Nicholas knew lots of stories about Frank through a mutual friend, Alex, but for some reason they had never been introduced. Alex's stories were packed with exciting details and Nicholas had developed a strange kind of respect for Frank: he got himself arrested at age sixteen when he started a fight at the Radial Bar and Grill, and things had gotten more intense since then. That's what Alex said, anyway.
Nicholas and Frank met for the first time at a service station, just a chance encounter. Nicholas was filling up his tank with gas when Alex and Frank squealed into the lot and bolted inside for a pack of cigarettes. Alex made the introduction, but Frank, a tall, rough-looking character, didn't look Nicholas in the eye.
"Frank's setting me up," Alex said. "His girlfriend Sylvia has this friend who's hotter than hell. You should follow us."
Frank was in a big hurry. He sped through a yellow light on Fort Street and Nicholas had to jackrabbit across the intersection to beat the red light.
"Where's Sylvia?" Frank roared, clomping through a room full of party guests. A little girl, about nine years old, led him up a staircase. He told Alex and Nicholas to stand there in the foyer. Alex explained that Sylvia's mom had just graduated from law school and had invited all of her colleagues and professors for a celebration. It looked like an upper-class cocktail party on a soap opera. Almost every man in the house wore a coat and tie. Nicholas felt underdressed.
Alex saw a girl he knew in the next room. She wore too much hair spray and lipstick. "This is Nick," Alex said.
"I'm Nicholas," he said, holding out his hand for a shake, "please don't call me Nick." The girl looked interested in this.
Alex said he was sorry, because Nicholas used to be called Nick, but when he went away to college he asked everyone to call him Nicholas. "I forgot," Alex said, "it's like one day you wake up and orange juice is called green juice."
The girl asked if he wanted a piece of cake. "It's angel food," she said.
Nicholas got bored with the conversation Alex started with the hair spray girl, so he started to wander through the house. He saw expensive Ansel Adams prints and strange clay knick-knacks arranged on opulent shelves. He stood behind a group of party guests and listened to them gossip about stock portfolios and vacations in Greece. Before long, Nicholas ended up on the back porch. The air was thick with stupid june bugs dive-bombing the house, so Nicholas turned off the porch lights. Now everything was dark and quiet. He felt comfortable. All the back yard colors faded to black-and-white.
Alex's blind date, the girl who was hotter than hell, left the party with some other guy, so Alex came out and asked if Nicholas was ready to leave. "Frank's gone," he said, "so you'll have to give me a ride."
"I still haven't met Sylvia," Nicholas said.
Alex yelled for her.
Before Nicholas could blink, she was standing on the porch, right next to Alex. Sylvia was short and slender with long dark hair that tumbled down her back. She looked young, but had a keen intelligence in her eye that was evident even in this dim light. She cocked her head to the side.
"Nicholas, meet Sylvia. My mom used to baby-sit Sylvia," he said.
Sylvia poked him in the ribs. "Why do you keep bringing that up? It was eighteen years ago."
Alex laughed. "It's funny to think of my mom changing your diapers." He rattled the ice around in his plastic cup. "Can you guys keep yourselves occupied? I feel like having another drink."
"Sure," Nicholas said.
Alex pointed to Sylvia. "Don't call this guy Nick. It's Nicholas." Alex stressed every syllable with a heavy weight, and then disappeared into the bright house.
Sylvia moved to the wooden porch railing and leaned there, acting exhausted. "So you're Nicholas. Like St. Nicholas?" she asked.
"I'm not exactly a saint," he said.
Sylvia hummed a few bars of "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" and stared out into the darkness. "Someone should write a song for me," she said. "There's no song for Sylvia."
Nicholas thought about it. "I remember a song from one of my mom's eight-tracks, a bad song called 'Sylvia's Mother.' I think it's by the Village People."
"That's not for me. It's for my mother."
"True," Nicholas said. He tried to figure Sylvia's age. Frank was twenty and tended to date younger girls.
"What's wrong with Nick?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, "my mom still calls me Nick. When I started college a couple of years ago my professors called me Nicholas, and I liked it. Nick sounds like a little kid's name. Nick is the neighborhood bully."
