" Sometimes you’re happy
Sometimes you cry
Half of me is ocean
Half of me is sky
But you’ve got a heart so big
It could crush this town
And I can’t hold out forever
Even walls fall down …"
~ Helga thought she would be the last one to leave town after high school. Her fickle nature causing her to drop her college plans at the last minute (she didn’t know how much more school she could take), her new agenda involved spending the fall in Italy, and taking things from there.
She’d become close with Miriam in her last days at home. Her mother seemed to liven up, her emotions churning at the idea of her last daughter leaving her alone in the house with her distant husband. Miriam and Helga would spend afternoons at home eating Helga’s famous peanut butter and banana sandwiches, watching Miriam’s soap operas and ripping on the ridiculously bad acting and weak story lines, and pouring over brochures of Italy. Helga was afraid her mother would expect to come with her when her departure date finally arrived at the end of the summer.
Helga had seen most of her childhood friends go on to college. Phoebe, of course, had been excepted at her first choice: Yale. She was planning on studying animal psychology or some crazy thing, and Helga had wished her best friend all the success she deserved, knowing that the paths their lives took would be completely different now, and that she may never see Phoebe again, save maybe a few friendly coffees at home during the winter holidays. But their separation had been in the works even throughout high school, with Phoebe achieving and winning places in the student government, while Helga mostly drifted into the background, noticed only for the occasional winning writing fair entry, and known amongst her peers as a girl who rarely dated and was generally unfriendly.
The others had gone to lesser colleges in the city or in Jersey: Harold and Sid to Newark Community College, Stinky and Sheena to NYU, and Eugene to Queens College. Nadine went to Ithaca State College, Rhonda, of course, went to Vassar to pursue her fashion career, and Brainy was surprisingly accepted to MIT. Gerald was going to school in Atlanta, and Lila, the little brat, had gotten a full scholarship to Pepperdine University’s Law School.
Curly was the only one who had decided, like Helga, to skip college. He was working for his uncle that summer in Maine while he decided what to do with the rest of his life. He wrote her letters sometimes, and though Helga was flattered, she never took up any of his offers to join him on a cross-country road trip. It was a tempting offer: she and Curly had been friends throughout high school, and they’d often planned to ‘see the country’ together from the seats of Curly’s old Chevy Impala. But something had held Helga to Brooklyn that summer - she felt she had unfinished business.
She knew the feelings probably stemmed from Arnold: her girlhood crush, who was listed in their graduation program as planning to attend Dartmouth in the fall, looking to major in journalism.
Helga had no idea if Arnold had left for school yet, but most everyone else had, and she figured he was probably gone, too. She rarely saw him anymore, just as she’d rarely seen him in high school: he was a daydreamer who was either busy writing editorials for the school paper, or lying on his back in his room, watching the clouds through the windows on his ceiling.
She wasn’t sure if she still had feelings for him. Sometimes, when he gave speeches in debate class, she was sure that she did. He was so coolly attractive, so sexy with his deep, confident voice. But then she would see him in front of his locker, kidding around with Lila and Gerald, and realize that she could never be a part of that world, that he was something completely alien to her, and she wondered how she had ever convinced herself that she ‘loved’ him.
I was just a little girl, Helga reminded herself. She was thinking of all of this as she rode the bus home with the last bag full of ‘essentials’ for her trip. Helga watched the familiar buildings pass by outside, wondering if they would look unfamiliar when she came back for Christmas.
Helga climbed off the bus when it reached her stop, prepared to trek the two blocks to her house. She was walking down the street when she heard someone ask her if she needed help with her bag.
Helga turned around to refuse assistance, guessing that it was probably just a homeless man who would snatch the bag and run if she took up his offer. But to her surprise, it was Arnold, smiling coyly at her.
He was wearing a white t-shirt that was thin and too-small: the ‘muscle’ shirt that was stylish lately with boys her age. He wore an old pair of jeans that had a small hole under the left pocket. He had grown taller, but he was still short and a little underweight for his age. With Arnold, though, it only added to his boyish charm. He put his hands in his pockets self-consciously when she looked him over.
" Need help?" he asked again of her cumbersome-looking bag. Helga scowled at him.
" Heck no," she said, pretending to be offended, " Whatdaya think I am, some kind of damsel in distress? I can carry my own bag, thankyouverymuch." With that she spun around, her yellow-blond hair flipping over her shoulder as she went.
" Alright," he said, walking alongside her now, " Just thought I’d offer."
Helga muttered ‘Thank you,’ under her breath, and they walked together down the street in silence. Is he waiting for me to say something? Helga wondered, panicked. She adjusted the heavy bag in her arms.
" So," she said as they waited for the signal at the cross-walk to change, " Shouldn’t you be in college or something? Its nearly September." Arnold grinned and shrugged.
