Christmas in Brooklyn
Part Four: PS-118
" Haunted heart … won’t let me be …
Dreams repeat a sweet but lonesome
Song to me …"
~ Jo Stafford
Helga sat patiently in the piano room of Phoebe’s house, trying not to twitch too much as the young doctor removed her cast.
" This has healed well," Phoebe said to herself with a nod, pulling the last pieces off.
" God," Helga moaned, looking at her arm, "Its all green or something … it looks slimy!"
" Well!" Phoebe said, frowning at her, " I told you not to shower with the cast on, didn’t I?"
As she scolded her, two little Asian boys ran into the room, laughing and playfully fighting over a talking Pikachu doll. Phoebe clapped her hands at them.
" Alright, you two!" she snapped, " Out of here with those antics! Take it outside!"
" But, Phoebe!" one of her little cousins whined, " Its cold out there!" Helga heard the doorbell ring, and Meiko, her black pants covered in flour and a half-wrapped gift dangling from the pinky finger of her left hand, darted out to answer the door and feign excitement at the arrival of more relatives.
" Man," Helga muttered, itching her arm, " How does she do it? Miriam would have collapsed days ago." She felt a pang of regret when she thought of her mother: she remembered the dream she’d had a few days ago, of her parents huddling homeless in a dimly lit alley. It couldn’t be, Helga thought, shaking the image from her mind, Olga would never let that happen to them. Still, she wondered what had become of her parents after Big Bob’s Beepers went bust.
Phoebe shook her head at her own mother. " I tell her every year that the stress of hosting these holiday parties is bad for her cholesterol levels," she said, reaching over to smack Helga’s hand away from her arm, " Don’t scratch!" she chided.
" Crimeney!" Helga exclaimed when the doorbell rang again. " How many relatives do you have, Pheebs?"
Phoebe frowned, " I thought everyone was already here," she said, getting up to answer the door before her mother got the chance. " Oh!" she said, a little surprised upon pulling it open, " Curly!"
Helga stood and walked to the lobby to greet Curly, who was exchanging long-time-no-see pleasantries with Phoebe. Curly was wrapped in a stylish trench coat, a scarf with bits of snow stuck to it hanging loosely around his thin neck. He grinned at Helga upon spotting her in the crowd of short, dark-haired people that was now swarming throughout Phoebe’s household.
" C’mon in," Helga said, taking his arm and leading him to the relatively empty piano room. Phoebe followed them in, and they sat on the couch near the window, awkward for a moment at the sudden reunion.
" Isn’t this bizarre?" Curly said with a smile, and both girls giggled. It was bizarre, especially for Helga, who hadn’t been back to the old neighborhood in ages. To be seated with her childhood best friend and her best friend from adolescence was staggeringly odd.
" How have you been Curly?" Phoebe asked, " Would you like anything to drink? Eat? We certainly have plenty of food!"
" No thanks, dear," Curly politely declined, surprising Helga and Phoebe with his adult manners, when they both remembered him as a hellion in his youth.
" I’ve just dropped in for a quick chat that I promised Helga yesterday at Sunset Arms," he told her, " You should go by there—I’m sure Stinky and Arnold would love to see you."
" Yeah," Phoebe said with a small, sad smile, " I’d just hate to disappoint them with the way I’ve turned out – predictable old brainiac Phoebe, the surgeon who lives alone." She sat back and her cheeks reddened a bit; Helga got the feeling she hadn’t meant it to come out like that.
" Naw," Curly said with a wave of his hand, " They’d love to see you no matter what – and believe me, you’ve got the rest of us beat when it comes to careers! The only thing I’d worry about is making them jealous."
Phoebe’s smile grew warmer and more genuine, " What on earth has become of you, Curly Gamelthorpe?" she asked, " Some level-headed lass must have gotten her hands on you and molded you into a decent human being!"
Curly laughed, his gray eyes twinkling secretively, " Not really," he said, " I know I was a brat in school, but I guess life just got the better of me. I’ve lost my edge, I’m afraid." He glanced at Helga.
" That’s a shame," she said. He shrugged.
" Normalcy has its benefits," he said, " Don’t you agree?"
" Hey," Helga said, " I’m not quite there yet. I hope to be normal like Curly, when I grow up!" she joked, and he swatted at her, chuckling. " What are you up to these days, anyway?" she asked, " How many hearts have you broken? Banks have you robbed?" she giggled.
