Christmas in Brooklyn
Part Six: Violins
" Sometimes I get the feeling
That I won’t be on this planet
For very long.
I really like it here –
I’m quite attached to it
I hope I’m wrong.
All I really want to say:
You’re the reason I want to stay
I loved you before I met you
And I met you just in time
‘Cause there was nothing left …"
~ Ben Folds Five
Helga felt cold. She tried to reach for something to warm her: a corner of the covers that she could pull over her shoulder, but her arms felt tired, and heavy. Her eyelids were uncooperative when she tried to get them open. Finally, she succeeded, only to find herself staring up at a bright, white light.
An angel? she wondered. She thought of Arnold, and the pain of the memory came rushing at her like a tsunami. She felt a hand on her arm.
" Oh, Mommy, Mommy look!" she heard her sister squeal, " She’s opening her eyes! She’s waking up – Dad, come quick!"
Helga turned her head, an effort that cost her most of her energy. She saw Olga leaning toward her on the hospital bed, pools of black mascara forming under her tear filled eyes.
" Oh, my darling baby sister!" Olga gushed, sobbing, " You’re awake at last!"
" Helga!" Miriam suddenly came running to Helga’s side, dropping a cup of coffee on the way, ignoring the spill and grabbing Helga’s other arm, " We thought we’d lost you!" Helga saw Miriam’s eyes grow tearful, too, and she was shocked. She never thought her mother would shed a tear for her.
Bob was the last one to arrive at her bedside. Helga was surprised to see that his eyes were red from what looked like weeks of sorrow. He was haggard and unshaven, and Helga could feel his large hands shaking when he placed them gently on her feet at the end of the bed.
" Oh, come on, Miriam," he said in his gruff voice, pushing down any emotion, " We knew she’d pull through. She’s a fighter, like her old man."
Helga felt her own eyes tear up and overflow as she looked at her father.
" What are you all doing here?" she choked out, " What’s happened? Where’s Arnold?"
" Arnold?" Olga said, confused, " Whomever are you talking about, dear sister?"
" She’s just tired, Olga," Miriam reprimanded. " Helga, honey, you’ve been in a coma for nearly a month. We’ve been staying here in Canada, waiting for you to get better – Oh, its been like a nightmare."
" Yeah," Bob muttered, " The morons in this hospital have no idea how to direct traffic. Just getting in and out of this madhouse everyday has been enough to raise my cholesterol levels."
Helga silently forgave Bob, seeing suddenly what she’d missed in years of living with him. He was her. Everything awkward and mean that she’d ever said had been learned from him. She hadn’t only inherited his thick eyebrows – thanks to him, she had the genetic makeup of a bully with a soft, inner core. But if there was anything she had learned from Arnold, it was that the soft, inner core was worth loving someone for.
" Wait a minute," Helga said, feeling a bit stronger and struggling to sit up,
" You said we’re in Canada? But I was –"
It was that moment that the doctors rushed in, eager to test Helga for this and that, to check her vital stats and prepare her for rehabilitation. Phoebe was not among them.
It couldn’t have been a dream, Helga assured herself as they prodded and poked her. But how could I have gotten back to Canada … unless I never left?
" Mom," she said quietly as the doctors left to go process her information, muttering amongst themselves about the ‘miraculous recovery’. " Refresh my memory – how did I come to be … in a coma?"
" Oh, honey," Miriam droned in her sloppy voice, " You were in that awful, awful elevator crash. Remember? In the Turner building."
" And the old woman – what happened to the old woman who was riding with me?" Helga asked for the second time.
Miriam looked puzzled. She looked over at Olga, who shrugged.
" Helga, I was sure they said there was only one victim in the crash – you," Olga said, frowning slightly.
" Alright, back off, you two," Bob barked. " So she’s a little delusional – what else is new?"
All three of them were surprised to see Helga chuckle. She felt weirdly safe, and definitely comfortable, there in the quiet hospital room with her family. There were so many questions – she couldn’t imagine what she’d gone through during her coma being only a dream – but if it was, that meant Arnold was still alive! I have another chance, Helga thought, pushing herself further up in the bed.
" So when’s the soonest I can get out of here?" she asked eagerly.
" What’s your hurray?" Miriam asked, " You need all the time you can get to heal and recuperate."
" But I feel great!" Helga assured her. As if to purposefully spoil her mood, Dirk Kramer walked in the door as soon as the words had left her mouth.
" Darl-ing!" he said, clutching his chest. His voice sounded even phonier than Helga remembered. " Oh, what a re-lief!" he exclaimed, and Helga saw Bob roll his eyes as Dirk walked to her bed. She grinned.
" Dirk!" she said, reaching up to him and giving him a hug. She was in such a great mood suddenly that she could muster up affection for even her husband.
" Miriam, Bob, Olga?" she said, " Could we get a minute alone?"
" Sure, hon," Miriam said, patting her hand, " I could use a drink, anyway …"
Helga gave her Mom a look, and then watched her parents walk out of the room with Olga. There goes the root of all my problems, she thought: my alcoholism and my cynicism. But what were parents if not the passers-on of un-wanted –isms?
" Baby doll," Dirk said, taking a seat on her bed, " You look positively aw-ful! Not to be insensitive."
" Never mind, Dirk," Helga said patting his back, " I always admired you for your frank-ness. You’re like me in that way." He grinned.
" Helga babe," he said, " You’d better recover quickly. The bar scene in Canada totally sucks! What a bunch of back-woods buffoons, eh?"
Helga laughed at his stupid joke. " I couldn’t agree more," she said, grabbing his wrists, " But my parents want me to stay! They say recuperation will last months!" Dirk’s eyes bulged.
" Look," he said, " I’m all for your recovery, lover, but I hope you don’t expect me to stick around for even the rest of the week. I’ve only been here two days and already this crappy town and your parents are driving me crazy."
" You won’t need to stay," Helga whispered, " We’re breaking out of here today." Dirk frowned.
" Breaking out?" he asked, straightening his tie, " What exactly do you mean?"
" All I need you to do is steal a wheelchair and wheel me out of here without causing a commotion," Helga said, keeping her voice low. He made a pensive face.
