She never thought she’d live past twenty three. She also never thought she’d attend a gangster boss’ birthday party through her lover’s invite.
Somehow, even as she got ready for the night, she still had trouble believing in both.
Campo’s party was a mere four hours away and she’d just started getting ready. She couldn’t help it. Soon one program on the radio turned to three, then she wanted to learn how to cook an Italian dinner from Nonna. Shockingly to her, Nonna didn’t hate her enough to shoo her out, but she kept reminding her to “go now, the party, be ready,” so Sylvia could only assume that she wanted her thrown out by week’s end.
So she hid in the bathroom, specifically the bathtub, pruning in a two-hour bath. It wasn’t from fear, but from anticipation. The need to make a good second impression to someone so powerful and important to Vincenzo. What dress would draw the least amount of attention? Which wig would look the most normal? They wouldn’t want to see her tangly mess of ratty curls. Could she dye her blue one? It’d take some time, but…
She blew out bubbles, then lifted her mouth above the lukewarm water. “Yes?”
“You okay?” Vincenzo asked through the door.
“Yes, just relaxing. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“That’s fine. Take your time. I have something waiting for you when you come out. It’s laid out on the bed.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you,” she said, and masturbated off her nerves to the image of Vincenzo strewn out across their bed, bow tied around his naked body. What a surprise that’d be.
After she dried off and wrapped herself in a bathrobe, she came out to find him gone, and in his place was a dress.
If it could be called that. It could’ve been a painting, fabric dripping off a goddess, something preserved in art. Off-white in color, the piece shimmered in beads and thin layers of lace all the way to the floor. The design matched her chosen clutch for the night. It’d complement her heels. It was perfect, too much so for her.
Mezzanotte, who must’ve known an expensive dress when she saw one, stood guarding it a foot away. Ever since Sylvia had moved in, this little one had been staring her down. Now her stare had a bit of attitude in it. Her claws extended into the comforter.
“Please, I’m trying,” Sylvia reckoned with her. “I can’t help that he does these things for me, but I know that he loves you very much. You likely receive more presents from him than I do.”
Mezzanotte slow-blinked at her.
“Please don’t be mad. I’m doing all that I can.” To show her, she gave her her hand.
Mezzanotte chuffed and scampered underneath the bed. The dress had been won, but her friendship—tolerance—would have to be earned another day.
Sylvia sat beside the dress, wondering when Vincenzo had bought this for her and if she deserved to wear it. She knew what this party meant to him. He’d want her looking elegant. He’d want her looking confident.
She positioned herself at her vanity, forced herself to look in the mirror, and started primping. To be confident, she needed to learn to like herself before fearing if anyone around her liked her. Many people would never be okay with her, but that shouldn’t have mattered if she felt confident enough to date a gangster who earned more money in a week than she made in six months.
Drinking helped, but she’d save that when she had on her powder.
As she dolled herself up, she tuned in to a baseball game. Knowing Vincenzo loved the sport, it’d do right by her to catch up on some of its jargon. Without context, she learned about innings, how many teammates were on a team, and the difference between the batter and the catcher. After learning that some games ended at the ninth inning instead of the tenth, she had down the foundation of a presentable face. She hoped Italian women would like it. She would’ve asked Ana for her advice, but after that disastrous dinner, she didn’t want to speak to her unless she had to.
She picked up the dress by its waist. An off-white evening gown—Had he meant for it to look like a wedding dress? It felt rich. It felt like him.
She expected to hate it, but when she wiggled into the dress, she saw a new girl in her mirror. She looked tall, but not obscenely so, and slim with the help of her corset. She even gave herself a twirl. The dress flared out like a morning flower. Even her legs looked good in it, and arms.
Was this what confidence was, dressing in a pricey dress and not ripping it off the moment it touched you? If so, how many dresses did she need to buy in order to keep this from ending? Did she need to sleep in them to keep the magic going?
Someone knocked on the door.
She ended the twirl. “Yes?”
“Just wondering how far along you were.”
“Oh, yes.” She closed her powder drawer and ran to the door. He must’ve been waiting for her to finish. What was she doing, wasting all this time? This was his room.
