Sylvia sat backstage in the Black Kitten, finishing off her second tequila cocktail, visibly shaking.
A mood had hit her a few hours prior. From dry-heaving in the bathroom to drinking away degrading thoughts, she was now going through the body shakes she unlocked whenever she worried about the infinite what-ifs.
She swirled the last sip of her drink in her glass. She was staring into her vanity mirror tonight. Smudges of makeup blemished the glass and blurred the self she wanted to see. Behind her was a brick wall from where the stage music reverberated. Unused pulleys, ropes, and curtains masked her from the other side of the Kitten. She couldn’t wait to get back to it. To surround herself with life. To feel herself breathe again. But first, she needed to get herself breathing without almost fainting.
After finishing her drink, she sighed into her hands. Nobody had to tell her how dangerous this was, being with a gangster like him, but God wanted to challenge her daily. Ever since she was a child, it’s been like this. Not that she complained. Knowing bad luck would forever trail behind her like a puppy was somewhat comforting, like she knew what she’d be getting every day. She just wished He’d better equipped her for the aftermath. She wondered if Vincenzo ever felt like that.
High heels clicked up behind her. She saw the person in the mirror but turned around so as not to be rude.
Laurence rounded his big hands around Sylvia’s cheeks. He was dressed up for tonight, as was Sylvia, though he had a different motive than she had and better taste. His wig was immaculate in golden curls, and with bolder eye makeup and jewelry to complement his dark skin, he looked like a Southern princess.
He made her face him. “I don’t see it.”
“See what?” Sylvia asked.
He angled the corners of her lips with his thumbs. “Ah, there it is. There’s a smile. Now I don’t have to worry about you.”
“Can you stay like this for the rest of the night, marionetting me until I can smile on my own?”
“I don’t think anyone can make you smile, love. You need to find something that makes you happy, or less sad, in your case.” He took a seat beside her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing in particular. I broke my nail this afternoon and cried for an hour.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” He played with her wig, sprucing it up in ways Sylvia couldn’t. “What’s there to do?” He admired both of them in the mirror. “I can curl your wig. I can put blue in your eye shadow. I know how you love that.”
“No. I’m good, really. I’m just tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Laurence clicked his tongue. “Well, if you want to hang out tomorrow, or sit on the phone and talk, we can do that. Mitsuko and I were planning a shopping trip. Mitsuko!”
Said woman came in and lounged against the door with her ankles crossed. She had one hand stuffed in her pants pocket, the other holding a glass of chilled milk, a palate cleanser between songs. “We’re going into Manhattan. Laurence’s paying for gas, I’m paying for his dessert. I said one dessert, Sir,” she pressed when Laurence whined. “You’re more than welcome to come.”
“I know you said no before,” Laurence said, “but we have room, and we’d love for you to be there.”
“I’ll think about it. I’m feeling a lot better, really. I’m just tired.” She tried smiling on her own.
Laurence frowned deeply. “If you’re not up to perform today, we can tweak your schedule. Like anyone out there cares what we do.” He nodded towards the back door, to the floor of drunks hungry for a feathered boa and naked ankle.
“This isn’t about a certain Mr. DiFiore, is it?” Mitsuko asked. “You shouldn’t waste your time on someone like him. You deserve better.”
“Here, here,” Laurence said, toasting Sylvia’s glass.
“I don’t know,” Sylvia said. “I like him.”
“Oh, I like him, too,” Mitsuko said. “He’s such a great guy. Let me name off all his good characteristics.” And she stared dead-eyed into Sylvia’s soul.
“I don’t trust him,” Laurence said. “He’s awful, what he does. All that killing and torturing.”
“He doesn’t really do that,” Sylvia said. “He told me.”
“I’m sure he’s telling you the truth,” Mitsuko said. “Just like how he doesn’t kill any of us when he’s ordered to.”
“Mitsuko, don’t say that!” Laurence put his hand to his mouth as he looked off to the side. On their left, towards the wall collecting spiders, stood a vanity table embellished with flowers and hand-written notes. It depicted young children of every shape and color, every group New York called to. Sylvia remembered their names and faces but had forgotten their laughs.
