The Gift of Bob Dylan
By Duncan Ryder
This story is for “Michael.” You were right. I did. I do. He is.
I was barely 16 that fall and looked younger – a small, fine-boned slip of a boy, blonde, blue-eyed, in clothes my mother bought for me. Which was fine, because I never paid much attention to what I wore.
Actually, I didn’t pay much attention to anything, except my studies. I was a scholarship kid in a posh college, two years younger than everyone else and away from home for the first time. I wasn’t so much shy as withdrawn. Self-contained. Out of my element in so many ways.
If I even had an element.
I hadn’t quite figured that out yet.
I hadn’t quite figured out a lot of things.
What I did know about myself was that I loved words. What I didn’t know about myself was… pretty much anything else. I had no idea who or what I was, who or what I wanted to be.
I mean – think about it. I’d been a precocious child, and by the time I was in grade four I’d skipped two grades. Because I was small for my age anyway, it just got… ridiculous. My parents made them stop skipping me, and made up my own supplemental reading program with help from a friend of theirs who was a high school English teacher. Between them, they did their best to nurture my word passion, and their best was very good indeed.
So, at school, I felt like everyone’s kid brother. At home, I had words.
And then came high school.
There I was, two years younger than the kids in my class, and a late bloomer to boot. I didn’t understand any of it. Is it any wonder I didn’t relate to girls? I didn’t relate to anyone. Intellectually, I was way ahead of them. Socially, they were on another planet.
Still, I had my own little world, a world of words. I was happy there.
I guess I was lucky. I mean, I didn’t really suffer in high school, not the way I’ve since learned that some boys like me suffered. I mean, I didn’t even know there were boys like me.
I didn’t even know I was like me…
Anyway, high school wasn’t so bad. There were good teachers, and some of them went out of their way to keep an eye on me. Sometimes I got teased for being little and young and smart, and there were bits of meanness, but there was no real cruelty. I was always fine.
Some the girls were sweet. Especially when they learned about me and words. There were always girls who loved words like that. They found me and talked to me and showed me the love poems they wrote for the boys they longed for. I didn’t understand their desire, but I understood their need to express it. I talked to them about imagery and internal rhythms. I helped them shape their words.
As for the boys… well, the boys pretty much ignored me. I didn’t think much about them either. They were all older and bigger and stronger than me. I suppose they seemed almost like men. Part of a world I wasn’t ready to think about.
So, anyway, there I was, just turned 16, living on my own in college where the only place I really felt at home was in the seminar rooms and lecture halls.
I’d never heard of Dylan.
It was 1993 for God’s sake. Dylan’s time was past and not yet come again.
His name was Michael.
He was a graduate student, a suave and sophisticated 23, an academic don not in my House, but in a neighbouring House. Economics, so he wasn’t even my don. He was tall and strong, and had brown curly hair and these strange and lovely coppery eyes with gold stars around the pupils. He dressed like no one else I’d ever met – tight jeans and thin turtleneck sweaters and tweed jackets. He wore a silver ring with a delicately carved frog on the baby finger of his right hand.
I met him for the first time at an evening of sherry-to-meet-the-dons (it was that kind of posh college). What I especially remember about that first meeting was that he was wearing a thin copper-coloured sweater that made his eyes positively shimmer, and when he took his jacket off, I could see the outline of his nipples. It was the first time I’d ever noticed anything like that, and for some reason I didn’t understand, I couldn’t seem to stop looking at them.
I remember thinking it was a very odd thing for me to notice. It made me feel funny.
Anyway, it was a couple of weeks after that when I literally bumped into him coming down the front steps of the research library. It was late in the evening, and I was thinking about Beautiful Losers, the novel by Leonard Cohen that confused and, well, scared me a little. I had just started reading it, and it had, well, a guy in it who was maybe real and maybe a figment of the narrator’s imagination, and who, if I understood it right, might, um, have sex with men.
