Christmas In Brooklyn
Part Five: Waltz #2
" I’m never gonna know you now:
But I’m gonna love you, anyhow." ~ Elliott Smith
As it turned out, Phoebe’s family could really get down. After Meiko’s elaborate Christmas Eve dinner, the funk music was turned on, and the Heyerdahlsdanced the night away. Helga was enjoying their untraditional interpretation of Christmas, but meanwhile, Phoebe was no where to be found. She had excused herself after dinner, and Helga hadn’t seen her since.
Helga was trying to have fun dancing with Phoebe’s uncles and cousins, but all she could think about was what had happened earlier, with Arnold. He must think I’m the scum of the earth, she thought sadly, he lays his heart on his sleeve and I look at him like he’s crazy: when actually he’s a mind reader. But it was too unbelievable, the notion of Arnold finally having feelings for her: of having had feelings for her, of wondering about her poetry, her jump-roping habits . . .
" Hey, Kyo," Helga said, making her way across the crowded living room to Phoebe’s father, who was twirling a shrieking Meiko in circles, " Have you seen Phoebe?"
" Phoebe?" Kyo asked, as if he recalled the name but couldn’t picture the face. Helga could tell by his pink cheeks that he’d had a little too much sake with dinner. " Yeah, I think she went upstairs. Care to dance?" he asked, as his giggling wife shoved him away, insisting that she would be sick if they continued.
" No, thank you," Helga said over the loud music, leaving the living room and heading upstairs to find her friend. The second floor of the Heyerdahl brownstone was slightly quieter, with Meiko’s cats mulling around, confused by the crowd downstairs, and a few of the older relatives already turning in to bed. Helga bumped into a short, elderly Japanese woman as she was rounding the corner toward Phoebe’s room.
" Excuse me," Helga said, starting to walk past her.
" Kiwotsukeru hitomajiwari osanagokoro," the woman said softly, smiling at Helga.
" I’m sorry?" Helga said, surprised. She had a very basic knowledge of Japanese, thanks to some lucrative international business transactions, but she had no idea what the old woman had just said to her. The woman then walked away without explaining, disappearing into one of the very full bedrooms. Man, this house is crowded, Helga thought. She was sure she’d get no sleep: she was sharing her former guest room with Phoebe and two of her cousins.
" She said ‘Be careful with his heart’," Phoebe’s voice came suddenly from the shadows of the doorway of Helga’s room.
" What does she mean by that?" Helga asked, her heart racing. How could Phoebe’s grandmother possibly know that she had been reckless with Arnold’s heart today? Reckless with his heart … Helga hadn’t really thought of it like that before.
" Who knows?" Phoebe said, as Helga joined her in the guest room, shutting the door behind them. " She’s getting a little senile in her old age. Women in my family live forever … its kind of daunting."
" Pheebs," Helga said with a sigh, " What are you doing up here all by yourself? You’re really missing a party down there."
" I guess I’m just not in a partying mood," Phoebe muttered, taking a seat on the bed. Helga went to the window and peered out at the street below, street lamps glowing faintly in a few spots behind the wall of thick, down coming snow.
" Whatsamatter, Pheebs?" Helga asked, putting on her 4th grade slumber party voice. She sat down on the bed beside her friend and gave her full attention. Phoebe just stared at her.
" You wouldn’t really understand," she said, " Trust me."
" Hey, come on!" Helga said, " Give me a little credit – I know a thing or two about depression, trust me."
Phoebe sighed, " Oh, Helga," she said, " Its that I’m clinically depressed or anything. Its just the holidays – they always kind of get me down."
" Yeah, I hear ya," Helga volunteered, " Dirk and I used to jet off to Jamaica every year just to avoid the whole mess."
Phoebe was quiet for a moment, thinking. " Do you miss him?" she asked. Helga was surprised with the question, but then she realized Phoebe had never known Dirk. I can’t believe I didn’t even invite her to the wedding, Helga thought sadly. Of course, it had been a simple affair – not much more than a business dinner, really. Olga had cut a few hours out of her busy schedule to attend the reception, and had ducked out early when several of Dirk’s sleaze-ball clients had tried to hit on her. Helga remembered with a pang of guilt that she’d declined Big Bob’s offer to dance with her. Miriam probably made him do it, anyway, she thought, pushing her remorseful feelings down.
" No," Helga answered easily. " Dirk was not … ‘The One’." Phoebe gave her a look.
" Have you seen Arnold since you’ve been back?" she inquired calmly, pretending that the idea of their reunion was only mildly interesting.
Helga didn’t answer.
