Writings and Reflections

Sarafina, the Poet

by Lloyd B. Abrams

Last week, Sarafina had been sitting and fidgeting in the writing workshop. She was watching the clock, hoping they’d get around to her before the library closed, which would effectively end the meeting.

Finally, it was her turn. She walked up to the lectern, opened her looseleaf notebook, and looked around at the two dozen or so members of her writing group, all sitting in a circle. She swept back an errant strand of prematurely gray hair, cleared her throat and, in a quiet voice, began to read:

diaphanous wings envelop

my spirit bleeds

cauterizing lips devour

the moment of my death ...

When she was done, well within her allotted time, she looked up, waiting for the mandatory polite applause that followed each poem read aloud, each work, each short story. This time, there was stunned silence.

Then Julie, who always had something to say, was the first to comment: “I absolutely loved your choice of words. And their sounds ... I could hear what you’re feeling.”

Randolph raised his hand and then chimed in: “Your images are wonderful. Fabulous. But they’re so dark.”

Maria, who had never escaped the sixties, followed with: “You’re one hundred percent right on, Sister. One hundred percent.”

As they praised her, Sarafina smiled her Mona Lisa smile – an enigmatic pursing of her lips she had practiced in front of the mirror – and nodded and thanked them at the appropriate moments. When she returned to her seat, her face morphed back to the one that lacked affect, the one that was sour and foreboding. After she sat down, she avoided the eyes that watched her straighten out her binder. And as she pretended to listen to the final reader, she realized that Julie, Randolph and Maria – indeed, all of them – were absolutely and fabulously full of shit, one hundred – one thousand! – percent. After all, they could not possibly feel the way she felt. They could not possibly know how she had endured the emotional evisceration she felt herself enduring. They could have no inkling of the tenacity it took to hold onto her fragility. Those were secrets for her, alone.

= = = = =

Ellen Waxman adopted the exotic-sounding name Sarafina after seeing the musical in Amsterdam during a whirlwind two-week, thirties-something, Jewish singles tour of Europe. It was both serendipitous and portentous that she was able to get eighth row stand-by tickets just as the curtain went up, and to get to see the show, especially in the Netherlands. Jet-lagged and disoriented, and childlike herself, Ellen was deeply moved by the South African children’s songs and sense of pain. She identified with their struggle and outrage, and with their oppression and abuse. After, she knew down deep that her life had been changed.

Sarafina: the one-word name sounded both mysterious and trendy: “Excuse me. Can I buy you a drink.” “Sure.” “What’s your name?” “Sarafina.” It was a name that would not be forgotten, although few remembered to call.

From then on, and for the next five years, Sarafina it was, for the one who believed that she was so emotionally bruised and scarred, for the one about whom her grandmother gushed “A shana maideleh. She’s such a catch, you wouldn’t believe,” for the one who was, unfortunately, no longer such a catch, such an irresistible young lady.

= = = = =

“Tell me. What kind of crazy name is Sarafina?” Ellen’s mother was sitting across from her at the Formica counter in the split-level home. It was almost noon on a Saturday afternoon. Her mother was wearing a tattered flannel robe and Ellen was still in her gray sweat suit pajamas.

“Please, Mom. Don’t start in with me again.”

“But it sounds so pretentious, like Cher or Madonna.”

“Ma, give it a rest. It doesn’t really mean anything.”

Ellen had moved back to Long Island after her mother’s first hospitalization. She now had a longer commute, but she had gotten tired of fighting the crowded subways, tired of paying an extortionist’s rent for her Upper West Side apartment, tired of fast food and take-out Chinese, tired of yearning for wholeness and for the sliver of happiness that she thought was her due, but, most of all, tired of the emotional, physical and mental treadmill that was draining her – the daily grind that made her lurch and stumble and flounder through life.

But on suburban Long Island, there was Ida Waxman to do battle with. And inhabiting the tract home was the pernicious ghost of her pernicious father, Harry Waxman. Even if Harry were still alive, he would have been ill-equipped to deal with his wife’s progressively debilitating condition. If anything ever got too rough or too raw, Harry’s modus operandi had been to scream obscenities and then run for cover. He would zombify himself and become unapproachable through his well-honed use of the Waxman silent treatment such as:

“Hey, Dad. I got a hundred in Spanish!”

A grunt, but not even a glance. And then back to the Times.

Or, “Are you coming to the recital? It’s Friday night.”

Another grunt, and a return to the financial pages.

“Harry! What do you want for dinner?”

This did not even earn a response for his wife. Not even a grunt.

