Mitsuko had once told Sylvia that if a man asked you to meet his family, you needed to decide right then if you wanted to marry him or not. Meeting a person’s family, entering new territory with strangers who’ve heard everything about you. The quick once-over to see if you amounted to a suitable bride.
Sylvia almost puked in Vincenzo’s expensive car.
He helped her in while Dominic hopped into the driver’s seat. She’d kept on her womanly garments and tucked them around her rump as a nervous tic. Seeing herself reflected in the mirror, outside breaking so many rules, it made her dizzy, but what could she do? See Vincenzo, in his home, meeting his grandmother, dressed like a stodgy gent? She’d walked to the Kitten wearing a cardigan ripped from nervously stretching out the seams. That wouldn’t do, for neither her standards nor his.
Vincenzo slid in beside her, staring at her with a question on his lips.
“Why, uh, why do you want me to come over again?” she asked to fill in the silence.
“I thought it was about time you met my family. My Nonna, to be precise. Her real name is Enrica, but she likes when people call her Nonna. And Dominic and Luis are basically family with how much they’re over. They live across the street from me. You know Dominic.”
She waved to him through the mirror. He nodded back the same way. A man of few words.
“Do you want to come over?” Vincenzo asked her.
“I feel unfit. I don’t want her to hate me.”
“She won’t, I promise. She’s very, how should I say, old-fashioned, but I’ve explained everything to her, so she should understand. She also doesn’t speak much English, so I’ll do my best to translate.”
“Does she know that I’m…?”
Dominic eyed her through the mirror, then pulled into the street, leaving his thoughts behind.
Vincenzo rapped his fingers on his thighs. “She knows as much as she can. She’ll call you by your name. She’ll call you a girl. She knows that much.”
“Oh, that’s good. Your family’s good.”
“Part of it is,” she corrected. “It’s better than anything I had. I don’t even think my father knew this side of me before he passed away. He just thought I liked dressing like a fool.”
Vincenzo crossed his leg. “My offer to meet your mother still stands.”
Sylvia’s heart drained into her stomach. He’d asked this a week after their first date, then, after finding out about her childhood, every time family was brought up. To want to meet someone so wicked, she couldn’t fathom it. It must’ve been that gangster blood in him that made him want to face adversary head-on. “I’m afraid of what either of you will do once you meet.”
“I wouldn’t hurt her. Unless she spoke badly about us. Or about you. You said you haven’t spoken to her in some time.”
“She kicked me out at thirteen.”
“Ten years, then.” He faced the window, likely reminiscing about his childhood and contrasting it with hers.
Doing the same, Sylvia turned and watched Harlem blur through her window. She felt it coming back to her, that child’s fragile heart. A spot of rain had broken through the sky and dampened the streets black. She almost rolled down the window to air out her filling head.
It was true she didn’t speak to her mother, but she did write her letters. About one a month, each a page long written in delicate handwriting. She sealed each one with a kiss before tossing them into her alleyway garbage, never opening them again in fear of paper cuts.
She hoped things would be different with Vincenzo. She hoped to find a new type of love with him. One she wasn’t frightened of.
He lived in a house completely different from what she’d envisioned. She should’ve known from his wealth that he lived extravagantly, but this defied her expectations.
Dominic pulled up to a pastel-colored grandmother’s house. The lacy curtains and flowers in the window boxes, the gardening tools scattered across the front porch. There was a “welcome” sign hanging on the door knocker that looked handmade. Everything other than the three immaculate cars parked in the gated backyard showed off nothing but an elderly woman’s Brooklyn mansion.
“Is this your grandmother’s house?” Sylvia asked.
“It might as well be. I own it, but I’m never around, so she has free access to do whatever she pleases.” He got out to open the door for Sylvia. The foreign gesture startled her enough to wonder if she’d opened the door wrong before he gave her his hand and walked her up the front steps.
