Christmas In Brooklyn
Part Two: Vermont
" I sold my soul … what is it worth?" – Ash "A Life Less Ordinary"
Helga got out of her hospital bed for the last time on December 16th. Both her ankles had healed quickly, and although her arm was still in a cast, her other features were returning to normal. Her hair was now shorter and she had a permanent scar on her forehead, but the bruises and burn scars had healed, and she was feeling a lot better.
Phoebe came into the room as Helga was readying her things to go. She was drinking her usual diet coke, regarding Helga with a careful disdain.
"Well, Pheebs, thanks for the life-saving and all," Helga chirped,
" But I’m off to salvage what’s left of it."
Phoebe scoffed, " You always were resilient," she said, " Even if it was sometimes phony. Where are you going to go, anyway? I thought your husband left you."
" Gee, Pheebs, thanks for the sensitivity," Helga muttered. Not that she really cared about Dirk. He had stirred up her life a bit, but maybe that was in order.
" I told you to stop calling me Pheebs. No one calls me that anymore. No one EVER called me that, save you."
" If you must know," Helga said, ignoring her previous comment,
" I’m headed back to Vermont to put my things in boxes. Unless Dirk’s lawyer got possession of my nightgowns and shampoos as well as the house and cars … not that I wouldn’t put it past him."
" You’re going to face Dirk again so soon?" Phoebe asked in small disbelief, " Speaking as a divorcee, that’s brave."
" Actually, no," Helga answered, tossing her purse over her good shoulder, " Dirk happens to be in Holland this week, if my memory serves."
" All tests indicate that your memory is intact," Phoebe muttered.
" Excellent," Helga said, walking over to Phoebe and slapping the petite woman affectionately on the back. " Then I’m off. Good luck to you. I mean it, Pheebs. Dr. Phoebe, that is. I’m sorry we lost touch. You were my only real friend throughout the ‘bad years’."
" Hmph," Phoebe muttered, looking out the window, " I don’t suppose you’re drinking again?"
" Not at the moment," Helga answered, " And not for years. Don’t worry, this divorce isn’t going to shake me up that bad. Truthfully, its been a long time coming, I just didn’t want to admit it. And yet… I’m DYING for a cancer stick."
" How cliché," Phoebe said, " Even I tried smoking after my divorce."
Helga was quiet for a moment. And then: " I meant what I said, Phoebe. Best wishes. Adieu."
" Helga!" Phoebe shouted as she was walking out the door. Helga turned and gave her a quizzical frown. Phoebe sighed deeply and rolled her eyes.
" Do you need some help?" Phoebe asked with some reluctance,
" Moving, that is? Because I know what you’re going through. And, hell, I missed you too. Somehow."
Helga was taken aback. The prestigious Dr. Phoebe wanted to help her? She toyed with the strap of her purse.
" Well, sure," Helga said, shocked. " I could use an extra pair of hands … not to mention your car."
" Because I have a few vacation days," Phoebe explained self-consciously. " And God knows I won’t be jetting off to Bora Bora anytime soon."
" Amen to that," Helga said with a hidden smile, and the two walked out the door together.
Helga and Phoebe headed to Vermont in Phoebe’s classic green-blue Cadillac. Phoebe sat staunchly in the driver’s seat, the sun reflecting in her small spectacles, making bright yellow circles of light over her eyes.
Helga relaxed in the passenger seat, picking boredly at the plaster on her cast. She didn’t really know what she was going to do after she moved out of the Vermont estate: she had no other place to go. While she did have quite a bit of money saved, it wasn’t really enough to buy a house—not without some collateral.
" So," Helga attempted some conversation, " Do you keep in touch with anyone from the old neighborhood?"
Phoebe rolled her eyes, " No," she answered at first. " But I do know what they’re up to, from visits to Brooklyn to see my parents. I actually moved back there for a few weeks after the divorce."
" How is the old place doing?" Helga asked, trying not to sound too curious. She really hadn’t thought about this stuff in a long time.
