Subjective Content

Issue 40 by Rebecca Burke

Subjective Content

The decision letter is polite, offering you admission in an MFA program in creative writing with a full stipend, tuition remission, and a teaching position. It briefly mentions some aspects of your fiction the admissions committee liked—your strong voice and tackling of difficult themes—and is signed by the director. It is your first acceptance. Most of the rejections so far have come over email. The crisp paper feels formal in your hands. It will be your only such experience. The last three rejections come in over email in the following days.

You call the director of the program that accepted you on April 1st, to accept your position. You notify your bosses at work you’ll be leaving at the end of July. Things start to feel like they’re coming together as you search for a roommate, find an apartment, plan for your move. One of the pieces you used in your application sample gets picked up by a moderately well-known journal. It’s this victory, not the acceptance, that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something meaningful.

*

Your cohort isn’t small, but it’s not large either. There are ten first-year fiction students, eight nonfiction, and six poets. There’s a party the Friday night before the semester starts, at a house rented by some of the poets—not just the ones from your year, though a couple of them live there. There’s a lot of drinking. A lot of introductions, and then more when the alcohol erases your name from your classmates’ short-term memories.

You all share some of your recent publications. You mention your story, the only fiction piece taken in the issue it was published in. Many of your classmates nod along when you tell them the name of the journal. Others are equally average in their publications—a few well-known journals here and there, many small online publications.

A man starts talking. He’s sitting in the chair across the living room. Isaac. He’s probably mid-thirties—at least ten years older than you—wearing a blue button-up shirt, untucked with the top two buttons undone. He’s talking about a novel he had published, how he applied with an excerpt from his next project as his writing sample. Allen loved it, he grins, referring to the creative writing program director. When he called me, he couldn’t stop praising my character depth, Isaac continued.

A few of the people in the living room mumble about how impressive that is, his book. You share a look with Shideh, the woman sitting next to you. Did you get a phone call? she murmurs into your ear.

No, just a letter.

Me too.

In the kitchen, later in the evening, Isaac is sharing a story about a conversation he had with the editor of his book. Maybe it’s the alcohol, or maybe the story is genuinely funny, but you find yourself leaning against the kitchen counter, laughing. Sharing a smile with him and some of the other people gathered around. You pour yourself another drink. Isaac moves closer, until his shoulder bumps yours. He apologizes, moves back, smiles again. You take another sip of your drink and return the smile. You think you could be happy here, with these people.

*

Your cohort has all their classes together. Program policy. Pedagogy on Monday. Workshop on Tuesday. And Forms of Fiction on Thursday. Your first time up for workshop is the second week of classes, because your professor just goes in alphabetical order, and Elizabeth Alwes is first on the roster. You find you’re thankful for the day off in between classes. Even before workshop starts, you plan to drink yourself stupid after. First years spend the year tutoring undergrads in the writing center rather than teaching classes, and you luck out with having Wednesdays completely off. You can spend the day in hungover glory.

Your classmates call that first story, about a woman’s depression after a miscarriage, on the nose and structurally flawed. You don’t know if you would go that far, but you jot down notes as they speak around you. They like the voice, the second-person narrative. There are a few strong comments, muddled in between longwinded personal connections to the story that aren’t constructive. The workshop devolves from there into overzealous attempts to rewrite the story from different perspectives. Everyone’s suggestions feel like how they would prefer to see the story if they wrote it, not how you should rewrite it in your own style. Isaac gave you some good comments at the start on how to strengthen the conflict, but he controls the latter half of the discussion, as he is particularly vocal about rewriting your story full of sobbing and fist pounding, how he can’t relate to the second person because, as a man, he can’t lose a pregnancy. Really give the reader that sense of loss and betrayal she’s feeling towards her own body, you know? he adds with a smile very different from his smile at the party. Harder. Condescending, even. Like he knows more than you ever possibly could.

