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A Rhetorical Question

by Pietra Dunmore

I noticed him because he was wearing a bamboo hat, hand woven and broad brimmed. I found myself looking at him just a little too long, wondering about his face when our eyes met. He was perched on a wooden bench carefully surveying the women that walked by when he gave me a long stare back, his large obsidian irises glinting with mischief and went back to scribbling in his notebook. The man looked disheveled, like he worked and slept in the clothes that swallowed his slender frame whole. His hair was dreadlocked, hanging in haphazard ropes around his shoulders. He was everything a college artist should be; unkempt, paint spattered and mysterious.

In lecture, he sat in the corner by himself, drawing sketches into his notebook, barely listening to the teacher. His eyes seemed gazed over in thought as he scribbled away. At the end of class I always made sure he walked past me so I could sniff his air. His potion of choice was a masculine blend of sandalwood and cloves.



As an excited freshman, I wanted to see and hear everything that was out there. I took any opportunity to mingle with other artists; visited galleries and checked out new exhibitions. I also started attending Open Mic nights on campus. While a few of the poets had some raw talent, most nights their poems seemed to be little more than uninspired generic raps and mediocre rhyming stanzas. The audience seemed bored.

The temperature in the room changed when the name Rhetoric was spoken. The girls ran up front to get the best view while the guys looked up from their drinks in envy. The poet confidently glided on to the stage and the crowd went into an immediate frenzy. He snatched the microphone from the cradle spilling his thoughts before the crowd in his own unique melodic phrasing.

“My birth was nothing special. A product of two sweaty bodies meeting over a bottle of Night Train.”

What I fell in love with were his words and the way that he spoke them. The sound of his voice was smoky and deep as his words were presented at full volume. He inhaled hurt and exhaled puffs of poetry that were both profane and unrepentant. There was an unmistakable beauty and power in his words. I never heard a man dance the line of vulgarity and poetics before.

“As I grew large within my mother’s body, she ignored the convention to do something about her ‘situation.’ It was 1978. I was a breech birth, telling the world to kiss my ass from the beginning.”

I felt planted in my seat, my nerve endings tingling. I watched his mouth as he spoke wondering how his thick lips would feel on my face. I thought about running my fingers through his beard. The way I felt as he spoke was unreal, my pulse moving to the very rhythm of his cadence.

The young man humbly accepted the fanatical appreciation of the audience and gracefully slipped away. After a few minutes, the applause died down just enough to hear the M.C. call out my name. I took a hurried breath and tried to relax. I knew he was going to be a tough act to follow, but I wasn’t ready to admit to him, and more importantly, myself that he was the only real poet in the room.

I nervously walked up to the stage, and suddenly decided to recite my longest poem instead of the shorter piece I had rehearsed. I walked up to the stage, and asked the house band if they could play a soft beat for me. I waited for the band to begin and I started, “Sensual. Not Sexy. Creates moods with soft jazz, bare walls and an empty floor…”

As I read from my typed pages, I made sure I looked at Rhetoric each time I hit an emotional crescendo. He showed no reaction other than focused interest. The audience sat quietly as well, and I couldn’t really gage how well I was doing. I walked off stage emotionally drained. While I didn’t receive the same enthusiastic reaction as Rhetoric, the audience seemed very pleased with my work.

I sat down and took a much-needed drink of water. I looked up to see my poetic rival approach my table. He pulled out a chair, spun it around and sat on it backwards, his dreadlocks extending wildly from his scalp. Saying nothing, I just sat there slightly stunned looking into the poet’s face, getting lost in his hooded bedroom eyes and high cheekbones. Propping his arms on the chair back, he said, “Your work moved me.” Then he extended his slender rough hand toward mine.

“The name’s Rhetoric. Just like my name, I always want to make sure what I spit follows the art of argumentation and discourse. On the flip side, rhetoric is also the art of bullshit. So there it is, sometimes I’m an art form, sometimes I’m bullshit, depends on the day.” As he spoke I found myself watching his lips, underlined by an untamed beard, the center of which hanging at least an inch longer than the rest.

I cracked out a barely audible version of my name followed by, “No explanation.” I held out my hand and he shook it.

“I know your name. But I’m going to call you Woman, because that’s what you are in my eyes.” He smiled and slowly strolled out of view. I was breathless.

The next day I went to the campus library. I scanned the last names, Angell, Angellotti, Angelou then pulled out a book.

