Helena and I talked when we met on the patio during smoke breaks at work. Our conversations were both restrained and strangely direct, the way conversations tend to be when there's a bit of a language barrier; restrained because of cultural differences or uncertainties but direct because of limited vocabulary. We granted each other the immunity that those kinds of conversations require, where each party trusts completely in the goodwill of the other and exhibits a great willingness to forgive both cultural and linguistic gaffes. Despite Helena's unfamiliarity with English we were nonetheless able to discuss differences in customs worldwide, differences between languages, Jespersson's contention that Danish is the closest language to English, things to do weekends within a day's drive of Silicon Valley, and a Danish bicycle company that went bankrupt by misassessing the market in China.
Helena was Danish, a student doing a six-month internship in the United States as part of her work on a Master's Degree in International Business. She was a knockout, plain and simple. The only thing that prevented her from fulfilling Everyman's dream of the perfect Scandinavian beauty was a slight underbite, a flaw so picayune it's scarcely worth mentioning.
Her hair was cut in what I'd call a European bob, not being at all familiar with the names of women's hairstyles; a bob, but not symmetrical, slightly longer on one side than the other, and it was always clean and shining. She wore no makeup at all, not even lipstick--but, then, she hardly needed any. Although she had been quite pale when she first arrived, she seemed to be enjoying the California summer, because during the first few weeks of her stay, her face and her arms took on the golden color that only true blondes can achieve in the sun.
Helena's and my rapport may have been due in part to the fact that we both were, in a sense, strangers in a strange land. My tidy, and, I'd thought, secure, world had crumbled beneath me nine months earlier, and I was still lost and wandering, trying to relearn who I was, where I was, and what stability was.
A little more than a year ago, I'd decided to cast my lot with a start-up, still the Silicon Valley dream twenty years after the microcomputer revolution. Get in on the ground floor, get a large stock option package, help the company succeed wildly, and get rich. Within two weeks after I started working at that company I was aware of a massive amount of internal tension, the lack of team spirit and single-minded focus essential in a start-up, and the presence of too many wrong people in the wrong places. The board of directors did hire a new CEO, but far too late. Three months after I started, the new CEO cut the staff of forty-five in half, and, three months after that, the board of directors decided to throw in the towel.
At just about the same time, my wife and I decided to throw in the towel on a twenty-year marriage, and maybe far too late for that, too. Although our marital relationship had been strained for more years than I like to admit, there hadn't been any bad guy--nobody was screwing around with anybody else, nobody was abusing anybody, nobody was raiding the checkbook. My wife and I just discovered, one day, that our paths had diverged widely over time, and we were standing on opposite sides of a chasm that we were unable to bridge despite our best efforts. We were worn out; worn down. Though at that point it felt like we knew each other not at all, we knew each other well, and it was time to stop the hurt. Neither of us wanted to inflict any more pain on the other, neither of us wanted to take financial advantage of the other, and neither of us wanted lawyers to get the lion's share of our community property. We made the divorce as civilized and fault-free as we could.
The upshot was that I suddenly found myself without a job and without a home. A frantic search for employment showed that the job market was very tight right then, and I accepted literally the first offer that came along. The new position was two levels below where I'd been with the start-up, this company's product was way behind the times, and this company, too, had more than its share of internal troubles. I came to work in the morning, I did what I was supposed to do during the day, and I left in the evening. I had no burning desire to make my mark on the company or its product, or to move to a higher position. The place where I took my evening meals and slept was an alien and very empty duplex. Home was where I used to live.
My conversations with Helena were a bright spot in a dreary and plodding existence where a future had yet to take on shape and color. And, despite my belief that I fulfilled a paternal or avuncular role in Helena's life, I had to admit that our meetings on the company patio provided a measure of warmth to my emotional chill.
Although Helena and I spent a good deal of time talking, and although I sometimes had to speak to her very directly to explain English slang, nuances of words, or what her occasional misuse of idiom meant, I followed her guidance in subject matter, and we said little about ourselves or our feelings. Thus it was quite unexpected when, one morning, she said, "Please excuse me if I do not talk too much. Today I do not feel right."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "Are you sick?"
"No, I am not sick. I just do not feel right. It is lonely, or something," she said. "It is not just lonely, but empty, like something is not there."
"Have you ever been away from home before?" I asked. "For a long time?"
"No, not really," she said. "In Denmark, I went to summer camps when I was young, but only for two weeks. Sometimes holidays, but only with friends. I have never been so long in another country, where everything is different."
"It sounds to me like you're homesick," I said.
"Homesick?" she said.
"That's the English word for that feeling of being hollow inside, of feeling like something's missing. It happens when a person has been away from home for too long."
"Ah," she said, looking off into the distance. "hjemve. How foolish of me. I should have known. Now I understand. I always thought homesick was only for children."
We both glanced at our watches and saw that it was time to return to work. I was busy the remainder of that day, and didn't encounter Helena again until the following afternoon.
"Hello," I said. "How are you feeling today?" Are you still homesick?"
Helena sat, looking into the distance again, chewing on her lower lip, for so long that I thought maybe she hadn't heard me. Just as I was about to repeat the question, she turned and looked me directly in the eyes and said, "I want you to make love to me."
My hearing is not good, particularly in my left ear, thanks to the percussive effects of rifle and howitzer fire, and I have a particularly sharp drop at about the frequency of female voices. For a moment, I thought Helena had said "I want you to make love to me."
"I beg your pardon?" I said.
"I want you to make love to me," Helena said again. No doubt about it.
I suddenly experienced that otherworldly, light-headed, weak-kneed feeling that often accompanies the receipt of unexpectedly good news. My heart thudded and saliva rushed to my mouth. I was at a complete loss for words, and I feared that if I said the wrong thing, this delicious moment of invitation would be gone forever. How long I sat silent, I don't know.
Helena cocked her head a bit and squinted slightly, examining my expression closely. "Alan?" she said. "Alan, did you hear me? I said, 'I want you to make love to me.' Am I too blunt? Do I offend you?"
I snapped out of my trance. What I said next must have come from a protective reserve of Puritanism tucked away in a corner of my mind. The words tumbled from my mouth without forethought or planning. "Yes, I heard you. Are you too blunt? Have you offended me? Of course not. Helena, for Heaven's sake, I'm old enough to be your father. There are young men around all over the place, here."
Her expression changed so subtly that it would have been impossible to know which of her facial muscles contracted and which relaxed, and she was transformed from animated young woman to seeress, oracle, medicine woman, displaying in her eyes the collective wisdom of all woman of all time. "I have thought very hard about this. I know there are young men around all over the place," she said in a patient voice. "I know what I am and what I look like. I know that I am the blond woman from Denmark. I know that men in nearly every country of the world have fantasies about Scandinavian women. The young men spend stupid amounts of their time finding excuses to visit me. They are like young horses; they show me their muscles. They want sex so much they almost show me their penises. I can smell it on them. Not even all their horrid shaving lotion can hide what they are and what they want.
"While we have been talking during these weeks, you have not shown me your muscles. You have shown me inside you. I have been away from home for a long time, and I am lonely. No one has held me for a long time. I need to be held and comforted and made to feel safe and secure. Those young men could not comfort me or make me feel safe. They do not want to make love, they want only to fuck. I do not want only to fuck. I know that you will not be in a hurry, I know you can hold me, I know you can give me what I need, and that is why I want you to make love to me."
.... There is more of this story ...