Sylvia popped open her second tub of ice cream for the night. Neapolitan, the good brand they sold downstairs at the Harvest Market. They only had one freezer that couldn’t hold that much ice cream, but with a talking-to from Vincenzo, they now had two freezers, one filled entirely with Sylvia’s favorite coping mechanism.
She’d stopped crying yesterday, two days after the shooting. When she’d called out from work, Bobbie had completely understood; even he still sounded rattled from that night.
How had it spiraled into Vincenzo yelling at her? He’d always been so kind to her. She really thought he wasn’t like other men.
Something had scared him in the Black Kitten, something he didn’t want Sylvia to know. It’d almost cost them their lives. If Campo hadn’t saved them from Hannigan, where would they be? Would she still be here, sitting alone in her living room, eating ice cream against the radiator?
She rubbed her hands above the heated metal. She could’ve been eating at her dinner table, but the floor was much more inviting. With the warmth and the occasional car passing by, she could’ve slept right here knowing the world was still turning while she dreamed.
Her apartment was small compared to Vincenzo’s home, and had less decor and memories on the walls than his. The only two things of worth were her bedroom radio and her piano. She’d purchased the radio all on her own after working for months and months at the Black Kitten. Her big purchase after earning her apartment’s key. When she’d hooked it up, she, Laurence, and Mitsuko spent hours listening to dramas together and eating ice cream. It helped her get to sleep when she had nobody to sleep next to.
And her piano. Her lovely, incredibly grand piano, shiny black with lace draped over the music rack. It was the one present from Vincenzo that she’d never feel humble enough to accept. It took up her entire living room and outclassed everything she thought she could own. Of course, she’d always wanted a piano. Whenever she played it, she thought of Vincenzo: soft, a little hard to get to know, hiding mysteries that she’d never learn.
She wondered if she should’ve prodded him as she’d done, or if she should’ve respected his boundaries and let whatever had tormented him fester. Had he not liked the noise? Had Hannigan ordered him to come outside? She wished he was closer to her. So much of his life needed to be shrouded in secrecy, but she still dreamed of him sitting her down and divulging everything, everything, to her.
Standing up with her tub of ice cream, she sat down at her piano and drifted her fingers over the keys. She’d written two songs about Vincenzo, one about their first kiss and one about the shootout. Each song had a different tone, but they harmonized too well with one another.
She didn’t want to end things with him. His understanding, his acceptance, she liked those parts of him. And she loved his touches, shyer in public, more adventurous in private. She liked him, in the most honest of ways.
She curled inwards. Was it because of her?
It made sense. Laurence, Mitsuko, and Bobbie had taught her not to think like that.
“None of this is your fault.”
“You’re not to blame for his actions.”
But how could she not put part of the blame on herself? When her friends had come to check up on her, she was sobbing into her pillows about what a poor lover she was. With their encouragement, they’d convinced her that she was a good person.
They’d also told her that Vincenzo was a horrible mistake and that she should break up with him that week.
She didn’t want to feel like this anymore. She didn’t want to feel guilty for liking what she liked and then feeling terrible about it and crying. She wanted a romance. She deserved one.
She shut away her piano. She’d never get it. God had made that clear the moment she’d woken up from a dream of being a little girl and realizing she’d woken up too soon.
Someone knocked on her front door. It was light, but at one in the morning, Sylvia questioned which one of her neighbors wanted to speak with her. “Speak,” a somewhat too generous term for their complaints. They always had it out for her, whether she left her windows open or she walked too loudly. Her existence triggered something hostile in them.
She ignored whoever they were and threw out her trash. Laurence and Mitsuko would’ve never come over this late, and Vincenzo, on the rare nights that he’d visit, always announced his presence while knocking.
But the knocking didn’t stop. It grew louder and more forceful, pausing to see if she’d heard them before hitting harder.
Sylvia stopped. She listened attentively now, hoping to hear footsteps leave down the street.
Her door cracked and splintered open at the weight of a man’s heavy foot.
