Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “MFgrAy” by Geri Modell. Geri is a Web content editor, fiction writer and occasional essayist. Her work has or will soon be published in Narrative and Four Way Review. Originally from Brooklyn, she now lives in New Jersey with her husband and cats. This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
I learned the word “fuckable” while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree. I enrolled late in life, although I didn’t realize how late it was until I found myself among kids, as they appeared to me, mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. It was a low-residency program, designed for those who have families and jobs and lives already in progress, and so I assumed I would be surrounded by people like me, people with creases around their eyes, pouches below their mouths and varying amounts of gray speckling their hair. Instead, I was with young men trying out beards and young women with feathery voices and flowing blonde and brown tresses who reassured themselves over breakfast one morning that they were still fuckable.
That morning, I sat at a table with a group of women who, frankly, scared me — maybe because of their youth or their prettiness or the way I imagined they saw me. During this last stretch of a two-year program, I felt an urgency to connect with my classmates before we all scattered to our various home bases. Community, we were told by the instructors and administrators of our MFA program, was the most important takeaway from the experience. I hadn’t done well in this area so far, but I believed in the virtue of hard effort. So, there I sat on a bright, windy morning, sipping tea and listening to two of the women describe their recent experiences working with a class of high school students. They’d each volunteered to teach a class and encountered some problem students, teenage boys who had harassed them and made it near impossible to teach.
“It’s because we’re still fuckable,” one of them said. And the others nodded—like, of course, that was it.
Definition of fuckable, anyone? Deemed worthy, I suppose, of a boy’s wet dream, a man’s desire, romantic love. Worthy because you, the look of you, the essence of you, your flowing blonde or brown hair, your feathery voice, all of this results in the hardening of the cock such that it can successfully penetrate your warm and properly (and naturally) lubricated cunt.
If they’d said, “It’s because we’re fuckable,” I think I could have handled it. Am I fuckable? My husband seems to think I’m okay, and I don’t really care what others think. It was the insertion of that other word that stopped the tea cup on its way to my mouth. Still fuckable.
Implications of “still fuckable”? That some have fuckability and some don’t, and even if you have it now, you’ll lose it one day, and when you do, it’s on you, bitch. And if these young feathery-voiced women need to assert that they’re still fuckable, then clearly I’m not. I’m used up, expired, I barely register. So, don’t question it, don’t challenge it, just watch the wind toss around the young womens’ hair and blow your tea bag label into your mug. Let the implications of still fuckable drift like a sour smell that you hope won’t attach to you in any noticeable way.
It took me fifty years to call myself a writer. A real writer, a story writer, not the hack version I’d played for most of my adult life: tech writer, marketing writer, corporate communications writer. Writer, I thought, was a title you earned through degrees and publications—even though, as soon as I could write sentences, I started stringing them together for my own entertainment and, eventually, for others.
In the fourth grade, I had a small fan club of peers who clustered around me at recess while I narrated new episodes, made up on the spot, about kids stuck in a haunted house. In high school, I woke up before dawn in order to have private stretches of time writing at the kitchen table in my own suffocating house of horrors. And in college, there was little doubt I’d major in anything other than English.
Confronting the world after college and considering what to do next, I drew a blank. How does one face that void and call themselves a fiction writer? How, how, how? And yet, these young people in my MFA class did it with ease. They believed in their voices, in their potential. At their age, if I thought about becoming a published fiction writer, it was as a hazy, distant dream, with no clear path that would deliver me there and no illusion that I deserved to walk that path, even if I could find it.
In the treeless, dog-shit-spotted section of Brooklyn where I grew up, there were no people I knew who called themselves writers. My father was an optician, standing for hours on polio-weakened legs, aproned, in the back room of a Long Island optical shop six days a week, grinding lenses. Each night, he returned home exhaling the mantra, “It’s killing me, this job is killing me.” My mother, who had dreamed of being an opera singer but couldn’t afford lessons, made her way from one temp bookkeeping job to another, often leaving before fulfilling the assignment because she believed she’d spied Nazis in the office. At night, while washing the dishes, she sang the arias from Carmen and Madame Butterfly, and I came to understand that work is suffering and dreams are things that don’t come true.
