These mornings elicited as much excitement and anxiety for Sasha as they did for Santos. Before breakfast, he checked his emails and saw he had one from Josie Caplan, one of the editors at the Blackberry Night Lit.
As they sat at the kitchen table, a gentle breeze blew in from the window next to Santos’ writing desk. The best window in their tiny apartment. It was the first morning they were able to have the window open this year. The first hints of Spring in Chicago announced themselves with the singing birds and new leaf buds.
Shoveling scrambled eggs into his mouth. Santos could barely sit still. He glanced over at his laptop and said, “This is the one I’ve been waiting for. You thought it was a good story, didn’t you?”
Sasha smiled at him, balancing out his hyper mood with her attempt at serene calm. Willing him to temper his expectations.
“I did. It was beautiful. But no matter what happens with the contest, remember how far you’ve come.”
Furrowing his brow, he dropped his fork and said, “God, I’m so nervous! You know, the winners from the last eleven contests got book deals. And even the runners-up eventually got their novels published. Agents from all over the country hunt for talent in this contest. I could be the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez! Think about that!”
She nodded with a sweet smile. It was like watching a kid on Christmas morning about to open a bounty of gifts stacked under the Christmas tree.
“What’s the name of the contest again?”
After a quick sip of coffee, he coughed and said, “Fresh Voices. You know how hard I worked on this one. I really think this is my best writing. All the late nights after work, drafting and editing, and more editing. Oh yeah, and editing. I mean, every single word. I know it’s a little premature, but imagine if I could finally quit my stupid job and do this for a living!”
Sasha stood up, gathering her dishes, and said, “I’m proud of you no matter what. You’re a great writer, my dear.”
Santos popped up and brought his dishes. With a slight tremble in his hands, he clinked his plate against hers in the sink and grabbed the soap.
Sasha put her hand over his, taking the soap bottle from him. “It’s ok, I got it. Go ahead, read the message. I know you’re dying to.”
Grinning nervously, Santos kissed his fiancé on her cheek and rushed to his desk. His writing corner, as he called it. Sasha found a cute little walnut desk at a garage sale the previous summer. For a surprise, she sanded it down and refinished it for Santos. Insisting he set up in front of the best window with a view of the city to the east. From their 14th floor apartment on LaSalle Street, they could see a little of Lake Michigan too.
He rubbed his hands together, staring at the screen. Sasha watched him, pretending not to.
Calling to her over the sound of the running water, “I know I’ve got to be realistic, but think about all the intricate details I put into this one. All of the subtle themes woven into the tapestry. For the first time, I didn’t write about characters, I wrote about people. And their raw emotions. There’s no way they didn’t love my story. I know, I know, there’s always room for improvement. But babe, I really feel it. This is the one that’s going to get me on the map. My voice heard.”
With a deep sigh, he placed his hand on the mouse and clicked the email from Josie@BlackberryNL.com. Sasha turned back toward the sink, scrubbing the pan as she held her breath.
Santos leaned forward, his eyes dancing over the screen. His mind barely kept up, hardly registering the meaning of the words that raced by. His grin froze. Reality struck like a gut punch.
With his head moving in a tiny arc back and forth as if to deny the message, he uttered, “You gotta be kidding me.”
With her back still to him, Sasha yelled, “What?”
Louder now, “You gotta be kidding me!”
Sasha dropped her head, closing her eyes. Her soapy hands submerged in the warm water, she squeezed the dishrag and plopped it onto the lip of the sink.
As she spun around, she took a deep breath and said, “What is it, hon? What did they say?”
He waved his hand at her, beckoning her over.
As he shook his head, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t understand. It’s as if she didn’t even read my story! What is this?”
Sasha sauntered over, still hopeful he misunderstood something.
He read it again, then a third time. Sasha bent over, peering at the screen. She placed her hands on his shoulders, her cheek grazing his.
