3 of my students: Alicia Castro, Gabriella Salazar & Karen Luau were inspired to write short fiction by Ariel Maldonado’s exhibition Talk to Strangers, March 2017.
Talk to Strangers
CSULB School of Art, Gatov Gallery East
Ceramic sculpture by Ariel Maldonado
Talk to Strangers
She watched as her daughter pulled the rings through the maze, paying careful attention to each of the loops. She sat praying that she would never have to see her here again.
It had been just a few years ago that her daughter, Jesse, was diagnosed with cancer, so they had spent more days at the doctors office than she could remember. Today marked three months after her last chemotherapy appointment. Her daughter had just completed her PET scan, and while Jesse didn’t quite understand the severity of today, she knew that she must stay strong despite what the results said. She wanted nothing more in the world than to walk out of this office with good news to share with their family.
This past few years resembled the toy that Jesse was playing with, full of loops to go through only to be forced to go back to the beginning. She had watched her 9 year old daughter go through unimaginable pain, feeling more and more helpless each time, and only wanted her to be the same peppy little girl she was not too long ago.
“Jessie, we are ready for you,” the nurse called out and before going to meet her at the door, they looked at each other nervously. This was the moment they had been waiting for.
She grabbed onto Jesse’s hand as they sat across from the doctor, making sure not to be too forceful with her fragile daughter. The doctor welcomed them and opened the file to review the final results of the scan. For a second, everything in her body went numb as she prepared herself for whatever was about to happen. As the doctor started speaking, she zoned out and thought about every moment she had shared with her daughter, good and bad.
“I can officially say that you, Ms. Jesse, are cancer free. Congratulations,” the doctor closed the file and smiled.
They both broke into tears and embraced each other with the good news. They thanked the doctor and all the nurses for everything they had done for them these past few years. Before walking outside, they turned around for a quick second, leaving behind all of the painful memories, and walked out of the office, hand in hand, towards a new and beautiful life.
March 5, 1954
In March of 1954, Mary had the opportunity to study abroad in Africa. Her adventure began when her parents let her leave her small town to attend college at Long Beach State College. She was one of the few girls to attend the university and the first to attend college in her family. She yearned for a cultural education about the people that America seemed to hate simply for the color of their skin. Due to her passion in Anthropology and African studies, she was invited to study abroad in Zambia, East Africa during Easter Break. To document her time there, Mary brought along a diary. The group from the university included a Professor Williams (PhD in African studies), two other female students, and three other male students. To immerse themselves in the culture, the group were taken from tribe to tribe during the day. They were to return by nightfall every day. However, the tour guides lost track of time on this particular day. Due to the danger of driving at night, they decided to stay with the Bemba tribe. What occurred on that night never left Mary.
I am unsure of the events which occurred last night.
We were set to leave the Bemba by the time the sun had reached a little past mid sky. But we lost track of time as the Chitimukulu told the story of his people. We were in a trance, unable to stop listening to their beautiful history. Professor Williams exclaimed, “Oh my!” as the Chitimukulu’s story came to an end. I looked up to see the sun setting in deep shades of reds and oranges. The tour guides quickly jumped and looked at each other in disbelief. I could tell they did not want us to stay but there was not anything to do. So, Professor Williams talked quietly with the guides and after a minute they turned to the Chitimukulu. We were to stay the night with the tribe to stay safe from the dangers of the wild.
I was afraid but I did not let anyone see. We were in the middle of East Africa with a tribe we had only just met. They were kind but we did not know them and they did not know us. We were exposed to all elements, wild and unknown. I prayed to God and asked that we lived to tell the story.
The Bemba began a fire and asked us to sit around the fire as it began to rise. It was a large fire like the ones we used to make at the beach. It seemed familiar and I began to relax. The Bemba women offered us all a drink and we looked at Professor Williams for some type of approval. He nodded his head and we drank.
This is where everything happened. This is where it all began.
I am unsure if I was hallucinating, intoxicated, or simply dreaming. The fire grew and grew. I could feel the heat dancing on my skin. Something was in my blood and I could feel it moving through my body. I felt pure happiness and ecstasy. I felt good. The fire began to change colors slow at first then fast from color to color. I saw colors in the fire I had never seen before. Shapes emerged in the sky and they danced as the Bemba danced. Around in circles around the fire. They chanted in their language. Then they screamed. People fell to the ground and arched their backs. Their bodies moved violently. Others danced around the moving bodies. Then the fire began to scream and it grew louder in my ears. I closed my eyes.
Then it all stopped. Everything went black.
I opened my eyes and it was like nothing had changed. We were back to the exact moment when the Bemba women were handing us drinks.
