Trahzia and Marin tear up into the mouth of the school truck bed, dive-bombing towards rice sacks. Trahzia’s uniform skirt cha-chas above her knees. The faded ink of meticulous crib notes winks beneath her hem. Marin makes no pretense of not looking. Offspring of the country’s elite, they race to see who can throw more sacks at poor people. Somebody’s gotta set the example. They’re at the Arbat Refugee Camp. It is World Refugee Day, school is OUT!, and they are brimming with the spirit of giving.
Marin’s fingers graze Trahzia’s during a sack pass. Trahzia lets his fingers linger before shoving him. "Dickhead!" she sneers, privately smiling. Her oversized red frames slide down her nose magnifying her eyes. She looks like a cartoon character. She could be Cartman’s girlfriend with that mouth of hers. "You’re such a fucking asshole." She thumbs her glasses back into place.
Marin laughs, laughs with the confidence of having the right last name. He’s not ugly either. There are tiny hairs caterpillaring above his gummy bear red lips, giving him the look off a movie star man. He’s just turned eighteen but is two years from graduation. He’ll probably end up buying his diploma. Sometimes, light filters through the English classroom window, glistering the hairless ridge of scar skin on Marin’s cheek, lending it an unwholesome fullness. Trahzia monitors the play of rays off Marin’s face. She wants to stroke it, rub her thumb pads over his rimpled skin, his badge of honor.
Now they’re off-campus, the rules from the exclusive International High School of Kurdistan break, and everyone’s crazed. Students lean on decorum till it’s sideways. Marin slides his eyes over Trahzia’s round boobs and butt. It’s dark in the back of the truck and they are almost alone. He could reach out and touch her if he dared.
Another sophomore, Lawand, leaps up onto the truck bed, his arms outstretched to the air. “Hey,” he says, baring teeth. “Marin, ready for some action?” Lawand regards Trahzia’s ass.
Marin reads Trahzia’s ankles, wonders if the rumors are true. He laughs but not really.
A cloud passes over the teardrop of Trahzia’s face.
Lawand jumps up and down on the truck bed, making it shake. “Look at this shithole,” but his eyes sit on Trahzia’s tits. Beyond the truck, toddlers in falling diapers crawl around in fistfuls of sandy dirt. The landscape repeats itself. “What a place for a talent show.”
Trahzia clomps over, a sack of rice safeguarding her chest. She thrusts the sack at Lawand’s stomach but a little lower. “Catch.”
Lawand gasps, his meaty tongue floppy like a dying fish. “Bitch.”
Trahzia coos, “Awe, too heavy?”
The before and after are relentless. Marin steps between, “Bro, let it go.” Marin fastens a tricky smile to his face, giving it first to Lawand and then sending it over his shoulder to Trahzia. Into Lawand’s ear, his whispers trip with laughter. Together, they toss the sack out of the truck.
Across the barren land, a wilderness of chairs collects sandy dust around a temporary stage.
“What’s that?” An easy cast returns to Marin’s face.
“Didn’t you hear? UNHCR is putting on a show. The Syrian refugees gonna sing and dance for us.” Lawand’s eyebrows jump up and down. “Refugees Got Talent.”
“Real, Bro. There’s even some Lebanese B-lister judge.”
Marin notices the barbed wire fence surrounding the chairs and shakes his head. “Why?”
In another part of the country, ISIS flags tattoo cities.
“Got no home. Got no school. Gotta do somethin.”
As Trahzia hops down from the truck, the hem of her skirt flaps back and forth to kiss her knee-backs. “Look.” The boys trace an imaginary line from Trahzia’s finger to five teenage girls practicing Bollywood moves to the beat of imaginary music. They dance with inept abandon.
“Surprised their parents let them. That’s haram.” Trahzia’s nose tilts upwards as if balancing a tea cup.
Lawand moves his head in time to the girls’ hips. “Aren’t refugees usually grateful?” He pats his wallet and winks toward them.
Marin’s and Trahzia’s bodies twist towards each other. Sunlight sparks the cross hanging in the crook of Trahzia’s collarbone. Marin pins his arms behind his back.
An idea inches up Trahzia’s arm. “Wanna walk around?”
They make their way through the camp. Polygons of wild blue sky flow behind corrugated tin awnings of makeshift businesses. A line five deep extends from a barber’s. Ants as long as thumbnails crawl around swirls of hair. Marin and Trahzia stop to buy water and gum at an open-air store, Trahzia pays.
