A History in Rust

five. everything that happens is from now on

march 15, 2016

Today I did my laundry, and I found an old, water-worn ticket stub in the back pocket of a pair of jeans. It’s one of those things I held onto because I thought it meant something, but here’s what means more: the memories associated with it. Memories of falling in love, losing it, putting it all back together again. That’s why we make memory boxes: to prove to ourselves that these things happened to us, we survived them, and we’re here now. And on and on.

I don’t think that you can separate your life into acts. My teens, my twenties, it all spills over. I am a Jackson Pollock of every feeling I’ve ever felt, colors layered on top of each other, all spilling together. My story didn’t end the day my heart broke in two, and it didn’t end the day Harry came back into my life. My story’s ending has yet to be written. And that’s the way it should be.

So, reader, I give you this, my past, my present, my future. They are separate and they are the same, and they are always there, in every moment of every day. My story would be incomplete without them.

This isn’t a love story. It’s a life story, but an incomplete one. I’m still working on the ending.

– J


“This is great, Jennah,” Cook is saying, smiling like I’ve never seen her as she flips through my recent pages. “This is exactly what we’re looking for.”

She smiles at me and I know that I should feel elated: in a rush of mad artist energy, I finished the book. I managed to find the ending I’ve been struggling with for so long, the kind of ending that feels final but still open, like there’s still more story to tell, but you feel okay that you’ve reached the last page because paper Jennah is okay. Paper Jennah is okay, and real Jennah is okay too, but she knows there’s something missing.

I know there’s something missing because when I close my eyes all I see is Harry’s back, walking away from me like I never wanted to see again, and I hear my own voice echoing like church bells: “please don’t call me.” It wasn’t a mistake – I know that I needed the space to find my story, to tell it the way it needed to be told – but now I don’t know how to fix it. I pushed Harry away because he was clouding my mind, but now that the stress of finishing the book is gone, he’s back, rain clouds thundering across my every thought.

“I’ll be in touch soon,” Cook says, securing the pages I gave her into a folder and sweeping out of my studio as quickly as she arrived.

I touch the necklace around my neck, the fake gold, heartbreak necklace, and wonder what I’m supposed to do now. Everything feels upside down: I’m wearing the necklace like it’s not a lie that I’ve spent the past month staring at as it sat on top of my dresser, and I’ve pushed away the only boy I ever wanted to stay, and I don’t know what to do without my book.

My studio suddenly feels too big, like it’s filled with too much air. Jamie has the day off and the silence of the place swirls around me, consumes me. I busy myself cleaning off my worktable, putting away all the drafts in the filing cabinet and organizing my pencils and wiping off months of charcoal off the surface. I find the receipt from the Thai food buried under some papers, and I picture Harry here, eating from the carton and sitting completely still so that I could draw him, but the memory is interrupted by the one of him leaving. Leaving me once again, and me once again letting him go.

I itch suddenly to talk about it, to seek forgiveness for the mistakes I’ve made, but I know I’m not ready to talk to Harry yet. I feel it in my heart that I’m not ready. So I call Beth instead.

“Harry’s back.”

There’s a moment of silence before Beth speaks, her voice crackling through the phone line from far away to reach me where I sit in the studio, running my fingers over the necklace around my neck.

When Beth answered the phone, I tried for a how are you? or how are the wedding plans? but all I could manage to get out is, “Harry’s back.” It’s the news I’ve been meaning to tell her for weeks, and I tell myself that I’m only letting her know now because I’ve been too busy to call, but I know it’s because of something else. It’s because it’s taken me this long to figure out why he’s here.

“Oh, yeah?” she finally says. Her voice is soft, gentle, and I’m back in a rundown sedan, hurtling down a highway in the middle of nowhere as Britney Spears blasts through the stereo. We practically lived on melted Hershey’s bars that summer. “Where’s your head at, Jen?”

“Confused. I’m confused, but in a good way.”

Beth hums. “Does he want anything from you?”

Beth never really understood how it was with me and Harry. She couldn’t understand, because she never saw it. She only saw the aftermath, my shattered glass heart and how every other word I spoke was coated in a layer of bitterness so thick that the meaning was lost. Her words rub me the wrong way: only in my darkest, saddest moments did I ever think that Harry was using me back then, and I know that he’s not using me now.

“He wants something with me,” I tell her.

