“Due to a physical altercation that was beyond our means of control,” Bobbie announced, “the Black Kitten will be closed for the remainder of the evening. I ask that everyone please leave and relocate themselves until tomorrow morning, when we’ll be opening back up at eleven sharp. Thank you for your understanding, and have a pleasant night.”
He received some backlash, but most of the Black Kitten began finishing up their drinks after seeing Vincenzo being hauled in by Bobbie. Laurence and Mitsuko walked alongside him like trained bodyguards. Dominic followed them in without a word. Some bodyguard he was. It was as if they thought Vincenzo wouldn’t hurt them for treating him like this. He had a reputation to uphold that couldn’t be sullied by those who society pitted beneath him.
But it was because of them, the crowds, that he let himself be led in. They were still watching him and wondering why he, a gangster, was letting himself be handled so rudely. His heart never stopped pounding.
Bobbie brought them into the back room where the performers’ vanity tables lined the wall. Without Sylvia there to welcome him, the space felt oddly empty.
“Why am I here?” Vincenzo demanded.
Mitsuko answered for him. Cornering him, she winded back her small arm, stood on her tiptoes, and slapped him straight across the face.
It was as if she had the strength of a man. She’d been sent to Europe to work as a military nurse during the Great War. Perhaps seeing men die in her tent had hardened her dexterity into something beastly. That blazing look in her eyes gave him that impression. She was ready to fight him and win.
“You do not,” she said, “ever, ever yell at a woman like that, you worthless, crazed piece of shit with a pistol. If I ever, ever hear you scream at her again like that, if she ever gets caught in another goddamn shootout because of you, I’ll make sure you never speak to her again and that you’re banned from every pansy club in New York, got it?”
Insults and threats came to him at once, some he regretted to even think about, but he couldn’t move with her hand still on him. He kneed her back, and she let go, but she still held his gaze, something he guessed he’d have to battle with more ardently from now on.
Bobbie lit a cigarette near the mirrors. Dominic finally looked ready to act like he was expected to, but Laurence prevented him from doing so. Hand on his wrist, this feminine man kept him back, saying, “Oh, no, you’re staying right here.” And Dominic froze, like he’d cast a spell on him.
Vincenzo did what he could and fixed his ruffled clothes. “Don’t ever touch me like that again.”
Mitsuko spat on the floor. “You’re one to talk, asshole.”
“Now,” Bobbie said, calming Mitsuko down. “Mr. DiFiore, I do appreciate the work you do with the Black Kitten. I understand your workmanship and what you have to do to get by. You live a hard life, just like we do.”
“But you can’t do this to the Black Kitten!” Laurence said. “That was gunfire outside, wasn’t it? Some car came up and started shooting!”
“And you said Sylvia doesn’t value her life,” Mitsuko said. “How dare you tell her that? You know nothing about what she lived through.”
“Did you hit her?”
He wanted to ask, “Who do you think I am?” but he couldn’t imagine how lowly she thought about him, so he said, “I didn’t.”
“I grabbed her wrist,” he confessed. “Same as what he’s doing to him.” He pointed to Laurence and Dominic. “And I was about to apologize to her when she ran away. Now I need to go find her—”
“You’re not leaving,” Mitsuko said.
Vincenzo curled his upper lip. “You don’t have the right to talk to me like this.”
“And you haven’t the right to be anywhere near the angel that is Sylvia if you yell at her, you fucking—”
“Okay,” Bobbie said. “Okay, Mitsuko, Laurence, I can handle this. Cool down. Go outside. Make sure everyone gets out. Then, if you can, go check on Sylvia. I don’t want her doing anything she’ll regret. It looked like she was running home. You can check for her there.”
Laurence huffed and dropped Dominic’s hand like it was rotted. Mitsuko stalked Vincenzo in a half-circle before leaving with Laurence, making sure to slam the door on her way out.
Vincenzo swallowed his pride from being handled in front of his own subordinate. “I’ll pay for any damages done to the Black Kitten and the cars outside. And I’ll lessen my time here. I shouldn’t be here this often.”
“I don’t care about that right now,” Bobbie said. “Vincenzo, are you in love with Sylvia?”
With everything he’d just done to defend her, the question felt like Mitsuko’s slap to his face. And he didn’t feel right confessing his love in front of two other men. He asked, “Why?”
“Because I love her. I love every single person who enters this bar. This place means the world to me.”
“I understand that perfectly.”
“No, you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t have said what you said to her in that alley.”
His discomfort made him spit out, “She was in danger. Hannigan, a rival of Campo’s, he cornered—”
“She chased you out after you ignored her.”
“I wasn’t ignoring her, I just…needed to leave. She understood.”
Bobbie turned away to a vanity mirror adorned with pictures, bouquets of flowers, pearls, and notes. Vincenzo always guessed it to be Laurence’s table. Certain pictures had lipstick kisses on them and hearts surrounding the person’s head.
