A History in Rust

two. there is thunder in our hearts

february 25, 2016

I’ve never considered myself to be much of a romantic. I’ve never cared much for Valentine’s Day, dinners at fancy restaurants and presents only a fraction of the size of the packages they come in but a hundred times the cost. I don’t see the appeal of grand romantic gestures, public declarations of love and carriage rides through Central Park in the snow. Shouldn’t there be something romantic about every day you spend in love with somebody?

I do believe, though – and maybe this makes me a hypocrite – in little magical moments. Tiny moments where you meet somebody’s eye and think, “yeah, this, right now, was meant to happen.” It’s fate, maybe, or luck, or a side effect of too much caffeine, but moments like that, I live for them.

I had one of those moments today. I saw him again, my old friend. I suppose you knew I would, didn’t you? But I didn’t know. It’s easier, I think, to think about our every meeting like it’s our last. Then I won’t be let down when it is.

- J


I wake up today, the sun shining brightly through the spaces in between my closed blinds, and realize that the rain is gone. I wiggle my toes back to life underneath my blankets and that is my first thought: the rain is gone.

This is my second: Harry Styles.

I used to wake up every morning with Harry behind my eyelids and underneath my fingernails. I brokered a deal with London: it let me love its neighborhoods like knobby knees and buildings arranged like squares of a patchwork quilt, and it let me love Harry Styles, but when I left, it kept a part of me, and I knew I’d never be able to return and resume our relationship as it once was. I dream of London sometimes, of standing in the middle of Millennium Bridge, pretending I’m flying above the Thames. To my left is the Tate Modern and to the right, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and before me, water that flows to the ocean.

I climb out of bed and the memories follow me through my morning routine, whispering taunting things in my ear, does he regret you or does he regret not saying goodbye to you? and will you ever know? I tell myself I don’t want to know, but the memories don’t care. And I need them today. Today, I have to work on the book.

Eight months ago, the first thing I moved into my new apartment was a box of things I never wanted to see again but couldn’t bear to get rid of. I hid the box from myself on the highest shelf in the hall closet. I pushed it all the way to the back, and then put my box of high school yearbooks in front of it, as if their sheer heft could keep the memories from escaping.

Today, I take the box down. I can feel the memories I’ve been trying to keep at bay crawling all over me like ants, a million tiny legs touching me all at once, an endless itch. I can’t hide from the contents of the box any longer.

And I need them. I need the memories. I know what I’ll find in the box: matchbooks from every restaurant Harry and I went to together, a business card from the inn Jake and I stayed at in Santa Barbara, the ticket stub from the concert where I met Harry. It was a Killers show in Brixton, one that my roommate, Loren, dragged me too, and the whole night stank of stale cigarette smoke and strangers’ sweat. Loren had had one too many to drink and was relying on me to support most of her weight, and I was worried about missing the last tube. It wasn’t my intention to trip over the curb and crash into Harry Styles, only to be yanked backward a second later by his bodyguard. I apologized, dragged Loren home, and thought that was the end of that. And it was, until Harry found me in a coffee shop the next week and looked at me like he already knew me. Like fate, he said. But I say it was mostly just luck.

I pull down the heavy box of yearbooks, dropping it on the floor with a thud, and then I grab the edge of the memory box and drag it forward. It’s coated in a layer of dust months thick, and it explodes into the air in a cloud when I lift off the top. I take a deep breath and reach inside.

The thing my hand touches is a teddy bear that Jake gave me for our only Valentine’s Day together. It has a big red heart on its chest, and when I squeeze it, it squeals, “I lurrrrve you!” When Jake gave it to me, it still had its price tag from the gas station convenience store around the corner from our place. I ripped the tag off like it didn’t mean anything, like I didn’t care that he bought me a last minute gift, but I still remember how hard I had to work to fake a smile when he gave it to me.

I toss it aside and dig deeper. I don’t really know what I’m looking for. I know this box doesn’t contain answers to my questions. It can’t tell me why it happened, why I fell so hard and it couldn’t last. In the movies, it always lasts. In the books, too. I imagine my editor, Cook, flipping to the last page of my manuscript with a sharp red-coated nail, only to see cartoon me leaving Heathrow alone, my suitcase filled with pieces of my heart. I know somehow that that’s not what she wants.

And that’s not what I want either. I don’t want to be the girl who hides memories of old loves from herself in the hall closet. I want to be whole on my own, okay alone. Beth, my best friend, who’s always been whole on her own and okay alone, is getting married. She called me last week, all the way from New York City, practically a world away, to tell me.

