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Yellow Ledbetter

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“Unsealed, on a porch a letter sat
Then you said, ‘I wanna leave it again’
Once I saw her on a beach of weathered sand
And on the sand I wanna leave her again”
- Pearl Jam

 

Liz's mother left the same way she did everything; loud, shameless, and without a backward glance. A smudge smoldering at the bottom of the ashtray, sink full of soaking dishes, and unfinished fitful promises of where and when and soon. She packed only her favorite dress and every pair of unsensible shoes she owned. Forgot the pills her doctor prescribed for every morning, noon, and night. Liz slipped them into her purse between bursts of not crying and nearly-so; reminded her mother, “con vaso alto de agua, Mami, y comida. Necesitas tomarlos con comida.”

The next day, Liz would find the little orange bottle in the rolling garbage can. Would take cold kind of comfort in knowing at least her mother had carried her promises to the end of the driveway.

* * *

Three Mondays after the calls stopped coming from blocked numbers on the caller ID, Liz botched her organic chemistry lab work. Her instructor is as unimpressed by her elementary mistake with the Grignard Synthesis. As unimpressed as he has been all year her existence as the only Latina enrolled in his lab hour. He tersely reminds her that the resulting chemical was necessary for the next two lab sessions and points on her final grade. If she had learned anything all semester, she would know better.

Liz catches her voice before it leaves her throat. Knowing if she speaks, it will surely shatter; fragile as a titration flask hurtling toward the tile.

“It was my mistake,” lies Max Evans, her lab partner. “I think I rushed through preparing the triphenylmethanol-” but he doesn’t get far. The final bell rings and their instructor departs, warning them it had better be ready by tomorrow.

“You don’t have to stay,” Liz tells Max when their class files out. But he does, even after the class TA- a bored college student who should be supervising them- takes off when they promise not to start a chemical fire. Just buckles in and collects the reactants they will need to restart.

“It’s nothing really,” he promises, smiling like a bashful puppy. “We can do it together, or I could do it by myself.”

“I’m the one who screwed up,” Liz reminds him. “Why should you have to do all the work?”

“I mean, I’m okay with it. Not that I don’t want us to do it together- to work on it together!- but I understand if you need to get home.”

“I didn’t say I needed to get home,” Liz stares hard at her lab book.

“I know you’re always checking the clock. Always in a hurry. Every day you rush out of here. Like if you don’t chase it, you'll miss it.

She hadn't thought she was chasing anything. But she was. 

“In her last phone call… she told me she would send a postcard,” Liz confesses. “I check every day when I get home. It's never there but I have to see it, to prove it to myself. To stop hoping for a little bit. At least until tomorrow.”

The quiet that follows is delicate and sore. A bruise one can’t even breathe on without it aching. Liz wants to take it all back. Wants to shove the words back somewhere no one can hear. 

Max gingerly hands her a test tube and pipette, asking, “It’s been a month, right?”

“How do you know that?”

“That’s how long its been since you’ve been yourself,” Max says, matter-of-fact. As if it was something obvious and unhidden from the naked eye, the way he could pinpoint mo Liz in the before and after.

“You don’t miss anything, do you Max?”

“Not about you. Not when you’re- I’m sorry!” Max cuts himself off, red-faced and embarrassed. “Sorry, if that's- I mean I’m not trying to nose in on your personal stuff.”

Liz couldn’t help but laugh at the chagrined look on his face. Like he had given something away, some kind of secret he had been keeping. 

“Max, sometimes I think you forget that we've been friends for forever.”

Max gives his warm, pleased smile.

“I should have mentioned it,” Liz concedes. “Instead of ruining our experiment and your afternoon.”

“Nothings ruined,” Max says, gentle.

Liz can’t agree, but it is so kind of him to say that she has to look away.

* * *

Mami said Liz was a woman grown, and would not need her for a while. 

Papi said they would be a family again soon. 

