In the summer of 2015, I thought about getting a tattoo. I had been considering it for years, in a formless way, but that summer I allowed my thoughts specificity. The tattoo would be small, unobtrusive, somewhere only I could see, words needled high on my ribcage. It didn’t have to be visible to accomplish what I had in mind. This desire, years in the brewing, had very little to do with how others would see me. Whether by tattoo, or by piercing, or by radical new haircut, I wanted something that would force me to consider my self anew.
In the summer of 2015, I thought about getting a tattoo. Instead, I got into One Direction. The band was still a moneymaking juggernaut, midway through an international stadium tour. Twitter and Tumblr users continued to post effusions of praise and side-by-side gif comparisons of One Direction now and in their fresh-faced youth. If the band’s popularity had begun to fade, the internet had yet to receive the news.
As a source of cultural capital, liking One Direction as a twenty-six year old was the pop culture equivalent of driving a PT Cruiser. Unlike solo female artists like Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, the academy failed to embrace One Direction, even ironically. Fortunately, I was practiced at being out of step. Between Wishbone and The West Wing lay a decade of pop culture deprivation, during which time I watched practically nothing but Disney and (when my parents grew tired of Disney) post-Hays Code black and white movies. The music I listened to in the 90s, the decade the summer of 2015 tried with all its might to reproduce, was the music my parents listened to: The Supremes, Frank Sinatra. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV on the rare occasions it was on at a cousin’s house because my mother was anti-music video, on the grounds that they dictated how we were supposed to listen to songs.
My fascination with One Direction was unexpected, doubly so given the timing. The band was poised to announce a yearlong hiatus, a proclamation that morphed from one year to eighteen months to two years to indefinite depending on who asked. Nonetheless, I was submerged, all thanks to my friend Tanya, a PhD candidate in philosophy, who gave up attempting to explain the One Direction blog a friend of hers ran and sent me a link instead. I sat in the OSU Arboretum and read the blog. I clicked a few links, and then I put my phone away and went back to the book I was reading.
Back home, I cooked dinner. I let it get dark.
I opened YouTube and watched the music video for One Direction’s cover of “One Way or Another.” Then I watched it again. Then I watched another. Four hours later, I sent Tanya message: “Is getting into boy bands at age 26 just the next thing to happen to me?”
She replied almost immediately, “Jackie, I don’t know what to say other than, maybe yes? Don’t let me be alone in this.”
I got into One Direction a couple years after my youngest cousin apparently fell out of love with the band and started listening to the Arctic Monkeys instead. I got into One Direction almost four years after I first saw their faces plastered on the side of a lunchbox at the after school program where I used to work. Virtually every girl there possessed at least a cocktail party knowledge of the band. At the time I knew them as Harry, the blonde one, the handsome one, the one who wasn’t Harry, and the one wearing suspenders, who the boys in the class thought “looked gay.” I didn’t give the band—or the guys in it—much thought. The girls in my class, on the other hand, I knew how to categorize. I had seen A Hard Day’s Night. Like the rush of girls who chased the Beatles down London streets, each of my students was no more than a screaming voice in a crowd.
That summer, I was grasping for something. I felt fragile, for reasons I couldn’t fully understand. I had lost five pounds since starting grad school. Five pounds was more or less my usual fluctuation, but that summer when I looked at my arms poking out of the sleeveless dresses I favored that summer they looked like they belonged to a different person, someone easily breakable. In bed at night, I laid on my back and felt for my gravity-revealed hipbones. I could remember doing the same in my senior year of college, when I was job hunting and trying to finish an undergraduate thesis. The hipbones were a cruel barometer of my happiness; when I could lay on my back and wrap my knuckles against them, there was work to be done.
I rattled around in my own head. I have always enjoyed my own company, but that summer was not the harmless continuation of the habits of a lifetime. I did not choose to spend time alone, I chose to isolate myself. The difference was energy: time spent not noticing how the hours pass vs. time spent actively willing my text notification not to chime. I text meant the possibility of an invitation. An invitation meant a choice must be made. Either I would make up an excuse and resign myself to an evening spent wondering whether I had been believed, or accept the invitation and spend the evening wading through a minefield of conversation.