She covered her mouth. The knocking ramped up. More pieces of her door broke apart from how badly this person wanted to enter her home.
She forced herself to move. She wouldn’t stand by and risk the worst happening again. She didn’t have Vincenzo or Campo or any other man to save her.
Taking note of which floorboards creaked the loudest, she backed up into the hall and ran into her room. She fumbled for her bedside table and pulled out her revolver from the top drawer. Another gift from Vincenzo. When he’d gifted this to her, she’d locked it away and never touched it since.
The knocking stopped.
Sylvia stood with her back to her bedroom door, frozen. If the person had left, then she’d never know who wanted to intimidate her. If they’d entered…
She stepped outside and aimed for the door.
A silhouette of a man stood at the top of her stairwell. He was tall, taller than her, and muscular, with a bowler hat covering his face.
Her finger wouldn’t close around the trigger. She wouldn’t believe it. She thought it might’ve been a mistake, a foolish thought after discovering an intruder in your own home. But she was a foolish girl, and she couldn’t justify shooting someone without giving them a chance to explain themselves.
He ran at her. He had something in his hand and tried to hit her with it, but she grabbed his arm and pushed him into the wall, jumping her telephone from its holder. Afraid of what he’d grab next, she shoved him down the stairs and almost fell herself.
The intruder toppled to the landing and a gunshot fired, filling her house with the sound of death.
The bullet lodged somewhere into the wall. It hadn’t been fired from her gun, but from the man’s, which he dropped upon falling. The blunder spooked him enough to abandon whatever mission he’d set out to complete. He crawled down the rest of the steps, picked up his gun, and ran outside through the now broken doorway.
When her neighbors’ lights didn’t turn on, Sylvia, shaking, went back to her phone and reconnected it on the table. Her legs were numb. Her heart felt sickened by fear, like it’d never return to its natural hue. Anyone could’ve come in now and finished what the intruder had intended. She was defenseless.
She stared at her phone. The police wouldn’t come. If they did, they’d harass her. Her neighbors would gossip about it tomorrow. She’d get in trouble.
She dialed the only number she knew that could help her.
She waited. Long, torturous rings rang through her ear and out to the kitchen.
Twenty seconds came and went, and he didn’t answer.
She hung up and tried again.
Again, he didn’t answer.
Teeth chattering with fright, she dialed his number one last time and waited.
The phone clicked.
Sylvia hiccuped. He sounded so much colder than usual.
Vincenzo clicked his tongue and hung up.
“No.” She dialed him for a fourth time. Now she was hurt, hurt about disrupting him, hurt about feeling hurt. She’d just been attacked, why did she feel so guilty about this?
He picked up again. “Who the hell keeps calling this number?”
“I-it’s me,” she said. “Uh, Sylvia. I’m sorry. For calling. It’s late. Um.” She swallowed dryly. “I just. Someone just. Broke into my apartment. He came up the stairs and I retrieved your gun, but I couldn’t shoot. For whatever reason, I couldn’t do it. Then I pushed him down the stairs and he left, but he shot a hole in my wall and now the door won’t close, and I don’t know what to do because now he can come back and—”
She sighed into tears. “I’m scared,” she confessed. “Vincenzo, I’m really scared.”
Vincenzo stayed so silent on the other line, Sylvia feared he’d hung up on her again. The only sound she heard was his tempered breathing tickling her ears.
“Vincenzo?” she asked.
“Are you hurt?”
God, he sounded so angry with her. She shouldn’t have called. She was only upsetting him now. “I’m not.”
“Do you still have your gun?”
She checked. “I do.”
“Okay.” He moved something on his end. “Turn on all the lights in your apartment and lock yourself in your room. Keep the gun on you at all times. After I hang up, call the cops. I’ll be there in an hour.”
“But it takes almost two hours—”
He hung up before she finished speaking.
The cops never arrived. They never did, not for her. Sometimes, they came to settle down her neighbors, but either they knew about her involvement with Vincenzo or her neighbors had told them she was a liar who’d never call them for a real emergency. They were lovely folk, her neighbors.