So, as the spinster sibling – euphemistically, the yet-to-be-married one, although her biological clock and the real clock were ticking down – it fell upon Ellen to become the so-called caretaker sibling, a Generation X’er switching over to the Daughter Track – for her, an unwelcome role reversal of the Mommy Track. It was not as if she were blind to the situation or unaware of her options – limited as they were – for she had spent months going on and on about it with her therapist until questioning and apprehension finally gave way to surrender and a frenzy of action. Despite her therapist’s well-meant warnings. Despite her younger sister’s insincere pleas. Despite her lover’s selfish exhortations.

Ellen took a sip of tepid coffee and got up to pour it into the sink. “Ma? You want me to make another pot?”

“Only if you’re going to have some.”

“Do you want me to, or not?” But when she realized that starting an argument was futile, Ellen decided to back off.

“Whatever you want, dear Sarafina.”

“Fuckin’ bitch,” she spat out, under her breath, although her mother turned her head as if she had heard.

Ellen rinsed out the Farberware pot and emptied the coffee grounds into the plastic bag-lined garbage pail. As much as she sometimes hated doing such simple chores, at least she was keeping occupied. Keeping occupied? – is this how I’m going to think when I get to be her age? she often wondered. Then, Oh, the hell with it! She loved the comforting aroma of brewing coffee, anyway.

“So what do you want to do today, Ma?”

“I don’t know, Ellen. What do you have on tap?”

“It’s so beautiful outside. I’m thinking about taking a long walk.”

Then, as an afterthought, simultaneously mentally readjusting her planned route and already regretting the words as she said them aloud: “Do you want to come along with me?”

“But it’s so cold out.”

“It’s not that cold, Ma.”

Ignoring her, “...and my feet still hurt from last weekend.”

“So we’ll do a shorter loop.” Why do I do this? Why do I beg her? Why this fucking need to grovel?

“Aah ... you go on by yourself. I’ll be all right.”

Not completely hiding her relief, “Okay Ma. If that’s what you want.”

...and her mother realizing it, “Go ahead, Ellen. You go.” Always with that goddam lilt in her voice. “There are things I’ve got to do anyway.”

= = = = =

Saturday night. Sarafina sat facing her laptop, typing:

wetness between

outstretched arms

hands grasp for

the demon cackles roars moans

malevolence succumbs

Another Saturday night – everyone else’s date night – and again Sarafina was all alone, except for her mother who was downstairs in the den, sprawled on the couch in front of the television, probably already nodded off. But she hardly counted.

Sarafina stared at the infuriatingly insistent blinking cursor, daring her to continue. In her wood-paneled Manhattan office, when she sat behind her oak desk with the engraved nameplate atop – Ellen Waxman / Comptroller – her work was all-consuming and all-encompassing. She was obsessed with excellence and fanatical about finishing what she had started. But at home, her mind often wandered. She accepted her scattered thinking, her disorganization. She could not avoid fantasizing, but she had convinced herself that her mind vacations, as she thought of them, were luxuries she had rightly earned.

This time, drifting in, one of the frequent images: Geoffrey at home with Patricia, his penultimate shiksa wife, sitting in front of their perfect Yule-log fireplace drinking white wine out of crystal champagne goblets, whispering sweet everythings to each other, then Geoffrey taking her hand in his as he leads her up the polished wooden stairs. Ellen wondered if Patricia had a clue about her Tuesday evening trysts with her faithless husband, the loving provider and beloved father of their two perfect children.

But when Ellen moved back to the Island, she and Geoffrey no longer had the use of her convenient Upper West Side apartment, five express stops away. And now, ever more frequently, Geoffrey found an excuse, invariably left on her voice mail – “Sorry, Ellie ... I’ve got a meeting with the boss. It’s something that can’t be helped. Next week, okay?” – that precluded even their getting together in that dreary room with the faded wallpaper in the second-rate Lexington Avenue hotel.

And then, another kind of fantasy slipped in, as her hand slipped under her waistband – a fantasy infused with fury, intermixed with hunger, of her sweet, hard-bodied goyische Geoffrey, with that wonderful uncircumcised prick with which she was so enamored, that she had worshiped with ravenous binges of fellatio, and which she mounted with an exaltation so joyous and triumphant that it did not matter if the rest of his body were even there. In her mind, the Hallelujah Chorus, with trumpets blaring, and with organs – organs! – rejoicing.

Ellen got up to lock her bedroom door just in case, sniffing her fingers out of habit, and to arouse herself even more. But by the time she got back to her computer, the urgency had passed, and only the fierceness and ferocity remained.

= = = = =

Three lines on the screen:

death whipping hell

inferno heart wilting

ensnared diminished embers

Sarafina read and reread the nine words that became phrases only because of their proximity. She thought about writing them in a column, and then all in a row. What the hell do they mean? What the hell am I trying to say? What the fuck are these words doing to me?

