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Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest: "The Secrets of Celestial Navigation"

Patty O'Hara's story, "The Secrets of Celestial Navigation," won first place in the Family Circle 2010 Fiction Contest.

By Patty O'Hara

Man at door illustration
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Illustrations by Becca Stadtlander

This time I've decided to paint all the rooms in colors named for dances. The kitchen will be Minuet, a soft, buttery yellow. Think of French vanilla ice cream without the beans. The hallways will be Tango, which is not quite as orange as it sounds. I'm thinking of two colors for the living room, Flamenco and Charleston. I don't think they will clash but it's hard to tell from the little samples.

There is just the one tiny bathroom that Kara and I share. She is 17 years old now and nearly agreeable. And because she's not remotely interested in color selections, I'm going to have it painted Peppermint Twist.

I've been mulling over colors since Lucca gave me an estimate for the job on Saturday. I found his card on the bulletin board at Scotty's Market while I was loading up on gluten-free items for Kara and wondering if boneless, skinless, chickenless chicken could be made appealing with the magic of fresh, organic herbs. It said: Lucca Arias Painter and underneath: Neat - Reliable - Insured. Those were the very qualities I associated with Julian, my ex, before the divorce. I wish him a long and happy life with Timberlea, a girl briefly out of adolescence and possibly named for one of the forest preserves that abound in Illinois.

I detected a foreign accent when I phoned Lucca and asked for an estimate. It was slight, but still intriguing. I intended to do the sensible thing and get two or three competitive bids for the work, but Lucca showed up and that was that. He knocked on the back door, introduced himself and asked if he might see the house. We walked together through the rooms and I babbled while he nodded and made notes on a clipboard.

Between the kitchen and the hallway I noticed that his hair was lightly streaked with gray and was captured in a neat ponytail. He was wearing a white oxford button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows and a pair of well-fitting jeans that once must have been white but were now spattered all over with a confusion of colors.

"Bedrooms?"

"Upstairs," I said feeling like we were talking in shorthand. He led the way, taking notes as we explored the dormered rooms. We finished the tour in a few minutes and he handed me fans and folders of paint samples, and a figure neatly written on one of his notebook pages.

"Call if you decide to go ahead with this," he offhandedly said.

Did I hear condescension in his voice?

Looking at the price I asked, "Should I not be doing this?"

"Well, it is a rental..."

"Exactly," I said, feeling a surge of power. "Down with beige!" And with that, Lucca blessed me with a smile.

As he walked down the driveway, I yelled out, "Lucca, do you think you could start on Monday?"

He turned slowly back and nodded, putting one thumb up in the air before he opened the door to this truck and climbed in. Lucca was clearly a man of few words, but I thought I detected a wink, or possibly the sun got in his eyes.

Porch illustration
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Illustrations by Becca Stadtlander

There is such an air of sadness about rental houses, as if they need a hug. Abandoned by loved ones, they seem a bit threadbare, colorless and overwhelmingly nondescript. I should know; I must have looked at a dozen properties before settling on this one. It is my second rental post-Julian.

After we sold the house in Evanston, I didn't want Kara disrupted so I rented a house near Lake Forest Academy. When I decided to come east or as I thought of it at the time, "home," Kara became a boarder there. She's here with me for the summer and when she returns to school, she'll spend weekends with Julian and Timberlea and holidays with me. Then she's off to college and I become an official "empty nester."

These past few years have been a hard journey for all of us. And I know that I am not without blame. Don't they say there are always two sides to a story? I had grown complacent, believing that Julian and I were a well-balanced equation with a perfect daughter bonding us. He was a successful orthodontist in a world that put a high value on a perfect smile. I had a perfect smile. We shared an interest in popular music, the theater and food, and lived together in a large, contemporary house that was painted in shades of white: Barley, Winter, Snow, Antique. When we sold the house, I refused alimony but took generous child support and shared custody of Kara.

I am back in my hometown of Shoreham. But I have lost touch with anyone I knew those decades ago and even though the town has changed little over the years, I seem to have changed too much. I am no longer a townie. And dare I say that I am about to rely on the kindness of a stranger named Lucca?

"Mommo?" Kara's voice wakes me from sleep and I surface, loving the way the louver blinds cast slivers of morning into the room—and equally loving that Kara now calls me Mommo instead of last year's disapproving "Mother."

I run my tongue across my fuzzy teeth and manage to smile, stretch and sit up all at the same time. Looking at the clock, I see that it is nearly 8 a.m. Today is my day to open up Harbor Lights, the local book store where I have been working part-time since my return to Shoreham. Sadie Philbrick, the octogenarian owner—she thinks of me as a sister and I am in no position to question family— took a leap of faith and offered me the job. She and I alternate opening up. I love to go in early and rearrange the books, giving all my favorites center stage. I also polish the brass on the third world objets d'art and light a candle, which helps with not only my state of mind, but the lingering scent of Sadie's perfume. Her sense of smell has departed along with her business sense. I make little more than minimum wage, but I enjoy the job and the paycheck.

"What time does your painter get here?" Kara asks, emphasizing the possessive adjective. She is already dressed in her swimsuit and bright red sweatshirt with its lifeguard logo. She is an awesome vision of good health and natural beauty and so far seems totally unaware of that power. Although Julian and I have parted ways on so many things, we remain a united front when it comes to Kara. These years are so critical and we bear the guilt of changing her life as she knew it and are hoping that this summer will be a good one.