Shideh and some of the other woman try to get a word in, but Isaac and Andrew and the other men in the class talk over them. You raise your hand at one point, to ask the professor if you could hear from them instead, but the professor waves you away. Authors are not to speak during workshop, he reminds you. No questions.

It’s no surprise, really, when you drink your way through half a bottle of tequila that night, with just the barest amount of margarita mix swirled in to choke the liquor down. You don’t even regret the hangover.

You spend Wednesday going through your classmates’ typed-up comments and feeling terrible about yourself. Until you get to Shideh’s. I lost a child, a few years ago, she wrote. Before I had my daughter. I think you capture the sense of loss well, in every aspect of the woman’s life, without beating us over the head with it. It felt real, to me, at least. Lean into that realness—it feels distinctive of your voice, in particular.

You try not to dwell too much on how they would’ve been more helpful if she had been able to voice them last night. You keep working your way through her suggestions. The rest of her comments are detailed, constructive, genuinely helpful. You write her an email, to thank her for sharing her experience and for her feedback.

*

There are readings hosted on the first Friday night of each month. You go to the first one but don’t sign up to read. Instead you sit in the back, and let your classmates’ words wash over you, worm their way inside your brain and spark new ideas of your own. The second reading, in October, you sign up to read the revised version of your story about the woman who miscarried.

You expanded your research, cleaned up your prose, streamlined the plot and integrated the husband, allowing his pain to build off of hers and strengthen the story as a whole, to show that, yes, men are affected by miscarriages too. You keep the second person. The words flow as you read them, and you can tell you have the attention of the crowded living room your cohort is packed into. They clap when you finish. Your knees feel weak. You don’t want to delude yourself, but does the applause sound louder for you than it did for the poet and the essayist? Does it matter?

Shideh passes you your drink when you take your seat, a huge smile on her lips. She pokes you in the ribs when you take a sip.

I’m glad you took some of my suggestions.

I’m glad you sent me your comments, you reply.

The rest of the readings are uneventful. Isaac reads an excerpt from his novel he workshopped a few weeks ago. The prose is meandering. You can’t find a thread to cling to, and instead all you hear is his voice, its warbles and pauses, not the words he’s speaking. The story didn’t sound bad when he described it in class. You weren’t sure this excerpt was the most effective selection to dive in with in workshop. His choice in reading it only reinforces this for you. It doesn’t sound like he made any changes, and you can’t hold on to his slippery words.

You ask Shideh, later, if she knows if his book sold well. Shideh says he mentioned it being on the bestseller list at some point, but she hasn’t been able to find any evidence of that. He hears this, and says it’s represented by an imprint of HarperCollins, of course it’s on the bestseller list. Luke, a nonfiction student, rolls his eyes as Isaac pulls out his phone, opening Amazon in the web browser. Look, he says, waving the phone towards those of you clustered on the couch. You can make out the listing page, a book cover, but not much else. He’s moving it too fast. You don’t know what it’s supposed to prove.

Later, Isaac tries to catch your attention in the kitchen. Probably to defend himself and his book, like he always seems to be doing. You pull on your coat and slip out the door, thankful for the cool air of the October night after the heat of so many bodies packed into a single floor of a small house.

You didn’t park too far away, just down the street two blocks and around the corner. It’s only a ten-minute drive back to your apartment. You tap out a text to your roommate, telling her you’re on your way back.

After you press send, you notice the footsteps behind you. In step with yours, a few paces back. Your keys are in the pocket of your coat. Your fingers curl around them. Your breath puffs in front of your face in white, crystalized clouds. Cars line either side of the street. Some are your cohorts. Some are residents. The person could be going to anyone of them.

You don’t look behind you. The footsteps follow at a steady pace, matching yours step for step. Your car is just ahead, right around the corner.

You unlock only the driver door with the key fob when it comes into sight. The footsteps follow you around the corner. You heart pounds in your ears as you wrench the door open, slide into the seat, and slam the lock button as you start the car.

