On Eagerness and Lumps in the Throat

by

A boy pinches my tattooed skin. His finger jabs into my bicep as he looks quizzically into my eyes, puzzled as to why it wasn’t rubbing off. “Tattoo,” I say. His eyebrows narrow, “Zwiina,” he replies mesmerized.

My scarf had shifted as I entered the open air courtyard. Groups of boys rushed us, extending their hands in introduction.

Hello, how are you?

Hi, what is your name?

Hello, hi, how are you?

Salam.

Salam.

Salam.

The air was thick with eagerness. Unease swept through my body as I gritted my teeth into a smile, eyes wide, surprised by my own discomfort. Warm, clammy fingers grabbed from every direction, pointing, poking, pulling, their eyes trailing down my arm to the drawn on permanence of script, of the sunflower leaf peeking out beneath my elbow.

Our plans for the service trip had changed a few days prior. Rather than visiting children in a rural village, we were going to the orphanage in the city of Meknès. For years I have envied stories of friends as they humbly boast of their servitude upon returning home from overseas. I found myself yearning to live stories of my own, hoping for the same life changing experience of physically encountering a relational poverty I have only known in glimpses. Our visit would be my first.

The courtyard was teeming with bodies.

I hurried into the line for the toilet, stalling for time to compose the adrenaline in my chest. I cursed the absence of a lock, yearning for even a superficial barrier between the blindsiding discomfort waving over me. I unbuttoned my pants, slipping them to the crook behind my knees, crouching and inching my heels as far apart as balance would allow. Squatting over the eastern style porcelain basin, I savored every second in silence amongst the mops and buckets packed in the cramped tiled space.

***

I found Abir talking to my classmate, and was left with her as my classmate was dragged away by other children. We sat on a bench in the quiet courtyard. I awkwardly imposed a draped arm around the knobs of her shoulders, hesitant to add weight to the burdens she already carried. She was the runt of the litter. Her spine curved abnormally, causing her to limp and shuffle. At the age of fourteen, she occupied the space of a seven year old. Her English was impressive; she had at least four languages. As we spoke, Abir looked coolly up at me, confidence and resilience in her dark amber eyes.

Mousine sat across the courtyard on the bench beneath the orange tree, a boy on either side. He reclined into the backrest, his posture heavy with the heat of the the day. He gestured with his hands as he spoke, resting an elbow on the wooden frame behind him. The boys leaned into his voice, drinking his every word. His familiarity with their stories was unmistakable, a revisiting of conversations past. They trusted him already, I envied his ease.

Too soon, we were summoned to gather for a final group photo. I grabbed her hand and led her into the adjacent room, her tiny fingers hesitant around mine. I wondered if she was frightened to hold on too tightly. I kneeled close to her, pulling her waist into my chest. Her body felt frail in the crook of my arm, her hip bones protruding in my palm. Her grip on my hand became comfortable, willing.

“Alright ladies, it is time for us to leave. Please gather your things and follow me outside.”

Awaking to my helplessness, I felt my throat tightening.

“When are you coming back? Will I see you tomorrow? Do you have Facebook? Will you come see me again?”

Her grip on my fingers strengthened, surrendering to a newfound urgency.

Kneeling to her height I hug her tightly, looking deep into her eyes hoping that she knows how profoundly she is loved. Mouhsine finds me in the crowd and grabs my free hand, pulling me towards the door away from Abir. I let him guide me as my hand slips out of hers.

No, I am not coming back tomorrow. Or the next day. I am so, so sorry.

Hold on tightly to the piece of my heart I left with you, sweet Abir; until we meet again.

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