Vincenzo didn’t know if “husbandy” was a word, but when he woke up and wanted to surprise Sylvia with bacon and oatmeal in bed, he felt “husbandy.”
“Husbandy” when he caught himself dreaming about her. “Husbandy” when he added extra sugar into her oatmeal because he knew her fondness of sweets. They were an act of atonement for all the heartache he put her through. No longer would pianos or places to stay be enough. Now, he needed to change the way he behaved. He needed to become a husband through “husbandy” manners.
New concerns did come with her living with him, though. He discovered that he was not a great cook or even a decent one. He burned her bacon and added so much milk to her oatmeal that it turned to cereal. He ended up munching on fruit as Nonna took over.
Nonna herself seemed…okay with the transition. He’d told her about the break-in and that Sylvia would be living with him from now on.
“In the same bed?”
“Yes, Nonna, in the same bed.”
“And you’re not married? No, only if you’re married.”
“We can’t get married, Nonna.”
“Yes, you can!”
He concocted a lie that Sylvia was actually sleeping in one of the guest rooms, but Nonna was forbidden from taking the stairs, so she’d never know. She probably did know—she wasn’t stupid—but she needed to keep up her modesty in her own home.
And while sharing a room with Sylvia was lovely in theory, it hadn’t worked out as well as he’d hoped. For one, she slept in nothing but a slip, a thin, lacy one-piece that hardly hid her knees. When he’d woken up and saw that it’d rolled up past her upper thighs, he almost collapsed. He was right. Her legs went all the way up.
His second concern was her feminine needs and how they were in stark contrast with his. He knew how forwards she was. Not “forwards,” per se, but “more open” than he was. Her kisses left him breathless, her hands begged to touch more. It was all very titillating for him. His parents were never this affectionate and romance novels could only provide him with so much.
And she apparently dealt with stress very differently than he did. When he was stressed, he’d work and work and not come home until two, then pick up more work and stay out until dinner. If it became too much, he’d hit. He’d hit someone or something at the harbor and regret it the next day. He didn’t know how else to manage his feelings. He certainly wasn’t used to Sylvia’s way.
He found that out later that morning. While he attempted a go at lunch, he found a Mezzanotte hole in one of his socks and went to change it. He couldn’t walk around his own home looking disheveled. Not with his wife upstairs.
Sylvia had politely informed him that due to her hectic night prior, she was going to retire for the night. He battled between walking around sockless or disturbing her, but when he’d decided, he was already at the door. And he’d be quiet, of course. He wouldn’t wake her.
What he saw when he entered was her not only fully awake, but her atop the covers instead of under, and instead of her legs crossed and knees tight, they were spread open, her hand lost deep between her shivering, sweaty thighs.
She let out a soft moan just as she noticed Vincenzo gaping at her.
He ran. He bolted down the hall and locked himself in the guest bathroom. Back against the door, he covered his face in both shame and exhilaration. Of course she did things like that. Society told him they didn’t. Church told them it was a sin. Vincenzo himself hated the act, but he didn’t judge those who did it.
He just couldn’t believe that she felt so comfortable to do that. Here. Right in his own bed. It’d only been a day. It was like they were married, though married couples should’ve been able to take care of one another’s needs.
He couldn’t wipe the smile from off his face. “Like they were married.”
That afternoon, he called up Luis and Dominic to help move in the rest of Sylvia’s stuff. She said her refrigerator and rugs wouldn’t blend well with Nonna’s interior decorating and therefore wouldn’t be worth transferring.
“Don’t talk like that,” he told her. “You can bring in as much as you want. This’s your house now, too.”
While he could get ready in ten minutes, Sylvia needed more time, so he gave her her space and started cleaning the first floor. He put away the glass coasters and rearranged the couch pillows. He went to dust off the lamp when he discovered a note on the end table. It was addressed to him in perfect calligraphy.
He unfolded the letter.
I’m terribly sorry for my unladylike behavior you bore witness to this morning. I thought I’d locked the door, but it seems I’m not well-equipped with living with someone quite yet.
I hope you can forgive me and erase such an awful sight from your memory. From now on, I’ll keep such indulgent acts locked away in the privacy of a bathroom.
Vincenzo puffed out his cheeks. Why did she apologize for every little thing? She apologized for being herself, for the clothes she wore, for wearing too much makeup, for not wearing enough. His mother was the same way. Why did they take the blame for everything they did?
He knew why. It was the climate of the culture. It was what was expected. He still hated it, but he couldn’t tell them to simply be stronger. It was like telling him to be more open with his emotions. It was a learning experience that varied from person to person.
