Rejection Letters -- creative nonfiction by Arushi Katyal
I had just taken a shower when I got rejected by Amherst College. I was on a trip to Italy with my Latin class and the weather outside was delicate and sunny. The day before, we had gone to an ancient villa belonging to a 19th century doctor. A teacher's lecture on the achievements of the doctor kept beating in the background, while I listened in on a conversation between two of my classmates.
“Do you think you’ll get into Amherst?” someone asked Zach.
“I don’t know, but I want to go there.”
“Did you know it's actually pronounced AmErst, without the H?” added a third. “AmEEEEErst! My dear Lady AmEEEErst!” crooned a fourth, in a pseudo-sophisticated accent. “If you want to go to Amherst, you’d better say it right, Zach.”
AmErst. I hadn’t told anyone I applied there. In my head, I started saying Amherst without the H because that's how AmErst-bound people think, not AmHerst rejects. I read the rejection letter once more, this time without blinking. Something was stuck in my throat. Perhaps it was an extra H.
“Are you okay?” my roommate asked me. “Yeah,” I said, shutting my phone off. “The wi-fi’s not loading.”
I had no time to be miserable because I had to pack for our road trip to Naples. I shoved clothes into my suitcase and lugged it down the first set of stairs and through the hallway and the entrance to the second set of stairs. I lugged it down the second set of stairs through the courtyard and the parking lot to the third set of stairs. I gave my suitcase to the bus driver and trudged up the third set of stairs up to my seat. My phone was still in my hand. I had three tabs
open. One was the rejection letter from Hopkins, the other was the one from UCLA, and Amherst now occupied the third.
For those of you who have not received rejection letters, here are those timeless, evergreen words that they contain, including (but by no means limited to):
1) We are sorry
2) Unable to offer you admission
3) Take this decision seriously
4) Far too many qualified applicants
5) all the best in your collegiate experience
And, worst of all :
6) Dear _______ (your name)
On the bus, my friend sat in front of me. My phone took the seat next to me, quietly singing a song that reminded me of a friend I no longer have and carefree summers I had not been wise enough to appreciate. I listened to it after I received the three rejections. What they do not tell you about listening to songs that remind you of your childhood is that when you listen to them too much, they become infected with your present. By the end of the trip, the song mused to the tune of colleges that, after a thorough review of my application, were unable to offer me admission.
Well. At least I had a five-hour bus ride to feel sorry for myself. I flattened my cheek against the window and stared into that sleek road that had nothing to do but go on forever. Uniform houses with rectangular porches were perched around it, dilapidating lightly at their
sides. The road dipped into the mountainside, where layers of wealthy houses crumpled into the ridges. Their colorful roofs poked out in awkward globs, like they did not belong amongst the rocky crags, and were waiting for the earliest bus to take them home.
Unfortunately, I love quiet, mountainous days and bus rides.
This is unfortunate because I could not appreciate the day. My phone had recently died, so the rejection letters had piled into the seat next to me. They were irritating seatmates, so I attempted to shift my attention to the group of always-giddy boys who were sharing pictures behind me. I listened to their inside jokes. I tried to join in, but they were swept up amongst themselves, and I remained on the outskirts of their conversation, adding a short sentence in here and there. But still, I listened, as the boys talked about the fun we had the day before. Since I am better at reminiscing than I am at living in the moment, my mind washed up against yesterday, too.
Yesterday was March 14, which is known as the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. On a less historically relevant note, it was also the day our teachers paraded us to ruins on the outskirts of Rome. The heat was thick, and we waddled through it indifferently. We saw the bricks of colossal buildings that were balancing in the ruins like loose teeth. We saw the ancient white of the marble that had been yellowed by the centuries, and chips of sculptures that were grated off around them. A lot of things have been said about Rome, and I have something to add:
Roman ruins are like a half-grated mound of cheese.
They’re very yellow. And broken off on the ground.
This impression of mine changed when we climbed up the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Maybe it was the way the light fell as the day progressed, maybe it was the distance. But every time we stepped onto a new level of the structure, we saw a previously unseen slice of the city through the balcony. Heavy walls of ancient buildings. Statues that had shriveled into stumps. It felt like Rome was unfolding for the very first time, just for us. And then, that ancient numinous quality of Rome struck me. I stood on the rooftop, overwhelmed, wondering how many times someone had stood in the same spot, experiencing that same emotion. I wanted to write about that feeling, but it felt like I was retracing words. Like the pages I was writing my story on were already old.
I think the glory of the Roman Empire is in these quiet moments. In the Roman Empire of two millennia ago, people were too consumed by suffering to appreciate architecture and realistic toenails on sculptures. Rome is not about living in the moment. It is about trapping the moment in arched structures and naked marble for two thousand five hundred years, so it can be remembered.
And everyone knows when you are in Rome, you must do as the Romans do. Therefore, I would cage this bus ride inside me for remembering at a later time. I asked a boy in the seat behind me for his portable charger. The second my phone came to life, I took a video of the outside view. I’m watching right now, and I realize the day was darker than I remember it being. The mountains were silhouettes, and they were uneven like they had been nibbled off in random places. But I remember how the smell of rain-just-about-to-happen added to the stench of Puteoli, I remember the feathery tree branches that looked grayish purple as they stormed up the mountainside, I remember that it began to drizzle.
We reached the hotel in a couple hours. It was late. When we finally went to bed, I did that thing where you lie awake in the dark trying not to cry. The tears stacked up tall and heavy on my eyes. They collapsed down my face when I blinked. Half bored, I made it into a game, trying to fill my eyes more and more. I named it : How High Can You Not Cry? It was relieving to think of my disappointment as a game that was not all too different from Jenga. Jenga is a low-stakes game. I played it when I was younger, and it made me happy to win and barely sad to lose. I wasn’t hard to please during my Jenga-playing years. It was enough for me to shop for eclairs with my grandfather. Go to Barnes and Noble with my mother. Have an unexpected sleepover.
Then, I grew older. I wondered if I should set aside some happiness to participate in summer programs that would help me get into Amherst. If I received admission, the happiness I stored would triple itself and run back to me. I put Happiness in stocks and bonds. I analyzed the return on my investments. I was efficient. Rational. Smart.
Oh forget it.
I grew up the day I decided to treat happiness like a currency to be saved and invested. Only adults care about the stock market.
I, on the other hand, want to be a kid who makes fun of boring adults who care about the stock market.
But here I am, opening more college rejection letters.
If you’ve made it this far, you must be wondering how those went.
Well. They came in, that’s for sure. Scuttling at each other's heels, tripping over each other, eager to print those same phrases in that same font. When I read the rejection letter from Amherst, I could not find my way to the end. It was such a long email. I hung onto the words
“unable to offer you admission,”, and tripped through the middle, which was a feeble attempt at consolation. I closed the browser before the end. By the time the last platoon of emails arrived, I knew my way through them. A right at “thank you for your interest,”, a U-turn at “the admissions committee takes this decision seriously,”, keep left until “Wishing you the best of luck in your collegiate experience.” These phrases tripped out of my computer screen. They rolled around my room. By the end of the Rejection Marathon, the letters were littered in clumps around me. I weighed the words on my fingertips. I repeated them to myself like a chant. They were heavy on their own, but when I said them fast enough they gained momentum, kicked themselves off the ground and began to levitate. They drifted around me softly with a wonderful, musical form. They moved like a song.
They lingered for a moment then left, right through my bedroom window.
Arushi Katyal is a senior at John Burroughs High School in St. Louis Missouri. Some of her favorite books are The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, What I Was by Meg Rossof, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. In her free time, she likes baking and rewatching Big Bang Theory.