Who am I?

BY : estromale
Category: +G through L > Hey, Arnold!
Dragon prints: 3043
Disclaimer: I do not own Hey Arnold!, nor any of the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

It starts out with nights like these: damp, dark, musty, yet somehow always full of a flavor, a scent I can’t grasp. Times like these, it seemed even silly that I once carried a pink notebook and yearned for a boy…a boy that simply did not have the slightest interest in returning my feelings. I guess it seems vague why I loved him now: that wild blonde hair, the hat on that football shaped head, those earnest, determined eyes always determined to do the right thing. I found them so noble, so pure at one time; it seems daft to think that I should doubt my past love.
But, you know, sometimes that kind of determination gets to you. This is the case when he loves one other. A certain picture perfect girl named Lila.
Yeah, you all remember her. Who wouldn’t remember Miss namby-pamby goody two shoes who thought things were “ever so wonderful” so much that you wanted to toss your cookies. So yeah, maybe I am a little bitter now. It’s hard to not feel sorry for her now though…her father’s new job shuttled them down to Chicago, where we all wished her well. With my primary competition for Arnold gone, it should have been easy. Shower the football head with affection, and soon he’d know, and all would be well.
But its strange…see, when you go after the unattainable, you start to realize that the chase is much more inviting than the actual capture: least, that’s how I explain it to myself now. Things have changed, and I wonder if it’s because I started to doubt everything: the shrines, the books, the pining, everything. I took a good look, and when I saw it, I was…well, creeped out. Not because of what I was doing or because of what I was going after…no, not really. I started to rally wonder what would happen if I got him. I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.
“Yes, Helga?” That was Phoebe, all right. Dependable, loyal and smart…it was no wonder she felt taxed by me a lot. I took advantage of the girl too much, and I began to wonder if maybe it was because she’d been my crutch…who else could take me the way I was? Not even Olga could do that.
I was in the usual pink dress, yeah, and white loafers with a plaid scarf tied tightly around my neck, despite the teasing. Who wore pink dresses anymore, anyway? Only me, as defiant as ever. I’d donned my dark blue coat and held onto it tightly. Phoebe, much more practical, had an appropriate down feather coat, which made her look as if she weighed more than she actually did.
“You ever wonder about where we’re going, Phoebe? I mean, we’re already in tenth grade, and not much has changed. High school sucks as much as we used to think PS 118 did, and I find I miss Simmons sometimes…did everything end the moment we entered fourth grade?”
Phoebe looked startled, and why shouldn’t she? As far as I know, I hadn’t ever sought such serious conversation unless initiated by my base remarks and snide comments.
“What do you mean Helga? I was under the impression that High School was a remarkable feat for you, considering your recent decline in grades last spring…”
"Oh, Pheebs, I know,” I pressed on impatiently, “But have you noticed how things changed? Rhonda and Harold dating, Big Patty making the wrestling team, Sid and Gerald both…” I stopped here, noticing Phoebe biting her lip. Gerald had always been a bit of a soft spot for her, and learning that he was dating Nadine had thrown both of us for a loop, but more her. I felt sorry for her, but she’d acted like it was all right. I just wished I knew exactly how true that was.
“Well, Sid and Gerald both run the shop, now that Arnold quit to work with Arnie. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but everyone seems to be in this big hurry to grow up and now, with Lila leaving…” I clenched my fists that moment, remembering how disgustingly sweet she was, then remembered the tears in her eyes as she waved goodbye to all of us. I could have sworn Arnold and I, the last to watch her leave, were closer that day, but he was as aloof as ever the next day, and I was beginning to wonder about all the time I’d devoted to him.
“It must be nice…” Phoebe started to say, then shut her mouth tight, flushing. I turned at her in rapt attention. “What?”
“Nothing,” Phoebe said, shaking her head. “Helga, I don’t know what’s come over you, but from what I can see, it is going well that all of us are individually growing and preparing ourselves for change…we’re growing up.”
“That’s just it Phoebe!” I exclaimed, stopping us both in our paths. “I don’t want to grow up! I’ve been like this all my life; sure, I’ve been tough and mean, but heck, who wasn’t used to it? Now what am I supposed to do, if I’m just going to be another poor dumb shlub going into High School? No one knows me there! The name ‘Pataki’ doesn’t mean a thing to anybody, and who am I going to rely on?”
“Now come on Helga,” Phoebe insisted. “You know wherever you go in this city, everyone knows your father. And besides, I’m with you. What more do you need?”
I sighed, and kicked a can impatiently out of my way. “My own weight.”
Phoebe looked at me, her glasses knocked askew as she turned. She looked, and I should have been more careful about this, a little hurt. “What?”