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that’s a great read."Startled, I looked up to find the poet looking over my shoulder. He had his sinister smile set on me, his eyes making me feel uncomfortable. I diverted my eyes to a small table in the back of the library letting my eyes rest on the dark wooden furniture and the sage colored carpet.
"I'd thought you more of a Terry McMillian type." He said taking the book from me and fanning through the pages.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked taking the book back from him.

“Nothing, just saw you as modern.”

"There’s a lot you don’t know about me." I began to walk away from him with the book underneath my arms. I took out my library card handing it to the receptionist.
“Two weeks.” She said handing the book back to me. I nodded and started out the door. The poet followed.

“Are you following me?”

“Would you like me to?” He raised an eyebrow and smiled. I felt myself blush.

“No, I’m sure you have better things to do.”

“Then there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” His eyes looked at me for a long time. I broke myself away from his gaze and started towards the cafeteria. He stayed in stride.

“I’m not trying to get in your way Woman. I just want to talk to you about your poem last night.” I slowed down.

“What about it?”

“It was cold, the verbal equivalent of stabbing someone between the ribs. Like the part when you said- he feels tears are a sign of weakness, although he is the cause of them. Ouch, I mean have you dated me and I didn’t know about it?” He started laughing and I joined him. We sat down and ate lunch talking about our literary and visual influences.

The first time he came to my apartment it was near the end of October. The air was crisp and the leaves were russet colored.

“Look at this apartment. It’s like a 1970s Jamaican resort.” He took a red-eyed look around my living room, the citrus green curtains, the melon colored chaise and the bamboo and rattan furniture. He took a red-eyed look around. “I like this place, it says a lot about you.” He walked into the room throwing his duffel bag to the ground and looking at my bookcase.

“Did you read all these?” He asked taking some books off the shelf and fanning through.

“Yes.”

“Quite an eclectic mix of stuff, most people just buy books that look cool and pose like they read.” He walked away from the bookcase and sat down on the floor, and then he began searching his pocket for his blunt. Finding it he placed it over his ear like a pencil and laid out on my coffee and crème colored zebra rug. I sat at my window sill looking at him lying there. I examined his unkempt facial hair imagining how handsome he’d be if he shaped it up.

“I bet everything I need to know about you is in this apartment.” He continued looking around from his spot on the floor.

“Hey, where’s your music?” I pointed to my cabinet and he suddenly hopped up and took a cursory look at the CDs and closed the door. “Yep, everything I need to know.”

I gave him a questioning look from my perch on the windowsill.

“You’re an artist. Everything here uses the five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.” I watched him walk around my apartment as he explained his theory.

“Your color palette is muted, green, orange, and brown. Green and brown are both colors of nature, comfort, and simplicity. Then you have your pops of orange which is a color of energy and warmth.” He pointed to my melon colored chaise and mosaic accent bowls.

“Your place smells of pineapples and not something like air or clean linen so I’m guessing you probably cook.” He nodded to my candles.

“Your music sounds like sex, but I never see you with a man, so that means that you are probably a romantic.” He stopped and looked around touching various items like the couch and the curtains then ran his fingers through the rug.

“The feel of fabrics is important to you. You have lots of soft, smooth or velvety texture here.

“You forgot taste.” I called out from the windowsill, getting into his analysis.

“No I didn’t.” He walked into the kitchen and opened my fridge. He pulled out a plate covered in saran wrap. “Yep, good cook. Spicy.” He put the plastic back on the food and placed the plate back in the fridge.

Then he walked towards my bedroom taking a peek. “Now that I’m really looking at things, you must use your place as a getaway. Every area seems to be like a vacation. The living room is like an island resort and your bedroom looks like Morocco.”

“How did you do that?”

“I know art and I know women.” He went into his bag and took out his black and white composition book, and began reading aloud, like nothing happened.




We spent many days after class like that, and when he wasn’t analyzing me I would spend countless afternoons laughing at his crazy rants, after he was either high or drunk. After awhile I wasn’t sure which.

We’d meet for lunch between classes, go to New York to visit the Museum of Modern Art, buy art supplies from Utrecht, grab a gyro from the truck vendors and when we needed inspiration we’d people watch at Liberty State Park. In spending time with him, I discovered he really didn’t sleep with all the women I saw him with, he just liked people to think so. Rhetoric also had a system; he only smoked to mellow out and think, then drank when his thoughts began to bother him.

I really liked the relationship I had with him and vowed to myself not to mess it up by thinking that I might want something more. I had become like a sister to him and we were open to speak about nearly everything. Although I was attracted to him, I was afraid that an actual relationship would destroy the gentle ebb and flow that we had.