" Dear," he said, " I may be somewhat depraved, but – stealing a wheelchair? That’s beneath even me."
Helga gave him a knowing look.
" Alright," he admitted with a laugh, looking toward the ceiling, " Maybe not. But where could I find one?"
" Just grab one that isn’t being used," Helga said, her grip on his arm tightening. She felt half mad, but she didn’t care. She had to get to Arnold, as soon as possible. Her heart wouldn’t be settled until she saw his face. " I’m sure they have a plethora of extra wheelchairs here."
Dirk regarded her seriously for a moment: " You really want me to do this, don’t you?" he tested. Helga nodded solemnly. Dirk sighed, and ran a hand through his stylishly cut dark brown hair. Helga tried to remember why she’d loved him. Maybe because he reminded her so much of who she was trying to be when she projected her heartless, sarcastic exterior. Maybe she was just trying to love the person she thought she was.
" Babes," he said, standing, " I guess I just don’t understand why we have to sneak out of here. You’re an adult – it’s a free country … kind of. Can’t you just check out on your own?"
" I could," Helga said, putting her feet over the side of the bed. " But that would take the filling out of papers, and fighting with my folks, and a lot of do-gooder whining from Olga – so just be a dear and steal a wheelchair for me, wouldya?"
Dirk finally agreed, and exited the room to look for a wheelchair. Helga couldn’t believe he had listened to her – it must be his guilty conscience, she thought, surprised that he had one. The shock of having his estranged wife lapse into a coma in the midst of his latest extra marital activity must have been a big one, big enough to get him to actually show up at the hospital, which was impressive, for Dirk.
Miriam came back into the room after he’d left, and told Helga that Bob and Olga had gone to get something for her to eat from the cafeteria.
" What are you doing out of bed?" she scolded. Helga rolled her eyes.
" Aw, Mom – I mean, Miriam – don’t start treating me like I’m seven years old. I just want to get some clothes on, okay? This napkin thing they’ve got me in is drafty."
" Well, alright," Miriam allowed, " We brought some clothes for you – they might be kind of outdated, its stuff you had left at the house … years ago … you know." Helga’s mother looked at the floor.
" Miriam," Helga said quietly, picking up the clothing she’d brought. " Can you shut the door?"
Helga watched her mother look out the window as she got dressed in the black pants and light pink shirt she’d brought for her. Helga felt like wretching when she looked in the mirror – not only did she look like hell, she hadn’t worn pink in years. Most of her adult clothing was in blacks and grays – colors that suited her business woman lifestyle.
Something dawned on her when she thought of herself as a business woman: " I haven’t lost my job!" she exclaimed. Miriam looked up, surprised by her outburst.
" Of course not, Helga," she said, " They can’t fire you for being a coma, for God’s sake. That would be unusually cruel."
" You don’t know the politics in my field, Mom – er, Miriam," Helga said, pulling on a pair of socks, " And anyway I had a dream that they did."
" You dreamt while you were in the coma?" Miriam asked, curious. She had a new cup of coffee now, and she sipped from it timidly.
" Uh-huh," Helga said, " And I was thinking, anyway – maybe I’ll quit the brokering business."
" But – why?" Miriam asked, panicked. " You were on the cover of Time magazine, Helga!"
" Yeah," she mused quietly, " I was really something." They didn’t even want to her smile for the picture. She had been relieved.
" And what would you do if you quit?" her mother asked.
" I dunno," Helga said, throwing her arms out and grinning wickedly, " Maybe I’ll work at a Laundromat."
" Helga G. Patacki!" Miriam exclaimed, aghast. Helga giggled.
" Just kidding, Miriam," she said, " Geez, lighten up."
Helga saw tears pop into her mother’s eyes, welling up behind the frames of her glasses.
" I can’t lighten up, Helga," she insisted in her permanently exasperated voice. " We thought you were … oh, I never would have forgiven myself if you hadn’t woken up!"
" Why not, Mir?" Helga asked, placing a hand on her mother’s shoulder to let her know that she was real, and safe again. Though personally, Helga knew she would always have a hard time believing in reality, now, after that gut-wrenching dream …
" Because I was a horrible mother," Miriam sobbed, " I might as well have cut the elevator cables myself!"
" Oh, stop it," Helga said, giving her mother an awkward hug, " You weren’t … things could have been worse…" Not reassured, Miriam continued sobbing.
" Remember that one time we went on a road trip together?" Helga asked, and Miriam brightened a bit.
" Oh, God," she said with a grin, wiping some tears away, " I remember the bull ride …" she giggled, " That was a wild time."
" Its one of my best childhood memories," Helga lied, trying to make her mother feel better. Suddenly Dirk wheeled his assignment into the room.
" A wheelchair?" Miriam said, puzzled, " Is he taking you somewhere?"
" Yep!" Dirk beamed, and Helga was nervous for a moment, " I was going to take her for a ride around the hospital to look at the Christmas decorations – poor thing, had to miss Christmas, her favorite time of year!" He winked at her, and Helga thanked her lucky charms for Dirk’s miraculous lying skills.
" Missed Christmas," Helga mused, taking a seat in the rolling chair, " What’s the date today, anyway?"
" Why, it’s the 26th," Miriam said, " You just missed it, I’m afraid."
Helga shuddered in the wheelchair: her dream had ended on December 25th, and she had woken up on the 26th… odd.
" Well, we’re off," Dirk said, starting to take her away. Helga caught sight of her mother’s face as they were leaving: an excess of emotions were painted across it: guilt, happiness, bewilderment at today’s events, and, at last, love. Helga had waited to see that look on her mother’s face since she was a child. Maybe it had always been there, maybe she had only been blind to it, then.
" Wait," Miriam said, her voice threatening to crack again, " Shouldn’t you take a coat?"
" Haven’t got one," Helga said, " I guess my posh new Donna Karen number got burnt up in the crash."
" God," Miriam said, shivering, " Its such a miracle that you survived." She walked to her daughter and knelt down before her wheelchair, touching her face briefly, and then removing her own coat and wrapping it around Helga’s shoulders.
" Stay warm," she whispered the words like a good-bye, like she knew Helga was leaving.
" Right then," Dirk said, jerking her out of the room, " Be back in a jiff!"
