The first month or so of the semester remained voicelessly awkward as the two were forced to continue working together as lab partners. They attempted trading, asked the professor if they could work separately, but nothing ever came of it. The two were stuck together. After their attempts at changing partners and leaving class failed, however, things weren’t as bad as they had anticipated.
By mid March—over two months into the semester—they had progressed to small talk, mostly consisting of “that smell in the dorms the other day” or “the streaking guy on the campus green.” Every once in a while, however, they would stumble upon an actual conversation.
“Ruth. Isn’t she that sixth grader you had a crush on back in the day?” She remembered the scenario well. Especially since Arnold was two-timing her—well Cecille, but her as Cecille—in order to go on a valentine’s date with Ruth on the same night. “I thought you got over her because she was a snob.”
Arnold shrugged, looking down at the lab sheets, but Helga could swear she saw the slightest blush on his cheeks. “Well she’s different now. She grew up. I mean we all grew up. She’s a lot cooler now.”
Helga held an insult and a scoff in the back of her throat. Insulting the girlfriend does not a good lab partner make. She knew it was probably a bias talking, but she felt that he could do better. Ruth had treated him like a bus boy. Not to mention Helga’s irritation at her ignorance when Arnold told his friends she thought that “anonymous” was a real physical person. “Whatever. Just don’t come crying to me when she dumps you for a maitre d’ this time.”
Arnold rolled his eyes and filled out their lab paperwork. “That’s not going to happen. I told you, she’s different.” Before she could comment again, Arnold interrupted. “Will you hand me the sample?”
She clamped her mouth shut before the remark could leave her lips and passed him the lab sample. She knew Ruth was no good for him, but what was her reasoning in telling him that? She had never directly met the girl. Besides that, he was happy, and even though the elementary school Helga would have been driven crazy as the idea of him being happy with someone besides her, the college Helga knew a happy Arnold was a good thing, not matter the reason. So why ruin it with insults? It didn’t matter that the girl was a snobby rotten no-good…
“Helga?” Arnold was looking at her with concern and motioned down to her desk. “Are you okay?”
“Huh?” She blinked over at him and looked down at the pencil snapped in her hand. “Oh sorry. Old habits die hard, eh?” She laughed a bit and threw the two ends of the pencil in the trash as she excused herself to the restroom.
“Pull yourself together Helga.” She told herself, pacing back and forth in front of the bathroom sinks. You’ve spent two months sitting with this guy and it is going well. You’re almost there. You’re moving on. You can do this. She leaned on a sink and stared at herself in the mirror. She’d long since stopped arguing with herself out loud—Brainy made sure to finally break her of that habit—but she couldn’t help her thoughts from crashing around in her mind like an interstate pileup when she became frustrated. And nothing frustrated her more than that guy.
Arnold. She thought. What a loser. What a stinking pile of garbage. Who does he think he is coming in and ruining my life before I even got it fixed? Being so nice to me and making it even harder to just be a friend. She sighed, washing her hands in the icy cold water just to jar her from her thoughts. She couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. Lab still lasted another 45 minutes.
He didn’t know what he’d done to set her off. She didn’t even seem like she was angry before that moment. It was obvious that when left to her own thoughts Helga could put herself in a bad mood, however Arnold couldn’t help but feel like he’d done or said something wrong. He cleaned up the experiment, eyeing the door for her return. As she fell back into the seat beside him, releasing a deep breath, he slid her his observation notes. “You want to type them up?”
She shrugged, unable to look him in the eye. She’d had enough of being a good lab partner for the day. She took the paper blindly, luckily avoiding his hand by a couple centimeters as she slid it into her binder before the group lecture began. She heard the light sound of a phone vibrating beside her and couldn’t help but glance over to the mild disruption. She knew who it was by the smile on his face as he slid his cell under the desk slyly.
“Criminy…” she muttered, rolling her eyes and leaning forward, leaning her chin in her hands. She couldn’t wait to get back to her dorm.
