Eight years ago, I spent four months reading stories to "orphans" (some abandoned by their parents) in an orphanage in Puerto Escondido, Mexico: The cozy well-run house Casa Hogar Neuva Vida. I would go every afternoon to be with Anita, Rosa, Uriel-Nico, Tomàs and Andrès.
Not really. I really went to see Uriel. When he first met me, he squeezed my nose. He had two names -- Nico or Uriel -- which he changed as he pleased. He made fun of my Spanish and refused to do anything I asked (at first) -- and always did everything I asked. He was the first to volunteer to be the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood; he squinted, leaned over an invisible cane and moaned. He ran away from the table when I gave homework, but then the next week, there he was, with a 10-page illustrated story about a family of bears, with minute designs on the animals' faces (e.g., tiny ears on the bears). Then the next week, proudly, he offered me another.
It ended with the line: "The boy lives peacefully with the bird and the lion, but then the lion dies and the bird dies; then the lion's mother comes back and since her own son is dead, she adopts the little boy!"
A happy ending?
"Yes of course," said Uriel (or Nico!).
When I left the orphanage, he refused a hug. But then he extended his hands from behind his back. "A present for you," he said in his raucous voice.
A large, smooth, perfect pink conch shell!
"You can hear the sea in it," he said. "It is for you to make a wish."
I thought often, many times, after I left, that I should adopt Uriel. If I had the means I would have done so. I wondered what future I would have saved him from if I had. He was 11, so smart, so rebellious, so angry...
Today I went back to the orphanage after eight years.
I was afraid to walk in.
There was Andrès! The boy with big sad eyes.
"Ola Andrès," I said. "Do you remember me?"
"No," he said.
There was Anita, the girl who always had neat barrettes in her hair.
"Ola Anita!" I said. "Do you remember me?"
"No," she said.
And there was... Uriel.
"Uriel!" I said. "Do you remember me?"
"Certainly," he said.
I came up to him and gave him a hug.
He pushed me away with one hand -- and extended another to shake my own.
I winked at him. "I forgot, Uriel."
He nodded, the bright irony in his eyes the same.
"And so?" I said. "What are you doing now?"
He pointed at the plastic bag of water in his hand. "Carrying a bag of water."
"I mean in general! Are you in school?"
He shook his head no. "I dropped out."
The headmistress came up behind me. "Oh, it's a sad story with Uriel. I want to save you all the sordid details but..."
She nodded at him. "He was rebellious. He ran away. He spent two years in the streets. And now he is back, and we give him small chores to do here."
I turned angrily to Uriel. "And you were so smart! You dropped out of school! You were the smartest boy!"
He smiled and winced.
"Can you go back?"
"Perhaps," the schoolmistress said behind me.
"You have to go back!" I said. "Your future, Uriel! School will give you opportunities..."
"Maybe," he shrugged.
I looked down at my feet. I did not want him to see I was crying.
I went upstairs to meet the new little orphans.
When I came down, there was Uriel, standing by a post.
I went up to him and hugged his back.
"I will be back in two years, Uriel," I said. "Promise me that when I come back I will see you in school."
He nodded with the most vulnerable smile.
"I hope so," he said.
At the door, I turned. "Do you remember the present you gave me? The concha de caracol?
"Si," he said.
"The one with the sea in it?"
"I still have it," I said.