Sylvia set aside her drink as she sniffed up another line of cocaine. She was behind the Kitten’s bar, enjoying one of Vincenzo’s many imported luxuries. He sometimes dabbled in this affair—not as much as alcohol—but enough that he could deliver ten grams a week to the Kitten without any problems from the authorities.
He hadn’t introduced her to this unladylike behavior. Just like cigarettes and alcohol, she’d been using longer than he’d been selling. Men in her past had gotten her hooked when she was sixteen, though she was certain her mother was a user when Sylvia was but a little girl. It’d always been around her in that way, ready to make her forget about life for a night.
She threw back her head as her brain tingled with new feelings.
“Okay, I think that’s enough.” Mitsuko, the responsible adult for the evening, dusted the remaining powder into a glass, then washed out the glass in the nearby sink. “Be drunk, fine. Be high, alright. Not both at the same time. You need to get home tonight.”
Mitsuko, she had nothing to worry about. During the Great War, she’d been sent to France to help in the war effort. She was a Japanese military nurse, and a magnificent one, always ready to help when asked. When the War ended, she applied for American citizenship and nearly drank herself to death on cheap liquor.
“I have nothing to live for,” she’d said. “What’s the point of it all?”
That’s when Bobbie stepped in. Feeling sorry for her, he’d offered her a half-hour on stage and let her keep the tips she earned. After finding her calling, she sobered up with Bobbie’s help and never touched a bottle again. She always wore this beautiful wedding ring on her left hand. Everyone knew she’d never marry—she preferred a different, particularly feminine type of individual. Sylvia guessed she was married to her sobriety.
“I haven’t had that much,” Sylvia lied.
“I believe you.” Mitsuko kicked her feet towards the floor. A few men tried to catch their attention from across the counter. She threw an ice cube at them and scattered them like dogs.
“Be nice. You’re so cold-hearted.”
“On the contrary. I’m marvelously agreeable when it comes to rationale.” She snatched away the drink Sylvia was trying to grab. “Stop meeting with Vincenzo. I’ll pay out whatever he’s paying you. I’ll buy you a piano. I’ll buy you three.”
“I don’t want pianos. I want him. He makes me so happy.” She hugged herself. “It’s nice to feel loved.”
“Love’s been scientifically proven to worsen your health. The ramifications are astounding. They call it ‘love sickness’. And not that you’re doing this, but if I’d come to America looking for someone to fix me, I’d be in worse shape than when I was dragging men out of trenches.”
“Hey, I’m not expecting him to ‘fix’ me. Being with him just makes me happy. And if I’m happy, I won’t be sad, right?”
“You need to learn how to be happy without a man’s help.”
“I’m still learning how to be happy by myself.”
“Then name off some things that make you happy. Things, not people.”
She thought on it, twirling the ends of her sideburns between her fingers. “Ice cream.”
“A great pastime.”
“And piano, I think. I’m good at it and I like making songs. Does that count?”
“It absolutely does.”
Laurence, who was singing a jazz piece on stage, ended his performance by kissing a man he’d chosen to duet with from the audience. The man gladly reciprocated and gave another reason for the onlookers to clamor with applause.
They were notably lively tonight, the audience. It was why Sylvia was in such a pleasant mood. Some of them kept their bowler hats over their eyes so they wouldn’t get recognized, but many of them were singing along and demanding encores, keeping the bar’s energy at its peak.
After finally wiggling himself free, Laurence beelined for the bar and poured himself a glass. His cheerful mood dribbled from jovial to apathetic until his glass was full and his spirits were back to being melancholic. “I want cake.”
“We don’t have any,” Mitsuko said. “The transformation is coming along poorly, just so you know.”
“What transformation?” Sylvia asked.
“The one where we convert you into a pure, unmarried woman who isn’t courting a rabid dog.”
“It’s not working, huh?” Laurence asked. “You know, nothing we say can ever convince you. Is the sex that good?”
“Laurence, not helping,” Mitsuko said.
“Please, I just had a time on stage. Let me indulge in a fantasy.”
Sylvia’s face went redder than the cherry pattern on Laurence’s dress. “We haven’t slept together yet, you two, my goodness. I’m not even sure he’s interested in that kind of relationship.”
“Interesting,” Mitsuko said. “I’ll catalogue that in my growing book of ‘The Unsolvable Mysteries of Vincenzo DiFiore’. In such book includes chapters on the weird way he wears his jacket and how his outfits consist of nothing but black and dark grey.”
“He protects me.”
“You’re not protected, you’re in danger!” Laurence said with a good slap to the table. “I knew a girl who once fooled around with a gangster. He bought her jewelry and clothes and purses, then he gets the boot, killed in the dead of night, and then they came after her, demanding that she pay them back. I never saw her again. I don’t want that to happen to you, Sylvia. But goodness gracious, if he wasn’t so handsome! You have lousy taste.”
