Chapter 1, The Ramskeller

If there’s one thing more depressing than sitting in a bar drinking alone, it’s sitting in a bar alone, too broke to drink. The Ramskeller is the Fordham campus pub. The school mascot is a ram, so the name is supposed to be funny if you speak German, I guess, which I don’t. I don’t usually come here on weeknights, or any night for that matter; but I’ve had a really shitty day.

There are two types of sophomore girls at our little Jesuit enclave in the Bronx. Type I’s study all the time and never go out. Type II’s never study and go out every night. The Type I’s, e.g. my roommate Laura, and me before this afternoon, are squirreled away in Duane Library or the computer center, writing a theology essay or doing chemistry homework and thinking about hitting the sack for a good night’s sleep before their 8:30 a.m. classes. The Type II’s, e.g. my other roommates, Deirdre and Melissa, are comparing outfits, putting on makeup, and pre-gaming before heading out to Clark’s or the Lantern around 10:00.

Neither type would be caught dead in the campus pub at 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, which is why it’s a perfect place for me to sit at the bar, get drunk, and feel sorry for myself. Or rather it would be if beer cost no more than a Diet Coke which, I have now discovered to my embarrassment, it doesn’t. (Remember? Type I. I never had reason to come to the pub before now. So many things left to learn. So few I actually will, unless I figure out how to come up with $20,000 by the end of the month. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Until this afternoon I was right on track from Jenni to Dr. Jennifer McGrath, DVM. Third highest GPA in my high school class. 98th percentile on the SAT. Early admission to a not-quite-Ivy League but still respectable college. Financial aid package big enough that my parents didn’t have to take out a second mortgage. Straight A’s in everything except chemistry lab. (I’m pretty good on exams and essays, but I broke too many test tubes before I figured out I should let my lab partner do all the measuring and titrating.)

Vet school was in the bag. Then kaboom. One letter from the bursar popped my dream like the soap bubbles Jorge Leister likes to blow in lab when the T.A. isn’t looking.  

Student mail is delivered to the campus post office in the basement of McGinley Center. The office is only open between one and three in the afternoon. You can rent one of the old-fashioned art deco P.O. boxes that line the wall and pick up mail at your convenience. However, this is one of the optional fees I economized on, so this afternoon I stood in line with the other cheapskates.

Today I was hoping for the latest issue of Discover or a letter from my big sister. Janine writes me every week, even if nothing ever happens back home in Easton. She’s married and almost twice my age. Yes, I was a “surprise.” Her oldest boy, Brian, has been in a running battle of wills with his third grade teacher. Last week he refused to draw the school-approved bunnies and ponies during art class. Instead, he drew a picture of the teacher dressed in a witch costume being burned at the stake. Janine enclosed a copy of the drawing with her last letter. I was impressed at his command of symbolism and color at an age where most boys are drawing dog poop; but somehow neither the teacher nor the principal saw it that way, and he was put on a three-day timeout. I was curious to see how it all turned out. 

However, instead of one of Janine’s hand-addressed envelopes, the bored work-study student behind the counter handed one of those crinkly, computer-printed envelopes that does double duty as the letter, like the school uses for paychecks and report cards. Only I didn’t get a paycheck, and the semester’s barely started so it can’t be a report card.

I tore the tabs off the edges, slid my finger through the top to open it, and unfolded the paper. It was a bill from the bursar’s office. The red letters at the bottom caught my eyes:

Your payment of $19,832 for the Fall 1991 semester is now past due. Please remit the balance by October 1, or your registration will be cancelled.

“Can I get you something?” the bartender asks. He’s about twenty-five with soft blue eyes peeking out beneath his curly blond hair. 

“Some more water, please?” I ask, timidly. 

“Sure thing, I’ll be right back.” He’s probably a grad student in one of the softer subjects, psychology or theology. Maybe I should pick up a few pointers from him since working a bar is the most I’m going to be qualified for with one year of college and no degree.

The bartender returns. He puts down a paper coaster and places the glass on it. 

“Thanks,” I say.

“No problem. Anything else?” He smiles at me in a big brothery sort of way. 