High heels clopped down the stairs. He hid the note and pretended to be busy.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” Sylvia said.
Vincenzo held his hands as he stared out the window. The knuckle he was scratching turned redder than Sylvia’s cheeks.
Knowing she wouldn’t mention it aloud, he cleared the air by saying, “I don’t mind if you do that sort of…relaxing upstairs.”
“I shouldn’t be doing it at all.”
“No, you should. I mean, you can. Honestly, it’s something I should be able to do for you. Being your, well, you know.”
Person. He sat on that, how he was failing her as her suitor, her “person.” If he was following the norms expected of him, they should’ve had a child by now. Would it be in poor taste to ask her opinion about bringing up a child? After what he just saw? Whatever her psyche told her, she’d be a great mother.
“You don’t have to, you know,” Sylvia said, “do that.”
“I know. It’s not you,” he added.
“I know.” She flattened out her dress. “Something in your childhood?”
“Yes,” he said, and ended it there. He’d tell her when he was ready, which would be on his deathbed. And even then, to actually speak about how he grew up wasn’t a conversation he ever wanted to have with anyone.
Anyone but her.
Dominic and Luis came by around noon time. They took two cars to make sure they had enough room for everything. Vincenzo wanted three, but Sylvia had gotten nervous when he recommended a moving company to move out her piano.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” she said.
“Don’t be so down on yourself,” Luis said as he drove. “You’re the princess today. Ask for anything you want.”
She took Vincenzo’s hand. “I believe I have everything I want right here.”
“He doesn’t count, you lovebird!”
With a bit of help from Vincenzo, they hauled out her dresser, her kitchen supplies, her food—it worried him how little she had—and more of her personal knickknacks. He never knew how much powder a woman needed. Her makeup alone took up an entire box. He and Sylvia hoisted it into the backseat together.
Because he wasn’t much of a handyman and Sylvia still seemed melancholic, he had Dominic and Luis take care of the rest. If he disregarded Luis’ occasional whine of protest, he was a fine worker, but Dominic was the picture-perfect candidate for this. He was heavily built and did everything asked of him. It was why Vincenzo had wanted to bring him to Sylvia’s house to repair her door. He could’ve had it mended with nothing but a few screws, a hammer, and five minutes of problem-solving.
“Where were you?”
Dominic, who was on the floor disassembling Sylvia’s writing desk, looked up with a hammer in his hand. He placed it down. “What was that?”
“Last night. I’d tried to find you, but you weren’t home. Where were you at two in the morning?”
“Oh.” He went to pick up the hammer, then forgot what he wanted to do with it and scratched his upper lip. “Nowhere special.”
“So where were you?”
He didn’t say.
“I was meeting a friend,” he confessed. “School friend.”
Vincenzo cocked a brow. He himself had dropped out of middle school to focus on earning money for his family. He knew Luis had finished high school and was planning a great academic future for baby Sophie, but what about Dominic?
“I went to a private catholic school in Connecticut,” he said, reading Vincenzo’s mind. “He wanted to meet up yesterday, so I drove out to his lake house and slept over. That’s all. I’m sorry.”
Luis called for Dominic’s help outside, and Dominic almost ran out of the room to be as far away from Vincenzo and his simple question as possible.
Vincenzo watched him go. The belief that he’d driven six hours to actively make time for someone in his personal life didn’t sit right with him.
Dominic didn’t have friends.
To celebrate Sylvia moving in, they all went to the Black Kitten for drinks. Vincenzo picked up the tab, but he put a limit on how much Luis and Dominic drank. Luis because he’d just turned twenty-one and was still too young to drink, and Dominic…
It wasn’t that his story was outrageous. It was that, since Vincenzo had brought it up, he hadn’t made eye contact with him. He hadn’t spoken up or thanked him for giving him free drinks. He kept playing with his facial hair, hiding his mouth.
“Do you think…?” Sylvia poised. They were at Vincenzo’s booth about to eat dinner. He’d ordered her a slice of chocolate cake, but after bringing up Dominic’s oddities, she hadn’t touched them.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “He wouldn’t.”
“I don’t think so either. The man who’d broken into my house was bigger, plumper, I think.”
“But you didn’t see his face.”
She shook her head.
“Whatever it is, I’ll confront him about it tonight. He shouldn’t be lying to me, even if it’s about something trivial.”
“I’m sure the truth is nothing too important.”
Across the bar, Luis, who’d retrieved his one allotted drink for the night, tried making room beside Dominic at his lonely table for one. He pointed at the card tables and the stage, offering ways to brighten him up. It surprised Vincenzo how little Luis minded the Black Kitten. It’d taken Vincenzo a week to let his guard down around so many strangers, then a full month to casually share a drink with Bobbie. This was Luis’ second time here.
