A History in Rust

three. you crack me open you crack me open you crack me open again

march 1, 2016

I think you already know that this old friend broke me sideways. Broke me upside down and inside out and sideways. And I think you already know that I only pretend that I’m not sentimental. I hold onto everything that once meant something in the hope that it’ll someday mean something again.

But let me tell you about something else instead. They say that gold doesn’t rust, but I have proof that it does. It lives at the bottom of my jewelry box and it rarely ever sees the light, but if you saw it, you’d believe me.

He gave it to me a week after our first kiss. We stood in the alleyway outside my flat, Brick Lane street art for backdrops as I told him it was too much, like I’d been taught that you’re supposed to, but I loved it. And to this day I love it. I take it out every once in a while and turn the charm over in my hand. Sometimes I go to the mirror and drape it around my neck, just to see the way it lays against my skin. I pretend, just for a moment, that it’s still mine to wear. To wear like the memories intertwined with the links of its chain aren’t just as tarnished as its surface.

And then I put it back in the box and close the lid.

Some part of me, hiding beneath the nagging voice that reminds me to call my mother and that box of regrets about all the things I didn’t accomplish, thinks it’s silly to assign so much worth to a physical object, especially one that’s absolutely fake. It’s not gold – I know that gold doesn’t rust. I know it like I know that the sky is blue and 1 + 1 = 2. That’s why we use gold for wedding rings: it means forever.

It’s hollow symbolism, that necklace hidden away at the bottom of my jewelry box. But I hold onto it nonetheless.

- J


After Harry takes me to lunch, I draw his face a hundred times and throw all the drawings away, and I ache and ache and ache. My heart has a million questions: Is he really going to call? Why did he say that he’s going to call? What does it mean? What is his heart asking? He doesn’t call the next day, or the next, or the next, and I tell myself between every breath that it’s okay because I got my closure.

I tell myself that my heart’s healed, that I’ve moved on, that I don’t love Harry Styles anymore. It’s been three, nearly four years. But whenever I close my eyes, I see him, his green green green eyes and I hear his voice saying my name, “Jay,” and I know that every feeling I’ve ever had for Harry Styles has risen to the surface of my heart again. The feelings never went away. I only buried them, like I do with my mementos of past loves; I shove them to the back of my closet and the back of my mind and the depths of my heart, and I convince myself that I’m safe from them.

But Harry doesn’t call me, and I’m not surprised. I force myself not to be surprised. I tell myself that I’m okay, and I get up every morning and go to work. Jamie looks at me like she doesn’t understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to her, this pain in my heart, this absolutely uncalled for, ridiculous, illogical pain in my heart. Emotions aren’t logical, I tell myself, but that doesn’t help me from feeling so angry at myself for feeling this way.

Every day, I go to the studio and I sit down in front of the map of my book and I wonder if I’ll ever get it done when all I can draw is Harry. And I can never get the eyes, the mouth, the nose right. I didn’t look at him long enough to be able to recreate his image on the page, but I can’t get it out of my head.

I don’t draw anything for the book for several days. Instead I draw Harry, over and over again, and throw them all away. Then Harry shows up.

He doesn’t call. Instead, he shows up at the studio one evening, just as my last class of the day is finishing up. I’m too busy directing the class, a group of seniors who are nearly as rambunctious as the kids in the afternoon class, in clean-up. Harry waves at me as he slips in the door, and when he realizes I’m not paying him much attention, he slips behind the wall into my studio space.

Jamie’s gone for the night and I’m busy, so there’s nothing I can do to stop him. I imagine him picking his way through the mess that is my studio, stepping over broken pencils and crumbled pieces of paper to get to my drafting table, where, under a dozen drawings of half of his face, he’ll find the plan for my book. He won’t touch it–he’ll be too afraid of smearing the pencil, of leaving a mark–but he’ll look at it for a while, trying to decipher my poorly handwritten captions and match them to the sketches I’ve placed them around.

That’s where I find him several minutes later, when I manage to shoo away my students and lock the front door for the night. I don’t bother washing my hands before I head into the back, where Harry’s leaning over my table, looking completely engrossed.


Harry turns around slowly and smiles at me, like he’s been waiting for me, not like I’ve just caught him snooping. “Hey,” he says. “This your book?”