I bite my lip. Maybe I could tell him what happened? He looks nice enough. Bartenders are supposed to listen, right? Only, what if he thinks I’m trying to scam a free drink? Before I get up the nerve to speak, he’s off to pour beers for actual paying customers and I’m left alone again with my ice water and my thoughts.

After I got over the initial shock of the letter, I reverted to practical mode. The bill was simply wrong. There was no way I could owe that much money. Fordham’s expensive, but they offered me a really nice financial aid package. I had almost a full ride. It was the only way I could afford to come here.

I scanned the details on the rest of the page. There was the usual list of charges—$16,890 tuition, $6500 dorm, $2300 meal plan, and a bunch of mandatory fees—followed by a thin column of credits.

I scanned the bill one more time and breathed a sigh of relief. They had left off my financial aid grant. I chose Fordham instead of Georgetown or Scranton because they agreed to cover my financial aid with grants while the others only offered loans and a little work study. At Fordham, I could graduate without a lot of debt and be in better financial shape for vet school. Just another bureaucratic snafu at a university whose computer systems were out of date in the 1960s. Two weeks ago I had to explain to the registrar that no, Physical Education was not the same as Physics, and could she please put me in the right class? Still, I thought I should take care of this right away before they decided to charge me interest or late fees or something.

The line to see someone at the bursar’s office stretched around the corner. It was 3:15 by the time I finally reached the front, and a plump, middle-aged woman waved me over to her counter. She looked exhausted. 

I smiled as I handed the letter across the counter. “I’m afraid there’s been some sort of mistake. My grant-in-aid got left off the bill.” 

She didn’t even look up. “Name and social security number?”

I reeled off the information, and she typed it into her computer. She frowned and typed some more. “I don’t see any grant-in-aid listed for you.”

“That can’t be right. I get almost $30,000 a year.”

She scowled, and tapped at her keyboard again. “I see a grant for last year, but nothing for this year. Are you sure your grant was renewed?”

“Of course, it was a four year grant.” A hint of nervousness was creeping into my voice.

She typed some more. “I’m sorry, I don’t see anything here. You’ll have to go see the sophomore dean.” She wrote down his name and office number on a piece of paper and handed it across the counter.

Somehow I avoided breaking down in front of Dean Maresca when he insisted that the bill was correct. 

“I’m sorry Miss McGrath. We try to keep tuition in line with academic standards. I’m sorry the financial aid is not what you expected. It seems many students had some misapprehension about the period of their grant this year. At least the tuition didn’t rise as much as we originally thought it was going to. That’s something, right?”

Then he smiled, like I was supposed to be grateful. He was still leaving me with a $20,000 hole to fill. And another next year. And the year after that. The bill might as well have been twenty million dollars for all the chance I had of paying it.

One thing in my favor. I didn’t necessarily have to get all the money right away. The dean told me about a short term loan that let me pay in installments over the school year (with 8% interest) but that still worked out to more than $2000 a month. I might have enough savings bonds from nineteen years of grandparents and relatives to cover one payment.

When I got back to my dorm room (thankfully empty; I didn’t think I was ready to tell my roommates they were going to have to start looking for another fourth or accept whomever housing assigned them) I flopped down on my bottom bunk and ran through my options. 

Option 1: Find a job, work nights and weekends, and go to class during the day. I took a notebook and pen off the desk and did the math. Minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. Putting in forty hours a week that was about $170 a week. Four weeks a month times nine months made $6120, less than a third of what I needed, and that was assuming nothing got taken out for taxes. Plus, when would I study? Maybe if I dropped the meal plan and ate ramen noodles, I could save a few dollars? Yeah, that would be real healthy. A diet of nothing but ramen noodles and any wine and cheese I could scrounge from faculty party leftovers.

Option 2: Summer job. But that was more than eight months away, and what kind of summer job paid $20,000? I heard about one student who worked a fishing boat in Alaska, but even if that wasn’t a campus legend, I felt pretty sure that wasn’t for me. 

Option 3: Call my parents.

Our dorm room didn’t have a phone, but there was one in the hall I could use with a phone card. I gritted my teeth and dialed the number. Just as I was sure the answering machine was going to pick up and grant me another hour’s reprieve before I delivered the bad news, my mom picked up. “McGrath residence.” Her voice sounded a little off.

“Hi Mom, it’s me.”

