website. It was clunky, not as user-friendly as it could have been, yet more advanced than anything I could create. She made no pretense about the fact that she was earning money, and I would notice items disappearing from the catalog, some of which I thought she priced far in excess of what she could get.
What surprised me the most was how long she stuck to it. In the past, she had a tendency to vacillate quickly between interests; she changed her degree from the creative arts to English literature back to creative arts in the span of months. We continued to speak regularly but with reduced frequency from the prior year. Applications for graduate school consumed much of my time. Between studying for and taking the standardized entrance exams, drafting and editing essays, repeatedly filling in redundant personal statistics and eventually, traveling to the corners of the country for interviews, I had to manufacture time to speak on the phone.
Lyla was maturing quickly. The pressing reality of being ejected from the bubble of academia forced her to craft her own fate in a manner that contrasted with her previously spontaneous, often heedless, personality. I thought at first that it was the decrease in time devoted to her that fabricated my altered perception. She attended my graduation, dressed fittingly in a shell-patterned blouse, consistent with her newfound image. We saw each other, but had little time alone. Not until we returned home, behind the closed door of her bedroom-cum-studio, did her inner sentiments approach the surface. Even then, I could see past it; Lyla may have inaugurated her transformation into accountability, but she was unable to conceal a longing for what she had surrendered.
With several weeks home before I was scheduled to move across the country, Lyla and I were mostly inseparable. As we had done routinely in our younger summers, we frequented the beach, which was, conveniently, a short drive. We parked in the same lot and entered through the same boardwalk, some of the warped, tar-stained planks from decades past having finally been replaced. The only difference was the purpose of Lyla’s goals for our time there. Whereas it once consisted of nothing more than relaxing, tanning and fending off advances from desirous suitors, it was now the relentless collection of satisfactory objects for her serendipitous vocation.
Her dedication impressed me, so much so that I started to believe that maybe Lyla had, in fact, found a calling. I found myself often too driven by the eventual economic considerations of my path forward, and it appeared that Lyla had perhaps overcome adherence to such an affliction. I believed that she could scale her enterprise, to the point she could move out of her parents’ house, and become self-sufficient. She found a niche, one that, while there were plenty of others, she gained an edge through excellence.
Lyla too, it seemed, had similar aspirations, yet less grandiose in the short term. She surprised me by announcing her plan to enroll in a dedicated art school, returning to finish the degree that she had inadvertently foregone. In over a year since the dean evicted her from campus, Lyla had not once broached the topic of returning to school, at least not to me. I learned that the idea was not hers at first; that a customer, who arrived to pick up a purchase, was an admissions officer of a program not far from home, and suggested the concept.
She marveled over Lyla’s work, having driven sixty miles through evening traffic to meet the artist in person. Their conversation revealed the deficiency of a formal degree, yielding way to revealing her profession and the suggestion that Lyla complete her education. By the time Lyla revealed the truth to me, she had already applied and been accepted, in spite of her prior expulsion, which she disclosed on her own accord, despite reluctance to do so in the absence of being asked. Her understanding was that admission was predicated on a willingness to overlook events of the past to the extent overshadowed by remarkable potential for the future. Lyla’s revelation shaped my conception that while she once faced the specter of what could have been, she found a passion that propelled her perhaps further than anticipated.
And then she was gone. Evaporated, vanished, succumbed; the thought of it brings to mind endless concepts of finality. What started as a celebration for our future transformed into the closing of hers. I was there at the start, it was my idea to begin with; and I was there at the end too, only Lyla was not. After her expulsion from school, there was little ambiguity that her routines were primed to be altered, a fact Lyla seemed not to resist. She dutifully abandoned any notion that her presence was necessary at as many outings as she could manage to fit in before the expiration of her amorphous concept of youth.
Yet Lyla did not abide by the approach that she was unable to exercise control over her consumption habits, which, as far as I could see, was appropriate. On the occasions of our assembling since she left school, there was often wine, though devoid of overindulgence, a positive consequence of which was the absence of incident. To me, there was nothing to enable. She had her incidents in the past, which stemmed ostensibly from chance mishaps that landed her in the position of responsibility. This was how she presented to the world. I was her closest confidante, and what I failed to see flew well overhead of everyone not as close.
We returned from the beach, sitting on the concrete deck next to the pool, safe from bugs in the confines of the screened-in patio. As kids, we swam endlessly, but as teenagers we merely sat within its presence, basking in the radiant afternoons. A bottle of white wine rested in the refrigerator, descending to the appropriate temperature for consumption. When Lyla’s parents returned home, I suggested a toast; between the four of us, we finished the bottle in an hour, and I returned home after a shower.
The recount of Lyla’s steps is not fully established, but the most relevant fact is. By the time she arrived at the hospital, there was nothing left to do. Not surprisingly, the photo of Lyla at her wake – brown hair straightened down past her shoulders, and a smile accentuated by red lipstick – had shells glued to the frame. It was not her work; to do so would have meant that she created an element of her own fate. I would have preferred that it not be there to serve as a reminder of the pursuit now circumstantially, but inextricably, linked to what happened. Overlooking the imperfect gluing of the shells to the frame, the blended color patterns of their rigged surfaces complemented the artificially blushed pink tones of her skin. Laying motionless, she awaited her final trip to rest in the sand.