“If I want it too.”

“And do you?” This is the million dollar question, the one with no clear answer. I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I pushed Harry away this time. All I ever wanted was for him to stay, and instead I told him to go.

“I don’t think I can help you figure that out, Jen,” Beth says.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Not a revelation, but a hint, maybe, as to which direction is the way forward. It’s forward that I need to go, not back.

“What was it that you loved about Harry before?” Beth asks. The question surprises me – doesn’t she know? Didn’t we spend hours and hours analyzing every moment I ever spent with Harry, trying to turn him into the bad guy? I wanted so badly for him to be the villain so that I could walk away clean–a victim, but clean–but I know now that we were both at fault.

And as I look at the drawing of Harry spread across the table in front of me, I know that Beth’s not asking for her. She’s asking for me.

“His smile,” I say, picturing it, all teeth and joy. “His sense of humor. His open heartedness. His sense of adventure.” The way his body felt curled around mine, like a shield, like a warm sweater, like a second skin. The way his hum, pressed against my skin, snaked its way through my veins like a jolt of electricity. I don’t say these things aloud, but I remember them, and suddenly I long for them again.

I told myself after Harry that I was done with painful love, with emotions so big and strong they choke the heart and so bright that they flicker out fast as fireflies. When I was 19, all I wanted was a love like the ones in the movies, a love for the ages, the stuff of legends, but now I know the truth about feelings so big they touch you deep inside – they can disappear just as quickly as they come. And when they leave, they leave you raw and they leave you empty, and in their place, a coldness that says, no, no, never, not again.

But I think of Harry and trace my fingers over the lines of his cartoon frame, and I know that it was more than big, flickering feelings for me and him. It was little ones, too, and small moments and minute glances and the feeling of his hand holding mine, all of it saying, “safe safe safe.”

“Has any of that changed?” Beth asks me now. “All those things you loved about Harry?”

“I don’t know,” I say. Harry and I have been tiptoeing around each other – or maybe that’s just me. He’s been completely open with me, and I’m the one who’s been too afraid of what might break.

“Maybe that’s what you need to find out.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

When I look at Harry, all I see is change – I see the man who became of the boy I once knew, and it’s so overwhelming that I can’t focus on the details. I lose the familiar smile beneath the long hair, the bright eyes beneath the heavy sunglasses. But when I close my eyes and imagine him, I see the Harry I drew in my studio last night, dark circles under his eyes and shirt unbuttoned too low and unspoken words in the corner of his mouth. I don’t see the Harry from so long ago, the one I once thought of as mine. That Harry is nothing more than a memory now.

So I call him. “I’ll call you,” I said, and though my fingers shake as I pull up his number, I hit dial anyway. “What is it you’re so afraid of?” he’d said, and now I know the answer.

“Are you going to leave again?” I ask when he answers. Are we doomed to repeat the past?

“Jay? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I say. I try not to let my voice shake. “Answer the question. Are you going to leave again?”

There’s a pause, five, ten, fifteen seconds. They tick by slowly as I pick at a hangnail on my thumb and wonder why I’m so afraid now of something I was never afraid of when we first met. Or was it his leaving then that’s made me so afraid that it might happen again now?

“Is that what you’re afraid of?” he asks, his voice on the edge of laughter. If he laughs at me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll scream, I’ll cry, I’ll hang up and throw my phone across the room. Or maybe I’ll take a deep breath and hold on for another second. “That I’m going to leave again?”

“I don’t know why you’re here, Harry,” I say, and now I’m crying. I wipe at my eyes and clear my throat so that Harry won’t know. “You haven’t told me what you’re doing in Los Angeles or how long you’re staying. There’s so much we haven’t talked about.”

“So let’s talk,” he says. “I’m here because my last breakup, you know why we broke up? She cheated on me, and I’m sure you know that, because it was all over the tabloids. But what nobody knows is that I was cheating on her too, with you–”


“I haven’t been able to get you out of my head,” he says, not letting me interrupt. His voice rumbles low and deep over the phone line, and I feel it in my bones. Back when I spent nights curled in Harry’s arms, I used to dream of ways to bottle his voice and wear it around my neck, pressed close to my skin. “I haven’t forgotten you, not for one second, and I never regretted you. The only thing I’ve ever regretted is leaving you.”