He shook his head more vehemently now, pointing at the screen. “Look! She didn’t even read my goddam story! See? I paid fifty bucks for this? This isn’t feedback! It’s a fuckin list of canned responses.”
Sensing his rage, Sasha gently soothed him by pressing down on his shoulders. “I’m sure she read it. Maybe—“
He craned his neck to glare at her, then back at the screen. Without hesitation, he clicked reply and started typing.
While I appreciate your “feedback”, I am supremely disappointed in the fact that you didn’t even read my FUCKING story! I want a refund. I paid for three pages of feedback, but all I got was three pages of bullshit.
Sasha gasped and said, “You’re not really going to—“
Santos clicked send before she could finish.
“You shouldn’t have done that. I understand you’re upset, but—“
Standing up, he yelled, “Upset? Are you kidding? If she didn’t like my story, that’s fine. She should have said so. But did you see the crap she said? It didn’t even make any sense. The first question about what fueled the protagonist’s anger at his brother is answered literally in the first four paragraphs of my story!”
Sasha backed away from him, hands on her hips. “Why are you yelling at me? Look at how crazy you’re getting! You’ve got to calm down! I understand how hard you worked, but are you going to ruin another weekend wallowing in self-pity over another rejection?”
He shook his head and sat down again. A moment later, he printed the three pages of feedback. Sasha stared at the printer, shaking her head.
Santos ripped the pages from the printer, crumpling them in his hand. With a grunt, he yanked an expanding folder from the bookcase next to his desk.
Sasha approached him, grabbing the folder, and said, “Look at this. Why do you keep these? All they do is piss you off!”
Snatching the folder back, he growled, “Stephen King used to keep all of his rejection slips hanging on a huge nail next to his writing desk!”
With a laugh, she said, “Yeah, he did it to become a better writer. You do it to try to prove your critics wrong!”
Genuinely confused, he asked, “What’s the difference?”
“Stephen King used it for self improvement. You use it for revenge.”
With that, Sasha stormed off to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
A new email from Josie popped up on his screen, and he sat down to read it.
I have forwarded your inappropriate message to our staff at Blackberry Night Lit. Do NOT contact me again!
Clenching his teeth, Santos ran his fingers through his hair and sat back in his chair. He stared at the ceiling, fuming. In an attempt to get ahead of this, he clicked open the website and started a new email to the entire staff of editors.
Dear Blackberry Night Lit Editors,
I paid $50 for three pages of feedback from Josie Caplan in the Fresh Voices contest and it’s as if she didn’t read my story at all! I demand a refund immediately! You have just missed a BRILLIANT story about two friends from Colombia who grew apart in the midst of poverty and war. I can see that your contest is a farce. Perhaps if I had paid more, I would have been a finalist? Fuck you and your contest. You will NEVER receive another submission from me again! I’m going to post on social media the truth about you.
Clearly satisfied, he hit send before reading it. He sat back, lacing his hands behind his head. A huge weight felt as if it had been lifted from his shoulders.
Muttering under his breath, “Assholes.”
Sasha emerged from the bedroom, fully dressed and holding her purse. She looked Santos up and down, then shook her head slightly.
“I’m going out. You stay here and get your head right or whatever you have to do. But when I come back, you’d better be done with this.”
“Done with this?”
Nodding, she said, “Look at you! You’re obsessed. Who keeps a folder of their rejections, agonizing over how every single critic was wrong? Let it go! You sit here, cursing them, twisting your submissions to prove them wrong! You’re a great writer, Santos. But every writer can get better. Maybe you should listen to the experts instead of insulting and threatening them. Think about that.”
Santos opened his mouth to answer, but she put her hand up. Seconds later, the door shut behind her, and he was encased in silence. Except for the light breeze coming from the window, fluttering the drapes.
Two hours later, Santos sat on the wood floor. Pages from his rejection folder scattered around him. Hundreds of them. His hair stood out wildly from pulling at it in frustration as he reread critiques from stories he’d written years ago.