" I’m no heartbreaker," Curly said with a scoff, " And no career-person, for that matter! I do a little bit of everything. I help my buddy run a car washing business in the summer, but lately I’ve been driving snow-plows for Jake’s Winter Maintenance," he rolled his eyes, " Real glamorous, huh?"
" Glamorous is over-rated," Helga said quickly, not looking at him.
" I guess so," Curly said, watching her as she picked at her arm with disgust, " Mostly I hang around with Arnold and Stinky, play poker, take Miles to baseball games … you know, typical bum activities."
" Miles," Helga muttered, still not meeting his eyes, " Cute kid."
" Oh, yeah," Curly nodded, " Miles is great."
" I haven’t seen Arnold’s son in awhile," Phoebe mused, " I need to go visit them. They’re right down the street … but its hard." With that she excused herself to ‘go help her mother’. Helga watched her go, puzzled, then looked to Curly. He shook his head.
" She’s afraid she’ll see Gerald there," he said, keeping his voice low,
" They had some kind of affair in college – neither of them really talks about it and I think only Arnold knows what really went on – you know he and Gerald went to school together. Anyway, of course we can’t get the story out of him, Mr. ‘I Keep My Word ‘Til the Grave’ …"
" But poor Phoebe," Curly said, leaning back onto the sofa’s cushions, " It really crushed her when they broke it off … She dates these jerks now, I don’t know why."
" To punish herself," Helga answered curtly. Curly frowned.
" Why would she do that?" he asked. Helga sighed deeply.
" Because she made all the wrong decisions," she said, speaking of course of her experience, as she really didn’t know that much about Phoebe’s. " Because she … let him get away."
Curly was quiet for a minute, " Maybe," he finally said, " I don’t know anything about it. Love." Helga looked at him.
" Why not?" she asked, " You’re a good looking guy. And not quite a monster anymore." Curly snorted with brief laughter.
" I don’t know," he said, looking at his shoes. " I hate to say that I’m picky. I don’t deserve to be selective. But … I guess I just haven’t found the right girl. You know?" Helga didn’t respond. She had known – or, at least, thought she had known who the ‘right one’ for her was since pre-school …
" I think people who know are lucky," Curly told her, " I always thought Arnold was lucky, to have found Kathryn. But …"
" She died," Helga finished, trying to sound heartless.
"Yep," Curly said softly, watching Helga for some kind of sign.
" Must have been hard for him," Helga said, looking at the floor.
" You have no idea," Curly said, exhaling heavily to emphasize his words,
" He was like a zombie for months … only thinking of how it was effecting his kid pulled him out of it. And still …"
" He’s different," Helga finished, and Curly nodded.
" Not as different as you might think," he said, " I mean, he seems kind of cold sometimes … mostly just because he used to be so …"
" Warm?" Helga suggested, her cheeks blushing a careful pink.
" Uh-huh," he said, " But I think he’ll be okay. Arnold’s young … he’ll move on, eventually. If only … if only it wasn’t for his parents … then his grandparents …" Curly trailed off and looked behind him, out the window, at the falling snow.
" Looks like they’ll be more inches tonight," he remarked on the weather, clearing his throat. Helga turned and watched the flakes fall. The two simultaneously caught sight of their reflection in the frosty glass, and their eyes met. They sat silently, both feeling something in the moment but not knowing what to say about it, really. The feeling was one of loss of innocence, of intense memories oozing from every crack in the street, every brick in every building. Every school dance played through Helga’s mind in slow motion, girls twirling to forgotten tunes, their braids swinging carelessly through the air. When Helga looked at Curly’s image in the glass, she could hear the laughter of their childhood, feel the pain of their adolescence. She looked away and tried to shake herself out of her trance.
It was sad that they’d all drifted apart, but what elementary school friends stay close for any amount of time? Helga was surprised she’d even kept in contact with them throughout high school.
"What was she like?" Helga asked, picking at loose pieces of thread on the couch.
"Who?" Curly asked.
" Arnold’s wife," Helga said, " The fabulous Kathryn."
Curly shrugged, "He lived in London while they were married, so I never met her," he said, "I’ve seen a few pictures – Arnold keeps some in his room at the Inn."
Helga felt a pang of jealously. Give me a break girl, she thought, jealous of the guy’s dead wife? That’s pretty low, even for you.
" She had red hair," Curly said, " And … I mean, she was pretty, but nothing spectacular. You got the feeling it was more her personality that was attractive – like you might look at her and not think much of her face, but once you knew her you swore she was the most beautiful woman in the world?"
