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Welcome to the Great Mysterious

All right, so I'm a diva. There are worse things--a mass murderer, a bigot, a telephone solicitor. I'm surprised my sister even uses the word as an insult. Why should I be offended by the truth? My dictionary defines diva as "a distinguished female singer." I certainly am that.The word, however, is cross-referenced with prima donna, defined as "a temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience."

Well, I might ask, who likes criticism or inconvenience? And why shouldn't one take privileged treatment as a right? A little self-esteem is not a bad thing. Ann, for instance, could use a serious infusion of it.

Throughout my life I have heard the question, "Are you really twins?" It's an understandable query; Ann and I are as different as the proverbial night and day. Ann once elaborated on that analogy in an interview, describing me as being night--dark and dramatic, living among stars--and herself as light and plain and about as exciting as an afternoon nap.

We're fraternal twins, obviously, and don't share that spooky, ESPy you're-my-other-half thing identical twins do. Ann and I are more like sisters who could have been born years apart if Mom hadn't been such an industrious egg layer.We're very close and have shared everything from chicken pox to clothes to deep secrets, but when I look at Ann face-to-face, I don't see my mirror image. In fact, if I looked at Ann right now, what I'd see is a big pest.

For those of you who don't know me (where the hell have you been living, in a cave with no TV or cable access?) I am Geneva Jordan, star of stage, screen (unfortunately, my theatrical schedule hasn't allowed me to do hardly any of the movies I've been offered), and television (if you didn't see me accept my Tony award, I'm sure you've heard my voice singing the Aromati-Cat cat litter and Chef Mustachio Frozen Pizza jingles). Recently I just ended a year and a half's run in the title role of <i>Mona!</i>, a musical about DaVinci's mysterious model.

She's a gal with a crazy half smile, she's Mona Lisa! Oh,what I wouldn't do to get a piece a . . . that Mona Lisa!

You'll have to trust me that the music is so catchy, the lyrics actually work.

My role as Mona Lisa brought me my second Tony, a cover story in New York magazine, and a relationship with Trevor Waite, my costar. My role as Mona Lisa and its resulting dividends, especially my relationship with Trevor Waite, is also what brought me close to mental and physical collapse. Which made my sister's request all the more preposterous.

"Please," she begged over the phone, changing her tack from insulter to supplicant. "Riley and I need this time together."

"I'm not arguing that, Ann. It's where I come in as baby-sitter that I'm objecting to."

"You're Rich's godmother."

"I'm aware of that, Ann. But godmother does not mean rescuer."

"Then what does it mean?"

I looked at my watch. I didn't have to be anywhere for another hour, but she didn't have to know that. "I have to run, Ann. I've got a hair appointment."

"What does it mean?"

"Listen, Ann, I don't--"

"Quit calling me Ann."

"That's your name, isn't it?"

"Yes, but whenever you're in one of your I'm-right-and-you're- wrong modes, you overuse my name. Like a cranky old schoolmarm or something."

"First I'm a diva and now I'm a cranky old schoolmarm. Nice talking to you too, Ann."

I could hear her protests as I hung--okay, slammed--the receiver back in its cradle.

She called back immediately, not grasping the concept of a dramatic exit. I let my machine pick it up.

"Geneva," she said, "please. I'm sorry. I don't know where else to turn. Please pick up....Please help me, Dee."

Oh, that was low. Dee was a reference to the childhood nicknames bestowed on us by our Grandma Hjordis.

"It's Tweedledee and Tweedledum!" she used to say in her Norwegian accent, "my favorite twin grandchildren in the world!"

We were her only twin grandchildren, but she made us feel that we couldn't have been surpassed by quintuplets.

She lived next door to us, and her home was a cinnamon-roll-smelling haven for my sister and me, a place where she played endless games of Hangman and War with us and let us upend all her furniture cushions to make elaborate igloos (when we played Roald Amundsen discovering the South Pole) or wigwams (when we played Leif Eriksson discovering America). She had a canoe in the backyard that we'd pretend was the Kon-Tiki.