" I think I’m going to hold off on college for awhile," he said, " I don’t know if journalism is what I want to do with my life, you know?"
" I guess so," Helga said as they crossed the street toward her block, " Personally I’m not that worried about what to do with my life at the moment. I mean, we’re only eighteen, for Christ’s sake. By the time we’re adults, medical science will have fixed it so that everybody’s living until 150. I’ve got plenty of time."
" Exactly!" Arnold said, " But, still, you never know. I think, even if you’re figuring things out, you should be doing something worthwhile in the meantime, just in case."
" Yeah?" Helga said, stopping in front of her stoop and frowning at him, " Well what’s your big mission, then? If you’re not going to college?"
He shrugged, " I was thinking of maybe making a documentary of some sort. Something abstract, like: ‘A Day in the Life of a Pigeon’."
Helga laughed out loud, " That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard!" she said, " You think making a movie about the life of a bird is doing something meaningful with your life??"
" Hey," Arnold said, crossing his arms, " Its called art, Helga." Helga burst into another fit of laughter, and Arnold smiled shyly and winked at her.
" Anyway," he said, " Its just one of my many ideas. So what are you up to? I guess you’re not going away to school, either?"
" Oh, I’m going away alright," Helga said, unlocking the door to the Patacki townhouse, " Just not to school. I’ve got all my after-school job money saved, and no college ‘education’ plans to blow it on! I’m going to travel the world – starting in Italy. I’m actually leaving the day after tomorrow."
" Wow," Arnold said, shoving his hands into his pockets again, " Well, cool, Helga, I hope you have a great time." He started to walk away, and Helga watched him. He turned around before he’d gotten very far, " But, hey," he said, " If you’re bored or something tomorrow, come over to the Sunset Arms and we can listen to records. I’ve got a pretty good collection – some old Tom Petty stuff, and Elton John back when he had integrity."
Helga scoffed, " Records?" she said, rolling her eyes, " Yeah, right. Nice knowing you, Football head." She walked into her house and tossed her bag onto the floor in the foyer. Dammit! she thought, looking into the picture mirror the wall, why do I have to be such a jerk? You would have thought I’d learned some manners in the five years since I stopped taunting the kid … Oh well, she dismissed, going into the kitchen and peeling a banana. It was only Arnold, after all …
Miriam made steak and potatoes – Helga’s favorite dinner – on her last night in town. Big Bob came home from the Beeper Emporium early, and the three of them had one last awkward meal.
" Oh, Bee," Miriam droned, " Its just going to be so hard to say goodbye to our youngest daughter!" She waited for a reaction from Bob, who was still scarfing potatoes.
Bob looked up from his dinner, annoyed. He looked at Helga, " Oh, yeah," he muttered, " Right."
Miriam groaned, and Helga excused herself from the table to go finish packing. She went upstairs to her room and looked it over, making sure she’d remembered everything. She’d be staying in a boarding house in Italy – kind of ironic, she thought, remembering Arnold’s invitation yesterday to his own boarding house. Stupid kid, she thought, what would we even talk about? I have nothing left to say to him.
Something caught her eye as she was surveying the things she’d leave behind. A little pink corner sticking out from beneath her pillow – her poetry book.
She was still something of a causal poet, but she never – ok, rarely – wrote about Arnold anymore. She went to her bed and pulled the book out from under her pillow, turning it over in her hands. The pages were nearly full – the beginning packed with gooey tributes to Arnold, the middle filled with more angst-ridden longings, and the pages at the near end drifting off to other subjects. She’d need to get a new notebook before she left for Italy.
If I’m going to be lounging around Europe, Helga thought, grabbing some money from her dresser and shoving it into her pocket, at least I can ‘do something worthwhile in the meantime’.
She thought of Arnold, and their conversation yesterday. It really irked her that he wasn’t going to journalism school – he’d worked hard to get accepted, so far as she could tell, and he wasn’t a bad reporter/non-fiction writer. She just didn’t understand his change of heart – and what was all that crap about filming pigeons and listening to old records? She wondered if Arnold had finally decided to explore the world of drugs that the other kids had already been through and back.
Helga chuckled to herself as she bounded down the stairs – Arnold on drugs! Now that would be the day.
" I’m going to the store, Miriam," she called into the kitchen as she passed it, " I just thought of something else I needed for the trip."
" Oh, Helga, not again," Miriam whined, " Alright. Be careful!"
Helga hummed to herself as she traveled home with her new notebook. She had also picked a few other impulse items – gum (so her ears wouldn’t pop on the airplane), new pens, and a few candy bars she might not be able to find in Italy. She felt ready to go – she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, anticipating her arrival in a new country.
But another part of her was horribly nervous – what if I fail? she wondered. And then – what would she be failing at, exactly? Life? Her only plans for Italy were to get a tan, work on her writing, and maybe get a part time job at a fruit stand or something. How could she possibly fail at that?