You can see him, standing on the sidewalk. Maybe a car length away. Isaac, in an open coat tossed over his starched white button down and corduroy pants. Hands tucked in his pockets. Just watching you as you pull away. A shiver clutches the back of your neck the whole drive home. You text Shideh as soon as you lock your apartment door behind you. The lone deadbolt doesn’t feel like enough.

*

He texted you, you see the next morning. Over Facebook Messenger, because he doesn’t have your phone number. Hope you weren’t too weirded out. Just wanted to make sure you got back to your car safe!

You read the message and read it again. If he wanted to make sure you were safe, why didn’t he offer to walk you to your car? Why didn’t he say anything?

*

Shideh tells you to report the incident, but you’re not sure anyone will take you seriously. It happened off campus, and his text message seems innocent enough. Maybe he made a bad decision, in not calling out to you, but is that really worth involving the police over? It’s not like he hurt you.

But he could’ve, Shideh reminds you.

He messages you again, undeterred by your nonresponse to his first one. Something in the piece you read the other really struck me, he wrote. The narrative was particularly inventive.

The same narrative he disparaged in class just a few weeks ago.

*

You have another piece up for workshop. A story you wrote years ago and have never let anyone see. A not-a-love-story about a woman’s exploring and reclaiming her sexuality after she’d been raped. You worry you don’t do the subject justice, that it verges on graphic. But your class seems to love it, at least compared to your first story. They offer constructive criticism, sure, but they also start their critiques with more positivity than you’ve heard in months. This is so raw, Amy says, it’s exactly what we need.

It’s exacting, Grace adds. Relentless. There’s just a few places you could hone that even further.

Even Shideh speaks up, usually so quiet. I think you strike the right balance here, between encouraging the reader to confront something uncomfortable and still making the characters feel human.

Those three go on, offering feedback, bouncing off each other’s ideas. Maybe it’s the subject matter. You’ve done what you thought was impossible during your first workshop. Effectively silenced most of the men.

Isaac raises his hand. His praise is succinct and useful, his critiques focused on stylistic things like the lack of dialogue. So different from how he normally starts workshop, jumping right into sharp criticisms.

You walk with Shideh to her car, parked in a lot halfway between your classroom and the lot you parked your own car in, another half-mile away. It’s late, but the parking lots are well lit.

Once you reach the edge of the lot, you hear footsteps behind you again. It’s probably other students, just heading towards their cars. You glance back this time, just slightly, make it look like you’re checking your water bottle is secured in its pocket on the side of your backpack. It is, and you recognize the plaid scarf and coat Isaac threw over his shoulders before departing class. The same coat he had on the other night.

He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t pass you or fall back or make any effort to talk to you. He just follows. His arms swing by his side. His head bobs as he walks. His long legs easily keep up with yours. You keep your eyes forward, on the backs of the two women in front of you who laugh about something that happened in their class. On the canvas of their backpacks, you picture him. You catch up to them, only a few strides behind, and slow down. You don’t want to pass them.

Your shoulders scrunch towards your ears as you make yourself smaller. Maybe he’ll walk away. Maybe he just parked in the same lot. But he knows you—why wouldn’t he say something, or catch up and walk with you? You keep pace with the women in front of you, staying just a few paces behind. He won’t try anything, you hope, if there are other people right there.

You keep moving, towards the parking lot and your car. Other people catch up, passing and shuffling and bumping shoulders with apologies and half smiles. Isaac stays back. Following. Watching.

Your car is just ahead, parked next to a floodlight. The blue paint glints in the harsh white light. You don’t feel safe, even with your keys in hand and only your driver side door unlocked. When you push the lock button as soon as you get in, it doesn’t feel like enough. Like the deadbolt on your apartment door. As you fumble with your keys in the ignition, you wonder what would’ve happened if there hadn’t been so many people around. If he would’ve grabbed you. Hurt you, like Shideh keeps reminding you he could.