Grandma Hjordis was a Norwegian nationalist to the core and never let an opportunity pass to indoctrinate her granddaughters in the robust history of her homeland and its explorers.

"Try not to be afraid of new things," she advised. "The world is more fun if you're not a scaredy-cat."

When she died suddenly, breaking our fourteen-year-old hearts, we buried her nicknames for us with her, and only brought them out in moments of crisis.

I picked up the phone.

"All right," I said, my voice a concentrate of exasperation. "You have a one-minute extension. Don't think I'm saying yes. I'm just saying I'll listen to you--for one more minute."

"Okay," said Ann eagerly, like a game show contestant heading for the bonus round. She took a deep breath. "You know how hard Riley works--my gosh, you don't get to be chair of the English department without working hard--"

"You're not telling me anything new, Ann."

"Your interruptions don't cut into my time, do they?" <p> I sighed. "Get to the point,Ann."

"Okay, okay. Anyway, this is a chance for us to be together-- alone--for the first time since Rich was born, Geneva. Thirteen years! And in Italy, Geneva--Italy!"

I sighed again. "Can't Mom fly up?"

"You know her hip is still bothering her. And how can she leave Dad?"

After a lifetime of good health, our parents, now living in a retirement community in Arizona, had finally drawn the sorry-you-lose cards. Mom had had hip-replacement surgery the previous summer, and Dad was recuperating from a mild stroke that affected his balance and sometimes his memory. These old-age infirmities were certainly no fun for them. Still, didn't they realize their problems were a big inconvenience for the rest of us? (Don't sic AARP on me--I'm just joking.)

"All right, all right."

"You mean all right as in you'll do it?"

I laughed--inappropriately, I suppose. "God, no. I meant all right as in don't talk anymore."

"My minute's up?" Sometimes my sister is far too literal for her own good.

"Ann, I'll get back to you by the weekend, okay?"

"With an answer?"

"No, with an Ole and Lena joke."

Ann ignored my sarcasm.

"Thanks, Geneva."

"I haven't said yes yet," I reminded her.

"I know, but thanks anyway."

I hung up quickly; her gratitude actually seemed to have heat, and my ear burned from it.

I grabbed my cashmere coat--one of the presents Trevor had given me that he hadn't repossessed.When we had broken up, I threw my engagement ring at him, never thinking for a minute that the tightwad wouldn't give it back.

I guess he wasn't really cheap--he did spend a lot of money on me--but he often tainted the gift-giving experience by telling me what wildly expensive thing he was <i>going</i> to get me before presenting me with a less expensive substitute that somehow "said Geneva louder." Cashmere said Geneva louder than mink.A picnic in Central Park said Geneva louder than lunch at the Four Seasons. Once we were browsing through a rare-book store, and the first edition of Marjorie Morningstar said Geneva louder than the first edition of The Great Gatsby.

"You're so much more Marjorie than Daisy," he had said, taking out his credit card to pay for the book, which conveniently happened to be about three hundred dollars less than the one I wanted. I suppose I sound ungrateful, but really, it hurt my feelings that everything that said Geneva was second-best.

Outside the air was brisk and everyone was moving in the usual out-of-my-way-or-I'll-trample-you pace I love so well. Autumn in New York--my favorite time of year in the city. You can see why they wrote a song about it. On that day it was as if all of Manhattan was still in the back-to-school state of mind that had begun in September, busy and energized and full of big plans and bigger ideas. A person's senses were cranked up: colors seemed sharper, noises louder, and smells from hot dog and pretzel vendors' carts positively aromatic. And yet in the midst of all this a slight melancholia seemed to filter through the city skies, making everything seem . . . I don't know, somehow tender.

A fan stopped me outside of Tiffany's.

"Geneva Jordan!" she said in that surprised tone that made me feel I was less a human than an apparition.

