My father bought me a Swiss watch when I was seven. The strap was too big and needed adjusting, but when I could finally put it on, I felt a surge of electricity pulse through me, as if I’d just been shackled to time’s wrist. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the ticking of the second hand to sync up with the beat of my heart.
I stopped wearing it and kept it in my pocket, only later finding the proper use for it: timing the forty-fives I bought and listened to in my room, checking the accuracy of the time on the label to the time on my watch. The Beatles’ singles, I found, all listed the correct times. The Rolling Stones’ singles, not so much. They’d often claim their songs were fifteen or twenty seconds shorter than they really were, hoping to get more airplay from DJs, who would often opt for a song they could run right into the news break. For me, it was the first hint that time was negotiable, that with the right connections no one had to pay full price for an hour. That being the case, what was the point of a watch? I haven’t worn one since.
Not long after, I started waking up in the night with bad, bad dreams about cars, nightmares of being behind a wheel somewhere on a highway, lost and panicked, cars whizzing by, the sun going down, nothing whatsoever on the radio. I was a New York City kid. Cars were nothing but trouble. You had to know where you were going. Then you had to go there. And then you had to park. This was far too linear for my tastes.
The summer I was seventeen, my folks sent me to California to visit my brother on his ranch and to get my license. He was an angry and solitary man, caught in a deep internal debate with himself that he kept losing. He took me off in his Ford to an abandoned stretch of road and had me get behind the wheel.
“Pay attention,” he said. And then he said it again.
“Watch the road,” he barked. There was nothing to watch. “Watch the road.”
The clock on the dashboard kept blinking the wrong time. I pointed this out, and he made me pull over and get out. I thought he might leave me there, but he had me switch over to the passenger side, and we drove back to his house in silence.
The next day, he called a friend who worked at the sheriff’s office, and I took my driver’s test on a tractor. There wasn’t much driving involved, and I passed. Within the hour, he’d put me on a bus to San Francisco. He even paid for the ticket.
Later, maybe a year or two later, when I was in Providence, a pretty girl named Marianne stopped by my place on Hope Street right after New Year’s. She was driving to Fox Point, over on the east side of town. Did I want to go with her? She had soft dark hair and lost eyes, and she looked like a flower with a hangover. Of course I wanted to go.
We drove to Gano Street, and she bought tea with nettles, a loaf of Portuguese sweet bread, a box of blank cassettes, and some hair products. The café was closed, the nail salon was busy, and the music store had nothing but old fado albums in the window. We walked back to her car, and she handed me the keys. “I feel dizzy,” she said. “Do you mind driving back?” This didn’t seem like the right time to mention my lack of automotive skills. I got in. My priority was looking cool. I rolled my window down and rested my elbow on the window frame. My head was tilted just so, something by The Kinks was on the radio, and the sun was shining. I got on the highway. I wasn’t doing too badly.
I got off the highway onto Wickenden Street. No one had ever told me that when you get off a highway you slow down, but it didn’t feel like I was going that fast until I hit the police car. All things considered, they were pretty nice about it.
I haven’t driven since. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Marianne since. I hope she’s feeling better.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.