Helga frowned, " Are you sure you haven’t met her?" she asked with a laugh. Curly bit his lip.
" Sorry," he said quietly, " I guess I’m hypothesizing." Helga sighed.
" Yeah," she said, " I’m sure she was charming as hell. Arnold always went for those … sophisticated types. Ballet dancers, and the like."
Curly laughed, " Well," he said, " She was an archeologist, like his mother. I have a feeling he was … sort of looking for a motherly figure to replace that hole in his life. Which is kind of creepy if you ask me, but nobody ever asked me. Gerald always told me that it was more a marriage of comfortable love than passion."
" Hmm," Helga mused, secretly relieved. Comfortable love … her own marriage was something along those lines. Only it had been more of a comfortable bank account than a comfortable love. She and Dirk went together because they both made a lot of money: neither had to fear that the other was using them for their money.
" Its weird," Curly said, " I always thought Arnold might end up with … well, you."
" What??" Helga exclaimed, pretending to be shocked by the mere suggestion. " Why in damnation did you think that?" she asked. Curly laughed.
" I don’t know," he said, " Opposites attract? I think the two of you had a certain love-hate chemistry. Maybe just when we were younger. Like I said, what do I know about it? I guess I’m no match-maker."
" Well, um, is there like, any other reason you might think that?" Helga asked eagerly. " Just because, well, you know, its such a bizarre suggestion …"
A small, earnest smile crept over Curly’s lips.
" What?" Helga asked, leaning back, " What’s that look??" she demanded.
" Nothing," Curly said, " But there WAS one other reason I thought maybe … you and Arnold … you know."
Helga raised an eyebrow. "And …?"
" Just his whole … fascination … with you in high school," he said, " With your bad-ass attitude and total disregard for the rules. He was always fussing over you … I think he meant to sound annoyed, but to me he just seemed intrigued. Like I said, opposites attract and all. Maybe he thought you could bring out the wild streak in him," Curly suggested, poking Helga in the side playfully.
" Wild streak – ha!" Helga said, her leg bouncing up and down and revealing her secret excitement at such a theory. " As if that simpleton HAS a wild streak!"
" I don’t know," Curly said, standing, " I think everyone has a doppelganger hidden inside them. Something that makes them do things people wouldn’t expect – like me!" he said, grinning, " No one would have expected me to turn out as anything but a maniacal postal worker!"
Helga smiled and stood to hug him with one arm before he left for his family’s holiday party.
" I’m not trying to be cold here," Helga explained, " But trust me, you do not want this other arm anywhere near you, not before I take a shower!"
She and Curly exchanged good-byes, and Helga stood at the door, watching him walk to his car and struggle to get it started once he was inside. Finally the old car revved up, and Curly waved to her as he pulled away under the darkening sky. It was only mid-afternoon, but December clouds had over-taken the sky and were producing lazy snowflakes that threatened to make the difficult to navigate winter landscape even more treacherous. Helga watched Curly’s car until it disappeared, wondering if she would ever see her childhood friend again.
Something about this ‘back home’ situation seemed fragile—as if it were coming together carefully, piece by piece, but the slightest misstep might unravel everything, and send Helga reeling backward with the force of the strong wind she had dreamt of before she’d come here …
She had a bad feeling in her gut, and it wasn’t just from eating too much of Meiko’s chili-conquesa dip. Something in the old neighborhood was greatly amiss, she felt. But there was also the underlying need to have closure: to make sure people knew how she felt about them, even if she could only bear to give them the slightest hints. And for that she ignored her instincts, and pressed on in the world of the past.
Anxious to get away from Phoebe’s crowded house, Helga dressed in her snowy-weather things and decided to finally make her pilgrimage to PS-118. It was the last place she remembered being truly happy – on the stage when she’d managed to steal a kiss from Arnold during Romeo and Juliet, on the playground where she’d commanded the other fourth graders with the fear of Old Betsy and the Five Avengers. Helga chuckled to herself as she walked up the street, past the Sunset Arms. She paid the Inn a glance but stopped herself from making a detour, heading forward toward the school.
There was another cumbersome building to pass, one on the corner across from PS-118’s playground. It was Helga’s old house, the three-story brownstone where she’d grown up. She tried to make her way past her childhood home without looking, without remembering the painful days she’d spent there, trying to convince herself that her parents didn’t hate her, and that she wasn’t worthless because of it. But tears crept into her eyes anyway, and promptly hardened in the freezing Northern air. Helga shivered, and turned slightly to look at her former home.