“This way,” Marin takes Trahzia’s elbow. They grapevine their way among porta-potties, water points and cold showers as rivulets of dirty water rush by them. A few men mill about in flip flops. Farther down, rows of cinder brick structures give way to rows of white tents emblazoned with the blue UNHCR logo. Tents bloom insanely, the older ones secured by cinderblocks, the newer ones snaggled open like crooked front teeth before the dark mouth of a cave. As they walk through the archeology of tents, Trahzia snugs a tiny bit closer. When her pinky twigs Marin’s wrist, electricity bolts to her toes, sending a shiver of atoms through space.
“Where is everybody?” Trahzia holds her water bottle to back of her neck, thrusting out her boobs. She slivers Marin a glance.
“Goin’ to the show.” Marin snorts.
This is the day Marin will kiss her Trahzia thinks. The way he’s been writing on her with his fountain pen ink eyes. There are signs and symbols everywhere. She feels his eyes part the heavy curtain of her hair to scribble on the back of her neck. Goosebumps flower along her arms. Trahzia’s thought about that kiss, about Marin’s pillow lips, about where the noses go. She’s ready.
Sunlight fractals into diamonds of light. “It’s hot. Let’s find some shade.” Trahzia disappears into the labyrinth of tents. All around them is the mumbling of spells. Farther on, they come upon a structure with distended lips of nylon and fragmented beams. They enter. Inside, the world is blue and black and made of outlines.
“Check this out.” Marin and Trahzia dwarf among towers of brown boxes labeled with “Core Relief Item Packs”. Inside are kits of blankets and towels and toothbrushes. Together, they cloak the plywood floor in cheap cotton. They sit, reluctant to disturb the layers of sleeping air. An unnamed something bubbles between them.
“Here we are.” Marin’s voice is a fortune teller’s.
Trahzia barely breathes. She’s been watching him across exam halls, across lunchroom tables, across hallways the color of milk carton insides. Marin leans in, and Trahzia’s heart skips a beat. She closes her eyes, tilting her face to the right, and feels the arms of her eyeglasses being jostled from behind her ears.
“I want to see your eyes.”
A lullaby in six syllables.
Marin leans in again, tiling her mouth with his. Trahzia un-suctions her lips to release the pressure. Marin’s lips open and their tongues trade mouths. They are two humans inside each other. Their teeth clink. Trahzia’s eyes open wide. Marin’s nose is a glorious chorus of tiny pores.
Marin comes up for air. “Is this okay?”
Worship hijacks Trahzia’s face, tilting her chin up and down.
Marin thumbs the cross decorating Trahzia’s sternum, leaning her back. This is different from those times in Dubai when he and Lawand paid for it. There, sex occurred without its shadow. With Trahzia, it’s the borrowing of someone and the giving of her back. Everybody knows that’s what the Christians and the expats are for. He goes for her tits; she lets him. They’re squishier than a prostitute’s. He moves on top of her and unbuttons her shirt. Underneath is a plain white cotton bra with, jackpot, the clasp in front.
“Marin.” Trahzia’s breath is shallow. Tiny cluster bombs of feeling are exploding on the underside of her skin. Her blood feels carbonated.
Marin traces the half-moon of breast rising from the press of her bra before kissing her again. This time her lips are soft and yielding. He kisses her neck, breathing into her ear like his driver Omid told him to. Lots of women want to, Omid had said, especially Americans, who are ready to fuck at first glance.
“That tickles,” Trahzia says.
Marin takes this as permission. He frees her tits with a flick of the hook. They are jubilant. Her nipples are the color of baby’s feet. He rubs one between his thumb and forefinger until she cries out and then sucks it to make it better.
Trahzia knows she should stop. She’ll give him till the end of “Into You” playing inside her head. Taking a breath, she finds herself again. “Wait.”
Her nipple drops out of Marin’s mouth. “Are you sure? I just want to make you feel good.” She does not hear the rat scurrying through his words. His hand slides up her thigh to the damp cotton of her underpants and taps between her legs. He kisses her gently. “I really like you.” He lies so adamantly it feel like the truth.
“I like you too.” Between her legs is molten lava.
Marin rubs her on the outside of her panties. “Do you want me to stop?”
Trahzia’s on the verge of understanding something. “I—”
Marin parts the elastic and moves his fingers inside. Her hair is soft and wet. He traces the outside of her lips as he kisses her mouth. His fingers walk inside her.
Trahzia breaks the kiss. “Marin—”
“You feel so good. Look at me as I touch you.” Marin says, recycling some cheesy movie dialogue.
Their eyes lock.
“You’re so beautiful.”
Trahzia’s legs part.
It worked in that film too.
Marin presses forward. “I want to see you.” He lifts her skirt and pulls down her pants. They tangle on her ballet flats.
Trahzia crosses her thighs, suddenly shy.
“Let me see.” Marin tugs at her thighs. The strain in his pants is heroic.