"I've always been Sylvia," she said.
The back porch was quiet for a few minutes. It was too dark to see anything.
"I feel like a walk. I'm getting tired. I should take a walk."
She turned around to face him. "Are you leaving?"
"No, I just feel like a walk. Just around the neighborhood." Nicholas checked his watch. "Do you want to come?"
"Sure," she said.
"Did I see a park down the street?"
Alex found another ride home, so Nicholas and Sylvia went for a walk alone. As they walked down the street, Nicholas counted mailboxes and noticed one that looked like a little red barn. Six tall chickenwire posts were planted around it, like an army dispatched to protect the barn from crazy kids with baseball bats. "That's an odd family," Sylvia said.
A big wooden sign stated that the park was closed at eleven o'clock, but there were no fences and Sylvia said the cops never came to this neighborhood. She kicked off her shoes and leaned down to get them. "I like to walk barefoot through the grass," she said. She wore no socks, no stockings.
"Sounds nice," he said, and he stepped out of his loafers.
Sylvia held her shoes with two fingers curled elegantly around the heel strap. Nicholas stuffed his socks into the loafers and stuck them under his arm. "That's interesting," she said, taking a few steps, "the grass is wet."
"Soaking wet," Nicholas said, right behind her. "Does the dew come out this early?"
"I don't know," she said.
By the time Nicholas reached the swings, the cuffs of his jeans were damp. Sylvia was deep in thought. "I don't remember the grass being wet before," she said.
"Do you ever feel like you're in the wrong place?" he said.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"I have all sorts of ideas about who I want to be, and I don't know how to get there. How can you know if you're on the right track?"
"That's a good question," she said. "Maybe you're always on the right track as long as you keep moving forward."
"I don't even know why I came to this party tonight. I was on my way home."
"Everything happens for a reason," Sylvia said.
He examined the pattern on her long skirt, trailing his eyes from her waist and along her hip down to her bare ankles and feet.
"Tell me about that house," Nicholas said.
"It belongs to my stepfather. My mom and I moved there a few years ago, when they got married." Sylvia pulled out grass with her toes. "It's kind of stuffy, isn't it? Frank used to hate coming over to see me, but he's started to enjoy being a nuisance. My mom doesn't care for him."
"I wonder if Frank likes me," Nicholas said.
"He doesn't like anyone."
"Do you love him?" Nicholas asked.
Sylvia seemed to ignore the question. She pulled her hands into the sleeves of her sweater and twirled. "Can you see the man in the moon?" she asked.
He lifted his chin and looked into the night sky, past the jungle gym and the teeter-totters. The moon would be full in just a few days. He squinted at the sky for ten or fifteen seconds.
"No," he said.
"That's a shame," she said.
Sylvia watched the sky, and Nicholas looked carefully at the curve along her neck and around the chin. He came closer. He put his arms around her and squeezed, tightly enough that she missed a breath. She slid her arms around his waist. He couldn't hear the wind blowing past his ears, but he could feel it. This moment lasted a long, long time.
That was all. He walked her home, holding her hand, and said goodbye. There was no kiss. He drove home alone and wondered why.
Frank called Nicholas the next day and asked what happened at the party after he left. "I'm in the middle of something," Nicholas said. "I'll have to let you go." He hung up on Frank and started doing laundry.
An hour later Frank called back, proclaiming that he knew what was going on and threatening to teach Nicholas a lesson if he ever tried to touch Sylvia again. "Stay away from her," he said.
"All we did was share a hug," Nicholas said.
"Screw you," Frank said, spouting venom.
"What did Sylvia say about this?" Nicholas asked.
Frank didn't answer him. "As long as Sylvia and I are together," he said, "don't go anywhere near her."
That was July. In October, when the leaves had wandered into new bright colors, Frank and Sylvia broke up. Alex told Nicholas the whole story. Frank had decided that Sylvia couldn't understand his problems, yet he kept calling her, sometimes twice a day. She wasn't seeing anyone, Alex said, because Frank had her scared.