The brownstone hadn’t been sold to anyone else, or at least it didn’t appear so. The windows were dark, and there were no Christmas decorations on the stoop or windowsills. One of the windows on the first floor was broken, and Helga shuddered as the darkness within the house stared out at her from the hole in the smashed window. It seemed to hypnotize her, to hold her in her place.
Helga started to shake, maybe from the cold, maybe from the ominous structure she stood before. Either way, she was afraid she’d be frozen there in its path, unable to break away from her guilt, her regrets that seemed to lie in this old house.
" Helga!" she heard someone calling her name through her haze of memories, and turned to look across the street, at PS-118. Her eyes found Arnold, standing at the edge of the small, rusty playground they’d spent their recess hour on as kids. There were a few kids running around it now, one of them being Miles. Helga exhaled, tore her eyes away from her childhood home, and walked on toward Arnold.
" Hey," he said as she approached, " Taking a tour of the old neighborhood?"
" I … guess so," Helga said, still a bit shaken. " Is that coffee?" she asked of the styrofoam cup Arnold held. He nodded.
" You want some?" he asked, " Its nothing fancy. Just black coffee." Helga nodded and snatched the cup, drinking from it and leaving a mauve lipstick stain on the edge.
" Another surprise," she said, feeling a sort of psychosomatic relief wash through her as Arnold’s coffee warmed her insides. " I never would have suspected you’d be taking your coffee black."
He shrugged, " Its’ nothing to do with my attitude," he assured, " Its just what I’ve gotten used to, what with living in jungles and deserts for years. There weren’t any sweeteners or cream packages there." Helga chuckled, and realized suddenly why she’d been so mean to him when they were kids. Meanness made her nervousness disappear. Now all she had was the anxiety of standing with him at the edge of the playground, the smell of his soap and the taste of his coffee dancing around her and titillating her senses.
" I see you’ve cut your hair since yesterday," she remarked, giving him a sideways look, which he met with his forever curious blue eyes. They looked softer outside in the meek light of the sky through the clouds.
" Yeah," he said, " I thought I ought to look nice for Stinky’s little Christmas Eve get together tonight." He had shaved, too, Helga noticed. He looked younger and more handsome, and she found herself inadvertently leaning toward him as they stood together and watched the new generation of neighborhood children play.
They were both quiet for a moment, Arnold’s eyes following Miles across the snow-filled school yard, and Helga’s watching the dark windows of PS-118 for ghosts. The two of us stewing here with our private obsessions, she thought darkly, noticing that none of the other children had parents that followed them on their play dates. She imagined that Arnold must be an extremely over-protective parent, mostly for his own sake. Miles seemed to be Arnold's last chance at a family.
" So why did you come back here, Helga?" Arnold finally asked her, his eyes narrowing a bit as he regarded her. Helga shoved her hands in her pockets. She wasn’t really sure why she was here, but she was beginning to see that it had a lot to do with him.
" I guess Phoebe talked me into it," she answered without missing a beat. She paused for a moment and then ventured more information: " I didn’t have much of a reason not to come. I lost my job." The words fell quickly from her mouth, and she was surprised to find that with their exit came a sense of relief, rather than embarrassment.
" I’m sorry," Arnold said, watching her. Helga wondered selfishly if she had his full attention: she was sure he had at least one corner of his eye on Miles.
" No," Helga said slowly, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully at the snow beneath her feet, " It was … a good thing. I was turning into my father."
" Your father," Arnold said, looking off into the distance with a scoff,
" I heard he lost his business. Whatever happened to him?"
" I haven’t the vaguest idea," Helga said, her voice getting hollow. And why shouldn’t it? It was a subject that she kept some distance from, her family. Only because of the distance they’d always kept from her, back when she was willing to give them a chance.
" I think we’ve both had some rotten luck," Arnold said with a sigh, clamping his hand on Helga’s shoulder. She quaked under his touch: he wasn’t wearing gloves, his bare hands were pink from the cold. She wanted to take them in her own hands and warm them, but she stood still. She cocked her head a bit to have a sideways look at her childhood ‘love’. Not letting herself meet his gaze, she watched his lips, which matched the red of his cheeks, reacting to the chill in the air. Helga let her mind wander: she allowed herself to imagine what Arnold’s lips might taste like now. Not like the orange popsicles of their youth, surely. There would be traces of cigarette smoke; she imagined he’d had a smoke this morning, early, after the sun had just come up behind the clouds. Then there would be the taste of coffee: sharp and dull, probably the only breakfast he’d had. Somewhere in the mix there would the taste of pure Arnold, a flavor she’d sampled only once. She could barely remember, now.