It was very puzzling. I mean, I was sixteen, I wasn’t a kid. I knew what homosexuality was. Vaguely. Theoretically. But it wasn’t real. It had nothing to do with me. Hell, sexuality had nothing to do with me.
But for some reason I found the idea curious, and… distracting, and… I couldn’t figure it out, and… I couldn’t let it go.
“David,” he said, grabbing my arm as I tottered on the stairs. His smile looked real, like he was genuinely happy to see me. “How are you?”
“Good,” I said. “I’m good.”
“You going back to your room now?”
“Why don’t you come and have a glass of port with me first? Tell me what you’re up to, how it’s all going.”
Port. Not beer. Michael was that kind of guy. It seemed so… wonderful.
I said yes, of course. I didn’t think anything of it. I mean -- dons did that. Spent time one-on-one with freshman, to make sure they were ok, not overwhelmed. It was their job. I’d had coffee with my own House don just the week before, and had met with the English Literature don several times.
He took my arm and led me back to the college, asking me about my classes, what I was reading. By the time we got to his room, I found myself telling him about Beautiful Losers.
He’d read it – twice – and was very kind about my confusion. He was also very understanding about my obvious embarrassment about the… mysterious character and his mysterious desires.
“Just keep reading,” he suggested. “It’s a difficult book. But Cohen sneaks up on you, gets under your skin, and eventually you just get it. Or not, in which case it doesn’t matter.”
He poured me a small glass of port, and put some music on his turntable. I curled up on the corner of his bed, while he sat at his desk chair. With music playing softly in the background, we talked. Minutes became hours. One glass became two glasses, then three. Michael was just so easy to talk to, so open, so very understanding. I felt safe and sleepy, and very happy.
And then he put on an album that I found myself paying attention to. The words, the music, would capture me for seconds at a time, and I would fall silent or Michael’s voice would face away. Until there was this song, this soft raspy song, that was so sad, so sweet, so full of desire, that it seemed to reach into my heart and twist.
I sat up suddenly. “My God, what is that?”
“That song. What is it? Who is that singing?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Tomorrow is a Long Place” he said. “Bob Dylan. Not one of his best-known songs, but one of my favourites.”
“Bob Dylan? Who’s that? Is he new?”
Michael laughed, and shook his head. “New? He’s an icon, baby. Ask your parents.”
Michael had a complete collection of Bob Dylan albums. He played them as our conversation continued, weaving in and out of the songs over the course of the night. I don’t know if we really drank an awful lot of port, or if I was just so young I had no tolerance for it. I do remember that I felt very slow, and languorous, and easy inside myself and easy with Michael. Opening up to him about what I was doing and reading and dreaming and thinking was somehow the easiest thing I’d ever done.
Sometimes we stopped talking and just listened to the words, let them wash over us. Some of them I didn’t understand any better than Beautiful Losers, but it didn’t seem to matter. Somehow, somehow, these were the words I had to listen to right then, and Michael was there to play them for me.
In the candlelight, his wonderful dark brown curls had streaks of red. His eyelashes looked incredibly black, and his copper and golden eyes very beautiful.
I must have dozed off, because I felt a warm hand on my shoulder shaking me awake. I opened my eyes and smiled up into Michael’s face. He smiled back.
“I think it’s time to take you home, young man,” he said.
“Don’t wanna,” I said, trying to curl back into his pillow.
But he insisted, and eventually, I got to my feet. I was groggy from sleep and from the port. Michael insisted on walking me back to my room.
The night air was cool and woke me up, and I was suddenly giggly and unsteady on my feet. Michael put his arm around my shoulder to steady me. I’d forgotten how tall he was; my head barely reached his shoulder. That struck me as incredibly funny, and fed my giggles. We crossed the quad from his House to mine like that, his arm around me, and me giggling softly, half my weight leaning against his arm.