He pauses, but I don’t say anything. I realize as these words spill out of him like a current to the ocean that they are the words he’s been holding back all along. I’ve said my piece, and now it’s his turn.

“And I’m here because we broke up, my band, and I needed something new, and because Gemma’s getting married and it’s hell at home, and because whenever I close my eyes, all I see is you.”

The words hang there, heavy and impatient, and I wish suddenly that Harry’d said them to my face so that I could see in his eyes how letting them out felt for him. Harry’s always been good with words, with charming hostesses into giving us the best table in an overbooked restaurant and making me blush at the worst possible times, but he’s also always been good at reading his own heart. He’s as good at reading his own heart as I am bad at reading mine.


“Yeah, I’m here.” I feel breathless, and as I struggle for words, I reach for the paper and pencil in front of me. My hand moves almost on its own, helping me detangle my thoughts. “So you’re not leaving then?”

He laughs, a half-laugh, half-sigh, the kind filled with relief. “Not unless you want me to.”

I know he’s joking, but the thought makes me freeze. “No, that’s not what I want.” And then I say what I couldn’t four years ago. “Please stay with me.”

“Will you come for a ride with me?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Okay.” I think of Beth’s question and long suddenly to run my hands over Harry’s body and mind and find what I love about him, old and new. Love – I think the word easily, and it scares me, but not enough to make me want to run away.

Harry arrives just as the sun is setting. He meets me at the studio door and walks me to his car. I wave goodbye to Jamie over my shoulder and smile at him, but I’m afraid to speak. The anxiety of a thousand questions bubbles in my in my stomach like boiling water. I imagine steam coming out of my ears. I’m full of hot air, a thousand jumbled, masked emotions escaping, finally.

When we get to the car, a mild SUV, nothing like the flashy, exotic sports cars that Harry used to love, there’s a bouquet of flowers sitting on the passenger’s seat. Bright, bright purples and blues, shades I’m surprised to find in nature whenever I encounter them. They are just as shocking now, and not just for their color.

“Are those for me?” I ask as Harry opens the door. He nods, and I step forward to pick them up. I touch the petals gingerly, as if the color might rub off on my fingers. “You’ve never given me flowers before.”

“I didn’t do a lot of things before,” he says. Like say goodbye. He clears his throat, clears away the memory, and the sound runs through my veins deep and heavy. I cradle the flowers in the crook of my arm and wait. “Don’t you want to know what they mean?”

“Sure, okay. What do they mean?” They’re hyacinths, I think, not carnations or roses or gerbera daisies. They are special, and my stomach turns, already imagining their slow and inevitable death.

“Beginnings,” Harry says. The word rings in my ear, but before I can react, Harry’s gone, walking around the car to the other side.

So I follow. I get in through the open door and buckle my seatbelt and hold the flowers on my lap, afraid to put them on the floor, where my feet might hasten their expiration date. Harry smiles at me but doesn’t say anything, and then his eyes are on the road, concentrating on taking us out of downtown and onto the freeway.

“Where are we going?” I ask him, but he shakes his head.

“It’s a surprise,” he says. The first time he ever surprised me, he got tickets for a helicopter tour of London. I was petrified, squeezing his hand too tight the whole time, and moments after we landed, I vomited into a trash can.

“Is it going to make me throw up?” I ask. I worry for a second that he won’t remember, that he’ll think I’m silly or gross, but then he grins.

“I hope not,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “We’re not going up quite that high.”

“Hmm.” I lean back in my seat and look at the other drivers moving around us on the freeway. Are they going home at the end of a long workday, eager to see their families and kids? Maybe they work the night shift, and their day is just beginning. Or maybe the end of their journey isn’t in sight yet – maybe they’re just passing through.

I’ve always thought it strange that people come to Los Angeles on vacation. Los Angeles has never been a destination for me: it’s been home. It’s cookie-cutter houses and manicured lawns and spray tan salons and strip mall sushi joints, and my mom’s warm hugs and my dad’s loud belly laugh. Los Angeles is spread thin across miles and miles of coastline and hills and all the space in between, and though it barely has a geographical center, for me its heart has always been in a mid-century split-level off of Sepulveda.

“Have you been here before?” Harry asks me as he turns into a small parking lot.

“No,” I say. In front of us is a park, and in the distance, downtown LA, the sunset glinting off of its glass buildings.