She opened the door. “I’m sorry—”
Vincenzo went to say something back, but he, as well as she, lost their words.
She opened the door to a Vincenzo she’d never met before. He was in an ironed three-piece suit complete with a pair of new shoes and a gold watch. He wore his hair slicked back and smelled of cologne and sex. His face was clean shaven, eyes unshrouded by his bangs. He always looked magnificent to her, but this Vincenzo left her enchanted.
He retracted his hand and looked her up and down, catching the sparkles of her dress and the extra makeup she’d meticulously placed.
Unable to hold herself back, she took his hands and pulled him into the bedroom. He came willingly. Honestly, she wondered what he wouldn’t do under her commands. This dress held an authority she wasn’t used to.
She pressed him against the door. His smile told her this was okay. To make sure, she caressed his face and watched for any protest.
His head fell into it like a cat into its owner’s hand.
Biting her lip, she leaned down and stole a kiss.
She stole many kisses. Many kisses stopped being kisses and became explorations of his mouth, a daring maneuver she was quite proud of. He’d never let her do this before. He moaned into her. He wrapped his hands around her and pulled her in. She almost touched his rear end before she stopped and held his face instead.
Vincenzo clicked his tongue against Sylvia’s.
“Sir, you ready up there?” Luis called from downstairs.
“Yes,” he groaned, and went to wipe the spit from around his mouth.
“Oh.” Sylvia snuck in and wiped a bit of lipstick from his lips. They felt better on her lips than on her fingers.
“We have to be careful tonight,” he said. “No good doing this at Campo’s. Some of the men there hate their wives as much as they hate Hannigan.”
“They’ll be jealous, then?”
“Immensely.” He kissed her neck. “You look beautiful.”
She offered it to him. “And who should be careful of whom tonight?”
He smiled into her skin. “Don’t tempt me.”
Dominic, Luis, and Ana were ready and waiting downstairs. Ana had on a red dress that matched the rose on Luis’ lapel. Dominic wore a brown suit with his hat already on. Luis hopped excitedly on his heels. Dominic kept his hat over his eyes.
“Are we ready?” Ana asked.
“We are,” Vincenzo said, and kissed Nonna on her forehead. “Bye. We’ll be home by midnight. Please don’t wait for us.”
Nonna had Sophie in her arms, the babysitter for the night. She waved her little hand. “Bye-bye. Have fun. Wear fun masks.”
Sylvia guessed that was a translation error and said her goodbyes.
The night of the party brought with it a cool autumn air. Dead leaves danced in the streets as Dominic drove past. Luis, upon Ana’s request, took his car to Campo’s, so Sylvia stayed in the back with Vincenzo, mapping out this part of Brooklyn. They passed a park she never knew existed. She went to ask Vincenzo if they could visit sometime.
Vincenzo’s knee jumped against his hand. His eyes, while looking out the window, were unfocused, cloudy with thought.
He moved his head towards her, but his eyesight stayed transfixed outside.
“Talk to me.”
“Everything’s fi…” He sighed. “I don’t know, actually. My father and mother, they’re going to be here. I don’t want you to see them.”
“Would it be better if you introduced me to them? Maybe only to your mother?”
Dominic looked at her in the mirror, then shook his head and turned down a street towards the water.
“Absolutely not. Whatever you tell her will get funneled back to my father. He still thinks I broke up with you a month ago. Once he finds out you’re living with me, he’s going to be furious. He might even blow up at this party. Then Campo will be disappointed, he’ll never invite me to another party again. It’ll all be over.”
“Should I not have come?”
“No, it’s not your fault, but if anyone says anything to you, just smile and nod and look at me. I can handle them—most of them are beneath me in rank—and who knows, some of them might not know about you and the Kitten, so then you’ll be—”
Sylvia reached over and held the hand over his knee. She waited for him to flinch or push her away, but he didn’t.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “Everything will be fine. We’ll stay clear of them and stay with our friends. That way, we’ll have strength in numbers, and nobody will bother us.”
“We’ll be okay. If it becomes too much, we’ll leave.”
“But I always leave Campo’s parties. He has hundreds of guests. I can’t leave this one. He’s turning fifty.”
