I’m in a low chair in Eugenia Fitz’s office after workshop, wondering if I’m about to get kicked out of school.
“This is better discussed alone,” she says in a husky voice that sounds even sexier when stern, especially in her hybrid femme-masc all-black getup of wool blazer, silk dress, men’s knee-high socks, and leather loafers. I saw her as a gay icon when I started Top University’s MFA program last semester—Cher with a Pulitzer instead of an Oscar—until she put me on academic probation after I failed my workshop. Now I don’t know what to think of her; still a gay icon I guess, except more of a Cruella.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I reply.
“The duplicity,” is all she says, her speech as concise as her prose.
Eugenia stands in front of me and leans a hand on her desk while holding a copy of my workshop story in the other. It’s marked up in a gauche primary red, not like the luscious vermilion on her nails. I want to fawn over them but I resist, knowing she’d interpret anything I say as a clumsy attempt at flattery.
“To stoop this low,” she continues, shaking her head. “I saw no sign of this intransigence in your application. I rooted for you.”
Maybe she’s Tyra, the gay icon who can take you to the top as long as you’re willing to get shat on along the way.
I hide my face in my palms. “I really don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s like my brain’s broken.”
“This hurts me too, but you can’t flout our rules. It’s unfair to everyone else.”
Definitely Tyra, except Tyra would say “flaunt” incorrectly instead of “flout.”
I look up at her. “I’m really trying so hard.”
“I don’t know, Tristan. What kind of monster would resort to this?” She points at my story.
“I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“Not that bad? No one in our program has ever used leading and kerning to get within the page requirement.”
Maybe no one else spent a year interning at Vogue before joining the program, I want to say, but I keep quiet. After so many hours of digitally trimming thighs and waists, I thought that was all I was doing with my story. The manuscript was so close, just four pages over the twenty-page limit, 12-point Times New Roman, one-inch margins, double-spaced. But the guidelines did not specify the space between letters, and I figured 1.82 space still rounded up to two. Even as I secretly laid out my story in InDesign rather than Word, then circulated it as a PDF so no one could tell, I knew in my nethers it was wrong. But I was sure I’d get away with it until one of the cishet dudes in class pointed out the weird spacing in my story, and Eugenia must have been embarrassed she didn’t catch it first.
“One last chance,” she says as she throws me the unstapled pages, half of which I end up scooping out of the floor. “If your next submission isn’t within range, you’ll have to leave the program.”
The right choice would have obviously been to edit the story to fit the page limit, but the problem was that it had already been edited down to twenty-four pages from an original forty. This was the heart of the issue, that ever since I started the program I couldn’t seem to draft a story shorter than forty pages, my brain rebelling after too many hot takes and listicles. Yet I was also unable to conceive of anything longer than sixty pages, which was the low end of Top University’s definition of a novella. Then I could workshop my piece as an excerpt. But tragically, all my stories fell into the no-person’s-land of thirty-five to fifty pages, which the program deemed unsubmittable, which was why I failed my workshop last semester, which is why I’m on probation, which is why I can’t fail my workshop this semester or else I’ll be kicked out of school, which is why I played with the leading and kerning of my story, which is why I’m in Eugenia Fitz’s office about to get expelled.
“One last chance,” she says as she throws me the unstapled pages, half of which I end up scooping out of the floor. “If your next submission isn’t within range, you’ll have to leave the program.”
Lily is waiting on a bench outside Eugenia’s office when I come out. She’s my only friend at Top University, named after its Dutch-born founder Edward Top, which I chuckled about until it dawned on me that the program was not-in-a-good-way fucking me in the ass. Lily and I get workshopped on the same day three times each semester, but her workshops always go well. Her stories are all so well-paced and wind up clocking in at an ideal seventeen pages, tuned to the utmost precision like a Versace runway show. I would kick her shin if she weren’t the only person in the program who’s nice to me.
“Did you want to see me Lily?” Eugenia asks, in a tone that teeters between you’re-so-wonderful and isn’t-all-the-praise-you-get-enough? I don’t think our professor considers Lily competition, but I do wonder sometimes whether she feels the same urge I do, to say something vile to this girl just for shits and giggles. But Lily is too brilliant and nice, not to mention waify-sweet like Katie Holmes in Wonder Boys except blonde, down to the tweed jacket with elbow patches that only work on her because she’s low-key hot. Being mean to Lily would only expose one’s ultimate pettiness, which I imagine is why both of us resist.
“No, just waiting for Tristan,” she says with a skewed grin. The two of us walk down the This Is Lit! building corridor to the campus’s main courtyard before we start talking, just to make sure we’re out of earshot of you-know-who.