Rosa said not to hold her breath. Not this time. 

Because now is different, not like before. Not like when they were girls tucked in the back of her mother’s Volkswagen, not wearing seatbelts because Mami said they were old enough to choose. No one was the boss of them at the ripened age of six and seven. They drove all day and they drove all night and strange men with scarred faces and dirty hands came to the windows to take Mami’s money and leave her presents in brown paper lunch sacks. Liz was not allowed to look inside them, not ever, but the men looked. Looked into the backseat and sneered in disgust, “you brought your pinche children?” and Mami would get out of the car to fuss and fight. Liz would pinch her nose and hold all the air in her chest until Mami would come back and turn the key, the desert air rolling in through the open windows to replace the dirty reeking air of back alleyways.

Liz was still holding her breath in some ways. Old habits and all that.

* * *

Weeks before graduation, Max stops her outside her locker. It's a well-timed distraction; Liz doesn’t want to think about the quiz in store of her next period or which extracurricular she needs to cut to cover her mother’s shifts at the café. But Max looks distraught, caught up in something and ready to confess to murder.

“You're getting a letter in the mail today,” he says in a rush.

Liz blinks once, and once again. “What?”

“I didn't think it through,” Max stumbles, gesticulating with despair. “I just- I realized after I mailed it that you would see that it was addressed to you and be disappointed…”

“Disappointed?” Liz repeats, still not getting.

Max scrubbed the back of his neck, frustrated and embarrassed. “When you realized it was from me and not her.”

Liz purses her lips together, trying to quell the bubble of laughter in her belly. Max Evans could run himself in circles, overthinking things for days. 

“You wrote me a letter?” Liz brightens. A fluttering warmth moves through her ribcage and Liz has to turn away. Closes her locker door tight, crosses her arms over her textbooks and leans against the door. “What's it say?”

Max's panic recedes fractionally and he seems able to breathe again. Better yet, an honest smirk crosses his face, something Liz has never seen it before. She’s well versed in every cheesy, dopey grin max Evans brings to the table; the bashful smiles and the puppy dog eyes and you-look-beautiful-today lipbite. But this- Max sauntering closer, presses his back against the adjacent locker to stand so close to her- this is new. 

“I think the point of a letter is to read it,” he tells her, even and coy.

“Wow,” Liz chuckles, tilting her head to the side. “I didn't know how postage works. Thanks for clearing that up for me.”

“Anytime,” Max shrugs, pleased with himself and playing it cool. Strangely enough, he’s halfway succeeding at the latter; holding her gaze longer now than he ever could before, voice steady and without apprehension. He looks taller even than when Liz saw him last, not in the way he has towered over her but as if overnight his shoulders have broadened, features filled out. There’s a trace of stubble over his jaw that Liz wants to reach up and touch before she remembers herself.

“You know if I really wanted to, I could have you squealing by lab hour.” It is not an idle threat. Newfound bravado or not, Max Evans did not contain an ounce of real guile. And there’s the lip bite again. Familiar as ever, but somehow it doesn’t seem so boyish or hopeless. Now it sends a fluttering through her ribcage, kindling a fondness like stoking a fire.

“Its a poem,” Max admits, “nothing fancy.”

“You wrote me a poem?” Liz asks.

“No- uh, Dickinson did, but-”

“How sweet of him.”

“Her, and that's not what I-” Max shakes his head with a sigh, smiles despite himself. “I just wanted you to have something to look forward too.”

More than anything else, that makes her smile. “But you thought I’d be disappointed when I saw it was from you. You really should know me better by now, Max Evans.”

The bell rings and neither of them moves for the longest. Tucked together at the edge of the hallway watching the scurry of sneakers and seniors with places to be, with lives that are almost just beginning. Liz knows she should follow, but can’t bring herself to break this moment.

* * *

The letter comes. 