" Listen," he said, " I’m sorry if I was a little harsh yesterday. I was thinking about it last night … it wasn’t right of me to lay all that stuff on you. We’re old friends."
" Its okay," Helga shrugged him off quickly, not wanting any mushy take-backs. " We were never really friends, anyway."
" Yeah we were," Arnold insisted, sounding almost hurt.
" Come on," Helga said, looking at him straight on, which was kind of intimidating, somehow. " Its not like we … called each other up and got together to play spades." She almost reverted to her old ways, stopping herself when she was tempted to lean over and emphasize her sarcastic crack by spitting onto the sidewalk.
" Maybe not friends like that," Arnold said, " But we were … I felt like we were close. You know? I mean, we went through a lot together."
" You saved my life," Helga spat out without meaning to. Her frost-bitten cheeks blushed a darker red.
" When?" Arnold asked with a laugh.
" When we were in fifth grade," Helga said mechanically, not looking at him. " It was during that flood. I … fell out the window on the top floor – God, I don’t remember how. But you caught me." She looked at him, and saw in his eyes the memory dawning on him.
" You called out my name," he said quietly. They stared at each other after that: a boundary seemed to have been crossed. Helga felt him see past her mask, and she didn’t mind.
" Hey, Arnold!" a man’s baritone voice called out to him from the other side of the playground. Helga turned to see Gerald approaching, two pig-tailed rugrats in puffy pink coats jogging ahead of him toward the playground. Arnold waved, and Helga’s head dipped, sorry that the moment of truth she’d suddenly felt had passed.
" Gerald," Arnold said, his voice changing a bit in the presence of his old friend, " I haven’t seen you since Halloween, man," he reminded him.
" Yeah, yeah," Gerald said, nodding and slapping the hand Arnold offered amicably. " We’re in town for the holidays, staying with my parents."
Helga noticed that Gerald wore the same type of clothes that Dirk was fond of: stylish enough to prove that you had money without being showy. She gave Arnold’s attire another glance: his jeans were rugged and old, and really too thin for this weather, his long coat had holes in places and was missing two buttons: Helga remembered seeing something similar on his grandfather, ages ago. He wore a scarf that looked handmade: she imagined that Kathryn had knitted it for him in the first year of their marriage, that they’d sat by the fire with mugs of hot chocolate while her needles clicked, that she’d promised the scarf would keep him warm even when she wasn’t there to do the job herself. Helga wasn’t sure if she wanted to barf or cry, thinking about it.
" Is that you, Helga?" Gerald asked. His voice sounded the same: it had always been as deep as a man’s since he’d hit puberty. She nodded and offered a tiny grin in spite of herself. She and Gerald had always hated each other. He’d always been quick to advise Arnold to give up the niceties and stay away from her.
" Gerald," she said curtly, " You look well. Are those your daughters?"
" Yep," he said proudly, watching the girls as they pushed each other up and down on the snow-covered see-saw. " Amber and Gracie," he said.
" How’s Maureen?" Arnold asked about someone who Helga guessed was his wife: the woman who had stolen him from Phoebe? Or had Phoebe let him be stolen? She didn’t really know the whole story.
Helga imagined how she’d have felt if she’d known for sure all those years that Arnold was married. That he was officially not hers, as he had never been. She imagined what his life with Kathryn must have been like. Helga had never known a warm, comforting kind of love. She’d always had relationships, but like the family she had grown up with, her trust in her partners was shaky at best; she was always waiting for them to betray her, to give up on her, to grow bored. And they always proved her right.
But Arnold and his wife: surely they trusted each other completely. She pictured them lingering together in their fluffy, white bed on a rainy Sunday morning. She pictured Arnold, his blond hair tousled, his eyes soft and still idealistic, washed in blue Sunday morning light, watching his wife with adoration. But when Helga turned her thoughts to his bed fellow, she envisioned not a red haired Brit, but herself. A thinner, more relaxed version, perhaps, but Helga nonetheless. How she would have whiled away the days if Arnold had been her husband! Forget corporate takeovers: even making a piece of toast would have been too much to ask of her. She would have only been able to bask in his glow, to lie beside him and admire his body: uncloaked and vulnerable to only her.