She sat back and looked around her room which, except for her laptop, still contained the remnants of her teenage life: color-coded spiral notebooks carefully arranged on a bookshelf; her teddy bears, Moe and Stinky Honey, on the bed; her many unnamed dolls propped up on the pillow, looking as if they belonged and she did not; the “Out of Africa” movie poster Scotch-taped to the wall above her bed. She had seen the Robert Redford film over a dozen times and pleasured herself in his presence umpteen times over.

Ellen had been back home more than nine months, but she had done little to change the room’s appearance. All of her furniture, her framed prints, her belongings and most of her clothes were still locked up in storage. It didn’t take Ellen months of therapy to understand the underlying reasons for that.

She closed the laptop and shuffled downstairs to the den. As she’d figured, her mother was comatose on the couch. She picked up the remote control and slowly lowered the volume until it was muted. Then she clicked off the television. Behind oversized glasses, which had become askew, her mother’s eyes flashed open. She stared up at Ellen, as if unseeing, mumbled a few words of gibberish and then closed her eyes again.

Ellen looked down at her mother, curled into a fetal position, with pity, with hatred, with regret, and with wistfulness. As she stood there and studied her mother’s now shrunken figure, it was almost impossible to remember her as the cold-hearted driving force behind her parent’s insistence that she break off her engagement to the non-Jewish Geoffrey. Barriers were erected to undermine their relationship. Dire threats were made. Tuition money was withheld. Emotional battles were waged. Relatives were prevailed upon to intercede. Even Geoffrey’s church-going Episcopalian parents were pressured until they acquiesced and then joined the army against their union. Although they had vowed to spend their lives together, neither Ellen nor Geoffrey had the guts, the cojones – the balls – to stand up to their parents, to the tension, and to the duress.

So Ellen and Geoffrey each went on with their own separate lives – outwardly, anyway. They still met regularly, but secretly, to grope at each other in their dormitory rooms, to copulate in Kama Sutraesque positions in Geoffrey’s Alfa Romeo, and to huddle together against the freezing gusts on their own romantic cruise line, the Staten Island ferry.

After Ellen scored well on the city’s professional entrance examination, she was offered a civil service job at City Hall. Her father bullied her into taking it. “You can’t beat the security and the pension,” he insisted. But he never factored in – never even bothered to consider – how much Ellen’s innate creativity and imagination would be thwarted and stifled by the mind-numbing demands of her entry-level job. While studying for her master’s degree, and unencumbered by an ongoing relationship – a real one, one that had a future – and while living in a cramped upper West Side apartment with three desperately heterosexual roommates, Ellen discovered that ambition itself was a goal worth pursuing. Thus, she found herself being commended, honored and promoted until she finally became the comptroller of the agency.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey lived the life she craved: the Tudor-style home in Westchester – so what if it was near his parents?; the blonde wife with the perky nose and the perky tits and their two point two children, counting the Irish setter, which was as goyische a dog as one could have; the loving couple lounging in front of the fireplace on their Ethan Allen sofa with the dog splayed at their feet; the brand new Honda Odyssey parked in the garage next to the station car, the beat-up Volvo wagon; the nanny, the garden, the gardener, all of it, goddam it! And all Ellen got was a weekly shtupping on her own unpressed sheets – sloppy seconds for the one who should have come first.

But while Ellen was busy satisfying her professional ambition day to day and feeding her sexual hunger every Tuesday night, she began feeling ever more fragmented and incomplete. During the day, she was immersed in minutiae. But when she was jostled by the crowds in the subway, or truly alone at home at night, when her only company were the talking heads on CNN, she felt warped and distorted, impaired and disconnected. She started seeing a psychotherapist who was desperate enough to accept her health plan’s payment schedule. At least he served as an anchor.

She began seeking a man, a lover, even a one-night stand. None satisfied what she was yearning for. She browsed through the self-help section at Barnes & Noble and bought from Amazon and Alibris. She responded to advertisements in the Village Voice and in supermarket throw-aways for alternative therapies: dreamwork, primal scream therapy and Pranic healing; inner child therapy, biomagnetic healing and iridology. Ellen felt more empty and less self-actualized than ever before, except during her two-hour peak experience on Tuesday evenings when she worshiped between her lover’s spread legs and sucked his goyische cock. And then the hollowness returned, right on schedule.

Her mother, of course, sensed her ongoing discontentment. “Ellen, you can’t keep sitting in that farkakteh apartment. You’ve got to get out.”

“Please, Ma. Give me a break.”

As usual, ignoring what she said: “What you need is a diversion. Something to take your mind off your worries.”

What a simpleton, Ellen thought. As if that’s all it took.