Trahzia blocks Marin her hands. “Don’t.” The notes hangs in the air until it breaks.
Marin falls back, a strip of space between them. His balls ache.
A repertoire of sighs.
“What are you doing this summer?” Trahzia’s face is shiny.
“Not sure. You?”
“My dad is taking us to Europe.”
‘Where?” Marin’s fingers alight on her stomach, circle her belly button in a careless, rambling way.
Marin’s fingers graffiti down.
Trahzia’s eyes go dark and buttony with pleasure. “Italy,” she arcs her pelvis upward, “France and,” she rocks up and down, “Belgium.” She fights for breath.
Marin pulls his jeans down and climbs on top of Trahzia, his fixed eyes and bared teeth of wolf taxidermy. Pain is a red yellow flame licking at the edges of everything. Trahzia’s face wrenches; Marin’s face broadcasts his diminishing. He collapses, leaning on her for a moment, and then rolls off.
Trahzia expects to feel different. There’s a dark, empty space engorging her insides. She thinks the secrets of the world should unlock themselves but they don’t. She looks to Marin, who’s snapped from on to off. He wipes himself with an edge of the blanket, leaving a rusty smear. The air reeks of a damp rupture. She thinks he should his arm around her, so maybe he does. Except he doesn’t. They lay in a quiet with something hard at the bottom.
“We should probably get back.” Marin pulls up his pants, zips and sits. Checks his phone.
Trahzia’s underpants cling to her left shoe. She uses them to wipe herself before putting them back on. They’re wet and starting to stiffen. Between her legs feels like a webbed smashed thing. Trahzia fights the urge to cry. She sneaks looks like tiny sips at Marin, who’s WhatsApping from his phone.
“Help me with this.” Trahzia stands and kicks the blanket into a half-dead form.
“Just leave it.” Marin’s voice is an eraser.
“Someone’ll see it.” The stains look like a burned-out fire. She buries them in the borders of the blanket.
This is how journal entries turn into suicide notes. Trahzia fills with a voluptuous panic. “No. Wait. Where are my glasses?”
“They were on the blanket.”
Trahzia unravels the blanket, re-exposing her crime. Her glasses skid against the plywood. Returning them to her face, she sees the shape of things. She hides the blanket in the bottom of a box.
Outside the air is fuzzy with sunlight. Marin’s phone lets off a hysterical sputter of beeps as messages ping across the 4G network. They mock Trahzia as she trails through scraped feelings behind him. She’ll give him until they reach the water point to take her hand and she’ll forgive him. He doesn’t.
A semicircle of food carts have sprouted near the talent show stage. Lawand is chatting to Zhila, her pretty face wrapped like a present beneath her hijab. Marin, suddenly geared up, angles towards them.
Trahzia trips behind to the sandy burp of the land where Marin’s hard/soft mouth smiles on Zhila, Lawand’s big, white face leering in the sun. Zhila fluoresces with pleasure. They speak in Kurdish, their totemic words strobing by Trahzia’s uncatching ears. The smile on Trahzia’s face lags. Finally, a word turns in her direction.
“Trahzia?” Zhila switches to English, her face puffing with generosity. “Are you hungry?”
Lawand smirks, giving off a dirty fritz.
Trahzia shades red.
All around them, kids on feet sugared with sand, weave in and out, selling tissue packets or flowers for a dinar. “Come on.” Marin leads them to a falafel cart. The falafel seller strokes his beard of pubic hair.
“Trahzia, can you translate?” A cold varnish slicks Marin’s face. “This guy speaks only Arabic.” Everyone tells Trahia what they want. She orders; Marin pays. Beyond, an orange ball of fire squashes the horizon. The air turns a shaggy mandarin.
Molecules of light swirl, couple, reveal the scene: Marin laughing with Zhila, handing her a flower, Lawand mysteriously disappeared. Something inside Trahzia tips over. She tramples towards the school bus, shelled in crud. Bats circle above, dismissing the day.
The camp floods with foreigners; NGO workers, university lecturers, super-sized, extra crispy-fried missionaries, who stake the best seats. The chairs fill with niche-important rich people while refugees stack up beyond the barbed wire fence, unable to enter. Their bodies simplify into shapes as guards with guns keep them at bay. On the sky, open and blank, fireworks burst into a racket of color.
ALEX POPPE is a teacher and creative instigator. A former actor/business consultant, she has taught in Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, Northern Iraq, the West Bank, Germany, and the United States. These places and their people inspire her work. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and she has been nominated for several prizes, including the Pushcart Prize. When she is not being thrown from the back of food aid trucks or dining with pistol-packing Kurdish hitmen, she writes.