A History in Rust

four. can't bleed you out

march 3, 2016

I wasn’t too sure about sharing this with you, because it hurt to write it. Sometimes you write something and it’s really just for you, for early quiet mornings when you’re looking to cry or for moments of 3 AM insomnia. It’s more about the process, the way it hurts to pull the words out from deep within, than it is about what it looks like afterward. I don’t know what this looks like. I’m having trouble seeing clearly. Maybe you can tell me.

Dear H,

I had a dream about you last night. You wrapped your arms around me and I felt surrounded by you and protected, safe. “You’re the love of my life,” you said, and when I woke up, the impossibility weighed on my chest and leaked from my eyes. You’d never say something like that out loud. That’s how I knew it was a dream. In dreams, there are no consequences for the things you say, but in real life, time goes on, and then there’s always the past to contend with.

I didn’t call you after it ended because I knew it’d hurt to much to acknowledge that maybe we let this thing between us go because we didn’t know how to keep it alive anymore. We looked away and closed our eyes because it hurt to keep watching. Now we’ve said our apologies out loud, I’m sorry you’re sorry, but I know it’s going to take longer to feel them. Longer to forgive ourselves for letting this thing get away from us.

There’s this fear in my gut when I look at you now, and it’s all the feelings I’ve ever felt for you tying themselves into knots that I’m not sure I’ll ever untangle. Just like you and me: we tied our hearts in a knot and I tugged and tugged and all I got were sore fingers. Can you feel it? Can you feel it?

Love (always),


Can you feel it? Sometimes writing feels like turning myself inside out, trying to get at something buried deep beneath my flesh. It’s the same with art, but you can’t tell, because when you look, all you see is the finished product. You can’t see how many times I smudged out his face because I couldn’t get the details right. Will I ever get them right?

- J


I wake up the morning after I told Harry no with a pounding in my head like I haven’t slept at all, though I know I got at least three hours in between the minutes I spent staring wide-eyed at the blackness of my ceiling, wondering if the thing clawing its way around my stomach was regret. I wake up with a pounding in my head and a ringing in my ears – a ringing that, I quickly realize, is coming from my phone.

“Hello?” I suck the spit out of my mouth and swallow it, attempting to alleviate the dryness in my throat. I blink, and a memory I’d forgotten pops into my head: Harry, age 19, standing in the doorway of my bedroom with a towel around his waist, telling me a joke about a duck and a beaver that was so unfunny that I laughed just so he wouldn’t feel bad. A memory – I know it’s a memory, but I wonder if maybe I didn’t dream it.

“Miss Walker, good morning.” The voice is crisp, the accent sharp, and I hold in a sigh as I rub the sleep out of my eyes. It’s much too early for this. “This is Cook Miller. Are you aware of your approaching deadline?”

“Yeah, yes. Two weeks, right?” Two weeks to finish the book, which means two weeks to sort out the ending. Does that mean two weeks to figure out me and Harry, too?

“Two weeks,” Cook repeats. “I’d like to see what you’ve been working on. Can I come by the studio this afternoon?”

Though Cook phrases it as a question, I know that “no” is not an option. Cook is the kind of woman that people do not say no to. “Yes, of course,” I say.

“Good. I’m looking forward to it,” she says, and then she hangs up.

The thing in my stomach is gone, replaced by a raging headache. This is an impossible deadline. I think I knew that when I signed the contract, but I’ve always believed I could do the impossible. Maybe that’s why I never told Harry goodbye: I never actually believed he’d leave. And he never really did.

When I get to the studio and push open the door, Jamie is waiting for me. There’s a piece of paper in her hand, and I don’t have to look at it to know what it is.

“What is this?” she asks, holding it out to me, her voice full of accusation.

“Exactly what it looks like.” I don’t take my sunglasses off as I cross the studio, as if they’ll somehow keep the fluorescents from making my headache worse. Maybe I’ll tell Jamie I’m hungover. A hangover would be better than this, than these words circling around my mind like they’re on a merry-go-round: Was last night my only chance? Did I let it go? Did I let him go again?

“It looks like Harry Styles live-modeled for you last night,” Jamie says, following me into the back room.