“He’ll understand. I’ll give him a talking-to.”
“Sure, he’ll allow that.” He rubbed a hand down his face. “Thank you. I needed to vent.”
“Of course. I pride myself on being able to talk down a terrible situation. It helps with my anxiety.”
“I’m glad you pride yourself on something.”
“Vincenzo, I was making a joke,” she said. “I freeze up when I’m tense, you know that.”
“Oh.” He smiled even more. “I’m glad you like to joke.”
“And what does that mean? I can be, what’s the word, a jokester.”
“You’re usually so stoic. Do you mind if I, say, try to joke with you more often?”
She half-smirked in confusion. “Sure? You can crack your best knock knock jokes to me.”
Dominic snickered, then hushed up when Vincenzo gave him a look.
Based on how Vincenzo talked about Campo, Sylvia expected grandeur. She’d seen mansions on coastlines and magazine clippings of English manors. She’d dreamed of royal life as much as any little girl had.
Campo lived much more majestically than that.
His home was a four-story mansion that towered above the curve of Grassy Bay. His lawn and driveway stretched a mile out and let them bask in his gardens. Immaculate, they were, with no flower out of place.
Rich cars were parked outside around an angelic fountain. Italian men escorted their partners out of the back seats. Many of them had chauffeurs who’d stay outside that night. She couldn’t imagine how expensive they cost.
The house itself was lit with electricity. Silhouettes of rich folk walked by the windows while others dined on the balconies. The smells of dinner, the sights of the house’s gold embellishments. It was a fantasy book she’d fallen asleep to, lost in its pages with fairies tempting her into their world. Like she wouldn’t eat a slice of cake or two.
When Dominic parked the car and opened Sylvia’s door, Vincenzo pressed his back into his seat.
It was nice not having to worry about herself all throughout the night. She’d imagined herself shaking in the corner of some hall, holding back her stomach as her brain told her she didn’t belong. Now, instead of falling into despair, she had the chance to save someone from their own darkness. If she was smart, she’d take her own advice.
“Hey, it’ll be okay,” she told him.
“Yeah!” Luis called out. He helped his wife out of their car, then shook Dominic’s shoulders. “Are we ready, lads? Ready to party the night away?”
“Calm down,” Vincenzo said, but he was on his tiptoes now, eyeing up how many people he needed to walk between.
As they neared the front door, she noticed some men wearing eccentric eye masks. Some were gold, others blue and purple. Flowers popped out behind their ears and glittery eyes. How odd of them. Didn’t they know whose party this was?
They stood in a line to gain entry into Campo’s mansion. Two butlers handed something to each person who came through the doors.
“Which color are you going to choose?” Luis asked. “I’m picking red to match Ana’s dress. Dominic?”
“I’ll take whatever they give me,” he said.
“Had we needed to pick something out in advance?” Sylvia asked.
“Oh, right,” Vincenzo said. “Campo likes to host masquerade balls for his birthday parties.”
The butlers came into view. In their hands were plates of those strange masks. Their ribbons cascaded down in a waterfall of rainbows.
“It’s an Italian thing,” Vincenzo said. “They’re exclusive parties where the guests wear elaborate costumes and masks. Campo doesn’t go all out with those gaudy outfits, but the masks—” He selected a turquoise mask, Sylvia a gold one. “He likes the masks. Thinks they’re fun.”
The hall welcomed them with jazz, gossip, and cigarette smoke. The foyer and dining hall had been furnished to the brim with taste. Red drapes hung over the windows. Chandeliers and sconces lit up an already bright house with warmth. Each main door had at least one bodyguard, server, or escort, all wearing masks. They doted on the guests with tranquil smiles.
“Is this okay?” she asked Vincenzo.
“For right now, yeah. Here, do you want me to tie on your mask?”
She stared at her choice and how bold it looked, then at Vincenzo’s and how he hadn’t put it on yet.
They traded quickly.
“We messed up,” she said.
“I always pick the wrong one. I have no blue in my suit. Gold would suit you.”
“I’m wearing white, dear. Everything will go well with—”
Somehow, even though it wasn’t Campo’s voice, Sylvia imagined Campo calling him. Or Luis. Or even Dominic. She didn’t know any other man who’d address Vincenzo so casually. Was it another friend?