As a diversion, I started dating Gabriel, while Rhetoric continued with his bad boy persona. Gabriel was no Rhetoric. He couldn’t name the last book he read and his life revolved around football and his hopes for getting drafted into the NFL. He wasn’t a literary man but he had an infectious laugh and gregarious way about him that lead me into his arms.

As we began our relationship, Gabe was open about how he didn’t approve of my friendship with Rhetoric and swore that he was just waiting for the ‘moment’ to sleep with me. To appease Gabe, I limited my meetings with Rhetoric to long private conversations before and after the few classes we shared.

Rhetoric and I recorded poems in the school’s Audio/Visual department while Gabriel practiced offensive plays on the field.

“You write like a virgin,” Rhetoric said with a laugh, putting down my poem. “Someone put a dick in you is all, you haven’t really fucked. You need a man to snatch your hair out and give you rug burn, then you’ll write some damn poetry. You talk about feelings and love and longing, but never passion. There’s no heat in your work.”

“Your dick would make me a real poet?” I asked baiting him.

“No, the experience would.” The corners of his mouth curled up exposing his teeth.

“What-ever. Is that why you have a different girl every night? Just out there making an army of poets?” I slung my bag over my shoulder and walked towards the door. “I think you overestimate your abilities. If you ever felt me, I’d make you a real poet.” Rhetoric smiled following me into the hall.

“I’d like to see you try.” He closed the door to the studio, locking it and placing the key in the lockbox. “You have sass little woman, I’ma watch you more closely.”

“You do that.” I waved good-bye and began walking towards my apartment adding an extra switch to my walk.

As I snuck out to be mentally stimulated by Rhetoric, Gabriel was out sneaking stimulation of another kind. When we would walk together on campus girls gave me a snide knowing look.

All of a sudden he couldn’t sleep over or he needed some “personal time.”

One night when he stayed over I looked in his phone.

I can’t wait for you to bend me over a pool table. I copied her name and number on a small piece of paper, sticking it in my bra. I began to shake as I looked at his face. Questions raced through my mind: Who is she? Why wouldn’t he just break up with me? What am I even going to say?

I immediately decided that I would get back at him by spending more time with Rhetoric. Why should I have to give up my friends while he cheats? I never slept with Rhetoric, we may have had flirtatious banter, but that was it. Here I was doing everything Gabriel wanted. I cooked his meals, I did his laundry. I typed his papers. I nixed my closest friends so he could feel more comfortable.
I didn’t confront Gabriel about the woman that texted him. I just kept my eyes open. I watched him every time he picked up his phone, I listened to the change in his voice.

I tried waiting for Gabriel to break up with me, but I saw him less and less. Then he was four hours late to our Valentine’s Day dinner. Weeks later, I was in his apartment waiting for him to come out of the shower when I found his February phone bill. I immediately searched for the 14th. I had my proof.

I watched Gabriel towel himself off and pull his oversized tee shirt over his thick frame.

“Are you cheating on me?”

“No.” Gabriel put on his pants and boots.

“Then whose number is this?” I produced his phone bill highlighting the numerous calls made on Valentine’s Day.

“Nobody, wrong number.”

“You call a wrong number 5 times on Valentine’s Day? This is the nobody you were going to bend over a pool table?”

“You went through my phone?”

“You called her after football practice, then again minutes before you picked me up for dinner. Do you think I’m stupid? This call was to tell her you were on your way,” I pointed at the bill. “And this one was to tell her what a good time you had. Then you pick me up and we go to dinner and you tell me you’re full because of a late lunch. You are such a fucking liar!” Gabriel grabbed the bill from me and I held on to it refusing to let him wrestle it away from me.

“Why didn’t you just tell me you wanted somebody else? We could have still been cool. I wouldn’t have stood in your way. Why couldn’t you just break up with me?”

“Cause I’m not with her, I’m with you.”

“We haven’t had sex in 3 months.”

“No way it’s like a couple weeks.”

“I keep track in my planner. I know when we have sex. The last time we had sex was December. Just admit it.” I poked my finger right into his chest. I always kept track of those things just in case our contraception methods failed. I wasn’t going to end up like those girls that had to leave school because they were pregnant.

“Shut the fuck up!” he yelled and shoved me to the ground. I fell on my face, causing my tooth to go through my bottom lip as I hit the floor. I tasted the salt of my blood mixed with tears and held on to my mouth with my hands.

“You hit me!” I looked at the blood in my hands and began to cry harder. I got up and ran to the front door, struggling with his lock.

