The Smell of Lilacs
Until that moment, his day had been unremarkable. Slightly hungover, Jacob had taken the F train, made it to work on time. If he felt slightly queasy, if the world was a bit soft around the edges, he attributed to last night, his ears still ringing from standing too near the speakers at the club. He worked on the G/B account all morning, stepping out for coffee after a couple of hours.
He winced slightly in the sun, the confusion of people. Light sliced between tall buildings, glanced off a glass wall, and ricocheted into his eyes. Taking a breath, he turned in the direction of the coffee shop. He felt the sidewalk under his worn Keds, and was aware of their softness, their flimsiness, of the way he could feel the concrete under them. They weren’t made for city streets, he mused; they were made for walking on grass at night. He found it strange that this morning he could hear his footsteps through the city noise around him; could hear the whispering sound they made. It was a no-sound, a nearly silent sound that grew to create a bubble around him, a vacuum of sound inhabited only by the shh of his rubber soles in which he bounced along dreamily, the sensation pleasurable and strange. He caught a whiff of a flowery smell. He knew it: lilacs. It became stronger, rising and falling on the air.
He half-closed his eyes, and opened them to see the people in front of him part and fade away. An empty spot was cleared. In the center of it stood an apparition: a young person, a man, Jacob saw, not a child as he had thought at first. He was round-bellied but child-sized, wearing a white apron that covered his shirt and pants. In his arms he held a bouquet, nearly as large as he was, of white lilies. The man stood there, looking directly at Jacob. He had a slight smile on his face, as if he and Jacob shared a joke. The man’s face, his smile, seemed familiar, though Jacob knew he’d never seen him before. Everything stilled for a moment. The white flowers, and the man’s white apron caught the sunshine and glowed. Lilies! Then the gap in the sidewalk and in the day was filled again with people and movement, with sounds, and the smell was gone.
Jacob walked on, turning behind him once to look, but the small man had been swallowed by the crowd, along with his weird bouquet of lilies. It must have been the flowers that he smelled, Jacob reasoned, and mistakenly identified as lilacs.
Back at his desk, Jacob sipped his coffee. His desk, along with everyone else’s, was in an open, high-ceilinged room. Tall windows looked out onto Market Street. He immersed himself in his work, downloading and editing photos for a line of hand crafted furniture. The photos he liked best were stark and spare: wood grain with clear sky, the sweep of a wooden chair back against a polished black floor that reflected like water. The sounds in the room faded away as he worked. Other people in the office put headphones on, but music distracted Jacob from the sound of his thoughts. After noon he paused, eating a packaged Caesar salad. The crisp lettuce was loud in his head, a percussive sound he tried to keep rhythmic. He looked at the window to see a seagull, slicing across the sky.
It was when he turned back to his work that Jacob smelled it again. Lilacs. He knew that smell; there had been a lilac bush in the yard of the house he’d spent his childhood in, outside a small town in central Maine. His mother brought in bunches when they were in bloom, arranged them in the glass bowl. Maybe he’d looked at that bowl when he was a child—he remembers it being at eye height, so he must have been young. Maybe he smelled them and the smell was other-worldly to him, took him someplace else. Maybe it was a message to him of beauty and strangeness in his life yet to come. He didn’t know, he had no idea.
He kept his eyes on his computer but was aware of a sensation in his scalp: a tingling feeling, as if air full of electrical tingles were rushing over his scalp. Suffused with both dread and anticipation, Jacob lifted his head. Everyone around him was working as usual; Tim, at the table closest to him, moved his head back and forth to music on his headphones as he typed. Jacob looked up to see the ceiling above him start to lift. A crack of sky appeared between the east wall, where he faced, and the edge of the ceiling; it grew as the ceiling folded accordion-style, as if hinged. Jacob was reminded of a convertible Mustang his dad had when he was a child, the way it folded back slowly to reveal the sky. A faint grinding noise coming from above him was similar to the noise the car used to make. Air washed over him, cool and fresh, a faint smell of ocean. He saw a seagull above him, then another, their white wings catching the sunlight. He felt, briefly and alarmingly, as if he were in the sky. He glanced back down at his laptop—the keyboard gleamed unnaturally in the light from above—to orient himself, and when he looked up again, the ceiling had returned to its usual configuration. White tiles, recessed lights. The only sky he saw was blue outside the windows.
Jacob looked around him. No one else seemed to have noticed. Tim continued typing, his head nodding up and down. Devin, two tables away, stood, but it was just to stretch himself, arms high above his head. He put his hands on his hips and turned from side to side. All right, then, Jacob thought; he could do this. He looked back down at his computer screen, at the image of autumn leaves. If everyone else was going to pretend like this was normal, he was not going to say a word.
Jacob left on the dot of five, no sooner. He waved cheerfully to Devin, to Anna. Nothing unusual here, nope. He stood outside the building in the late afternoon sun, hesitating. He didn’t want to go down steps into the subway, did not want to wait underground. Not today. He would walk to his apartment. He could use the exercise. He caught glimpses of himself in the plate glass windows: tousled hair, thick glass frames, tight jeans over skinny legs.
What made today different, he wondered? He’d gone out to a club and had too much to drink last night, but that happened sometimes. It didn’t mean he went berserk the next day. Lisa, the woman he’d dated for a few months, told him last week she didn’t think they should see one another anymore. Yeah, that hurt. Jacob paused, looking up at the sky. She didn’t want to see him anymore. He’d let himself get too involved with this one, he’d admit it. He’d thought all kinds of crazy things, felt like she was the one. Like it was fated, something he’d never felt before. And then he turned out to be wrong. It made him not trust himself anymore.