She heard Nonna before she saw Nonna. Her voice travelled through the house, down the stairs, before something thudded against the door, shutting it as Dominic went for the handle. Then she opened it herself and welcomed them into her home.
She was shorter than her grandson, with shorter, curlier hair and baggier eyes. She got around on a cane but used it more as a third leg, pushing herself forwards and almost losing her balance when she gave Vincenzo a welcoming hug. Her wrinkled hands looked strong and worn and lovely as they massaged his back.
Vincenzo said something to her in Italian and kissed her cheek, then said loudly in English, “Nonna, this is Sylvia.”
She interrupted him.
“I said I was bringing her. She’s Sylvia, remember? My partner?”
She gave him a stupid look, then squinted at Sylvia for a few moments before saying, “Oh,” quite loudly. Then she embraced her as if she were her own granddaughter. Despite looking almost seventy, her strength was that of three Dominic’s.
“Sylvia, Sylvia,” she said. “Welcome, hello! Vincenzo, he loves you. Every day with him.”
“Nonna, please,” Vincenzo said, and ushered everyone inside.
Winding up the wide staircase and nailed into the walls were dozens of photos and trinkets from the past. There were Italian flower vases and porcelain dishes too high for Sylvia’s nerves. Everything smelled like a mixture of mothballs and maple syrup, each one trying hard to mask the odor of the other. She did spot a few pictures of Vincenzo’s family, but no baby pictures, strangely, none until he was about sixteen or seventeen and looking like a hooligan in street clothes too big for him.
“Sir!” Luis ran out of the parlor and took Vincenzo’s hat and jacket. “Nice to see you again. And nice to see you, miss.” He took Sylvia’s light jacket. “Good to have you to dinner.”
Sylvia curtsied. She’d met this man twice in a rush of hellos and how-are-yous in the Black Kitten’s parking spots. He was a bit flighty for her liking, but she appreciated someone so in love with being alive.
Sitting in the parlor sat a young woman swaddling an infant. She must’ve been Ana, Luis’ wife. Sylvia had secretly overheard about their shotgun wedding last year through a conversation between Vincenzo and Dominic, though she didn’t pry as hard as Mitsuko begged her to. With this being their first introduction, Sylvia gave her a quiet nod in respect.
She didn’t nod back.
“I’m Luis Gallo, Ma’am, as I’m sure you remember, and this’s my wife, Ana, and our little one, Sophie. We live just around the corner.”
“It’s nice to see you all.”
Nonna said something in Italian.
“Nonna, please,” Vincenzo said, and rolled his eyes to Sylvia. “She wants to know if she should make a bed for you upstairs. She can’t take the stairs any longer, so she has to stay down here.”
“Your knees are weak, Nonna. I’m not arguing with you again.”
Sylvia smiled at how lively his grandmother seemed compared to him, but she wondered if he still wanted her to spend the night. She never had, never thought she could. She had nothing comfortable to change into.
Nonna muttered to herself and went to check on the stove when she saw Vincenzo’s hand. She asked him a question.
He hid the cuts in his pocket. “It’s not a big deal.”
It was to Nonna. Drawing her cane like a sword, she struck him in the back and yelled at him. While he did brace for the attack, he didn’t raise his hand or shout at her. One good hit to his hand, though, and he bit his cheek to keep from yelping.
Sylvia couldn’t stop herself. As everyone migrated to the kitchen table and laughed at Nonna’s strengths, she confessed to everyone, “I want to eat here more often.”
“It does get a little wild here, I can tell you that,” Luis said. “About once a week, we all come over and have dinner together. It’d be swell if you came along more often. I’m surprised it took this long for Vincenzo to invite you over. You’ve been an item for a few months now, right?”
Vincenzo pulled out a seat for Sylvia, and she let go a relieved sigh when he chose the seat next to her and not the one across the table.