Still, Helga was terrified, deep down, of leaving her parents, her country, and this old neighborhood. She saw the Sunset Arms up ahead and scowled at its sign, blowing lazily in the warm evening wind. No, Helga, she told herself, don’t get yourself mixed up in Arnold again.
But her body froze almost involuntarily when she reached his stoop. She looked up at the boarding house steps, remembering all the summer afternoons she’d spent there, listening to Arnold’s Grandpa tell ghost stories, or teasing Arnold for planning some new, crazy scheme.
He was the most interesting part of my childhood, Helga thought sadly. Every brush of his arm in the hall way, every semi-kindness spoken to her abbreviatedly – they were here lifeblood, back then.
What a lame kid I was! Helga thought, spitting on the sidewalk near his stoop. The dense little creep never even had a clue. I should have played soccer or joined chorus, instead of festering in my room all day writing poems to a person who was practically imaginary. She was sure Arnold wasn’t as grand as she’d always made him out to be in her mind.
As she started to walk away, the door to the Sunset Arms opened. Helga turned back to see Arnold walking outside, an array of cats escaping before he shut the door behind him.
" Helga," he said, " I see you decided to take me up on my offer!"
" Psh – yeah, right!" Helga sneered, " I was just on my way home. I only stopped for a minute to marvel at what a dump this place is." Arnold rolled his eyes.
" Give it up, Helga," he said, " You don’t have to play the bully anymore. School’s over." She frowned, and her cheeks reddened.
" What makes you think I’m ‘playing’ at anything?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips.
He shrugged, " I always thought you’d show everyone your humane side when you grew up," he said, " I’m sure you have one, Helga."
" Hmph – shows how much you know," she muttered, walking over and taking a seat on his stoop. " I happen to be brutally honest. Its not MY fault if honesty paints you in a bad light, Arnoldo."
" Whatever, Helga," he sighed, sitting down next to her. " I was going to go for a walk. You want to come?"
" Sounds boring," Helga said, examining her nails, and Arnold started to get up to go, " But," she quickly added, jumping up, " Its not like I have anything better to do. I guess its just your lucky night, football head."
They walked all the way to the subway station, and Arnold offered to buy her a token for the Coney Island train. Helga promptly refused his offer, but paid for her own fare, and rode along with him. They sat near the back of their car; the only other passengers in their section were a chubby woman who was loaded down with shopping bags, and a young couple with their arms around each other.
" Look at those two," Arnold whispered to her as they rode, pointing at the couple. They were smoothing and grinning at each other like a couple of morons. Helga snorted.
" Yeah," she said, " Get a room."
Arnold laughed, " No," he said, " Its … sweet. Don’t you think people should display affection in public without being ashamed?"
" Take a look at who you’re talking to here," Helga said, " I haven’t displayed affection privately or publicly since I was in pre-school." She felt a pang of embarrassment as she admitted to this, realizing that maybe she was revealing a little too much about herself.
" That’s kind of sad," Arnold said, looking at her. She crossed her arms and clutched her bag to her chest, turning away from him to look out the window at the black subway walls that were rushing by.
" What’s in the bag?" he asked. Helga shrugged.
" Just some stuff for my trip," she said, " Some Clark bars, some Bubbleicious – candy and stuff."
" Is that a notebook?" he asked, peeking over her shoulder, into the bag. Helga pulled the bag shut.
" What is this, twenty questions?" she asked. She knew she was being childish, but she couldn’t help it. The only way she knew to behave around Arnold was like a child. They’d barely spoken since she’d grown into her training bra, since he’d begun to grow blond peach fuzz on his chin and upper lip.
" I was just wondering," he said, calmly, unaffected by her hostility, " Because I remember you writing a lot in high school – even in elementary school. Didn’t you win some kind of poetry contest when we were kids?"
" Yeah, well," Helga muttered, as the train pulled into their stop. " Who remembers that sort of stuff?" Arnold offered her his hand to help her up, and she took it without thinking. He held her hand in his until they walked out the door of the train, and Helga blushed red, even after he’d let go.
The sun was going down in a brilliant orange flare as they reached the beach. The Atlantic Ocean raged against the shore, the strong evening tides threatening the last swimmers of the day out of the water.
" Don’t you want to put your feet in the Atlantic?" Arnold called to her over the roar of the waves as he walked toward the water. " You’ll have to get used to the Mediterranean Sea, now, right?"
" I guess so," Helga said, setting her bag down in the sand and walking closer to where he stood. He kicked off his shoes and let the water swirl around his bare ankles, putting his hands on his hips and staring out at the sunset.
Beautiful, Helga thought, silly tragic tears coming to her in a blink and then quickly going. She wondered why he had brought her here. He beckoned for her to join him, and she slid carefully out of her sandals, walking into the water and gasping at its temperature.