"Does he even like her? Or does he just like to control her?" Nicholas asked.
"I don't know," Alex said.
"Her hands are very warm," Nicholas said.
"She's got a cute ass," Alex said.
"Her hands are very warm," Nicholas said again.
Weeks later, Nicholas was on his way home from work. Running out of gas, he turned on a residential avenue in hopes of cutting around all the Wednesday rush hour crowd. He hated owning a gas guzzler but couldn't afford to get a new car. He planned to drive the old beater until a better job came along. Nicholas drove up the avenue, taking a few turns that seemed to be the right direction, but the streets curved all over the place and he felt lost. Then he recognized Sylvia's house.
He had never seen that house in the light of day, but he knew the angle of the roof and the style of the front door. When he saw the boxed-in barn mailbox further down the street, he knew that it was the right place. The gas tank needle was a feather below "E" now, running on fumes, so he parked the car in the street and walked to the house, rubbing his fingers together all the way.
The foyer was decorated with seasonal keepsakes. Nicholas looked at each one carefully: a statuette of a squirrel with orange and brown scattered at his feet, a small hand-carved scarecrow, clay jack-o-lanterns.
"Dr. Hook," Sylvia said as she came downstairs to see him.
He didn't know what she was talking about.
"'Sylvia's Mother' is by Dr. Hook, not the Village People. My mom had the 45 when I was a kid, but I forgot about it," she said.
Sylvia nodded. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm almost out of gas. I was looking for a gas station and got all turned around."
"Do you need a ride?"
"No, it's not empty yet. I just don't know where I'm going."
The phone rang. Someone yelled Sylvia's name. "It's Frank," the voice yelled.
"I'm leaving," Sylvia yelled, pulling Nicholas out the front door. "I'll show you the way. I need to get out of here for a while."
Sylvia directed Nicholas to the nearest gas station -- left, right, across Anchor Street to Texaco. "I'll buy you a soda," Nicholas said while pumped gas. He was looking at her hands through the car window; they were resting in her lap.
"Orange juice would be good," she replied, leaning over to look at him. He caught her eye and smiled.
Nicholas paid for everything with his credit card and brought Sylvia a bottle of orange juice. "Is this one big enough? I saw one that was bigger, but it seemed too big."
"This is good." She unscrewed the lid with her fingertips. Nicholas wondered if her hands were still warm.
He drove her home, paying close attention to the street signs. "Thank you," he said. "I was really lost."
She looked right into his eyes. "I haven't heard from you since the party."
Nicholas nodded. "I started thinking about the park last week. I was mowing the lawn and the grass was wet. It stuck to my ankles and stained my shoes."
The corners of her mouth turned up.
He pulled his car into her parents' driveway. A minivan was parked behind a big brown Cadillac. Both were covered with autumn leaves.
"I'd like to see you. Tonight. Can I see you tonight?"
She was looking at her necklace, not at him, but she was smiling.
"I know where I'm going now. Why don't I come back at seven o'clock?"
"See you then," she said.
Nicholas returned at seven o'clock and Sylvia was waiting on the porch. "Where are we going?" she asked, slipping into the passenger seat.
"I don't know," Nicholas said.
That was all they said for nearly an hour, while Nicholas drove here, there, and everywhere -- highways and off-ramps, busy intersections and darkened gravel roads. Every once in a while, Nicholas looked over and looked at her hands, folded so nicely in her lap. When the turn signal started to plink, Sylvia perked her ears and listened. The silence should have been uncomfortable, but Nicholas felt a sense of peace. He was spending time with Sylvia, alone in the dark, and that was enough.
"The moon is full," she finally said.
"Is it?" he asked. He sat forward so he could see the sky through the windshield. "Where?"
"There." She gestured out her window and leaned to look for herself.
Nicholas gently pushed the brake. Gravel crunched under the tires as the car slowed to a stop. Slowly, Nicholas opened the car door, stepped into the night, and sat on his car hood. "A perfect circle," he said.
"Can you see the man in the moon?" Sylvia asked. She had gotten out of the car too, and leaned on the other side of the car with her chin resting on woven fingers.