To show my face, I tried to organize one-on-one hangouts. I didn’t want my friends to think I was avoiding them, even though I was. After all, I wasn’t avoiding avoiding them. I was just avoiding the uncertain version of myself I became when faced with the whole collective. My friends wanted to hang out and talk about sex, a thing that had never happened to me before in my life. I could forget about it sometimes when I was by myself, or chatting with one other person, but as a group we gravitated toward certain topics and took on certain roles.
Boy bands package themselves similarly. The easier to understand and consume the individuals who make up a group, they are assigned personae. In One Direction, the recently departed Zayn Malik had been saddled with being The Mysterious One, likely code for the one who was a half-Pakistani introvert. One Direction’s role assignments were inherently lazy and simplistic, but they were easy to understand from a marketing standpoint. Like mysterious guys, ladies? Sensible guys? Cheery guys? Sexy guys? Mischievous guys? We have one of those.
Among my friends that summer, I was the virginal single woman, a status, no one but the situation implied, that needed fixing if I was to participate fully in the group. Never mind that I was more, and that I knew that I was more, when I was with my friends, that was how I saw myself: narrowed to those parameters, lacking.
My friends were well meaning. They sought to understand how I wished to proceed. “Do you want me to set you up with my friend’s friend?” “Are you on Tinder?” “Do you want to date?” What I wanted was to be left alone to figure these things out for myself, not in front of an audience. What I wanted was to talk about anything else, to be reassured that this was not the only way they saw me. I didn’t mind being single and virginal necessarily, I minded that these were the aspects of my identity that apparently screamed the loudest. The rest of me felt submerged, invisible.
Questions with nonexistent answers were to be avoided, so I avoided my friends. It wasn’t their fault. I could have explained all this to them, or at least attempted to answer their questions honestly. Instead, I responded to their every earnest question with a potent cocktail of humor and misdirection. I believed, wrongly or rightly made no difference, that they had uncovered some vital flaw, some character trait that held me back from existing fully. Scrutinizing these feelings unlocked a door to a breathless uncertainty. It was easier to scroll through Tumblr.
By the time I joined the crowd, became a screaming voice, Zayn was four months gone from One Direction, leaving a Twitter storm and heartbreak in his wake. By the time I reached them, One Direction was down to curly-haired, ubiquitous non-frontman Harry Styles, sunny and Irish Niall Horan, earnest foot-in-mouther Liam Payne, and chain-smoking prankster Louis Tomlinson. The band had moved beyond its wholesome X Factor origins and was attempting to straddle the line between preteen pop and serious music, with mixed success.
I decided fairly early on that Louis—tattooed, peripatetic, and indefinably on edge—was my favorite. In his younger days, he was prone to bursting into a quick and easy dance move called “stop the traffic, let ’em through,” which consisted of waving hands, jerking hips, and a beaming smile. The slice of fandom I had fallen into was prone to comparing him to the sun. (Harry was a cinnamon roll.) I travelled from curious anthropologist to ironic fan to true fan so quickly that it is difficult for me to reassemble my thoughts from those early days of YouTube deep dives and assembled narratives, but one thing sticks with me: the feeling of watching Louis answer question after interview question with humorous deflections while his bandmates formulate appropriately sincere responses. Louis would watch the interviewer, feline eyes narrowed. Sitting, he managed to remain a body in motion. His leg would bounce, either in Morse code distress, or I’m-right-here-pay-attention-to-me-I’m-the-funniest-person-in-this-room. Then he would smile and lean forward in his chair, ready to pounce or to escape. The question would come. He’d part his lips to speak. I’d think, “Me too, kid, me too.”
Boybands are like most celebrities: they survive on projection-fuelled adoration. We think we know them, and we become invested in their success. We start to map recognizable narratives onto their lives and experiences. I know I’m projecting something onto One Direction, or at least onto Louis. Watching Louis in interviews, I saw another person who didn’t know how, or didn’t particularly want, to answer fun questions like, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?”
