“Remind me how much money these people are vying for?”
Melissa looked up from her stack of contest entries. “A thousand bucks.”
“You’d think we were offering a gym sock.” Seth tossed another manuscript onto the reject pile.
“Writing is subjective,” Melissa said, carefully, as though justifying the actions of a developmentally delayed child. Privately, she thought Seth’s sentiment wasn’t far off.
Saddle Mountain Review’s short fiction contest had closed at midnight and as editor, Melissa was anxious to begin reviewing at 12:01. The journal was run by their English department, and she’d assumed the top job three months ago. This contest was her first executive decision, one she thought would innervate the journal. But partway through prose with overly wrought tragic anti-heroes and symbolism so ubiquitous it took on a Dada quality, Melissa was less enthused.
She’d enlisted the help of Seth Walker, the only person who’d open envelopes and scan prose with her at midnight. They’d dated for three years, moving in together after two months. For the next two years and two months they impersonated married people, tag-teaming laundry and cooking dinner together. But when Melissa started writing her dissertation, she realized graduation was imminent and that this middle-aged life she’d started prematurely would continue indefinitely. So she broke it off in favor of fast food and capricious nights out. Usually, though, she just stayed home, working on her dissertation or the journal. She told herself she shouldn’t be with him, but yet wasn’t sure how to be without him. Which was why, with the exception of separate living quarters, their relationship hadn’t changed. It was also why they sat in this converted grad student office while everyone was at the bar.
So far, Melissa had read three blind-date fish-out-of-water stories and six man-against-himself tales that chronicled twenty-somethings with unhappy (yet privileged) childhoods and regular therapy sessions. “Remember when good literature was as satisfying as sex?”
He laughed. “Speak for yourself.”
But Seth had once told her that reading “The Wasteland” was like a multiple orgasm. He’d reinvented himself since their breakup, from a lyric to language poet. He grew a goatee and entered a poetry slam. But he’d still submit to sleeping with her any time she’d ask.
Seth put his feet up on the desk, newspaper editor style, and said, “Notebook Fraternity cancelled their contest because the entries weren’t up to snuff. You still have time.”
But Melissa didn’t want to admit to having made another mistake.
“There has to be something here.” She heaved another crate of envelopes onto the desk. Seth had given up his evening to read these ghastly stories, and she was going to make his sacrifice worthwhile.
She couldn’t cancel what’d been between them; there was no refund process. She couldn’t issue him a voucher for a haircut and change of clothes that would return him to what he’d been. All she could do was paw through more entries, looking for something to salvage.