Ellen’s first reaction was to reject her mother’s suggestion, but she took up scrap booking and collage-making, then knitting and crocheting with the same intensity with which she analyzed spreadsheets and wrote proposals. But not with the same follow through. Half-finished projects were shoved into plastic Food Emporium bags and strewn about her apartment, slid under the furniture, or piled up in a corner. Ellen did not even bother to clean up her creations, and they served as constant reminders of her inadequacy, her incompleteness, her self-imposed insatiability.

“So what am I supposed to do?” Ellen was once again whining at her exasperated therapist, who was just about to scream “Whyn’t ya just get a goddam life and leave me alone!” when he remembered how much he relied upon the periodic health plan payments.

He was usually unwilling to give concrete suggestions because he claimed that it was not his style of therapy. But thinking enough already! he said, “Have you tried doing something creative? Something expressive? Something like dance? Music? Art? Writing?”

“Crocheting and knitting aren’t creative enough for you?”

“Yes,” – he yanked off his glasses and stuck a temple piece in his mouth, an affectation that Ellen thought disgusting, if not downright unhygienic – “but they’re both like painting by the numbers. Do you remember Venus colored pencils? Or is that before your time?”

Ellen glared at him with contempt, thinking For this you fucking get paid?

“Anyway,” he continued, “that’s what I would suggest.” He looked at his desk clock, which was mercifully close to a quarter of eight. “Think about it. And, uh, our time’s about up.”

As she walked home, Ellen passed sidewalk kiosks for the Kabbalah Center, the Learning Annex and the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing? Hmm. Why not? she thought. After all, I used to write. But her flash of inspiration was almost snuffed out by the realization that her previous creative writing efforts consisted solely of frothy eleventh grade English journal entries and flowery, lovelorn poems meant for a boy in her calculus class who would have nothing whatsoever to do with her.

Even so, the moment was an epiphany. Ellen floated home as thoughts and images swirled around and through her.

She barged into her apartment, kicked off her heels, and threw her coat on the bed. Without bothering to change or remove her makeup, she opened her laptop, turned it on, clicked the WordPerfect icon, and once the document screen came up, she started to type:

An amusement park in winter, an empty railroad siding.

A ghost town abandoned, silent, still.

Windswept tumbleweed, detritus, swirling through a wasted site of toxic love.

Behind broken windows, shards of glass, a derelict life.

Although Ellen had to resort to using the built-in thesaurus to find the right words, she thought that her poem was a fine first effort. She printed out a copy, sifted through her file cabinet until she found a pack of sheet protectors, and slid her first creation into the plastic sleeve. She hoped that it would be the first of many. And then, overcome, she started to sob.

For Ellen, there were no bright, bubbly images. There was no sunshine, there were no primary colors. There was only burnt umber and charcoal gray and their darker shadings. As she brooded and ruminated and tapped away at her keyboard, dreary, bleak images emanated and oozed out to demand recognition, to claim for themselves an existence that was tenuous and fleeting, but once having emerged, could never be fully extinguished.

This all took place five years ago, months before her singles tour of Europe. And after she returned, she reprinted all of her poems, appending her adopted name, Sarafina, to the bottom of each, next to the date.

= = = = =

It is now today.

words phrases pages

cerebrum cerebella

Sarafina had calligraphically magic-markered the five words on the cover of her looseleaf binder, now overflowing with poems protected by plastic. She, herself, was not so similarly protected. As she sat typing during those vulnerable early hours after midnight, she wondered where the dividing line was between what she thought she knew, and what she typed on her keyboard. Her pixels of melancholy would appear on the screen, as if by magic, only to stare back at her, accusing, threatening and ultimately condemning. Only when she could reach deep inside and garner the strength would she would refuse to give in and then type no more.

Connection, correlation, causation, result. What causes what? While Ellen recalled the Psych 101 temporal fallacy that eating ice cream causes drowning, Sarafina was preoccupied with the link between her words and her gloom. She became obsessed with the coupling of symbols and words and her own misery. What comes first, goddam it? Which causes which?

And, yet, she could not stop. The rush of words refused to be stopped:

superfluous profound

thoughts wanting needing

hemorrhaging ejaculating

veins bleeding exposed crimson

trawling for love

horrified lurking demon

does not slink away

Ellen clicked File. Save. Control-P. Print. Then she slid the laser-warmed sheet into a sleeve and snapped the looseleaf rings closed.

Thought Sarafina was exhausted she still did not turn off the computer. Instead, she opened a new document and typed:

I can’t take this anymore

I can’t handle it anymore

it’s enough

it’s enough

it’s enough

Up to the beginning of the story
Rev 11 / March 28, 2006 .. Rev 13.1 / July 7, 2011
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Issue 20, August 2011

July 2011…Copyright © 2011, Lloyd B. Abrams
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