Nicholas had remembered the moon as bluish-white but tonight it appeared yellow, with greyish shadows playing along the surface. He looked closely.
"I see him," he said. "I see his eyes. Two eyes -- it's not a profile -- he's looking right at us."
"What is he doing?" Sylvia pressed.
"I don't understand."
"The man in the moon is always busy. He has a profession and never takes a break. He is very passionate about his career. What is he doing?"
Nicholas watched her lips curl into a mischievous grin while he scratched his neck. He walked down the road, to the east, where the moon was hanging in the sky.
After a minute she sneaked up behind him. "Trying to get a better look? You're not getting any closer. You'd have better luck standing on a chair."
He stopped walking and slipped his hand around hers. So warm. He pulled her closer, slowly, until he could feel the rise and fall of her chest, breath after breath. For many long moments they stood alone with barely a shadow between them. When his eyes met hers, the wind shifted. They kissed. He stroked her cheek, massaged her back, rubbed the nape of her neck -- all while kissing her. A half an hour of this, without a word.
Sylvia opened her eyes as Nicholas pulled away. He smiled and rubbed her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. "What is he doing?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"You're starting to figure things out, Nicholas. I have faith in you."
"Can I see you again?"
Sylvia squeezed his hand. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"I'm going somewhere. And so are you. And I don't think we're going to the same place."
Nicholas didn't know what she meant, so he certainly couldn't respond. They got back into the car and headed back to town. The blackness of night gave way to artificial light as the car rumbled from rural routes to city streets. He drove directly to her house while she sat in the passenger seat with her hands in her lap.
"Good night," he said.
"Yes," she said.
Nicholas figured that they had driven almost a hundred miles that night. The gas gauge was a feather above "E," which was nothing to worry about.
Nicholas never knew Sylvia's phone number; in fact, he never learned her last name. He couldn't trust Alex to keep his mouth shut, and he certainly couldn't call Frank. He thought about Sylvia every day. He thought about everything she said and wondered what she was trying to tell him.
He was offered an internship in Chicago and accepted. Alex took him to the airport and gave him a box of Trojans for good luck. "Knock yourself out," Alex said.
As time went by, Nicholas found himself studying the moon, watching it change shape week to week, month to month, season to season.
Nicholas came back for a visit while Alex was on spring break. They drove down the street in Alex's car, laughing about old times, when Alex said, "Do you mind going to Frank's for a while?" Nicholas pretended not to hear him, but they went anyway.
Frank lived in a brick apartment building on the dark side of town, around the corner from the vacant shopping mall that was up for sale. Everyone at Frank's party was drinking heavily. Frank was sitting on the couch between two girls with long blonde hair, and he had a green wine bottle between his legs. He had one arm around each blonde, but he was only talking to the one on his right. The bathtub was filled with icewater and cans of beer. Alex got two beers and offered one to Nicholas.
"I don't feel like it tonight," Nicholas said. He started moving from room to room, looking like he was counting partygoers.
"Where are you going?" Alex asked.
"I'm just looking around."
"Sylvia's on the balcony," Alex said, pointing with the beer in his left hand. "You should go say hello."
Nicholas felt an itch in the middle of his forehead. He rubbed it with his index finger and made his way through the party crowd to the sliding glass door. He saw Sylvia's profile, dimly lit by the streetlights seven floors below. Two other girls had squeezed on the balcony with her so they could smoke. They made comments about a some slutty girl who came to the party without a bra, but Sylvia was looking the other way.
Nicholas came within a few inches of her ear. "I'm surprised to see you," he said.
Sylvia was startled, but smiled as she turned her head. "What are you doing here?"
"Alex brought me. Why are you here?"
"Frank asked me, and I couldn't say no."
"Are you two dating again?"
"No. God, no. Never again, never. No." Sylvia was holding his hand.
Nicholas leaned forward. "Tell me -- I need to know -- is the man in the moon singing?"
"That's an interesting idea."
"Am I right?"
Sylvia smiled widely. "What song?"
