She entered the banquet hall, drinking heavily, worrying even more so. This room had the most amount of people in it, packed into tables and around serving maids. They all looked happy as they dined on hors d’oeuvres. Vincenzo was the only one pulling sickly faces as he drank.
“Hear your performance.” Was he going to play a song for Campo? Write a sonnet for him? A speech? Why was he so nervous about it? Had he practiced what was expected of him?
Was it his fear of crowds? Did Campo know about that? He’d smelled of alcohol when they’d talked to him. Perhaps he was too drunk to pick up the context clues Sylvia latched onto so well.
She tried steering him away from the denser parts of the crowds and closer to the windows. A live orchestra was performing here on an elevated part of the floor. The piano mirrored the one in her apartment, although someone kept up with this one’s waxing and made it look even more expensive.
“How grand,” Sylvia said. “Vincenzo, look.”
He did, then picked up his third glass for the night and chugged.
She tried a different approach. “Do you know where our seats are?”
“Uh, yeah. Let me—”
“There you are!”
Vincenzo gasped. They’d just found their place cards when two men sauntered up to them too drunkenly for either of their liking.
“Campo was out and about waiting for you,” one of them said.
“You’re up next, aren’t you?”
Vincenzo pinched the top of his hand. Sylvia knew he wouldn’t want to bring up his insecurities to strangers, but she wished she knew what was upsetting him. She wished to save him from this nonsense of dismissing his fears for the sake of people he didn’t even like.
Unable to say no, Vincenzo made sure Sylvia had a drink and a plate of bruschetta before leaving. “Sylvia, go find Luis or Dominic. You can stay with them until I come back. Or you can stay out in the hall. That’s it. Go out and—” But his voice was drowned out by the loud crowds, and he was taken away from her by the men, leaving her alone in this strange world.
She folded her napkin over her lap. This gathering, the evening, these gowns. Where was she? She dissected it: a large table with a tablecloth that felt more overpriced than her dress. Each chair had two glasses and three plates of food, some half-eaten, some not. Who would she be sitting next to? A mayor? A prince? She wouldn’t discredit it.
“Are you sitting here?”
Ana, who must’ve had an agenda to avoid her husband for most of that night, stood alone behind her.
“I am,” Sylvia said.
So she sat beside her, and Sylvia almost sighed. She looked like she had a lot on her mind. She didn’t want to hear it.
“Where did Vincenzo go?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. I think he went to speak with Campo.”
“That makes sense.” She chose her glass for the night. “Is this the first party he’s ever taken you to?”
“Is it that easy to tell?”
“Quite.” Her lipstick stained a crescent moon on the glass. “Women at this status need to keep their guards up in order to benefit from society.”
“These people see us as our man’s finer tastes in life, like handbags or large houses. It’s terrible, but true. Our job is to cut those people down with clever words and pretty eyes, to never back down from their rude remarks to show we can handle whatever they throw at us. It’s what you need to do, if you’re pretending to be a woman. I don’t feel like you’re doing a good job at it.”
Sylvia caught her reflection in one of the glasses meant for her. She picked it up, admiring a face she didn’t usually hate but didn’t necessarily like. She saw herself just like this, like a stranger looking into a mirror. The person she saw might’ve been her, but if she were to wake up and find herself in a different body with a different face, she wouldn’t complain. She used to think if that ever happened, she’d hoped for a prettier face and a slimmer body so that blending in would be easier.
She finally looked her in the eyes. She had on lovely makeup. “Not to be so forward, but do you like me?”
“No,” she said, “not particularly.”
“May I ask why?”
“Do you need a reason?”
“I don’t, but if I could shed a light on anything you might be confused about, I’d like to help.”
“I know this might be difficult for you to understand, but this party is neither the time nor place to discuss such vulgar topics. Keep it at those speakeasies you sleep in. But to answer part of your question, I care about how I’m seen in the presence of my husband, and now that includes you, so any advice I can give you to help make you not look so out of place is beneficial to me.”
Sylvia didn’t know what she was expecting, but still. It hurt knowing she wanted to prove her right and couldn’t. To change a hateful mind on an idea which had never been contested before. It must’ve been because of the alcohol. It made her brash.
“He’s over there, by the way,” Ana said, “in case you wanted to catch the show.”
After talking with those men or with Campo, Vincenzo had found himself in the middle of the orchestra stage. He was at a microphone, fiddling with the cuffs of his dress shirt. The crowd quieted down from his arrival until Sylvia only heard herself breathing.