" Alright, I guess," Phoebe said, " It’s a little more dangerous than it was when we were kids, of course. And a lot of the old characters are gone. The pigeon man, the old butcher, Arnold’s grandparents…"
" Arnold!" Helga said with a dramatic scoff. " Certainly haven’t given that name any thought in years!" she lied. " Is that loser still in New York?"
Phoebe nodded slowly. " He moved back after his wife died."
" Whoa," Helga said quietly. " He was married?"
" So were you," Phoebe reminded her.
" What does that have to do with anything?" Helga snapped. She still refused to admit to even Phoebe that she’d ever had feelings for Arnold.
" He was living in Nova Scotia after high school," Phoebe said, " He started working as a photographer, travelling around. He in ended up in … Scotland? I think, and met his former wife … I forget her name. Anyway, she was British, and they were living together in London before she died."
" British," Helga muttered with a disgusted scoff. She looked out the window and watched the snowy landscape fly by as they drove toward her onetime home. Some kids were outside in their yards, building snow men, hanging Christmas lights, playing ice hockey … Helga found herself longing for her youth. She remembered when Arnold’s grandfather used to join the kids in snow ball fights in the old neighborhood…
" As for the rest of them," Phoebe continued, " Gerald is still in New York, working for his father. We spoke briefly while I was at home. He’s … married as well …" she trailed off sadly. " And Harold is still there, taking care of his mother. He’s a strange one … Let’s see … Eugene lives somewhere out west, I have no idea what happened to him. Rhonda, of course, has a stylish studio apartment downtown," Phoebe rolled her eyes,
" Did you hear she wrote a book?"
" What?" Helga asked in disbelief. " Bubblehead fashion girl Rhonda wrote a book?"
" Ugh, yes," Phoebe confirmed, " She wrote it of course under the name Rhonda Rosewood. Its about her bitter divorce with that actor … what’s his name, Devon Woodward. He robbed her blind and left her to raise their daughter … You know I actually got so low after Richard left me that I read it?"
" Ew, God," Helga moaned, " What’s the story with this Richard guy, anyway? He some fellow doctor?"
" Actually," Phoebe said, " He’s a nurse. We worked together at Manhattan International. We were married for three wonderful years. And then he met Ashley."
" Oh," Helga said, " What a name for a mistress."
" Its always an Ashley," Phoebe said with a nod, " Or a Brittany. Oh, hell. I’m okay with it now. I should be thankful I got three years to spend with the guy … I really loved him like nobody’s business."
" Ick, how can you talk like that?" Helga asked, sitting up. " The guy is a total moron! How could he leave you, you’re perfect!"
" Oh, please," Phoebe said, " I’m not the most attentive little wife. I was always working … I made more money than him … I think he found it belittling."
" Tough crap!" Helga exclaimed, " Trust me, you’re better off without him."
" Whatever you say," Phoebe mumbled.
They arrived at Helga and Dirk’s Vermont estate shortly past noon. Helga climbed out and unlocked the gates, and Phoebe marveled at the place as she drove up the stately driveway. Helga loved it here … she would really miss the place. The air smelled of pine and they had a beautiful view of the sunset from their kitchen bay window.
The two women walked inside and Helga flipped on the lights. She went up to her bedroom and began throwing all of her clothes into boxes. She felt somewhat like she was robbing a stranger, and she liked the feeling. She liked the feeling of not belonging to the expensive silk shirts and responsible looking khaki skirts that she packed. She noticed a tiny blinking in the corner of the room, and turned to see that her answering machine was alive with a message.
Phoebe walked in with a few more boxes as Helga hit the "Play" button. She recognized her boss Jerry’s voice immediately.
" Hey, Helga dear," his recorded voice greeted her, " Look, honey, I’m really sorry to do this in lieu of the holiday season, but we really have to let you go. We just can’t expect you to make up for the week and the key meeting you missed at this time of year. Look, good luck and all, you’re a real doll. We’ll be shipping the things from your office on Wednesday. So don’t bother coming back. Nothing personal! Merry Christmas—and say hello to that rascal Dirk for me!" BEEEP.
