CHAPTER 14

Ginger knocked on the blue door of the little blue house on Cayuga Street, trying not to judge the monochromatic color scheme Mrs. Needleman had chosen for the exterior paint job. Ginger liked powder blue as much as the next personjust not slapped on stucco, shutters, windowsills, trim, concrete steps, and the front door with the same heavy-handed exuberance.

She might no longer be employed to evaluate home and garden design for the San Francisco Herald, but old habits were hard to shake.

Genevieve! The small woman reached out her wrinkly arms and wrapped them around Ginger’s waist. It is so lovely to see you! I was thrilled when you called! Come in, come in. Would you like some tea?

Ginger had to blink a few times to get her bearings. Most of these Cayuga Terrace houses were built right around World War II, and by the looks of the living room, Gloria Needleman hadn’t bothered to redecorate since. The only striking features of the small room were the top-quality hardwood floors and a hideous sparkly gold couch that was wrapped in clear plastic. Ginger decided it looked like a giant Twinkie still in its wrapper.

Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Ginger said, being ushered into the home. I know it was last-minute.

Mrs. Needleman smiled, and Ginger noticed how cute she lookedeven with the intricate web of wrinkles that decorated her face. It had to be the little old lady’s beady brown eyes, she decidedthey burned with a zest for life. As Ginger lowered herself onto the crackly plastic seat, she realized she’d never before allowed the words cute and wrinkles to coexist in the same thought.

How do you like your tea? Mrs. Needleman asked, already scurrying toward the kitchen. Oh, fiddle. I’ll just bring out cream and sugar and you can serve yourself.

Thank you, Ginger said, sighing, reevaluating why she had decided she needed to come here. She was a grown woman, after all. She really should be able to sort out her emotions on her own.

I must say, you look quite well, Genevieve! Mrs. Needleman called out from the kitchen. Bright-eyed and glowing! You must be getting extra sleep these days.

Not exactly, Ginger thought to herself. In fact, she’d been getting more than enough fabulous sex and not enough shut-eye. She knew she was doing a bang-up job making up for a lifetime of sexual deprivation but might never catch up on her lost sleep. In fact, she’d been utterly exhausted the last few days.

Here you are, dear, Mrs. Needleman said, handing Ginger a circa 1950s china cup and saucer.

Thank you so much, she said, inhaling the comforting aroma. This looks like the real thing, like my grandmother Ola used to make.

Oh my, yes! Mrs. Needleman took a seat next to her on the sofa, a loud crunching noise filling the room when the petite lady’s bottom hit the plastic. I think half the world’s troubles would disappear if we’d only just slow down enough to make a real cup of tea. How long does it take to boil water on the stove, pour it in a teapot, and steep the leaves? About fifteen minutesenough time to let the mind and soul rest.

Ginger nodded politely and took a sip of the strong black tea. Truly, it did taste a lot better than her usual tea bag in a mug of microwaved water, but she wasn’t sure it was the secret to life.

Now, Mrs. Needleman said, setting her cup and saucer on the coffee table. What is it you wanted to talk to me about? Did you ever find the man who was waiting for you?

Ginger laughed, shaking her head, placing her cup next to Mrs. Needleman’s. I do believe I have. She kept her eyes focused on her clasped hands in her lap. But I need some advice, and I don’t know who else to ask.

I see, Mrs. Needleman said, patting her hands. Have you consulted with your mother?

Ginger looked sideways at Mrs. Needleman. Uh, no. My mother has better taste in shoes than she does men.

All right. And what about your wonderful friends?

Ginger nodded, pursing her lips. Well, I’ve asked them, but I’m not sure I’m getting an accurate read from any of them. I mean, Josie is living on Planet Bliss right now. She’s like an Amway salesman for true love. I’m not sure she sees my situation clearly.

You don’t say? What about Roxanne?

Roxie? Please! She wants me to fall flat on my face, just so she can prove her point! She’s Rush Limbaugh and I’m President Obama!

Ah, Mrs. Needleman said. And Bea?

Ginger blinked a couple times, then fell back against the couch, her hair picking up static from the plastic slipcover. Look, I love Bea. I do. She’s always been there for me. But the truth is, she’s had about as much personal experience with romantic love as the Dalai Lama.

Mrs. Needleman giggled, her narrow shoulders moving up and down in her short-sleeved polyester blouse. But you know, part of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom comes from the fact that he’s not in the thick of things. Maybe Bea’s objectivity can be helpful to you. After all, no one can see the whole battlefield if they’re down in the trenches.

Ginger laughed. Bea sees the battlefield all right, and in her opinion, it’s nothing but wall-to-wall land mines.

Mrs. Needleman giggled again. Bea is a special person. We’ve been spending quite a lot of time together.

That surprised GingerBea hadn’t mentioned she’d been socializing with Mrs. Needleman. Somehow, Ginger couldn’t picture what the duo would do for funrun five Ks together? Play a little one-on-one basketball? Tackle a new agility course with Martina?

