A History in Rust

one. mother make me gold again

february 22, 2016

I saw an old friend today, somebody that I haven’t seen in what feels like lifetimes. You know that feeling you get when you come home after a long trip, and you unlock the front door and shut off the alarm and take a deep breath, because your house is welcoming you back to it? You remember where all the light switches are, but you don’t remember the things left on the kitchen counter. Did you put those things there, that unread pile of mail and that black pen that’s nearly out of ink, or was someone in your house while you were gone? Or maybe the house shifted itself around in your absence, a living organism, breathing, growing, changing, all while you were out doing the same thing.

That’s how it felt when I saw him this morning: intimately familiar, his smile, the curve of his nose, but all the time since we last saw each other stood between us like a fog. I was worried for a second that he wouldn’t recognize me, but then he turned and said my name. And I didn’t know it until then, but I’d been missing the sound of his voice. Hearing it again made me feel full.

Do you ever think, when you meet someone, that there will probably be a time in the future where you no longer know them? I knew from the first day I met this old friend that we were not destined for forever. I’ve learned not to be optimistic; when somebody wants to say goodbye, I let them go. But today I saw an old friend again, and I started to wonder if I’m holding myself back with that attitude. Maybe I ought to’ve grabbed him by the shoulders all those years ago, shook him and said, “stay, stay, stay.”

But I didn’t, and I’ll never know what might’ve happened. What good are what if’s, anyway?

- J


It is raining in Los Angeles when I see him again.

Fitting, isn’t it? We fell in love in a city where it always rains, and we meet again in a city where the sun always shines. I’ve lived in two cities on two continents, walked cobblestone sidewalks and cement slabs, and they always lead back to him. It’s a curse, maybe. It’s certainly not a blessing.

I’m waiting for coffee in a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard when it happens. Once I read something about how we spend approximately one third of our lives asleep, but I’d bet I spend nearly that much of mine waiting for coffee. I’d put money on it. All the money that I normally spend on coffee, I’d put on that bet. And then when I win, I’d buy even more coffee.

I should’ve been at work half an hour ago, but instead I’m waiting for my coffee, hiding my face behind my hair and listening to the conversations around me. At one of the tables sits a man in a suit, his oversized phone pressed to his ear. He says in a pinched voice that it’s not his turn to pick up Jessica from school today. He did it yesterday, he says. It’s definitely your turn.

The woman at the table by the window stabs her pen into her notebook, once, twice, three times, trying to jog the ink, or maybe her mind. Her tea grows cold on the table in front of her. And at the next table, a dad and his little girl, her crooked braids no doubt courtesy of him: she drags her crayon across the pages of her coloring book, skidding off the paper and onto the table. His eyes shoot up and his newspaper falls as his hand darts across the table to stop her–

And that’s when I see him.

It takes me a minute to recognize him, but I’m struck instantly with a feeling of familiarity, an itch at the back of my skull, and I wonder if maybe I knew him back in elementary school, or one summer at camp in the woods, where I skinned my palms clutching the dock because I was too afraid of the lake monster to swim. And then he turns. I catch him in profile, and I realize that I recognize him because I see his image nearly as often as I see my own. It’s there whenever I go online, captured in dozens of paparazzi shots, the same moment from a thousand similar angles echoed across my screen like a game of spot the difference.

And I know his face from my memories, the ones I try to hide in the deepest drawers of my mind below the grocery lists and tax deadlines. Somehow, no matter how hard I push, I can never quite close them completely. I look at him and I remember the way he always kept his eyes shut for an extra moment after he kissed me, and the sound of his voice echoing in the bathroom whenever he sang in the shower. I picture him in my mind and I look at him standing in front of me now, and I play spot the difference.

He steps up to the register and I watch his mouth as he orders, but I can’t hear the words. I imagine I know what he’s saying, small drip coffee, room for milk and sugar, but maybe he’s changed his habits. His hair has definitely changed: it’s longer now, long enough to braid like I always teased him about back then. He’s dressed differently, too, in overpriced clothes that I wonder, whenever I see them in photographs, if he buys because he can afford to. He stands like somebody who knows that eyes are always on him, hip cocked, gaze distant. Sunglasses sit atop his head, holding his hair out of his face, even though there’s no need for them today.