That summer, I sat with Louis in the breath before the answer. I was lonely, not that I realized it, and One Direction comforted me. As men, they were nonthreatening with a coy accessibility. I watched shaky iPhone footage of behind-the-scenes encounters with fans, some participating in organized Make A Wish events, some merely strolling down the street. The hand holding the iPhone invariably belonged to a friend or family member taking wobbly breaths, documenting the way their daughter or son or best friend tucked into Harry’s side, or how their arms fit perfectly around Liam’s waist. One Direction gave good hugs, it seemed.
In the clips I perused, the members of One Direction were tactile with each other in ways I never was with any of my friends. They draped over each other like newborn puppies. I imagined they formed a warm pile. I wasn’t jealous of the pile—I didn’t envision myself sandwiched in the middle—rather I was glad the pile existed. It was enough to look at it and absorb some of its softness. I was glad Louis had that pile.
Periodically I paused in my excess and wonder what was behind this sudden, steep descent into fandom. Once I caught my reflection in the side of my teakettle where it sat behind my laptop, screen pointed in my direction so I could watch an interview while cooking. I saw that I was smiling, and then my inner voice yanked at me like a toe caught on a stair. How is this the solution? You decided you like One Direction because you’d rather be a child. You’d rather hide out in your apartment with a boyband than figure out how to be an adult.
My snide inner voice was not only uncharitable but also, as it turned out, wrong. One Direction was not the absence of adulthood and complications. In the summer of 2015, it was the synthesis of those things, and if I was attempting to make an island of myself, then One Direction were the yachters who drifted off course and slid ashore sweaty and bickering. They were there to entertain me, but they were also there to prove that the kind of unease that boils from within finds expression in anything.
My first panic attack was more mystery than alarm. I didn’t know what it was. It was no Tony Soprano panic attack (clutching his chest, falling to his knees by a swimming pool devoid of ducks), but rather a ripple from the chest outward and the fingers up: pounding heart and tingling digits. I was supposed to read some of my writing aloud in my graduate creative writing workshop—a task I usually relished—and as my turn neared, I realized I couldn’t feel my hands. I began to wonder whether I’d be able to pick up and turn the pages in front of me. If I did manage to pick them up, surely I would then drop them all over the table out of sequence. As slowly as I could, I tried to fold the corner of each page down to give myself something to grip.
In the end, I didn’t drop the pages. I read just fine, although I had to moderate my breathing more consciously. When it was over, I was left with a lingering, jittering fear that this thing, whatever it was, would happen again. And it did. Once again under the same conditions in the same class, and then again at a lowkey, casual evening reading in front of my peers. I was betrayed. I was once a shy, nervous little girl, and I had spent the intervening twenty years parlaying my daily social performativity into good stage presence. I had come a long way. My reading had rhythm; I liked performing my own work. Suddenly cut off from that facility, I realized just how many miles on that journey I’d taken for granted.
This, too, was the backdrop to my summer of One Direction, though I had yet to find the words to explain exactly what had happened in those classes or at that reading. I just knew that, in this one area—sharing my work, these parts of myself—I could no longer entirely trust who I thought I was in the spotlight. No matter how hard I smiled and joked to cover my nerves, some other part of my body might give me away.
It is easy to see now that my process of isolation that summer was a process of removing myself from situations where I might feel cornered and lacking control. The fragility I felt was more in mind than in body, though I continued to examine the place where my arm met my shoulder. There was no visible muscle there; no one could look at me and think, “Strong, she’s strong.”
It wasn’t until the winter following my summer of One Direction that I called Counseling Services and got a referral and set up an appointment. By then the mystery of the numb arms had been joined by the mystery of the racing heart and the shallow breathing, and the mystery of the utter exhaustion and other slow-paced symptoms difficult to describe or remember after the fact, and the mystery of the more Tony Soprano-esque episode that began at a Starbucks over winter break. I told very few people. For the first time I was aware of having business that was just mine, though it felt closer to lying than discretion. Privacy was a closed fitting room door; not telling people I was having a bad mental health year seemed more like withholding. I was surrounded by people, online and off, who made it their business to destigmatize by being very open with their struggles. These people inspired me, but I feared that a similar move on my part would appear opportunistic, as if I were jumping on a bandwagon, or trying to take on a narrative that was not mine to embrace.