Sylvia snorted. “I do, don’t I? It must be why I love it.”
Bobbie, who was a ways down the bar, filed out a dinner order for a couple and sent them away. Then he took out a new cigarette and joined his friends. “Sylvia, are you good to perform tonight?”
“Of course.” She sprung up like a rabbit and shook out her hair, accidentally tilting her wig out of its pins. Laurence fixed it for her before she left.
“I think I took too much.”
“You got that right,” Mitsuko said.
She left them be. They didn’t get it. She knew what she had with Vincenzo was reckless, but she wasn’t like Mitsuko or Laurence. She couldn’t be content with being alone or teasing men on stage and having the ability to walk away. She wanted to be in love with love and have it wake her up and fuel her day. She wanted to maintain a romantic relationship to prove that she could do it. That even when she had such low confidence in herself, even if she sometimes wished she was no longer alive, she could still enjoy herself with someone and not dread every minute of it.
Why was it wrong to want that from a man she wanted to marry?
“Marry.” She must’ve really been tipsy tonight.
As she pictured herself in a wedding dress, her hips accidentally bumped into a table and spilled over a glass. She apologized to no one and tried to scoop up the drink before someone absorbed the mistake with his napkin.
Sylvia looked up. The man wasn’t a someone. Perhaps still a stranger by definition, but she recognized that mustache and those beefy arms anywhere. “Dominic?”
It was. It was Dominic, Vincenzo’s bodyguard friend, alone with a copious amount of strawberry daiquiris. Pieces of his greased-back hair were sticking up and he had red rings around his eyes. He was either plastered or drugged. Somehow, Sylvia couldn’t imagine either. Were bodyguards allowed to drink for pleasure?
He gave her a nod. “Evening.”
She couldn’t remember ever speaking to him without Vincenzo present. In truth, she couldn’t recall hearing his voice until present. Not only a man of few words, but a man of many wonders. He should’ve had an index page in that Book of Mitsuko’s. “Good evening. Is Vincenzo here?”
The way he slurred his words told Sylvia that he’d not only lost Vincenzo, but that he didn’t know what bar he was currently drinking at.
“So why are you here tonight?” she asked. “Not that you need a reason. Just curious.”
“I don’t need a reason, right? A man shouldn’t be judged for where he drinks. I could walk in here and simply enjoy the music and nothing else. No big deal.”
“I agree, I think. Like I said, I’m just curious. I didn’t know you drank.”
He said something that Sylvia zoned out on, but she came back to, “I’m not drunk. I mean, I’m not supposed to drink here. I’m not supposed to idle. It’s frowned upon in the Family.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I love to idle here, especially when I was a…I don’t like the word ‘spinster’, but ‘bachelor’ doesn’t fit any better, does it? When I wasn’t with Vincenzo, I often came here to pursue my options, if you know what I mean.”
“That’s not right,” he said under his breath, then, as if not realizing what he’d just said, stammered, “Wait—don’t tell Vincenzo I said that. He’ll tell Campo. He’ll tell everyone, then I’ll…I’ll…”
A fear she’d never seen in him settled on his face. He clawed at his arms, dreading that Vincenzo would actually tattle on him for drinking at the bar to which they supplied alcohol.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I won’t tell him. Now, what don’t you think is right?”
“Nothing. I didn’t mean it. I’m not thinking right tonight. Drank too much.”
Sylvia smiled through the building hurt. “Do you like what the Kitten stands for?”
“I know I shouldn’t,” he said.
“And why’s that?”
He looked to Laurence and Mitsuko. “Your friends, they’re good people.”
“I believe so.”
“Even if they’re different,” he clarified, “even when they dress like that, they’re still good people.”
“I hope so. I’d hate to learn what actually makes them bad people.” She called over the waiter to fill up Dominic’s drink. “Do you think it’s gross?”
“The daiquiri? No, it’s my favorite.”
“No, us. Me. People who dress up and act differently to what’s expected of us.”
He held his elbows. “I’m not sure. Vincenzo would want me to say yes.”
“I’m not asking what Vincenzo would want. I’m asking you. What’re you thinking?”
He covered his mouth, hiding his thoughts. “I’m not sure. I’m lost.”
“Lost on what?”
“Well, you and the, uh, Negro man, for instance. Are you the same? Is he a man or a woman?”
“He’s a man who dresses like a woman. I’m a woman.”
“Oh.” His eyes grew heavy, thinking through the drunkness. “And the other one? The Asian woman?”
“She’s Japanese. She enjoys the company of women and likes dressing masculine.”
He covered his eyes. “This’s indecent of me.”
“It’s not to me. I don’t mind answering these questions. They aren’t secrets we’re trying to keep.”
