From Arnold’s bed, the relentless patter of raindrops on the the glass ceiling is visual as well as surround-sound sonic. He’s at his desk, futzing with what looks like an unmitigated mess of paper and scotch tape, and his back is to her. Helga checks his figure every now and then to make sure she’s really getting away with this unrepentant after-homework hanging out, but the view doesn’t change. He’s the same every time — he smiles at her once in his computer screen’s reflection — so she burrows her head comfortably in his pillow and tries to be in this moment, watching the sharp drops splash into tiny pools that dance and collide and dance some more across the glass grid of the Sunset Arms roof.
“Helga, you’re not this mean.”
“You’re right, bucko. I’m meaner.” She grabs her corduroy bag by its long strap and stomps out, heedless of the weight of the bag which swings in a wide arc behind her only to smash into her back a second later.
Arnold scrambles down the ladder after her. “Helga, you’re not being fair. I know you’re better and kinder than this. I know it.”
Helga pivots in the corridor outside of Mr. Hyunh’s room, bag dutifully following and bumping into her hip. “What do you know about me? Bupkiss,” she spits. “Goose egg. Less than your batting average, buddy. Newsflash, football-head: the world laughs at wussy little bleeding-hearts like you. I don’t want to be one, and I sure as heck don’t want to be with one.” A final messenger bag collision — this time with the hallway phone — precedes her thunderous passage down the stairs and out of the house. Even the herd of cats and pig that almost knocks her down in the doorway doesn’t lessen the hateful intensity of her parting glare, and from the landing, Arnold shivers with the intended hurt.
For the next few days Arnold gives Helga flat looks and a cold shoulder, and she berates him as impersonally as she can when their paths, as they often do even in the bigger pool of junior high, cross. It’s been nearly a week since the last incident when she marches up to the table he shares with Gerald, Sid, Eugene, and Stinky at lunch, kicks Eugene’s chair out from under him, and orders: “Scram.” Arnold makes as if to go with the pack, but she holds his tray down with a finger and mutters, “Not you, football head.” Arnold sighs and stays put.
Helga’s words come out in a reluctant rush.
“So, I’ve been thinking about it a lot” — swift glance at Phoebe, two tables over, nodding encouragingly — “and I guess what I want to say is I’m sorry and I didn’t mean it and I like you and maybe even like you-like you and if you can ever like me again I’ll try to be… nicer.”
Arnold’s oblong face twitches with things he seems to start to say but thinks better of. His forehead furrows, then loosens; his mouth tugs to one side, then the other; his eyeline darts around the room behind Helga’s head to Phoebe, then the unseated Gerald, then back to meet Helga’s determined gaze.
“Okay,” he says. “Apology accepted.”
“O…kay?” she repeats, confused. “I mean, yeah, okay. Later, foot — Arnold.” She turns to leave, but Arnold reaches out and covers her hand with his, and she freezes.
“I just want to ask you one thing, Helga. What if I can’t like you again right away? You really hurt my feelings the other day. Will you still be nicer?”
“What?” Helga yanks her hand away. “What kind of sick power trip are you on, anyway? I said I’m sorry and junk, what more do you want?”
“I want to know if you’re really going to be nicer,” Arnold says seriously. “I like nice Helga. I might even like her-like her. But Helga, I think a lot of people would. Don’t you want to see what would happen if you were nicer to everybody, all the time, no matter what you got out of it from me? Maybe you’d like it better, too.”
“I’d like being nice so that everybody would like me more?” Helga snorts. “Dream on, Arnold. The last thing I need is more chumps breathing down my neck.” She poses with one defiantly fisted arm akimbo.
“Okay, Helga,” Arnold says in a resigned voice. “Have it your way.”
Helga rolls her eyes as she walks back to Phoebe, and then dashes the last three steps to where her best friend sits. “Did you see — Pheebs, he said yes and he might like me and he touched me! TOUCHED ME. Aaaah!” Back of her Arnold-anointed hand lifted theatrically to her forehead, she swoons dead away onto the hard plastic bench.