" I asked him to come over for the party," Phoebe said, causing Helga’s heart rate to spike, " But he said he had other commitments."
" You saw Arnold today?" Helga asked, involuntarily jumping up.
" I take it you haven’t seen him, then," Phoebe said snidely.
" No," Helga said, shutting her eyes, " I have seen him. Today, and yesterday, too. Oh, Phoebe! The whole things an awful mess. How do I always manage to screw things up with him? Its like I’m sabotaging myself."
" What happened?" Phoebe asked, not bothering to conceal her excitement now. Suddenly the air of their conversation changed to that of a slumber party again, two young girls talking animatedly about their crushes.
" He kissed me," Helga said slowly, only fully realizing that it had actually happened as the words left her lips, " He actually made the first move. I was … stunned. I ran."
" Why’d he kiss you?" Phoebe asked.
Helga frowned and felt herself slip into bully mode: " Why wouldn’t he? Criminey – what am I, chopped liver?"
" That’s not what I meant," Phoebe scolded, " And you know it. I just didn’t know there was anything between you … still, after all these years."
" Its news to me, too," Helga muttered. " But as soon as I saw him … oh, this is a bunch of malarkey! A venomous spider probably crawled onto my lips and bit me while I wasn’t looking … or something."
" WHAT?" Phoebe exclaimed.
" Maybe he was trying to suck out the poison before it was too late!" Helga cried, exasperated, " It makes more sense than him making a pass at me."
" Helga," Phoebe said, rolling her eyes, " You’re a beautiful woman! And he’s a lonely man, a man who remembers being loved absolutely – if not bizarrely and from afar – by you. Why can’t you believe that he wants you?"
He wants you. Helga couldn’t let her mind process the words, the long awaited satisfaction was too great.
" It-it doesn’t matter now anyway," Helga said softly, defeated. She sat back down, let the pace of her heart slow. " I wrecked my chances when I dashed away from him like a bat out of hell. He probably thinks … oh, who cares what he thinks? I just need to leave first thing tomorrow morning and never come back to Brooklyn. I can’t handle the past-tense atmosphere – the good old days are over, and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge."
There was a knock at the door: probably one of Phoebe’s cousins coming up to brush her teeth before turning in for sugar plum Christmas Eve dreams. It was nearly midnight, nearly the end of another year, and Helga was almost thirty … She got up to answer the door.
" Wait!" Phoebe shouted suddenly, " Helga, listen to me. I wouldn’t dare give advice that wasn’t well-founded, and you know that. I’ll tell you this once, and I want to you listen."
Helga swallowed a lump in her throat. She had a feeling she knew what Phoebe was going to say.
" I always defended you to people who didn’t understand … your ways, even in high school when we’d drifted apart," Phoebe spoke with an intense-ness, an urgency, " And when we were kids, I remember Rhonda’s little fortune telling game – how she predicted you and Arnold would end up married."
" That was stupid," Helga said quickly, her heart breaking. " All the choices said ‘Helga’ – it was rigged to freak him out."
" After the joke was revealed, Rhonda was goofing on the whole idea of the two of you together," Phoebe continued without acknowledging Helga’s dismissal.
" But I set her straight, because I believed in you. I believed in your love for him – that, God, ridiculous fixation on him that turned from a crush into a reason to live as we got older. Helga, if you can’t at least give something that I thought, that you thought, was so right for so long –if you can’t shallow your pride and give it one more chance, then I just don’t know if I’ll be able to believe in love at all anymore."
" Phoebe-" Helga began. The knocking on their door was more insistent now.
" And I don’t think my faith in love can take another beating," Phoebe said softly. " Now, be a dear and answer the door."
Zombie-like after hearing Phoebe’s words, Helga opened the door. It was Meiko, finally appearing worn out after her hectic week of Christmas ‘vacation’.
" Hey, Helga," she said, yawning, " Is Phoebe in here?" Helga nodded and pointed in Phoebe’s direction, still speechless.
" What’s the matter, Mom?" Phoebe spoke as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders; she rose easily and went to her mother.
" One of your friends from down the street just showed up," Meiko said,
" Could you please just play hostess for a bit and then send him home? I’m afraid I’ve worn myself out."
" Oh, Mom," Phoebe said, wrapping her in a hug and squeezing her shoulders, " Of course I can." Meiko looked surprised by her daughter’s reaction: she thanked her, wished she and Helga a Merry Christmas, and walked down the hall toward her room, taking uncertain steps. Phoebe turned to Helga and made a drinking motion with her hand, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.
" They always have too much to drink at parties," she said with a carefree grin. " I guess its really the only time my folks allow themselves to let loose."