“This is one of my favorite places in the city,” Harry says as he turns off the engine. “I’ve been to a lot of parks, but this one’s the best.”

“Why do you say that?” Harry’s traveled the world. He’s been to Asia, South America, all over Europe – and this is the best park he’s ever seen?

“You’ll see.” He gestures with his hand for me to follow him out of the car. I leave the flowers on the seat.

We walk through the parking lot and onto a paved path, which leads us into the park. Its fields are dotted with trees and dogs playing fetch with their owners. This is not a tourist park: this is a place for locals, and I can’t help but wonder how Harry found it.

“So you’ve been in LA a lot, then?” I ask, glancing at him as we walk.

“A bit,” he says. “I’ve got a house here that I rent.”

“Right.” My brain tells me that I knew this, that I read it in a tabloid a while back, below pictures of Harry leaving some hip restaurant in Hollywood, but maybe I never truly understood what it meant – that Harry and I’ve been in the same city, sharing the same space before, and it took us this long to find our way back to each other.

As if reading my mind, Harry says, “I’m sorry I never called you before. But I wasn’t ready. Or I thought I was over you.” He shakes his head and runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “It was weird, you know? I was with Daphne for so long and I thought she was the one and then – she wasn’t. And my mind kept going back to you.”

His ex-girlfriend, the famous model he dated for nearly a year and a half. I saw their relationship go down in flames alongside the rest of the grocery store checkout line, none of us able to look away. But I know that none of that matters now.

“I thought I was over you, too,” I say, an amended version of what I’ve always told myself. Now I know better. Now I see clearer.

Harry steps closer to me, his shoulder brushing against mine. “But you’re not?“

“I’m not.”

We don’t say anything else as we walk through the park. I try to focus on my surroundings, on this little bit of nature within the concrete city, but all I can think about is Harry. I want to move closer, to feel the warmth of him against my skin, but I’m scared of the jump. Harry leads me to the edge of the park, where we sit down on a bench. Downtown LA spreads out before us, monstrous and metal and beautiful in its way. Sometimes when I draw Los Angeles it’s a city of labyrinthine varicose veins and it’s clogged by congestion, but it is beautiful in its way. In so many ways it’s home to so many, among them the man sitting beside me right now.

I look from the skyline of downtown to Harry, who meets my eyes.

“You like it?” he asks. When I nod, his eyes light up. “I knew you would.”

I smile and turn away from him, back to the city. Los Angeles changes and it doesn’t change, just like Harry. I spent four years outside the city, and when I returned, the things I loved about it were still there. And the same goes for Harry: my heart beats faster for his smile and my body longs to feel his touch. I can answer Beth’s question now. The things I once loved are still here, and so are the feelings.

“Do you remember where we were when I told you I loved you?” Harry asks after a few minutse. I look at his hands sitting still on his lap. Harry has never been nervous about feelings. I’ve always been jealous of that.

“Sure I do,” I say. Oxford at Christmastime, an absolute madhouse. But it was an experience, Harry’d said, that I had to have. I hated every minute of it, up until Harry pulled me into the doorway of Madewall and sheltered me from the wind with his body and said, “I love you,” like it wasn’t something I already knew or felt too.

But I don’t say any of that out loud. Instead I say, “Oxford Street at Christmas time.” I watch Harry’s mouth quirk as he relives the memory.

“Yeah,” he says. “But that isn’t where I wanted to tell you. I wanted it to be somewhere more special, in Kensington Gardens or just before a shag or something. But I thought too hard about it for days, and then I couldn’t wait any longer.” His hands clench into fists in his lap. I wish I was as familiar with their language as I once was.

“You know I never cared about any of that,” I say. “Grand romantic gestures and things like that.”

Harry shrugs, the weight of this regret heavy on his shoulders. “I guess I knew that, but after our first kiss was so–”

I laugh at the memory, Loren stumbling into us in the dimly lit hallway, tripping over herself in her intoxicated state.

Harry smiles slightly before continuing. “As soon as I said it, I wished I could take it back. Not because I didn’t feel it–it was the biggest feeling I’d ever felt–but because I didn’t say it the way I wanted to.”