“I’m sorry,” he said running after me. He grabbed me by the shoulder and I shook him off as I got the door unlocked. “Don’t you touch me.” I stumbled down the steps and walked out to the sidewalk. “We’re done. You and that whore can have a happy life together.” I walked to the end of the street and flagged a cab. There was no way I was letting him drive me home.

I sat in the back leaning my head against the green vinyl seats.

“Miss, you okay?”

“I just need a tissue. I fell.”

The driver pushed a napkin through the glass partition.

“You need a ride to the hospital?”

“No, thank you. I just fell and busted my lip.” I gave the driver my address and sat with my head back, my eyes watching the stars through the back seat window.

Rhetoric showed up the following day just as the sun was setting. We laid back watching Mo’ Better Blues. It was one of my favorite Denzel Washington movies. In the movie Washington plays a jazz trumpeter that is in a relationship with two completely different women, one a sultry singer who seems to use him for her own dreams of stardom and the other a homely but sweet school teacher that truly loves him. Although he is involved with both women, his character doesn’t seem to have time for either due to his love for music.

“So is this what you and your man do?”

“No, I wish. Gabe likes to watch ESPN.”

“And you?”

“I like this.”

“And what is this?”

“Watching a movie.”

“Is that what we’re doing?” He glanced at me, his warm hand on my stomach. I felt a surge of energy rush from his hand directly to my inner thighs. I shifted from the moisture. The bed vibrated and I looked down at my glowing phone.

“Gabriel?”

“Yeah.”

“You gonna answer it?”

“No. I’m with you tonight.” I turned the phone off and placed it on the floor.

“So what’s up? Why am I here?”

“I wanted to see you, I haven’t been able to hang out since I started dating Gabe.”

“And now he has given you the go ahead?”

“No, now I do what I want. I broke up with him the other day.”

“So whatever you want, huh?” Rhetoric hovered over me, his lips seconds from mine. I shook with anticipation, wondering what he tasted like, wanting to do what I dreamt since the moment I saw him. He taunted me getting closer but not kissing me.

“You ready to go there?” He asked his lips grazing mine.

“Are you?” We held each other’s gaze as I lifted up kissing him and he took over enveloping me in his clove and sandalwood scent. We kissed through the movie while the Branford Marsalis Quartet serenaded us, we kissed through the credits, and we kissed while the screen turned from black to white to blue.

When I woke up in the morning he was gone, but he was everywhere. His sandalwood scent lingered on my pillow, a faint clove smell was embedded in my skin, and my lips tasted of his. I wondered where he had gone but I didn’t call. I put my feet on the cool tile and sat upright, reliving the shadows of his hands on my body.

I never felt that type of passion with Gabriel. We never just kissed. With Gabe, kissing was just a formality to getting in my pants, and once there I could always count on a few thrusts, an incoherent babble, then a loud snore. I hadn’t had sex with Rhetoric, but felt as though I had. My body was warm in its afterglow, throbbing and moist with anticipation.

I took out my notebook and wrote Rhetoric a poem. Mouths touch as though a magnet lay between our lips.

I set my poem on the bed and took a long shower. When I turned off my phone I saw 12 missed calls from Gabriel and 1 text from Rhetoric.

We good?

Yes. I answered.

You busy?

No. Come by, I have something to share with you.

***

“Where did you go?”

“I felt the need to paint, I didn’t want to wake you. What did you want to share with me?”

“I wrote a poem.” Rhetoric joined me on the bed, sitting to my left. “Every other line is yours.”

“It’s not love but if only to have a word, title, or phrase to call it,” I began.

“Mouths touch as though a magnet lay between our lips.”

“It’s not love.” I said.

“But it would be nice.”

“If it had a name to call it,” I answered.

We finished the poem and remained silent for a little while.

“This,” Rhetoric pointed to my cursive writing. “This is passion. You put everything in these words.” He smiled lightly and dug into his bag, producing a bottle.

“I’ll get you a flask one day.”

“That’s for trendy alcoholics. Real drunks take it straight to the head.” He took a swig and put the bottle back into his bag. Rhetoric kissed me on the temple and got up walking towards the front door. “I wanna get back to the studio and gesso another canvas before they close for the day.” I got up and followed him to the door.

“Thanks for coming back.”

“I never left.” We shared another kiss and I watched him disappear down the hall.

My phone began to ring and I looked to see yet another call from Gabe. I ignored it and spent the next hours cooking dinner, reading for class, and watching TV. Around 12 midnight I received another call from Gabriel and decided to answer it.

“You don’t answer your phone now?” he yelled.

“I wanted time to myself Gabe. We are not together anymore.”

