The Problem with Helena, by Joy Chen
When it came to love, Phoebe fell into it the way a skipping stone falls into the river—not immediately, but inevitably, and it was all about the strategy. The problem with Helena, on the other hand, was that she fell the way a boulder does—instantly.
Phoebe did not consider herself an anti-romantic, but she found it quite impossible to understand how Helena lived the way she did. Just as the gentlest breeze was nonetheless a disturbance on a still day, Helena was often compelled towards big reactions by the smallest of stimuli. According to the interview in the New Yorker issue that excerpted from her first novel, A Game of Tones, Helena was most delighted by “the stories behind stories,” finding inspiration in “sunlight passing through a train; a cello concerto heard in passing; a Chinese folktale from childhood.”
Of course, Helena—and possibly readers of the New Yorker—did not consider this hypersensitivity a problem, but Phoebe did, which was probably why the two of them had begun to drift apart in the four long years after college. Phoebe would never actually say this to Helena’s face, but she was thinking it, especially when Helena called an hour after her flight to New York was supposed to have departed—still in Shanghai.
“I saw this man,” Helena said. “So I had to stay.”
“A man,” Phoebe said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Helena was not kidding, just as she was not kidding a week ago, when she had shown up at Phoebe’s office, unannounced, arms fanned out in a sort of, “Surprise! I realize I probably should’ve told you in advance, but this is okay, right?” Just as she was not kidding two years ago, when she announced that she was stopping work on Novel Two to seek inspiration in London (getting a Masters in the meanwhile), or even four years ago, with Game of Tones, when she said that she refused to sign with Penguin Random House because she disliked large corporations.
They had gone out to lunch during Phoebe’s break, to a Japanese chain restaurant whose meal sets cost six times the amount of what Phoebe normally would’ve spent had she eaten alone, quickly, and at her desk.
“What are you doing in Shanghai?”
“Interrupting your perfect life, of course.” Humor danced in Helena’s eyes. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Perfect life. Phoebe secretly gloated at this, but she said, “I would hardly say that. Rather, I’m just a little pit-stop in your next adventure.”
“A big pit-stop,” Helena said. “But I’m kidding. There’s an international writers conference this week. I also just interviewed to teach creative writing at a university nearby. It’d be a year-long position, or something, but we’d be together again!”
“Great,” Phoebe said, stabbing at a piece of pork cutlet. “But why would you go and start teaching here?”
“I was getting tired of London,” she said off-handedly.
“Maybe you could stay a bit longer? Your accent could still use some work.”
Helena opened her mouth in mock offense, then proceeded to eat a piece of tofu that was balancing on her chopsticks. “But it’s really how they talk there!”
“What about your writing?”
“This is a creative writing position, isn’t it?”
“But have you been doing it yourself?”
“Don’t mom me,” Helena said, but she confessed, “I haven’t been making much progress with Novel Two.”
Now Phoebe was interested—how was it that Helena could run into difficulty? Up until that point, it had always seemed that Helena had always known the right person, was in the right place, at the right time. Even her first novel, a major breakthrough, could be attributed to the fact that in her junior fall, she had landed a spot in a visiting professor’s seminar, and in senior spring, the professor’s agent happened to be soliciting manuscripts.
But Phoebe supposed that obstacles, which seemed to be rather commonplace with herself, were bound to happen to Helena at some point too.
“Oh?” Phoebe said. “How so?”
Helena reached out, as though to pluck flower buds from the air. Her brows were furrowed, and her lips were slightly parted, as though to speak. Yet she said nothing.
Phoebe waited, for this was how Helena was, when she searched for the right words to explain her next grand philosophy. She picked up her cup of tea and swirled it around, watching the barley bits at the bottom rise, dance, and sink. The barley bits that were so unable to stay still, so tragically subject to the momentum of the world in which they resided—Phoebe found herself feeling sympathy for them.
“Where do you think stories come from?” Helena finally said.
“Okay, but where does the writing come from?”