After college I had significant loans to pay off, anyway. They shadowed me; they poked and rattled, and I was clueless as to how to subdue them. Eventually, I found that I could earn money by putting words together for one commercial purpose or another. I wrote for a local newspaper, then for a regional magazine, and then, with lenders threatening all sorts of aggressive actions. I found my way into the editorial bowels of corporate America, writing HR policies for a salary I couldn’t refuse.
I paid off my student loans and soon became accustomed to the wonders of not being poor. For the first time, I had nice things, luxuries, even: a Coach handbag, dresses from Saks, a flattering haircut. And soon there was a husband to make plans with, to budget with, and then a baby with all of his needs, and then a house to pay off. My working at dull, well-paying jobs became a fixture, a part of the equation.
Still, every so often, I took a fiction writing class, attended a writers’ conference, even submitted stories for publication — always receiving rejection. My writing, clearly, was not good enough. In my fifties, staring down a late midlife crisis, I took on a private mentor, a relationship that elevated my work to the point where I could be admitted to an acclaimed low-residency MFA program, where I imagined I’d meet people just like me.
“Have you tried writing naked?”
It was my first MFA residency, and my first one-on-one with my writing instructor. Her feedback on my short story had been blunt and severe. My characters were wooden and uninteresting, and my voice was inauthentic. I needed to show vulnerability. It was a problem she attributed to my career in the corporate sector, my years of formal, formulaic writing. Write naked, she said. I never tried that, but if my problem was my corporate job, the universe soon provided a fix.
At age 60, my employer of twenty-two years decided I was no longer of value and gave me the boot. I’d worked at a consulting firm in New Jersey, where I was good at some parts of the job (writing about HR policies), not so good at others (being a consultant). My path there was always zig-zagging, my status never secure, but I stayed for as long as I did for the somewhat irrational reason that, with all of its familiar dysfunction, the place felt like home. Until it didn’t. The small, stodgy, failing company aimed for a rebirth as an edgy startup. The changes were fast and harsh, and as part of a series of business contractions, I was ejected.
I wasn’t in dire straits. I had an empathetic partner, solid shelter, food in the fridge. Even so, I was shaken. I felt irrelevant and exposed. Tossed off the edge of the cliff like a crumpled up bag. I was midway through my MFA program and returned from each residency nearly blown apart with turbulence, with trauma.
When I was a teenager, a girl at a party said to me, “You only look happy when you’re in school.” It was true: school had always been, for me, the safe place. In the classroom, the teacher transmitted knowledge and I received it, and for those brief, sacred interludes, the rest of me, the ugly, unpopular me-ness of me, was set aside and laid to rest like some tranquilized beast.
But my MFA program wasn’t safe. In this classroom, the beast must not only be awakened but paraded for all to see. And outside the classroom, there were relentless social situations: readings, discussions, meals—dear lord, the meals! Who will you sit with? What if you end up alone? Will everyone notice?
I inserted myself at this table, at that one. Okay if I sit here? Already taken? No bother. I looked for the friendly-faced ones, but soon, they’d arrange themselves into pairs and clusters that seemed impenetrable. In the end, I was alone. In the lecture hall, in the cafeteria, walking to workshop. At cocktail hour, on a couch with a plastic cup of red wine, alone.
And then, one evening, at a January residency, the world outside cloaked in white, the fireplace ablaze, a woman sat down next to me on the couch, holding her own plastic cup. She introduced herself, asked me my name, my discipline. She was a faculty member, teaching non-fiction. I hadn’t read her work, but she seemed to take no offense. I felt a grace, an ease emanating from her like the warmth from the fire, and we talked more: about where I live, where she lives, the work I do, the work she does, the teachers I’ve studied with so far, and then she became confused. “Aren’t you a graduating senior?” she asked.
“No, second term.”
“Oh dear, I’m supposed to be schmoozing with the seniors.” She looked around and then tilted closer to me.
“Do you think that’s them, over there—the seniors?” She pointed by tipping her head.
“Maybe.” I squinted and nodded.
“I’d better go,” she said, squeezing my hand and then rising. She had mistaken me for a senior because of my age, I knew. Still, I was grateful for the exchange, even if afterwards, I was left staring at my own faint reflection in the dark window opposite me, again.