The first thing Liz notices when she finds the envelope is its handwritten perfect lettering like needlework. The paper is from a stationery set, immaculately lined and bordered, folded in half. The poem is only two stanzas, short and bittersweet. Its first four lines are what stays with her, like one of Rosa’s songs on repeat.

 

I lost a world the other day.
Has anybody found?
You'll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.

For a moment, it's enough. For a moment, it's everything.

Liz tapes it up by her bedside and memorizes every word, every line break, and knows she doesn’t have a poets tenor to make the words flow right. She supposes she’ll have to have Max read it for her again and again until she remembers just the way they sound in his voice and no one else's.

* * *

In the desert, they put off doing homework and drink beers and dance to radio static. They trade secrets and promises and Max tells her his dream; he wants to be a writer himself someday. Liz is sure she’s heard that line from everyone kid who takes Advance Lit electives, but from Max, it feels real. For Max, it feels possible.

“What will your stories be about?” she asks him, truly curious. “Please, please, please not science fiction. I think the town’s had enough of that.”

“No definitely not,” Max twists his ball cap uncomfortably. “I wanted something more grounded. Something more universal. Maybe start with the familiar archetypes; man versus man, man versus nature, man versus self.”

“Man versus woman?” Liz piques.

“Not if I want the man to stand a chance.”

Liz flashes a smile, tilts the neck of her beer towards him and clink their bottles together. “Good answer.”

“All stories need conflict, though,” Max says, almost rueful like he is reciting a long-dead poet. “But that’s not what the stories are really about.”

“Oh? So what are they about?”

Max shrugs. “Love. All stories are love stories. Don’t make that face. Think about it. Name any story and its true. They're all about finding love and losing love. Turning away from love, choosing not to love. Loving each other or fighting for love. Loving things that heal you. Loving things that destroy you.”

“You’ve really thought about this,” Liz murmurs. She can’t recall if she has ever spoken this passionately of her dreams. 

Looking back, most things are becoming hazy. Her picturesque childhood carried so many glossed over cracks. And now with high school drawing to a close, the final notes of the same song she’s heard all over again don’t play the same. Her plans to leave town, her road trip to find her mother, to buckle into college but visit her father on the regular. It all felt too much, too discordant. Like perhaps the pieces couldn’t fit and never had.

But once, when she had been a girl just realizing what it meant when little Maxie looked at her like that- so quiet and jumpy and awkward and afraid of everything, of his own shadow, and most especially of Liz- she never imagined their pieces would fit either.

But now Liz knows better. How it had never been some secret, this thing between them. Max always looking at Liz like he was on the cusp of saying something, doing something. Liz wonders if Max just always knew, just always believed, if he had been waiting and waiting for her to play catch up. To realize that while she’s known Max her entire life, he’s known her too,  wanted to know her so thoroughly and more gently than anyone else.

* * *

On the drive home after sunset, Liz chatters endlessly so easily she doesn’t want him to stop. They drive around a few blocks before doubling back to the café and even then she stays in her seat for what feels like hours. Liz is halfway through telling Max her bodysnatcher theory, how clearly she was swapped at the hospital the day she was born. “It makes sense!” she insists, emphatic. After all, it was a plausible explanation for all the ways she didn’t feel like she fit at home anymore. “I don't have my father’s simple joy or Rosa’s artistry… and I have none of her mother’s boldness, her bravery.”

“But people don’t steal babies out of bassinets anymore,” Max reminds her, an absolute buzzkill.

“Okay, fine. Maybe I wasn’t swapped at the hospital,” Liz jokes, adjusting to his counterpoint. “Maybe they found me! Maybe I was out wandering the desert too, and just didn't tell anybody where they found me. Maybe I come from wherever you come from.” 

“Not possible,” Max says flatly. 

“Well, why not?” Liz expects a little more enthusiasm. Its somehow both an overly saccharine and maudlin proposition, but a comforting one. An improbable connection between what has been drawing them together for over a decade.