We discuss the whole gamut of things. Philosophy, spirituality, fate. We debate the limits of science and the realm of the unexplained.

Ginger’s eyes popped wide. My Beatrice Latimer? She laughed uncomfortably. Are you sure we’re talking about the same person? The Herald’ s assistant sports editor?

Mrs. Needleman smiled sweetly. You know, Genevieve, it could be that you are only acquainted with one side of Bea.

Ginger shrugged. Maybe.

It could be she only shares one part of herself with you, Roxanne, and Josephine, because it’s what you’ve come to expect from her. People are often a lot more complex than we give them credit for.

Ginger felt herself frown. It was true that she’d never been to Bea’s home. She’d only met Bea’s mother once, and that was more than enough. In all the years she’d known Bea, she’d never once had the courage to come right out and ask Bea about her sexual preferenceshe’d been waiting for Bea to have an epiphany and share it with the group.

For the first time, Ginger considered the possibility that Bea had always known exactly who she was and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to explain herself.

That’s an interesting theory, she told Mrs. Needleman.

All I’m saying is that you might give Bea a little more credit. Mrs. Needleman gave her a pensive smile. In the meantime, what can I help you with?

Ginger crossed her arms over her chest, crossed her legs, and swung her foot back and forth.

You are nervous, Genevieve.

No.

Yes.

Ginger turned her head toward Mrs. Needleman and sighed. Look, I know you set us up.

Mrs. Needleman looked surprised.

Lucio told me how you gave him the scoop on me at the wedding. You told him that I was divorced, that my husband had cheated on me, that I had two boys, what I did for a living, and that I was staying in the upstairs bedroom of the guesthouse.

Mrs. Needleman shrugged, but said nothing.

And you told him to wait for me outside your guest room that night.

Mrs. Needleman took a sip of her tea.

So? Did you?

The old lady sighed and set down her teacup. Perhaps.

Ginger laughed. Here’s the deal, Gloria. At this juncture, I’ve got it bad. I’m in deep doo-doo here and I’m scared to death. I’m already in love with him. So, since this is all your doing, you could at least tell me the truth. Did you arrange for us to be together? Did you set us up? And, most importantly, why?

Mrs. Needleman held her hands out in the universal gesture of mea culpa. So shoot me, she said. Sometimes fate needs a little kick in tuchus. What can I say?

Ginger’s lips parted in amazement. That’s it? That’s all you have to say?

Mrs. Needleman shrugged again. Was I wrong?

Ginger blinked. A low-frequency buzz started between her shoulder blades and spread through her arms and hands, her chest, her belly, and her legs. It was as if her body were reminding her of the charge she felt in Lucio’s presence, the power of their connection.

No. You weren’t wrong.

Finallywe’re getting somewhere.

But you don’t understand, Ginger wailed. It’s so intense and deep that I don’t know what end is up. I feel lost in him, part of him already, like I’ve just been sitting around for forty years, killing time until he dropped into my world and pulled me to his side and said, ‘This way, Genevieve.’

That’s very poetic, Mrs. Needleman said with a smile.

It’s more neurotic than poetic, I hate to tell you.

The old lady giggled again, patting Ginger’s tensed-up shoulder. My dear, we are right back to where we started, are we not?

How do you mean?

You sit here, your arms and legs all twisted up like a pretzel, your foot swinging back and forth, scared to discover what life has to offer you.

Ginger’s mouth fell open. Pardon me?

Does the intensity of your love frighten you?

Ginger pursed her lips. Somewhat.

Mrs. Needleman laughed quite loudly. So we could say that the intensity of your passion for Lucio has you scared somewhat shitless?

Ginger gasped, not even sure an eighty-something-year-old lady should be using that kind of language.

The important thing to realize is that you weren’t just sitting around killing time, as you put it. You were growing, Genevieve. You were maturing. You were collecting the life experiences that would open you to Lucio when he finally arrived. And, all the while, he was doing the samepreparing his heart for you!

Ginger tilted her head, listening.

That process was not wasted time, on your part or his. Mrs. Needleman smiled warmly. What we’re dealing with here is fate, my dear. The grand plan. Do not be afraid.

Ginger felt her eyes sting. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed with a surge of emotion. She didn’t know where it came from or how long it would stay, but it packed a wallop. I apologize, but I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me lately. Was menopause this rough on you? Ginger was embarrassed to look at Mrs. Needleman with tears dropping on her cheeks.

Mrs. Needleman chuckled. Soon you’ll understand everything, my dear girl. Now, look at me and listen very closely, Genevieve. The old woman scooted closer on the plastic couch, taking both of Ginger’s hands in hers. Just because a relationship feels more intense or powerful than you’re accustomed to, it doesn’t mean it’s something to fear.

Ginger wanted to wipe her eyes but Mrs. Needleman had her hands locked in a viselike grip. Okay, she whispered.

I’ve always thought that romances were like foodevery dish and every relationship has its own distinct flavora flavor that’s produced by the chemical reaction of the ingredients.