“Yeah.” I cross the room to stand next to him. He’s only uncovered the first half of the giant sheet upon which I’ve outlined the book. The last panel visible is the one where cartoon Jennah meets Harry Styles at a Killers concert in London.

“So it’s a personal thing?” he asks. He’s looking back down at the table now, and I wonder if he wants to push the rest of the papers aside so he can see the rest of the plans. I wonder if, like me, he’s thinking about where the story ends.

“Yeah, graphic memoir, like I said.”

“Hmm,” Harry mutters. He looks at me, a question on his lips, but he doesn’t say it.

“I can change your name if you want,” I say. “I should’ve asked you about that the other night, I’m sorry–”

Harry shakes his head. “You don’t have to do that. You should tell the story you need to tell, Jay.”

He turns and leaves the table, walking across the room to the wall where some of my favorite comics hang in frames. It takes me a minute to store his words inside my heart and catch up to him. The story you need to tell. I don’t know what that is.

I watch Harry look at Calvin and Hobbes and some of my favorites from Alison Bechdel and Kate Beaton. I measure him with my eyes and he looks so tall, so impossibly tall, and his hair nearly reaches his shoulders and my heart aches for him, and I wonder what he’s doing here. He holds his hands behind his back like he’s at a museum, quiet, respectful. Anger surges in my chest – he’s so easygoing about this. My heart’s healed, but it still beats twice as fast every time I look at him. If he’s not going to stay, I want him to go.

“You didn’t call me, Harry.”

“Nah,” he says. He turns and looks at me, and I feel his gaze burrow into my skin and dig toward my heart. “Figured this was better.”

I meet his eyes. Green, green, green. I have no idea how to recreate the color in my drawings. “What are you doing here?”

He looks away abruptly, back at the cartoons on the wall. What does he see in them? Do they tell him something about me that he doesn’t already know? Do they say something about the person that I’ve become since he left me in London?

“Did you already have dinner?” he asks suddenly, his voice too loud for the room, cutting across the space between us and hitting me square in the chest.

“It’s 8:30,” I say dumbly. It’s too late for dinner, is what I mean to say, or a lie, maybe, like, I already ate. I already ate and you need to leave now because if you keep hanging around, it’ll be harder when you really do leave.

“Do you want to get takeaway?” Harry’s looking at me again, waiting for me to answer.

“It’s 8:30,” I say again. But my feet carry me across the room anyway, to the file cabinet in the corner where I keep a stack of takeout menus. Harry smiles softly when I hand them to him, like I’m giving him a gift.

He settles himself on a stool and spreads the menus out on the table, obscuring the plans for my book and all my unfinished drawings of his face. I watch him flip through them, finally settling on the Thai place down the street.

“Do you remember that time we ordered Chinese at midnight?” he asks, looking over at me. “During the–”

“Thunderstorm. Yeah, I remember.” I blink and see it: we ate the Chinese food on the rug in Harry’s living room while the windows rattled around us. It was only the second time we’d hung out, and Harry went out of his way to make me feel silly about being nervous. I woke up there the next morning with Harry’s body pressed up against mine and a crick in my neck. My hair smelled like egg rolls for the next week, but I didn’t mind.

“Yeah.” He smiles softly to himself, eyes back on the menu. Then he passes it over to me. “Let’s get Thai tonight.”

Since the restaurant is only just down the street, Harry walks over to pick up the food, and while he’s gone, I gather up all the papers on my drafting table and shove them into drawers. They look different now, like Harry’s eyes have left their footprints all over them. He told me once, as he sat up in bed with the sheets low on his waist and his hair messy and I sat at the foot of the bed, trying to recreate the scene on my page, that my art was a part of me and he’d love it forever because of that. But I know that’s not true anymore. Now that Harry doesn’t love me, the rose-colored glasses are gone, and he’s free to look at my art however he wants.

When Harry gets back, we sit at my drafting table and eat the food out of its cartons. We don’t speak, and even as an awkward tension swirls in the air around us, mixing with the scent of pad Thai and the smell of paint, I’m grateful for the silence. It gives me a chance to pick apart the emotions bubbling up in my chest and sort them into piles: the unwanted, the unreasonable, the incomprehensible.