“Because,” Max stares out the windshield, swallows. “Because if you had been out there with us that night, wandering and alone… I would have found you.”

The softness in his voice is unbearable. “Oh, Max…” she reaches over, touches his jaw where his five o’clock shadow coming in. His face turns in her hands and his cheeks feel as pleasantly scratchy and she has imagined. He kisses the inside of her palm.

“And for the record, Liz,” he tells her through long, long eyelashes. “I think you’re pretty brave. I always have.”

She doesn’t know what he could mean by that. But she has all summer to ask him, to pick his brain from one coast to another. Max is full of words and definitions she can’t even dream of and maybe bravery takes a different shape in his mind. Maybe it is not the measure in how unruly and unbothered one can be. Maybe it is more than how tall you can stand amongst the wreckage of your own doing, shouting at the world and showing your truest face and never bothering to apologize.

Perhaps now that Liz never saw that face, her mother’s golden smile or her treacherously deep hurts, now that she could only remember the back of her head, now she could learn a different truth.

That there was bravery in a downturned glance, in unwavering gentleness and care.

* * *

Rosa leaves like her mother before her. In the dead of night, in a hail of accusation, a trail of wreckage in her wake. But Rosa does it one better. She leaves with the final word. The matter settled and no amount of waiting like a good girl will ever bring her back.

Liz doesn't stick around long enough for condolences or to receive another letter. One moment she's preparing to say goodbye, to call him, say I'm sorry, but people die and plans change and lives get ruined and-

The next she doesn't.

In a fugue, she pulls out of town and drives and drives and drives. Into larger cities and smaller towns, into states and around lakes- god’s honest lakes in lands without deserts- and Liz marvels at the bigness and smallness in this land of Americana, of other people’s worlds. Some towns hate tourists and others hate big-box industry. Some protest closing power plants and mega-marts and bemoaning the way of the past, the way of the future. Liz tries to appreciate every minute of it. To find comfort in the here of now of someone else's heartache, someone else’s nostalgia. These aren’t her shops or cafés, her school districts or highways. These graveyards and letterboxes belong to someone else. 

Once beside the ocean with the waves crashing down Liz writes their names in the sand; hers and hers and hers and his. Distantly she remembers that this is the start of a story. Remembers a boy who made her smile and told her that all stories were about love. She had believed it then.

Now, watching the tide carry out further and further still, she knows better.

All stories are about leaving.

* * *

Liz does the leaving from there on out. She leaves Brandon and Daniel and  Heidi and Taylor. She leaves Wisconsin and Seattle, Miami and Chicago and Boulder. Leaves jobs and towns and schools and people who need her to stay.

Diego tries the hardest. Tries the hardest of them all. He is kind, brilliant, and never boring. He has big dreams and makes them bigger still because sees a place for her in them. He wants to meet her father one day and apologize for not asking for his blessing when he slipped that rock on Liz's finger. The ring that never felt right so much it confounded her. He believes in Liz and it is their downfall. No matter what he promises it feels so foreign to her. His conviction misplaced, so certain that if he could only find the right catalyst, that the raw aching materials of her incompleteness would materialize into something more. The way of a chemical reaction or a metamorphosis. 

In the end Diego learns better. Learns it the hard way.

When Liz is packing her things and extricating herself from the false front of a life they had been building, her father's voice comes to her. Once, with tears in his eyes he had told her, una taza vacía no puede verter . No matter how much they want to, those who have nothing themselves have nothing to give. It is no matter how much you need them too. He was been talking about her mother but also about his daughter. About the woman Liz would grow to be. Worse than any empty cup- she is fine china, cracked at the bottom. So pretty to look at, almost as if it belonged to the set, but every pour into her eventually leaks away, leaving her just as empty for all the effort of any kind soul that dares to muster.