There is one corner of the social realm where I do feel comfortable: the dance floor. I’m a dancer—not by training or skill or gracefulness, but because when I hear a certain beat, my limbs move with it. Dance was a big part of the residency experience, and, happily, there were a few students, some even in the over-fifty range, from cohorts preceding mine, who reliably got up there and gave me welcoming smiles when I shimmied over to join them.
Then they graduated and I was left to my own devices. At one party, I convinced a young woman, one of my “friendlies,” to dance with me. Halfway through the song, three other women from our class joined us—or, rather, they joined her, forming a tight circle around her, pantomiming with sexually charged gestures, a sort of satire of “fuckable.” It went on and on, until I could no longer deny the reality that I was dancing alone, thrust into a disco version of the dining hall trauma. Propelled both by a fear of calling attention to myself and by a desperate need to flee, I danced myself, absurdly, to the edge of the floor and hurried off to find my coat.
“Why are you leaving?” It was one of the women who had cut me out. She had followed me off the floor.
“Don’t like the music.”
She watched while I zipped up my coat.
“We were talking about you today, you know. We all really admire you.”
I could think only of one response, which I lacked the courage to say: I don’t want to be admired. I just want to be seen. Please, please, don’t admire me.
“What I like to tell you young writers is …”
I was in the lecture hall, listening to a visiting author. It had happened so many times during the program I’d lost track: “You young writers.” A forty-something classmate whom I’d befriended had advised: whenever they say “young writers,” mentally substitute “new writers” or “emerging writers.” Fuck that. If this program was for young writers, why did they let me in?
In fact, at one point, I was sure that I hadn’t been accepted. On grad school applicants’ message boards, I saw that others had already received responses from this program, which was my top choice. Week after week, I waited and heard nothing. The Monday approached when I would have to put a check in the mail to my second choice or lose my place there. On Sunday night, returning from an evening walk, my cell phone buzzed. I was in.
Given all that, I worried that I would find myself in the lowest tier among students, in terms of writing chops. Instead, I seemed to be in the vast, not-too-bad middle, between writers whose work inspired awe and those who seemed to lack the fundamentals. Of course, you can’t judge talent based on what you see in workshops. Still, at moments of insecurity or when I was just feeling pissy, I wondered why I’d been kept waiting.
In 2017, a 68-year old man filed a complaint against the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, charging the renowned program with age discrimination for rejecting his application. I initially pounced on this, feeling vindicated — look how these programs disregard older students! But a glance at the fellow’s cringeworthy self-published novel made me doubt his claim. Worse, his comments in the news article suggested that his advanced years may not have granted him wisdom. “I wanted to make it clear that somebody my age has a right to do it.” By “it,” he meant not just applying to a top MFA program but actually being admitted.
If this delusional elder was not the most effective poster child for ageism in the MFA industry, neither am I, for I was accepted into most of the programs I applied to, and from my wise and generous teachers, I never felt myself taken less seriously than the fresh-faced members of my cohort. My only wish is that I’d been forewarned about the age differences. That I’d had time to reconsider or to reset my expectations for community. Or that there would have been at least one lovely, companionable lady to sit next to me by the fireplace more than once during two long, solitary years.
At our last residency, culminating in our graduation, my classmates’ parents arrived. As a final shock, I saw what I should have anticipated: their parents were younger than me. Cultured and poised, they sat in on lectures and raised hands to ask nuanced, penetrating questions.
I imagined my parents, yanked from the mausoleum where their bones rest, attending to topics such as Donald Barthelme’s Träumerei or Global Refugee Idiolects. My father, who dropped out of high school to help support his family during the Depression, would no doubt doze off, soothed by the lecture hall’s background buzz and dim lighting and — head dropped back, mouth hung open — snore like a jackhammer. My mother would wear a silly, uncomprehending smile for half of the lecture, then lean over and comment on the speaker’s morbid pallor (“Gimme a stick, I’ll kill it!”) or on his too-short pants (“They had a fight with his shoes!”). She’d rock with laughter and, in spite of myself, I would, too, and soon we’d both be gasping and hiccupping.
And all my still fuckable friends and their fine families would turn to us, and it would be clear, once and for all, that I do not belong here. And with that, my parents would be gone, leaving only a whiff of pipe smoke and burnt onions and all that history, and leaving me alone in this lecture hall, where I may never belong. And yet, I’m here. Awkward, exposed and willing, and still here.