“You ready for my help?” Lily asks after she sidles next to my violet beaver coat for warmth—no one but her knows it’s real—and I give Lily the rundown of how much trouble I’m in. She’s been offering for months, but I really hate people touching my work. I have no idea why she sticks with me; not only am I the pariah of the department but I’m also the most resistant to feedback. You’d think Louboutin dress shoes could get a girl places in this world, but in an MFA program, it just means you’re not serious, that your attempts at social comedy are clumsy and overlong compared to their psychological subtlety. Their stories are like the fancy electric kettle in the department kitchen that parses minute differences in water temperature—ten degrees warmer for Earl Grey than for oolong—when all I want is my fucking tea!
I’ve done this rant with Lily, yet she is still my friend. She’s loyal that way, and always looking for rehabilitation projects. She has a senior rescue poodle who has conjunctivitis and needs ointment rubbed in her eyes twice a day. I am the human equivalent. Also, it’s so obvious she’s the favorite that she doesn’t have to worry about being associated with me.
I walk her through the idea for my next story, an autofictional tale about being on academic probation in an MFA writing program starring this Tristan idiot who can’t get any of his stories to be the right length.
“Ef is the antagonist of course”—Ef is my nickname for Eugenia in the story, because of her initials but also as in ef you—” and you’re my main ally, but I was thinking I should also do character studies of everyone in class.”
“Everyone?” Lily asks, “as in, ten other people?”
“Yeah, with all our dysfunctional stories and weird hobby horses; I think it’ll be fun.”
“And more than twenty pages but less than sixty.”
I sigh. “Why does length have to dictate narrative form? Why can’t stories have looser parameters so it can more accurately capture life?”
“You think fiction is life?” She giggles. “That’s like saying a Fabergé egg is the hardboiled egg you had for breakfast.”
I fail to understand her analogy even when she extrapolates at length, but I’m pretty sure I know what she means when she says I have to build the texture of the story out of a limited set of characters, because that’s what the short story form can contain.
“Rather than dealing with the lives of thirteen characters total, find a way to explore tensions among your three characters,” she says.
“So maybe we should date?”
“Tristan,” she replies with a headshake, “you’re the one who told me you’re gay like rainbow sprinkles.”
“No, just in the story. I already set Ef up as my antagonist and you as my friend so I can’t add a lover character like I was planning to.”
“Ew, don’t turn yourself straight. Just turn me into a man.”
Lily and her blue-eyed solidity would make a great man—Brad Pitt meets River Phoenix (RIP) meets Heath Ledger (RIP). I go back to my apartment and turn her into Lucas on the page, and just with that shift, there are now two gay men in our program instead of one
This is why Lily is so good at this psychological realism business. She knows exactly what to keep real and what to fictionalize. Lily and her blue-eyed solidity would make a great man—Brad Pitt meets River Phoenix (RIP) meets Heath Ledger (RIP). I go back to my apartment and turn her into Lucas on the page, and just with that shift, there are now two gay men in our program instead of one, and we couldn’t be more different even though we’ve somehow ended up in a relationship. This solves the basic problem in my original idea that the reader might think I’m outcast because of homophobia, which is the most boring reason in the world. In this version, there’s no possibility that homophobia is the reason the program thinks I’m such a fuckup. The reason I’m a fuckup is just me.
I put together a quick draft of a scene just like the one between me and Lily, except that Lily is Lucas, who apart from being my only friend in the program is someone I’m also dating. This draft has juicier background about how we were scared of getting together at first, since it would suck if we broke up, but Lucas couldn’t help but find my haplessness endearing, yet also manages to always turn in stories with perfect word count. I’m scared that Lucas will leave me if I continue being such a mess, which gives me extra motivation to turn in a fifteen-to-twenty-page draft for next workshop, and allows me to swallow my pride when I finally agree to get help from him after Ef threatens to expel me.
I send Lily the scene over email late that night, and my phone pings with a text from her right as I’m falling asleep.
“This is good. But for the record, I’d never leave you just because you can’t write a seventeen-page story.”
It turns out all I needed was that nudge from Lily to keep going, so I let her know the next day that I can finish the story on my own and will only bother her if I run into trouble. The next scene is set the following week, with Lucas getting on the bus and making his way toward me while the vehicle climbs toward Top University. We talked about moving in together the following year before I ended up on probation, but I told Lucas he better get an apartment on his own before he could bring the matter up himself. I didn’t want to feel patronized or worse, a burden, if Lucas still insisted on getting an apartment together and I ended up needing to leave. But the worst would be if Lucas told me instead of the other way around that it would be better for us to get places on our own.