It is a dark vindication, driving out of the Bolder city limits. She is proving what she has always known; that Ortecho women are impossible to love. The secret is their blood, passed down from mother to daughter. The trick to the graceless exit is this; say all the wrong things and hear all the wrong words. Feel wrong in anyone's arms and long for things that don’t exist. Remember a face that loved you first, and look for him everywhere.

* * *

“You’re still in Roswell,” Liz gapes, holding up her passport in an aborted movement to shove it in his face while he shines a police issue flashlight into hers.

He looks different and he looks the same; he’s a stranger and still someone she could never forget.

A curl of emotion crosses his near imperceptible nod. “And you’re finally back.”

When she puts the car in drive and pulls away from Deputy Evans, there’s a quickening in her chest that hurts in a way she can only remember. Hurts like pills at the bottom of a trash can or the disconnected numbers of all the people she loved before. Hurts like things she should have seen coming. Everything in Liz tells her to turn and run. Gun the engine, break traffic laws, get the hell out and go back to all the places she has left behind. But she cannot and she knows it; there’s no job, no funding, no shelter behind her. She has burned too many bridges and scorched too many hearts. There's nowhere left to run.

* * *

Finding him on the other side of the glass at a thinly veiled DUI checkpoint is not what she expects. But neither is anything that follows. The bullet. The handprint. The pods. The autopsy photos. The lies and the lies and the lies. But the love letter she finds in Rosa’s hiding places is what hurts the most. Not only that he could hurt Rosa. But that he loved her enough to have written letters to other girls- to her own sister in his own words, not borrowed verses.

When she accuses him of murder, she breaks her own heart as well as his. But facts are facts, evidence is evidence. Liz stopped trusting this aching thing in her chest years ago. And the boy she had grown up with was long gone. This man, this alien, was a stranger and a suspect no matter what her heart told her. 

* * *

What her heart tells her is this: she doesn’t need to name the thing- the name does not define it, the name does not undermine it- and thus withholding it does not unmake its existence. No matter how hard she wishes. The acknowledgment of what she feels is no more important to the outcome than the word for ‘blood’ is to the organ itself. The heart pumps because it was made too, crafted too, purposeful and sustaining. What Liz feels for him is much the same, coursing through her without control, without reserve. It comes to her so natural and frightful in its ease that she fears the real pain is in denying it. That holding it in too long might kill her, might suffocate her.

And she has already been drowning for so long.

But forgiveness, she learns, tastes like oxygen.

* * *

He writes her letters again. Leaves them everywhere for her. Hides sheets of paper folded up, tucked in her lab ledgers. Leaves scribbled receipts on tabletops in her section of the café. Slides them into her hands when he is distracting her with a kiss. Tucks notes under her windshield wipers with promises and thoughts and such irrepressible joy that it tilts even his perfect handwriting.

The sight of a new letter reminds her of a girl who loved easily once, who loved freely. Yes, she had been hurt but not robbed of chances to make sense of the world, make sense of her place in it, her story.

Her father loves the letters too. Sometimes delivers them by hand from the mailbox to Liz’s room. He says he loves the smile on her face- so unburdened, and so, so much like her mother’s.

* * *

 

I’ve spent my life in the margins, trying not to be seen- but I could never hide from you. When we were young, I always knew when your eyes are on me. It was a cool desert wind on the back of my neck, telling me when you were close. I can still feel your eyes finding me before I can find you. 

That's the thing about your eyes, the shape of them, the perfect color the flash just before you shield them from the sun with your hands. I love the way you see the world. Like a lighthouse against an ocean I’ve never seen, a searchlight over the harbor, over the fathoms. I love the measured, removed way you take it all in. I envy it really, the way you only allow it a fraction of your grace. And I know you think that it makes you cold, or closed off. But I’m telling you, you’re wrong. I see you walk through this world with your eyes wide open. Honest and careful and brave. Your mind is a thing of beauty and nothing compares to holding its attention, to be decipherable to it.

And what I’m trying to say is this. You see a place for me in this world, in your world. Somehow, even though I don’t deserve it, you believe in me. And I know how hard belief can feel to someone so brilliant. 