At around two thirty, she started getting ready for bed. It felt natural. Nobody would come for her. She’d already messed up that week by not listening to Vincenzo. This was her punishment: trying to sleep through the night knowing someone on her street wanted her dead.
A car screeched to a stop outside of her apartment. It sounded like it hit something to stop, like the curb or a pedestrian.
She covered herself with her blankets. She’d dressed for bed in nothing but a pale pink slip. Should she have gotten ready? She wasn’t wearing any makeup. He wouldn’t like that.
Before the person came in, she picked up her gun and went to unlock her bedroom door.
The second she unlocked it, the door forced itself open.
Vincenzo almost walked into her chest, then jerked back and looked up at her. His hands latched to her forearms the same way he’d done after the shootout, though he didn’t look as angry. He looked horrified.
“Did he hurt you?” he panted. “Are you hurt? Are you—?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
He grit his teeth at her answer, then looked at his hands and detached himself. In the limited light, she saw that he was a bit untidy. His hair wasn’t combed out and his collar was uneven. She wondered who this breathless man was and who looked worse to whom.
She held herself. “Um—”
“What did he look like? Who was he? Which way did he go? Did he have a car?”
She stuttered on her own words before biting her tongue. She had been perfectly calm up until seeing him, but now with him in her home, clearly angry with her…
She teared up. “I-I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Vincenzo stepped away. A million thoughts filled the space between them. “Do you have any, like, bags?” he asked her. “Any suitcases or heavy bags?”
“I…think I have a few.” She pointed to her bed. “Underneath.”
He walked in and squatted beside it. He looked to her but didn’t look at her. “May I?”
She nodded, and he tossed out letters and socks she’d lost beneath her mattress to reveal her duffel bags. They were from her youth when she needed to move from place to place, never knowing where she’d be sleeping for the night. They had dust on them.
Vincenzo pushed back his curly bangs. “You’re coming to live with me. You’re not living in a fucking slum of crime anymore where things like this can happen to you at night. You’ll take what you need for the next few days, then I’ll come down with a few cars and bring down the rest. Is that alright?”
When she didn’t move, he picked up a bag and lifted it to her vision. His eyes, she couldn’t read them anymore. He looked like a different person.
“Okay,” she said, and started packing up her things. She picked out her favorite dresses and gloves. She chose between her favorite heels. Would bringing two pairs seem too vain?
“Is this really okay?” Vincenzo asked again.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I won’t force you. I just think it’d be safer if—”
“You want me to go, so I’ll go. It’s fine.”
She lingered near her underwear drawer, unsure if he’d want to see such a part of her, and he took the hint and said, “I’ll, uh, be outside, then,” and left.
She wanted to take her time with this. This felt like every other time she’d been kicked out of a house she felt safe in. Not as heart-wrenching, but still not great. And she knew her neighborhood wasn’t safe, and it’d been her dream to move in with a man. Now, however, she just wanted to go to bed and be unconscious for nine, twelve hours so she didn’t have to live through this pain.
After gathering what she could, she let a few tears fall before buttoning up a trench coat and closing her bedroom door.
Vincenzo helped her into the car. He kept looking down the dark street, scanning for movement. He didn’t say anything to her.
As they drove, Sylvia shielded her eyes against the window’s cold glass. Her self-hatred was more paramount than ever. If she hadn’t had a telephone, she’d be dead in her apartment and her body wouldn’t have been found for days because nobody would come looking for her. All because of her stupid mistake.
Vincenzo talked to himself until they reached Manhattan. How this happened, who this man was. He’d apparently broken into Dominic’s home before coming here because he’d refused to pick up his phone, but he hadn’t found him and thus left by himself. He kept asking if she was cold or hungry—if all of this was okay with her—but she just shook her head or nodded to whatever he wanted. She wasn’t in the position to make demands.
When they reached his home, he took both of her bags in one arm. She tried to be helpful and open the door for him, but he had the keys, so she stepped back, her hands squeezing her coat.
“My Nonna’s probably still asleep,” he whispered.