“He loves me like I’m the sun,” she said, and I could hear it in her voice that she thinks the same of him.

“That’s amazing, Beth,” I told her. “I’m so happy for you.” As I said it, I remembered our road trip, the one we took just after I got back from London. We drove my old sedan across the country and back and promised each other that we’d live like that forever if we could. We both knew back then that it was a lie, but I only really felt it when I booked my flight to New York City a few days ago.

I find the Killers ticket stub and slam the lid back on the box, as if it’s what I was looking for the whole time. I hold it tight in my hand for a second, feeling its bent corners, and then I slip it into the pocket of my jeans and go to the studio.

I arrive before Jamie, which allows me the pleasure of unlocking the door, turning off the alarm, and turning on the lights. I love doing this. It reminds me that the studio is mine, all mine, the result of years of hard work and a decade of dreaming. Jamie thought it would be nice to hang enlarged prints of some of my comics on the walls, but I didn’t want that. Instead, I hang the drawings of my students. They remind me that I don’t just draw for me.

I draw for Tara, the 12 year-old in my Monday afternoon drawing class, who refuses to give up her art even though her hand shakes violently every time she holds a pencil. I draw for Mike, who took a figure drawing class a few months ago and now drops by one or two mornings a week to sit in the quiet of the empty studio and draw what he wants his kids to remember of him when he’s gone.

And I draw for 17 year-old Jennah Walker, who entered college thinking that drawing was silly, that it wouldn’t get her anywhere, that it would never make her happy. She hid her drawings in the margins of math notes and the corners of history homework, and she never bought herself a sketchbook just because it was beautiful. I draw to prove to her, every single day, that this is what I’m meant to be doing. This is where I’m meant to be.

In the back, I discard my purse on the coatrack and get to work. I spread butcher paper on the table and plot the book. I’ve been imagining its structure, its plot, in my head for weeks now, but I know I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to lay it down on paper. It will have three acts, like a Shakespearean tragedy. You can’t go wrong with a classic, my mom always says.

Act one begins at my high school graduation. I see the first panel in my head: a bird’s eye view of the event, a football field covered in a sea of graduation caps. You can tell which one is me because the cap is purple among a sea of black, and when it comes flying into the air, you worry it’s going to fly off the page and hit you. But it doesn’t, because you turn the page just in time. And then you see me moving into my college dorm, a space with blank walls as of yet unsaturated by memory. All you see is possibility.

Flashback: a double-page spread of my childhood in suburban Los Angeles. A pool in the backyard, a dog waiting at the door every day after school, and, in the background, that famous LA smog. “I’m going to be a lawyer!” little me cries. “A doctor! An astronaut!” My mother, with less gray in her hair than she has now, smiles at me from over the pages of a magazine. There is no tragedy here.

Back to college, where page by page, the walls of my dorm room become covered in my experiences. My first beer, a bitter experience that ends with a strange boy’s hand up my shirt. My first C on a paper, the subsequent tears and then half an hour spent pacing the hallway outside the professor’s office before I finally work up the courage to go inside. Beth, the dark-haired, bright-eyed girl who lives across the hall, who I meet when she knocks on my door late one night, locked out of her own room and tipsy. I let her inside and she takes one look at the drawings scattered across my desk and tells me I should be an artist. I don’t believe her, but I never forget her words.
Then my college boyfriend, for only a page or two, because the dent he made in my heart was easily buffed out. Nick, a drama major. I show our relationship on a stage, the two of us acting it out for all of our friends. Wild fights, screaming matches, each of us unsure how to handle the other’s heart. We are too young to see beyond ourselves, too blinded by desire. The curtain closes just as sophomore year ends, and then, come August, I pack my bags.

In London, I am small, one in 8 million. Over 300 languages are spoken in London, and I hear them everywhere, on the university campus, on the tube, in the supermarkets. My flatmate is Loren, big blue eyes, big curly hair. I know I will struggle with replicating the sound of her accent on the page, but I don’t think about that now. Instead I lay out our adventures together: the trip we take to the National Gallery, where I stand in the middle of every room and spin in slow circles, worried I will never be able to look at it all; and the Killers concert, where I meet Harry, where my world turns upside-down.