I want to be worthy of your faith. But I also want to fit into the framework of your mind. I want to give you the evidence you deserve, not be the outlier. One day I want to give you proof that I am the good man you think I am. Instead of being someone you care for in spite of yourself.

I’ll try and I’ll try until the day I die.

With all my love,

-Max

* * *

Liz favors the little things Max writes for her. The simple scattered post-it notes he leaves everywhere, in places only she might find. Quick scrawled one-word notes, sometimes longer with a definition at the bottom. All shorthand clarity for the strange and beautiful words he was thinking, always of her.

Slipped into her purse she finds osculant , a Latin word she loves the sound of; to be closely joined, embracing, to kiss at length is written beneath in bulleted points . The next day on the back of the tea kettle in the café kitchen she finds memoriter , also Latin, but meaning by memory, by heart. Not much farther on the banister in the back is another pale yellow post-it. This one only two letters long but she cannot pronounce ài. Chinese, it reads, meaning to love and to treasure

At the Wild Pony Maria slips Liz a menu she doesn’t need and winks at her. Taped to the top is gemütlichkeit . This one, inexplicably, Maria teaches her how to pronounce. Its thick and German and only souls as worldly and searching as Max and Maria would think to find the perfect word for peace of mind, comfort, a sense of belonging all brought on by good company.

Working late, in the pocket of her lab coat she finds azure . Liz thinks to herself, she knows this one-its a color. But its so much more in the original Middle English, the word for a cloudless sky or pure, pure blue. Under her microscope is lucida. She can see the graphite particles and dust from where his pencil had pressed too hard. It's more Latin- a language she may never tire of- meaning the single brightest star in a constellation . Doctor Avila tuts at the intrusion, says she saw ese gringo alto bribing nurses to leave his little notes where Liz could find them in the lab. She hands Liz one she missed from a manila folder. This one is añorar , the most familiar word, yet it makes her heart race in its newness. Her own tongue, Español, to long for, to yearn for, to grieve the absence of someone. Yolanda pities her, but the doctor wishes her well, promising it always hurts to love that much so young.

Coalesce is the only time she catches him in the act. Pen in hand in his living room, jotting down the words from memory, precise and unmistakable. It is another word she has heard before but never ruminated on. It's more beautiful coming from his mouth, from his mind. To grow together into one entity, a single mass. Liz has seen the word peppered into biomedical studies and describing chemical reactions, but its feels less microscopic, less theoretical. Feels carnal and oncoming and revelatory.

“We have a murderous alien to catch,” Max reminds her when they both come up for air. “But after-”

“After.” Liz swears.

* * *

Max leaves. 

Because of course he does. Everyone has to, in the end. It's her luck. Her curse. Her blood.

Liz knows it the moment his handprint fades from her breast. She feels the outlined iridescence blink away, leaving cold goose-flesh where she had felt him last. Where she had felt all his love, his guilt, his compassion, his anger, all ripening in a need- a need to heal something that had been hurting for far too long.

Running through the desert, all Liz can think is that Max told her once that any good story needs symmetry. That there was something profound about all things being equal, about coming down a different path to the same end. To her, it sounded like heartache book-ended with heartache. 

But over the horizon, Rosa’s face was made of sunlight, made of fire, made of their mother’s laughter. Her touch is gentle and firm, steady as she pulls Liz from his body. Holds her, soothes her as she’s wracked with sobs, with a denial that echoes in the cave. Rosa closes his eyes with her fingertips, whispers thank you into his ears while Liz rocks back and forth in her sister’s arms- feeling lost, feeling found, feeling seventeen again- both too old and too young to lose this much.

* * *

Later, they find it. The slip of paper hanging out of his shirt pocket. Remanoir, it reads. His last rite, his only epitaph. An old French word meaning to remain, to stay .

 

 

 

fin.