By: Cynthia Bermudez | March 26, 2020

I recently realized I left this story out of my collection (posted below). I will update the collection soon to include one or two stories I left out. This story was almost my first professional sale. I received an email from the editor of the magazine and was informed that I made the top 2% but it was ultimately rejected. The editor asked if I wanted to read their discussion on my piece and noted that at that point, they were looking for reasons not to publish it.

Of course, I said yes to their discussion notes. It was a discussion that was both encouraging and a bit rough. One editor who advocated for the piece noted the character development and the tension building was well done. Another editor felt I was objectifying homeless people. Interpretation is highly subjective. My intention was never to objectify but I changed the title to try to rectify this.

The title of the story changed several times, and even the final title didn't feel quite right to me. Parting Ways and Anything Helps were among the previous titles. 

The story was actually based on a real encounter I had with someone I knew in high school. The story itself and the characters are purely fictional, but some of the emotions I felt were definitely used. Like the awkwardness of the situation. My intention was to convey how much a path can diverge in life, hence the final title: A Yellow Wood, a nod to Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken

Frost's poem, for me among other interpretations of it, speaks to the choices a person makes that lead to a life that is "the one less traveled by." In his case, a successful one. I see it as a positive, inspirational poem. The story is a contemplation of the choices and circumstances that lead to places no one aspires to, a way of examining what it means to be successful and happy, a life full-filled. 

A Yellow Wood by Cyn Bermudez

I tried to avoid him when he bee-lined for me; his, “Excuse me, ma’am,” cut short with a swift no, his hand out like the rest of them who hovered on the seedy side of the downtown parking lot, in the farthest corner near the trash bins. A cart full of treasures in front of him. I clutched my purse. Mall bags hung from my arms.

I recognized his eyes first: big browns chiseled on perfect bone structure.

“Marcus?” My fingernails were still dug into my purse straps like claws, my knuckles stiffened into crooked arches, wrists aching. He looked like a model underneath tattered clothes. Even emaciated, his body stuffed under layers to keep out the cold, Marcus Leva was picturesque. He smiled under leather skin.

“Lara?” He flashed yellowed teeth and came toward me like a bear. “How’ve you been?”

He leaned forward to hug me. My body stiffened, but I hugged him back. The smell of unwashed clothes stung my nose.

“Good,” I said. The old metal shopping cart toppled with trinkets and knick-knacks: blankets and emptied water bottles, canned goods and crumpled old McDonald’s bags, rolled to a stop behind him.

The first time I had met Marcus was in my then boyfriend’s driveway. He leaned against the garage in that James Dean sort of way: one foot up, the other on the ground, cigarette dangling from his lips. He didn’t say hi when my boyfriend introduced us, only nodded and gave me the once over with his eyes. He was gorgeous. Puffed smoke caressed his full lips. He had worn a jean jacket over a collared shirt, ripped jeans tight around his waist, hair slicked back into a duck tail. Now his hair was matted against his head.

“How are you?” It was a stupid question. I wanted to ask how he got like this, if he was okay, was there anything I could do to help. Instead, I fumbled through my purse looking for loose change, careful not to pull out a twenty.

“You know, surviving,” he said. There were lines on his face, hardened in place like broken concrete.

I searched harder through my purse, no longer looking for money, not looking for anything.

“How are your kids?” My cheeks flushed as soon as I said it. Would he know? I had heard from his sister that he had a girl and two boys. The moms were out of the picture; he had trouble keeping a job, something about a drug problem. But I wasn’t close with her. She was just some neighborhood girl who always talked too much, and she was Marcus’s sister. I had played nice, not really interested in conversation.

“They’re good. Getting big, I think. Their moms don’t talk to me,” he said. He looked at the shopping bags that were hanging from wrists, paper handles cutting into my skin.

Marcus and I had become friends quietly flirting in secret. A glance here and there, a dirty word, feet touching under the table. We were joking around. I never thought a guy like him, a guy good looking as he was, would ever be interested in me. What was the harm in a little flirting among friends?

“Shopping. Wedding.” I lifted the bags and showed him my ring. My hand jostled clumsily in his. I tried moving my hand fast, conscious for the first time of its size—because of how big the diamond was. My throat tightened with thirst.

“Oh. Congratulations,” he said. His hands were rough, sandpaper on my skin. His long bony fingers looked like desiccated sausages, dirt embedded deeply under his curved nail growth.

“Thank you.” I gently pulled my hand free.

“Hey, have you seen Roberto?” He winked the same devilish wink I remembered.

It was during the summer before senior year when he had finally seduced me. The way he smiled at me, just a little bit closer each time, until one day he leaned in and kissed me. Roberto was in the shower. The kiss lingered long after. Our glances more clandestine, our words more subtle. But it wasn’t until Roberto was out of town, his grandfather sick, that Marcus and I had turned our teases into long make-out sessions.

“No,” I said. “Not since he married. Someone we went to high school with.”

“Good for him,” he said. He smiled wider this time. His skin splintered, wrinkles split into more wrinkles, each looking aged by the sun. And there were his dimples, still curved in perfect complexity.

A few dollars emerged, tightly held in my fist; the loose change fell to the floor as I handed him the money: “Here,” I said, quickly. “This is all I have… to spare.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Anything helps.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. I didn’t know what to say next. The seconds stretched into a painful and awkward silence.

“You take care now.” Marcus shoved the money in his pocket. He turned and grabbed his cart. The wheels squeaked as he pushed. He moved toward a group of people, his people. I had forgotten they were there, the small congregation of panhandlers holding vigil in the parking lot. There was a woman there. Her hair was greasy, dirty clothes layered on thick, sweatpants stained with dirt. He showed her his earnings—the few dollars from his pocket. She showed him her earnings, too: a coffee can with loose bills and change that clanked when she shook it. Next to her was a sign that said, anything helps.

The full moon sat on the horizon as day faded to twilight. I walked to my car and put my bags in the trunk. I checked my rear view mirror and glanced in his direction one last time. He was walking with the woman, her hand in his. They walked into the McDonald’s. I wondered what they ordered as I dabbed the wetness around my eyes, careful not to smudge my makeup.