Rejected over Someone Else's Mayonnaise
(a cautionary tale of horror)
First published as part of Submittable's 2019 rejection horror stories here.
I was twenty-six and I was finally ready to admit to myself and the world how badly I wanted to become a writer, a good writer, one who produced special novels in which careful observation led to soul-shaking revelations. And yet understatedly so. And perhaps against a complex backdrop of history’s most romanticized eras, which my observation-bombs would explode, proving we are all alike underneath.
So that was my plan. A little confused and perhaps too ambitious, but it was my plan, and I’d published a few pieces in teeny-tiny journals that gave me the hope and confidence I needed to put myself forward.
I’d been scraping by as a freelance copy editor in an expensive Southern California city. I had to be careful about choosing the schools to which I’d shell out fifty to a hundred dollars for the privilege of applying. And at the top of my list was a school in upstate New York, the school where one of my utmost admired authors (a truly canonical person) once taught. The school where one of my then-current-favorite novelists still taught. I gathered the best work that I had, which was a novel-in-progress about the untouchables of the SoCal surf scene, and sent it in with my application and a check for seventy-five dollars.
Long story short, long wait interminable, and yes, I got rejected. With one of the nicer form letters that acknowledged how difficult it is to apply, how even more difficult it is for professors to choose among applicants (and I know this to be basically true albeit somewhat exaggerated, having agonized over admissions to a selective MFA program for over a decade). And the school sent back my manuscript with thanks for the opportunity to consider my work.
Only … it wasn’t my manuscript. It was a short story called “Last Afternoon with Duane.” (Actually, the title was something similar; I am modifying details here just in case the author is out there moving around. I wish them well.) The writer had used minute observations to make subtle metaphoric points about a crumbling relationship, but the story didn’t work. I’d even venture to use a word that we never apply in workshops: it was bad.
In “Last Afternoon with Duane,” one young man helps another pack up his apartment after a breakup precipitated (remember that word) by the narrator’s affair with the guy’s girlfriend. The betrayal is just there in the background, never discussed, apparently never suspected—a sort of “Hills Like White Elephants” approach without the finesse. It spins swiftly into the absurd as the guys talk about an old jar of mayonnaise they find in the fridge. One character explains to the other that mayonnaise emulsifies out of oil and egg, and the two of them debate whether what’s left has spoiled or they might be able to eat it. In the end, the narrator takes off before they open the jar. As he bids his friend and the reader adieu, he concludes, “I guess I just don’t know anything about mayonnaise.”
That wasn’t my story. Not even close. But my insecure twenty-something self was afraid that “Last Afternoon” was better than the long novel I’d submitted. And where, incidentally, did my novel go? Did the author of “Last Afternoon” get it? Did the committee throw it away in disgust? Maybe they’d sent me “Last Afternoon with Duane” as a pointed message that this was not good but I was worse.
“Last Afternoon” became famous among my friends, passed around from hand to hand and read carefully and always with a bit of pity for me, the person who denied writing it. Poor Sooz, I imagined them saying behind my back, Let’s hope she learns from this. If only she knew about mayonnaise.
I got into a different program and was very happy there, with caring professors and a big group of chums dedicating themselves to art. But that mayonnaise story haunts me to this day like a doppelgänger character from Poe.
It hurt to be rejected from the school at the top of my list, the one with the writers I admired so much. And if I’d been a more confident and enterprising person, I might have contacted them—I would tell an applicant to do so if it happened now—to make clear that if I were to be rejected, it should be with my own work. I was afraid to ask. I almost hoped that they’d left my manuscript like an unopened jar. A series of further mishaps has meant that I don’t have a copy. I know now that my lost novel wasn’t great, and I’m usually glad that it’s gone, but maybe I can’t be blamed for hoping it was better than I remember… perhaps even the basis for someone else’s admission?
I imagine the author of “Last Afternoon” wandering over that hilly campus, sitting down black-turtlenecked in a workshop, fulfilling an ethereal promise without even realizing that our samples were switched. This scenario is actually fitting, given the work of the great writer who’d first attracted me to the place—but to be honest with myself, I’m sure there was no impostor student making a name with my novel there.
The point is that the right things did happen for me, if not for the boys with the mayonnaise (which, incidentally, they never opened and used, so that loaded gun didn’t go off). And I will always have that “Last Afternoon” to remember.