" Its cold," Arnold said, lowering his voice as she got closer to him, " At this time of day." Helga nodded.
" I haven’t been here in a long time," she said, " Remember the Spring Break we spent together here?" she asked, " When we both rented out the same house?"
" Yeah," he said with a little laugh, " What a coincidence, huh?"
Helga felt her heart growing hopeful and told herself to cut it out. So she was a little bit – antsy – she hadn’t had a boyfriend at all throughout high school, and she was craving a little physical contact. That was no excuse to blow her perfect track record of avoiding stupid Brooklyn boys on the day before she left for Italy. She walked out of the water and took a seat on the sand near her bag, pulling her legs up against her chest.
Arnold turned and followed her, sitting down beside her and keeping his eyes on the sea.
" I’m thinking of taking up the guitar," he told her, watching the last inches of sun disappear beneath the line where the ocean met the sky. " What do you think?"
Helga shrugged, " Anything beats that lame harmonica," she quipped. She knew she was being a jerk, but she didn’t want to drag up old feelings about Arnold, not now.
Its time to wipe the slate clean, she thought.
" Maybe you could write lyrics for me," he teased, nudging her with his elbow, " I don’t think much of my own way with words anymore."
" I’ve got other plans," she asserted, quickly shooting down his joke, " And anyway, what the hell do you mean about your way with words? I can’t believe you’re not going to Dartmouth. I take back what I said yesterday. You ought to go."
" What for?" he asked, digging a bare foot into the sand, " So I can spend the rest of my life writing dissertations about lying politicians and hate crimes? Too depressing."
" Not all journalists have to handle the heavy stuff," Helga said, " And what’s your deal with not wanting to face reality? You were always such a ridiculous optimist – now you give up a career option because you can’t handle the fact that life isn’t all sunshine?"
" Believe me," he said with a scoff, " I know that life isn’t always wonderful-"
" Yeah, how?" Helga challenged with a scowl, " It seems to me that you’ve got it pretty easy."
" Right," Arnold said, rolling his eyes, " Its been real easy living with my grandparents through my formative years." Helga shrugged.
" You turned out fine," she said.
" You think so?" he asked, and the earnesty of his question made Helga nervous. She shook her hair over her shoulders.
" What do you care what I think?" she mumbled.
He shrugged, " I always value an honest opinion," he explained, " If you’re anything, Helga, you’re honest." She laughed.
" Yeah," she mused, " That’s me."
They were both quiet for awhile. The hot dog stands and smoothie shacks that lined the boardwalk were closing up for the night – their owners pulling heavy metal cages down over the counters. Helga felt that they were closing the summer, her childhood, and her past. An impenetrable metal cage now encased her girlhood.
" I went to see Nadia dance last night," Arnold said, " Down in Boston."
" Hmm," Helga said, pretending to be bored with conversation of his ex girlfriend. Nadia Yarwood had dated Arnold for a few years in high school and then left him for an older guy who read Marx. She was intellectual and worldly – a modern dance student at one of the city private schools. Nadia was like Helga’s antithesis – she was thin with short, black hair and dark eyes. Her mother was Russian, her father was Korean. She was exotic and lovely and poised, and it was no secret amongst the high school gossip circles that Arnold was still obsessed with her.
" It was weird," he said, narrowing his eyes and rubbing his knee, " The train ride was long, and I was thinking about she and I on the way there. You know, she always treated me like a child? And she was actually younger than me?" He laughed, " Stupid."
" Stupid, indeed," Helga grumbled. " Nadia was stuck up. Or at least she seemed that way from afar. God knows I wasn’t special enough to be graced by her conversation."
" Yeah," Arnold said with a sigh, " Her mother used to call me Nadia’s ‘chatoyant’. It means ‘toy’ in Russian."
" Nice," Helga muttered sarcastically. She ventured a look at Arnold as he sat beside her, staring thoughtfully at the ocean. He looked hurt, and she wasn’t sure if it was because of his memories of Nadia, or the brusque way she was treating him now. We’re old friends, that’s all, Helga reminded herself, I guess I can be civil to him now, without the threat of being discovered as an admirer of his looming over my head …
" You’re lucky you didn’t date in high school," Arnold told her, " It really smashed a lot of the self confidence I had as a kid." Hearing this saddened Helga, and she felt the urge to touch him rising in her again – just a little reassuring pat? her body pleaded, but her mind put its desires quickly to rest.
" Hey now," she said instead, " I didn’t completely escape dating in high school. Phoebe set me up with one of her friends from Math Club once." Arnold snickered, anticipating the story.
" His name was Tom Li and he wore a tweed jacket on our date," Helga said, rolling her eyes, " We went to Luccia’s with Phoebe and Jet, her boyfriend at the time. It was a disaster, but I didn’t mind. Tom told me about the mating habits of pigeons – or something."