“How’s the story going?” Lucas asks after he gives me a kiss.
“Is it okay if we don’t talk about it?” He nods and puts my hand onto the lap of his tan corduroys, like Robert Redford in his prime, which of course makes me Barbra in The Way We Were. I know exactly what I’m doing when I turn down my mouth, or rather, the corners of my mouth turn themselves down, knowing without my explicit instruction that I’m not ready to tell him my draft is finished and it’s seventeen pages. I got so excited that I sent it to Ef after midnight last night, who replied this morning and summoned me to her office.
It couldn’t be anything but good news, right? Maybe she plans to lift my probation and wants to tell me in person. I’m not ready to tell Lucas yet whatever it might be; I shouldn’t have sent Ef the draft in the first place. What I should have done was savor those precious two weeks before the story’s due to marvel over finally figuring out how to have a mind that’s capable of meeting expectations that didn’t make sense to me.
“You don’t have class, do you?” Lucas asks when he stands to get out at the This Is Lit! stop.
“Just going to the library.”
Lucas should be suspicious because I have not entered the library since I started at Top—I only read on iPad—but it’s part of his charm that his default stance toward the world is one of trust. I get off at the next stop and begin walking back to This Is Lit!, knowing that Lucas would already be in his class. I take the marble steps up to Ef’s corner office on the second floor.
“Not the time to be late,” Ef says, and motions for me to sit on the same low chair from the week before. But instead of standing over me while she leans on her desk, Ef rolls her office chair around and we end up sitting at eye-level.
“You’re making me nervous,” I say.
“Seventeen pages.” She shakes her head twice before she raps on the sheaf of paper in her hand. “Where has this writer been? And the story itself, well, it’s very good.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“The right number of characters, the rising tension, the tangible stakes,” she says while she scans through the pages. “And turning Lily into Lucas is brilliant.”
“That was her idea.”
Both fictional and IRL Eugenia nod. “I’m not surprised. Emotional complexity is like blinking to that girl. Just with that one shift, the idea that you’re in trouble because you’re gay is rendered moot.”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking.”
“Because we love Lucas so much, and he’s not only gay but also disabled”—I gave Lucas a limp in the drafting stage—” then it’s clear that the reason he’s thriving is because he knows how to deliver a well-paced story that clocks in between forty-five hundred and six thousand words.”
“Yes, he certainly does. Or Lily does. Sorry, I’m not sure if we’re talking about the story or real life.”
“That’s another thing,” the Eugenias say. “The autofiction. It’s so trendy.”
“It’s not why—”
“As you know the last three National Book Award winners have all been for books with autofictional elements.”
“Actually I didn’t—”
“Smart to hitch your trailer to that horse while it’s still kicking,” she says. “In fact, I bet my editor at Atlantis Review would love this.”
I’m confused again. “Are you quoting from the manuscript or…” Fictional Eugenia says this exact line in my story, so I’m not sure how much she means it.
“I mean the real Atlantis Review.”
She rolls back to her desk and tells me she’s writing a note to give the editor a heads up that she’ll be passing along my story soon. I try to take stock while she types. I did hope that this meeting would be about lifting my probation, but my real dream was that she would send my story to that fabled literary journal Eugenia herself is so proud of name-dropping; people joke that it’s called Atlantis because your chances of getting in are about the same as finding the mythical city. Eugenia is especially fond of talking about their exclusive parties she goes to every season as one of their frequent contributors. And now the dream is coming true.
After she sends the email, Eugenia hands me back my draft and says, “I have some tweaks, but they shouldn’t affect the length of the story.” And even though I’m already clenching my teeth over having to incorporate her revisions, I remind myself that she’s my ticket to publication and fame.
I put on my most Oliver Twisty expression before I say: “I’m worried the whole down-in-the-dumps character ending up on top might be too cliché.”
Eugenia shrugs in a gender-ambiguous manner. “The best stories are clichés framed in gold.”
I work on the revision as instructed, but I’m worried the story has turned in a direction neither Lily nor Lucas would like. They are the program’s darlings, and they take their position in the pecking order for granted. I have no idea how Lily would react to the possibility of me getting published in Atlantis Review, how it would affect her if her poodle charity case surpasses her. But I do have control over Lucas’s choices, and I know the right thing to do would be to make ones that heighten the emotional drama of the story, this Fabergé egg that Lily herself has instructed me not to confuse for the real thing.