“One more question, then.” He scooted up his chair, leaning over the table with a new passion. “The way all of you act, is that okay with you? Do you ever feel ashamed of yourselves for what you do? I only ask because I…wouldn’t forgive myself if I acted like this.”
“Well, it depends on how you look at it. Technically, drinking daiquiris is not okay. Your work profession that keeps the Kitten operational is legally not okay. This bar existing in the first place is not okay with a lot of people. But despite all the hate, they still exist. People will continue drinking and they’ll continue being curious about the same-sex despite all these laws preventing us from doing so. It’s in our nature to experiment with a little fun.” She patted his back. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I’m finally getting to know you.”
“This isn’t me. Vincenzo won’t like what I’m doing.”
“And what are you doing? Politely questioning us? That’s fine. It’s okay to question new ideas so you can make better informed decisions later on. Do you want to ask me anything else? I’m in a particularly chatty mood tonight.”
“No. Not right now. I’ve asked too much, and my head hurts. I’ll just keep watching.”
“And that’s okay, too. It’s okay to watch the game before you choose to play.”
He rubbed his pounding head. “I don’t get the analogy.”
To be honest, neither did she. She didn’t even know what she was talking about. Why was Dominic here? He should’ve been dancing with everyone else. The show was about to start, didn’t he know.
She left him to stew in his thoughts and jumped on stage for her piano. Upon seeing her open the hood, the crowd greeted her with applause, hands up not really for her, but more so from the wafting smoke in the air clouding their brains.
Laurence amplified the crowd once he finally came back to the stage. The lights caught on his sequins and let him sparkle like the Sun. Mitsuko gained support from regulars who loved being ignored by her. One woman screeched when she handed her her empty milk glass. Mitsuko’s wink sent her into hysterics.
Sylvia started with uplifting songs she heard often on the radio. The music flowed through her and came to her hands naturally without the use of a music sheet. Laurence sang along like a holy angel while Mitsuko thrashed her body like a rag doll to the melody. The crowds hollered for their favorite musically-inclined kittens.
After the third song in the lineup, Sylvia noticed Dominic still at his table, staring up at them. He seemed transfixed by their performance, like he wanted to leave but couldn’t. He almost stood up to join in the clapping when Laurence started an unexpected strip tease that caught him off guard. He lifted up his thin dress and showed everyone the lacy garter belt hidden underneath. Dominic tripped out of the bar with a hand over his eyes.
Feeding off the Kitten’s energy, Sylvia stood up to play the piano before leaving it entirely. She flounced about, then turned around and walked the stage again. She posed with Mitsuko, kicked her heels, and the crowd hooted and cheered for her. Somewhere into the chorus, she lost all control of her body and launched her wig into the rafters. From either surprise or admiration, the crowd lost their minds with Sylvia.
Dare she say it, but she was having fun. She was enjoying herself. Would she have preferred if she found this high without substances? Yes, but she took what she could get. She couldn’t let them slip away easily.
Like there, right there. Between those kissing in the booths and drinking away the night, she saw Vincenzo trying to disappear without a goodbye.
He was making his way towards the stairs, but he was having trouble passing through the crowds. Boxed in, he found it easier to just push his way through. It appeared that he didn’t want to push the women, though, and he didn’t touch many of the men. The way he acted seemed infectious, like he didn’t want to touch anyone at all until he braced the night air outside.
“Vincenzo!” Sylvia left the stage and waved at him. “When did you get here? Come join us!”
He walked through two dancers without looking back.
Sylvia reached out and took his hand.
His look told her everything. Disgust, fear. He tensed up as soon as she touched him, but that look in his eyes and the crinkle in his nose frightened her beyond words.
Nonetheless, she held firm. “Did something happen? Is something wrong?”
“Let me go.”
Desperation, then. She hadn’t heard that from him before, that ache. “Vincenzo, wait. Talk to me. What’s wrong?”
“Please—” He tried to pry her hands off of him as if she were a stranger. She’d never seen him so distressed yet so unwilling to voice his problems. His hands were clammy.
Just as Vincenzo wrenched her off, someone or something tripped her feet.
Her heel twisted wrong. Her flailing arms couldn’t catch her in time. The person behind her had thankfully moved, so she didn’t fall over them, but she ended up cracking her head on the floor and her vision burst into stars.
She stared up at the blotting-out ceiling. People crowded in the corners of her vision and asked her what was wrong. She didn’t care about that as much as she cared for the blurry person panicking above her.
She saw him. Everyone did, for the music stopped and the dancers paused their performance to find out what’d happened.
He was sweating, cheeks flushed and jaw clenched in mental anguish. His breathing picked up with every new person he found staring at him.
Unable to be seen any longer, Vincenzo pushed aside two lovers and dashed up the stairs, leaving himself unexplained and the Kitten deadly silent.