I want to reach out and grab his hand and press it to my heart so that he can read with his fingertips that my scars have healed. You didn’t break me, I want to say. And I want to feel that his scars have healed too. But instead I say, “That doesn’t matter, Harry. Then or now. That moment was special and it meant something, and I’m going to remember it forever. Not that we were at Oxford Street and it was freezing and loud, but that you said you loved me. That’s the important part.

“How do you decide which parts are the important ones?”

“You don’t decide. You just know.”

I forget about the view before us as I look at Harry. This is an important moment: just after sunset on a bench in Vista Hermosa Park, I reach across the vast space between us and take Harry’s hand. He looks at me, surprised, and then he smiles, and for a second it feels too easy, too fast. But I know that none of that matters, because it feels right.

And it feels right when, as we walk back to his car with our hands entwined, I look up at him and ask him back to mine for drinks. I feel energy sparking between us as we weave through the city as it grows dark around us. We weave our own path, one that’s just for us. Los Angeles is new when I see it with Harry by my side. It’s new and it’s home and it’s what I’ve been waiting for.

In my apartment, the box of memories sits on the dining table. Every morning for the past few weeks I’ve walked past it and considered throwing the things inside it away. What good is preserving a lost past when the future is wide open right in front of you? But when Harry eyes it as soon as we walk in, I don’t pull him away from it. Maybe this is something that we need to do together. So I grab two beers from the fridge and sit down across from him. The beer sweats in my hand, and the wood of the chair digs into my back, and I wait.

“I can’t believe you kept all of this,” Harry says. He reaches inside the box, then draws his hand back, as if he’s afraid to disturb its contents. “I never took you for the sentimental type.

"I don’t think I am, usually,” I say. Harry looks away from the box, his eyes meeting mine. “But it’s hard to let go of things that used to be so important.”

I wait for Harry to reach into the box and pull out the matchbook from Sketch, the too-hip London bar where we drank too much and got on the wrong tube afterward. I wait for him to wave it in the air and say, “This? This was important?” But he doesn’t.

Instead, he surprises me, shutting the lid on the box and on the past. He accomplishes in a second what it’s taken me weeks to realize. Then he stands up from his chair and holds out his hand to me.

“Come on,” he says.

“Where are we going?” I ask. I imagine that the second my skin touches his, all the time separating the past from now will cease to exist, and an unceasing current beating back back back and forward at the same time will sweep me up and pull me somewhere that I can’t escape from.

“Nowhere,” Harry says. “We’re staying right here. But I want to kiss you, and I can’t do it with you sitting down like that.”

I know that this is the spark I’ve been seeing in Harry’s eye all day, the one that reminded me of London’s lights as seen from across the Thames. London, a city bifurcated by a river, yet so unbreakably whole. It’s always baffled and dazzled me. Just like Harry.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I stand up, but I don’t take Harry’s hand. It falls back to his side, but the expression on his face doesn’t change.

“No,” he says. When he takes a step toward me, I picture our last first kiss, in the doorway of my flat in London. My flatmate arrived home just in time to interrupt it. There’s no one here to interrupt now except me. But I don’t step back.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Harry says, “but I know it’s not a bad one. I know it’s all I’ve been thinking about since I saw you again. I know I’m tired of not talking about it, and I’m bloody tired of not doing it.” There are bags under Harry’s eyes and I notice them now and want to smooth them out with my fingers, smooth out the lines on his forehead and the cracks in his heart.

My speeding heartbeat tells me that I feel the same, that I’m tired of turning over silences like rocks expecting to find worms. But my brain isn’t there yet.

“What will it mean?” I ask him. In my pocket, the necklace burns white-hot.

Harry smiles sheepishly, reaches up to push his hair out of his face. “I knew you were going to ask me that.”

“You did?”

“Of course, Jay. That’s in you. And this is me.” He looks at me and I feel our year together in his words, and this past month, too. “It’s in me that I want to kiss you and I want to see where things go.”

I swallow all the no no no’s coming from my brain and let my heart answer. “And you want things to go somewhere?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Now I let Harry take my hand, and I let him pull me towards him. “Good. Me too,” I say.

His eyes are green like the new growth of spring and when he kisses me it feels like all the times before, and it feels brand new and endless. The past hangs there at the back of my mind, but in front of it spreads the vast uncharted territory of the future.


anonymous says: seems like a pretty good ending to me.

chocolatewaffles says: but he bought you a fake gold necklace!!!

hisdenimshirt says: i was rooting for you, j.