Girl Seeking Happiness

Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900
Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900

“Be grateful for all you have, Francesca!” Her mother called out but she didn’t acknowledge her, just bounded up two steps at a time. “Then maybe you’ll be in a better mood!”

She was always tossing off platitudes like that–“Easy Does It”, “Count Your Blessings”, “One Day at a Time.” Well, easy for her to say all of them. She didn’t have to go to middle school, anymore. She didn’t have to sit behind Carys Morgan and inhale the nauseating scent of lime and coconuts for the entire duration of Social Studies. Or study the structure of a cell until she felt her brain would fall out. Her mother had gotten through all that because she was smart and gorgeous even then. Dad confirmed that many times. Frannie thought their own teen-age years must seem like a distant dream, pleasant but nothing to waste another thought on.

What did adults think about except money, work and their children’s achievements or lack thereof? Frannie didn’t want to know. It was enough that they offered opinions, the wisdom of the ages and random advice without being asked.

Well, her father thought about business, which was consulting on antique musical instruments. Her mother thought about paintings and such. She worked at an auction house so it was all technically work and money. Who bid what, how a price was driven up, what appreciated and depreciated. And what a magnificent still life came in the door today via someone’s great-aunt, now deceased.

Why did she have to use her full name when making a point? Frannie slammed her bedroom door, then opened it.

“Sorry, it closed hard!” she shouted but tried to sound apologetic. Then shut it firmly again.

Frannie sat on her bed, head against the wall, books to one side. She could see her reflection and the print of a painting above her in the dresser mirror. Smiled in her best cover girl pose. No use. She’d never be one, in fact didn’t even care about being one, she was just supposed to care, so why pretend it mattered that she had a crooked front tooth? Short hair like a terrier’s just after it had been shampooed. An odd streak below her left ear that was a birthmark despite her mother telling her it was “a variation in your light olive pigmentation, just a little smudge.” It was her way of saying, “You are unique, which is better.”

Better than what? When did uniqueness cross over into weirdness? Since the world put such a high value on appearance–her mother’s work taught her that much–Frannie might be doomed.

She used to think her name might save her: Francesca. It sounded like it belonged to someone important, someone who knew what to determine and utter at any given time, someone exotic and approachable who was capable–with  only a look–of keeping Anthony Giles in one place, preferably her front door. But it got changed to Frannie years ago, back in first grade when no one could say it quite right. Names mattered. Carys–how unusual was that?– made sure people said hers right so they did. She was the most popular girl in eighth grade. Despite being rather slow on the uptake, she ruled with a smile and fierce dance moves. Frannie’s best friend, Dana, had once known her well and now Carys never even talked to her.

Chiming sounds interrupted her litany of aggravating things. The ratty little mobile Frannie had made as a kid turned in a breeze that slipped through a partly opened window. Made of multi-colored paper stars, some now bent and torn, and tiny golden metal bells, it caught the afternoon light and flashed it onto her walls and face as it slowly turned this way and that. It made faint shimmery notes that soothed her whenever it was in motion. This alone seemed a good reason to hang onto it.

In the driveway below her a dented old Mazda Miata came to a squealing stop. She got up and peered through her curtains. It was Jordan, her brother, aka Spideyman. As he got out it became apparent why he earned such a nickname. Each long, thin appendage emerged from the little vehicle with deft swiftness. When he finally stood it was a surprise, as he wasn’t overly tall, but compact and wiry. He popped up with all the energy he usually displayed, as if he was solar and moon powered, unable to run out of fuel.

“Hey Frangelica! What up?”

She threw open the window sash. “Hey Spideyman! Quit calling me a liqueur! I looked it up!”

“Yeah, really? If you’re a nut, you’re a nut. Not so bad to be called a hazelnut liqueur! But I think you should know that the real thing is called Frangelico, not Frangelica.”

She made a face at him and closed the sash, then watched him cross the street to pick up an envelope from the pavement. Jordan read it, took it to the house opposite theirs and knocked on the door. Old Mrs. Hale took it and patted his arm a few times. He circled back to their house. When Jordan saw her, he stopped a moment and shook his head as if he had just remembered something, then entered the house.

Frannie heard the murmur of her mother and brother talking, then laughter. Their good humor made her feel more sour. She felt guilty about her envy but really, Jordan had all the luck, soon to graduate, going somewhere decent to college, getting on with his life.

A sharp knock on the door.

“Go away, Spideyman.”

“I have a message,” he said, lowering his voice to sound official, important. “A message from a distant power.”

She got up and let him in, then put up her palm. “That’s far enough.”

“Hey, it’s not too bad in here. I almost like it. A little too tidy for me.”

He pointed to the print of “Destiny” by J.W. Waterhouse that hung over her.

“Yes? What?”

“I forgot about that. Mom gave it to you right after, uh, four years ago…when you saw it in the museum…”

“Jordan, what did you want?”