Helga realized that she was getting carried away.
" Hey," Arnold said, tapping her shoulder while Gerald regarded her curiously. " You alright?"
" Yeah…" Helga said with a forced laugh. " I’m just … tired. I was in an accident," she blurted out without thinking. Arnold raised his eyebrows with concern.
" What happened?" Gerald asked.
" Uh, nothing," Helga said, shutting her eyes and giving her memory a shake. The details were fuzzy, even to her. She remembered an old woman, she could still smell the sheets of her too-sterile hospital bed. " An elevator crash in Canada."
" Damn!" Arnold said, his brow furrowing, " That’s scary. Did you sue?"
" N-no," Helga said, surprised that she hadn’t thought of that herself. " Truthfully, I don’t even remember the name of the building …"
" Geez," Gerald scoffed, " You get brain damage in the crash or something? You could get millions from those people!"
Helga scowled at him, " Maybe I was thankful enough just to come away with my life!" she said, " I’m not obsessed with money so much that its my first thought after coming out of a coma."
" You coulda fooled me," Gerald muttered. Helga felt like slugging him, but she had even surprised herself with her words. What’s become of me? she wondered, being around Arnold must be making me into a softie. Not that he was much of a softie, himself, anymore.
" That’s a good point, Helga," Arnold said, looking at Gerald, " Give her a break, man."
Or maybe he was. Helga’s heart raced: it wasn’t the first time he’d been the only one to stand up for her. Why the hell did he even give her the time of day, then and now? She’d done nothing but treat him like scum throughout most of his life.
Gerald crossed his arms and regarded the kids romping through the snow on the school yard. Helga had a feeling he’d demand an explanation from Arnold later, but in the meantime she didn’t care. The two of them didn’t seem to be that close anymore, anyway: she certainly hadn’t seen Gerald at the Sunset Arms for the boys’ Sunday poker game.
" I’m going to go look around," she mumbled, walking away from them, toward the school building. She heard footsteps following her quietly through the thick snow, and she had a pretty good idea it wasn’t Gerald.
Turning, she looked to Arnold, who put his hands in his pockets and chewed his lip a bit.
" I’ll show you something?" he suggested, unsure of himself.
" Okay," she agreed, deciding not to flesh out the situation with too much talk. It was surreal enough just being back here at their old elementary school, she didn’t want to confuse things by offering a lot of forget-me-nots that would spoil the mood. Instead she just followed Arnold as he led her around to the back of the school, toward the gym.
" Will Miles be alright?" she asked.
" Gerald’s watching them," he said, " I know the two of you don’t … agree with each other, but I trust him to take care of the kids. Anyway, this will just take a minute." He reached back and grabbed her gloved hand to help her over a snowy pile of rubble near the remodeled cafeteria, and then caught himself in the moment and looked back at her quizzically, as if to ask her if this contact was okay. Helga shrugged her shoulders and attempted a friendly smile: it felt odd, being nice to Arnold. She squeezed his hand.
" It must be weird for you," she said, " Being in all this cold weather after your … jungle days."
" Yeah," he said, stopping near the gymnasium doors, " Sometimes I feel like I just imagined that part of my life—that I never really got out of Brooklyn."
Helga scoffed, " Tell me about it. Back here … at the old school, especially, it feels like my adult life was just a bad dream."
Arnold stared at her, his lips parted slightly, as if he had the impulse to speak but couldn’t begin to find the words.
" Like if you just wished hard enough you could go back in time," he finally said. Helga looked at him and tried to envision him morphing back into the boy he was. Would anything be different if they could go back? She doubted it.
" We’re in the right place for a time shift, anyway," she said.
" This is it," Arnold said, looking up at the double doors with a sigh. Helga remembered Arnold’s sighs with undying clarity: he had the ability to be exasperated in the most adorable way. " The lock is broken," he explained, reaching out to push the door open slightly. There was a crack barely big enough for them to climb through, one at a time. " Go on in," he said, " I’ll hold the door."
" But …" Helga couldn’t help but think that the interior of the gym looked a little foreboding. It was pitch dark in there, and she heard the emptiness of the large room echoing from behind the doors.
" I’m coming in after you," he assured her, and something about the way he looked at her when he said it made Helga all too eager to scramble into a dark room with the object of her past (and, suddenly, present) affection.