Helga turned to look at her mother as Dirk wheeled her away. Miriam gave her a tiny wave. They rounded a corner, and she was gone.
The house in Vermont was just as she’d left it when she’d gone on her business trip to Canada. Helga stood in the foyer of the estate for a long time, running her hands over things, memories flooding back to her.
She felt like a half a person. Like her dream had taken part of her and kept it in the world she’d visited while in her coma.
" Dirk," she called into the kitchen where he was fixing himself a welcome home sandwich, " Honey, I’m going to need the car." He looked up at her, confused.
" Don’t you want to like, rest, or something?" he asked, taking a huge bite of his snack.
Helga shook her head, " I don’t have time," she said, " There’s something I have to do. I have to do it right now." Dirk threw down his sandwich, frustrated.
" Helga, what the hell is going on?" he asked, " You know your parents have probably already left 200 messages on the machine since they realized you left the hospital. What am I going to tell them when they call again?"
" Tell them I’m coming home for awhile, but I have to take care of something in New York first," she said. " Dirk, this is over. You and I both know it. I’ll get Maxwell to draw up the papers – you can have the house, but I want all the furniture I bought, the Explorer, and the boat."
Dirk’s face went white. " Helga," he said, " I think you’re sick …"
She laughed, " And I appreciate the concern, really," she said, going to the fridge and grabbing a banana and a few apples for the plane ride, " You haven’t been this nice to me since we found out I couldn’t have children."
He swallowed, " The doctor said it was important that I be supportive …" he muttered.
" I know, darling, and for all its worth, you did a bang up job, really," she said, " But I know you’re having an affair – I mean, for Christssake – maybe letting your mistress answer the phone at our house was something of a give away?"
He put both of his hands on the counter and looked at the floor.
" Damn, Helga," he said, quiet, embarrassed, " Why are you taking this so well?"
" I don’t know," she said with a small laugh, " I guess I’ve already … gotten used to the idea of us being apart." He looked up at her.
" Because I’m gone so much? On business trips?" he asked, " Well, you can’t entirely blame me for that – you travel more than I do."
" No, no, babes, its not that," she said with a sigh, " Its this sort of premonition I had – oh, hell, I’m not one for explaining." She scratched her head,
" I’m in love with someone else?" she tried.
" You are?" he asked, his eyes widening. Helga nodded slowly.
" I think so," she said, " I just have a feeling. You wouldn’t understand – you were never a romantic."
" Guilty," he said, holding up his hands, " But I didn’t think that was what you wanted."
" Me either," she said with a laugh, " But … well, maybe I did know. I think its just a case of me having forgotten what I want."
" Alright," he said, leaning against the counter, in something of a state of shock, " You can have the boat. But I get the condo in Salt Lake City." Helga raised an eyebrow.
" Actually," she said, " I was hoping we could sell it and split the money."
" Damn you," he said with a devious smile, " I should have married a mindless pre-nup signing gold digger."
Helga grinned, " Here’s to second chances," she said.
Helga had a mental to-do list, which she reviewed as she buckled her seatbelt on the first class flight she’d booked to LaGuardia. She’d already accomplished the first two tasks on her agenda: Escape from the hospital and End the shallow marriage. And now she was working on her third step: Fly to New York. From LaGuardia she would catch a cab and go to Brooklyn, to the old neighborhood. If Arnold wasn’t there, she’d search the world for him. She was ready to give up everything. She had never felt more alive.
Except for the fact that she was exhausted. The coma had taken its toll, and her muscles still felt apathetic and lousy. Though the plane ride would be under an hour of flight time, she knew she would fall asleep in her seat.
A woman pushed her way through the aisle and took a seat beside Helga.
" I’m late," she muttered to herself. She looked at Helga, " They had to hold the plane for me," she said, " Can you believe that?"
Helga shrugged, staring at the woman. She looked eerily familiar. She was tall, with short, dark, unkept hair. She wore large glasses and baggy, hippie-ish clothes that didn’t suit her thin figure. She noticed Helga staring and sighed hugely.
" If you’re going to ask, yes, I’m Rhonda Rosewood-Llyod," she said, and Helga was practically thrown back against the wall of the plane with shock, " And I do give autographs – but they don’t come cheap. Five dollars for the signature, and two additional dollars for each word of personal endorsement."
" W-what?" Helga stammered, still not believing that this rugged looking woman was the Rhonda she’d gone to school with. But she did have the same eyes, the same cheekbones … and certainly the same snotty disposition.
" Personal endorsement," Rhonda re-iterated, misunderstanding Helga’s questioning, " You know, like, Dear So-and-so, it was nice meeting you, I’m so thrilled that you were inspired by my book – blah, blah, blah. That sort of thing."
" Rhonda – you don’t recognize me?" Helga asked, and the seatbelt light flashing on above the cockpit. The stewardesses began going through the motions of their safety dance.
" Recognize you?" she asked, seeming offended by the suggestion, " I’m so very sorry but I meet millions of fans a day, and you just can’t expect me to remember names, or even faces." She paused for a moment. " You weren’t one of Devon’s girlfriends, were you?" she asked, infuriated at the idea.
" No – we went to school to together," Helga told her. Rhonda rolled her eyes.
" Oh, boy, here we go," she muttered. And then she looked back at Helga, her eyes softening a bit behind the frames of her unattractive glasses. " Wait," she said, " You mean, like, little kids school?"
" That’s one way of putting it," Helga said, as the plane began moving up on the runway, " We went to elementary school together. Remember? Helga, the bully?"
Rhonda’s eyes bulged, and she burst into laughter.
" Helga – oh, it IS you!" she cracked up, " You’re not ugly anymore! I never would have guessed. And these clothes! Very stylish. Kind of like the garments I might have worn before I was enlightened."
" Have you read my book, Helga?"
" Um … not yet?" Helga said, apologetically.
" Well," Rhonda, not missing a beat, reached for her carry-on bag, " Lucky for you I carry a dozen of these suckers with me whenever I travel!"
" Oh! Heh."
" Helga, are you wearing lipstick?" Rhonda asked, hugging a copy of her book to her chest.