Helga meets Arnold at his locker after most of the kids have gone home. She kicks the scuffed wainscoting beneath the bottom row. “I’m still sorry,” she says, “and I guess I’ll try. Being nicer. To everyone. You happy?”
Arnold beams at her. “Yeah,” he says. “You want to come over after baseball?”
“…And Bob goes, ‘Because I said so!!’ and Miriam just, like, whines, ‘But BooOOOooob,’ and it goes back and forth like that for twenty more minutes until Saint Olga finally comes in to simper and play peacekeeper till he gives in and so I guess Miriam’s gonna start going to these meetings whether Big Bob likes it or not.” Helga punches a mailbox as she walks by and then shakes her hand, wincing. “What are you staring at?” she demands, realizing that Arnold has stopped stock still a foot behind her. She’s suddenly conscious of everything: the messed up nature of all her family stories, the ruddy splotches her face always gets in cold weather like this, her crappily knitted scarf. This is it, she tells herself. Arnold’s finally realized that he’s been hanging out with Helga G. Pataki on purpose, come to his senses, and is currently trying to decide whether to sock her with a snowball before he bails or just run for it.
And yet, he’s blushing. “Oh,” he says, “nothing, it’s stupid. I was just thinking of this thing Gerald told me, that when your girlfriend is talking a lot about something and she’s upset, you’re supposed kiss her in the middle of her sentence and then… she… I don’t know. It’s really stupid.”
Helga laughs nervously. “Stupid! Stupid doesn’t even begin to cover it. Why, that’s the most idiotic, imbecilic thing I’ve ever heard! Who in her right mind wants….” she trails off, thinking of a couple stories she’s heard from Phoebe and the girls at school. “And, anyway, I’m not your girlfriend, Arnold. Hah! You wish.” She finds occasion to detour into a tall snowdrift and begins to furiously tunnel through it with her kneecaps. “Jiminy Cricket, whose bright plowing plan was this? I’M WALKING HERE.” She flings her entire body against the frozen dune.
Arnold still hasn’t moved from where he stopped. “Well, do you want to be?”
Helga lifts her head cautiously. Two inches, tops. “What?”
“Listen, Helga, you… well, you’ve said a lot of things, and some of them don’t seem to go with some of the other ones, but I think… I think you like me, right? And I know you’ve been trying really hard, and, well, I guess I kinda like you too. Like you-like you.”
“Arnold,” Helga tells the snow before her, “we’re thirteen. I don’t think you need to say ‘like you’ twice every time. You sound like a little kid.”
Arnold digs his mittens deep into his pockets. “Whatever, Helga. What I’m saying is, do you want to be my girlfriend? For real? I mean, if not, we could just do homework now and then and that would be —” Leaping up from the vertical snow angel she’s now made, Helga sweeps around to latch onto Arnold’s shoulders, backing him onto his boot heels as she kisses him at length with the fervent kind of passion that can only be summoned when interrupting a beloved’s sentence.
“Um.” Arnold very slightly disengages himself from Helga’s embrace. “So… yeah?”
“Yeah,” she says, almost meek. They link arms chastely and walk around Helga’s snowdrift. A few minutes later, she thinks to ask, “So then why didn’t you try Gerald’s kissing move?”
“Because I was interested in what you were saying,” he explains, a little sheepish. “Besides, it seemed kind of rude to interrupt.”
“Oh, it is. Hey, Arnold?”
“This means you’re also my boyfriend, right?”