Helga stood in silence for a moment, Phoebe watching her with a pity-filled stare. She sighed, trying not to let the circumstances get the best of her. After all, she had some idea that this might happen.
" Look," Phoebe said, " If you need a place to stay …"
" Oh, Pheebs," Helga said, turning to her. " You really are the best! Do you know Dirk and I didn’t have a single friend? Only business associates. Maybe this elevator accident was … a blessing in disguise! It brought the terrible twosome back together, didn’t it?"
" Don’t get ahead of yourself," Phoebe snapped, " I don’t want to hear any revelations about seeing the light and shunning your former lifestyle… I’m just offering you the sofa in my parents living and maybe some cereal and rice cakes."
" The sofa in your, er, parents’ living room?" Helga asked, taken aback.
" Well, yeah," Phoebe offered, " I don’t have room for you at my place. Sincerely. You know it costs an arm and a leg just to live in a closet in the city… well, my apartment is a closet."
" I’ll sleep in the refrigerator," Helga muttered.
" I don’t have a refrigerator," Phoebe told her, " No room."
" Oh for God’s sake!" Helga exclaimed. " Your parents place? I appreciate it Pheebs… they’re nice people and all … but I can’t go back to Brooklyn now! After everything!"
" Why not?" Phoebe asked in a small shout. " It would do you good to be surrounded by friends."
" What friends?" Helga muttered. " All those people hated me in high school."
" Correction," Phoebe said, " YOU hated THEM. We never excluded you, Helga, you just became *too tough* for us."
" Oh, bull!" Helga snapped, " They were rude to me since kindergarten."
" Not all of them," Phoebe reminded her. Helga painfully recalled the one child that had befriended her on her first day of school. Arnold. He had given her a ride when she had to walk alone in the rain …
" Alright, FINE," Helga agreed grudgingly. " But I thought you said most everyone moved away, anyway? Except Harold, and um, Arnold, right?"
" Well, I’m sure everyone will be home for Christmas," Phoebe said,
" Including me. I only have one week more at the hospital, and then I’m taking off for the holidays."
" GREAT," Helga moaned, " A big, stupid reunion."
" You could always sleep on the streets," Phoebe said with convincing coldness.
" For God’s sake!" Helga exclaimed, picking up a couple of boxes full of clothing. " I’ll except your crummy hospitality! Geez!" With that she stormed out of the room.
Phoebe raised her eyes to the ceiling. " Grateful as always," she muttered to herself.
Helga fell asleep in the car on the way to Brooklyn. As she drifted off she thought of Arnold. What if she ran in to him at the fruit stand? What if he had changed, like Phoebe, and like herself? What if the idealistic boy she’d loved and hated was now cynical and harsh like the rest of the world?
She spun around, and he was standing there. Twelve year old Arnold. Standing there, the age when she had last let herself love him and all his innocent well-meaning foolishness.
" Get away from me!" Helga heard herself say harshly. No, you stupid girl! She thought, you’ll lose him again! But she couldn’t make herself apologize, she had no control over her voice in her dream.
" Helga, please!" Arnold said sadly, " I’ve missed you… and, we’re both lonely. Its Christmastime. Can’t we just forgive and forget?"
" Oh shut up!" Helga heard herself snap, and she recoiled in horror. Realizing that she did control her movements, she turned back to him, and looked into his harmless and hurt eyes. She walked slowly toward him, reaching out to him, making her eyes show what she truly felt when her words refused to express it.
" Helga," he said softly, holding out his arms to her. Helga found that she too was at the age of twelve, the last year she’d let her mother dress her in that foolish pink ensemble with the ridiculously huge bow in her hair.
" Just leave me alone!" she screamed, but there was a crack in her voice, and a tear moved down her cheek as she said it. She continued to walk cautiously toward Arnold’s outstretched arms, wanting him to finally hold her so badly that she shook in the Mary Jane shoes of her youth.