" I think so," Helga admitted, touching her lips. I just wanted to look nice for Arnold, she thought. She realized how pathetic Rhonda would think her if she told her that she was running after her kindergarten crush, so she kept her mouth shut.
" Hel-GA," Rhonda said, handing her the book, which was titled: I Thought Always Meant Forever.
" Doesn’t it?" Helga muttered at the book’s cover. As far as she knew the two words were still synonyms.
" Haven’t you grown up enough to realize that wearing makeup and dressing in stylish attire is only perpetuating man’s stronghold on us? Its completely misogynic to even consider buying panty hose. I mean, think about it, Helga. Who are you dressing up for? Your husband? Your lover? Why not dress for yourself?"
" Wow, Rhonda," Helga said, putting the book in her bag, " You’ve really changed."
" Well," Rhonda said, straightening the cowry shell necklace she wore. " Going through a divorce proved to be a truly illuminative experience."
" Oh, goody," Helga mused, " I have a lot to look forward to, then?"
" You’re divorced?" Rhonda asked, jumping slightly and grabbing Helga’s arm. She looked at her with the fresh eyes of sisterhood. Helga grinned. Seeing Rhonda on the plane definitely meant something. I’m on the right track, she thought. He’ll be waiting for me – just like Curly said in her dream.
" Yep," Helga shouted over the roar of take-off. " Well, not legally, not yet. But I just told him I was leaving him today."
" Oh," Rhonda’s face fell a bit, " You left him?"
" Uh-huh," Helga said, " But he was cheating on me."
" The bastard!" Rhonda shouted, brightening.
They discussed their loser ex-husbands for the remainder of the flight. Rhonda’s was Devon Woodward, the actor.
" The sonofabitch just won an Oscar for playing some retarded guy," Rhonda lolled after she’d had a few glasses of complimentary first-class champagne. " I mean, for crying out loud," she scoffed, narrowing her eyes, " How hard is that? He practically was one on his own."
Helga giggled, and Rhonda asked if she wanted some champagne.
" No thanks," Helga said. " I don’t drink. Anymore."
" Ohhhh, that’s right," Rhonda said, sitting up, " You were a drunk in high school, I forgot."
" Yeah," Helga said, smoothing her hair and suppressing her impulse to pound the still pretentious yet less vain Rhonda into the ground. Rhonda promptly reached over and messed up her ‘do.
" Hey!" Helga protested, " What’s the big idea?"
" Forget your hair!" Rhonda said militantly, " Who are you trying to impress? Me? I like it better messy. Hey!" she screamed at the flight attendant, " What does a girl have to do to get a drink on this flying trash heap?"
" I used to have my own jet," Rhonda whispered to Helga, as an annoyed flight attendant filled her glass again. " I should never have tried to make my book into a movie," she added, giggling.
It was a forty-five minute flight, but with Rhonda’s company Helga felt like she might as well have been flying to Siberia. When the plane finally landed at LaGuardia, Helga couldn’t wait to get off. It was snowing again: fat post-Christmas snowflakes just beginning to come down as they landed.
Rhonda was smashed by the time they got off the plane, and Helga had to help her walk. She managed to find both their bags and to drag the intoxicated author out to the area where people were waiting for cabs. An enormous stretch limo awaited Rhonda, and Helga helped the driver hoist her inside.
" Helga, you’re a pal," Rhonda slurred, " I’ll never forget you again. You look great. Even though you shouldn’t."
" Bye, Rhonda," Helga muttered as the limo driver shut the door. Glad to be rid of her, she walked over to the sea of yellow taxis to find herself a ride. Her heart rate was going faster now. She was so close. Only a thirty minute cab ride away.
Unless the traffic was bad. It was the day after Christmas, and New York was swarming with gift exchanges and relatives on their way home. Helga fretted over this for a moment, and told herself to calm down. The traffic was nearly the least of her worries, though. The fact that Arnold’s hypothetical wife might still be alive and well was making her sweat nervously, even in the freezing cold. Not to wish anyone dead, Helga quickly thought. It would just make things easier on everybody if Arnold wasn’t already married …
Suddenly it hit her that this whole thing was insane. So she’d had a dream about Arnold. So what? She’d had tons of dreams about Arnold. Had they ever inspired her to leave her husband and go back to New York and try and woo him? No … but none of her previous dreams had ever been quite so intense. Every single detail of her coma-dream was burned into her memory as if it had actually happened: Phoebe’s grandmother admonishing her in the hallway, Miles and his sugar cookies, that little sign swinging on Stinky’s door the night before … Helga shuddered.
" Hey, miss!" one of the cabbies called to her in a thick New York accent,
" You need a ride or what?" he asked, holding open the door of his cab for her.
" Oh …" Helga said, shaking herself out of her thoughts and handing him her bag, " Thanks," she said, climbing inside. The snow, meanwhile, was coming down harder. Please, please don’t let us get stuck, Helga prayed.
Her cab driver climbed in after dumping her bag in the trunk, and they were off, but slowly. The traffic was the worst Helga had ever seen it: she usually wasn’t in the city around the holidays.
" So where ya headed?" the driver asked. Helga was surprised that he was Caucasian – it was a real rarity in cab drivers.
" Brooklyn," she answered, " Hillwood street. You know it?"
The cabbie laughed shortly, " Know it?" he said, " Babe, I grew up there."
Helga’s face went white – " You’re kidding!" she said, " I just flew here next to a woman who grew up in Hillwood. Some coincidence." She knew it meant something. She knew she was doing the right thing. There were powerful forces at work here …
" What was the broad’s name?" her cabbie asked. " The one you flew with."
" Rhonda Llyod – I mean, Rhonda Rosewood—Lloyd."
Her cabbie turned around, and she tried to place his face. Something about the shape of his chin and his easily sneering mouth looked familiar – but she was sure she didn’t know those gray-blue eyes.
" No kidding," he said, his eyes narrowing a bit as he studied Helga, " I went to school with Rhonda Llyod."
" So did I," Helga said, frowning. She glanced at his cab driver’s license. Thaddeus Gamelthrope.
" Curly!" she exclaimed, guilt at not recognizing her friend through adolescence washing over her.
" That’s what they used to call me," he said, grinning and glancing back at her, " But you don’t look familiar. Who were you?" he asked, and his question struck Helga as heartbreakingly appropriate.