Isaac is standing on the sidewalk, unmoving. Watching as you drive away.

*

There’s a message from him on Facebook when you get back to your apartment. Hey, I don’t know if this came across, but I loved the story you submitted for class tonight. I hope you look over my comments. The way you navigate through sex and rape is fascinating. I’d love to talk to you about it more, really dig into that. Could be good for future stories :p

You’ve talked to him a little—since his last messages, the ones you ignored after the reading; he’s asked you about assignments for Forms or what your small group was doing for a project in pedagogy. You would answer those, always friendly. God forbid you alienate someone you’ll have to work with for the next three years. But responding to this feels wrong, like how you felt when you thought about responding to the first message he sent weeks ago. Like anything you say will only make things worse. You leave him on read and pour yourself a large glass of wine. You lock your bedroom door.

He doesn’t message you anything else. Not like the first time, when he said he wanted to make sure you got back to your car safely.

Shideh is firm when you text her about the message. You have to report this.

*

You spend Wednesday researching your options. You decide not to file a complaint with on-campus police. Title IX seems like a better option. It’s an on-campus office. All reports are confidential. They can provide mediation and access to counseling services in the event of stalking or sexual harassment or violence. As Shideh keeps reminding you, what Isaac is doing definitely counts.

You submit a Title IX complaint, detailing both instances of him following you. You think to mention the messages, too, but decide it seems excessive. Those feel less serious, somehow. Like you probably read them the wrong way. Complaints are supposed to be confidential; that makes you feel better. You convince yourself there’s a chance no one will ever look at the complaint, despite not finding evidence online to prove this. It makes you feel better.

Shideh reminds you it’s the right thing to do, when you text her and tell her it’s done. She invites you to dinner that night at the townhouse she rents with her husband. When you decline—politely, you promised to cover online tutoring hours tonight—she insists on a rain check. She wants you to know she’s there for you.

In the meantime, you focus on your students. It’s midterms season, and the writing center is full of desperate undergrads trying to write research papers. They appreciate your feedback, respond to your smile and the tiny Hershey bars you offer each of them. Some of them even come back, when their papers get returned, and thank you for your help and their As and Bs.

It takes three weeks to hear anything about the Title IX complaint. And even then, it doesn’t come from the office that handles them. It comes from the head of the English department. Not the director of the MFA. Above even his head.

Her name is Martha. She signs her email just like that, with only her first name. She asks to schedule a meeting with you, at your earliest convenience. She’s personally interested in hearing more about this and seeing what can be done about the situation.

You schedule the meeting for that afternoon. Figuring it would limit your time to panic about what you’ll say. The uncertainty churns in your stomach anyway, until acid burns the back of your throat. You gnaw at the skin around your fingernails until they’re raw.

*

Martha’s office is lined with bookshelves, each one packed with books. You recognize a few famous names, many iconic titles, and several moderately famous graduates of the MFA and MA programs. The rest are obscure short story collections, craft books, pedagogy books, memoirs, everything you could ask for. You hope for a moment to have a library like this one day, an office like this. Then Martha leans forward in her chair and thanks you for meeting with her on such short notice.

Elizabeth, she says, her brown bobbed hair framing her wide face and square glasses. I want you to tell me everything.

You tell her about both times he followed you. You mention Isaac by name. That he made you feel unsafe, both times. That you don’t even feel comfortable in your own apartment, even though you’re pretty sure he doesn’t know where you live. How the women in your workshop already don’t get to talk much, but you try even less, because you don’t want to interact with him in any way. Then you show her the Facebook messages. And tell her how disgusting it made you feel—about yourself, your work. How horrible you’ve felt ever since, sitting alone at night and worrying if he followed you back from class.

She listens and asks questions where appropriate, and then she says something that loosens the breath you’ve been holding tight in your lungs for weeks.

