LIFE AFTER COLLEGE

by Stacey Vanek Smith

Sitting with my two friends in a trendy Malaysian restaurant on the Upper-East Side of New York, I stared into a mango shell stuffed with shredded chicken and marveled at how much they had changed.

Graduated two years before me, Elaine and Kathy were successfully climbing the corporate ladder in New York. They offered to take me out to dinner to help me decide what to do with myself after graduation. Elaine, who used to write music for University theater and had did oil painting on the side, was recounting with disturbing fervor how she started saving all of her receipts, and had consequently saved one hundred dollars catching false bank charges. Kathy, who read War and Peace at fourteen and was a great poet agreed, citing an example of how a restaurant tried to charge her an extra three dollars and how she went back to them with the original receipt. Not that I have anything against a balanced checkbook, it is something I have never managed to achieve.

But these were my friends, they were women making it in one of the toughest cities in the world, I was proud of them, and yet they made about as much sense to me as stuffing chicken into a mango shell. Elaine turned to me and asked me what my future plans were. I admitted I had no idea, but that I wanted to do something that I believed in. Kathy smiled sympathetically: "I thought the same exact thing two years ago. Just wait, before you know it you'll be reading The Economist and joining a gym." Feeling panicked, I took a long pull on an unidentified green drink that Kathy had recommended.

Kathy and Elaine started joking about their abandoned ideals. Elaine admitted that she hadn't painted in months, that she now had to spend her weekends doing extra work in the office. Kathy said she hadn't had time for any extra reading since she'd started working: "I have to read The New York Times cover to cover just to keep up with the guys in the break room." I didn't know what to think. I was excited for the success of my friends--they were successfully climbing the corporate ladder in a man's world, but at what cost?

My male friends in corporate America changed slightly too, but not to the same extent. For some reason, they all still read books and went to art museums. It seemed to be my female friends that were making the more extreme sacrifices. Frankly, I missed the women I used to know--the ones who could talk about anything; the ones who were well-rounded and interesting. These women seemed like strangers.

"So, what do you do when you're not filing your receipts?" It was mean and I shouldn't have said it. They looked hurt. I quickly countered telling them, truthfully, that I was proud of them, that they were paving the way for generations of women to come. Despite my efforts, the dinner ended on a somber note. I wanted to crawl under my mango shell and cry. I felt like I'd betrayed my friends and, worse, that I hadn't given them the support they deserved for their success.

On my way down the sidewalk to the subway, I thought that maybe that would be me in two years, talking to some idealistic college senior about my bank account. I thought that maybe Kathy and Elaine were making extra sacrifices now so that future generations of women wouldn't have to. That was probably true, but it seemed like they'd given up too much. As I rode the escalator down to the dark subway platform, I smiled a little. I knew that there had to be another way, I was just going to have to find it.


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