The doors leading to the backstage slammed open and out came Laurence and Mitsuko. They were partway dressed for the night, as Laurence still had pants on and Mitsuko wasn’t wearing any jewelry. They maneuvered around the tables and made a beeline for Vincenzo and Sylvia.
Vincenzo grimaced and went to excuse himself. Mitsuko slammed her foot into his cushion, blocking his escape.
“What’s going on?” Laurence asked. “Just a few days ago you were crying about this man, now you’re drinking and eating like nothing happened.”
“Ah, I was going to tell you tonight,” Sylvia said. “Let’s talk in the back. It’s quite a long story.”
“No, tell us now.”
“I want to hear how shitty this man’s apology was,” Mitsuko added. Like Vincenzo had guessed, that glare of hers hadn’t and would never wane.
Sylvia lied about the story’s length and glossed over most of what’d gone down. She didn’t go into her anxieties about love or her dreadful self-image. He guessed those talks were reserved for him, or she’d already told them about it and he was just that late to the party.
When she finished, Mitsuko dropped her foot, stared at them, then snatched out a blade from her boot. “You’re living with him?”
“In the same bed?”
“You moved in?”
“And didn’t tell us?”
“I was going to make a phone call this morning,” Sylvia said, “but things got ahead of me. Then Vincenzo wanted to help move me out, then he suggested that we come here to celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” Laurence asked. “He made you homeless!”
“That’s a rather dark way of interpreting this,” Vincenzo said.
“Oh, hush!” He stomped away before Vincenzo actually got mad. “Mitsuko, come here. I need to sing. And get drunk. And not in that order.”
But Mitsuko didn’t move. She stood over their table with her hands in her knickerbocker pockets. She didn’t look as pissed off as usual. She looked generally confused and unhappy, like the sight of him was that troubling.
“What?” Vincenzo dared to ask.
“I don’t get you,” she said.
“You’re not obliged to.”
“Well, for curiosity’s sake, and because I’m one of Sylvia’s best friends, I sort of am.” She started to turn away, then pointed at him. “We’re going to have a chat later. In private. I need to settle something that’s been bouncing around in my mind.”
When she left, Sylvia folded her hands on the table. “She’s rather disagreeable tonight.”
“You don’t even know. After the shootout, she slapped me.”
Sylvia’s jaw dropped. “She did not. Vincenzo, you’re lying.”
“I’m not. She seems set on killing me.”
The Black Kitten’s lights dimmed, announcing tonight’s new stage duo. While Mitsuko danced to a lone saxophone, Laurence helped the mood by shaking his rear and even coming down to mingle with his people, a queen amongst her peasants. He snaked between the tables in search of a fool.
It came in the form of Dominic. Stealing him away from Luis, Laurence heaved him out of his seat and up on stage to dance with him. All the protest Dominic should’ve had about it melted into his spaghetti arms, and he stood like a frightened deer in the middle of the hot spotlights. Served him right, hiding the truth from Vincenzo.
To help him better relax, Laurence snuck up behind him and slapped his behind so hard, he yelped. His drunk face reddened in a mix of fear, bewilderment, hatred, and something Vincenzo couldn’t place. He’d never seen such a rush of emotions cross his face, like the slap had temporarily short-circuited his brain. Laurence, smugly pleased with himself, shrugged off whatever he was feeling and continued dancing.
Sylvia hooked around the curtain to watch. Her foot tapped to the beat.
“You can go,” Vincenzo told her. “I’ll stay here.”
“You know, with permission, any member of the audience can come up and dance with us. If you want…” She gave him a teasing wink before she left for her piano.
He liked to think he wasn’t chained to her by the collar, but as his toes curled from being alone, he moved his seat to keep her in sight.
Capturing him like she’d done months ago, Sylvia played her piano with utter perfection. She sat up regally and made music with her eyes closed. He knew she did that to better connect with the music, but it was also a subtle jab at everyone who might’ve thought she wasn’t as talented as she was. If people weren’t pieces of shit, she would’ve had a magnificent job playing for a rich baron in Manhattan.
He walked up to the stage. He wanted to be closer to her. He wanted to be redesigned by her with new ambitions that stemmed from her and everything she needed. He wanted her, her happiness, and her love all in one healing dose.
He took a full step onto the stage. For a dazzling second, he was taller than everyone else, noticed regulars who noticed him. He was a performer at a pansy bar. He was part of the community.
Taking in everything all at once, he sat back down and stayed at ground level. His heart never stopped pounding.