By Abriana Jette.
Saturday, New Jersey Turnpike, 12:33pm
I had better tell you where I am going and why I am watching smoke sift through the hood of a 1993 green Honda Accord as spritzes of coolant spatter like small kisses onto the windshield. I am with a rap artist named the Deafinition, whom I will call Greg, and we are heading to the Poconos. Just a moment ago I was listening to the brashness of his voice seep through the SONY speakers that cost more than this car. Just a moment before life was working out as planned.
Since I have been near him I can’t help but to touch him. There is a meager patch of skin creviced between his head and neck, where his hair remains prickly, where there sits the redolence of a tender man, a place where my fingers seem to travel to trail the ends of his spine. He is soft to the touch. Wears a size thirteen. Hates tomatoes. Writes.
Except he calls it rapping. Same difference, I say. Within my reach I always keep a notepad or pencil, same as he when he scribbles lines at work or keeps a beat to remember with his fingers on the steering wheel. He writes in rhythms of west-coast rooted torments; here is the best friend’s unexpected death, there, the knowledge he has been forced to accept. He prides himself on his growth. He is 6’3”, has quiet green eyes.
I am trying to keep calm. He storms out of the car; swings open the hood, spouts curses while mumbling under his breath. For the first time I notice he is wearing dark blue jeans that he has rolled once, then cuffed, a pair of black Nike Zooms, a plain Hanes t-shirt (black), and a white Rocawear track jacket, with horizontal red and black stripes. His hair is shaved as if he were a soldier.
Ten minutes ago his voice sounded closer on the radio; like I could finally hear him speak. There is a distinct east coast flow in his pronunciation, a syncopated voice that manipulates verbs. A troubled voice permeates through all ten unsigned albums. He is judging, and crude, he lacks the desire to reach out and love, and yet his tone is void of rancor: it is kind, it has listened.
A month or so ago, when we were still trying to set up this meeting, he told me he most enjoyed rapping when he was able to create phrases using words that were pronounced the same, but could mean various things. “Homonyms,” I chimed. “Homonwhat?” He asked. I explained, in an uncontrollable outpour that shared my long-time goals of creating a non-profit foundation for poetry programs in urban areas, that anyone who respects language as much as rappers do should know, that homonyms are words which sound the same and are spelt the same but have different meanings. Since then he has been quite supportive in conversations regarding Sestinas, past participles, syllabic verse.
The problem with his car is the hose, a predicament his mechanic predicted a few weeks ago when the first hose was replaced. “He told me this would happen,” Greg says, “like a domino effect of bullshit.” He is nervous, and angry, and I am walking on eggshells, choosing my words with caution, careful to make sure they are right.
We discuss options. We could attempt to drive the car, although the gage is already pushing against the H, fueling Greg’s anxiety, towards a gas station his GPS has calculated to be 0.6 miles away, which is a distance most definitely inaccurate, we agree, considering that we are stranded in a vacant parking lot, with nothing but abandoned warehouses in the foreseeable distance. We could call a tow company to tow us to the gas station we hope has an auto-shop, and that may or may not be 0.6 miles away. We spend a rough twenty five minutes letting the engine cool, attempting to find a solution on our own. He speaks on the phone with multiple mechanics, writing keywords like Elizabeth, $50 surcharge, Cambria close 4, in circles on a travel-sized college ruled notepad I pulled from my purse.
A small round bellied wren rests on the open hood, unaffected by the engine’s smoky haze, staring Greg in the face.
“This is the worst day of my life”, he says.
When he talks I try hard not to interject. I also listen, of course, but every so often at the end of his sentence a bubble of my own opinion rises to my throat. Don’t say it, keep quiet, I must tell myself. He hates to be interrupted. He says he grew up on Wu-Tang and Dangerous Minds, refers to TuPac Shakur as his first experience with loss, the first time he was bereft of all senses — his favorite rapper dead. His raps reveal a tiny part of his conscience, sentiment he tries to deny. Each punch line dazzles my amazement; I become jealous of the words he marries.
Except with him I am not jealous. I want to soak in his past. I flood him with questions: favorite word, strangest dream, most proud moment, can I just hold your hand while we wait. We are fairly new friends, maybe we met once or twice two or three years ago, maybe I forgot him three months later, but we met again, anyhow, and here we are on the New Jersey Turnpike, with nowhere else to be.
Three hours later we walk into Grease Gorilla, a family owned mechanic who I googled in a panic and called because I needed to know there existed hope somewhere. The woman on the phone spoke in broken English, informing me that they could fix the car, but maybe it stay overnight. The mechanic, Julio, who was just about to end his shift, eyed us as if we were lovers
“We aren’t even from around here”, Greg said. Pull up the car, sighed Julio.
As it happens, this isn’t where we are supposed to be; laughing in the small office of a mechanic in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and yet, somehow, it feels okay. If life went accordingly, by this time I would have already learned that there have been plenty worse days, real bad ones, in his life rather than this mixed up Saturday with an eccentric writer, a broken hose, and a case full of CDs in his car.
Greg is in the field of finance, finds stability at the prospect of monetary gain. He keeps his appearance tidy, enjoys quarterly bonuses. He would be satisfied with a jumbo jet and maintained schedule. He shoulders slump, his walks with a stoic limp, is cookie-cutter, starched white-shirt sort of man. I consider him an artist, am determined to share him with the world. His mind is a constant wheel of phrases that all seem to intertwine, that are ambiguous, that circle you back to a verse you heard a chorus before, and you finally get it, and did he just say that? He asked if I wouldn’t mind listening to his albums when we were together, to see the look on my face, he said, to see how I really felt.
He doesn’t understand why I want to write about him. I tell him it’s not only him I’m writing about, but his talent, the talent required to succeed as a writer. I tell him it is because I realize that we both believe that words can rub up against one another, electrifying sentences into dizzying fricatives and vertiginous syntax, because we understand that nouns can be dangerous when the rhythm is sexy. He tells me rap allows him to move through the cadences of language, that he writes to make life right.
You see, I have fallen in love with the mechanics of poetry, and these days I can’t help but find it popping up everywhere. Not just in Greg’s raps, but our conversations, in a stranger holding the door; I hear iambs in the thick drip of coolant leaking on the pavement. Well, just by breaking these lines in half I have the ability to create an entirely different frame for my words, I can forget all respect for sentence structure, drip beats to the line below, or I can do as I have done and write. Poetry and prose requires danger. If I had the desire to I could reformat this entire essay into a poem in blank verse or a ballad on that round-bellied bird that I never saw again, an ode to finding pleasure when you are broken down. Each paragraph can carry its own tune. I am in control here, like the drummer on his drums, or the Deafinition on his beats.
The receptionist tells us she is locking the door behind her, says that the mechanic will let us out when he is finished replacing the hose. The sun beams gently onto my legs. We smile politely and thank her. There are small stuffed gorillas in the display case beneath her desk. We are, the two of us, a rapper and a poet, content to be locked in this waiting room with the balance of language between us. Greg looks at me with a glare of serious suggestion, “now this”, he says, “is something to write about.”
Abriana Jetté is a poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. She earned an M.F.A. in Poetry from Boston University, where she was a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow, and an M.A. in Creative Writing and English Literature from Hofstra University, where she graduated with Distinction. Her work has appeared in the The Iron Horse Literary Review, Poetry Quarterly, The Moth and many other places. She is currently a Doctoral candidate in English at St. John’s University, and teaches for the City University of New York and the nonprofit organization Sponsors for Educational Opportunity.