In the story, he comes over to my apartment for dinner the night before our workshop. We usually get takeout, so he looks puzzled when he comes into my studio and finds me a little tipsy from having had some of the vin in the coq au vin I made in my teal Le Creuset braiser, which I set on my CB2 bistro table and serve on vintage Wedgwood china.
“What’s happening?” Lucas asks. “I thought your cookware was just decor.”
“This is me thanking you for your help with my story.”
“I barely helped; I’m just relieved you’re not getting kicked out.”
This is the moment to tell him about Ef’s offer to pass the story on to Atlantis, but she hasn’t mentioned it since she brought it up so I’m not even sure it’s real. No use upsetting the dessert cart when I’m not even sure I’ll be offered dessert to begin with.
“And we’re keeping up our Demilitarized Zone?” he asks. We recently learned that “Chinese Wall” is racist so we’ve been workshopping a replacement term. Not sure DMZ’s gonna stick but it’s the best we have right now.
We promised each other when we started dating that we wouldn’t talk about our stories before class, just so we wouldn’t end up pre-workshopping in bed.
“Of course,” I reply. We promised each other when we started dating that we wouldn’t talk about our stories before class, just so we wouldn’t end up pre-workshopping in bed. So even though Lucas’s story is about a female Marine who can’t pass her fitness test until her girlfriend helps her train—an obvious riff on our relationship dynamic—it’s not something I can bring up with him, so I gnaw on a chicken leg to vent my frustration. It’s embarrassing that the character based on me can’t even do ten pushups, but I’m not going to complain about it because no, Crista is not Tristan. So Lucas should understand that the guy in the story isn’t really him, but a character based on him who makes choices that fit the short story form.
“Let’s go out and continue the celebration,” I propose after our last bite.
We walk to the closest gay club a half mile away, which takes advantage of its collegetown status and calls itself Jock, where Lucas’s lavender button-down and my Alexander McQueen tartan suspenders clash with the campus aesthetic. But we get drunk on cherry jello shots nonetheless, and find ourselves with our dicks out in a bathroom stall, which has these hooded overhead bulbs like the interrogation room at a police precinct. Lucas kneels and ends up under one of those lights while my coq—or rather my cock—is in his mouth with my back against the wooden door. I get a good view of his dirty poolwater eyes and see such a look of disdain; he has pent-up feelings about my story. I almost recoil except it’s hot, him having this dark edge I didn’t know about before. He’s usually careful about keeping his teeth away from my shaft, but I notice his incisors scrape against me while his head bobs up and down. But instead of complaining, I find myself into it and I feel a newfound confidence that moves me to thrust upward and fuck his face instead of just being a passive receiver, fuck his face like a man whose story is the perfect length. The thought of it made me come.
Lucas goes first at workshop the next afternoon, and like always, everyone praises his impeccable pacing and meticulous research into the intimate lives of lesbian Marines.
“Another home run, Lucas,” Ef says in conclusion. “Soon you’ll have yourself a collection.”
I can’t fail to observe his who me? expression that causes the words humble and sweet to follow him around, the collateral goodies one amasses when one is already fortunate enough to be both talented and in possession of loving parents who were in tears hugging him when they found out he was gay, rather than a thrice-divorced mom who enrolled me in cosmetology school so I can do her makeup. I can’t wait to witness his face when he experiences my biggest reveal of all time.
“Let’s move on to Tristan’s story, ‘The Ideal Length’,” Ef says. “What are some positive things we can say about it?”
“It’s actually seventeen pages,” says Frank the cishet snot who ratted me out last workshop. It occurs to me that maybe my pariah status really is just latent homophobia. Maybe my voluminosity is seen as a sign of decadence and excess, whereas Frank would be a tortured soul if he were to write stories that are too long. Maybe people would see them as diamonds in the rough waiting to be sharpened like Gordon Lish did with Raymond Carver, and not piles upon piles of excrement like they do with mine.
Though I resent Frank less when he goes on to say that my story manages to be emotionally complex like a realist story but also structurally deft like experimental fiction.
“I agree,” says Cerise, our one Black workshop member whose opinion everyone privileges for fear of being seen as unwoke, or is there a term for that? They’re afraid of being seen as slept. “It’s both avant-garde and subtle.” Her approval always means a workshop’s going well.
“And the ending really is well-handled,” Ef interjects.
The rest of the class strokes my ego for a while, and I picture myself as a gay warrior collecting armor for the inevitable bloodbath to follow because this is how workshop is structured. Everyone frontloads all the praise so that then you can’t accuse them of being mean-spirited when they tell you the only practical use for your pages is to wipe their asses, so that they can have the “Only writers who can take feedback can progress” moral high ground. There’s always a point when the ego-stroking exhausts itself and someone sings the ambivalent bridge in the form of “X is great but I’m not sure I like Y about it,” then the pile-on begins. It’s exquisite really, like a Taylor Swift song, including my revenge of getting published before any of them.
