A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY NOELLE MALDONADO
I am Noelle Nicole Maldonado. Who I was when I first began is much different from who I am now. Picturing myself as a newborn baby–a genuine Tabula Rasa–is nearly impossible. There isn’t a time when I can’t remember thinking of myself as this too-large, grimy, introverted creature. Someone who is always on the cusp of greatness, but never grows tall enough to reach it. Imagining myself as a blank page always makes me wonder who left coffee stains on me, who dogeared my corners, who left me as this brown, wrinkled mess? Was this fated? Is there someone I can blame? Or is this just me–forever?
My earliest memories are fragmented and faded. They’re more like indistinguishable clips from an ever-growing film. Pieces of a puzzle that I have yet to see the bigger picture of. I store them in a box beneath my bed, slowly building a wall of dust between them and the harsh light of day. When it’s late like it is now, and the moon strikes me a certain way, I can pull them out and list them like the alphabet.
There’s the memory of me falling over and hitting my head against the entertainment center while my dad watches football. There’s the memory of crawling away as quickly as possible from mom’s new boyfriend. There’s the memory of drinking warm milk from a bottle in dad’s apartment, on his comfy black futon. There’s the memory of the little green army men who would shoot one another and fall off that futon into the fiery pits of my imagination.
There are so many memories waiting at the bottom of that box. If you dig a little deeper for them, you’ll find when I used to ride on the hump of my grandpa’s old, white pick-up truck. You’ll find when I would make sock-puppets and plate-people with my grandma. You’ll find bologna sandwiches and bowls of frijoles for lunch. You’ll see Grandma pulling back my waist-length hair into a ponytail, threatening me with her chancla when I cried. If it’s nice outside, you might catch me in the backyard making “soup” with sticks and mud in the stone bird bath, or throwing tennis balls against the side of the house for Bella. You might see mom showing up after work to take me home, and you’d see me run to embrace her as soon as she walked through the door. If you get close enough to us, you might find comfort in the factory smell that stuck to her skin as I used to.
If you stick around long enough you’ll see family get-togethers, when we could still call them that. There was Christmas, when the house was packed and all our cousins would go to the basement to ride scooters and bikes and rollerblades around and around until we fell into each other, laughing. Then the adults would call for us and force us into Tia Lulu’s room while Santa brought us presents. On their word we’d race out to the sitting room and marvel at our picture-perfect, shiny boxes, all the while silently glaring at whoever had more than us.
If you see me at my Tia Irma’s, expect to be greeted by a chorus of “Nonis!” as I walk down the stairs and a gaggle of boys half my height hurtle themselves at me, all competing to get more of a hug than the other. We used to rough-house and chase each other around the basement because it was the only room that wasn’t stiff and watchful. The boys would follow me and hang on my arms like monkeys. They’d tell me that they missed me and loved me, before they grew taller and learned that that kind of expression isn’t okay. You might see us eating Jello easter eggs in Uncle Joe’s backyard, marveling at the biggest stretch of land we felt we had ever seen. We would fall asleep in his TV room to Disney movies and hold our breath when we tip-toed to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Maybe we’re teasing one another, or breaking things, or trying to get each other to eat various objects/animal poops. Maybe we’re stuffing our little faces until our greedy bellies are bloated with satisfaction. Maybe I’m flickering in and out of consciousness while my Tia croons the same melody, over and over, one of the most soothing sounds I’ve ever heard.
These memories will come running at you in full tilt. They’ll stumble over each other’s feet as they bound towards you, racing to be recalled. Each and every one is filled with happiness and love. They make me smile and ache for that childish innocence–that impish grin, that bubbling giggle. They are all pleasant in a sad way. Things are much easier as a child–I have realized that. In this sense, ignorance truly is bliss. I don’t know when I started connecting the angry red dots between what I once believed to be a glowing, happy family. I don’t know when Christmas lost its magic and when I started fumbling and fighting for just one moment of that truly unadulterated pleasure and happiness I once felt so carelessly. I don’t know when I began to grow a voice and personality; I don’t know how the family that I loved so recklessly and unconditionally missed it. I don’t know when the disciple became more knowledgeable than the predecessors about what is right and what is wrong–but it happened. I became a person with opinions and insights and intuition. I developed differences of opinions and attitudes and styles. I lost the little girl who was too blinded by twinkling lights and too deafened by squeals of adolescent joy to see and hear the turbulent truth behind the family I had deemed as perfection. I love those memories because they are pure; I often find tears stinging my eyes when I am reminded of that simpler time.
