About the Time
“I have a silly question,” she says.
She always likes to talk after. Usually about whatever album I have playing on the stereo. She glides her cheek along my right armpit and onto my chest, so I can wrap my arm around her with barely a movement. My cotton undershirt still smells like her, with our sweats harmonizing as I gently rub my hand through her hair in rhythm and Dylan sings of a muse taking his voice and leaving him howling at the moon. In the second person, as if he’s talking about Marie and the way she can render me speechless with the right look.
The album’s been playing on repeat. For all the talk of how aged vinyl sounds warm or is the way music was intended, I’ve always found merit in remastered sound and a remote control that lets me choose my soundtrack. With her, it’s almost unfailingly Dylan. I’ve introduced her to Cat and Joni, Paul and Neil, but it’s Bob she always wants to revisit.
“When he’s singing about receiving the letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke,” she begins, sweeping the bridge of her nose against the cheek stubble she claims to miss whenever it’s gone. “Does he mean the letter was about the doorknob breaking, or does he mean he received it around the same time as the doorknob broke?”
She gives a small, sweet laugh at herself as she reaches under my shirt and rubs the little patch of fuzz that passes for my chest hair, but I know she expects an answer. She always wants a clear answer. Like ice, like fire, she’s consistent.
“I guess I haven’t thought about it,” I reply. It’s the truth. In my head, I can picture the scorn with which the Dylan of that era, the Don’t Look Back Dylan who refused two-minute answers, would have treated that question. I make sure my tone isn’t anything like that. “What do you think?”
The exact conversation is new, but we’ve played movements and variations on the theme since the day we met.
She was working in the campus library when I stopped in to find some books I needed, the kind only an undergraduate with her work-study access could locate. Though I spent a few hours that morning taking notes with my research spread out all over a table, I admit I kept staring at her face in profile as she did her own work at the front desk. There was something about her.
When I began to wrap up, she was standing behind my chair, willing to violate the mandated silence of the study room to ask about the tattoo of a Highway 61 road sign on my left forearm. “What does that mean?” was the first question she ever asked me. While I did the best I could to explain my thesis research and what that album meant to music, and to me, I knew the best way to answer her question was to invite her to a gig I was playing later that night.
Whether Marie would show up I didn’t know, and it didn’t occur to me until later that the place shouldn’t have let her in. But she was there. From the stage I could watch her waltz alone under the bar’s lights, her hair hanging down as she danced in her leather boots and flowing dress. Nearly two years later, it’s still the image of her I remember best.
I wish I could say the big brass bed where we woke up the next morning was my attempt at meaning, but it came with the furnished housing available for graduate students to rent. It’s the same bed where she now pontificates on the symbolism of the doorknob as she rubs my sore abdomen. “Do you think it means something he usually takes for granted isn’t working anymore...” I make a point not to remind her that the knob on my front door hasn’t really worked since I moved in - the reason for the thin chain I latch every night.
We pay no attention to the din of drilling in the apartment next to mine, an indication that people with regular hours have left the house this morning, but it’s more than we’re prepared to do. Instead, I hit the button to switch albums; the harmonica comes in as her hand works its way downward and I prepare for an encore performance.
Ours isn’t a May-December relationship; if anything, it’s closer to a late-May-early-July kind of affair, the type that makes me feel younger than I was when we met. In that trench of time, though, lie the trappings of my self-styled musical education, of a kind she’s never had.
She’s from Brownsville. Not the one in Texas, but a small town in Wisconsin. When she first questioned why I called her my Brownsville girl, I introduced her to the song - one of dozens of Dylan creations that sooner or later I must have known would crop up in our conversations. For her, all it took was calling up the song on an app, listening to it the instant she heard of its existence. None of the disappointment of paying money for Knocked Out Loaded, slogging through several tracks of the underwhelming disc before finding the best one, knowing all the old reviews were right. Just like I didn’t have to share my older brother’s experience of waiting for the album when it was first released, feeling that anticipation turn sour until that nugget of a song shone.
By the time she knew who he was, a new Dylan release meant covers of old standards, and the old songs were mere texts to understand and analyze. She’s grown up on instant answers, whether fan theories for any question she types into a browser or lazy buzzwords her professors mete out in lieu of hard promises. It isn’t her fault she expects me to know what every lyric is intended to mean, or what hidden meaning my more ambivalent responses might convey.
Marie’s smart and not untalented, but I worry she’ll never be the writer she wants to be. For all her raw ability, she’s the kind of woman who’ll spend a rainy day hitting the gym instead of hitting the library. As I strum the palm of my hand along her back, rubbing her as she purrs with approval, I wish she were just a little fleshier, that I couldn’t sometimes feel the knots of her upper spine.
She carries ruled notebooks full of her unfinished poetry, each piece still open to unending possibilities, as if bringing any of them to a conclusion will kill its chance at something better. As if a future audience will question whether she could have been more clear about the significance of a broken doorknob.
Sometimes, Marie will sit in on the music history class I teach. In a lecture hall of three hundred undergraduates, I always seek her out like my lodestar. Though I start each class on my feet, pacing as I lecture, I always take a seat on the podium so I can look directly at her, and the faces of my actual charges fade away until she’s the only person I know who doesn’t seem just an illusion.
We always walk home after, my hands in my pockets and our arms locked together as she peppers me with questions about what I think about different songs. Our discussions are never contentious. We always agree at the core, but just come to it from different perspectives. Even this morning, I remind her that one of the first things Dylan ever wrote for us was that the answer blows in the wind. She laughs it off as she pulls me on top of her and takes my lower lip between hers. It’s more than I can do to resist her.
I enjoy Marie, maybe even love her, but I know one day we’ll go different ways. A man will come along who has the answers she wants, or more likely, he’ll pretend to have them just long enough to intrigue her into leaving me. I don’t give it a second thought; it’s fine. For now, I know where I’ll be staying every night, shuffling through decades of albums with her, and time will tell what’s next.