Carla Panciera

All of a Sudden



Albinna wore a faded yellow jumper for the fifth-grade photo, white socks pulled to her knees. She set her white hand on top of the fence-post prop and grinned.
     Back in the classroom, she stood behind me to sharpen her pencil, eraser worn to a full, flat, muddy moon. Chips of yellow flicked in her eyes the way sand sparkling in river beds makes you think: gold. Freckled nose, forehead, tops of hands now that I’d seen them up close.
     Isn’t it great they gave us a free comb? she said.
     She didn’t need my response.
     She could walk to my house, she told me, through the woods. She’d seen the silos. Her teeth were so small, I wondered if any had fallen out yet.

     I had a lot of friends, got dropped off at houses that overlooked the ocean or at the homes of artists’ children, high-ceilinged places where an entire wall might be taken up with a sculpture of angelfish. The builder’s daughter had a fireplace in her bedroom, a closet we could dance in except we never danced. Because I lived on a farm, set apart from the rest of our town, I hadn’t met anyone who lived close enough to walk over, who might come for an hour after school several days in a row, whose coming would not be monumental.
     But Albinna was one of the new kids, sent to our school because hers was overcrowded. Mine was no longer the last bus stop. Instead, when the others had gotten off, Albinna moved to the seat behind me and we rode with the fumes, the lunch-box smell of overripe bananas and cold cuts, the bus driver scanning her rearview.
     I guess you could come over, I said.

     Albinna walked into my house that first day the way she always entered places, as if everyone had been talking about her but she wasn’t about to be angry. She was close to apologizing for the interruption, her smile a great attempt at smiling—a hopeful smile with more faith than you might imagine she’d have. She flipped her hair back over one shoulder and stuck her head forward as if peering over a threshold.
     My mother turned away from the television on the counter, my father paused over his soup bowl.
     Nice to meet you, Albinna said, before anyone had been introduced. She touched my father’s shoulder, offered her pale hand to my mother, not as a handshake, just to clasp fingers, the way I’d seen people say goodbye on their way out of crowded places.
     We’re glad you’re here, my father said, which he’d never said to anyone before.
     My mother kept her hand for a little while.

     Later, my mother said, She’s lovely, which I hadn’t noticed. Albinna was capable of inspiring that kind of surprise.

     I remember the place she lived: wood floors worn white, beds unadorned but for white sheets, dark blankets folded at the foot, closets full of empty hangers clicking together, her big white shirt when we didn’t wear things like that, her shoes and those of her sisters aligned, the corners of the trundle she shared with one of the girls folded neatly as a gift.
     I’m named for a saint, she said. Not a famous one.
     Later, I looked it up.
     It’s spelled wrong, I told her.

     The Blessed Virgin, the kind you see in cemeteries, kept watch on a table in the front entrance, bowed neck strung with scapulars. Eight children and never a stray teaspoon in the sink. The phone off the hook for days because of her mother’s headaches, because one of them got caught smoking. Figurines everywhere that her mother paid a quarter for at yard sales. Her father cut recesses in walls for them, like a gift shop display, a kitschy museum. On Saturday mornings, before we met to walk downtown—Albinna had no bike to ride—her mother made her dust them. The kitchen table would be filled with women in pink skirts, their white hair piled like ice cream, and men in long coats, tails frozen into black fins, everyone ready for the ball, no cracks about their necks, no missing hands despite the bird-bone narrow shape of them.
     Albinna wiped porcelain faces with an old sock, setting them back as gently as eggs in the empty house. My mother wants everyone out, she’d say.
     I’d wait on a rock across the street.

     I went to parties she was not invited to. She was the new girl; she still printed her name. These were reasons enough for exclusion. Albinna did not feel sorry for herself the way I felt sorry for her. It was as if she had no expectations of her own. Besides, she gave terrible gifts—panda bears hanging from key chains, a felt bag of shiny blue stones. So I went and acted like a popular girl. I had a Danskin suit for pool parties. I knew tricks for making people talk in their sleep.
     I imagined Albinna trolling the aisles of the dime store, the sleeves on a denim jacket her brother’d outgrown rolled over her thin wrists. The saleswomen, older than our mothers, sweaters around their shoulders cape-like, would follow after her expecting her to pocket lip gloss or musk, things she fingered or picked up to smell. There was nothing she thought of stealing. But who else would have known that about her?
     I stopped going places without her. I felt a generous love for her and for myself loving her. When she couldn’t go somewhere because she was ironing curtains, she’d been out that day already, she had to get lettuce at the store, I stayed home, my mother asking: Where’s Albinna today?
     We’d found a rusting truck cap in a back field and dragged an old coffee table into it. She brought a candle and once we tried cigarettes there. Days without her, I’d sit there myself, bring the dog, find something to use as a vase and fill it with wild chamomile.
     You could ask another friend over, my mother said, but I had no wish to do that.