She scooted out of her chair. He wanted her absent from this. Maybe it was a commemorative speech meant only for Campo’s men, or maybe he was embarrassed by a birthday speech he’d written for him. She left for the nearest door.
The trumpets led him in like a shy date in a packed restaurant. She didn’t even hear the first one start. Then the piano, performed by a beautiful dark-skinned woman, and then a guitar of all things. It didn’t fit the motif of any jazz song she knew, but it did fit an Italian one.
When he started singing, guests drew their attention from their meals to watch the spectacle for themselves. Men turned in their chairs, women covered their mouths. Sylvia had just made it to the door when she felt her knees weaken at the love song.
She assumed as much. Somewhere, Campo and his wife were swooning. His high notes conjured a sense of intimacy that was new to her. His Italian was dominant yet calm, powerful and loving. He sang most of it with his eyes closed, letting her take in every part of him. Even the littlest things like his open mouth, she’d never seen him speak—sing—so openly before. Why hadn’t he wanted her to see this? Because she’d fall to her knees and do unspeakable things to him? Honestly, very likely, but shame on him for not wanting her to see this.
When he finally opened his eyes, he looked at their table and saw only Ana, and his microphone slipped. He then searched the tables around her, bouncing between businessmen and lawyers as he sang, trying to find someone he wanted.
When he saw Sylvia standing above everyone else, that fear about whatever he was feeling vanished, and he smiled. His voice grew, as well as his confidence, and his voice reverberated off the walls and into Sylvia so strongly that her jaw quivered. At the final lines, he reached out to her, all the while never breaking eye contact with the only other person in the room who mattered.
The crowd gave a polite applause. A hoot and holler was thrown out by the more drunken lot. Vincenzo gave them a bow.
Sylvia took several long blinks to remember where she was, then hobbled back to her seat. She used the tablecloth to better hide herself and her shaking hands. She wished she was drunker than this. She didn’t know what to do with these new Italian words now implanted into her brain. They sounded romantic.
As Vincenzo sat back down with her, Luis ran up and said, “That was great, Sir! Better than last year. What a bold choice.”
“Campo requested it. I haven’t practiced in weeks.”
“It’s one of his favorites,” Ana said.
“Even worse.” He wrapped his arm around Sylvia. “Did you like it?”
Despite everything in her mind telling her not to, she scooted away from him and pressed a hand between her thighs.
“I…” She lowered her voice so nobody at the table heard her. “I never allowed myself to imagine you singing an Italian opera in my presence.”
“Not really an opera, but I did take singing lessons at church when I was younger. Campo, he likes it. Thinks that, if I wasn’t working for him, I could pick it up as a profession. What’s wrong?”
She bit her lip. “The excitement might’ve gotten ahead of me.”
His brain spun around in aimless circles, trying to understand her flirty hints, before he saw what she was hiding between her legs. “Oh.”
“Make it go away,” she whispered, hiding her laughter in his neck. “What an impression to give to your friends.”
“W-what should I do?” Luckily, he was laughing as well and doing a poorer job of hiding his embarrassment with his hand. “What makes things like that go away?”
“I don’t know. Take my mind off it. Make me think of anything other than your…” She couldn’t finish. She needed to calm down in order to be invited to more of these parties.
“Well, what’s there to say? The weather?”
“Anything, darling, please. All I can think about is you and your co—”
“Okay,” he said, interrupting her. “Uh, Mezzanotte, then. My cat. She’s a Bombay, I believe. She likes hiding socks underneath my bed. In truth, I hide my best ones in a locked drawer and let her have her favorites.”
“Vincenzo, how is you taking care of a kitten who steals socks going to fix this? It’s only making it worse.”
“T-then, how about, uh…”
“Talk about nonsense, you utter buffoon.”
He smirked. “I’m not one to talk nonsense.”
“Goodness, that is so much like you.”
He went to say more, but Luis tapped the table. “I can’t wait for Campo’s cake, Sir. It smelled so good. Did you see it yet? I peeked my head into the kitchen and saw it myself.”
“I haven’t really had the time,” Vincenzo said, still leaning into Sylvia’s body. “Sylvia, dear, do you need to go and use the—”
“The bathroom, yes,” she said. “Can you direct me to the nearest one?”
But before they could run off and do unspeakable acts alone, the laughter of a child much too young to be at this party skipped through the crowd.
Luis, still delighted by the ways of children, waved to her with both hands. “Gabriella!”