“Oh, Jenni. Hi. How’s school?”

“OK. Is Dad around?”

My mother didn’t say anything for several seconds. When she finally spoke, her voice sounded a little tight. “Now’s not the best time, honey. Can he call you back tomorrow?”

A bad feeling started to rise from my stomach, like school-cut-all-your-financial aid bad. “Is something wrong? Is Dad OK?”

“He’s fine, dear, it’s just that…” Her voice trailed off.

“Mom, you have to tell me. What’s wrong?”

“We don’t want to worry you. You focus on your schoolwork. It’ll be OK.”

“Mom, you’re scaring me now. What happened?”

She sighed. “Your father was laid off yesterday.”

For the second time in two hours my stomach crashed below my feet. This could not be happening. Not now. “What happened?” I finally asked.

“IBM closed the whole office. Said they didn’t need it anymore. They offered to relocate some of the managers, but not him.”

Dad had worked for IBM for as long as I could remember. He loved that company. “How’s he doing?” I asked, biting my lip.

“He’s in a bit of a funk. It’s natural. He just got the news yesterday. I’m sure he’ll be better tomorrow.”

My Dad’s “funks” usually involved a lot of alcohol and sitting in front of the TV watching the weather channel. This was not good. 

“Are you going to be OK?”

“Don’t worry about us, honey. We’ll tighten our belts for a little while until he finds something else. I may look for a job at the library or down at the mall until he does.” 

Maybe I was projecting my own problems, but she didn’t sound very confident.

“Mom, do you think I should come home?”

“Of course not, sweetie. This is just a bump in the road. We’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”

“Are you sure? I know you’ll need money. I could get a job.”

“Honey, your job is going to school. You’ll have the rest of your life to worry about money. Hang out with your friends. Go to a party. Don’t worry about us old fogies.”

I didn’t actually have a lot of those sorts of friends here, and of course school might not be an option. I might have to move back in with them. I didn’t ask the dean exactly when they’d kick me out of the dorms if I didn’t pay. But since I didn’t want to add to her troubles, I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I said, “OK, if you’re sure.”

There was a sound like glass breaking over the line. “Oh hell, the cat knocked something off the table. I have to go now, Jenni. Thanks for calling. It’s really good to hear from you. Keep in touch, OK?”

“OK. Bye bye.” She hung up first, and I stood there like a dummy with the phone in my hand. What the hell was I going to do now?

Somehow I made it as far as the hall bathroom, thankfully empty, and locked myself in a stall before the tears started to come. It was over. All of it. My thoughts raced around in circles, one bleeding into the next before I could complete it. I wasn’t going to finish college. I wasn’t going to be a vet. I’m would have to move back home.

Six minutes into my crying jag, I was startled by the sound of the bathroom door opening. I tried to choke back the tears and be quiet. Just as quickly, the door shut again. Girls crying in the bathroom are a disturbingly common occurrence here. I hoped whoever it was didn’t recognize me. If they did, by dinner everyone would be whispering about how my boyfriend broke up with me. My lack of anything approximating a boyfriend wouldn’t stop them. There may be ten thousand students on campus, but sometimes Fordham feels smaller than my AP Latin class in high school.

I tore a piece of toilet paper off the roll and daubed it at my face. If only my problems were as simple as a bad date or my boyfriend dumping me. I wished I had a boyfriend to dump me. Until now my limited experience had consisted of an awkward make-out session with my debate partner, and six minutes in heaven at an eighth grade party with Jimmy “The Rottweiler” Neilson. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t. If I did, it would be one more thing to lose when I leave.

I wasn’t ready to go back to my room. Laura, Deirdre, and especially Melissa would have too many questions I didn’t want to answer. One look at me, and Melissa would know I’d been crying, that it was about money, that the money was for school, and probably get within a hundred dollars of the amount. She can read people like no one I’ve ever met. 

I’d have to tell them the story eventually, but not yet. I could have gone to the cafeteria, but I didn’t have an appetite. The library seemed pointless with nothing to study for. And that’s how I found myself in the Ramskeller for the first and possibly last time of my college career.