“Exactly what it looks like, like I said.” I always put my pencils point-up in a cup when I’m cleaning up, but I didn’t last night, and they lay scattered across the table, next to the empty take-out containers, reminding me how quickly I left. Harry’s presence lingered in the room even after he’d gone, and I wasn’t eager to hang around. I remember the way Harry’s hand felt on my arm as he said goodbye, a goodbye that wasn’t forever – it felt like I was 19 again, like my heart was on fire with feelings it’s never been big enough to handle. Everything is just where we left it last night, the chopsticks lying beside the take-out boxes and the drawings for my book pushed aside to make space for my elbows while I drew Harry, and all the feelings come rushing back.

Jamie holds that drawing now, and she looks at me like she did back when we first met, like she knows something about me that I haven’t realized yet. When we met a year ago, I was teaching art classes at a community center twice a week and wrangling kids at a Boys and Girls Club the other three days, and I couldn’t afford my share of the rent on the apartment I was sharing with Jake. Every night I dreamt of floor to ceiling windows and thought up a thousand ways to tell Jake I didn’t love him the way I wanted to. In the end, he was the one who left, and Jamie got me the windows.

The studio was her idea, though she always says it’s mine. There’s space for her workspace, when she’s ready for it. But I know that’s a big step, when you stop being an artist’s assistant and start trying to make it as an artist in your own right. It’s bigger than signing your name to the corner of a drawing. It’s signing your name where everyone can see it.

“C'mere.” I spread out the plan for the book so that Jamie can look at it. She steps up beside me and I remain quiet while she reads. I try not to watch her face, but it’s hard to look away. She’s the first one to see the book–besides Harry–and I want to know what she thinks of it. Jamie’s not just one of my best friends – she’s a fellow artist, and her opinion means more to me than my own. Just when I’m satisfied that I won’t have to say anything to explain it, her brow furrows.

“I don’t get it,” she says.

I drop my gaze to the book – the unfinished book, loose sheets of paper covered in smeared ink and my scrawled handwriting and a mess of untangled emotions. “Don’t get what?”

“Well, why’s it matter?” She shuffles the papers around, her fingertips landing on the panel where Jennah meets Harry. “Everybody has their heart broken sometime. Why’s yours matter?”

“I don’t think I understand.” I take off my sunglasses now and the fluorescent lights mix with the sun leaking in through the skylights. My eyes water.

“I mean, what’d it mean, the heartbreak?”

“Does all pain have to mean something?” It seems strange to put it that way, to turn the feeling of the cold porcelain bathtub against my skin as I cried into something as simple as “pain.” So strange to make a feeling into something so small as words.

Jamie shrugs. “It should at least be useful.”

Useful. What did I take from the months I spent reassembling my heart, left ventricle, right ventricle, aorta? Just the knowledge that I could.

“What if it isn’t?” I ask her. She’s already half way across the room, though I hadn’t even realized she’d moved. “What if it’s not useful? Or meaningful?”

Jamie looks at me over her shoulder and I can tell from the frown that’s making wrinkles on her forehead that she doesn’t know any more than I do. “Then maybe it’s not over,” she says.

I swallow her words and go back to my book. I know it’s not over between me and Harry – I knew that the moment I saw him in Starbucks, even if I couldn’t admit it to myself. And I wonder now, as I look at last night’s drawing, left behind on the table by Jamie, if it’ll ever be over.

But I don’t want it to hurt again. I told myself after our last goodbye that I was done with painful love. It’s not worth it when nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever, so I go back to the beginning: the very first panel, high school graduation, tasseled caps sailing through the air. It takes several sheets of scrap paper to get a feel for high school Jennah, her do-it-yourself side bangs hiding one eye and short, bitten nails. She feels far away. Conjuring her up is like playing Operation – my heart buzzes whenever I get too close to something I don’t want to remember. I had my first kiss when I was 16, standing on the corner of my street with my eyes squeezed shut tight. That famous LA smog hung over my head and blanketed the stars: the dark night was lit only by the streetlamps and our four bright eyes. He never spoke to me again, and the tummy-turning embarrassment of it lingers there in the corner of cartoon Jennah’s mouth like a secret.

Of course, it’s not a secret, that kiss or the miniature heartbreak that followed, because I showed it on my blog months ago, interwoven with images of a group of girls I saw taking prom pictures at the park around the corner from the studio. I wondered when I saw them if we pretend that high school is the best time we’ll ever have to make us forget how disappointed we are in our adult selves.