A little girl ran around the tables with a fiddle in her hands. Behind her, two women and three men acting as her bodyguards guarded her from unruly party guests.
“Ah, there she is!” Luis said. “Il mio Gabriella! You look wonderful!”
Gabriella twirled her dress. “Ciao, everyone! That means ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ in Italian. Grandpa Camps said to greet everyone with that tonight.”
“You are so smart.” Luis lifted her up and kissed her cheek. The men watching her kept a close eye on how high he lifted her.
“This’s Gabriella d’Antonio,” Vincenzo said. “She’s Campo’s granddaughter, and this’s Gia and Elena, his two daughters.”
“And little Gabriella here knows how to play the violin,” Luis said, “or should I say the fiddle.”
Gabriella giggled, her curly brown hair hopping in tight curls. “My momma taught me how to play in elementary school, and the violin and fiddle are sister strings, so it’s really easy to play.”
“And so terribly Irish,” Vincenzo said, and Campo’s daughters laughed.
Sylvia searched for the joke. Was it because they didn’t favor Irish traditions? If so, why was she allowed to have the instrument in the house?
“This’s gonna be so funny,” Luis said. “In truth, Sir, I thought you were gonna sing some Flannigan jig to get the ball rolling.”
“Like I’d know any,” he said, and touched Sylvia’s arm. “Every year, whenever all of us are together, we try to get a jab at Campo for fun. Last year, we got him after he scored a deal with a Mexican brewery on the border.”
“We had to pay so much for that damaged bridge,” Luis lamented.
“My. So are you planning on pranking him tonight?” Sylvia asked.
“Yeah!” Gabriella exploded. “I’m gonna play the song I’ve been practicing!”
“We have to get her set up for dinner now,” one of the women said, and spoke to her daughter in Italian before toting her off.
Sylvia tugged on Vincenzo. “What’s going on? Should I prepare for anything, well, illegal?”
“No. Just clap along to the beat.”
“Won’t his security intervene?”
“Are you kidding? His security is the reason we’re allowed to do this. They want to get him as badly as we do.”
The crowd launched into a cheer.
Gabriella waved at them from the stage. Campo clapped the loudest for her, yelling cute phrases that Sylvia had picked up from Vincenzo and Luis. She noticed that the men behind him had on conniving smiles as they clapped.
“Everyone,” one of Campo’s daughters announced, “our lovely angelo Gabriella has a song she wishes to perform for her nonno on his fiftieth birthday.”
A low applause. Sylvia clapped softly, waiting to see if she needed to duck in cover or scream.
“Now, without further ado, please enjoy una canzone del nostro piccolo angelo.”
Bursting with anticipation, Gabriella readied her bow, wedged her fiddle into her neck, and played.
It definitely wasn’t an Italian song. It didn’t start off slow and didn’t sound very traditional. The abruptness startled her and most of the guests, but it set off every man like wind-up toys. Vincenzo and the rest of them got up and clapped and twirled to the natural rhythm of the fiddle, stomping their feet like they were trained in Irish dance. Those in on the joke sang to the piece in terrible Irish accents.
The rush of culture mixed with so many people moving, Sylvia hadn’t noticed the chefs bring in a three-tier cake from the kitchen. The layers of green, white, and orange might’ve irked Campo if not for the ridiculous amount of leprechauns and rainbows sticking out from the frosting.
As Campo was taken by his cake, Vincenzo and a few others delivered the final blow: a bag of green confetti. It exploded over his balding head like a pollinating flower, and through the confused laughing and clapping, he burst into a laugh that he couldn’t stop. He took a knife and sliced through the cake as if not to eat it, but to slash through his opponent’s flag with the vitality of a true mobster boss.
Vincenzo, who usually composed himself around his peers, snorted back his laughter. It looked natural, like a child was hiding behind those heavy-set eyes. Sylvia clapped louder when she saw that.
Seeing the woman next to him made her freeze.
She was sitting near Campo, looking around to see how much laughter was appropriate. She wore a grey dress. Her hair was lighter since the last time Sylvia saw it. Her mask was black and feathery, but she’d memorized her face before she was too afraid to meet her eyes.
Had she seen her? No, she’d changed both her first and last name. She wouldn’t have known. She’d wanted to tell her about her new life; she’d written about it in so many letters. So why was she looking at her now? Why was she standing up and coming towards her, eyebrow arched in the way that meant she was angry at whatever Sylvia had done?
Sylvia stood up and almost knocked over a plate in a passing man’s hand. She couldn’t say sorry. Or say anything. She didn’t want to get hurt, to have her mother yell at her and wake up the neighbors with how deviant she was.
