It hurt more than it did the last time. Pain like this, Tabitha was told, was supposed to ease—the repetition of it toughening her heart, constructing an inner defense that could block and attack a known enemy. They lied.
If they focused on remembering the happiness of the pursuit and the relief in the survival, they wouldn’t have to give up and barricade themselves completely from life and all its sharp edges. But, at some time or another, Tabitha had been given the antidote, and she could feel no relief, no gratitude for the attempt. She was beyond that.
Resting her head atop her plushy couch, Tabitha watches the snow fall, sparkly and yellow in the glow of the streetlight, beauty amid the pile of shit that is her day.
Buzz. Buzz. Her cellphone skitters across the top of her end table, the screen illuminated. Based on its reflection in the window, Tabitha guesses it is a text message, and proves herself right with a glance.
PHOEBE: Are you okay, babe?
When Tabitha had first told her best friend Phoebe that her piece was rejected, Phoebe could’ve easily replied that Tabitha had gotten through much worse, and that she should just move on. Instead, she asked Tabitha how she was feeling, and when she responded “it felt like someone knocked the wind out of me,” Phoebe replied, “I’m sorry. It fucking sucks.”
No telling her to get over it, only the acknowledgement that her feelings were valid Tabitha needed in that moment. But, at this moment, no matter how much she appreciates Phoebe, what Tabitha needs now is nothing but quiet.
The truth is, Tabitha had been here before. On multiple occasions actually. At least thirty. Rejection was but an old friend of hers that greeted her with an overly enthusiastic hug and always—always—the refrain of “remember when?”
Of course Tabitha did, her mind cataloging mistakes and failure with the finesse of a hyper-organized archivist, who could find and pull a file before you could even finish saying what you wanted (if what you wanted was a film reel of your worst moment that is).
What Tabitha wanted—nay, needed—was a memory of why she kept doing this, sending query letters and submitting stories, if every time she did so, she was met with what felt like a chorus bellowing her inadequacy in full harmony.
Even her mentor, Naya, who had many a published story to her pen name, had thought so. “Rickshaw is a perfect fit for you,” Naya told her.
Tabitha had agreed, its eclectic, experimental, deeply human vibe a twin flame to her own. But then came the email:
We had many impressive submissions this cycle, including yours, but unfortunately, we are unable to accept your work. Please submit again next cycle.
Yes, 10 minutes ago, she hadn’t wanted to talk, but feelings like so many things—tulips, childhood, trends, dreams—are fleeting, and Tabitha reaches for her phone anyways.
TABITHA: Why do I keep doing this if it doesn’t matter?
Three oscillating dots appear.
PHOEBE: What do you mean?
TABITHA: I mean, at what point is a string of no’s no longer a sign of perseverance, but that it’s the time to call it quits?
PHOEBE: Don’t think that. You’re crazy talented.
TABITHA: That’s not what I asked.
Tabitha watches as Phoebe starts and stops her response twice before the bright blue bubble pops onto Tabitha’s screen.
PHOEBE: I know it’s not what you asked, but I still mean it. Yes, you can look at a rejection letter as a reason to give up, and if this was something you were half-assing, then I would say maybe you should because your heart wouldn’t be in it. But that’s not you.
TABITHA: It might be.
Tabitha’s not fishing for compliments.
She genuinely believes that she may not be cut out for this life. The feeling is drilled almost as deep into her as the mitochondria in her cells,
TABITHA: I don’t know how other people do it. How they can send their work out and keep going after dozens of rejections? And maybe that means my heart isn’t in it as much as it should be. And maybe that’s what comes through in my work—that I don’t want it enough, and that’s why I keep ending up here.
After a minute, her phone dings.
PHOEBE: Do YOU feel like your heart’s not in it?
Phoebe knew damn well that Tabitha had always put her heart and soul into each word she wrote, each character and story she crafted. In her writing, as they liked to say, she left it all the page.
Tabitha doesn’t respond to the text. Despite herself, she finds herself laughing until Phoebe’s next text breaks the silence.
PHOEBE: Do you know what I think the issue is?
There is no time for Tabitha to reply before Phoebe gets to work on her own.
PHOEBE: You haven’t accepted failure as a necessary evil. Actually, let’s not call it failure, it’s rejection. You’re taking it as something being wrong with you when it’s not.
TABITHA: Um, Phoebe, that’s the meaning of rejection. We’re rejected because there’s something wrong.
As if she has the answer locked and loaded, Phoebe’s response pops onto Tabitha’s screen in a matter of seconds.
PHOEBE: No, it’s just part of the process. Unless we’re going all participation trophy here, for someone to get accepted, someone else can’t. It’s the way of the world, and this time wasn’t your time.
After nearly five years of friendship, though, Phoebe knows Tabitha well enough to anticipate this train to nowhere pulling into the station, and throw on the brakes.
PHOEBE: And your time IS coming. You just have to be patient. And I know that’s hard for you, because you’re you, lol, but when it’s something you love—and this is—you have to try. No matter what that shitty ass critic in your brain tells you, you’re so good at what you do. It’s easier said than done, but I really think if you just focus on what you love about writing, you’ll get there. Maybe give yourself a timeline, like a year, and if you find that you’re not where you want to be and you’re not enjoying it anymore, you stop.
This is what Tabitha loved about their friendship—their ability to talk each other off the proverbial edge when they needed it—be it creative pursuits, relationships, rough days at work, or heinous fashion choices. They were each other’s sounding boards—listening, absorbing, and reverberating back what they needed to hear even when it wasn’t necessarily what they wanted.
TABITHA: I guess I can try that.
Phoebe’s suggestion to stick with it for a year, while not complex, made Tabitha feel more secure than she had anything in a while. A year was measurable, and if needed, gave her a way out. It was a methodical strategy, rather than an abrupt or irrational decision to quit.
Although, if she was being truthful with herself, the thought of taking that exit ramp away from storytelling gave her more anxiety than the prospect of another rejection. How could she turn off the ideas, the spike of energy that came from her internal monologue producing a quality line of prose, or her imagination forming people out of nothing, when it had been with her her entire life?
PHOEBE: If I were a betting person, though, I’d say you never give it up. It’s part of you.
Tabitha laughed to herself, the glass fogging her phone screen in two little blasts, circles overlapping like a Venn diagram.
TABITHA: Stop reading my mind.