Stripped Read online
“So, are you an actress?” she asks. She sounds like a movie version of someone from “The Valley. ”
“No. I’m going into production. ”
“Oh, like, those behind-the-camera people?” She oozes disdain as she says this.
“Yeah, I guess. ”
“You’re from the South,” she points out.
“Yes. I’m from Macon. ”
“Is that, like, in Alabama?”
I stare at her, and I wonder if she’s joking. “No, it’s in Georgia. ”
“Oh. I’m Lizzie Davis. ” She doesn’t offer to shake my hand.
“Grey Amundsen. ”
“Grey. Like the color?”
“Yeah, well…except it’s spelled with an ‘e. ’ G-R-E-Y. ”
“Oh. Like Fifty Shades. ”
I shrug, not wanting to admit I don’t know what she’s talking about. She smirks self-righteously and goes back to strumming her guitar. Her phone chimes, and she sets the guitar aside, crossing her legs and tapping at the phone. This goes on the entire time that I’m unpacking. I have no posters, no decorations at all except the photograph of Mama and me in New York. I don’t have a laptop, or a phone. I see a laptop on Lizzie’s desk, a big silver MacBook.
When I’m unpacked, I’m at loose ends. Lizzie is still texting or whatever she’s doing. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, and classes don’t start until Friday, and then we have the weekend off before the semester really gets under way. I climb the ladder then lie on my side and stare at the wall, missing my Mama. She’d tell me to stop moping and find something to do. Explore the city, dance. Make a film.
Instead, I lie on the top bunk and wonder if I’ve made a mistake coming here.
The rumbling of my stomach becomes a constant over the next year. The stipend my scholarship gives me to live on is tiny, barely enough for the meals at the cafeteria, which are generally awful and far between. My classes take up most of my day from morning to evening, and I often only have time for a bagel in the morning and something quick and nasty in the evenings. I make good grades, a 4. 0 for the first semester, 3. 9 for the second. I study film, and I dance. My haven, my sanctuary away from everything, is a quiet room on the top floor of one of my lecture halls. I’ve never seen anyone else there, since the floor is primarily faculty offices. The room is large enough for my purposes, and empty except for a lone filing cabinet in one corner, so I can dance freely. There’s a window to let in daylight, and an outlet near the floor where I can plug in my portable iPod speaker dock.
I retreat there between classes, keeping the music turned low and the door locked. I find a song that hits me in the place within where movement lives, and I let go. I just move, just let my body flow. There’s no choreography, no rules, no expectations, no hunger or grades or homework or loneliness. Just the extension, the leap and the roll and the pirouette and the power of my legs, the tension in my core. I can be totally me there.
My first year goes fine. I’ve gotten a lot of the prerequisite courses out of the way, the English and the chemistry and the two semesters of a foreign language. My second year begins with my first mid-level courses and a few introductory film production classes. The absence of funds means I rarely leave the campus. I spend my days in lecture, taking notes, or in my dorm room doing homework. Lizzie is gone most of the time, often coming back at all hours, reeking of alcohol. She invited me to a party once, but I declined. I’m not interested.
My father never contacts me.
My twentieth birthday passes unnoticed. I spend it writing an essay for Metropolis on the use of camera angles and shot length. I’m not making any friends. I don’t know how to make the effort.
The only thing keeping me sane through this whole process is school. To most people, college is work. It’s something they have to go through to get on with their lives; for me, this is my life. For me, it’s not just about sitting through lectures and writing essays, it’s about learning a craft, a trade. I’m soaking up everything I can about film, about the process of taking an idea from some notes scrawled on a legal pad to a film on a big screen. I watch films in every spare moment, and I dissect them. I have my Flip camera everywhere I go, making short films about anything and everything. Most of those pieces are vignettes, just momentary slices of life set to music. They’re as much expression to me as dancing.
I’m halfway through my sophomore year when I get summoned to the financial aid office. It comes by way of a letter written in vague language saying there’s an issue with my status. Or something. I barely read it. I find my way to the office with its gray tile floor and gray pillars and red leather ottomans and partial cubicle offices. After a thirty-minute wait, I’m summoned by a woman in her mid-thirties with mocha skin and short, kinky black hair.
“Hi, Grey. I’m Anya Miller. ”
“Hi, Mrs. Miller. I got a notice from this office about my financial aid. ”
“Call me Anya, please. ” She takes my student ID card and brings up my file, reading it with an increasingly blank expression, the kind of look that says she has news I won’t like. “Well, Grey. Your scholarships have been covering nearly all of your tuition and your book costs, as well as room and board. Unfortunately, you’ve used up most of the scholarship funds. You have enough to finish out this year, fully covered. Or you can stretch it out and it’ll cover some of your tuition, but not all. You’re listed as an independent, which means you’re capable of supporting yourself. If you were listed as a dependent on your parents and their income was low enough, you would qualify for financial aid. But since you’re an independent, you can work to support yourself. ”
“How can it just run out? I thought it was a loan? Like, it would just keep piling on? I mean…what am I supposed to do?”
Anya just gives me a sympathetic look that says she doesn’t have much in the way of answers. “It was a grant, and it was a finite amount of money. This should have been explained to you. You might qualify for a work-study program, but the job fair was held a week ago, and the positions are all filled, I’m afraid. As far as staying on campus? Most students in your position end up finding a job of some sort to pay their way. ” She says this as if that much should be obvious.
I suppose this was explained to me, or to Mama, but I was so absorbed by Mama’s fight with cancer that I didn’t pay much attention. And I suppose it should have been obvious, but I’ve never had a job before. I have no clue how to go about finding one. I absently thank Anya Miller and leave the office of financial aid in a daze. I spend the rest of my time between classes that week asking around campus about work, but there are no openings. Even the laundry facilities are fully staffed. I receive an official letter from the university delineating how much scholarship money I have left, laying out the exact tuition, and how much I’ll have to pay every semester if I use my scholarship to pay half. It’s an extraordinary amount of money. I have thirty dollars to my name.
I start filling out application after application for nearby restaurants and bars, shops and stores and boutiques, No one is hiring. A week passes, and then two. I get a map of the L. A. bus routes and start filling out applications farther and farther afield from the university.
Maybe I’m not asking the right questions, or maybe all the jobs really are filled, but I have zero luck. I think have a lead on a job at a bar, but then the manager conducting the interview finds out I have no experience and that fizzles out. The end of the semester closes in. If I don’t come up with a job soon, I’ll have nowhere to live, and my reason for being in L. A. —my film degree—won’t happen.
I ride the bus line farther and farther away, asking anywhere and everywhere if they’re hiring. No one is.
And then I see a “NOW HIRING!” sign.
My stomach sinks when I see the name of the establishment: Exotic Nights Gentlemen’s Club. The hiring notice says, “Now hiri