The Lost Sisters
Despite my parent’s forced influences on me to talk and walk and use the grown-up potty, Brittany Bautista was the first person to really influence me. She was the first person I noticeably seeked approval from–the first person who made me feel like I needed it.
Now is an appropriate time to give you a little background on our family tree. I have 10 aunts and uncles. Because there are so many, their ages vary quite a bit. My mom is the second youngest of all her siblings. By the time she had me, a lot of her older siblings had already started to have families of their own. In fact, some of her sibling’s kids had already started having their own kids. I was a little late to the party.
The end result of all this reproduction was 32 first cousins and 28 second cousins. I always imagine my grandma as this grand ruler of her small army of grandchildren, sitting at the head of the table while we throw food at each other and make one another cry.*
Brittany is my cousin and she’s about a year older than me. I have two other cousins that are close in age, but with a big family comes division, and subsequently it was Brittany who became my first best friend.
According to the stories my family retells, Brittany and I didn’t get along too well when we were young. My mom would always tell me that I couldn’t go over to her house if I was going to cry because Brittany was picking on me and ask to be taken home early. Whenever I would tattle on Britt for hitting me, my Tia would tell me to hit her back. They were bewildered by the fact that although I almost always ended up in tears, I would still go running back to her.
Back then it was mostly kid stuff. It was “your Barbie is cooler than mine” stuff or ” I’m older so I get the good toys” stuff. It was dumb sibling-like fights, which may be part of the reason I began viewing her as such.
For a very long time I was mad at her for this. As we grew older, a clear hierarchy began to form. Even when she wasn’t intentionally trying to belittle me, she made me feel small. She was always in charge, always the more creative one, the brains and the inspiration behind our operations. She was the director, producer, writer, filmmaker and star in our film. I merely tried to keep up, a lesser side-kick. I felt as if I was constantly in her shadow, which seemed impossible at the time because I was 50 pounds heavier and 2 inches taller.
And still, I loved her. She inspired me, she still does. I kept going back because when I wasn’t upset I was having a blast. All the things we did I found fun too, she just thought of it first. I fed off her confidence, I noted her steps. I credit her to a lot of my knowledge about the adult world and to many experiences. I loved our adventures as “lost sisters”, I loved playing M rated games at her dad’s house. I loved every moment of our childhood together. I watched her grow up and away from me. And that was enough for me. Even if I was a last result or an excuse, as long as I got to be apart of her world every now and then, I was okay.
I don’t like to think of my time with Brittany as a negative experience. Instead, I like to think I learned from my time spent with her. I like to view it as more of an apprenticeship than time spent under a dictator. It took a lot of time and forgiveness to think of it as such. As I mentioned before, I was angry at her for a very long time. I was a kid still when the anger bubbled hot from the pit of my stomach to my throat. I was oblivious to our differences at first. Eventually I began to see the reluctance in her smiles when she agreed to take me along with her friends. They were all older and cooler than me, and I saw that I was becoming less of a companion and more of an obligation. We still had good times together on occasion; I still wanted to be around her. I didn’t see that I was belittling myself by hanging onto her coattails.