" Who’s here?" Helga stammered, trying to get the burden of the words out too quickly. Phoebe smiled slowly.
" Be careful with his heart," she mused, " Maybe Grandma Li’s not so senile after all!"
" Oh, Phoebe, stop it!" Helga hissed, " Is it him?"
" I don’t know!" Phoebe said cheerily, her sudden chipper attitude irritating Helga, " Maybe its Stinky! I invited him, too."
Helga and Phoebe made their way down stairs, but Phoebe stopped halfway when she caught sight of who was standing in the foyer. Helga bumped into Phoebe’s back, not having anticipated her abrupt standstill.
" Hey, Pheebs, what’s the big idea?" she asked, and then she looked up to see Gerald standing near the door, nervously clutching his winter hat.
" Gerald," Helga said, surprised and disappointed. But he didn’t seem to hear her: he continued to stare at Phoebe as she carefully made her way down the stairs.
" Evening," she said coolly, walking past him into the piano room. " It’s a little late for a visit, don’t you think? Won’t Maureen and the girls miss you?"
" I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas in a timely fashion," Gerald said,
" Its just now midnight, if my watch is right." Helga was surprised with him – she didn’t think she’d ever seem Mr. Smooth look so unsure of himself. Phoebe stood in the piano room with her back to him, her hands on her hips. Helga sat down, dejected, on the stairs. So Arnold wasn’t going to come over and … come over and what? He wasn’t the one who owed an apology in their equation.
" Well," she heard Phoebe say quietly, " Merry Christmas. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have cousins to tuck in, dishes to wash-"
" Phoebe," Gerald said carefully, " It’s the anniversary of … the end of us."
" Yes," she said, coldly " An inverse anniversary, I suppose."
" It was nearly ten years ago," he said, " I could hardly believe myself, but I was sitting there at the dinner table thinking about it –"
Helga’s eavesdropping was interrupted by the creaking of the front door, which Gerald had left partially open. In walked Miles, carrying a plateful of candy-cane shaped sugar cookies.
" Hey," he said quietly, despite the loud music that was still playing in the living room as the younger couples continued dancing, celebrating the official arrival of Christmas. Miles walked to Helga and smiled at her, " Merry Christmas," he said, his voice soft. " Where should I put these?"
Helga felt weirdly touched, and her eyes threatened to overflow as she regarded the little boy who looked so much like Arnold had as a child.
" Um," she sniffled, " Just put them on the stairs for now. We can take them into the kitchen in a minute."
" Are you alright?" Miles asked, putting the cookies down as told, and taking a seat beside her on the stairs.
" I don’t think so," Helga whimpered, not believing that she was going over the edge in the presence of Arnold’s six year old son.
" What’s the matter?" he asked with the kind of genuine concern that only a child can have for a near stranger, " Didn’t you get what you wanted for Christmas?"
Helga shook her head, thinking of what she really wanted; it was something only she could give to herself: the courage to let Arnold love her. Something she’d been longing to give herself since grade school, something she still didn’t have the guts to receive.
" Me either," Miles said with a sigh, " Every Christmas I ask Santa for my mother back, but it never works. Dad says Santa isn’t in control of that sort of thing, but I ask him anyway, just in case."
Hearing Miles’ Christmas wish was the last straw; tears spilled down both of her cheeks, her shoulders bounced up and down with sobs.
" I’m so sorry," she cried, looking at Miles, " Its all my fault. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way."
" No, its not your fault!" Miles reassured, placing a tiny gloved hand on her arm, " I thought it was my fault for awhile too, because I wasn’t there to save her. I kept thinking: I should have been there! If only I’d have been there with them, I could have picked up a long stick and held it out for Mommy to grab onto. But Dad says its nobody’s fault. And I think he’s right." Miles patted Helga’s arm in an attempt to comfort her, but his little soliloquy about his mother had her bawling even harder.
" No, I’ve done everything wrong," Helga said, gasping for air between sobs,
" I’ve done something horrible to your father," she said, completely sure that things could have been different at least for him, if not for her, had she only grown a spine and admitted to him back then that she’d loved him.
" Daddy?" Miles said, confused.
" Yeah?" Arnold’s voice came from the door; he knocked slightly and pushed it entirely open, past the crack that Miles had slid in through. He saw Helga sobbing on the stairs and his eyes widened.
" Oh my God," he said, upset, " What’s wrong?"
" Nothing," Helga said quickly, trying to muster up a causal smile and failing miserably, " I’m fine. Everything’s great."