“You’ll probably never see him again,” you see Loren telling me. Reflected in her eyes, you see it all: Jennah and Harry, forever a missed connection. He gets on the tube as I get off. I spot him across the street, but a bus crosses between us, and by the time it’s gone, so is he. Our paths never quite cross. “What a tragic love story,” Loren says.

But then you turn the page, and Harry and Jennah do meet again, in a small cafe in Bloomsbury where I wait out a storm. You see my heart beat out of my chest when I see him. From there, you only get flashes, glimpses, like the ones in my memory. Our first date, an awkward evening at a too-fancy restaurant. I am underdressed and squirm in my seat the whole time, but he holds my hand on the walk home anyway. Then our first kiss, interrupted by Loren arriving home. Oxford Street at Christmas. Kensington Gardens in all four seasons.

My time in London flies by. You don’t see all the details, but you feel it like I felt it. You feel London pulse with the heartbeats of a million lovers past, present, and future, and you see cartoon Jennah holding tight to the hand of the boy that she loves and joining them. You see her early cartoons, all of them of Harry, his jaw, his nose, his curly hair, the freckles on his stomach. You see her heart swell for him, a little bigger every day.

And then you see Jennah’s heart break. It happens on a Thursday morning, but you feel it coming. You see it hiding in the corners of the panels, where the paparazzi and the tabloids lurk. Upcoming tour for Harry Styles, they say, and Jennah Walker to return to United States. The clock is running out, but Jennah ignores it, so you do too. Then Harry leaves without saying goodbye. Cartoon Jennah wears sunglasses to hide her tears, but you see them anyway. Harry leaves and London’s sky fills with storm clouds. Jennah cries and cries, and the barriers of the Thames threaten to burst. Jennah is breaking, and you can’t help her.

When you turn the page, it’s blank, because I can’t see the end of act three, the end of the book. Does it end with my return to the United States, heartbroken and depressed? The months following, where I hid my memories away in a shoebox and pieced my heart back together on a cross-country journey with my best friend? My first real drawing class, where I struggled for weeks to draw a self-portrait, afraid to look at myself in the mirror? Or with my college graduation, after which I moved back in with my parents, convinced I could make a living drawing? Or with Jake, the breakup, the move to my own apartment? The opening of my studio? Or should it end with the drawing of the book itself, a meta self-examination? Here’s me drawing this book, the one that you’re reading, the thing that you’re holding in your hand right now. Hey, I made that.


I jump, startled out of my memories by Jamie, leaning around the wall that separates the studio space from the teaching space. I look up at the clock and realize it’s nearly noon.

“Jennah!” she hisses again. “There’s somebody here to see you.”

I raise an eyebrow and lift my charcoal-covered palms so that she can see them. Jamie rarely interrupts me while I’m drawing out of respect for my artistic process. I tried to tell her once that I don’t really have one of those–I can draw almost anywhere, in almost any condition–but she didn’t listen.

“This one’s important,” Jamie says, giving me a pointed look before disappearing. I turn back to my story map, scribbling the date in the corner, and then I reach for a towel to wipe my hands.

As I cross the room toward the teaching space, I hear Jamie’s voice growing louder and louder with every step I take. She’s talking incessantly to the visitor, and I hope for a second that she’ll scare them off before I reach them. Now that I’ve realized how late it is, I want lunch, not small talk.

“Sorry if she’s rude,” Jamie says loudly enough that she must know that I can hear her. “She doesn’t usually see anyone in the mornings, but I’m sure she’ll make an exception for you.”

I come around the corner ready to tell her off for this preamble, for making me sound like a moody artist type, and then I see Harry Styles. My breath catches in my throat when I see him, standing beside the reception desk, flicking one of my business cards between his thumb and forefinger. It looks impossibly small in his hand. He looks impossibly huge in my studio, lit like a work of art by the fluorescents.

When he looks at me, a tentative smile spreads across his face, tentative because he knows he shouldn’t be here, tentative because he’s hoping I won’t mind anyway.

“You know Harry Styles?” Jamie will ask me later, her wide eyes full of a shade of blue that I’ll never be able to reproduce on the page.

“I used to,” I will say, dark and mysterious, and Jamie will imagine Harry as a ghost of my past, come to my present to haunt me.

Now, Harry looks at me like he knew me in the past and he knows me in the present, and he wants to know me in the future, too. I don’t know how to look at him. Do I want to know him again? Will he break me once more? Will I ever be able to look at him like I didn’t once love him more than anything else in the whole world?