It was my therapist who first said the words “panic attack,” even as I sat in her office and tap-danced around vocabulary I didn’t think I could claim. It wasn’t a foreign concept to me, this phenomenon of people rejecting the labels of their experience, thinking, “Oh, no, other people have it so much worse, that label is for them, not for me.” The familiarity of the concept bred a dual-layer awareness-sprinkled version of the same flawed thinking: if those people I read about (who had real reasons to freeze up and stop breathing, or so my reasoning went) didn’t think they were having panic attacks, then I (who didn’t have a good reason, not a quick elevator pitch of a reason) definitely wasn’t having panic attacks. But I was nervous a lot and that nervousness was frequently broken up by feeling sad, so I thought I might as well nod when this therapist lady I had just met said, “So you were having panic attacks,” and I thought I might as well stick with her and try to reach for words that made sense.
I was nowhere near even the beginnings of this amorphous understanding in the summer of 2015. I was still filling gaps in my One Direction knowledge with Tumblr masterposts and filling the more lingering silences of summer with the chattering sound of YouTube clips. Watching Louis answer questions every way but head-on gave me a flash not just of solidarity, but also of validation. In him, this behavior looked not like cowardice, or avoidance, but self-preservation. The interviewer had not earned his honest answers. Louis deserved to have parts of himself that were just his.
My fifteen-year-old cousin, former One Direction fan, turned out to have nurtured her own fandom far beyond the point I would have thought. She hadn’t so much given them up as gone underground. I found out as much when I texted her to let her know that I was into that onetime band of hers. Much to my surprise, during the conversation that followed, I learned that she was still into the band as recently as March 2015, the month in which less Johnny-come-lately fans could tell you a lot of things went to shit. “I cried when Zayn left,” my cousin explained. “When Louis announced it, I nearly punched a wall.”
Following Zayn’s departure from the band, a trending hashtag emerged on Twitter: #cutforzayn. I was unfamiliar with the sharp underbelly of fandom, and learning about the hashtag months after the fact shocked me. It threw harsh light on the fact that the Twitter handles and Tumblr urls I perused represented real people, and that for some of those people, their admiration bled into their lives in destructive, upsetting fashion. Though, the more I thought about it, this disruption made a certain amount of sense. I was already getting the sense that One Direction and their fans were locked in some kind of lopsided embrace, neither unidirectional nor sustainable. One nudge and the whole thing would collapse. One Direction consisted of four to five lives under intense scrutiny, and the fandom, in part, consisted of a not insignificant number of people pinning their happiness on strangers living up to impossibly high, diffuse expectations. How could anyone maintain equilibrium in such a clinch?
In mid-July, I opened my computer to find Louis Tomlinson’s name blaring from every trending, algorithm-targeted tag. Some surprising news was breaking: Louis Tomlinson, erstwhile suspenders-wearer, was going to be a father. The mother-to-be was an LA-based friend. There were paparazzi shots of her walking a couple feet behind him, as they made for a car at the end of a late night. No one from the band had made any comment yet, but it was only a matter of time before the story would be confirmed, according to the gossip sites I pored over. This was a thing that was happening.
At first, I managed to maintain narrative, if not critical, distance. I texted Tanya, “You just KNEW that if any of them were going to go off script it would be him.”
Tanya responded quickly, as if she had been waiting to hear from me. “So, my friends are all mad skeptical that this is true. I’m suspending judgment.”