“I’ll be quiet,” she promised, but her shivering legs hit the doorway and she almost collapsed into Vincenzo. She avoided breathing too loudly after that.
The fire in his bedroom’s fireplace had reduced to embers. She saw the indent in his bed from where he’d been sleeping a few hours prior. His kitten, Mezzanotte, was fast asleep on his pillow. She scampered underneath the bed when they came in.
Her feelings sunk her onto the edge of the bed. She was his lover. Why did she feel so unwelcome in his own room? He still hadn’t looked at her. Probably because she wasn’t wearing any makeup. She must’ve looked dreadful.
She tightened her coat around herself. “I’m sorry I made a mess of tonight. I should’ve been able to handle it myself, but I was too scared to move and ruined everything. I can sleep downstairs tonight, if you’d like. That way, I won’t bother you any more than I already have.”
Sylvia didn’t know why. Hearing it spoken aloud actually calmed her down. She was a nuisance who took up too much space. For all she’d done, she should’ve slept outside tonight.
He came over to her. In the strangest of turns, she expected him to hit her. Too accustomed to her previous loves, whenever something violent occurred, at the end of the day, she expected to take her lover’s pains across the cheek. Her expectations allowed her to think of no other outcome.
Vincenzo lifted her face by her jaw so that the two of them finally saw eye to eye.
His face was painted with sorrow. His eyes, crinkled. His lips, tight enough to leave wrinkles. His soft thumbs traced the corners of her nude lips. If she’d been wearing lipstick, he would’ve smudged it.
“Sylvia,” he said. “I am so, so sorry for everything you’ve had to endure this week. I’m sorry for yelling at you, for the things I said to you. I’m sorry this attack happened, as I’m sure it’s due to my involvement with you and one of my aggressors. You didn’t deserve it and showed tremendous bravery on your part. Now, I know I shouldn’t expect forgiveness for my actions or think that any of this could justify what I said, I just…”
He leaned down and kissed the top of her brow, then down to the corner of her eye, lapping up a tear droplet that had crystallized into a diamond. “I’m so glad you’re still here.”
Her sadness swelled into something far greater than she could bear. To counterbalance it, she held Vincenzo back.
He touched the inner part of her wrist. “You’re such a strong and patient and wonderfully loving girl, and I’m sorry I insinuated anything else about you. It was completely out of line.”
She remembered what he’d said, but after seeing the shooting and hearing him yell at her, it’d all hardened into one painful memory.
She laced her fingers with his. “I forgive you. And I’m sorry, too, for not listening.”
“Don’t,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to apologize for anything. I should’ve been more articulate. When I saw Hannigan pull up, all I thought about was you getting hurt and I lost my senses, but that doesn’t excuse my behavior towards you.”
“That’s alright. I forgive you all the same.”
His smile was painful. “Why? Why do that?”
“Because I’ve been with men who’ve said they’re sorry, and I’ve been with you, who actually feels remorse and wants to change.” Giving him time to back away, she slowly lifted her hands to his face. When he didn’t pull away, she cupped his cheeks the same way he’d done to her. “Such a pretty face can’t go to waste with unspoken apologies.”
Vincenzo gulped and took her hands, fondling them slightly before the whole situation made him pull back. He settled on his side of the bed with red ears.
Sylvia did the same. It wasn’t the first time she’d shared a bed with him, but tonight felt like she was sleeping with him, or the idea of him.
She let herself breathe as she watched the fire dance in its own ashes. Her self-degradation was still with her—it’d always be—but it helped hearing that Vincenzo didn’t absolutely hate her enough to kick her out.
Making sure he knew that, she asked, “May I tell you something?”
“I don’t know if you know this, so I apologize if I’m telling you something you already know, but my psyche is very poor. You say my strength is something you admire, but I’m not that strong. I often feel like a terrible person. I’m lonely and needy and see the worst in everything, especially in myself. I try to play it up when I’m with you, but I’m having trouble keeping up that persona. I just wanted you to know that in case I start falling downwards.”
His side of the bed remained still and quiet. The logs popped with occasional sap and startled her.