A woman coming from behind brushed against him, muttered “Sorry.” Jacob started walking again, hands stuck in his pants pockets. He was almost halfway home now, coming up the hill on Deering Street. He hunched his shoulders, the air suddenly chill. This was a residential district of old houses made into condos and apartments. He was tired, his feet dragging on the sidewalk. This time the smell crept up on him; he realized he’d been smelling it for some time without being conscious of it. He looked around wildly to see if he’d passed a bush, though it was not lilac season. Nothing. He walked steadfastly forward up a hill that grew steeper, more steep than it had ever been before. Ridiculous; the sidewalk humped up in front of him like giant ball. The hill was rising in front of him at an impossible angle, an angle no one could ascend. Only another block or two to the peak, he thought, and pushed on. He had no choice but to make it. He’d walked this hill before, and he knew he could make it. But how? It was nearly a 90 degree angle, how was anyone supposed to walk up this? Then there was the peak of the hill, reaching backward somehow beyond his head in an arch. He grabbed it with both hands, heaving his body up and forward, over the ledge formed at the top of this hill. This impossible new hill on Deering Street.
He lay panting on a patch of grass, on the now flat surface next to the sidewalk. His heart pounded in his chest; he could hardly breathe. Crazy, crazy. He waited until the sky stopped spinning above him, then sat up. The sun was down behind the buildings now, the street quiet. A car passed, the driver not glancing his way. He was at the top of Deering Street, the hill that most days was a casual walk. Jacob stood, brushed off his pants. The road was as it should be, no weirdly angled hills behind him or ahead. Legs shaking, he started down the hill. It wasn’t far now. He looked forward to his apartment, to heating up leftovers in the microwave, to having a beer with supper. He would go to bed early.
He had gone out with Martin and Carl last night. He remembered what Martin had said that started things off. They were sitting around the table eating takeout when Martin said, “I’ve been thinking. I need to talk to you guys about something.”
Carl and Jacob had glanced at one another. Jacob thought he knew what this was about, and Carl probably did too. Martin had been wearing eyeliner lately, growing his hair long and curly, his gestures womanly. Jacob had been expecting Martin to tell them he was gay, but instead Martin said “I’m not who I think I am.” Who he thought, or knew he was, was a woman. They’d talked, and then gone to celebrate. They would celebrate Martin acknowledging who he—she—really was. Jacob remembered sitting at the club with Martin, later in the evening, Martin speaking loudly to be heard above the music, telling how wrong it felt when someone called him “Bro.” He shook his head rhythmically, in time to the music, repeating, “I am not anyone’s bro.”
Jacob didn’t think that what happened last night had anything to do with whatever was happening to him today. Time to go back on anti-depressants, maybe, though he didn’t remember seeing things like this before. He’d just had your typical run-of-the-mill depression a few years ago. No lilac scent, no visions. He was approaching his apartment, the welcoming brick facade of it, when he saw the lilacs again on the table at home. The shadowy dining room, the cut glass bowl. Their color, brighter in the dimness than in the sunshine, and their smell, there inside the house. He remembered his mother’s pale arms as they brought the flowers in, as they brought what lived outside the house, inside. When he was in the middle of his depression, the smell of flowers made him ill. The sight of anything beautiful made him turn his head away, close his eyes. It was only when he began to feel better that he could look at flowers again. Now he wanted to fill his eyes with that lilac color, his head with that smell.
He had the key to his apartment out now and was on the front stoop, about to put it in the keyhole, when he smelled something. He lifted his head, breathing in deeply; not just lilacs but a faint spicy edge, something closer to perfume. It went to his head, made him dizzy. He turned, slowly, knowing there was something he should see.
Approaching him on the sidewalk was a woman. Tall and slim, wearing some kind of loose cardigan sweater open over a dark shirt and jeans. Long hair, moving in the breeze as she walked, everything moving. Yes, she was beautiful but what made Jacob stand still, staring at her, was something else. He would never stand and stare at a woman because he thought she was beautiful. But this woman—she knew. She knew him, she knew what he was going through. He didn’t know how he could tell this; he just knew that she knew. She slowed down slightly and kept her eyes on Jacob.
In the time their eyes were meeting everything that was to happen in Jacob’s life, happened. He felt everything there was to feel: terror, and joy, giddiness and sadness. What he felt most, more than anything, was an awareness of the utter longing at the heart of him, at the heart of everything. Pure longing, pure desire. He was aware for the first time of how much he just simply wanted. And knew at the same time that he could not get what he wanted; it was impossible.
He felt that she felt the same as she looked into his eyes. She knew his longing, and she felt it too. Their gaze made her life also happen, unfolding in front of her. And it was deeper and richer and more strange than either of them had known. At the same time he became aware of his desire, it was gone.
Their eyes slid apart and she was walking away from him. He felt no rush to follow her. He unlocked the front door. His door was at the top of the stairs, a faint light showing under it from the windows beyond. He stared at that light. It trembled slightly. The trembling could have been from the tree outside the window, or it could have been from some force. He smelled the faint smell of rotting lilacs, and knew that when he opened this final door, all that was to happen, would happen. The driverless trucks would follow one another into the ocean, while enormous silver machines sailed silently across the sky. He would run down a beach and lift up into the air, soaring higher and higher until he saw the lights far below as astral winds whipped ferociously around his body. There would be no escaping it, Jacob knew, and he wouldn’t want to escape. He would just want to view it, as long as he could, in all its terrible and destructive beauty. At last, he thought, murmuring the words to himself. At last, as he fit the key into the lock, and opened the door.
About the Author: Patricia O'Donnell is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing. Her works have appeared in The New Yorker and other places, and her novel Necessary Places was published in 2012. Patricia's memoir, Waiting to Begin, will be published by Bottom Dog Books.