Fed-Ex and Foreign Exchange Rates
While Columbia University prides itself on its erudition and exclusivity in the autumn, winter, and spring, every summer it indulges itself with a feast of monetary supplement from decadent, moneyed youth in its program for high school students. Through this opening is how I inserted myself into its midst. The campus lies in the far reaches of the upper west side of Manhattan, and has stood as a gated monument to elite higher education for close to three hundred years. The uneven brick paths wrap vine-like around libraries that urge each passerby to enter and enjoy the knowledge of the ages. However, in accordance with the tradition of most privileged Ivy Leaguers, most of the summer students spend more time passing by than hungering for knowledge.
I was fifteen and, like any other fifteen-year-old, thought of myself as an adult. This was a fact that was hotly contested between my parents and I, though in my mind, I could greet any challenge that dared to face me. It was August, and so late in the month that you could taste Autumn on every other breeze. And while the change in season was imminent, the hot summer sun continued to reign over campus. The students sitting on Columbia’s neat green lawns became restless from the heat. Even those statues of great American scholars looked down at us with a certain urgency, their silent mouths whispering to us the greatness of our futures.
However, our time was not entirely spent worrying about our summer classes. There were both the students hustling to giant lecture halls to enhance their sense of the world, and the students hustling to the train for a party that would enhance something else. I had heard rumors of everything from students edging their way into glamorous downtown clubs, to people sneaking down to the depth’s library stacks in pairs. There were instances when I witnessed two people laughing and heading to darkened stairwells. And in those instances, my shoes clacked harder than usual against the marble floors as I bolted to the well-lit upper levels. Even more shocking was the amount of wealth the students paraded. I lived a comfortable life, but could in no way relate to the casual weekend's spent in Miami and the Cartier bracelets that girls dangled across the pages of their homework.
I was also meeting a boy in the library, though it was to do homework on my preferred, bright floors. His name was Ali, and we had met on a school-sponsored outing to the Flat-Iron district. He was supposed to go on another trip to see a Broadway play, though after glancing at some dismal reviews he gifted the orchestra seat to his roommate. Him being from Morocco was what drove our conversations at first. He talked about how different his city of Rabat was than the ever-changing New York. While most Manhattan-dwellers simply bear the permanent scaffolding and the deafening sound of drilling, Ali told me he liked it. He found a place that valued innovation so greatly much more exciting than the antiquated beauty of his home.
Despite Ali being from a completely different continent, what was more foreign to me was the idea that an attractive boy had decided to talk to me. I, having absolutely no experience with boys, spent our initial meeting entirely absorbed in the conversation. And, much like the other students at Columbia, the seams of his wallet strained against an oppressive amount of cash. At one point in our conversations, I had mentioned that my dad was a lawyer, and he mentioned that his dad owned Fed-Ex.
As we sat across from each other at a long oak table, Ali kept the connection between us taut with constant chatter. He regaled me with stories from home and gossip about fellow classmates. I attempted to focus on my work, but my attention kept drifting to Ali’s slow, elegant gestures or how his accent indulged in pronouncing every syllable. While he talked, I rewarded him with an occasional smile over the top of my laptop, or a teasing eye-roll at his shameless exaggerations. And throughout these glances at him, I saw him do little more than shuffle the papers he had pulled out of a crumpled pile from the bottom of his backpack. I was the only one doing homework in the homework room. While Ali and the other kids’ voices echoed across its vaulted ceilings, Columbia’s library felt more like a cathedral to me, a place in which to devote your quiet reverence to the vastness of its knowledge.
Like Ali, my other friends at Columbia had different priorities than receiving a perfect score. They were dedicated to enjoying their newfound autonomy and making pilgrimages to the ATM around the corner. My roommate was one of those worshippers, frequently studying her debit card between her manicured fingers to purchase tickets for concerts and shows. She had tried to get me to join her, but several instances of me studying the chipping polish on my nails and saying “Maybe!” had alerted her to stop asking. This same roommate was much more engaged with my stories about the guy we dubbed “Fed-Ex” than any of my stories about class. She herself spent most of her time tapping out messages to boys on campus.