Before she was kicked out, Sylvia’s parents often cooked what they wanted and ate in separate rooms. Sylvia was never asked what she wanted to eat, and her mother almost always made note of how much food she took. She transformed her hunger into a want, not a need. It made eating as an adult an arduous struggle. Now, whenever she ate out with Laurence and Mitsuko, she’d serve herself last, too afraid to speak up about what she wanted.
She couldn’t do this in Vincenzo’s house. After saying a prayer, they all served one another and passed around plates teetering with meals. Bruschetta, clams and pasta, asparagus, corn, seasoned potato wedges, bottles of Italian wine she’d never heard of and squid with tentacles fried and curled. They asked what she wanted and handed her a mountain of food they expected her to eat. She kept passing everything to Vincenzo without stopping the conveyor belt.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Vincenzo asked, looking at her empty plate. He offered her a plate of bruschetta.
She picked an end piece. “Thank you.”
“Don’t be so closed off,” Luis said. “You’re family now. You get a cut of dinner.”
“I have to apologize. I’m not used to this.”
She knew he was joking, but she left him unanswered. It felt rude, saying she wasn’t accustomed to eating meals. She didn’t want to damper the mood.
Luis wiped the globs of potato off of his face. “I’m sure you’ll like this.” He personally handed her a dish of casserole. “It has beef, sausage, peppers, noodles. It’s super filling even after a few bites.”
“Thank you.” She filled up her plate. She didn’t know what was ruder: not finishing all of it or pushing through and giving herself a stomachache. She paced herself with small sips of water.
She understood most of the table’s conversations. Between Nonna’s Italian and Vincenzo’s, Dominic’s, and Luis’ atypical profession, Sylvia kept smiling and nodding while she ate. Vincenzo dined wholly on clams and pasta and saved the bread for Luis, who tore through it like main dishes. Dominic’s plate consisted of meats, while Ana ate mostly vegetables. Sylvia made notes on how each man preferred his meal.
Not that she’d ever make dinner for them. Whenever she found herself with a man, he’d pay for her meals. She never had the pleasure to cook for him like they were something more.
She grinned into her biteful and hid it with her napkin. It was nice to dream.
“So you two met at that bar over on Lenox Avenue in Harlem,” Luis said. “You’re a performer, aren’t you?”
“I play the piano, yes.”
“That’s right. That’s when you bought that grand piano for her, right, Vincenzo? You got three guys to heave it up into her apartment. Crane and everything. He sectioned off the whole street for that operation. Dominic, you were there, right?”
“Busted my finger getting it placed,” he said, bending said fat finger.
“That must’ve cost a penny or two. Five hundred, six? What was it?”
“Five-fifty,” Vincenzo said, and the amount weighed on Sylvia’s neck. Back in May, she’d come home to a crane outside of her sun-facing windows. She thought she was being evicted in the most dramatic of ways. To see Vincenzo guiding the crane into position, and with that grand piano. What had her neighbors thought? They vocally hated her, now they must’ve had more questions than vitriol for her and her expensive tastes.
“Do you like it, Ma’am?” Luis asked her.
“I’m…grateful for it,” she worded carefully. “I play it whenever I have a day off.”
“I haven’t been around the bar much, but if you can give me your schedule, I’d love to hear you perform. Vincenzo always goes on about the songs you play. He says you’re a savant.”
“I never said that,” Vincenzo said, and Sylvia hoped he both had and hadn’t said that, that he hadn’t boasted about her too much, but that he had bragged a bit.
“Dominic said you were good,” Luis went on. “You and your friends. Mitsuko and, what was his name, Laurence?”
Dominic recoiled. To keep from engaging, he chewed the meat on his plate rather than the fat of the conversation.
“Yes, they’re two of my best friends,” Sylvia said. “Mitsuko often dances and Laurence is a phenomenal singer. We play almost every night together, but nowadays, I’m taking more breaks to keep myself healthy.”
“What do you mean?” Ana asked.
Her voice fluttered Sylvia’s heart. She sounded just like her mother, too judgemental for the conversation at hand.