Phoebe felt an odd smile snake onto her face, the kind she found herself inadvertently giving to clients who asked her the most obvious questions, like, “Is there any way to cut costs without affecting the bottom line?” (No.) or “Is there any way to raise the barrier of entry for our competitors?” (Yes.) Her co-workers had pointed it out, and on occasions Reagan had called her out too, accusing her of contempt, which was what they had last fought about. But she couldn’t help it, and truly, it was one of the few things in her life that she could not control.
“Where does the writing come from?” Phoebe repeated, wrestling a neutral expression back onto her face. “Possibly the writer?”
Helena shook her head. “That’s not it.”
“So tell me.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve told you,” Helena said. “But stories come from life.”
“Life. As in living,” Phoebe said. “Then why isn’t everyone a writer?”
A genuine expression of hurt briefly crossed Helena’s face—a tightening of the lips, a flinching in the brow—and Phoebe quickly realized that there was something in her tone of voice that suggested at a sourness in her stomach. If Reagan were there and listening to the conversation, he would even tell her that she was jealous.
“I mean,” Phoebe said quickly, “but not everyone can become a best-selling author—like you.”
“I’m not best-selling,” Helena sighed. “But everyone can be a writer, if they—if we paid closer attention to the things happening in our own lives. To the intersection of lives around us. To not just the big signs that the universe gives us, but also the small ones. Stories are all around us, waiting to be written.”
Phoebe stared at her, unable to take her seriously. “Someone still has to write them down, you know. That takes work, too.”
“But the point is,” Helena continued, “I haven’t felt that about the life I’ve been living after college. Not during my two years in New York, riding the coattails of my short-lived fame from Game of Tones. Not during the two years in London, because the weather was so dreadful and I was sick of writing about Charlotte Brontë. I would rather be writing about . . . this.” She started plucking at the air again. “I’ve missed China. I still think about our summer abroad in Beijing.”
“How do you miss a place you’ve only lived in for a summer?”
“Well, you missed it enough to work here.”
“That wasn’t missing, Helena. I was placed in the Shanghai office.”
“Fair,” Helena said, leaning back into her seat. “Maybe I miss China because I’m Chinese, and this is some just home-going that’s been passed down to me.”
“You can’t just say you’re Chinese here,” Phoebe said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Chinese people take it to mean that you were actually born in China. So then they get confused as to why we speak English so well.”
“What are we then? Just American?”
Phoebe shrugged. “American when it works in our favor, Chinese when it doesn’t.
Helena scrutinized a slice of pickled radish between her chopsticks. “It’s like that in the US, too. I was the Chinese writer until the New Yorker published that excerpt.”
“Were you the Chinese writer because you’re ethnically Chinese, or because you wrote about China?”
“The former.” She dropped the radish into her mouth and crunched. “But if all goes as planned, it may be both reasons.”
“I’ve decided, Phoebe. I’m going to find my next novel in China.”
Phoebe couldn’t even possibly figure out what Helena meant by that.
“But more importantly,” Helena added, “let’s go out tonight. Like the old times.”
Needless to say, by the time it was eight that evening, Phoebe had already showered and felt it unlikely that she would be going anywhere but bed. Helena would be disappointed if she found out that Phoebe had gone back to being boring in the years after college—that’s to say, she had not been taking advantage of the nightlife in Shanghai.
But Phoebe enjoyed the safe space of her apartment, where the quiet susurrations of the humidifier kept her company. At the end of the day, it was the one place where she seemed to have the most control. She knew exactly how far to turn the nozzle in the bath so the water was just how she liked it. She liked seeing her set of toiletries lined up next to Reagan’s. She had never imagined herself to be the domestic type, but she found a great pleasure in knowing that there was a specific dent in the sofa from where she had curled up so often.
Home tasted sweeter than any cocktail, and this was especially the case now that Reagan was so often away. Knowing that this was also home to him placated her.