" I could use him, then," Arnold said, grinning, " For my documentary!"
" Oh, stop it about that dumb documentary," Helga said, " You’re not serious about that, are you?"
" And why shouldn’t I be?" Arnold demanded, trying his hardest to look sincerely offended, " Its an innovative idea." Helga scoffed.
" Please," she said, " That float you designed for the city parade in fourth grade – now that was innovative."
" So," Arnold said, rubbing his eyes and laying back on the sand, " You’re saying I should devote my life to designing floats?"
" I thought you were just looking for things to pass the time with while on your way to devoting your life to something," she said.
" I don’t know about the rest of my life," he said, his tone making Helga worry,
" Lately I’ve been dwelling on the past. Fast, easy relief for doubts about the future."
" I try not to think too much about the past, myself," Helga said, " Its no secret that I didn’t have a happy childhood."
" This was what I was going to tell you before," Arnold said, sitting up on one elbow, " About Nadia’s recital?" Helga rolled her eyes and groaned. " Hang on," he said,
" You’ll like this." He stood up and offered her his hand.
" Come on," he said, helping her up, " Let’s walk down to the pier." Helga grabbed her bag and followed him. She hated the feeling she got as she did this – like she would still follow him anywhere.
" Oh, God," she said, stopping in her tracks for a moment, " Miriam is probably freaking out. I told her I was only going to the store, and I left almost two hours ago." Arnold chewed his lip for a second.
" This won’t take long," he said, " I’ll just give you my spiel and then return you." Helga hesitated, then decided Miriam was probably passed out on the couch by now, anyway, and followed him down the beach, toward the pier.
The sun was gone now, and besides a few stragglers that were still jogging down the shoreline with their dogs, Arnold and Helga were alone on the beach. The stars above were a bit brighter than they were in the city, which still wasn’t very bright.
" I can’t wait to get to Italy," Helga said, watching the sky and wrapping her arms around herself as a cool wind blew past them, " I bet you can see all of the stars perfectly in the little town I’m staying in."
" Yeah," Arnold said, following her gaze upward, " Not like here. Too much light pollution."
" Freakin’ Brooklyn," Helga said, spitting into the sand, " Good riddance." Arnold’s laugh sounded forced – she wondered if he thought she considered him part of the town she was so eager to leave behind. Well, I do, don’t I? she wondered. Somehow Arnold was different – he was the one glimmer of light in the gray, unforgiving city.
" So what were you going to tell me, anyway?" she asked when they reached the pier. They stood underneath the massive structure, in the small area of sand beneath it left after the tide had rolled in with the night. " Come on – you know any hint of a story about Nadia leaves me on the edge of my seat," she quipped, rolling her eyes.
" Right," he said, with a small laugh. " Actually, its more about you than Nadia. She just kind of serves as the backdrop." Helga was taken aback – Nadia as his backdrop for anything, especially her, was something slightly shocking.
" Me?" she asked, making sure she’d heard him right.
" Yeah," he said, " When I saw you yesterday, I was on my way to her concert. I don’t know why I was going – I think I needed closure. I remember thinking that it was funny that I should run into you on the day I decided to close the book on Nadia."
" That decision’s a little belated, don’t you think?" Helga sneered, " After all, she broke up with you last year."
" I guess so," Arnold relented quietly, " But its hard, Helga, when you give your heart to someone – to just yank it back with no strings attached."
Helga felt the coldness in her eyes melting away at his words, and though she cursed them for giving her away, she knew they couldn’t help it – he sounded as if he was reading from a page in her pink book, a sentiment that she thought was hers alone.
" So what happened at the recital?" she asked, not bothering to put up a front of indifference anymore.
" I was sitting there in this plush theater," he said, " Surrounded by people who were dressed much nicer than I was. I was sitting in the back. And Nadia was onstage, alone, under perfect light, looking – well, you know how she looks."
Helga raised an eyebrow critically – how, exactly, did a story about Nadia’s gracefulness have anything to do with her?
" And the audience is like, breathless," he goes on, " The music is moving, the dancing is flawless – despite all her downfalls, you gotta admit the girl can dance. And I was starting to sort of sweat and think maybe I shouldn’t have come, maybe watching Nadia dance wasn’t the best way to shut the door on my feelings for her." He raised an eyebrow and paused for effect, " And then," he said, reaching out and grabbing Helga by the shoulders.
Helga quaked under his touch, " Then?" she squeaked.
Arnold grinned, " Then this little blond girl two seats in front of me yawns," he said,
" And yawns hugely, at that. It was perfect! It broke the moment, and Nadia just looked like a graceful but lifeless marionette on stage. And the people around me that were so enthralled by her movements were just fools like I had been. It was exactly what I needed."