“Nobody wears sunglasses because it’s sunny,” he told me once. “They’re fashionable, Jay.”

My fingers froze inside my gloves inside my pockets as we walked through Hampstead Heath on the coldest day of winter, and he looked at me through his sunglasses and grinned. I remember it now, that smile, clear as if it were yesterday, though up until now I’m sure I’d forgotten the about it.

But it washes over me like a harsh winter wind, and when he grins at the cashier as he pushes over a five, I know it’s him for certain. He uses his free hand to adjust his sunglasses atop his head, and I wonder if he’s changed a bit. He seems to be the same person he’s always been.

But I’m not. I’m a different person now. When we met, all I wanted was for somebody to love me and make me feel something and maybe break my heart, and now I know that I never want to hurt that bad again. I wait for him to turn, for our eyes to meet, and for him to look away when he doesn’t recognize me. I wait and think of the lines on his face the day he said goodbye to me, deep as oceans and already regretting. There’s an itch in my gut that feels like the moment when all I wanted to do was run my fingertips across his forehead and smooth out the creases, and instead I let him go. I wait and wait and I’m sure the barista is going to finish my drink before he ever looks my way and then–

Then he turns and steps away from the register, and he looks at me. His eyes are green and bright and there’s a spark of something there, a glint of recognition as he looks at my hair, shorter than it used to be, or my eyes, with less liner than I used to wear, and then the corners of his smile droop, and I know he’s thinking of the day everything fell apart.

I know he’s thinking of it because I’ve relived it a thousand times, tattooed it on the inside of my eyelids as some kind of self-imposed purgatory. It was raining in London that day, a rough rain, the kind that makes mud that grabs the soles of your boots and pulls you down. For just a second, the briefest of terrifying moments, you wonder if you’ll ever get free. We set each other free that day, and I don’t regret it. But every time I open my eyes from the memories, it hurts in the pit of my stomach and the center of my chest like it only just happened.

It hurts now, as our eyes meet in the city where it never rains and I wait for one of us to say something.

I know it has to be me.

“Harry.” The word is stale on my tongue – it’s been ages since I said it out loud. I used to think I owned the word, owned the boy who wore it. But now I know better. I know that I can’t own anybody. It’s our names that own us.

“Jennah,” he says. “I knew you’d moved back, but–”

“It’s a big city,” I say. He takes a step toward me. I remind myself that I am not afraid. This boy–a man, now, to my weak-willed, shaky-kneed woman–has no power over me anymore.

“But a small town,” he says, taking another step forward, and another, and then, before I can jump out of the way, he hugs me.

It shocks my heart into warp speed, but I wrap my arms around him too and try not to wonder if this is the goodbye hug I never got on that rainy day in London, when he boarded a plane bound for Australia and I refused to say, “safe travels.” That night, I stared at my ceiling for hours, a nerve soup bubbling in my stomach as I prayed that his plane would touch down safely.

Now, I keep my superstitions in check. I walk under ladders like they can’t collapse and hurt me, and I don’t blink at broken mirrors. But I always say goodbye, even if goodbye means forever.

Now Harry, my past, my never again, my dream of a boy with a laugh like fairy dust, pulls me tight against him and I bask in the warmth of it, in the safety. In the faint smell of cigarette smoke clinging to the collar of his jacket and the expanse of his torso and the memory that hits like warm sunlight of the last time we held each other like this. London smelled like rain on concrete that day as I pressed my head to Harry’s chest and pretended that the moment would never end.

And then he lets me go. I sink back to earth and land unsteadily on my own two feet, and I remind myself of who I am. These feet, these legs, they carry me places and they hold me up. They are strong. I am strong. London was Harry’s city, but Los Angeles is mine. My city, my safe haven, the backdrop for my dreams.

“What are you doing in LA, Harry?” I ask him. I smell his cologne, something foreign, something expensive, and as I feel it expanding and filling the space between us like all the time between now and when we last met, I realize I don’t want to know the answer. I don’t want to know when he’s going away again. I wish I hadn’t seen him again at all, because it hurts.

It doesn’t hurt like it did four years ago, when I sat in the empty bathtub in my flat with my socks on and listened to my sobs echo back at me off the tiles and through the phone line where, on the other end, it was 9 AM in Los Angeles and my mother was sitting in her kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee, apologizing that she couldn’t fix things for me.