     Albinna used words wrong, words no one else would get wrong, words that made other girls study her to see if she was serious. I stood among them, awkward for Albinna who remained unfazed, who tilted her head at their stares and waited to be let in on something.
     So when we were alone as we were one summer day, we’d walk and she’d say: Wouldn’t it be great to go to the beach somewhere? Stop walking around the streets like vagamonds?
     Vagabonds, I’d tell her.
     She’d shrug, not angry, not embarrassed. What’s the difference?
     I’d feel my own impatience: If only you’d get this right, I’d think.
     In the silence and the heat, we’d resume our tread, me toting regret like a stone. Then, Albinna would hang her body, thin as fishing line, over the curb and wave at the empty street.
     All of a sudden, gorgeous guys drive by—hey girls, surf’s up! she said.
     And our awkwardness ended. All of a sudden, she liked to say that.

     She could never be depended on to sleep over or to go shopping, or to do anything else we did. Her mother found her at places and banged on the windows to demand her home. Even on Saturdays, when her mother and father went dancing, they insisted she stay in, her sisters out, her brother, too, the youngest child, a boy, asleep on sheets Albinna shook out the window each day. She made sure the television cooled down before they came home so they wouldn’t know she’d been watching. Her parents slept in the next morning, sending their thin envelope to Mass with Albinna. Many times they asked her about the sermon and called the rectory to make sure she was right. She didn’t ask for reasons. She did not fight back.
     One afternoon in his barbershop, her father’s best friend—she called him uncle—put his hand on her knee, a sunburned knee, a tender, warm knee. He said things that made her want to cry, but she pretended it was a joke and hurried out past combs stuffed into jars like pickles in blue vinegar.
     She was fourteen.
     She never told anyone else what he did. She told me, fingers playing the tabletop like a piano, the old gold cat on the grapevine outside the window studying her like a fish, like something dazzling and vulnerable beneath the white light, the pale flesh of her, the way she flipped her thick hair from one peeling shoulder to the next. She laughed through it, trying to make me laugh, as if he too had been kidding, as if everyone understood the fun in it.
     All of a sudden Batman and his little co-host Robin come in for a haircut and I’m out of there, she told me.
     She hurried through the story so she wouldn’t be late for dinner.
     You could live here, I said. My parents wouldn’t mind.
     She pasted on a little smile. Why would I want to do that? she said.
     When her parents urged her to visit her uncle more often, she refused. They kept her home for a week varnishing their bedroom floor, but she wouldn’t change her mind.

     That winter she found an old purple sweater, mohair, in my attic.
     Keep it, I said, when she tried it on.
     She wore it our first year in high school, wore it when we didn’t wear old things, wore it on days too warm to wear it. Wore it on days when she didn’t wear her big white shirt with the thin pink bra beneath it, a made-up pink, a pink that didn’t appear anywhere else in the world. The artists’ daughter, the builder’s daughter stared at her back and then at each other.
     She walked up to their lunch table one day—I’d like to sit down, she said, her smile full of baby teeth, if I’m not taking someone’s seat. Surprised, they nodded toward an empty chair. I set my tray down next to hers, pulled another seat over. I felt too close to her, but I didn’t know where else to sit. I didn’t want to leave her there. Albinna ate her cake first, a flake of white frosting clinging to her lip. She glanced around the silent faces peering into brown bags or picking at the hot stew in the trays before them. She beamed as if she were watching children she adored being absorbed in constructing fragile towers.
     You’re in my algebra class, she said to a girl shoving orange peels into her sack. The bell sounded for the end of lunch.
     All of a sudden, we think of something to talk about and bam it’s time to go, Albinna said.