So she crawled inside, and the scent that hit her upon entering took her breath away. It was the smell of a rainy day of recess spent playing an awkward indoor kickball game, the smell of a sweaty, nervous school dance, of every science fair she’d attended to root for Phoebe’s inevitable victory. She stood up in the dark room, completely disoriented as her eyes struggled to adjust. But Helga could clearly see the past, even in darkness: she could see her ten year old self, sulking with her trademark glare as she ripped on Arnold for fawning over Ruth McDougal, or Lila, or whomever, while secretly yearning for the dreamy impossibility of a slow dance with her head resting on his shoulder.
She heard him struggle through the door behind her, and felt his hand, heavy on her shoulder.
" Let me find the light," his voice was close to her ear, and Helga could barely breathe, choked by too many memories, too many unfulfilled dreams that were threatening to come true with every new touch.
Its too late, too late, she told herself quickly. We’re both broken, used and sober now. There’s nothing to dreaming of a romance with Arnold, there never was. It was just something to fill the hours. And now … now she could only hope to make a quick friend before leaving Brooklyn and all her memories behind forever.
" Here it is," she heard him say, and suddenly bright yellow light flooded the gym. Helga gasped, she was blind for a moment, and then the arena of her past came to life before her eyes. The soft light washed over the gym, and she stepped forward, taking it in.
" Pretty weird, huh?" Arnold asked with a small chuckle.
" Remember the dance with Dino Spumoni?" Helga asked, her voice small. " Rhonda and I were … giving you a hard time about booking him, but, but it was perfect."
" Yeah," Arnold said, standing beside her and watching the walls like she was, like they might come alive with the characters from their past: Rhonda rolling her eyes at Sheena’s latest fashion faux-paux, Eugene tripping over his shoelaces, Curly snickering to himself in the corner. " That was a good time," he said wistfully of the dance.
" I guess so," Helga said, letting out her breath and taking off her heavy coat and hat, " I never really had a good time at the dances. All the other girls got partners, I was always left standing near the punch bowl." She tried to laugh lightheartedly but she couldn’t make it sound authentic. What childhood outcast didn’t still harbor resentment toward their peers?
Arnold was quiet for a moment, thinking with his hands in his pockets. He looked at her:
" So let’s dance now," he said, without cracking a smile. Helga grinned and gave him a sideways look, trying to call his bluff. He didn’t flinch.
" What?" she asked, laughing, " We can’t dance – I’m … no! There isn’t even any music."
" I can take care of that," Arnold said, jogging over to the makeshift stage at the other end of the gym. Helga watched him dig through some boxes until he came out with a record. He waved it over his head triumphantly, and then placed it on the dusty old turntable.
" No, Arnold," Helga said, shaking her head as he walked back to her. " It’s a nice gesture, really, but…" The record started to play; it was some old jazz lady singing a haunting song about her lost romance. Arnold reached for her.
" Helga," he said, " Will you dance with me?"
" Quit it!" she snapped, " You’re being cheesy."
" Come ON," he said, grabbing her hand, " Humor me. For my sake. Its been awhile since I’ve cut the rug with a hip young lady."
" Oh please," Helga moaned, but she allowed him to drag her into the middle of the floor. And she certainly allowed him to place a hand on her waist, holding her hand in the other. She gingerly found his shoulder with her own free hand, suddenly wishing they weren’t the same height so she wouldn’t have to face his intense, melting stare as they moved across the floor.
" This is silly," she said quietly.
" I thought you wanted a slow dance?" he said, looking slightly dejected.
" Arnold," Helga said, squeezing his shoulder inadvertently. " I am glad to see you still have … some feelings. Yesterday … I don’t know, you scared me. Its scary to think of the mascot for optimism turning against his old ways."
" Everyone gets a little jaded as they grow up," he said quietly.
" Well, yeah," Helga admitted, " Especially Phoebe, geez! But you … I don’t know, what would we have all done without you, growing up?"
" Oh, come on," he muttered, annoyed with her flattery, " Can’t you just insult me and put glue in my hair like you did when we were kids?"
" Sorry," Helga said, her face falling a bit. " I don’t think I have the energy for that, anymore."
" Helga," he scolded, reaching down to cup her chin in his hand, pulling her face up toward his. " I was kidding. I’m glad we can be civil to each other, finally. You know … you were the great mystery of my youth?"
" What?" Helga asked with a nervous laugh, shocked that she was the great anything of someone’s life.