“I’m sorry it hurts, Jenbear,” she said. “You’ve just gotta let it hurt.”

It doesn’t hurt like that now, and I don’t know if it ever will again, because I am a different person than I was then. What didn’t kill me made me stronger. It made me rock solid and impenetrable. But I will never be gold again.

“We should get lunch sometime,” Harry says. I avoid his eyes: I know their power. I know they can capture me like quicksand. Over his shoulder, I see the barista set my drink on the counter.

“Caramel macchiato for Jennah!” she calls. Harry flinches. I’ve cut off ten inches of my hair, but my drink order hasn’t changed in four years.

“Sure,” I say. My hand shakes as I pick up my steaming cup, but I pretend not to notice. “I’m sorry, I have a meeting, I really have to go.”

Harry opens his mouth, but I cut him off, stepping around him and reaching for a cardboard sleeve to slide onto my cup.

“You can call me,” I say, looking at him over my shoulder. “My number’s the same.”

“R-right,” Harry says. He looks a little bit dumbstruck, and I think I’m almost in the clear: he hasn’t realized that his number’s changed, his number’s probably changed a dozen times in four years of being an international celebrity, and there’s no way he still has mine.

I give him a smile, a goodbye smile, one that I hope says, I never want to see you again, and just as I’m about to step away, he grabs my shoulder and stops me.

“Wait, Jay–” He drops his hand from my shoulder and uses it to push his hair off of his face. I wonder if he’s grown it out so that he can hide behind it. “It was good to see you again.”

“Yeah,” I say. “You too.”

He lets me go, but I feel his eyes following me across the Starbucks and out into the rain. I pull up my hood and try not to feel London’s cobblestone sidewalks under my feet as I dodge puddles with my head down. It’s been three years, nearly four, since I felt its history under and around me as I mapped it in footsteps and the love songs that I hummed under my breath like they belonged to me. It’s been three, nearly four years since I boarded an airplane and watched it get smaller and smaller beneath me, a maze of river and streets, so many that I’d never explored. Sometimes I worry that the city will forget me, that it’ll call me a stranger again. But I don’t know if my heart could handle it if I went back.

And I wonder, though I don’t want to, if Harry was really glad to see me. When we first met, my heart was made of glass and Harry wore his on his sleeve, in the bare skin between his tattoos. We fell in love too hard and too fast and I wanted it more than anything, and I let it consume me. Harry was always saying things offhand, throwing words at me carelessly like loose change into a fountain. But I always held on with a tight fist, until the day came that we became strangers again and I had to let go.

“You remind me of Audrey Hepburn,” he’d said to me one evening as he sat on my couch and “Roman Holiday” played on my laptop screen. I painted my toenails orange and laughed.

“Why’s that?” I asked. My hair was so long it got in the way when I was doing things like painting my nails, but I loved it, I remember that I loved it, because I could braid it down my back or let it hang loose and hide behind it when Harry made me blush.

“Dunno,” he said, like he’d already forgotten he’d said it. “Or maybe she reminds me of you.”

Now, Audrey Hepburn reminds me of Harry. Every time I see her, I think of Harry, of the hottest day of a London spring, sunburn on the tip of my nose and Harry’s fingertips slipping under the straps of my tank top. I see Audrey and I feel Harry’s fingers sticking to my sweaty skin, skip skip skipping along the freckles on my back, and I try to unstick myself from here and now and go somewhere else, but it never lasts.

At the studio, Jamie waits for me just inside the door, worrying her lower lip.

“You’re late,” she says when I open the door. The bell hanging from the knob jingles violently against the wood. “Don’t you have a deadline?”

“I always have a deadline.”

Jamie blinks and opens her mouth to remind me that this deadline is different, this is the deadline, but I shake my head, shutting her up. She lets me go past her into the back, where my workspace is set up. In the front half of the studio, I teach art classes to kids in the afternoons and adults in the evenings, but the mornings are mine.

They’re mine to plan my daily strip for my blog, sharpen my pencils until the tips are so sharp that they break as soon as they touch the paper, and draw the same thing over and over until it’s as close to the image in my mind as I can get it. And the mornings are mine to fret about the deadline.