" Oh," Helga said, still failing to see how this involved her.
" The little girl reminded me so much of you," he said, squeezing her shoulders,
" She turned around in her seat and I smiled at her, but her mother yanked her back around before she could return my smile. And I thought – what a metaphor!"
" A metaphor?" Helga said quizzically, thinking she should know what he meant. But all she could think about when he looked at her that way was poetry and stolen kisses and everything that was supposed to be in the past.
" Yeah," he said grinning. " A metaphor – like, the little girl was you bringing me back down to earth. And then … before I could even put my finger on my gratitude, something yanked her away from me."
" What the hell do you mean?" Helga asked, pulling herself out of his grip. I ought to go, she thought, Miriam is worrying, and Arnold isn’t making any sense …
He sighed, " I don’t know," he said, " Maybe it was a stupid epiphany."
" I don’t see how its an epiphany at all," Helga said, frowning.
Arnold shrugged, " Don’t you ever feel …" he began, " Like we missed each other by a few inches?" Helga’s heart broke over the landscape as she heard what he was saying, and she felt herself fill up with something that was victory and sadness.
" Sure," she said quietly. " But … if we did, it was my fault." She looked at her feet, and then at his, at his ratty old sneakers - one of his shoelaces was untied. For lack of any better reaction to the exchange they’d just had, she knelt to the ground and picked up his laces, tying his shoe for him.
" Helga," he said, " What are you doing?"
" Don’t be disappointed with me," she said, this new openness making her choke on her words, her shaking hands struggling to tie a bow, " You said I was honest, if nothing else? Ha. I haven’t even been honest with myself, half the time –"
" Here," he said, reaching down and pulling her up. Helga looked him in the eye for the first time in awhile. She’d almost forgotten his eyes. He didn’t let go of her hands after she was standing. " What if all bets were off?" he suggested.
" I don’t know," she said, blinking away her tears. Arnold touched her cheek, and she shut her eyes and let herself realize what she’d missed. It didn’t make her sad – it made her almost glad she’d waited, so that she would never take the warm hands of a lover for granted. And Arnold’s hands, God – she never would have thought they’d still surpass all of her expectations after all of these years.
" I hate this part," Arnold whispered, and somehow his low voice made Helga realize how close he was to her, and she jumped a little bit without moving.
" What part?" she asked, hoping she wasn’t being clueless. She hadn’t been this close to a boy since the younger version of him; she had always been afraid admitting to affection in any way would make her vulnerable, and therefore had avoided any and all advances. At least, that was why she told herself she avoided the advances. Perhaps there was a more noble reason. Perhaps she was waiting for the right one, the only one.
" The five or so seconds before …" he said, trailing off. Helga frowned.
" Before what?"
" Um," he said, and then he kissed her, hard. Helga was surprised with his urgency, the aggressive way his tongue searched her mouth. They were both out of breath when the kiss broke.
" I’m sorry," he said instantly, still holding her.
" For what?" Helga asked, internally begging him to do it again, do it again.
" I don’t know," he said, bringing his lips close to hers again, " I always apologize." This time Helga’s mouth bridged the tiny gap between them, and her kiss was slower, gentler, and Arnold reciprocated with tenderness. He pulled on her, tighter, bringing her closer to him than she’d been to anyone in such a long time, so close that his heart beat against her own chest made her ache.
" Arnold," she said, breaking their embrace and stepping back. " I have to call my mother." He looked at her, surprised. " Sorry to spoil the moment," she muttered quickly, falling hard back to reality. What the hell am I doing? she asked herself, I’m leaving the freaking country tomorrow, why stir this emotional crap up now?
" No, its okay," he said, " You can call her from the boarding house if you want," he suggested as they began to walk back toward the subway station. Helga may have been inexperienced, but she wasn’t naïve. She knew what his invitation meant.
" Alright," she said, and her own agreement made her heart pound in her ears.
A few boarders were hanging around in the kitchen playing poker when they got back. Arnold went in to say hello while Helga used the phone in the hall. Helga’s fingers trembled as she reached for the receiver – she nearly forgot her own phone number as she dialed. Please answer, Miriam, Helga thought. She’d have to hang up if Big Bob picked up the phone. There was no explaining when it came to Big Bob. She remembered Arnold’s story about the little girl who yawned, and she finally understood his metaphor completely. The girl’s parents had yanked her away before she’d had the chance to smile back at him.
Just like me, Helga thought – everything I inherited or learned from my parents is what held me back from him.
" Hello?" she recognized Miriam’s sleepy voice on the other line, and let out her breath.
" Mom?" she said.
" Olga?" her mother asked, and Helga felt offended for a moment – usually only Bob mistook her for her older sister. Then she realized the only reason Miriam was confused was because she’d called her ‘Mom’.