“Pheebs…I don’t even have my own life. Haven’t you noticed that everywhere I go, it’s because I’m attached to something? ‘Look, its Helga, Big Bob’s daughter’ or ‘why look, its Olga’s sister, Helga!’ I don’t even know who I am anymore, Pheebs…so I keep draining from all I have, and hope nobody sees…”
“…How insecure you are?” Phoebe finished, looking indifferently at me.
I was startled. “Well yeah. How’d you know what…?”
“You’re my best friend Helga,” Phoebe began, “but you really don’t give me any credit in thinking and watching people, especially you.”
“That’s not true!” I blurted out, stung by her accusation. “I think you’re…”
“You think I’m smart, Helga, and I realize that, but it doesn’t take a genius to see I’m smart. Everyone knows it, and I certainly don’t keep it a secret. As far as reading people, however, you think I’m completely clueless. I suppose you think that you’re pining away for Arnold was your best kept secret as well?”
I put my hands over my mouth, shocked and embarrassed. “You…you knew?”
“Of course I knew Helga!” Phoebe said, her voice rising. “Do you honestly think that favors I do for you wouldn’t even be so much as analyzed in my mind? It doesn’t take a smart person to realize your own worse enemy was yourself when it comes to feelings…it just took someone close to you. Me. Yet here you are, complaining to me about how things have changed, and even taking me for granted, like you usually do! Well, why should I expect any different? You’ve stayed the same, Helga, and maybe that’s good or bad, but bottom line is, nothing will change!”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded, my brow furrowing. Now I was a little hurt.
“It means that, like it or not, Lila’s gone. You can go after Arnold and tell him how you feel, like you should have done in the first place!” Phoebe’s voice cracked at that moment, and looking into her eyes, I finally understood: she’d taken the loss of Gerald a lot worse than I’d expected, and I hadn’t even tried to console her about it. I just thought it had never been like what I felt for Arnold…and it was selfish.
“Look, Phoebe, I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be!” Phoebe said, “Just grow up! I was like you as far as going after Gerald was concerned, and look where that got me! He’s dating Nadine, and I’m stuck with school books and a class profile that I can’t possibly live up to without devoting most of my time to studying! So do us both a favor…change!”
It was silent for a while after that. Phoebe had her small fragile hands clenched as if she’d fight me if I came at her, but I just stared at her. She just sighed and adjusted her cap, looking down. “I’m sorry. I guess it…”
“You’re right.” Her head rose sharply. “I should go after Arnold now that Lila’s gone…go after him like I’ve always dreamed. That would be the epitome of all my dreams and goals…but I can’t.”
I walked over to the bridge, and put my hands on the railing, looking over the edge. The water was stirring, the wind blowing gently over it. I heard Phoebe’s footfalls, and when I turned, she had a look of anger on her face.
“Why? Why can’t you? Are you going to live on more silly dreams of the two of you together, all while keeping this secret to yourself? Are you that deluded? Helga, this is…”
“I can’t,” I interrupted. “It’s not because I’m afraid…not anymore, at least. I think I could tell him now, but…the thought of what would happen if we started going out I can’t accept.”
“Why not?” Phoebe was now right beside me. “I know how long you’ve been pining for him…”
“Since pre-school,” I said, smiling, then sighing and tossing a flower petal into the water.
“…Yes! So why? Why would you not tell him?”
“I don’t want to hurt you Phoebe,” I said, hearing her gasp. “You lost Gerald, and I didn’t even bother to notice. How fair would it be if you had to pal around with Arnold and me? You’d feel like a third wheel, and I’d feel horrible for doing it. I can’t.”
Phoebe looked startled, and again I saw the blush rising to her cheeks. I wondered if she ever did it when the fall weather came around with its wind, and I decided that had to be it. I’d never seen her cheeks red like that.
“That’s not a good reason,” Phoebe muttered, playing with her hands. “You know that.”
“Fine, here’s another one,” I sneered. “It’s not going to happen! You think Arnold wants to be with me, the mean and abusive girl in the bow that’s been torturing him for years? You think I have what Lila has, Phoebe? Take another look.”
“Don’t,” Phoebe started to say, but I cut her off.
“Look at this hair, Phoebe, what’s it say to you? Freak! Look at the uni-brow, my face, Phoebe…you see any of the gentleness that Lila had? No, its ugly! You see me curtsying, with nice manners and winning everyone’s affection? No! I may not have my own identity, Phoebe, but I have a nice addition to that: I’m nobody’s dream girl either, except for a kid who needs to learn to breathe through his nose! The truth is, even if I did have the guts, I’m not going to go through the pain of being rejected…I can be miserable enough with Miriam’s neglecting and Bob wishing I was little Ms. Perfect Olga!”