Miles held a hand up to his mouth and beckoned to his Dad with one gloved finger. Arnold’s brow furrowed, and he stepped closer to listen to his son whisper:
" She didn’t get her Christmas present."
Arnold stepped back and looked at Helga, who sniffed slightly and ventured a peek at him. He looked handsome dressed in his ‘fancy’ Christmas outfit: a nice white shirt with a black tie and old gray trousers.
" That’s funny," Arnold said shyly, " I thought she just didn’t want it."
Helga realized what he meant and piped up: " No, I do want it!" she insisted, childlike and scared, " I do! Its just … ughh! This is hard for me, okay?"
Arnold rolled his eyes, " I’m not making it hard, you know," he said. " Miles, why don’t you put the cookies in the kitchen and go find Yuri and Tomoko? I’m sure they’re around here somewhere."
" Alright," Miles said glumly, clearly having preferred to stay and listen to the adults weave their confusing and intriguing webs of dialogue. He picked up the tray of cookies and hopped off the staircase, making his way toward the swinging door that led to the kitchen.
" Thanks for listening to me, Miles," Helga muttered, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her silk shirt.
" You’re welcome," the little boy said as he trotted off.
" Expressing gratitude!" Arnold said, raising his eyebrows in mock impression, " That’s a step in the right direction."
" Lay off, football head," Helga grumbled, " If your plan is to turn me into some namby-pamby well-wisher then you’re out of luck."
" Helga," Arnold said, letting out his breath and closing the front door behind him before stepping up and having a seat beside her on the stairs, " I wouldn’t change a thing about you." He started to put an arm around her, and hesitated. Bravely and without thinking, Helga grabbed his arm and yanked it around her shoulders. Arnold grinned.
" What the hell do you even see in a screw up like me?" she asked, tears gathering in her eyes again. She blinked them back down, cursing herself for being such a wimp.
" Hmm," Arnold said, rubbing his chin, which was already growing the beginnings of his next-day beard. Helga knew she would always have a hard time accepting facial hair on the chin and cheeks of her puppy-love. " Well," he began,
" I don’t want to give you a big head, but if you demand a list then I shall supply one. What do I see in you? I don’t know. My past? Unconditional love? Complication, that’s for sure. And dedication, definitely. A beautiful young woman who loves the awkward and sad little girl she was too much to let her go."
" Oh, come off of it!" Helga said, blushing fiercely and looking away, into the piano room where Phoebe sat with Gerald. She watched them for a moment: they still looked like lovers to the naked eye; their mannerisms and facial expressions were those of a pair of young people in the midst of a lover’s quarrel. " I’m hardly young," she muttered, " For one thing."
" Sure you are," Arnold said, taking her chin gently and turning his face toward hers. " You’ve got your whole life ahead of you." His words hit Helga like a ton of bricks: but a welcome ton of bricks. They seemed to be the brightest point of light, the moral, the meaning of all of this.
" Shut up, shut up," she whimpered, closing her eyes as he pressed his face close to hers, " Shut up and just do it," she whispered, " Just do it before I change my mind, ya putz." She couldn’t believe her words, but she knew Arnold would catch the meaning beneath them, and they seemed so appropriate, even now: she was still Helga and he was still Arnold, the enemies, the lovers, the eternal paradox.
" Shhh," he cooed, squeezing her tightly against the rise and fall of his chest, stroking her temples and letting his nose brush hers, " If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all," he admonished playfully, his lips moving over hers as he spoke.
" Arnold," Helga squeaked in a tiny and vulnerable voice that she had never before let him hear, and as she said his name her lips touched his, and then pressed against them, finally, finally. His mouth was cold from his trek there through the snow, but Helga’s soon warmed it. She kissed him timidly, afraid that the kiss wouldn’t be the perfection she had always hoped for.
But oh, Arnold’s mouth: the soft touch of his lips, the tiny caress of his tongue, it was cherries and sugar and cigarettes and coffee and orange popsicles, and everything perfect about the world that she’d let slip away when they’d parted.
" Arnold, Arnold," she moaned softly, clutching at him, relishing the taste of him and shaking all over.
" Helga, Helga," he mimicked with a teasing grin, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, the skin exposed at her neck above her shirt collar.
" Well, who would have thunk it," came a ribbing voice that Helga recognized as Gerald’s. It took her vision a moment to focus after Arnold’s soft lips separated from hers, and she squinted at Gerald, who was watching them from the foot of the stairs with an aghast Phoebe.
Arnold just smiled and looked at Helga.
" Don’t freak out," he whispered.