“Jay,” he says, wincing when the nickname slips out again. “Sorry, I should’ve called first–”

“You don’t have my number.” Didn’t. I watch him wrinkle my business card in his hand and there are a million unsaid things in the back of my throat and I think they’ve all been waiting for this moment. “How’d you find me?”

He shrugs. Lifts a hand to push back his hair. I notice his sunglasses tucked in the front of his shirt, its top buttons undone. His tattoos, ones he didn’t have when I knew him, peak out. This is not your Harry Styles, they say. “Googled you.”

I don’t know what to say, and there it is, the awkwardness. The it’s been three, nearly four, years awkwardness. The you left without saying good bye awkwardwardness. And there’s Jamie, watching it spread between us until it’s hard to see anything clearly.

“Jamie,” I say, turning my eyes on her, “would you mind mixing some paints for this afternoon’s class?”

Jamie probably finished mixing the paints an hour ago, like she does every day, but she jumps to her feet obediently and gives a quick nod before heading into the back. Then I look at Harry again. He’s looking around the room, taking in the artwork hanging on the walls, the stools and easels scattered around the room. I watch him look, and I wonder what he’s thinking. Is this where he saw me ending up, all those years ago? Or am I an entirely different Jennah Walker than the one he imagined?

When he turns his gaze back to me, there’s a smile on his face that I don’t know how to decode. “This is amazing, Jay. Really.”

There’s the nickname again, and, paired with the compliment, it makes me blush. I look away from Harry, feeling my cheeks grow warm. Harry used to delight in making me blush. I did blush oh-so-easily back then, but I thought I grew out of it. “Thanks.”

Neither of us says anything else, and I feel the awkwardness return, but I look at Harry and wait. He came here, and I know he won’t leave until he’s said what he wants to say.

“So, listen,” Harry finally says, shifting his weight back and forth. He cocks his head at me and I see the boy I used to know peaking out from behind this Harry’s shield. “Do you want to go grab lunch?”

This surprises me. Everything about this Harry surprises me, his long hair, the tattoos crawling out of his open shirt, the rough crackle in his voice. And yet it all makes sense, as if, oh, of course, this is who Harry became three, four, years after I knew him. It’s only natural.

So I let myself be surprising too. “Okay, sure,” I say. “Let me go wash my hands.”

There’s a sink at the side of the room, and I don’t look over my shoulder at Harry while I scrub my hands. I wonder if he’s watching me, tracing the visible line of my spine through my t-shirt and remembering the way I used to squirm under his touch and his eye, self-conscious about my visible bones, my skeleton body. So fragile, so delicate, everything I didn’t want to be.

“Bones are stronger than they seem,” Harry used to tell me. “Stronger than steel.”

I never felt like I was made of steel, still don’t. I am made of bones and flesh and blood, all held together by a healed heart. I feel my heart beating like a time bomb in my chest as I duck into the back room to grab my purse. It’s warning me, this boy is dangerous, this boy is pure and dangerous.

When I return with my purse held to my chest like a shield, Harry’s leaning against the reception desk, reading the class schedule, and I look at him and forget my heart’s warnings.

“You teach all these classes?” Harry asks, straightening up and leading the way to the door.

I shake my head. “Most of them. Jamie teaches one on Tuesdays, and a lady named Janice teaches figure drawing on Monday and Wednesday evenings.”

Harry nods. “That’s amazing anyhow, Jay. All of this is so amazing.”

“You’re one to talk about amazing,” I say to distract from the way I’m blushing again. If things were different, I might bump him with my shoulder, a gentle, teasing push, but as things are, I look at the ground, watching our feet fall into step. I picture the cobblestone of Covent Garden under our shoes instead of the rough, grimy asphalt of Los Angeles.

He laughs, but it’s forced, and shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. It’s… yeah. I’ve got some time off right now, before our next tour.”

“Is that why you’re in LA?” I realize now that he never answered me when I asked him this question in Starbucks. I didn’t want to know the answer then, but I do now. I watch Harry’s shadow overtake mine on the sidewalk and I realize, that I want to know everything that’s happened to him in the three, four years since we last saw each other.

“Yeah, my mate’s got a house here. My sister’s getting married, so things are a bit nuts at home.” He pauses, pointing at a restaurant just ahead of us. “You been there before?”

I nod, distracted by the news about Harry’s sister. I never met her, but Harry used to tell me stories about her. I always expected her to end up living in some exotic locale, waitressing during the day and writing a novel at night. “Yeah, it’s good.”