After those first few preliminary dates at the library, Ali and I advanced to going out for dinner. The majority of our meals were spent at a high-traffic diner around the corner. It was so small that the students from down the block were constantly slamming into your side, their manners akin to pigs heading to their trough. The diner was one of those places that specialized in dishing greasy fries and overcooked burgers to drunk college students. The owners were well aware that their patrons were much more concerned with filling their stomachs than having a refined palette, so the exorbitant prices were based much more on proximity to campus than the quality of fare.
However, this was no problem for Ali. When I reached into my well-loved Target bag to pay for dinner, I realized he had grabbed the check before I did. Without me noticing, he had flippantly slapped a stack of cash onto it. I complained that he should at least let my get the tip, but he refused, saying, “My grandfather paid for dinners, my father paid for dinners, now I pay for dinners.” I insisted further, but in what I assumed was an attempt at charm he told me, “I spend my money on what makes me happy, and you are making me happy.”
A few days and a few mediocre meals later, we found ourselves on the platform at Columbia which spans over Amsterdam Avenue. The headlights of the cars passing below us sped in an intoxicating dance under our feet, and fireflies flickered lazily in the lawn behind us. It was the night before the program ended, and by the weekend Ali would be flying home. We both leaned our arms against the balcony, the metal still warm from the day, and talked about anything that could keep us there for just a bit longer. Each moment passed with his elbow inching toward mine in deliberate pace. I knew he was looking at me with a half-lidded stare, and though I wanted to look at him, my eyes were transfixed on the dizzying headlights in the street below.
When he finally turned his shoulders to face me, my hands were gripped against the balcony so tightly that it was like I was hanging from the other side. No thoughts of the dinners he bought me or the accent that my ears indulged in could convince me to unclench my hands. And when his mouth finally began to descend upon mine, I turned so it met my cheek.
We walked back to the dorm together, me travelling at the pace of an Olympic runner and jamming my finger desperately against the elevator button. As soon I finally reached my room, I got into the bed and pulled the covers over my already burning face. My concrete dorm, which normally had as much aesthetic appeal as a prison cell, was now as beautiful as green palm trees in a barren desert.
Despite my inability to even think about my actions from the night before, I said yes when Ali asked me to meet him at the end-of-session dance. The theme was outer space, so I employed the blues and purples of my drug-store makeup to create colorful eye makeup to match. My roommate had decided to stay in, and despite her being a size 7 and me a size 9, had loaned me her designer heels. “To impress FedEx!” she said.
Ali and I weren’t arriving together, so I managed to convince my friend Sophia to join me. As we entered the room, we were received by clouds of cologne attempting to invade our lungs and flashing lights which rendered every face inhuman. After about a half hour of searching through the foreign crowd, my feet were revolting against the tyrannical shoes. I tired of looking for someone who refused to separate himself from the alien crowd. So, I returned the shoes to my room, wiped off my makeup, and Sophia and I took one last walk around campus.
In the center of Columbia there's a sculpture called The Curl, and if you have the initiative it's easy enough to climb. Sophia and I did just this that night. I felt the bite of the metal installation when I hit my leg on the way up, but I recovered fast and continued. I was happily unaware that Ali had texted me, saying that he had left the dance early to go to a party downtown. All I knew was that as I laid down, I heard the quiet sounds one hears in summertime peace. There were cicadas in the trees and crickets in the grass, and I felt the brush of a warm breeze on my bare arms. Though upon closer meditation, the distant sounds of the city and the sensation of the cool metal against my back greeted me. Right then I realized that the sounds intermingled in perfect harmony, the temperatures mixed perfectly, and that in that moment it was beautiful to live in-between.
About the author: Catie Hernandez is a Freshman in the Macaulay Honors program at the City College of New York, and is double majoring in Anthropology and Art History. While this is her first time being published, Catie also runs an online educational resource for young women, named Career Girl, in which she interviews women from diverse careers in order to provide insights into their success. Catie is excited about the work Girls Right the World is doing, and thrilled to be included in the publication.