Laurence kissed Sylvia’s dark blue bob. “I don’t want to see you getting hurt again. Not again. You’ve dealt with too many men like that in the past.”
“Men I’ve spiked drinks for to make them run to the bathroom,” Mitsuko added.
“I know. Thank you. He’s different, I think, but I promise I’ll stay safe.”
A muffled bang sounded through the backstage door. It sounded like a drunk slipping on his own weight, so Sylvia shrugged it off. The next voice she heard, however, made her spill her glass and stand up quicker than Laurence.
The backstage door snapped open. Bobbie Martínez, the owner of the Black Kitten, had his cigarette bit between his lips, his baggy eyes wide. “Raid,” he said.
He always chose his words carefully—being short and blunt helped him run this bar for over two decades—but that one word held everything that needed to be said. Sylvia had survived a dozen raids. Some people didn’t.
The luckiest part: most of tonight’s patrons weren’t dressed up. They’d only be harassed by the officers and asked to leave the premises. Those like Sylvia and Laurence—ones who dressed up because they needed to and ones who dressed up because they liked it—were the targets of these raids. They were designed to burn down the one place a gay happiness could safely grow. And nobody cared but those who were burning.
Three officers had come to raid them. Sylvia didn’t recognize them, but they all walked in like they belonged there. One even blocked the stairs, trapping them.
“Everyone, sit down,” one of them said, “and get out your IDs.”
“And lift up those dresses,” another said, taking out his baton. “Better make sure your IDs match what’s underneath, otherwise you’re all coming with us.”
Sylvia hid behind the door. She knew how she lived was considered illegal, but what the police could do to pansies not only felt illegal, but immoral and unjust. It certainly didn’t make anyone in the bar feel like they had their best intentions at heart.
“You.” One police officer, the one who hadn’t taken his hand off of his belt, pointed at Sylvia. “Come here and show me your ID.”
Sylvia stopped breathing. The patrons of the Black Kitten turned to see who’d been chosen as the first victim of the raid. Some whispered, others hid behind their tables and booths. Laurence and Mitsuko were seething behind her back like angered mothers.
Sylvia tightened her shoulders, making herself appear smaller. “It’s in the back.”
“Well, then come over here,” one officer said. “We’ll be able to tell real quick if you’re a real woman or not. The rest of you, up against the wall. Lift up those dresses. Yeah, just like that.”
Laurence squeezed Sylvia’s arm, showing her that he wasn’t leaving her side. Mitsuko’s glare felt sharper than the knives in her boot.
Exhaling through her pounding heart, Sylvia stepped forwards.
Footsteps echoed down the stairs. Two sets, each paced and rhythmic. The officers thought nothing of it and continued their harassment. Regulars of the Black Kitten who recognized the gaits hid themselves better.
Pushing aside the two officers like obstacles, Vincenzo DiFiore entered into the Black Kitten. He came in with Dominic, who stood as his bodyguard in case anyone thought Vincenzo wasn’t a threat. Ever since he and Sylvia became a “thing” in spring, not even normal people came to hassle the bar. They knew what he’d do to them if they were caught hurting what he valued.
The cops must’ve been new, for they just smirked like they were on his level. One even pushed his shoulder back. “The place’s closed, pansy fucker. Go fuck a dog in the alley while you wait.”
Vincenzo didn’t say anything. To anyone, he would’ve appeared bored, when inside he must’ve been burning alive. The look in his eyes told her that. That, and his knuckles were bleeding over the floorboards.
Sylvia checked behind her. Bobbie had run behind the counter and had a hand on his gun.
“Didn’t you hear me?” the officer asked, towering over Vincenzo now, threatening him. “Leave. Now.”
She debated whether or not to run into the back and hide. With Vincenzo, she knew her life was no longer in imminent danger, but she didn’t want to get her dress bloodied.
Vincenzo whipped out his pistol, rammed it against the officer, and fired.
The bullet missed him by a centimeter and ricocheted into the wall. Dominic barreled into the second officer and knocked him down easily. Bobbie took out his gun and aimed for the last officer, but when Vincenzo had fired, the whole of the Black Kitten screamed and scattered, creating a foggy shooting range.