I fluttered my fingers in a wave, hoping that was enough for her. It wasn't.

"Will you sign my--" She looked at her armload of packages for something to write on. "My Tiffany's bag?"

"Only if I can keep what's inside."

She looked stricken for a moment, until I reassured her I was only joking.

I always have pens in my coat pockets; it speeds up the process. She handed me the bag, and for a minute I thought about running off with it and giving her a really good scare, but instead I politely asked her name.

"Beth," she said. "I read about you leaving Mona!, which, by the way, I loved you in. Not as much as I loved you in Sunny Skies or The Wench of Wellsmore, but still, those scenes between you and Trevor Waite--"

"How kind of you to say so," I said, capping my pen and giving her back her Tiffany's bag. "Now I must run--nice talking to you!"

I raced off as quickly as I could on my three-inch-heel boots. These fans will stand around and yak all day if you let them, telling you what they've liked about your career and what they haven't-- as if you've been waiting all your professional life for their critique. Don't get me wrong--I'm not above my fans. I just like them a whole lot better when they stick to flattery.

"Miss Jordan!" said Wendy the receptionist, as if I'd caught her doing something she shouldn't have been doing. "We didn't expect you until two-thirty!"

"I had to get out of the house," I said, draping my coat over the faux leopard couch. "Can Benny take me early?"

"Of course I can, darling," said Benny, picking up his cue far better than some actors I've worked with.

He rushed over to me, giving me a big smooch on the lips. "I just kicked Claudette Pehl out of my chair. I told her, 'Darling, I don't care if your hair's still wet--I've got more important clients to attend to.' "

"Sure you did, Benny," I said. Claudette Pehl was only the fashion model of the moment, all seventeen years and sixty-eight pounds of her.

"Coffee?" he asked, taking me by the hand and leading me into the salon, "with a dash of Bailey's?"

"A big dash."

Lou Reed was blasting through the salon's sound system-- at Hair by Benny, nothing was done in baby steps. Each chair was upholstered in some faux jungle animal skin and most often occupied by somebody recognizable. Polly York, the PBS news commentator, was getting foiled in Martin's chair, and over in Andre's, Gina Bell, the ice skater, was getting one of her signature pixie cuts.

After I changed into a cotton smock printed with tiger stripes (every smock matches its chair; kitschy, but what the hell, that was part of the fun of Benny's) and got shampooed by one of those sullen girls whose mental health you can't help but worry about, I sat down in Benny's chair.

"Looking at you, the word rough comes to mind," he said, handing me a mug that smelled more of booze than coffee.

"Oh, Benny, don't mince words with me." I took a sip of the enhanced coffee and made a face. "I said a dash, not half a bottle."

Instead of making apologies and scurrying back to the coffee machine, Benny flicked the end of his comb against my shoulder blade.

"Shut up and drink it," he said. "You know you could use it." I could and I did.

"Ahh," I said after chugging it down."Things are looking better already."

I knew I was. Benny wasn't one of the top hair stylists in Manhattan by chance; he knew how to cut hair and, most important, how to make his clients look good while he did.The lighting was warm and mellow, fading out lines and wrinkles and large pores and everything else that conspired to make you look like the wicked stepmother when you still felt like Cinderella.

I looked great . . . for forty-eight. I could easily pass for forty, which I had been doing until my sister was interviewed by a feature writer for The New York Times and blabbed our real age--as if she hadn't been schooled enough on this particular topic. Still, looking forty isn't exactly a plus in show business, although it is easier to age in the theater than it is in the movies, where they start casting you as the mother in Little Women when you feel you'd be perfect for Jo.

I do have a lovely nose (my own, thank you very much), pretty teeth (mostly my own), and good hair (the natural waves are mine, the Red Flame color--Benny's marvelous idea and for ten years my signature--is not), but I'm called gorgeous primarily because I'm a star.

It's not undue humility (in my case, all humility would be undue) that makes me say that; I turn heads, first and foremost, because of who I am and not what I look like.

