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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Catholic School

A Novel

Edoardo Albinati; Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



IT WAS ARBUS who opened my eyes. Not that I was keeping them shut, but I had no way of being certain of what my eyes were seeing—these might be images projected to deceive or reassure me—and I was incapable of fostering doubts about the spectacle that was presented to me every day and which we called life. On the one hand, I unquestioningly accepted everything that befalls a kid aged thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and all the other years that follow in a row to bring to completion that “phase” (I’ve always heard it described as a “phase,” a “moment,” even when it lasts for quite a while, a “delicate moment,” or even a “crisis,” which truth be told will be followed by other moments and phases every bit as delicate or critical, coming one on the heels of the other in an unbroken succession until you are grown up, an adult, old, and finally dead), I partook without objection of the daily meal where the table was set with all the things that happen to any adolescent, the business he’s surrounded by as he grows up, as he develops (there you go, “development,” another keyword used by grown-ups to jimmy the padlocks of adolescence, the difficult “age of development,” the “development of a personality,” and then the horrible intransitive expression, “he has already developed,” which puts an unctuous glob of sealing wax on the secrets of the genitals), and which may not follow in any exact order, but which form the inevitable courses of any adolescent’s meal: school, soccer, friends, frustrations and excitements, all of it punctuated by phone calls and filling up gas tanks and falling off mopeds—in other words, common experiences.

On the other hand, though, I was stung by a feeling of bafflement. Was this really life? That is, was this my life? Did I need to do something to make it mine, or was it being provided and guaranteed like this? Would I have to earn it and deserve it? Perhaps it was just a temporary life, and soon it would be replaced by the permanent one. But in that case, was it up to me to replace it, or would someone else see to that? Some external event? Life can be something extraordinary or something normal. What kind of life was mine? Until Arbus came into the story, these questions—which I am now at least capable of formulating, though I have long since given up all thought of answering them—didn’t even bob to the surface, because they dissolved before even emerging into my awareness, leaving behind only the faintest of tremors.

Even the idea of calling it awareness is an overstatement.

At the very most, the sentiment of being in the world. Of being there.

Whoever projected the images that were so comfortable for me and that wrapped so snugly around me was a magician, a genius. I have to give him that. His lamp unleashed dreams that were perfect, sweet, and crystal clear, inside which I walked rapt and, indeed at certain moments, practically ravished. In other words, I was truly happy and I was truly sad. I inhaled deeply the mysterious air of the stage sets that were built around me and hastily broken down again the minute I went by. Something made me think that sooner or later a decisive event would occur that, rather than explaining one by one the previous insignificant twists and turns, would stitch them together with an irresistible thread like the kind used to bind the pages of novels so that you keep turning them until you reach the end, unable to put the book down. And so, merely resembling a piece of fiction but also possessing the implacable coherence of a piece of fiction, my life and everyone else’s lives could finally be called true, and real …

They were moments that were precise and yet deeply troubling, I wouldn’t know how to put it any better, in which I perceived with painful clarity the confusion that took possession of me. All of me. It took hold of me and left no room for anything else—say, for ideas or thoughts. I was reduced to feeling and nothing more. To be exact, what I felt was the blood that flowed, amassing in my chest, my swollen, hurting heart, I mean to say, it actually hurt, really really hurt, as if it were about to leap out of my chest, to use the language of the novels of a bygone time, but though it hurt there was also a sweetness to it, strange, a truly strange sweetness, as strange as all the rest of it.

Arbus was in the same class as me from the first year of middle school, but I only began to notice him as middle school was about to end. Just a month before final exams …