I thought it was an amazing opportunity when I was first approached about it. Of course I did. A memoir, the editor, a tall British woman named Cook who leads with her breasts when she walks, said. We want to publish your graphic memoir, she said, her accent unnerving me. Like Alison Bechdel, she said. We’ll give you this massive amount of money for a graphic memoir about your college experience. A coming of age story for the ages, if you will.

If I will. That’s the problem: the deadline is approaching faster than I can draw, if I were drawing at all. When I close my eyes and think of my college experience, all I see is a little student flat in East London, Kensington Gardens in a thunderstorm, and Harry Styles. I know that’s not all of it. I know that when I got back from England, I spent two weeks one summer driving across the country and back with Beth, gluing my heart back together state by state. And I know that there are parts of my past that Harry never touched, but I can’t think of them now.

His voice echoes in my head as I hang up my dripping raincoat and reach for a pencil. “Jay.” I know that was a slip-up, a mistake, the resurfacing of an old habit. Harry didn’t even call me that the day we said goodbye. He barely said anything at all that day. But it grates at me nonetheless, nails on a chalkboard, digging up thoughts and feelings I’ve long buried away.

I grab for a pencil and a piece of paper. It’s been a long time since I’ve drawn Harry, but as he begins to take shape on the paper in front of me, I realize that I’ve always known he’d make a reappearance in my art. I knew when he walked away from me that we might’ve been done, but we weren’t over. I looked at him too many times with my eyes and my heart for things to be over that easily.

His long hair is easy to draw, the waves and curls flowing easily from my pencil, but I struggle with his face, with the smile lines around his mouth and the strong angles of his jaw. The features look all wrong. Though the speech bubble reads, “Wait, Jay–” this isn’t my Harry.

My Harry – a nineteen year-old boy with messy hair that was always falling in his eyes, who took to wearing beanies on the warmest days to keep it off of his forehead. He smiled like the world wasn’t riding on his shoulders, spoke to me like we were speaking a language that only the two of us could understand. The first time I drew him, it was in a brand-new leather bound book that I’d bought myself to match the one he always carried around and never let me look inside. For a week I carried it around with me, afraid to crack the spine, intimidated by all the blank pages. And then one day we were at a cafe drinking cinnamon hot chocolate and I found myself opening the little book to the first page and drawing Harry’s face, mid-joke, smile wide and eyes crinkled. I drew four different panels, four different moments, and when Harry asked to keep it, even after I spilled hot cocoa on the page, I knew it meant something.

I didn’t give it to him, though. I was too afraid to tear pages out of the book. Too afraid to make it less than it was when it arrived in my hands.

I smudge out the face on my page with the side of my hand, blurring out the eyes so they can’t see me, and I shove the page into the top drawer of the desk, where I keep all of the drawings that are too personal to go on my website. Most of them are from the week after my breakup with my rebound from Harry, a skateboarder type named Jake who dumped me to move to Michigan. They show me shrunk to the size of a doll, surrounded by moving boxes tall as skyscrapers, mascara feathered around my eyelids like a masquerade mask.

Change, I’ve learned, lodges itself in my heart like an arrow, and it always takes a while for the hole to close up and the pain to dull to a gentle, barely irksome ache. Shutting things away in drawers helps only a little bit. But I do it anyway, because it’s the only way I know how to hide from my memories.

On a fresh sheet of paper, I reconstruct the man with the newspaper and his little girl. I embellish a little bit: when he lunges across the table to stop her drifting crayon, he finds that her drawing depicts the two of them and the puppy she wants for Christmas.

In the final panel, I draw the Christmas tree, a puppy with a bow on its collar sitting beneath it. The caption reads, “The Best Christmas EVER.”


hisdenimshirt said: god, i know that feeling so well. when i was growing up my dad was in the army, and whenever he came home from a tour abroad, he always seemed like a different person. but he was still my dad. thanks for sharing your thoughts tonight. your posts are always some of my favorites to read.

zachposenlvr said: yr words are beautiful, as always. if u published a book of poetry, i’d buy it in a heartbeat.

anonymous said: u can’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to u. get up off ur ass, get off the internet, and find this dude. stop complainin!!

midnightrunner said: come on, no one’s buying that he’s just a friend. i always knew you had a tragic love in your past. i can tell from your words.