Like she had done on so many nights in the past year, Phoebe crawled into her side of the bed and laid there for a few minutes. She focused solely on her breathing, as the meditation tapes had taught her. Then, she rolled over to the other side of the bed, where Reagan normally slept. Around 9PM, which was 6AM in San Francisco, she called him. She finally heard his voice on the fourth try, and she felt her heart settle.
“Nice of you to finally pick up,” Phoebe said, trying to keep her voice as light as possible, as though she hadn’t just spent hours worrying about their last fight.
“Hello to you too,” Reagan said, stifling a yawn. “Are we talking again?”
Phoebe narrowed her eyes. “Do you want me to hang up?”
“No, don’t do that,” Reagan said, sighing. “Let’s just put it behind us.”
So Phoebe asked, “How’s San Francisco?”
“It’s alright. I’ve been stuck in the conference center most of the week, so it’s not like I get to see much of the city. Good tacos though. How are things in Shanghai?”
“Helena showed up today,” Phoebe said. “Unannounced.”
Reagan was quiet for a good second. Then, “What for?” His voice was raised a few pitches.
“For a novel she hasn’t even written.”
“If living in a different country inspires her, and it’s worked in the past, then I don’t see why she wouldn’t try it again.”
“That’s beside the point though. How does she just show up—”
“I don’t get it,” Reagan cut in. “What’s wrong with showing up?”
“She didn’t tell me, or anything.”
“Is the world supposed to report back to you? I think there’s a quiet dignity in showing up when you feel that life demands it.”
Phoebe felt the reconciliation that she had been so keen on slip away, in favor of the bitter irritation that now sat at the back of her throat.
“Hello?” Reagan said. “Did you just hang up on me again?”
“No,” Phoebe said, unhappy that she still wanted to answer him. “Was that summer in Beijing as important to you as it was to Helena?”
“Not as important as it was to Helena, I think; I certainly didn’t write a novel about it. But you do realize that was when and where we all met.”
“That was when and where we met you,” Phoebe corrected.
“Right,” Reagan said. “A summer’s plenty of time for things to happen, and Helena has always been the type to make them happen too.”
“And I’m not?”
“I never said that. She’s just . . .”
“I have a better question,” Reagan said. “Why aren’t you glad to see her? I would be glad if my friend came to visit me in Shanghai.”
“You’d be glad to see her, but not me, right?” Phoebe said, indignant.
“Phoebe, why—? Look, I don’t want to argue before my meeting. You might want take a page from Helena’s book and relax a bit. Even if you don’t exercise your iron fist over everything, life’s not going to run away from you.”
“Maybe you should’ve proposed to Helena if you think she’s so perfect.”
Then Reagan got very quiet, which Phoebe thought unnatural. After a certain point, he had always been the one to comfort her when she started acting this way.
“Hello?” she asked. “Did you hang up?”
“No,” he said, and she got scared at the tone of his voice. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to recently, but I really can’t do this every time we talk. It’s like I’m always fighting to assure you that I care. I can’t do this.”
“Reagan.” Phoebe clutched the phone with both her hands. “Alright, I'm sorry. Please go on with your day. We can talk about this later.”
“We can talk about this now,” he said.
“But your meeting,” she said.
“I’d feel better going in if I just told you now,” he said. “It’s been on my mind for a while now, so I need to say it. I can’t do this anymore.”
“No—Us. The engagement.”
“I hope you understand that it’s—”
“Over the phone,” Phoebe said. “Un-fucking-believable. Please stop.”
“I’m hanging up,” she said, annoyed that she even bothered to announce it.
She shut her phone down and rolled back to her side of the bed, where she simply laid still. She was surprised that she was not panicking. Which, in all regards, was good, given that there were no meditation tapes for situations where a woman’s college best friend shows up just in time for her fiancé to break up with her. She recalled Helena saying perfect life earlier that afternoon, and as that perfect life cracked open, so did her heart. The circular light fixture on the ceiling began to look like a moon through her tears, and that was when she turned on her phone again.
Reagan had been the first person on her Favorites list. She clicked on the second person, who used to be the first, and listened for a voice.
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