Just as the tips of her fingers reached Arnold’s, the sky above them darkened. Helga felt a strong breeze move against her, pushing her backward a bit. She reached down to keep the hem of her dress from flying up around her face.
" Helga!" Arnold shouted, and she looked up to see that he was suddenly very far away. She was being blown rapidly backward by some unbelievable force; when she tried to move she found it useless, the strength of the wind was enormous.
" Arrrrnold!" she cried out in agony as she flew backward into a sea of blackness. He was a spot on the disappearing horizon, and then he was gone, his voice in the wind calling out to her in vain as she disappeared into nothingness.
Helga woke up and slammed into her seat belt as Phoebe pounded on the brakes to stop her car from colliding with a taxi in front of them. Her small friend’s face twisted in New York-driver anger as she blasted the horn at the offending taxi cab. Helga rubbed her head. It was raining in Brooklyn, and they were stuck in traffic on the bridge.
" Are you alright?" Phoebe asked her, aggravated. " You were whimpering in your sleep, it was giving me the creeps."
" Excuse me for subconsciously annoying you," Helga mumbled.
" Hey, Pheebs? This is kind of a touchy subject, but … do you know anything about my parents? They’re not still in Brooklyn are they?"
Phoebe shook her head, and a huge weight lifted off Helga’s shoulders, only to linger over her head ominously.
" They disappeared after Bob’s Beepers went out of business. Ernheart’s Mobile Paradise drove them out of business… but I’m sure you know that?"
" Come ON, Pheebs," Helga muttered, " I haven’t talked to them since graduation." That wasn’t completely true. Helga had seen her mother shortly afterward, before she began attending the community college in Queens. Olga, in true holier-than-thou form, had provided for a sort of family intervention to discuss Helga’s drinking problem: one which her father hadn’t bothered to attend.
" He’s having trouble at work," Mirium had told her nervously, refusing to accept Helga and Bob's open resentment of each other, as always. She sipped nervously at a cup of Scandinavian cinnamon coffee that Olga had prepared, watching Helga behind her glasses, guarded by the tiny frames.
Helga sat slouched in an armchair across the room, lighting a fresh cigarette, which inspired a chorus of delicate coughs of protest from Olga.
" Helga," she said, " Please consider contacting him. I know he’s stubborn… but a lot of his recent difficulty at work is due to his deep concern for you."
Mirium had nodded slowly. " We’re all worried, dear," she’d muttered in her indeliberate condescending tone.
" Well I’m sorry to have disrupted your perfect lives!" Helga had screamed, storming out before they could call her out any further for her reckless lifestyle. Right about that time Helga had realized that she was really kind of pretty after all the awkwardness of her youth had melted away. She dressed in skimpy clothes and wore dark eye liner, plucked her thick eyebrows until they had a womanly shape, and picked only the highest heeled platform shoes to stomp around the city in.
She dashed out into the street that day, vowing never to speak to them again. Tears stung her eyes as her red patent-leather platforms hit the streets of Brooklyn with rhythmic jabs to the cracked concrete.
Olga would be the only one to bother trying to contact her after that. Her parents had given up easily. Helga tried not to shed tears just thinking it.
They arrived at Phoebe’s house in the old neighborhood as the street lamps were beginning to light the street. Their posts had been decorated with fake Christmas greens, big red bows tied the garlands at the top.
" Here we are," Phoebe said, parallel parking in front of her childhood home. Helga tried to climb out of the car and follow Phoebe to the front door, but she couldn’t move. She was paralyzed with … fear? Something heart stopping had glued her to her seat in the car.
" Helga!" Phoebe shouted, not letting go of her new impatience at this sensitive moment. Helga turned to look at her, and her eyes were cast down the street. That street. His street. He only lived five houses down from Phoebe. Helga saw the sign for the Sunset Arms Inn swaying in the Christmastime breeze as a few wayward raindrops turned to snow in the freezing downtown air.
Arnold. She stilled loved him. She’d never stopped.