Vincenzo tackled the officer and straddled him. He pressed the barrel of his gun deep into his heart. “This’s my bar,” he said. “I own it. I run it. I can very well sleep here if I desired. You can’t. Your commissioner can’t. That goddamn chief of police can’t so much as walk these streets with the parameters I’ve set in place.”
“Y-you can’t do this,” the officer said. “You can’t shoot at an officer, are you mad? I’ll have you arrested, all of you.”
“Try me,” Vincenzo dared. “Put a pair of cuffs on me, try to send me away. See what that damn Officer Dan will say when you bring him the man who gives him his salary. I bet he’d unlock the cuffs himself and fire you on the spot. But don’t take my word for it. After all, I’m just a pansy fucker, aren’t I?”
When the officer began squirming, Vincenzo leaned over him so his eyes remained leveled with his. “I am Vincenzo DiFiore, lieutenant of Mr. Campo d’Antonio III and sole proprietor of the Black Kitten. This’s my bar and you have no authority here. So before I take you out in the lot and castrate you with a dirty razor, get the fuck out of my bar.” To end his speech, he fired two shots into the wooden floorboards and spat in his face.
That name—Campo—and the way Vincenzo addressed himself as part of his group shoved the officers out. It looked like they wanted to fight for their lawful harassment of the innocent, but the frazzled officer called them back to their police car upstairs and disappeared.
Sylvia foolishly expected applause for Vincenzo and his knightly efforts, but no. Those who hadn’t run away whispered about him in the dimly lit corners of the bar, wary of his violent heart.
Laurence broke the silence. “What the hell is your problem?”
He was likely the only person who could speak to Vincenzo like that without taking a bullet. Dressed up, his confidence was boosted to admirable levels.
Vincenzo fixed up his collar and sleeves. “Did they touch anyone?”
His forwardness took him aback. “No. They were about to interrogate Sylvia when you came in.”
Vincenzo combed through the Kitten and locked his eyes on Sylvia backed against the wall.
She came to him with her hands folded in front of her. She couldn’t take her eyes off of his bloody knuckles.
He hid them in his pocket. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Is your hand okay?”
He looked away and didn’t answer.
She almost reached out to touch him. When they’d decided to be more than friends, he’d asked her one thing: Don’t ever touch him when he wasn’t “prepared.” She never asked what that meant because she understood. No physicality in public. No signs that he liked someone the world wanted dead.
It was the most romantic relationship she’d ever been in.
With the intruders gone, Vincenzo lowered his guard and took off his hat. Bobbie collected it and his overcoat, slimming him down and removing some of his armor. Dominic, now unneeded, fell into the shadows and awaited further orders.
“Can I get some alcohol to wash this with?” Vincenzo asked, taking out his hand. He’d said it as a question, but everyone knew that tone of his. A demand, albeit a soft one.
Bobbie picked out a bottle from the shelf and gently poured it over the wound. The only indication that it hurt clenched into Vincenzo’s jaw. Then he doused it out and let his skin heal.
“Girls, we’re going to halt your performance for tonight,” Bobbie said. “Take some time to calm down. I’m going to make sure everything’s…settled.”
“Good luck with that,” Mitsuko said under her breath.
As Bobbie dished out water with drops of alcohol in it, Sylvia turned to see Vincenzo waiting for her. He was standing near his favorite booth farthest away from the stage. With its dark curtains and low lights, it appeared to be a cave a predator would stalk their prey from, nothing like the open tables peppered throughout the basement.
Sylvia slipped in beside him. She never knew whether to keep her hands on the table or in her lap, which one made her look less nervous than she actually felt.
The musicians took back to the stage and started up a calming jazz piece. Patrons continued walking around, too nervous to sit and too nervous to leave.
Vincenzo slouched into the velvet, unbothered by it all. He used his non-injured hand to light a cigarette from his pocket. The smoke circled the chandelier lights.