Helga slams the door behind her not knowing or caring who might be home — there was a period not long ago when doing that got Miriam as angry as Miriam ever got; she always complained of headaches in the afternoon. With a thump her belongings drop to the foyer floor while she takes the stairs by twos. Her bedsprings squeak when she bounces onto her mattress; she flops over in a happy ball and then somersaults awkwardly off. She opens the closet door and smirks, nay, laughs at her most recent Arnold shrine. “I don’t need you,” she tells it. Dissatisfied with words alone, she picks its woven ends up and shakes the entire raffia nightmare. “I don’t need you. I have the real thing. I have Arnold. I have Arnold, Arnold, Arnold!!” Her voice rising with each invocation of his name, she tosses her idol up like a bridal bouquet and pirouettes around the room, keening in rapture until Miriam really does show up and bleat at her to keep it down. Helga snarls in response and collapses onto her bed, dizzy and nauseated. She wonders what poem she can compose that could possibly do justice to the experience she’s still reliving — not the smooch-to-end-all-smooches she landed on Arnold in the snow, but the abortive peck with which he attempted to return the favor on her front porch an hour later.
“Helga? The same Helga we’ve known and been terrorized by since age two Helga? Pa-ta-ki?”
“Yes, Gerald, come on.”
“Man, I know you said you guys were friends, and that’s cool, but dating? For reals?”
“Look,” says Arnold, “Helga’s not that bad. She’s funny, and she’s really smart. I like her.”
“You like everybody,” Gerald accuses.
“Someone’s got to,” says Arnold, and Gerald cocks his head, unable to argue with that.
Gerald Field has been lost and paved over. It was a glorious fight, but even Arnold and his rallies couldn’t stop that. An expensive boutique and a furniture store are going in, and Helga tells everyone matter-of-factly that it could be worse. It could be a beeper store. Arnold and Helga go down to watch the new sidewalk be filled in, and leave their names carved in the wet cement. Afterwards they retreat to the treehouse in the park the boys built the summer after sixth grade and make out, Helga pushing Arnold hard up against the splintery plywood wall.
“Whoa,” Arnold pants.
Helga watches him under unplucked lusty brows; drinks him in, smells him.
“What do you want to do today, Helga?”
“I don’t know, what do you got?” Helga is munching contentedly on one of the sandwiches Grandma brought them.
“Well — oh, when’s Curly’s hearing? I think it’d be great if we got everyone together to go and support him. It would really mean a lot to him.”
“Are you kidding me? The guy’s a psychopath. They should lock him up permanently, if you ask me.” Scoffing, Helga catches Arnold’s disapproval. “Uh, I mean, or… not. Rehabilitation et cetera. Works wonders. But I don’t think it’s today anyway.”
Arnold sighs and moves on. “All right, how about ice skating? I heard Nadine and Rhonda were working on a routine and wanted to show it at the pond.”
She just stares in response, eyelids and nostrils extra wide.
“Criminy, Arnold,” Helga bursts out, “do you have any plans for us that DON’T involve the entire neighborhood? We spend all day, every day with them. I want to be with you.” She bites her lip, on the edge of saying too much.
“What, and stay up here all day?” Arnold laughs. “Come on, Helga, all you want to do is eat and make out.”
“Yeah, well, once you’ve got those two there’s nowhere to go but down, am I right?” She leans back in a careful display of casual indolence. “Besides, I have lots of hobbies. I write all the time.”
“Can I see?”
“No,” Helga replies forcefully.
Arnold is visibly taken aback. “Oh. Sorry. Anyway, you can’t write with me. We’ll do something together!” Cheered by this triumph of logic, he finds a solution: “Hey, I know — Jamie O’s hockey team is playing their biggest rival today. Wildcats versus Hillside, Helga. It’s gonna be a great game. You love violent sports.”
Helga exhales. “Sure. You got me.” She nods and gives him a small smile, a perfunctory bloodthirsty palmrub. “Let’s do that.”
The new buildings look modern and smell wrong. They linger outside the construction until dusk and then Arnold turns to Helga and says, “Do you want me to come over tonight?”
“No way,” she replies. “No. Not again. Never again.”
Olga had invited him over once already. She made dinner and Arnold welcome. She spoke on common interests and treaded softly between the temper tripwires of all present; Helga grew ever more silent as Arnold chipped gamely in. Afterwards he sat in Helga’s room against her closed closet door and said, “That wasn’t so bad.”
“That was a disaster,” Helga replied, eyeing the closet’s locked door.