She ran. The night was a dream she wasn’t meant to finish. Reality had come to rip away her dress and pearls and wake her up from this fantasy.
She passed by Dominic, who was trying to ignore three women who were obviously flirting with him. She covered her face in case she looked ugly.
She burst through the double doors into a patio of cushioned seats and open umbrella stands. She thought it’d never end, this ocean of dining bodies, until she tripped down a set of steps and reached the back lawn.
Too disoriented to think, she ran east, opposite of the front lawn where they’d parked. How stupid. Her mind was splintering on her heels. But she kept on her path with her dress hiked up. She had to keep going until she could no longer run.
Her escape ended at Grassy Bay, where dragonflies buzzed and toads croaked between cattails. They helped mute the sound of the fairytale party behind her, but she could no longer play pretend. Her mother had come to steal away her happily ever after.
From the lawn, her old name was said.
She fell. She gripped the sides of her cheeks until her mask fell into the sand. Did she have to turn around? Could she have stayed still, helpless prey against a stalking predator?
Her mother, Clara, almost out of breath as she was, took out a fan from her purse and fanned herself. “What on God’s Earth are you doing here? This’s a private party, and look at how you’re dressed. What is wrong with you?”
Sylvia squeezed the wrist that had the memories of her mother carved into it. It’d been years. It still burned with pain.
“Come with me,” her mother said. “You need to leave. Now.”
Her voice squeaked. Her legs betrayed her when she tried to stand.
“Now,” her mother seethed, and freed her from the wet sand. She forced her up the steps to the lawn like a child against the will of her mother.
“Shut up,” her mother snapped, and Sylvia shut up, obedient as ever.
A sparkle caught her eye. On her bony wrist, her mother was wearing a silver bracelet studded with what had to be fake diamonds.
Growing up, Sylvia wasn’t poverty stricken, but her mother had forbidden her from buying anything “luxurious.” This included jewelry, ice cream, toys of any kind, extra clothes even though hers were stained, books. Always meant to feel like a bother. Like her existence was a burden to her loved ones. Yet here this woman was, wearing a dress that looked too good on her at a party pulled straight out of Alice’s Wonderland.
Sylvia jerked back.
Her mother whipped around. “Come here.”
“I’m…not leaving with you,” she said. “I was invited here, personally, by Campo, so—”
“What? No, you weren’t. You…” Her expression darkened. “Are you some sort of escort here? To some man? Is that what you’re still doing? Acting like a whore and selling yourself to perverts for cash?”
There she was. That villainous tone. Her natural state. Sylvia added another level of protection to her voice. “No. I mean, yes, I’m with a man, but we’re together as—”
“I knew it. You haven’t changed.” She wiped off the hand that’d held her. “You’re disgusting. Back when you were living with us, you brought those filthy men into my house. They stole from my purse. They kept us up. We were laughing stocks of the whole neighborhood.”
“But I’ve apologized for that,” Sylvia said. “I was thirteen.” She teared up. “You should’ve been more responsible for me.”
The truth slipped out of her throat. “You never cared about me, ever. You always thought I was a terrible person growing up. What kind of mother hates a child that’s suffering so much?”
“You never suffered in my house.”
Sylvia’s heart, the one she tried to mend from years of abuse, shattered.
“You wanted sympathy and attention and did everything you could to get it, including throwing away your life to dress as a woman. Now look at you. Just a prostitute living for shameless men. It’s embarrassing.”
She covered her mouth to keep from vomiting up pieces of her heart. All those letters she’d written to her and thrown away, the nightmares, the scars. She’d accumulated so much hurt from her, yet she was the one expected to take the blame.
Her brain, once submissive and resigned, which had grown into her mannerisms quite well, clicked. Dormant gears creaked and began to turn. She was standing now, back over the woman who’d almost taken her life, and saw herself bigger than her and her efforts.
This woman, she wasn’t her mother. She was a person who’d given birth to her. The rest had been tossed into a river, sealed in a picnic basket never meant to be found.
“You are the worst,” Sylvia said, “most hate-filled, most aggravatingly vile woman I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing. You’ve taken your privileges of marriage and love and child-bearing for granted, none of which you ever deserved, and I don’t ever, ever want to see or think about you again.”
She went to leave and be done with her for good, but Clara grabbed her wrist and went to strike her for speaking out.
