Sally goes inside, to wake Antonia and wash the breakfast dishes, but Gillian stays where she is for a while. She tilts her head back and closes her pale eyes against the sun, and thinks about how crazy love can be. That is how she is, standing barefoot in the grass, with the salt mark of tears left on her cheeks, and a funny sort of smile on her face, when the biology teacher from the high school unlatches the back gate so he can come around and give Sally the notice about the meeting in the cafeteria on Saturday night. He never gets beyond the gate, however—he’s stuck there on the path as soon as he sees Gillian, and from then on whenever he smells lilacs he’ll think about this moment. How the bees were circling above him, how purple the ink on the leaflets he’s been distributing suddenly seemed, how he realized, all at once, just how beautiful a woman can be.
ALL of the teenage boys down at the Hamburger Shack say, “No onions,” when Gillian takes their orders. Ketchup is fine, as are mustard and relish. Pickles on the side are all right as well. But when you’re in love, when you’re so fixated you can’t even blink, you don’t want onions, and it’s not to ensure that your kiss will stay sweet. Onions wake you up, they rattle you and snap right through you and tell you to get real. Go find someone who will love you back. Go out and dance all night, then walk through the dark, hand in hand, and forget about whoever it is who’s driving you mad.
Those boys at the counter are too dreamy and young to do anything but drool as they watch Gillian. And, to her credit, Gillian is especially kind to them, even when Ephraim, the cook, suggests she kick them out. She understands that theirs might just be the last hearts she will break. When you’re thirty-six and tired, when you’ve been living in places where the temperature rises to a hundred and ten and the air is so dry you have to use gallons of moisturizer, when you’ve been smacked around, late at night, by a man who loves bourbon, you start to realize that everything is limited, including your own appeal. You begin to look at young boys with tenderness, since they know so little and think they know so much. You watch teenage girls and feel shivers up and down your arms—those poor creatures don’t know the first thing about time or agony or the price they’re going to have to pay for just about everything.
And so Gillian has decided that she will come to her niece’s rescue. She will be Kylie’s mentor as she leaves childhood behind. Gillian has never felt this attached to a kid before; to be honest, she’s never even known any, and she’s certainly never been interested in anyone else’s future or fate. But Kylie brings out some strange instinct to protect and to guide. There are times when Gillian has found herself thinking that if she had had a daughter, she would have wanted her to be like Kylie. Only a little more bold and daring. A bit more like Gillian herself.
Although she is usually late, on the evening of her niece’s birthday Gillian has everything ready before Kylie arrives at the Hamburger Shack; she’s even spoken to Ephraim about leaving early so they can get to Del Vecchio’s for the birthday dinner on time. But first, there is the matter of Gillian’s other present, the one that will count for a great deal more than the turquoise bracelet. This present will take a good two hours and will, like most things Gillian is involved with, also make a big mess.
Kylie, who’s wearing cutoffs and an old Knicks T-shirt, obediently follows Gillian into the ladies’ room, although she hasn’t the faintest idea of what’s about to transpire. She’s wearing the bracelet Gillian gave her, as well as the locket her mother saved for for so long; she has a weird sensation in her legs. She wishes she had time to run around the block once or twice; maybe then she wouldn’t feel as if she were about to burn up or shatter.
Gillian turns on the light and locks the door and reaches under the sink for a paper bag. “The secret ingredients,” she tells Kylie, as she takes out a pair of scissors, a bottle of shampoo, and a package of bleach. “What do you say?” she asks when Kylie comes to stand beside her. “Want to find out how beautiful you really are?”
Kylie knows her mother will kill her. She’ll ground her for the rest of her life and take away her privileges—no movies on weekends, no radio, no TV. Worse, her mom will get that awful look of disappointment on her face—See what has happened, that’s what her expression will say. After I’ve worked so hard to support you and Antonia and bring you up right.
“Sure,” Kylie says, easily, as if her heart weren’t going a hundred miles an hour. “Let’s do it,” she tells her aunt, as if her whole life weren’t about to completely flip-flop.