And the feeling that something’s coming. Harry doesn’t look at me, which means I can look at him. I trace my eyes over the line of his neck and down to wear his tattoos disappear into his shirt. I wonder how many more he has that I can’t see. Time gave Harry tattoos, and what did it give me? A rusty gold heart and a box of buried memories.

Something’s coming: Harry is here for a reason, with words on the tip of his tongue, and I watch him get ready to say them.

“So you’ve been drawing me?” Harry asks finally. The silence breaks like a lightning strike.

“Yeah, for the book,” I say, a half-lie, an excuse. Harry doesn’t look mad, but I wonder if I’ve crossed a line. It’s okay to draw strangers and the people that know you intimately, but it’s with the in-betweens that things become stickier. Things with Harry are stickier than I’ve ever known them to be, and things inside me are sticky too. I can’t untangle my emotions no matter how much I tug. “But I’m having trouble. You don’t look the same.”

I don’t know what makes me say this. Maybe it’s the look on Harry’s face, like all he wants to do is listen to me speak. Maybe it’s because I know he’d never judge me, because he never has. This Harry is guarded, but I can tell that he’s just as big-hearted as he once was. So I say it, I acknowledge all the time that’s passed and the way it’s changed all the things I once knew best, and there’s a pause, and then Harry laughs.

“Sure I do,” he says, like it’s easy, like it’s nothing. Like all the time gone by hasn’t made him question everything. “Just… older.”

“Yeah,” I say, but I know that’s not it. It’s time that made Harry’s hair longer and put lines around his smile, but it also changed his head and heart in ways that I can’t see, ways that I don’t understand. My head and heart are different too, but Harry doesn’t seem concerned.

“You can draw me now, if you want,” he says. “To practice. For the book.” For the book, like it’s an afterthought, an excuse. Back when we loved each other, I drew Harry all the time, Harry sleeping, eating ice cream with a fork, lying naked in bed, playing his guitar, looking at me like I was an art thing when it’s always been him. He’s always been the art thing.

I can’t resist him now, the lines of his chin and curves of his cheeks, and I push my empty takeout containers away and reach for my sketchbook. Harry adjusts his position, kicking his long legs out in front of him and leaning back on the stool. Then he doesn’t move. He remembers this, I can tell – remembers all the times he posed for me without really posing. I always liked drawing him the most when he wasn’t paying attention.

On the page in front of me, I sketch out the lines of his shoulders and the shape of his face and fill in his hair. It’s his face where I pause, just like every other time I’ve tried to draw him this week. But this time, Harry’s right in front of me, so I keep going. I don’t let myself smudge away the facial features and hide the paper in my drawer. I work slowly, steadily, imagining the face as parts that make up a whole, the way I was taught years ago.

When I look up at Harry again, he’s staring at me the way I’ve been staring at him all evening. Like he’s trying to find meaning in the lines on my forehead and the curve of my neck. Is there meaning there? Maybe there’s just loneliness and the scars left behind after a broken heart heals. Harry’s mouth quirks, his first movement in ages, and I know he’s about to speak. He’s about to tell me why he’s here.

“I think we’re unfinished,” he says quietly. He looks at me like he knows I know he’s looking at me, and I know that whatever he says next, I won’t be able to lie to him. He can see straight through me. “I think we have unresolved feelings between us.”

“So we should resolve them.” I feel like I’m tiptoeing on a frozen pond. I look at Harry and I feel everything I’ve ever felt and everything I could ever feel, and I don’t know how to hold all of that inside of me, but I don’t know how to let it out. I wait for Harry’s reaction, afraid to move, afraid to breathe.

Finally, he says, “Or not.”

“Or not?” I repeat. I don’t understand.

“I don’t want them to go away,” he says. He looks at me, waiting for my reaction, but I don’t know how to react. I feel my blood hot in my veins and I’m afraid that if I touch Harry, I’ll scald him, but there’s nothing I want more in this moment than to feel his skin under my fingertips. “Jay, I compare every girl I meet to you. And I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” I say out loud. I’m starting to understand, to grasp the feelings that Harry’s describing, but I need him to say it.

He wrinkles his nose at me, and I wonder for the briefest of seconds if he’s putting me on. If he’s going to walk out in a few minutes and I’ll never see him again. If this is truly the end. But I know that Harry would never do that to me. I know enough of him, past, present, and future, to know that.