She relaxed the muscles in her neck. “I’ve been working seven days a week for a long time, trying to keep myself financially safe. Since I met Vincenzo, I’ve been wanting to take a step back and focus on myself.”
“So all you do is play piano?”
Vincenzo eyed Ana through his bangs.
“I do,” Sylvia said.
“And you do this at your bar, or club? They’re called pansy clubs, aren’t they?”
Vincenzo’s threat didn’t reach her and she asked, “So why do you dress like a woman when you were born a man?”
Vincenzo slammed his glass down on the table and almost stood up against this new mother. “If you’re going to start this again, Ana, you can leave! In fact, get out. Get out of my house!”
Baby Sophie burst into whimpers and tugged on Ana’s dress. Ana, keeping her pride, stood up and balanced the baby on her hip. She almost held Vincenzo’s gaze before she ultimately chose to storm outside, heels clicking down the hall.
All the pep in Luis’ face crumbled into his lap. “Oh, jeez, Sir. I’m sorry. We did talk about it, just like you said. I thought she’d be good, or at least quiet.”
“I specifically told her not to talk about it.”
“I know, Sir. I’m sorry.”
Sylvia set down her fork and tried to speak up for herself. For him, for his family. She still had to impress them and show that she could handle being…
Whatever she was to Vincenzo.
Whatever she had the right to be.
She dabbed her lips. “I’m okay.”
Luis, whimpering, got up and rubbed Nonna’s shoulder. It sounded like he thanked her for the meal before he jogged outside to find his wife. “I’ll be right back!”
As Nonna and Dominic continued eating with the least amount of noise possible, Vincenzo turned to Sylvia and asked, “Can you come with me.”
He said it in his question-demand way. He wasn’t asking so much as he was pleading that she listen.
They left upstairs, two steps at a time. Sylvia tried pinning which rooms were the bathrooms, closets, and bedrooms. She’d never been in a house so large. She mentally thanked Vincenzo for not giving her a pompous tour.
Vincenzo turned into the last room down the hall and flipped on the lights.
His bedroom consisted of a fireplace, a full bathroom, and a king-sized poster bed among antique furniture. It smelled like his usual cologne but stronger, more tangible on her tongue. A cross and a picture of his Nonna watched over his bed, and an old-fashioned chamberstick sat at his bedside for extra light. On his writing desk was a signed baseball from his favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, kept in a glass case. A dozen faded signatures marked the prized ball.
This, this better suited what Sylvia had in mind.
Vincenzo ran his hands through his hair as he paced to his windows. His room overlooked the harbor, silhouetting him in silver light.
When he caught her standing in the shadows, he pointed to his bed. “You can sit here.”
Softer than a demand, but she sat regardless, her hands sinking into the plump comforter.
A shadow brushed between her legs and leapt onto the rug.
A kitten wagged its tail like a puppy as it meowed through a bundle of argyle socks. It was pure black aside from its white-tipped tail and the mark on its right cheek. Its eyes were like two full moons as it stared at Sylvia.
“Oh, sorry.” Vincenzo tried and failed to catch the cat. “This’s—”
“Mezzanotte,” Sylvia said. She even said it with the preferred Italian accent. He’d told her this cat’s name once, and she was sure to remember it. The way he said her name was the same way he said “Nonna.”
When he realized chasing her was not only fruitless but amusing to Sylvia, he stopped and sighed. “Can I ask you something?”
He went back to the window. “Are you sure you’re ready for this type of life? I know I’ve asked you this before, but if you truly want this, life will only become more difficult for you. I’ve seen other men with their wives and mistresses. It’s not a good life.”
Sylvia buried her hands in his blankets. “If I could be so brazen, I’d ask you the same thing. It seems my commitment to you is becoming a bother.”
“You’re not a bother.”
“You don’t have to lie. I’ve heard about this way of life in the newspaper. Gangsters with mistresses on top of wives. I believe they’re called ‘molls’. I don’t mind that.”