Exhausted, he lowered his head and wept. Evidence of his failures clung to him. Crumpled from anger, balled up pages were strewn across the living room. Paper ripped to pieces served as a sign of imperfection, a metaphor of failure impossible to negate.
When Sasha returned, she found him sitting on the couch. A stack of torn and crumpled pages sat on the coffee table. He stared out at nothing, shell-shocked.
She joined him on the couch, putting her hand on his knee.
Softly, “Are you ok?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. About all of this. You’re right. I can’t live like this.”
“It’s ok, I forgive you. So, now what?”
Santos closed his eyes, trying to stop the tears from falling. “I’m done. I’m a terrible writer. I know that now. I’m going to throw all of this shit out. I guess I was never cut out to be a writer. I’m a fucking tax accountant, and that’s all I’ll ever be. I shouldn’t have ever thought I could write. What a joke.”
Sasha put her hand on his cheek, turning him toward her. “You’re a brilliant writer! You just haven’t found your readers yet. Your readers.”
Santos’ mouth turned down, and he buried his face in her shoulder.
“You can’t quit. You can’t let feedback from one critic cripple you like this.”
Shaking his head, his voice muffled by her shirt, he said, “No, I’m done. It’s ok. This is what I want. I quit.”
Stroking his hair, she said, “What about that other contest you entered? Isn’t your story due tomorrow night?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t care. I’m done.”
Pulling his head up to meet his gaze, she looked into his eyes and said, “If that’s what you truly want, then I’m with you. I hate seeing you miserable. You can do anything you want. You’re just about the smartest man I’ve ever met. And I love you for your mind, your creativity, your sense of humor, and your intense passion you put into everything you do. I’ll love you as a tax accountant, or as a struggling writer. But I just want you to be happy. If quitting makes you happy, then good.”
He nodded, wiping his wet cheeks.
That night, as the clocked turned to 3am, Santos lay on his back in their bed. Sasha snoring lightly beside him.
Staring into the darkness. A place he enjoyed exploring before. Now it taunted him with his failures.
As quietly as possible, he sat up and moved to the edge of the bed. With his head hanging low and his eyes closed, his mind raced with the words Josie wrote in her “feedback”. His ego bruised by the way she so callously dismissed all the hours of work he put in. Pouring his heart into this incredibly personal story. He asked himself over and over, “how could she have read my story and not seen its depth? Its meaning? Its beauty?”
Sasha stirred and saw him facing away from her.
“What’s wrong? Can’t sleep?”
Quietly, he said, “I can’t stop thinking about it. That woman just shredded my story. How could I have been so wrong? I know I’m not Hemmingway or Garcia, but I’m not a terrible writer either. Am I? I mean, how can they eviscerate someone’s work like that? Don’t they know what we put into what we write? The agony? The torture? The emotion?”
Sasha sighed and said, “You’re still angry.” It wasn’t a question.
Santos turned and said, “No. I’m not angry anymore. I just wish I was a better writer.”
At this, he felt a lump form in his throat. It was the first time he felt scared. Afraid he would never be read by discerning eyes. Never considered an important voice. Forever dismissed as a talentless amateur.
Sasha sat up and scooted toward him. From behind, she wrapped her arms around his chest, feeling it hitch as he fought back his exhausted tears.
With her mouth close to his ear, she whispered, “Then don’t quit. Be better.”
He put his hand on her arm, stroking it with such love. This woman was his rock, no doubt about that. A minute later, he stood up and headed toward the kitchen. She lay back down, staring up at the same darkness he feared.
When Santos hadn’t come back to bed in the next few minutes, she went out to the kitchen.
He was sitting at his writing desk, laptop open. The light from the screen lit up his tired face. But there was something else there. Something behind the apprehension and fear.
She watched him stare at his screen for a long time. His fingers hovering over the keys, trembling slightly.
The blank page stared back at him.
And then…he wrote.