Sylvia stepped back and blocked it. Taking her hand, she then shoved her and knocked her down. The force knocked herself down as well, but the shock from the rough sand unclouded her brain to better see who this woman was.
“How dare you,” Clara said.
“Oh, yes, how dare I,” Sylvia said, now smiling weakly. “I should’ve said that years ago.”
“I’m not afraid of you!” she yelled at her. “I’m done brooding over how you feel about me. So go on, yes, say whatever you please. Tell me I’m the worst decision you’ve ever made. Blame me for all of your shortcomings. I’ve heard it all before, and it means nothing to me now!”
“No!” she shouted. “I am talking! Do not talk over me!”
Running up from the garden footpaths, Vincenzo, her angel with hair out of place, surveyed the situation from above. “Sylvia,” he panted, and ran around Clara to help Sylvia up.
“Who’s this?” Clara demanded.
Vincenzo ignored her and held Sylvia’s hands. “Baby, what’s wrong? Dominic said you were crying.”
She went to say that she was fine, better than most nights she’d lived with this person, then saw her hands shaking and swallowed dryly from saying too much at once.
Clara cleaned off her dress. “Sir, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this man is not a woman. He’s lying to you.”
Vincenzo scowled, likely smelling the sulfur on her. “The only woman I fail to see here is you, for one wouldn’t dare speak to another woman like this.”
“But he’s not—” She sighed. “Sir, I’ll have to ask you to leave me and this man alone for a moment. I need to speak to him privately.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Clara Benítez. I’m sure Mr. d’Antonio has told you about me. I’m his personal hair stylist in Queens.”
Vincenzo dropped his head with a calculating stare, then his eyes widened. “Is this…your mother?”
“I am,” Clara said, somehow proudly.
Sylvia glanced between them. She had told him about her—she must’ve said her name once or twice—but with their differing makeup styles and height, it was hard to tell the family resemblance.
But as his eyes unfocused into the sand, his hand worked on its own as it reached behind him and took out his gun. He didn’t stall like he had with his father in the foyer. His aim on Clara’s face was deadly accurate.
Clara screamed and covered her face, but it didn’t affect him. He held his arm stiffly, eyes trained down the barrel of the gun. “You’re the son of a bitch stronza who hurt Sylvia.”
He cocked his gun and cornered her against the stone wall. “Give me a reason not to shoot you right now, and make it good.”
“Because thirteen years of abusing your child and kicking her out because she was different is everything God put you on this Earth not to do, and I shouldn’t have to tell you that in order for you to get it. A reason. Now.”
Clara smiled nervously, smile cocked like Vincenzo’s gun.
He fired into the stone. It shattered close enough for Clara to scream and cower. Sylvia watched the tears fall from her cheeks and wondered if she should’ve felt bad for her. She did, somewhat, but she also had no qualms with letting Vincenzo carry on.
“You can’t do this!” Clara said. “Campo would—”
“Campo would not give less of a fuck if I dragged you in the Bay by your hair and drowned you, you demonic, slimy asshole, so I suggest you give me one reason to spare you before I paint this beach with your blood.”
“But I haven’t done anything to you. Why are you attacking me?”
“Because I’m this woman’s husband and, unlike her, I don’t have the self-control not to murder you for all the things you’ve done. Now—”
Vincenzo lowered his gun. His father burst into view and wobbled down the steps. Visible sweat was bleeding through his suit as he yelled at them in Italian. He screamed something at Sylvia. She heard at least two curses about her and her promiscuity.
“Fuck.” Vincenzo held Sylvia. “We need to leave. Are you ready?”
She nodded and ran away with him. She glanced down at Clara still on the ground, sobbing and asking Severo for help. She’d never seen her so pitiable. She hated how little she cared for that and how that wasn’t the alcohol talking. Ten years of unresolved anger, all pushed out in thirty seconds. Now she could never take it back.
Good. She wouldn’t have taken back a single thing, except maybe not falling down when she finally fought back. She was still learning how to stand up for herself.
She dazed out until she heard the car door slam behind her. Vincenzo battled between closing his door and starting the car at the same time. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Where’re we going?” she asked.
“Away. I’m taking you home.”
“No.” She knew herself too well. Even with Vincenzo, going back home to a dark room and trying to sleep would’ve only left her nauseous. And she didn’t know if he’d stay with her. He’d fired a shot during Campo’s party. He was going to be reprimanded for tonight.
Upon hearing her refusal, Vincenzo paused and waited to hear what she wanted to do.
She snatched off her wig. “Take me to get absolutely fucking wasted.”