“I could,” Scott agrees, realizing, before he heads for the truck, that Antonia Owens is much deeper than he would have ever imagined.
That night Antonia runs all the way home after work. She is suddenly filled with energy; she’s absolutely charged. When she turns the corner onto her street she can smell the lilacs, and the odor makes her laugh at the silly reactions caused by some ridiculous out-of-season blooms. Most people in the neighborhood have gotten used to the incredible size of the flowers. They no longer notice that there are whole hours of the day when the entire street echoes with the sound of buzzing bees and the light turns especially purple and sweet. Yet some people return again and again. There are women who stand on the sidewalk and weep at the sight of the lilacs for no reason at all, and still others who have plenty of reasons to cry out loud, although none they’d admit to if questioned.
A hot wind is threading through the trees, shaking the branches, and heat lightning has begun to appear in the east. It’s a curious night, so hot and so heavy it seems better suited to the tropics, but despite the weather Antonia sees that two women, one whose hair is white and the other who is not much more than a girl, have come to see the lilacs. As Antonia hurries past, she can hear weeping, and she quickens her pace, goes inside, then locks the door behind her.
“Pathetic,” Antonia decrees as she and Kylie peer out the front window to watch the women on the sidewalk cry.
Kylie has been more withdrawn than usual since her birthday supper. She misses Gideon; she has to force herself not to break down and phone him. She feels terrible, but, if anything, she’s become even more beautiful. Her cropped blond hair is no longer as shocking. She has stopped slouching to hide how tall she is, and now that she’s claimed her full posture, her chin usually tilts up, so that she seems to be considering the blue sky or the cracks in the living room ceiling. She squints her gray-green eyes to see through the glass. She has a particular interest in these two women, since they’ve come to stand on the sidewalk each night for weeks. The older woman has a white aura around her, as though snow were falling above her alone. The girl, who is her granddaughter and who has just graduated from college, has little pink sparks of confusion rising off her skin. They are here to weep for the same man—the older woman’s son, the girl’s father—someone who went from boyhood to manhood without ever changing his attitude, convinced till the last that the universe revolved around him alone. The women on the sidewalk spoiled him, both of them, then blamed themselves when he was careless enough to kill himself in a motorboat in Long Island Sound. Now, they’re drawn to the lilacs because the flowers remind them of a June night, years ago, when the girl was still tender and awkward and the woman still had thick black hair.
On that night there was a pitcher of sangria on the table, and the lilacs in the grandmother’s yard were all in bloom, and the man they both loved, so dearly that they ruined him, took his daughter in his arms and danced with her on the grass. At that moment, beneath the lilacs and the clear sky, he was everything he could have been, if they hadn’t given in to him night and day, if they had once suggested that he get a job or act with kindness or think about someone other than himself. They’re crying for all he might have been, and all they might have been in his presence and by his side. Watching them, sensing that they’ve lost what they had for only a brief time, Kylie cries right along with them.
“Oh, please,” Antonia says.
Since her encounter with Scott, she can’t help but feel a little smug. Unrequited love is so boring. Weeping under a blue-black sky is for suckers or maniacs.
“Will you get real?” she advises her sister. “They’re two total strangers who are probably complete nut cases. Ignore them. Pull the window shade down. Grow up.”
But that is exactly what has happened to Kylie. She’s grown up to discover that she knows and feels too much. No matter where she goes—to the market on an errand, or the town pool for an afternoon swim—she is confronted with people’s innermost emotions, which seep from their skins to billow out and float above them, like clouds. Just yesterday, Kylie passed an old woman walking her ancient poodle, which was crippled by arthritis and could barely move. This woman’s grief was so overpowering—she would take the dog to the animal hospital by the end of the week to put it out of its misery—that Kylie found she could not take another step. She sat down on the curb and she stayed there until dusk, and when she finally walked home she felt dizzy and weak.
She wishes that she could go out and play soccer with Gideon and not feel other people’s pain. She wishes that she were twelve years old again, and that men didn’t shout out their car windows whenever she walks along the Turnpike about how much they’d like to fuck her. She wishes she had a sister who acted like a human being, and an aunt who didn’t cry herself to sleep so often that her pillow has to be wrung out each morning.