The days that followed unfolded without confirmation: no happy announcement, no harried denial. Nothing. I descended into a funk. I thought of Louis, his family, his friends, and his bandmates. I imagined them tired, boxed in, shuffling and reshuffling their responses. I resented them for providing no clarity, and then rebuked myself for my entitlement; when real life encroached, surely Louis had better things to do than reassure his fans. Nonetheless, the news and the lack of response and the ambiguity made me sad, and it frightened me how similar this new sadness felt to the aimless, restless sadness preceding my discovery of the band. It was a sadness that threatened to come up my throat, to burst from behind my eyelids. It was a lingering sadness that slowed my motion. I considered, with bleak humor, that I needed a distraction from my distraction. I could no longer think of One Direction solely as the ever-buoyant characters in the YouTube clips I inhaled. These guys spent the last five years on a tight leash, discouraged from change, commodified into roles allowing no nuance. But they did not exist merely to comfort me, they lived. They acted. There were consequences. Everything about them was heartbreakingly human and unbearably ordinary.
It was around this time that I dreamed of the Rapture. It came out of nowhere. The Rapture has never figured in any version of the beliefs I’ve held over the years. The Rapture has only been a punchline, or a day in May weeks before my graduation from college, passing without incident despite fire and brimstone in the forecast. Nonetheless, asleep in my room in my parents’ house in Kansas at the end of July, I dreamed that I was lifted up in the air and gently deposited back in a field. The field was green and rolling, a Claritin commercial brought to life, and I knew that the Rapture had happened and I had been left behind. I was suffused with calm. I looked around, and saw two figures standing a distance from me, watching each other. I moved closer, and the two people resolved themselves into Tanya and mid-length-haircut, Keith-Richards-headscarf-wearing Harry Styles. They never spoke and they never acknowledged me. They never looked away from each other. They only smiled, a little smugly, eyes locked as if they shared the answer to a question yet to be asked.
I woke abruptly to the sound of my parents in the kitchen, making coffee. I stared at the ceiling and allowed myself a quick laugh, a gentle, “What the fuck?” But the feeling lingered. Both feelings lingered: the sense of calm, that everything would work itself out, and the sense of being left out, intentionally in the dark.
Later that day, I attempted to convey the ridiculousness of my new obsession to my mother, to maybe normalize it a little through casual conversation. “I don’t know why it happened, but for some reason over the past month I’ve gotten really into One Direction.”
She laughed. “They’re cute,” she said.
“One of them got a girl pregnant,” I said. “Supposedly.”
“That happens sometimes,” she said.
“All of a sudden I like their music,” I said.
“They’re cute,” she said again.
I didn’t think that was it, although I could write odes to Louis’
cheekbones, his crinkly eyes. (Niall’s belly laugh, Liam’s new haircut, Harry’s general disposition.) In my slice of fandom there was a mothering impulse I quite understood. Even as the weeks passed and confirmations lay thin on the ground, I still worried, not because I wanted Louis for myself but because I wanted to see him happy. This couldn’t be an easy situation for someone known for buoyancy, levity, and humorous deflections of personal questions.
My big-sisterly concern was an offshoot of the fandom-wide desire to intervene, and it had no outlet but support. Even as I resented the implication that faraway millionaires depended on me to make themselves feel better, I acknowledged that part of the pain I felt at the encroachment of the real world into my happy bubble of escape, was the same pain I felt when friends of mine were hurt, or stressed, or scared, or upset. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, wishing I could do something. In the summer of 2015, I was trying to disengage, and instead I toppled right in to a fandom prone to taking the weight of the world on their shoulders.
It would be misleading to say that One Direction fans bleed themselves dry for nothing. #cutforzayn represented the shadow side of a mass impulse to help— thousands of fans all over the world who believed that in harming themselves they could somehow alter what had already been set into motion—but sometimes that power was real. Fans regularly flooded radio stations with requests to hear album tracks not released as singles, driving up sales. The grassroots organization 1D Fans Give raised money for various national and international charities in honor of each band member. The band lived worlds away from most of its fans, but online the line between the two was indefinite, easily ruptured, and the permeability of that line fed the hope fans felt that their actions could have ripples, that just as the band helped them, they could help the band.
Even before that summer I was aware in a casual, origin-less way of the portion of fandom crediting the band with helping them maintain their mental health. By the time I became embroiled, that specific narrative of band-driven transcendence had faded somewhat, eroded perhaps by the intervening years of drama. Nonetheless, the sentiment remained, albeit in a slightly altered form. In the summer of 2015, the common internet-bound refrain was, “One Direction helped me know myself.”