     In history class, she rolled her eyes at the bald teacher who sat behind his desk and lectured. I took the notes she’d borrow later. She’d been assigned a seat in the back of the room, surrounded by boys. She wasn’t afraid to ask them for gum before class. She tapped their books with her pencil on her way down the aisle. By this time, she was so lovely, long-legged, even I noticed, but she was without crushes or infatuation, was without the obvious need for any of these people.
     She mumbled into the pages of her notebook where she practiced her signature: All of a sudden Jefferson comes in with an extra wig, says, hey mister, wear this. And while you’re at it, quit infringement on their pursuit of happiness.
     The boys chuckled. The girls looked her way wondering what the amusement could be.
     She sanded her corner shelf in woodshop alongside the tech boys. She painted a mural in art class with girls with black fishnets and purple lips. She copied grammar worksheets from the soccer goalie. While I made my way through the halls holding up a quiet hand to those I’d known most of my life, Albinna called out to strangers in every corridor. And they called back.
     Invitations came for her to semiformals and parties over bonfires on the beach. People in the bleachers at basketball games made room for her, boys gathered around her locker where her books sat neatly covered on the shelf. Come, too, she would say when she told me of her plans, and why didn’t I? Why didn’t I before she stopped asking? I had forgotten how to act like them, how to talk to them, had made Albinna my friend and had forgotten how to make others.
     But mostly, I wanted her to myself. Had assumed I would always have that.

     When she stopped coming to my house as often, I convinced my mother to teach us to drive standard in the parking lot at Almacs. I invited Albinna to a restaurant where we could have our tea leaves read. I thought we might try camping.
     Albinna chose the tea leaves. It was my sixteenth birthday. My father put on aftershave, my mother counted out money before we left and filed bills in his wallet. Cold rain glossed the dark road out behind the Narragansett Long House. Albinna chattered about palm readers and horoscopes, things her mother warned her about.
     She told us how she paid a quarter for a tiny scroll that revealed she had a guardian angel, that her lucky color was white. My mother smiled over her shoulder from the front seat, my father glanced in the rearview at her.      Albinna had left things behind to be with us.
     I told my mother we were out for Chinese, she said.
     You lied? I asked.
     She doesn’t need to know everything about me, Albinna said, her breath steaming the window she faced. No one does.
     We dumped our tea into water goblets, turned the cups over onto our saucers and spun them three times. Princess Redwing had a long, gray braid that hung over the chair back. She wore pink-framed glasses like my mother and not deerskin, but a blue tunic with a turquoise clasp at her throat. “You have friends near and far,” she told me.
     But she told Albinna: There is no more fear for you. There is only this safe place, here where the leaves make a small circle. You have the wind for you—see the leaves scattered here, just before the saucer rim? And just as these leaves part, here where there is this path for you: this is your love, this is where you may follow it.

     That spring, I walked out to meet her by my side of the brook, just before the pine grove. We hadn’t met there since my birthday months before, but she had agreed to this day, and I imagined what she’d say, how she would reaffirm our friendship and how relief would surge through us. But of course I wouldn’t have it right. This was one of her gifts: that she would say what you could never have imagined. Still, I must have had some idea she would stand before me, that year when she was willing to save herself at last, a beautiful girl, a girl with friends. This is how I remember it: her twisting a blade of grass, long hair sliding over her shoulders, Albinna in soft focus.
     That day I said, My mother made dinner.
     But I already understood how helpless I was.
     Your mother, she said. Then she said she couldn’t come. She wouldn’t come anymore.
     I didn’t know then that we were at that age when we make decisions like that, when we don’t consider how we might stay together, when we don’t understand the value of that kind of work.
     I did not say, choose me the way I chose you that day, grinding our pencils to smoke in that classroom. I did not say all the things I’ve since learned to say, all the things I’ve practiced.
     You are trying to save me, she said. Like something in a collection, like the only thing in a collection. You want to be a commiseur of me.
     Connoisseur? I said.
     And you make me feel bad when you correct me. As if I can’t be perfect like you. But you aren’t perfect, either.
     I’m not, I said. I don’t feel perfect at all, I added, but she was already going.
     It was a long walk home, climbing under the fence, crossing the nut tree field, toward the farm laid out before me—the big white silo at the bottom of the hill, the cow barn where my father must be shaking out hay for the milkers, then the calf barn where there was always a baby calling after its mother, and then the hayloft where Albinna and I found a place carved out by the runaways, the cans of corn and the rusty jackknife. We had sat for awhile, imagining what it would be like to hide ourselves in that dark, hot place, to be discovered or not, all of sudden, all of a sudden.

     The paint peeled off our big white house, a house perched on a ledge, as if washed ashore where there was only one thing to stop it from washing away altogether, out of memory. My mother looked over my shoulder when I came in. There was only the setting sun framed in the doorway behind me.      She set three places for dinner.
     New things began that day, although not the way I had hoped they would. It wasn’t the start of a renewed friendship, of a reclamation. It was, instead, the start of a life where I would be alone for awhile, and where, eventually, I made new friends, friends I willed myself to trust. When they looked at pictures of me as a child, I stood apart, and I did not reply when they pointed to my image and said, I wish I had known you then.