" Its Helga," she said, not correcting the slip up. " Sorry I didn’t call earlier."
" Oh, Helga!" Miriam said, " Where have you been? You know your father’s worried sick."
" Well, there’s a shocker," Helga muttered, " I met a friend on the way back from the store. I think I’m going to spend the night out."
" Uh, but Helga!" Miriam whined, " Your flight leaves tomorrow at 7 AM!"
" I know, Miriam," Helga said, finding it easier to call her mother by her first name when she was annoyed with her. " But I’ll be back in time. Just … trust me, okay?"
She heard Miriam’s heavy sigh, heard the click of ice cubes in her drink. " Well, okay," her mother agreed slowly, " I guess you’re an adult now. You just be careful with yourself, you hear me?"
" Of course, Mom," Helga said, embarrassed that her mother got the meaning of her night out. " Tell Bob I’m sleeping at Phoebe’s," she added before hanging up. She turned around after replacing the receiver, and Arnold stood in the doorway of the foyer.
" Hey," he said, " Want to come upstairs?" he asked, " I don’t think you’ve ever seen my room, have you?"
" Heh," Helga said, remembering the many times she’d snuck into Arnold’s room to complete some scheme or cover up some secret, " I sure haven’t!" she bluffed, not wanting to reveal too much about her past all in one night.
They climbed the stairs to the second floor, and then another flight of stairs up to Arnold’s room in the attic. Helga was surprised to see it looking much like it had when he was younger – she herself had completely changed the look of her room as she grew older. But Arnold’s was virtually identical to the one she remembered, save a few new posters here and there.
" This is the record player I was telling you about," he said, walking over to a turntable that sat on the floor near his bed, " What do you want to hear?"
" Oh, I don’t know," Helga said, " Whatever’s good." She sat beside him on the floor.
" Alright," he said, " How about the Police? Have you ever heard Synchronicity II? Its about the Loch Ness monster." Helga leaned back against his bed and relaxed, watching him carefully place a record on the player and move the needle against it.
" I’d like to go to Loch Ness," she said, tensing up a little bit when Arnold placed a hand on her knee. " I’d like to see the Loch Ness monster and go home."
" Wouldn’t you tell anyone if you saw her?" Arnold asked, scooting closer to her. Helga felt calmer when he was near her. She longed to feel protected by him, but was afraid of him at the same time. She leaned into his warmth, let him wrap his arms around her.
" I wouldn’t tell anyone," she whispered, her lips close to his neck, which smelled good, like lingering cologne and the salt of the ocean they’d stepped in earlier. " It would be my secret. Some things are sweeter that way."
Arnold looked sad. " You’re right," he said quietly, and they both silently accepted the fact that the burning love that hid beneath the hate that they claimed to feel for each other would always be more perfect than anything they had together in the realm of truth and reality.
But who needs perfection? Helga thought happily as he brought his lips to hers. Perfection was a cold dancer moving in the spotlight of an otherwise empty stage. Perfection was snowflakes, and Phoebe’s SAT scores. She and Arnold didn’t have to be perfection.
The record had finished playing by the time they’d climbed into his bed. Helga let herself sink into the mattress beneath the weight of his body. She felt so warm, so lost in him that she was afraid she’d forget how to speak, that she’d be clumsy and not know where to put her hands.
" Have you ever done this before?" Arnold breathed at one point. They still hadn’t moved beyond kissing, which he knew she had done, as the only two times she had kissed a boy, that boy was him. But she got his meaning.
" No," she admitted, after having considered lying and then deciding that she might as well be honest with him now, if ever. " Have you?"
" Yeah," he said, " But don’t worry about it. I’ll be careful with you."
" I know you will," Helga said, touching his face. He smiled, and kissed her hand. He moved his lips softly down toward her neck, and Helga looked up through his skylights at the few visible stars.
Only two bright points shone in the midnight sky. Helga watched them for awhile, but as Arnold’s sweet kisses moved more fervently over her body, she forgot them.
Helga woke before the sun had risen. Arnold was asleep beside her, the blankets half-way covering him, his naked upper body slumped in the comforts of a deep sleep. She reached over to touch his back, the moonlight from above making his tan skin glow. But she stopped before her fingers brushed him, afraid that he’d wake up.
She slipped out of bed silently and got dressed. Her bag was resting near his bed, and she picked it up as quietly as she could, considering tearing a page out of the notebook and leaving a note for him.
But what the hell would I say? she wondered. Not able to come up with anything poignant, she decided she would find the words in Italy, and send the note from there.
Helga took one last look at her slumbering childhood love before she left his room. He twitched a bit in his sleep, and though her instinct was to go to him and place a reassuring hand on his arm, to soothe the blip in his peaceful sleep, she only turned and walked down the stairs.