I was happy for these people, but I was also confused, at least initially. I knew what it was like to be inspired, even changed, by a character from fiction, where the constraints of the form allowed you to take possession of an entire life. But I found it difficult to take ownership of a story—of a band, and of four separate individuals in that band—that was still unfolding, that would still be unfolding in some form or another until the day I died. Even when my interest dwindled, even if for some reason I outlived every single member of the band, there would still be parts of the story I hadn’t heard, secrets yet to come out, dubious tell-alls written and published. How could I find myself in all of that? How could anyone?
And yet, with so much material, how could I not? How could I not reverse the impulse of my early fandom—to escape my life and inhabit another’s—and look at Louis Tomlinson and translate care for him into care for myself? The power I, and so many other fans, wish we possessed—to make him soup, to tuck him in and turn off his alarm, to give him the space to make the right decisions for himself and his family—those powers were so much more easily directed inward. I like to believe I would have eventually noticed that I was struggling with something without Louis throwing it into such sharp relief, but I suspect the realization would have been delayed. In that respect, One Direction did help me know myself, although it took some time. There was no bolt from the blue, only a slow mulling-over, a reflection on the summer and the ways I hid and continued to hide once classes recommenced.
I wasn’t thinking of Louis Tomlinson when eventually did call Counseling Services, but I called Counseling Services wrapped in the pink One Direction blanket my friend Amy had sent me for my birthday. I wrapped it around my shoulders, sat by the front window, and dialed the number, my fingers shaking. Talking on the phone doesn’t come easily to me. I gear up for days. I play out different scenarios. I stab in the phone number as if vehemence equals control. This time, my pulse only slowed about two minutes into the conversation. I watched the pine trees across the parking lot as I spoke and explained and I tried to find some calm center where I could shelter for a second.
I was still on the phone, and fairly on edge, when the mailman climbed my stairs and fumbled in his bag for bills and circulars. I tried to slide out of his line of sight, but it was too late. He glanced up and caught a flash of pink, of five youthful faces, and finally my eye. He froze, staring, while the voice in my ear talked on. Finally, the mailman grinned. He flashed a thumbs up. I nodded. The seven of us smiled at each other, and he went.
In my freshman year of college, I read St. Augustine’s Confessions, and I found my tattoo. I didn’t yet realize yet that it was my tattoo, because back then I was uncritically anti-tattoo. Instead, I thought I had found my “religious views,” cut down to a pithy and moving Facebook-ready package. What I had found was a quote, bracketed by two of the world’s greatest questions: “What are you to me?” and “What am I to you?” The quote became the center of my constellation, the subtext every time I approach the page, or wake in the morning. It contains all the longing it could: “Have mercy so that I may find words.”
It is a plea for words, but also for the time to find them. I thought of the phrase a lot in the years that followed my discovery of the quote, but I thought of it even more in the months following the first panic attack, and then again in the months of my first attempts to explain it. May rolled around—a year out from the beginning of my summer of One Direction, six months out from the day I wrapped myself in a One Direction blanket and made a call—and I began to think that I might be ready. What words but St. Augustine’s would ever be weighted with such meaning or urgency? What else could I put on my body, along my ribs, above my lung? “Have mercy so that I may find words” is a supplication, but it is also an unobstructed breath.
I told my grad school friend Cade, who had numerous tattoos and was considering another, that I was finally ready to get mine and she agreed to come with me. We met for lunch because she told me I needed to eat beforehand. The burger sat tentatively in my stomach but I managed to mitigate my nerves by asking Cade for all her tattoo stories. Food consumed, we were still running early to our appointment, so we killed time in the basement of the thrift shop across the street from the tattoo parlor. I walked the racks and shook my hands periodically, not because they had gone numb, but to stave off any numbness.
In the tattoo parlor waiting room, Cade kept asking me how I was feeling. “Nervous,” I said. “Like, shitting myself nervous, but excited.” She nodded. I continued to babble. “Not scared. Not, like, questioning the decision. More like anticipating the process.”
Out of that jumble, she managed to find the answer she was looking for. “Got it. Nice.”