We are jointly proud that she has earned a place in the Junior Lifeguard Program, teaching water safety and environmental awareness to a group of preteens. I can't imagine swimming 500 yards in the icy Atlantic or doing a 100-yard run on the beach, but so far she loves it. I suspect it might have something to do with the complement of 17-year-old boys who share the uniform.

"I didn't think to ask, actually."

Swinging my legs off the side of the bed I give Kara a quick hug and head for the bathroom, which is steamy from her shower. "I phoned to tell him the key would be over the transom and I've already made a little montage with color swatches and rooms, etcetera." Kara rolls her eyes negating the need for words.

"What?"

"People don't actually say, etcetera, do they?" She shakes her head but I can see the smirk and she asks, "Is he cute?"

Lately Kara has been hinting that it might be time for me to dip my toes in the dating ocean.

"I don't know... I haven't really thought about it." But I feel heat rise in my face and I quickly turn away.

"Well," Kara says, "If you are even marginally interested in rejoining society, you might want to rethink that braid you've been wearing for three years."

And she is gone.

Night sky illustration
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Illustrations by Becca Stadtlander

I am flossing, staring into the mirror, when I find myself staring back. The face is not altogether unpleasing, although I make a note to pick up a magnifying mirror and do some closer scrutiny another time. I forgo plaiting my wet hair and use the blow dryer to good effect. I think I may have subtracted a year or so from my soon to be 40 and I decide that a bit of mascara and some lip gloss couldn't hurt either.

On the way out the door I stop and leave the chip for Blue Danube in Kara's room and Willow Waltz in mine. You can imagine what Blue Danube looks like and Willow Waltz is the soft green of new leaves. I take a mug out of the cabinet and get the coffee pot set with a fresh pot of Mocha Java. Unsure of Lucca's tastes I also bring out the box of English breakfast tea and put some cookies on a plate. Finally I leave a check for the deposit and a note for Lucca to help himself to the coffee or tea and to have a good first day on the job.

Sadie suggested I take a few days off to "supervise" the redecorating. Hugging me as she said, "You think I wouldn't notice? The hair and the clothes... not for me, am I right?"

So far I feel like a reluctant voyeur, as Lucca has refused my overtures of coffee, tea or conversation. He has an iPod and after a standard, "Good Morning, Mrs. Steele" he sets to work and doesn't take a break until lunch, which he brings with him and eats outside under a trio of birch trees. A knife and fork are required along with plastic containers filled with mystery food. He never litters and rarely smiles. I imagine he has arrived from a country that suffered a revolution. I imagine his wife left him for his best friend. I imagine that his chest is smooth. His hands are graceful, the nails trimmed short. He smells of shampoo and paint thinner.

By Thursday Lucca has finished painting everything except for the bathroom. I am beginning to love not only the new colors, but the smell of fresh paint. He arrives each morning by eight o'clock and finishes up around three in the afternoon, leaving everything bright and clean. Friday will be Lucca's last day of work.

I've asked Kara if I can bring her a picnic lunch on the beach and she has agreed. I'm anxious to watch her in action but not be obnoxiously present. With that in mind, I've brought a book and a beach chair and will retreat to the cliffs after we've eaten. Kara and I arrive home within minutes of each other and she spots the note on the table before I do. Scanning it, she hands it to me and vaults upstairs. Seconds later, laughter erupts from above and my heart begins to sink.

My Dear Lauren,
The twist was a wonderful dance in its time. A craze; but like a woman who has stayed too long at the ball, I fear the light of day will find her blushing. I can leave it as is or fix it if you wish. Please phone with your decision.
Lucca

I swear I can see the room glowing before I get to where Kara stands in the doorway, arms akimbo.

"Tequila Sunrise anyone?" she says grinning.

"I think it's more like Pepto Bismol," I say and we laugh together.

Once again, I leave the key over the transom for Lucca. Kara is having a sleepover with her new best summer friend, Emily. It is yet another stride. Sadie and I work together on the weekends as it's the only time Harbor Lights is even remotely busy. The morning flies by and I debate about asking Lucca to dinner, or possibly drinks. Drinks are so civilized. Perhaps I can whip up some hors d'oeuvres and pick up a bottle of pinot noir. I will miss him. Part of him seems to linger after he is finished each day. His paint cans are always neatly stacked, brushes cleaned and tarps folded on the back deck. Today the back deck is empty. I stand on tiptoe to retrieve the key and put it into the lock. The house looks new. I feel like it is mine and I am anxious to shed my clothes and indulge in a long, hot bath.

An invoice on the kitchen counter reflects the price we agreed upon before what Kara refers to as "the bathroom debacle." At the bottom of the page I read, With gratitude... your painter, Lucca. Although I am alone, laughter bubbles up from somewhere deep inside me. I climb the stairs, head for my bedroom, undress and grab my iPod. The first song that comes up on the shuffle is something that Kara must have put on in an attempt to make my music more "relevant." I walk into the bathroom feeling content.

My painter has gone far beyond repairing the pink. Marbled walls and a stippling of the softest shades of sunset surround me as I turn on the water and sink into the bath. A subtle lunar crack, whisper thin, runs from the faucet up to the corner of a ceiling that once was white or nearly so. He has gifted me an evening sky complete with moon, stars and planets. I marvel at his skill as I drift, lost in thought—Lucca, a sunrise, cliffs above the beach—restored and ready to start anew.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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