You see, Brittany is a whirlwind. She is where I learned to take risks and live closer to the edge. We didn’t miss opportunities, we didn’t give them up for a safe option. We thought quick on our feet, we used our imagination at full tilt.* We did whatever the hell we wanted, because she held the power. She was the driving force of all our expeditions. That’s part of the reason it was so easy to justify chasing a relationship that was dwindling. We had that special ability to make something out of nothing. We were able to withstand trying to make something that was falling apart still work. We continued to play the same games and talk to each other on a normal basis. I can’t pinpoint when we fell apart, but when we did, the disconnect was clear and concise. The anger in me solidified to cement and weighed me down. I felt as if she had abandoned me; as if she didn’t remember all the time we had spent together. I thought she didn’t value me as I had her. We didn’t say hi to each other in the hallways at school. I never mentioned that she was my cousin to my friends unless necessary. I complained to my other cousins that you shouldn’t treat family like that, and I put all the blame on her. When we were forced together during family gatherings I would revel in our small talk, because no matter how bitter I was, I could not deny that I missed her.
I allowed my anger and insecurity to prohibit me from reaching out to her. All the negative feelings I had thought stemmed from her were actually of my own creation. I thought she was superior in imagination and leadership and looks and personality. I thought my family liked her more. I thought I was meant to be her sidekick, that I couldn’t and didn’t need to be my own person, let alone a hero.
Brittany was not the only person to make me feel like this, she will not be the last. I learned a lot from our experience together, and I am still learning from her. She led me to discover that I am my own worst enemy. I learned that I shouldn’t be competing with anyone but myself. There will always be someone better than you at something, but that doesn’t make your personal worth any lesser. That doesn’t mean you are small. Brittany didn’t shut me up, I did that to myself. I shoved myself in a corner; like a gas, she expanded to fill up the space I had made for her. I relinquished the reins to her because it felt comfortable and safe to do so. I built her up in my head and I intimidated myself with the image I had created. I allowed it to rule and suppress me.
A key to self improvement: Always put yourself on a level playing field with the people who inspire you. Just because they are strong and bold and bright doesn’t mean you have to be dull. You can match their brightness and allow them to inspire you to constantly become brighter. Competing against only yourself is the only way to improve. It is scarier and much harder than competing with other people, but it will give you the best results. Any other type of competition will dig you into a hole of discouragement too hard to crawl out of. It’s easy to blame someone else’s light for your lack of. You are taking the easy way out by doing this. Inspiring people should be utilized. They should be connections and teachers and positive influences. They should be encouragements. Let them inspire you. Grow with your combines knowledge and you will blossom into this beautiful hybrid who is equally inspiring. It isn’t cocky to think of yourself as such–it’s healthy.
I was cleaning out my room one day when I came across a little bag of notes. They were from a Thanksgiving when I was younger. My uncle handed out sheets of paper and told us to write why we were grateful for each person in the room. I immediately found Brittany’s, the longest note in the bag.
I cried as I read over the easy intimacies she wrote in it. I took a picture of the two pages and sent them to her in a text, asking her what happened.
This was over a year ago. She responded with remorse and a sadness that I shared for our lost friendship. We vowed we could make it work again. We hung out a few times and text periodically, attempting to make up for 7 years of lost time.
It has been a busy year for us. She is a freshman in college and has been living in Chicago. Her life is complex and shiny and new and she’s soaking up the best of it. She’s been busy. It’s my senior year of highschool and I have been applying to college, applying for financial aid, fighting (and mostly losing) the battle against senioritis, trying to maintain a healthy personal and social life, all the while trying to refrain from panicking about the impending new chapter of my life fast approaching. Basically, I’ve been trying to get my shit together before I turn the next page. I’ve been busy.
We haven’t made an astounding amount of progress. That’s okay. Construction takes a long time; cleaning the rubble and rebuilding takes longer. I believe we’ll get there eventually. I’m not planning on giving up on us again.
Noelle Maldonado lives in Chicago Heights, IL. She recently graduated from Homewood-Flossmoor High School. “Finding My Way Through”, when completed, will be, simply, about life. About the obstacles she has encountered, about the types of relationships she has experienced, and what she has learned about herself and the world through them. Sh wants the work to be universal, and for the people who read it to be able to connect with it. She hopes to help people who may be going through similar tribulations and to inspire people to analyze and think about the events in their lives and the important and beautiful moments they may be overlooking.