“Oh, right, I was supposed to tell you that Anthony Giles might break up with his girlfriend. I know his sister.”

She involuntarily gulped but hoped it wasn’t apparent. “What does that have to do with me?”

Jordan rested his lean weight against the wall and sighed. “You like this dude? Right? Tara said to tell you because he mentioned your name the other day and she was sitting nearby. She recognized it because Tara and I are friends, remember?”

Frannie sat down on the edge of her bed. “Sure I do, but what does it mean?”

“I’m not the one to ask. It was obviously favorable so she said to pass it on to you.” He walked out then came back. “I’d watch out if I were you; she says he’s sort of suave for fourteen. And by the way, their mother is really sick with something, I can’t remember what. Tara didn’t go into it. Tough, huh.” His gaze swept her room then he grinned at her. “He’ll have to step up his game. He isn’t likely as smart as you are, Francesca-jello.”


Frannie picked up one of her paperbacks and tossed it at him. He closed the door in the nick of time, the book sliding down and landing with a soft thump.

She lay down with feet pointed at the headboard and stared at the Waterhouse print. She wasn’t going to think too much of the message. Anthony had girls lined up at his locker half the time. He might not have said anything worth repeating to Tara. He might not be all that interesting to know once if you got inside his head. It might be like something you want for months and months and then when you finally save up and get it, it loses its appeal. Or maybe Anthony was going to be someone who made a good difference in her life, and she, his. She felt so overdue.

It was admittedly notable that Jordan was looking out for her. Even had stopped by her room to talk face-to-face. Frannie admired him more than she admitted. He aced calculus. Was a natural artist, to their parents’ unending joy. And he could bike twenty-two miles up the mountain without killing himself. But most of all, he didn’t try to make Frannie’s life too miserable. He might not pay much attention, but he often had a few words to exchange with her. He had a life ahead that was more exciting than hers, she was pretty sure. He wanted to be a physical therapist but also to travel around Europe on his bike. She’d miss him, old Spideyman.

What was her destiny? Like the girl’s in the painting, to always bid someone (likely warriors, in her case) farewell as they took off on a ship, airplane (like her dad and mom) or bike (Jordan)? (But was the engimatic girl celebrating something? Conspiring? She was studying someone–or was she looking out a window, wondering about one long gone?)

How long would her own life be idling away? Or would she figure out where she wanted to go and find her way there before long? It worried her often, that she didn’t know yet what she wanted. That she loved paintings like her mom but also the idea of an unusual business like her dad’s. Being independent, no one directing her all the time would be good, no matter what. Right now she liked science most despite sweating over it.

But wait a minute. Frannie backed up to her brother’s visit. Anthony had mentioned her name. And his mother was sick. She saw his sunny face in her mind, closed her eyes, then looked at her Waterhouse print again. Okay, no excitement allowed yet. She might write him a note. Tell him she’s around if he wanted to talk; her own had had breast cancer four years ago and it was overwhelming at first, even devastating. But they had gotten through it, a step at a time. It was like her mom was walking a tightrope and everyone was waiting (yet also feeling their own way across) to see if she would make it to the other side safely or lose her balance. Yeah, she could tell Anthony that you figure out how to get through things. If he wanted to know.

The aroma of potatoes and onions sneaked into her room. Frannie felt an easing up of things, her testy mood dissolving, thoughts lightening and making space for more. She stretched arms and legs, hummed a favorite song as she sat up. Stood and headed to her closet where she rooted around in the bottom under a battered shoe box and a mound of old purses. Her fingers found her plain black journal. She took it back to bed and positioned her pillows behind her head. Unhooked her best pen from a page, flattened the hardbound book on her lap and started to write on paper smooth as silk.

My voluntary non-list of gratitude:

JW Waterhouse’s paintings
Mom and dad, who make me look at myself in different ways
Jordan, who makes me laugh even when I want to be mad
Mrs. Tell, fourth grade teacher who hung my star and bell mobile above her desk for one whole week
My mobile; I still love it (make another to hang with it?)
Anthony, or at least the thought of Anthony
My mom being cancer-free for now
Carys, for not being my friend, as I will always like Dana while Carys does not appreciate her
My name: Francesa. Because it’s a grand name to grow into someday– I’ll know when I can fully claim it, ask others to use it
Christmas. Because it’s a beautiful time of year. And we will all be here together.

“Fraanniee! Dinnertime!”

She closed her book and put it back under the box and purses, then opened her door. The handful of bright bells jingled in the draft. Frannie turned to regard their homeliness and cheer, then felt an impulse to wave at the mystery girl in “Destiny”–was she going on a journey, too, or had she arrived already? Had she been happy?– so did just that, then hurried downstairs. The girl on her wall would be right there, as she had been for years, when she returned.

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