Vincenzo cringed at the word, his upper lip curling like a lemon peel. “That’s not who I am. The Family might control everything I do, but they can’t control how I feel, and that’s not how I feel about you. You’re—”
Whatever he was going to say caught on his tongue, and he pulled back and covered his mouth.
Sylvia fell back. She didn’t mind being called such promiscuous words. Sweetheart became tramp, then whore, then worse when men found out what she looked like underneath her dress. It hurt. It destroyed her in her teens, mentally and physically scarring her, but she’d learned to deal with it because, in the end, that’s all she’d ever be to men like that. She’d only be a fetish for them to hate or lust after. Both, if she was so terribly unlucky.
“Well,” Sylvia said, “Can I ask you…if I’m more than a friend to you?”
Vincenzo said, “I feel like we skipped being friends,” and Sylvia didn’t know why, but out of all the answers he could’ve given her, that was the one she wanted to hear least.
She went to touch him and bring him to bed, then curled back her fingers and patted the bed instead.
He came to her, slowly but willingly. His weight leaned her into him like a Moon to its planet.
“I said something wrong,” he said.
“I don’t think you did.”
“I’m sure of it. I don’t know how this works. This ‘courting’ business is…foreign to me. I feel like I should be working at the docks with my father and furthering myself in the business. Not this.”
“Oh,” she said. “Would you like me to lea—?”
“That’s not what I meant,” he interrupted. “It’s the opposite, actually. If I could stay like this…” He placed his hand over hers. “With you, I’d never leave this room. Romance was never something I thought I wanted, but now I have it, and I don’t want to ruin it with my inexperience.”
“Did I change how you thought about love?”
“Change it? You beat it with a bat and left it in the streets, bleeding its heart out into the gutters. I’m ravaged because of you.”
Sylvia kicked her heels together. “Neapolitan ice cream.”
“Neapolitan ice cream is my favorite food. I like eating bites with every flavor on the spoon.”
“Oh,” he said. “Did you want that tonight?”
“No. You said we skipped being friends. Let’s step backwards and change that. My favorite food is Neapolitan ice cream.” She pointed at him. “And you?”
“Clams, and pasta,” he said, pausing between each food group. “Usually together, though I can eat them separately.”
“Good to know. Favorite animal?”
“Cats. No relation to the bar. I used to have this picture book of big cats that I toted around with me everywhere I went. You?”
“Little animals. Gerbils and squirrels. Spiders and rabbits.”
He gave her a look. “One of those is vastly different than the rest.”
“I think they’re cute, especially tarantulas.”
She smiled, and as it tugged on her cheeks, it didn’t feel as forced as usual. Maybe it was because she was looking at Vincenzo’s own smile and seeing how he was desperately trying to hide it.
“Then favorite…How about least favorite thing to listen to on the radio,” he asked.
“Oh, the awful ones where dreary men talk about politics. I haven’t the time for them. Coolidge seems like a very fine man, but a forty-minute conversation about the reelection is just too much when one is preparing for sleep.”
“I understand. Mine are the advertisements. They make a baseball game run for three hours long, sometimes four. I’ve timed it. I hate it.”
“They’re powerful, aren’t they? They tease you with what you might want and showcase all the good it’ll bring you. Suddenly I think I really do need that new dish soap.”
Vincenzo smirked and brought himself closer. Their hips were now touching. “Favorite color?”
“Black. Favorite season?”
“Winter.” He moved closer, lips breathing on her ear. “Favorite part on a man?”
She tried to give an answer, but she was grasping. She couldn’t think. “Well, it depends on a variety of factors. A pretty face is always good.”
He hummed against her skin, a laugh, barely audible.
“Then there are, uh, more personal aspects. Shameful ones.”
“And those are?”
“J-just look in a mirror.” She crossed her legs, but it made things worse. “You have all of them.”
“Do I now?”