" I’m trying not to," Helga muttered. Something about Gerald and Phoebe knowing was mortifying. Arnold stood up and offered a hand to Helga, who reluctantly took it, pulling herself out of the world on the stairs that had consisted of only she and Arnold. They walked down the stairs and addressed their shocked friends.
" Well," Helga said, looking at Phoebe and then quickly at the floor.
" Told you so," Phoebe said with a tiny grin.
" Huh?" Gerald asked, and Phoebe chauffeured him out the door, telling him not to ask. When she turned back to the blond couple, Arnold raised his eyebrows at her.
" What was he doing here?" he asked.
" Calm down, morality police," Phoebe said with a wry smile, " No adultery here. He just … apologized."
" For what?" Helga asked, feeling out of the loop.
" It’s a long story," Phoebe said, sounding a bit distant, but relieved, and new. " But it was all I needed to hear. I got my Christmas wish."
Phoebe excused herself to go try and straighten up the post-feast mess in the kitchen. In the living room the tone had changed: sweet old Christmas songs had replaced the dance music.
" Man," Arnold said, casting a glance into the room, at the large group of people gathered there. " It sure is crowded here."
" Yep," Helga said, her heart rate racing into overdrive.
" And its not a very big house," he added.
" And I’m sure Stinky would give you discount rates if you were to come stay at the boarding house for the night. It being Christmas and all."
" You think so?" Helga asked, toying with him a bit. Arnold nodded and smiled, and bent to place another kiss on her lips. Helga let the kiss deepen this time, and her body screamed for more as his tongue met hers.
" So what do you say?" he whispered, breaking the kiss.
He didn’t have to ask her twice.
Helga and Arnold gathered up Miles and let Meiko and Kyo know that Helga would be spending the night at the boarding house. She collected her things, and the three of them tromped through the thickening snow, across the street toward the Sunset Arms.
She and Arnold were quiet on the way there, not sure how to act around Miles.
" Maybe we’ll see him," Miles said, looking up at the sky, " What do you think, Dad? This is about the time Santa makes his rounds, right?"
" Santa doesn’t come until all boys and girls are sound asleep," Arnold assured him. " So you’d better get to slumbering as soon as we get back, buster. Its way past your bedtime and you’re causing the delay."
Miles looked panicked for a moment, and his pace increased as they approached the boarding house. When they got inside, Stinky was at a desk in the common room to the left of the foyer, shuffling through papers.
" Merry Christmas, Stinky!" Miles called before bolting upstairs to get in bed.
" Goodnight Dad! Goodnight Helga!"
" Sleep tight, Miles," Arnold called back before they heard the little boy’s bedroom door shut upstairs.
" Helga?" Stinky said, walking to the foyer and eyeing her bag. " So you’ve changed your mind about stayin’ with us, have you?"
" Yep," Helga said, still resenting the way Stinky looked at her, " I’d like a room, if you’ve got one. There’s no room at the Inn down at the Heyerdahl house."
" Well, sure," Stinky said in his slow drawl, " Let me take your bag."
" I’ve got it," Helga said, stepping back, " If you could just tell me the room number." Stinky scratched his head, and went to a row of keys that was hanging on the wall behind the podium with the guestbook.
" I guess we’ll put you in 2A," he said, handing her an old-fashioned brass key, " Let me know if the room’s too drafty."
" I’m sure it will be just fine, Stinky," she said, taking the key. " I hate to still call you ‘Stinky’ now that we’re adults. Same goes for Curly, but ‘Thaddeus’ is nearly as bad. What’s your real name, anyway, Stinky?" she asked.
Stinky looked at her dead-on: " Stinky," he answered, point blank.
" Oh, heh," Helga picked up her bag, but Arnold took it from her, " Goodnight,
Stinky," she said.
" ‘Night Stinky," Arnold added, following her up the stairs with her bag.
" Arnold," Stinky returned, flatly. Something in the tone of his voice made Helga shudder.
" Doesn’t he give you the creeps a little bit?" she whispered when they were upstairs. Arnold shook his head.
" Come on, Helga," he said, " He’s a good guy. Heck, me and Miles would probably be in a homeless shelter right now, had he not given us so many breaks on rent payment, and free dinners."
" Well, that’s good," Helga said with a sigh, " At least he’s flexible about money."
" Yeah," Arnold said, putting her bag down in front of 2A. " But … yesterday he was actually kind of confrontational with me about it. He said I needed to stop slacking off and give him the money … it sort of freaked me out. He must be a bad mood lately because of the holidays or something – he’s been kind of cold for the past few days."