Nicholas looked to the sky for guidance. He turned full around. "Where's the moon?"
"The other side of the sky," Sylvia said. "Behind the building. You can't see it from here."
They kissed. Her hands were on the back of his neck. He pulled away for a moment to tell her how warm her hands felt. After a minute, the smoking girls got uncomfortable and went inside. Nicholas heard Frank telling everyone to get out of his way and hoped Frank was on his way to take a pee. Sylvia let go of Nicholas and looked inside.
Frank stepped out onto his tiny balcony and made it feel even smaller. "What's going on?" he barked.
Nicholas didn't look up. He kept stroking Sylvia's cheek, even though his hand had started shaking. He cleared his throat and started singing:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
Maybe," Sylvia said. Her eyes were wide and frightened.
Frank pushed Nicholas against the metal railing and then threw him to the ground. He kicked Nicholas in the gut and growled like a wild beast. All this time, Sylvia screamed and punched at Frank with open hands.
"Stupid bitch," Frank yelled.
Alex jumped into the middle of the whole scene. "Get out of here," he said, "I'll take Sylvia home." Alex got in Frank's face and reminded him what it means to be on probation while Nicholas slipped out the door and started the long walk home.
The internship in Chicago came to an end, and Nicholas returned home for the summer. He worked three jobs so he could save up money for graduate school. The tux shop was part-time, the video store was full-time, and he mowed lawns on weekends. The tux shop was the worst -- a constant stream of demanding future mothers-in-law who insisted on controlling every aspect of the wedding process, even something as superficial and generic as cufflinks. "I'm just the guy with the tape measure," Nicholas would say. The video store was enjoyable at first but grew tedious. Everybody who came in the place got upset if the movie they came to see had been rented. One time a guy actually threatened him with a beating if he didn't find a copy of some Disney movie that his girlfriend wanted to see.
Then there were the mowing jobs. He scheduled them in the early morning, when it wasn't too hot to work. He also liked the look of the sky in the morning, before the sun came over the horizon, that special shade of blue.
Sixty or seventy hours a week, all summer, and Nicholas got used to it. "You're killing yourself," Alex said. "Why don't you go out and have some fun?"
"If I'm not working, then I'm thinking," Nicholas said, "and I'm so sick of thinking."
"You should quit mowing lawns," Alex said.
Nicholas shook his head. "When I mow lawns, I feel like I'm accomplishing something. I feel like I'm getting somewhere."
"But a week later, you go back and do it again," Alex said.
Nicholas dragged a bag of grass clippings to the compost heap in his client's back yard. The last lawn of the summer had been completed, late on Saturday morning, midway through August. He sat in the shade, on the cold cement of the doorstep which had not yet been warmed by the summer sun. He took a drink of juice, a big gulp, and then gasped. His lungs were a bit starved.
A voice seemed to come from above. "Is that you, Nicholas?"
He set down the bottle slowly, thinking that the glass might shatter on the cement.
Sylvia walked up the driveway, shielding the sun from her eyes. "I thought that was you," she called. She had a glowing smile. "I was at my grandma's house, up the street there, and saw your car."
"How about that," Nicholas said, smiling. He didn't know how to feel about this.
"I didn't think you lived around here."
Nicholas stood up and looked at the house, with its opulent bay windows and three-car garage. "This is the Nelsons' house. I mow their lawn, that's all. I don't live here." He started to set up the sprinkler.
"I see." She was five feet away, and not getting any closer. "Are you finished here? I mean . . . can we go somewhere for a while? We could have breakfast. Are you hungry?"
"Yes . . . but I'm a mess. I'm smelly and all grubby . . ."
"I don't mind."
She drove them to a donut shop and bought him a chocolate long john while he went to the restroom and cleaned up. He brought what was left of the bottle of juice and shared it with her. "You still like orange juice, I take it."
"Yes," she said.
He talked about graduate school and how expensive it was. He told her about the Chicago internship. She was excited that her dad was letting her go away to college after two years at the community college. She laughed about her friends that were having babies. Three girls in her high school graduating class waddled through the ceremony and six more were pregnant now. Small talk.