" H-Helga," she stuttered a bit, and Curly nearly crashed as the recognition sunk in.
" I’ll be damned to hell!" he exclaimed happily. " It is you! I hardly know you without your mascara and lip-liner and all that mess." He snickered.
" I hardly know you without your glasses," Helga returned, smiling. " You look great, Curly," she said, feeling shaken. He looked almost exactly as she had seen him in her dream. He wasn’t as thin, and his eyes were brighter, but otherwise he was the spitting image of the adult Helga had dreamt him to be.
" You look good, too, Helga," he said, keeping his eyes on her as he drove. Helga wanted to hug him, but there was a little plastic wall between them.
" Really?" she said, looking herself over. She’d tried to fix herself up as best she could for this trip. She had washed her hair and put on one of her most ‘sophisticated’ outfits: sleek black pants and a gray cashmere turtleneck. Over the ensemble was Miriam’s somewhat out-of-place-looking waist-length jacket.
" Yeah, really," Curly said, still beaming.
" So what’s with the accent?" Helga asked, sitting forward and leaning over the seat in front of her.
" Oh," he said, dropping the inflection, " Its just something I do, heh. I’ll cut it out if its on your nerves."
Helga reached over and pinched Curly’s cheek, " Unbelievable," she said, grinning, " Curly, this is the best day of my life."
" What for?" he asked, looking back at her.
" I’m finally doing what I want," she said. She remembered her dream: Curly had kept in touch with Arnold, at least he had in that world, anyway. She toyed with the idea of asking about Arnold’s marital situation. She was too afraid of the possible answer.
" So I read about all your big business stuff," he said, " Pretty impressive."
" I guess so," Helga said, " I think that part of my life is over." She felt a spot of déjà vu course through her – hadn’t she said that before?
" I coulda been a soap actor, ya – I mean, you know," Curly said, raising an eyebrow. " But I didn’t want that superficial life," he asserted proudly, " And anyway I like being a cabbie. Plus I do a buncha other stuff on the side, too. Like surveillance work? And for a while I was in Vegas, dealing cards. But that place starts to get to you after a while, you know? Oh – and snowplowing," he added, and Helga froze.
" Snowplowing?" she asked meekly, tremors moving through her. Curly had said he worked for a snow plowing business in her dream … hadn’t he? Things were starting to get fuzzy.
" Yeah," he said, " My buddy owns a maintenance business."
" Jake?" Helga asked, the name coming to her almost unconsciously.
" That’s him," Curly said, turning around, surprised. " You’ve heard of Jake’s Winter Maintenance, I guess?"
" No …" Helga said quietly, " Curly I need you to tell me something."
" Anything, my Nordic Princess," he joked, using his old nick name for her.
" Who have you kept in touch with over the years?" she asked, her heart thumping wildly, " From the old neighborhood, I mean."
" Well, let’s see," Curly said, rubbing his bare chin. " Its not so much that I’ve kept in touch with people, per say, but I pretty much know where they all ended up."
" Really?" Helga said with a nervous laugh. " So where is everybody, then? I haven’t kept up with anyone – not even Phoebe, not even you."
" Yeah, I was a little sore about that for a while," Curly said with a small smile, " You knew I had a big crush on you in high school, right?"
" Er – no," Helga said, " I had no idea." She tried to push the idea out of her mind for now – she had no time for Curly’s past longings at the moment.
" Man, you were so clueless," Curly said, laughing and shaking his head. " You remind me of my ex-wife. No offense."
" Um, none taken," Helga said, wishing he’d get on with his assessment of their old classmate’s present lives, " You’re divorced?"
" Three times," he said with a shrug, " And don’t let anyone tell you that the third times a charm, because it ain’t. She was the worst of all of ‘em!"
" You’re doing the accent again," she informed him.
" So, anyway," Helga said, " I certainly know now in detail what Rhonda’s doing these days – but what about everybody else?"
" Hmm," Curly said, " Well, you probably know Phoebe’s a doctor."
" I had guessed as much," Helga said, her heart skipping a beat as she learned that another one of her dream’s forecasts had been correct. But this one wasn’t so spectacular: she had known Phoebe was majoring in medicine.
" Is she married?" Helga asked.
" The last I heard she was divorced," Curly told her, and Helga’s heart faltered again. What if her dream had been exactly accurate at every turn – what if Arnold had died just yesterday in a car accident?
But no, that couldn’t be true. After all, things were different. Without her in the picture, Stinky wouldn’t be over-run with jealousy, if he were even still living in the old neighborhood …
" What about Stinky?" she asked. " What ever happened to that maroon?" She used one of she and Curly’s old joking insults. He chuckled, and then became serious.
" He’s in jail," Curly said with sincerity, and Helga shook her head. " Yep," he said, " Some girl claimed that he was stalking her, and he got in a lot of trouble. Poor dope."
" Don’t feel sorry for him," Helga said quickly.
" Sorry," Curly said, " You’re right. The guy always gave me the creeps in high school, maybe he really is no good."
" So what about the others?" Helga asked " Lila, and Nadine – and Arnold?" she managed to squeak out the name.
Curly gave her a look in the rearview mirror. " You were sweet on Arnold, weren’t you?" Helga shrugged and looked out the window, convinced now that the news would be bad. Why did I have to wake up? she wondered – if only I had realized it was a dream while I was still in the coma, I could have saved him, or even gone back in time. But, in retrospect, it hadn’t really felt like a dream where she had control of anything. It hadn’t really felt like a dream at all – hadn’t she felt him inside her? Helga’s lip quivered as she wondered how she could have been fooled by the guise of sleep.
" I guess I kind of crushed on him when we were kids," she muttered.
" Well, um, let’s see," Curly said, stalling. " Lila works for the Peace Corps-" Helga scoffed and Curly grinned. " Yeah, I know," he said, " And Nadine married some fellow entomologist. I think they live in Arizona. Somewhere in the south west."
" And Arnold?" Helga demanded, bracing herself. Curly turned and looked at her.
" Oh boy," he moaned. " This traffic! Hang on. Hang on just one second. I’m gonna pull over here."