In this case, it’s Lucas who has the honor of singing the ambivalent bridge, a bold move since he’s implicated. “All the jokes made me lol”—he always pronounces lol spelled out l-o-l, which demonstrates his exactitude even when he attempts to be casual—“but I’m worried they’re too insider baseball.” Why am I so attracted to mascs and their sports references? He calls out Taylor specifically and asks if it would be better if I use “country song” instead, which makes me want to break into a two-hour ditty about our future failed relationship.
“I forgot to mention,” Ef says with a smirk, “Workshop’s over because Tristan doesn’t need our critique. He’ll be getting edits from Atlantis Review.”
“Wait,” someone says, “You mean not just story Atlantis Review?”
“No. Real Atlantis Review.”
Yes. Me in Atlantis! Ef emailed me an hour ago to let me know, and told me to keep the big news secret. I’m going to be invited to the exclusive literary parties, where I’ll be one of the distinguished guests rather than a fluffer for Rihanna’s gown at the Met Gala red carpet.
The claps that follow are too enthusiastic, everyone smiling but not smizing, Lucas pretending that he knew all along. Someone mentions going to PhDiddy to celebrate, the local bar that caters to grad students, and Ef tells everyone to go ahead because she plans to use the extra time to go home and clean her vibrators. We leave the seminar room and amble out of This Is Lit! to begin the downhill walk toward the bar.
In the midst of me tripping on cobblestone and paying too much attention to adulation instead of the sidewalk, I look back and notice that Lucas has fallen behind. I excuse myself and wait for him, take his arm while we keep walking.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I don’t feel jealous,” he says. “Just betrayed.”
He explains that he’s happy I’m getting published in Atlantis Review and doesn’t feel ill-will because he knows his time will come, but what Lucas couldn’t stand was the humiliation of never having been told about it.
“I guess you don’t trust me as much as I thought you did,” he says while he unhooks my arm from his.
“Eugenia told me not to tell.”
“So she’s Eugenia now that she loves your work? What happened to Ef as in ‘Ef you’?”
“You’re being such a cliché character,” I say because I feel like we’re in one of those stupid romcoms we love to hate-watch, where the romantic interest always insists it’s not the secret that’s the problem, but the dishonesty, when we all know it’s the secret that’s the actual problem.
“You’re the one who’s writing the cliché,” Lucas replies.
He accuses me of conducting our relationship like a short story. Instead of being a logical human being and telling him about getting the story published, I instead do the cliché maneuver of raising the stakes to extract as much conflict as possible, which is why I chose to humiliate him in class when he finds out about my news along with everyone else. By the time he finishes his monologue, the others have already gone in and we find ourselves outside PhDiddy.
“Let me know when you’re ready for a real relationship, not some overcomplex dramedy where all the pathos is squeezed out for narrative effect,” he says, and keeps walking downhill.
“I’m glad you’re not the poor sport Lucas is,” I tell Lily when we enter PhDiddy together. The others are already sitting at a long table by one of the windows. A few of them wave to me, and I point to the bar to let them know we’re ordering drinks.
“So why didn’t you tell me the Atlantis Review thing was actually real?” Lily asks.
“I didn’t have time. I found out ten minutes before workshop.”
“Ten minutes is time.”
The bartender nods at me and I order us two MFA Martinis.
“The blow job half-scene was a great touch,” she continues. “And just so we’re clear, I’m not jealous. As Lucas himself said, my time will come.”
I wasn’t expecting this to be the reason she wasn’t jealous. I wonder what will happen to us if I continue to publish and Lily never does, or worse, if she ends up with a stellar career and all I can say for myself is I once got published in Atlantis Review.
“Did Ef tell you why she chose to pass on your story instead of one of mine?” she asks.
Here we go. The one time it’s about me and she makes it about her. “All Eugenia said was, ‘Talent is always imperfect.’”
“Anyway, I’m so glad you’re not really Lucas, and stupid career things won’t tear us apart.” The bartender puts our drinks on the counter.
“I’m glad you’re glad,” Lily says, then grabs her glass and turns toward the long table by the window, where my new frenemies await.
Meredith Talusan is a Filipino-American author and journalist. She is a contributing editor at them. and released her memoir Fairest in 2020, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. You can purchase copies of Fairest at One Grand Books.