“Plus,” I said. “My hands aren’t numb.”
“Not giving a reading,” she said, because she already knew about the numbness, which I had explained to her at length in jokey, spin doctor-y, Louis Tomlinson fashion before I knew what it was. It turned out she had experienced something similar.
“Yeah,” I said. Then, because it seemed a day for risk taking, I said, “Someone told me that was probably a panic attack.”
“I know,” she said. She wasn’t even meeting my eyes. She was rummaging in her purse for her phone. “It’s definitely the preferable kind. No one else can tell it’s happening, not like when you’re hyperventilating.”
“I’ve had those, too,” I said.
She found her phone and she glanced over at me and she nodded, and that was that, as easy as that.
The tattoo artist called me back. Cade came with me. She sat on a stool and texted. When she wasn’t texting, she asked whether I was all right. So did the tattoo artist. “Doing okay?” “All right there?” “Doing fine?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. Yes.”
Of course it hurt. People warned me: wrists, ribs, and feet hurt the most. It took twenty minutes. I thought of all my favorite tattooed characters. I thought of Louis (and Harry, and Liam, and Zayn, and even jolly, tattoo-free Niall). I imagined Louis going for his first tattoo. One of the facts I had learned on my headlong plunge was that he was initially opposed to the idea of marking up his body like that. What brought him around, what changed his mind so thoroughly that he now had, at last fan-sourced count, thirty-three? At the tattoo parlor, did he have his story prepared, or was the injection of ink into skin nothing but the truth?
When it was done, Cade took her turn. I sat and asked the same questions. “Okay?” “Still good?” “All right?” I could feel the bandage covering my tattoo brush against my shirt on my right side. It had started to hurt again, though no worse than the scratch Tanya’s cat once inflicted on my thigh, trying to settle on my bare legs while we watched The Thorn Birds.
Cade took me back to her house and taught me how to clean the tattoo, and what to do to it over the next weeks. Aftercare, all this was called, and it felt ritualistic, in the almost holy sense. It felt like honoring my body with what it needed to heal.
From Cade’s house, I texted Tanya a picture of my tattoo. She texted back immediately. She sent a row of hearts, and smiles, and asked me if I felt different. I thought that I would—that was part of the tattoo’s initial appeal—but I didn’t, and my relief at that was unanticipated and visceral. A different me wouldn’t need these words, this permanent reminder humming under her clothes. A different me wouldn’t find these words beautiful, or mysterious. I was who I was, unanswered questions and all, and in that moment I was content to swim around in myself, to care for my tattoo, to recover.
I had not found words by the end of the summer of 2015, but I did find Louis Tomlinson in Columbus. At the end of my summer of One Direction—a period of time that should not have had a tidy finish and somehow did—the band came to town for a concert. I bought a ticket, way up in the highest reaches of Ohio Stadium, and I planned my outfit.
The day before the concert, a package arrived at my apartment from my younger cousin. Inside was a bracelet, each segment bearing the face of one of the members of the band. These were the faces I remembered from my first, lunchbox impression. They were young, poised to conquer the world: the hearts of preteens on Chicago’s west side, the minds of grad students on the cusp of something. Now, as adults navigating the world and all its complications, those very same people failed to offer more than a tenuous escape. Instead they offered life: bizarre, filtered, and real.
At the concert, I was about as far from the stage as it was possible to be, but I was there. When the lights went down and One Direction came out, the scream climbed up from the floor seats and reverberated. It was an open-air tent revival, a cathartic, communal airing of pent-up whatever that hummed all night long. One Direction fans seek connection: with the band, with each other, with the other people in the crowd holding signs with inside jokes like secret handshakes.
Alone and far from the stage and outside most target demographics past and present, I felt this buzzing connection. I felt it, and I was doomed. I knew then that I would weather the next drama, and the next, and the next, because for a couple seconds in the summer of 2015, across a sea of almost 100,000 people, Louis Tomlinson was talking to me.
Jackie Hedeman is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in The Offing, 1966, Argot Magazine, Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University. Find her on Twitter @JackieHedeman.