" What?" Helga asked, " On the side of the road?" Curly didn’t answer her, he just guided the taxi over the curb and parked there, earning honks from his fellow commuters. They had just gotten off the connector bridge – the Hudson River surged below them.
Curly climbed out of the cab, and Helga followed.
" What the hell is this?" she asked, throwing out her arms, " Why did we stop?" Curly looked at her, and then at the river. He pulled a pack of Marblos from his jacket pocket, put one to his lips and lit it.
" You want a smoke?" he asked, offering her the pack.
" No," Helga said slowly, barely even tempted, " I think I quit."
" I guess being in a coma will do that to you," Curly said, looking her straight-on.
" You knew?" she asked softly.
" I read about it in the paper. Brokering Tycoon in Coma After Canadian Elevator Crash. I tried to come and see you," he admitted with a dark laugh, " They only allowed family in the hospital room. But I stood at the door and looked in that little window. I could see your feet from around the corner." Helga smiled.
" So what I’m saying is that I know how you’re going to feel," he said, flicking ashes into the dirty snow. Helga frowned, confused.
" What do you mean?" she asked. " What do you mean you know how I’ll feel? How I’ll feel about what?"
" About losing someone who’s already gone," he said, not looking at her. " It’s a freakin’ weird feeling. I was afraid you were dead, Helga. And I’d … lost your friendship, lost my chance. You were right there … and I couldn’t even open the door. I couldn’t even look you in the face and say goodbye. I can’t believe you just climbed into my freakin’ cab."
" All’s well that ends well, right?" Helga said, walking to him and wrapping him in a hug. She’d never hugged Curly throughout their friendship – but his arms around her already felt familiar, thanks to her dream.
" Helga," Curly said, his voice muffled in her hair, " You’re going to be upset."
" What?" she asked, pulling back from him. She thought she saw the beginnings of tears in his eyes.
" Its Arnold," he said quietly, " I know he meant something more to you than _"
" What, what?" Helga asked, hysterical, grabbing his arms, " Just tell me, just say it," she demanded, crying already.
Curly wiped a tear from his gray-blue eye, " He’s gone, Helga. He and his wife died five years ago on some expedition. Just like his parents. It was disgusting irony – I can’t believe you didn’t hear about it."
Helga let go of Curly’s arms and sat down in the snow. Cars continued to pass by, and flurries continued to drift down past her face like so many frozen tears. But Helga began to slip out of the world.
Just take me, she whispered silently to her head trauma, take me back to the coma, or even better, finish me off. Take me to him. She felt arms go around her, warming her. Yes, she thought, just take me to a warm place, away from this world. To him … she felt hands shaking her shoulders.
" Helga!" Curly’s voice brought her back to reality. She wasn’t dying. Helga put her face and her hands and cried.
You have your whole life ahead of you, Arnold had said in her dream. So why did she feel like she just lost it?
Curly took her to his place in the city. Helga didn’t care where she went anymore. Her purpose for being in New York had just flown out the window with Arnold’s soul.
So he’d died with his beloved. Helga wondered if her name was really Kathryn. She wondered if they’d had a child. Was there a Miles somewhere who was in the same situation his father had been in as a child? And a little blond girl who watched him from afar, her heartache growing with the years? Was life this unfair, recurring cycle?
Curly’s apartment was tiny. Helga rested in his bed while he and his roommate, a songwriter who played in all the Tribeca clubs, made dinner.
" Helga?" Curly’s voice came quietly into the room as dusk fell. She watched the sky through his tiny window as she lay there, feeling as though she didn’t have the strength to answer him.
He walked in and sat on the bed behind her. She wasn’t facing him, but she heard his tiny sigh. He put a careful hand on her hair and moved it gently away from her face.
" Hey," he said, " Dinner’s ready."
" Okay," Helga managed to say. She turned and looked up at him. " I don’t know what my problem is," she said with a forced laugh. " He was just my … stupid girl hood fantasy." Curly shook his head.
" I would react the same way if you hadn’t made it … out of the coma," Curly assured her. Helga didn’t believe him. No one had ever loved anyone the way she’d loved Arnold.
" Alright," Curly said, getting up, " Come and eat if you want. Kevin made beef stew."
" Sounds good," Helga said, trying to lift her head. " Curly?" she called as he was leaving, her voice cracking, " Help me up?" He jogged to her side and gave her a hand, helping her out of bed.
" God, you’re so weak," he said, " How long ago did you leave the hospital?" he asked her as they made their way to the kitchen.
" I left this morning," Helga said, taking a seat at the boys’ small kitchen table, and nodding to Kevin, who served her a bowl of stew.
" And when did you come out of the coma?" Curly asked curiously, accepting his own bowl from his roommate.
" This morning," Helga answered, deadpan. She tasted the soup and the liquid burnt the roof of her mouth and her tongue. But it was a good feeling, this small pain. It made her feel alive. I woke up from a coma this morning and walked the hell out of the hospital, she thought, finally hearing her own words. She felt all powerful, like nothing could touch her. Maybe that’s the trick to losing everything, Helga thought, you’re free of worry.
" This morning?" Curly repeated, shocked. Kevin laughed, thinking that she was joking around. Helga shrugged. Curly railed at her for a bit about her health. She couldn’t believe he still cared about her, after the way she’d had to shun him and all of her other hard-drinking friends when she got out of rehab. She couldn’t believe he’d come to see her at the hospital. She couldn’t believe he hadn’t pulled the door open when no one was looking.
" Helga, that’s just crazy," he kept saying, shaking his head. " What the hell was going through your head?"
" I had an itch," Helga answered honestly. There was no way she could just lie there in that hospital room, wondering. Only now instead of having her itch scratched, the place it afflicted had simply been amputated. Her heart? Helga felt that she was still capable of love. But something in her was definitely missing. She couldn’t put her finger on it.
She went to bed after dinner, and Curly came in not long after. He started to set up a place to sleep on the floor, but Helga insisted that he share the bed with her – it was a double, after all; they were both slim, and there was plenty of room. So Curly slept on top of the blankets and Helga slept beneath them.
Only Helga didn’t sleep. Despite her exhaustion, she couldn’t take the risk of dreaming again. She could hear Kevin in his bedroom next door, picking on his guitar and working out the words to a song. She could just barely make them out through the wall.