* * *

STUDENTS ARE LEFT BEHIND by definition. All of them, with no exceptions. For that matter, teachers are also always left behind, too, they can never keep up with the study plans that they themselves drew up, and they put the blame for that on their students, which is right and wrong at the same time, since, let’s just imagine that their classes were made up exclusively of little geniuses, even then they wouldn’t be able to keep up, they’d still be left behind, maybe just by a page, or a line, or a millimeter. Their fate in any case is one of failure and giving up: for instance, giving up on the idea of covering all of Kant by the next-to-last year of high school. There’s no explanation for it and all we can do is fall back on the enigmatic expression “the force of events.” Goals are created in the first place to fall short of, it’s in the exclusive nature of targets not to hit the bull’s-eye. Whether it’s because you run out of strength as the journey continues, or because the destination recedes imperceptibly as you go, or else because the plans were too optimistic or presumptuous or abstract in the first place, or the obstacles more daunting than expected, and the rain days or sick days or strike days or election days were just surprisingly numerous. I don’t know the field of science he pursued or what he based his findings on, but a certain expert calculated that any project we get under way is bound to cost an average of a third more than the starting budget, and will take at least a third again as long as we estimated to complete. And this appears to be an ineluctable factor. Only the rarest of exceptions escape the dictates of this law of intrinsic delay, and one of them was Arbus.

* * *

ARBUS, ARBUS, FRIEND, you skinny old fishbone. You were so skinny that the sight of your elbows when you pretended to play volleyball to keep from flunking gym sent a shiver down my spine. A shiver of pity or revulsion. To say nothing of your upper arms or your knees, whose sharp-edged bones practically poked through the black tracksuit with green-and-yellow trim that you had special permission to wear even as late as May, or the farther reaches of June, to protect your precarious state of health. However much you might pretend to focus on the game, everyone knew that if by some chance the ball ricocheted in your direction, into the narrow slice of the volleyball court to which we’d exiled you to make sure you did as little harm to the team as possible, you wouldn’t even see it hurtling downward because by then you’d be gazing in enchantment at the beams in the gymnasium roof, as if lost in calculations of the quantity of concrete required to hold it up. And if by chance, startled awake at the last instant by our shouts, you actually realized that you had to play (volleyball is a hysterical sport, a matter of crucial instants, in an entire game, you might or might not get your hands on the ball for a total of five seconds, and your turn comes unexpectedly), Arbus, come on! Pull it together!! Arbus, fuuuccckkk!! then you’d windmill your long, uncoordinated limbs, though it was unclear whether you were trying to return the ball with arms raised or loft it from below or even to catch it, which is what anyone is instinctively tempted to do when they’re not paying attention and they see something coming straight at them. And in fact that’s exactly what you did most of the time, you’d catch the ball in midflight and gather it to your chest, and then look around at your teammates as if hoping with a disoriented half smile for their approval in the very same instant that it was dawning on you that you’d screwed up for the umpteenth time, a hunch that was confirmed by the chorus of your impatient teammates, “Oh no, noooo, Arbus, what the fuck are you doing!?” And in fact, that was something that happened to you pretty regularly, that your face would have an expression sharply at variance with what you were thinking or feeling. You’d smile while people were insulting you.

The fantastic thing about Arbus was that he never got discouraged. He stayed impervious to events. Others couldn’t have put up with the constant ribbing and insults, and would have just thrown the ball at their teammates or lunged into physical combat or, as the ones we called little girls would do, burst into tears at their own undeniable inadequacies: reactions that I, for instance, gave in to on numerous occasions, incapable of putting up with the pressure of other people’s judgments, which always trigger a malaise or aggressivity in me even when they’re flattering, leave aside when they’re critical. I can’t say, however, that I ever saw Arbus looking crestfallen or worried. Anyone else would have suffered through this kind of situation and found it humiliating, but not Arbus, he maintained his equanimity as if none of it mattered to him or perhaps it did matter, but his face gave no sign of it, frozen as it was in a sort of delay, unable to keep up with his much faster mind. He took forever to register what was happening and to switch one mask for another. That’s it, maybe that’s really how Arbus was constructed, out of modular elements that weren’t synchronized each with the other, a lightning-fast mind, a cold heart, a face that was lazily incapable of shifting expression to suit the circumstance and was therefore often poised inappropriately (which is something that, as we shall see, brought him no small number of problems with his classmates, his teachers, and the authorities in general, who considered his expression to be insolent, irreverent, while his words sounded reasonable and obsequious, or the other way around).

Copyright © 2016 by RCS Libri S.p.A., Milan

Translation copyright © 2019 by Antony Shugaar