A man and woman came up to greet them. The man, middle aged with salt-and-pepper hair, was dressed as handsomely as Vincenzo. The woman, meek, her brown hair pinned with a golden flower that matched her dress. They walked arm in arm like a couple, but the woman’s disheartened face and the man’s dominating presence made them look like prisoners of one another’s company than lovers at a party.
Vincenzo squeezed Sylvia’s hand so hard, the stitching on her glove popped, and she was brought back into that alleyway. The fear of losing her. The feeling of being trapped. He was scared, and he had no place to run.
The man rolled his eyes at Sylvia and asked Vincenzo a violent question. Spit hit the ground as he spoke.
Vincenzo glared at him with his head down. He must’ve wanted to scream a thousand insults. She saw that much in him. He’d said many of these men were beneath him in rank, but this man looked different. They looked like equals, a fact that obviously infuriated both of them.
Without blowing up, Vincenzo answered the man with a simple, mellow, “Yes.”
Which sent the man off. He growled, actually growled, an animal dressed in a suit. Hands went to their belts. Sylvia caught the gleam of a gun. She went to run, then she felt herself turn in a half-circle. She spun around from whatever brawl was about to detonate.
Vincenzo led her into a dead-end far from the foyer. Here, away from the lingering crowds, he kicked the wall hard enough to leave a dent and cursed out the man behind his back.
“My parents,” he panted. “I didn’t know they were going to—I mean, I did know. They always come early to these things.” He ripped off his mask and squinted hard. “Fuck me.”
“Look, I know you say that it’s fine, and I want to believe you, but it’s not. He spoke about you, in front of everyone, like you were, like I was…nothing. Like I’m not his fucking son. You’re not a ‘sick’ person. We’re not sick. He’s the sick one. He’s the—” He caught his breath by clutching his suit, wrinkling his tie and ruining the night he’d planned.
Sylvia knew about Severo. She’d never wanted to meet him, he who broke her lover’s heart every time he opened his mouth. It was why she never wanted to see her mother again. Their life-draining energies had no business being a part of her life. She was lucky. She had the choice to cut her out completely. Vincenzo had to see Severo every other day, reopening himself to beatings and slurs that were seen as normal.
She rubbed his shoulder. “To Hell with it, then. Let’s leave. You don’t have to deal with him tonight. We can take the car, drive out to the water. You can tell Campo that your grandmother fell, I’m sure he won’t be mad at that. He’ll understand why you have to go.”
He was still looking away, fearing who’d see them, so Sylvia ended it with, “It’s your choice.”
And that little phrase, whatever he took from it, lifted him back up to normal. His eyes returned to their natural light. His lips parted enough for her not to kiss him, but to hold him knowing he, for once, had the choice to act for himself rather than on Campo’s interests.
“Okay,” he said, head clearing. “Okay. I have to, uh, say hello to Campo first. Wish him a happy birthday.”
“Let’s go find him.”
“Just…give me a moment, alright? I feel like strangling him.”
“Alright.” She stood beside him against the wall, hiding their hand holding from any nosy guests.
Vincenzo tried regaining his breath in slow intakes. “Thank you.”
“I mean it. Your understanding and acceptance of me is…unfathomable at times, but I appreciate it and you far more than I can articulate. All I can say is that I love you and I’m grateful that you put up with me.”
“I like to think that I don’t put up with anyone other than myself. I chose to be here. I chose to be with you. I choose not to listen to your father and his opinions about me, though I do care about how it affects you. Because I love you and want to see you at your best. That’s what confidence is, right?”
He looked up at her. She wondered if he believed her. How could you not care about people’s opinions of you? At what point did you forget them and continue on with those who admired you rather than ridiculed you?
“I wish I could be as open as you are,” he said.
“Drinking helps,” she said bluntly. “Is he serving alcohol here?”
He smiled as he tied back on his mask. “Is a gangster serving alcohol at his own party? There’s probably some in the ballroom. I’ll get you one drink, then we’ll run.”
“Just one drink?” she teased, and left with him, hand in hand.