She tilted her head back, silently begging for more. “And you?” she breathed. “Favorite part on a woman?”
“Hmm, what’s there to say?” He tasted her throat. “Like you said, there’re factors that play into it.”
“I’m guessing the neck is one of them?”
“I was guessing it was one for you.” His teeth grazed her skin. “Was I right?”
Sylvia felt herself melting into him. How had he guessed it right? She never went into her bedroom fantasies with him. She thought it would turn him off. What had finally struck his cord, and what did she have to say to keep him going?
“I suppose face is what comes to mind first,” he said, “but a woman’s legs tempt me so. Yours are so long, they go all the way up.” A shy hand traced up her thigh. “Sometimes I wonder where they end.”
She lost control of her lower half and parted her legs. “Is there anything else tempting you tonight?”
He pulled back and stared at her legs, then her eyes. Then he conceded to his desires and kissed her.
His kisses always came with price tags. He’d grimace at first, quickly glance around the room before he committed to the act. Sylvia never faulted him for this, but a nervousness did creep into her every time they found a moment together. She guessed it never really went away, that fear of opening yourself up to someone and wondering if they’d end things halfway through because of what they found.
He didn’t. Working with her movements, he backed her into the bed, pressing his lips to hers. Soon the kiss morphed into a wider, more passionate one that opened Sylvia’s mouth and sunk her into the sheets with love. Her brain fogged over in dreamy, sweet emotions before she felt and heard Vincenzo moan into her mouth. At this, she snapped to attention and burned that rare sound into her memories.
Vincenzo broke off to catch his breath, and Sylvia looked up to him examining her like so many others did, unsure of what move to make next.
Trying to help, she reached between his legs and went to touch his warm spot.
He jumped back and smacked into his bedpost.
“Sorry.” She pulled her dress back over her knees. “I know. Your limits. I forgot. I’m sorry.”
He covered the place where she’d touched him. She’d learned months ago that his arms and hands were okay, but places like his face, neck, chest, and unspeakable parts turned to pressure points on her fingertips.
To her surprise, he came back to her, albeit with less drive to bed her and more barriers she could no longer cross.
Her short-lived confidence burned away with shame.
“It’s not because of you,” he promised. “It’s me. I thought I’d be okay with it by now. ‘It’ meaning being with someone, not, well, you know.”
“We don’t have to rush things. You might never be ready for it. Some men aren’t, and that’s okay. I’m just happy being wanted.”
She shrugged it off. “Should we go back downstairs?”
“I’d rather not.” He fell into his bed’s indent.
Sylvia copied the move and sat beside him. She followed his bed canopy’s folds and curves all the way down as if they were stilled waterfalls, paused for this one moment of peace.
The bed shifted. “Do you…like being with me?”
“Then may I ask you a rather offensive question?”
A fog settled around the bed. He’d never prodded her about the obvious question one would have about being with someone like her, but his jerks, his hesitance. She felt that, every time. She knew why men acted this way around her. She’d hoped Vincenzo would never feel compelled to ask her such things.
She braced herself for the worst. If he asked something rude, she’d muster up the resolve to tell him off. She’d promised her friends she wouldn’t be mistreated anymore.
Vincenzo pulled on his sweater collar. “If I didn’t have the luxuries I’ve been able to acquire, if I weren’t so powerful, would you still want to be with me?”
Her mind drew the blankest of blanks. The answer was so obvious to her. What she struggled with was why he felt compelled to ask her. Surely they’d been together long enough that their relationship forwent that of a prostitute and her enquirer.
She said, “If you had nothing but the clothes on your back and a titleless name, if you still treated me with the same respect you do now, I’d be forever smitten by you.”
Vincenzo gave her his full attention, cheek squished against the blanket in puzzlement. “Really.”
“I wouldn’t lie about that,” she said, and meant it.
Vincenzo stared at her for a three-count, then nodded to himself, reaffirming something that he always knew. Then he kissed her and stole away her held breath.