I smudge high school Jennah’s hair with my thumb and push the page aside. High school Jennah feels a thousand years away: she’s from before Harry, before a boy who laughs like the light dug a gulf in my heart deep enough that it felt like, feels like, I might never fill it. Last night Harry looked at me like he thinks he’s the answer, like he thinks he can answer all of my questions and like I can answer all of his. But I don’t have any answers, and it seems as if Jamie doesn’t have any either. She only has more questions. What’s a broken heart for if not to teach you something? If not to leave you stronger than you were before?

High school Jennah throws her graduation cap into the air and as it soars she thinks about the future, imagines a curator job at a famous museum like the Met or the Getty, imagines a labrador retriever with an ever-wagging tail and a faceless husband with good hair and a nice car and large, gentle hands, and I know now that it was all a lie, built from the stories my city sells me in movies and television shows and the photos on magazine covers. I wonder if I had the chance to go back in time, would I tell her? Would I tell high school Jennah that heartbreak isn’t like in the movies? That it sticks to you like gum in your ponytail, that it makes you hate places and things you once loved, peppermint gum and the exhilaration of crossing the street when the sign says don’t walk, and yourself.

Somehow I know that I wouldn’t. That would break her heart, not the way that love breaks it, but permanently all the same. She would build a shield around herself and I know – I know that heartbreak is only possible because of the big, consuming love that comes before it. I can’t protect high school Jennah from that – and I don’t want to.

I can’t protect her either from the prying eyes of my editor, who arrives after lunch with her hair pinned tightly to the top of her head in a way that makes her cheeks looked pinched and her nose even pointier than I remembered it.

I hover behind her as she sits at my worktable and looks through the pages of my book. I felt weary about calling it a book until this moment, like I wasn’t worthy of the title, but as Cook turns the pages, I start to imagine it, bound and covered and sitting on the shelf of some teenage girl who, like me, was always told that comics were for boys but dreamed in technicolor panels anyway.

But then Cook breaks my heart in a way that Harry never could. And it only takes her five words.

“Are you sure about this?” she asks. She sets the stack of pages down on the table and taps it with a sharp fingernail. “Are you sure that this is the message you want to send?”

“What message is that?” I square my shoulders, immediately defensive. This woman doesn’t know me. She only knows paper Jennah, whose emotions are simplified down into bite-size pieces for a general audience with the assistance of the clarity of hindsight.

“That this boy is the most important thing that’s ever happened to you.”

This boy. My jaw drops. “I don’t–”

Cook holds up a hand. “Listen, Jennah. You’re very bright and I’m not an artist, so I can’t sit here and tell you how to be one. But I was 23 once. And I know that this boy – or any boy – they aren’t what make you you. You’re not the artist that you are today because some boy said he liked your drawings. You’re the artist today because of you.”

I can’t do anything but blink at her. Do I really believe that I’m an artist because of Harry? If I’d never met him, would I be a high school history teacher instead, or in grad school getting a masters, or backpacking across Europe while putting off the real world? Those are impossible questions: I will never know what my life might’ve been like had Harry never entered it, and it’s not worth considering. What if’s get you nowhere.

“Jennah, this is good stuff, it really is,” Cook says, tapping the stack again. “But this is the story of Jennah and Harry. And I want the story of Jennah.”

I swallow, trying to push down the lump in my throat that always precedes tears. “Right,” I say, “okay.”

“Okay?” Cook repeats.

“Yeah, okay.” I force a nod, though my neck feels stiff with fear. Over Cook’s shoulder, I see a head peak around the corner – it’s Harry. We never did have great timing.

“This isn’t a bad book,” Cook is saying, but my mind is already elsewhere, scrambling for a foothold in the absence of solid ground. Maybe I should just let this book deal go. Maybe it’s not the right time – “it’s just not what I want to publish. And I don’t think it’s what you want to publish either.”

I look down at paper Jennah and I tell myself that I’m stronger than her, that my heart isn’t made of paper or fragile glass, that I can stand up tall and proud and loud and on my own. That wasn’t always true – it isn’t true of paper Jennah, and it hasn’t been true of me lately, as I’ve let myself be consumed by the past, instead of thinking about the future – or, more importantly, the present.

“No, it’s not,” I tell Cook, finally looking her in the eye. She smiles. “You’re right. It’s not what I want.”