"Benny, what do you think about short hair?"

We both watched in the mirror as he held out a rippled strand of my hair.

"Not for you, darling.Your hair is so dramatic . . . so free. You'd look like a computer saleswoman with short hair. Or a drill sergeant."

I laughed. Benny was one of the few people who wasn't afraid to tell me what he really thought.

"All right, then. Just take off the split ends."

As Benny snipped and sniped in his jungle lair (his gossip was almost as good as his styling), I closed my eyes and tried to think of more excuses why I couldn't possibly help my sister out.

As they say, timing is everything, and this timing was bad. I hadn't left Mona! just for the fun of it. I wasn't burned out on the show yet; what had made me not renew my contract was a doublehitter-- heartbreak and menopause, neither of which I'd admit to the world at large. My press release merely mentioned my gratitude for being with such a fine production and my wish to explore other creative avenues.

What I really needed time for was to practice my three R's-- relax, replenish, and rassle my screaming hormones to the floor. I wanted to putter around the city, have late-afternoon teas at the Carlyle or the Pierre, see the shows I hadn't been able to see because of my own, and spend my free weekends at the various country homes friends had invited me to. I needed time to spoil myself rotten.

"Earth to Geneva," whispered Benny in my ear.

I opened my eyes, startled.

"Sorry I was boring you," he said with exaggerated nonchalance. "Believe me, there are plenty of women who'd pay to sit where you are and listen to me."

I laughed. "I do pay you, Benny, remember?"

Benny shrugged and with his fingers fanned out my hair. It was long and wavy--"hippie hair with an uptown attitude," as Benny described it. (I follow the Dick Clark secret of youth--never change your hairstyle.)

"So how does it feel to be an out-of-work actor?"

Tears welled up in my eyes.

"Geneva, darling! I didn't mean anything by that--I was only trying to be funny." "It's not that," I said, waving my hand. "It's my sister."

In the mirror, I saw concern pinch the features of Benny's round face.

"She's not ill, is she?"

I shook my head. "Nothing like that. She and her husband have this opportunity through the college to go to Italy."

"Hmm," said Benny, checking to see if my ends were even. "I guess I'm not quite grasping the dilemma."

"They want me to baby-sit!" I said, and seeing the ice skater look over at me with interest, I lowered my voice. "They've got a thirteen-year-old son they don't want to take out of school. Richard--Rich, that's his name. My godson."

Benny poured something delicious-smelling onto his hands and massaged it into my scalp. "And you don't want to baby-sit this Rich because ...?"

"Because I'm on vacation!" I said, and again my raised voice made the snoopy skater with her stupid pixie cut look over. "Because my doctor says I'm overstressed and overworked and I need to take it easy!" I whispered. "And besides, I need to get over . . . things."

"That cad," said Benny. It was his Pavlovian response; whenever I mentioned anything that might directly or indirectly have to do with Trevor, he said, "That cad." It was for this sort of thing that I tipped him so well.

"But doesn't your sister live on a pond or something in Indianapolis?"

"A lake," I said. "She lives on a lake outside Minneapolis."

Benny shrugged; to the transplanted Australian, it was all the same.

"But mightn't that be peaceful?" he suggested. "Sitting by the lake out in the middle of nowhere?"

"The lake'll probably be frozen," I said. "And even if it isn't, I'd be sitting with a thirteen-year-old."

"Right, the kid. He's that bad, huh?"

My tears, which seemed to be on double overtime, welled up again.

"Oh, Benny!" I said, and then, in a move far more fluid than any double axel Gina Bell ever performed, I swiveled my chair, shielding myself and my tears from the prying eyes of that nosy little ice nymph.

Excerpted from Welcome to the Great Mysterious © Copyright 2004 by Lorna Landvik. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the Great Mysterious
by by Lorna Landvik

  • paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345442741
  • ISBN-13: 9780345442741