The professor kept the class an extra ten minutes while he finished his lecture—an act that should be against every school policy. Arnold and Helga were both anxiously tapping their feet against the floor, as if a race were to start between them as soon as the teacher dismissed them. Arnold would have won. He’d already muttered a “Later, Helga,” and had his backpack slung over one shoulder before she even stood up. By the time she’d closed her satchel, he was gone.
Arnold shoved his phone in his pocket after sending a quick message to his girlfriend informing her he was on his way to meet her at the coffee shop on campus. He ran to the University bus that was parked at the end of the street and checked his phone again. She said she had news. He didn’t know what it was, but any news from Ruth was good news.
She waved at him from the table outside. Her hair was a little longer than when she was in sixth grade, reaching her shoulders. She’d kept her thin form and big smile he’d always liked even when he didn’t like her attitude. “You got here quick.”
He laughed and smiled, shrugging as he set his bag down beside him. “Got lucky catching the bus.” He looked at the table. “Did you order my coffee?”
“Oh,” she glanced down at the table as if surprised it wasn’t sitting there. “I couldn’t remember what you liked in it so I figured I’d let you order it.” She seemed to forget about the text with his coffee order in it. Two creams three sugars.
“Oh well. What’s the good news?”
Her smile lit up, just like always. “You’re never going to guess. Go ahead guess.” He opened his mouth but she continued before he could respond. “I got approved for the study abroad program!”
The initial reaction was that he was genuinely happy for her. She’d been hoping to visit Europe during the summer but she was worried her financial aid wouldn’t cover it. However that meant for the entire summer she’d be in another country. She would barely even be able to call since long distance was so expensive and he knew her calls would be more importantly to her family than to him. Nevertheless, he plastered a smile on his face and congratulated her. “That’s great Ruth. You’ll have to take plenty of photos while you’re there.”
“I will!” She reached in her purse—which was too big to be carrying around as it could have been used for a book bag—and pulled out the brochure for her trip. “I’ll go to Spain and the U.K. and England and France and Scotland and Ireland.”
Arnold wanted to remind her that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were part of the United Kingdom, but instead he just smiled. “That’s awesome. I’m really happy for you.” But inside he was miserable.
Helga fell on her bed with a sigh, letting her books fall with a loud thump against the floor. She had another class in a couple of hours, but after all the emotional stress of chemistry, she was tempted to skip it. It was an easy class anyways and she was maintaining a solid A in it without even giving it her usual half effort. Her roommate was still in class, and would be for another two hours. It was ideal time for a nap or a music blaring diary session.
Her sister had given her a leather bound journal for her birthday; surprisingly one of the best gifts her Olga had ever given her. Her old diary had been filled up a few days before and so it was perfect timing. Since then she’d been using that one every night, religiously. Whether it be a four page story about the kid that followed her around campus because he didn’t know English and couldn’t find the counselor’s office, or a short paragraph because she’d went to her classes and came back to her dorm without any major event, there was an entry for each and every day of her life.
Helga pulled her laptop out of her backpack and plugged it into the stereo system on her bed. Before long her music was as loud as she could make it without getting a visit from the resident advisor and she was wrapped up on her bed with her journal and pink feather pen.
Why is chemistry so hard?
That was all she could put on paper. She was stumped for words for the first time in her life. She stared, blinking at the almost blank page in her journal, but before her mind could wander further, she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket.
She was barely able to answer it at the last ring. “What is it Miriam? Did you lose your keys again?”
“Helga?” It was Phoebe. “It’s me, Phoebe.”
Helga smiled and sat up, leaning her head back against the wall and stretching out her legs. “Oh hey Phoebe, what’s up?” It’d been a long time since she’d heard that little voice. They’d been texting frequently as usual, and she was completely up to date with everything going on in her life. Despite the fact that Phoebe was dating Arnold’s best friend, Helga knew she could still trust her with all of her secrets, just like she’d always done.
“Gerald and I have spring vacation coming up next week at our respective schools and I was wondering if I could come visit you. Gerald was hoping to catch up with Arnold and I know you’ve needed a verbal outlet for your frustration for a while. Perhaps we could go out to dinner just us while the boys conversed.”
Helga let out a sigh of relief and smiled. “Phoebs, you’re a genius.”