Am I too old for my nine year old friend?

Koh Tao, Thailand, December 2012

It was a quiet afternoon at the quiet end of Sairee beach. A Russian man played with his little boy in the water while his wife watched them affectionately. A private diving tutor looked for some potential students, perhaps some alone girls whose boyfriends left for diving lessons since early morning. He was offering me a ride on his boat while she came to me. She was tiny. Her skin was typical of people who spend their lives on tropical beaches. It’s smooth. And it’s much darker than mine considering that she is Thai and I am Vietnamese. She held her skinny arms towards me. I had automatically held them before I realized that she wanted me to show her how to swim. Still I wonder why she picked me out in such a crowd! She soon found out that I could not swim either. Plus I don’t speak Thai. So we just paddled in the shallow water and chatted in broken English. She is called Pai. Nine-year-old. She said she wasn’t at school because it’s holiday. I wondered whether she helped in the restaurant that I had my fruit juice earlier. Maybe not. Perhaps she was actually off school today. I wonder why she can’t swim. Her look tells a story of babies who were born on the beach, first washed with sea water and who learn to walk on the sand under the sun. The fantasy story that a city girl like me always dream of! I wonder whether she came to many tourists or I was the special one. I like to think I am the special one.

We could not swim but we had a great time playing in the water. Where we could both stand higher than the water level, we tried to make our way along each other until we were out of breath. Where the water level was higher than her, I lifted her on her back so that she could learn to float, then let go when I let go. We splashed water and stirred the quiet beach with laughter. She jumped into the water from some branches and screamed. I would shake my head with a seemingly disapproving look. We smiled with the shy Russian boy then paddled away. She pointed at the sun that was going down quickly and told me the Thai word for it. She taught me the Thai word for sand as well. Then she realized she wanted to play with the sand. She didn’t want to build a castle. She wanted me to bury her in the sand until the waves washed everything away. I was covered in sand and deep in childlike emotions when my boyfriend found me that day. I didn’t want to leave the beach and my new friend. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find her again. When I left, she ran back into the water, climbed on the boat left by the diving tutor. The sun set gorgeously on her dark skin and slim figure. It was stunning. I stood there starring for a good few minutes and wishing that I would never forget how beautiful it was.

I went back to the beach another time before I left Turtle Island. She was there playing with a dry coconut shell. She smiled brightly when I called her name. My heart leapt. We threw the coconut shell back and forth. We splashed water at each other. We tried to beat each other at staying under the water. We laughed. I asked her how to say the word sun in Thai again. She asked me how old I am. I told her that I was twenty seven. She held a surprise look. “Too old” she said. I have never felt that amused when some said I was too old. I asked her why. “I am only nine” she said. I lifted her up and threw her back into the water. I felt how light she was. I saw how dark she was. I notice how different she was to me. Will she travel to Europe one day to find people who look like the tourists she saw all the time growing up? Will she travel to Vietnam one day to remind her of her so-called too old Vietnamese friend? Will she remember me at all when I leave? My boyfriend took a picture of her and me digging sand to keep the memory for me. But I know I will never forget my nine year old friend who trusted such a stranger like me to keep her float at sea.

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