The past few days … Helga wondered if her presence, and her kinship with Arnold, wasn’t what was making him sore. Arnold put his hands on her face then, and she instantly lost track of any thoughts of Stinky. All she could feel was Arnold’s warmth, all she could see was his acceptance of her in his eyes, all she could hear was his soft breathing. The world was Arnold again, and when he kissed her tenderly there in the hall, the world burst into flames, and all the snow outside may as well have melted, as Helga’s body smoldered in his arms.
They separated, not knowing where to go next. Arnold mentioned something about needing a shower, and Helga didn’t dare presume that he was inviting her to join him, so she muttered a hasty goodnight and turned to unlock her door. She felt his fingers, soft and warm on the back of her neck.
" Goodnight, Helga," he whispered sweetly, kissing her neck before walking off toward the W.C.
Helga couldn’t sleep. Just knowing that Arnold was there in the same house, that he wouldn’t turn her away if she went to him, was making her crazy. She watched the digital clock by her bedside, the minutes passing so slowly she thought she might scream out through the darkness.
Finally, when she could no longer stand the longing, the yearning for him that she’d put up with for nearly twenty five years, she threw off her covers and went to the door. Then stopped, then turned back around.
Helga walked back to her bed: what am I doing? she asked herself, gritting her teeth in frustration. This is all a crazy dream that will end when I leave the city: what am I going to do, somehow make a life here again in this ghost town, living in a boarding house with a Laundromat worker? Ha!
But then she rose again, cursing herself for even thinking that she could leave Arnold. She went to the door, and this time she got a hand on the doorknob before turning back around.
Now I’m going insane, Helga thought, sitting back on the bed and putting her head in her hands. He’s already driving me insane!
But it was an insanity that made her feel alive again, and worthwhile, and passionate. It was the insanity that was love, something she hadn’t succumbed to since junior high, when she still allowed his mere presence in a room to melt her.
Helga jumped up again, this time resolving not to turn back. She stopped in front of the dresser mirror in the room, examining herself. Were these pajamas un-sexy? she wondered, studying her stripped pajama pants and white tank top. Dirk had always seemed to think so – oh, but what am I thinking? she thought, panicky. She hadn’t even been intimate with Dirk for over two years, and there certainly hadn’t been anyone else in between.
Then she remembered Arnold’s words in the gym that day: I haven’t even kissed anyone in three years. And he certainly hadn’t lost his touch, Helga thought, a shiver moving through her body at the mere remembrance of his gentle kisses.
So she finally threw the door open, and thrust herself out into the hall. She ran smack dab into someone coming out of the neighboring bathroom, who turned out to be Arnold, a towel wrapped around his waist.
" Helga," he said, pulling the towel tighter. She finally got to see him blush. Really blush – his whole body flushed pink. Helga felt hers issue a similar reaction.
" Hi," she said, her voice funny and unrecognizable. " Want to talk?"
Arnold smiled, " Can’t sleep?" he asked.
" Not really," Helga admitted quietly.
" C’mon," he said, flicking his head toward his room at the end of the hall. Helga felt drops of water from his wet hair on her bare arms. She followed him into his room, a modest bachelor pad with a healthy fichus tree growing in one corner. His bed looked comfortable, so she climbed into it. Arnold grinned, watching her.
" Feeling a little forward tonight, are we?" he asked, walking to the bed.
" I don’t know what I’m feeling," Helga conceded, her voice still sounding strange in her own ears, " I feel crazy." He sat down on the end of the bed and she reached for him. " Am I being crazy?" she whispered, realizing it was her heart pounding in her ears that was obstructing her hearing, making things sound new.
" You’re making sense to me," he said softly, leaning over her as she rested on his pillows. Helga shut her eyes and breathed in his scent: freshness and soap, with musk and want already surfacing on his newly cleaned slate.
" Arnold," she said, gazing up at him with virgin eyes, feeling as if she were treading in unexplored territory, though she’d been in bed with her share of men, it had never felt like this: surreal, elegant, with perfect moonlight streaming in through the window past ropes of thick snowfall. " I don’t know what to do," she whispered.
" I feel like you’ll disappear when I touch you. Tell me I’m not dreaming?"
" You’re not dreaming," he promised, " I’m really here," he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his warm cheek, " See?" The sweetness in his tone, the slow, careful rhythm to his moments, almost brought tears to Helga’s eyes. Why didn’t I hold out for this? she wondered, Why did I waste so many years?
" Tell me something," she said, her voice quavering, " That will make me know you again. Tell me something that will take the years away. The time travelling device – make it so we were never apart," she pleaded.
He kissed her softly. " I love you," was all he could offer. Helga took him in her arms and cried softly onto his shoulder. It was all that she could ask for.
