People were looking to talk, for any reason. Anything different or slightly unusual would do. Already, most people on their street had discussed the fact that Gillian did not wear the top half of her bathing suit when she sunbathed in the backyard. They all knew exactly what the tattoo on her wrist looked like, and that she’d had at least a six-pack at the block party—maybe even more—and then had gone and turned Ed Borelli down flat when he asked her out, even though he was the vice-principal and her sister’s boss as well. The Owenses’ neighbor Linda Bennett refused to have the optometrist she was dating come to her house to collect her before darkness fell, that’s how nervous she was about having someone who looked like Gillian living right next door. Everyone agreed that Sally’s sister was confusing. There were times when you’d meet her at the grocery and she’d insist you come on over and let her play around with her tarot cards for you, and other times when you’d say hello to her on the street only to have her look right through you, as if she were a million miles away, say in a place like Tucson, where life was a lot more interesting.
As far as Kylie was concerned, Gillian had the ability to make any place interesting; even a dump like their block could look sparkly in the right kind of light. The lilacs had gone absolutely wild since Gillian’s arrival, as though paying homage to her beauty and her grace, and had spilled out from the backyard into the front, a purple bower hanging over the fence and the driveway. Lilacs were not supposed to bloom in July, that was a simple botanical fact, at least it had been until now. Girls in the neighborhood had begun to whisper that if you kissed the boy you loved beneath the Owenses’ lilacs he’d be yours forever, whether he wanted to be or not. The State University, in Stony Brook, had sent two botanists to study the bud formations of these amazing plants going mad out of season, growing taller and more lush with every passing hour. Sally had refused to let the botanists into the yard; she had sprayed them with the garden hose to make them go away, but occasionally the scientists would park across from the driveway, mooning over the specimens they couldn’t get to, debating whether it was ethical to run across the lawn with some gardening shears and take whatever they wanted.
Somehow, the lilacs have affected everyone. Late last night, Kylie woke and heard crying. She got out of bed and went to her window. There, beside the lilacs, was her aunt Gillian, in tears. Kylie watched for a while, until Gillian wiped her eyes dry and took a cigarette out of her pocket. As she crept back to bed, Kylie felt certain that someday she, too, would be crying in a garden at midnight, unlike her mother, who was always in bed by eleven and who didn’t seem to have anything in her life that was even worth crying about. Kylie wondered if her mother had ever cried for their father, or if perhaps the moment of his death was when she’d lost the ability to weep.
Out in the yard, night after night, Gillian was still crying over Jimmy. She just couldn’t seem to stop herself, even now. She, who had vowed never to let passion control her, had been hooked but good. She’d been trying to muster the courage and the nerve to walk out the door for so long, almost this whole year. She had written Jimmy’s name on a piece of paper and burned it on the first Friday of every month when there was a quarter moon, to try to rid herself of her desire for him. But that didn’t help her to stop wanting him. After more than twenty years of flirtations and fucking around and refusing to ever commit, she had to go and fall in love with someone like him, someone so bad that on the day they moved their furniture into their rented house in Tucson, the mice had all fled, because even the field mice had more sense than she did.
Now that he’s dead, Jimmy seems much sweeter. Gillian keeps remembering how scorching his kisses were, and the memory alone can turn her inside out. He could burn her up alive; he could do it in a minute flat, and that’s not easy to forget. She’s been hoping that the damn lilacs will stop blooming, because the scent filters through the house and all along the block, and sometimes she swears she can even smell it at the Hamburger Shack, a good half-mile down the Turnpike. People in the neighborhood are all excited about the lilacs—there’s already been a photograph on the front page of Newsday—but the cloying smell is driving Gillian nuts. It’s getting into her clothes and her hair, and maybe that’s why she’s been smoking so much, to replace that lilac scent with one that’s dirtier and more filled with fire.
She can’t stop thinking about how Jimmy used to keep his eyes open when he kissed her—it shocked her to realize he was watching her. A man who doesn’t close his eyes, even for a kiss, is a man who wants to keep control at all times. Jimmy’s eyes had cold little flecks in the center, and each time she kissed him Gillian wondered if what she was doing wasn’t a little like making a pact with the devil. That’s what it felt like sometimes, especially when she’d see a woman who could be herself out in public without fearing that her husband or boyfriend would snap at her. “I told you not to park there,” some woman would say to her husband outside a movie theater or a flea market, and those words would move Gillian to tears. How wonderful to say whatever you wanted without having to go over it in your mind, again and again, to make certain it wouldn’t set him off.