“I want to figure out what this thing is that’s between us,” he says, looking at me pointedly. I want to nod, to agree, but I’ve forgotten how to move. He’s rehearsed this, I can tell, but I haven’t rehearsed anything. All I’ve done is think myself in circles and hide my feelings in a closet. “Jay, do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow night?”

“I–” I swallow down the words, whatever they were. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to feel. Harry looks at me, his mouth caught between a frown and a smile, like he’s prepared both for the occasion of my response.

But I can’t focus. Running through my mind are all the times Harry’s smiled at me, and all the times he’s frowned. I know if he smiled at me now it wouldn’t be the same. So many more things have made him smile since I knew him, and if he smiled at me now, I’d be able to see them all in the lines beside his mouth and the wrinkles next to his eyes.

I let my eyes drop down to the page, where I’ve recreated the slope of his shoulders and the angle of his arms crossed over his chest. I adjust the way his hair falls over his face so that I can’t see his mouth. Harry, the real Harry, the one sitting right in front of me, doesn’t say anything, but I can feel his question hanging in the air between us. I wonder if he’ll push me.

“What are you so afraid of?” he used to say to me, just before grabbing my hand and pulling me across the street even though the sign said don’t walk. “It’s just life,” he’d say as cars sped past us and horns honked and I looked at him and fell deeper in love.

Just life. This is just life, and it’s a moment that could change everything. I lift my pencil to sign and date the drawing, but I hold myself back. I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready for the moment to end.

“Jay?” Harry says softly. I look up to see that he’s still caught between a smile and a frown, and I know that I can’t leave him hanging any longer.

“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” I say. I sign my name to the uncompleted drawing and slide it across the table toward him. I watch it sit on the table untouched. Harry doesn’t pick it up.

I’m afraid to look up at him, afraid to see the frown that I know he’s now displaying. I don’t want to disappoint him. I used to be so afraid of disappointing Harry, so afraid of letting him down. “It’s just life,” he’d say, and I was 19 and glass-hearted and I clung to him like if I held tight enough, nothing would ever change.

But things have to change. And I can’t stay in this moment forever. I take a deep breath and look up at Harry, and when our eyes meet, he smiles gently.

“Are you mad?” I ask him. I feel 19 again, heart aflutter for a new boy and an unfamiliar city. Except this boy isn’t new, and outside the window is a city I’ve known forever.

“Of course not,” Harry says. “I want us both to be ready.”

I nod like I understand, though I’m not sure that I do. When I push the drawing toward Harry again, he shakes his head. I think of the first time I drew him, when he asked for the drawing and I wouldn’t let him have it. This is a new kind of first drawing.

“I’ll call you,” he says when I walk him out. “Really.” I believe him this time. He squeezes my arm and disappears out into the bright Los Angeles evening. My skin feels warm, like I’m standing outside in the summer, and I watch him go and know that I’ll see him again.

When I get home, my memory box waits on the dining table where I left it this morning, but I don’t touch it.

In my room, I go to my jewelry box and reach into its depths for the necklace. It doesn’t weigh much on my palm, and the words inscribed onto the charm’s surface are barely visible under the grime of time. I rub at it with my thumb, eager to read it even though I already know what it says. “Heaven is a place I know,” the small, gold-colored disk reads. As I look at it, I remember reading the words out when I first received the necklace.

“Heaven’s wherever I’m with you,” Harry’d said, grinning. Then he’d held out his hand for the necklace and gestured for me to turn around so he could fasten it around my neck. I felt his warm fingers on my skin and leaned back into him a little bit, and it felt like heaven then. It was too soon for a present like that, words like that, too early in our relationship, but Harry was never much for unspoken rules.

He still isn’t. Tonight, I don’t put the necklace back in the jewelry box and shut the lid. Instead, I lay it flat on my dresser, where I can see it.


hisdenimshirt said: i keep mementos too. i don’t think it’s overly sentimental. it’s human, isn’t it? to try to hold onto the past. it’s what we build our presents out of.

chocolatewaffles said: this fucker bought you a fake gold necklace. ditch him, j.

anonymous said: how’d you know that you were in love? how do you know you’re not still in love?