by Alex Poppe
His plastic elastic waistband solves the mystery of boxers or briefs. I know it’s wrong to stare, but I haven’t seen a cut up six-pack in forever. I certainly don’t expect to see it volunteering at the Domiz refugee camp while my fellow compatriots sleep off last night’s decadence beaucoup kilometers and an alternate reality away. This Frenchman and I have been assigned to map the camp, and so for the next 4 hectares I am going to try not to wonder where his adventure trail leads every time his hipbone winks from beneath his slightly shrunken tee. A bead of glistening sweat teases his belly button rim. I imagine lapping that bead with my tongue, like rescuing tequila salt from a shot glass. Sunlight toasts skin to honey as Frenchie hands me a GPS to record the locations of shops, community water points, and public latrines for UNHCR. I pretend not to know how to punch in coordinates so Frenchie will show me, and I can soak up that much more of his animal warmth.
Despite the cholera outbreak, kids run barefoot along rushing brown riverlets flowing from the privies to serenade us with Hellos and What is your names before scampering off in some private game of hide and seek to which only they know the rules. Cheeks flushed rosy, curls matted to foreheads, eyes backlit with delight, they run circles around our progress. Every day is a holiday, for there is no school at camp, just an impromptu history lesson when six-year-olds chase each other, brandishing rubber rifles against awkwardly thrown punches. Turning tears into giggles, fathers air evac their toy soldiers to the lofty safety of piggybacks. I snatch the moment with my iPhone.
A suctioning splat interrupts the photo session. Frenchie has slipped into molten chocolate cake batter splatter surrounding latrine number 8 in hectare 2. Comparing my open toe sandals to his heavily fortified work boots, I revel that it’s him and not me, and tell him it’s just mud he’s steeped in. My shoulder provides some ballast. As his fingers brush my clavicle, I imagine there’s a woman somewhere who will bathe this day away. Shampoo his thick blond curls, suds up his long slender Brad Pitt circa Fight Club torso, and follow his adventure trail as it snakes south across the wide flat plain of his tanned pelvis. Maybe she climbs in with him, flesh molding flesh, rendering them a better version of themselves. My own man, whom God knows I’ve tried, yet we try again, waits in his own camp for me to provide “morale, welfare, and recreation” when I make it back from this improvised city. He, barrel-chested with jet surfer hair, surfeited by the comforts of the State Department, will have made a plate of food for me from the chow hall.
The line outside the barber’s wraps around the dry goods store, portable shop 18 in hectare 3. Sweet black tea flows among the waiting clientele whose cheeks and chins have grown devout with the sporadic running water. Children stare at my blue eyes and Frenchie’s blond waves while their fathers offer us packaged cakes and penny candies. In return, our iodine tablets rain like laughing confetti. With a stick, I etch hopscotch into the grassy dirt and soon the children and I are bouncing like stovetop popcorn.
We finish the final hectare as the dusky call to prayer sounds. Sunlight plays tricks with the sandy dirt turning dust motes into sprite fairies. Exhausted, exhilarated, and needing to pee, we make our way through a sea of mosque-bound Syrian refugees readying to celebrate Eid al-Ahad, the Feast of Sacrifice. It has been no sacrifice to survey this camp, daydream about his stomach, and relish the sweet goodness of these kids whose lives and homes have been torn apart by war but still smile through their eyes, call out with curiosity, and share sweets willingly.
Our car winds through mud green mountains and nine check points back to the civilized wilds of U.S. Consulate compound. At security, I surrender my iPhone and passport before a smiling Kurdish grandmother quickly squeezes my padded bra and smiles knowingly at Barrel Chest when he collects me at the State Department Gate. We’ve done this dance before. I bury my head in the warmth and breadth of his flannel. In the middle of this compound, hidden inside this invisible nation, he smells like home.