" While roving on a winter’s night," he sang, " … Thinking about that dear little girl – she broke this heart of mine. She is like … a budded rose – that blooms in the month of June. She’s like some music instrument that’s just been lately tuned."
" I helped him write this song," Curly said suddenly, making Helga jump. His voice sounded almost out of body in the dark room. All she could see was the square of window, snow falling past it onto the street below. " He never gives me any credit," Curly said with a small laugh.
" So you’re a songwriter, too," Helga said, speaking soft through the quiet hum of the night in the room, " How did you know I was listening?"
" I don’t know," Curly answered. They were both silent for a while after that. Kevin continued playing in the next room. But the music seemed eurhythmic; as if it was in the warm air inside the room and the cold snowfall outside.
" Who will shoe your pretty little foot?" Kevin sang, " And who’s gonna glove your hand? And who will kiss your ruby lips, and who will be your man?"
Helga told herself that she didn’t need that anymore. She gave up on love; there were more important things in life. Weren’t there? She should have taken the hint when she’d learned that she was infertile. She wasn’t meant to find love like other girls were. Helga felt tears slip down her cheeks.
" Perhaps I’ll go to a far off land. A trip to France or Spain. But if I go ten thousand miles I’m coming back again." They heard Kevin finish his singing but continue the folk-y melody on his guitar.
" He’s talented," Helga said, her voice coming out uneven.
" Don’t cry," Curly said.
" I can’t help it," she said, sniffling, " He’s right – I could go anywhere in the world, and I’d just end up back here. What is it about this place?"
She felt Curly’s sleepy shrug move the mattress.
" Curly?" she said, after some silence, hoping he hadn’t already drifted off.
" Did Arnold have kids?" she asked. She hoped he wouldn’t think she was trying to torture herself. She just had to know if there was a Miles out there, lonely.
" Yeah," Curly said, " One kid. Its kind of sad."
" And what happened to him?" Helga asked through her fainthearted tears.
Curly sighed, " Its just a bad situation, Helga," he said, " Arnold and Kathryn – that was his wife - met at some kind of support group for adults who were orphaned as kids. Her parents weren’t around to take care of the kid when she and Arnold died, and of course, he didn’t have any family. He’s been in and out of foster homes since he was around two."
Helga said nothing for a long time, letting the calm of the room wash over her. Maybe I could sleep, she thought. Maybe I was meant to live in dreams. I certainly grew up on dreams – dreams of Arnold, foolish things. Maybe it ruined me for the real world …
" I’d like to find him," Helga said, " I’d like to see him and make sure he’s alright."
Helga waited for Curly to tell her she was being crazy. He rolled over onto his back, and Helga turned around to face him.
" Okay," he said, staring up at the ceiling.
" I’d like to go tomorrow morning," Helga added, challenging his dutiful nature.
" It’ll be hard," Curly said, " The roads are a mess."
" But what about the snow plows?" Helga asked, her mind racing. This was something she had to do. She felt like she could see again – like this was what she was waiting for, the meaning behind the dream, the vanishing woman in the elevator, the night she’d spent with Arnold on some other plane of reality.
" I guess … I guess Jake might let me borrow one tomorrow," Curly said, slowly plotting. " But we’d have to walk to his garage in the Bronx."
" I don’t care," Helga said, " I’d go anywhere." Curly looked at him.
" You really loved him, huh?" he asked. Helga smoothed the blankets over her stomach.
" I know its hard to believe," she conceded, " I never even held his hand, never even spoke a single word of kindness to him without wincing."
" Its not that hard to believe," Curly said, rolling over. " Goodnight."
Helga tried to sleep, but then another question came to the surface in her mind.
" What’s his name?" she asked, " Arnold’s kid?"
" Oh, hell," Curly said, racking his brain, " I forget … um …"
" Miles?" Helga suggested meekly.
" Yeah!" Curly said, " Miles. How did you know?"
Helga didn’t answer. She watched the snow fall again as she drifted to sleep. She was shaking all over – she hoped Curly wouldn’t feel the bed moving. I’ve been given something, she realized as slumber overtook her. A crash, a coma, a dream, a meaning. The brightest point of light was suddenly in focus.
They left the apartment the next morning around seven A.M. Curly told her that Jake opened the garage at 8 A.M. on busy days, and today was certainly going to be a busy day.
" I’m on vacation this week," Curly said, as they trudged through the snow-covered, empty sidewalks. " From the snow plowing, anyway. I hope he won’t want me to stick around and help him with his lots."
" I’m sorry," Helga said, " I didn’t mean to get you wrapped up in this."
" Its okay," Curly said quickly, " I just hope you have the strength to make this trek."
" If it’s the last thing I do," Helga muttered. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the cityscape. She’d never seen the streets so empty, so white, so pure. The blizzard had managed to completely close down the burrows of New York, save for she and Curly, ploughing on through the dense banks, their black winter coats making them two dark spots on an otherwise empty canvas.
" What is this about, anyway?" he finally asked her as they were coming closer to the Bronx, which was as motionless as Brooklyn had been, " I mean, this whole crusade? Why is it so important to see Arnold’s kid?"
" You’re going to think I’m crazy," Helga said, " But then – I guess you already do." He laughed, but she remained serious. " I had a vision while I was asleep."
" A vision?" Curly said, " When?"
" During the coma," Helga said, " I was … with them. I was back in the old neighborhood, with Arnold and Phoebe and even this Miles who I haven’t really met yet."
Curly was silent. Helga knew he wouldn’t chastise her for being eccentric about this – he had been eccentric enough as a child, he knew the lifestyle.
" Are you serious?" he asked. Helga could see Jake’s Winter Maintenance up ahead.
" I don’t know," Helga said, " Yes? I think so. I just know what I have to do. Have you ever just had a feeling: suddenly things are clear, and you have a plan that you can’t believe you didn’t realize sooner?"
They both stopped walking in the snow to catch their breath while their goal was in sight.
" Yes," Curly answered softly. He took a step toward her and she turned to look at him. He bent his head slightly and placed a kiss on her frozen lips.