We have protocols in place for this exact situation. There will be a Title IX investigation, and we’ll have to sit down with Isaac and issue a warning. We can’t remove him from the program for a first offense, even for an honor code violation, unless the Title IX investigation comes back with something really concerning. But I believe you, and something certainly needs to be done about this.

She tells you Title IX should contact you within the week, that in the meantime you shouldn’t walk anywhere alone after class. Then she apologizes, that it has to be this way.

We’ll make sure something is done about this, I promise, she says as she sees you out.

*

You meet with Lauren from Title IX on Thursday. She basically tells you the same things as Martha and asks what sort of action you’d like her to take. She can file paperwork against him saying he can’t contact you, or let your professors know there have been issues with him and to be on the lookout. Either way, he would know it was you who reported him.

So much for anonymity.

You say you’ll have to think about both, and you’ll let her know.

You leave wondering if paperwork would stop him, or if he’d only continue, emboldened if he knew you’ve already made one complaint and nothing serious has happened. You’d still have to share classes with him and work with him in the tutoring center. And then what—if he talks to you, you report him again? To what end?

*

He messages you again, after your last story of the semester is up for workshop the following week. You submitted another story about sex, one less emotional and more about a woman going through her life reflecting on her sexual partners. Sort of like Carmen Maria Machado, but less speculative. You debated with yourself for days over whether to submit it, but you like the story and you’ve found people in the class whose feedback you trust. Not just Shideh’s, but Grace’s and Oliver’s and Ethan’s, too.

But then he messages you. A long paragraph. Rambling, like his prose. He asks, outright, somewhere in the midst of it all, if you’re writing these stories just to turn him on.

These are your fantasies, aren’t they? Do you know what you’re doing to me? Would you like getting fucked against walls?

You screenshot the message and email it to both Lauren and Martha. You can’t turn off read receipts on Facebook. You turn your phone off instead.

*

He’s not in Forms Thursday night. Maybe he’s meeting with Martha. You hope.

You leave your email open the whole three hours, refreshing every few minutes while your professor talks about key craft elements of flash fiction. Nothing from Martha or Lauren comes through.

By the end of class, you convince yourself he’s probably just sick. Half your cohort is sniffling.

*

The semester is winding down. The campus is dusted by its first snow in late November. There’s only one more week of classes, and then you have to stay through finals week for the writing center. And that’s it. First semester of the MFA done.

There’s another party Friday night, before finals week. A reading and a sendoff to the semester, to celebrate the end of classes. You decide not to go. Instead Shideh, Grace, and Amy come over to your apartment, and you put on a movie and you all share lines from some stories you’re working on, bent over the screens of your laptops. It’s a quiet Friday night, but you like this better.

One of your classmates texts you late in the evening. A video they recorded of Isaac, clearly drunk, reading a story. It’s sexual, graphic. As he reads, describing the characters through detailed sexual imagery, it’s clear he’s describing a character that looks like you, right down to the mole by your eye. And the man—him. Brown hair. Corduroys. That plaid scarf he wears. The character even quotes lines from your last story, mocking you. Who else could it be?

Shideh gags on the couch beside you. He can’t be serious.

Amy and Grace share a look. You’re going to report this, right? Amy asks.

I don’t know, you say. I haven’t heard anything from Lauren for weeks.

You thought it was just part of the process. It would take time for Lauren or Martha to meet with him, if that’s what they were going to do. And you never told Lauren you wanted a no contact order. There may have been nothing she could have done.

But shouldn’t she have told you that?

Don’t wait for them to do something. Report it, Shideh says, firm.

You fumble with your phone. It feels wrong, to save the video to your gallery. To have something so lewd right there, where anyone could find it. But it’s the only way you can send it to Martha and Lauren.

