I-Rah

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The light just after sunset was magical. That sounded corny even in her mind, but it was true. The colors at the horizon were varied but muted. The ocean seemed to sway against it. Torches had been lit long enough that their carbon had flared off; the flames danced clean against darkening sky. And the music seemed to surround her. The bass line was so enchanting, she couldn’t keep her hips still. She danced deeper within all of it, envisioning the men at prayer on the western rocks.

She felt anchored. She was where she belonged. She had to leave the next morning, but she knew she’d be back. She could feel a change coming on.

They named her Sarah when she was born thirty-seven years ago, but the family called her Sadie. There was a brief shift to Sarah when she was ten – her eight year old brothers began playing with backwards-talk and liked to say HARAS because they claimed she bothered everyone – but for most of her childhood, she was Sadie to family and close friends.

She didn’t feel like she belonged in her own family. She couldn’t remember a time without her brothers, and it seemed to her that her parents made a pair and so did the twins. Sadie was always the odd one out.

And she was odd. All the rest of her family enjoyed gardening. Sadie liked plants but she was uncomfortable when she got dirt on her hands. She didn’t like dirt elsewhere either (she bathed before bed because she couldn’t fall asleep if the backs of her knees felt sticky), but having marks or smells on her hands really bothered her. She always washed after handling a newspaper or petting the dog.

All the rest of her family liked roast beef dinners and barbecues and Jewish holiday meals. Not Sadie. She preferred vegetables and potatoes and salads to meat. She didn’t like sauces, so barbecue to her was just meat cooked outside. She never acquired a taste for brisket or kugels, gefilte fish, chicken soup.

Many kids come to suspect they were adopted or are somehow unrelated to the family with whom they live. For most of her twelfth year Sadie was close to believing she was some sort of cuckoo placed in her parents’ nest. But then she underwent a growth spurt and started resembling her father’s sister too closely for her to continue to cherish the fantasy.

No. Sadie was Sarah, one hundred percent Jewish, of the Ashkenazi variety.

She didn’t just resemble her aunt. She looked Jewish. As a child she had the typical Yiddische punim (big eyes and chubby cheeks with dark brown hair and hazel eyes); when she entered adolescence her nose and feet grew before the rest of her. Her wavy hair kinked into humidity-reactive frizz, and her myopia had her nagging her parents for contact lenses.

By then the family had moved from New York to southern California. Sadie felt like a fish out of water before that relocation, but she really stood out in the warm land of small-nosed blonde-haired barefoot kids. Her new suburban community was just north of the border to Baja California; the only students with Sadie’s coloring were Latino (then called Mexican). There were fewer Jewish kids in her junior high than there would be black kids in the Marin county high school she was going to attend.

She tried to fit in. She exposed her feet even though they seemed ugly to her. She swam so much that her skin tanned. When she went to her first slumber party at almost fourteen, she used the same peroxide as the other girls, streaking her hair with an old toothbrush as instructed. But no matter how long she let the bleach do its work, she never achieved blonde. Her hair went from dark brown to coppery red, and then broke off before getting any lighter.

Her mother took her to a beauty college for hair straightening. The chemicals worked at first – she had stick-like hair even though some of it tended to poke out perpendicularly from her scalp. A week and a half after the treatment her bangs detached. She was brushing her hair up and away from her brow when the sink received a sprinkling of stiff dark hairs. Initially it didn’t look awful, but as the hair grew in again, stubbly and drawing an unmistakable dark boundary at her hairline, Sadie’s self-consciousness only increased.

She made some friends, but she didn’t find a fellow traveler. She was fascinated about existence, and even got herself kicked out of Sunday school at ten for asking who created God. She found a few Catholic kids willing to at least debate questions with her, but most of her milieu was Protestant and apparently without existential passion. She turned to books – mythology, folklore, fiction and fantasy – and developed her aspirations from printed pages rather than from family, friends, or school.

Her family moved again when she was sixteen. They left the warmth and pale blue sky of southern California for the natural air conditioning and fog-wreathed azure atmosphere of the San Francisco area. She was halfway through her junior year then, and as she entered her new school she introduced herself as Sarah.