Helga couldn’t bring herself to sleep that night: not with Arnold lying beside her. For a long time they stayed awake together: they would talk, softly and conscientiously, afraid that even a slight raise in their voices might break the perfection of the moment that they, mere mortals, had been lucky enough to wander into.
They would reach a point in their conversations that struck each of them in such a way that they ended up making love again, and Helga would always cry, prompting Arnold to ask what he was doing wrong. And she would laugh through her happy tears and tell him it was only what he was doing right.
Finally worn out, Arnold had drifted off to sleep in Helga’s arms sometime around three o’clock in the morning, long after presents had been set out beneath trees, but not too long before the children of the world would rise to discover them. Helga’s ‘present’ was already lying in her arms, and she had no eagerness to get out of bed: no desire to ever get out of bed again, really. She only wanted to continue as she was doing, watching Arnold’s every breath, noting the feel of every part of his skin against every part of hers.
She felt like a long-starved orphan who had suddenly been fed, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Arnold offered the kind of love that not even her parents had been able to give her, and she only hoped she could find something natural within her that could begin to return it. She had no training in this arena, she would be winging it from now on.
When Arnold rolled over in his sleep, Helga marveled at how comfortable his back was as she laid against it. Dirk’s had been bony and precarious, and Helga had gotten neck cramps from trying to avoid his shoulder blades. But Arnold’s seemed to have been made for her to rest against, soft skin over a working man’s muscles, it felt like a heaven to press her face to.
It was all she could do not to giggle with giddy happiness. How could she be here? How could she, so misguided, find her way back to him despite everything? Her only answer was fate, something she had always believed in when she’d loved him, something she’d forgotten in the company of Dirk and other men who made her think that love was only a harsh realism that the movies ruined for you by making it look easy.
Helga understood, though, that this was still the real world, and things from here on out would not be easy. There would be money issues, there would be the issue of Miles, who seemed to like Helga well enough now, but there was no telling what his reaction would be when he learned she was his father’s girlfriend. As far as Helga could tell, Arnold hadn’t had a lover since Kathryn died.
But there was no denying now that they were meant to be, and somehow, Helga knew, they would find a way. At least she had Arnold, the master of solving everyone's problems, on her side. She squeezed him in his sleep and smiled: you were always on my side, she thought, even when I didn’t deserve it.
Arnold woke around five o’clock in the morning, and Helga pretended to be asleep. She felt him climb over her, heard him leave the room, heard the toilet flush down the hall. She rolled over and pretended that she was just waking up as he was re-entering the room. She could still keep a bit of the extent of her worship of him to herself, she thought, smiling at him as he crossed the room toward her.
" Hey," he whispered, his newly awake voice huskier than usual. He knelt by the bed and lowered his face to hers, " How are you sleeping?" he asked.
" Great," Helga answered, " But I should probably retire to my room for the rest of the night. Won’t Miles be rushing in any moment to alert you that its time to open presents?"
Arnold grinned, " For someone who’s never had kids, you know them pretty well."
" Yeah, well," Helga said, reluctantly climbing out of his bed, " I was one, once," she reminded him. He kissed her softly on the bridge of her nose.
" Oh, yeah," he said with a grin, " Thanks for thinking of him. I guess I’ll see you downstairs by the tree?"
" Count on it," Helga said, giving him a farewell kiss, " Though I might not make an entry as early as Miles."
She left Arnold’s room with a tinge of sadness that she told herself she shouldn’t be feeling. Don’t be melodramatic, girl, she thought, its not like you’re not going to see him again in a few hours. But she had a weird feeling. Like things weren’t supposed to be this easy. Like life tended to throw her curveballs at moments like this. But she shook it off – she had every right to have a happy ending, she’d earned it, hadn’t she?
Helga heard a door close as she was going into her room, and she instinctively looked up at Arnold’s old attic room. The DO NO DISTURB sign on Stinky’s door was swinging slightly. Helga shuddered, and quickly went into her room, locking the door behind her.
Christmas morning came like any other, with unusually bright skies and a fresh layer of snow covering the former world. Helga awoke around nine o’clock, after having some bizarre dreams about Olga informing the family that she was leaving her husband for another man: and then introducing them to Sid, the boy with the goofy nose from Helga’s fourth grade class.
Man, she thought, climbing out of bed and rubbing her eyes, did last night really happen? She looked around, and sure enough, she was in the boarding house. But she couldn’t be sure until she saw Arnold. So she hurriedly got dressed, threw her hair up in a sloppy bun, and headed downstairs to join the gift-opening festivities.
