Menchie is the friend I couldn't keep, the promise I couldn't deliver, the opportunity for grace I threw away.
Her mom entrusted Menchie to me on the very first day I stepped into college. Why she chose me among the hundreds of wide-eyed girls swarming that school building corridor, I hadn't quite figured up to this day.
I can't remember how her mom looked anymore, but the girl she was thrusting towards me made a vivid impression. Pony-tailed, fair-skinned, almond-eyed, slightly built. With a pretty face -- broken by a harelip.
We were both 16 and belonged to the same English Journalism class, girls section.
"Please take care of Menchie," the woman implored. I must have said "Yes," for she smiled gratefully before heading for the stairway. I took the girl's hand and started to small-talk. She answered in a hollow, smothered voice. I couldn't understand half of what she tried to say.
I tried to keep my promise for a few weeks. Menchie and I sat together in class, drank Coke together, went home together. We were mostly silent, however, while all around us was a flurry of girl-talk, laughter, and banter. I was anxious to make more friends and tried reaching out to other girls. But we were pariah together -- Menchie and I. Nobody else wanted to come near.
Little by little, I extricated myself from Menchie. Unloading the "monkey on my back," I made way for more exciting, "with-it" friends. I joined a cool group of giggling Elvis Presley fans, then the college sorority, later the Circulo Literati. When I was firmly ensconced in college society, it didn't occur to me to try to draw Menchie in.
I'd meet Menchie in class, say "hi," then walk on. I tried to ignore her "little-girl-lost" look and let my promise to her Mom go hung.
Before the semester ended, we submitted an essay in English class. Professor Policarpio read aloud a few she found notable -- including Menchie's and mine. I submitted a piece about my mother -- actually a take-off from my own dad's tribute to Mom on her recent birthday. (Those were the days I plagiarized shamelessly.) Menchie's essay was a cry for help, friendship, and compassion. It harangued a cruel world of selfish, insensitive adolescents. Her words -- for once crystal clear-- spoke directly to me, and I felt a jab on my chest.
The next day, I avoided -- more studiously than ever -- looking at her.
The following semester, Menchie did not enrol. She was unheard from ever since.
Decades later, I ask myself: what would have happened if I didn't let Menchie down? Would it have changed her life? Or mine? Or does a life once lived need not be altered at all? I am told God is so big no one could ever miss Him. And that Hitler went to heaven simply because there's nowhere else to go. (Many are shocked with this "Hitler-went-to-heaven" stuff, but I find it infinitely comforting.)
Some things I know now I couldn't have known then. For example -- that nothing takes place by chance but rather always for a purpose. God gave Menchie to me and me to her. Why I turned my back on her -- that happened for a reason. The guilt and shame (mine) and the loneliness and pain (hers) -- those couldn't have been wasted too.
I haven't really unravelled all the strands and snags of my life -- but I am getting there. I can now manage to smile as I attempt to figure it out. You see, I know one other thing now that I am older. And it is that "underneath every circumstance is a treasure; within every condition, a blessing." Menchie and I actually blessed each other; we continue to do so.
What could I tell Menchie if I met her now?
Well, I could tell her I have six grown children -- to whom I try to impart lessons from my bitter-sweet life, hoping against hope they might leap-frog over the "bitters."
I could tell Menchie that one lesson I've tried to pass on to my children is NEVER, EVER to spurn an opportunity to make friends with someone with a lost look, almond eyes, and a pretty face broken by a harelip.