That was all I recall seeing two months ago. Just big white flashing lights. It felt like a trucker’s headlights as he’s driving the opposite direction of me at 2 in the morning. My mother still cries herself to sleep everyday blaming herself for what happened, constantly telling my father she shouldn’t have forced me to drive back that night. My father drinks constantly barely listening to my mother’s rants. My little brother became muted, he barely utters a word to anyone, I guess he got traumatized the most, even more than me. I have a boyfriend, during the time of the accident he became very distant, probably too shock to apprehend what had just happened to it. At that time, though, is when he also slept with my best friend. He left me when he thought I wasn’t coming back. He didn’t want to be sad. He didn’t want to be lonely. I don’t blame him and I don’t blame her. It was a horrible crisis in their lives and my accident brought them closer together.
It’s two months now, and my memory has returned. My now former boyfriend and best friend are still together, they check up on me every now and then but they have moved on with their lives. My dad still drinks, but is trying to stop. My mother, while she doesn’t cry herself to sleep anymore, still blames herself for the accident and has fallen into a spiral of depression. My brother is still mute. He speaks with a speech specialist every day and he’s slowly gaining his voice back. I’m back at school now after being out for 2 months. I have a lot to catch up on but luckily my teachers felt pity for me and aren’t forcing me to make up work. Everyone looks at me now like something tragic as happened to me, like I have lost my life. I don’t feel like I have. Doctors told me I was lucky I was able to fully gain back my memory and that my body should heal back to normal. They told me I should have been grateful because I had another chance at life. That made me angry, angry to the point I broke down in tears screaming and yelling how uneducated they are and how they didn’t know what really happened. They simply walked out the room and the nurses gave me sedatives to calm me down.
One day, I woke up and I had just remembered everything. I remember driving home in the middle of the night because my mother had called hysterical because my brother had gotten a bad fever and he was to be rushed to the E.R. My mother does not do good in these type of situations. I was two towns over, at a party hosted by a potential college I was thinking about. I didn’t really drink that night so I figured it was safe to drive home. On the drive home I should have realized it, but I didn’t. A boy had been following me from the party. He was stalking me the whole time at the party and when he saw I was leaving, followed me. I got back to into my town and to my house. I stepped out and began making my way to the front door. Before I could even approach the door I heard a loud bang. He had hit me in the head with a tire iron. I was dragged into his truck. As I was laying in his trunk, all I saw was light, illuminating.
He held me in his tool-shed house for 4 days before I was found. In that span, he had forcefully raped me, tasered me when I didn’t comply to his wants and even branded me with a branding iron. He told me I would be his forever and I was never to leave. I was dehydrated and starving. I couldn’t scream, and even if I could have, no one would have heard me. For the most part he had always duct taped my mouth and had my hands and feet tied. I would just lay on the ground for hours in the dark. I remember that only thing that kept me going was thoughts of seeing my family and friends again. I’m not sure how they found me but I remember one night as he was in there about to pull his pants down for “another night of fun” as he said it, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I kept begging him to stop with the little voice I had left. This made him angry. He brought out a gun, said he had enough of me and that I was too used for him. That it was time to find a replacement. I knew this was the end of the road to me. Memories of my life began flashing before my eyes. He pointed the gun at me and just as he was about to shoot, the police barged in, but it was too late. He had shot me, which led to one of the police officers shooting him and him dying right there. They had rushed me to the hospital. I was told I was under surgery for 15 hours. Because of my starvation and dehydration my organs and immune systems were also failing. He had shot me in the head, one more inch to the right and I would have died instantly.
My mother told me when I woke up from the surgery I didn’t remember anything. I spent a whole month in the hospital because of the gunshot. They brought me home and had told me that I was just eating one day and suddenly I remembered again. I remembered my old life, but unfortunately so much had changed that it felt like I was in a new parallel universe of my life. It’s weird to say this, but I remember the exact moment my memory came back. I saw lights illuminating, peaking out through my mind and suddenly everything just came back. I was me again.
It has now been 4 months, and there is still tension at home. My brother is finally speaking and my dad is rarely drinking. Mom began taking meds for her depression. My former boyfriend and best friend are still together and no longer try to keep in contact with me anymore. They said it’s too hard and too much has happened, I call bullshit, but that’s life. I sometimes wake up in sweat from screaming in my nightmares. I get that a lot, night scares. I see a therapist now. I’ll be going to college next year and I plan to study abroad, I think I just need to get out of this place. I need to be far away. My life is no longer the same here. I’ve already finalized everything, I will be going to school in Europe and it’ll be a great escape. At night, I daze out at the night sky a lot, just looking at all the stars. It helps calm me down, looking at all the lights, illuminate.