When Cook leaves minutes later, it’s with a satisfied smile on her face and my promise of new pages by the end of the week. I gather up all the pages on my table into a neat pile, tapping it on the desk to align the edges, and then I dump it unceremoniously in the trash can. All of it’s no good to me now, just like all the drawings I’ve done of Harry’s face, trying to get the sweep of his cheekbones and the shape of his nose right, won’t get me any closer to understanding the real thing. This is what I’m facing now: a blank sheet of paper and a dull pencil, and a future that I can’t see clearly with a boy I don’t understand.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

I hear his voice, and I’m not surprised that he’s here. Where else would he be? This is the next moment in our story, the next panel on the page. Except this isn’t the story I’m working to tell right now.

I focus on the whiteness of the paper on my table, allowing it to overtake my field of vision until it becomes blurry and my eyes water. “What are you doing here, Harry?”

“Wanted to see you,” he says. My eyes forced shut, I don’t see him walk across the room toward me, but I sense him in only the way that two bodies who have known each other’s every inch can sense each other.

“Harry–” I open my eyes and there he is, so real in front of me, so much more real than anything I’ve ever been able to make on paper. He looks at me and I forget what I was going to say, but I remember that he’s always been able to do this to me, make me reconsider everything I thought I knew and reevaluate it all wondering if I’ve spent every moment since I first opened my eyes waiting for him.

“Why’d you bin those?” he asks. He reaches into the trash can and scoops the papers out like it’s nothing, and anger surges in my veins. Harry is not the reason for my art. Harry is not the reason that I breathe – though sometimes I wonder if he’s the reason that I want to.

“They’re no good,” I say. I look away from him, out the window at the alleyway, at the ceiling, across the room to the bulletin board where I’ve tacked up a calendar and a Wallace and Gromit postcard that my dad sent me. I look anywhere but at Harry, who I know is looking at me with a face awash with confusion.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “Jay, your drawings are great. You’re being published. Why are you throwing them out? Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted to do?”

I don’t know what to say. I look up at him and my skin blazes red-hot. I don’t understand this, don’t understand the feelings swirling around my stomach. I don’t understand why it is that when I look at Harry I see every feeling I’ve ever felt and everything I ever might feel, and the biggest feeling of all is fear.

“You should go,” I say. “I need to work on this, you shouldn’t be here.”

He’s hurt now. I can feel it, though I don’t look at him. I can feel it coursing through the air between us like a wave of something molten. This feeling burns you when you get too close.

“What is it you’re afraid of, Jay?” he asks, and the nickname that I once loved stings me sharp in the chest. I’m afraid and he knows it – he knows it like he’s always known my heart almost as well as he knows his own.

“You need to go.” I don’t look at him as I say it. I don’t want to see the way I’m hurting him, but I know that I have to. I can’t answer his question right now. It hurts too much to think about. “Please don’t call me.” I’ll call you. I can’t manage to say it out loud, so I say it to myself, to ease the feeling of my heart splitting inside my chest.

I hate myself as I watch him go. He gapes at me for a second before he drops my trash pages on the table and spins on his heel and leaves as quietly as he came, his departure marked only by the jingling of the bell on the front door as it shuts behind him. And then I’m alone with my thoughts. Regret begins to form, but I push it away. There’s no room for that now, no room for what if’s and question marks. I have a deadline.

This boy isn’t what makes you, you, Cook said to me. Who am I? Who is Jennah? That, I know now, is the question that I have to answer. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, imagining my mind as a giant dry erase board, wiped clean with a wide sweep of my arm. Who is Jennah? I ask myself, and the answer comes to me, clear and sharp and in the form of six year-old Jennah, who spent her entire summer drawing her favorite cartoon characters on her parents’ driveway in sidewalk chalk.

What I draw this time is visually simpler, but more narratively complex. I know how time works now, and I know how to undo it, pull it apart and move it around and put it all back together. I draw now a history of Jennah, and it’s a history in vivid colors, greens and purples and blues, and it’s a story of conquering fears and breaking away and healing and learning how to tell a story. The story of Jennah and Harry was one that I needed to draw for me, but the story of Jennah is the one worth telling.

I draw all night. The pencil becomes a part of me, an extra appendage with a direct link to my brain. When the sun comes up yellow and pink through the blinds, I know I’ve finished. There is charcoal smeared across my face and dust in my lungs, but I’ve drawn what I needed to.


hisdenimshirt said: beautiful words. but we’re not the ones who you should be telling them to.

anonymous said: maybe it’s not about the details. you use too many metaphors.

second_wish said: hey j, love your blog. maybe try melatonin for that insomnia issue. really helped me after my last breakup. regret and all that. best of luck.