“I don’t,” Bobbie started with, “ever, want to see Sylvia the way I saw her when she first came to my club. She was dirty and sick. She had a cough that wouldn’t let up. I bought her so much medicine because no doctor would take in someone like her from someone like me. Mitsuko took time off to nurse her. Laurence let her sleep at his place until we cleaned up the attic, where I let her live for free. For four months, she had no desire to eat or bathe or…”
He wiped something from his eyes. “Don’t ever say that she doesn’t value her life. She’s worked too hard and loved too much to hear that spit out of her own lover’s mouth.”
A knife twisted into Vincenzo’s heart and stayed there, handle protruding out from between his ribs for someone else to stab him. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not the one who has to hear the apology.” He addressed the vanity table. “Has Sylvia told you who this table belongs to?”
“She has not.”
He picked up a framed photograph from the table with care. It appeared the oldest out of the pictures, the corners bent from being taken out of its frame too many times. It was of a Negro man with curly hair and a young, bright smile. “It’s a memorial. Every soul here has either gone missing due to gang violence or was murdered without justice.”
Vincenzo reevaluated the faces staring down at him. Many of them—almost three-fourths of them—were either Negros like Laurence or of darker skin tone like Sylvia and Bobbie.
He tried recognizing them. It disgusted him, but as he took in these friends and lovers sitting outside the Kitten or posing on stage with drinks in their hands, he forced himself to remember a face or a body type, to see if he’d ended a life too short by mistake. He was all too familiar about the prejudices they faced. The police encouraged it. Nobody spoke out against it. And gang members were often the catalysts of such hate. They killed girly men or manly women who disrupted the norm. Vincenzo actively discouraged it and thought Campo knew better than to attack the innocent, but what if…
“Please understand where we’re coming from,” Bobbie pleaded. “The Black Kitten is more than a bar where people can drink and have sex. It’s a place for us to feel welcomed. We can be our true selves here without fear of the police coming in and killing us. I thank you for your services, but we can’t have any more of us found dead or beaten in the streets. If you really love Sylvia, try to give her the best life you can. And if that means you leaving the picture, I highly suggest that you reconsider everything you thought you once knew about us.”
Vincenzo folded his hands in front of him, then realized he was picking up a tic from Sylvia and hid them in his pockets instead. He’d just found Sylvia, someone who accepted him wholly, who listened to his problems and never belittled his thoughts. He wanted to be with her forever, but if his lifestyle was making her unhappy…
He’d say he’d take being her husband over being a gangster, but leaving the gang meant leaving in a casket, and he knew he and she weren’t destined for the same afterlife.
“Can I ask you a rather blunt question, Mr. DiFiore?” Bobbie brought up suddenly. “How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as one of us? Do you see yourself as a pansy?”
Vincenzo went rigid. “Why would I?”
Bobbie waited for his answer, and Vincenzo cleared his throat at the silence. He knew the correct answer for a while now, but nobody else needed to know. It was his business, his life. But he needed this silence to end, to push the conversation away from him. “Not…not necessarily, in this sense. It’s…well—”
“Because she’s a woman, just as he’s a man”—he gestured to Dominic, who was still frozen by Laurence’s touch—“and you’re a man, and I’m…now…a man.”
That pause Vincenzo heard too often in his head filled his lungs with water. “What?”
He shrugged, though a restlessness kept him twirling his cigarette. “Surely Sylvia has told you. I’m no longer hiding it from those who ask.”
“Hiding—” Vincenzo backed away. “What do you mean? What are you insinuating?”
“That I’m a man,” he clarified. “Though I didn’t always feel like this, not like how Sylvia felt. But when I found out that this was an option, I was sure as hell not going back. I did hide my past from the people I met, from the men I dated, but after years of running the Kitten, I decided I didn’t want to hide anymore, even if it cost me my life.
“So I’m not going to let this sanctuary become some bullet-hole-ridden, destitute building for gangsters who can’t keep us safe, or cringe whenever they see us,” he added to both Vincenzo and Dominic, who’d stepped back a full foot. “It means too much to me.”
Vincenzo held his head. Sylvia, he understood. It didn’t take much time for him to hear her story and to know that he still liked her for her. But this revelation, with Dominic standing here and listening to everything…
He clamped a sweaty hand over his mouth. He’d been certain no other man could possibly understand the pain and self-discovery that came with labeling yourself anew, yet here he was, talking with one whom he’d known for months. He even passed. How lucky some people were.
Bobbie took another long drag from his cigarette. “I’m going to start cleaning. I’m guessing everything was left a mess. Have a nice night, gentlemen.”
When he finally left, Vincenzo walked up to the vanity table to give himself more space to breathe. The mark Mitsuko had left on him was as blunt and red as the roses left for the dead.
He took a seat in front of the memorial, arms slack in front of him. He always hated his reflection, but now he wasn’t just seeing himself. He saw Dominic, standing like a wreck behind him, and Bobbie cleaning up the bar he loved. All these faces of dead, young people, all these notes written from the past.
He sat there for an hour before he and Dominic left to go home. Neither man spoke to one another, but both of them desperately wished the other had.