Uh what? Ginger wasn’t following her.

Some romances are oatmeal. Some are five-alarm chili.

Ginger laughed.

Mrs. Needleman smiled. And what do you think you have with the handsome photographer?

She managed to free a hand so she could wipe the tears from her face. Is there a six-alarm?

Why not? Mrs. Needleman reached into the front pocket of her jumper and handed Ginger a clean, pressed handkerchief. Here. I can see all those hot peppers are getting to you.

Yeah, Ginger said, dabbing her eyes with the crisp linen. But that’s what I’m worried abouta six-alarm fire can’t burn forever.

Ah.

Roxanne tells me I’m headed for a fall.

Mrs. Needleman nodded. But it can be a controlled fall, my dear. Even the hottest spices mellow over the years. It’s the way of things. The taste will deepen, become more complex and satisfying over time. Mrs. Needleman winked.

Oh, God, Ginger said, sighing loudly. That’s the problem! Lucio’s never stayed in one place long enough to simmer over a low flame, if you know what I’m saying.

Mrs. Needleman placed her hand on Genevieve’s arm, her eyes fierce. A man’s past does not always determine his future.

I try to tell myself that.

Keep doing so, Mrs. Needleman said. Everything will work out for the best, just you wait and see. It’s a good thing you came to see me today.

Ginger nodded.

But may I be frank about something? Mrs. Needleman suddenly looked quite concerned.

Ginger had to laugh. You mean you haven’t been frank yet? My God, I don’t think I want to hear this next part.

The old woman giggled, too. I just wanted to tell you to hold on tight, my dear girlyour journey will be bumpy before it becomes smooth.

Ginger scowled. Bumpy?

Mrs. Needleman smiled. The important thing to know is that your little family will come out just fine. Never doubt it.

A few minutes later, Ginger backed out of the drive of the powder-blue stucco house on Cayuga Street, double-checking that her seat belt was fastened. Mrs. Needleman’s last few words had left her scared somewhat shitless.

* * *

Ach, nein!

Despite everything, Lucio had to laugh. He hadn’t heard Ilsa Knauss’s German-flavored groans of displeasure for more than two years, and it brought back fond memories. He’d always liked her. She was a perfectionist and a control freak, but she’d been a whole lot of fun when she wasn’t working.

Lucio had debated with himself whether to call her, but he knew it had to be done. He could not sic the police on her unless he was sure she was responsible. He needed to hear her admit it. Thanks to the Internet, it had taken him less than five minutes to find her London phone number.

Ah, Ilsa, surprised to hear from me? he asked her.

The long-distance phone line was silent. For a moment, Lucio feared he’d lost the connection.

What do you want, you schmutzige Hund? Please tell me you’re not in the U.K.

Uh, no. I’m in the U.S.

So? What do you want? I’m busy.

It’s the middle of the night in London.

She was silent again, then said, I’m hanging up.

Don’t! Lucio called out. Look, I need to talk to you about what happened in China. It’s important we discuss thisget everything out in the open so that we can put it behind us.

He heard her giggle. Did you like your little rat friend? I thought he bore a striking resemblance.

Lucio sighed.

She chuckled again. Are you calling from jail, Lucky? Because the last I heard, your ass was headed to prison. And what a shame about the Erskinesucks for you, eh?

Whatever sentiment Lucio felt at the beginning of this call had disappeared. How could you do this to me, Ilsa?

Because you deserved it, Schwein! I woke up and you were gone and all I got was a note on the kitchen table. Lucio heard Ilsa breathe heavily, as if she were overcome with emotion. I had to chase you down like a dog at the airport! You humiliated me! And I really cared for you, you heartless, bastard Scheissekopf!

Lucio dropped his head, truly ashamed of his behavior. Maybe if he’d apologized earlier, he wouldn’t be in this mess. Better yet, he could have had the decency to sit down and talk with Ilsa before he left. Why had such basic kindness been impossible for him?

I hurt you, Ilsa. I was wrong. I apologize. But your revenge has been over the top. You’ve succeeded in ruining my career.

Mein Gott, you are such a crybaby!

I saw the e-mails you sent Piers.

Piers Skaarsgard? That oaf? So what? I was sorry to hear about Sylvie, though. That was extremely sad.

You deny you e-mailed Piers about how you got your revenge on me in China?

Ilsa laughed. So what if I e-mailed Piers? Look, Lucky. She sighed loudly. You deserve whatever you got. It’s karma. Now, fuck off.

She hung up.

Lucio stared at the phone and shook his head. All right. Fine. He could now give her name and a copy of the e-mails to Sydney, the lawyers at Geographica, the State Department, and the police without missing any sleep. Maybe somehow he could find a way to get the information to the Erskine Prize committee without it looking as if he were begging.

Regardless of the outcome, at least he had the relief of knowing the truth. That was a very good thing, yes? But it did not feel good. It was awful to think that a woman he once slept with could hate him so much, call him such horrible names.

No wonder it didn’t feel like much of a victory.

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