That made no difference. After the shift she realized that she’d had some amorphous hope that changing her moniker would alter the way she was perceived and the nature of her future relationships. But no. Everyone called her Sarah with too long an initial “a,” as if it were “Sayra” instead of “Sarra,” but nobody acted smarter or more original around her.

And life went on. Sarah went to college. She found more congenial friends there, but still no one she’d describe as soul mate (platonic or other). She married the man she considered her best friend, after they’d worked out what she thought of as their contract. She was very Jewish, that way – she considered the institution something of an emotional business deal between aliens. Her husband-to-be was raised Protestant, however, and had more romantic notions of what they were about. He agreed to Sarah’s conditions, which were all about complete honesty and really knowing one another – but subsequent events indicated that he consented with his penis instead of his brain.

They grew apart. She became resentful and he responded with angry insecurity. By the time they divorced, she was convinced he had reneged and he concluded that she was a guilt-bestowing, overcontrolling bitch.

Sarah had some boyfriends after that, but nothing that tempted her to cohabitate, let alone try marriage again. She made the trip to Jamaica with the most significant other she had at age thirty-seven, which trip was the beginning of the end of that relationship, and felt like the beginning of the beginning of something new for Sarah.

They traveled to the island because one of Sarah’s brothers lived there. She and Lloyd went to Miami on business of his, and the additional airfare to Kingston and time in Negril were doable because of that trip. They stayed one night in the capital (they arrived too late for Sarah to find out if the water was drinkable, which made for a thirsty evening). The next day they journeyed across the little country with Sarah’s brother and sister-in-law, and checked into a resort for a four-night stay.

First they went shopping for marijuana. Sarah’s sister-in-law had established the connection; they left the men at home and drove into the surrounding hills to an idyllic little garden abode. It was Sarah’s first exposure to a Rastafarian family. She’d heard some reggae music by then, and loved its dancing bass line, but she didn’t know anything about the culture.

She and her sister-in-law were greeted by a beautiful brown woman. Jamaicans in general are comely and colorful, but this woman was perfectly formed, with dark caramel skin, green eyes, and auburn curls. She was soft-spoken and hospitable. She offered no personal details, but the ganja transaction was straightforward and clean.

With her consciousness raised a little, Sarah then took in western Jamaica with attention. She learned that Rastafarians are vegetarian, entrepreneurial, family-oriented folks. That felt right and familiar. They’re so into individualism that they say “I and I” instead of “we.” When things are good, they’re “Irie,” derived from the first person pronoun. They view themselves as the lost tribe of Israel. Rastafarian men tended to assemble on the cliffs facing the setting sun each afternoon, bobbing and chant/singing. It looked to Sarah like the dovening she’d seen in temple, and it sounded somewhat like the Hebrew of familiar prayers.

Her attention was grabbed. She started down a new path and she didn’t take Lloyd with her (not that he exhibited any inclination to accompany her; he was busy drinking as much booze as he could acquire and avoiding the sun). Sarah soaked in ultraviolet rays during the day, and danced as much as she could in the evening. By the time that trip was over, so were she and Lloyd, though it took a few months of tiptoeing around before they actually broke up.

Sarah was not adopted into the Rastafarian culture. In fact, she was made to feel her outsider status the night before they left Negril. They’d exhausted their ganja purchase. At least three of the four of them wanted to smoke a little more, to seal the trip (Lloyd wasn’t partaking of anything but Jack Daniels by then).

Sarah and her brother and sister-in-law cruised the beach. They stopped to chat with a woman who had been selling aloe and was packing up for the evening. She directed Sarah behind her, to an attractive young man who could supply her with a fat spliff. She traded money for the joint and returned to her party.

It wasn’t good smoke. Most of the burning material was tobacco instead of pot. Sarah’s brother is an ex-smoker and he immediately recognized the nicotine.

Sarah was humbled. For all her Rastafarian feeling, for all her reggae dancing (she’d won an amateur contest the night before), she was treated as any rich stupid American tourist.

Even so, she concluded that the Rastafarians were more her tribe than any culture she’d met before. She figured she could be that way (she was!) even if she wasn’t. She decided that, from then on, she’d answer to the name “Rah.”

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