He looked at her for a long time, just her eyes. Finally he said, "The man in the moon isn't singing, is he?"
"No, he's not." She finished the orange juice.
"Then what . . . ?" He saw her smirking at him. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"Discovery is so rare these days, Nicholas. You can learn anything from a book, or word of mouth, or the newspaper. Discover it. You can get there, with or without me."
Nicholas looked into her eyes again, long and hard. He smiled, not showing any teeth. She sprinkled a little kiss on his lips and then took him back to the Nelsons' house. She drove off, and he watched her car disappear around the corner.
"Out of sight out of mind," he said. But no one was around to hear him.
I don't know your address so I'm not sure whether or not this letter will find its way to you. Alex told me your last name so I could address this to you, care of the university. We'll see how clever those boys at the Post Office really are.
Here it is: months have gone by and I keep expecting these feelings to fade, but they don't. Every time I'm out at night, the man in the moon is up there, glaring at me. Or perhaps he is laughing. Is that the answer? Some questions are too difficult to consider. I'm so restless that it hurts.
Sylvia, you haunt my days and nights. Ever since the day we met, I have been possessed by a desire to chase my dreams. And my instincts tell me that you are the cause. How can that be? How can you have affected my life so completely? It seems so impossible. We've only met a half-dozen times.
I know the next question is crazy, but it needs to be answered. I believe that everything in the universe may depend on your response. Everything.
Are we in love?
When Nicholas opened his mailbox a week later, he saw a letter with a stamp pasted sideways and no return address. He knew who it was from even before he ripped it open:
Have you ever seen a rainbow? Not just light through a crystal or sprinkler water, but a real rainbow out on the horizon? I don't think that most people see them. Rainbows are intangible, a trick of the light, an accident of nature, witnessed by the lucky few. That's how I feel about the connection between you and me. Water is commonplace, you know, but if light is put in the mix, something special happens. And so it happened to me.
Love is a means of transportation. Falling in love is the first step. Being in love is a journey. It is not a destination or a goal. We can't take that journey together, I'm sad to say. We're not in love, and I don't feel we should try. You feel so strongly for me, I think, because I helped show you the road. You did the same for me. Frank is not in my life anymore. I have broken from my family and started to find out who I am. That's all so beautiful, but it's not love. It feels like we're breaking up, but that's impossible. We were never together. But you are in my heart, Nicholas. You will always be there. Just because you walked through the wet grass. Just because you held my hand. Just because you look to the skies for guidance.
The man in the moon isn't laughing at you, Nicholas. He has better things to do. Keep looking for the answer. Think of the rainbow. And think of me. It's the same moon for both of us.
Nicholas placed the letter back in the sideways-stamped envelope and took all his mail into the house. He put it on the kitchen table. Colors fluttered before his mind's eye like a personal kaleidoscope. It passed.
And then he knew.
Nicholas was married two years later to Kristine, a colleague's sister. Alex was the best man, and got so drunk at the reception that his girlfriend took a taxi to the airport and flew home that night. Nicholas took him to the hotel and tucked him in. "Sleep it off," Nicholas said.
The honeymoon was to start the next evening with a long drive to Niagara Falls. Nicholas and his wife had chosen the spot specifically because it was a cliché, and used the money they saved to put a down payment on a house. They sat on the balcony of Alex's hotel room and cuddled in the sticky summer night.
"It was perfect, except for Alex's little scene," Nicholas said.
"Alex is a character," Kristine said.
"Deep down, he's a good guy," Nicholas said, "but he has no taste in women." He looked to the sky and found the moon, which looked like a balloon ready to burst. "Tell me, Kris, what is the man in the moon doing?"
She drew her lips together and thought hard.
"He's blowing bubbles," she said.
"What happens to the bubbles?" he asked, leaning closer.
"I don't know," she said.
"They float into space, and when they hit the earth, just before they burst, we see them as --"
" -- rainbows?"
"Yes, that's it. Good answer."
Kristine wrote the conversation down in the wedding scrapbook, and Nicholas was glad she did.