Helga stared at him after he’d pulled his head back from hers. She didn’t know what to feel – she certainly wasn’t in the mood for romance, but she appreciated Curly’s efforts. Was he part of the plan, too? It had to be more than a strange coincidence – Curly, Rhonda, Phoebe – her past and her present, her dream and the reality that stood before her all crashed together like a violent ocean in her mind.
" What was that for?" Helga asked him.
" Good luck?" Curly answered shyly.
Jake rode along with them to the hall of records. The front seat of the snow plow was tiny, and Helga was smashed between Curly and Jake. She pulled her thigh away from Jake’s on the seat, but she didn’t mind the weight of Curly’s arm against her own.
" So you’re lookin’ for yah friends’ kid?" Jake asked. He was a large, bearded Canadian man with friendly Santa-like eyes. His accent was catching – Helga didn’t blame Curly for having picked up on his inflection. His driving was atrocious, but Helga tried not to notice.
" Yeah," Helga said, " You never know what you’re going to get in a foster home. He could be fine – but he could be miserable, and I owe it to my friend to make sure he’s okay."
" Shoo, I’ll tell you what," Jake said, nodding. He turned up the fuzzy radio he had in the truck, an old Tom Petty song crooning through the truck.
They arrived at the hall of records, and after some teamwork research, they came up with the name of Miles’ currant foster family: the Pushkirks, who lived on Dogwood Lane in the suburbs near the city.
So on they drove. Helga felt nervous. What would she say to convince them to even let her visit with Miles? How would she explain her need to see him, to make sure he existed the way she remembered? If they’re a good family, and he’s happy there, I’ll let him be, she decided. I just need to see him. She felt a pang of guilt as she wondered if her reason for needing to make sure Miles was okay was mostly because she wanted one last peek at the past she’d missed out on: ‘the boy with the cornflower hair’.
The Pushkirk’s house was a huge Victorian number on a hill. The snow was worse in their neighborhood than it was on the main streets. Jake finally made it to their driveway, and parked on the street. Curly climbed out first, and offered her his hand. Helga rolled her eyes at him and clambered out of the truck on her own.
" Shit!" she said as they made their way up the Pushkirk’s icy driveway.
" What?" Curly asked.
" I’ve got to stop doing that," she said.
" Doing what?" he asked.
" Refusing people’s kindnesses. I’m sorry."
" Hey," Curly said, shrugging. " Its nothing. Don’t worry about it."
" No," Helga said, " It matters." They stepped up onto the large wrap-around porch. Helga heard music coming from inside – soft, practiced melodies floated out to meet them. Curly rang the bell and they heard someone shout to ‘ C’mon in!’. Curly looked at Helga, and she nodded. They pushed some snow away from the door and opened it.
Walking inside, they were hit by the strong scent of banana bread. Helga took off her hat and turned to the right of the foyer, looking into a room filled with winter morning light.
Three little Asian girls sat in the room, in antique high-backed chairs. They wore simple, long-sleeved dresses and Mary Jane shoes. Each held a violin, each moved her bow deftly over its strings, playing something Helga didn’t recognize. The song was something beautiful and soft, and it matched the girls perfectly as they created its rhythms beneath tiny hands. It was the most beautiful scene Helga had ever laid eyes on, and she felt tears well up in her eyes.
Curly nudged her, and she turned to see two middle aged people – a chubby man with glasses, and a thin woman wearing a huge sweatshirt with a teddy bear ironed onto it. They smiled at her politely.
" I’m sorry," Helga said, wiping tears from her eyes, " Your children are beautiful." She wondered if she shouldn’t have said your children, since these Caucasian people who stood before her were definitely not the natural parents of the Asian girls. But the Pushkirks smiled sweetly, and thanked her.
" Ryo, Kai-shan, and Pai are such a blessing," Mrs. Pushkirk said earnestly,
" They’re Vietnamese – sisters who came to us only two years ago."
The violin music continued, and Helga couldn’t stop her tears.
" This young man said you were interested in seeing our Miles," Mr. Pushkirk said, " Did you know his parents?"
" Um, only his father," Helga said, embarrassed by her weak argument for the privilege of visiting with Arnold’s son. She wiped tears from her eyes, only to push fresh ones out with every blink.
" Miles just came to us six months ago," Mrs. Pushkirk said quietly, " He’s had a hard time with some of the other families who have kept him – but we’re trying to nurture his special needs as best we can." Helga nodded – the Pushkirks’ way of speaking reminded her of her fourth grade teacher, Mr. Simmons.
Helga looked back into the room with the girls playing violins, and let the music soothe the rage that surfaced in her as she thought of Miles being treated badly in other homes. Damn you, Arnold, she thought, why couldn’t you have a desk job, and spare your son the trauma that you had to live through as a child?
Suddenly she saw something move by the window in the room, lit brightly by the sun that was finally re-appearing outside. In a flash she saw Arnold standing there – a bright flicker of shadow through the light. She blinked, and he was gone.
So this is your doing, Helga thought, her mood lifting with the notes of the girls’ music. Was it Arnold’s spirit that was behind the dream, her insistence on coming here – everything? Helga heard feet coming down the stairs toward the foyer, and turned.
Miles stood on the stairs, frozen as he looked at Helga. He was just as she’d seen him in the dream. His blond hair stuck up awkwardly as his father’s had, but his eyes were the same unfamiliar pair she’d met in her sleep, and she knew they must be the influence of his mother’s genes. At the moment they were wide and aghast.
" Helga?" he said, half terrified and half over-joyed. Helga nodded, and gave up on trying to hold back her tears. The girls stopped their music, and the only sound amongst the group of shocked people in the foyer was that of Miles’ shoes hitting the floor as he ran to Helga and jumped into her arms.
Helga squeezed him to her and a rush of emotions surged through her. The part of her that had always been missing filled up and over-flowed.
" From my dream," Miles whispered as she held him, and Helga nodded, still crying. But her tears were happy now, filled with the same kind of blissful contentment that she’d felt when she was in Arnold’s arms.
The Pushkirks and Curly had a million questions on the tip of their tongues that not even Miles and Helga could answer. But they kept quiet and let them have their moment – two lonely people who had thought life had passed them by. The brightest point of light in the room, the city, the world.