He shifted his weight to hug her around her middle.
She hummed a question.
“I’m sorry you felt the need to tell me that, like you thought I might’ve glossed over such a big part of your life. But I’ve always known. I don’t think I would’ve fallen in love with you if I hadn’t. You’re so open and transparent with your feelings. Even when you laughed or joked, I knew there was a chance that you’d trip back into that darkness. To be quite honest, I like that you’re so sincere. I wish I could be like that.” He kissed the back of her neck. “You inspire me.”
She blinked back a sob aching to be let go. “I didn’t think I’d ever inspire anyone before.”
“Because of my psyche, I guess.”
He breathed against the exposed part of her back.
He didn’t answer at first, then said, “I want to make you happy. I thought giving you presents would do the trick, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to go about it another way.”
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy your gifts. You’re very generous and nice. Sometimes, I don’t think I deserve them. Sometimes, it feels too much.”
“It’s because I feel like I can’t do anything else. I’m so nervous when it comes to being romantic. I’m inexperienced and hate being touched. I feel like a failure. My wealth is all I have.”
She turned around to face him properly. He bundled up the blankets around his face for protection.
“If you teach me to be confident, I’ll teach you how to be romantic. In a year, we’ll be making love while I profess how wonderfully talented I am.”
One of his hands slipped out of the blankets to cover his face. “Let’s, uh, let’s start that another day. Not tonight. Just give me the do’s and don’ts of how I should treat you.”
Her heart returned to a healthier shade of pink. “Well, no yelling, for starters. I was a bit miffed when you yelled at me in the alley. I get nervous when men yell at me.”
“Then I won’t do that again.”
“Even when I yell at you?”
He held her hand. “Even if you’re a thousand yards away from me in a field of flowers, I shan’t ever raise my voice to you.”
“Well, for that,” she said teasingly, “if you had a bouquet of flowers for me and were calling me over, I wouldn’t mind you shouting my name.”
“And why are we both in a field of flowers?”
“A picnic,” she decided. “Just the two of us. In Italy.”
He snorted. “Italy’s a fascist wasteland at the moment. Let’s bring it over to Spain.”
“France, it is.”
As much as she would’ve liked to have fallen asleep with that image and those feelings in mind, something else needed to be said.
“Vincenzo, one more thing. When you ran out of the Kitten in such a hurry, what happened? Did something frighten you? Was it the noise? The excitement? Do you not like when we’re that loud?”
After finding a comfortable way to hold her hand, he asked, “If I tell you, will you promise not to tell your friends?”
Was this something more than she had speculated? Was he involved in gang business? Well, more gang business than usual? Had he been threatened to leave the bar against his will?
She waited for the real answer.
“I have this…condition,” he finally said, “among others. If I’m in a closed space and can’t see the exits, I panic. I lose my breath and can’t think rationally. I needed to leave, and when you stopped me, I couldn’t think of a polite way to tell you, so I ran, and I’m sorry.”
“So you have claustrophobia?”
From underneath the bed, Mezzanotte poked out her curious, little head. Just a peek with her ears up. Sylvia met her eyes.
“So you know the term?” Vincenzo asked.
“I do, but I never knew such a thing scared you.”
“They don’t scare me,” he said sarcastically, but he didn’t have another word to describe the fear. She didn’t suffer from it personally—throw her into a locked room filled with as many people as possible and she’d be content—but she now understood why some parties might’ve been too much for him. She hoped Campo’s party wouldn’t be as extravagant as he’d implied.
“I’ll keep that in mind from now on. If it ever becomes too strenuous, please tell me and I’ll help however I can. I can take you outside or sit with you until the feeling passes. Or you can go alone, if that’s better. Which is better?”
She couldn’t see it, but with his lips so close to her skin, she felt him smile against her. She laughed. “What?”
He just hugged her tighter.
“What? Tell me what you’re feeling. If you like that I’m so open with you, reciprocate it.”
“I just love you,” he said. “I really, really, really love you.”
That, that sent her off dizzily into her dreams.