He always looked so nice to her, even with the way he was. Always clean-shaven, dressed to the nines in dark sweaters and shiny shoes. She wanted to run her hands through his black and curly hair just once, but she didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. They hadn’t kissed for days after their first date, and when he did want to express his love, it was behind doors or in the dark, a hidden love shared between them.
Sometimes she dreamed of kissing him in public. Really push the boundaries set on them. That look he’d given her the day he confessed, the softness in his eyes, the licking of his lips, that stayed with her on the lonelier nights.
“So,” she ventured, “what happened?”
He blew out his smoke. “I had a meeting with my father. It didn’t go well.”
“You said you have a weekly time limit for how long you can stomach being around him.”
“I surpassed it.”
She did the math in her head. “It’s only Tuesday.”
“Isn’t that the way.” He exhaled another lungful of smoke for five long seconds, then passed the cigarette to Sylvia.
She shared it as quickly as possible. The filter had teeth marks in it.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said.
“It’s alright. I’ll take gunshots over raids. Just not at the same time.”
“It’s awful what they can get away with. I’m going to have to talk with that police chief again. You’d think they’d listen after my first warning.”
“Nevertheless, it’s good to see you again. I haven’t seen you in a few days.”
“I’ve been busy. My father wanted to know about that, too, but in less so kind words.”
“Did he say something hurtful?”
“Every word he spits out is hurtful to everyone but our Family. And even then,” he tacked on, but he didn’t add anything.
“Not to be rude, but if I never met him, I wouldn’t complain.”
That finally got him to smile. When he’d first started courting her, she didn’t know if he knew how to smile. Then, one day, he got her talking about her dreams, about moving to Manhattan and living peacefully as herself in a little house on the river. When she turned to ask him about his dreams, he was smiling. Perhaps he’d been laughing at her. Still, it was nice knowing he could find the happiness she was still searching for.
“I don’t blame you for thinking badly about him. The way he talks about you, if he weren’t my father…” He stopped before he said something he regretted. “How’ve you been? How’re your friends? They still hate me, it seems.”
“They don’t hate you.”
He tossed his head back.
“‘Tolerate’ is a better word. They respect you, but their fear might be overriding their perception of you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He side-eyed her. “What do they say about me?”
“That you’re a handsome, sophisticated gentleman who’s taking care of me.”
“I wish you wouldn’t lie to me.”
“I wish you’d believe me when I told you the truth.”
He kept his head back, thinking and overthinking her words.
It was a lie, of course, but putting the thought in his head that her friends liked him was best. It wouldn’t help to say that they feared him the way they feared a beast.
“Oh, I wanted to ask you something,” he said. “I wanted to ask you this when I got here, but I didn’t expect to deal with the cops today.”
“I’d like to invite you over to my place tonight.”
Her lips parted. “Where?”
“My house,” he said, like it was that easy to say aloud. “Luis, his wife and kid, and Dominic will be there, along with my Nonna, but none of them will be a problem. I’ve told them about you. Just don’t pay any mind to Luis’ wife. She’s more a man than he is.”
“But would that be okay? I don’t want to impose.”
“Of course it’d be okay.” He leaned in, making their private conversation even more private. “My boss, Campo, he appreciates you. He’s nothing like my father. He understands our situation.” He paused. “He says I can be with you if I’m ready to deal with how much of a target that makes me. That’s how it works with any woman or associate you become intimate with. If you don’t want to come over…”
He moved back, hand slipping off the table.
Sylvia lunged for it, eager to feel his warmth again. Her hands were so cold. “I’ll go. I just want to make a good first impression.”
He warmed up her hand. “You don’t have to worry. I’ve told my grandmother everything about you. She loves you.”
“Oh. I’m glad.” The amount of love Vincenzo had for his grandmother showed in the stories he had about her. He actually had good things to say about her, memories that were never suppressed into hardened piles of useless gems.
“You can come dressed as you are,” he added. “We’ll leave in an hour. Is that alright with you?”
“It is. Let me just tell Bobbie and the others.”
But as she went to tell Bobbie and the others, she saw them spying on her from across the lounge. They were pretending to get drinks when all of their attention was locked onto her.
The way they looked at her reminded her of her mother the day her father died: terrified, and unable to stop death from claiming their loved one.