Arnold nodded, " You used to jump-rope outside of my house all afternoon when I stayed inside. I know I always irritated you, but I used to think that maybe I was your hobby. That pestering me was the highlight of your day," he grinned.
" It was different, with you," she admitted, her voice tiny. He won’t drag it out of me, she promised herself, but when he looked at her like that … there was no telling …
" Then in high school you just kind of drifted in a different direction, I guess," he said. She scoffed.
" Yeah, the hard-drinking, anti-social direction," she quipped, " You know I managed to land myself in Alcoholics Anonymous at seventeen?"
" I know," he said quietly. " I used to collect gossip about you."
" Well, then," Helga said, " I guess you know that I ran away from home after high school."
" Yes," Arnold said quietly.
" You don’t know everything about me," Helga challenged. " You remember when you were trying to reunite Mr. Hyuuh with his daughter on Christmas? And you needed those Nancy Spumoni snow boots?"
" Well, the ones that ‘magically’ fell into your hands were mine, a Christmas gift from my mother," she told him.
" I know," he said. She looked at him, taken aback.
" But how?" she asked. Arnold shook his head.
" I just had a feeling," he explained.
" What else do you know about me, smart guy?" she asked, a little annoyed.
" I know that you talked the other girls out of playing Juliet in our school play," he said, " Because you wanted the part."
" Yeah, so what?" Helga asked, letting go of him and taking a step back, examining her nails, " Maybe I was toying with the idea of becoming an actress."
But he walked to her, and put his arms around her again, pulling her closer this time.
" I know that you wrote poetry," he said, " I used to see you scribbling in class, I used to wonder what you wrote about."
" Oh shut up, shut up," Helga said, tears raising and threatening to choke off her voice, " You think you knew me – ha! Did you know I loved you? When we were kids? I absolutely adored you, and it drove me crazy. Did you know that??"
" I thought, maybe," he said quietly, " Its okay, I won’t hold it against you. We all had bad taste back then. Hell, I was head over heels for Lila, the biggest bubble-head of them all."
" Bad taste?" Helga said, looking up at him, " What do you mean?"
" I mean me!" he said, laughing, " Take a good look at the man of your childhood dreams, Helga," he said darkly, " Not exactly the stuff of adult fantasies."
" Give me a break," Helga said, sniffling, the weight of her confession slowly sinking in, " I could do a lot worse."
" I don’t see how," he muttered, " A washed up, lonely man who never got out of Brooklyn."
" Arnold," Helga said sincerely, " I … I’d still be lucky to have you. I mean, look at me! No job, no spouse, no family, no friends—"
" Welcome to the club!" Arnold shouted.
" You have a job, dunce!" she shouted back.
" Oh, how could I forget – I have the luxury of washing other people’s clothes for a living!" The two of them stared each other down for a moment, and smiles broke across their faces.
" God," Helga said with a laugh, bringing a hand to her forehead, " Who’d have thought we’d ever end up back here, in freaking PS-118, arguing about who has it worse off?"
Arnold giggled, and in a flash he had scooped her up in his arms and pressed his lips against hers, almost playfully. He moved the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip, and Helga realized in a rush what was happening. She shivered all over and grabbed his arms, steadying herself, somehow afraid that she’d fall.
Arnold brought his head back and looked at her, saw her terrified expression and released her.
" Sorry," he said, " I got caught up. Sorry. I haven’t even kissed anyone in three years—" he stopped himself, embarrassed.
" No, its okay," Helga said, the mere effort of keeping her knees from buckling taking up too much brain power to allow her to put a sentence together.
" I guess we should get out of here," he mumbled. The record was skipping near the stage on the other side of the room, and he went to lift the needle, leaving Helga standing dumbfounded in the middle of the gym.
Arnold, come back, she wanted to call out. The cold air in the unheated gym seemed to reach her as soon as he walked away, and she shook and tried to hold on to the bit of warmth that his touch had left behind.
Something in her told her to run. I can’t handle this, she realized, I wasn’t meant to see this through. This is a fantasy, a dream…
Before she knew it, she was fleeing the gym as Arnold slipped the old jazz record back into its cover. She pulled back the loose door and catapulted herself out onto the snowy landscape. He’ll never catch up with me, she assured herself as she jogged back toward Phoebe’s house. But of course she secretly wanted him to. Now that she’d had a taste of Arnold: the coffee, the cigarettes, the longing, the loneliness: her yearning for him had only grown stronger.
To be continued in part 5 …