Melina was kind of awkward in eighth grade. She was tall and gangly, with olive skin and buck teeth. She was the kind of girl who would be beautiful when she was older, but now, at fourteen, she was awkward. She also dressed in shabby, thrift-store clothes. She would wear long, fringed skirts over bell-bottom jeans, and a wool sweater over a stretched out tee-shirt. She carried a tattered cloth bag over one shoulder.
Eva Garcia was my best friend in eighth grade. Eva was at the height of desirable fashion. She wore dark blue jeans and striped tops from the Gap. Her scrunchies matched her shirts and her socks. Her dark brown hair glistened, and she wore “Heaven” perfume. Eva and I got along grandly. We would go to her apartment together after school and practice dance routines. Sometimes Fong Fu would come over, too. Fong and Eva were better dancers than I was- they were some of the best in eighth grade- but I could hold my own. For the white girl in the posse, I wasn’t bad 😉
On those days, I would ride the bus home with Eva. It would drop us off at the top of the old Gravel Pit, which was now more tastefully called the Forbes Creek Apartments. We would hop off the bus, laughing and swinging our bags. It seemed like Melina was always in front of us, walking about fifteen feet ahead, slowly, looking at her feet. Eva would start goading her. Hey Melina, she would call out. Why do you shop at Value Village? Then she would giggle hysterically and look at me, her eyes full of expectation. Now it’s your turn, they seemed to say.
So despite the bad feeling that was accumulating in my heart, I would taunt her, too. Yeah, Melina, I would say to her narrow back, her sloping shoulders. You look like a bum! Melina never said anything, just walked on, and disappeared down the trail through the woods. Eva and I would continue on our way, bouncing and giggling along the sidewalk. I would try to forget the shame I felt, the darkness that seemed to fan my heart.
One day we got off the bus and began the usual routine. Hey Melina, you look like a homeless person! Yeah, Melina, why do you wear rags?! Then she turned around. She stopped and stood perfectly still, and suddenly I was aware of my legs moving beneath me as though they had a will of their own. We were coming face to face with her and I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do.
Why do you always tease me? she asked simply. Why does it matter where I shop? Eva and I were floored. We stopped about ten feet short of Melina, our hands on our backpack straps, our mouths open. We didn’t say anything. I think I stuttered, but no real words came out. Then Melina turned, her back very straight, and walked on, disappearing down the path in the woods. We stopped teasing her after that. We never said a word. I don’t even think Tania and I talked about it. There was just a silent acknowledgment.
At Christmastime, Melina brought homemade candles to school as gifts. She gave me one. It was multi-colored, and when I lit it, the beeswax slid down the sides like a rolling rainbow. She never said a word about the past, and only smiled at me in a serene, happy way when I accepted her gift. I loved her after that.
In high school, Melina was friends with those hippie girls with the long hair that parted down the middle. They would sit together at lunch, taking bananas out of paper bags, eating tofu and brown rice. They were artsy and creative, the amazing painters, or sculptors, or budding musicians. They were cool in their own right.
Melina and I never became good friends, but I always felt a gentle acceptance from her. Oh, Sarah… she would say sometimes, if I shot up my hand to answer a question, or I skipped into math class with an armful of bagels and cream cheese for the girls at my corner table. She always had that expression of acceptance and amusement on her face, shaking her head slightly, a small smile on her lips. Oh, Sarah…
I never understood what I did to make Melina forgive me. But you know what? I didn’t do anything. Melina just had a wisdom at fourteen that I had only begun to glimpse at twenty four. She saw that forgiveness is the best way, the easiest way, the path of least resistance. She made me a candle, and she made a friend. May forgiveness come so easily to all of us.