We reached my House, made our way up to my floor, down the dim, deserted hallway. When we reached my room, I fumbled in my pocket for my keys, but my fingers were clumsy. I turned to him, leaned back against the door.
“Thank you so much for a lovely evening,” I said, trying hard to remember my manners, then succumbing to a few more soft giggles. “Really. It was special. My best evening here. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” he said, raising one hand and resting it on my shoulder. Then, with the other, with a single finger, he lifted my chin. He looked down into my face and smiled the most beautiful smile.
And suddenly my breath caught in my throat, and something moved inside me that I didn’t understand.
“David, David,” he said softly, and for the first time, the sound of my name was beautiful to me. “You are so very sweet. And so very, very young.”
His breath was warm on my cheek. I trembled. And suddenly I knew that I – wanted. I didn’t know what exactly, but something.
Something… mysterious. Something… wonderful. Something just… out there.
And whatever it was, I wanted it very badly.
He brushed my hair from my forehead, and looked down at me. There I stood, trembling and looking up into those amazing coppery eyes, and I remember thinking that I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.
The hand that had brushed back my hair slid from my forehead, trailed down until his fingers were whispering against my ear, his palm cupping my jaw. He sighed softly. The sound of it seemed to be right inside me.
And then, somehow, my hand was up, and my fingers were around his wrist, holding him there, and my hand against his skin was shaking, and I wanted to laugh or cry or something.
He looked down at me, so very tenderly, and his mouth softened into a smile that made my knees go weak. He ran his thumb over my bottom lip and I heard a little groan. It was me.
He moved his thumb again, so softly, and suddenly the want in me was almost desperate. I wanted to taste his thumb so badly, which seemed weird to me, but beautiful. I couldn’t help it; I just wanted to taste it. But I didn’t understand the desire, and so I didn’t dare. Instead, I parted my lips beneath his thumb, and touched my tongue to my lips, searching there, where he had touched, for the taste of him.
He shook his head slowly, once, side to side.
“Some day,” he said, and there was a new, soft roughness in his voice that reverberated inside of me. “Some day you will figure all this out.”
I just looked up at him, lost in those beautiful copper eyes.
Figure what out? I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t. The question just wouldn’t come. All I could do was look at him. Lose myself in those eyes and look at him. And tremble.
I couldn’t even breathe.
Finally I managed to choke out two words.
He nodded solemnly. “You will,” he said. “I promise. And when you do –,” that thumb again, and another little groan, and another little smile. “When you do, you will make some man very, very happy.”
I didn’t know what to say. I truly didn’t know what he meant. Some man? What did that mean?
He held my eyes, and I knew he could see everything I was thinking. Everything. The confusion. The wonder. The want. He looked, and I looked, and his thumb moved again, and I whimpered.
And then very, very slowly, he did the most amazing thing. He bent his head and touched his mouth to mine.
Just – that. Touched his lips to mine. Softly.
My eyes closed and I was inside that touch like it was the most important thing in the world.
For a few seconds, it was.
When he moved away, I didn’t know what to do.
I opened my eyes and he was still looking down at me.
“Just make sure he’s worthy of you,” he said.
I couldn’t seem to do anything. I just stood there, my back pressed against the door to my room, hardly able to stand on my own. Finally, he fished the key out of my jacket pocket, opened my door, led me into my room, sat me on my bed. With gentle fingers, he pushed the hair back from my forehead.
“’Night, David,” he said.
He kissed my forehead. And then he was gone.
Throughout that year, I saw Michael regularly, at college functions, at meals, sometimes coming or going from the library. I felt he was watching over me, thoughtfully, from a distance. He was always kind, always interested. We often went for coffee, but he never again asked me to his room, nor did he ever come to mine.
I took to scrounging second hand record stores looking for old Dylan albums. Listening to them became a very private, personal thing that I did on my own. It wasn’t until the following year, when Michael had moved on to study in Europe, that I finally figured it all out, and was ready to share.
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