“I need to talk to you, can I come over?” He sounded anxious and I could tell he had been drinking.

“No. If you want to talk, we’ll do it in the morning.”

“Is somebody over there?” His voice sounded stressed and I heard men yelling in the background.

“Nobody is here.”

“Then I’ll come by.”

“Look, we’ll go for pancakes in the morning and talk. I’m tired. Talk to you tomorrow.” I hung up and got dressed for bed. Thirty minutes later there was a knock at my door. I looked out the peep hole to see Gabriel. I began to unlock the door.

“I told you we’ll talk in the morning,” I began to open the door and Gabe barreled inside slamming the door into my face. I fell backward hitting my head on the cold tile.

“Where is he?” Gabriel screams kicking my sides, his insecurities about my relationship with Rhetoric making him rage.

“Who?” I bawled on the floor in the fetal position, covering my head with my hands.

“Rhetoric! You’re fucking him aren’t you?” he screams as he grabs me and tries to violently shake out a confession.

“I heard your love poem to him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s not love. I heard you two from outside.” He screamed.

I felt the color drain from my face. I knew the words of that poem, and I knew what Gabriel must have thought when he heard it as we rehearsed it aloud, our voices blending like colors on a canvas.

“It’s just a poem, I didn’t sleep with him.”

After several hard slaps, his fat mahogany hands found their way around my neck, squeezing tightly. As I fought for air, I desperately reached my hand around the floor and found the leg of a metal fold out chair. I swung it over and hit him on the head with it. Momentarily stunned, he let go long enough for me to get up and run away. Holding on to my bleeding face, I ran down three flights of steps, past the well-manicured lawn, and out to my car.

Realizing the keys were in the apartment, I simply sat down on the asphalt and started crying. I remained crouched between two cars hoping for Gabriel to leave my apartment, but he just stayed there waiting for me to confess my supposed infidelity with Rhetoric. He stayed there because he knew I wouldn’t call the police. My pride wouldn’t let me do it.

Just after 2am, I found the courage to peek out from behind my hiding spot, and saw Rhetoric casually walking down the street returning from a party. I called out as he passed by the lot. He walked across the street, bent over and tenderly picked me up off the ground, gently wiping the blood off my swollen cheeks.

“Gabe did this, didn’t he?”

I couldn’t answer because I was so embarrassed and scared. All I could do was cry uncontrollably. He dropped his duffel bag to the ground by my feet.

“You stay out here. Don’t do shit till I come for you.” As he ran inside the complex, I stood outside as the wind stung my face, and waited for what seemed like an eternity, terrified of what was going on inside.

He returned with his face bloody and his shirt torn, but he walked confidently towards me grabbing his bag.

“You ain’t gotta worry about that fuck anymore. He may be big shit on the field, but he’s a bitch off it.” He took my hand and walked me back to my trashed apartment. My bed is flipped over, mirrors broken, and the contents of my drawers strewn about. Rhetoric turned over my bed then sat down beside me and begins to sooth my swollen face of blood and tears….his hands caressing my face, slowly rubbing my neck and my shoulders. My hands traveled underneath his shirt lightly touching his back and I kissed him. He stopped kissing me, butted his forehead up against mine, and stared deeply into my eyes.

“Not now, Woman. When its right, it will happen, just not in this way and not now,” Rhetoric whispers. He laid me down, and held me close to his warm muscular body, as his tender reassurances helped me to sleep.

I transferred schools shortly after that.

Rhetoric helped me pack my room into boxes. He hauled out the bookcases, fridge, television, couch, and bed into a U-Haul truck until there was nothing left. We stood in the empty apartment, looking over the vacant space before I locked the door for the last time.

We stood in front of the truck, silent, not knowing how to say good-bye. I turned around, stood on my toes and gave Rhetoric a long hug, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Don’t go ghost on me.” Rhetoric quickly kissed me on the side of the head.

“I won’t. I’ll only be two hours away. I will send you my address and everything.”

Rhetoric nodded his head.

“Take care of yourself.” He said and walked me over to the truck door. As I started the truck he repeated his commitment to me, “If you ever need anything Woman, call me.”

“I will,” I answered adding, “We’ll see each other again someday, I promise.”

Weeks after I had moved into my new place, I looked down to see my cell phone glowing. New text message. I smiled at the name on the screen. Rhetoric.

No matter what you do, you will tell your story, be it writing, painting, creating- whatever, Woman. People will learn an artist’s story from their art, there is no need to explain it. Just as I have learned you and you have learned me. That's what art is about. Your eyes are open now, so you have an obligation.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

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