As she padded downstairs, the sounds in the common room reassured her that everything was as it should be: Arnold was chuckling with one of the other boarders, Miles was playing with a new, loud and annoying toy, and someone was making coffee in the kitchen. When Arnold saw her coming down the stairs he beamed, and Helga returned his affectionate smile, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to embrace in front of Miles just yet.
" Hey there, Helga," he said, standing when she came into the room, and squeezing her shoulder with secret meaning. " Did you sleep well?" he asked her again.
" Great!" Helga answered again, wishing she’d had more time to fix herself up a little nicer. Arnold didn’t seem to notice, though, his eyes were just as warm as they were last night.
Helga took a seat beside Arnold on the couch, had a cup of coffee and relaxed. Things were going to be okay. That creep Stinky wasn’t even around to spoil her mood. She let Miles explain in detail the every nuance of his new toy.
" And, see this button?" he asked, looking up to make sure she was paying attention. Helga nodded, and he continued, giving a detailed explanation of its function. When he was done, he looked to his father.
" Hey, dad, where’s Stinky?" he asked. " He hasn’t opened his present from us yet."
" He said we were out of eggnog," Arnold said with a shrug, " Apparently its ‘not Christmas without eggnog’. He went to the store to get a new carton."
Miles cocked his head at his father, " Dad," he said with a little smile, " Aren’t you going to give Helga her present?"
" Oh – Miles," Helga said, embarrassed, " I’m sure he didn’t get me anything – we didn’t really plan on being together for the holidays-"
" No, I got you a little something," Arnold said, surprising her, " Miles helped me pick it out."
" We got it from Riches, even," Miles said proudly.
" When did you do this?" Helga asked, beside herself, as Arnold handed her a small jewelry box.
Arnold shrugged, " Last night before the party. Its just a little trinket. Go on, open it." Helga did as he said, finding inside a necklace with a small, gold heart pendant.
" Arnold!" she exclaimed, flushing red, " You knew about my locket?!"
He frowned, "What locket?" he asked, " Don’t tell me you already have one …"
" Oh – no," Helga laughed, " I did when I was a kid, but – it sort of got lost in the mix. Thanks," she said softly, giving him a quick hug, wanting to keep him in her arms forever.
Arnold helped her fasten the locket around her neck, and asked Miles what he’d like to do for Christmas. Miles, of course, suggested that they go see the movie that featured a more souped-up special effects version of his new alien blaster toy.
" Alright," Arnold said with a nod, " Would you like to join us, Helga?"
" Why not?" she said, " If Miles doesn’t mind – I certainly don’t have anything else to do."
" I don’t mind," Miles said, " When can we go, Dad? Can we go now?"
" I doubt they’re showing it this early," Arnold said, getting up off the sofa.
" I’ll go get the paper. They’ll have the show times in there."
Helga laid back on the couch after he left, making room for Miles, who invited her to help him complete a puzzle an old lady who lived in the boarding house had given him.
Suddenly, the screeching of tires. Then silence. Helga’s heart froze – the car that had made the noise sounded like it was right outside.
" Hang on, Miles," she said, jumping up off the couch to follow one of the male boarders to see what the commotion was.
" Oh, God!" she heard the man exclaim when he opened the front door of the boarding house. Helga caught a glimpse of red over his shoulder. Dark red against the glaring white snow. Blood on the snow. Arnold.
She bounded down the stairs, tripped, and bashed her knee on the frozen ground as she fell. She couldn’t move. She was shaking. The pieces of the scenario laid out before her started to come together slowly … Stinky… climbing out of the car … Arnold … clutching his side.
‘ Call an ambulance!’
‘ I didn’t see him!’
‘ Somebody call 911, quick!’
‘ I was only going to get something from the store …"
The sounds around her seemed very far away. Helga crawled across the snow to Arnold, who looked past the man who was tending to him, right into her eyes, pleading with her.
Those eyes. Those eyes that should have never known pain.
Helga flung herself to his side, just in time to catch her name on his last breath.
And then he was gone.
Everything was a red blur for a moment. There was blood on her clothes. Miles was screaming, two women from the boarding house were holding him back. Another man was threatening Stinky, accusing him of running Arnold down on purpose.
" You were sitting there, waiting for him to walk outside!" the man screamed.
" Why in tarnation would I do that?" Stinky screamed back.
Helga knew why.
Stinky had run Arnold down out of jealousy. Because of her. Because of her.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, asking if she was okay.
The answer was no.
Helga lifted her head and let out a primal scream that shook icicles from the rooftops, and then she collasped into a heap in the snow, unable to process this, unable to breathe without him.
To be continued in part 6