I said it and was immediately felt better somehow, even though I was close to tears. That’s what I’d been holding back, and it felt better to know: I’d never get him because I wasn’t pretty or smart or polite enough. I didn’t want to change. I was me…he could keep chasing after Lila or a Ruth, because I wasn’t any of them.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Phoebe muttered. “You’re not ugly.”
“Right,” I said, snickering. “You keep telling yourself that load of crap.”
I turned to leave, and in a flash, I was on the ground. The back of my head was ringing in pain, and Phoebe was only a couple inches away from me: I’d never even heard her approach me.
“What…why did you…?”
“Stop it, just stop it!” Phoebe said, and tears brimmed her eyes. “Stop putting yourself down because I just can’t take it! You’re not any of those things! You ARE smart and you ARE enough that Arnold should have seen it! If he thought Lila was picture perfect and that was what he wanted, then he’s a fool!”
“That doesn’t explain why you hit me!” I said, exasperated. “Geez, you’re the only one I’ve ever let do that that hasn’t met up with ol’ Betsy!”
“Then hit me, Helga!” Phoebe insisted. “I won’t feel it, come on! I can take whatever you throw at me!”
“Pheebs, come on…”
“Oh? I’ll make it easy for you Helga! You suck! You are a loser! You throw all your hopes on an impossible dream and you throw your fate to the wind! You’ll amount to nothing but working for your father!”
“That’s it!” I said and I ran at her ready to rain pain on her head, but stopped. She stayed rooted to the spot, her hands to her sides, trembling. Her eyes overflowed with tears.
”Why are you making me do this?” I asked, throwing my hands in the air. “You’re my best friend! How could you say that to me?”
“Because!” Phoebe said. “I won’t allow you to be dormant, again and again, just so you can suffer! You never asked me about my suffering, and that’s ok, but I won’t stand here and watch you fail your own self again and again! I love you…too much to see that.”
“Anlovelove you too, and…” I stopped short. My lips trembled slightly, and I felt pale, a little sick, butterflies flying in my stomach. “I mean…” But I shook my head. No. That was what I meant, all right. I was stupid enough to say it, and Phoebe heard it, but nothing could be done about that. I’d meant every word. “Phoebe…no, I mean, what I…Phoebe.”
Phoebe didn’t answer: she only looked at me, studying my face, her own eyes wide with surprise. “You…you mean that?”
I clenched my eyes shut, and tried to look fierce…but it was stupid. It was all just stupid. I was risking everything. “Yeah…I do.”
A million thoughts ran through my head that night. I expected her slap, her admonishing, her fear, her scream away, all computing to the loss of my best friend, who stood by me, and I her when I saw her suffering. But instead she rushed into my arms, holding me with every ounce of strength she had, then reaching upward on her tiptoes and kissing me on the lips. I felt a sudden surge of heat and then I was kissing her back, as madly and profoundly as I had ever imagined kissing Arnold. Arnold had been a dream, but he had not been passion. This was.
I hadn’t seen her suffering after all…not for me. She’d been reaching out for so long, and I guess, by natural logic, I’d finally taken her hand and held it like I should have.
Arnold. He was an interesting memory. He was the model, I guess, of the person I wanted to be, or should have been: loyal, brave, true, and honest. I’d never been those things…at least; no one would have ever attributed them to me. How could they? I’d been a person of hidden emotions, of anger and rage and pain and indifference. What was the truth? Who was Helga Pataki? I didn’t know…so I wanted to be Arnold, not this mess of a person, this mass of feelings and nerves and uncertainty.
But Arnold made a mistake that made me see my error: Lila. She was something that even he couldn’t reach, couldn’t hold, no matter how much he tried. She was the extreme version of him, a part of him he just hadn’t been. No wonder he’d never been able to see me as anything but Helga.
Phoebe…she could. She’d long ago accepted the spontaneous, angry, selfish, bullying girl I was…and she showed me that it was all a fake. In the end, I was still me, not Arnold. I wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t privileged. I had little things, and they made me happy. I had hopes. I had dreams. I yea yearning and poetry in my soul.
And, of course, I had Phoebe, her head slightly crooked and naked as a jaybird, sleeping next to me in this bed as I write this. I’ve admired the quiet snores she had…it reminds me of how the leaves fall slowly into the water on autumn day, only showing a sign of the barest ripple, but still making an impression. Like now, just being herself, nestled in my arms. It was a bigger impression than anything I’d ever written about Arnold. I saw life written there…but more importantly, truth.
Bob’ll find out soon, and no doubt it’ll hit the fan, but I’m used to him. I’ve had to deal with him all these years, right? Mom won’t really care, most likely, but she’d be rooting for me behind the scenes. As for the other kids…well, they’ll grow. They’ll learn.
Kinda like Phoebe and me.

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