The boarding house was silent as she left it behind. Every chair and end table seemed to watch her in the lobby, but Helga didn’t feel guilty. She smiled at the stilled objects that made up Arnold’s home, and walked out the door, out onto the darkened streets.
Helga swung her bag at her hip as she ventured home. She knew she should be nervous about being out in the city so late at night, but she felt so brave, so strong! She had done it, she had swum the rivers of the rights of passage, she was a woman who could handle anything. And it had hurt, yes, but it was a good hurt – a hurt that meant she could take anything Italy could throw at her, a hurt that meant she could take on the world. And she wasn’t sore, only filled with relief.
Goodbye to Arnold, and Brooklyn and everything, she thought fearlessly as she hopped up the steps of her house. She opened the door and pushed her way inside, noticing a postcard on the top of a pile of mail under the slot. She retrieved it, and saw it was from Curly.
Dear Helga, he wrote, Today we went through the most incredible storm. I wish you could have seen it – grown men were holding onto the cabin in fear for their lives, and the waves were like monsters. The ocean is so terrifying at night. But I stood there on the deck and just watched it. I was thinking of you, Helga who laughs in the face of danger! I wish you were here – Love, Curly.
Helga who laughs in the face of danger. She smiled, smooched Curly’s post card to wish him good luck, and rushed upstairs to pack the last of her things.
Helga was surprised when Big Bob Patacki, king of all emotionless-ness, shed a few tears as he gave her his brief hug goodbye.
" Don’t forget why you’re there," he advised, his voice gruff against the threat of crying. Miriam was bawling openly, and she hugged Helga for the ninth time before the flight attendant that was boarding the plane called for Helga’s row.
Don’t forget why you’re there, Helga thought to herself as she turned from her parents and handed the flight attendant her ticket. But why was she going? Had she decided on a purpose yet? She remembered the note of explanation that she still owed Arnold. So she would work on that, and take it from there.
She turned and gave her parents one last wave before heading down the terminal. She could actually imagine devoting three entire months to writing out all the layers of her feelings for Arnold, and what had happened between them last night. It had been a quick, silly thing, but there was something deeper beneath it.
Helga found her seat on the plane, and buckled up, preparing for takeoff. Takeoff was her favorite part. She couldn’t imagine a fear of planes. She loved the vertical feeling of shooting up into the air, the sense of flying, the look of the clouds from above.
As the plane rocketed off the runway, she thought of Curly on his little fishing boat, being tossed about by gigantic waves. So begins the rest of our lives, she thought, the roar of the plane subsiding a bit as they began to straighten out.
Helga looked out her window at the city below. New York was quite a vision from the air, it looked almost impossible, and watching the buildings as they grew smaller made her wonder if she had really lived there for eighteen years.
But then she found Brooklyn near the coast, and the miniature version of the city below seemed real again. Because she knew Arnold was down there in one of those buildings, waking to find her gone.
Oh, Arnold, she thought. That town is a song about you.
Hmm, she thought as the plane slipped into the clouds above, Manhattan and the rest of the country disappearing under a white landscape. That’s a good line, she decided. That town is a song about you – it was the epitome of Arnold and the neighborhood in Brooklyn that she’d never be able to return to without remembering and reliving him. She got out her new notebook, which she’d stowed in her carry-on bag, so she could write it down and maybe stick it in a poem somewhere down the road.
When she opened her notebook, she was surprised to see that the first page wasn’t blank. She read the words that had been left there for her:
You’re sleeping now, and I want to wake you, but I won’t. I know that if I try to tell you what you mean to me out loud, I’ll only botch things up and it will come out wrong. Maybe I do have more faith in my "way with words" than I was giving myself credit for earlier. My way with words on paper, anyway.
I know you’re leaving tomorrow, and I won’t ask you to stay. I want you to go out in the world and find out who you are beyond this neighborhood. I think you will wear big straw hats and fancy Italian sunglasses; I think you will sit on the beach and look out at the Mediterranean Sea and feel complete.
But I hope you’ll miss the Atlantic Ocean, and Brooklyn – just a little bit.
I’m glad we spent your last night in town together. After eighteen years of reaching out to each other and yanking back our hands as soon as we got close, it’s a relief to be able to finally connect.
Oh, heck, see? I can’t write this out any better than I could say it, to tell you the truth. But I’ll figure out how to put the words together someday, and I think you will, too. Never stop writing poetry – don’t hesitate to make me a topic once in awhile, okay?
Here’s to old friends. May we always fall back together when we least expect it.
" And some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone."
Tom Petty – (‘Walls’)
A/N: "This town is a song about you" is from Dar Williams’ song, The Ocean. I highly recommend Dar Williams’ music as a source for inspiration when writer’s block comes along! I hope you enjoyed this little stand-alone fic, don’t bother asking for a sequel because I don’t do them. ;) ~ Mena