Though part of you wonders if it’s pointless, you flag the email urgent, hope they’ll check their inboxes before the end of the weekend. Shideh can’t stay—she needs to get home to relieve her husband of their daughter before he heads in to work. But Grace and Amy both offer to sleep over, if it helps you feel better. It does, for that night. But they have to leave Saturday afternoon, to run errands and work on revisions. The apartment feels empty without them. You barricade yourself in your bathroom, run a hot bath and toss a bath bomb in for good measure. Light a candle. Plan to soak for at least an hour, read a book for fun for once. But the sight of your naked body drags up Isaac’s words all over again, and you taste bile. You drain the tub and spend the afternoon cold and huddled under your covers.

*

Martha emails you after you sent her the screenshot of his message, and again after the video, to ask to meet with you Monday morning. Her lips are pressed into a tight line, her eyes grim behind her glasses.

I’m sorry, Elizabeth, she says. We spoke to Isaac about the story this morning. He’s adamant it’s not about you. There’s really nothing else we can do. This is creative work, and any semblance it bears to reality—well, we can’t go off that. It’s subjective. I’m sure you understand. It wouldn’t be fair to our students, to limit their creative freedom.

Your throat is dry. Sandpaper. You want to say that isn’t fair—he’s reading you into your work and harassing you over it. He used your own words in his story. Martha keeps talking—apologizing, telling you to ride it out and report his behavior if he takes more direct action against you.

What constitutes direct action? Are his messages, you find yourself asking. Or does he have to touch you? Hurt you? A shudder wracks your shoulders. Martha notices.

I really am sorry, she says. She at least sounds sympathetic. The only thing we can do about the messages is have you fill out a no contact order. Otherwise, our hands are tied, but we’ll keep an eye on the situation.

In the meantime, she continues, have a great winter break.

*

You get one more message from Isaac. The Tuesday during finals week. It pops up on your phone.

That story you turned in a few weeks was hardly fiction, I’m sure. Or is this all a game to you? Lead me on and call in the department head when you can’t handle the shit you stir up. It’s not a fun game, Elizabeth. Someone’s going to get hurt.

The locks on your front door and bedroom door don’t feel like enough. You close them anyway, seeking security, and wrap yourself in a thick blanket before pulling out your laptop. Your fingers walk across the keyboard, the trackpad, punching in your password. The revision you were working on is open. You need to finish it, along with the others, and turn them in. Instead, you close the file, and open the internet. Type in the address for United. You scroll through flights. The costs are exorbitant. You never planned on going home for break. Now the only thing you want is to curl up in your childhood bedroom, under the comforter that smells like your mom’s favorite fabric softener, and sleep until the snow melts.

As you debate whether to book one of the flights, you open Facebook in another tab, to see if your mom has posted anything about decorating the house for Christmas yet. At the bottom of the screen, there’s the rectangular message box with his name on it. You mean to close it but miss the x in the corner. The chat window opens. Only, instead of his messages, even the one you saw just a few minutes ago when it popped up on your phone, there’s an error message. This user is unavailable.

You search his name, scroll through your friends list. He’s no longer listed. He must have blocked you.

A knot forms in your throat. You feel like you’re going to be sick. Now what? He could do anything—post about you being some crazy bitch who almost got him kicked out of graduate school or plaster that story he wrote all over Facebook or Wattpad—if he hasn’t already. The only way you would know is if someone in your program thought to tell you.

You could email Martha and Lauren, but you know what they’ll say. There’s nothing they can do. A no contact order would be useless, if he’s blocked you. And if you asked your professors to keep an eye on his behavior in class, they would just assume you’re the woman who is so self-absorbed, she read herself into her classmate’s work. What kind of writer does that make you?

Exiting Facebook, you scour the flight list in the other tab. There’s one leaving Friday with a few seats left. Six hundred dollars and one could be yours. You add it to your cart. Shut your laptop. Pull your blanket tighter around you.

Your phone pings from your desk.

About the Author

Rebecca Burke

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Rebecca Burke is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University. Her fiction has appeared in Awakened Voices and Homology Lit, and her nonfiction has appeared in the Nasiona. You can follow her on Twitter @BeccaBurke95.