Technically nineteen is too young to be hanging out in the campus pub, but no one cards on Tuesday nights, and it’s mostly hypothetical anyway since I can’t afford to drink. Maybe a guy will offer to buy me a drink? I’ve heard of that happening. Well, seen it on TV at least. However, on TV the girl the male lead buys a drink for is a sexy cheerleader with C-cups or a sophisticated blond woman from the Upper East Side in the perfect little black dress who can walk in six-inch heels without wobbling. Melissa can pull off that look, but I can’t. 

I scan the room, looking for my white knight with a wallet. The prospects are not promising. A gaggle of sorority types—Fordham doesn’t have sororities, but they sure have the type—are giggling and pretending they’re drunker than they are. Two grad students in thin glasses and elbow-patched jackets are arguing about some dead German. A single gray-haired professor I half-recognize from the chemistry building is drinking alone, drowning his nightly disappointment at being stuck in this backwater school. A couple wearing clothes too formal for campus are chatting quietly at a table in the corner. The man has his back to me, half-blocking my view of his companion, but I can tell they’re too old to be students and too young to be parents. Maybe alumni visiting the campus? Finally, several theater geeks dressed in head-to-toe black are laughing it up. I’m pretty sure the chubby one with the curly red hair is gay. He’s gazing intently at the leading man, a blond J. Crew type who has two female theater geeks hanging off his every word. All things considered, the gay actor is my best bet.

Even if boys do buy girls drinks in real life, a point I am none too sure of, they don’t buy drinks for plain brunettes from Pennsylvania in jeans and tennis shoes, even ones who are watching their dreams of college and vet school drain away like the last water in my glass. That’s me, the girl standing in the corner (or sitting at the bar) being ignored by both the cool kids and the geeks. Your classic plain Jane. Not pretty enough or distinctive enough to be noticed.

Somehow I thought college would be different. College guys would be smarter. They’d look past how much makeup a girl wore or how blonde her hair was. Instead it’s like high school all over again: everyone chasing the same pretty ditzes. The only difference here is that a few of the pretty girls actually have a brain in their head.

Melissa’s one. Not only is she skinny and gorgeous, she got a near perfect score on her SATs. Deirdre’s another. Super cute and not bad on a test if she remembers to study. Laura’s even smarter, and the only one of us who’s managed to land a serious boyfriend, even if Joshua is something of a hippo.

I’m going to have to tell them I’m leaving. Maybe they’ll get lucky and have a spare bed for the rest of the semester. It’s stressful enough being cramped up with three other girls in a room marginally larger than a prison cell, even more when one of them is randomly selected from the list of involuntary roommate reassignments.

I swallow the last of my water as my gaze wanders to the couple across the room. The man pushes his chair back and stands up, giving me an unobstructed view of the woman he’s with. As he steps aside, the light from the ceiling falls on her like a spotlight and I gasp involuntarily. The woman is stunning. 

She looks like she stepped out of the pages of one of those fashion magazines Deirdre reads. She’s wearing a green dress that is slit down her leg and shows off every curve of her body. Curly red hair cascades down past her shoulders, and when she tilts her head I’m pretty sure the things sparkling in her ears are diamonds. She’s a little younger than I initially thought, about the right age for an assistant professor but better dressed and far too attractive. And her face is perfect, like one of those Botticelli paintings my art history teacher is always going off about. 

But it’s not so much her features that pull me in as the way she holds herself. This woman is confident in her own skin, self-aware, self-possessed. She has no doubts, about anything. She is exactly the opposite of me, a messy bag of doubt and insecurity. Even if I had her looks, I could never manage the casual elegance she exhibits. This is a woman with grace, and I am a girl from Pennsylvania who is going back there soon if I don’t figure out where to get $20,000, fast.

I swivel the stool back around and hold up my glass to the bartender. “Can I please have some more water?” I whisper. He smiles and takes the glass from me. Since I’m not even tipping, I don’t feel entitled to pour my troubles out on him, but at least he doesn’t make me feel guilty for drinking water.

“Perhaps I could offer you something stronger?” says a man’s voice from behind me. 

I swivel around to see who said that and almost fall off my stool. Redheaded woman’s friend is standing there, smiling at me. I don’t know where she’s disappeared to, but in the moment I don’t think about that because if she was Botticelli’s Venus, he is St. Sebastian.

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