“I think Olga’s trying really hard to make your family happier, Helga,” he said sincerely. “Give her a chance. Just be nicer to her.”
“Give me a break,” she’d replied. “Can we get out of here, or what?”
Phoebe, arbiter of Helga’s better nature, tells her it’s working. “I’m quite impressed, Helga. Ever since you committed to better behavior on Arnold’s request, I’ve noticed a decrease in personal invective aimed at nearly everyone in your life.”
“Nearly,” Helga snorts. “Yeah, well, even Arnold has his miraculous limits.” She slams the car door shut, and the rest of her reply flutters in, bitter, through the open passenger window. “Bless his heart.”
Phoebe can hear Bob’s booming voice yelling at the TV even from the street; it doesn’t let up or change when Helga walks inside. Helga appears upstairs in her bedroom window, then disappears in a falling motion — onto her bed, probably. Phoebe’s mother pulls the car away.
In her room, Helga reaches under her mattress for the latest volume of her diary. She uncaps her flower pen. She can hear Olga talking on the phone and Miriam cleaning in the next room and imagines Arnold, her Arnold, blocks away, doing more productive, social, well-adjusted shit. Being generous and kind and wanting nothing of his own in return from anybody — nothing even from her but her best, though she’s been so bold and greedy in her taking. He’s selfless, she thinks, and writes that down.
She casts about, wishing she’d told Phoebe to stay over or that Arnold weren’t busy with his friends. “Your Helga,” reads the conclusion of her most recent diary entry; a love letter she’d rather die than let Arnold see. Olga laughs obnoxiously on the other side of the wall and Helga bangs on her side of it. “Quiet!” she yells. She throws the pen away.
A dirty snowball smacks into the boutique’s window, just inches in front of them, and Helga flips into guerilla warfare mode. “Who threw that?” A familiar but seldom-seen figure slinks through her peripheral vision, and she whips around and gives chase, heedless of the temperate remonstrances Arnold hasn’t even had time to speak. “Stoop Kid! You should be sorry you ever left your pathetic stoop!” He is, too, until a patch of wet slush intrudes on her path, and she slams with a bellyflop and a headbang onto the sidewalk. She lays there, facedown and still raging, as Arnold scuttles up behind her.
“Helga! Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He touches her stiff back.
Helga groans. “Better than ever, football head.” She rolls over and glares at him. “Help me up, wouldya?”
He takes her hand and wrests her off the ground, but his look is more quizzical than solicitous. “You’re not okay, are you?”
She snatches her arm back. “Of course I’m not okay! I’ve been dating a football-headed saint who just wants everyone and everything to be nice all the time! What’s wrong with a little selective niceness, Arnold? How about ‘I’m nice to you because I actually like you, not because I’m a frickin’ saint’ or how about — Arnold, what the hell’s wrong with some things are better than being nice! Like LOVE, for Pete’s sake!” She huffs a puff of white warm air into the cold.
“What about love?” Arnold squints.
“You! I love you! In all your stupid perfect perfection!” Helga kisses him, one last time. She’ll need to remember the taste of his lips.
This again. “Helga, we’ve been going out for three weeks. You don’t love me. You like me-like me,” Arnold prompts.
She’s said it before, but she won’t take it back again. “YES, I do. Since I was two!” She takes a moment to breathe. “And that’s why we can never be. I’m sorry, Arnold, but we’re breaking up.”
“Hang on, Helga, let’s talk about this.” He hooks a hand around her arm with concern; but he backs a little bit away too, and that’s what counts.
She shakes him off. “There’s nothing to talk about. I know you don’t get it. But you will. Now move it.” She limps past.
Stoop Kid peers out from hiding. “What the heck’s wrong with that girl?”
Helga turns the corner and leaves their sight. Arnold turns to Stoop Kid, awestruck. “I think it might be me.” He frowns.
“Maybe next time," her last last sentence reads. Helga chews her pen nib, and rummages for the next blank book she’s stored away. This journal is filled.
Helga’s cottage cheese plastered walls hold her, read her handwritten words over her shoulder, have never judged her once.