Harry grins and pulls open the door for me. Five minutes later, we’re seated in the back of the restaurant, away from the windows. I notice that Harry doesn’t have a bodyguard tailing him like he often used to, but he glances over his shoulder frequently enough to make up for the absence of a shadow. The waitress brings us water, takes our orders, and disappears, leaving Harry and I without our menus to hide behind.



Harry laughs and shakes his head. I feel myself blushing again. I don’t remember things ever being this awkward with Harry before, but now we have a past. I’ve seen every freckle on Harry’s back, and he’s seen mine, too.

“No, you go ahead,” he says.

“I’m working on a book,” I tell him. His eyes light up, so I elaborate. “A graphic memoir, kind of.”

“That’s brilliant, Jennah,” he says. It sounds like he means it.

You’re in it, I think. It’s a memoir of you. You’re in all of my memories.

Then he asks me about the studio, about how my career’s ended up where it has, and I manage to talk until the food arrives. I want to ask Harry about his career too, but I don’t. Instead I ask him about his family, his friends, his life back in London. He grins when he talks about all the people he loves, and this is the Harry I remember, the one with the big heart, never too busy to drop everything to help out a friend.

The conversation grows less awkward, but all the while I feel all the things we haven’t said festering between us like an open wound. I think of Harry’s sister, engaged to marry a banker, Harry tells me, and I wonder at all the things that must have changed for her in four years. So many things have changed for me, too, but, as Harry talks, I realize all the emotions from years ago are still here. By the time the waitress clears our empty plates, I feel ready to burst. I’ve spent years with these feelings gestating in my chest, frustration and anger and sadness and regret, and I open my mouth to spew them out onto the table, but Harry speaks first.

“I’m sorry I left without–”

I cut him off, unable to bear his words. “I’m sorry I let you go without saying good bye.”

The apology hangs in the air between us and I realize I was never mad at Harry like I thought I was. I’ve been angry at myself for being too afraid to say what needed to be said. Now that I’ve said it, the weight of the regret lifts off of my heart. I take a deep breath and look at Harry. I know he’s not done yet.

“It wasn’t fair to you,” he says, shaking his head, his voice low. “It wasn’t fair of me to start something with you when I knew I was leaving–”

“I was leaving too, Harry,” I point out. “And we had nine months together. That’s a long time.”

“Still, I shouldn’t have–”

I shake my head. “Stop, Harry. Whatever you’re apologizing for, you don’t need to.”

He raises an eyebrow, and I can’t tell if he’s annoyed that I haven’t let him finish a sentence or if he’s about to laugh at me. “You don’t need to apologize either.”

“Too late, I already did.”

Now he does laugh, big and loud enough to bring a smile to my face. “I would’ve too, if you’d let me finish a sentence.”

I grin at him and I hope that he knows that the only bit of our time together that I regret is the way that it ended. He looks at me and I think that he feels the same way. Harry looks at me and I think about how strange it is that he’s reappeared in my life now, when I’d finally convinced myself that I was okay I alone. I didn’t love Jake, but I know it wasn’t because I can never love again. Harry didn’t ruin me. I’m okay without him.

But here he is, right in front of me, and I let myself imagine, just for a second, a future where I’m not alone. If this were any other love, I’d think that this would be the end of our story. We’d laugh awkwardly, finish our lunch, and go our separate ways. Except Harry is looking at me like I’m a question he doesn’t have the answer to yet, and I know things aren’t so simple for us.

When the waitress brings the check, Harry grabs for it instantly, refusing to let me pay for my meal.

“This is what old friends do,” he says, but I know that we’ll never be as simple as “old friends.” He walks me back to the studio, our shadows side by side. Outside the building, we stop and I look at Harry, his face backlit by the sun, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses. I itch to draw him, to draw this moment so that I can keep it forever.

“I’ll call you,” he says as I brush by him, smelling his cologne and the faintest hint of cigarette smoke, and then I’m inside and the door closes before I can process what he said.

I don’t have time to think about it because Jamie is there, jumping up from the reception desk with wide eyes, bellowing, “Did you just go on a date with Harry Styles?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, and then I duck into the back to get ready for my first class before she has a chance to say another word. I remember the Killers ticket tucked in my back pocket, and I leave it there.


anonymous says: what a lame post. where are the juicy details!!!!

hisdenimshirt says: wonderful post as always. i hope things work out, j.

anonymous says: do u write fanfiction cuz i would read that