Lailatul “Fitri” Fitriani was born prematurely. She is failing in all of her classes and has terrible handwriting. She is long and thin and has big eyes that sometimes focus on you with an intensity of effort that makes you worry that you’ll never have the answers she needs.
In a flock of eighth-grade girls, I strolled through the deserted streets of an Indonesian beach town on the southern coast of Central Java. I turned to Fitri and asked if she wanted to swim. She answered my effort at small talk with a short, No.
I searched my brain for a new topic. Have you ever been to the beach before?, I asked.
Trying to wrap my mind around living on a tropical island for thirteen years and never once seeing the ocean, I stumbled through my Indonesian vocabulary to say, It’s good. It’s big.
We stepped onto the sand, and I took off my sandals. Fitri removed hers. I looked across the waves and said again, It’s big.
Fitri looked at me and said, It’s big.
I walked out until my ankles were wet, and then my knees, and then my waist as I lowered myself to sit in the outermost-edge of the breaking surf. Fitri sat beside me. We linked our elbows and waited for the waves. The water rolled towards us in white froth and pushed us backward, tumbling towards one another and tightening the knot of our arms.
Our heads popping back to the surface like buoys, and Fitri looked at me. The water, Miss! she yelled above the waves. The water! It’s salty!
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